Category Archives: Arc I


I must have looked stupid right then, what with my mouth hanging open. Was Kiro lying? Was I not alone in this after all? And these others, were there powers like mine – uncontrollable, all-consuming? I settled back in my chair.

“There are others?” I said.

Kiro waved his hand in front of the display and images materialized from the light. “Were,” he said. “There were others.”

Were? I watched the hologram morph into a newspaper clipping: “Thirty-five Dead in Hollisburg Mall Bombing.” I recognized the headline – anyone would have. The story had run for days about a crazed man who had blown himself up in the middle of a Kansas strip mall. I remembered my mom talking about it, all those years ago – photos so horrible, she’d said, that even the most hardened of reporters couldn’t bear to look at them. Kiro touched the display and another image flashed into life. Another newspaper clip. Another headline: “Mysterious Lightning Storm Kills Nine.” Then, “Earthquake Destroys Subway Line; Fifteen Dead,” and finally, “Five Die Suddenly Aboard Overseas Flight.”

I remembered them all.

Kiro waved his hand again and this time the newspaper clippings were replaced by official looking documents. CIA and FBI seals flashed across the screen. He touched the display disk and four photographs appeared. The first was of a grungy-looking man in old fatigues and a baseball cap. He was older, around thirty-five or so, and it looked like he hadn’t showered in months. I couldn’t place him, but then that didn’t surprise me. From the look of it, I guessed he was homeless.

The second in line was a young guy wearing a sleeveless shirt and jeans. He had the look of a college student who had just pulled an all-nighter – eyes bloodshot, hair in disarray – and he stared out from the screen as if in a haze.

The last two photos were both women. One, a girl about my age who sported a punk rock look with spiked red hair and multiple piercings. The other, a woman old enough to be my mother. Nondescript, except for the cigarette perched above her ear.

Kiro went down the line. “James Finnegan, Dean Westerfeld, Molly Landry, and Katie Pugh. Recognize the names?”

I shook my head.

“You wouldn’t, of course. The government sealed the records.”

“What are you getting at?”

“These… events,” Kiro said. “They weren’t natural disasters or the work of some crazed lunatic. They were, in all four instances, the result of powers – unchecked and uncontrolled.”

He touched the hologram and a video began to play. It was homemade, produced on an old school camcorder. The Vivo type, I figured – they used to be all the rage back when I was in high school. For a moment, the screen shook and then a man’s face appeared – Dean Westerfeld’s face – and he smiled in front of the camera. The date in the bottom right corner read January 9th, 2018. It was like a time machine dragging me back. Back to my own first days – before I realized I wasn’t just going crazy, that it all wasn’t one giant nightmare.

I watched Dean set the camera down and raise his hand toward an old television set in the corner of what must have been a junk yard. He laughed, and it was a giddy laugh. The kind that escapes your lips when you’re not quite sure what’s real anymore. “Boom,” he said. In a flash of blinding light, the TV exploded, a bolt of electricity ripping through the screen and arcing into his outstretched hand.

I looked away, having seen enough, when Olivia said, “No. Watch.”

On the screen, Dean grabbed his arm and yelled, “Fuck!” The camera shifted, was lifted off the table, and then zoomed in on Dean’s hand. Two of his fingers had been scorched red. His palm, too, had been badly burned and in places was already blistering. The recording cut to black.

“For Dean, it was electricity,” Kiro said. “For James, fire. Molly, we believe, could somehow alter densities. And Katie – well, Katie could compel people. She could transfer thoughts, memories, into other’s subconscious.”

“To the general public, four seemingly random disasters,” he said, as he touched the screen and crime scene photos of the Kansas ‘bombing’ appeared. A giant crater sat in the center of what used to be the mall. Blood pooled between cracks in the concrete, broken up every few feet by the mangled bodies and shattered limbs of those who had wandered too close to the blast point. I looked away.

“But the government has a name for them,” Kiro continued, “A code name: Vert Evo.”

“What?” I whispered.

“These weren’t isolated incidents, Rainey. In fact, they all had exactly one thing in common.”

“Vert,” I said.

Kiro nodded. He pointed to the photographs that had reappeared on the screen. Stills of Dean, James, Molly and Katie. “They called them the Four Horsemen,” Kiro said, before looking right at me. “Who would have guessed there was a fifth this whole time.”

I glanced up at the photos and shivered. Was I destined to go out like that too? Bringing a whole bunch of people with me?

Ponytail – JJ – whatever his name was, shifted in his seat. “Did you use Vert?” he said. “You know, before?”

I looked past JJ, at the long tables strewn with gadgets, and my eyes fell on the walkie-talkies there. They lay half disassembled, bits and pieces sprinkled here and there, but I recognized the brand logo. Years ago, just before everything had gone to hell, my dad had sat on my bed one day after work and given me a similar set. For us to always be together, he’d said, even when we couldn’t be. For a moment, I could actually see him there beside me, while the memory played out in my head.

He was looking down on me, his eyes red rimmed and weary. “It’s all going to work out, sweetie,” he’d said. “Daddies working hard at work and the payoffs coming. For your mother and me. For all of us.”

“I know, Dad.”

He leaned over and kissed me on the forehead, then he tucked me away, deep inside the sheets. “Sleep tight, Rainey.”

I lay awake long after he’d left, clutching the walkie-talkie to my chest like a life-preserver. Then, after a minute of indecision, I threw off the sheets and crept down the hallway toward my parents’ room. The door was cracked open – they always kept it open those days – and I pressed myself to the wall, listening.

“John, you can’t keep doing this.”

“It’s going to get better, Tay. Things are almost there. I just need a little more time, that’s all.”

“No, I can’t keep doing this. You’re gone half the night, I never know where you are or what you’re doing, and the days you are home, it’s as if you’re on another planet. In a trance or something. You know it’s killing you, and I can’t just sit by and watch it happen. Watch you lose everything. At some point, this family has to come first. Or I swear to god, John, I’m gone. I’ll take the kids and I’m gone.”

For a long moment, there was silence. And then my dad whispered, “It won’t come to that. It’s almost over.”

I walked back to my room and slipped the covers over my head. After a second, I pressed the button on the side of the walkie-talkie and whispered, “I love you.”

In return, I heard static, then softly, “I love you too, kiddo.”

He was my dad. He was superman to me. I knew that at the end of the day, he’d fix everything – make it all better. So when that horrible night came around, when our whole family came crumbling down around us, I knew I’d put my faith in something that wasn’t real. I’d wanted to move on, but to do that I needed to forget.

And that, unfortunately, was the tricky part.

I looked up and saw JJ staring at me, still waiting for my answer. But all I could see in my mind was blood, bright red, infecting my vision. I tried to recover. “Why Valtronic?” I said. “I thought they had nothing to do with Vert anymore. Not since it was banned.”

Olivia laughed. She flicked her midnight hair back over her shoulder. “You’re drinking the Kool-Aid, kid.”

“Aye,” JJ added, “and it’s quite strong.”

I frowned, looking to Kiro for an explanation. He ran his hand across the console and a new image appeared. A still of Peter Clark – director and president of Valtronic Enterprises. In all the pictures I’d ever seen of the man, he always wore the same coy smile, as if to say, ‘yes, I am smarter than you.’

“Do you recognize him?”

“Of course,” I said. “Who wouldn’t?”

“And what would you say if I were to tell you that Peter Clark is single-handedly responsible for the largest underground Vert trade in the United States?”

I gave a nervous laugh, then glanced between the others, looking for clarification of Kiro’s obvious insanity. JJ shrugged, while Olivia merely looked at the picture with disgust. The still unnamed member of the team – the boy I’d met on campus that first night – crossed his arms, doing a solid job avoiding my gaze. He was wearing black jeans and a wife beater and I had to tear my eyes away from the lean muscle peeking out beneath his shirt.

“I’d say you’re a lunatic?”

Peter Clark? A drug lord? You’d have to be nuts to think that. The man was the biggest anti-vert advocate on the planet. He’d nearly bankrupted his own company donating millions of dollars to the government’s second War on Drugs.

I was a street rat and even I knew all this.

On the screen, Clark’s face was replaced by an older man with stark white hair, dark eyes and spectacles placed precariously far down his nose.

“Dr. Jason Fine,” Kiro explained. “Founder of Valtronic, creator of Vert.”

Out of the corner of my eye, wife beater guy stiffened. He started to get out of his chair when Kiro placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Sit, Aiden.” The boy – Aiden – hesitated, before slowly rejoining the circle. As he did, I could have sworn he shot me a glare.

Kiro looked back at the display. ”Dr. Fine,” he said. “A brilliant scientist. He’d hoped Vert would take us to the next step in human evolution. Everything and everyone connected, a unified world. But as the drug became more and more abused, Fine became a recluse, seen less and less often outside of his lab -”

Black and white photos flashed across the screen. Blurry shots capturing glimpses of Dr. Fine, some taken from street cams, others from street side ATMs and storefront cameras.

“- until the Four Horsemen appeared.”

A final image flashed onto the display. It was Dr. Fine sprawled across a desk, blood leaking from his ears, pooling beneath his face.

“In the wake of their very public deaths and the hundreds of lives they took with them, Dr. Fine spiraled into a depression, eventually killing himself – overdosing on the very drug he created.”

“And that’s when the shit hit the fan,” JJ said. “Clark retained control of the company, on the surface campaigning against Vert, while behind the scenes establishing a full-court press on the drug market.”

I sat stunned. In a weird, twisted way, it made sense. My dad had always told me that the best place to hide was always the last place anyone would think to look. And the last person anyone would suspect of trafficking Vert would be the one person dead set on destroying it.

