“Ten minutes until closing,” a librarian whispered from the doorway.
I sent my three-paragraph essay on amino acids to the printer, then scooped up my books and wedged them inside my backpack. I picked up Patch’s card, hesitated once, then ripped it multiple times and tossed the scraps into the trash can. If he wanted to say sorry, he could do it in person. Not through Vee, and not in my dreams.
Halfway down the aisle to pick up my print job, I reached out to steady myself on the nearest desk. The right side of my body felt heavier than the left, and my balance wavered. I took another step, and my right leg crumpled, as if made of paper. I crouched down, gripping the desk with both hands, tucking my head between my elbows to get blood flowing to my brain again. A warm, drowsy feeling swirled through my veins.
Straightening my legs, I came to a wobbly stand, but something was wrong with the walls. They were stretched abnormally long and narrow, as if I was looking at them through a mirror at a fun house. I blinked hard several times, attempting to bring my vision to a focal point.
My bones filled with iron, refusing to move, and my eyelids sank against the stark fluorescent lights. In a panic, I ordered them open, but my body overruled all. I felt warm fingers curl around my mind, threatening to drag it off to sleep.
The perfume, I thought vaguely. In Patch’s card.
I was on my hands and knees now. Strange rectangles wavered all around, spinning before me. Doors. The room was lined with open doors. But the faster I crawled toward them, the faster they jumped back. Off in the distance, I heard a somber tick-tock. I moved away from the sound, lucid enough to know that the clock was at the back of the room, opposite the door.
Moments later, I realized that my arms and legs were no longer moving, the sensation of crawling nothing more than an illusion in my head. Scratchy, industrial-grade carpet cushioned my cheek. I fought once more to push myself up, then shut my eyes, all light spiraling away.
I woke in the dark.
Artificially cool air tingled my skin, and the quiet hum of machines whispered all around. I got my hands under me, but when I tried to raise myself up, dots of purple and black danced across my vision. I swallowed the texture of cotton thick in my mouth and rolled onto my back.
That was when I remembered I was still in the library. At least, I was pretty sure that’s where I was. I didn’t remember leaving.
But what was I doing on the floor? I tried to remember how I got here.
Patch’s card. I’d breathed in the tangy, bitter perfume. Shortly after, I’d collapsed on the floor.
Had I been drugged?
Had Patch drugged me?
I lay there, heart thumping, eyes blinking so rapidly the blinks came one on top of the other. I tried to get up a second time, but it felt as if someone had a steel boot planted in the center of my chest. With a second, more determined heave, I pulled myself to sitting. Clinging to a desk, I dragged myself all the way to standing. My brain protested the vertigo, but my eyes located the blurry green exit sign above the media lab door. I tottered over.
I turned the handle. The door opened an inch, then caught. I was about to tug harder, when something on the other side of the window set in the door caught my eye. I frowned. That’s weird. Someone had tied one end of a length of rope to the outer door handle, and the other end to the handle of the door one room down.
I smacked my hand against the glass. “hello?” I shouted groggily. “Can anyone hear me?”
I tried the door again, pulling with all my might, which wasn’t much, since my muscles seemed to melt like hot butter the minute I tried to exert them. The rope was strung so tight between the two handles, I could only bring the lab door roughly five inches out of the frame. Not nearly enough to squeeze through.
“Is anyone there?” I shouted through the door crack. “I’m trapped on the third floor!”
The library answered with silence.
My eyes were fully adapted to the darkness now, and I found the clock on the wall. Eleven? Could that be right? Had I really slept more than two hours?
I pulled out my cell, but there was no signal. I tried to log on to the Internet but was repeatedly informed that there were no available networks.
Looking frantically around the media lab, I combed my eyes over every object, searching for something I could use to get out. Computers, swivel chairs, filing cabinets … nothing jumped out at me. I knelt down beside the floor vent and shouted, “Can anyone hear me? I’m trapped in the media lab on the third floor!” I waited, praying to hear a response. My one hope was that there was still a librarian around, finishing up last-minute work before heading out. But it was an hour shy of midnight, and I knew the odds were stacked against me.
Out in the main library, gears clanked into motion as the cage elevator at the end of the hall rose up from the ground level. I jerked my head toward the sound.
Once, when I was four or five, my dad took me to the park to teach me how to ride my bike without training wheels. By the end of the afternoon, I could ride all the way around the quarter-mile loop without help. My dad gave me a big hug and told me it was time to go home and show my mom. I begged for two more loops, and we compromised on one. Halfway around the loop, I lost my balance and tipped over. As I was righting my bike, I saw a big brown dog not far off. It was staring at me. In that moment, as we stood watching each other, I heard a voice whisper, Don’t move. I gulped a breath and held it, even though my legs wanted to run as fast as they could to the safety of my dad.
The dog’s ears pricked and he started toward me in an aggressive lope. I shivered with fear but kept my feet rooted.
