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Authors: Marjorie M. Liu

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BOOK: Shadow Touch
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“Not particularly,” he replied. “But thank you for the compliments.”

Her smile was cold. “I need an answer, Mr. Loginov.”

“You have given me nothing to answer with. Do you think I should run into the arms of your Consortium simply because it exists, because you have brought me here under duress?” His head pounded; something was digging, still digging at the back of his skull. A dart, with teeth. “Show me something, Ms. Graves. Give me a real reason.”
Give me something I can use against you
.

“How about your life?” she said quietly. “You can join us or die. It’s simple, really. I don’t need to give you anything, because here I hold all the leverage. Make your leap or don’t. The choice is yours.”

“You did not go to all this trouble just to kill me.”

“No, we went to all this trouble for a resource that would pay itself out in spades. You have a lucrative gift, Mr. Loginov. Not only that, but you know much about Dirk and Steele, our surprise rival. That is worth something all by itself. But you are worthless if you will not cooperate. A liability. Do you want to be a liability, Mr. Loginov?”

For a moment he considered playing her game, saying yes and offering himself up like a lamb. Making the sacrifice of his dignity so that he could learn something—learn something and then take the chance to escape. Patience, perseverance, survival.

“All I need is a word,” Graves whispered. “A verbal signed-on-the-dotted-line. We will do the rest, Mr. Loginov. Never you fear. We will do the rest.”

The pain intensified, cracking through his head with such intensity he almost imagined voices—one voice, a woman whispering. All the ghosts of his past rose up to drown him in one last shout of agony.
Endless. lean make this endless
.

“No,” Artur said, forcing that word past his closing throat. “My answer is no.”

No more games, no more pretending. He had left that world—left behind the man who put on a mask before his superiors, who said what they wanted to hear or said nothing at all when silence meant the difference between life and a very painful death. He had lived for years as a coward pretending to be a strong man, hating every moment of that existence but powerless to change his circumstances. Drawn in slowly, bit by bit, caught in the sticky web until there was no room to run, no way to leave the violence and death without suffering the same fate.

No more. Artur had finally found a way to live as an honorable man. He would not give that up again, not even as a lie to save his life. One crack, one sign of weakness—sometimes that was all it took to slide down that slippery path to hell. He could not believe he had contemplated a return to that existence for even one moment.

Graves sat back. Shadows hid her eyes, but not her mouth: hard, narrow, her lips suddenly gray. Artur stared at that strange mouth, at the sharp lines of her slender body.

His old bosses and the men they dealt with had always been of two kinds: blustering men, the kind for big gestures—big gifts, big cars, big violence—and the quiet kind, watchful and intelligent, men for whom gestures meant nothing, who could wait and wait, patient in the knowledge that everything they did would tick-tock its way like clockwork into success.

Quiet now
, he remembered Nikolai Petrovona whispering, when one of his brothers grew angry at not being allowed a cut of a new arms shipment.
Hush now. Gentle
.

This Graves was the same. A “hush” woman, a “gentle” woman, with just enough edge to distract from that cold, calm core. Very dangerous. Very difficult to predict. He watched her gun, and wondered if he had time to touch her—one touch before he died. One last vision of the truth.

“What a pity,” Graves said, and shot Artur in the chest.

Chapter Three
As far as kidnappings went, Elena thought hers had played out rather smoothly for the bad guys. Not that she had much experience with that sort of thing. She watched movies, though. The sci-fi-thriller kind, where nefarious men in dark suits targeted some poor, lonely freak and unleashed two hours of street chases, near misses, and loud explosions. Boom, boom. Yee-haw. Let’s all live happily ever after.
Except this was not a movie, and Elena had nowhere to run. She was also having trouble breathing and her heart refused to slow down. Bad signs. She leaned over and vomited on her kidnapper’s shoes.

“Shit,” he said, shaking his foot. Elena thought he was rather lucky it was not really shit; she was contemplating flinging some at the next available opportunity.

Elena had no idea how long she had been unconscious, but now she was being pushed in a wheelchair down a long concrete corridor. Her head felt too fuzzy to make out details, only that the air was cold, the lights quite bright, and her flimsy hospital gown offered absolutely no protection from either one. She could practically see her cellulite through that sheer cloth. Or maybe those were goose pimples. Her mind always focused on the most inane things when she was stressed.

She thought the men were different from the two who had kidnapped her, but it was hard to tell. They looked big and tough. The only way Elena would be able to beat them up would be to transform herself into a true badass: a
Kill Bill
Bride, a Buffy, a Xena. Maybe Red Sonja, just for good measure. Scream a battle cry, wave a sword, go a little crazy. Kill, pussycat, kill.

They stopped her wheelchair in front of a green door. Elena did not bother stifling her nausea. Feeling as if there were pinwheels spinning in her eyes, she aimed for the nearest body and once again spewed. A perfect projectile spray. She loved herself sometimes. The man’s deep-throated curses sounded like music.

The door opened. They pushed her through. For a moment all she saw was white—white everywhere surrounding a long stainless-steel table armed with leather restraints and stirrups.

Ob. Bad.