Did it mean I was buying their story? Not quite. But I was curious.

“So let’s say I don’t think you’re totally insane,” I said. “What then? What would Peter Clark possibly want from me?”

Olivia leaned forward. “He doesn’t want you, love. He wants pieces of you.” She made a tearing motion with her hands. “He wants to cut you open, see what makes you tick.”

Kiro cleared his throat. “What O so delicately put is this: No one knows why Vert changed you, Rainey, or the others for that matter. Whether it was sustained use of the drug combined with something unique in your genes or simply one bad dose – no one knows. And as far as we’re aware, there haven’t been others. Clark hasn’t been able to replicate the results.”

I opened my mouth, but couldn’t force words to come out. I’d always wondered if it was the Vert that had changed me. How could I not have?

So that first year, I’d been constantly on edge, always expecting someone to grab me, to steal me away, as if I was part of some secret drug study and they were hiding in the shadows, waiting for it to take effect. But no one ever came, and over time I stopped wondering why it had happened to me and started trying to deal with what it had done to me.

Still, this? This was crazy. Like straight out a nightmare, crazy.

“So I’m what?” I said. “His key to perfecting some kind of super soldier?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Kiro said, “sure.”

“At least, it’s part of it,” JJ said.

I shifted in my seat. “Fucking hell, there’s more?”

“Over the last three months, Clark’s been expanding his reach with Vert,” Kiro said. “Pushing out much further than he’s ever done in the past. He’s preparing for something. Something big. We just don’t know what yet. We’d hoped that Clark’s interest in you might give us some clues. That’s why we went after you. But I don’t think the two are connected. I’m fairly certain he didn’t know about you until we did. ‘Till you lit up on grid. Literally.”

So that’s how they’d found me. Taking Vert had put me on the radar. Once again, I’d dug my own grave.

I was about to tell them exactly where they could stick their conspiracy theories when the lights overhead dimmed, replaced by flashing red sirens. An alarm blared in the background and, as one, ROOT 4 stood up.

Suddenly, the room was ablaze with action, everyone scrambling to different posts. Caught in the middle, I didn’t know what to do, so I headed toward the long tables.

Olivia flagged my attention and gestured to the flashing red lights.

“Cargo shipment is going to pass through,” she shouted over the alarm, as she strapped some type of utility belt to her waist. “They’ve been using unmarked E-trains to shuffle Vert around the country.”

I remembered the recent news reports. So these were the trains they were taking out? Cargo trains?

Kiro walked over to us, a bullet proof vest now strapped over his long-sleeve shirt. “We can’t let Valtronic get a hold of you,” he said, tightening the straps. “From here on out, you’re under the protection of ROOT 4.”

“Do I have a choice?” I said, repeating what I’d asked JJ earlier.

“Sure you do,” Aiden said, joining the group at the long table. “You can either stay willingly, we can chain you back to that room you woke up in-” He secured his own vest over his shirt. “-Or we can find a more permanent way to make sure Valtronic never gets a hold of you.”

The threat was obvious enough.

I balled my hands into fists. “Look, asshole,” I said. “I don’t know what your deal -”

A large hand settled on my shoulder and when I looked up, JJ was next to me. “Don’t mind, Aiden,” he said. “It’s his time of the month.” Aiden gave JJ the finger. “Look, Rainey, we’re doing this for your own good – well, our good and the world’s good – but mostly your own good.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling for a second, as if wondering whether anything he’d just said made sense. It didn’t.

“So, what? You’re bringing me along?” I said.

Aiden laughed as if it were the dumbest thought in the world, but Kiro nodded. “The girl comes,” he said.

“You’re kidding, right?” Aiden said. “Do I really have to be the voice of reason here?” He pointed at me. “She’s dead weight. She has no useful skills. She can’t help with the mission. And worse than that – she has a huge fucking target on her back. Bringing her here was a mistake, let alone for the bust.”

I flinched from the verbal whiplash, though I didn’t necessarily disagree. Did I even believe them about Valtronic? About Vert and the others? I couldn’t think of a reason why they’d lie, but still…this whole mess was way too much to handle. Unfortunately, walking away didn’t seem to be an option anymore.

If it ever was.

“We’re international terrorists,” JJ said. “We’ve all got huge targets on our back, numb nuts.”

Kiro ignored JJ. He grabbed what looked like a stun gun off one of the long tables and holstered it under his shoulder. Then he stared Aiden down. “Don’t forget your place, kid,” he said, his voice dangerous. “Your personal vendetta aside, you’d be nowhere without me. Don’t forget that. As for the girl? What would you have me do? Leave her here alone, or worse, with one of you and go into this a man down? No, I want her to come. I want her to see what’s going on behind the scenes. See the truth for herself. We’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, whether we like it or not. If she’s going to trust us, we’re going to have to do the same.”

Aiden looked halfway between embarrassed and ticked off. He strapped a silver disc onto his forearm – the same kind I’d seen JJ wear – and stormed out of the room. His attitude surprised me.  So did his anger toward me. It was different, personal. When we’d met on campus that first night, he’d been pleasant, if not into me. I prided myself on being a fairly good judge of flirting and he’d certainly been partaking that night. What had changed his tune?

Olivia picked something up off the table and tossed it to me. A pair of sleek black gloves. Thin textured – the kind thieves used so they could still feel their way around safes and locks.

“If you’re gonna be sticking around,” she said, “better get used to wearing those. Now come on. We’ve got a train to burn.”

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When I came to, I was alone, save for the darkness.

I tried to get my bearings, tried to rally my thoughts, but my head was a mess of jumbled memories and pain. I remembered the hotel room, taking the Vert. Remembered someone knocking on the door, being chased, and then…

Tasered. I’d been tasered.

My hand twitched toward my chest, but stopped short as it met resistance – a loop of cold steel pressed tight against my wrist. It dug into my skin, sending a stab of pain up my arm and a stab of fear into my heart. Handcuffs.

My pulse took off at a sprint.

I fished around in the darkness, feeling with my free hand. I lay on some type of cot, the coils groaning each time I shifted my weight. My body ached. I’d been beat up, almost raped, shot at, and electrocuted. All in the last 48 hours. Or at least, I thought so. Stuck in the dark, I had no perception of time, had no clue how long I’d been locked up.

I fought against the cuff, yanking it this way and that. What did these guys want with me? What were they going to do to me? A stream of horrid possibilities wound through my head, each worse than the last.

Which would it be? Fuck if I was going to stick around to find out.

I propped myself up with my elbow and ran my free hand along the wall, looking for cracks – for anything really. But the wall was soft, padded. I twisted around and dropped my feet to the ground. Cushions gave way under my weight. Mattress cubes. They seemed to line the whole room, pieced together like one giant quilt.

I cursed under my breath. It was a padded cell. A rubber room. Which meant there’d be no windows, no metal – nothing but the single door to escape through. And I was still cuffed. There was no way around that.

How the hell would –

Footsteps echoed outside the door. I heard muffled voices, the clank of keys, and my stomach turned over. They were coming for me; I was out of time. I lay back on the bed and stretched the handcuff chain taut. It tore into my wrist, drawing a thin trail of blood, but I ignored the pain. Instead, I found the point where the chain connected to the cot and kicked.

Nothing happened.

A bead of sweat dripped down my cheek. Acid rose into my throat on a wave of panic. I kicked again and this time the frame warped slightly under the force. Yes! Come on! I drew my foot back once more but paused as I heard something else, something awful: the turn of a key. A sharp click echoed through my cell and it struck me like a death toll. This was it. With a creak, the door opened, sending a cascade of light flooding into the room.

I raised my hand to shield my eyes. Ponytail stood in the doorway, backlit by a long corridor of overhead lights.

“Morning,” he said.

“Go fuck yourself,” I said.

“Guess I deserve that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. Casually, he tossed them to me. “Don’t say I never gave you nothing.”

I caught the keys with my free hand and lay back on the cot, stunned. They were letting me go? It didn’t make any sense. I fit one of the keys into the lock and gave it a hesitant turn, as if this was all a set up and the lock was rigged to explode. The key clicked into place and the handcuff dropped off my arm. “What is this?” I said, massaging my wrist. “Some sick joke?”

“No, nothing like that.” Ponytail gestured over his shoulder. “Come on. The boss-man wants a word. I believe we owe you an explanation.”

I wanted to say, “no fucking shit,” but I held my breath. Ponytail looked harmless enough, standing there alone, but I knew not to be deceived by first impressions. The bulge at his hip told me all I needed to know. He was carrying. I looked past him. It was a single hallway, barely wide enough for two people side by side. Even if I could disarm him, I’d have a hell of a time getting away if I ran.

I shrugged. I didn’t have much of a choice. “Lead the way.”

Ponytail shook his head. “Not this time, girly. Ladies first.”

Not this time? What? I got off the cot and walked out of the room, noticing how Ponytail squeezed himself against the wall as I passed.

If the rubber room hadn’t given it away, the rest of the facility certainly did. Walls of peeling paint and crumbling plaster. Identical rooms with odd electrical wiring. Gates blocking off each corridor.

“An asylum?” I said, as we passed through another gate and turned a corner. “You’re set up in a crazy house?” I racked my brain, trying to think of any closed down mental hospitals in Jackson. Were there any? I didn’t think I’d know even if there were. Not unless it happened to be near a bar.

“We like it,” Ponytail said. “You know how it is: the best place to hide –“

“Is often the last place anyone would think to look,” I finished. Where had I heard that before?