The closer the dog came, the more I wanted to run, but I knew the moment I moved, the dog’s animal instinct to chase would kick in. Halfway to me, the dog lost interest in my statuelike body and took off in a new direction. I asked my dad if he’d heard the same voice telling me to hold still, and he said it was instinct. If I listened to it, nine times out of ten I’d make the best move.
Instinct was speaking now. Get out.
I grabbed a monitor off the closest desk and threw it against the window. The glass smashed, leaving a huge hole in the center. I snatched the three-hole punch off the community work desk just inside the door and used it to knock out the remaining glass. Then I dragged a chair over, climbed up, braced my shoe on the window frame, and jumped out to the hall.
The elevator hissed and vibrated higher, passing the second level.
I covered the hall in a sprint. I pumped my arms harder, knowing I had to reach the stairwell, adjacent to the elevator, before the elevator rose much higher and whoever was inside saw me. I tugged on the stairwel door, expending several precious seconds as I took the time to close it noiselessly behind me. On the far side of the door, the elevator ground to a halt. The retractable door rattled open and someone stepped out. I used the railing to propel myself faster, keeping my shoes light on the stairs. I was halfway down the second flight when the stairwel door opened above me. I stopped mid-stride, not wanting to alert whoever was up there to my location.
My hand slipped on the railing. It was my dad’s voice.
Nora? Are you there?
I swallowed, wanting to cry out to him. Then I remembered the townhouse.
Quit hiding. You can trust me. Let me help you. Come out where I can see you.
His tone was strange and demanding. At the townhouse, when my dad’s voice had first spoken to me, it was soft and gentle. That same voice had told me we weren’t alone and I needed to leave. When he spoke again, his voice was different.
It sounded forceful and deceiving. What if my dad had tried to contact me? What if he’d been chased away, and the second, strange voice was someone pretending to be him? I was struck by the thought that someone could be impersonating my dad to lure me close.
Heavy footsteps descended the stairs at a run, jerking me out of my speculations. He was coming after me.
I clattered down the stairs, no longer worrying about keeping quiet. Faster! I screamed to myself. Run faster!
He was gaining ground, barely more than a flight away. When my shoes hit the ground level, I shoved through the stairwel door, crossed the lobby, and flung myself out the front doors and into the night.
The air was warm and quiet. I was running for the cement steps leading down to the street, when I made a split-second change of plans. I climbed the handrail to the left of the doors, dropping ten or so feet to a small grassy courtyard below.
Above me, the library doors opened. I pressed back against the cement wall, my feet stirring trash and tumbleweeds.
The minute I heard the slow tap of shoes descending the cement steps, I raced down the block. The library didn’t have its own parking; it shared an underground garage with the courthouse. I ran down the parking ramp, ducked under the parking arm, and swept the garage for the Neon. Where had Vee said she’d parked?
Row B …
I ran one aisle over and saw the tail end of the Neon sticking out of a space. I rammed the key into the door, dropped behind the wheel, and cranked the engine. I’d just steered the Neon up the exit ramp when a dark SUV swung around the corner. The driver gunned the engine, heading straight for me.
I thrust the Neon into second gear and stepped on the gas, pulling out in front of the SUV seconds before it would have blocked the exit and boxed me inside the garage.
My mind was too frazzled to think clearly about where I was going. I floored it down another two blocks, ran a stop sign, then veered onto Walnut. The SUV accelerated onto Walnut behind me, holding my tail. The speed limit jumped to forty-five, and the lanes doubled to two. I pushed the Neon to fifty, switching my eyes between the road and the rearview mirror.
Without signaling, I yanked the steering wheel, cutting onto a side street. The SUV razed the curb, following me. I took two more right turns, circled the block, and got back on Walnut. I swerved in front of a white two-door coupe, boxing it between me and the SUV. The traffic light ahead turned yellow, and I accelerated into the intersection as the light flashed red. With my eyes glued to the rearview mirror, I watched the white car roll to a stop. Behind it, the SUV came to a screeching halt.
I took several sharp breaths. My pulse throbbed in my arms, and my hands were clamped tightly around the steering wheel.
I took Walnut uphill, but as soon as I was on the back side of the hill, I crossed oncoming traffic and turned left. I bounced over the railroad tracks, weaving my way through a dark, dilapidated neighborhood of single-story brick houses. I knew where I was: Slaughtervil e. The neighborhood had earned its nickname over a decade ago when three teens gunned one another down at a playground.
I slowed as a house set far back from the street caught my attention. No lights. An open, empty detached garage stood at the far back of the property. I reversed the Neon up the driveway and into the garage. After triple-checking that the door locks were engaged, I killed the headlights. I waited, fearing that at were engaged, I killed the headlights. I waited, fearing that at any moment the SUV’s headlights would swing down the street.
Rummaging through my purse, I dug out my cell.
“Hey,” Vee answered.
“Who else touched the card from Patch?” I demanded, the words rattling.
“Did Patch give you the card directly? Did Rixon? Who else touched it?”