ADD: Make this really Portland? Other jobs for time workers: sports replay, tests of dangerous things (dam removal, construction shortcuts, bomb decommission, sneak attacks (wars) , stunts, training I need limitations on Alex's power. It's too much and way too much if they can all do it. What's the cost of magic? Select a season and a time frame when this takes place. A week? A month? Do gas generators work? Why wouldn't a combustion engine work i f you started it? Can't be a car with an electric starter, it would have to be something simple. Make the computer/rewinding technology run off a gas generator. First scene outside in Pioneer Square, set off about a group of Norms who taunt them. No set of f, just Jack who says that Ross told him to do it. More about Jack's history and how Ross is the one who saved him. Are they linked whenever they go outside? It's the law since Norms think they're creepy and potentially invasive. Add love story triangle? Add a love story implication in first chapter, between Shawna and somebody? Alex has to be really sick when she goes to the Clinic. She's in detox. Some earlier intimation that Alex is someone who might take revenge into her own hands. Give Ross a back st ory Ã a personal reason to hate Sykes. Someone he loved died. We all know it and think he's noble, not rotted with vengeance. Center has good food Ã society's guilt at locking them up, the gilded cage. It was the only saving grace, that everything went bac k. Imagine how much they'd fear us if it didn't. Describe early on how the tracker and leashes work Ã trackers are the same implants that trigger the monitors recording time freeze. Add a secondary plot line within the Center, jealousy love triangle thing for Alex. Alex has to start as a real goody goody. She's the favorite because she follows the rules. She's a leader, an example. Not too uptight, we can see her doing small sneaky things, but things the dorm leader would get away with. She also has the bes t agent, she isn't surprised that Jack would be jealous. Jack isn't so bad, he just knows the CIC is corrupted and he figures he'll get his. The moral question ahs to be more stark: who pays so society can remain safe. The mob controls? The time workers pa y? Have to start with a sense of threat from the mob or all this tension about catching them is meaningless. All I've said now is that crime is low. Chapter 1 Change this: Jack freezes time to warn her away from Ross and the mob . Make it vague, so she d oesn't get it yet. She has to think he's jealous and not that this is a mob threat. . Anger made Jack's face ugly. Not th at Jack was a good looking kid to start with. His cheeks were too round, his nose too broad and his hair too infrequently washed to qualify as remotely handsome . Now, though, he looked like a balloon just before it pops . Red mottled his cheeks, his eyes bulged slightly in their sockets , his nose quivered . I
decided it wouldn't help things if I mentioned the comparison. Jack was alrea dy furious when all I'd done was call him a bad loser. "Let it go, Jack." KJ , my best friend at the Center , sounded wary. I wasn't worried. Sure, Jack was a big kid, but we were in the Common Room and Ms. Eckbridge , the monitor, was sitting less than ten feet away. Even Jack wasn't stupid enough to hit me in front of Eckbridge. Jack took a step closer . He leaned his head toward me so no one else could hear him when he spok e. Suddenly I remembered a story Fay told me once , about how at Jack's old Center they had wanted to leash him for misuse of his power, but Director Symes had intervened and transferred Jack here instead . Jack had been pretty quiet since he joined us six months ago and I'd dismissed the story as a mean rumor . Looking up at Jack's undeniable bulk looming over me, I suddenly felt a stirring of misgivings. Jack opened his mouth, the hiss of words almost unintelligible. Almost . "I'm gonna kill you." It wasn't the word s that freaked me out so much as the expression in Jack's eyes. They seemed glazed, as if anger had short circu ited something in his brain. M y m isgivings switched to fear . Suddenly Ms. Eckbridge seemed far away . KJ must have sensed my ala rm because he started toward us. He didn't get far. Jack's hand shot out and grabbed my bare arm above the elbow , his fingers closing on my skin like pinchers . I felt a small, familiar jolt and then the s ound s in the room blinked off . The air grew unnaturally still . The people around us turned to stone . KJ , one step away from me , had his foot raised so he balanced impossibly on the edge of one toe . Ms. Eckbridge's head was half turned toward us , her sightless eyes resting somewhere betwee n me and a plush armchair. She must have been about to say something because her mouth was twisted into one of those awkward expressions usually only revealed by ill timed photographs . Behind her Aiden's hand hovered above a game of Chance. The red dice he had just thrown hung in the air, little cubes stuck in the middle of their spinning descent . Jack had just frozen time. I wrenched my arm free of Jack's grasp , trying to pretend like I wasn't scared. "You'll get in trouble for this." Jack's mouth s tretched into a leering grin that carried no hint of humor. "It'll be worth it." Automatically I stretched out with my mind and tried to melt time back into motion. It didn't work , of course . Only the person who freezes time has the ability to send it ba ck into its normal track. I licked my lips. "Look, JackÃ‰" The punch landed sooner than I expected. Pain exploded through my jaw. I stumbled, knocking against a wooden side table. The glass vase that rested on it toppled over , splattering a mess of wa ter and colorful blooms across the vinyl flooring . My ears rang and I shook my head, trying to clear it. I stepped back and felt the smooth solidity of the Common Room wall. "Come on, Jack, don't be an ass. " I tried to force my voice to sound reasonable , which was hard with blood seeping into my mouth. One of my teeth wiggled sickeningly against my tongue. " They'll leash you. This isn't worth it." "It is to me."
Jack lunged again, right fist drawn back. I dropped low, driving my head into Jack 's abdomen. It felt like ramming my head into a huge mass of dough. Jack grunted but didn't fall down. Instead he grabbed hold of my shoulders and slammed me back against the wall. My head slammed against the wall with a horrible crack ing sound . Light s danced before my eyes. I imagined hairline fractures radiating from the point of contact . Hurt oozed through the cracks, blossoming into a colossal headache. I blinked hard to maintain focus. Jack's face was so close I could see the pores around his nose. From one of them, a pimple erupted like a tiny volcano. I kicked out as hard as I could against Jack's shin. It felt like ramming a cement wall . My toe throbbed but Jack barely seemed to notice . "Get off!" I was screaming now. Jack 's eyes maintai ned their eerie shine. He shifted his grip and his fat fingers closed around my throat . Panic made it hard to think. I clawed blindly at Jack's hands , twisting under his hands like a trapped eel . Skin peeled away beneath my nails. Jack's mouth twitched and he tightened his grip. My mind reeled. What had they taught us in that self defense class? Raise your arms, twistÃ‰ she thrashed around uselessly . The wall at my back left me no room to maneuver. Jack dug his thumbs deepe r into my neck. Air. I needed air. My neck contracted with effort, making a horrible gagging sound. " I'm a sore loser?" Sweat beaded Jack's upper lip from his efforts. His face, red and slick, glowed in my faltering vision. "Let's see how much you lik e losing." Strength leached from my body . I culled my remaining energy into one last swing , managing to wrap three fingers around a clump of Jack's greasy hair . "You think you're so special." Saliva sprayed my cheek . The wetness felt like tears. "Just b ecause you're in Ross's trio you think you're better than the rest of us." My fingers slid from Jack's hair. The bright spots returned, dancing before my eyes like drunk overgrown fireflies . My lungs were burning. " Ross isn't what you think he is. " Jac k panted . "Ever read his reports? Why don't you ask Ross how he got that watch. Ask him Ã‰" The grating voice faded into a dull buzz. The spots grew wider , then everything started to dim . The ache in my lungs faded . I closed my eyes . All my thoughts drifted into the darkness . It felt peaceful . After all, I knew this death wouldn't last. *** Jack's popping eyes seemed glazed, as if anger had short circuited something in his brain. Then, suddenly, they relaxed. KJ put his foot down and dropped his hand onto Jack's shoulder , pulling him away from me . Jack didn't resist. All his anger was gon e. I rubbed at my throat, even though I knew all signs of the strangling vanished as soon as time started again. Nothing that happened in frozen time lasted . It didn't really exist. "Jack!" called Ms. Eckbridge. " Alex . What's the problemÃ‰" A red light flash ed on the monitor high up on the Common Room wall. Jack's name blinked on the screen . Ms. Eckbridge stood up, frowning . "Did you just freeze time?" she said, stating the obvious. " You know the rules in the Common Room."
"Sorry, Ms. Eckbridge." Jac k said without apology . "I forgot." "Like hell you did." KJ crossed his arms over his black T shirt. He was a tall kid, just over six feet, and skinny as a pole. Although seventeen Ã old for a time worker Ã he'd only recently started shaving, the patchy spots of roughness clear against the pale skin on his cheeks . KJ lowered his voice to a whisper. "What'd you do to Alex ?" Jack just grinned at him . Ms. Eckbridge stomped over to where the three of us stood . She was a short woman, heavy set, with graying hair set in rigid curls around her head. The khaki pants all Center staff wore fit her poorly, the pockets gaping at each hip like an extra set of ears. Embroidered on the left side of her blue jersey were t he letters CIC Ã Crime Interpretation Center . "Language, KJ ," Ms. Eckbridge said reprovingly, before turning to look at me . "What happened in the freeze?" I glared at Jack over Eckbridge's shoulder. He met my gaze, his expression daring me to squeal on h im. I knew if I did I'd get rushed to the Clinic. Just in case, they'd say, though what case they had in mind was never clear. I could be stuck there for days while they ran tests on me. They'd certainly never let me go out on duty tonight and Ross was already on his way to pick me up . Jack didn't deserve to be let off, but I wasn't about to let him ruin my night any more than he already had. I twisted my mouth, as if I was tasting the bitter word before I spit it out. "Nothing." Ms. Eckbridge made a n irritated click with her tongue. " I don't know why you all feel so compelled to protect each other. Breaking the law is no joke . If Jack did something to you we need to take action. " I touched my neck again. Phantom pain still seemed to radiate from the place where Jack's hands had crushed my windpipe . I felt vaguely nauseous . I was also very aware of the other kids in the room listening to our conversation. Aiden, red dice now scattered across board, was fiddling with his game piece without actually moving it. His game partner, Kaleel, watched them openly . Fay's eyes no longer mov ed across the pages of her book , and Shawna flicked a pencil b etween her fingers, her crossword puzzle abandoned in her lap. I focused my attention to Eckbridge. The monitor looked earnest, brows knit over her cow brown eyes. Most of the time I thought Eckbridge meant well, despite how strict she was with the tim e workers, but when she said things like "take action" with such casualness it always gave me a start. " Take action " generally me ant pulling a kid from his trio and slapping a leash on him so he couldn't stop time an ymore . W ithout the ability to freeze t ime, what were we ? Nothing but a bunch of freaks locked up in an institution. No one deserved that. Not even a total ass like Jack. I took a breath, relishing the feel of oxygen filling my lungs. After all, there was no permanent damage done. "Nothing happened ," I repeated in a calmer voice . "We just talked." Jack's grin widened. Ms. Eckbridge gave a disgusted sigh. Aiden slid his game piece across the board. Shawna filled in a square on her puzzle . " There are still consequences, Jack ," Ms. Eckbridg e started, but she was interrupted by the common room door popping open with an enthusiastic slam.
"Hello, kiddlings," a familiar voice boomed. " Is m y favorite time partner hiding in here ?" A ripple passed through the room as every person in it registered the appearance of Carson Ross . The big man filled the doorway, artfully messed blond hair nearly brushing the top of the frame, wide shoulders encased in a spotless blue suit. Most agents wore casual clothes: jeans, khakis , or even a police uniform. Ross always came to work looking like he was heading out to a party. Kaleel and Aiden straightened their shoulders, Shawna looked up with the big eyes of an adoring beagle . Even Fay, she of t he many piercing and painfully short crew cut, brightened . "Mr. Ross." Eckbridge's usually clipped tones came out in a warm ooze. "Always a pleasure to have you with us." Ross dipped his head to acknowledge the compliment. He looked genuinely bashful, t hough it was hard to believe given all the recent publicity. Everyone in the city adored Carson Ross these days. Ross stepped through the doorway, moving past everyone else until he came to stand in front of me. "There you are." Ross gave me his special smile, the one that seemed to call me out from all the other people in the world . I felt a blush flicker along the edges of my cheek and, f or a moment , the whole room shrunk to encompass nothing more than Ross's clear blue eyes. I smiled back at him, ma king an effort not to let my smile look to eager. "Maybe your little friend here will be more forthcoming with you." Eckbridge plopped one chubby arm around my shoulders and gave me a pseudo friendly shake. "She and Jack had an argument earlier and Jack froze time." She said the last few words with spec ial emphasis, as if adding a silent corollary. A faint frown marred Ross's high forehead. " What happened? " "Nothing," I said again, though I felt bad not telling Ross the truth. Trios had to trust each other . "We just talked." "And you're ok?" Ross ask ed me, though his eyes swiveled to find Jack. Jack stood hunched over on the side of the room. He had slunk away from me when Ross entered and now seemed to be trying to make himself blend in with a bookcase. Compared to Ross, Jack looked suddenly small and infinitely less threatening than he had a few minutes ago. "I'm fine," I said firmly . "Are you sure?" It was KJ who asked, not Ross. His arms were still crossed over his chest and he, unlike everyone else in the room, had his attention focused on me . KJ was the only person I knew who was immune to Ross's charm. He was also the only person who knew when I was lying. "I'll talk to you when I get back," I promised. KJ sniffed, only partially mollified. Ross sailed out of the room with me in his wake. He swapped a pleasant greeting to the janitor, signed us out at the front office with a flourish and waved to the doorman who swiped a card to unlock the front door. I followed, half trotting to keep pace with his long stride . It wasn't until we reached th e sidewalk and he opened the door of his Lexus for me to slide in that I asked what the case was about. "It's o ne of the good ones." Ross winked, as if he and I were co conspirators on a secret mission . "Murder."
Chapter 2 The man's body lay on the floor of the butcher shop, face down in a pool of blood. One arm was flung up over his head as if at the last minute he had tried to ward off the evil that got him. His other arm lay twisted beneath him. The position looked uncomfortable and I wished some one would straighten him out Ã even though I knew the guy no longer had the opportunity for discomfort. At the side of his neck a deep gash showed the source of all the blood. The edges of the slash curled back like a pair of obscenely pursed lips. The butcher shop itself was flooded in bright lights. Closed freezer doors lined one wall, the other carried racks of meat related products: barbecue sauce, seasonings, grill tongs. In between, a line of glass display cases marked off the public and vender sections of the store. Even though the cases were empty and wiped clean, the room still carried a lingering scent of raw meat mixed with the peppery scent of salami. The smell made my stomach roil. I wished I hadn't wolfed down the burger Ross handed me in the car. The slight nausea I'd felt after Jack's attack seemed to have expanded into a burbling mass inside my innards . "How long since he died?" Ross asked. I noticed he kept his distance from the body. He probably didn't want any of the man's blood to stain his shoes. They were nice shoes, leather, and polished to a high sheen. The blood looked dark and seemed to be coagulating along the edges. It reminded me of the ketchup on my burger. The thought made my stomach lurch. "The woman who runs the shop found the body about an hour ago," said the cop. He was a short man with a very close crew cut and a nose that had been broken at least once. H e leaned back on his heels beside Ross, arms crossed, chewing loudly on a piece of gum. "It was totally by chance she came in. She and her husband closed up early to take a long weekend. Everything was locked up by 2:00. It would have been a perfect crime Ã no one should have been here for three days, way too long for a trace, except the woman came back a round four because she forgot something." Ross shook out his sleeve and glanced at his watch. "So time of death was between two and four hours ago." The thick gold links of Ross's watch caught the light, igniting memory. Ross isn't what you think he is Ã‰ Why don't you ask Ross how he got that watch . " I pushed the echoing voice away. I knew a watch like that cost way more than a civil servant's pay grade. It must be a gift from a grateful client. Or a rich girlfriend Ã if the stories were to be believe d, Ross certainly had his share of those . The bright light flashed a headache into the space behind my eyes. Whatever. Jack was an ass. "You all right, Alex ?" Mario Hernandez , the Watcher in our trio was studying me with concern. "Yeah." I realized I was massaging my temple and I dropped my hand quickly. I didn't want the others to think I was squeamish. " It just stinks in here ." The cop shifted his attention from Ross to me . Like a lot of normals, the cop seemed to have no trouble stari ng at me as if I were a particularly clever dog or an intriguingly deformed bush, instead of just a regular teenage kid. Which I wasn't, but still , it wouldn't kill the guy to treat me like one.
" Alex is fine. " Ross must have sensed my irritation. He s lapped me on the back , using the gesture to draw me closer into the circle of workers . "We've seen worse , right kid? " This was true. Ever since the invention of the time winder twenty years ago, the crime rate had basically plummeted since almost everyon e gets caught . Murders are especially rare. Except for the occasional crime of passion, p retty much the only people still pulling off major crimes are members of Syke's Band of Brothers. L ast summer , Hernandez , Ross and I had traced my first killing , a grisly double homicide where both men were shot in the face. The trace led to the arrest of Hal Morden, a close associate of Frederick Sykes. It was this arrest that launched Ross's career and started him on a campaign to unseat Sykes. Since then, three other members of the crime syndicate had fallen. I was proud of the role I'd played to date in tracking Sykes down. And I knew my involvement in the cases was a big part of why Ross was so fond of me. Without me, Ross would just be another one of the fifty agents that tracked down break ins or figured out who started a fight. He needed me and I, I guess I needed him to make my status as a short lived freak feel like it meant something . I pushed my nausea away, and smiled at Ross. "Sure. I'm great." Hernandez said nothing, not unusual for Hernandez. The guy was stocky, about my height, and maintained a straggly mustache that drooped over his mouth, as if the hairs protected his lips from spilling any secrets. He had an unnerving habit of watching you from across a room so that you'd look up and find his eyes on you when you least expected it. I turned away from him and pretended to be engrossed in Ross as he pulled out our equipment case and dropped it on a lar ge butcher block table: f irst the manual generator, then the silvery box that held the time winder , and last the coiled up lines of linking band. Ross unwrapped th e bands: two thick wire cords, about twenty feet long , with metal bracelets attached to eac h end. Ross snapped a bracelet on his wrist and handed the second cord to Hernandez , who snapped it on his own wrist and then plugged his bracelet with the time winder . "You ready, kid?" Ross held the other end of both the linking bands to me . The heav y bands swayed on the ends of the cords and a wave of tiredness wash over me . For an instant I thought with nostalgia of the common room. It would be quiet now, most kids in the media room or the TV theatre. I wondered what Ross would say if I told him about what had happened with Jack. Would he be angry with me for lying about it? A fly buzzed through the quiet room, lighting on the edge of the pooling blood. I gave myself a mental shake. I had a job to do , an important job that few other p eople in the world had the capacity to accomplish . I stepped forward and accepted the two cords, snapping a bracelet on each wrist so the other two members of the trio were linked through me . Just touching a time worker's skin keeps them from freezing, th e linking bands do the same thing, plus it connects us through the time winder. "Shall I step outside?" the cop asked. "Doesn't matter." Ross winked . "Won't take but a sec." The cop started to chuckle. I ignored him. Instead I reached out with my mind and froze time. The cop beside me stood still , face stuck mid chuckle . T he fly hung a
few inches above the blood . The clock on the wall stopped ticking. Sound turned to a dull cottony sense of nothing and the air grew dense. A familiar heaviness wrapp ed itself around me. I always felt like time was fighting against me when I froze it. Even my thoughts moved more slowly than usual, like they had to push themselves through some invisible barrier to reach my consciousness. Dr. Bar nard said this was bec ause of the effort involved in holding time still. I'm one of the strongest and even I can't hold time for more than a couple of hours Ã especially when I'm dragging other people with me . Ross rubbed his hands together. " Let's get to it. Hernandez ?" Mr . Hernandez dropped the generator onto the floor and started pumping it with one foot. The time winder, a silver box that looked like a fat lap top, fired up with a faint hum. Regular e lectrical power doesn't work in frozen time since all the electrons f reeze just as solidly as everything else . If you want to run an electronic devise in stop time you have to figure out a way to create manual energy. Hernandez pushed a few buttons on the winder . The room around us shimmered . All the objects around us f aded . I swayed a little. Rewinding is uncomfortable . It feels like you're falling without you actually moving from your current spot. Hernandez let time unwind quickly, rushing us back to the actual crime. Shadowy doubles of the shapes around us shifted as the time passed by. You could still see the people and things standing stock still like we left them, but they looked faint and insubstantial. I watched an echo of myself unhook the linking bands, hover for a split second , then hurry backwards and out the door with Ross and Hernandez . The cop paced the room for a bit , then more cops backed through the doors toward him. The uniformed men talked, their mouths moving soundlessly as they jabbered and probed around the crime scene. After a few min utes, one of them ushered in a woman draped in a police blanket, who proceeded to crouch against the floor of the store, crying. It was like watching a movie on rewind, except you were standing right in the middle of it. The jerky motions of the people bob bing around the room made me feel more dizzy than usual . I realized my palms were sweating and I rubbed them against the side of my jeans. In the next few minutes, t he cops jogged from the room , the woman curled up in a ball, lurch e d up and staggered to the phone, gestured frantically as she spoke into it , replaced the handle clumsily, ran away from it, then opened her mouth in a silent scream. Finally, she, too toddled back out the door. Shadows fled along the checkered tile floor. My headache felt wors e, a throbbing pain that made it hard to concentrate. A rubbed my temple, touching cold sweat . The hands of the clock spun backward, sliding past 4:00, past 3:30, on towards 3:00. Time pulled at me. The slipping minutes seemed to be leaking from my bra in, the seconds dancing around me, struggling to free themselves from my control. I clutched the edge of the butcher block to steady myself. My stomach lurched again. Something was very wrong. "RossÃ‰" I said. The door opened on silent hinges . " Hernandez ! Slow down." Ross leaned forward eagerly . Hernandez typed another command. The whirling sensation slowed without easing my nausea. Instead, the slowed time settle d over me like a wet blanket, weighing so heavily even standing felt like a superhuman eff ort . I blinked, struggling to keep control. I'd never let Ross down, never let any agent down before. Ross and Hernandez both had their attention riveted on the man who had backed through the door.
"Ross," I said again. The word game out as a whisper. The scene around us flickered, the newcomer hovering in the doorway like an unwanted ghost. Hernandez frowned and typed another command. I struggled to maintain control, already knowing I would never be able to hold this winding long enough to t rack the guy. When time melted we'd have no idea where he'd gone. The man backed another step toward us, his face still not visible. Remorse tightened my throat. I should have told Eckbridge what happened with Jack , sent another worker to go with Ross. It would take at least an hour to get another worker here and they wouldn't be able to wind back far enough to get to this memory. I held on with all my strength . If I could at least hold on long enough to see the killer's faceÃ‰ Time slid from my mind an d body in a rushing torrent. S omething ripped away inside me and my c ontrol gave way. With a cry I watched the scene around me break up. The man at the door disappeared. "No!" I tried desperately to hang on again, to pull the man back into the doorway . We hadn't seen his face yet ! Ross couldn't solve the case without the man's face. The force of time sliding back into its usual groove pulled all my energy with it. I mages started sliding together : the crying woman, the cops, the wings of the fly. Her nandez turned his dark head toward me . His mouth moved but I was way too far gone now to hear. My fingers sc rabbled for purchase against the butcher's table. Time, power, the winding, all rushed through me leaving nothing behind but a fragile husk. "I couldn't hold it," I mumbled. Ross's head snapped around, frustration and concern balanced in his blue eyes. I tried to say I was sorry. The ground reached up for me and everything went black. Chapter 3 The light seemed unnecessarily bright. White sheets , white walls, a shining metal tray. I closed my eyes almost before I opened them. Thirst made my mouth feel swollen . Water , I said, except the words came out as an incoherent grunt . Someone said my name . My head pounded like a tho usand miniature drummers were playing rumbas in my head. The darkness that returned felt like mercy. The next time I woke I didn't open my eyes. Stiff sheets lay taught against my body. The air was cool and smelled of disinfectant . Shifting my body, I felt the pull of an IV against my arm. I opened my eyes. G rey light leaking through the slatted window of the Center's Clinic outlined the dark lumps of furniture filling the room: bed, sink , an empty chair meant for visitors. A weight settled in my c hest, sinking slowly down to fill my stomach. If I was in the clinic it meant I had suffered my first boat of freezing sickness. The inevitable fate of all time workers had taken its first swipe at my life. The next episode probably wouldn't hit for a few months, but the third would come more quickly. If I was lucky I'd have a fourth. S elf pity closed my throat. You knew it was coming , I told myself fiercely. You always knew . The lecture didn't help. Most time workers didn't get sick until they were abo ut 18, a few even lived as long as twenty. I was only just sixteen. Years left, I'd thought. Tears leaked from my eyes and dripped down my temples into my hair. Before I turned 17 , I'd be dead.
