Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

David Wong: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits ISBN:1250097754 (Zoey Ashe-1)


For eight hours, Zoey’s pursuer had been staking out the trailer where the twenty-two-year-old lived with her mother, waiting for the most dramatic moment to make his appearance.

“Zoey, my name is Will Blackwater.

Listen to me, Zoey. A man is coming to abduct you. Right now. His car is one block behind you.” “Wait. What? Who is this again?” “I’m going to take control of your car. Don’t touch the wheel or the pedals, or do anything else to disengage the self-drive.

your father was killed. It happened last week.”

Will’s hologram replied, “Talk to me, not to her. We both want Zoey for the same reason, with the minor difference that I do not want to also eat her flesh on a live video feed.

Zoey, we you need to come to the city. Have you ever been to Tabula Rasa?” The actual spelling of the city’s name was Tabula Ra$a, with a dollar sign instead of an “S,” because that’s what happens when a bunch of rich douche bags build a brand-new city in the desert and reserve the right to name it themselves.

She pulled into traffic, not realizing that a tiny camera The Hyena kept on his dash had recorded her entire conversation, or that more than 1.5 million people were watching.

Zoey didn’t want to be paranoid, but there was something about the man in the loincloth made of charred doll heads that made her nervous.

Zoey glanced at Doll Head Man again, and thought she had caught him staring at her—it was hard to tell behind his bug-eye goggles. She watched as the man stuck a filterless cigarette between cracked lips. He then casually lifted his hand, touched the end of the cigarette with his finger, and lit it. With his finger.

two other passengers had craned their heads around to look at her. She knew she wasn’t just being paranoid now—

Wait—when had she told Jacob her name?

Zoey noticed a tiny pinprick of blue light at the corner of his glasses near the hinge, and said, “Oh, is that on? Were we live this whole time?”

The kids these days never left the house without a live feed running

The cumulative cloud of all of these millions of connected camera feeds was referred to as the Blink network, or just “Blink.”

He tapped his glasses and the little blue light blinked off. The light was mandated by law,

Zoey asked Jacob, “Do you like it here?” He laughed. “That’s a complicated question. All I know is that now I can’t tolerate living anywhere else.”

she noticed they were carrying machine guns. Zoey said, “Tell me those guys are cops.” Jacob leaned over to see out her window, casually pressing his body against hers, and said, “Private security. Those guys are probably Co-Op, you can tell by the trench coats.

Fort Drayton only had five places to eat, and one of them was a gas station. Tabula Ra$a’s train station alone had twice that many.

Do you know what’s the difference between you and me?” Exasperated, Zoey said, “I don’t know. What?” Doll Head Man smiled. “The difference,” he whispered, “is that I would never have let a stranger intimidate me into answering such a question.”

The man shushed him. “I am talking to her. There is a long, long line waiting to feed off this chubby little piglet. Please wait your turn.”

The man grinned. “They are souls. Each represents a soul I have taken. I am the Soul Collector. They will serve me in eternity.”

He smiled and said, “I agree with the blue-haired piglet completely. Call the police. Call Co-Op. Call the black vests. Call the LoB. Tell them all that the Soul Collector has Arthur Livingston’s daughter. If anyone tries to enter this train, or if she does not give me what I want, I will add her to my collection.”

“HELP ME! HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” Once more, they just stared. Up until that point in her life, Zoey had lived every moment with the unspoken assumption there was always somebody she could call if things went to hell.

At the door stood a striking, pale man in an overcoat and fedora.

Will Blackwater glanced around the train car as if assessing the situation, then calmly said, “First thing’s first—are you all right?”

Zoey was about to answer, when she realized Will was asking that of the Soul Collector, not her.

You’re involved because your father involved you, and now you’re a hunk of meat in a kennel. If you don’t do what I say, things will get bad in ways you cannot comprehend.”

The crowd backed off at the sight of him. No, that wasn’t right. They were backing away from Will.

Zoey spat half a flask of whiskey at him, the mist flying through the arc and igniting into a fireball. She had aimed at his face, but the ball of fire instead descended and engulfed his crotch.

Zoey froze. The feed up on the screen was now showing her, sitting on the park bench. Then it cut to another view, from behind.

From behind her came the glare of lights and the angry bee hum of four rotors—the drone was following

Zoey said, “So, I don’t understand. That building just fell over? Perfectly intact?” “Could have been way worse. If it’d fallen the other way, it’d have taken out the Rand Hotel, like dominoes.” A-Ron said, “Inspectors in this city are a joke. Everybody’s dirty, nobody’s taking time to do it right.”

You know the whole world’s lookin’ for you, right?”

The Blink network encompassed some 120 million cameras in the United States alone...If you had wired-up glasses, you could overlay your view with their feed—literally see the world through their eyes, blotting out your own reality completely.

“Events,” however, were the real star of the show.

the network had become a massive breeding ground for spontaneous reality shows that organically popped up within that worldwide nebula of camera feeds.

Zoey didn’t realize that for the last eighteen hours, she had been the star of a viral Blink Event that at the moment was being followed by more than twenty million people.

“it all started when that warehouse blew up last week. Right after that, this rumor floats around that Arthur Livingston had a vault, okay? But here’s the thing—nobody can find the key, because he hid it somewhere.

So an offer goes up, okay, a million for the key to the vault. It’s from Livingston’s own people, which is huge, because it confirms that the whole story is true and that they don’t got the key.

Then finally, this morning, pow, big plot twist, okay? The key ain’t in town. The key is in Colorado. With the daughter that nobody knew Arthur had.”

Livingston’s vault is one of a kind—it has a scan that goes right into your skull. Reads your brain neurons and synapses, all that. And Livingston set his vault so it would open for one person and one person only. You.”

And then it gets really good. This other contract goes up, outbidding Livingston’s people, okay? Three million. Some other crime family, they want the key for themselves.

“Make that five,” said Cesar. “Look.” He brought up a list and at the top, just above the one million–dollar offer from Livingston Enterprises, was an updated offer of five million dollars. The name next to the bid was … “Who’s ‘Molech’?” Zoey asked. The response was a series of nervous glances. “Let’s put it this way,” said Rico. “Even if the people in this city didn’t need that cash, they’d turn you in just to get on his good side.

His name is Rico Hierra. I want him to get the bounty.” “Done.”

I’m thinkin’ you misconstrued what occurred on the train. Will is the best negotiator I’ve ever known, and you got to understand that to have any chance, he needed to get on the scumbag’s side.”

“So this vault has, what? All his money in it?” “Rich people don’t actually have big physical piles of cash they keep around.

What’s in the vault are … other assets. That’s probably all I should say.”

Mostly he just owned land. Got in on the ground floor of Tabula Rasa,

“System don’t care how you feel about it. It is what it is.

“This house is a hundred years old, but has only been sitting on this plot of land for five. It was originally on the north shore of Long Island, the Gold Coast. Arthur had it shipped across the country and reassembled here, brick by brick.”

Andre said, “I’m gonna apologize right now, your daddy had a thing for holograms. He knew they were tacky, but said they made him feel like he was living in the future.”

