“It’s not my first time, man.” Interview over, Rook shrugged into his trim black wool coat. “I know what to do if I spot a likely target.” It’d been a few years, but what to look for hadn’t changed.
Innocent, unsuspecting fools.
Yeah, he knew how to find them. And once down the rabbit hole, there was no coming back again. Just a screaming fall into a darkness as infinite and clutching as a nightmare. No waking up, either.
God, why couldn’t he just wake up?
“Only, it’s been a while since you went hunting,” Coll observed, that level gaze assessing, always measuring, but giving away nothing. “Why the sudden change?”
Rook kept his reasons for going to himself; he didn’t owe Coll explanations. Not anymore. What did he know, anyway? Coll had an easy life working behind a desk, occasionally flying out somewhere, and getting himself a swank room from which to monitor at a distance. It was hard not to stare at the wall-to-wall view of the San Diego Bay—and the ocean beyond, vast and calm, restful. Rook wasn’t one to give in to envy, but a little peace would go a long way right now.
“It’s a big step backward from the work you’ve been doing,” Coll pressed.
Rook exchanged his wallet for the one waiting on the tray that Coll had provided—time to become, let’s see, Michael Reese; at least they’d kept his initials—and slid it in the back pocket of his jeans.
Of course, he could’ve explained to Coll that he’d been on the inside too long. That he had to get a taste of the virgin experience again to keep his edge. Any Chimera could relate.
But he was too far gone for easy lies.
Darkness lurked at the edges of his vision, crackling and dense with reproach—not that he could make out anything right now, or ever—but when he turned to confront it, the blind spot shifted, too. It was as if he had a fringe space in the back of his mind, one in which an intruder could hide, its presence hounding him like a constant uncertainty.
Rook had to go out or he’d lose his mind. He had to go out or Coll would have to put him down like a mad dog.
The alternate phone on the tray was a sleek little silver thing, the latest to hit the market, whereas his personal mobile was at least a year behind. Both were unnecessary. He had other ways of keeping current—other, more intimate ways to track his marks.
“You could shave, at least. Make yourself pretty.” Coll’s idea of a joke.
Since he’d decided to back off, Rook offered a dry one of his own. “Girls like me rough. Guys, too, actually.”
“Okay, but what if I show up to the party completely naked?” Jordan Lane hissed ahead to Maisie as they navigated down the dock to the water taxi that would take them out to the Envoi, their destination for the evening.
The naked thing had been a nightmare since childhood, most recently the night before her big sales pitch to get the Medea account. Account secured. Promotion pending. But the fear was alive and well. Thriving.
Maisie cocked her head over her shoulder. “Can you at least try to have fun?”
Fun was not crossing a picket line of vehement protesters for a simple girls’ night out. The rhythmic shouts—“Wake up to the truth!”—were audible this far down the pier. The protesters stayed behind the pylons, but Jordan carried their message with her nevertheless: Danger. And, um, what the hell are you doing?
And then there was the opposing throng, who’d come down to the docks in hopes of buying a ticket secondhand for ten times its value. Holy hell, she could really use that kind of money right now and would easily give up one night of girl bonding to get it.
But this wasn’t any old GNO. First, the girlfriend was her little sis (all grown up), and second, the activity was insane, hence the protesters and their waggling signs. But Maisie-Maze had to try everything, had to leap with all her heart into every new game that came along. Irresponsible was what her teachers and bosses called her. But really it was more like irrepressible. There was no stopping her, no reasoning with enthusiasm—what could a big sis do but go with her and make sure she came home all right?
Not that Jordan had any objection to Rêve in theory. She just didn’t want either of them to be part of the practice.
A gust of bitter coastal wind whipped at Jordan’s hair and clothes, and she wrapped her mini tuxedo jacket across her waist, folding her arms over it to keep the cold air off her skin. Didn’t help much; the bluster still stole up the skirt of her little black dress as she waited with the group on the pier, everybody outfitted for a night out and buzzing with excitement. Ages ranged from Maze’s bouncy twenty-one to—Jordan glanced at a wrinkled and shrunken little woman—what had to be close to a hundred. The age spread aligned with the cross-cutting demographics that characterized the Rêve enthusiasm overtaking the world.