The soft pad of footsteps sounded outside my room and I clo sed my eyes . I didn't want anyone to see me crying . The door made a soft whoosh as it opened. Someone moved close to my bed and stood there a moment watching me. It must be Dr. Barnard or one of the other night staff. I held still, keeping my breath slow and even. I wasn't in the mood to answer any questions. A gentle tug on my arm told me Dr. Barnard was changing the bag on my IV. I waited while he fumbled with it, wondering why he didn't turn on the light. The few other times I'd been here I didn't r emember the staff being that considerate. Maybe the standards went up when the patient was terminal. The fiddling stopped . I turned my head infinitesimally and slid one eye open a tiny fraction. Through the forest tangle of las hes I saw a bulky figure shuffling through the bottles of medicine in the cabinet next to my bed . " Is she s till asleep ?" Another head poked around the door. Even in the half light I recognized Nurse Amy . The man beside me started. " Like a baby . " His voice was deep and s tartlingly familiar . It wasn't Dr. Barnard. It was Ross. Surprise popped my eyes all the way open. Ross slid his hand from the cabinet, neatly pocketing something before he closed the door and turned toward the woman in the doorway. "I thought you were keeping watch out front?" "Julio just passed the door a few minutes ago. He won't be back for at least half an hour." She came to stand close to Ross , her face lifted toward his and paying no attention at all to me. "Besides, why do you care if the nigh t guards see you here? Agents are allowed in the Center any time." " Eckbridge already gave me a report on Alex's condition. " Ross shrugged . " I wouldn't want Eckbridge to think I don't trust her. And it's not that I don't, it's justÃ‰ Alex and I make a go od team and I want to be sure the kid's going to be OK. " Ross's concern warmed me like a hot bar of sunshine. The edges of my mouth twitched. I was just about to say something out loud, when he added: "Besides, we wouldn't want the night guard to see t his." There was a rustling sound and the squeak of a soft soled shoe sliding across the linoleum floor as Ross pulled her close . Amy giggled. I slammed my eyes shut. To my infinite horror, I recognized the wet slurping sound of people kissing. My shock was more than just embarrassment . Amy was low on the medical staff totem pole, relegated to dealing with upset stomachs and monthly cramps, doling out our daily pills at breakfast and, clearly, night shift when they had a patient. She was also young, wi th mousy brown hair that started too high on her forehead and a stubborn patch of pimples that popped up regularly along her hairline . She usually wore a beleaguered expression that seemed to imply she found us irritating. Not at all what I figured for R oss's type. Even in silhouette I had glimpsed see the soft roll that pushed out her nurse's uniform around her waist. " Mr. Ross !" T he admonition broke on a nother giggle. More rustling. I cracked open one eye. The writhing shape looked like an oversized hu nchback, the chest too large and head deformed. I closed my eyes again and waited, hating myself for witnessing this scene. "I'm so glad it's you here taking care of Alex." More kissing, some indistinguishable murmurs. "She's a good kid, you know. Such high XYZ levels, sh e can
hold time much longer than the others." Smooch, rustle. "I have some cases coming up I could really use her on, too. Mob cases." "Can't you use someone else?" Amy breathed. "I'm sure all the workers would be proud to work with you ." "I'm used to Alex. That familiar rapport makes the freeze much more comfortable." Pride pulsed through the mortification that kept me rigid. No one e ver told me that some links were uncomfortable. " I wish I could help," Amy sighed. More kisses. "Actually." An idea dawned in the tone of Ross's voice. "You could help me." " I could ?" "You know how Dr. Barnard never releases patients after a bout of fr eezing sickness until their XYZ levels drop back below 50? Well, Alex's XYZ levels are normally between 70 and 80 . Dropping them that low might interfere with her ability to hold time. " "So how can I help ?" Amy sounded eager. "Fake the results for me ." There was a pause. I was pretty sure this was not what Amy had in mind when she offered to help. "It's no big deal. When matron draws her blood tomorrow pretend to run the sample but instead just write in that she dropped to like 67 or something, and then the next day write in 48." "What if I get caught?" Ross nuzzled Amy's hair. "How could you? You toss the samples after you test them, right? So if for some reason someone else tests her blood they'll just think the first result was faulty. It's not l ike someone can duplicate the test you did. Besides, XYZ levels are famously unstable after the sickness." "Isn't it dangerous for her if she freezes time with such high levels?" " Not Alex. I told you. H er normal levels are up to 80. What's the highest level you've ever recorded?" "UmÃ‰ 87?" "See? So Alex will be fine, even if her levels are high." Amy must have shown hesitation because Ross added . " If it makes you feel better, give her an extra dose of aclisote tomorrow . That will make sure her levels stay stable. " " I'm not even on shift tomorrow. " Her voice sounded whiny. "Smart girl like you can figure something out." There was more rustling. Ross whispered something to Amy and then for a while all I heard was heavy breathing. Amy gave a little moan. "If it will really help youÃ‰" she said. "You'll be my heroine. My invisible partner in crime." Ross gave a throaty c huckle. "In solving crime, I mean. When Syke's mob falls, you'll know it was partly because of you. " Amy gave another little moan. For an interminable amount of time they remained in the room with me. I lay still, pretending to be asleep and trying not to listen. Then, finally, Ross said: "I better go. Wouldn't want to get you in trouble when Julio comes back for a check."
"You'll stop by later?" Amy's voice sounded so hopeful I wanted to slap her. "I'll call." More rustles until finally they went away . A few minutes later I opened my eyes to the empty room. Shadowy shapes lurked in the dark, the outlines of the furniture vague in the night. Why didn't Ross want anyone to test my blood? Were my XYZ levels so high that everyone would know I didn't hav e long to live? Maybe it was my imagination, but it felt like the liquid dripping from the IV had gone cold. I shivered. The C linic's night sounds murmured around me . Something mechanical beeped at steady intervals, a radio played classical music in the distance, a car passed outside the window. A deep tiredness filled me. I closed my eyes and let myself get pulled thickly down into sleep. When I woke up the sun was shining. Matron stood beside my bed, twisting the little rod that opened up the shades. She was a comfortable looking woman, with smooth dark skin and short hair curled into a sort of immobile cap around her face. She smiled when she saw me awake , revealing a gap between her front teeth . "Back among the living I see." I thought the comment in bad taste, given my current situation. "What time is it?" I pushed myself up into a sitting position. I was feeling more clearheaded than I had since Jack pulled his nasty trick. My IV was gone, which I hoped was a sign of recovery. I was also starving . "You really want to ask what day it is." Matron whipped a plastic thermometer from her pocket and popped it in my mouth. She wore a smock patterned with multicolored kittens chasing yarn . I always wonder why nurses chose such stupid material. We're no t three. "You've been in here for two days. D octor said he'd call in a specialist if you weren't up soon." " Two Ã‰!" The thermometer clattered against my teeth and Matron made a zipping motion across her lips with one hand. I waited impatiently until the p robe beeped and she took it out. " Two days? What's today?" "Wednesday," she said, squinting at the thermometer. When she stood close to me I could smell the sweet vanilla scent of her hand cream. "Looks good. Amazing really. Last night you were burning u p." She picked up my chart from a rolling supply table and made a note, then rummaged in the cupboard by my bed for a sealed needle pack and a prescription bottle of pills . "And to answer your original question it's almost noon." Noon. Memories from last night flooded back to me. Ross and Amy . All that heavy breathing. As if my uncomfortable memories had conjured her, Amy stuck her head in the door. She wore street clothes, jeans and long green cardigan with big square pockets. Dark smudges showed she hadn't gotten much sleep. " Hi ." She gave Matron the kind of smile little kids give when you take their picture, stretched lips with no emotion behind them . Matron's eyebrows rose. "Didn't you just get off shift?" "Yes." Amy blush ed. "I Ã‰ uhÃ‰ just wanted to check on Alex. CarÃ‰Mr. Ross said he was worried andÃ‰" "Patient is doing fine."
"That's great , " Amy said , too brightly. She hovered in the doorway, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. "Do you need me to do anything, Matron? Since I'm here and all." Matron looked at her sharply. I remembere d what Ross had said last night about Amy faking the results of my XYZ test . I wasn't sure I like his logic Ã it seemed awfully i nconsiderate of my personal lifespan Ã but I figured if I was doomed I might as well do something useful in my last few months among the living. I straightened up. "I'm pretty hungry. Any chance for some lunch?" "I'll get it," Amy said eagerly. "And I c an run that blood sample if you want, too." She nodded toward the needle in Matron's hand. "Mr. Ross was curious when Alex might be back at work." Matron shook her head but didn't stop the younger woman as she scurried off. She took my arm and patted th e vein in the inner curve of my elbow with a damp swab. The sharp smell of alcohol invaded my nostrils . "Looking for trouble, that girl is," she muttered, more to herself than me. The sharp needle slid into my vein with only the smallest prick. I watche d as the deep red liquid fill the plastic tube. Drawn blood looks so much richer than spilled blood Ã so rich and fertile and essential . This careless extraction always felt wrong. Matron pulled the needle free and capped it with a practiced hand. "That will do it." She placed the full tube on a clean paper towel and made another note in my file, leaving both on the rolling table for Amy. I stared at the thin vial of blood. It was really more maroon than red. In amongst all those red and while blood cells, oxygen atoms, and who knows what else, the chemical knows as XYZ swirled among its humbler kin. I imagined I could see it, a microscop ic black mist twisting through the liquid, infecting all the healthy cells until their delicate structures corroded . Not for the first time I wondered what genetic quirk had twisted my DNA to produce the vile stuff. I don't remember my parents. Time wor kers are born with the taint, though the levels aren't high enough to test until we're about two or three. I tested early. I suppose my parents cried when the Center staff took away their 18 month old baby. I often wondered if they also felt relieved to rid themselves of such a shameful mutant. Not that they had a choice. By law all time workers must be raised in a Center. We're unpredictable if we're not medicated, they say. Violent. Crazy. Like Jack. And who would want to raise a child like that? Amy returned and saved me from my maudlin thoughts, carrying a tray with a bowl of soup , toast and a sealed carton of orange juice. There was a small metal table attached to an arm beside the bed and she swung it around until it rested in front of me. Th e soup smelled like chicken and my stomach grumbled appreciatively. Amy watched me eating for a moment. "How do you feel?" Unlike the usual rote tone nurses take on when they ask you this, Amy's voice held genuine curiosity . I looked up at her. "Great. Weak, but other than that pretty normal." She nodded, looking relieved. I went back to my soup. Amy picked up the prescription bottle Matron left on the table and shook out a pill, then hesitated and added a second. I pretended not to notice that she was watching me take them with the anxious expression of a gambler watching the dice spin.
"Well," she said when I had swallowed. She rubbed her hands together with a sudden briskness. "I'll leave you to it, then." She pulled open the cabinet next to my bed and put the pills back inside. When she was done, she twisted a key in the cabinet's lock and dropped it in her pocket. All of a sudden I thought of Ross. He had been in that cabinet last night. The locked cabinet. I frowned. Last night everything felt so dreamy I hadn't thought how strange it was that Ross was fumbling with my medicine. Not just that, Ross had changed the bag in my IV. The spoon clattered from my hand into the bowl, splashing what was left of my soup all over the tray. Amy's annoyed cluck sounded far away. Ross had switched my medicine. I was sure of it. All the images from the night before tumbled through my head. Ross sneaking into my room and asking Amy to keep it secret, her pudgy stomach pressed against him, her whining voic e. Of course Amy wasn't Ross's type. He had used her to reach his own ends. But why ? He told Amy he wanted to make sure I could get back to work, but now that I thought about it that didn't really make any sense. Stable XYZ levels were critical for tim e work, and aclisote was the only way to keep them in check. Why would Ross replace my medicine with something else? "Ã‰ you OK?" Amy's voice interrupted my clamoring thoughts. " What ?" "Are you feeling OK?" "Oh, yeah." I must have looked bad because Am y was watching me with a nervous expression. "I'm just tired." She looked unconvinced. "I'll get you some water." "That would be great." I offered her my most winning smile. Amy turned away to reach the pitcher beside my bed. I stared at the locked cabi net, willing it to reveal it's secrets. Suddenly an idea flared through me. Quickly I checked the room and, seeing no sign of a monitor anywhere , I reached out and froze time. The room stilled instantly. Pushing back the blankets I swung my feet off the b ed. The tiled floor felt smooth and cool . I felt a little woozy from lack of food and paused to take a breath. Amy stood a foot away, in the act of pouring a cup of water from a pitcher. I straightened and fished my hand into the pocket of Amy's cardigan . The key to the cabinet was nestled at the bottom. I pulled it out and unlocked the dull grey doors of the cabinet. Rows of medical supplies lay before me: cotton swabs, a stack of sealed needles, sterile scissors, a blood pressure cuff. Near the fron t stood a pair of yellow prescription bottles, child safety lids firmly in place. I snatched one up. Manning, Alexandra it read in black type. Beneath that: aclisote 25 mm. My excitement leaked from me like a pricked balloon. What had I expected? That the bottle would be labeled magic recovery pills or poison ? I dropped the bottle back in its place and closed the door, locking it automatically . The key felt small in my hand. I wondered where Ross had gotten a copy. Not from Amy, I was pretty sur e. As best I could remember, the cabinet was closed before Amy came in. Or closed enough that in the dark she wouldn't notice. She wasn't looking at the cabinet anyway. All her attention had been fixed on Carson Ross. A flash of pity for A my mixed with my own turmoil. The p oor thing probably thought Ross really liked her. I studied her unmoving figure. The green sweater was a little big for her and pilled along the edges. It hung from her rounded shoulders like an
unflattering cape. In her hand the water pouring from the pitcher hung in a perfect stream straight into the waiting cup . It looked like molten glass , a beautiful image that wouldn't last. I slid the key back into Amy's pocket. It was a stupid gesture. When time melted everything would go back like it was anyway. I guess I felt as if putting things back myself would somehow erase all the stuff I didn't want to know. I was disappointed in Ross, embarrassed for him that he reached to lying and seduction to get something done. Why didn't he just tell me to take a different medicine ? I would have helped him. Even as the words ran through my head I thought of Amy saying the same thing to Ross last night. The memory made me feel a little sick. I flicked a finger at the unmoving water. The liquid splashed from the pressure of my fingers, splattering the table top. It felt cold and did nothing to alleviate my frustration . I slumped back into bed and smoothed the covers back over my legs. Rules b roken and nothing gained. I focused my mind and let go of the freeze. For a second I thought it hadn't worked. There was none of that dizzy sensation when time melts. I was just about to reach out again, when I heard Amy make an irritated clicking noise with her tongue . "Careless," she muttered. When I turned she was wiping up splattered water with her sleeve. A cold thing slid down into the middle of my stomach . Prickles very much like fear crawled along the edges of my cheek. It wasn't possible tha t that perfect pour missed the cup. Not possible, yet the evidence lay splashed across the table. With a huge effort, I dropped my eyes down so I could see my hand. " If you're sure your OK ," Amy said, "I'll be moving along." I barely registered the rattle of the rolling cart as she pushed it from my room. My eyes remained riveted on my fingers. They lay before me on the white sheet , uncompromisingly normal , the blue veins f aintly visible beneath the skin. Except what I was looking at wasn't norma l, because my fingers were all obviously, undeniably dripping wet. Chapter 4 I stared at my hands until the water dried. This was impossible. One of the iron clad rules of freezing time was that frozen time didn't exist. W hatever you did in freeze tim e , when time melted everything went back to the way it was before. Wasn't I the perfect example of that? If frozen time was real I would be dead. If things that happened in frozen time stuckÃ‰ A burst of excitement burst through me, making my heart beat so hard it hurt . I f things that happened in frozen time stuck, I could do, well, anything . I closed my eyes and reached out. The room stilled. My eyes popped open. The room looked exactly the same except it was wrapped in stillness, the light somehow d uller as if frozen sun rays didn't radiate the same brilliance as the living ray. I climbed out of bed. Except for the nerves raging through me I felt totally normal. Not heavy, not slow, no lurking headache. Taking a steadying breath I released time. S ound returned, the light shimmered again, a breeze moved against my cheek, and I remained standing next to my bed. A huge grin ripped its way across my face. I froze time again, then picked up a pillow and threw it across the room . Time melted and the pi llow remained in a rumpled
heap on the linoleum tile. I let out a crow of delight. I could affect things that happened in frozen time. Possibilities made me giddy. I couldn't wait to tell KJ and with a thrill realized I didn't have to. Freezing time a gain , I raced out of my room. Matron was sitting at a desk in the main room frowning into a computer monitor. The clock on the wall showed 12:35. Lunch time. Slipping out the door, I hurried down the hall to the cafeteria. In the cafeteria fluorescents sent down an unflattering bluish light . The scent of deep fry hung in the still air. Fifty kids sat in scattered clumps around the half dozen round tables, plates of food before them. It was hamburgers today, with french fries and limp canned peaches . Large plastic salad bowls filled with sliced leaves of iceberg lettuce, the Center's nod to health, stood mostly untouched in the cen ter of each table. and KJ was sitting at a table at the far end of the room, a fry lifted half way to his mouth. Happily for me, he was sitting close to the wall. I made my way over to him, then crouched down between him and the wall so , as far as I co uld tell, I wasn't in anyone's line of sight. With one hand I reached up under the leg of his jeans and wrapped my hand around the bare skin of his calf. Squeezing my eyes shut I melted and refroze time as quickly as I could. KJ started. "What theÃ‰?" Hi s foot kicked out, nearly smashing me in the mouth. I jumped up, grinning. "Hey, buddy!" "Alex!" He stared at me. "Where did you come from? " He looked around. "Why are we frozen?" I laughed, a pure burst of exhilaration that rang loudly in the silent room. "I have to show you something. ComeÃ‰" I stopped. KJ couldn't come with me or else for all intents and purposes he'd vanish from the lunch room. "You'll have to meet me. KJ, it's incredible. I can change things in frozen time." KJ's face took on the concerned look of someone dealing with a raving lunatic . I laughed again, partly because he looked so stupid and partly because I was barely able to contain my excitement. "Really, KJ. I can prove it. I'll melt time back and you say you have to pee o r something. I'll meet you outside the cafeteria." KJ was still looking at me like I might be dangerous . "Come on. Sit back down exactly like you were. Exactly ," I added, when he plunked into his seat. I twisted his head forward and stuck a fresh fry into his hand. "Ready?" Crouching back down out of sight, I once again melted and froze as quickly as I could, this time making sure not to touch KJ. I stood up. KJ's frozen face still showed utter bafflement. I hoped nobody h ad been watching KJ too clo sely. It would all look really weird to an outsider : KJ's body jerking from one spot to another, his face altering like a bad video feed. I scanned the other kids at the table. I pulled a pencil from another kid ' s pocket and sketched a smiley face in the ketchup slopped on KJ's plate. Then I went out in the hall, hid myself in an empty classroom and let time slip back into its tracks. KJ appeared in the hall so soon he must have bolted the instant I disappeared. "Over here," I called, popping my head aro und the door. KJ skidded over to me. His face was pale. "What was that? Where the hell did you go?"
"I told you. I can effect things in frozen time. Whatever I do sticks ." "No way." "Watch." I grabbed his arm, froze time, ran over the chalkboard and wrot e Eckbridge Sucks in huge letters. When I released us back into the buzz of time the words remained stark white across the black board. "Ho ly shit." "I know." Excitement hummed along my veins . I danced around him, barely able to contain myself. "Think what we can do! We can sneak food from the kitchens , convince everyone the Center in haunted, move chairs around, take people's stuff." KJ was still staring at the words on the board. "Alex." "We can cheat at cards, take M atron's keys and unlock doors, create perfect alibis . Forget your homework? No problem, just freeze time and get it done in a jiffy." "Alex!" I stopped dancing. "What?" "How'd this happen?" "I don't know. I just woke u p andÃ‰" The image of Ross messing with my medicine popped into my head . I pushed it away. "I woke up an hour ago and was like this." KJ went up to the board and started erasing the words. "You can't tell anyone." "Duh. If they knew I could do this they' d stop us." "They wouldn't just stop you doing this , they'd stop you freezing time completely." "You mean leash me?" The excitement tingling my veins faded. " Well, leash you, of course ." KJ was shaking his head at me, as if this were totally obvious. " Th ey'd probably want to study you, too. Make you do tests, take blood samples, who knows what else. They'd probably test all of us, try to figure out how this happened." KJ waved the eraser, sending out a cloud of chalk dust. " The norms are scared enough of us already. If they thought what we did stuck they'd go ballistic ." "Oh." KJ's words made so much sense I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it myself. Then another thought hit me, one that made the blood drain from my face in a sickening rush. "Wha t about Ross?" " Definitely don't tell him. He might like you, but he's an Agent. If he didn't turn you in he'd lose his job. " "But I have to tell him." I felt lightheaded and panicky , very aware of how little I'd eaten in the past few days. "He's my trio. If we go on a jobÃ‰" KJ's face paled in mirror of my own. I could never keep my new power secret if I took Ross with me on a time freeze. "Maybe when you get better it will go back the way it was before ," KJ said . " Maybe you can keep saying you're sick a nd avoid Ross entirely . MaybeÃ‰" His words ran out. We both knew his maybes were about as likely as the norms accepting us into their midst . Our eyes met with mutual horror . "Shit." "Think the rewind will even still work?" My voice sounded squeaky, as if my growing fear was pushing against the words in my throat
KJ fiddled with the eraser, tossing from hand to hand. "Maybe," he said. "J ust don't tell anyone else for a while. We'll make a plan ." He didn't look at me. I felt like I might throw up. "I bette r go back," I said. KJ nodded. I froze time again and left KJ standing in the empty room. The walk back to the clinic held none of the elation of the walk out. I moved gingerly around the frozen people , careful no t to touch anything as I passed . My brain whizzed in a thousand directions. I kept picturing myself laid out on a surgeon's table, my brain exposed to razor sharp tools that glinted in the harsh antiseptic light. My brain, KJ's brain, Fay 's Ã‰ Matron was still at her desk when I entered the C linic , h er body twisted half out of her chair, caught in one of those awkward frozen moments that always look extremely uncomfortable. I scurried past her, wanting nothing more than the passive embrace of a hospital bed. It wouldn't be hard now to pretend I still felt sick . A headache that had nothing to do with time work throbbed at the base of my neck . I pulled open my door and almost slammed into a man's wide back . Next to my bed, attention fixed on the rumpled sheets, stood Carson Ross. Chapter 5 I was halfway back out of the room before I realized that in normal circumstances there was no way I could have left the room without Matron seeing me. If I suddenly walked in the outer door Matron and the whole staff would want to know how I got there . P anic bubbled up inside me. I wanted to run back out and ask KJ what to do, but every second I melted time meant more time for Ross to figure out I was missing. I scoured the room, looking for some place to hide. Side table, sink , locked cabinet. The sp ace under the high bed was so exposed Ross would have seen me when he walked in the room. In desperation I pressed myself against the wall near the door. Maybe I could convince Ross I was behind the door when he opened it. With a feeling of imminent doom , I released time. "Ã‰something wrong, Mr. Ross?" Matron's voice floated in from the main room. I remembered her awkward half crouch and realized she must be on her way here. "Mr. Ross. " I forced myself to sound jolly . "Over here." Ross spun around so fast it was as if he'd been hit with an electric jolt . I stretched my lips into a smile . " Boo ." Ross's face lit up like a firework just exploded behind his eyes. Shock and wonder battled with something baser Ã greed? Ã before washing into clear relief. "Everything's fine, Matron." Ross motioned silently to me, pointing urgently towards the bed. It was my turn for shock. Ross was actually going to cover for me ! I dove for the bed. " I justÃ‰" Ross's glance darted to the side. "Spilled a glass of water ." Adroitly, Ross picked up the full glass Amy had left and poured half the contents onto the floor. I settled the blankets over my legs, trying to still my beating heart. " Water ?" Matron was frowning as she pushed open the door . " Sorry." Ross g ave a sheepish shrug. "Alex said she was thirsty. I guess it slipped." I was impressed to notice that he sounded perfectly calm. My voice , I was sure, would squeak if I said anything. I decided to keep my lips firmly sealed.
"At least it didn't break ," Matron sighed. She pulled a wad of paper towels from the dispenser over the sink. "I'll do that." Ross took the towels from Matron and dropped to his knees. "Looks like you're taking good care of our patient." He nodded toward me. "She's doing real ly well." Matron 's irritated expression finally softened. She straightened my covers . "She 's been awake for about half an hour , ate a little soup ." I wished they wouldn't talk about me as if I wasn't even there, but I didn't trust my voice enough to p rotest . Besides it seemed churlish to complain when Ross was doing his best to help me out. Ross stood up. "How are her XYZ levels?" His attention was seemingly focused on balling up the wet paper towels, but I saw a nerve twitch in his neck as he spoke. My heart gave a little skip. " Aren't you the technical one." Matron looked pleasantly surprised . "Most agents don't bother understanding the medical side of time work." She took the soggy mass of paper from Ross's hand and threw it into a trash can . " Am y tested them just a few minutes ago and said Alex's levels are right where they should be. " She gave Ross's arm a sympathetic pat. Y ou'll have your little time worker back for a few more jobs, at least." A few more jobs . She tossed the words out as if they meant nothing to me, as if this wasn't my life she was discussing. And it was Ross she was feeling sorry for? Tears of self pity pressed themselves behind my eyes. I looked down, focusing my attention on my hands tightly clasped on the white sheet. " That's great ." Ross pulled the visitor chair over next to the bed. "Mind if I stay a while? " "Sure thing, Mr. Ross. Just make sure you don't tire her out. " The door shut behind Matron . I stared at my hands. The knuckles looked big, all the tendons visible beneath my tautly stretched skin. I toyed with the idea of pretending I was too tired to talk, but couldn't bring myself to do it . I knew I owed Ross an explanation . I rais ed my head, feeling like the proverbial lamb heading to slaughter. Ross was watching me, with that eager look back in his eyes. I licked my lips with a dry tongue. "Thanks." "You really feel OK?" "Yeah." I shrugged. "I feel great actually. Mostly really hungry." Ross grinned at me like a crazy jack o lantern. "So you froze time." I nodded. His enthusiasm should have made me feel more relaxed, but somehow it just made me more nervous . "And?" "AndÃ‰" I struggled for the right thing to say . It was beginning to dawn on me that Ross already knew what had happened. But how could he? Changing things in frozen time was impossible. The midnight memories returned. Ross, Amy, the medicine . I sat up straight. " What did you put in my IV?" Ros s 's face closed like snap trap . " What do you mean? " " Last night. I was mostly asleep, but I saw you. You changed the bag on my IV and then took my medicine . " Ross tapped one finger against his lips, as if calculating something in his head. Then he p ulled the visitor's chair close r to the bed and leaned forward .