An old man stood by the table. A stethoscope hung around his neck. He had clinical eyes, that impatient, critical gaze that medical professionals attained only after years of hard work and self-important analysis. The word
doctor
might as well have been stamped on his forehead.

The men hauled Elena off the wheelchair and began removing the hospital gown. She tried to fight them. The doctor said, “Don’t be afraid, my dear. This is a medical facility. Nurses and doctors, just like you’re used to.”

Elena was too upset to laugh. The doctor peered into her face.

“Fascinating,” he said, in a voice that was almost reverent. “Truly. I am quite pleased to meet you, Ms. Baxter. I do hope you feel the same about me, seeing as how I am such an admirer of your work.”

“Go to hell,” Elena said. At least, she tried to. The moment she opened her mouth, the doctor slipped in a gag. His movements were quick, precise. Practiced. He dodged her teeth with easy grace, pushing hard inside her mouth until she choked on the thick cotton.

The male nurses, who had more business being called thugs than medical assistants, wrapped their hands around her body. They did not hit her, simply grabbed her wrists and ankles, held tight with smiles haunting their lips. Elena, watching their eyes, stopped struggling; the men enjoyed it too much.

In one smooth motion they hefted her onto the steel examining table, slamming her down with enough force to smash the breath from her lungs. Her skin burned from the frigid metal, their hands. She wore only a bra and panties.

“Hush now,” soothed the gray-haired doctor, gently patting her shoulder as the men bound her wrists and ankles to the table. Her skin felt cold—as cold as the doctor’s eyes and the narrow thrust of his tiny chin and sharp cheeks. “This will only hurt a little.”

The doctor settled down on a small stool and reached for a syringe: one of many, placed side by side on a metal tray like a row of empty soldiers. The room was large, nondescript in a lab or hospital sort of way, the walls lined with an array of medical equipment illuminated by harsh fluorescence. Elena smelled antiseptic, and underneath, another scent. Faintly bitter. Urine, maybe. Blood.

“Prepare her,” said the doctor, still occupied. One of the men, his pants stained yellow with Elena’s vomit, rummaged through a drawer and found a long rubber tube. He bound her arm so tightly her hand tingled sharp like needle pricks—sharp like the fingernail he dragged down to her bound wrist, measuring her reaction with predatory indifference. Sharp, sharp, sharp.

Blood tests followed, a series of invasions into her pale flesh. The nurses stared at her breasts and thighs while the doctor puttered over her body, humming as he filled each syringe, full and red. Elena did not fight him. She wanted to
take the syringe and pop an eye, stick it right through to his brain
, but she could not move. She lay still, burning with shame, rage.

Superpowers
, Elena thought bitterly.
If only
.

The doctor finished taking blood. He removed her gag. “There, now. I like to reward good behavior. You seem like a good girl.”

Elena’s tongue felt thick, dry. It stuck to the roof of her mouth. She tried to swallow. “Why are you doing this? Where am I?”

The doctor tilted his head. A smile played on his lips. It was a distraction, perhaps; his hand curled into a fist and slammed into her face, rocking Elena’s head back against the steel table.

“No questions,” he said, and then, after a moment, added, “Interesting. It appears you cannot heal yourself.”

Elena barely heard him through the ringing in her ears. Her head felt like a hammered thumb, swollen and miserable with pain. She tasted blood on her lips and licked at it, moistening her tongue. The doctor leaned close. He brushed her mouth with his fingers, which came away red. “Still no reaction. How very curious. You, my dear, are a true evolutionary dupe.”

He turned to pack up the vials of her blood. The men began untying her. “Back to bed. We’ll save the more interesting tests for later.”

“Just how interesting?” Elena ignored his ban on questions, too angry and horrified for fear. Her heart refused to slow. She thought it would pound right through the bones of her chest.

This time the doctor did not seem to mind. His smile widened.

“Oh,” he said. “They’ll be thrilling.”

The men put her back in the wheelchair and rolled her away.

She passed out in the hall, or perhaps the men gave her another tranquilizer. Elena remembered feeling woozy; her heart, thudding like a hammer in her chest, making it hard to get air into her lungs. She felt as though she were dying, and suspected it was just panic. Either way, going unconscious was probably a good thing.

When she woke, she found herself resting flat and nearly naked on a bare foam mattress. Her body was slick with sweat and her heart still swung a tango with her ribs. Her cheek hurt.

She did not want to move, so she let her eyes do the work and examined her room from the corner where she lay. There was not much to see. Her cell was white, white and clean, with slick floors and walls that looked softly padded like a gym mat. It was like being inside a synthetic igloo or the inside of an
egg
. A toilet, a sink, and some tissue paper sat in the corner. Set in the wall across from her was a wide mirror. Two-way, she thought. How nifty that someone could be watching her even now, checking out her limp body, or soon, watching her use the toilet and wipe off crap. Sheer titillation.

Psychological warfare, too. No privacy, no safety, no power. Whoever had kidnapped Elena was stripping her down to the very basics, taking away her identity, her independence.
We can do anything to you
, this room was supposed to say.
Don’t cross us or we’ll hurt you
.

