Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
Antonio looked like a whipped dog, mean and ready to bite. He seemed to curl into himself as he spoke. “Aznar is one of us, Simon,” he said. “We do not always get to choose our family. But only a coward deserts them.”
Simon picked up the glass in front of Antonio.
“I see,” he said. “So you chose to share your Water with him. Perhaps you can make do with less, then. Perhaps you don’t need any more at all.”
Then he smashed the glass onto the surface of the table, shattering the heavy crystal.
The other men froze in pure horror.
“You are over five hundred years old, Antonio,” Simon said. “Without the Water, how long do you think you’ll last?”
Only Carlos, thousands of miles away over the phone line, protested. “Simon,” he said. “Antonio made a mistake. You cannot—”
“Does this seem like the time to tell me what I can and cannot do, Carlos?” Simon asked, his voice dangerously soft.
The phone line went quiet again.
No one in the room would look at him. Or Antonio.
When Antonio spoke, his voice was close to breaking. “No. Simon. Please. I apologize.”
“Shut up,” Simon said again. “All I want to hear from you is the latest location of Aznar, and where you’ve been sending his shipments. Max will make arrangements to deal with him and clean up this mess.”
“Yes, Simon.” Antonio said. “Aznar is in Juárez.”
“Of course he is,” Simon said, barking a short, unamused laugh. “Of course. Wherever you find corpses, you will find a maggot.”
Max wrote the information down on a separate piece of paper—this sorry affair was not going in the beautiful notebook. “I will handle it, Simon,” he said.
“Good. Antonio, you will not receive another drop of the Water—”
Antonio looked stricken.
“—until I have decided you have fully repented for your stupidity. You’re going to age, Antonio. It will not be pleasant. I hope you retain enough of your wits to remember why you are being punished.”
He glared at the others. “Are there any more matters of honor I should know about?”
They all looked away quickly. But Sebastian cleared his throat.
Sebastian would not meet his eyes. “Antonio was wrong. We all know that. But he is right that Shako is still a threat. Perhaps we should consider . . .”
He left it hanging there.
Simon refused to pick it up. “Consider what?”
“Perhaps you should tell us where you have hidden our supply. In case she does finally kill you.”
“No.” He said it flatly. This was not up for debate or a vote. This was the cornerstone of his empire. He would not ever give it up.
He knew they had to ask, of course. It was the polite version of the desperation they’d all heard in Antonio’s voice. No matter how much was given to them, there was always that greed for more.
Simon could not really blame them. He was guilty of that same greed himself.
Max sighed heavily. He was the only one not impressed with the dramatics. “Now can we tell them?”
Simon nodded. It would give them something to cheer after all the bad news.
“Tell us what?” Sebastian asked.
“We’ve hired David Robinton.”
There were smiles. Not exactly the applause Simon had hoped for.
“Well,” Sebastian said into the silence at the center of the room. “Let’s hope he succeeds.”
“He will,” Simon said. “We’ve tried for years to duplicate the Water. This time, we have someone who will succeed. He is the one. I know it.”
Again, there was no response.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Carlos finally said over the speaker.
Simon frowned. Carlos spoke because he was a safe distance away. But he had no doubt they all thought the same thing.
He knew it was only self-preservation—basic fear—that made them surly and suspicious. He’d been dealing with these men so long that he doubted anything they did would ever surprise him again. But he found their lack of faith disturbing.
Max, embarrassed, tried to cover by going back to the agenda. “Moving on, then, we should probably discuss the next cash infusion from Carlos—”
“I have had enough for today,” Simon said. “Get out. Go about your business.”
Antonio almost ran out of the room. Peter and Sebastian hurried out, keeping a respectable distance from their disgraced colleague. Carlos hung up.
Max stayed. As soon as the door to the room closed again, Max asked him, “What in the name of God is wrong with you, Simon?”
Of all of the original Council, Simon had never once doubted Max’s loyalty. And only Max would speak to him like this.
That didn’t mean Simon liked it. “Careful, Max,” he said.
“Or you’ll cut me off as well?”
“Antonio deserves it. I gave an order. After Berlin, Aznar was to be shunned. I will not be disobeyed.”
“We are supposed to be equals, Simon. You treat us like servants, this is what you get. Antonio feared coming to you about Aznar, and so he has risked himself by dividing his supply.”
“Let him. It hurts only him.”
