11:40 AM. Lobby of 101 California Street, San Francisco, California
He was here. Telos Khūnbish had come. Relief nearly demolished her, it hit so powerfully. He was here, and now, improbably, she believed everything was going to be all right. Her life was irrevocably screwed, but she believed. She ignored the noise of the lobby and the man standing beside her. He was irrelevant. What a damn sad commentary it was that after nearly ten years in the city, Khūnbish was the closest thing she had to a friend. Maybe even a real friend, because he was here, and she believed she’d get through this.
Her heart kicked up a notch when she got a clear view of his black BMW turning onto Front Street. Now, of course, she wondered if she’d made a mistake involving him. She didn’t make a habit of asking for help. She wasn’t good with people. She wasn’t even sure she’d asked right. Seems she had.
The BMW was definitely looking to park. Good thing. In less than ten minutes the lunchtime rush would start, and she’d be in real trouble. Even now, there were too many people around.
“My ride’s here,” she said to Jack, the man standing beside her. She didn’t make eye contact because that would be dangerous. Instead she stared at his tie, but that turned out to be a mistake. The dark red silk looked like blood streaming down his chest. She focused on the shiny marble floor and the tips of his Oxfords. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Let me carry your things.” Jack reached for the moving box that contained the personal contents from her office. He knew Michael, and that meant she couldn’t trust him. Simple fact. She couldn’t trust anyone who knew Michael Ford.
“No.” She gripped the box tighter and looked at the street again, as if Khūnbish could help her from afar. The BMW was waiting for a van to pull away from the curb. Khūnbish had never met Michael. That was part of the reason she’d called him. That, and she didn’t know anyone else.
“Lys.” Jack was thirty-ish, good looking, and in line to make partner in the next two years. He did good suit. He was a competent lawyer and a decent litigator.
She faked a smile and looked at Jack without directly meeting his eyes. Over the years, she’d gotten good at faking contact normal people never thought twice about. She lifted the box an inch. “Hardly weighs a thing.”
Jack smoothed a hand down the river of blood that was his tie. She held her breath, half expecting his palm to come away smeared red. He reached for her moving box, and she jumped back, heart slamming against her chest. Either Jack didn’t get it, or he was in league with Michael and meant her harm. He kept moving toward her.
“Don’t.” The word came out sharp and loud. The security guard at the lobby reception area looked over. She was close to losing it. Way too close. Blocking shouldn’t be this hard for her, but the last several days had been…difficult. Not enough sleep. Not enough to eat. Too much caffeine. Far too much stress.
“Lys. Come on.” His tie vibrated at the edges of her vision. Blood red. A river of red. He reached for the box again. “I’m only trying to help out.”
She risked a look at his face. His smile was hesitant, a little irritated, but that would be normal if he really just wanted to help. Just a regular person trying to be nice. Part of her didn’t believe it. He knew Michael, and Michael had tried to kill her. “Don’t touch me.”
Jack lifted his hands palm out and backed off. She regained a bit of her calm. It didn’t last long. The minute she relaxed, he moved into her personal space again. She made the mistake of assuming he meant to take the box. She swung her torso to one side, and by the time she realized he meant to touch her, she couldn’t avoid the contact. His hand landed on her shoulder, and her control shattered into a million pieces.
Her immediate surroundings blinked out. She dropped the cardboard box, but maybe she didn’t because she didn’t hear it fall. From experience, she knew not to move. Her sense of where she was in space disappeared along with her vision. The bitter taste of iron coated her mouth and oozed down the back of her throat to burn in her stomach.
He ignores the first symptoms; the sense of something off, the clammy sweat, the pinch in the left side of his rib cage. Pain crushes his chest, and he can’t get enough air. His knees give out, and he falls to the concrete.
By sheer dint of being terrified about what would happen if she went into free fall, she got her blocks back in place.
The normal world boomeranged back.
Sound, sight, scent, all of it crashed around her. Fire streaked along the left side of her face from just behind her eye through to the back of her head. She was present in normal time, out of free fall, except dozens of lives continued to thrum in her head, out of rhythm and out of control. The blowback would pass eventually, but in the meantime she was fucked up every which way. So was Jack.