Just ahead, Maze accepted the hand of some guy already inside the boat to help her navigate the big, awkward step into the taxi. He reached for Jordan next, and with equal parts reluctance and gratitude, she took his hand—strong, steady—to make sure she didn’t pitch herself ass-up into the ocean. The heels had been a mistake, too.
Who needed to be dressed up only to go to sleep?
“Thanks,” she breathed to him. No going back now.
Petrol-tinged air replaced the slightly funky smell of the water, with its ocean stew of salt, fish, and subtle rot. Taking the big step, she caught a flash of the guy’s dark eyes, dark hair. Strong jaw with a two-day shadow. Once in the boat, she discovered he was tall and built, too. Damn it.
Maze’s eyes were shining with glee, as if saying, See?
Little sis wanted to hook her up. Very sweet, but not happening. Timothy Oliphant from Justified was just fine for her—even if she did have to watch him through her TV screen.
But this guy?
Okay, Jordan argued silently back at her, but there are cute guys lotsa places. She didn’t need to go to such lengths to get a date.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said, noting her nerves.
Of course he had a good, low voice. Didn’t mean he wasn’t crazy. Rêve attracted all sorts. Cults were forming around it. Biggest thing since the Internet. Global phenomenon. Major paradigm shift. And all that.
The wind gusted again and Jordan shivered violently, but she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to ask questions. She had about a thousand of them. “You’ve done this before, then?”
She’d scoured message boards online for info, but the reactions varied from ecstatic testimonials of transcendent experiences to claims of migraines, sleeplessness, fatigue, and impotence, all basically leading to an inability to return to normal life. Then there were the posts—both academic and hysterical—that warned people not to make gods of themselves. Heh. Too late.
The bottom line? Studies demonstrated conclusively that Rêve itself was safe; whatever side effects did manifest reflected an individual’s psychology. Basically, if a person had issues, maybe they should pass.
At the moment, she had a lot of issues.
“I’ve done it a few times.” The guy glanced between her and her little sister. “Better than drugs. Not as good as sex.”
Hmm. “Anyone ever get hurt?”
“Not that I know of.” Damn if he didn’t seem to settle his interest on her baby sister, his gaze lingering, little wheels of thought turning in his eyes.
Umm…no. He was too…rough for Maze, so he’d just better step back.
Jordan poked his shoulder. Hard. “Did you have side effects?”
He shot her a quick, weird look to the effect of, Would I be back if I did?
“Right.” Jordan ducked her chin out of the wind and headed for Maze, who’d seated herself on the long bench on the far side of the boat. Maze had ironed her hair into a glossy straight sheet that looked like stretched fuchsia taffy. She was a junior at the U, but dressed like a cartoon character from when they’d been kids. She attracted friendly attention everywhere. Here, too.
Jordan joined her on the bench and cut a look back at the man. “Stay away from that one.”
Maze lit up and sang under her breath, “Ooooh?”
No. Jordan wasn’t interested in him, but she couldn’t bring herself to argue with Maze while the swaying of the boat was making her sick. She did manage to reiterate, “If I end up naked in public, I swear I’ll kill you.”
Maze took her hand. “You need this. You need this so bad.”
Her sister referred to the life Jordan spent in the office; what Maze didn’t seem to understand was that her big sis liked her job. Shocking, yes, but true. So this wasn’t about her. It was all Maisie, major still undeclared.
“People have gotten along just fine without Rêve thus far,” Jordan said. “All the way back to the dawn of man.”
Maze’s baby blues opened wide. “Beg to differ, Jor. Theories abound that it is not unique to our time.”
God, baby sis had been drinking the Rêve punch.
“Theories, not facts.” While Jordan had volunteered to go along for the ride, she wasn’t going to get conned into the hype. One of them had to stay grounded.
Her sister smiled and repeated by rote, as she had a thousand times today, “It’s safe. It’s legal.”