“No. It doesn’t. You heard the tone in Carlos’s voice. He thinks you’ll treat him the same way. And with our stock price taking the hit it has recently, we need Carlos’s revenue streams more than ever.”
“When did you turn from a warrior into an accountant?”
“Perhaps when you began spending money like a drunk in a whorehouse. Two million a year for Robinton? That money could be going to more exploration. Further searches for the Water.”
“Where do you imagine we’ll find it? We’ve looked everywhere. There isn’t a tribe in the rainforest that we haven’t contacted or a cave in Siberia we haven’t surveyed. We had our source. And we lost it. If you’re so worried about money, empty one of the Cayman accounts.”
“I have. And the Swiss accounts. We need Carlos, and not just for his money. We all need each other. There are few enough of us, and every time we’ve tried to add to our ranks, it has been a disaster. If this Council cannot work together, you risk everything we are still working toward.”
Simon said nothing.
“And for what? A flea like Aznar? Since when did you get so squeamish? We’ve put more bodies in the ground than Aznar ever could, in a century of trying.”
“We are nothing like Aznar.”
Max scowled at him. “At least he did his butchering personally.”
Simon slammed his fist down on the table. The sound reverberated in the perfectly quiet room.
“Enough,” Simon said. He began walking toward the door, but Max stood in his way.
“What is it, Max?” he asked.
Max looked conflicted. But he plunged ahead. “What are you doing, Simon?”
“You were the one who told me, ‘We cannot afford illusions about anything—least of all, ourselves.’ What are you really trying to do?”
Simon sighed. This was growing tiresome.
goals—are the same as they have always been. I am trying to save this miserable, fallen world from itself. I am trying to put the right people in the right positions of power. I am trying to save the greatest number of lives. I am doing everything I can to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number.”
“I know the speech, Simon. I still believe in it. But I want to know if you do. I can accept you acting maliciously, or spitefully, even against one of us—but you cannot act stupidly. I will not allow you to hide your motivations.”
“Oh, you won’t?” A superior little smile twisted Simon’s lips. “Thank God I have you here to guide me, Max.”
Max ignored the sarcasm. “Why is Shako still alive, Simon?”
That wiped the smile right off Simon’s face. “What?”
“This is not about Aznar. Or Antonio. Or your authority. You are not thinking clearly because this is about her.”
“I’m not that sentimental, Max. I would think you’d want her alive, too, so she can lead us to her source of the Water.”
“I’m not sure she has one. It takes far less to keep one person alive than it does six of us—or seven, if you want to count Aznar. I suspect she’s growing as desperate as we are. Which makes her even more dangerous to us. You’ve let her live too long.”
“You think I haven’t tried to kill her?”
Max weighed his next words carefully. “I don’t think you’re displeased that she is still breathing.”
“Perhaps I simply find her useful.”
“My friend, she will bury us all if she gets the chance.”
Simon made a dismissive noise. “You have always been too afraid of her.”
Max seemed tired as he shook his head at Simon. “How many times do I have to say this? She is not the woman you knew all those years ago. She has had a long time to become someone else entirely. We all have. You want to remember the girl she was, and you forget everything she’s done since. For your sake, I hope she is as sentimental as you the next time she has your head in her sights. At your age, nostalgia can be fatal.”
“Well,” Simon said, “no one lives forever.”
He crossed the boardroom to the door. After a moment, Max followed.
AVID COULD FEEL
the heat of the asphalt under his running shoes. With the humidity, it was like trying to breathe through a wet sponge. Drivers in their air-conditioned cars looked at him as if he were an escaped lunatic.
He kept running anyway. He was trying to punish himself, force his mind to work harder. Because there was no way around it: he was stuck.
The weeks after accepting Simon’s offer had been one long blur for him. True to his word, Simon put him to work immediately. He had just a day to go back to Boston and pick up a few changes of clothes, and then he was expected immediately at the Conquest headquarters in Tampa.
(When David asked Simon why Conquest was based in Tampa, rather than Miami or any of the biotech hubs, such as San Diego, he’d just grinned and said, “Strip club capital of the world, baby!”)
His credentials waited for him at the front desk, and security escorted him into a lab stocked with everything he could ever want for diagnostic equipment.
For the first few days, he lived in a hotel room he barely saw, except to use the bed for a couple of hours at a time. After that, Conquest moved his stuff into a new condo for him. (He’d given an assistant the same key that Bethany had given back to him for the movers.) The first time he came home to the place, he found all his things neatly boxed and waiting. In one plastic bag, he discovered old take-out containers and the remains of a sandwich. They’d packed and moved his trash.