"Alex." Ross spoke with a seriousness I'd never heard from him before . I much preferred this over the weird excitement he'd shown a few minutes earlier . "You know I value your time skill w ork. You can hold a much clearer picture than most workers, and keep it spinning out for a really long time. Plus you're just a pleasant kid to work with." He smiled a little when he said that. I couldn't help smiling back. "So when you got sick I thou ght I'd try and help." He was watching me as he spoke, as if gauging my reaction. I tried to look serious and mature . It seemed so surreal that I was the one with the secret but Ross was the one explaining himself. "I know this guy," Ross continued, "a scientist. He's been working on an experimental medicine that's supposed to make time workers live longer after the ir first sickness. It's risky Ã any new medication is Ã and I know I should have asked you before I gave it to you. I meant to, except you got sick sooner than I expected. And then once you collapsed, well, I knew I didn't have much time." He grimaced, like a little boy caught stealing a candy from the store. "You see you have to get it right after the first attack or it doesn't work and," Ross shrugged, "I figured it was worth it if you lived longer." An unfamiliar emotion squirmed its way along my innards. Ross cared about me. He cared enough to break dozens of rules and probably risk his agent license . Ross didn't want me to die. I rubbed my cheek, which prickled with warmth. I really hoped my face wasn't beaming like Matron's or, worse, Amy's. "No, yeah, I meanÃ‰" I drew a breath. "Thank you , Mr. Ross. If you'd asked I definitely would have said yes. " Ross's face relaxed. We grinned at each other a minute. I twisted my fingers, wanting and not wanting to break the connection. Finally I said: " What does the medicine do exactly?" "Oh I don't completely understand the technical parts. " Ross waved a hand. "You'd have to ask my scientist friend. He did say, though, that there might be some side unusual side effects." The excited expression came back over Ross's face. He looked greedy, like someone drooling over a forbidden cake in a shop window . " When I first came in your room, you weren't here, were you?" My hands clen ched together so tightly I heard three knuckles pop . KJ's warning not to tell anyone yet, that Ross was just another adult that would betray me, echoed in my head . But how else cou ld I explain how I reappeared ? Besides Ross had already risked so much for me. I pushed away KJ's voice. He didn't have an A gent like Ross. H e didn't understand. "No. I froze time and then when I melted itÃ‰" I swallowed. I felt like I did the time KJ dared me to jump off the high rocks on a field trip to Something park. Every instinct inside me screamed that this was a really bad idea, even though logic told me I'd be fine. I pushed instinct down and plunged ahead. "Things I changed had stuck." Ross's eyes gleamed. "What did you do?" "Nothing. I touched some water and then after I melted time my hands were wet. So then I froze time again and went out into the hall andÃ‰" I thought of KJ. Th ere was no need to drag him into this. "I just walked around ." "Did you change anything anyone would notice?" I shook my head. "I wrote something on a chalkboard, but then I erased it. I was afraid if I got caught I'd get leashed ."
"Good thinking." Ross laid his hand across my clasped fingers . " You can't let anyo ne know about your new abilities . None of your friends, none of the staff or doctors, no one." He pressed my hand . "It's not just getting leashed you have to worry about. This kind of power scares people. If the administration knew what you can do they 'd lock you up in a heartbeat, and leave you there until the sickness took over." I thought about living the remaining year or so of my life in the Center's holding cells. They were electronically locked and double doored so even if I walked through one when the staff opened it, I could never get past the second . Freezing time served no purpose in the cells. It only made your jail time longer. " If you ever think someone is on to you, or you get scared or anything seems wrong, you need to call me right away, but don't say anything explicit on the line. Always assume someone is listening. If there is a problem just bring the word cat into the con versation." "Cat?" The whole idea of a code seemed ludicrous Ã like something out of a spy novel. Normally I would have laughed, but Ross was staring straight into my eyes with out a hint of humor . "Cats are an innocuous topic but not one likely to com e up by accident . If you say the word, I'll come to the Center as fast as I can." I had an urge to pull the covers over my head and curl up into a little ball. The room felt colder than when I first woke up. The bland furnishing suddenly seemed too shiny, the table edges sharp. "You're not th e only one at risk here, " Ross continued. The image of KJ laid out beneath a surgeon's knife rose back up in my mind. "I 'd get in a lot of trouble for giving you these drugs. " I dropped my head, feeling guilty for all the people I was putting at risk just by existing. My earlier exuberance at my new skill shamed me. This was no simple gift useful for stealing cookies or c heating on exams, this was Power. "I won't tell anyone," I promised . KJ didn't count. I knew he wouldn't talk and there was no point worrying Ross. "That's my girl." Ross smiled at me, that slow sweet smile that made his eyes crinkle up. "You rest for t he next few days, and t hen next week we'll see how the newly defined trio works out." "You think I still can?" "I think it will be fine." Ross winked at me. "More than fine. W ith your new power we should be able to accomplish more than ever." I lean ed back into my pillows. Tiredness from my days of sickness, coupled with the morning's excitement, rose up like a grey wave. Against my will, a yawn stretched my jaw. Ross patted my hand . "I'll leave you to sleep now. No time freezing until we're toge ther OK? Now that you've recovered they'll put you back on the grid and we can't have anyone getting suspicious. It's too risky." Another yawn interrupted my agreement. Ross pulled the blankets all the way up to my chin. The last thing I saw before my eyes slid shut was his face, smiling down at me with a look of proud concern. I snuggled down into the warmth of my bed, allowing Ross's caring to hold back the hovering cloud of my anxiety. KJ had been wrong about
Ross. Jack, too. None of them understo od. Ross cared about me . I was more tha n just a worker to him. I was his friend and together we'd accomplish wonderful things. Chapter 6 KJ came to visit me while I was eating my dinner: macaroni and cheese, a salad of iceberg lettuce drenched with a bright orange dressing, garlic bread and a frosted brownie. Despite the bland flavors, I was devouring it with gusto . "How are you feeling?" Even though he was n't as big as Ross, KJ's long body didn't seem to fit the confines of the visitor's chair. His elbows looked squashed within the chair's padded arms, his knees splayed awkwardly between the seat and bed. I focused my attention on the rapidly disappearing macaroni. " H ungry." KJ dropped his voice. "Have you frozen time again?" I swallowed past a guilty lump. "Ross asked me not to." I tried to say the words casually. It didn't work. "Ross was here? " KJ's eyebrows disappeared into his shaggy bangs. "And y o u told him?" "He already knew." I traced a pattern in the orange dressing with my fork . "It's actually beca use of him I can do it at all." Without looking at KJ, I blurted out the rest of it: the experimental drugs, Ross's assurance it might make me live longer, the time shifting as a side effect he seemed to expect. I only omitted the part about Ross and Amy . "The new medicine is definitely helping," I finished up. "I feel really great, lighter somehow. Mr. Ross says we should be able to run the trio a nd everything." The room was very quiet. I raised my head from the striped pattern I'd created on my plate. KJ was staring at me with a look of pure horror. " Ross is giving you drugs ?" He spoke way too loud . My eyes flew to the door, afraid Matron mig ht have heard him. The frosted pane remained pearly white. KJ lowered his voice. "What's the drug called?" I searched my memory. "I don't know." "Will it have other side effects?" An uncomfortable kernel lodged itself in my gut. Why hadn't I asked Ross that question? "Won't the new medicine show up in your blood tests? What's it doing to your XYZ levels?" The image of Ross kissing Amy rose up in my mind. That information I was not willing to share. KJ already thought Ross was a jerk. I shrugged . "Alex, this is nuts. You have no idea what you're taking. It could make you get sick even faster. " I stabbed my fork into the pile of lettuce . I wished I'd never told KJ any of it Ã not about the medicine, not about the power. This was our secret, mine and Ross's. "I told you . I feel fine. Better than usual." I abandoned the lettuce and snatched up the brownie. I'm more of a fruit person; chocolate is KJ's pass ion. I didn't offer to share. KJ's arms were crossed tightly over his chest. " So Ross is going to make you do time work, even though nobody knows how this new power even works?"
"He's not making me. I want to keep working." I broke off a piece of brownie and popped it in my mouth. "And what if you get caught?" The bits of brownie felt like little clods of dirt caking my tongue. I tried to bring back the sense of safety Ross had given me bu t it receded like a lifting mist . I forced myself to sound confide nt . "Ross will make sure that doesn't happen. He's taking the same risk I am." " Ross isn't risking anything. If you get caught you get leashed. Ross can deny having anything to do with it. You're the only one who knows what he did. Do you think the a dministration will believe you over him?" The picture I'd conjured earlier of the double locked cell popped back into my head. I felt my wrists locked in a permanent leash, saw my life restricted to a single room. KJ's face reflected all the panic I was trying to suppress. I felt a spark of anger at him. Wasn't he supposed to be visiting my sickbed to make me feel better? I wanted him to leave, yearned instead for Ross to come back. Ross, with his soothing words and promises of help . KJ shook his head. "It's totally unethical of Ross to give you medicine without asking your permission . I should report him. " I dropped the half eaten brownie . It landed in the orange dressing with a liquid thud . " If you turn us in, I'll never speak to you again." I saw his mouth tighten at the us and felt a surge of spiteful pleasure . " I would have agreed in a heartbeat if he had asked me. At least it's a chance . It's not like I have a lot of time." The tightness in KJ's face loosened. He leaned forward, unwinding his arms as if to reach for me. I pulled away. I didn't want his pity . " You can doubt all you want ," I snapped, " but I know Ross is doing this because he values me enough to want to help me . " "Because he values you ?" KJ sat back. "Carson Ross is not doing this for you ." The anger within me flared up. My cheeks burned as if they'd been slapped. "Why else would he do it?" "That's what worries me," KJ said. "I don't know." "Well I know." I felt like my whole body was burning. KJ just looked perplexed. It wasn't fair. I wanted to hurt KJ like he was hurting me . "You're just jealous . Jealous that I have the better agent, jealous that I have more power. Well it's my life, KJ, a nd I'm going to spend what's left of it however I want . A nd I cho o se Ross." The rattle of the doorknob stopped KJ from answering me. "What's all the yelling in here?" Matron said. "Nothing." I looked past KJ to talk to her, ignoring him completely. "I 'm done with my dinner. I'd think I'll go to bed." Matron came in to take my tray . KJ stood to get out of her way . "Don't forget your medicine." Matron unlocked the cabinet and shook a pill from the bottle , handing it to me with a glass of water . Defi antly , I took it from her. Eyes fixed on KJ, I swallowed the pill with a gulp. KJ turned and stalked from the room without a word. I managed to wait until Matron left before I started to cry. ***
I rejoined the other workers two days later. Fay gave me a hug when she saw me, a few of the staff avoided my eyes, but most of the other kids didn't say much. What was there to say? Gee, sorry you're going to die soon. Don't worry, I'm right behind ya . At dinner that night, KJ sat at our usual table, the seat across from him glaringly empty. I ignored him, sitting instead with Shawna and her endless chatter about which boys were the cutest. KJ didn't turn up in the common room that night. The week sl id into its familiar track. Mornings I went to classes and in the afternoon I worked in the library. At my a ge classes are optional. Time w orkers aren't required to stay in school after 8 th grade Ã what's the point? Ã but state law requires the Center t o offer them to us until we're 18. I figured classes were better than working and besides I liked the tutor, Ms. Daria. She was young, a grad student at PSU, and didn't seem overly freaked out spending time with workers. This semester I was studying Spa nish and European History. I'd planned to take the GED in the spring, though the plan felt a little tenuous now. Still, the enforced concentration of studying made it easier for me to stop thinking about Ross, KJ or the medicine. We work in small group, one tutor for every five students, so it's not like you can goof off. Work offered more of a challenge. The library takes up two corner rooms on the second floor. Big trees gro w outside the tall windows making it feel like a tree house filled with dapple d light. We don't have a regular librarian, so I'm the one who sort s books, orders new ones, do es data entry, set up seasonal displays . I usually like the library because it's quiet and I'm mostly left alone, but these days it meant I had too much time to think. Any hint of a headache, minor muscle twinge, or gastric rumble sent my mind tumbling into a hypochondriatic panic. Every time the door opened I both feared and hoped it was KJ coming to find me. KJ does IT work for the Center so his job takes him all over. A couple times I thought about breaking the library computer on purpos e so I could summon him . What stopped me was that I didn't know what to say. I wanted to apologize for yelling at him, but I was still so hurt he thought Ross didn't care I had trouble formulating any words. Plus Ross had told me not to talk to anyone about my powers Ã and creeped me out with his insinuations about bugged phones Ã so I felt disloyal talking about it all with KJ. Of course, not talking about it with KJ al so made me feel disloyal. He and I had always told each other everything. All in all it was easier just to avoid him. One week to the day after I was released from the Clinic, Eckbridge's static voice paged me during dinner. I went to the office where s he gave me the news I'd been dreading and hoping for all week: Ross was on his way over. We had a case. Fifteen minutes later we were driving out of the Center's subterranean garage. Ross' s car purred like a large cat, a faint rumble that resonated deep i n the center of my chest as we slid through the quiet night. "Are you sure it will work?" I asked him. "Don't see why not. Just remember exactly how you were standing when you freeze time and be real careful not to touch anything." Ross seemed full of su ppressed excitement . His hand tapped the steering wheel as he drove and he kept whistling snatches of songs. I sunk lower in the leather seat, trying not to think of what would happen if I got caught . It was the first warm night of the year and the leat her felt cool against my hands. Ross turned the car smoothly around a bend, accelerating through the darkness.
" Did Eckbridge give you the briefing for our case tonight?" he asked. I shook my head. "It's another gang case." Ross didn't seem to notice my unease . "This one will put a huge dent in their operations and put us a step closer to catching their head honcho." A flicker of interest made me sit up straighter. Gang cases mattered. " Sykes has been passing millions of dol lars around for years and we've never been able to figure out how he does it . Victim , the guy that was our informant, told me to check this guy Thompson who works at Ardent and Ross." He glanced at me. "You know Ardent and Ross?" "They're accountants, ri ght?" "One of the largest firms in the city. Real bitch getting a the Chief to follow up . A & R has some big names on their board. All that changed with Victim dead. Especially with all the publicity. Chief is finally willing to listen . We've had a de tective watching Thompson for a week now, checking his patterns, seeing when he works. Last night he had drinks with a guy I know definitively is one of Sykes's. Today Thompson spent all day in his office, working on client files . Soon as I heard that I asked for a warrant. It took some doing," Ross grinned to himself, a hard glint of pleasure lighting his eyes, "but I got it." I waited for Ross to say more. When he didn't I said: "I don't get it. What crime are we unwinding?" " Thompson is cooking the b ooks." "Yeah, but how do we catch him?" "We'll watch. See what codes he puts in, see how he moves stuff around. I'm not sure exactly what we're looking for but that's why we're brin g ing an expert." "Bringing an expert?" My voice like I'd swallowed a squea ky toy. "We can't do that ! I've never done an unwinding since things changed, what if something goes wrong? What ifÃ‰?" "Relax. I've got it all figured out. Chris Ã the expert Ã will never know. He hasn't done one of these before so he won't notice if it feels a little different." "But what if we change something?" "Don' t worry. Even y ou can't change the past." "How do you know?" " Just read the old Ã‰oh, oops , almost missed the turn." Ross swung the car into a large parking lot and pulled the car up besi des two police cars. He shut off the engine and turned to look me in the face. "Because changing the past isn't possible. Rewind is like watching a movie, you can't actually step in and alter anything." I must have looked unconvinced because Ross gave a firm little nod. " Trust me on this one. I'm sure." "Mr. RossÃ‰" I started but he had already turned away, stepping from the car to greet Mr. Hernandez and another man who were getting out of one of the police cars. I got out of the other side of the car alone, not feeling the least bit reassured. Twenty minutes later we were standing in an elegant office ten stories from the ground. The view looked out over the empty parking lot and a wooded hillside. Beyond that I could just make out the faint glow of snow capped Mt Hood. The office itself was m uffled with heavy wood paneling and a thick maroon carpet . The wide oak desk was bare except for a computer monitor and a modern looking desk lamp, it's smooth metal neck set in a gentle curve like a swan ' s. There were framed plaques on the walls but no photographs , no clumsy offerings of children's art, not even a calendar to give a sense of
personality. Jeffrey Thompson, as the name on the wall outside proclaimed, must keep his personal life separate fro m the office. Ross was talking to the tall man who had come with the police. He'd introduced him as Chris Simmons , a CPA who specialized in something called forensic audits Ã a process, I gathered, which involved reviewing completed financials to figure out how they were put together. Simmons had long dark hair pulled back in a pony tail and sharp cheek bones that made me think he must be part Native American . He looked very serious. Mr. Hernandez was standing to one side, setting up the rewind equipme nt. At a nod from him I went over and allowed myself to get linked up. "Nervous?" Hernandez asked softly. I started. Had Ross told him? I squeezed my hands together , feeling betrayed . My hands felt clammy. "It's OK, most people feel worried after their first sickness. You should be fine tonight, though. The second attack never comes on this fast." I t wasn't exactly reassuring being told I wouldn't die yet, but my relief that Ross had kept our secret made me effusive. "Ready?" Ross had joined us, the eager smile back on his face. He snapped on his link and helped Mr. Simmons with his. "Isn't three the customary number?" Simmons sounded nervous. He kept glancing at me as if afraid I might bite. "Usually we keep it to the trio, but Alex here can hand le it." Ross patted my shoulder. "She's the best." I tried to smother the anxiousness twisting my stomach and look reassuring for Simmons . He nodded at me but didn't smile. I noticed he moved to stand closer to Ross and my sympathy for him faded. Preju dice d bastard. "All set," Hernandez said. "Time shifting can be a little disorienting at first," Ross said to Simmons . "It helps if you close your eyes." Hernandez didn't comment on this unusual advice. I knew Ross said it in case something shifted after time melted and I felt a spark of gratitude. Ross was always one step ahead, always watching out for me. I copied Simmons and closed my own eyes, reaching out and bringing time to a stop. Almost before I opened my eyes Ross gestured to Hernandez to sta rt unwinding , ensuring none of us got a real good glimpse of what the frozen time looked like . Sunset filled the windows, the soft pink glow growing into full sun in a matter of second s . I heard Simmons's sharp intake of breath. It was pretty spectacul ar. The office door opened and a man wobbled in backwards, pulled a bunch of papers from a locked drawer and scuttled into his chair. Hernandez slowed the rewind . Jeff rey Thompson was short, with a ring of dark hair around a shiny bald patch. He wore a perfectly pressed shirt with thin stripes and a bright yellow tie. Ross and Hernandez moved to peer over the guy's shoulder. My own inspection didn't help much. The guy had a coupl e of spreadsheets open on his computer and he was carefully typing numbers in and comparing them to the sheets spread out in front of him. Except for the fact that the numbers disappeared when he hit a key rather than appeared, time could have been moving forward.
Minutes slid backward. Simmons frowned. He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and clicked his pen. "No point," Ross said, grabbing Simmons's hand before it touched the paper. "Frozen time doesn't exist. Nothing you do will stick." To my r elief, Simmons slid the paper back in his pocket without complaint and turned his attention back to the screen. The next two hours passed very slowly. Sometimes Simmons asked Hernandez to speed things up, other times he let time unroll slowly. I paced t he room, looking out the window occasionally to watch the sun's progress. I was starting to get tired and a headache was pressing against my temples. I'd never worried about entertaining myself on a mission before, usually the crime itself made for prett y interesting viewing. Not this time. The view of Mt Hood, stunning as it might be, offered pretty limited entertainment value after a couple of hours . I wandered to a cabinet and tried to open it. My hand passed through the handle like ghosts do on TV movies. It made me feel better that Ros s was right that we couldn't in advertently change the past. The idea of effecting history made my head hurt even worse. I was in danger of actually nodding off before Ross finally called a halt. Ross was solicitou s, praising my stamina for holding on so long, and clearly pleased with whatever information they'd managed to uncover. He strolled back to the spot next to Simmons we'd all stood in when the freeze star t ed and told Simmons to close his eyes again. Hernan dez let the unreel roll back. The last flares of sunset were just fading from the sky when I realized we'd made a mistake. Simmons was facing the window , but when I'd frozen time, he'd been looking Ross . They'd been talking. My headache pounded. I felt unusually dizzy as the day ' s images flooded past at a frenetic pace. I waved at Ross behind Simmons's back. Ross raised an eyebrow. Wrong way , I mouthed desperately, spinning a finger to illustrate my point, he's facing the wrong way . Ross frowned at me for an instant, then understanding dawned across his face. " Hernandez !" he cried. But it was too late. Images spun passed and slowed. The office was empty, the sun gone. We were back. I made the decision in an instant. Leapin g toward Simmons , I let go of time. As l ight and sound returned to normal I threw myself forward in a ridiculously overacted faint and slammed into Simmons . Both of us hit the floor in an awkward tangle. "What the hellÃ‰?" Simmons disentangled himself fro m me so quickly you'd think time skills were contagious. I stayed on the ground, even managing a small moan. The fact the moan was more relief than discomfort didn't prevent it from working. Simmons stepped even further away, disgust barely controlled on his face. For once the Norm's revulsion of time workers was in my favor. Simmons would never remember what position he had faced when time melted now. "Alex!" Ross dropped down beside me . "Are you all right?" "Sorry," I said, "I got dizzy. We were out there for so long." "You were great," Ross said with unaffected sincerity. "Saved the day." Our eyes met and we grinned at each other a moment, sharing our relief. "Did you get what you needed?" I asked.
"That's for Chris to say." Ross helped me back up to my feet and ushered me into one of Jeff Thompson's chairs. "He's the expert." The chair was a tall wingback covered with some sort of very soft fabric that might have been suede but was probably somethi ng more politically correct and expensive. I leaned back into the comforting softness, the high sides embracing me like a soft hammock . I really did feel tired. Hernandez appeared beside me with a heavy glass of water. I yawned. Chris and Ross stood ne ar the door, engrossed in a conversation about what they had found . I tried to follow their talk. Their words bounced around my head, familiar but without real meaning attached to them. Balance sheet, debits, collateral, uncollected debt, subsidiary orga nizations. I wished they would take me back to the Center and have their conversation somewhere else. Hernandez had closed up his briefcase and taken the seat across from mine, ankles crossed. He looked perfectly ready to wait until morning if necessary . The chair was really exceptionally soft. I yawned again. I wondered how long I'd been awake. Ross's voice rose and fell, pu n ctuated by Simmons's alto tones. They seemed to be disagreeing about something. "So are you saying this stuff is worthless?" My eyes snapped open. Ross was looking over at Simmons with an expression of outrage. Simmons shrugged. "It's not worthless, it's just not enough for a conviction. The books show that he's moving money from one account to the other, and given what I'v e seen I can probably trace the discrepancies from the original files, but unless he kept backup of the transfers to the offshore accounts, we have nothing to go on." Ross's attention sharpened. "So we need backup? What kind?" "Transfer sheets, letterhea d from some offshore bank, a memo ordering the act." Simmons shook his head. "Stuff nobody would be stupid enough to keep." For an instant Ross's attention shifted to me. He bit his lip, I could tell he was thinking hard. "What if we checked the files," he said slowly, "just to seeÃ‰" "We don't have a warrant for that , Carson. Even if we found something we'd have to give it up as illegal search." "Right, of course." Ross clapped his hands together. "Well, that's it then, we'll get a warrant and search the files first thing." "Search theÃ‰? I told you the chances they left something behind are minimal. If we're wrong we'd have pissed off some of the most powerful people in town. Even that fancy award won't protect you from that kind of pressure ." Ross grinned. "And if I'm right?" "If you're rightÃ‰ hell, Carson, you'd risk all that on a hunch?" "In a heartbeat." Simmons shook his head, half admiring, half horrified. "I can try to get it. It's on your head, though." "Thanks, Chris." Hernandez , recognizing dismissal, stood up. I pulled myself out of the chair, unsure what had just happened. Ross was smiling at both of us. He pulled open the door and held it for Simmons who sailed on through.