Up until that night, Zoey had no experience being either famous or infamous, and as such, she was unfamiliar with the feeling of meeting a group of people who didn’t know her and yet hated her.

The moment Andre stepped through the door, soft music faded in—a wokka-wokka guitar that Zoey somehow recognized as the theme from Shaft. Like it was Andre’s personal theme song.

“And once I open the vault, it’s all over, right? All the contracts and bounties and stuff disappear? I’m just a regular person again?” There was a pause—ever so slight—from Will before he said, “Absolutely.” He was lying.

“In the fall my mom made a doctor’s appointment for me, she said it was something they had to do for the life insurance. But it was weird, they put me in something like an MRI machine and I was in there for a solid hour... Traces of confusion and alarm. This was a bombshell, apparently. Zoey tried to think of why, then it occurred to her that this meant she wasn’t here due to some drunken last-minute decision or a mix up with the vault’s programming. Her father had planned all of this months in advance—in other words, he had known he was going to die. Or at least, he was making preparations for the eventuality. And no one in this room had known.

For all I know, you’re the ones who had him killed.”

As long as it stays closed and you want what’s inside, I’m safe. But the moment it opens, the value of my life drops to zero.

There was something very off about the sound this place made, and Zoey eventually figured out that the weird sound was what other people knew as “peaceful silence.”

Sure enough, Will Blackwater had lied. The five-million-dollar contract this “Molech” guy had put out on her, it turned out, was not just about abducting her so he could stick her into the keyhole of Arthur Livingston’s vault. No, it was also about getting revenge for Doll Head guy. He had been an employee of Molech’s, and he was now dead.

A gravelly voice said, “Arthur Livingston’s death has left behind a power vacuum, with four members of his ruthless inner circle vying for control. In the criminal underworld, they are known as The Suits.

Lying on the table was a severed human hand.

And all at once, Zoey was sure she would never see the sky again.


She took a deep breath, turned, and pointed the gun at Will’s face. She saw something strange in Will’s eyes. Not fear—he looked like he had been on this end of a gun before. Not anger, either—the frustration that flared up earlier was gone. What she saw in his eyes, above the quivering sights of the gun, was a mind that was reconsidering her. Or maybe just considering her for the first time.

It was empty. Or at least, it was empty of treasure—the metal room was perfectly vacant save for a single, silver coin lying on the concrete floor, mockingly. Just behind the coin, was a man. In his late fifties, in a pinstripe suit with an elaborate mustache, standing placidly in a vault that had been locked airtight for days. It took a moment for Zoey to recognize that it was, in fact, her biological father, Arthur Livingston.

as you can see, this vault contains but a single coin, one which cannot even be redeemed as legal tender, whose significance will be apparent only to those closest to

“But I was only angry because deep down, I knew you were right. In your anger, I saw myself as I truly was when I wasn’t surrounded by ass-kissers and yes-men.... there was you, standing there among the weeds and dog turds and rusting cars, throwing my gift back in my face, because you wouldn’t sell out. I saw all of the fire that made me crazy for your mother all those years ago, and that has made me unable to forget her since. All of the backbone that I like to pretend I have.

“So, in these tumultuous final days, I saw the writing on the wall and I thought, who can I trust?

The entirety of the property owned by me at my death, real and personal and wherever situate, I devise and bequeath to my only daughter, Zoey Marceline Ashe,

“If you examine the floor of the vault you should find but one object—my lucky coin. A rare, one-sided 1911 Chinese Silver Dragon, the roaring dragon on one side, the other completely blank due to a minting error. I won this coin in a poker game when I was sixteen, from a man who told me it was worth a hundred thousand dollars. It turned out to be a worthless counterfeit. I have always kept it, as a reminder.

If anyone gets any bright ideas and tries to bring bodily harm to Ms. Ashe in hopes of acquiring some or all of my estate, they should be aware of the following. In the event of her demise, all assets will be liquidated and donated to the Church of Mormon, minus thirty million dollars, which will immediately be placed as a bounty on the head of whoever brought said harm to Ms. Ashe.

She looked at Kowalski and said, “You’re fired.”

Everybody is fired.

found a pizza place that delivered late at night.

Hyena standing in the doorway of her bedroom, blocking her way

Zoey crossed her arms. “What?” “No. I’m not doing this. I’m not running and screaming, I’m not letting you put on a slasher-movie chase for your creeper fans on Blink,

“No. You don’t get to monologue for your audience. You’re not cool, you’re not menacing.” “I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what—” “LA LA LA LA LA NOBODY CAN HEAR YOU! LA LA LA!” “Shut up!”

My name is Armando Ruiz, and if you will pardon my lack of modesty, I am the finest bodyguard in Tabula Rasa. If

“As your bodyguard, my first instruction will be for you to not eat any food delivered to you by a serial killer.”

Criminal’ is something of a nebulous concept in this city, I’m afraid. But yes, your father dealt in many large-scale, cash-only transactions off the books and had … colorful associates.

“I assure you, this does not rank even in the top ten strangest weeks I’ve had during my time in Arthur’s employ.

Perhaps the lack of a family life was Arthur’s regret. But honestly, what does it matter? If you’re asking what you should do with your inheritance, that is up to you, Ms. Ashe. If you’re asking what Arthur Livingston would have wanted you to do with your inheritance, well, the man is dead. So who gives a shit?”

“My point is, I cannot tell you that your father was a good man. To those who went against him, I’m sure he was not. But even to his friends … it’s not that he didn’t want to be a good man. It’s that he didn’t really know how. So, he liked to impress people. To dazzle them. That was as close to good as he could get.”

“The house is programmed to play your personal theme music at random times, when you walk into a room, like you’re making an entrance. Arthur’s idea, obviously.”

“The point is, Livingston Enterprises, it’s a big ol’ machine, with thousands of moving parts. And those parts are people, and investments, and transactions bein’ made, day and night. And that machine is hummin’ along even as we’re sitting here havin’ breakfast. But at the moment, there ain’t nobody at the controls.

Arthur was a mentor to Will and I’m here to tell you that whether you keep him or fire him, Will will never allow any harm to come to you or the business.

Will wants a meeting. In a neutral location.

“This, Zoey, is a twenty-million-dollar car.”

“It’s a lot of money, Mom. In fact, I think he left me all of it.” Silence. Trucks were rumbling past outside, and they passed warning signs along the road depicting stick figures suffering various industrial accidents. Finally, Zoey’s mother said, “What a bastard.”

Zoey could see the aftermath of the explosion. It was a giant perfect circle of black—it looked like God had reached down and taken out a football field–sized hunk of earth with a huge ice cream scooper. Arthur Livingston had gone out in spectacular fashion. Almost as if he had planned it that way.

The ruined vehicle was, she could now see, part of a message that could only be viewed from the sky—the truck they were examining formed the lower part of a capital “L.” Scattered around the crater were the remains of probably a dozen other vehicles that had been torn apart and rearranged to form four letters: G O L D.

