Chapter Eighteen

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It's true. A whole posse of yellow polo shirts bunch together in the hall, pulled together by the corners of whispering mouths, their eyes aiming straight up the hall at me. Katie Masterson's hundred-watt grin is marred by a crimp. Graham's fingers are spread in what might be a plea for restraint. Two previously unseen facilitators—on the beefy side, rumpled and out-of-breath—are doing most of the talking.

Of the bunch, only Jim Davis seems unperturbed. His stare flat and calculating.

They know. These new goons must've been running an errand to the van and stumbled into the demolition-derby scene in the garage.

"I need to, uh ... check with Paul," I tell Prisha. "You go ahead, go get rolling on the code. We'll catch up soon."

I slip away, taking longer strides than usual but keeping my torso still—as though doing so will dupe Elite into thinking I'm not going anywhere. I watch them for a few steps. Their focus stays on me, but they don't pursue.

I spin up the hall. Paul's is the corner office; only half is visible from this hallway. I can see him hunched over his desk talking to ... let's see ... need to go a little farther here ... okay, now I see who he's with. Minosh.

I accelerate, reaching the office. "Need to talk, Paul. I got an idea. Just came to me."

I've stepped directly between him and Minosh. Minosh scoots his chair sideways to see around me.

Paul says, "I'll be with you in a moment. We're nearly finished."

"It's urgent, gotta be now. Minosh doesn't mind, right? Bud?"

I grip his chair's ridged spine and seat and all but eject Minosh toward the door.

"Not appropriate, Deb." Paul gestures Minosh back to his place. "I realize you've been through the ringer today but—"

"It's about Li Wei!" I say, spitting the most impactful word I can think of. "Okay? Minosh, how about it? Five minutes."

Paul drags one thick leg up into his lap, suspicious. Minosh squats a few inches above his chair, not sitting but not leaving either, looking between us like a kid caught between abusive parents. I goggle my eyes at Paul to communicate that I need to talk him, like, now.

"I apologize, Minosh," he says. "Please give us a moment."

Minosh taps loose papers into his notebook, scoots to the hall.

The door claps shut.

"This had better be good." Paul exhales through his nose. "No one employee's time is more important than another's."

I bob my head, contrite, glancing back through the door glass to see what's shaking with the Elite yellow-shirts. They're harder to discern at this distance, twenty or thirty yards, but I think they're still looking my way.

Are they drifting closer?

"Yeah, it's not good," I say. "Actually it's pretty awful."

"How on earth are you in touch with Li Wei? With the blackout, I haven't spoken—"

"It's not about Li Wei, my God are you literal." I grip the scruff of my neck. "It's about Elite—these thugs who've taken us hostage."

I rock up onto my tiptoes, then down, then back up. I don't want to tell him. I don't want to tell anybody—the plan was to keep Cecil's and my ordeal secret until I tracked down some answers about Blackquest 40. But that ship has sailed.

Now I need an ally. I need a smokescreen, or magic rabbit—but first off I need Paul to not go running apoplectic to Kotanchek and Davis, demanding the police be called in. Because I'm not ready for cops. The cops, even if they wanted to dig into this elaborate training ruse of Elite's, wouldn't have the technical chops to even scratch the surface. Mom and I used to deal with SFPD; unlike their movie counterparts, they generally do not pursue conspiracy theories. Dead guy + my blood and fingerprints + irrefutable evidence of forced entry (those alarm codes sent by Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt) = case closed.

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