"I t hought time work was instant for the rest of u s," an officer joked. "You guys were in there forever." Simmons said something back and they all laughed. "After you," Ross said, giving Hernandez a mock bow. The time winder stepped forward. I moved to follow. Ross stuck out a hand and circled my bare wrist, pulling me back s o that I stood next to him just behind the shelter of the door. "Quick," he muttered in my ear, "freeze time." "What?" "Do it," the pressure on my wrist increased. "Now." The urgency in his voice infected me. Without really thin king I reached out and grabbed. Chapter 7 The room stilled. Ro ss released my wrist . "That was quick thinking about Simmons . " He slipped off a shoe and wedged it under the door, making sure it remained at precisely the same point before letting go. "You really saved us that time." His head swiveled to study the frozen room. I rubbed my wrist . "What is it? Did we leave some si gn we were here?" "Not yet." Ross sounded distracted. He pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket and pulled them on, then started wandering around the room now, opening desk drawers, trying locked cabinets. " Mr. Ross? What did Simmons mean about an awar d?" "Doesn't anyone at the Center get the newspaper?" Ross turned to look at me. "I got a Citizenship Commendation for solving that last murder case. There was a big ceremony, a party . " He raised a hand, as if toasting me with an invisible glass. "It's o ur award, really. If you hadn't been sick I would have brought you with me." An image popped into my head of me standing next to Ross before a cheering crowd, light bulbs flashing in my eyes, the press holding a microphone up to our faces, Ross's protect ive arm around my shoulder. I shook my head. "But we didn't catch the guy." Ross was trying another file cabinet, which gave a metallic clunk to show it was locked. "Sure we did, don't you remember? We got to him just before you got sick." I stared at Ross's back. The clanking metal sounded loud in the muffled room. "We didn't get a clear enough picture. I had to let go before we got close." "It all worked out." Ross dug around in his pocket and pulled out a thin metal object. "I already knew who h ad done it anyway." I blinked. "You did?" "Of course. I've been tracking the Sykes gang for years. The dead man was the informer who told me about Thompson." The metal object glinted in his hand and one of the previously locked file drawers slid open. " Who else had a motive to kill him?" "ButÃ‰ we didn't actually get the proof." I wished I could just let it go, trust Ross, but I couldn't help myself. For all my complaints about the Center I'd worked there for too long not to believe in what we were doing . I struggled to make my doubts clear to Ross. "John Smith is almost certainly going to be found guilty of murder based on evidence that you made up. That's not what our job is supposed to be about."
"Our job is to seek justice for criminals," Ross said . "John Smith is the second in charge of the bad guy gang. They've stolen millions of dollars, bribed officials, ruined hundreds of people's lives. He almost certainly murdered other people we never managed to pin on him. John Smith deserves this punish ment. You and I together provided the opportunity that will send this guy away for life. You should be proud." If this was pride I didn't like it. I felt like something rotten was festering in my stomach. I wanted to take a long shower and wash not just my skin but my whole insides, too. I stood, feeling stupid, watching as Ross thumbed through the open file cabinet. " What are you looking for?" "Chris said we needed a memo, a noteÃ‰" Ross opened one of the files and scanned it quickly . A slow coil of mi sgivings slid into my stomach like a long snake . I cleared my throat. " Mr. Hernandez said he'd get you a search warrant." "And if we get a warrant and don't find anything I'm toast." Ross glanced up at me. "We're both toast. Think you'll be getting any plum jobs if I get crucified?" I leaned a hand against the smooth desk. I felt shaky, and only partly from the strain of holding time. Ross slipped the folder back into its spot and pulled out another. The smile that spread across his cheeks carried non e of the warmth I was used to. "Hand me a sticky note , will you?" I didn't move. Ross snapped a finger at me, eyes still focused on the file in his hand. "There's some in the top right hand drawer." It felt like a dream. I found the note and walked over to hand it to Ross. He grabbed a pen from his pocket, using his teeth to pull off the lid, then scrawled a few words . He wrote in a tiny, crabbed hand, nothing like his usual firm flourish. "What are you doing?" I asked. Ross didn't answer. The snake in my belly seemed to be growing, spreading out to run along my veins. I felt heavy and cold. Ross crumpled the note he'd written, then smoothed it across the edge of the file cabinet, rubbi ng it a few times until the paper looked worn. It reminded me of a project we'd done years ago when I was still in school, some segm ent on the ancient G reeks. We'd taken paper and rubbed it with dirt and worked it to make the paper look like papyrus . Ro ss's note looked like it had spent days in someone's pocket. He folded the paper up very small and stuck it deep within the pages of the file. "There we go." He sounded pleased. Careful ly, he slid the file back in it s spot and relocked the cabinet. I watched this time as he used a thin piece of metal, like a really skinny knife, to manipulate the lock. "You're planting evidence?" I knew I sounded shocked. "Don't want their search to be for nothing." Ross sounded horribly cheerful. He put t he stack of sticky notes back and surveyed the room, presumably to make sure nothing else was out of place. I crossed my arms. "You can't do that ." Ross stopped his review of the room and peered at me. "What's wrong?" I f Ross didn't know then I didn't k now where to start. " Y ou just framed this guy." "Alex. " The look Ross gave me was pitying. " We already know this guy Thompson is a crook. I'm just making sure he gets caught."
"But it'sÃ‰.wrong." The word sounded lame . I felt like some idiot goody toe s hoes . It wasn't that I couldn't imagine anyone cheating, it's that I never though t Ross was a cheater. I tried another tact. " You can lose your job." "How ca n anyone ever know? " His wide grin was complicated by too many teeth. " It's impossible to do wha t we just did, right? I know you won't tell on me . " He winked. Of course he was right. To inform on him meant to inform on myself and I would suffer a worse fate . He might lose his job, if anyone could even prove his crime. I would become some sort of ho rrible lab rat. A shudder ran through me. Ross put a hand on my shoulder, instantly sympathetic. "You tired? I'm sorry to make you hold this so long." He led me back to the door , slipping his shoe on and taking hold of the handle . "We're done now, any way." He took my wrist. I looked back at the file cabinet. I could melt time and then refreeze it, and take the note back out of the cabinet. Ross's hand felt heavy against my skin . Even if he let me go, the file cabinet was locked, and I didn't know ho w to use Ross's skeleton key. Leaving break in marks on the lock would probably be just as much a conviction as admitting to swapping evidence . And the only fingerprints would be mine. Exhaustion took the decision from my hands. With a long sigh I relea sed time. The rush of returning sensation made me dizzy and I almost fainted for real this time. Outside the door Simmons's and the cop's laughter resumed. Ross put a supporting arm around my shoulder, his hand just brushing against the skin on my neck , and led me from the room. He didn't let go until we were outside the building and the cops made sure the outside doors were locked. Chapter 8 The damp breeze brushed against my cheek like cold fingers . I aimed my feet a little closer to the buildings' eaves and pulled the edges of my windbreaker so they covered half my hands . On my wrist I wore the leash all time workers were required to wear when outside the Center. The a watch sized bracelet, if left visible, screamed out my unique place in society so I preferred to keep it covered. Downtown Portlanders, my erstwhile neighbors, hurried by me on their own mid day missions Ã a well coiffed woman in a suit talking on a cell phones, a bike messenger with a barbed wire tattoo etched across his n eck, two teenage girls juggling shopping bags and cups of steaming coffee. The air smelled of exhaust and wet leaves. I moved through them, head down , eyes focused on my black Keds . I always feel tense when I'm outside the Center, especially if I'm out alone . Just two month ago, Fay had been seen by a group of young men as she left the Center. They followed her, calling taunts that grew into threats. When the biggest guy shoved her, she ran into a department store. Her tormentors lurked outside for h alf an hour before she broke down and asked a cashier for a phone to call Center security. Fay said the woman almost fainted when she realized Fay was a worker. Probably sterilized the damn phone after I left , Fay said. Fay and I both knew she was lucky. We'd all heard the stories about workers who were beaten or even killed by crazy skinheads or time haters.
Despite my fears , it felt good to be out of the Center. Jack had found me in the library an hour earlier. I'd felt nervous when I saw him. I hadn' t been alone with Jack since he attacked me. "Got a note for you." Jack fished a folded up piece of paper from his pocket. I accepted it warily. Alex , the typed note read , please deliver this envelope to Mr. James Sidell. He has a package for us but need s the enclosed payment. You'll have half an hour's leave. Don't dally . It was signed with Eckbridge's loopy "E". The prospect of an outing cheered me. It wasn't too often staff sent us out to run errands for them. Maybe Eckbridge had notice d me moping around this week. I looked up at Jack. "Where's the envelope?" Jack flourished a beige envelope like a magician conjuring a rabbit and waved it before my eyes . "More special treats for the golden girl." "It's not my fault you're on probation." I snatched it from him, smoothing the corner he'd wrinkled. The address typed on the front was about a half mile away, easy to get there in back in 30 minutes. Jack was watching me, a little smile playing at the corner of his mouth. I wondered if he was remembering whatever he'd done to me while I was "dead". The thought gave me the creeps. Everything about Jack was creepy. I didn't wait for him to go before leaving the library. A small crowd blocked the sidewalk in front of me. I started to edge past them, before I caught a glimpse of what they were looking at and stopped. A man painted completely silver and standing stock still on an overturned milk crate. He was holding one arm in the air as if hailing a cab, eyes fixed on some point over everyone's heads. He held his pose so perfectly, I stared at him for a full minute before I convinced myself he was real. "That is so cool." A woman with her hair in dreadlocks fished in her jeans for dollar and dropped it in a cup set near the guy's feet for just this purpose. The statue man dropped his arm and saluted her, then immediately refroze in his new position. The woman laughed. Behind me someone gave an irritated snort. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a short woman in a shabby t rench coat standing at my elbow. She was glaring up at the silver man, her gray hair escaping the scarf tied around her head in frizzy bunches. Catching my eyes she muttered: "It's sick, that's what it is." "Excuse me?" I said. "That's what we look lik e to time workers, you know." She screwed up her lips as if she planned to spit. "To them we're just stupid statues for them to laugh at. It's disgusting." The leash around my wrist felt conspicuous, as if the slight bulge under my sleeve was sending ou t a signal the woman might pick up. I pulled my sleeve lower on my arm. " He's not a time worker," I said, nodding toward the silver man. "He might be," the woman said darkly. "How else would he know what people look like frozen?" "Anyone with an imagin ation can picture a statue."
The relief flooded me at this sign of a supporter, stuttered when I saw who it was. KJ had walked up behind the woman. He wore jeans and a dark blue sweatshirt with the hood pulled down almost to his eyes. The top of it was d ark with rain. "You're one of their defenders aren't you?" The frumpy old woman crossed her arms, hunching forward like an avenging little beetle. Statue man held his pose with impressive concentration. "Think the time workers should be allowed to ro am free without any restraints. Bad enough we have to have them living right here in the city without worrying they might get out." A muscle twitching in KJ's jaw like it always did when he got mad. I tried to edge myself away from the two of them, but th e press of the other people around me prohibited much movement. KJ's attention was focused on the woman. "And what if they were left free?" "Sick creatures, the lot of them." The old lady shuddered and I felt an automatic answering wave of conditioned sha me. "Freezing time isn't natural. They could do anything while time's frozen." She clutched at her trench as if some worker might appear at any moment and tear it from her. People were starting to notice us now, casting furtive looks at us instead of silv er man . A few people wandered away. Two youngish white guys who had been ignoring silver guy up til now drifted closer. Their attention made me nervous. "It's people like you," KJ started. The two guys stopped a few feet away. One of them pulled out a cell phone. " Hey , KJ." I linked my arm through his , purposely pressing the leash into his skin as I did so. "We have to go. Now." Something in my face must have convinced him I was serious. He gave the woman one last scathing look and let me lead him away. I tried not to hurry. At the corner I looked back. The woman had vanished into the crowd, but the two guys still stood by silver man, one talking intently into his phone. The other one was watching us as we walked away . "Come on." I turned the corner, pulling KJ with me. We walked a few paces. "Why did you have to do that?" "What? She's a prejudiced old bitch. She deserved it." "I don't like being in the center of attention." My heart was thudding in my chest, all pleasure at being out of the Center ruined . "Didn't you see those guys?" "What guys?" KJ turn ed around. I glanced over, too . The two guys were nowhere in sight "They had phones," I muttered. " Everyone has phones," KJ said. I could tell he was still irritated. "They might have been s topping to lend support." "Right ." I dropped KJ's arm. A cloud slid over the sun, adding an external chill to the one hovering between us. "What are you doing here?" "I heard the call for your monitor check before you left the building so I told Simon I needed a new memory card for one of the computers . It's been acting up. " Simon is the head of maintenance. KJ outstripped his knowledge of computers years ago and Simon pretty much lets KJ do what he wants in terms of repairs so the fact Simon gav e KJ a pass wasn't surpris ing. That KJ followed me after I'd been such a bitch was.
"What do you want?" KJ grimaced at my words and I felt a flash of regret. I hadn't mean t to sound hostile, I was genuinely curious why he went to so much effort. "Alex we have to talk." A couple wheeling a stroller sturdy enough to climb an off road mountain pushed past me. The enormous diaper bag stuffed in the storage area bashed my leg and I realized we were blocking the sidewalk. I hadn't noticed the light change. I started walking again . KJ matched his step to mine . " What do you want to talk about ?" "Look, don't get mad, but I did some research on XYZ levels." Annoyance washed away an y regret at my rudeness . Why couldn't KJ just leave the whole thing alone? I stopped at a corner and punched the crosswalk button so hard it hurt my hand. KJ kept talking. " Dr. Barnard's computer caught a virus so I went in and cleaned it up. Turns out his internet doesn't have the same control parameters that everyone else's does." The light changed. KJ waited until we had threaded through the crowded street before talking again. " It's kind of weird. T here's not much out there except some unintelligi ble medical studies and the usual hysterics saying anyone who tests positive should be killed at birth. You'd think there would be tons of studies about something like this." He was talking fast, the way he does when he's nervous. Dread started coiling u p in my stomach . I shoved my hands into my pockets and balled them into fists . "What'd you find out? " He took a breath, like a diver preparing to leap. " That the higher the XYZ leve l the stronger the Worker, but also the more unstable. I didn't see anyt hing about what you can do Ã change frozen time and all, but it has to be because of the XYZ. High levels equate with earlier death rate s, as well as erratic behavior and more intense bouts of time sickness " We passed under an awning just as a collection of rain slid off the edge. The cold liquid drenched my hair and slid down the back of my neck , raising goose bumps all over my back . I hunched my shoulders. " Like me ." " Right ." He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye . "I looked up everyone's charts on Barnard's computer. You average around 175, even with double the usual dose of aclisote . M ost of the rest of the Workers are closer to 125 ." We stopped at a nother street corner. We'd moved farther from the center of town and the str eets were less crowded here. I watched the signal on the other side count ing down , red numbers flashing a steady countdown. Seven, six, five. "Well." I tried to keep my voice light. " I guess that explains why I got sick so early ." Three, two, one. "Alex ." KJ touched my arm. "You can't let him do this to you." The light flashed zero. Time over. I stepped off the curb. "It will happen anyway." "But it doe sn't have to happen yet." Anger and fear flared together . "Don't you get it?" I wanted to hit KJ, b eat my fists against him like I had on the crosswalk button . " This is why I have to take Ross's medicine. It's my only chance to extend the odds. " "But you don't even know what he's giving you."
I kept walking. We were heading away from downtown, farther and farther from the computer store KJ usually shopped at. If he didn't turn around soon he'd be late. " I found out some other stuff, too." KJ spoke flatly, as if determined to get through an unpleasant subject. "Nothing seems to have shown up on your blood tests and you keep saying you feel better than ever. Well I figure that means that whatever Ross is giving you is suppressing your XYZ farther than usual." I studied the sidewalk before me with careful concentration. KJ's theory about my XYZ levels might be right, but if so they were even lower than he thought. Way lower if Ross didn't want them teste d. "When I was reading about aclisote one of the studies show ed a correlation between higher levels of the drug and rapid onset of time sickness. The theory in the paper seemed to be that the sickness was triggered not so much by the drug as by the low l evels of XYZ." "But you just said high XYZ means you get sick sooner." "People with high XYZ are taking more aclisote , so for you a normal readings of XYZ might be low." The afternoon drizzle had soaked through my windbreaker. Cold curled deep into my ch est, making it hard not to shiver. What KJ said made more sense than I wanted to admit. "Look, this is all interesting theory, but if no one at the Clinic is worried about me, I don't see why you are." The lie made my mouth feel dirty. No one at the Cli nic was worried about me because no one at the Clinic had a clue what my XYZ levels were. "Stop taking Ross's drugs, Alex. At least with the aclisote we can predict what will happen next." Conflicting loyalties pulled at me like metal ball stuck between tw o magnets. I hated lying to KJ, but telling him the truth Ã that I had no idea what my XYZ levels were Ã would only make him more adamant I come clean. And how could I tell Dr. Barnard what was going on without exposing Ross, maybe ruining his career, cer tainly putting a blot in his work against Sykes. Plus , a small voice said in my head, if you lose your new power, Ross won't think you're so special . I shoved the little voice into a very small corner of my brain. "We all know what's going to happen next ." All my frustration made my voice sound bitter . " I'm going to die." "Alex, please. Tell Dr. Barnard what's going on. I'm begging you." The pain in his voice made me walk even faster, as if I could outrun his sadness. I didn't want to hear it , didn't want to know about his sorrow. I was the one that should be wishing for more time. He was supposed to be strong, to support me, to make my last days light and happy. Hearing him plead only made me want to cry. "You just don't trust Ross." "No ." KJ's voice sounded heav y with defeat. " I don't. And I don't understand why you do." The image of Ross planting evidence at the crime scene rose in front of me. I pushed the image away. Everything Ross did was to fight the mob , I told myself, he's worki ng to secure all of our safety. I scanned the buildings around us, searching for the address Eckbridge gave me so I could get away from KJ. I trusted Ross because I had to, because if I didn't I was just an ordinary Worker dying an early death.
"At l east ask him what the drug is called. Maybe I can get on Barnard's computer again. Do some more research." I stopped walking in front of a tall brick building that showed the number I was looking for. "I'll try," I said. More to get rid of him than wit h much intent. "Look, I've got to go." I gestured at the building. "Eckbridge sent you here ?" I looked again at the address, then studied the building more closely . It was a squat office building marooned on a corner between a self pay parking lot and pl ace offering doggy day care. Dust colored stucco coated the outside walls. Above the front door a sign read Just Rewards. The large windows were covered with decals of sports trophies and the kinds of plaques given out at banquets . Blinds covered all but the top four inches of each window. Someone had planted a couple of hardy looking shrubs on either side of the door which languished among the car fumes and dirt from passersby. I shrugged. " I guess somebody's getting a medal ." The street we were on ra n parallel to I 405, and the oceanic shushing noise making me half shout. I put a hand on the metal door knob. "See you back there." I turned away before he could say anything else and entered the trophy store. The room inside was as dim as the blinded wi ndows promised. The main part of the room was filled with shelves laden with various types of awards: sports figures waving various types of equipment , round medallions like wanna be Olympic medals, framed monstrosities with room for whole paragraphs of a ccolades . The ones I could see looked like they needed a good dusting. A woman sat on a stool at the front counter frowning as she typed into a lit computer screen. "Hello?" The woman looked up with a nervous start. She was middle aged, no make up, with unkempt graying hair hanging loose to just past her shoulders. Her skin had the sagging paper y texture of heavy smokers. Even in the gloom I could see dark circles under her e yes. Given the abandoned air of the surroundings, I suspected business wasn't going well. " Can I help you ?" She sounded suspicious. Not a good strategy for making customers feel at home. "I'm looking for James Sidell." The woman's face paled. "You're Alexandra Manning?" "Yeah." I tried to think out how she could have known my name. "Did Ms. Eckbridge call ahead?" "Who?" The woman's eyes darted around the room as if looking for a way to escape. The familiar resentment at the norms fear of us surged within me. I stepped closer, deliberately stretching a hand across the counter so I could almost touch her. The woman recoiled. "I have a check here for Mr. Sidell. You have a package for me?" She was staring at my hand as if it were a large a cockroach. For a minute I thought her disgust might strangle her, but then she turned away abruptly. "Come this way." She pushed open a door behind her and motioned me to follow her through.
The room beyond turned out to be a work room. A stac k of plaques lay on one of the tables. Another held a pile of baseball trophies, half packed into a cardboard box. Overhead fluorescents buzzed in the still air. The room was deserted. My hostess gestured through a jumbled work room toward another door at the back. "Mr. Sidell is in the office." She didn't offer to walk with me. As soon as I passed her she scuttled back into the show room. I thought I head the click of a lock as the door shut. What did she think? I was going to freeze time and come ou t and watch her? I knocked on the office door so hard it rattled. "Come in." It was a small office, crowded with stacks of paper and random trophies, some of them broken . A man sat in the desk facing the door and a second man sat in a chair directly to my left. The man at the desk was balding, overweight, and more a wrinkled button down shirt. His face looked as downtrodden as the woman's, with jowls that seemed to pull down the lower lids of his eyes. "Mr. Sidell?" " You're Alex andra ." All this emphas is on my name was starting to annoy me. What difference did it make who I was ? All I was here to do was pick up some stupid trophy. "Ms. Eckbridge sent me with a check." I pulled the envelope out of my pocket and held it out to him. "You have a package for me?" Mr. Sidell took the envelope and , without even glancing at it, stuffed it somewhere under his desk. His face wore a curious expression, a mix between eagerness and anxiety that seemed wildly inappropriate for our transaction. A thrum of unease p rickled my skin. "I have a few questions for you." Sidell pointed to a chair. My wet jacket was sticking uncomfortably against my chilled skin. It was stuffy in the small office, but hardly warm . " I don't really have time . I'm in a hurry." The door behind me clicked open. I spun my head to see a big guy ducking his head to step into the room. He was young, clean shaven, and clearly spent a lot of time at the gym . Gym G uy gave me a quick, appraising look, then shut the door and leaned agai nst it. My heart fluttered up to my throat and started beating very fast . I turned back to Mr. Sidell. "Look, what's going on? All I came here for wasÃ‰" The arrival of Gym Guy seemed to have bolstered Sidell's confidence. He sat straighter in his chair. "You work with Carson Ross." It was a statement, not a question. My brain started humming a thousand thoughts a minute, none of them helpful. Gym Guys presence behind me radiated like a burning sun. "I have some questions for you about a job you two di d together." "Everything about our jobs is written up in the reports." I crossed my arms. I hoped it made me look belligerent , though my real intention was to keep my body from shaking . " They're public record. I'm sure you can get access to them." "Not everything." Sidell gestured to the man standing beside me. "At least not according to Officer Cannon ."