Her surroundings came into focus, first in a grainy monochrome, then with increasing detail. Her spatial awareness returned with her depth perception. There were more people in the lobby than before. Too many. The noise shredded her nerves, and her head hurt like a mother. She remained on her feet. That was good. Her hands were empty, though, and that was bad. She didn’t see Jack anywhere, and that was really bad.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
It took her a minute to locate where his voice was coming from. Jack was crouched at her feet, putting things back in the box she’d dropped. He looked fine. He was fine.
Her relief that she’d somehow managed to stop things in time made her go limp. The fact that she could even tell she was relieved meant she was probably going to be okay. She worked her tongue around her mouth until she had enough acid-tainted spit to moisten her throat. She needed to get the hell away from Jack and all these people, because next time she might not be so lucky. “Clumsy. That’s all.”
“Your mug broke.” He held up a shard of her coffee cup that included half the handle. He looked at her like he expected her to say something. Well, she didn’t. She’d already said all the words she could dredge up.
She dug in her purse for her sunglasses because, damn, her eyes hurt, and her skull was in a vise and about to fracture. Dark glasses or not, her ability to insulate herself from other people continued to erode. She hadn’t lost it this badly since her college days.
“Maybe you can glue it back together?”
From where she stood, just inside the lobby doors, traffic noise was a rumble that hurt deep inside her ears. She took the shard of porcelain and dropped it into the box. It broke into two more pieces and slivered what was left of her nerves.
Jack, still crouching, stared into the box. “Or not.”
She wished he wouldn’t talk. His voice hurt. At least now the metallic taste in her mouth was duller. Her vision continued to recover with her other senses. Jesus, that blood-red tie vibrated as if it were alive. She could feel her skin again, judge the temperature of the air. She stared down at Jack still helpfully, and rather sweetly, picking up her things. He didn’t deserve to die. She needed to get away from him. For both their sakes. If he ended up thinking she was a bitch, fine.
“Go back to the office, Jack.” He stretched to pick up a pen that had rolled out of easy reach. “You shouldn’t be down here.”
He threw the pen in the box and winced.
Any minute her heart would burst out of her chest. He glanced up and pressed the side of his ribs. She almost didn’t look away in time. If she landed in the hospital again, she’d need a cardiologist instead of an ER doc. “Leave.”
Office workers streamed from the elevators, holding briefcases, purses, paper bags with lunch in them, bottles of water or soda. The lunch rush was starting. If she didn’t get the hell out of here, she was screwed. Jack was screwed. Three or four people stopped in the lobby, each with a cell phone to an ear, talking away without the least privacy. Who knew? Maybe one of them was screwed. Two with bluetooth enabled devices looked like psych cases, ranting to invisible people. Voices hammered at her, pounding at the barrier. She cut herself off from everything until the words might as well be Swahili.
An elevator swallowed a mass of people, but more appeared. Panic set in. Enclosed spaces weren’t good for someone like her. Not when she was seconds from a breakdown she might not be able to stop. She ignored Jack. Let him think she was a cold-hearted bitch. He wouldn’t be the first.
She took her box, peering inside to avoid eye contact with Jack. Her mug was now six pieces of brown-and-white porcelain. Her frog stapler was intact. Good. That was good. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He put a hand to his ribs again.
She slid her gaze away, still avoiding his face. The maneuver was awkward and rude, but what else could she do? “What’s wrong?”
“No, it isn’t.” Too late, she realized how brusque she sounded. She tried to look elsewhere without actually looking. More people came through the lobby. With more effort than she liked, she softened her next words. “Call a doctor.”
“Nah. Too many lat pulls at the gym this morning. Been bugging me ever since.” He smiled sheepishly. She ended up staring at the knot of his tie. It had stopped vibrating but the color still reminded her of blood. Would he just leave her alone already? “You’ll keep in touch, right?”
“Sure.” Where the hell was Khūnbish? She looked toward Front Street. The BMW was still waiting for a brown delivery van to pull away. She didn’t know how much time had passed since she’d nearly blanked out. Probably not long. Maybe only a minute.
The van bulled its way into traffic, and the sleek black car slid into the vacated space. She headed for the lobby door, the heels of her pumps clicking on the marble floor. Jack followed. “In a couple of weeks they’ll be begging you to come back as of-counsel.”
“Not happening.” In her peripheral vision, she saw him smile. He took a quick double step to open the lobby door for her. He winced when he did. She hoped it was really too many lat pulls at the gym. Outside, the blast of foggy air made her head pound.
