As soon as Cuey stood up, he and Michaels went to work on the cargo-bay doors. The tiny red eye of their scanner cast a diffuse glow as Cuey ran it around the seams. I had it on good authority Michaels was the Investigative Division’s resident computer whiz kid-slash-wonder boy. Supposedly, the system he couldn’t hack had yet to be invented. I pictured his freckled fingers dancing across a haptic interface, searching for the command or series of commands that would temporarily reprogram the anti-intrusion system to Open Sesame. Once he succeeded, if he succeeded, the scanner’s indicator light would flash green.
Five minutes later, it did. Michaels pumped a fist in the air, and Cuey leaned in close to the van.
Retinal scanner, I thought. Probably mounted at eye level to the left of the small, tinted back window. Michaels must have fooled it into recognizing Cuey’s retina. I held my breath, bracing for the big bang, but the door slid up into the roof with a pneumatic hiss not much louder than my sigh of relief. Cuey drew his weapon and climbed cautiously inside, closely followed by his partner.
By now, I was weighing the pros and cons of moving in for a closer look myself. I wanted to see the inside of that van so bad I could taste it, but there was no question in my mind about what would happen if Cuey and Michaels caught me within fifty feet of them when they had specifically warned me to stay put. Despite my bravado back at headquarters, incarceration wasn’t an attractive prospect for any number of reasons. In addition to all the pesky legal hassles and bad food involved, Dad’s press secretary, Carolyn Mayer, would have a cow. And her reaction would be mild compared to Mom’s. But the con that trumped them all was the fact that I had given my word. So, end of debate. I would stay where I was, as comfy as a wet cat, in the mouth of an alley with severe halitosis. I only hoped the story would be worth it.
I had no sooner made my decision, when the nerves in my wrist hummed, scaring me out of half a year’s growth. Swearing silently, I tore my eyes away from the van and pushed up my left sleeve. UpLinks. Can’t live with the phone-computer combo, sure as hell can’t live without one, now that the nuts and bolts of life are stored in the Cloud. The nearly weightless black band tickled my wrist again as I read the crimson crawler, Urgent call, caller unknown. Now, as we all know, Caller Unknown is the favorite ID of telemarketers and anonymous tipsters the world over. Since tonight’s ticklish operation was based on information from the one of the latter, I issued a mental answer call, closed caption command to the thought-activated software.
The three-dimensional color image that materialized on the flex-screen took maybe five seconds to register. Five merciful seconds before I realized what I was looking at, moaned, "Nooooo," dropped to my knees, and vomited. I threw up until I hit empty, then managed to unfold at the waist. Still on my knees, dizzy and shaking, I wiped the back of my right hand across my lips, shoved up my sleeve again, and forced myself to take a closer look.
I had never seen anyone flayed alive but had no doubt this would be the result, if someone was. There was no way to tell whether the raw, bloody corpse had been male or female, Caucasian, Asian, or Martian; it had been peeled like a grape. The lipless mouth was frozen in an agonized scream. No tongue. The caption read, This is what we do to traitors.
My stomach pitched again, but a second message vibrated "incoming," so I sucked a steadying lungful of air and called up the transmission. And inquisitive reporters. I quickly flicked to the next screen to read the rest. You’re out of your league, Ms. Gregson. Flick. Suggest you stage a tactical retreat.
They know, I realized, as my heart catapulted into my throat. And if they know they have a leak, they probably guessed I would tell ....
My head whipped up. My eyes locked on the van. I scrambled to my feet, letting my sleeve drop over the UpLink as I stumbled toward the street, screaming a warning. I was still screaming when the van erupted with a deafening roar in a blinding flash.
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