“Ah. That’s what this is about. You want a share of the money.” “I want to not get torn in half by one of Molech’s carnival freaks. Whatever our differences, I think you and I have that in common.

“I’m not a nice guy. But I am on your side. Don’t confuse the two. You hate me because I’m blunt and have no patience for wasted time or wasted words. Because I’m not nice. Well, a lot of nice people are nice because they’ve figured out it’s a great way to get things from other people. Some of the slimiest snakes I’ve run across have been nice. So let me tell you now, if you ever see me resort to being nice, run.”

Do you want to have to make the final call on this building? It’ll have to happen soon, the structure will become unsafe if it sits much longer. So what happens to the families if you give the demolition order? What happens if you do nothing but gravity does the demolition for you?”

“Oh, was that Sanzenbacher’s hand?” Will nodded and said, “Kowalski was able to get it from the coroner’s office after the autopsy. Not like they were going to convict anyway.” Zoey said, “Who?” Budd answered, “Brandon Sanzenbacher. The crazy fella with the doll heads who you dong-roasted to death. The Soul Collector.”

“He exploded, into little pieces,

“To me, looked like a transformer blew.

“The device he had inside him—the thing that was generating the electricity—it failed. Overloaded, shorted out, whatever. I’m going to speculate that if it had discharged properly, that you, Zoey, and everything within ten feet of you would have been charred to a crisp. I don’t know how much juice this guy had inside him, but…”

“See these white lines running down his fingers? Along the bone here? Those are wires, conductive graphene braids, to be exact.

The issue at the moment is that the device shouldn’t even be possible.”... It turns out some of the shady characters in this city now have … powers.”

“You couldn’t have known this, but in this part of the world it’s considered a grave insult to set a man’s pecker on fire.” Armando said, “You made him look weak, in front of the whole world. So. You tell me, Zoey. Do you think Molech can let that slide, even if you gave him everything?”

“It is not about fairness. It is about building a brand.”

reading between the lines, it’s pretty obvious that I’m dead no matter what I do.

Will said, “That’s a nice gesture, but what those people need isn’t pizza. They need real housing, and heat, and running water. And diapers, and doctors, and daycare. And job training. And those kids need to be in school.” Zoey nodded. “Right, right. Echo, are you writing all that down?” Echo asked, “Are you serious or are you being sarcastic? I honestly can’t tell.” “Dead serious.”

Zoey cracked a window, and heard dozens of people in the crowd shouting the same phrase, over and over: “Say hi to your mom.”

And then the nearest hotel came into view, and Zoey was looking at her mother’s boobs.

Down a short hallway … Zoey tried to breathe. “That’s my trailer.”

me? He says he’s going to be at Arthur’s memorial service tomorrow, and for you

“We calm down and figure it out. Together. Assuming we have our jobs back.” “Consider this your tryout period. Your interview involves finding Molech and crushing him like a grape.” “Then I suggest we adjourn to the conference room.”

“So just to be clear—we don’t even know who Molech is, right?”

“Well, we’ve been told the memorial service tomorrow is going to be crashed by a guy who controls an army of mentally ill people with wizard powers. That sounds pretty spectacular.”

“Wait, are we talking like I’m actually going to go to this thing?” Will, without breaking eye contact with Zoey, asked the room, “How hard would it be to get a Zoey lookalike?”

“So … is this just the type of thing you people do?” Will said, “You mean staging elaborate traps for psychopaths, just to see what happens? All so we can get a look at their strengths and weaknesses, at tremendous danger to everyone in the vicinity? Yes, actually. With some regularity.”

Jezza was her mother’s boyfriend at the time, a sleazy British guy whose hobby was “accidentally” walking in on Zoey every chance he got.

She was headed back toward the West Wing when she ran across a life-sized statue of Arthur Livingston,

Etched into the base of the statue were five words: There Is Always a Way. As she was reading it, a mechanism clicked and scraped and the statue slowly rotated away, revealing a staircase that went straight up. Zoey didn’t even realize the house had a third floor.

she found a master bedroom,

The room had been ransacked, though gently and respectfully. Arthur’s own people had surely done this, of course, in the frantic search for the “key” immediately after his death.

Zoey pushed the drawer closed and something just happened to catch her eye, in the split second when the shadows fell over the contents inside: a tiny, blue pinprick of light, at the corner of the reading glasses. Zoey opened the drawer again, studied the glasses, and then put them on.

a burst of code flew down the screen, appearing to her eyes to be scrolling down from the ceiling. Then the room disappeared, as Zoey’s vision went black. A line of white text appeared in front of her: “Welcome, Zoey.”

Suddenly Zoey was looking down at the city from above, through a filthy window. The camera was recording from inside a helicopter, judging by the thwupping noise that drowned out all other sound. A timestamp at the bottom showed it had been recorded more than fourteen months ago, the night of October 4 of the previous year.

my goal of getting you to invest fifty million dollars in my project.”

The chimp extended his right arm—or rather, the arm was extended for him, as if Singh was controlling the limb remotely.

When the camera was able to focus again, it found that the mannequin on the far right was now a handful of smoking chunks of black melted plastic. The chimp looked mildly confused.

“This is about the next step in human evolution, Mr. Livingston. You see, several years ago, something radical fell into the lap of your government. An eccentric Russian defector named Resnov appeared one day with a prototype device he called an exoquantum hypercapacitor, which you may recognize as a name that is made up of two nonsense words. He claimed the energy density of the device approached infinity.

Resnov was fifteen years old, and mildly autistic.

DARPA’s directive was to develop the power source and create new weapons systems around it. But Resnov had higher ambitions. He had no interest in building new weapons. He wanted to build new men. He steered his designs toward devices that could be grafted onto bone, woven through muscle....At that point you are no longer talking about a new weapon. You are talking about a new species. A dominant one.”

“Resnov’s design was highly unstable. We spent seven years trying to stabilize it until, finally, there was an incident in which one of the devices exploded, killing eleven people, including Resnov.

“I can fix Raiden. I know I can. The flaw is in the software that stabilizes the capacitor, I was working on a fix when the project was shut down. I was close,

“You have many bidders who have fifty million dollars on hand to throw at an illegal weapon project that may not even work?” “Yes.”

“And when I get it all working, what happens then?” “That’s my business. Who knows, maybe I want to implant all this stuff, put on a cape, and go fight crime.”

The date on this recording was about two months ago. The feed picked up inside a moving car, rolling through

The feed cut to black, then a split second later, Zoey thought the glasses were just glasses again—the view was of the bedroom, as seen from right where she was sitting. But there was still a date stamp hovering in the corner, marked as having been recorded ten days ago,

Arthur’s voice said, “I hope I’ve done this right. If I’m heading toward, well, what I think I’m heading to, then there’s a better than even chance this will be my last day. And that’s okay, because if I do this right, I’ll spend this last day saving the world. Granted, I’ll be saving it from something I myself unleashed, so you know, don’t build any monuments to me for it.” He let out a long breath and said, “All right, no speeches. Let’s just do it.” The view jumped inside

Arthur found Singh’s legs jutting out from behind a crate, then the view panned around again and found Singh’s torso sprawled behind a forklift across the room.

