Updated: May 24
Dodge hit the sidewalk, shielded his eyes against the sunlight, then headed south until he hit Queen and cut toward Len’s. He spent most of his time looking behind him, but didn’t notice any signs of pursuit.
He arrived a half hour later, and while it was hard to tell in the intense sunlight, the sign outside Len’s was definitely lit. That was the signal. Len had figured a way out of this.
Stomach twisted with nerves, Dodge sprinted across the road and entered through the side door. The place was deserted. If this were a normal bar, being this early in the morning, the empty chairs wouldn’t have been strange at all. Here, however, there were almost always one or two regulars sipping on something—usually the dregs of their bitter lives—but at the very least the bot should have been tidying up or polishing glasses with a pink cloth. Maybe Len had it charging somewhere.
Either way, it was strange. And right now, with everything that had happened, even the slightest oddity was disconcerting.
It had only been a few hours since the catastrophe at the Needle, but he already knew his life would never again flow in the semblance of normality he had managed to etch out for himself. Today the bot and the rest of the regulars weren’t here, tomorrow he might be living on a coffee plantation in Bolivia—he had no idea what to expect.
He picked his way around the scattered chairs, as though expecting someone to jump out at him from under a table, and crept up the stairs. Nothing moved. The hallway was empty and Len’s door was closed. That definitely meant everything was probably fine. The security system Len had installed in his office was cracker-proof. No one could get by it.
But that’s what Len had said about Dodge’s security.
He reached Len’s door but nothing else happened. The cameras didn’t recognize him and buzz him in. Hand trembling, he reached out and turned the handle. The door swung open.
That was not a good sign. Len’s door was never unlocked.
He eased his head into the dark office, half expecting to be hit in the face by a tranq dart, and let out a loud breath when he wasn’t. The semi-opaque windows blocked most of the sunlight, washed the bright spring day into sepia, as though offering a glimpse into the past.
“Len?” Dodge called, squinting into the gloom.
He might still be sleeping, but something in his gut was screaming at him to run. This wasn’t normal.
Ignoring his every self-preservation instinct, Dodge tip-toed across the room towards Len’s desk, toppling over a stack of mini discs imported half a century ago from Hong Kong. He gasped as the black plastic cases clattered on the bare wooden floor. The noise echoed in the silence.
After a long moment, Dodge resumed crossing the floor, took three more steps and then halted, amazed. A buffet was spread across Len’s desk: fried chicken, french fries, baked potatoes, ribs, wings, a bucket of coleslaw and a six pack. Even with everything that had happened in the past half-day, this was the strangest yet. Dodge had known Len for five years, and in all that time had never seen him eat. Not even so much as a cookie. Not a breath mint. Not once.
Dodge used to wonder how Len managed to stay so large. One time, when they were both far too drunk, Len had admitted he had tried everything medically possible to lose weight. Lasers. Hypnosis. Surgery. Even the radical cholera diet. Perhaps it was these late-night fast food binges that prevented the pounds from melting off.
But if the food was here and Len wasn’t …
Dodge wavered in place, transfixed by the spread. He could see, in hyper-detail, the rough texture of the paper towel soaking in the congealed auburn-tinged chicken grease; could make out the fractal patterns in the tinfoil wrapping the baked potatoes; watched as a minute drop of condensation ran down the side of a beer can, growing as it descended, before disappearing into the watery ring on the desk.
Dread radiated from the pit of his tightening stomach. Something bad had happened. He rushed around the desk. The smell of grease saturated the air, making it difficult to breathe.
Len was slumped on the floor, his legs stretched out, his back leaning against the loveseat, with his sagging head resting on his massive chest. Three small circles, arranged in a perfect triangle, had been punched into his sternum, directly over his heart. A line of blood ran from each. Bullet holes.
Dodge sank to his knees and brushed aside the oily orange curls. Len’s face was a garish shade of blue. Eyes bugged from their sockets and his swollen tongue protruded from thick lips.
The room blurred as tears welled in his eyes. Len was dead, and it was his fault.
Just like Nick.
Fear and helplessness crashed over him with the force of a tsunami. The room dissolved, he went under—
Fighting against the unbearable urge to inhale.
Flashes of dark and light as he tumbles underwater.
Something strikes his feet, and he kicks against it. Towards the light. Clawing his hands through water.
And then the sun. Spray on his face.
—and fell, landing on his ass, his legs dissolved from beneath him.
No, not now.
A flashback. A fucking flashback. As if he wasn’t under enough stress. He hadn’t had one in years, not since those terrible months just after the funeral, when his parents were fighting and nothing could convince him the looks they gave him meant anything other than they blamed him for their other son’s death.
He’d fallen apart, and nothing had helped. Not his dad berating him to suck it up or the cognitive behavior therapy or eye movement desensitization or any of the cavalcade of medications. It had taken the then experimental tryptoxetine and obsessing with schoolwork to quiet the raging anxiety. To snuff out the guilt.
Now, deprived of his chemical protection, those repressed memories were free to torment him again. Len’s stiffening corpse was the final key to their release.
And the years spent locked away had made them angry.
Dodge turned his head and blinked his eyes clear. He had to concentrate on the future, or at least the present. He pulled the gun from his waistband and pressed the power switch.