Ponytail narrowed his eyes. “Exactly…”

We turned another corner, Ponytail pointing the way, and walked straight into what must have been the mess hall back when the asylum was still running. Only now it was rigged with more electronics than I’d ever seen before. A hacker’s wet dream.

Ponytail walked past me and spread his arms wide. “Welcome to the Hive.”

At the center of the room, two rows of long tables bisected the space. Though they probably served as dining tables in the past, they were now littered with various gadgets, each in some stage of deconstruction. I recognized some of the objects – a military grade stun gun, an ATX geolocater watch (I’d pawned one off two years ago) and a child’s walkie-talkie set. An odd mix, for sure.

Overhead, electrical wiring hung low from the rafters, connecting to circuit boards scattered across the walls. A series of flat-panel monitors wound around the room, displaying maps of the region, the stock exchange, the news, and various bus and train schedules.

But what really caught my attention was the computer station in the corner. It lay sectioned off from the rest of the room by large, towering CPUs. Drawings and schematics had been taped to the units, depicting constructs of some sort and what looked to be weapon designs. And sitting around the central console in disposable lawn chairs, talking animatedly, were three people I recognized – two from mug shots.

Kiro Nagamachi and Olivia Yates were the easiest to spot. They’d been strewn across the front page of the paper recently as the two most prominent members of ROOT 4. Pretty reasonable considering they’d derailed five E-trains in the past week. I shook my head. This wasn’t some two bit job. As far as hacker collectives went, these guys were the real deal. And for some reason they’d taken an interest in me. That set me on edge.

The third face threw me. It was the guy I’d seen my first night out in Jackson – the one I’d run into on the steps of the Health Services building. How the hell was he involved with this?

“Come on,” Ponytail said. He nodded toward the hacker circle jerk. “Time for those answers.”

“Do I have a choice?”

Ponytail pulled back his jacket, flashing the handgun tucked into his waist. It was a small victory that I’d been right about the weapon. He drew it and, before I could even flinch, removed the magazine and racked the slide back. The last remaining bullet fell from the chamber.

“Look,” he said, holding the gun up for me to see. “I know everything that’s happened so far is telling you otherwise, but we are the good guys. Just give us a chance to prove it.”

He tossed the handgun onto a nearby table.

I hesitated. I’d trusted him once already and look how that turned out. Could I really afford to do it again? A part of me knew this was an important moment. I could still run for it, could still roll the dice. After all, they’d gone through a lot of trouble to get a hold of me. There was a good chance they wanted me alive – at least, enough not to shoot me on the spot.

But could I really outrun ROOT 4? As shitty as my life was now, how much worse would it be trying to do what I did and evade hackers?

In the end, it wasn’t much of a choice.

I followed Ponytail over to the computer alcove. As we approached, Kiro looked up and motioned to two empty chairs. I sat down across from Olivia.

My first thought was that her mug shot didn’t do her justice. She was strikingly gorgeous, with jet black hair that fell to her shoulders, deep brown eyes, and full red lips. She wore two spikes in her right ear and a small stud above her left eyebrow. She was the type of girl who couldn’t go anywhere without garnering attention. The type of girl I’d envied before everything in my life went to shit.

She winked at me, then punched a code into the disk nailed into the center of the circle. The surrounding CPUs hummed to life. A low whine echoed off the panels. Suddenly, a cylinder of blue light erupted from the disc, forming a digital display in front of us.

Kiro looked between the display and me. He was much different than Olivia. Harder. Older. His face was tanned and age weary; his hair was just starting to grey. Unlike Olivia, I had no problem seeing the edge to his features – the quality that said: this man is not to be fucked with.

He turned to me and said, “Let me start by apologizing. The way you were brought in was not ideal. You were still connected to the Grid and we couldn’t afford to have our location compromised. Unfortunately, electricity is the quickest way to sever the link.”

Absently, I touched my chest where the rod had burned me. The skin still tingled. I knew I should reign in my anger, knew that the man in front of me was as dangerous as they came, but I just couldn’t do it. After three horrific days, I’d finally had enough. “What the fuck is all this about?” I said. “Why is Valtronic after me? What the hell do you guys want with me?”

Beside me, Ponytail coughed. “Hey,” he said. “Easy…” He looked to Kiro, but the older man waved him off. Olivia chuckled. The guy I’d met on campus – well, he glared at me.

“You have a lot of questions,” Kiro said. “That’s understandable. The short of it, Rainey, is that Valtronic wants very much to get it’s dirty little hands on you.”

“But why? That makes no sense.”

“We thought the same,” Kiro said, glancing at Ponytail. “Until this morning.”

This morning? The hell? How long was I out for?

“Imagine our surprise,” Kiro continued, “when JJ here couldn’t remember anything about rescuing you. Couldn’t tell us a single thing, even though he’d already told us the whole story when he arrived with you last night.”

Crap. I’d forgotten I touched him. Still, what did it matter if they knew? I didn’t get the connection. I’d been this way for the last six years. How could my talent be what Valtronic was after?

“What’s your point?” I said.

Kiro smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He leaned closer to me, close enough that I could smell the tobacco on his clothes, and said, “did you think you were the only one?”

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It felt like ice water seeping into my brain.

I coughed out of shock and grabbed my head. I’d felt pain before – was intimately familiar with it – but this was different, something else entirely. I shivered and dropped to my knees. The vial of Vert slipped between my fingers.

Would this kill me? After everything I’d been through, after all the times I should’ve died but didn’t, was this really how it all ended? I laughed. In a way, it would be fitting.

Six years later and Vert had finally come back to finish the job.

My laugh turned to a cry of pain. I could feel the cold spread like a stain on my mind, numbing it, clouding my sight and freezing my limbs.

And just when I thought my mind might snap under the strain, the cold ceased, the feeling slowly receding from my head. I gasped for air, marveling in the fuzzy pain-free moment, and felt tears of relief drip from the corners of my eyes. But the break was short-lived. As the intense chill dissipated, it left a fierce burn in its wake, setting my nerves ablaze.

I screamed, opening my eyes wide, as if I could somehow release the pain from my mind.

That’s when I saw it. A layer of blue light resting on top of the room, a second skin sitting just above the surface. The Grid. It sparkled, vibrating with energy. I looked closer and realized it wasn’t just one sheet of light, but instead thousands of tiny strands, all interconnected, pulsing from one end of the room to the other. Certain objects stood out in my mind, somehow brighter than the rest – the TV, the alarm clock, the thermostat.

Unlike the other strands, the strands of light connecting these objects weren’t measly lines, but thick cords. So thick, they seemed almost solid. And while they were linked to each other, they were also linked to me, as if they were spokes and I was the center of some massive wheel.

I reached out with my hand.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that the pain had gone. I didn’t care. Or maybe it was more realistic to say, I couldn’t care. My brain was processing things on a level beyond my understanding. The pain, my thoughts of last night – I’d wanted it all to end and my mind had simply made it happen.

It was amazing, but I was too focused on the lines of light to pay it much attention. The cords seemed so solid, so real. Real enough to –

My fingers grazed the band connecting myself to the thermostat and the light bent under my touch. On the wall, the digital display flickered, the “74 degrees” dropping to a “72.” The air conditioning unit kicked into life behind me.

I whipped my hand back in shock, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew the power of Vert, knew what it could do. After all, there was a reason the government had delayed banning it for as long as they had.

In a world where everything was wireless and connected to the internet, Vert was the ultimate tool. A user-electronic interface. A mind-connection, not only to all your wireless devices, but the internet itself.

Video games, first person shooters? Now you were there, in the thick of it, armor on, blasting aliens away. Shopping? Now you could try on clothes from the comfort of your own bed. Movies? You were in them.

The potential was endless.

Unfortunately, so too, were the means of abuse.

In the end, it had taken five public deaths, a handful of suicides and a growing underground drug trade to drop the axe on Vert. Valtronic had taken the biggest hit. I remembered catching glimpses of the story in the newspaper scraps I found on the streets. Thousands of employees let go. The release of the government sanctions.

It hadn’t done much good. Vert was bigger than ever now and it would only continue to spread.

I spent the next few hours testing my limits with the drug, floating through the Grid, keeping my other thoughts shelved and out of my mind. I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep, but I remember what woke me.

Knock, knock, knock.

I opened my eyes, wiped the drool off my cheek. The bedside clock read 8:13 PM.

It came again.

Knock, knock, knock.

Someone was at the door.

My hand reached under the pillow. It was instinctual, as automatic as breathing – something born from years on the streets. Back when I still slept with my Browning 9 mm, that’s where I’d kept it. But I’d pawned that old gun ages ago. My hand came up empty and for the second time in two days, I cursed my own complacency.

How could I ever let myself get into this situation?

I scrambled off the bed and quickly gathered my things, throwing most of what I owned into my backpack, all the while trying to remain quiet.

I was still coming down from the Vert I’d taken. The cords of light, now mere wisps, spiraled out from my body and I tracked their targets. There was a new connection now, one I didn’t recognize. A single line pointing from my chest and passing out through the doorway.

Connecting to whoever was on the other side.

I tested it, reaching out to grab hold, but got no response. I didn’t expect to. It was the one unbreakable constant of Vert use: users were safe from other users. They claimed it had something to do with the complexity of the human mind. I didn’t know about that, but whatever the reason, not even the best hackers could figure a way though. It was a lucky thing, really. The drug was dangerous enough as it was.

I threw my backpack over my shoulder and moved to the back window, all the while keeping my eyes on the new strand of light.