Zoey would forever have to live with the fact that this was her first impression of Molech: admiring his rippling back muscles, beach-tan biceps, and a perfect butt under worn jeans. And she was sure this was Molech, mainly because he had the letters M O L E C H tattooed across his back.

“Did Singh let you in here?” Molech used the mechanical hand to scratch his chin and said, “He didn’t, the ingrate. And we go way back, too! See, a while back I put in a bid for all his awesome toys, but some rich bastard outbid me!

“Not everybody on your team is as loyal as you think, Artie.

I serve the juice. We all do, even if we try to deny it.”

juice is a natural high,

The adrenaline, the dopamine, all that pumpin’ like fire through my veins and my brains and my balls.

He says, man evolved to have these juices that flow through your body to reward you for doin’ somethin’ good. All them hormones, the dopamine, the adrenaline—the true drugs. You get that high—the real high—when your body knows you did somethin’ to advance survival, not just yours but the species, man.

Well, I’ve decided I’m gonna go ahead and save the world.” Arthur gasped and tried to say, “Listen! Listen to me! It’s not too late—” Molech said, “Let’s hope not.” And then Molech struck again, and again, and again, each time with that horrible crunch of impact.

What do I do?” “Call Will.” “How do we know he’s not the traitor?” “We can’t ever know anything for sure, but I’d say he’s by far the least likely to betray Arthur and he definitely wouldn’t do it on Molech’s behalf. I don’t know Will but I know enough about him to say that with some confidence.”

Will thought for a moment and said, “Why were you so sure it wasn’t me?” “Armando. He said you had too much history with Arthur.” “Did he tell you the story? Of how we met?” “No.” “Good.” “So who is it?” “Nobody in the inner circle. Not Carlton, either.” “Are you sure? Maybe somebody else who worked for—” “No. I will stake my life on it. I’m not using that as a figure of speech. I’m telling you I am literally going to stake my life on it tomorrow.

A ten-foot-tall bronze statue of Arthur Livingston had been stolen from its perch in front of an art gallery (accepting a gaudy statue was apparently the cost of taking a large donation from the man) by a pair of muscular men with some kind of flying apparatus on their backs—neither of them were Molech, but there was no doubt who they worked for. The statue was hauled a few blocks away to the financial district, where there sat a life-size bronze statue of a bull. The two men spent the next hour using blasts of electricity to weld the Livingston statue to the bull, in a position that made it appear he was having interspecies relations

Finally, their work done, the men had stuck their arms in the air and zipped off into the sky, trailing tails of electric blue light. One second later, they both went spiraling off in different directions and crashed into nearby buildings. Zoey assumed that hadn’t been part of the plan.

“How many people are going to be there? At the memorial?” He shrugged. “Over the course of the night, maybe a hundred thousand? It’s open to the public, crowds will wash in and out of the park all night. And a Livingston Drop party has a way of spilling out across the city.” “A what party?” “It’s a city-wide festival Arthur would throw whenever he could invent a suitable excuse. It shuts down the whole downtown area, traffic is always a disaster.”

Budd said, “Real name is Chet Campbell—” Zoey said, “Oh, I was so close.” “Son of Rex Campbell. Arms dealer. I ain’t seen him since he was a boy, but it’s him.”

they tried to take him out. Chet couldn’t have been more than twelve at the time. He not only got away but stayed gone.

Andre said, “Zoey, this is Tre. My brother. He’s gonna fix you up. He does all our suits, Ling’s outfits, too.”

They were all up in Arthur’s hidden third-floor suite, standing in the massive “closet”

“It’s a scar, right?” “Well, duh. What kind? What does it look like?” “Like a big animal clawed you. You get in a fight with a bear?” “No. See how it’s perfectly round? Like the burner on an electric stovetop?”

One of my mom’s boyfriends, he held me down on the kitchen counter with a steak knife to my throat. Shoved me on the burners, leaned all his weight on me, and turned it on. Then we both laid there while it got hotter and hotter. Burned through my shirt, burned through my shoulder. There was actual smoke. Caught my hair on fire, too.

“When a billionaire makes a career scumbag disappear, no one goes to jail. A man like that, I could do him in the parking lot of the police station and they would send me a fruit basket at Christmas.”

“One, it’s not really a funeral, it’s a memorial service in the park. And two, girl, this is Arthur Livingston’s memorial service. You’ll be showing the least amount of boob there.

Zoey had literally once quit a job because it required her to wear a skirt and pantyhose every day. She always felt like her whole lower body was being slowly strangled, and the boobs-to-toe body-shaping garments Tre had her squeeze into were much, much worse.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but presentation is kind of our thing.

The traffic was the kind you’d expect to see five minutes before the utter breakdown of civilization.

“You see those firepots around the perimeter? Those are actually hiding backscatter scanners—unfortunately we can’t pat down everyone who comes to the party since it’s open to the public and crowds will be drifting in and out, but these will scan in real time for anything, uh, mechanical. We should know within seconds if something tries to slip in.”

We had a wax replica made, getting it done on such short notice only cost a mere thirty thousand dollars.

“You know how you get ice cream from Dairy Queen, and it’s always got that little curl at the top? What’s the first thing you do when they hand it to you?” “You bite it off.” “Right, you can’t resist it. Back when we were doing, uh, the job we used to do before this, the 'DQ' was the equivalent of that, something you knew the enemy would go right for, first thing. See how we got the speakers sitting right there? We’re trying to keep the crowds sparse around it, that’s why.”

Echo pressed a bright blue capsule into Zoey’s palm. “What’s that?” “Plaxodol. Antianxiety. Don’t tell anyone.” “Where’d you get it?” “My doctor, obviously. I have two other prescriptions in my purse if this one doesn’t work.”

They had these stupid holograms roaming randomly through the park, depicting a translucent Arthur Livingston doing ghost things—conversing with Gandhi, fistfighting Hitler, high-fiving Jesus.

A group of young Korean couples passed. They looked Zoey over, then gestured and laughed. Yeah, that was the other thing: it wasn’t until the party started that Zoey suddenly remembered that she was famous.

But worse than the gawkers were the people who knew about the assassination threat, and had come specifically to watch it play out. She could read it on their faces. They were the ones who didn’t laugh, but instead had the expression of someone who was watching a movie that was just getting good.

“No one likes their landlord. Do you like yours? But in this case, the landlord was also a flamboyant playboy who smoked cigars worth more than some of these people’s wardrobes. So on Blink, the narrative frames it as the spoiled rich daughter of a slumlord versus the shirtless alpha males looking to put her in her place. Remember, it’s a largely male audience.”

“Watch the crowd. As it passes Will, watch.” “What do you mean?” “Notice how no one comes within ten feet of him? “The people who are from Tabula Rasa know who he is. The rest get alerts in their glasses, the facial recognition flashing up a warning saying, ‘Do not make eye contact with this man.’”