I'd almost forgotten there was a third person in the room. I turned with a feeling of suspended doom. Sitting in a chair in the corner was the cop wh o had been at the butcher shop the night Ross and I investigated the murder . He was out of uniform, but I recognized the painful crew cut and squashed nose. My brain whirled, trying to connect dots I couldn't see. What could these people have to do with Victim? Quivering Sidell hardly seemed like someone connected with the mob, they reminded me more of some anti worker vigilante group. Cold washed through my body. Had my new powers already taken hold right as I fell sick ? Could the cop have seen me ju mp in time? But that was impossible. Ross didn't give me the medicine until after I got sick. Sidell was watching me intently . "According Officer Cannon , you got said some interesting things before you collapsed that night . Something about not being abl e to hold time, about being sorry. In fact, you told Mr. Ross you messed up." Sweat was making my underarms slippery. The mob. These guys had to be part of the mob. "I don't remember. " "What do you remember about that night?" My eyes skittered around the room like trapped birds . There were two windows high up above Sidell's desk. Both were small, like those in a basement. They were also barred and opaque with grime. "I don't have to tell you anything." " Look." Sidell stood up. His voice so unded strained. "I'm just trying to find out the truth here. Officer Cannon just wants to be sure we have the full story before he finalizes his report ." The cold was seeping deeper into my bones. I crossed my arms more tightly around myself . I thought ab out Ross and how hard he worked against the mob. I was part of that work. I wouldn't let Ross down. "I told you I don't remember much about that night. I was sick . We rewound time, the murderer came back in and thenÃ‰ I lost it." "But you saw the murdere r?" I prayed nothing I'd said contradicted Ross's earlier statements. "Yes." "So why did you say were you sorry?" Behind me, Gym Guy shifted against the door. Even the way he moved sounded muscly. A bead of sweat slid along my ribcage, its path cold as the rain still matting my hair. "Because I couldn't hold it long enough to track the killer. Luckily, I didn't have to. Mr. Ross recognized the man." " But he can't have." Sidell slammed a fist on the desk, scattering the papers from their random heaps. "Murderer couldn't have been at the butcher shop that afternoon. Murderer was with me all afternoon ." He stood up. The man was taller than I expected, and his bulk seemed to take up all the extra space in the room. I wanted to step back but there was nowhere to go. Sidell pressed his curled fists on the desktop, leaning his weight against them so his eyes were level with mine. " Murderer is my son." Chapter 9
Cold seemed to have chilled my thought process. My brain moved sluggishly, trying to p ut meaning to the words Sidell was speaking. I shook my head, guilt and confusion tangled in the gesture. " I don't understand." "He's my son," Sidell repeated. "And you and that bastard Ross framed him for something he didn't do." "We didn't." My mouth was dry. "We saw the guy come back in the room. We sawÃ‰" M emory flooded my brain: the man walking into the room, his back to us. Dark hair. A check . Then the jerk as the unraveling slipped . Ross 's frustration . Time swirling. "Mr. Ross recognized him. H e knew him." "Carson Ross is lying!" Sidell was shaking, his eyes bulging from his face like blood shot grapes. He looked completed out of control. "You have to help me, you're the only one who can." I shook my head , denying his words as much as my inabi lity to help . What if Sidell was right? What if Ross made a mistake and Victim was innocent? Conflicting urges pulled at me. I wished desperately I could stop time, pause everything so I had space to think. Ross said the mob had the only motive to kill t he informant. If Victim didn't do it, but he was still a member of Syke's mob, wasn't it OK that he was in jail? Wrong crime but still just punishment? "I can't." I struggled to speak calmly . " I don't remember. It' s Mr. Ross you have ask ." "Mr. Ross?" Spittle flew from Sidell's mouth. "What, he's supposed to say, oh woops sorry I made a mistake?" He banged the table again. "No, it has to be you , you have to tell them that you never saw anything. Tell them Ross isn't credible, tell them he lied." "I c an't, I'm sorry." I was babbling, me head shaking from side to side like something out of my control. Ross was everything I had, if I denied himÃ‰ "Please." Sidell's misery welled up around the room, a viscous presence that made the air hard to breathe. "I'm begging you. My son." "Frank." Officer Cannon got up from his chair and put an arm around Mr. Sidell . "It's OK , buddy. Calm down. We've got a backup plan, remember?" Cannon cocked a head toward the door. "We've got Buck here to help us out." Gym Guy , Buck 's , hand felt like a boxing glove as it landed on my shoulder. The weight almost made my knees buckle. Officer Cannon helped Side ll Ã was that even his name? Cannon called him Frank Ã back into his chair. The big man drooped in his seat , despair leaching all the animation away from him. He looked like a deflated sea slug . "I think you can tell that my friend here is pretty upset." Officer Cannon came around and perched himself on an edge of the desk. "Your type doesn't have kids. I warned him you might not understand how a father would feel in this situation." Sidell was picking at a spot of spilled ink that marred his desk . I watc hed his finger move back and forth, the nail making a tiny scratching sound. "All we're asking is that you tell us the truth." "I am," I said. "I don't remember anything else." Buck's hand tightened on my shoulder. The hard line of my clavicle felt espe cially delicate under his meaty grip. " Sure you do ," Officer Cannon said.
Little bits of wood shavings were coming away under Sidell's fingers. The effort wasn't making any difference. The stain ran so deep that the wood beneath was just as dark as what h e'd removed. I tried to invest my voice with the calm rationality KJ always used when we argued. " It's public record that I got sick on that job. Even if I contradicted Ross no one would believe me. " "Lots of people," C annon said, " are not fond of your Mr. Ross . Plenty of powerful folks would be happy to champion anyone who discredits the CIC's star agent." I kept my eyes fixed on Sidell's restless fingers. Cannon pressed on . "You have nothing to be afraid of. Mr. Ross can't hurt you if you're under our protection." I looked up. Cannon wore a blue sport coat that didn't hide the fact he carried a gun under one arm. A shiver passed through me. "Your protection? " I asked. " You mean the police?" Buck released a small snort of laughter. Officer Cannon smiled. "Yeah, them too." Sykes. I was right. These guys were mob. Cold that had nothing to do with my wet clothes settled over me . I wondered if Sidell was telling the truth about Victim's whereabouts the night of the murder or if h e was lying to protect his son. It hardly mattered. Either way it was clear Sykes was behind this little tet a tet. Oddly, this fact gave me back a modicum of courage. Maybe Ross had made a mistake, but even if he had I wasn't going to tell these gorillas anything just because they threatened me. If Ross had made a mistake I'd talk to him, but not like this, not publicly and under the auspices of the very mob we were both risking our lives to bring down. I twisted my body in an useless effort to slide out from under Buc k's iron grip. " I have nothing to tell you." For the first time Buck spoke. His voice was cold, his words enough to crumble my new found confidence. "I told you this was a stupid idea. All she's good for is as a lesson for Ross. " Officer Cannon lifted his palms in a well I tried gesture. "I guess she's all yours then." The first punch landed in the center of my gut. I bent over, stunned by the pain spreading all over my body. The second hit knocked me to the floor. "Stop!" I screamed. My cheek thro bbed even worse than my stomach. Blood was leaking onto my tongue. "Are you willing to help us out?" Cannon asked. The linoleum under my cheek was scratched with years of wear. I could see dust balls wadded up under the edge of the bookcase. With an ef fort I shook my head. "Time workers." Cannon shook his head disgustedly. "Bunch of stupid freaks." He flicked a hand at Buck . "Take her somewhere where she won't bleed on anything." Sidell dropped his face into his hands. His shoulders were shaking an d I t hought he might be cr ying , but any sympathy I might have had for him had long ago dissolved . Fear and pain paralyzed my thoughts. I had to get out of here. I reached out to freeze time and felt the jolting block of the leash yank the power away fro m me . The shock felt almost as bad as Buck's fists. Buck grabbed my arm and yanked me toward the door. I started screaming. Buck shook me so hard my head felt like it was about to topple off my neck .
"Shut the fuck up," he growled. Tears clogged my thro at. I realized I was breathing in jagged gasps. I couldn't seem to fill my lungs. Buck dragged me out into the work room . With one hand he pulled a blue plastic ground cover from a shelf and shook it out on the ground. What had Cannon said? Take her som ewhere where she won't bleed on anything . I forced my lungs to inflate. Buck was going to wrap me up in this thing, or take me somewhere else where he could kill me. Somewhere so far away no one would find my body until it was way too late to trace it ba ck here. Shudders wracked my body. I wrenched my arm so hard I heard my windbreaker tear. Buck swore and adjusted his hand to get a tighter grip on my wrist. His fingers smashed the leash. Hard metal bit into my flesh, making me gasp. "What's that?" Buck stared at the metal band , clearly v isible beneath my torn sleeve . I didn't answer. "I said what's that?" Buck repeated, shaking me again to make his point. The edge of the leash rubbed the point it had already cut. It felt like my wrist was burning. " It's a leash. " Tears were pouring from my eyes. Everything around me blurred by the leaking wet. The blue of the tarp seemed to float toward me like some endless sky reaching up to embrace me. "What's it do?" Buck's words reached me from somewhere far away. It was as if I didn't hear the words as much as the echo they left behind. Even then, their implication penetrated my consciousness only slowly. When they did the world sharpened with a snap . Buck didn't know what a leash was. I gulped, keeping fear raw in my vo ice as I answered. "It's how they track us when we leave the Center." I put as much truth in as I could to make sure I sounded convincing. "I'm due back there any minute. Once they miss me they'll put a tracker out and look for me. They'll find my bod y so fast they'll have no trouble rewinding it back to you." Buck's eyes moved from my face to my arm. Tears still wet to my cheeks. Snot leaked from my nose. I sniffled. "Fucking Center." Buck pulled me over the work ben ch, searching one handed thro ugh drawers of tools. His fingers closed on a pair of metal cutters. "This should do it." The blade sliced my arm when he shoved it under the metal band. I couldn't stop the scream the tore my throat. The jaws of the metal cutter closed around the band but didn't break it. Buck swore again. Blood welled up from the gash on my arm, red drops splattering the bench and the floor. Buck pressed me up against the work bench, using his bulk to pin me down. Using one forearm to hold my arm still he used both hands to work the cutter, opening and shutting the scissor like blades over and over. With each pressure of his hand, the cut in my arm opened up like an angry mouth vomiting another gush of blood. The band bent upwards, but the metal seemed determined to hold. I closed my eyes, wishing there was something I believed in enough to pray to. Release came suddenly. My eyes snapped open. Bucks arm flew up from the sudden lack of resistance, nearly gouging himself in the mouth with the cutters. For a moment we both stood still, panting.
"Come on." Buck roused himself, pulling away from the workbench and grabbing my arm. His hand touched my skin through the tear in my windbreaker. If I froze time now, I'd take him with me. I waited, trying to calm so I'd be prepared . One breath. Two. Buck shoved me to the ground and started wrapping the tarp around my body. I waited only until I was positive that no part of my skin was touching his before freezing time. Chapter 10 Put someone else in this scene Ã does Fay know? Here's a place to use her Ã so that when Stephens first turns up he can touch Alex and demand she freeze time. Fay touches her and freezes it for her so it ends up all ok. Or it can be KJ but then that ruins the later scene with KJ and the blood . Stephens would try this before the blood test . Would Fay have to be touching Stephens too? Frozen stillness enveloped me like the welcome arms of an old friend. I thrashed in my plastic wrapper, wriggling until I was free of the horrible cocoon . My bo dy was shaking so badly I couldn't stand. I scooted myself away from Buck, moving until I hit a concrete wall. Then I curled myself into a ball, arms wrapped tightly around my knees , and waited. Time, or lack of time, passed. After a while I could look around me and take stock of what I'd done. Buck crouched over the limp pile of abandoned tarp. He was frowning in concentration, trying to keep my missing body still during his ministrations. Blood from my arm left incriminating dots on the floor and Buc k's clothes. A larger blot stained the work bench next to the crumpled remains of my leash. When I melted time it would look to Buck as if I'd vanished into thin air. I pictured his shout of surprise , the others running to him, their confusion and fear. Their first call would be to their mob boss. Soon Syke's men would know what I had done, know the kind of power I held within me. Fear pulled me to my feet. I had to get back to the Center. The Center, with its locking doors and 24 hour security, was t he only place I might be safe. My legs still felt shaky. I wiped my nose on the back of my hand. My whole body felt tender: my jaw ached where Buck had punched me, my stomach felt bruised, and my armÃ‰ I looked down my arm. The gash was about an inch lo ng and deep enough that it probably needed stitches. Fresh blood still oozed in a sickly trickle. Despite my eagerness to leave this horror chamber, I first poked around enough to find a bathroom. It was small room painted dark red, with a sink, toile t and tall cabinet filled with cleaning supplies. Luckily for me, someone had left the light on. The person in the mirror looked like something out of a zombie movie. The shoulder seam of my windbreaker gapped open while the sleeve was a torn bloody mes s. A bruise bloomed along the left side of my face, my cheek swelling into an ugly puff that was already starting to push my eyes closed. I splashed water on my face and finger combed my hair into some semblance of order. Clenching my teeth, I stuck my cut arm under the water. The liquid melted away the beginnings of a scab, releasing fresh blood in a gush down the sink. I couldn't bring myself to use the soap. A quick forage in the storage cabinet unearthed a clean looking rag which I wrapped tightly around my arm. Good enough.
Back in the workroom, Buck crouched in the same intent position over my abandoned plastic chrysalis. Even the sight of him frozen made the panic beat back up into my throat. Remembering the faint click of a lock when I enter ed the room, I headed instead to the far end of the workroom where a lit emergency exit sign showed the way to a back door. This door must remain unlocked during business hours the sign read. I was almost running by the time I hit the door. The blessed handle pressed open. Offering silent prayers to the fire department and all agencies dedicated to worker safety, I pushed the door open and stepped into a narrow alley at the side of the building. I jogged away from the trophy store, dodging among the scat tering of frozen people. As I drew further into downtown, the crowded sidewalks made it hard to avoid people so I jumped down onto the street. Stalled cars were less likely to get bumped than stationary people. The brick walls of the Center rose before me a block before I reached them. The CIC resided in a graceful old building with the subtle fortifications of a fortress. The structure itself sat on the rise of a small hill, raising the building a full ten fee t above street level. A low stone wall and a narrow strip of scrubby plantings discouraged passersby from getting close the building. Arched windows set at even intervals along the ground floor offered the blank eyes stare of opaque glass, effectively bl ocking any glimpse of the rooms beyond. Small black cameras tucked in the tall windows gave evidence of the constant surveillance around the building. The upper windows were all barred. Other days I resented the trapped feeling I had living in this stro nghold, today the proffered shelter beckoned like a desert oasis. My foot was on the first step before I realized I couldn't just melt time and appear on the Center's doorstep. Here in the heart of downtown people swarmed everywhere, not to mention those security cameras. I scanned the surrounding streets, finally settling on a dumpster filled alley a half block away. After searching the narrow space to make sure it wasn't already occupied, I crouched down out of sight and let time go. The smell was ter rible. What in frozen time was a whiff of rotten something, in real time made me gag. Small scratching sounds told me I hadn't considered the existence of non human residents of the alley. I made myself count to ten before I stood up and sidled past the reeking dumpsters. I left the torn and bloody windbreaker behind, not wanting to call attention to myself. It seemed to work. A few peop le gave me sidelong looks but no one spoke to me. I walked quickly, head down, irrationally terrified Buck might appear before I could reach the Center. I took the wide steps to the Center's front door two at a time and rang the bell. The door camera's r ed eye blinked over my head. Finally, a computerized buzz told me someone had punched the code to open the door. The desk clerk Charlie's eyes widened when I stepped inside. "What the hell happened to you?" "I got beat up." I bent to scrawl my name in t he log book. KJ's jagged signature filled the line above mine. "Can you call Eckbridge? I need toÃ‰" "Alex!" Eckbridge's voice echoed loudly in the tiled foyer. "Where have you been? The monitor says you froze time outside the Center. " She stopped when I raised my head. "Oh my god." She hurried over to me and took my head in her hands, tipping it so the light shone full on my battered face. "What happened?"
"It was a trap." Relief at being back within the Center brought back the shivers that overtook me at the trophy store. Eckbri d ge's worried tone was like a balm on my frayed nerves. "That place you sent me to Ã the trophy store? They didn't h ave anything for me to pick up." I felt a lump forming at the base of my throat. "They took me to a back room and saidÃ‰ they said I had to change Mr. Ross's report, that I had to let Murderer go free. When I refused the guy hit me." The lights shining in my eyes made me blink. "They were Syke's men, they had to be." "Wait a minute." Eckbridge tilted my head b ack down. She looked confused, a frown making a deep line between her brows. "What trophy shop? I didn't send you anywhere." My sense of comfort receded. "You gave me a note. Asked me to deliver a check to an address over by the freeway." Eckbridge sh ook her head. "I didn't give you a note. I'd never send you out of the Center in your condition." "ButÃ‰" I racked my brain. Jack's face danced before me, his gleeful leer as he handed me the note. I gasped. "It was Jack . He handed me the note. He must have faked it." "Jack ? I hardly think Jack could have had anything to do with this. He's been working in the director's office all week. " ?" A dawning suspicion slid the sympathy away from Eckbridge's features. Her eyes narrowed. " Is this all some kind of revenge for what he did to you last week? I told you, if you have a problem with someone, you come to me. " "No! He gave me a note. Charlie saw it when he signed me out." Charlie was turning his head from me to Eckbridge with the frightened look of a trapped mouse. Eckbridge paid him no attention. She suddenly let go of my head and grabbed my wrist. "Where's your leash?" The sharpness of her question cut off my cry of pain as she squeezed me slashed arm. "I told you." I couldn't help it. Tears wer e welling up in my eyes, pain and confusion wearing down all my defenses. "The mob guy attacked me. He cut the leash off so you couldn't trace me." "Leashes don't have a trace." She shook my arm. "Alex, I don't know what this is about, but freezing time out in the city is a serious offense. I'm going to have no choice but to Ã what?" Tears poured freely now down my cheeks and I was pretty sure from the lightheaded wooziness threatening my ability to stand up that I was turning something way past pale. "My arm," I moaned. Eckbridge looked down at the limb clutched in her hand, seeming to notice the bandage for the first time. Quick fingers unwrapped the band of cotton. The final layer stuck to my skin, making me gasp. Eckbridge drew a sharp breath. Th e bleeding had slowed to a slow trickle. Within the blood smeared mess of my skin, the edges of the wound looked whitish. The gap between them showed a horribly raw red. My wooziness took a turn for the worse. "Oh my god." Eckbridge caught my slumping b ody against her soft chest. "Charlie, call down to Matron. Tell her I'm bringing Alex in and she'll need a room ."
She wrapped an arm tightly around my body, one arm hooked under my armpit. "Come on, Alex. Can you stand?" We took the elevator down to the basement. I tottered after her brisk trot. Eckbridge held me so close I thought our feet might tangle together. The dizziness had passed but I still felt drained. Eckbridge was muttering to herself as we walked. "Damn sicknessÃ‰stupidÃ‰ should have known Ã‰ so unpredictable." Matron met us at the Clinic door. "What happened?" Eckbridge held up my arm. "She'll need stitches." Her voice was grim. Matron made a clucking sound and shook her head. "Put her in the first exam room." Eckbridge led me to the tiny exam room and helped me up onto the padded bench. Dry paper crackled under me as I sat down. "Can you sit up by yourself?" I nodded. Eckbridge let go of me. She pulled out a wad of tissues and waited while I wiped my face. "Everyone gets worried after they get sick," she said abruptly. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. You can always come talk to me if you're feeling depressed." I nodded again. It was a weird non sequitur, but I was glad Eck bridge wasn't yelling at me anymore. Matron bustled back in with a tray full of supplies. She pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and picked up a needle. I kept my face firmly turned toward Eckbridge so I didn't have to watch. "You have to call the police, " I said. A sharp jab told me Matron had shot me with Novocain . Eckbridge sighed. "Alex." "I can lead them back to the trophy shop. " The smell of alcohol filled the small room. I tried not to flinch while Matron cleaned my arm. " Even if they're gone w e can always rewind." "Not now, Alex," Eckbridge said. "My arms not that bad. I can still go on a mission." Eckbridge was shaking her head. She looked tired. I swallowed my frustration. "Or send someone else. KJ can go. He knows whereÃ‰" "Where is she?" A voice roared from the Clinic waiting room. Matron jumped. I was glad she hadn't started stitching yet. Eckbridge squeezed between me and Matron to get out of the room. "Director Stephens?" "Alex is here?" He sounded angry. "Yes. She's a bit ban ged up but she'll be OK. Matron will keep her here for a while. Just til we're sure she's not going to hurt herself again." Hurt myself? Matron's needle jabbed my arm when I jerked. Hurt myself? Is that what they thought? Eckbridge's muttered words rep layed in my mind. She thought I was depressed from the time sickness, that I'd made all the rest up as a cover. "Hold still," Matron admonished. The door to the exam room banged open. Director Stephens stood in the doorway, mouth compressed in a line of fury. "What happened?"
Relief flooded me. "Someone gave me a note. It said it was from Ms. Eckbridge but it wasn't. They sent me to a trophy store Ã I know where it is, I can lead you back there. They were mob guys, Syke's men, I'm sure of it." Eckbrid ge's head bobbed behind the Stephen's bulk. "Don't worry, Director. I know it sounds bad but it isn't that unusual. Time sickness can sometimes cause hallucinations. She may not be up for time work for a while butÃ‰" Director Stephens wasn't listening . He came so close to me that Matron couldn't keep stitching. "How did you get away?" My mouth felt dry. Stephen's eyes burned as they stared into mine, a glare so intense it felt like a physical force. "They said they were going to kill me. He cut my lea sh off. IÃ‰ IÃ‰" "What. Did. You. Do." A dawning terror rose up in my chest. He knew. Director Stephens knew I'd disappeared from the work room. And the only way he could know that was if someone told him. Someone who worked for Sykes. Just like Jack, t he one who brought me the note in the first place, worked for Stephens. My mouth opened without making any sounds. Stephens stood so close to me I could smell coffee on his breath mingled with something sharper and more primal: fear . "I don't know," I managed. The words came out in a whisper. Stephens wrapped his hand around the back of my neck, all five fingers splayed across my skin. "Matron. Stop what you're doing and go get a syringe. I need you to test this girl's blood right now." I wat c hed, helpl ess, as Matron scuttled from the room. Eckbridge was staring at Stephens, confusion stamped across her plain features. None of us said anything. Matron came back. She swabbed my arm above the half stitched gash and plunged the needle into the vein at my elbow. Blood, dark and rich, filled the tube of the syringe with my secret. My heart was pounding so hard it seemed impossible the others couldn't feel the throbbing drum. Once the test was complete whatever Ross was giving me would be exposed. Stephe ns would grill everyone to find out how I got it. I couldn't imagine Amy standing up to Stephens for longer than it took her to draw breath. Ross would be ruined. And IÃ‰ Matron slipped the needle from my skin and pressed a cotton ball over the prick in o ne smooth movement. "I'll take that." Stephens took the needle in his free hand. "Janet." Ms. Eckbridge jumped. "Stand here and keep your hand on Alex's skin. I don't want her freezing time alone." "Freezing time? What differenceÃ‰?" "Just do it." He t urned to Matron. "When you're done put her in a room and lock the door. She's to stay here until I say she can be released. Is that clear?" The two women nodded dumbly. Eckbridge put her hand on my bare unhurt arm. Stephens walked away, carrying with him the blood y evidence that would guarantee my imprisonment for the rest of my short term life.
Chapter 11 Matron kept shooting glances at Eckbridge while she stitched up my arm. I knew they wanted to talk but wouldn't as long as I was there. I didn't mi nd. The silence gave me space to think. I'd watched Amy test my blood before. She poured the sample into a vial and added a few drops of a separating solution she kept in a short green bottle. I could picture her swirling the vial . It took ten minutes sh e said before the chemical reaction finished. After that she smeared some on a slide and ran it through a buzzing little metal box that looked like a miniature copy machine. Ten minutes. I glanced at the clock. 2:46. Say Director Stephens stalked out o f here two minutes ago, it would take him about one minute to get to the lab room and maybe a minute more to mix up the solution. That meant he'd be putting the sample in the box by 2:56, 2:55 to be safe. That left me nine minutes to figure out a way to s top him. Matron's fingers moved methodically through her task. Prick, pull, snip. The pale skin slid together into a neat seam. I tried not to fidget. 2:49. Eckbridge's hand felt heavy on my arm. Not only would I have to get away from her, I'd have to co ver the fact I'd frozen time . The impossibility of my task made my head hurt. 2:51. "That should do it." Matron straightened up and pulled of her gloves. She frowned when she saw my face. "You feeling OK? You look a bit pale." "I'm fine." I spoke quick ly. "I'd like to lie down." Eckbridge's fingers pressed my good arm lightly. "I'll take you to a room." I jumped off the exam bed. Eckbridge kept a firm grip on my arm as we left the room. 2:5 3 . "Can I pee first?" It took all I had not to scream the wo rds. Eckbridge hesitated. "I really have to go." I offered up an apologetic grimace. "You can b lock the door." She glanced over her shoulder. The lab room lay just on the other side of the wall. I allowed myself a restless jiggle, hoping she'd interpret it as need. "Be quick." Still linked together, she led me over to the bathroom. I pushed the door open hard, swinging it forward, and stepped around it with pantomimed eagerness. The spot where Eckbridge's fingers left my skin felt cool. When the door h ad swung back far enough to block me from view I froze time. The door stuck open a little less than a foot, enough that I could slide my body through it and under Eckbridge's outstretched hand. When I gained the waiting room my eyes found the clock. 2:54. Adrenaline made me run when I didn't need to. I charged into an empty exam room and took the things I needed, then raced to where Director Stephens stood in the narrow lab room. The green light of the XYZ analyzer sent out a weak beam. My heart gave a p ainful squeeze until I saw that o ne of Stephen's hands held the tube of my blood while the other held a dropper poised to extract a sample of the red liquid. I released a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. I'd done it Ã maybe with only milliseconds to spare Ã but I'd managed to catch Stephens before he ran the test . The fragments of my plan fluttered around my brain like bits of paper caught in a windstorm. I grabbed at the scattered pieces as I ran through the Center's silent halls. I found KJ in the second place I looked, stashing his new purchases in one of the computer
storage closets. I snatched up his frozen hands, melting and refreezing time as fast as I could think the commands. "Holy shit!" KJ's whol e body jerked. The box in his hand flew up in the air, landing on the floor with an unfortunate cracking sound. "You can't just appear like that." His expression altered when he saw my face. "What the hell happened to you ?" I told my story quickly. I t ried to gloss over the worst parts, but KJ still looked sick when I finished. "Alex, IÃ‰" He moved as if to put his arms around me and I stepped back automatically. KJ shoved his hands in his jeans ' pocket s . "Are you OK?" "Yeah." I held up my arm to show the small bandage Matron had taped neatly over the wound. "See? All patched up." KJ shook his head, clearly still trying to fit my story into his mind. "So Director StephensÃ‰?" " He's got to suspect what really happened. The guys at the shop must have called him as soon as I disappeared . Which means they were working together . Ste phens might not have meant them to kill me, but he was certainly willing to help the mob cover up its tracks." "It actually makes some sense." KJ pushed the fallen box back and forth like a soccer ball. "All these years the mob has committed these crimes and no one at the Center ever manages to catch them." "No one except Ross." KJ's foot hovered over the box. He set it down slowly and faced me. "Why did you come here? Freezing time now is only going to make things worse with Stephens." A crate on the shelf beside me held a mess of extension cords. I picked through the tangled wires, eyes averted from KJ while I talked. "I didn't tel l you the whole story before . About Ross. See the Center isn't testing my blood right now. Ross convinced Amy to fake t he results when I got sick so they'd let me go back to work. You're probably right about all the stuff you said about aclisote . When Stephens finishes the test it'll show my levels are rock bottom or whatever. If he runs any more tests he'll see I don't h ave aclisote in my system and that instead I've got something else." "Which means he'll take you off Ross's drug and put you back on aclisote ." My head snapped up. "It means he'll lock me up. He'll know there's something about me that allows me to change things in frozen time. They'll run tests on me. Or they'll kill me. You said it yourself. I can't just appear places. It's too much. It's not safe to let anyone have this kind of power." We stared at each other a long time. I knew KJ so well I thought I could see the struggle beneath his skin: his desire to prolong my life balanced with the urge to help me. The doubts all this raised about Stephens and the integrity of the Center itself. His bitterness that his actions might save Ross. Finally he let out a long sigh. "You'll help me?" I asked. "What do you need?" I pulled out the bag of supplies I'd stolen from the Clinic and rummaged through them until I found the needle. "Your blood," I said. "I need your blood." "To swap out your sample?"
