The Operator Page 12

Her arm ached where the dart had stuck her, and she felt queasy from the lingering Amneoset, but her foot was by far worse, the swelling in her ankle beginning to make walking difficult, even in her boots. She could run. He had no weapon—apart from the lure of memory.

Head down, she came forward, sidling out of his reach as she went in.

Immediately the feel of the place washed over her, the electronic music with its steady heartbeat soothing her as much as the muggy body heat. It was crowded, people standing at the bar and around small tables. Face paint had been utilized far beyond its original intent to thwart the facial recognition cameras—a fashion statement more than a defiant gesture.

Feeling out of place, she ran a hand down her coat, the expensive material now coated with a grungy film of wet street dirt. Her slacks and sweater under it would make her look like a frump. That Bill was impeccably groomed didn’t help, and she eyed his somewhat water-fat face cleanly shaved and his graying hair dyed black as he gave his outer coat to the coat check and arranged for one of the quieter booths on the upper floor terrace overlooking the stage and bar.

Again, she was struck by how ill his suit looked on him. Oh, it was tailored to a high-price perfection, giving where it should and tight where it ought to be, but Bill’s calm exterior covered a cold, calculating cruelty. Some of her patrons had that look as well, but with Bill, there was no understanding of accountability to temper it. It made him into the thug he’d started life as despite his ongoing efforts to cover it up.

She shook her head at the man offering to hang up her coat as she took it off, and Bill smiled as if fond of his little paranoid creation. Bothered, she pushed past him, following the host through the crowd to the stairs. “That’s my girl,” Bill said, a hand finding its way to the small of her back. She’d say he was being a gentleman, but she knew he was checking to see whether she had a weapon she hadn’t pulled on Michael, stymied by her coat now over her arm.

Stim tabs crunched under her feet as she went up the stairs. Colored lights spun, making the smoke at the high ceiling glow in bands of moving red and gold. It was an upscale place. You could order at the table and pay at the table, but real people brought out the drinks, flashing real skin, unlike the holographs on the stage and dance cage.

Unbuttoning his suit coat, Bill slid into the booth made for six, spinning the menu to himself. His Opti ring looked tight on his thick finger as he ordered something. Seeing her still standing, he patted the bench next to him in invitation.

Peri pulled her eyes off her diary and sat down, keeping space between them. It was quieter here, the noise from the dance floor being deflected. Still, the thump from the bass pounded into her, tightening her tension. This was wrong, but she had to know.

“Nothing but the best for you, kiddo,” Bill said, sighing as he set the syringes on the table before them like the carrots they were. “I ordered champagne. Lucky for you, nothing in these will interact with the alcohol, and we need to celebrate.”

Peri set her coat aside. Across the open space over the dance floor, there were booths of partying people. No one was close enough to see the syringes, and even if they could, it was unlikely anyone would care. It was that kind of a place. “What are they?” she asked.

Clearly pleased with himself, Bill settled the flats of his arms on the table and leaned toward her. “Forty years of research,” he said, pulling back when their champagne arrived in a bucket of ice. “Already? I can see why you favor this place. Good service.”

Her jaw had added itself to her list of aches, but the fight was clear in her memory, meaning she hadn’t drafted more than a second or two. That she might be missing chunks didn’t hold the same impact it had a year ago, but still, to remember . . .

The pop of the cork made her jump, and she scanned the place as the sweet amber gurgled into the glasses. She liked the vantage point. Worst case was that she had five minutes before Bill’s people would be coming in the back, replacing the servers and the bouncers, and the building would be his. I wonder what Cam would think if he could see me now, she thought.

“Peri?” Bill prompted, and she took the glass he was holding out. Lip curled, she set it down, not appreciating his clumsy attempt at manipulating her, patently obvious as he tried to remind her of everything she once had: the privilege, the clothes, the excitement, the above-the-law confidence that she’d taken for granted was hers and always would be.

And yet . . . “How does it work?” she asked, hating herself.

His lips curled into a satisfied smile. “The pink is the accelerator. One cc intravenously will chemically destroy the synapses that cause you to forget a draft,” he said calmly, tapping his glass to hers before taking a sip. “You only need to administer it once, but you have to dose yourself up on Evocane first or you’ll have a psychotic episode the first time you draft, and what’s the point of that? Fortunately the Evocane is much easier to administer. Half a cc right in your muscle, like an insulin shot.” He smiled. “I insisted it be easy,” he said as if she should thank him for it.

“Drafters can’t hold twin timelines,” she said, head shaking in denial. “That’s why we forget in the first place.” But if they had found a way to eliminate the memory loss, she’d be dependent on no one. She’d be whatever she wanted to be. I’d become even better at what I’m good at, a cold-blooded killer. Her hands had become fists, and she forced them to relax. “How long have you been able to do this?”

“Successfully? Not long. We’ve been able to eliminate the synapses that prevent an altered timeline from moving from short-term to long-term memory since the sixties.”

She licked her lips, watching the bubbles rise in her untasted drink. “They went mad.”

“To the individual,” Bill said, seemingly to be truly regretful. “But as most of them had come to Opti mad to begin with, it was written off as a failed therapy. It was most vexing, I understand, so they shelved it until Evocane was developed to arrest the hallucinations and accompanying paranoia.” He touched the syringe with the blue drug. “It stops it dead in its tracks. Keeps you sane.”

“I won’t be your tool again,” she said flatly, and Bill’s exuberance dulled.

“You are vulnerable, kiddo,” he said as he set his glass down. “Always have been, even with an anchor at your side to bring your memory back. You know it. I know it. Frankly, I don’t blame you for abandoning us. We failed you.”

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