Dodge snapped awake, shivering. Frigid water drizzled down over him in needles.
Jesus, he was cold.
He leaned up and pressed the shower off, and as he scrambled for his towels, he heard a deep voice, muffled through the sheer bathroom wall. He levered himself out of the tub with raisined hands and sat on the porcelain edge as feeling returned to his legs.
Another voice. Joshua maybe? Then the first again.
Someone else was in the room.
Finally able to stand, Dodge grabbed the clean pants and yanked them over his damp legs. Maybe it was the television. Or Joshua had become unhinged again and Blair was choking him out. Or maybe the clerk had come to the door. He didn’t even know how long he’d been asleep. Long enough to run the hot water dry.
Dodge stepped to the door. The first voice sounded again, its tone gentle, unhurried.
He knew that voice.
How had they found him? He braced himself against the bathroom door, palms flat on the mirror, staring back at his sunken eyes. He was trapped.
“Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill called from the room, his voice projecting clearly through the wall. “If you are through with your ablutions, we would enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
Dodge opened the door and slunk out of the bathroom, hands chest high.
“Lovely to see you again, as always.” Mr. Hill said. “I do hope this is a convenient time to call.”
“Not really,” Dodge said. “I was in the bathroom.”
Blair was crumbled at the foot of her bed and Mr. Hill stood over her, taser in hand. Her small gun lay near her on the floor. Mr. Francis glowered from the doorway with his left-eye bandaged. He was touching his face, feeling for blood. A bullet had splintered the wood of the doorjamb next to his head. Blair must have just missed.
Joshua was watching everything from the bed, didn’t seem concerned in the slightest.
Mr. Hill glanced down at Blair. “I regret your associate and I were improperly introduced. I was forced to incapacitate her before we could become formally acquainted. She is quite unlike the normal company you keep, Mr. Dodgson.” He hiked his well-creased pant legs and squatted beside her. “Your reflexes are superb, my dear. I imagine, had we employed a more violent entrance, you would have had the better of us. It goes to show that, as it is written, ‘Vehemence is axiomatic of the Non-Accompli.’
“And therefore doomed to failure,” Mr. Francis finished with a satisfied sneer. Though his point would be better made if he didn’t seem to be enjoying this quite so much.
“Have you ever considered studying with us at the Paradise Mind?” Mr. Hill said as he bent and picked up Blair’s gun, sliding the weapon into his pocket. “I shall send you an information burst at my earliest opportunity.”
He brushed an invisible speck of dust from his lapel and pointed the taser at Dodge. “Now that we are all familiar, Mr. Dodgson, I must admit, I was disheartened by your behavior back at your apartment,” he said, frowning. “I expected a man of science, such as yourself, to act in a more respectable manner. My adept was treated very poorly by your less-than-reputable acquaintance.”
That explained Francis’s bandaged eye. He must have said something Migas didn’t appreciate.
“I stopped being a ‘man of science’ the first time I had a brick thrown at me on the street. Science deserted me.”
“Apology accepted, Mr. Dodgson,” Mr. Hill said, waving the matter away with a roll of his wrist. “’The transgressions of yesterday are memory, let us look instead to the future.’” Mr. Hill stepped over the still-twitching Blair and rested his hand on Klaxon’s shoulder. “How wonderful to find you here, Mr. Overdrive.”
“Get your …” Blair slurred, then lurched to her knees and dragged herself towards Mr. Hill.
“Miss, please, calm yourself,” Mr. Hill said softly, with what seemed to be genuine concern. “It would upset me to see you permanently debilitated.”
She continued to elbow herself across the mangy carpet, inch by hard-fought inch, eyes raging.
Mr. Hill looked at Dodge. “Mr. Dodgson, if you can say anything to dissuade your companion from her current course of action, I would recommend it.”
“Blair, stop,” Dodge said as evenly as he could. He still hadn’t moved from the bathroom door, was still holding his shirt and shoes. “This won’t help.”
Blair continued forward, hauling her useless legs behind her. She seemed to be gaining strength, another few seconds and she’d be close enough to grab Hill’s leg. He’d stun her well before then.