A Chinese man with a shaved head and smiling eyes walked up in a black tunic, with a katana strapped to his back. Zoey barely had time to brace herself for a kung fu sword battle, when Armando glanced at him and nodded. “Zoey, this is Wu, my backup. I don’t believe you have met him yet, you’ve always been asleep when he has rotated in.”

The spotters in her ear were yelling for them to get out of the way. Out of the way of what?

The gun had spontaneously exploded in Armando’s hand.

And then, there were fingers around Zoey’s throat.

Will said, “The gold—you’re referring to the software that runs Raiden, correct? The hardware works. The software that manages it doesn’t.”

This defect, it’s common to every device, including the augmentations in your arms. You didn’t know that when you got the implants, did you?

Echo Ling, she built and managed all of Arthur’s software. She has been analyzing Singh’s schematics and code. Says she’ll have your stability issues corrected within one week. You’ll get your gold.”

But there’s one last thing that needs done to make it even. See, your girl here insulted me, right to my face. On top of killing two of my men. But it’s really the insult that I can’t abide. So as a reminder to her, I’m gonna break her arm off at the elbow.

She was surprised to find that her arm was still attached to her body. And in fact, Molech’s two hands were still clasped to it. But Molech was not attached to his hands. He was standing ten feet away, staring at the neat, bloody stumps where his hands used to be. Standing in between Molech and Zoey was Armando, holding a bloody, smoking katana and looking as startled as anyone.

But Armando was staring at the smoldering katana, which had two ragged, charred notches in the blade, like a demon had been gnawing on it.

Zoey had time to hear Andre say, “I really am sorry about this, guys.”

And then a strong hand shoved her off the roof, and she was falling down, and down and down, through the frigid night air.

Grateful people were fed, clothed, and healed while Arthur’s people wove through the camps, secretly offering the most attractive of the female refugees safe passage to the United States, complete with very authentic-looking documents.

he tracked down a friend in Nagasaki, Japan, who ran an underwater tourism business on the island of Tsushima, and asked him if he could buy his submarine. Within a week he was back in business,

on his last ever trip to North Korea,

There are three Americans being held in Kaesong. We need to get them out.”

The man handed Arthur a tablet displaying three photos and a list of names, along with their height and weight. There was no other information. Arthur glanced at it. “On behalf of what branch?” The man didn’t answer. Arthur asked, “Well, can I ask what they were doing, at least?” “Preserving freedom and looking out for American interests abroad.” Arthur grunted and said, “‘Will Blackwater’? “These three operatives are close colleagues and friends of mine. They’ve been doing extremely high-risk work in-country for the last year.

In the end, the choice was no choice at all. Arthur made his phone calls.

The market is a machine, and these are just the noises the gears make when they turn.

Zoey impacted pavement that was much softer than she had expected. Her face was crammed into something that felt like rough canvas,

A piercing horn sounded and suddenly there was a rain of people falling from the ledges of the buildings along the park. They fell, landed on the bags, rolled off, and ran into the buildings to go back up and do it again.

“What, nobody explained to you what a Drop party is?

“You have a keen ability to quickly answer every question I have no intention of ever asking. We’ve got a problem.”

“Molech is about to make a public statement.”

He isn’t dead?”

Molech said, “Say hi to your mom. She and the craziest bastard in my employ are currently driving together toward an undisclosed location in Colorado,

Zoey said to Will, “Armando has had the surgery. The implants. He has four little incisions on his arms and back.”

I literally only used the implants once—to swing that katana last night, and I held my breath when I did it. If I could have the implants removed, I would. I know now that Molech just wanted crash dummies, because he couldn’t figure out why the stuff he stole wasn’t working. It was a foolish decision in retrospect. The waiting list was full of crazies.”

Echo could program it for us—” Will said, “Actually, she can’t. That was a bluff.” Armando said, “You do have it. Arthur told me himself.” Zoey threw up her hands in exasperation. “Oh my freaking god. When the hell did you talk to Arthur?”

Will produced the coin from his pocket, flipped it, caught it, then said, “Oh, son of a—” Zoey said, “What?” Will tossed the coin toward Zoey. She dropped it, then picked it up and looked it over. He said, “Press your thumb against the blank side.” She did. Nothing happened … then, a few seconds later, it made a tiny beep...."I kept missing with the trick and thought I was just rusty. But the weight of the coin is different. I could feel it but it just … never registered.”

Andre’s voice came over the speaker and said, “Got a guy here we need to talk to.”

“You win. Here’s the Buddha. I assume I don’t need to tell you not to touch it—you know how radioactive it is.”

Echo said, “What he invented was the most important advancement in energy technology since mankind learned to split the atom. Raiden works. The world has changed forever.”

Armando said, “I respect you, Mr. Blackwater, and I am sure that you know your business. But this, right here? This is war. And that is my area of expertise. Wars are won by people like me, not people like you.” “Wars are started by people like you. The peace is negotiated by people like me. Leverage brings your enemy to the table. Guns are useful only for gaining that leverage.”

This here—this is what we did for your father. We identified and nullified threats, by whatever means necessary. We’re old hats at this. There’s a process, that’s all. Any good plan is just a series of branching pathways, like a flowchart. We can’t predict what Molech is going to do, but his options aren’t infinite and we have to have a procedure in place regardless of which choice he makes. So no matter what I say, no matter what happens, we’re winning as long as we keep him talking. No matter what. And if he thinks he’s winning, so much the better.

“I know who that is with Zoey’s momma. See the cigarette pack on the dash? Guy’s name is Kools Duncan.

“This will be the opposite of how we did it at the memorial service—we want Molech to perceive a shift in power. We can’t look like we have a plan here, the more vulnerable you look, the more receptive the other person is to what you have to say. They’ll take any offer as genuine as long as they think it’s coming from a place of weakness.

props are everything. For instance, if hypothetically you had grown mistrustful of Andre and he was trying to get back in your good graces, he might show up here looking hungover, eating some kind of ridiculous food.

Zoey said, “Are you close to your father?” There was a long moment before Will said, “No.”

There was a commotion outside the main entrance of Livingston Tower: Three men had pulled up, riding tigers. Or so it appeared. As they got closer it became clear they were on customized motorcycles,

“Stop right there, lollicock. I need proof she brought the gold before this goes any further.” “Sure. It’s right here.” Will’s hologram pointed at Zoey’s head.

“But there is another way to extract the data, it just takes a bit longer. Zoey, lie on the table.” Whatever Will was going for here had in no way been shared with Zoey beforehand, which alarmed her more than anything. Still, she had to assume the man had a plan, since his brain did nothing but generate plans twenty-four hours a day.

Now, the waveform will to your ears just sound like Zoey is making a series of high-pitched screeching noises. The process will take about sixty minutes.

After a moment he said, “All right, while we’re waiting for that, I’m going to check in with what’s going on up on my roof.”

Armando, walking right into their ambush. Molech said, “Kools, can you hear me, bro?”

The hologram of Armando Ruiz slowly stopped a few feet in front of the gunmen,

Molech seemed unconcerned. “Those men died doing what they loved—screwing up my most simplest goddamned instructions.

