Ignite, page 12
“I have no comment, other than to say I’m sure the charges are completely without merit.”
“Careen Catecher gave us more than enough information to build a case against him—and the rest of you, too. Before long, every member of the Resistance will be joining you here under lock and key.”
“I highly doubt it, though the OCSD does make a practice of kidnapping and detaining people without regard for the law.”
“Our laws don’t protect terrorists.”
He snorted. “You know damn well Careen’s no terrorist. She’s just a convenient scapegoat. Her participation in any alleged Resistance activity was auxiliary, at best. You’ve attempted to vilify that young woman, and yet the public has united behind her. The best thing you could do to gain the public’s approval is release her.”
“Release that poor, confused creature when she’s obviously been brainwashed by your cult?” She gave him a sly smile. “Are you trying to get your son’s toy back for him? Or maybe you want her for yourself?”
“The only one taking advantage of that girl is you. A real investigation and a fair trial will prove that she wasn’t responsible for either Stratford’s death or the university bombing. I’ll be happy to represent her if it comes to that.”
“If she’s innocent of the university bombing, does that mean your son is guilty?”
“Absolutely not. Surely the OCSD has more important things to do than conduct a witch hunt against two teenagers. Aren’t you concerned about how things have eluded your control since you took over? Lowell must be spinning in his grave.”
She looked uncomfortable, almost contrite, for a moment. “CSD was Lowell’s project, and I agree it’s time to let it go. My new security program addresses the needs of our country’s children and promotes personal responsibility.”
“Your son is eighteen?”
“He’s not part of this discussion. Period.”
“You don’t get to control the room anymore, Professor.”
“If you’re serious about doing something worthwhile during your tenure as director, I can offer you something that will be far more effective than your flagrant manipulation of Careen. Bring me on as a consultant.”
He found her incredulous look insulting, but chose to ignore it. “Don’t you see how unrealistic it is to force people to live under the Restrictions, now that the Essential Services debacle proved they can do more harm than good? Re-evaluate and make some changes or I’m afraid you’ll face a full-out revolution. You don’t want that, Maddie. I know, at base level, you honestly do want people to live happy lives.”
“Of course I do.”
“Then let me ask you: what does it mean to be happy?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“You just agreed you want people to be happy. So, what makes a person happy?”
“Well, I don’t know!”
“Precisely. How about bungee jumping?”
She shuddered. “Goodness, no!”
“Point made. For someone else, though, bungee jumping might be the thing that brings them the most happiness. How would you like it if the world’s most enthusiastic bungee jumper got to make decisions on your behalf? What if they mandated that everyone over the age of eighteen had to bungee jump at least twice a week?”
“That’s crazy. It could never happen.”
“Think. Don’t you see where I’m going with this?” He leaned his elbows on the back of the chair. “Let me help you before the current situation escalates further. There is a happy medium. We won’t always agree, but we don’t have to be adversaries. You have the opportunity—and the potential—to do more good than Lowell ever did.”
Madalyn was silent for a long time. Then she glanced at the clock on her desk. “Well, this has been very interesting, but I have another appointment waiting.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’m very busy these days. Besides, I’ll need time to think about your offer to, as you say, consult. We’ll talk again tomorrow. Or the next day.”
“What, exactly, am I supposed to do until then?”
“You’ll stay here, of course. In our guest quarters.”
“I’ve seen what passes for your guest quarters, and I respectfully decline.”
“All guests are subject to our security protocols. Even you.” She pushed a button on her desk to summon the guards. “Take him away.”
As she watched him leave, she wondered how soon she could push Careen back into the public spotlight.
Tommy yawned as Danni guided the truck past blocks of abandoned warehouses and office buildings. Morning sunlight glittered through shattered windowpanes. The litter-strewn streets alluded to something that had once been vitally alive but was now useless and broken.
She turned into the driveway behind a dilapidated-looking brick warehouse with boarded-up windows, and though Tommy expected to hear the screech of rusty, unused metal parts as the security gate slid open, it ran almost silently. They crossed the weed-choked surface lot, passed a loading bay, and headed into an underground parking garage. The switchback ramp wound down to the bottom level, where she concealed the truck behind a pile of construction materials and orange barrels. When she turned off the headlights, the darkness in the subterranean garage was absolute. Her flashlight beam cut through the gloom; rusty rebar sprouted from chunks of concrete and cast eerie shadows on the wall. Tommy shivered as he followed her past the debris to an elevator. She inserted a key in the panel, and he blinked in the bright light as they stepped inside. The elevator was modern, clean, and warm, completely out of place based on what he’d seen so far. A security camera was mounted in a corner, its red light flashing.
Danni punched him on the arm. “Welcome home.”
He pulled her into a hug and held her until they came to a stop, hoping the embrace would convey his respect and his thanks.
They emerged in a gallery with sleek, black-leather-and-chrome furniture and a rainwater-style fountain illuminated by changing colored lights. Hulking vintage arcade games were spread throughout the room, where they twinkled, pulsed, and made chirpy “game over” noises. An antique pinball machine stood in a corner, lights flashing red and yellow. Spotlights accentuated framed pop-art renderings of video game logos.