Mr. Hill glared at Dodge, as though Blair’s reaction was his fault. “Please forgive me, Miss Blair.” Twin green beams fluoresced from the neuralizer. Blair jerked backwards into the end table, landing hard on her side. Eyes open but unfocused, she rasped through her slack mouth. Joshua flinched as Blair hit the ground. His first reaction to anything.
Mr. Hill shook his head and sighed. “I do abhor violence. The Paradise Mind teaches that violence is a crutch for the unenlightened,” Mr. Hill said to Dodge. “But there are occasions when there is little other recourse, and one must fight unto death to preserve the truth.”
“The Cerebrate may be forced, by necessity, to act in Manifest with the written Pleophery,’” Francis proclaimed, but Dodge saw right through his piety.
Francis believed he had a duty to go to war with those who had wronged them. Those were the teachings, and who was he to argue with the book? That he enjoyed it was just a perk of the job. A bully with a permission slip.
“Another fine Discernation, Adept. You are, of course, correct. But still, it pains me act in such a manner,” Mr. Hill said. “Now, Mr. Dodgson. Back to the matter at hand. In lieu of the merchandise you had been contracted to deliver, we shall take Mr. Overdrive himself into custody. I am sure you will agree it is a fair exchange.”
Dodge couldn’t just let them take him.
“Actually, I—” Dodge started.
“Just as I thought,” Mr. Hill finished, then extended his hand. “Come along, Mr. Overdrive.”
He eased toward Joshua, a trained handler reaching to grab a frightened snake. Once he was close enough and Joshua hadn’t struck, he gently grasped his arm and led him off the bed
Joshua rose willingly. “Can anyone else hear music?” he asked, blinking. “Am I on soon?”
Dodge couldn’t just stand there and let them take Joshua away.
“Is he injured,” Mr. Hill asked Dodge, his eyes creased with concern.
“No. Yes. He hit his head.”
“Then with us is the best place he could be, the head is our domain. He will receive the utmost of care at the Campus. Someone will be along for you shortly.”
Dodge needed to do something, but didn’t know what. He waited for a flush of panic or inspiration. Neither came.
“Wait—” Dodge called, but had nothing to follow it up with.
Mr. Hill stopped at the door. “Mr. Dodgson, as enjoyable as your company has been, I am afraid I have a pressing engagement in which your presence is not required. We shall have time enough together in the near future, I assure you. I believe you will be surprised by how effective the Paradise Mind will be at quelling your self-destructive impulses. You would make a formidable cerebrate, I see it in you.”
Dodge had already thought hard and long on submitting himself to the Paradise Mind’s call. His head was all over the place, maybe a rigid self-help system was just what he needed. Follow the rules and the pain would go away. It seemed simple enough on the surface, but even he wasn’t that much of an asshole.
“Sure, let’s talk about it,” Dodge lied as he took another step forward. He wasn’t sure what he was about to do, but he was about to do something—
—then the taser yanked his legs out from under him. The beam hit him in the chest and he fell to the carpet in a haze of white, landing on his chin. Sparks whirled across his blurred vision. When the feeling returned to his face, it was going to hurt.
“Goodbye, Mr. Dodgson. Miss Blair.” Mr. Hill’s voice came to Dodge’s ears as if through a swarm of bees, tinny and distorted. “It has been a pleasure. My associate shall remain here to watch over your comfort until the transport team arrives.”
Dodge urged his body to move. To do something. To get up.
Joshua didn’t look back as Mr. Hill led him away.
“I shall see you back at the Campus,” Mr. Hill said, lightly clasping Mr. Francis on the shoulder as he walked past. “Take the neuraliser. I do hope our new friends will accept the invitation and come peacefully.” He handed the taser to the smaller man, who accepted it with reverence.
“I shall act in accordance with the Pleophery,” Mr. Francis said.
“You do your mother proud,” Mr. Hill responded and nudged Joshua out the door and closed it behind them.