A monster stood in the ragged remains of the doorframe. Not a monster—a man, made into a monster.

Armando stood and said, “Man, you have exposed cables all over the back of this thing.”

Rodzilla exploded into a ball of blue light brighter than the sun.

Will said, “Molech, Zoey will not negotiate with you if you kill her mother. This is actually true of most people you’ll encounter in a business setting.”

You don’t have to answer, I’m just curious to hear how he works, that’s all. I mean, did he put any effort into convincing you he was your friend? Or did he just sit back and wait for your fat fatherless ass to blindly trust him?”

How can you still not get it? They don’t work for money. They don’t even work for me. They work for the juice. If these were the type of men who were willing to trade failure for a chance to get fat in the sun, they’d have never made it past orientation day. My men may not be geniuses—no offense, guys—but they’re all winners.

The bullet left a deep gouge, slicing across Armando’s Adam’s apple and tearing through his jugular.

It’s a perfectly stable system, across the board. Molech, Armando had the gold.” From another mask, Molech said, “Sweet. So we know it exists.” “You don’t understand. I can copy the software right off of this mechanism’s drive. The idiots walked the gold right to us.”

The large woman sitting with the pair said, “Charlie? What in the hell are you doing?” Kools froze. He said, “Mom?”

Budd interrupted, “We’re not going to touch anybody, and in fact we just paid off her student loans. No, I reckon all we’re gonna do is sit here—me, Andre, and your momma—and watch you bury this nice woman alive.” Kools’s mother’s eyes went wide. “What did he just say? Charlie, what have you gotten yourself wrapped up in? Show me what’s in that hole, right now.”

“Charlie, if you don’t go dig that woman up right this minute, I’ll make you wish you were dead.

Molech said, “You guys over in Livingston Tower, go ahead and do an orifice search of Zoey, to make sure she doesn’t have the coin inside her somewhere. I don’t need it anymore, I’m just curious. After that, you can do whatever you want with her. Other than let her go, obviously.

The henchman grabbed Zoey by the hair and dragged her toward the opening—clearly intending to just chuck her out of the window.

“That crazy son of a bitch! He’s just railgunning the support beams one by one! He’s going to chop the tower down like a tree! Ha!”

She spun and found Echo Ling stumbling out of the stairwell, still in her red dress but having ditched the stupid wig.


helicopter slowly rolling to a stop.

four yellow plastic airbags that had inflated around the hull just prior to impact.

“DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? Did you know, and let it happen anyway, you dead-eyed fucking robot?” “Did I know that Armando would get shot while swinging into a top-floor window and that Molech would emerge from amputation surgery with the ability to knock the building to the ground with me inside of it? No, Zoey, I did not. Did I know that this plan had a really good chance of going wrong? Yes, and I said as much.”

“I’m saying, Zoey, that Arthur failed you. And you’re a walking reminder of what kind of man he could be at times. And you showed up right when he passed and that wasn’t the reminder I needed just then. But none of this is your fault.”

Ultimately, Zoey, you’ll find that we all get what we want. Regardless of whether or not we like it when we get it.”

once we’re at the safehouse, we’ll go to work on you. Blink works on facial recognition, so my boys will have to make some … changes. But soon enough you’ll put all this nonsense in your rearview.” “What, like plastic surgery?”

“You’re only twenty-two. Trust me, in ten years you’d be a completely different person anyway.”

what you have to do next—and this is the key to the whole trick, so listen carefully—is to take that coin and practice the French Drop over and over and over. And over, and over. Thousands and thousands of times,

“And that,” said Will, “is what Arthur wanted me to show you.” “That your cool magic trick is really just a bunch of tedious repetition?” “Yes. People like me know that there is no magic. There is only the grind. Work looks like magic to those unwilling to do it.” “You didn’t hear a goddamned word I said. You say you’re not a hero? Well, I’m going to tell you the best and the worst thing you’ve ever heard. Heroes aren’t born. You just go out there and grind it out.

You walk away, you’re choosing to walk away. Whatever bad things happens as a result, you’re choosing to let them happen. You can lie to yourself, say that you never had a choice, that you weren’t cut out for this. But deep down you’ll know. You’ll know that humans aren’t cut out for anything.

“So was that little speech for me? Or you?” “I don’t know. Goddamnit.” “I don’t get you. I’m giving you what you wanted from the beginning. Just let me go.” “You’re giving me what I wanted. You’re not giving Arthur what he wanted. He wanted you to have this. I don’t know why. I’ll never know why.

But damn it, he was like a father to me and now the same deranged fool who took his life gets to piss all over his final wish?” “So what, you’re telling me to stay?”

“He wants us to kill him?” “He wants us to try. No, what we need to do is much, much harder.”

“In forty-eight hours I will reach out with my mighty hand and destroy seven targets, seven symbols of the false powers in this city, to demonstrate real power, in full view of Tabula Rasa and all of mankind.

You have forty-eight hours. To do what, you ask? Nothing. I am making no demands, I will carry out my attack regardless of what action you take. See you then.”

Zoey said, “Well, what’s our plan? Because I was about to suggest paying somebody to go level those buildings myself.”

We need to go through the coin, and figure out exactly what we have there.”

“So … what are we doing, exactly?” Will said, “The French Drop.”

The floor above them was apparently full of whirlpool hot tubs with glass bottoms that gave a clear view from the basement lounge, apparently so the people down here could watch. Six hot tubs made up the ceiling of the room they were in, bulging down like a clutch of giant blue alien eggs, each one containing a writhing pair of hairy male legs surrounded by about six female ones.

The leader of the League of Badass led his team into the room.

Will turned to Zoey and said, “This is good on-the-job training. Tell me, what’s the thing in Lee’s hands there?” “It’s uh, a gun? I don’t know the brand or—” “And why is a gun better than a knife?” Lee said, “Shut up. We’re going out to our van, you’re leading the way.” Will didn’t move. Zoey said, “It lets you kill people from a long way away?”

Will said to Lee, “Molech will almost certainly go to Squatterville. And we need it protected. But not because of the people there. We need it because of the coins.” Zoey thought, “The what?” at the exact same time Lee spoke it out loud. “Two hundred million dollars in rare gold and silver coins, recovered from a Spanish galleon off the coast of Florida about fifteen years ago.

I basically set a deadline for them.” “Wait, you wanted them to go after Molech?” “They were going to do it either way, I wanted to make sure they did it tonight.”

The Co-Op hadn’t waited long after nightfall to launch their assault.

They walked up to both vehicles and opened the rear doors. Zoey gasped as a bundle of charred limbs tumbled out.

Zoey said, “What is that?” Echo said, “Remote control heavy ordinance drone. Basically a cruise missile. Looks Russian.” Will said, “They’re going to try to bring down the building.” He seemed mildly annoyed, as if frustrated by the amateurs’ unsubtle technique.

“Controls unresponsive.”

Will said, “It’s heading for the hospital.”

Zoey said, “What do we do, Will? What the hell do we do?” Will thought for a moment and then said, “I guess now would be a good time to tell you what we were doing before we met your father.” Will said, “Do you know what PSYOPS are?”

