27

THREE’S A CROWD

Jamie lifted his hands away from his face and looked at Frankenstein. He had covered himself when the monster finished his story; he didn’t want to let him see his tears.

“So that’s why Alexandru has my mother?” he said, his voice shaking. “Because Dad killed his wife?”

“I don’t know,” said Frankenstein. “It would appear so.”

“Why does it appear so?” said Jamie, anger filling his voice. “It seems pretty clear to me.”

“I’m sure it does,” replied Frankenstein. His calm tone was maddening.

“Why doesn’t it to you then?” he said, fiercely. “What aren’t you telling me?”

The monster sighed. “There are a lot of people who, in light of what happened later, don’t believe your father killed Ilyana at all. Neither Major Turner or I saw her die. We just heard the shot.”

Jamie stared at him. “You think he faked it.”

Frankenstein slammed his fist down on the surface of the table. “I was your father’s closest friend,” he said, his voice like ice. “And I have stood at the side of your family for almost ninety years. And yet you sit there and question where my loyalties lie? I have done things in the protection and service of your ancestors that would make your ears bleed, and you question me?”

“I’ll question whatever I want!” yelled Jamie, standing up from the table and sending his chair clattering to the floor. He put his hands onto the surface and leaned toward Frankenstein. “Do you think Ilyana is still alive? That my father let her go? Tell me!”

The monster slowly unfolded himself out of his chair and rose to his full height. His shadow engulfed Jamie. “Listen to me,” he said. “I would have died for Julian Carpenter. I never doubted or questioned him, until a swarm of vampires brought the Blacklight jet down in a ball of fire on the runway of this base, killing eight good men in the process. It happened a quarter of a mile beyond the outer fence, on the edge of the most strictly classified and highly protected base in the country. A place that doesn’t exist on any map, a place that planes and satellites are not permitted to fly over. A place-”

“A place where hundreds of people work every day,” interrupted Jamie. “Any of them could have told Alexandru where we are.”

“No,” said Frankenstein. “They couldn’t. The civilian staff are flown in and out every day on a plane with no windows, from an airport fifty miles away from here. They have no idea where they are. Only senior operators are allowed to come and go.”

“And there’s how many of them? A hundred? Two hundred? More?”

“About two hundred. And you’re right, any of them could have told Alexandru where Blacklight is. But very few of them could have given him a map of the infrared sensors that fill the woods for ten miles beyond the fence. Only about six people in Department 19 have access to that information. And without that information, there would have been time for the passengers to pull their chutes. But she was so low when they hit her, there was no time for anyone to do anything. She exploded, right out there on the runway. The investigation was still ongoing when your father died, ten days after the crash. He left base the night he died without warning or permission, without telling anyone where he was going. But he was still logged into the network when he left, and a duty officer saw something unusual on his screen. When they investigated, they found an e-mail your father had sent to an unknown address. Attached to it were maps of the infrared sensor array.”

Jamie walked stiffly away from the table and slid down the wall to the floor. He wrapped his arms around his knees and buried his head against them. When he spoke again, his voice was tiny. “Why would he do it? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Frankenstein lowered himself back into his chair. “After he died, the data forensics team dug through every key Julian had ever pressed on a Blacklight computer. Buried way down in his personal folders, behind about a dozen passwords and layers of encryption, they found a letter he had written. In it, he claimed to be righting the wrongs that had been done to your family, the injustice you had suffered at the hands of the other founding families. He believed that they still only thought of him as the descendant of a valet, and they would never see or treat him as an equal. He cited the fact that no Carpenter has ever been director as proof of how your family was perceived, and he said that he was not going to tolerate it any longer.”

“How would bringing down the jet accomplish that?” asked Jamie, without raising his head.

“The Mina’s pilots that day were John and George Harker,” said Frankenstein. “Two descendants of arguably the most famous name in Blacklight history.”

The image of the plaque in the rose garden burst into Jamie’s mind.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh, Dad. What did you do? There was only one thing he didn’t understand: one final straw to cling to. “Why did Alexandru come for us, if Dad was working with him? Why would he want us dead?”