He needed a plan. The problem was, that had been Len’s job. He always gathered the information and formulated the to-do lists. Dodge simply followed instructions. But he had no information, and without Len, no spook-like way to get any. How was he supposed to devise a way out of this when he didn’t even know what the hell was going on?
Dodge rose, still weak. He had no idea what to do. This was too damned confusing, too convoluted. Who would have killed Len? Not the Paradise Mind, they weren’t this brutal. Killing was beneath them.
Who else then? Entropy? The cops? There were too many people with too many interests and motivations. Where would he even start?
And then it came to him: he wouldn’t.
He needed to get away, out of the city. Head north and lay low for a few days. Or years. He had spent his life running, he was good at it. He’d find some way to survive.
Yeah, that would be best.
Dodge raced back to the door, yanked on the handle, pulled it open and almost barreled over a woman poised to knock. Startled, Dodge let out a yelp and jumped back, his hands rising to protect his face. The gun hit the ground with a heavy thump.
The woman stood unfazed.
“Mr. Dodgson?” She wore a slim, deep-burgundy suit. Her chestnut hair was pulled back into a ponytail, accentuating sharp features, thick brows, and dark eyes. Like a wicked stepmother with the pale skin of a teenager.
She was looking for him. Caught before he could even get out of the room.
Hopefully he’d get a cell to himself. He didn’t think he’d be able to use a toilet if someone else was in there with him.
Dodge lowered his arms, defeated, too exhausted to fight anymore.
She motioned toward the gun. “You should pick that up. If this is the way you defend yourself, you’re very lucky I found you before anyone else did.”
Dodge understood the words individually, but not the sentence as a whole. “You’re … you’re not going to arrest me?”
“You’ve got more to worry about than the authorities.” Her voice had a slight accent, her “R’s” rolling in the back of her throat.
“What,” Dodge muttered as he bent and retrieved the gun unchallenged, “could be worse?”
“How about an explosive tip into the cranium?”
She made a good point.
“The Paradise Mind want me alive,” Dodge said, trying to recover from yelping in front of a strange woman. She hadn’t so much as twitched when Dodge opened the door, waving a gun at her. His cheeks burned. Another second and he’d be drenched in sweat.
“The Paradise Mind?” She grinned. “My yes, they are dangerous, aren’t they? Self-help can be a deadly business.”
Dodge bit his lip.
“The Paradise Mind is the least of your worries, Mr. Dodgson.” The woman pushed past him and strode into the apartment, scanning the room as she spoke. “They’re Sunday school teachers with Hollywood aspirations. I’m talking about the Burning Spear.” She stopped and fixed her gaze on him. “Entropy has engaged them to track you down, retrieve what you stole, and kill you.”
Right, the fabled Burning Spear were after him. He read the conspiracy feeds, he knew the wild stories about a military anti-terrorism unit turned mercenary, responsible for assassinations and political espionage. As the rumors went, the Burning Spear had sci-fi caliber weaponry and technology, stuff that made regular military equipment look like hand-hewn flint tools. It was all too absurd to be true. Or it would have been, if Len hadn’t been dead on the other side of the room.
“The Burning Spear are just a link legend—”
She paused by Len’s body and looked back at him, eyebrow raised, like he had just asked her what a car was.
“We don’t have time for a history lesson, but I assure you, the Burning Spear are very real, and very, very dangerous. If you want to remain among the living, we need to leave. Immediately. If I was able to track you down so easily, I’m amazed you’re not dead already.” She looked down at Len and then back up at him. “They’ve been here already.”
“But Len said his security was impenetrable.”
She glanced down at his dead friend. “Nothing’s impenetrable. Now are you coming?”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“You’re wasting time, Mr. Dodgson. I came here to help you, but I’m not about to get myself killed in the process.”
“How do I know you weren’t the one who killed Len?”
She cocked her head. “Do I really look like an assassin? He’s three times my size.” The woman let out an impatient sigh. “My name is Blair. I used to be a brand manager at Entropy.”
“Right, Entropy. Sure.” But how had she found him here then?
The woman walked over to Dodge, stuck her hand into her jacket, came out with a translucent card and handed it to him. Apart from a tiny gold chip storing her contact information, the card possessed only six neat black words:
A. Blair, Brand Management. Entropy Expanse.
“You could have one of these made anywhere.” Dodge barely glanced at the card before shoving it into his pocket.
“Yes, I suppose I could. But could I have one of these made anywhere…?”
Blair stepped back through the doorway, reached out and pulled someone towards her. The slight figure stumbled through the door obediently, like a well-beaten dog. He was dressed in an ordinary hooded black rain jacket over hospital scrubs, head downcast. His straight, shoulder-length hair obscured his features.
Blair poked him in the back. “Straighten up.”
The man lifted his head and brushed the ebony hair from his pallid face. It was a face Dodge would have recognized anywhere. A face eighty percent of the planet knew. A face with deliberate cheekbones, narrow, vaguely Asian eyes, and skin as smooth and clean as newly printed money. A face he’d studied for months before finally finding it dead in the Needle.
The figure extended his hand, took a step forward, tripped over his own feet and landed in a heap.
It was Klaxon Overdrive.
He was alive.