I nodd ed. "It's a temporary fix," KJ said. "He can draw more." "It buys me time." I grimaced. "It always comes down to time, doesn't it?" KJ laughed softly. He was already rolling up his sleeve. Drawing blood turned out to be harder than it looked when the Clini c staff did it. Even after I'd tied off KJ' s arm to make the blood vessels pop up, the actual injection part took a while. Skin is tougher than it looks. By the time I was done, KJ looked a little green. "You might want to practice that if you're going to make a habit of it." "Sorry," I muttered. "I guess I could have taken it from someone frozen." KJ pressed a cotton bal l against his jabbed up arm. " I don't think you could. Without blood flow you might not get much. Or you'd literally empty a vein an d give the person an aneurism. Isn't that what happens when an air bubble travels to your brain?" I shrugged, capping the filled syringe carefully so I didn't accidentally squirt out all the blood. I gathered up all the other things we'd dirtied drawing K J's blood (an alcohol swab, the rubber arm tie, cotton balls) and stuffed them back in the sack . "We have another problem ." I stuffed the sack of trash in my pocket . " I need to block the grid somehow so Stephens doesn't know I stopped time." "You've alre ady triggered the system by freezing time once." KJ scratched his chin. "I supposed we could reset the thing." I must have looked blank. "If you melt time again long enough for me to unplug it and then plug it back in, the whole system will reset. It h appens once in a while during a power outage. The re set will show up if anyone studies the grid, but since you won't have triggered it it's unlikely anyone will." "There's no way you can just disable the system somehow so that I'm not registered?" "Nope. For one thing I can't work on it during frozen time since electronics don't work and for another, maintenance checks the monitor every morning when they come on shift." A flare of hope flickered out inside me. " I'll take the one time, then ." The controls for the monitor's mainframe lived in a electrical closet that was locked with a card key. KJ and I talked through the options settling on one that would work, but would cost a few vital seconds. With the image of Stephens's hovering dropper haunting me, we made our way through the network of corridors until we found Simon. KJ patted the pockets of Simon's blue coverall, then slid one hand carefully into the one with the card key. Key in hand we hurried to the closet, bless edly located in a little used side hall. I took KJ's hand. "Remember you have to be fast." He squeezed my fingers. "I will." With an image of the wretched dropper hovering before me, I dropped hold of time. KJ swiped the card and dashed into the closet. I leaped after him, dropping my hand on his neck as soon as he crouched next to the control panel. KJ's hands patted the wires in a frantic search. I pressed my lips together to prevent myself from screaming at him to hurry. A second passed. Then anothe r. KJ traced a cord out to a power outlet and yanked. "Now."
The words weren't even out of his mouth before I stopped everything again. KJ sank back onto his heels. I wiped my hand on the thigh of my jeans. "OK," I said. Simon had barely moved when we returned the car key. Stephens hadn't moved much either, just enough to submerge the tip of the dropper into my blood. I poured KJ's blood into a fresh vial and added a few drops of the settling solution. I swirled it slowly, checking the original vi al to try and match the blood wash up the sides of the glass. "We should be timing it," KJ said. I looked automatically at the clock. 2:54. Right. That wasn't going to work. "Count," I said. KJ started counting in a steady cadence. I swirled the vial un til he reached 300. Five minutes. Very carefully I slid the vial with my blood out of Stephens's inert fingers and replaced it with the tube of KJ's . A small bead of red clung to the inside of the dropper's tube. Not enough, I hoped, to radically alter t he results. KJ took the vial with my blood and capped it with a stopper. "Can you get back in time?" I asked. KJ nodded . Still counting , he pulled the bag of medical trash from my pocket and placed the capped vial of blood inside it . "You can get rid of it?" KJ nodded again. "OK, hurry then. " Sudden inspiration hit me. "Wait!" KJ turned on the threshold. I dug into my other pocket and pulled out the key Ross had given me. I held it out to KJ. "It can get you of the dorms. Might help with that. " I nodded at the bag of waste . "And KJ? Thanks." He took the key. He gave me a small half smile before taking off down the hall at a run . I picked up his count and headed back to the Clinic bathroom. I almost forgot to pee. At 620 (I gave KJ a few e xtra seconds just in case) I released time and saw the bathroom door swing shut. I reached for it, only stopping when I heard the soft thump of Eckbridge's body as she leaned against it. Right. I was supposed to be using the facilities. I did my busines s, grateful, as it turned out, for the few minutes it allowed me to calm my breath. When I emerged, Eckbridge took my arm again and led me to the same room I'd woken up in after my bout of time sickness. I climbed into bed meekly. The door to the room cli cked shut and I heard the snap of a lock . I stared up at the ceiling thinking of all the things that might go wrong: the betraying beep of the monitor marking my freezing, KJ not making it back to the storage room and so appearing from nowhere in some ran dom hall, Stephens somehow sensing he'd been manipulated. The murmur of Matron and Eckbridge's voices drifted through the locked door Ã soft, worried sounds unintelligible from where I lay. Pale light seeped through the slats of the blinds. The bit of sk y I could see showed the depthless grey of lowering clouds. The clock on the wall ticked, the thin red hand marking the passage of every second. Time moved forward, out of my control, events unfolding in every corner of the city. I closed my eyes and wa ited. *** Stephens turned up in my room an hour later. He'd calmed down. His face no longer radiated the intense anger he'd shown in the exam room. He still wasn't able to sit still, though. Instead he paced around my room jangling keys or change or som ething metallic in his pocket while he walked. "Tell me what happened today."
I told my story the way I had before: getting a note purportedly from Eckbridge, the woman sending me to the back room, the men threatening me if I didn't turn on Ross. I omitte d my meeting with KJ, my own screaming panic, or any repeat my accusations of mob involvement . I figured there was no sense letting Stephens know my suspicions. Instead, I kept the focus on Sidell's role as Victim's father. "Ms Eckbridge says your wounds are self inflicted. That you hurt yourself because of the time sickness." I shrugged. Stephens stopped pacing at the foot of my bed and rested his hands on the metal bedrail. "So if your version is true, how'd you get aw ay?" I met Stephens's eyes blandly as I answered. The hour had given me lots of time to think up a good cover . "I fought the big guy off and ran. I figured they wouldn't chase me once I hit the street." Stephens moved his mouth as if he were chewing s omething. Finally he said: " The cops picked up some guy babbling about a time worker who disappeared." His tone was casual, but his knuckles were white where he gripped the rail. "What would you say if a teenage girl out smarted you?" I waited a minute to let him absorb this possible explanation. "What did the cops do with the guy after they caught him ?" Stephens let the bedrail go and walked to the window. "They let him go. As far as anyone knows there's no crime being committed." "No crime?" I pushed myself up into a straighter sitting position. "What about this?" I pointed to my bruised face. Stephens offered me only the briefest glance. He lifted a slat and peered out the w indow. "Your story is awfully far fetched. Eckbridge's version is much more believable." I slumped back onto my pillow. I hadn't really expected him to rush out and investigate a crime he was part of, but I did think he'd at least make some show at follo wing up. Now I'd just be labeled a crazy person. A new thought struck me. "Does this mean .. ." I touched the slash on my wrist. "When will I be cleared for more time work?" "Time work?" Stephens dropped the slat and turned back towards my bed. "Oh you wo n't be doing any more time work. Not if you're so unstable you'd consider suicide." I sat bolt upright. Stephens moved across the room. "We'll just keep an eye on you here for a while. Maybe run a few tests." "No!" Stephens rapped sharply on the door. "You can't do that. My XYZ levels are fine. I can still do time work. Ask Mr. Ross." As soon as the words left my mouth I knew I'd said the wrong thing. Director Stephens raised his lip in a kind of sneer. " Mr. Ross is not a medical expert for the CIC ." The lock clicked from the outside. Before the door even opened all the way, Stephens slipped through it and pulled it shut. The lock fell back into place with a snap. Tears of frustration crowded up behind my nose. After all I'd done, all the lies and desperate tricks, I was exactly where I didn't want to be: trapped and alone in a locked room .
Chapter 12 I woke when I heard the lock click. My eyes popped open. I lay still in bed, watching the dark shape as it slid through the open door , black on gr ey . My first thought was that KJ used the key and came down to find me, but the size of the outline was too bulky to be him. My thoughts flashed to Buck and a wave of panic washed me in cold sweat . The tall shadow came closer. "Alex." I sat up. "Mr. Ross ?" "How's my best girl?" The warmth in his voice released of a flood o f emotions: relief, comfort, confusion . I was glad the darkness hid the blush that flamed across my face. "You came! " My sleepy mind registered the oddity of the hour. " How'd you get in here?" "I assume you noticed the other night that Nurse Amy and I areÃ‰ friends." The visitor's chair scraped across the floor as he pulled it close to the bed. "She let me in." I didn't even care about what he might have done to get they key. Whatever he'd done, he'd done it for me. I smiled at him through the dark. "I'm glad." Even in the grayness I could tell Ross wasn't smiling back. The hulking shape of his body radiated tension . " What happened, Alex? Amy said you tried to kill yourself ." "Of course I didn't." I practically spat the words. Even thinking them twisted my mouth with bitterness. "They're all lying to cover up for Sykes." Ross' s body looked so stiff he might have been frozen . "What do you mean?" I told Ross how I was lured t o the trophy shop and about the men there who attacked me. Ross listened raptly. He murmured good girl when I said how I refused to turn on him . When I got to the part about how Buck rolled up me up in the tarp, preparing to kill me , I suddenly ran out of steam . I knew he wouldn't like this next part. Ross leaned forward. "What happened then?" My eyes were adjusting to the dark. I could make out Ross's features now , a mix of grey and shadows. It looked like a mask of the man I knew. Trepidation made me stammer . "He Ã‰ he was going to .. to kill me. I had no choice." "What did you do, Alex?" The same words Stephens said to me. I swallowed. "I froze time ," I said in a small voice, " and ran away." Ross's body sagged away from me . I could n't see his face anymore. "I had no choice," I repeated , feeling frantic . Ross let out a long sigh. His disappointment hurt worse than all of Buck's physical blows. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ross. I didn't know what else to do." "It's OK." The words didn't help . Ross was shaking his head, negating the absolution. " Has anyone tested your blood yet?" "Stephens tried. I froze time and swapped the sample." "You froze time again?" Now he sounded angry. "Where did you get the blood ?"
"KJ let me draw his," I admit ted. Ross made a noise that sounded like the warning hiss of a snake about to strike. I spoke quickly. "D on't worry, KJ will never tell anyone about my power . I warned him what would happen to me if he did. Plus he helped make sure my freeze didn't show up on the monitor." I explained about the reset. "That was very resourceful." Ross said carefully. He leaned forward so I was a ble to see his features again . His eyes looked bruised in their nest of shadows. "Tell me the absolute truth Alex. Is there a nyone else who knows what you can do?" I shook my head. "Just KJ. And Buck, if he figures it out." "He will." Ross's lips looked like a dark slash across his face . " We're going to have to work a little faster than I'd planned ." "I can't." I bent my head under the double weight of his expectations and my own failure . "Stephens won't let me do time work anymore ." Ross's bark of laughter sounded loud in the still room . I looked up, bewildered that he found anything amusing in this situation . " Alex, Stephens can't stop you ." "But he said he'd keep me locked up. If I freeze time he'll leash me, I know he will." "Not if you freeze at night. No one bothers with the monitors then." "They don't?" "You kids freeze all the time in your sleep." "We do?" I sounded as stupid as I felt. "Sure. Bad dreams, usually . It's some kind of reflexive defense." I turned the information around in my head. "So if I freeze time at night, and use the ke y you gave me to leave the dormÃ‰" Ross nodded. "H ow do I get out of the building?" "Tuesday night there's an agent's meeting here at the Center . I'll make sure to leave the Center at exactly 10:30 . You freeze time, leave your room, and meet me there. You have to arrive melt and refreeze time right at the point when I am outside the door, but the door hasn't shut yet . It takes five seconds before the monitor registers the presence of a worker in a particular room . If you get there early you can hide and allow time to advance in five second intervals betwe en freezes , but you'll have to keep moving to a different room each time ." "How will I get back in?" "Same way you got out," Ross said, as if this were obvious. I shook my head. "But the door will close after I melt time again." "You're not going to mel t time again. We'll do w hat we have to then come back ." Something nagged at me, a sharp prick like a splinter caught at the bottom of a foot. I picked at an invisible piece of lint on the bed. "What is it that we have to do?" "Stop Syke's mob." The splin ter grew into a thorn. "It's nothing illegal, is it Mr. Ross?" "Illegal? Everything about you right now is illegal." "Yeah, but, my illegal is just rule breaking. It's not likeÃ‰ like when we planted evidence orÃ‰" I thought of Sidell's agonized face. It mig ht have been the face of a mobster, but it was also the face of a man protecting his son. I forced myself to ask the next question. "Mr. Ross are you absolutely sure the guy we saw at the butcher shop was Murderer?"
"I told you, Alex. " Passion made Ross' s voice sound hoarse. " Every case we work on, every person we indict, means we are that much closer to unclenching Syke's hand around this city." "I know, butÃ‰" "There is no but. Freeing the city from Syke's is worth any price. It doesn't matter how we get there. He's a murderer, a tyrant. He's ruthless. Portland can never be free as long as we're all shivering under Syke's thumb." Ross's conviction rang in his words. Faint moonlight cloaked him in a pale light that turned his skin to marble. I could s ee it in my mind: after Sykes was brought low, the city would acknowledge their hero. Ross's image would rise in statues across the city. He would look just like he did now: passionate and honorable. Handsome and adored. Every hero takes shortcuts, I argu ed with myself, as Ross gave me a pat and left the room. It's the end that matters. Someone has to pay for everyone to remain safe. I knew what I was paying. Why shouldn't a few others pay too? Chapter 13 Double doored? So they can't go out if they free ze time? Stephens released me to the Center routine on Sunday night. He'd had Matron test my blood a second time, but Amy was on shift for that one so naturally it came back within range. I found KJ playing checkers with Fay. [insert appropriate scene t o reflect Center life and the other relationships I have yet to develop] and decide what KJ thinks of all thi s Ã is he disapproving still? now just worried? I was nervous all day on Tuesday. The clock moved so slowly I kept having panic attacks that I'd fr ozen it by accident. Miss Tutor asked me twice if I felt sick which sent me into a new tizzy worrying that she'd report me and I'd end up locked into the Clinic. I tried very hard to concentrate after that on subject . At lunch KJ scowled at me when I'd filled up my tray so I plunked down at the round table. KJ sat with Fay and the two of them whispered together, occasionally shooting me pleading glances not to go. I sat with Shannon and subjected myself to more ravings about Steve's perfections. At the library I tore down all the summer displays, washed the shelves, and put up fall images in all the cases Ã physical work meant to keep my mind away from the night. I spent an hour tracing and cutting leaves from red and yellow construction paper. La st year, KJ and I got a pass and picked up real leaves in the leafy park blocks. Not an option these days. I went down to dinner early. They seemed to have caught the fall theme, too. Dinner was baked pork chops with an apple chutney and sweet potatoes. Shawna joined me before I could wolf it down. [Fay or Shawna? Is Fay looking for Alex? = KJ asked Fay to do him a favor, can Alex let her out at night? Ro something , Alex doesn't want to hear the details and snaps ] "Where's KJ?" I asked and then regretted the assumption Shawna would know. Turned out she did. "He's out on a case."
I piled salad on my plate, relieved I wouldn't have to face his radiating concern (or does she miss him?). Shawna nibbled her own meal: grilled tofu over wilted greens with wild mushrooms. "Are you going out?" she asked. "Yeah." Fay slipped a small white square from her pocket and slid it across the table. I picked it up. It was a bad of Earl Gray tea. She must have swiped it from the breakfast table. At night all they offer us is chamomile. "I thought you could use the caffeine. Sounds like it will be a long night." It was a small thing, but for some reason the small gesture of support brought tears to my eyes. I managed to squeak out a thanks. Fay nodded. We ate the rest of our meal in silence. There didn't seem to be much else to say. ** I went to bed at 9: 00 and tried to read until lights out at 10:00. When it was dark I pulled on jeans and a sweat shirt and t hen lay in the dark and watched the minutes turn slowly over on the digital clock by my bed. I'd adjusted it two days ago to match the one in the front hall. At 10:29 I couldn't stand it anymore and froze time. The Center's halls were nearly deserted. O n impulse I checked KJ's room. His room was empty, his bed still neatly made. I felt a sinking sense of disappointment. Whatever case he was on must be far away. My sneakers squeaked against the tile floor. I realized I was hurrying, though of course ther e was no need. Manny was mopping the east stairwell so I had to turn around and take the west stairs or else leave footprints on the damp floor. By the time I reached the main hall I was regretting the tea. Caffeine and nerves sent my heart racing in my throat. I leaned over the upper banister to look into the lobby and felt a surge of frustration. Ross was leaning on the front table, chatting with Jeff. I would have to pay for my overeagerness at leaving the room a minute early. The wait was excruciatin g . I wedged myself behind a pillar and released time, counted to four, and froze it again. I peaked out. Ross hadn't moved. From the snatch of conversation I'd caught in the few seconds of real time, he seemed to be telling Jeff a joke about the pope a nd an airplane. I headed down the hall into the office and allowed another few second to pass, eyes glued to the dull bulb under my name on the monitor. It remained blessedly dark . I froze time again and raced to the cafeteria. Three rooms later I retu rned. Ross was halfway toward the door. I indulged myself in a scream of frustration before repeating my circuit. Cafeteria. Office. Class room. I worked fast, running from room to room, focusing on the task so I didn't have to think about what happens next. I was panting when I came back to the foyer. The front door stood open about a foot. Ross must be just outside, enveloped in the silent dark. I walked down the curved stairs, willing my heart rate to slow. Jeff sat at the front desk, his hand stil l hovering over the key pad that released the door. The remains of a smile curved the edges of his lips. He must still be chuckling over the joke Ross had told him. I had an impulse to touch him, to feel the warm normality of a regular, familiar person. Even though his very existence was a symbol of my captivity, at the moment it also offered me safety. In here the Center guaranteed my invulnerability to the threats that lurked out in the world. The haters. The crazies. The every day mortifications. And Sykes.
I turned away and forced myself to walk out the front door . Outside, t he night air felt cold. Mustard colored street lights cast muted beams onto the rain dampened streets. Dead leaves lay scattered across the empty sidewalks . The trees leaned in what must be the blast of a stilled gust of wind. It looked chill and uninviting. Ross stood just outside , one hand still wrapped around the edge of the heavy door. His head was turned toward the shadowy corners of the front entrance, presumably searching for me. I approached him slowly. He wore jeans, for once, expensive ones that fit perfectly. He'd zipped a leather jacket over them and I saw the edge of a white scarf tucked inside the collar. I drank in his even features, as if I might never see them again. His hand when I touched it felt warm. Time pulsed, then stopped again. "Alex." Ross laughed. "It's amazing. Even when I'm expecting it." He slipped his hand from mine so he could run his two palms together. "You ready?" I lo oked out into the darkness. "Where are we going?" "I parked over here. I was afraid I'd get stuck in a lot." I followed him down the stairs. He walked with a spring in his gate, like a little boy on a special outing. His excitement warmed me and I felt a n answering pulse of enthusiasm. We were on an adventure, he and I. We were an irreplaceable team out to save the world. I grinned at my own grandiosity. I sounded like one of KJ's old superhero comics. Ross had parked on a side street, careful to chos e a spot that kept the car wreathed in shadows. Even so, a few late night pedestrians wandered the street: an old guy smoking a cigarette as he walked an ugly bulldog, and a couple, arms linked, heads bent against the wind. Ross opened the passenger side door and rummaged in the glove box, emerging with a thick piece of chalk. Bending down, he marked the spot of all four tires. [make this be an old motorcycle? Or an old car that doesn't need electric parts to start it. Ask Doug.] "That should help put it back right." He winked at me. I was impressed. "You think of everything." "We've got to keep our secrets." Ross gave me a mock bow and held the door open for me. Driving turned out to be fun. Downtown on a Tuesday night is pretty quiet, so there weren' t a lot of other cars on the road. We weaved among the few stationary vehicles , or sometimes the sidewalk. Only twice did we actually have to make a U turn and try another street. Once we drove through the center of a plaza. I felt like a real teenager out on some bizarre midnight cruise or maybe playing some totally enhanced virtual reality game. Ross seemed equally giddy; squealing around corners, laughing when we clipped a hedge. Even when we left downtown and headed out on quieter roads, Ross still w eaved around traffic into the wrong lane whenever possible. I wasn't prepared when the car stopped. "Here?" We were in a residential area. We'd driven far enough that I was pretty sure we weren't in Portland anymore, but some west side suburb. The street was wide and curved, reminiscent of an ambling country lane, except paved. The houses here rested on large lots set far back from the street. Tall trees rose above the tall roofs like proud guardians. There were no sidewalks, but lots of basketball hoops and empty swings dangling from tree limbs.
