Authors: Emily Lloyd-Jones
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To my mother
For they would inherit a world so devastated by explosions and poison and fire that today we cannot even conceive of its horrors. So let us try to turn the world away from war. Let us make the most of this opportunity, and every opportunity, to reduce tension, to slow down the perilous nuclear arms race, and to check the world’s slide toward final annihilation.
—President John F. Kennedy,
Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, July 26, 1963
iere Giba wakes to pounding on her hotel door. “This is the NYPD! We have a warrant to search this room.”
Sitting up is more difficult than it should be—the sheets are tangled around her naked body. Clutching the duvet to her chest, she frantically takes stock of her surroundings. A teenage boy is facedown on the carpet, one arm thrown out, and a miniature bottle of tequila clutched in his fist. His shirt is missing, and there’s a tattoo of a Celtic knot on his left shoulder, the black ink just visible on his dark skin. Ciere would know that tattoo anywhere—it belongs to her best friend, Devon Lyre.
The pounding starts again.
Ciere leaps from the bed. Any second now, NYPD will burst into the room. The first thing they’ll do is trip over
Devon, and the second is that they’ll see her pink backpack—the one currently holding hundreds in stolen cash.
Bracing herself, she heaves Devon under the bed. He goes with a soft mumble of protest. Good thing he’s out—she can only hope he won’t wake during an inopportune moment.
After kicking the backpack beneath the bed, Ciere leaps atop the mattress and crouches there, poised for action.
She draws in a long breath and brings a single memory to the forefront of her mind: the hotel room when she first entered it—the faded white carpet, the duvet stretched tight across the bed, and the floral artwork on the walls.
Holding that memory firmly in place, she reaches out and overlays the room’s current reality with that image. The illusion is like throwing a sheet over a table—it covers everything. The room’s appearance transforms from messy to pristine in a matter of seconds. It’s her talent, her immunity.
The illusion flickers and vanishes.
Too bad she’s not very talented.
A hard voice rings out. “We’re opening the door!”
Ciere hears the click and whirr of the lock; the police must have retrieved a master key from the front desk.
She swallows a curse. Panic flares in her chest, and it gives her the motivation she needs to try again. Concentrating hard, she once more projects the image of the pristine hotel room from her mind and over her surroundings. The illusion
slides over the bed, the walls, the table, the chairs. It even extends into the bathroom.
All at once, pressure builds behind her eyes and temples. She’s pretty sure this is what divers feel when they go too deep underwater—like being squeezed from every angle. But the illusion is in place, and it’s not a moment too soon.
The door is flung wide, and a cop’s expansive girth appears framed in the doorway. He peers into every corner of the room before edging farther inside, his gun held at the ready.
“Clear,” the cop says, and two more follow him inside.
“There’s no one here,” the first cop says as he stares into the bathroom. “Looks like the place hasn’t even been slept in.”
The second cop, a woman, mutters, “This better be the right room.” She pushes a strand of hair out of her eyes, tucking it back into her messy ponytail. Louder, she adds, “What did the manager say?”
The third cop, a middle-aged man, strides to the window and throws the blinds aside. Morning sunlight spills through the window, making Ciere’s eyes ache. The sour taste of old vodka and peanuts lingers on the back of her tongue. Of all the days to be hungover.
“This is the right room, I’m sure,” the first cop answers, peering under the bed.
“No criminal is stupid enough to book a hotel room with
stolen cash.” The female cop jerks several dresser drawers open and slams them shut. “This was a damn decoy.”
Relief makes Ciere’s muscles go limp. This is going to work. The cops will leave. She is about to relax when a loud
reverberates through the room.
“What was that?” the first cop says, hand drifting to his belt.
Ciere goes cold. That beep is familiar; it’s her text alert.
