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Requiring a chair so I can sit down probably wouldn’t be a good look, would it?
I’m not going to dignify that with a response.
‘I see Agency at my door. Do you people ever call first?’ Dorian’s voice said through the speaker. ‘Spyder, delighted to see you, you know the way.’ There was a buzz, and the gates began to slide open.
‘Spyder?’ Curt asked as they started to walk up the drive. ‘Is that what you’d prefer to be called?’
She shook her head, then realised that he was in front of her. ‘No,’ she said, ‘Stef’s fine. Just- Never the full version of the name, I hate that.’
Dorian opened the door as they approached. ‘We’ll talk in the parlour if you don’t mind. I’d offer to put some tea on, but perhaps I could just hand you a list and one of you could conjure refreshments.’
‘No problem, sir,’ Curt said, wiping his feet before he stepped over the threshold.
‘Charcuterie on the sideboard?’ she asked. ‘I’ve probably got an idea of what you’re expecting.’
‘If you wouldn’t mind. And you, young man, I’ve got a few things that need sorting out with the compensation and repair plan your people left behind last night.’
The parlour was one of the smaller rooms in the mansion. She’d never been in it, only seen when walking around in the wee hours of a few mornings, when she’d been trying to stimulate her brain into working. Sometimes, walking around with a printout of the code had been the only way to jog new ideas.
The parlour’s curtains were red velvet, the furniture was dark wood, and there were only two chairs – it was the kind of place you sat and thought – or had your portrait painted.
She walked to the sideboard and closed her eyes. She thought of the afternoon teas that she’d seen her parents host, and required a selection of dainty, nibbly foods. She grabbed a cucumber sandwich, a pasty white square devoid of even its crusts, and placed it into a napkin. Old habits started to rise to the surface. Sandwiches were one of the foods her parents had deemed it acceptable for her to take from a buffet like the one she’d just laid out. No mess, no fuss, there was little trouble she could cause with a couple of inches of bread.
She settled into one of the chairs – a mug of tea beside the chair closest to the door marked it as Dorian’s – which left Curt to stand.
Instead of standing beside her though, he moved towards the back corner of the room.
Better view of the room, better access to his gun – and you’re not even armed – defensible in a couple of seconds, whereas you’ll get stuck in the chair.
How are you so smart?
You’re a genius, remember?
‘Spyder,’ Dorian said as he made himself a plate. ‘Plus one.’
‘Recruit O’Connor,’ Curt said. ‘You had some questions about the cleanup?’
‘Just a few broken items your people missed, if you wouldn’t mind accompanying me on a stroll.’ Dorian sat, placed his plate on a side table, then retrieved a folded piece of paper from an inside pocket of his jacket. ‘The compensation paperwork, I’ve made a few notes.’ He turned to look at her. ‘I hope your people are able to make some use of the code. I hope you know this is not how I wanted any of this to turn out.’
‘I’ll be happy to address your notes,’ Curt said. There were footsteps as Curt approached her chair. ‘Recruit, why don’t you go collect your stuff?’
She nodded, pushed herself up, and left the room, cucumber sandwich still in hand.
She dug into her pocket and found the last bacon fluffin – one she’d wrapped up like a hobbit for a second breakfast snack. She paused by one of the hall tables, put the fluffin into the sandwich, then crammed the whole thing into her mouth.
The bacon made the sandwich a bit more exciting, but the combination wasn’t one to try again.
Two long hallways brought her to the grand room that had been the heart of the project.
Her throat went tight as she rested her hands against the closed double doors.
She had to go in, whatever was in there, she had to see the room one more time.
But it was so hard to even think about opening the doors. Too hard to- There was always the chance they’d missed something, some little trace. People had died, and there was no way they could clean it so thoroughly that-
People had died.
People had died right in front of her.
I could have died.
Spyder, breathe for me.
She sank down onto her knees.
‘I can’t,’ she said, her voice a whisper-scream.
She hugged her arms around herself.
It was supposed to be exciting. It was supposed to be– I don’t even know.
Just a little one?
She wiped tears away.
It was just supposed to be code. It was supposed to be safe. I was supposed to be safe.
She pressed her head to the closed doors.
You don’t have to go in there.
‘Yeah, I do,’ she said.
It was like…going to a test you knew you were going to fail or forcing yourself to look at a body during a funeral. An unpleasantness that had to be passed through like a Herculean trial.
She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and slowly stood, hoping that maybe, just maybe the doors would be locked – so that she would have made an attempt at closure, but that the universe was preventing her from having to experience it.
With a deep breath steadying her, she twisted the handle on the right-hand side door. The door opened easily, but the room inside wasn’t one she recognised.
For the last few weeks, it had been long desks, computers, sideboards with kettles and coffee makers, and the impromptu lecture area with the seats and projector. Perfect for the project work.
Now there was a pool table, several expensive rugs, and a seating area. Unlike the parlour, this had room for a dozen people to sit, drink, smoke and discuss how good the world was when you were at the top.
There were no indicators of the massacre, no bullet holes in the lacquered wood, no remains of the puke smell from the poisoned, nothing.
It was a relief, and she felt able to relax, if only a tiny bit.
She stepped into the room – hidden behind the door was a large cleaner’s trolley, the kind with the x-frame that was basically a giant, thick bag on wheels. Inside were dozens of plastic evidence bags, each containing a laptop, a phone, a wallet – some vestige of the coders that had shared the room.
One of the phones close to the top buzzed again, the clear plastic allowing her to see a dozen unread notifications. Whoever the phone had belonged to – and whether or not they were alive – they were being missed. Whoever it belonged to, someone had noticed their disappearance.