“I don’t know,” Frankenstein said, simply. “Maybe Julian did kill Ilyana and made a deal with Alexandru so that he would spare you and your mother. Maybe Alexandru double-crossed him. Or maybe he did let Ilyana live, and Alexandru double-crossed him for the sheer hell of it. It doesn’t matter now. He’s gone.”

Jamie raised his head and looked at Frankenstein with puffy, teary eyes. “Isn’t there any part of you that still believes in him?” he asked. “That believes he didn’t do it?”

The monster turned his chair toward Jamie, rested his elbows on his knees, and leaned forward. “I believed in him for as long as I could,” he said. “I fought his case for months after he died. I examined every scrap of the evidence against him, reviewed every line of the data forensics report, checked and double-checked every word. I refused to even entertain the idea that Julian could have done such a thing; I threatened to resign a dozen times.”

He looked sadly at Jamie, and took a deep breath. “I never found anything that would exonerate him. We buried John and George, and we waited for Alexandru to make his next move. But it never came. And as time passed, I eventually had to accept what everyone else had come to realize; that Julian had done what they said he had done, and I was just going to have to live with it, no matter how much it hurt my heart to do so.”

Frankenstein sat patiently, watching Jamie. But Jamie wasn’t thinking about his father; he was thinking about his mother and the awful way he had treated her after his dad had died, the terrible things he had said. Hot shame was flooding through him, and he would have given anything to be able to tell her how sorry he was, to tell her he was wrong and ask her to forgive him.

“I was so angry with him for leaving us,” he said, eventually. “My mother always told me I was being unfair. But I wasn’t. He betrayed everyone.”

“Your father was a good man who did an awful thing,” said Frankenstein. “He made a terrible mistake, and he paid for it with his life.”

“And eight other people’s lives,” said Jamie, his voice suddenly fierce. “What did the people on the plane do to deserve what happened to them? Not be nice enough to anyone whose surname was Carpenter? How pathetic is that?”

Frankenstein said nothing.

“I’m ashamed to be his son,” spit Jamie. “No wonder everyone in this place looks at me like they do. I would hate me, too. I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Don’t say that,” said Frankenstein. “He was still your father. He raised you, and he loved you, and you loved him back. I know you did.”

“I don’t care!” Jamie cried. “I don’t care about any of that! I didn’t even know him; the man who raised me wasn’t even real! The man who raised me was a case officer at the Ministry of Defense, who went on golf weekends with his friends and complained about the price of gasoline. He didn’t exist!” He leapt to his feet and kicked his fallen chair across the room. It skidded across the tiled floor and slammed into the wall. “I won’t waste another second thinking about him,” he said, his pale blue eyes fixing on Frankenstein’s. “He’s dead, my mother is still alive, for now at least, and we need to find her. I’m going to talk to Larissa again.”

The monster stiffened in his seat. “What good do you think will come of that?” he said.

“I don’t know. But I think she wants to help me. I can’t explain why.”

Frankenstein stared at the teenager. He was about to reply when the radio on Jamie’s belt crackled into life.

Jamie pulled it from its loop and looked at the screen. “Channel 7,” he said.

“That’s the live operation channel,” said Frankenstein. “No one should be using it.”

Jamie keyed the CONNECT button on the handset, and then almost dropped it as a terrible scream of agony burst from the plastic speaker. Frankenstein stood bolt upright, staring at the radio in the teenager’s hand.

A low voice whispered something inaudible, and then a man’s voice, trembling and shaking, spoke through the radio.

“… Hello? Who i-is this?”

“This is Jamie Carpe-”

There was a tearing noise, horribly wet, and the scream came again, a high-pitched wail of pain and terror.

“Oh God, please!” shrieked the man. “Please, please, don’t! Oh God, please don’t hurt me anymore!”

Jamie looked helplessly at Frankenstein. The monster’s face had turned slate gray, and his misshapen eyes were wide. He was staring at the radio as though it were a direct line to hell.

Something whispered again, and then the voice was back, hitching and rolling as the man who was speaking fought back tears.