—she must have forgotten to silence her phone. She bites down hard on her lip, using the pain as a focal point to keep her concentration. She can hold an illusion around her own body for hours, but extending it into her surroundings is like trying to envelop the room with her skin. There’s pain and stretching, and it
The woman cop zeroes back in on the room, eyes sharp and nostrils flared. She lifts her gun from its holster and slowly makes her way toward the bed. Her gun is still pointed at the floor, but Ciere knows how fast that barrel could swing up. A chilled breeze coming in through the air conditioner ghosts over her bare skin and she shivers. Despite the fact that the cops can’t see her, Ciere finds herself drawing her arms protectively around her chest. It’s a useless gesture; a single bullet would tear through her easily. She’s had close calls before, but she’s never been shot. How long would it take to die of a gunshot wound? She imagines how it would feel for a small ball of metal to slam into her—slam through her. Even so, a bullet
would be better than discovery. As an illusionist, she would be taken into custody and given a choice between only two options: work for the government or head for confinement in Blanchard Penitentiary.
What’s worse is that Devon will be considered her accomplice. He’s been in trouble before, but nothing like this. Could his dad buy him out of a felony charge?
The cop steps closer to the bed. All she has to do is reach out and she’ll touch Ciere. Illusion can fool many senses, but touch isn’t one of them.
Ciere holds her breath. Her chest aches and her lungs burn, but an exhalation could give her away. She is close enough to the woman to see her pores and the way her hair curls around one ear. Too close. She’s too close. Just a few more inches—
The cop turns and stalks away from the bed. “I think it came from the fire alarm.”
The first cop snorts. “So we can’t tell the manager if he’s got criminals squatting in his hotel or not, but we can tell him that the fire alarm batteries need replacing. Great.”
“We’ll post Greg in the lobby,” the other man replies. “If the thief is still here, we’ll find him.” He walks out the door, holstering his gun. The first cop follows. The last cop, the woman, pauses with her hand on the doorknob. Her gaze sweeps over the hotel room one last time.
The door clicks shut, and the illusion shatters.
Ciere falls back onto the bed, panting and trembling in reaction to the unspent adrenaline still humming through her blood. She sprawls there for a long moment, hyperaware of her surroundings—the crinkly material of the duvet, the rumble of the air conditioner, and the sunlight beaming down on her. Scrambling off the bed, she goes to the door and rises to her tiptoes, peering through the peephole. She can just make out three fuzzy figures strolling down the hall in the direction of the elevators. Ciere waits, heart still pounding, watching as the three cops vanish around a corner. What if this is a ruse? What if they come back?
When a full minute has passed, she relaxes. “Okay,” she says aloud, “not the best hotel wake-up call I’ve ever had.”
She retrieves one of the hotel’s robes and slips it on. The terry cloth is soft and clean, and she belts it around her waist with a feeling of relief.
Crouching, she reaches under the bed and grabs her backpack. It’s a faded pink, edged with glittering bits of plastic. The figurine of a tiny white cat with a pink bow on its head dangles from the main zipper. Her mother gave Ciere the backpack when she was ten, telling Ciere the cat’s name was Hello Kitty. It was part of some foreign franchise, an export that made it out before Japan closed its borders.
Ciere digs into the front compartment, and her fingers
close on the hard plastic of a cell phone. The phone is a cheap, disposable number—one of the many that Ciere keeps shoved in her backpack.
The text reads:
You robbed a bank???
The area code is from Pennsylvania, so it can only be from Kit Copperfield.
She texts back.
How the hell did you know?
Because someone walked out of a Newark bank with $40,000.
And you immediately thought of me?
The only other thing taken was a Hello Kitty bobblehead. The news is calling you “The Kitty Burglar.”
That makes Ciere laugh. The Hello Kitty bobblehead sits on the bedside table, a testament to her recent criminal success. She nabbed it from a clerk’s desk, thinking it would match her backpack.
Why should you care?
Ciere’s fingers dart over the keypad and press Send.
I told you to keep a low profile. Come home. Now.
Because I’m the closest thing you have to a parental authority.
A moment later, a new message appears.
Also, I have a new job for you.
Not over the phone.
It’s enough to intrigue Ciere; she texts him back, saying they’ll meet later. She has other things to worry about at the moment.
As if on cue, Devon makes a choked noise. He sounds as if he’s gagging on his own morning breath. A hand appears, groping along the carpet as he tries to pull himself out from under the bed. It appears to take great effort for him to roll onto his back. He grinds the heel of one hand into his eyes, trying to focus his bleary gaze.
“Did you shove me under the bed?” His words are overlaid with a light English accent.
“No,” Ciere lies, straight-faced. “Why did I wake up naked?”
