Skin Deep Page 27

“If she does,” I said, “Mrs. Maheras is in danger. I’m surprised Zen hasn’t been here already—if not her, then another Exeltec flunky.” I frowned. “I feel like we’re a step behind. I do not like that sensation.”

I ignored the car waiting for us, and I barely noticed Dion as he walked up. Instead, I closed my eyes. “Tobias,” I whispered.

“Have you noticed the beauty of the landscaping here?” Tobias said. “Those are tuberous begonia, challenging flowers to raise, particularly in this region. They require lots of light, but it can’t be direct, and are very sensitive to frost. Ah, I remember a story about them . . .”

He talked on. The other aspects fell silent as we thought, collectively. I would not proceed, feeling I’d missed something. Something that one of us should have spotted. What was it?

“Zen,” J.C. interrupted suddenly. “Her ambush.”

“People are far less secure,” I whispered, opening my eyes, “than their security measures.” I reached up to my shoulder, where Zen had grabbed me in the alleyway to pull me away from the building, then I moved up to touch under my shirt collar.

My fingers brushed metal.

“Oh, holy hell!” J.C. said.

Zen had bugged me. That was what the attack in the alleyway had been about. It hadn’t been nearly as reckless as she’d made it seem. My mind raced as J.C. explained to the other aspects what had happened. What had I said out loud? What did Zen know?

She’d heard that I intended to break into Exeltec. But what about the instructions I’d sent Yol? Did she know about those?

Sweating, I traced back through my memory. No. I’d only written that information down in the email. But she did know what I’d said to Mrs. Maheras. She knew that I was at a dead end.

“I’m an idiot,” J.C. said. “We thought to have you scrub down after the restaurant, but not after actual physical contact with the assassin?”

“She hid her intentions well,” Audrey replied. “Masked it as a frantic attempt to get the flash drive.”

“At least now we probably don’t have to worry about her coming to hurt Mrs. Maheras.”

Probably. I stared at my phone. How had we missed this?

“Calm, Stephen,” Tobias said, resting a hand on my shoulder. “Everyone makes mistakes, even you. We can use this one—the assassin is listening to us, but she doesn’t know you’ve figured that out. We can manipulate her.”

I nodded, taking a deep breath. Zen knew about the plan to infiltrate Exeltec, which meant I couldn’t go through with that. I needed something new, something better.

That meant relying on the things I’d set in motion with Yol. Making Exeltec’s owners frantic, then playing upon that. Why did missions always go this way, lately? I looked up at my aspects, then made the decision, punching a number on my phone.

Someone picked up. “Oh, honey,” a sultry voice said on the other end of the line, “I was hoping you’d call me today.”

“Bianca,” I said.

Tobias groaned. “Not her.”

I ignored him. “I need information,” I said to the woman on the line.

“Sure thing, sugar,” she said. How did she purr like that? I was half convinced she used some kind of sound effect machine. “What about? Your . . . date the other night? I can tell you the names of the people who set you up.”

“It’s not about that,” I said. “There’s something going on with a company called I3 and their rival, Exeltec. I think they might have released a deadly virus into the wild. Do you know anything about it?”

“Mmm . . . I can look,” Bianca said. “Might take some time.”

“Anything you can get me on Exeltec would be heartily appreciated,” I said.

“Sure,” she said. “And honey, next time you need a date, why not give me a call? I’m so offended that I wasn’t even considered!”

“Like you’d show,” I said. Three years, and I’d never seen Bianca face-to-face.

“I’d at least contemplate it,” she said. “Now, you’ve got to give me something for the newspapers. About your date?”

“Get me information on Exeltec,” I said, “and we’ll trade.” I hung up, looking over my shoulder as Dion stepped up to me on the sidewalk, looking confused.

“What are you hoping to find out?” the kid asked.

“Nothing,” I replied, fully aware that Zen was listening to all this. “Bianca is a terrible informant. I’ve never gotten a drop of useful information out of her, and after I call her, most of what I say ends up on the internet within minutes.”


I dialed another informant and initiated a similar, but more circumspect, line of inquiry. Then a third. Within a few minutes I’d ensured that very, very soon everyone who cared about Exeltec would be reading about how they’d been involved in a major public safety breach. With I3 being investigated and me being involved, the kernel of truth to the rumors I’d started would set off a media frenzy.

“You’re pushing them up against the wall, Steve,” Ivy said as Wilson finally pulled up. “Zen’s employers were desperate before; they’ll be rabid once this hits.”

“Hoping to make them ignore you and focus on damage control with the media?” J.C. asked. “Not smart. Whipping the tiger won’t distract it; the thing will just get angrier.”

I couldn’t explain, not with Zen listening. Instead, I got out my note pad and scribbled a few instructions to Wilson, assuming the aspects would see and catch on.

Surprisingly, Audrey seemed to get it first. She grinned. “Oooh . . .”

“Dangerous,” Ivy said, folding her arms. “Very dangerous.”

Wilson rolled down the passenger window. “Master Leeds?”

I finished writing and leaned in through the window, handing him the message. “Some instructions,” I said. “I need you to stay here, Wilson, and watch Mrs. Maheras. I’m worried the assassin might try to get to her. In fact, you should probably get her to the nearest police station.”

“But who will drive you?”

“I can drive,” I said.

Wilson looked skeptical.

“Funny,” Audrey remarked, “how a man can trust you to save the world, but not to feed or drive yourself.”

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