Who was out there? Had Jake found me? Beef Cake? Were they here for the drugs I’d snatched? I glanced at the desk and, after a moment of indecision, swiped the remaining vials into my pocket.

The card reader at the door buzzed.

My heart dropped out of my chest. I stood, frozen in place, as the door opened an inch, only to get caught on the security chain. I heard someone curse and then a hand slid through the opening, trying to rip the chain free.

I didn’t have time to think. Despite my racing pulse and the sweat forming on my forehead, I reached up and slid open the window. It was a tight fit, barely three feet across. Clearly not made for late night escapes. I managed to wiggle my body through and was completely outside, dangling from the window ledge, when I met resistance. At first, I thought it was whoever had broken into my hotel room, grabbing hold of me, preventing me from dropping to the walkway below. Then I realized it was my backpack. One of the straps had caught on the window frame.

There was a loud crash behind me. I looked over my shoulder. Whoever was out there was kicking the door, trying to break the chain free. I didn’t have much time. I pressed my feet against the side of the hotel and pushed, using my body weight to pry my backpack free. It didn’t budge. There was another crash from inside and this time I heard something splinter.

“Stop!” someone shouted. A man’s voice. “Wait!”

It was now or never. I pushed again, harder. I heard a tear, but instead of freeing the backpack like I’d hoped, it split down the middle. I dropped the four feet onto the walkway below, everything I’d ever owned raining down on me from above. The cash I’d saved up, my clothes, my fake ID.

And Alice.

Overhead, the man had reached the window and was starting to climb through. I got a quick look at him. It wasn’t Jake or Beef Cake. That scared me more than I thought it would. Who else was after me?

I looked at the money I’d saved, floating down, some hitting the ground below, some blowing away in the wind. It would take forever to build up that much cash again. If I left without it, I could kiss my trip West goodbye.

In the end, I didn’t have a choice.

I scooped up Alice and ran, just as the man came crashing down onto the railing behind me.

“Stop!” he called out again. “You don’t understand, I’m trying to help you.”

He sounded out of breath and I heard him slow down behind me. Could I trust him? I wanted to say no. Trust never did anyone any good, especially me. But against my better judgment, I stopped at the end of the walkway and turned around.

He was tall, about six three, and wearing a long black jacket that fell to his knees. Part of his hair was tied up in a ponytail. The rest fell down around his eyes. I nicknamed him Ponytail in my mind.

He raised his hands in a plea for me not to run.

“Listen. I know this looks bad. Busting down your door, chasing you from your room. I get it. In hindsight, probably not the best first impression.”

“Oh, you think? Are you insane!” I looked at his outfit again: trench coat, black jeans, hiking boots. It wasn’t exactly climate-appropriate.  “Crap. You are insane, aren’t you?”

“Right, not insane… but here’s the thing: you need to come with me.”

I started to back away.

“Wait! They’re already on their way and they won’t stop ‘til they have you.”

That made me pause.

“Who? Jake?”

His eyes narrowed. “What? No. Valtronic’s men.”

“The Vert company? Why the -”

“Look, we don’t have time.” Ponytail looked over his shoulder. “You’re just gonna have to trust me.” He reached for my hand and his sleeve slid up, exposing his wrist. A black band was strapped below his elbow. And it was connected to…

“You’re a Jockey,” I said. It wasn’t a question. He glanced down at his wrist, at the small silver disc attached to his armband, and cursed under his breath.

He looked up at me. “I can explain that -”

Tires squealed against the parking lot asphalt. I tore my eyes away from Ponytail and spotted a black SUV swerving toward us in the distance. I fully expected to see Ponytail smirk at the car’s arrival, but that wasn’t the case. He looked tired and slightly afraid.

“Run!” He took off down the walkway, heading right for me. “Run, run, run, girly!”

Despite my misgivings, I followed his lead. “How do I know they’re not with you?” I shouted over the noise of our feet on the walkway.

A crack echoed in the darkness, followed by two more. Over my shoulder, I caught sparks ignite off the metal walkway beside us.

Holy shit. They were shooting at us.

Beside me, Ponytail actually laughed. “That answer your question?”

We hit the end of the walkway and jumped down the flight of stairs to the ground. Two more shots rang out behind us and two more sparks lit up the night, both too close for comfort.

I glanced over my shoulder. The SUV was almost on us. At this rate, we’d never outrun it. We needed to do something and fast.

That’s when I noticed the thin blue line connecting me to the car. Whatever dose of Vert I’d taken, it was fading quickly. The lines that had once been bright blue, were now barely visible. I tried anyway. Mentally, I pulled on the connection, hoping to do something, anything, but nothing happened. I cursed under my breath, my feet moving at a whirl to keep pace with Ponytail.

Beside me, Ponytail tapped something out on his disc. There was a confirmation beep and then it changed, enlarging, spreading down his arm, until it formed a small keypad of dull blue light.

Could he hack into the SUV?

Frantically, I gestured over my shoulder at the car, then mimed typing. He seemed to understand my meaning. “No,” Ponytail shouted, before slowing to a stop on the asphalt. “Not yet, at least.”

What! Was he insane? Just who the hell was this guy?

But I already knew the answer. He was a keyboard jockey. A hacker. There were a lot of them these days, what with the resurgence of Vert on the streets. Most worked in groups. And I had a sinking suspicion I knew which one he was part of.

Ponytail’s fingers glided over the digital keyboard. He typed some codes, cursed and then smashed his fist against the pad.

The black SUV was right on top of him, barely twenty yards away. He had seconds, maybe, before he was roadkill.

“Get out of the way!” I screamed.

But he stood his ground. He didn’t even flinch as he raised his hand, palm forward, and violently shoved it to the side. As if mirroring his movements, the SUV turned rapidly. There was an eerie screech, followed by a loud pop as the front tires blew. The back end of the car slid forward until it was horizontal with the front, then it flipped – once, twice, three times – before skidding along the ground, sending sparks and shards of glass flying into the air.

The wreck streaked toward Ponytail and he casually stepped to the side. “Gotta love electronic steering,” he said, before turning back to me. “Come on. That won’t stop them for long.”

I laughed, mostly out of shock from what I’d just seen. The car was a smoldering disaster. No one would climb out of that thing anytime soon – if ever. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I don’t kid, girly. Not about crazies coming after us with bullets.”

He grabbed my hand, and in the moment, I was too spellbound to pull away. I felt his hand on my own, felt that spark that had become all too familiar to me, and knew that wherever he took me, there would be a lot of explaining to be done.

On both ends.

We ran.

Three blocks away we broke into what appeared to be an old factory district and Ponytail made some calls. His people were on their way, whatever that meant, and I was doing some deciding of my own. Run or stay.

On one hand, I had lost everything I’d owned. I had no money, no clothes, no identification. Nothing to fall back on and nowhere to go. On the other hand, I had a stranger – a Jockey for hire – who was dangerous at best, suicidal at worst, and a team of criminals on their way to pick us up.

Besides that, I had a million questions. What the hell was going on? Why was Valtronic after me? And what exactly did this hacker group want with me? I wouldn’t get answers by running. But then, I wasn’t sure I wanted them.

I heard Ponytail end another call and turned to face him.

“What’s next,” I found myself asking.

“Next?” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Well, what comes next you probably won’t like.”


I stiffened, ready to bolt, but it was too late. Before I could react, Ponytail whipped out a thin metal rod and jabbed me in the chest.

A surge of electricity ripped through me and I barely had time to scream before everything went black.

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I woke the next morning to the smell of animal fat and bacon grease. I could hear the stove sizzling, the clank of pots and pans, and knew Kevin was up and about just outside the door. Despite the hunger pains from missing dinner last night, I fought the urge to run out there and inhale some breakfast; the last thing I wanted to do was get out of bed. Not only would seeing Kevin drudge up memories of last night – memories I was more than happy to forget – but it would inevitably lead to my least favorite game: fifty questions. Why he couldn’t remember anything. How he’d earned himself his shiny purple jaw. All questions I wasn’t prepared to answer.

I pulled the covers up over my head, making a makeshift fort like I used to as a kid. Then I cursed under my breath.

Normally, morning-after explanations were easy. Mostly because I never stuck around long enough to have to deal with them. And if I had just sucked it up last night and handled things on my own, that would have been the case today. But I’d been weak; I hadn’t wanted to be alone. Even though I knew (better than anyone, really) that morning would have to come eventually and when it did, I’d be left to explain things.

Now that the time had come, I hoped to postpone the conversation as long as possible.

I pulled the sheets tighter over my head. I wanted to stay there forever, and I would have. Maybe.

But Kevin’s alarm clock had other plans.

It blared to life, it’s wail stabbing my eardrums. I flailed my arms out from beneath the sheets, blindly hitting things on the bed-side dresser, hoping to silence it. Something fell to the ground with a crack and I groaned. It sounded expensive.

The wail died out. The bedroom door creaked open, a splinter of light filtering into the room.

I pulled the sheets down to my shoulders and saw Kevin poke his head inside.

“Er… you okay in here?”

“Yeah, all good.” I frowned. “I think I might’ve broken your alarm clock, though.”

Kevin looked at the ground. “Nope. That would be a family photo.”

“Ah, crap.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s just the frame.” He paused for a moment, and I braced myself. Here it was. The inevitable death by question in 3…2…

But the barrage never came. Instead, Kevin nodded torward the bathroom and said, “when you’re ready, there’s breakfast.” Then he slipped back outside, leaving me to wonder what the hell had just happened.

How was he so calm about everything?

