Page 115

I’d wear the heels. I’d wear the hose. I’d even wear a layer of tinted lip gloss, since that would make it look like I’d applied makeup for the occasion. There was no way I was going to put my contacts in for what was, essentially, a snatch-and-grab to get me to the senator and my team, convince them I had news, and get them back to the compound. Still swearing, I yanked the shawl that went with the dress out of the side pocket of my garment bag, clipped my ID badge to the right side of my chest, and went storming back out of the trailer, heading for the motor pool.

Steve was on duty, standing at a relaxed sort of attention as he monitored the radio channels for security or vehicular needs. He straightened when he saw me coming, chin bobbing downward as he took in the way that I was dressed. It was impossible to see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but he took no pains to disguise the motion of his head, which rose again as he studied the tailoring of my dress, the shawl around my shoulders, and finally, with a quirk of one eyebrow, my sunglasses.

“Going somewhere?” he asked.

“I was planning on doing a little gate-crashing,” I said. “Give a girl a ride?”

“Didn’t you send your brother in your place?”

“Something came up. It’s important that I get over there.”

Steve studied me for a moment, his expression implacable. I looked back at him, keeping my own expression just as composed. We both had a lot of practice, but I was the one who had more to lose if I slipped up. It was Steve who gave in, nodding marginally before he said, “This got something to do with Eakly, Georgia?”

His partner died there. We knew there was a conspiracy. How likely was it that we’d still be alive if our security detail was a part of it? There might be listening devices. There was nothing I could do about that, and we were in the end game. It was time to go all-in. “This has everything to do with Eakly, and with the ranch, and with why Chuck and Buffy died. Please. I need you to get me to that dinner.”

Steve remained still for a moment more, mulling over what I’d said. He was a big man, and people often assume big men must be slow. I never assumed that about Steve, and I didn’t assume it now. He was getting his first real look at a situation my team and I had been living with for months, and it took some getting used to. When he did start to move, he moved quickly and with no hesitation. “Mike, Heidi, you cover this gate. Anybody radios for me, you say I’m in the can and I’ll radio back when I’m done. Tell them I had franks and beans for dinner, if you think it’ll keep them from asking more.”

Heidi tittered, a high, nervous sound entirely out of keeping with her professional exterior. Mike frowned, expression betraying a slow confusion. “Yeah, we can do that,” he said. “But why ?”

“We hired you after the ranch, so I’m not going to smack you for asking that question. There’s reasons.” Steve glanced at me. “I’m guessing that if it was safe to give those reasons in a place as open as this one, they’d have already been given.”

I nodded. I wouldn’t have said as much as I had if he hadn’t invoked the specter of Eakly first, but I wasn’t going to lie to the man when I was asking for his help. Even if I thought I could pull it off, which I didn’t, it would have been wrong.

“Just do it, Mike,” said Heidi, aiming an elbow at the unfortunate Mike’s side. He bore the blow stoically, only allowing a slight grunt to escape. Heidi withdrew her elbow. “We got it, Steve. Watch the gate, monitor the radio, don’t tell anybody you’re gone.”

“Good. Miss Mason? This way.” Steve turned, his legs eating ground with frightening efficiency as he led me to one of the motor pool’s smaller vehicles. It was a modified Jeep with a hard black exterior that made it look like nothing so much as a strange new type of beetle. He produced the keys from one pocket and hit a button; the doors unlocked with a beep. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t open the door for you.”

“Of course,” I said. In a two-person vehicle this new, there would be blood test units built into the door handles to prevent some unfortunate driver from ending up sealed in an enclosed space with one of the infected. Chivalry wasn’t dead. Chivalry just wanted to be certain I wasn’t a zombie before I got into the car.

Even when concerned enough to abandon his post—and that’s what he was doing, given that he hadn’t radioed our whereabouts to base—Steve remained a careful, cautious driver. He sped down the roads back toward town at precisely the speed limit, without turning the flashers on. They would have attracted too much attention, especially from any members of our own camp who might start to wonder what he was doing out there. Our departure from the compound had been recorded, but those records were legally secured, save in the instance of an outbreak causing privacy laws to be suspended.

The hall where Senator Ryman’s keynote speech and the associated dinner party were being hosted was downtown, in one of the areas that was rebuilt after the Rising. Shaun and I did a series of articles on the “bad” parts of Sacramento a few years ago, taking cameras past the cordons and into the areas that were never reapproved for human habitation. Burnt-out husks of buildings stare out on cracking asphalt, the biohazard tape still gleaming across their doors and windows. In the white marble and clean chrome paradise of the government assembly hall, you’d never know that side of Sacramento existed. Not unless you’d been there.

It took three blood tests to reach the foyer. The first was at the entrance to the underground parking garage, where valets in plastic gloves brought the test panels, clearly expecting us to allow the polite fiction that there weren’t guards with automatic weapons flanking the booth. Those men stood there like statues, sending goose bumps marching across my arms. It wasn’t the security; it was how blatantly it was displayed. No one would argue if they gunned us down. I had my recorders running, but without a security schematic, I couldn’t afford to transmit across what might be compromised airspace, and without Buffy, I didn’t have a security schematic I could trust. We needed her so badly. We always had.