His double bed and small pieces of furniture were dwarfed in the cavernous spaces of his new place. He made a mental note to buy new things as soon as he got a chance, then promptly forgot about it and went back to the lab.
He’d checked Mueller’s samples again. He compared genetic markers, made certain there was no possible fraud, and then established that there was nothing superhuman or unique about Mueller himself.
There was nothing that made him reconsider his earlier findings, as fantastic as they seemed. Mueller had regained twenty years of youth, at a minimum.
David had been going through the results of application of the liquid—or serum, or cure, whatever you wanted to call it. Mueller wasn’t the only test subject. The outcome was always the same: immediate rejuvenation of the patient, despite life-threatening conditions in some cases.
The test subjects had not only recovered, they’d
in every single way. Strength, reflexes, immune response, cardiovascular capacity—they were all markedly better, all the way down the line.
Even baseline IQ increased in the before-and-after testing. Subjects who had trouble with basic spelling on the intake forms were scoring ten to twenty points higher after they took the cure. Part of that was surely due to the fact that many of these people were homeless and drug addicted—Simon seemed to have a deal with one of the local shelters to sign up people like Mueller—and they were getting regular nutrition and medical care while in the trials.
But part of it was physical as well. EEG and MRI showed increased brain activity and regrowth of damaged neurons. (Which was a whole other level of impossible, but David was getting used to that.) The test subjects were not more knowledgeable—they hadn’t picked up any new facts after taking the cure—but they were able to recall and use their own memories and experiences better.
Actually, that last result calmed David down a bit. There was no biological way for the treatment to impart new skills and information, unless it was magic, and that was something David was never going to buy. He didn’t even read his horoscope.
Whatever the cure was, it was based in science. He was sure of it. That meant it could be duplicated. It could be cracked.
The problem was, in every patient, in every case, the liquid did not leave a trace, not a single clue.
Nothing David tried worked. He was no closer now than when Simon had first shown him the miracle cure.
So he went back to his mostly empty condo, put on his shoes, and started running. This was how he broke down problems when they wouldn’t break any other way. He ran.
And, he admitted to himself, it gave him a place to put his anger, gave him a physical pain to drown out any other kind of pain.
The day after his parents’ funeral, he’d started running and didn’t stop until his legs were shaky and he couldn’t see for the sweat in his eyes. When he finally caught his breath, he realized he’d run almost twenty miles and barely had an idea of where he was. He had to call a relative to get a ride home.
Today wasn’t like that. Today was just another run.
He hit Morgan Street and kept going south past the Forum, headed for the bay, his pace steady.
He’d tried everything. He had examined the blood samples of the “cured” test subjects—the ones who were now, inarguably, certifiably younger—all the way down to their DNA: three billion letters of genetic code, six feet of proteins packed into a space a thousand times smaller than the eye of a needle. He’d run them through a sequencer, comparing the subjects’ DNA before the cure and after. The only difference was that after the treatment, the DNA no longer had the usual errors and missing sequences that came with aging. The same sequence, only cleaner.
But damned if he could figure out why.
Maybe he was looking at it too closely. After all, he was primarily a molecular biologist. His inclination and training led him to look at the very smallest part of the picture. Maybe there was something affecting the entire organism that was only then expressed in the DNA. He had the feeling he was missing something vital. How was it possible to reverse the damage done to the DNA
David broke off his train of thought when he realized someone was coming up behind him. Fast.
That surprised him. He wasn’t a world-class runner, but he hadn’t seen many people in Tampa who could keep pace with him. He suspected the heat and humidity kept them on treadmills, inside the climate-controlled fitness clubs. He wasn’t used to having someone right on his heels.
He picked up the pace a little, trying to gain some room.
Behind him, he heard the other runner do the same, matching him stride for stride.
David accelerated again. He could see the bay from the end of the street now. He was about to make his usual left turn and follow the shoreline along the greenbelt.
Then, without warning, the runner behind him shot out and passed him.
He saw dark hair tied in a ponytail. She looked over her shoulder at him, and he could have sworn he saw the hint of a mocking smile before she smoothly accelerated away.
It was her. The woman from the club.
He ran after her.