I did some quick mental math. Memory loss plus a bruised face plus a random girl in your bed? Yeah, that trifecta usually earned you some questions, or at least a lingering sense of confusion. I shrugged. Maybe blacking out and getting into fights was a normal Saturday night for Kevin.

Either way, I decided to just go with it. I’d drive myself crazy otherwise. If Kevin wanted answers, he’d ask. Eventually.

I pulled the sheets aside and rolled out of bed. I felt stiff, beaten down, like I’d been hit by a run-away semi. And really, I pretty much had been. I half stretched, half limped my way to the bathroom. It was a tiny little room, shaped like a triangle tilted on its side. The tiles sported some serious grunge, the walls the beginnings of some mildew. I squeezed through the narrow doorway, splashed some water on my face, and got a good look at myself in the mirror.

I hadn’t slept much last night and my face had clearly thanked me for it. The bags under my eyes were larger and darker now. My eyes themselves, normally a deep hazel, seemed somehow deader. But what drew my attention most was the dark welt on my lower lip. It seemed to be having a tough time deciding whether it wanted to be yellow, purple, or black. I ran my hand over it and winced.

Without warning, an image from last night flashed past my eyes, like an old-school film strip played out in my head. I saw Beef Cake behind me. I could feel the heat radiating off of him, could taste his sweat-slicked palm as it closed around my mouth. His other hand roamed my body…

A wave of revulsion hit me. I lurched toward the toilet, a bead of sweat dribbling down my forehead as I leaned over and dry-heaved. My blonde curls fell over my eyes and I ran my hand back through my hair, before resting my head against the wall.

It was all starting to hit me. Everything from last night. Thoughts, images, sounds. Old memories and new ones. And Kevin not remembering, though par for the course for me, was the kicker.

I was so incredibly broken.

The urge to flee hit me full force right then. I pushed myself to my feet, swayed, then walked back into Kevin’s bedroom. I’d hidden the money and baggie I’d taken off Beef Cake in a crook underneath the bedframe. I hadn’t gotten a chance to look inside the bag. In reality, I hadn’t wanted to. Not then, at least.

I retrieved the items and stuffed them back into my shirt. Then I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, wincing slightly from the bruise, and walked out into the common room. Kevin was sitting at a table, chewing on a piece of bacon. He looked up as I entered and gestured to a plate of eggs.

I shook my head. I was barely holding it together. “I’ve gotta go, Kevin.”

He frowned and pointed to his jaw. It was an ugly shade of blue. “Are you even going to tell me how I got this?”

I looked away from him, avoiding his eyes. I thought about everything he had done for me: offered me a place to crash, given me his own bed, come to protect me against Beef Cake. And what had I given him? Memory loss and a sucker punch to the face.

I was truly an asshole.

I looked him dead in the eyes.

He was the type of guy that under different circumstances – if I had been different – I might have ended up with. But I wasn’t foolish enough to think anything like that would ever happen for me now. In the end, the best thing I could give him would be lies.

Sometimes remembering was the worst burden of all.

“You fell,” I said. “When we were walking.”

Another flash. A hand pulling up my skirt.

“I fell,” he said.


He pointed at my lip. “So what, you fell too?”

Cold air between my legs, a hand inching upward.

“You-” I started. “You were drunk. You, ah…”

The pull of a zipper, the pressure against my back.

“Christ, are you okay?” Kevin said.

I was vaguely aware of him getting up and walking over to me. I didn’t realize what he was talking about at first, then I noticed I was shaking.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You can talk to me. ” He stepped closer. “What really happened last night? I can’t remember a damn thing.”

He reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, but it wasn’t his hand anymore. It was Beef Cake’s. It was reaching up to my hair, tugging me around, pushing me down onto the hood of that car.

“Fuck off!” I shouted, as I shoved him away from me. He jerked backward, losing his balance in the process, and tripped over his chair. He hit the ground with a dull thud, eyes wide as saucers.

I looked down on him and felt my cheek run wet.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Okay? But that’s just what happened.”

“Rainey, wait. I -”

I ran past him and out of the door.


It was ten past noon when I arrived back at Ritas, Beef Cake’s cash tucked safely away in my cleavage. The concierge at the front glanced up as I entered the lobby, having just peeled her face from the pages of a book. She smiled and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, then opened her mouth slightly as she got a good look at my tear-stained cheeks, my dirt-covered clothes and the green jutting from my chest. I shrugged and tried to give her my best “these things happen” look. I wasn’t sure she bought it.

She pushed her glasses back up her nose. “You missed morning checkout, ma’m. We have to charge you for the day today.”

I was moments away from coming undone at the seams. I couldn’t be fucked to deal with this. I reached into my shirt and pulled out a handful of wrinkled bills, tossing them out onto the counter.

Her eyes grew big. “Ma’m,” she said, as she started to sift through the cash. “This is too much.”

I walked to the elevator.

“Excuse me, Ma’m!”

I pressed the button to my floor.


I sat on the bed in my hotel room, Alice open on my lap, and scribbled down word after horrible word. I couldn’t focus on anything else; I needed these thoughts out of my head, and I needed them out now.

Alice was the only way I knew how.

I’d had Alice with me since the beginning. Ever since I first discovered what had happened to me all those years ago. She had gotten me through the worse of it. Each and every moment, each and every day.

Until now.

The writing wasn’t helping. My thoughts still waged war inside my battered skull. I tried to keep going, tried to push on, but my hand shook violently with each loop of the pen. Worse yet, I kept getting flashes of Beef Cake – his massive form on top of me, that piercing look in his eyes.

I squeezed the pen tighter, hoping to control the shaking. Tighter still, until with another squeeze, there was a crunch and the ink exploded onto my lap and Alice.

“Damnit!” I screamed. I threw the cracked pen across the room, where it bounced off the wall, before landing on the desk in the corner. A thin trail of ink leaked across the lacquered finish, winding its way toward the small silver vials I had laid out there.

Vert. The baggie had been filled with them.

My fingers twitched. I closed my eyes tight, trying desperately to push the thoughts of last night from my mind. But every time I did, I saw images played out across my eyelids.

In that moment, I didn’t care about my history with the drug. I didn’t care about what it might do to me. I didn’t care about anything at all.

I just wanted to forget, needed to forget. Just this once.

I picked up one of the vials and twisted off the top. Then I tilted my head back and put two drops into each of my eyes.

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Believe it or not, this wasn’t that uncommon.

When you did what I did for a living, it was merely a hazard of the job. Something you had to prepare for, sure, but most of the time, easily dealt with.

You know how it goes.

A bit of flirting here. Some cleavage shots there. The next thing you know, you’re walking away scot-free, beer in hand, ready to hit the town. It was amazing how far a little memory loss could get you. And that was mostly the case here. Jake wouldn’t remember. Of that much, I felt certain. But the big beef cake in front of me? He could cause some trouble.

I’d have to spin this.

“Hey!” I said, adding a bit of slur to my voice. I swiped the pack of cigarettes out of his hand and lit up. “So, this is awkward…”

Beef Cake stiffened and Jake walked up beside him. He was still staring at me, but it wasn’t just a “Hey, I think we had sex once,” stare. No. This was different.

Something wasn’t right here.

I glanced around and took some comfort from the others in line. These two might be wastes of space, but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t start anything with this many people around to witness.

As if to test my theory, Beef Cake stepped closer. He must have been at least six foot four, two-fifty. I’d been in worse situations, sure. But if he was going for menacing, it was working. “I think you owe us some money,” he said, then added, “slut.”

My eyes whipped up to meet his. It felt like I’d been slapped. Not from the word – I’d been called much worse – but from the suggestion. Did they know? How could they? And what did he mean, owe us? None of this made any sense.

I didn’t even have to fake confusion.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “It was just sex – and bad sex at that.” I flicked my cigarette to the ground, glaring at Jake as I did, and snubbed it out with the bottom of my shoe. Then I walked away.

At least, I tried.

Beef Cake grabbed my wrist and squeezed. Hard. “You stupid bitch, we -”

Suddenly, it was as if the music had cut off. The couple beside me stopped making out and looked over. The others in line started to take interest as well. Beef Cake shrugged off their glances. He leaned in close, dropping his voice to a low growl. “We know. Now give us the money.”

A shiver ran down my spine. All at once, I noticed just how loud the music was, how disorienting the strobe lights were.

How empty, my pockets.

It’d been years since I carried anything with me on these runs. Mace, knives, tasers. I simply hadn’t needed them. Things had gotten so…easy, so certain. And now here I was. Cornered, frightened. Hoping others would do my fighting for me. I wanted to believe I’d left all this behind.

The trouble was – I was beginning to think I never could.

I shelved those thoughts and leveled my best death stare at Beef Cake. “Let go of me,” I said. “Now.” I tugged at my arm, but his gorilla fingers didn’t let up.

Instead, he turned to Jake, who seemed to be having some kind of silent fit, and nudged him. “Get a grip, moron. You know it’s her. You saw the video.”

Video? Wha-

And then it all made sense. When I’d gone to the bathroom that night – the asshole – he must have taped me. And if that was the case, if they really had a recording of it all, then they’d know everything. They’d know I’d drugged Jake. They’d know I’d stolen his money.

Everything had just gotten a hell of lot worse.

“I…” Jake said, “I don’t…” His eyes shifted from me to Beef Cake, his forehead creased with uncertainty.

I knew the look. I’d seen it before, on other post-hookup run-ins. He was trying to connect the dots, trying to reconcile the girl he saw in front of him with the bits and pieces of last night. Me with the girl from the video.