Andre, Budd, and I all did work with the Eighth Military Information Support Group.

Our objective was to try to convince the North Korean government that the rebels were much stronger than they actually were, to try to force them to the negotiating table. We knew they were paranoid that the rebels had gained the support of the Chinese, which if true would have spelled doom for the regime. It wasn’t true, but our job was to convince them it was.

it all starts with this one fundamental principle: find out what the enemy is most afraid of, and you’ll also find what they’re the most eager to believe.”

It was a cup of her Cthulhu Tea—

“My favorite part,” said Andre, talking over him, “was Will came up with this idea to make a death ray.”

So we start spreadin’ rumors that the rebels had a Chinese handheld microwave gun that could penetrate even the most advanced armor. Now, this was important because the regime’s tanks were mostly a weapon of intimidation.

finds a toy store and buys of one of them giant plastic squirt guns,

Arthur tracked us down back in the States a bit later, asked if we wanted to go to work for him. The rest is history.”

Zoey asked, “What happened to the other guy?” “Which other guy?” “The moron with the gun, who tripped and ruined the whole thing?” Budd nodded toward Will. “Why don’t you ask him? Fella’s sittin’ right here.”

She had fallen asleep in a bathtub that was twice as long as the one she was used to,

Every year Arthur did a big Christmas blowout party in here, all his rich friends and their kids. Called it a Wonka party, turned this whole room into a candy palace where everything was edible.

“Budd knew a guy who knew a guy who knew where we could get a fabricator. One like we need, I mean, capable of doing nano-level builds.

this is the same model Arthur had in his warehouse, the schematics on the coin drive should be specifically

The object that had slid out was an unimpressive little thing, a little shiny metal pyramid about an inch on each side, with a plastic loop to hook around your hand.

“It’s a regular magnet,”

What exactly are we hoping to find here?”

Will said, “Fine, if the issue is that we don’t have enough data about the enemy’s capabilities and strategy, then we need to gather more data.”

But you can’t build a headquarters with a bunch of meathead enforcers, you need professionals. That means he’s had to hire contractors.

“Rob Winkle Construction,” said Budd

Andre took a long look at Zoey and then said, “You know what we need? A massage truck.”

it literally had “massage” in sarcasm quotes (MADAM LE STRADE’S MAGIC RELAXATION “MASSAGE”),

Skelnik kept his eyes on Will. “You know how I interview prospective employees, Mr. Blackwater? I ask ’em one question, I say, ‘Show me your knife.’

Zoey said, “Andre, is there any chance your crazy designer brother Tre would know who Molech uses as a tailor?”

he’s had to hire one within the last few weeks, or maybe even the last few hours.” “Why?” Zoey made an exasperated sound. “To make him a supervillain costume. Duh.”

“If we got a copy of the plans for the suit, could Tre make us a replica?” “Tre can make anything. What’s your plan?” “Wouldn’t Molech hate it if he spent weeks having a custom outfit made for his coming out party, and then somebody showed up wearing the same thing?”

Zoey had started calling it Santa’s Workshop.

what? If we’re not just looking for a bigger, badder gun to obliterate Molech’s army with, what exactly are we looking for?” Will said, “I guess I’m looking for … the One Ring.”

“Arthur anticipated everything.”

“Are you talking about Jezza? Did you hear about him?”

“He committed suicide, in his jail cell.

“You can’t focus on death, or failure. Otherwise you’re surrendering greatness to all the people too dumb to contemplate it.”

“I can never tell if you’re really talking to me or just trying to sell me on something. It’s always like you just see me as one of the levers you can pull to get what you want. It kind of makes me hate talking to you.”

“My wife. She … she was killed. Three years ago.

“This city … it’s like that. The people are just background, props in somebody else’s adventure.

That’s the way it is here and it’s always getting worse.

Arthur and the other investors who snapped up all this land—they’d kind of gotten run out of Las Vegas due to … some unscrupulous practices. So the idea was they’d just start their own Vegas, the way it used to be, back when it was Sin City and not just Disneyland for the elderly. Utah had this crazy Libertarian governor at the time—anyway, the point is ‘clean slate’ to them just meant ‘no rules.’ But Korea changed Arthur. Tabula Rasa, that phrase started to mean something different to him. He wanted it to be a clean slate, for everybody. A city that actually works. Jobs, clean air, no bureaucrats…”

So I think all of this, the whole project with Raiden and this stupid dream about super powers, he thought what so many guys like him had thought—that with enough money and technology you could smooth out the flaws in society like ironing the wrinkles out of a shirt. Stamp out the crime like a comic book superhero and turn this place into a utopia. But you know it doesn’t work that way.”

The very last schematic on the indecipherable list was simply called: ZOEY.

Your best-laid plan fails, your most haphazard improvisation saves your life. Friends turn out to be enemies. In the end, Zoey, you can trust nothing. You can only have another plan ready to go. One after another. Get in.”

The door slammed closed on its own. The garage door began rolling upward. Zoey assumed she’d said something or

Molech looked skeptical. “I’ll be damned. He wasn’t lying. Get her out.”

Scott said, “Seem too easy?” “Yeah. Our man sneaking around inside the estate, rerouting the car … they had to know.” Scott said, “Damn, man, she’s a hell of an actress if so.” Zoey rolled over, and tried to sit up. Her hands were bound with some kind of wire, but it felt loose. If she could just get one hand free … Molech said, “No, they wouldn’t let her in on it.”

There had been a four-year window in Zoey’s life in which she didn’t believe in monsters. It lasted from age six, when her mother told her that the scary aliens she saw in a movie weren’t real, until age ten, when she ran into a big, fat, mean girl named Bella.

as it got harder to breathe, Zoey started to panic, and as she panicked, Bella started to smile. It had been Zoey’s first glimpse of that dark thing that lurks in people, the writhing worm in the soul that feeds on other people’s pain and fear.

yup, monsters exist, all right. Not Bella, but the thing inside Bella.

Over time, Zoey Ashe would see how this ugly, parasitic thing lurked behind everything and everyone, like the roaches in that greasy old public housing complex that came oozing out of the walls the moment the lights were off. The history books were, in fact, nothing more than a log of mankind’s largely futile attempts to keep the monster in check.

Zoey would, of course, encounter the monster again and again over the years.

But what she saw on Molech’s face was different.

most people know they have the monster inside them, and decent people get scared when they feel it lurching to the surface.

But not Molech. Molech understood the monster, and embraced it—

She faintly heard Molech say, “All right, let’s go to Squatterville.”

“You’re trying to prove these gadgets can take on armies, what does it prove if you murder two thousand unarmed women and children?” “Actually, the customers we got lined up for this gear, they need to know it can do that very thing. They just got to be sold on the efficiency of the process. Now quiet down

No, it’s about deciding who gets Raiden and who doesn’t. That’s how we’re gonna shape the world.”

Molech said, “Make you a deal. You can sacrifice yourself, and I’ll let these people live. You willing to do that? You have my word, we’re sayin’ this in front of the whole world here. Here’s your chance to be a hero. One life for two thousand.”