Devon rolls his shoulders and sits up. He tilts like a man who has stepped aboard a boat for the first time and is unsure how to keep his feet. “You were blathering on about how your clothes were a metaphor for how restrictive society is, and you needed to be free.” He looks down at his naked chest, and adds, “I tried to do the same, for solidarity’s sake, but I passed out before I could get to my trousers.”
“Well”—Ciere rubs a hand over her eyes—“at least I’m a philosophical drunk.”
She staggers into the bathroom, ready to wash the remnants of last night’s makeup from her face and hair. Pushing the bathroom door open brings a surprise. There is something in the bathtub—something she doesn’t remember from the night before.
She remembers robbing the bank and going to a private messaging service to send most of the money to one of her semi-illegal accounts. It’s standard practice; there’s no way the feds can touch an account in Switzerland, even if they trace it back to her. The downside is that Ciere can’t touch it, either. But it’ll be there if she ever decides to flee the country—in her line of work that is a definite possibility.
She remembers getting on a bus out of Newark and arriving in Manhattan. She remembers the rave—the shots of clear vodka, with drops of red thrown in, held suspended in the liquid like tiny gems. She can recall the burn of the drinks
as they slid down her throat, reveling in the heat and weightlessness. She remembers the flashing lights, the pills she saw passed from hand to hand, the thrum of the music in her bones, and the swell of dancing bodies all around her. The crowd moved in waves, empty cups surfing a tide of hands. People screamed just to make noise—although it couldn’t be heard above the blaring music. The crowd seemed to emanate joy and energy—laced with fear and desperation. She vaguely remembers Devon’s arm around her waist and her hand on his shoulder as they steadied themselves enough to walk up the stairs into the hotel. She hit every button in the elevator because the lights were pretty.
But here’s the thing—she doesn’t remember how a dog got into the bathtub.
Ciere doesn’t own a dog. She’s never even seen this particular dog before. It’s small and white, curled into a ball, and dead asleep in the middle of the bathtub. She reaches down and touches the soft fur. The pup’s nose twitches, and it quivers in that way animals do when dreaming. Thankfully, her illusion reached into the bathroom. She unknowingly hid the dog from view when the cops were searching for her.
“Please tell me we didn’t knock over a pet store,” Ciere says.
Devon fumbles with the coffeemaker, his fingers trembling as they rip open a fresh filter. “I think you found him in an alley.” Devon is an eidos, which means he has perfect
recall. But just like a camera taking pictures with a dirty lens, things get fuzzy when he’s inebriated.
The puppy twitches itself awake and rolls to its feet. Its eyes are big and black, the white fur stained brown around its face. It sees Ciere and begins wagging its tail frantically.
She holds out a hand for the pup to sniff. It knocks its head against her palm, all but begging aloud for a scratch. She obliges, rubbing its ears. The dog leans into her and its eyes droop almost shut. Ciere fights back a surge of warmth and protectiveness—she wants to pick up the puppy and snuggle it to her chest. Maybe feed it some strips of bacon and smooth out the tangles in its white fur. She swallows and tries to shove that reaction aside. Emotions wreak havoc when she’s on the job. She learned that a long time ago. So instead of cuddling the dog, she picks it up and sets it on the bathroom floor. It can fend for itself. It will have to if it wants to survive.
“It needs a bath. You sure it’s male?” she calls to Devon.
He answers, “How the hell should I know? You think the first thing I do when I’m pissed is gawk at a dog’s bollocks?”
The puppy follows Ciere out of the bathroom. She leans up against the dresser while Devon plugs in the coffeemaker. When she tells him about the cops, he looks startled. “Christ. Talk about close calls. I know I’m supposed to be the manly-slash-brave type, but I’ve got a new plan. I say we find a rock to hide under.”
“We’re going to Philadelphia,” Ciere says. “Kit texted me. He has a new job for us.”
Sitting together on the mussed bed, sipping cups of coffee, they watch as the puppy tries to dig a hole in the floor. This is the first time Devon has partnered with her as a fellow crook. The alliance is only temporary—Devon’s summer break ends in August. He’ll be shipped back to some elite prep school where he’ll show up drunk to every class, if he shows at all. As an eidos, he could ace everything. Which is exactly why he flunks out. It’s safer to go unnoticed.