Pain oozed into Dodge’s head, collecting in the lower half of his face. Blair managed to roll to her stomach, but didn’t rise.
“Try it,” Mr. Francis said to Blair, his voice suddenly much coarser. “And you’ll get blasted again.”
“Fuck … you,” Blair said, letting her anger burn.
“Keep it up and you just might get to,” Mr. Francis cooed. Hill hadn’t been gone five seconds and he’d already quit with the quotations.
The pink triangle of his tongue flickered over his lips as he appraised Blair, lying helpless on the floor.
Dodge twisted to the side, trying to find a way to get his legs under him.
“And you,” Francis said, turning his attention to Dodge. He reached up and caressed his bandaged eye. “I owe you.”
He kicked Dodge, hard with his pointed shoe. Dodge would have curled into a ball from the pain if he could have felt it. Or was able to curl.
“Ssst …” Words wouldn’t form.
“You want me to stop, you stuttering bastard?” Mr. Francis said and kicked him again. This time the blow almost registered. In anticipation of future pain, silver tendrils of distant sensation snaked out from the impact point to barely reach his brain. Blair still hadn’t moved from her stomach.
“Do you know how much this hurts?” Mr. Francis asked, once again pointing to his eye.
“That pharmo fuck.” Mr. Francis lashed out again. Dodge felt this kick and groaned, nerves finally cooperative enough to allow him to roll up and press his bare back against the foot of the bed. “Won’t be selling drugs.” Pain detonated in Dodge’s stomach as Mr. Francis’s foot struck again. Something snapped in his chest. Probably a rib. He was going to die. “To no more street scum.”
Dodge watched Mr. Francis’s highly-polished shoe pull back, its toe aimed squarely for his head. He wanted to close his eyes but didn’t, because Blair, now on her knees, caught Mr. Francis’s raised foot before he could strike.
Mr. Francis gaped, startled, and tried to swing the taser back at her, but she charged to her feet, her lips pulled into a snarl, and knocked Mr. Francis off-balance. He stumbled and came straight down on Dodge.
The impact pressed Dodge’s face the carpet, then Blair heaved herself onto Mr. Francis’s back, and their combined weight crushed the air from his lungs. He tried to suck in a breath, but couldn’t.
He couldn’t breathe.
The pain was coming fast, but anxiety was right on its heels. He was surprised it had left him alone this long.
Dodge tried to move, to find leverage to crawl free, but he barely had the strength to moan. He opened his eyes, desperate for something to help him. All he could see was the dark “V” of Blair’s crotch, and Mr. Francis’s right arm holding the taser, which was pinned to the ground at an unnatural angle. They shifted and Dodge gasped in a breath, but then Mr. Francis’s knee was digging into Dodge’s chest.
He heard Mr. Francis scream and thrash violently. Then, with a crunching snap and a wet gurgle, the squirming stopped.
Blair rolled off, taking the lifeless body with her.
Dodge wheezed, trying to use the bed to pull himself upright. The tingling panic had already receded, or more likely was shouted down by the pain wracking his entire body. He got a foot under himself, felt something shift in his chest and sunk to the floor, trying not to cry. Agony surrounded him in a pink cloud.
“Peemer fuck,” Blair spat, finally regaining her unsteady feet.
“My …” Dodge tried to inhale. It felt like he had been shot. Don’t scream. “My chest.”
“I’m going after Joshua.” Her knees buckled and she caught herself against the dresser. She was leaving?
He grit his teeth and forced a scorching breath. “How?” Dodge managed to say. “You can … hardly stand.”
Blair just shook her head, grabbed her car key and stumbled to the door. “Be ready to leave when I get back.”
She actually thought she could catch Mr. Hill.
She was already out of the room and a moment later the champagne car flew past the open door, heading across the parking lot toward Lakeshore.
“Shit,” Dodge groaned. The effects of the taser were brief, but even if she did manage to catch Joshua, she was outnumbered. And unarmed. She wouldn’t be able to handle them alone.
He had to help her.
Probably the worst idea he’d ever had, but damned if he wasn’t doing it anyway.