Ross popped the trunk and hopped from the car. I opened my own door more slowly, reluctant to leave the cozy intimacy of our drive. I felt stupid. I'd been enjoying our drive as if it were the real event, when for Ross it was only the transition before our night began . The slam of the trunk made me jump. "You coming?" His eyes were bright. In one hand he carried a plastic grocery bag weighted with something heavy. I looked up at the house. A weed free lawn stretched out like a welcoming carpet. Beds of carefully selected plants sprouted artfully around the house and edged the neat brick path leading from the driveway up to a lighted front porch. A huge oak tree t owered li ke a sentine l on one side. The house had a curved front bay, a screened in porch on the second floor, and white trim around its many mullioned windows. It was the kind of house I used to dream of living in when I was little . A perfect house. A home. An uncomfortable knot formed in the middle of my stomach. I stood in the space between the car door and the interior, clutching the edge of the door with both hands. "What are we doing here?" "This is the place ." The rubber seal on the door felt sti cky beneath my palms. "Was there a crime here?" Ross smiled. "Not yet." The knot in my stomach tightened. I wanted to climb into the car and shut the door. I wanted to be back on the road, laughing while Ross skidded around a corner. "Mr. Ross, I don't thinkÃ‰" "Come on." Ross's voice was gentle. He walked over and took my hand. I noticed he had put on thin leather gloves. "We're the good guys, remember? We're the ones that stop the criminals. And this guy." He nodded toward the house. "Is one of the big ones." I looked up at the house again. The windows were all dark. "Is this Syke's house?" "No. But it's someone close to him." Ross pulled on my hand. Reluctantly , I let go of the door. Ross led me around to the side of the house. There was a door here, the top half of which divided into four panes of glass. "Hand me that rock, will you?" Ross pointed to a fist sized rock, one of a chain of stones marking a pl anting bed. Even though I knew why he wa nted it, I obeyed. Ross took it from me. Glass shattered in a tinkling smash as he threw it through one of the panes. "Easy as pie." Ross reached through the broken pane and unlocked the door. "Ladies first." I st epped inside slowly. The door opened into a utility room. A stacked pair of cherry red washer/dryers stood on the right, next to a long counter. A stack of freshly washed towels sat in a pile . I could make out more light colored fabric through the glass fronted dryer. Sheets, maybe, or a lot of undershirts. The sweet chemical smell of laundry soap hung in the still air. The other side of the room was covered with a wall of cabinets. I looked back at Ross. On the wall next to the open door the lights of a burglar alarm
shone through the dark, their electric warning rendered ineffectual by this frozen non time. The knot in my stomach expanded. It felt like a sponge slowly swelling with the steady drip of my anxiety. "You can wait here if you want." Ross b rushed past me into the interior of the house. He moved with a confidence that implied he'd been here before. I wondered if he knew the occupant. Were they friends? Or had Ross Ã”cased the joint', as they said in bad TV shows. The unblinking light of the burglar alarm stared at me sullenly . Ross's shoes made soft thumps as they moved deeper into the house . Even though I knew it was impossible for anything to happen to me if I were alone, the idea of staying by myself in the laundry room filled me with a sort of low grade terror. The darkness of the sleeping house vibrated around me as if it were some massive beast waiting to pounce. I felt like a character in a horror movie. KJ and Fay and I watched them sometimes. We'd deny our own fear by snorting to each other about what idiots the actors were being. Don't open the door , we'd moan. Now that same sense of doom seemed to hover all around me. Closed cupboards hinted at grisly secrets, doorknobs looked likely to open on their own. I scurried after Ross. His moving, every day figure offered reassuring normality. We're the good guys , I repeated to myself, like a mantra, like a talisman. We passed through an open kitchen. Stainless steel gleamed in the moonlight. A bowl , sticky with what looked like melte d ice cream, lay on the marble countertop near the sink. My shoes squeaked on the smooth floor, the sound like a sharp scream in the silence. We're the good guys . We moved quickly through a formal dining room, past a soaring entrance hall, and up a curved flight of stairs. Ross seemed less confident here. He peeked in a room. I saw a twin bed, empty except for a herd of stuffed animals. A shelf of short books. Ross backed out and looked around. "What are we looking for?" I realized I was whispering, even t hough there was no one to hear us. Ross didn't answer. He moved further down the hall and opened a closed door. "Wait here." Ross's words were curt. I stopped, one hand resting on the wall as if I needed support. Ross slipped into the room, the plast ic bag swinging against his leg s as he stepped through the door. I couldn't see anything inside except inky darkness in the crack where it hung ajar. I pictured what Ross was doing . It would be a study, with heavy furniture and the smell of cigars. Ross' s bag must contain some kind of evidence and he was probably slipping into a file or at the back of a drawer. I stood outside the door and argued with myself. Ross was the best agent on the force . Whoever owned this house must be guilty. This may be the only way to make sure he got caught. It might not be truth but it was justice. "Mr. Ross?" My voice was so soft I doubted he could hear me. The stillness around me felt accusing. Whatever Ross was doing in there he was only able to do because of my po wer . It was no different than if I'd done it myself. We were a team. I'd defended Ross to KJ a hundred times. If I truly believed in Ross's goodness then I should be part of whatever compromises Ross was making . Maybe some of i t was distasteful,
but we di d it because we were the good guys. If we were truly partners, then whatever we did, we did together. Anything else was cowardice on my part. I straightened from the wall and walked to the door. Carpet muffled my footsteps so I felt as if I were floatin g through the frozen house. My hand touched the doorknob and slowly pushed it open. The room was not a study . It was a bedroom, filled with silver light spilling through an open curtain. A doorwa y marked the entrance to a walk in closet. Beside that, another door opened into a master bath. There was a fireplace, a dresser with a glinting mirror, clothes lying in a puddle on the floor. In the cor n er, a wingback chair with matching ottoman stood next to a small table. The table t op held three framed photos and a coffee mug. A paperback lay spread open across one of the arms. On the floor in front were a pair bedroom slippers with a rabbit's face embroidered across the toes. The bed stood in the center of the room, a solid thing of carved wood. A man lay there on his back . He had pale skin and a beard that made his chin look unnaturally wide. The covers pulled up to his chin were made of some silky fabric that gave off a dull sheen. I could see the collar of his pajamas. In the pale light they looked grey. Ross stood at the side of the bed , the plastic bad abandoned at his feet. In his hand he held a long hunting knife. The mass taking residence in my stomach pressed itself up along my chest. I couldn't breathe. I tried to call Ross's name. All that came out was a choking burble. The knife glinted in the moonlight. Part of its edge was serrated with jagged cuts, like a line of cartoon mouths eager to chomp down on their victim. Ross stared down at the sleeping man with fierce concentration. He raised his hand. For one blazing moment I thought he might set the blade on the bedside table. A warning. A threat. Then Ross brought his arm down in a quick slash that sliced open the man's neck. I screamed. Ross whirled to face me. "Alex!" His eyes were wide . "I told you to wait outside." My breath came so fast I felt dizzy. The gash on the man's neck looked thin and dark. A small amount of blood leaked from the slash, the first hint of the deluge time would release whenev er I let it go. Ross came toward me. The knife in his hand was smeared with blood. I backed away. "What did you do?" "He was a bad man, Alex." Ross approached me as if I was a wild animal likely to bolt. "You killed him." "That man has killed lots of peo ple. He deserved to die." I couldn't tear my eyes away from the frozen lump on the bed. He was a big man. He would have a lot of blood. "Then we should have arrested him." Ross gave a sharp laugh. "Arrest Jack Torning? You have no idea how far the consp iracy reaches. There's not a cop in town who doesn't owe this guy." "ButÃ‰ you killed him." I dragged my attention to Ross. Handsome, brave, honorable Ross who stood before me brandishing a bloody knife. "You used me. You used my power." I gestured feebly around the room. "This is all my fault."
"It's not your fault. It's your gift. Because of you we can bring people to justice. Sykes will know he's not safe. He'll figure out how this happened. He'll know we can get him at any time." "No!" I shook my h ead. "I'll go back on the aclisote . I don't care if it makes me sick again. I won't let you use me." "Don't be stupid. I didn't risk all this for you so you could refuse it." "I won't." Hysteria rose inside me like a blinding haze. I seemed unable to do anything but shake my head. "No. No." Ross came closer. He grabbed my right arm and shook me so hard my head snapped. "You have no choice." The words came through clenched teeth. Ross's hand slid the length of my arm, his fingers dragging painfully along the nerves. He gripped my wrist and shoved something into my palm. I looked down. The metal hilt of the hunting knife rested in my hand. Ross wrapped his fingers around mine, closing my fist around the bloody knife. "I was never here." His face was so close to mine I felt the warm dampness of his breath. "You are everywhere. You touched the rock, the doorknob, and the knife." He pulled the blade from my hand, using only the edges of his fingers to touch it. His gloved fingers. "I'll keep this somewher e very safe. If you do anything to betray me ." His eyes bore into mine , their cheerful blue changed to dark by this colorless room. "Anything. I'll tell the police to fingerprint you. I'll tell them you've been acting strangely, confess that I saw things move after you froze time. It will be a tragic tale of another worker gone mad with time sickness." Ross's face filled my whole vision. Little imperfections I never noticed revealed themselves: a stray hair sprouting from one nostril, a burgeoning wrink le that twisted a bitter line through his upper lip, small acne scars along his hairline. "Someone will find him ," I said . " The cops will come. We'll rewind the whole thingÃ‰" "No one will find Jack for days. His wife and kids are out of town until Sunda y. His office got an email saying he decided to go with them." Ross gave a satisfied little smirk. I remembered my own words to him earlier this evening. You think of everything . I felt sick. "Even if they do rewind the scene, what do you think will sho w up? This is frozen time, remember. It didn't happen. They'll see the crime. They'll figure out how the crime happened. But they won't see who did it." I felt trapped in a maze with no exits. Everywhere I turned, Ross threw up a wall. I tried again. " I f you pin this on me, t hey'll know you helped me. They'll test my blood and find the drugs." A flicker crossed Ross's face, a small spasm as if he were suppressing something amusing . "Why would the drugs come from me?" "Amy will tell the truth. She won't cover for you if you're accused of murder." "Amy? You think the police will believe I was ever involved with a woman like her ? An infatuated unattractive nobody and a crazy time worker versus the man who just won the governor's award. Not good odd s for you." Something deep within me seemed to be giving way. Pain welled up from the break, like lava oozing through a brittle crust. I felt both weighted down and terribly fragile, as if one misstep might dissolve my whole self into a molten heap.
I lo oked down at my hands. A small smear of blood marred my palm. In the half light, the blood looked black. "I don't care. I'm dying anyway. It doesn't matter what they do to me." "What about your friends? If the cops learn what you can do they'll lock down that Center so tight no time worker will see daylight for generations. No one with your kind of power can go free." He held the knife up before me , swaying back and forth like a hypnotists watch . "Look at what you can do with it." I wanted to scream at him, hit him, scratch that smug look from his face. Even more than that I wanted to cry. Not because I knew he had me trapped. Not because a man was dead because of me. I wanted to cry because I had just lost the only ad ult I ever trusted. Ross crossed the room and dropped the murder weapon with my fingerprints into the plastic bag. He walked out and I followed him. What choice did I have? If I melted time, my tracking monitor would place me at the scene of the crime. If I ran away I faced a long walk home. We drove in silence. Ross stopped once to drop his gloves into the rushing waters of the Willamette River. He parked the car back in its spot with care, checking to make sure the tires lined up with the chalk line s. I walked away while was bending to erase the white lines. I felt empty. The c old air embraced me, chill mist wrapping itself in my hair as I pushed my way through it. The only sound was the clack of Ross's shoes as he followed me. The door to the Center stood half open like we left it, Jeff's hand still hovered over the controls at the front desk. Nothing had changed yet everything had. I went upstairs , my footsteps echoing hollowly through the silent halls. The door to my room opened at my touch. I locked it behind me before collapsing on my bed . As soon as I lay down my body started shaking. I felt like I was breaking into a thousand pieces. Right now Jack Torning was alive. Frozen, but alive. He was still a husband. A father. I closed my eyes and breathed in the night. Darkness entered my body, weighting it down and stilling the shudders. When I was nothing but a heavy shadow, I let time go. A breeze finished its journey through the window. The thrum of the highway resumed. A car accelerate d into the night. The Center's front door clicked shut. And in that perfect house, f ar away across the city, Jack Torning's stilled heart began to pump . I pictured the b lood pouring through his slashed veins, rich red rivers soaking silken sheets and c oating his collared pajamas. Tears burned hot against my eye lids . I kept them back . I did not deserve the relief of crying. Carson Ross may have slit Jack Torning's throat but I knew I was the one who killed him. Chapter 14 CHANGE THIS: Alex needs to have a come to Jesus meeting with KJ. They have to have been somewhat estranged and this tips her back into needing him. They do some research, they start to unravel the mess of XYZ levels and aclisote and all the connections (th ink this through). Big crisis, some of the connections come from her last night with Ross Ã she figures it out before she even leaves? Then she sleeps for the first time in ages, peaceful, happy: they have a plan. They will figure out a way to get away f rom
here. They will break out. KJ called away, he's on duty. She wakes up and finds out he never went on duty, Barnard called him out and Ã”checked his levels' matron says, yes he was certainly acting oddly, then KJ is sent away sick. Open scene. [possibly this last connection comes after KJ is pulled away? Alex is not shocked as much as confirmed in her suspicions. Now she's sure they have to leave . All they need to is firm up her plan.] The morning alarm ripped off the tattered shred of sleep that claimed me just before dawn. I felt like a husk of the person I'd been the day before. Everything I'd held dear, all the purpose that guided my life, was gone. I was left a time freak, alone even among the outcasts, trapped into a life I no longer wanted. Bloo dshot eyes met mine in the mirror. They felt as dry as if I'd poured sand into them. When I bent to fill my hands with water I saw the flaking remains of dried blood spotting my palm. My stomach twisted sourly . I scrubbed my palm over and over again bene ath the running water. The last few people were leaving the breakfast room when I arrived. "Hey Alex," Fay called. " Shannon was looking for you." I nodded, barely listening while I scanned the cafeteria. KJ wasn't there. He must still be asleep. I'd l istened for his footsteps coming home last night, but never heard anything . Maybe I'd slept more than I thought. I sat alone at our usual table, forcing myself eat. Even a second cup of milky coffee failed to transform toast into anything but dry clumps in my mouth. Miss Tutor was handing out worksheets when I walked in. I must have looked even worse than I thought, because she patted my hand solicitously as she went past. The touch made me jump. "You been down to see him yet?" Kyle whispered when Tu tor turned to write something on the board. "Seen who?" A crawling dread turned my skin cold. "Is Mr. Ross here?" "Ross?" Kyle cocked his head . "No, I meant KJ." "Is he looking for me?" I asked eagerly. "Where is he?" Kyle fiddled with the edge of his worksheet . "Didn't you hear? " He looked suddenly nervous. My dread returned. "KJ got sick last night. Time sick." I stood up so fast I knocked over my chair. Tutor turned around in surprise. "Alex?" I was already sprinting toward the door. The clin ic felt cold when I burst into the waiting room and smelled more strongly than usual of rubbing alcohol. Matron was sitting at her desk typing. "Where's KJ?" I was panting. Matron looked up, hands poised over the keyboard. She shook her head without altering the stiff set of her curls. "He's not ready for visitors yet , honey ." I walked past her toward the closest room and yanked the door open . It was empty . "Alex." Matron h oisted herself out of her chair , her arm outstretched to stop me. I darted past her and tried the next room. KJ , the guy who never stood still, lay like a lifeless lump beneath the white sheets. The skin under his eyes looked bruised. Dried spit collected in an uneven line on his lips. His d ark hair flopped on the pillow like lank straw , as if the energy that animated his
body had leached even from his hair. From one arm an IV ran fluid from a plastic bag mounted over his bed. I pulled the visitor chair over and sat down beside him. KJ didn't respond when I took his hand. A vein pulsing on his temple. Besides the warmth of his limp fingers , it was the only sign I wasn't sitting next to a cadaver A hand touched my shoulder. "I'm so sorry, dear," Matron said. I shook my head. My teeth were clenched so tight my jaw ached. Matron patted me softly . "You can have ten minutes." Her voice was unusually gentle. "Then you really need to go back to class. KJ probably won't wake up for another day or two." "D id I look that bad?" Matron glanced at the sleeping boy. " You looked worse." She squeezed my shoulder again. "It's his first time. He'll recover just fine ." The door made a soft sound when Matron left. I sat, watching KJ's heart pulse and feeling beref t. No wonder I hadn't heard him come in. I wondered if he'd already been down here when I left to meet Ross. Ross. A well of panic lurched my stomach. I had counted on KJ to be here to talk to. Ross could call me out any time, send me off on another mi ssion I didn't want to do. And I had to idea how to fight him Ã how to stop a vigilante agent with access to unlimited power. My power. "KJ," I whispered. He didn't move. I stood up, KJ's inactivity galvanizing me to some sort of action. The small room o ffered little to look at : no books or personal mementos , not even the clothes he'd been wearing the night before. I paced to the window and peered out the blind. Dull mist dampened the sidewalks. People passed by hurriedly, hunched inside their coats and hats. I stalked back to the bed. "Wake up. I need you." Still nothing. My eyes traced the plastic tube coiling from his arm. The IV bag was half full. I peered at the small words printed on it. Saline 25 mg, aclisote 10 cc's. A high dose. KJ's XYZ le vels must have shot dangerously high if they needed so much aclisote to stabilize them. "You need to go now, Alex." Matron stood at the door. "Dr. Barnard will be here soon for rounds. You can come back in the afternoon. " I let her lead me out the door . Ma tron might bend a rule here or there, but Bar nard would report me to Stephens. I couldn't face a roomful of children so I hid myself in the back of the library. I didn't read any books, just sat in the corner listening to the tick of the clock. The lunch bell roused me. Despite myself, my stomach growled with hunger. I waited until the period was half over before making my way down to get something to eat. "Alex! " Shannon pounced on me as soon as I entered the cafeteria. " I've been looking for you everywhere!" "I already know," I said dully. "I went and saw him this morning." "KJ? Yeah, it sucks, but that's not why I've been looking for you."
I picked up a tray and headed toward the soup pots. "Look, Fay, I can't really deal with anything else rig ht now." "It's important. " Shannon trailed after me. She wore a fuzzy light pink sweater that looked far too innocent on such a bleak day. " KJ told me to tell you before he left last night." "What." I ladled some soup into a bowl. I knew I wouldn't get rid of her until she told me whatever was in her mind. Shannon lowered her voice. "I tested your blood last night." I started, splashing soup onto the tray. "You did?" "KJ asked me to. When you unlocked my do or I went down into the lab. Alex, your levels are off the charts." I lowered the tray onto the counter . My mouth felt dry. "H ow high?" "Like 275." Shannon cocked her head to one side. "You should be dead." A million thoughts flashed through my head. B ased on everything I'd been told my whole life, XYZ levels this high I should be dead. Or crazy. But I wasn't. In fact, I felt better than I had in years. What did it all mean? That Ross's new drug provided some counteraction that offset the sickness? Th at his drug simply suppressed the sickness so I'd have no warning before I died? Or was it that everything I'd always been told wasn't true. What if high XYZ levels weren't as bad as everyone thought? A new thought clicked into place, the logic so perfe ct I knew it must be true. High XYZ explained why my time work stuck. This was why Ross gave me the new drug: not to extend my life, at least not primarily. No, Ross wanted to give me power. Shannon's breathy voice was rattling around me. I barely heard her through my swirling thoughts, until one word caught my attention. "What?" I spoke so sharply Shannon flinched. "I said that's probably why your XYZ got so high." "No." I shook my head. "Before that. What did you say about my medication?" "I said tha t when I saw how high your levels were I wondered if something was off on your meds, so I pulled one from the stock and tested it. It was really weird. The test for aclisote levels is really pretty easy, you just grind up the pill and then mix it with thi sÃ‰" "I don't care how you do it." I wanted to shake Shannon. "Tell me what you found out." "Your pills don't have any aclisote. In fact, they don't have anything. They must have gotten mixed up somehow with the placebos. " Realization broke over me like c old sweat. It was like watching a puzzle take shape before my eyes. Ross's drug wasn't a drug, it wasÃ‰ I swallowed. "What?" "A placeb o ." Shannon was looking at me with concern. "You know, a fake, a nothing." "It's not just something else? Not aclisote, some other drug that wouldn't show up in the test?" "No, it's definitely a placebo. Matron keeps some in stock for when the little kids fake they're sick. Yours must have gotten mixed up."
Sugar. Ross was feeding me sugar. There was no fancy drug, no li fe extending miracle with unexpected side effects. There was a reason I felt so healthy, a reason freezing time felt so easy now. I was unmedicated for the first time in my life. My ability to change things in frozen time wasn't an accident, it was how all our power was meant to work. That's why everyone feared time workers so much, that's why we were kept locked up. It wasn't just that we were different. It's that we were powerful. Very, very powerful. "Alex?" Shannon was frowning at me . "Are you O K?" "Yes. No. IÃ‰" KJ. My mind flashed on his crumpled form , t he IV dripping into his arm like an ominous cloud over his head. If what I had figured out was true, then what was the aclisote doing to us? Calvin's crazy assertions about the evils of aclisote were actually right. A clisote was stifling our power, making us sick. I back ed away from Shannon, desperate to return to the Clinic. "I have to see Matron." "You do." Shannon used the voice she used with the youngest kids, high pitched and sing song. "That's actually why I was looking for you. I told Matron your medicine was me ssed up. She has new pills for you." My entire body froze in horror. "You told Matron?" "Of course. I wouldn't let you stay at risk like that. She told Dr. Barnard right away." "Dr. Barnard." I repeated the words like an automaton . Shannon stroked my ar m with a consoling gesture . "Yes. Dr. Barnard will make sure you're all right." The walls of the cafeteria seemed to be closing in around me. If the Center staff found out what I could do, Ross would carry out his threat and all of us would suffer. If he put me back on aclisote I'd die. Plans whirled through my head, fragments of ideas that died before they'd even taken shape. I turned away from Shannon's worried face and took off for the Clinic. My mind held one clear thought Ã to get KJ off aclisote. My sneakers squeaked on the tiled floor as I raced around corners, leaping steps three at a time. The door to the Clinic rose up sooner than I expected and I nearly yanked it from its hinges in my rush to get it open. Matron wasn't in the anteroom . I skidded around her desk and grabbed the door to KJ's room. Perhaps if I hadn't been running so fast, if I hadn't been breathing so hard the sound of panting filled my ears, if I had been thinking even a little strategically, I might have noticed them soone r. As it was I careened all the way to KJ's bedside before I noticed his room was occupied. Matron stood on the far side of the bed, her face white and anxious. Beside her, Dr. Barnard's lips were drawn into a tight line. And on my side of the bed , inche s from where I stood , was Director Stephens. "Alexandra." I realized my mistake in an instant, but even as I reached out to grab time, Stephens dropped the leash around my bare right arm . " We were just going to find you ." Chapter 15 Time lurched as it s napped out of my control. It felt like running headlong into a stone wall. I gasped from the shock.
"Matron tells me you're sick." Stephens seemed jumpy. "I'm fine." I pulled on the leash. It must have been meant for KJ because slid easily all the way t o my wrist. The hard edges rubbed banged against my wrist bone when I tried to wrench my hand through . "What's this for?" "I understand there's been some kind of mix up with your medication," said Barnard. "We're worried your XYZ counts are at unhealthy level s ." "I'm fine," I repeated. My eyes slid to KJ. He still lay like an unmoving lump under the sheets, the clear drip of his IV snaking down beneath the sheets into his arm. My heart lurched. "I can take a blood sample now if you like." Matron sounded meek, not like her usual self at all. Stephens shook his head with a quick jerk. "No. It's too far along now. I'll take Alexandra to the main clinic." Panic yawned in my chest. "The main clinic?" No one ever returned from the main clinic. "Why?" "Yo u may not realize it, but you're a very sick girl." Barnard kept his eyes fixed over my head a s he spoke. Beside him, Matron held herself very still. She was blinking a lot, the way little kids do when they're trying not to cry. The panic in my chest rose up like a caged creature. I pulled again on the leash. The faint buzz was already making my head ache. "Why this?" "We can't have you freezing time in your condition, " Stephens said . "It might make you sicker." I twisted around to face him. Stephens met m y gaze steadily and my stomach dropped. He knew. I reached out tentatively for time. The leash blocked me like a locked door. I could feel time pulsing just out of my reach. I pushed mentally against the block. It didn't move. "Can't we wait?" I was begg ing. "At least until KJ wakes up. You can keep the leash on, I justÃ‰" My voice cracked, shame at letting them see my weakness mingling with fury that they controlled me so completely. "I have to say good bye." Matron gave an audible sniff. Stephens never took his eyes from my face. "No," he said. "It's too risky." For a moment we stared at each other. Hate rose in my throat, choking me. If Stephens knew what I could do, then he knew what aclisote did. Knew and still fed it to us. I dove for the door. Stephens moved just as quickly. When my hand closed on the knob, Stephens slammed me against the door. "Let me go!" I screamed. "You're killing me, killing all of us." Stephens leaned his forearm across my shoulder blades. I squirmed beneath the pressure, trying to turn around so I could reach him. One flailing arm caught at his jacket and I dug my fingers through the rough cotton , digging them hard into the flesh below . "Give me something to restrain her," Stephens barked. I heard Dr. Barnard rum mage in a cupboard. Stephens yanked his arm free and pushed me harder into the door. The opaque glass smashed my face into a distorted mass of features. I tried to raise my head, wildly considering my ability to smash the glass with my forehead.
"Here. " Barnard panted up behind me. "It's all I could find." Stephens gave a soft grunt of acknowledgement. The two men worked together t o pull my arms behind my back. Thin cords bit into my wrists. Only when it was secured did Stephens lift his weight from my back. I straightened. My nose felt like it still listed sideways. Stephens kept a tight grip on my arm. "I'll drive her out there myself." I tried to pull away. Stephens gripped me harder. Panic made my mind spin so fast I couldn't focus. Thoughts flared in my mind like shreds of tissue paper , each fragment floating away before I could concentrate enough to grow it into an action. Think , I screamed at myself. I reached out again for time. At the trophy shop, I'd felt a chink at the edge of the do or. I concentrated with everything I had. A faint sense of time passing, like the faintest of breaths, touched my senses. I clutched at it, willing time to stop. Nothing. " Help me get her out to the car ," Stephens said to Barnard . The doctor nodded with obvious reluctance. He moved beside me and took hold of my free arm. "Matron, keep an eye on Kevin today. I want you to test his blood twice a day. If his levels go above 125 raise his dosage." "125?!" I shrieked. Stephens, his ear inches from my m outh, flinched "That does seem a bit extreme, Jeff," Dr. Barnard started. "It's necessary." Stephens cast a quelling look at Barnard. "Please." I bent my knees, pulling down on the two men that held me. "You'll make him even more sick. He'll die." Steph ens yanked me back up, his fingers digging painfully into the thin skin of my upper arm. "You don't know what you're talking about." "I do!" I didn't care anymore about secrets. I didn't care who knew what I knew. I only cared that they stop poisoning KJ. "It's the aclisote that kills us, not the XYZ. We should have high levels." I lunged toward Matron. "Please, listen to me. Check the records. Every kid that's died in here had XYZ levels under 150. We're not meant to go that low. We're meant to get higher as we age. Aclisote isn't healthy." "That's enough, Alex!" Stephens dragged me backward pulling my arms so hard it made me gasp. "I'm sorry, Matron. You can see what the XYZ is doing to her. She's getting irrational." "No!" I was sobbing now, fi ghting the men's ' grip like a possessed person. "Alex." Matron took a step towards me, her face creased with concern. She put out her hand even though she was still too far away to touch me. I increased my struggles. If I could only reach her. Matron would help me. Matron wouldÃ‰ "Do you want me to give her a sedative , doctor?" Hope leaked from me like air from a balloon. I slumped in my captors' arms. Stephens and Barnard adjusted their grip. "No. We'll be fine." The two men propelled me toward the door. I stopped struggling. They were too strong. We were halfway down the hall when I heard the squeak of Matron's soft soled shoes running after us . "Wait," she panted. "Let her have this. It's raining out there."