Which, really, was an overdone show of force for just one little individual like herself, even if she could do some fairly remarkable things. A room like this—as well as the treatment she had thus far received—meant her kidnappers wanted to cow her into submission, make her meek and pliable for whatever they next threw at her. That or they were paranoid and afraid, and everything she had experienced up until this point was a symptom of that unease.

Remembering the doctor, Elena felt quite confident it was the former.

She tried to sit up, but could not do much more than lean against the soft wall. It was horribly uncomfortable, but she refused to lie down. She might never move again if she did that. The way she felt, it would be far too easy to curl into a tiny ball and just surrender. Temporarily, at least. Elena did not want to give anyone that satisfaction.

Still, she rested for a time. Closed her eyes and tried imagining herself back on the farm in Wisconsin, with the wall behind her a pear tree, the padded foam mattress a blanket spread on roots and grass. These were visualization techniques used with desperation. It helped that there was still dirt under her nails—dirt from home, the garden and the orchard. The apples would be ready for harvest soon, as would the plums. She had already reserved her spot at the Madison farmers market. Saturday mornings at the capital, with her cardboard boxes full of organic specialties. This would be her third year as a seller—her third year alone, without her grandfather.

You are going to get home. You are going to get the hell out of this place.

And then what? It was obvious these people knew where she lived and what her habits were. She was just surprised they’d had the balls to steal her directly from the hospital. If they had waited only three more hours, she would have been home on the farm, nicely secluded in the middle of more than one hundred acres of fruit trees, rivers, and rolling hills. Easy pickings. Not that she had given them any trouble in the first place. Whoever
they
were. Elena favored some secret government agency, a cabal of old fat men who thought she would be the perfect experiment.

Elena closed her eyes and curled her hands together, palm to warm palm. She had always known exposure was a possibility. Just… nothing like this. Some tabloid, where she would be on the front cover of a grocery-store rag, sharing billing with the werewolf love child of a U.S. president and Marilyn Monroe. Because who else would take her seriously? Who in their wildest dreams would believe a human capable of miracles?

Someone believed. Someone with the resources to track the statistics and then narrow the common denominator down to you. One woman in billions, and only because you got sloppy.

Too many children, too many recoveries. Milwaukee and Madison were too small for what she had been doing, but they were close to home, and Elena did not have enough money to expand her range, not even to Chicago. The tolls alone would kill her. She barely had enough to keep herself fed. Every penny she had went to the farm and staying mobile enough to use her gift. Not that she was mobile now.

Elena looked at the mirror. There was a bruise on her face the size of an apple. Her long brown hair resembled a rat’s nest. Her body was pasty with a dash of flab. She wasn’t even wearing her good underwear.
Oh, tragedy
.

Her heart agreed. She fought for calm, for control, trying to think of other, more pleasant things. She knew what this was—had read about panic attacks in the hospital magazines—but even with the knowing, there were moments when it got so bad she wanted to wail and gnash her teeth, cry out for help because it wasn’t just her heart, but it was her closing throat, the chills, the nausea riding high in her mouth. She felt as if she were having a heart attack, and the idea—even though it was just in her head—scared her more than captivity. She wanted to live more than she wanted to die, even if it was in a prison as some little human experiment. She wanted to live.

She also wanted to heal herself, but that just wasn’t possible. So ironic. So devastatingly typical. She wanted to hate herself for that, but she was too practical. There were so many other people in the world to hate—like the doctor, like those thugs pretending to be nurses, like whoever had decided to bring her here. So easy.

Breathe
, she told herself. She wished someone would lower the temperature. Cold air was easier on the lungs—cold, bracing air, like in Wisconsin, where the winters froze the snot in your nose, turned flesh to ice in minutes. Good snow, clear skies, crisp and lovely.

Her heart pounded. Pounded.
Don’t panic, don’t panic, you have to focus now, quiet, now isn’t the time to go nuts or hysterical because there’s no one here but yourself so you have to be strong, you have to be an army of one, you have to be well so your mind can plan and you can get out of here, you have to get out of here

It got better. She got well enough to sleep and lie down in a ball. Sleep helped. She did not dream. When she opened her eyes it was still a nightmare, but her heart no longer raced and she could breathe. That was a start. All she could ask for, really. Little miracles, bit by bit. Tiny triumphs.
All you can ask for is your health
, her grandfather had liked to say.

Elena lay on the mattress and listened to her heartbeat mark the passing of her life. She listened for a very long while.

The doctor lied. A long period passed without tests. Or maybe he watched her from the other side of the glass, and her reaction to this place was a test all by itself—to see if she cracked, if she inflicted wounds, if she began frothing at the mouth and speaking in tongues. She thought the old man might like that. She almost tried it, just to see what would happen, but eventually decided it was a bad idea; a part of her feared that any attempts to pretend madness might just invite the real thing.

Elena paid attention to when she was fed—food on a tray, shoved through a slot in the base of her door. Clothes accompanied her first dinner in the facility: soft green scrubs and thick white socks. She was happy for them.

BOOK: Shadow Touch
4.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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