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The Wild Road
By Marjorie M. Liu
Copyright © 2008 Marjorie M. Liu
All right reserved.
Chapter One The woman smelled smoke in her dreams.
She smelled it still, when she opened her eyes. A bad way to wake. She lay motionless, stunned and disoriented, lost in a dark room, stretched on a bed. Shouts filled her ears, footsteps pounding. Sirens wailed. The woman flexed her hands and gripped rumpled covers. She wiggled her toes. Her feet were bare, though she wore other clothing.
Her head hurt. So did her heart, like she had been crying. Or maybe that was her lungs. Smoke was in the air, faintly illuminated by some ambient light far on her left. Her eyes stung. Her mind tried to catch up with what she was breathing and seeing.
"Shit," she muttered hoarsely, and the sound of her voice-rough, awful, hardly discernable beneath the cascading sirens-felt like a baseball bat against her back. One good swing. Move it or lose it. Live or die.
The woman scrambled off the bed, landing hard on the floor, keeping below the thickening smoke. The carpet felt odd. Wet and sticky. She could not immediately see why, but when she moved a fraction to the left, her hand hit something solid and warm. She ignored it and started crawling until she bumped into another, similar obstacle. Only this time, something inside her screamed, choking on more than smoke. She reached out blindly, jaw clenched.
Her hand landed on a face. Rough with stubble, a sticky nose, broad forehead. The woman froze,horrified-then shoved the man, hard.
"Hello," she whispered.
He did not move. She fumbled for his neck, searching for a pulse. Instead of finding a heartbeat, her fingers dipped into a wet ragged hole.
The woman gasped, scrabbling backward. Terrified. She tried to remember what had happened. She tried to remember how she had gotten here.
Nothing. She had no idea where she was. Not one clue. No memory of where she had been before this room.
No time, whispered a small voice inside her head. Go. Get out of here.
But she did not. Coughing, eyes burning, she spun around on her knees, fumbling her way back up the length of the bed. She found a nightstand and grappled for a light. Switched it on. Wished immediately she had not.
At first it was like being blind. Blinded by tears and light, startling splashes of color. Bodies. Three men in dark clothing, sprawled dead. The carpet beneath them-beneath her-saturated dark with blood. Her mind could not adjust, could only soak up in numb horror a sight that could not be real.
The woman slapped a hand over her mouth, trying not to scream. A sharp metallic scent instantly invaded her nose. Her fingers were wet. She remembered touching the man and recoiled from herself, choking, staring down at her hands. Her palms were covered in blood.
The knees of her jeans were soaked with it, too, the denim hot and wet against her skin. Something was pinned to her blood- spattered jacket. A piece of paper. The woman touched it, hand shaking, leaving red fingerprints. She stared at the word written in big black letters.
RUN, she read.
The woman felt faint, and she shut her eyes, breathing deep-which made her choke immediately. Smoke curled along the entire ceiling now, wafting down, thick and heavy. She looked once again at the bodies, those faces: three men in their thirties, big and strong, dark hair cut short against their scalps. One of them, she saw, held a gun in his hand.
The light by her head flickered out for a brief moment. The woman looked around, quick. She was in a hotel room. The door was behind her. The light flickered again and she hoisted herself onto the bed, scrabbling over it toward the exit. She saw nothing worth taking-no purse, no personal items of any kind. No shoes.
The lights went out just as the woman reached the door. She heard screams outside in the hall and pressed the back of her hand against the wood and the metal knob. Both were cool. She opened the door and crawled out of the room. It was pitch dark in the hall, but she heard and felt people running, saw a flashlight beam bouncing far on her right and took off after it. She kept low, pulling the collar of her T-shirt over her nose and mouth. She smelled blood. Tried not to think of the dead men in the room behind her. Or why she could not remember how she had gotten there.
Keep it simple, she thought, heart pounding. Get out, then freak.
The woman got jostled, slammed by running bodies, her ears ringing with sirens and screams and hacking coughs, but she kept going, fast, nearly blind, keeping one hand on the wall to guide her. No emergency lights, nothing to see by. The flashlight was gone. Glass shattered inside a room she passed. Ahead, the timbre of voices changed, became echoey, hollow and bouncy. Cool air brushed against her face. The exit.
She fumbled ahead, found a door swinging shut and forced her way into a metal and concrete stairwell that was relatively smoke free and blissfully cold. She almost fell down the stairs-her knees ready to buckle out from under her-but she saw more flashlights winking up through the darkness, accompanied by shouts. She felt her way down, bumped and pushed by other people trying to evacuate the building. Her hand kept grazing her jacket where the note was pinned. She ripped the thing off and stuffed it into her pocket.