“You have to come,” the voice said between enormous sobs of pain. “H-he says you h-have to come to him. He s-says if you d-don’t then you’ll n-never see your m-mother again.”

Rage exploded through Jamie. “Alexandru,” he growled, his voice unrecognizable. “Where are y-”

The man screamed again, so long and loud that the scream descended to a high-pitched croak. Something laughed quietly in the background, as the man spoke two final, gasping words. “Help me.”

Then the line went dead.

Jamie stared at the radio for a long moment, then dropped it on the table, a look of utter revulsion on his face. Frankenstein slowly lowered himself back into his chair and looked at the teenager with wide, horrified eyes.

“How would he have that frequency?” Jamie asked, his voice trembling. “How could he possibly have it?”

“I don’t know,” replied Frankenstein. “It’s changed every forty-eight hours.”

“So someone must have given it to him in the last two days?”

Frankenstein’s eyes widened as the realization of Jamie’s point sank in. He pulled his own radio from his belt, twisted the channel selector switch, then spoke into the receiver.

“Thomas Morris to Level 0, room 24B, immediately,” he said, and then Jamie gasped as the monster’s voice boomed out of the speakers that stood in the high corners of every room in the base.

“You’ll wake the entire Department,” he protested. “What are you doing?”

“Getting some answers,” replied Frankenstein.

Barely a minute later, Thomas Morris pushed open the door to the office and staggered inside. His face was puffy and his eyes were narrow slits, and he was yawning even as he asked them what the emergency was.

“You’re security officer, Tom. So you can search the network access logs, correct?” asked Frankenstein.

Morris rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I can do that,” he replied.

“Good. I need you to search for anyone who has accessed the frequency database in the last forty-eight hours.”

Morris groaned. “This couldn’t have waited until-”

“I need you to do it now, please,” interrupted Frankenstein.

Morris shot the monster a look of mild annoyance, then pulled his portable console from the pouch on his belt. He placed it on the desk, coded in, and ran the search, as Jamie and Frankenstein watched over his shoulder.

Beep.

The three men looked at the words that had appeared on the console’s screen. NO RESULTS FOUND.

“There you go,” said Morris. “No one’s accessed the frequency database in the last forty-eight hours. Can I go back to bed now?”

Frankenstein stared at the screen, then looked at Morris. “Yes,” he said, his voice low. “Sorry to have disturbed you.”

“It’s all right,” said Morris, a weary smile on his face. “Good night, gentlemen.”

“Good night, Tom,” said Jamie.

Morris closed the office door behind him, leaving Jamie and Frankenstein alone again.

“So,” said Jamie, in a tired voice. “I think you’re going to struggle to blame my dad for this, don’t you?”

“Jamie-” Frankenstein began, but the teenager cut him off.

“Not now. I can’t even think about who gave Alexandru the frequency now. We have to find him, and we have to do it before he hurts anyone else. I’m going to get some sleep, and then I’m going down to the cellblock, and we’re going to do whatever she says we should do.”

Jamie walked toward the door and was about to turn the handle when the monster called to him.

“Do you really think you can trust her?”

He turned, and looked at Frankenstein with sadness in his eyes. “As much as I can anyone else around here,” he replied.

Jamie had lied to the monster.

He was tired, that was certainly true, but he wasn’t going straight to the dormitory. Instead he pushed open the door to the infirmary, walked quickly across the white floor and into the room marked THEATER.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said, flopping gracelessly into the chair beside Matt’s bed. The teenage boy was still as pale as a ghost, and the rhythmic beeping of the machines still filled the room.

“I don’t know what to believe, or who to believe, or anything. I feel like I’m completely lost.”

Jamie looked at the peaceful expression on Matt’s face, and found himself envying it. He didn’t know what he was doing in the infirmary, but he had been filled with a powerful compulsion to see the injured teenager. He wondered if it was because this boy was the one person in the Loop who would not tell him something new, who didn’t know who he was or what his father had done, and who he could talk to without worrying how he sounded.