This is what’s coming. Everything you think you know about power is about to be—OW! WHAT THE F—” A drone shaped like a three-foot-long taco crashed into Molech’s face.

He flung the wreckage aside, in time to be met by another taco drone, this one white and decorated with a logo bearing a cartoon chipotle pepper. Behind it were three drones bearing the logo of a purple and yellow bell.

And still they came, every Mexican food delivery drone that happened to be in the air at that moment, their navigation systems hacked and commanded to fly as fast as possible to the exact location where Molech was standing. This part had been Zoey’s idea, and if it caused Molech to run over and crush her skull in a fit of rage, she wouldn’t mind this being the last thing she saw.

The video on the walls of the buildings downtown scrambled and pixelated and finally resolved into a new image. What appeared there was the face of a masked Andre Knox. Andre bellowed a comic book villain’s evil laugh. “Fools! You have fallen for my diversion! I want to thank my junior partner, Molech, for setting the stage. That boy sure does love his tacos.” The shot zoomed out to reveal Andre in full supervillain gear—the exact costume Molech was wearing, only with the blue highlights and codpiece done in red. In addition, Andre had added a rather flamboyant red domino mask, and a large-brimmed black hat with a red feather stuck into the band. He was stroking a black cat.

look like obsidian. The etchings, however, were not what Molech had described in the work order. That’s because twelve hours earlier, a brand-new rendering

On the tower that used to be the Ice Palace, there was now a detailed rendering of Andre, wearing his hat and mask. And only his hat and mask. Zoey had never seen the real Andre naked, and doubted she ever would, but the rendering of Andre on the building had been very, very generous when it came to how well endowed he was.

On the Fire Palace across the street, instead of the huge rendering of his scowling face that Molech had ordered and paid for, there was another full-body nude. This one depicting Molech, wearing only his robot hands. Zoey had never seen Molech naked, and prayed she never would, but the rendering on the building had been very, very stingy when depicting Molech’s genitalia.

This had been Phase One of the plan—a stage they had simply referred to as “Confusion.”

“You’re … what? One of the landscaping guys?” “I’M GARY! Gary O’Brien! The gardener! I worked for your father for twenty-five years! We

Sitting in the chair next to him was Arthur Livingston.

Molech said, “I killed you. No, I not only killed you, but your body was vaporized…” Arthur said, “You did massive damage to my rib cage,

But I’m a tough old bastard and I was able to crawl to the subbasement before the warehouse blew. As was the plan.”

Tabula Rasa is off the table. The negotiation begins there. Now, are you familiar with the Lord of the Rings?”

Will said, “We have a device, a switch, that can remotely overload Raiden. You, Molech, are a walking bomb. And we hold the detonator.” “Bullshit.”

All I need you to do is leave town. Tabula Rasa is mine. It’s my baby.

Stench Machine flung his body at Arthur Livingston, who did not react. The cat flew right through his torso, through the hologram.

Molech and Scott didn’t explode—the button wasn’t actually a kill switch, of course

It was some kind of riot-control device, Will had said, and it really did take the fight out of a person.

they dove into the fire.

The flames in the fireplace were not real, but hid a waist-high door that served as an escape route from the room. The house, Will had shown her, was full of them, all of them ultimately leading down to the garage.

“Damn it, Will, why in the hell did you think the Arthur hologram would work?” “There was no reason it wouldn’t.

“It’s not a lie! Our stupid made-up story is true! We need to get to the caterpillar!”

Andre laughed his supervillain laugh and said, “The world is watching you, mohawk! Let us test what you are willing to do to stop me!” Andre pushed a button on his belt. With a howl, a cat flew up from the floor and stuck to Andre’s thigh, its metal collar clinking as it contacted his armor. Then another cat twisted across the room and clanked to his chest. Then another, then another. Within seconds, Andre was covered from the neck down with writhing, meowing felines. “Ha ha!” bellowed Andre. “Go ahead! Skewer an adorable kitten while your fans look on! Now you know why they call me the pus—”

He reached out, gave the bomb a gentle push, and watched it topple over. It wasn’t difficult, since the whole thing was a hollow shell made out of plastic. Will sighed.

Zoey asked, “Did you know?” “Know what?” “Did you know I was going to wind up at Molech’s headquarters? Did you know Gary was a traitor, and that he was going to rig the car and all that? Was that all part of your plan?”

lying would have become useless thousands of years ago if countering it was as simple as dismissing the liars completely. The really good liars were like chemists, brewing formulas that were mostly truth, the toxins undetectable in the mixture.

T-Bone was on his back, with a white Siberian tiger on top of him, ripping his throat out.

She reached in, blindly, and grabbed the object the catalog of schematics knew only as “Zoey.” It was a football helmet. Zoey thought, that bastard, and blacked out.

Zoey jammed the stupid football helmet on her head.

After ten seconds she pulled her swollen eyes open again, and Molech was standing there, completely frozen. Every part of his body, save for his face, which was contorting itself in rage and confusion, fist still clutching her shirt. Scott, sensing his boss was in distress, rushed over. Zoey turned toward him and again said, “Stop!” and he, also, stopped.

Oh my god. It works. The helmet … oh my god our stupid lie was true. It really was. Okay. It’s voice operated. Um … everybody freeze.”

The last thing she heard was Black Scott saying, “Nah, man, I don’t even know these assholes.”

six-foot-wide stretch of white butcher paper that had been thumbtacked to the wall, covered in doodles and notes in Zoey’s handwriting. Much of it was illegible, and one corner was obscured by a dried coffee stain. But in the middle was a clear to-do list under the scrawled heading “OPERATION Z-DAY.” With virtually no explanation other than crude stick figure drawings next to each, the list went: • TACO STORM? • FAKE ALIEN INVASION? NUCLEAR BOMB? • ECHO HACKS AND/OR SEDUCES SOMETHING • DEFACE THE FIRE AND ICE (DONGS?) • CATS CATS CATS • GET MOLECH BACK HERE (FART RAY?) • WILL WORKS HIS MAGIC (LIKE IN “THE RINGMASTER”)

There was so much that could have gone wrong.” Andre shrugged. “Eh, that’s par for the course. This was actually one of the smoothest operations we’ve ever had.” They sat and watched basketball for a moment, while Zoey let that sink in.

how long can Tabula Rasa be allowed to stay like this? The government isn’t going to let things stay crazypants here forever.” “Well, there are thousands and thousands of wealthy political donors in this city telling them to keep their noses out—Tabula Rasa has a hundred and twenty billionaires, at last count.

Zoey thought the best gift she could get Will was years of therapy.

And it’s the thought that counts.” “I can’t even imagine a world where that’s true.”

“So … I got to thinking about what you said about magic tricks, and how it’s all misdirection. Is it possible that Molech was the misdirection, for someone else? Somebody … behind the scenes, or whatever?” Will, not showing any expression whatsoever, said, “Why, that would suggest, I don’t know, that there’s a bigger game being played here.”

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