Tommy turned in a slow circle, so caught up in the contrast between the building’s shabby exterior and the opulence inside he didn’t realize Danni had left him behind. A blast of gunfire brought him back from his reverie. His first instinct was to hit the button to summon the elevator, but he heard Danni laughing, so he followed the sound of her voice to a room where giant televisions covered three walls, and computer equipment ranged along a semicircular desk. Danni stood beside someone in a black leather office chair, watching the avatars on the center screen blast each other with AK-47s.
She noticed Tommy standing in the doorway and motioned him inside. The person in the chair paused the game and spun around, and Tommy nearly burst out laughing at the sight of a slight, dark-haired man wearing red-tinted virtual reality goggles; the overall effect reminded him of a praying mantis that had once been part of an elementary school science lesson. The man peered up at him.
“Ahh! Tom Bailey the younger! Welcome to Command Central. Sit down and grab a pair.”
“Umm … what? No thanks.”
He looked at Danni for clarification, but she ignored him and settled on the bug-like man’s lap.
“Atari’s Resistance. Like us.”
He’s nothing like me. I’m nothing like Danni. Do I belong here?
Atari pulled off his goggles. “I remember you from the day Stratford bought the farm. You were with Wes and that pretty little what’s-her-name. Right?”
He winked and growled and Tommy bristled. He’d only been there five minutes, and already he wanted to punch the guy’s lights out. He lo
She shrugged and grinned at him; she was back to acting the way she had the day they’d met—carefree, dangerous, and up for anything. “I need to let Mitch know we made it. Then I’m going to crash for a while. Coming?” She slid off Atari’s lap and trailed her fingers across his shoulders. He responded with an exaggerated shiver.
Tommy’s stunned reaction must have shown on his face, because Danni purred as she sauntered past. “Don’t judge. Freedom to use my downtime the way I choose is what keeps me from getting as batty as Mitch.”
As soon as she was out of the room, Atari seemed to forget about her. He kicked a rolling chair in Tommy’s direction. “Have a seat. Let’s play!”
“Seriously, no thanks. I’m not into video games.”
“If you’d rather, the gym’s one floor down.”
“I didn’t come here to work out, either.”
Atari laid down his game controller and gave Tommy his full attention. “Then how may I serve you, young master?”
Screw you. “I don’t need anything from you. I’m here to get my dad and Careen away from the OCSD.”
“Oh, really?” He restarted the game and blasted away. “Because Confucius say, ‘rittle boys who shoot quadrant marshals shar remain grounded. Indefinitery.’ ”
“You know about that?”
“I know about everything.”
Tommy rolled his eyes behind Atari’s back and muttered, “Bet you don’t know if my dad’s all right.”
“Au contraire, mon frère. They brought your dad in three hours and … fourteen minutes ago.” He paused the game, grabbed a keyboard, and began pecking at the keys. The main screen’s display changed to a grid of black-and-white surveillance video footage, time stamps rolling in the upper corners.
Atari clicked to bring one feed up on a screen by itself, and Tommy recognized the main lobby of the OCSD. Atari rewound the footage three hours and fourteen minutes, and Tommy watched his dad enter the building.
“He met with some guy—no idea who he was—and then with Madalyn. Of course, there are no surveillance cameras in her office, so I couldn’t follow him in there. He’s recently been installed in plush accommodations on the fourth floor. No skyline view but better digs than the secure ward in the basement.”
Though he could tell Atari was kind of a jerk about everything, Tommy took offense to that last remark. His mom had been held and tortured in that basement because of his dad’s misguided devotion to his convictions.
“How long do you think they’ll keep him there?”
Atari shrugged. “No way to know.”
“Dad said before he left that if he isn’t released by Saturday, something is going to go public. Information of some sort. One of the professors has the file.”
“That could turn out to be interesting. Guess we’ll have to mark our calendars. Come on, kid. Have a seat.” Atari tossed him a pair of goggles.
“What about Kevin? Did he make it to the OCSD?”
“Yeppers. They had him on lockdown, but as of this afternoon, he’s out and about in what looks like a five-thousand-dollar suit. I don’t get audio on the security feed, so I’m not sure what’s up with that.”
“Nah, bro. I wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on her, but she hasn’t surfaced yet.” A few seconds later, he was engrossed in his video game again.
Tommy stood in silence, watching, until he couldn’t stand it anymore. “There’s no way I’m waiting around for days. Let’s go get my dad out of there!”
Atari shrugged and stood up, leaving his goggles on the desk. “No can do. Mitch says no rescue mission, so we are forced to chill. And chill you must.” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “Kitchen’s to the right of the elevator. You can’t miss it. Guest suite’s out that door, around the corner, third door on the left. It’s yours as long as you need it. My rooms are that way.” He pointed with the first two fingers on both hands, like a flight attendant giving safety instructions. “But I’m hanging out the Do Not Disturb sign for a while, if you know what I mean. You really should check out the gym downstairs. Take the self-guided tour and get to know your way around. This place is pretty bomb. I should know; I designed it myself.” He fake-punched Tommy on the shoulder as he headed for the door. “We’re roomies now. And you’re gonna be here a while.”