“Frankenstein was my dad’s closest friend, and even he thinks he betrayed the Department. And if he thinks it’s true, then it probably is. But then who gave Alexandru the operational frequency so he could call me on it? It’s been changed a thousand times since Dad died. Larissa knows more than she’s telling me, and the Chemist definitely did, and I’m pretty sure Frankenstein does as well. Why doesn’t anyone want me to know the truth about anything? It’s like no one cares if I find Mom or not.”

His hand went involuntarily to his neck, and he felt the wad of bandages that had been stuck to his skin. “I got hurt today. Not as badly as you, I know, but I got burned. And it made me realize something, you know? It made me realize that this isn’t a game, or a film, where the good guys win in the end and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. It’s real life, and it’s messy, and it’s complicated, and I’m scared, and I just don’t know what to-”

Jamie lowered his head into his hands and wept. The machines beeped steadily, and Matt’s eyes remained closed.

Jamie didn’t think he would be able to sleep when he lay down on his dormitory bed fifteen minutes later, but he was out as soon as his head touched the pillow. His sleep was long and dreamless, and when he awoke, his body feeling rested but his mind racing with the enormity of the task before him, he saw that it was past three in the afternoon.

He showered, dressed quickly, made his way back down to the detention level, and walked quickly down the long block. When he reached her cell, he looked into the square room, and found Larissa standing in her underwear, pulling on her jeans. She was facing away from him, and he hurried back along the corridor, flushing a fiery red.

“I can hear you,” she said conversationally, and he closed his eyes and groaned. “You might as well come out.”

He stepped back in front of her cell and looked at her. She was now fully dressed, standing easily in the middle of her cell, looking at him with her head tilted slightly to the left.

“Your heart’s pounding,” she said. “I can hear it. Is that embarrassment or excitement?”

“Embarrassment,” said Jamie. “Definitely embarrassment.”

“Pity,” she said, and flashed him a wicked smile. He blushed again, his face now feeling as though it must erupt, it was so hot, and then a thought occurred to him.

If she can hear my heartbeat, she must be able to hear my footsteps like an elephant’s. Why didn’t she hurry up and get dressed when she heard me coming down the block?

“Because it’s fun to tease you,” she said, and Jamie took a shocked step backward.

“How did you know-”

“You’re a smart boy,” she said, smiling again.

She floated across the cell and spun elegantly onto her bed. She laced her hands behind her head and looked at him. “Did you talk to the monster?” she asked.

“I did.”

“And?”

“I wish I hadn’t. But I’m glad I did. Does that make sense?” She smiled at him, and Jamie’s heart leapt in his chest.

“I know exactly what you mean,” she said.

Jamie composed himself. “I want to take you up on your offer,” he said. “I don’t have permission to take you off the base, but I’ll do it if you to take me to the person you think can help me.”

Larissa untangled her fingers and pushed herself up on her elbows. “Are you serious?” she asked. “This isn’t you getting back at me?”

“I’m serious.”

“What brought on the change of heart?”

“I’ve got no choice,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. I get why Alexandru wants to hurt me now. I know about what my father did. You were right; it all started with him.”

She looked at him with kindness in her face. “I bet that hurt to say,” she said.

“A little bit, yeah.”

Larissa flipped up off the bed, soared slowly through the air, and landed silently in front of him, a look of excitement on her face.

“Let’s do it,” she said, eagerly.

“You’ll need to wear an explosive belt.”

“Fine.”

“You can’t leave my sight.”

She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Why would I want to?” she purred.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

“You take us to this person who can help, we get the information from them, and then you come back here. Quietly and peacefully.”

“Of course. Let’s go, let’s go.”

Larissa was hopping gently from one foot to the other, such was her excitement at the prospect at being allowed to leave her cell, to stand under the open sky again, to feel the night air in her hair.

“Not just yet,” said Jamie, and smiled at her.

She stopped still and looked at him.

I don’t like that smile, she thought. I don’t like it at all.

“Why?” she asked, cautiously.

“You’re going to tell me something first. And you’re going to tell me the truth.”

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