Stephens waited while Matron wrapp ed a maroon Center raincoat around my shoulders. T he cheap nylon fluttered like a cape over my bound hands . I kept my head lowered. The small kindness offered no relief to my despair. Outside the rain was coming down in torrents. Stephens and Barnard scuttled across the open lot, dragging me between them. Water drenched my hair almost immediately. I felt the cold drops sliding down the neck of my clothes, soaking in through the mesh o f my sneakers. My frantic brain slowed in the rush of cold air. It felt like the sharp slap hysterical women get in old movies. I felt the fragments of my ideas settle themselves inside me. My only power in this situation was my ability to freeze time, a power blocked by the leash. Therefore, I had to find a way to overcome the leash. "Put her in the front." Stephens clicked his key fob to unlock the door of a dark blue sedan. "I want to keep an eye on her." The leash. I tried again to push my brain ag ainst the block. There was a crack, a faint line of resistance , but the electrical pulse was too strong to fight. Barnard opened the car door and pushed me into the front passenger seat. My clasped hands made sitting awkward . I perched forward in the se at, back arched, mind concentrating on the blocked flow of time. Barnard leaned over me, trying to wrap a seatbelt around my body. The wet jacket slipped from my shoulders and tangled in the belt's buckle. " Damn it ," Barnard mumbled. Rain pounded on the car's thin roof. I pushed at the block in my head and felt the answering shove of rejection. A headache branched through the inside of my skull. Stephens slid into the seat beside me. "Here." He shoved the jacket behind my back and clicked the buckle i nto place. The soggy nylon felt cold against my skin. I wriggled uncomfortably. "You all set?" Barnard was still crouched half way into the car. When Stephens nodded he looked relieved. He mumbled some kind of good by without looking at me. The car door slammed. Stephens considered me. "Lean forward." Fresh fear washed through me. What now? Would he inject me with aclisote right here? "Come on." He pushed my shoulder, hard. My body slammed forward, cheek colliding with the glove box. Stephens pulled my bound hands toward himself. "Can't have you leaping out at the first stop light." My cheek stung. I rested it against the smooth plastic while he fumbled with the cords. I considered leaping from the car the minute my hands were unbound, but rejected the plan almost at once. The parking lots was fully fenced, enclosed by an electric gate I couldn't easily scale. Stephens unbound the cords in a few quick twists. Blood pumped early back into my numb fingers. I wriggled them gratefully. Without letting go o f me, Stephens snapped something around my left wrist. For a second I thought he'd double leashed me, but when I looked down I realized the cord he'd used to bind me was a linking band. The band was now snapped to my wrist, its cord neatly tied to the em ergency break. Stephens gave me a steady look and snapped the other half around his own wrist. "There. Now you're not going anywhere."
He turned from me and started the car. It was a newer car, the kind whose engine purred quietly beneath the muffled t hrum of pouring rain. I pulled at the band. The knotted cord stopped me from moving my left arm more than about ten inches while also preventing my movements from effecting Stephens' at the other end of the band. Any thought of wrenching the steering whe el from his control faded away. I leaned back as we slid from the lot. The abandoned raincoat oozed water onto my shirt . I reached for the pile of soggy nylon, intending to toss it on the floor. An edge of fabric caught at the leash on my arm and a fla sh of inspiration made me catch my breath. I glanced at Stephens but he was concentrating on making a left hand turn and didn't notice. As casually as possible I wadded the raincoat up in my lap, burying my hand in its folds. We merged onto the freeway. In the falling rain, traffic moved slowly. I shook the leash down as low on my wrist as I could then bent my fingers back to slide one finger underneath it. With another finger I squeezed a bit of the jacket and shoved it into the space between my skin and the leash. Very carefully, I spun the leash around a tiny bit and pinched another bit of fabric. The fabric rustled. Stephens glanced at my lap. I held still, watching the regular pass of the windshield wipers. We drove for a while in silence. When I m oved again, the rustling jacket sounded loud in the muffled space. I cast about for something to say. "Anyone of us could do it without the aclisote, couldn't we?" Stephens's body tightened, though he did not take his eyes from the road. "Do what?" "Change things in frozen time." I slipped another piece of fabric under the band. " That's not possible ." Anger made me careless. My wrist twitched and some of the jac ket piece slid from their tenuous hold. "If it's not possible then why am I leashed?" The windshield wipers slapped the ra in across the windscreen. Stephens drove a while in silence. I tried to slow my breathing, focus on my right hand. The awkward stuf fing motion was making my hand cramp. "Yes." Stephens spoke with the surety of someone who has made a decision. "Anyone could do it. That's why we have to stop you." Another piece slid beneath the leash. Half of it no longer touched my skin. I reached out and felt for the block. Still solid. "You don't trust me?" "It's not you, per say." Stephens seemed to have warmed to his topic. I wondered how often he got to talk so openly. There couldn't be too many people who knew. "It's all of you. That kind o f power is overwhelming. You could be anywhere, do anything and the rest of us would never know. We'd never feel safe." "So you have to kill us?" "It's for the good of society." "Why not just do it when we're tested, then? Why let us grow up with this false sympathy while we're slowly being poisoned?" "Humanity doesn't want to be cruel. Any society that kills its babies is considered monstrous. Aclisote was a blessing when it was discovered. People really believed it would alleviate the symptoms of t ime sickness and allow you to live like normal people." "But surely people noticed when the stuff killed everyone off?"
"You don't understand. " Stephens accelerated the car to pass a semi. The rain had slowed now, traffic was thin outside of the city. " T he refinement of aclisote happened over hundreds of years. You workers really do tend to die young or go crazy. I'm not sure if the strain is mental or physical but, despite your genetic destiny, some of you just can't hack it. Time really does kill." S tephens gave a bark of laughter at his own pun . "Early users of aclisote saw the positive effect helping children survive adolescents. By the time we figured out about XYZ receptors and suppression aclisote had already been accepted as perfectly safe Ã not just safe, but necessary." I was only half listening. The leash was now almost completely blanketed. I could feel the electric static fading in my head . I reached for time and felt the block shudder. I was almost there. "I know it sounds harsh from y our perspective," Stephens continued, "but taken on balance it's not a bad compromise. You do get to live, after all. You're taken care of, you do good work Ã its more than a lot of people get. " "So all you norms run around feeling self satisfied while we 're locked up and slowly poisoned?" "Oh no," Stephens said, "most people have no idea. That's the other gift we give them. They get to enjoy their happy, safe, peaceful lives, unsettled by either crime or crazy time workers. We're the ones who bear the b urden. The ones who know. It's hardest on us." The car settled back in the middle lane. I checked the speedometer. 68 miles per hour. Twisting my arm, I slipped the last bit of fabric slid under the leash. The faint buzz haunting my brain faded. My he art started to pound. I knew this was a desperate plan, a terrible plan, dependent on so many variables it was more likely to fail than to succeed. It was a plan that might kill me. It was the only plan I had. I picked up the loose end of the linking ba nd with my left hand. "Alex?" Stephens had noticed my silence. He glanced at me. Whatever he saw on my face made him frown. "What are you doing?" He reached down to swat the band out of my hand. This was it. My one chance. Quick as a snake I reached up and wrapped the linking band around his wrist. Stephens stared down, the first hint of fear paling his cheek. I said the words out loud. I wanted him to know. "Freeze time." I reached out. Stephens's eyes widened in shock. All around us the world stopped. Everything. The breeze, the birds, the falling rain. Everything except us, our bodies, still moving 67 miles per hour as they slammed into the immobile car. My head hit the dashboard with enough force to stun me . Beside me, Stephens's body smashed into t he steering column. I saw the plastic ring plunge into the soft curve above his belt. He grunted. There were no airbags. Pain exploded through my brain, combined with the whiplash force of the leash as the jacket ripped away its protective padding around my skin. A wall slammed back between me and time, forcing the river forward . The car leapt ahead, responding now to the weight smashed against the wheel. I heard myself scream as the car swerved wildly across the highway. Stephens grabbed the steering wheel. The car careened sideways. I smelled burning rubber, heard the screech of brakes . Ours? Another cars? Then a wall of cement reared up in front of us and everything went black.
Chapter 16 The siren's wail screamed like a squashed cat. Red light s burned the backs of my eyes. Words, urgent and meaningless, pounded my ears. The scent of burnt rubber and wet pavement soaked the air. Someone pulled up my eyelid. The bright white made me flinch. My mouth tasted like metal. "Responsive." A brisk vo ice. Female. "Nothing obvious broken. We'll need to suture the forehead." She placed something soft against my forehead, holding it in place with a few bands of medical tape around my head. "Can we move her?" A younger voice, male, with a slight southe rn twang. "Yeah, bring a gurney." "What about him?" "Unconscious. Send Riker over." Someone slid a brace around my neck. Strong hands reached under my shoulders to lift me from the car. They stopped when my left arm trailed back towards Stephens. "What's that?" Southern boy asked. I felt the pull as he yanked on the linking band cords. "Time worker stuff," the woman said. "He must be an agent." " What do we do?" Southern boy sounded a little queasy. I forced my eyelids open. A face bent over mine. The woman, about thirty, with dark skin and eyes. "Disconnect me," I muttered. "You awake?" Her hands moved professionally over my body. "What hurts?" Everything, I thought. I held my wrists out to her. "The bands." She took hold of my forearms. The sk in around the leash looked raw where the fabric had rubbed it. The skin around the linking band was starting to bruise. I must have wrenched it pretty hard when we crashed. "Is it safe to disconnect you two?" "It's better." I tipped my head towards Steph ens's inert body. "It will help him regain consciousness." The lie came easily. She nodded and called to someone over her shoulder. A minute later a pair of wire cutters appeared. Two snips and I was free. I took a breath which sent a stabbing pain throu gh my chest. I tried to climb out of the car. It was awkward to move in the enclosed space, made smaller still by billowing pillows of air bags. "Not yet." The woman pushed me back, her hands gentle but firm. She wore a blue uniform with Providence Ho spital woven on her chest. Beneath that a name tag read Theresa Gonzales. "We'll take you on the gurney, OK? You might have internal injuries." "I have to go," I said, but my head swam when I tried to move and I almost blacked out. "Not yet, honey, you' re still in shock." Theresa leaned over me and slid her arms under my back, then frowned over her shoulder. "You gonna help me here?" A man in a matching blue suit moved forward with a tentative step. Southern boy. He wasn't as young as I'd thought, may be mid twenties. Dirty blond hair cut short and a that looked raw, like he'd shaved over pimples with a rusty blade. His name tag
read Mike Mills. He hesitated a minute, then grabbed hold of my legs like they might be rotten. As soon as I was deposited on the gurney he stepped back. I turned my head as best could in the brace so I could see the car. Glass from the shattered windshield sparkled in the afternoon sun. It looked like a massive gem heist gone bad, leaving diamonds an inch thick on the car' s seats, more spilling across the pavement. The front hood of Stephens's sedan had a bend like shark fin. Steam billowed from under the crumpled metal. On the far side of the car, two more EMT's leaned over Stephens, who still seemed to be out cold. A bu rst of elation sparked inside me. My ridiculous plan had worked. I was out of the car, alive and un leashed. Theresa pulled a blanket over me and pushed the gurney toward the waiting ambulance. "What's your name, honey?" "AhÃ‰Amanda. Jones. Amanda Jo nes." I touched my chest. It felt bruised. I took a few more breaths. There was definitely something not right. "What's wrong with me?" "You're going to be fine, Amanda." Theresa said. The gurney rolled into the ambulance with hardly a jolt. Mike was already inside, grabbing straps to secure me. Theresa took a seat by my head. "Who should we call?" "Call?" The adrenaline already coursing my body spiked. If the Center folks met me in at the hospital all of this would be for nothing. I should freeze time now, get out. I struggled to push away the straps securing me. The ambulance's engine roared as the van rolled out. Too late. I sagged back onto the gurney. "Nobody. There's nobody to call." "You're a worker, right?" Theresa touched the bruised marks on my wrist. She had very smooth skin and the kind of eyes that crinkle up when she smiled. Her hands felt soothing on my roughened skin. "I know you're all orphans, but whatever Center you work for cares about you, too." The platitude made my sto mach convulse. I swallowed hard, trying to keep the anger from my face. "Salem." They probably already called in Stephens's license plates, but maybe I could buy myself a little time with misdirection. "We came up to help on a case and were heading h ome." Theresa nodded to Mike who picked up a walkie talkie and called it in. I kept my eyes fixed on Theresa. I reminded myself that she didn't know, that not everyone was part of the conspiracy. At least she wasn't afraid to touch me. The thoughts only sort of helped. Theresa leaned forward and reached for the needle they'd already inserted into my arm. In one hand she held the end of an IV tube. I jerked away. "What's that?" Theresa's face took on a patient expression. "It's just saline. The doctors like to have a drip going so they can easily administer painkillers or whatever medicine you need." "No." I cradled me arm holding it away from her. Theresa held up her hands in an I surrender gesture. I curled my arms closer to my chest. "Where are we going?" "The closest hospital is Portland General," she said. "We should be there in five minutes." I nodded. Portland General was good Ã no more than five miles from the Center. I stared at the ceiling, trying to do a mental survey of my injuries. I tensed and relaxed
the muscles in my arms and legs. Nothing. Besides my sore chest, all there seemed to be was the bandage fastened around my forehead. Theresa had said something about sutures. I must have smashed my head against the dash board. Probably in the first crash, the one without the airbags. I lay still, trying to be grateful the pain I fel t wasn't worse. Our ride was brief. The ambulance doors banged open almost before the van stopped. Mike leapt to the ground and he and Theresa maneuvered my gurney out in seconds. A doctor waited outside. Theresa started spouting things about contusions , shock, BP and other acronyms I couldn't follow. My eyes swept passed them to search the other figures hurrying in the background. I found him almost at once. Dr. Barnard was making his way toward the ambulance at a rapid clip. In his hand he held a le ash. "Doctor," Barnard called. The man leaning over me hesitated, half turning at the call. Barnard jogged closer. I didn't have a choice. There was no waiting for an opportune moment this time, no careful covering of my tracks. Barnard's eyes locked on to mine as I reached out and stopped time. Frozen silence is always startling in a crowded place. One instant stilled the stream of people bustling around me into utter peace Ã awkward peace, with their twisted bodies and expressive faces Ã but quiet in a way real silence never is. It wasn't just lack of noise it was absence of sound. Pure. Undisturbed. I undid the velcro holding me on the gurney and sat up, then, very gingerly, I took the brace from around my neck and twisted my head back and forth. Stif f, but not bad. With a quick yank I pulled the IV stub from my arm and stepped on it. The crack felt good beneath my feet. Walking went less well. My knees wobbled, my head ached, and I felt dizzy to the point of nausea. I leaned against the unmoving gurney and whimpered softly to myself. All I wanted was to curl up in a little ball and go to sleep. I knew that wasn't an option. As soon as I slept, time would melt, and they would catch me. And every second of time that passed meant another drop of a clisote into KJ's veins. Thoughts of KJ settled me. I wiped my hands on my jeans and headed away from the chaotic hospital entrance, out toward the street. I had to walk three blocks before I found someone on a bicycle. I felt bad about stealing it. Th is poor guy was going to be riding down the street one minute then sitting on the sidewalk, bikeless, the next. In some other instance I might have found the idea funny. The ride to the Center took an hour . I had to stop and rest six times. Twice I almos t blacked out. Panic kept me awake. If I fainted I'd lose control of time. To the norms I'd just appear somewhere, which would be enough to have someone attack me. Or worse. Call the Center. Somewhere along the line I realized I hadn't eaten since breakfas t. I found a mi ni mart and ate three candy bars with peanuts and drank half a liter of one of those sports drinks that claim to be full of electrolytes . Not exactly food for champions but it kept me going. When I reached the Center I was shaking so hard I had to sit down on the steps. The frozen street shimmered before me with a kind of haze. My ribs ached. I focused on the pain, honing my attention on that one thing to keep myself conscious. Finally I dragged myself up the Center doors. Locked, of cours e. I melted time and rang the bell. " Alex ?" I recognized Pete's voice in the crackle of the intercom. "What are you doing out there?"
I glanced up at the camera that monitored the front door. "I ran away," I said. It seemed like too much trouble to lie. I leaned against the door. "But I was in an accident. Let me in." The door buzzed and I almost fell inside when it opened. Pete was half way across the hall, his phone pressed to his ear. Whoever he was talking to must have said something to scare him, because he stumbled The look he gave me was one you'd give a wild animal. I froze time before he could reach me then wadded up my jacket and used it to prop open the door . I wanted to run to the Clinic, but I could do nothing more than stumble. KJ, I kep t repeating in my head. I have to save KJ. When I reached him he looked worse than I remembered. Dark veins showed through the tissue paper of his skin. His mouth hung ajar. Roughly, I pulled the IV from his arm, pressing my fingers against the small pu ncture. Melt time. Freeze time. KJ didn' t move, but I felt his pulse beneath my fingers. I also felt the added weight of him pulling against time. "KJ." I shook him. No response. I slapped his cheek, lightly, then harder . "Come on, KJ, wake up. We hav e to go." His skin jiggled under my hand like pudding . I shoved my hands under his torso, trying to drag his six foot frame upright. My arms felt no stronger than blades of grass. I heaved at his bulk, straining at the dregs of my strength. Something wet slid out from under the bandage along the side of my face. I didn't have to touch it to know it was blood. Tears of frustration blurred my vision. I climbed up onto KJ's bed and curled up against him . Exhaustion pulled at me like a second layer of gravit y. I knew I couldn't hold time a lot longer. Failure loomed up at me from every corner . I'd tried so hard, risked so much, only to be left here, helpless and alone in a frozen world. My ribs ached. My head pounded. Time swirled against me, pressing int o my mind, slipping itself from my control. Vaguely, I grew aware of the noises I was making, a keening whine stretched between gasping sobs. Tears and blood dripped onto KJ's white sheets. I laid my hand on his chest. "I need you KJ. I can't do this alon e." The words made me cry harder. They were what KJ always said that to me. You can't do it alone, Alex. Beneath my hand KJ's heart beat a steady pulse. Life lived there. The Center hadn't killed him yet. And then I knew what I had to do. Dragging myself from KJ's bed was the hardest thing I'd ever done. I released time for a second and let KJ go. I'd need all the strength I had to get through the next few hours. Then I made myself go to the cafeteria and eat some food. Cook was starting dinner, but I found a stack of sandwiches in the fridge left over from lunch. I packed up the extras, along with some cookies, apples, and some bottles of water in a paper bag. Then I went hunting. I'd thought about this carefully while I was eating. J ack wasn't my favorite person, but he was strong and I thought he hated the Center more than I did. He was also likely to believe me.
Jack was in the gym, curled up in the tight crouch of a half finished sit up. Steven floated just above the ground on the treadmill to his right. One more witness. I knelt at Jacks' side and touched his arm. Melt time. Freeze time. "What theÃ‰?" Jack was on his feet so fast I rocked back on my heels. "Hey, Jack." "What the fuck happened to you?" I glanced at my reflect ion over his shoulder. Blood stained one side of the bandage around my head, red streaks drying in flakes along my hairline. My nose looked swollen and bruised. Abrasions from the seatbelt left red marks on my neck and collar bone. I looked like a refu gee from a war. " You were right, Jack. The Center is dirty. They're killing us with aclisote." Jack backed away from me. "Is this a joke?" "Let me show you what I can do." I held my hand out to him. Jack eyed it like I was offering him a dirty sock. "Tr ust me, Jack." I kept my eyes locked on his face, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice. "We have to leave here." I swallowed hard. "I need your help." Very slowly, Jack reached toward me. I lunged to cover the remaining gap. Melt time. I waited a beat, making sure Jack recognized the flow of time , and the fact that we were not in the place we started . Freeze time. Jack yanked his hand back like my touch was electric. He looked around the room. Steven's head had jerked around at what must have been a flash of two people appearing. His mouth hung open in a barely started exclamation. Jack stared down at his palm. "How'd you do that?" I explained as quickly and briefly as I could. "I'll explain more later, but we have to go now ." I crossed my arm s tightly around myself, as if it might help to hold me upright. "Will you help me?" Jacks' eyes narrowed. He was rubbing his hand on his shirt as if it might be contaminated. "What do you want?" "I have to get KJ out of here. I can't carry him by myself ." " And if I go with you, you'll show me how to change stuff in frozen time?" A twinge of unease flicked through me. I pushed it aside. "It's not a question of teaching. As soon as you go off aclisote, you'll be able to do it." Jack nodded, his eyes lit wi th some internal train of though t . "And if I don't help youÃ‰" "Then I'll melt time and find someone else." Fatigue made me sharp. "I can't hold this much longer and we still need to find Shannon." "Shannon?" Jack cocked an eyebrow . " I thought you hated h er?" " She's got the skills to take care of KJ. Plus w e need her to cut out our monitors." "Holy shit." Jack touched the back of his neck. "You're serious." "You coming?" "Shannon's in the common room." Shannon was easier to convince then Jack. Once I told her I needed her help to save KJ's life she was in. Jack started to argue with me because he wanted to add more people. I stopped him. I was pretty sure four was my limit. He looked mutinous until I promised we could come back .
Back in the Clinic, Shan non found a sterile scalpel and set to work slicing out the monitors. It hurt less than I expected. Maybe all my nerves were so shocked by now they didn't have anything left to respond with. She did KJ while he was still frozen. Jack found a wheelchair in one of the C linic 's closet. He and Shannon worked together to lift KJ's limp body into it. Jack had to pick him up again to carry him up the stairs while Shannon and I struggled with the w heelchair. KJ fl opped around like a laundry sack. I didn't have enough energy to spare to tell Jack to be more careful. The front door was still stuck open with my jacket. Pete was standing just in front of the door, a look of utter confusion on his face. He was staring up toward the stairs as if wondering where I might have gone. I pulled on the jacket with stiff fingers. Time pulled at my mind, the whisper grown now to a dull roar. Shannon tilted KJ's wheelchair back on its wheels. Jack grabbed the front and they maneuvered it down the stairs. I watched, holding the banister like a crutch. The farther they moved away from me, the stronger the pull to release time. "Alex?" Shannon looked back at me. "You OK?" My knees felt like they were giving way. "I can't hold it." Jack's eyes flicked up at the Center's door. I knew what he was thinking: i f I melted time now, we'd be caught in minutes. I saw his head turn to look up the street. One hand touched the bandage on the back of his neck. He was unmonitored. If he ran away alone, no one would catch him. Shannon, burdened with the half dead KJ wouldn't have a chance. And me? I sagged against the rail ing, as hopeless as I'd felt the night Jack Torning died . Jack was going to run. I'd set him free, released him from his monitor and now he was going to make his own chance. My wobbly knees gave up their hold . The cement steps felt cold even through my jeans. Time licked my temples. Jack started to run. He took the stairs in three steps . "Come on." He scooped me up, carrying me like a bride over a threshold . My head bounced against his collarbone as he j ogged back down the stairs. Each knock brought a spasm of astonishment . He'd stayed. They were still with me. "Do you have a plan?" Jack dropped me onto KJ's lap, wedging my hips down into the small gap between KJ's body and the sides of the wheelchair so I wouldn't slide out. "Ross' s car. " I put my hand on his bare arm and felt a drift of energy rise to mingle with my fading strength. I grabbed at the faint power, pushing time deeper into the freeze . I took a breath. "He keeps the keyÃ‰" "I know ." Jack pulled back, taking his energy with him . " Keep touching me! " I gasped . " Both of you. I can't hold time alone." Jack gave me a suspicious look. Shannon nodded as if this request made sense. "Please," I said. Each of them took one of my hands. I felt the power in me pulse a little stronger. I straightened . "I don't have a plan after this." Keeping hold of Jack's hand I draped my arm over KJ's shoulder. "We'll figure it out." Jack took hold of the w heelchair, my hand over his, and started down the sidewalk. The four of us moved forward. It was awkward to stay connected like this Ã three living people and a frozen body bumping down a city street littered with unmoving
obstacles. Awkward Ã yet oddly comforting. It was true what I'd said to the others. I didn't know what to do next. The Center wouldn't let us go easily, and, even without monitors, they had huge resources to try and find us. We were four kids, alone and unequipped to survive on our ow n. It would take weeks for me to heal completely, weeks in which my companions would go through withdrawal. But right now, holding on to both these two people who had just risked everything to come with me , what I felt was hope. I knew whatever happened we had a chance. And a chance is all you ever get. After that it's what you make of life. That at least Ross told me true. I closed my eyes and concentrated on holding time at bay. It wouldn't be for much longer. When time started again my life as a fu gitive began. It was the life I'd created. Shannon and Jack's hands felt warm under mine. I could feel the pulse of their power swimming in my own veins . This was life I chose Ã that we chose. Together, we'd survive.