There was a strange noise.
Stef looked up from her laptop, taking a moment to process the sound – it wasn’t the same noise of a squib that movies and television had made her familiar with…but the screams of her colleagues down the hall confirmed that it had been a gunshot. Another quickly followed it, then two more.
The Solstice in the main room began to shout, and she heard the code monkeys go crazy. The heavy doors slammed shut, but the shouts continued. She released a long, slow breath and closed Frankie’s lid and sat up, slowly sliding her legs off the bed. She stood, thankful that the old house was in good repair – no squeaky floorboards betrayed her movements as she moved towards the door.
There were more shots, and thoughts of running ran through her head, but her body was one honed by insomnia, coffee, and forgetting to eat for days on end – not the ideal condition for running away from men with guns. Or women with guns. Or horses with guns.
I’m only going to tell you this once: Concentrate.
More bullets shattered the silence of the mansion, and the silence it left behind was worse than the one it had replaced – the silence of a murder. Stef swallowed a scream and fought the urge the throw up.
She swung the door half-closed, her heart skipping a beat as its hinges squeaked. She stared at the door as her hand drifted towards it to slam it shut. It would do nothing but reveal her location to the world – and to the horses with guns – but at least it would be better than the passive nightmare she’d found herself in.
Stef forced her hand away from the door and looked away from it – not being able to run through the house was severely limiting her options. She looked to the window and pushed it open. There was a garden below, but jumping down would at least result in a broken leg or two – and that was if she fell straight and didn’t manage to catch on any sharp edges or land on her head.
The bed was too low to the ground to hide under; there weren’t enough sheets to make an escape rope; and she had no intention of leaving herself out in the open.
The small desk was of no use – if she used it to bar the door, then someone would definitely know that she was in there. She held Frankie close, having no intention of running without him and looked around the room again. The only other option was the wardrobe. The old wardrobe in the old mansion with the old man.
The sudden knowledge of exactly what she needed to do calmed her, and her thundering heart slowed just a little.
Stef managed a breath as she pulled the wardrobe open – pleased that, unlike the door, the wardrobe’s hinges had been oiled. She pushed the few hanging coats aside, hoping for one moment that there might be forest to escape into hiding in the back of the wardrobe. No forest. No snow. No lamp post.
It doesn’t have to be Narnia, just anywhere but here.
Magical escape or not, the wardrobe would have to be good enough. Stef slipped inside and pulled on the inside of the lock to close the door. She brought her knees up and rested Frankie against them, his warmth comforting her a little – and she was glad that he was powered down, as his old, loud fans would likely do a lot to betray her hiding place.
She exhaled a long breath, settled against the wall of the wardrobe, and opened up her laptop.
What the hell are you doing, Spyder? Stop it. Just lie still until the cops get here.
No. This is all about–
I’m the one that keeps you alive. Listen to me: Just stop. It’s not worth it.
It’s all about the code – it’s got to be – and I’m so close.
It isn’t worth your life.
Stef tapped on Frankie’s keyboard to wake him. ‘Come on, Prometheus. Dazzle me,’ she said in the softest of voices. ‘We can do this.’
The code and her nearly complete algorithm stared at her, offering her two choices: the choice to lie dead and wait for the world to tell her what was next, and the choice to do what she’d been hired to do.
The beast was gone, so he wouldn’t be able to use the code. The old man and his much older friend were gone, so there’d be no payment. There was just the code. Just the code that had enthralled her in the first place – the payment had been of secondary importance, and she scarcely cared for the love story. Just the code.
A second decision stilled her, and she began to type.
A few lines of code in, she heard thunder. The sound of bullets came again and again.
It wasn’t real. Couldn’t be real. Things like this didn’t happen.
Another shot had to be right outside her room. She jumped. Stef heard a scream and another two shots. She pressed both of her hands to her mouth and tried not to breathe as heavy footsteps retreated.
The urge to lie still, and wait for the…whomever to find her came again. It was worse than finding the beast – at least then, she could have fought, run, or screamed; she also had someone to blame: Dorian. Here, there was nothing to do but wait – making any noise would only lead them to finding her. Here, there was no one to blame but herself.
Stef wished that she could sink into the wood, to just be an interesting hacker-shaped stain on the grain, for her consciousness to suffuse into the wood, share its memories, and have the pleasure of a simple duty of containing coats and lamp posts.
The back of the wardrobe strayed obstinately wooden, refusing to give way to a real escape. She doubted that there was a way to charge her laptop in Cair Paravel or even in the den of some friendly beavers. She wouldn’t have her laptop, and for the first time ever, she didn’t care. The will to finish the code dimmed a little as she pressed a hand to the back of the wardrobe.
Please. I can’t die here. I don’t belong here. I belong–
The sound of another shot rocked her back from the edge of fantasy. Stef focussed on the laptop. There was no lamp post in her future, no escape from the humdrum around her.
Her hands flew across the keyboard – finding cheap shortcuts, abusing her ability to copy and paste, and doing all she could do to get it finished. It had to get finished. There was no real reason why, but if it was important enough to kill over, then it was a job worth finishing.
‘Compile,’ she whispered to the laptop. ‘Compile.’ The program chugged and retched the code back at her – it was almost done, but her rush had made small errors. Errors that would only take a moment to fix.
The floor outside the wardrobe creaked.
She let go of her caught breath and began to type again, killing each and every error that the compile had spat at her.