She remained just ahead of him, not looking back again, but never getting more than a dozen feet away. She led him down past the marina, through the park, and off his usual route. She just kept going, beautiful and unstoppable, legs carrying her effortlessly over the ground.
David, for his part, was struggling. He wasn’t in marathon shape, and they were running at a sprinter’s pace. He felt like he was being dragged along in her wake. His mouth was open and he was sucking wind hard. He imagined he must look like a stereotypical pervert chasing a pretty girl, tongue hanging out and sweating from every pore.
She ran even faster.
She took a sharp turn on a path that led down to the shoreline. It wasn’t much of a beach—mostly rocks and dirt, a lot of uneven ground.
He found some hidden reserve of strength and followed. His feet nearly went out from under him on the downhill slope and she got farther away. He recovered quickly. If he was this wrecked, she had to be feeling it, too, at least a little.
Trouble was, she didn’t seem to be breathing hard.
They splashed along the waterline. She vaulted a few large rocks and then ran out onto the breakwater, a large promontory built to protect the shore from the constant erosion of the waves.
David hauled himself up, stumbled, nearly fell again, and kept chasing her. He might not be able to find any answers in the lab, but he was going to get her name. He could at least catch her long enough to ask the question.
She came to the end of the breakwater. There was nowhere to go, unless she dove in and started swimming.
For an instant, he was afraid she was going to do just that.
Instead, she turned and stopped.
David stopped, too, barely able to keep himself from colliding with her.
The falling sun lit her up from the west. Her skin shone. She was drawing deep breaths, evenly, mouth only slightly open.
She looked magnificent.
David put his hands on his knees and wheezed. Spots danced in his vision. He couldn’t speak, which was probably not a bad thing, since he had no idea what he would say.
When he recovered enough to look up, she was still there. He hadn’t imagined her. And she was watching him with a smile that went all the way up to her eyes.
“Hello, David,” she said. “So how do you like the new job so far?”
HER NAME WAS SHY
Walker. She bought him a bad cup of coffee at a Starbucks a few blocks inland. The air was chilled just above freezing by the air-conditioning. He tried not to show how grateful he was for the chance to sit down.
She didn’t look tired. Too much time in the lab was turning him soft, David thought. Or he was getting old.
He shoved the thought away and focused on Shy.
“So,” he said. “I think you owe me at least some explanation.”
Her expression was carefully blank over the rim of her coffee cup. “You think so?”
“You come out of nowhere, give me the best career advice of my life, and then vanish.”
“I’m a busy girl,” she said. “I was out of town.”
“I travel a lot. Business.”
“So then you show up again and run me half to death through the streets of Tampa.”
She shrugged. “You were following me. You could have dropped out anytime.”
“That’s not really me.”
“You know a lot about me.”
She stared at him, still dreadfully calm. Then she said, “Well, David. That’s because I’m about to recruit you for the most dangerous mission of your life. The fate of the world rests on your shoulders.”
She held his gaze long enough that David thought he might be looking at the world’s most beautiful lunatic.
Then she burst into laughter. “Sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t resist. You’re a very serious guy.”
Oh thank God, David thought.
As it turned out, there was nothing terribly mysterious about Shy. She was a corporate headhunter for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Everyone in her field knew David, because everyone wanted to bag him for their clients. She knew Conquest was especially interested, and she’d assembled a profile of David for them. When she saw David in the club, it wasn’t much of a leap to figure out what was going on.
“You work for Conquest?”
“I work for myself,” she corrected. “But I did some freelance consulting for Simon Oliver.”
“Simon didn’t seem to know you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Not the perpetual adolescent. His father. I’m sure his son never even read my report.”
“He’s not a real detail-oriented guy,” David admitted.
They talked for an hour. She seemed to know a little bit about everything, but David had never felt so comfortable with someone. It was hard to believe she was a stranger. She was already finishing his sentences when she looked at her watch—the women’s version of his own Casio G-Shock—and said that she had to get moving.
“I’ve got to see you again,” David said. He blurted it out and immediately regretted it.
Fortunately, Shy laughed and smiled. “That could be arranged,” she said. They headed out of the air-conditioned store, back into the unforgiving heat.
David didn’t enjoy the idea of running back to his condo. Shy looked as fresh as ever.
She took out her cell and they exchanged numbers. Then, unexpectedly, she kissed him lightly on the cheek before she turned and ran away.
He couldn’t stop grinning, even though his legs hurt and his side cramped all the way home.