The more she listened, the more buzzes she could hear.
So many families missing someone. So many friend groups that were going to need to recruit a replacement.
If her phone was still in her room, the most it was going to have was a discount voucher for pizza.
She turned, walked into the door, grabbed it, pushed it out of the way and headed for her room.
The room was tidy – the bed made, her shoulder bag was on the desk, the kettle was full, everything in its place. She grabbed her bag, sat on the bed, and found her phone – its desperately low battery a sign that she was a bad caretaker.
Require: full battery.
The phone screen blinked, and the battery indicator changed to one hundred per cent.
Almost absently, she required a cable, connected her old and new phones, and started to transfer the data.
She laid the phone aside, adjusted herself so that she was sitting cross-legged, and stared around the room.
‘Think,’ she mumbled. ‘You can’t just sit on your ass.’
Inside voice, Spyder.
Frankie was back at the Agency, her shoulder bag and phone were beside her, that just left her clothes and overnight bag.
She stood, walked to the wardrobe, stood on tiptoes, then pulled her vandalised Louis Vuitton bag down. She’d need to take a permanent marker to another one of the LV logos, to mark another trip that the bag had made, something she could do once she got home.
Although maybe for the next sometime – days, weeks, some amount of time – “home” meant the Agency. They’d given her a room, but there had been no discussion about how regularly she was supposed to stay there – if she was expected to move in full time, stay there on some kind of rotating shift, or if there was some more casual arrangement.
She liked her apartment – even though it had been a case of being the only property willing to take her in. Landlords and rental agents had had a lot of trouble with her applications – but admittedly, her situation had been strange.
She’d been straight out of school, had no history of paying rent – or any bills for that matter; had been offering a bond deposit equivalent to nearly a year’s rent…all while looking at the cheapest places available.
A scrawny teenager with a posh accent, trying to bribe acceptance with a five-figure deposit, while begging to rent places that had weird stains on the walls. It had seemed way too suspicious for most.
And so she’d been left dragging her feet back to her five-star hotel each night, eating room service while staring at her bank account, crying because she had no idea how to handle life.
The “please fuck off forever” payment had been arranged as a one-time thing from her family. Enough to start a life, to…set her up in a way that meant they’d never have to deal with her again. But once it was gone, it was gone, so that had meant a radical readjustment in…every aspect of her life.
Between sessions of staring at the wall, overwhelmed by having to act like an adult, she’d tried to do research, tried to prepare herself for the real world. Hours and hours of staring at websites on moving out of home had given a lot of useless platitudes, and conflicting information, which had led to even more stress. Above all noise though, one truth had floated to the top: it was universally agreed that rent was everyone’s biggest expense, and biggest pain in the arse.
So scraping the bottom of the barrel was the sensible thing to do. Her room had school had been small – a desk and a bed, her suite at the family estate had barely been bigger, so she knew she didn’t need much space.
But rejection after rejection had left her spiralling, until she’d applied for an apartment not listed online, one advertised by a crappy piece of cardboard in a window.
One inspection, one handshake and a few forms later, she’d had a home.
It had been her space. The first space that was really hers, and not just some space that her family had deigned to give her.
And now for the first time, there was a reason to wonder if she should give it up.
Both logic and emotion told her no. The logic was two-pronged – first, it was unlikely that the gig with the Agency was going to last for long. She would – definitely would – do something to screw it up, and then this dream would be over. Or – if by some ritual of science and dark magic, it somehow turned into a long-term thing, then she could just keep her apartment as somewhere to house her stuff, or to retreat to when the world was too much.
And if she was at the Agency, then she could require food and keep her-
She stared at her hand and pressed her thumb to her forefinger.
Require: twenty bucks.
There was a tickle against her skin as the orange twenty dollar note appeared between her pinched fingers.
‘Oh, there is no way that is legal.’
She stuffed the twenty into her pocket, lifted the Louis from the floor, and threw it onto the bed. She required a fistful of cash, and stuffed it into her makeup bag, before burying the small bag of mostly expired products back into its usual deep corner of the overnight bag.
The “fuck off forever” money had been at once her saviour and her albatross. It had given her the freedom to escape – putting half a world between her crazy and the rest of her family, but it had, in its own way, also been a ticking clock. Even with the majority squirrelled away in decent savings accounts, and a nice chunk invested, it was only ever going to last so long.
Rent cost money, food cost money, and every container of takeaway Chinese, or upgrade for one of her computers brought that inevitable point closer and closer.
It was the reason she’d taken on random pieces of coding work – like the one that had led her to Dorian, to this room, and to being so close to dying that-
‘Oh, please, god no.’
The room looked fine. The room really looked fine. But-
But there’d been no action in this room. No puking, no gunfire. Anyone doing a clean wouldn’t have had reason to do anything more than the obviously visible.
She opened the wardrobe – the few things she’d hung up were still there, off to one side.
And on the other side was a dirty stain, where she’d pressed her bloodied head to the inside wall of the wardrobe. Where she’d ground pieces of someone’s brain into the wood grain. Where she’d waited to die. Where she’d listened to people dying, and been helpless to do anything about it. People who’d mattered. People who had families and friends buzzing phones that were forever going to go unanswered.
She wiped tears from her eyes, then reached out and touched the stain. Tacky, nearly-dry blood mixed with the remains of the tears on her fingers and coated her fingertips.
She backed away quickly, barely making to the bed before she collapsed.
She stared at the blood on her fingers, too many thoughts and no thoughts at all clashing in her brain. Echoes and silence and the crescendo of every noise in the universe.
She hung her head, stared at her shoes, and wished she could turn into stone.
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