After a moment, the wardrobe door was pulled open. The comforting image of the shining Eastern Ocean and the wonders beyond flooded her mind as she waited for the bullet. It didn’t come, and she typed a few more keystrokes.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the man standing ready with a gun. She couldn’t turn to face him. She wasn’t sure she could handle what would happen – or what she’d see.
He seemed human enough, but with what she’d seen, what she knew, and what she’d heard, there was no guarantee, and she wasn’t sure she could handle any more surprises.
He moved a little closer and blocked out all the light – leaving her only with the comforting light of Frankie’s electronic glow.
The gun moved a little, and part of her died. Part of her flew over the always-winter-never-Christmas world; part of her ran towards the Jolly Roger as it prepared to leave port, her Captain ready and waiting; part of her–
There was a shot.
A thin trail of burnt air was all she saw as the bullet passed before her eyes, the heat scorching her face.
Her hand seized up, unable to type anything more. There was no way that he could have missed – it had been a warning shot, a warning of things to come. The man moved, just a little, and pushed the gun up to the side of her head, the hot barrel searing her temple. ‘Yes.’ She turned her head a little to look at him. ‘You have my attention.’
It was Astrin all over again, but a hundred times worse – she’d been too sleep deprived to truly be afraid of the beast. Every second was borrowed and more real than anything that she could recall. Control of the situation was gone. She wasn’t the one who got to decide whether she lived or died.
The bedroom was dark, and she couldn’t see the man very well, but with what she could see, he was obviously a narc, a narc with a gun that looked no worse the wear for killing an entire mansion full of people.
‘Four more keystrokes, and I’ve done what I came to do. Just let me do that, then you can pull the trigger.’
Lack of coffee was to blame. If only she’d drunk more, she would have already pressed the keys. And the lack of caffeine was to blame for the shakes in her hands. Withdrawal. Simple, safe answer. Caffeine withdrawal. Not fear. Couldn’t be the fear.
You’re not even fooling yourself.
She kept her eyes on her screen, flexed her fingers, and reached for the next key.
The gun jammed harder against her temple, pushing her head into the back wall of the wardrobe, the sharp splinters from the first shot digging into her cheek. Stef fought a grimace and extended her index finger towards the next key.
The narc’s other hand reached in and pushed down on Frankie’s screen.
Half a nervous giggle escaped her lips as the lid pressed down on her fingers, and he gave her time to withdraw her hands.
She slumped as best as she could, her head still effectively pinned to the back of the wardrobe. ‘Fine. Whatever. It’s not like I can run.’
‘You brought this on yourself.’
She snorted. ‘A legal job gets me killed. There isn’t enough irony in the world for that.’
I’m not supposed to die. I’m supposed to hack something big and make a name and get hired to do securities in a job with–
You have very little chance of making it through the next five minutes. Will you fscking concentrate?
Stef closed her eyes and waited for him to pull the trigger.
The narc made a disapproving noise. ‘Working for the Solstice is hardly–’
Her eyes flew open. ‘Wait! What? Wait! No!’ she struggled to get to her feet, but he pushed her back down. ‘Me not one of them!’ she managed as she struggled to sit back up – the cramped space of the cupboard kept her limbs tangled. ‘I– I’m not one of them! I’m not!’
The gun retreated a little. ‘Then why are you here?’
‘For the job. Working with the code. That’s all. That’s all!’
He yanked her out of the wardrobe with his left hand. She stumbled but managed to catch herself before falling – appearing clumsy wouldn’t help her case. She clutched her laptop to her chest but didn’t dare open it.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dimness enough to make out more details about of the narc – everything from the three-piece suit to the gun indicated she had very little chance of walking out of the room alive. Corpses were probably less paperwork than prisoners.
‘Speak,’ he ordered.
‘Woof!’ she barked on impulse.
His face stayed neutral. ‘Keep in mind: At this point, there is very little you can do to convince me you aren’t one of the Solstice.’
Her gaze narrowed, and she swallowed – the reality of the moment was finally starting to set in. ‘If there isn’t anything I can do to convince you, then why bother talking to me?’
The light flickered on.
He didn’t touch the light switch.
Like that’s important right now.
Of course it’s important. It’s data.
You’re the half that’s going to get us killed.
No, that would be the scary guy with the gun.
‘Very little,’ he repeated, the harsh edge gone from his voice. ‘Not nothing.’
She managed to look back up at him. With the lights on, he wasn’t as scary. Still scary. But not as scary. ‘I’m – I’m – just a ha – hacker. Just – just working on the code.’ She clutched her laptop to her chest, holding it as tightly a child would a security blanket or a doll.
‘I didn’t do anything bad.’ Her voice strained as her body tensed.
All she could do was stare at him. There was something off about him, something familiar, except not. Then again, that could be the fear. Black jacket. Blue vest. Blue tie. Brown hair. Memories stirred but refused to break through the surface.
Doll, doll, doll…
‘Why weren’t you with the others?’ he asked.
She managed a shrug, and tears pricked at her eyes. The explanation would sound crazy. The explanation was crazy. She was crazy.
She stared at the gun. The gun that was still pointed at her.
‘Why weren’t you with others?’ he asked again, the harsh edge returning to his voice.
Doll. Doll. Why the fsck is he familiar?!
Because he looks like every narc in every movie ever! Now be a good girl and make a deal.
I know him–
He took a step closer – not that it mattered; it wasn’t as if she could dodge at this range – and she fought a shudder.
There’s money in your bank. You could–
I’m trying to think!
You’re going to get us killed.
The memory broke through.
She swallowed and looked up at him. ‘I remember you.’
[table id=15 /]
There was a strange noise.