He stared right through me, as if he were looking at a ghost. And really, he was. I was something lost to his dreams. Something he couldn’t quite grasp. Under different circumstances, I might have felt bad for him.

But right now, pity wasn’t high on the list of things I needed to worry about.

This was bad.

And it could only get worse from here. I chanced another look at Beef Cake. His eyes met my own and I saw it there. Certainty. Not just about last night, about who I was and what I’d done, but also about now – what I was going to do.

I raised my voice a little louder than necessary, playing to the room.

“I said let go of me, asshole.”

A trio of guys from the front of the line looked back at us. They’d been watching my exchange with Beef Cake and I’d wondered what it would take to get them involved. This seemed to have done the trick. They left the line and walked toward us.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Check mate.

“Is there a problem here?” the guy in front said. He was tall, about six-three and well built. He wore tight fitting gray jeans and a button down half-tucked into his belt.

Beef Cake glanced between us and smirked. He knew he was beaten. Slowly, and with a bit of flair, he let go of my hand and raised his own in the jive for relax. “No, no problem here, man,” he said.

“Good. Now why don’t you step away from the girl.”

I rubbed my wrist. It was raw where the goon’s fingers had dug into me. I looked back at him. He was still watching me with that stupid smirk plastered across his face, as if to say, “Yeah, I know, sweetie. Better watch your back.”

“You okay?”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and it took me a second to realize who it was. The new guy. My White Knight. He seemed genuinely concerned and I knew I should have been more thankful – he had, after all, just saved my ass – but I couldn’t be bothered. I was still reeling over what had happened. I’d been found out, and there was a video of it, to boot.

After years of sliding by without a hitch, I wasn’t prepared for something like this. For once, I didn’t know what to do.

My only thought was to run.

“Yeah,” I said, not taking my eyes of Beef Cake. “Thanks.”

I walked back down the hallway until I was sure I was out of sight, then I broke into a run. My head was spinning. My composure broken. I barely noticed as I shouldered past people, squeezing my way through the crowd toward the exit of the club.

I couldn’t remember ever being claustrophobic, but right then, I felt the weight of everyone around me. They pressed in from all sides, loud and drunk and toxic, their mere presence suffocating. Suddenly, I couldn’t get out fast enough.

I needed to leave. Skip town. I wouldn’t be able to pull any more jobs in Jacksonhole. As for the video? I’d have to hope Jake was too nervous to show it to people. It was, after all, an attempted sex tape. There had to be some law against that, right? The last thing I needed was for that to go viral.

I broke through the crowd of students at the door and breathed in the night air. It smelled faintly of chocolate. Some peculiar side effect of the downtown factories, I figured. I hugged myself tight against the cold and looked around. I knew I was only a mile or two from the hotel, but I hadn’t counted on it being so dark out. Everything looked the same. Even the cross signs looked foreign.


I tried to focus, but failed miserably. I kept getting flashes of Jake, of last night. The frat house. His room. The laptop? How had I missed that?

Overhead, the street light changed from red to green and I caught sight of one of the downtown lofts. I had no idea why, but it seemed familiar. Either way, it was as good a lead as any. I was getting antsy just standing there.

I took off down the street, angling between apartment buildings. Two blocks away, some construction forced me to change directions. I looked up, checking to make sure I was at least getting closer to the loft, then cut into a nearby parking lot.

It was pitch black, the only lighting at all coming from the nearby work site. So as I walked, I squinted, barely catching glimpses of the cars as I passed them. Really, the only indication I was making any headway at all was the grainy crunch of my shoes against the gravel.

I guessed I was about halfway through the lot when I heard something that made my stomach turn.

A second set of crunches.

I glanced over my shoulder, but couldn’t make anything out in the darkness. My heart raced. The crunches grew louder.

I ran.

Whoever it was, I could hear him now, breathing, panting. He was close. Almost on top of me. I pumped my legs harder, but it was no use. I felt fingers rake acoss my shirt. There was a tug and I was whipped onto my back, hitting my head against the gravel.

Then he was on me. It was Beef Cake, and he was laughing. I kicked and scratched, screaming for him to get off me, but he didn’t stop. Instead, he wound up and slapped me full across the face.

I went silent. Blood leaked into the corner of my mouth where he’d cut my lip. I could taste it, bitter and metalic.

“You sure did a number on Jake,” he said, wagging a finger at me. “But you don’t fool me.”

“Look,” I managed to say, though his weight was making it hard to breath. “I don’t have the money on me.”

He smiled. “No?”

“I can get it. Okay? Just let me go.”

He pretended to think about it, but I knew the truth. This wasn’t about the money. I could smell the liquor on his breath, could feel his excitement through his pants, pressing up against me.

He’d never let me go. The thought hit me like a sucker punch.

I shouldn’t have been rational then. I should have been a quivering shell of a girl, ready to beg, or maybe, to give up. But in that moment, caught at wits end, I started to think straight. At least, more clearly. Maybe it was the head-jolt knocking some sense into me. Maybe it was simply fear of what was to come if I didn’t get away. Whatever the reason, suddenly, my brain started working. I knew what I needed to do.

I searched the ground with my hands, as Beef Cake looked down at me, eyeing my way-too-short skirt.

“I think we can find a different way to settle your debt.”

I smiled up at him and said, “I think you can go fuck yourself.”

In one fluid motion, I grabbed hold of the rock and struck Beef Cake across the jaw with it. There was a loud crack and he fell to the side, cursing.

I didn’t waste any time. I rolled out from beneath him and scrambled to my feet. My mind was racing. I could barely process it all, barely felt my feet beneath me. So when I ran, ignoring the blood dripping down my cheek and the sight of Beef Cake getting up behind me, I was thankful my instincts knew what to do.

Unfortunately, the feeling didn’t last.

Despite his size, Beef Cake was fast. He caught up to me and threw me into the nearest car.

“You stupid bitch,” he said, his voice slurred. “Now you’re gonna get it.”

Before I could react, he grabbed my hair and spun me around, bending me over the hood. His other hand snaked its way around my mouth, turning my scream into a muffled whimper.

Without mercy, memories, old and horrible, flooded my mind. A dark alleyway. An old restaurant. Another hand, dirty and sinister, clutched around my mouth. Stop! I couldn’t focus. Image after image sped past my eyes, a slideshow I couldn’t look away from.

I started to beg and he laughed, his hand shifting from my hair to my ass. I felt him tug my skirt up to my waist, felt the chill air on my exposed skin. And when his hand slid between my legs, I truly wanted to die.

I was ready to give up, then I heard it.

Someone running on the gravel.

“Hey! Get the fuck away from her!”

Kevin? How-?

Beef Cake lifted himself off me and I slid down the hood. I looked up just in time to see Kevin take a wild swing. He missed badly, losing his balance in the process, and when Beef Cake returned the punch, he wasn’t ready.

It was over in an instant. With a sickening thump, Kevin went limp and collapsed.

But I hadn’t been idle.

Beef Cake turned around and I saw his mouth open in surprise as I whipped my leg forward  and kicked him in the knee. It snapped backward at a grotesque angle and he fell to the ground.

“Fuck,” he screamed, trying to get to his feet. “I’m going to -”

I didn’t give two shits what he was going to do. I took a running start and lashed out with my leg, kicking him straight in the face. This time, he went down for good. All two-hundred and fifty pounds of him.

It was over.

I walked back to the car and slid down the side. I wanted to cry, but I bit my lip to stop myself. I was stronger than that.

Next to me, Kevin started to moan. I knew he’d wake soon, so I got up and kneeled by Beef Cake, suppressing the urge to spit on him. I padded down his jeans. His wallet was there, in his back pocket, but there was something else, tucked neatly into his waist. A baggie of some sort.

“Ow. Shit… Rainey?”

I glanced over my shoulder. Kevin was getting to his feet, clutching his jaw. Quickly, I slid the baggie and the cash from the Beef Cake’s wallet inbetween my cleavage. Then I walked over and helped Kevin up.

“Damn,” He said, looking at me and then at Beef Cake. He whistled. “Nice work.”

I tried to smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. I reached out and touched the side of his face. It was already started to swell. “You okay?”

He laughed. “I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be asking you that,” he said.

I shrugged. “How did you find me?”

“Mark saw you leave the club. He said you looked upset, so I went after you.”


Kevin grew serious. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“What do you think?” He said, as he dialed three numbers and placed the phone to his ear. “I’m calling the police.”


I grabbed the phone out of his hand and ended the call, ignoring the look of utter surprise  he gave me. How could I explain this? I’d made it this far by laying low, flying under the radar. The last thing I needed now was the police to be involved. And that’s not even to mention the money and what I was pretty sure were drugs stashed between my tits.

Police? Yeah, screw that.

“Look,” I said slowly. “I don’t want the cops involved.”

“Are you crazy? That guy just tried to -”

“I know. I know.” I raised my hands. “I just… I can’t deal with it right now, Okay? Just get me out of here. Please.”

Kevin looked at me for a long moment, then finally nodded. “Alright,” he said. “But we’re going to at least report it to the school tomorrow.”

I gave him a sad smile. Tomorrow would be too late. When he woke, his jaw would hurt like a bitch and he’d have a splitting headache, but he wouldn’t remember anything about tonight.

I only wished I would be so lucky.

“Okay, Kevin.”

He seemed satisfied. I handed him back his phone and he slipped it into his jeans. Then he looked at me and said, “Where do you live? I’m walking you home.”

I shifted uncomfortably. “Can we go to your place? I, ah… I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

It was the truth, and I hated myself for it.