Jack let go of the door and caught up with her. “Trust me, the partners will make it worth your while to come back. You’re too good a litigator to let walk out the door.”
“I don’t think so.”
He chuckled. “Maybe I should quit, too.”
Lys risked a sideways look at him. She wondered if he was, for all practical purposes, dead already. “No. You shouldn’t.”
“Call a doctor, Jack.” She stopped walking and went back to staring into her box. She still didn’t feel right, and being outside wasn’t offering much relief. Too many people around. She looked in the direction of the BMW. At this point, she didn’t care if Khūnbish was in the car or not. “My ride is here. Bye.”
He held out a hand. “See you around?”
She could have briefly held the box in one arm, but she didn’t dare touch him. It was dangerous for her to touch anyone when she was like this. “Sure.”
At the curb, the BMW’s headlights switched off. The driver got out. Her chest constricted at the same time the tension in her shoulders released. Khūnbish. Definitely him. She had an unobstructed view of him pressing his key fob. There were men no one messed with, not if you knew what was good for you. Telos Khūnbish was one of those men; scary at a primordial, brainstem level.
Jack stayed where he was, but, despite the pain spiking through her, she managed to cut him out of her awareness. Not completely, but enough. She hoped. He said something to her, but she didn’t allow the meaning of the words to penetrate. She needed to hold together long enough to get someplace quiet.
Khūnbish paused by his car and lifted a hand like he was blessing the damn thing against a parking ticket or a tow. A bike messenger zipped past. He headed across the plaza with its series of concrete risers and planters. On a nice day, support staff who made shit money and had to bring their lunch could eat outside.
She adjusted her sunglasses, now almost comfortably wrapped up in a layer of ice that kept out the rest of the world. There had always been a very non-professional tension between her and Khūnbish. One of those things that went formally unacknowledged but that worked its way into conversations and body language. He’d never made a move. She’d never done anything about it because one, she couldn’t, and two, there was Michael, and three, well, really there was no three, not with one and two.
Her stomach took a familiar dive when he reappeared from between two planter structures, heading for the lobby doors. His long black hair fell behind his shoulders, twisting slightly in the wind. His goatee, as usual, seemed to be barely getting started. His unbuttoned flannel shirt flapped in the breeze and showed off the physique under his T-shirt. He didn’t fit with the suit and tie crowd, and the bandanna around his head didn’t do much to make him look like anything but trouble in a dark alley.
Lys defended high-stakes corporate lawsuits involving computer hacking, and Khūnbish was her Information Security expert. Used to defend, since she’d just quit her job. Though he’d never admitted anything under oath, he was what computer industry insiders called a gray-hat, someone who navigated between the black-hats who hacked corporate databases, downloaded credit card numbers, and engaged in other nefarious online activities, and the white-hats who warned companies about their security vulnerabilities.
He paused at a trash can, tossed something in, then continued toward the building. She walked away from Jack. She plastered on a smile for Khūnbish and anyone else who might be looking at her. The smile was fake like everything else about her. He didn’t see her yet.
Jesus, her head hurt. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth again but that didn’t do anything to lessen the building metallic tang. Her blocks slipped, and the roar of sensation about dropped her to her knees.
Behind her, Jack called her name.
Khūnbish slowed when he saw her. For the half a second that their gazes met, her head cleared, and it was such a blessed relief she damn near cried. Then she heard Jack calling to her again, and the acid taste in her mouth intensified. Her peripheral vision turned grainy. She stopped walking and fought for control.
Four women crossing the plaza on a collision course with Khūnbish detoured around him. She lost sight of him while the women continued toward the lobby.
That was Jack calling her. She paid no attention because Khūnbish took three longer steps and was right in front of her. From within her icy barrier, she felt the zing of attraction all the way to her toes. That’s how it always was with them. She stuck out a hand because he was safe to touch. In her life, she’d met maybe four other people who were safe that way. She had her suspicions about why. No proof, though. “Khūnbish.”
“Counselor.” He sounded like he smoked cigars and drank whiskey every day for breakfast. Lunch and dinner, too.
She gave him her best Litigation Lawyer smile. “Thank you for coming.”
His expression didn’t register any curiosity about the reason she’d met him out here. He looked her up and down and ended up at her face. They both knew he was thinking about sex, and they both pretended he wasn’t. The way his eyebrows drew together told her she looked worse than she thought. “That pussy over there is calling you.”
