Skin Deep Page 2

“Good,” Tobias said. “Now transition the conversation away from your eccentricities and start talking about her.”

“Yes,” Ivy said. “Find out what she’s hiding.”

“Do you have siblings?” I asked.

Sylvia hesitated, then finally picked up her silverware. Never had I been so happy to see a fork move. “Two sisters,” she said, “both older. Maria is a consultant for a marketing firm. Georgia lives in the Cayman Islands. She’s an attorney . . .”

I relaxed as she continued. Tobias raised his glass of lemonade to me in congratulations. Disaster avoided.

“You’re going to have to talk about it with her eventually,” Ivy said. “We aren’t exactly something she can ignore.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “But for now, I’ll settle for surviving the first date.”

“What was that?” Sylvia looked at us, hesitating in her narrative.

“Nothing,” I said.

“She was speaking about her father,” Tobias said. “A banker. Retired.”

“How long was he in banking?” I asked, glad that one of us had been paying attention.

“Forty-eight years! We kept saying he didn’t need to continue on . . .”

I smiled and began cutting my chicken as she talked.

“Perimeter clear,” a voice said from behind me.

I started, looking over my shoulder. J.C. stood there, wearing a busboy’s uniform and carrying a tray of dirty dishes. Lean, tough, and square-jawed, J.C. is a cold-blooded killer. Or so he claims. I think it means he likes to murder amphibians.

He was a hallucination, of course. J.C., the plates he was carrying, the handgun he had holstered inconspicuously under his white server’s jacket . . . all hallucinations. Despite that, he’d saved my life several times.

That didn’t mean I was pleased to see him.

“What are you doing here?” I hissed.

“Watching out for assassins,” J.C. said.

“I’m on a date!”

“Which means you’ll be distracted,” J.C. said. “Perfect time for an assassination.”

“I told you to stay home!”

“Yeah, I know. The assassins would have heard that too. That’s why I had to come.” He nudged me with an elbow. I felt it. He might be imaginary, but he felt perfectly real to me. “She’s a looker, Skinny. Nice work!”

“Half of her is plastic,” Ivy said dryly.

“Same goes for my car,” J.C. said. “It still looks nice.” He grinned at Ivy, then leaned down to me. “I don’t suppose you could . . .” He nodded toward Ivy, then raised his hands to his chest, making a cupping motion.

“J.C.,” Ivy said flatly. “Did you just try to get Steve to imagine me with a larger chest?”

J.C. shrugged.

“You,” she said, “are the most loathsome non-being on the planet. Really. You should feel proud. Nobody has imagined anything more slimy, ever.”

The two of them had an off-again on-again relationship. Apparently, “off-again” had started when I wasn’t looking. I really had no idea what to make of it—this was the first time two of my aspects had become romantically entangled.

Curiously, J.C. had been completely unable to say the words about me imagining Ivy with a different body shape. He didn’t like to confront the fact that he was a hallucination. It made him uncomfortable.

J.C. continued looking the room over. Despite his obvious hangups, he was keen-eyed and very good with security. He’d notice things I would not, so perhaps it was good he’d decided to join us.

“What?” I asked him. “Is there something wrong?”

“He’s just paranoid,” Ivy said. “Remember when he thought the postman was a terrorist?”

J.C. stopped scanning, his attention focusing sharply on a woman sitting three tables over. Dark-skinned and wearing a nice pantsuit, she turned toward her window as soon as I noticed her. That window reflected back our way, and it was dark outside. She could still be watching.

“I’ll check it out,” J.C. said, moving away from our table.

“Stephen . . .” Tobias said.

I glanced back at our table and found Sylvia staring at me again, her fork held loosely as if forgotten, her eyes wide.

I forced myself to chuckle. “Sorry! Got distracted by something.”

“By what?”

“Nothing. You were saying something about your mother—”

“What distracted you?”

“An aspect,” I said, reluctant.

“A hallucination, you mean.”

“Yes. I left him home. He came on his own.”

Sylvia stared intently at her food. “That’s interesting. Tell me more.”

Being polite again. I leaned forward. “It’s not what you think, Sylvia. My aspects are just pieces of me, receptacles for my knowledge. Like . . . memories that get up and walk around.”

“She’s not buying it,” Ivy noted. “Breathing quickly. Fingers tense . . . Steve, she knows more about you than you think. She’s not acting shocked, but instead like she’s been set up on a date with Jack the Ripper and is trying to keep her cool.”

I nodded at the information. “It’s nothing to worry about.” Had I said that already? “Each of my aspects help me in some way. Ivy is a psychologist. Tobias is a historian. They—”

“What about the one that just arrived?” Sylvia asked, looking up and meeting my eyes. “The one who came when you weren’t expecting?”

“Lie,” Tobias said.

“Lie,” Ivy said. “Tell her he’s a ballet dancer or something.”

“J.C.,” I said instead, “is ex-Navy SEAL. He helps me with that sort of thing.”

“That sort of thing?”

“Security situations. Covert operations. Any time I might be in danger.”

“Does he tell you to kill people?”

“It’s not like that. Okay, well, it is kind of like that. But he’s usually joking.”

Ivy groaned.

Sylvia stood up. “Excuse me. I need the restroom.”

“Of course.”

Sylvia took her purse and shawl and left.

“Not coming back?” I asked Ivy.

“Are you kidding? You just told her that an invisible man who tells you to kill people just showed up when you didn’t want him to.”

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