Kevin put his arm around me and I beat down the urge to flinch.

“Sure, Rainey. Whatever you want.”

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I didn’t set alarms when I stayed in hotels. It ruined the luxury.

Rita’s might not be five stars, but it beat the hell out of the back seat of a six-wheeler or the alleyway of some drugged-up addict who didn’t care I was thirteen. Those first few years had been a struggle of will. In and out of shelters, on and off the streets. These were better days now. I’d learned enough in the last six years – not to mention grown curves and a pair of tits – that it wasn’t very often I slept on the streets anymore. Still, any hotel, any space of my own? That was a luxury. And a shower? That was priceless.

So when I woke up at noon, I didn’t bother getting up. I never ran a job during the day, and the college town wouldn’t recover from last night’s bender until much, much later. For better or worse, I had time to kill.

My backpack lay on the ground beside the bed and I grabbed my copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The cover had torn long ago, but the pages, worn and crinkled and dog-eared, felt good in my hands. Familiar. Besides my clothes and the essentials, Alice was the only thing I kept with me.

It was the last book I had read as Rainey Sullivan. Back then, I’d felt a lot like Alice. Tossed down the rabbit hole into some strange world where nothing seemed to make sense anymore. Alice had survived, and I think, deep down, that she had kept me alive those first few months too. My only constant when everyone else seemed to forget me.

I was just Rainey now.

I leaned back in bed and leafed through the book, losing myself in the pages. My own notes littered the margins. A journal of sorts, except, it felt like someone else was listening. Someone who wouldn’t leave me. Childish, I know. But once I started writing to Alice, I never had the heart to stop.

I glanced at one of the notes, scribbled in tear-stained ink. The page more worn than the others.


The shelter was closed today. It rained and snowed and I thought I might die outside. I broke into a restaurant through the alleyway door. A homeless man must have seen me because before I knew it he was there behind me, his dirty hand clenched around my mouth. He pressed me against one of the tables. Oh, god Alice, his other hand… I almost gave up. Then I thought of you. I kicked my leg back and he must have felt that because he gasped for air and fell to his knees. I ran, Alice. I ran.



I cringed and flipped the page. I wasn’t that girl anymore. I never would be again.

Most of the day passed that way. Me in bed, reading and remembering. I almost didn’t realize when the bedside clock struck 9 PM. Sliding out from beneath the covers, I stashed Alice and got dressed, ready to hit the town once more.

It was still too early for the clubs, so I settled and went bar hopping instead. The first two I hit, JAX along Main street and Thirsty Pete a block from campus, were dead and dry. Not a soul in sight. I would’ve had a better shot robbing the cash register than finding someone to take me home. But the next one – well, third time’s the charm, ladies.

McGee’s Irish Pub looked like it might explode at the hinges. Drunk students overflowed onto the side streets. They ducked between cars, gave the finger to the cops hovering nearby, and started random fights with townies. I bobbed and weaved through the crowd, heading for the entrance. A seedy little tavern, McGee’s was set off from the rest of the street by a thin strip of hedges. I squeezed between the bushes, ignoring the branches that scraped against my arms, and flashed the bouncer my fake ID.

Jessica Weber. California. 21 years old.

It was a tiny piece of plastic, but easily the best investment I ever made. What you could call a game changer.

You see, when I first started out, I was only hitting Frats. It was perfect. No planning necessary. There was never a lack of alcohol and certainly no limit to the number of drunk jocks willing to take my bait.

Easy peasy.

Then I realized my mistake. It wasn’t the Frat stars who played beer pong and fought over Super Smash Bros that carried the most cash. No. To get the best bang for my buck, I needed to go where the money was. And that, my friends, was the bars and clubs.

Even still, I had a soft spot for the Frats. I always tried to hit at least one per town. They simply felt more homey.

I pocketed my ID and walked inside. Immediately, the stench of stale beer and cigarettes assaulted me. It would have been bearable, if not for the horrible jam band on stage. They were the triple threat.

I gritted my teeth, wishing I’d drank a little more before heading out, and worked my way through the crowd of bodies toward the bar. It was slow going. You try pushing your way through a crowd without your hands. Seriously, try it sometime. It’s not exactly a walk in the park.

Still, I’d found early on that the less people who turned up with amnesia, the better. No one would ask questions about three or four drunk kids blacking out. But half the bar? That might raise some concerns. Hence, hands in pockets.

And a long sleeve shirt.

After a bit of matrix-like dodging, I snagged a seat at the end of the counter, right across from the bartender. It was prime real estate, but I had no intention of buying a drink tonight.

“The professor’s actually really good. And it’s one of the pre-reqs for…”

The guy sitting next to me. Jabbing away about some class he was taking. I wasn’t sure which was worse. That he was talking about school at a bar, or that he was oblivious to the fact that the redhead he was with had dead eyes. You know the ones. Cold, distant. The ones that meant she’d zoned out ages ago. He droned on and she glanced around the room, probably searching for her friends – or a shotgun – whichever turned up first.

Poor sap.

I waited till he was distracted, then slipped his beer from out in front of him. Guiness. At least he had good taste. As I brought the glass to my lips, I glanced around the room, scoping for potential.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

I paused mid-sip and swiveled to the right.

The voice belonged to a guy about my age. He leaned on the bar, gesturing to my glass. I gave him a once over. Close cropped brown hair, a five o’clock shadow, button down shirt and tight-fitting black jeans.

Sure, I’ll play along.

“And why’s that?” I said.

He nodded to Guiness guy. “Looks like a drooler.”


“Definitely. May I?” He pointed to the beer.

“Go for it, chief.”

He leaned over and made a show of inspecting my glass. When he was finished, he shot me a grave look. “Just what I was worried about. That’s at least 83% backwash.”

I laughed and pushed a blonde strand out of my eyes. Was the banter really necessary? Probably not. But it was part of the fun. Interacting with people. That little taste of normal. I nodded and said, “I know.”

“You do?”

“Sure. It’s me, actually. I’ve got this drooling condition. Genetic, terrible. Sometimes, it just comes out in gallons. Like a faucet.”


“Unfortunate, I know. My ex, he…” I looked away, leaving the question hanging.


“The doctors. They called it an on-the-land drowning.”

He laughed, then looked at me funny. I wasn’t giving him anything. “You are kidding, right?”

I shrugged, sipping my beer.

“Huh,” he said. “Well… I guess we’ll have to skip the foreplay then.”

I smirked. “Okay, you pass. I’m Rainey.”


He shook my hand. The timer was set. It was on.


Kevin turned out to be a Junior. He was on the soccer team and lived on campus about four blocks away. His two roomates, Jimmy and Kyle, were both out of town.

He was also, as it turned out, incredibly popular.

Now, I never would have considered that a bad thing. In fact, usually it’s a solid sign that the guy is a human being and not a serial-rapist. But this time around, it was certainly making things more difficult.

“Kevo! Dude, you’ve got to come to UpBeat. It’s ridiculous over there.”

Mark. One of Kevin’s drunk soccer buddies. It was unreal. They just kept coming out of the woodwork, a never ending wave of fist-bumps and bro-hugs. The minute we worked our way past one, another popped up to take his place. I simply couldn’t escape them. They were infinite.

They were Legion.

And apparently, they were at the club across the street and it was RIDICULOUS over there. I wanted to shake this kid. The only thing that was going to be ridiculous was how far I was going to shove my foot up his –

“Come on, Kev,” Mark said. “Bring the girl. It’s awesome.”

“Nah man, I think we’re gonna call it a -”

“Screw that.” Mark grabbed Kevin and started whispering in his ear. I heard the words, “only ten minutes” and “get laid,” and then Kevin glanced back at me.

He gave me shifty eyes.


I checked the time. It was late and my options were crappy at best. I could either push my luck now, follow them to the club, or start over with someone else. I looked around. It was well into last call and the bar was already starting to clear out. Damn.

We went to UpBeat.

If McGee’s was the older woman, experienced and eager, yet not quite aged to perfection, UpBeat was the titillating young blonde, hopped up on Vert, her mind – and her legs – heinously open to persuasion. Brand new and top of the line, the club sat as a gem against the backdrop of a relatively awful social scene. Amusingly, it’s doors hung wide open.

We walked in and I told Kevin I’d meet him at the bar. Nature was calling. As I moved toward the back of the club, I took it all in. Despite the seizure-inducing strobe lights and what were sure to be the most expensive drinks on the planet, I had to admit – the place actually seemed fun. Sweaty masses of people crowded the dance floor, writhing to the music, arms and legs ringed by glow-in-the-dark bracelets. On stage, the DJ scratched out some Dubstep, techno crap. It blasted through the speakers, an ear-splitting wail that knocked people backward.

I cringed, but it had nothing to do with the music. I was really started to feel those beers.

Unfortunately, the bathroom I had bee-lined toward sported a line. I leaned up against the wall and crossed my legs, hoping that would do me miracles.  It didn’t help much. Neither did the guy next to me, who apparently had decided the bathroom couldn’t wait. I turned my back to him and caught the guy behind me lighting up.

“Hey,” I said, “Can I bum a smoke?”

“Sure, yeah.” He turned, handing me the lighter, then paused as we got a good look at each other. “No fucking way,” he said. “It’s you.”


It was one of the guys from the frat lawn.

And over his shoulder, mouth open, staring at me, was Jake.

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Jackson was a college town to outdrink all other college towns. I liked these podunk places. Not because I was a huge partier – I was – but because they were full of young, horny college boys decked out in lacrosse jerseys, Sperrys, and backwards caps with pre-frayed brims. Some called them pathetic. Others called them douchebags. Me? I called them easy. Whenever I blew through one of these towns, I knew I’d last another week on the road before having to scrounge for cash.