Mitch breathed an audible sigh of relief as he guided the black pickup into the barn and cut the engine.
They’d spent the morning at the funeral home, making Wes’s final arrangements. It was a new experience for Jaycee, and she’d been unusually quiet on the way back up the mountain. Though it had been a while since he’d had to deal with death, he’d found himself able to detach and go through the process almost by rote.
They had two days until the funeral. There was so much to do in that short time. He was halfway out of the cab when she spoke.
“Gone after his dad.” He slammed the door. The less she knew, the better—at least until he had word from Danni.
She hurried after him. “What happened last night? How did the marshal get shot? Now that we’re home, you can tell me. Is Tommy really all right?”
“Go straighten up the mess at the boardinghouse.”
She brightened for a second. “Is everyone coming back? Can I go get them from—”
He glanced around and shushed her.
The mutinous look on Jaycee’s face could have belonged to her mother. How could she so faithfully recreate her mannerisms when she had no memories from which to draw? He kept his tone low. “The QM could be watching us, so it’s gotta be just us for a while, understand?”
She put her hands on her hips. “Then why do I have to bother cleaning up the mess at the boardinghouse?”
“It has to get done sometime. Might as well be now.”
She turned on her heel and stomped out of the barn, muttering under her breath. As soon as she was gone, he hurried over and unbolted the shelves from the wall, shoving them aside to reveal the door to his office. Inside, he retrieved his satellite phone from its locked cabinet. The encrypted message from Danni was brief. She’d made it to the safe house, and Tommy would be out of the way.
With the phone stowed safely back in the cabinet, he collected the trash bags full of bloodied items he’d stashed there the night before. He paused in the doorway and watched Jaycee emerge from the boardinghouse, shake out a throw rug, and hang it over the back porch railing.
As soon as she disappeared back inside, he hauled the trash bags out to the clearing to burn. He piled brush and logs on top of the bags and used lighter fluid to get the fire going. He had to make sure everything that could connect him to the marshal’s death was destroyed.
Focused on the task at hand, he nearly missed the first sign of life in the two-way transmitter he’d been wearing in his ear ever since Kevin left for the capital.
Kevin surveyed himself in the full-length mirror in his room. The tailor had transformed him into a man who looked like the assistant director of the OCSD. He adjusted the knot in his tie and thanked the tailor and his assistants, who all bowed their way out the door. The guards were no longer stationed in the hall, and he walked upstairs alone. Nicole’s eyebrows shot up when he entered the director’s suite. He couldn’t help grinning as he let himself into Madalyn’s office.
The desk that had been the right size and scale for Lowell Stratford dwarfed her and reinforced the other indicators that she was in over her head, but Kevin didn’t have a second to waste feeling sorry for her. Her perfectly manicured nails tore a neat spiral of foil from a familiar-looking candy wrapper, and she popped a piece of chocolate into her mouth. He all but ran forward, plucked the rest of the roll out of her hand, and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “The camera adds
She glared at him for a second and then nodded. “You’re right. Take it. You need it more than I do.”
He could feel his heart pounding as he slid the candy into his breast pocket; he’d reclaimed it in time to keep the two-way transmitter Mitch had hidden inside a secret.
Madalyn quickly recovered her imperious tone. “Sit down. You need to be able to answer questions about the new security program. Otherwise the president won’t believe you’re really the assistant director.”
He took a seat. “But I really am the assistant director, right?”
Madalyn made an impatient face. “Of course you are. Now pay attention. It’s clear that a number of our recent problems have resulted from disorganization, miscommunication, and lack of compliance. The people need us to be ready to take care of them when disaster strikes. It’s only a matter of time before we face another crisis. How many people fell through the cracks during the food riots? How many children will be left hungry and uncared-for if the system breaks down again?”
Kevin recalled Mitch’s reaction when this scenario had been discussed during a Resistance meeting. His stomach lurched with dread.
“The Link is going to fix everything. No child will ever be denied access to food or government services that are rightfully theirs.”
Then her focus seemed to drift. She glanced at her phone. “I have one more thing I need to take care of before we leave for the White House. Meet me downstairs in half an hour.”
Kevin headed for the elevator. He breathed a sigh of relief as he opened the door of his old basement office. His assistant director ID badge granted him access to any room in the building, just like the one Atari had given him the day Stratford died. But this one was the real deal, not a forgery.
The familiar office was the size of a shoebox compared to the assistant director’s suite upstairs. He sat in his creaky chair, laid the roll of candy on the desk, and pulled the pieces out until he found a tiny ear transmitter wrapped in foil. His fingers trembled as he turned it on and inserted it. “Can you hear me?”