Outside, traffic had increased. “I think I’ll take the secondary streets.” The clouds were darker and heavier the smell of rain carried by the breeze. “Looks like we’ll be getting some rain.”
On the drive to the river a dark red car with tinted windows kept close. Definitely not a police car, I need to lose them before we get to the river. From the corner of her eye, she saw Nickie glance at the side view mirror.
“How are you doing, Nickie? If you’re still hungry, I have a couple candy bars in my bag.”
“I’m fine; did you know we have a tail?”
“I know.” Ahead the ‘Don’t Walk’ sign flashed and Lennie slowed down. Once the light turned yellow, she sped through. The tail braked at the red light. “I love doing that.”
“That was slick. Wonder who they were.”
“Don’t know and I wasn’t about to let them continue to follow me to find out.” After several turns and doubling back twice, Lennie continued to their destination. “Another ten minutes and we’ll be entering the old district. Make sure your door is locked and the window rolled up,” she cautioned.
Sparks flew and Nickie lit a cigarette. “Lennie, what happened? Why are things like this?”
“Some say it has to do with the close comet fly-by last year, that everyone said was going to hit the earth. Then came the weirdness with the sky and the earth seemed to shudder. Once things settled down, abandoned buildings and ruins appeared overnight. Then came the epidemic, killing many.”
“Did you get sick?”
“It was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. So hard to take each breath. I felt like I was going to burst into flames from the fever. I guess a couple times I stopped breathing, but the doctors managed to bring me back. Brant stayed at my side the entire time. He wasn’t my Keeper anymore, but he said he still feels responsible for me.”
“What about your family?”
Better to get this out of the way now. After all, Brant had extended me the same courtesy. “My family gave up on me after I ran away from the Conversion Center where they sent me. I’m glad they’re shutting those places down. What they should do is burn them to the ground and kill the assholes running them! Sorry, Nickie. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“They tried to cure you too?”
Lennie lit a cigarette. “Yeah. Were you sent to a Center?”
Nickie stared out the windshield. “Coldwater. I ran away four times, and the fifth time I managed to evade capture. That’s when I started living on the streets.”
“I was at Midland. My parents believed sending me outside the city limits would be better for ‘curing’ me; fewer distractions. I could kill my family and not feel guilty. A person can’t help the way they are born.” Lennie tightened her grip on the steering wheel, knuckles whitening.
“It was hard on the streets, but with my looks most of the men weren’t interested in me. I learned to defend myself to stay safe. I think the night was the worst, knowing you’re alone with no one to care about me.” A tear coursed down her cheek as she stared out the windshield. “I sometimes wondered if being dead would have been better.”
“I was lucky. When I escaped from the Center the third and final time, Brant found me huddled under a picnic table. It was raining, and I couldn’t find better shelter. He was walking to work, took one look at me, and waved for me to follow.” Lennie smiled wryly. “At the time I didn’t care where the hell he was taking me, as long as it was dry and maybe had some food.” She signaled and turned left, slowing the vehicle.
“I wish I knew how I ended up in the lower level of The Archive. The last thing I remember, I was heading for my latest spot to sleep. Next thing I know, I’m waking up surrounded by guards with guns pointed at me.” Nickie ran her fingers through her hair. “Lennie, could I get my hair cut? I don’t like how it looks. I only had a small knife to cut my hair.”
“Before we go to the Clinic.” She slowed the vehicle as they approached a barricade with armed guards. “Let me do the talking.” She rolled down her window, stopped the car, and pulled out her ID.
“What business do you have here?” an older man asked. He approached the vehicle; hand resting on his weapon.
She held out her ID. “Archive business. Report of runes in one of the buildings at the docks.”
The guard took the ID, studied it, and turned. “Open the barricade! Archivist wants to look around!” He returned the card. “Be careful down there. We’ve had reports of people disappearing, including two guards.”
“Thanks for the warning. Anything else happening?” Lennie watched the bar rise.
The guard hesitated. “Maybe. Some of the guards on the late shift reported shadowy things in some of the buildings. Whatever they are, they move fast. No one has been able to take a picture of them.”
“Thanks.” She put the car into drive and passed through the barricade.
Nickie shook her head. “People disappearing give me the creeps.”
“I know how you feel, Nickie. But this is part of my job. I wish it wasn’t going to rain. Let me know when we’re getting close to the building.”
“We still have another mile to go before you turn left. It’s the fourth building.”
“Great! We lost them! You followed too close and she spotted us.” Gillian Marks pounded the dashboard. “Mr. Aston won’t be pleased.”
“I followed her the same way I’ve followed other people.” Jay Thomas stopped the car in front of a party store. “I need to get some beer and cigarettes. You want anything?”
“Get me a beer too. I’ll need it before we return to headquarters and report in.” She drummed her fingers.
Jay returned with the beer and pulled out of the parking lot.
Gillian studied the information they managed to gather.
“Do you think Mr. Aston will be satisfied with what we learned?”
“If he’s not, we’re both dead. He doesn’t like excuses or lack of results.” She flipped a page. “Lenara Lenquil, Second-Class Archivist; Brant Grellan is her mentor, former Keeper and her immediate supervisor.” Gillian lit a cigarette. “Lenquil lives in the Bellington Arms Apartment building and drives a crappy Corolla.”
“Did you see the bracelet she wore on her left arm?”
“Yep. She’s a Keeper of Nickie Atlan. According to my source at the Archive, Lenara Lenquil is on the fast track to become an Archivist First-Class real soon. That might work to our advantage since she’ll be her own boss.”
“Make sure you tell Mr. Aston. I don’t want to end up being sacrificed or given to one of those shadow things.”
“Neither do I, my friend.” She drank half her beer. “What I need to know is if Lenquil has had any sort of weapons training or self-defense training.”