I’d arrived by way of my thumb and false pretenses. My trucker friend had taken one look at my dress, or the pieces of it, and figured his stick shift wasn’t the only stick about to get shifted. So who cares if I wasn’t exactly honest? A little pretend prostitution never hurt anyone. Still, he wasn’t happy when he figured me out. Almost threw my ass to the street, right there on I-90. And you know what I say to that? Screw him. He wouldn’t remember me tomorrow.

No one ever did.

I checked into Rita’s Sleep & Keep, a motel palace within walking distance of campus, and made the reservation for one night. I paid up front. Then, exhausted from the day’s events, I settled into my new digs. I’d stolen some tiny liquor bottles from the town over and I cracked them open and got a strong buzz going. The warmth felt good as it settled in my cheeks. It crept into my chest, wrestling with the chill of the room, and I let the familiar numbness take over. It carried me into the shower.

By the time 9 PM rolled around, I was ready.

Dressed in my best impression of Marilyn Monroe on meth, I left Rita’s and walked the three blocks into the heart of Jackson State University.

JSU was my 32nd college. Even so, I could still feel the prickles on the back of my neck. I watched the undergrads, drunk off their asses, as they shambled around campus. They laughed and shouted and hi-fived each other and a spark of excitement settled within me. An eagerness to jump in and play.

Ever since turning thirteen, I’d learned to live a day at a time. That’s how it had to be. But it bothered me how much I enjoyed these nighttime excursions. How much I longed for a little taste of normal. Even if what I did every night was anything but.

I shook my head and picked up the pace, idly fingering the heart-shaped locket around my neck. The engraving rolled under my touch: AJS. A reminder of a time when I didn’t have to play make-believe.

The next street over, the health services building came into view. Lights beat through slits in the blinds and a sign hung outside, nail-gunned to a post: Group Therapy Session, Tonight 10 PM. It was written in pink sharpie.

For a moment, I actually considered showing up, just for kicks, and imagined how that might turn out.

Hi everyone, my name’s Rainey and my touch is like a tall glass of Rohypnol.

Yeah. Just brilliant.

I figured to keep walking, but that’s when I saw him. He sat on the back steps, casual as all get out, a Menthol perched between two fingers. He gave me a once over and I got the distinct impression he didn’t have two shits to give in this world. Even the cigarette teetered between his digits, as if he dared it to fall and burn his crotch.

Naturally, I said hello.

He frowned at me. “You look mighty cold.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “You’ve got the ticket to warming me up?”

“Not really.” He took a drag and shrugged. “I worry about you girls, that’s all. Sometimes I think you forget it’s winter.”

“You girls?”

He gestured to my outfit. Tight skirt, plain white tee. Knee high socks. I called it my fly zapper. The boys set themselves ablaze.

“Most guys don’t seem to mind.”

He laughed and I hated myself for finding pleasure in the sound. “No,” he said, “I suppose most don’t.”

“And you?”

“I think someone has to mind. Pneumonia’s a much bigger killer than syphilis these days.”

It was my turn to laugh. “Ass.”

He smiled and took a long drag.

“Look,” I said. I gestured to my outfit. “All this? It’s not me, it’s -”

What the hell? What was I doing defending myself? To this guy? Two minutes ago I had the full intention of seducing and robbing him. What did I care what he thought of me? I looked at him. Really looked at him. He wasn’t particularly special. Decent looking, in a floppy hair cut, dark eyes, and torn up jeans sort of way, but nothing ground-breaking. Still, that look – that look threw me and I didn’t like it.

Maybe I was angry. Maybe I was tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Or maybe I just wanted one person in this world to wake up tomorrow and remember the interesting girl and the nothing conversation they’d had. I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, I walked away.

“You’re leaving?”

“You know how it goes.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Places to go, diseases to contract.”

He laughed and said, “stay warm.”

It was the last thing I heard before crossing into Frat Row.


Beta Sig looked like it might collapse under the sheer weight of kegs. Partygoers stumbled in and out of the doorway, clutching red Solo cups and shouting at each other. Like most frats, someone in charge had decided music was only good if you couldn’t hear it over the bass, so the steps shook and the windows rattled with each beat. On the front lawn, two games of beer pong were going side by side. A redhead did a keg stand in the background, two jacked guys holding her legs. Each scored a perfect view of her cooch.

I moseyed over to the beer pong table and pulled a cup from the triangle. This seemed to get people’s attention.

“Hey, what the hell!” one of the players, a big beef cake with no neck, shouted. He moved toward me but paused as he saw my hand slip beneath my shirt and unclasp my bra. ”Oops,” I said, and poured the beer over my chest. I kept my eyes on his.

The shouts went silent. A tense quiet settled over the front lawn, broken only by a ping pong ball rolling off a table. Then everyone cheered, pounded their fists on the table, and moved to surround me. I ducked under their arms, careful to keep out of reach – it would only take a graze – and made my way up the steps, shouting over my shoulder, “sorry boys, another time.”

I’d set the stage. Now I needed the right guy. Someone who lived in the house, someone who would make quick moves. I didn’t feel like wasting time here tonight. Luckily, I found him on the porch, nestled on a couch between a dirty blonde and a passed out brunette. He’d seen my little stunt, and sat up, ignoring the blonde girl slaving for his attention. He wore a flannel button-down and a baseball cap, tilted to the side for maximum douchiness.

“You’re perfect,” I said.

He gave me his best shit eating grin. “Actually, I’m Jake.” He untangled himself from the two girls (the blonde one shot me daggers) and offered his hand. I hesitated out of habit, then shook it, feeling the familiar spark that meant he wouldn’t remember this tomorrow. He cocked his head to the side. “Do I know you? I feel like we’ve met before.”

I smiled. He was full of it, but the irony was undeniable. “Do you live here, Jake?”

“Upstairs. Third floor.” He stepped closer. “How about a tour?”

I pressed my lips to his ear. “How about the short version?”

He smiled and laid his hand across my back. Then he nodded to all his jock friends and led me upstairs. At least he had enough tact to save the high-fives for later.

Jake’s room was one of the cozier ones I’d been in. The floors were wood, dented no doubt from the stampede of loose girls he brought home, and liquor bottles filled the shelves like trophies. An L-shaped couch lay in the corner, a throw cover doing a poor job hiding the stains underneath. Semen, I bet myself. It was always semen. His bed, a nice queen with plush sheets, sat along the other wall. I flopped back on it and sprawled out, feeling my wet shirt chafe against my chest.

The things I did to survive.

Jake didn’t waste time. He tugged his own shirt off and joined me on the bed. The smell of Old Spice and hair gel sucker punched me as his arm snaked around my waist and he leaned forward, his breath hot and raw.

I pulled away, adopting my best shy smile. “I need to pee.”

I swiped a beer off his dresser, rested the cap against the edge and popped it off. Jake arched an eyebrow. I winked and slipped into the bathroom.

The door locked, I ran the sink and fished the baggie from my pocket. Ambien. My pair of aces. I took out four and ground them into dust with the bottom of the beer.

I’d learned long ago that my particular…talent (God, when did I start thinking of it as a talent) had some rules. For one, I needed physical contact. A graze, a little skin on skin. That’s all it took to wipe someone’s memory. From the moment I touched them to the minute they fell asleep, that’s the time they would never remember when they woke. Which brings me to the Ambien. Sleep was the key. And while I could dress and act the part, I wasn’t a hooker. There would be no pole-riding tonight.

I scraped the powder into the beer bottle and swirled. Relationships and sleep. The lifeblood of human living and yet, I could have one or the other. Never both. I’d always found that disturbing.

Jake passed out twenty minutes later. I rolled him over and padded down his pants. Bingo. Reaching into his back pocket, I snagged his wallet. He had a few credit cards, but I knew better than to touch plastic. It wasn’t worth the risk or the paranoia. No. I went for the good old fashion cash. And on this occasion, Jake was a big fish in a little pond.

Four hundred dollars, counting the money I snaked from his dresser. A good haul, but not what I’d hoped for. I sighed and sat on the bed. It couldn’t be helped. I’d have to go out again.

The trip west would take some serious cash. More than I had now. More than I’d ever had.

I raised my legs over my head and shimmied my panties off. I always thought this was a nice final touch. I guess you could call it my M.O.

You see, Jake would wake up tomorrow with a splitting headache. He’d try to remember what happened. He’d recall the porch with the blond and the comatose brunette and then… nothing. It would probably take him an hour to realize his money was gone. Then he’d see the panties, pink with a friendly “hello” scrawled across the front, and his brain – like it’s made to do – would start to fill the gaps. Of course! He must have spent all his money buying drinks at the club. Then he’d gone back to the frat house, gotten blackout, and banged some girl. His friends on the lawn would remember sweet little Rainey, I’d already seen to that. They’d help Jake remember too.

I choked back a laugh, then pulled off his jeans.

It had been six years, but I was finally coming to terms with what my life had become after… the incident. It wasn’t a great life, moving from city to city, living on the road, stealing cash to survive, but it was a life. When you couldn’t rely on friends or family – because you had no friends or family and never would – you learned to make do. I wouldn’t lie and say I was happy, but I wasn’t quite miserable either. I was blah. A happy nothing.

That, of course, was all about to change.

I walked out of Jake’s room that night, just like any other night, never noticing the half open laptop on his desk or the tiny red light aimed at the bed.

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