Skin Deep Page 28

I smiled reassuringly at Wilson as he looked down at the instructions in his hand, then back at me with a worried expression.

“Please,” I said to him.

Wilson sighed and nodded, climbing out of the car.

“You coming?” I said to Dion as I opened the side door of the SUV for my aspects and let them pile in.

“You said that people could be in danger,” Dion said.

“They are,” I replied, closing the door behind Audrey. “What your brother let out could cost the lives of millions.”

“He said it wasn’t dangerous,” Dion said stubbornly.

Damn. The kid was holding out on me. Did he have the key? Unfortunately, I didn’t want him to talk and let Zen hear. Well, either way, I needed him with me. I might need an extra pair of nonimaginary hands, now that I’d sent Wilson away.

I settled into the driver’s seat, and Dion climbed into the front passenger seat. “Panos didn’t do anything wrong.”

“And what did he do?” I asked, resigned. If I didn’t prod, it would look suspicious to Zen.

“Something,” Dion said.

“How pleasantly descriptive.”

“He wouldn’t tell me. I don’t think he even actually finished it. But it wasn’t dangerous.”

“I . . .” I trailed off, looking back as J.C.’s mobile phone went off. The ring tone was “America the Beautiful.” I shook my head, starting the car and pulling away—leaving an overwhelmed-looking Wilson on the curb—as J.C. answered his phone.

“Yo, Achmed,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve got him here. Video? I can do that. Hey, you gonna fix that Chinese stuff for us again?”

“It was Indian food,” Kalyani said, now on speaker. “Why would you assume it’s Chinese?”

“Had rice, didn’t it?” J.C. said, kneeling beside the armrest between driver’s seat and passenger, then holding the phone out for me.

“Coconut rice, and curry, and . . . Never mind. Mister Steve?”

“Yeah?” I said, glancing at the phone. Kalyani waved happily, wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans. Her bindi was black today and shaped like a little arrow between her eyebrows, rather than being the traditional red dot. I’d have to ask her about the significance.

“We’ve been talking,” Kalyani said. “And Arnaud wants to tell you something.” She turned the phone to the punctilious little Frenchman. He leaned forward, blinking at the screen. I kept my time divided between him and the road.

“Monsieur,” Arnaud said, “I have spoken with Clive and Mi Won. The three of us, you see, had some upper-level chemistry and biology courses as part of our schooling. We cannot dig too deeply, because . . . Well, you know.”

“I do.” Ignacio. His death had ripped away most of my knowledge of chemistry.

“Regardless,” Arnaud said, “we have been poring over the information given to us. Mi Won is insistent, and we have come to agree with her. It is our admittedly amateur opinion that I3 and the man named Yol are lying to you.”

“About what specifically?”

“About giving up on a viral delivery method into the body,” Arnaud said. “Monsieur, Panos had too many resources—was progressing too well—on his supposedly ‘secret’ project to have been cut off. They were investigating that line, no matter what they told you. In addition, we are not convinced that this cancer threat is as viable as it first seemed. Oh, that is theoretically where this research could lead, but from what we’ve gathered from the notes, I3 had not reached such a point yet.”

“So they didn’t want to tell me what the real crisis was,” I said. “The rogue bacteria or virus that Panos spliced, whatever it is.”

“That is for you to consider,” Arnaud said. “We are scientists. All we are saying is that there are layers here beyond what we are being told.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I suspected, but this confirmation is helpful. Is that everything?”

“One more item,” Kalyani said, taking back the phone and turning it around toward her smiling face. “I wanted to introduce to you my husband, Rahul.” An Indian man with a round, mustached face stepped into view beside her, then waved at me.

I felt a chill.

“I told you that he is a good photographer,” Kalyani said, “but you do not need to use him that way. He is a very clever man. He can do all sorts of things! He knows computers well.”

“I can see him,” I said. “Why can I see him?”

“He’s joined us!” Kalyani said, excited. “Isn’t it wonderful!”

“Very pleased to meet you, Mister Stephen,” Rahul said with a melodic Indian accent. “I will be very helpful, I can promise you.”

“I . . .” I swallowed. “How . . . did you . . .”

“This is bad,” Ivy said from the back seat. “Have you ever manifested an aspect unintentionally?”

“Not since the early days,” I whispered. “And never without researching a new topic first.”

“Man,” Audrey said. “Kalyani gets a husband and I can’t even have a gerbil? Totally unfair.”

I pulled over immediately, not caring about the car that honked beside me as I swerved. As we lurched to a stop I yanked the phone from J.C.’s hand and stared at the new aspect. This was the first time any family member of one of my delusions had appeared to me. It seemed a very dangerous precedent. Another sign that I was losing control.

I hung up, making their smiling faces wink out, then tossed the phone over my shoulder to J.C. Sweating, I pulled the car forward, earning a honk from another car. I took the first off-ramp I saw, veering down into the city.

“You okay?” Dion asked.

“Fine,” I snapped.

I needed a place to go, a place to think. A place that would look natural, but where I could stall and wait for my plan to proceed without Zen getting suspicious. I pulled into a Denny’s. “Just need some food,” I lied. This would work, right? Even a man trying to save the world had to eat.

Dion glanced at me. “You sure you’re—”

“Yes. I just need an omelet.”


I held the restaurant door for my aspects, then walked in after them. The place smelled of coffee, and was occupied by the late-morning breakfast crowd, which was perfect. Zen was less likely to try something with so many witnesses. It took some work to get the waitress to give us a table for six; I had to lie and say we were expecting more people. Eventually, we settled down, Dion opposite me and two aspects on either side.

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