The woman did not think she would ever forget the expression of the first firefighter who shone a beam into her face. He was a young kid, hauling gear up the stairs, oxygen mask hanging around his neck and a brilliant light blazing from his helmet. His eyes widened. He reached for her and she evaded him by moving deeper into the throng of other evacuees, afraid on a gut level of the questions he would ask, moving by instinct.
A small army of uniformed men and women waited for the evacuees at the bottom of the stairwell. Cold air rushed over her face, and an oxygen mask was held up. She used it. Hands touched her shoulders, guiding her away from the building. She looked back once, and saw that it was a fancy piece of architecture, tall and made of steel and glass and stone. Fire and smoke poured from one of the upper floors. Her floor, she suspected. She started to rub her eyes, and remembered her bloody hands, drying now, but still sticky. The woman wanted to vomit.
"Sit down," said a low male voice. She tried to resist, but the guiding hand tightened around her arm, and she did not want to make a scene. She pretended obedience, sat at the back of an ambulance, her coughs easing as she breathed deep from the oxygen mask. So many lights and people. Hard to look at all of them. All she wanted to do was run.
An older man in a blue jacket and pants peered down at her face, then at the rest of her body. "Ma'am, you're covered in blood. Are you injured?"
The woman said nothing and stared past his shoulder, affecting a glassy stare. A small part of her wanted to break loose, start screaming-about the men, the blood-but again, her instincts prevailed.
Subterfuge, whispered a voice. Illusion.
And, Get away. Run like hell.
The man frowned, but behind him a shout went up and he turned briefly, walking only a few steps away. The woman did not hesitate, hardly felt as though she owned her body. She slipped off the back of the ambulance and strode quickly around the vehicle.
It was easy to get lost in the crowd. So many emergency vehicles and workers, curious onlookers. The woman was almost stopped by a concerned police officer, but she croaked, "Water," and when he turned to look for some, she slid behind a fire truck and found herself beside a dim long stretch of alley.
The woman was barefoot, the concrete wet and slick. She got lucky. Nothing cut her feet as she ran through the shadows, away from the chaos of lights and uniforms, all of which felt as threatening as the fire and the terrible room she had left behind, the contents of which still covered her body. More or less.
She did not go far. The base of her skull began to throb again. Her side hurt. She stepped deeper into shadows, coughing, fighting for breath. Knees weak. She bent over, trying to control the aching fear in her chest, struggling not to be sick. She could still see those men. There was no escaping the scent of blood. Not when the front of her jeans was still damp and her hands sticky. She felt something heavy against her back and tentatively reached under her jacket ... touching leather, then cold hard steel.
The woman slowly drew the weapon. The weight felt good in her hand. She forced herself to look down, taking in the long, sleek form.
Semiautomatic rimfire pistol with suppressor, rattled the voice in her mind. Ruger, .22 caliber.
Before she could stop herself, she checked the clip. Found it empty, no more ammunition. Her hands moved without pause, without thought.
She almost dropped the gun, but her fingers tightened and she slid the weapon back into the waist of her jeans. Shaken. Dazed. Three armed men, shot to death ... and she, at the scene, covered in blood. Carrying a gun.
A gun she did not remember. A gun her hands knew how to use, even if her conscious mind did not.
No, thought the woman, even as she realized something else in that moment, something far more horrifying. She did not remember anything of her life before opening her eyes in the hotel room. The thought cascaded into other realizations, equally terrifying:
The woman did not know her name.
She did not remember herself.
She had no memories.
It took a moment to digest this, a long moment. She did not want to believe. Here she was, walking around, alert, proactive. Not entirely insane. She had to remember something. Anything. She patted down her pockets for ID, a card, some hint. She found nothing.
The woman closed her eyes, battling herself-but it was like being caught on the other side of a dark wall. There, but not. She could almost taste some shadow of knowledge just out of reach, maddeningly beyond her, and she pressed grimy knuckles to her forehead, digging in until her brow hurt. Sirens filled the background, the hiss of tires on the road, the distant groans of some drunk.
She did not even know what she looked like. Just that she was covered in blood. A gun with a silencer was tucked into the back of her jeans. She was barefoot, nothing in her pockets except a crumpled note that said to run.
Bad clues. No clues.
I might be a killer, she thought, frightened; and then, I need to get the hell out of here.
And the woman, discovering that she was an efficient individual, set about doing just that.
Excerpted from The Wild Road by Marjorie M. Liu Copyright © 2008by Marjorie M. Liu.Excerpted by permission.
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