“Really? Who?” Her voice was calm. Serene even, and that had to be a miracle because her control wasn’t anything like reliable right now.
“Here in three, two, one…”
“Lys. You dropped this.”
She turned in time to see Jack slow from his jog across the plaza. He had her frog-shaped stapler in his hand. While she watched, he closed the distance between them. He was grinning because to him, a normal, everyday person, how absurd was it to chase a woman across the plaza with frog stapler?
“Oh, hey. Thanks.” She stuck out her box, intending for Jack to drop the stapler inside.
Jack held out the stapler and put a hand on her arm. The boom in her head went off like a cannon. She jerked away. Her vision winked out. Jack twitched, and the stapler dropped from his fingers.
His knees give out, and he falls to the concrete. Bright crimson blood flows from his head.
Reality slammed back.
“Dude,” she heard Khūnbish say. “You okay?”
Jack’s eyes rolled up in his head, and his knees buckled. He hit the paving stones hard. She heard the crack when his head hit.
“Holy shit.” Khūnbish whipped out his cell phone and started dialing while Lys dropped her box and knelt, afraid to touch him in case there was a chance he could be saved. Jack didn’t move. Blood pooled around his head. Red. So red.
A girl with pink hair, leggings, and a tatty black tee-shirt emerged from the gathering crowed. Lys snatched her hands away when the girl dropped to Jack’s side and pressed two fingers to the side of his throat.
That’s all she needed; to kill another innocent person. Every ounce of Lys’s energy went to keeping herself out of free fall. If she didn’t stay in control, Jack might not be the only casualty. She was aware, in a distant way, of Khūnbish talking to 9-1-1 and of the young woman doing chest compressions on an unresponsive Jack.
Sirens, far away at first, came closer and closer. Lys shook with the effort of staying here and in the present. She didn’t want to hurt anyone else. Her head was going to crack open, but she’d managed to seal herself off. She could observe without feeling anything. Ice protected her from all the people around her.
A fire truck pulled up, then an ambulance. Paramedics jogged across the plaza with their gear. Radios squawked. The strobe effect from the flashing lights on the emergency vehicles flashed inside her head, too. The pink-haired woman doing compressions let one of the EMTs take over and some time later the EMTs loaded Jack into the ambulance.
She answered questions from one of the firefighters. She was ice. Nothing but ice inside and out. It was horrifyingly clinical the way she didn’t feel a damn thing, but this was how she needed to be. More time passed, there were more questions and answers and then the firefighters were gone. The last of the crowd disbursed.
Khūnbish cocked his head and shoved his hands into his front pockets. Her head hurt. She wondered idly what he would say if she told him Jack was dead and that it was her fault. He’d call her crazy, and he’d be right. He held her gaze, and she got trapped there.
She braced herself, but nothing happened. Nothing at all. Her stomach, however, did a slow flip-flop. The conviction that he knew about her sprang into full bloom. He knew what she was. Without understanding why or how, she’d stepped onto a tightrope here with Khūnbish, and there wasn’t any net.
“Ms. Fensic.” His low, scratchy voice made it easy to imagine him awake at four in the morning, a bottle of whiskey at his elbow. Some blonde babe with a tramp stamp and a fondness for glitter would be on his lap while he hacked into someone else’s server. In between rounds of beating the crap out of men stupid enough to cross him.
Khūnbish was the calmest man she’d ever met. Nothing rattled him. Not an adversarial deposition or a vicious cross-examination. Or seeing a man drop dead at his feet. “Someone you knew well?”
She swallowed. “A colleague.” She wasn’t a talkative person, but hell if she could stop herself. “I quit my job today, and he wanted to help me with my things.” She nudged her moving box with the toe of her pump and swallowed the lump in her throat. “I told him not to follow me. I told him to go back to his office.”
“Was he harassing you?”
“No. God no.” Their eyes met again, and the world stayed in place. “Nothing like that.”
“So. You quit your job and called me.”
She waited for a group of people to pass them on their way to California Street. On a purely selfish level, she’d been right to think of him. He was perfect. She needed someone mean and dangerous, and Khūnbish fit the bill. With a prayer that she was right, she made the leap that would change her life forever.
“I need a favor.”