Read an Excerpt
EZ THE COAT CHECK GIRL, a.k.a. the Stationmaster, draws her face right up close to the glass window of her little booth and fixes me with a piercing gaze. Her fine features and short blonde hair lend her a certain elfin beauty; it’s hard to believe she’s a mass murderer. Honestly, how does a dream invader even kill people? People have bad dreams all the time. They’re just dreams. I should have asked when Packard assigned me her case.
“Do you get a lot of patients coming to your clinic with, you know, Morgan-Brooksteens parasites colonizing their organs?” she asks.
“Oh, yes.” I run my finger along the semicircular hole at the bottom of the window. The coat check booth is situated along a kind of balcony overlooking the glamorous piano bar below. They call this place the Sapphire Sunset. Soft music and voices rise up through the air, punctuated by occasional hoots of laughter.
“What happens to them?”
“Well, once a person’s organs are colonized …” I shake my head.
“But I thought there were promising new medications on the horizon!”
“ ‘Promising’ may be overstating it. Just between us, we don’t want people scared if they have symptoms.”
Ez stiffens. “People should be scared if they have symptoms?”
“No, I said we don’t want them to be scared.”
“Which implies they should be scared!” The conversation winds on like this for a while. It’s easy to frighten a hypochondriac once you understand that it’s just an adult version of monsters in the closet.
I study the booth as she describes her symptoms. Stationmaster Ez is separated from the world by two panes of glass; tokens are passed back and forth along a metal gully under the semicircular holes. To the left is a coat carousel, like a revolving door for coats. Patrons hang them on hooks and Ez spins the coats to her side. She slides a token across the gully for each coat, and then she hangs it up and rollers off lint. You’d never know it’s been her prison for three years. The curtain behind her probably hides where she sleeps and bathes.
Cut off even from touch! Otto only reserves this level of security for his most dangerous offenders; usually when he makes a force-field prison, non-prisoners can pass in and out. That’s how it was when he had Packard imprisoned in the Mongolian Delites restaurant.
A new tune noodles up from below. “Muskrat Love.”
Ez lowers her voice. “Whenever he plays that, I want to shove an ice pick in my ear.”
“I bet.” I’d like nothing better than to discuss the insanity of that song, but I can’t let her get off subject. “Look, I could take your pulse and examine your skin tonus,” I say. “That would provide certain indicators.”
She points to the window. “Antiburglar force field.”
I nod. So that’s how she explains it. Probably only the owner knows she lives here. Her eyes grow huge as I pass my hand through. I have to be touching a target to zing her.
“How’d you do that?”
I’m ready with my story: as a nurse, I have a descrambler that unknits fields just enough for me to pass through.
“I never heard of that!”
“What if you were having a heart attack? How would I treat you?” I don’t tell her the device is the chain bracelet I’m wearing; she might try to rip it right off. “Come on, let’s see.”
Cautiously she places her hand in mine and I pull it toward me, back across the gully, and pretend to inspect her skin as I stoke up the fear I’m going to zing her with. The abnormally large amount of fear I’m able to generate is the reason Packard drafted me into his psychological hit squad, and the reason he could teach me to dump it into other people just by touching them. Later, others from my squad will do the same thing to her, with different emotions. We’re like a demolition team of neurotics.
I focus on one of my triggers: the plastic hospital tray where you put your jewelry before an operation. I feel the panic thicken my throat, speed my pulse. The room goes bright.
I hate this job more every day.
“Can I get one of those? A descrambler?”
“Medical professionals only. Let’s see the other one.”
She extends her other hand toward mine. It occurs to me that this is probably the first time somebody has touched her in years. I feel like such a fiend.
“Can I just see the descrambler?” she asks. “I’d really like to just see it.”
“Sorry, I’m not supposed to show it around.” I concentrate on ripping the hole between our energy dimensions in the area beyond my fingers. The hole acts as a kind of siphon tube, allowing my dark, roiling emotions to rush out of me and into her. Out they flow, faster and faster. I try to maintain my composure, standing there inspecting her hand, but I feel this incredible levity as the heavy fear leaves my body, my mind, my entire being.
When it’s all gone, there’s only the sensation of wind inside my fingers, and exquisite calm. My shoulders drop. Everything’s new.
Ez’s face has gone ashen. “You see something! I know it. Shit!”
They never suspect my touch; they always think the fear is from the conversations. Which is exactly why we have the conversations.
“I have it, don’t I? The parasites are in me! They’ve colonized my body!”
Before I can answer, fingers dig into my shoulders and I’m jerked backward. My hand separates from hers, which is forced back inside the field.
I spin around. “Packard!”
He grabs my elbow and pulls me across the catwalk and down the wide, carpeted stairs, down into the sea of people.
“What are you doing?” I ask, nearly tripping down the last few steps.
He drags me into a corner below the coat check catwalk, where Ez can’t see us. This sort of rough treatment would make me a lot angrier if I hadn’t just zinged out all my negative emotions. All the same, I shake him off, and I do my best to fix him with a good glare. “Don’t ever do that again,” I say.
His green eyes burn into mine. “Or what?”
I have nothing to say to that, unfortunately.
“You zinged her!” he says. “I told you to wait for me.”
“You were an hour late,” I say.
“What have you done?” Packard’s handsomeness doesn’t come from being pretty and finely sculpted; he has a more brutal handsomeness, with big rough-hewn features that look as if they were carved with caveman tools. Tonight, his shortish cinnamon curls are a bit wilder than usual. He glares at his hands, then at me.
I should probably be more concerned at this point, but after you zing out all your fear and darkness, life seems pretty great. Glory hour, we call it. Most people think happiness is about gaining something, but it’s not. It’s all about getting rid of the darkness you accumulate.
It’s here I notice spots of blood on his white shirtfront and cuffs. His fine black jacket is darker in spots, too. “Oh my God, what happened, Packard? Are you okay?”
“How long did you touch her?”
“Just enough to zing her.”
“How did you get through?”
“Otto made me a descrambler.” I hold up my arm with the bracelet. “What’s going on?”
“I’m the one to hand out the descramblers if and when people need them.”
“Well, Otto gave me one.”
“She’s a dream invader.”
“I know,” I say.
Packard frowns. His roguish allure appealed to me at one time, but that was before I realized he’d tricked me into being his minion for life.
I cross my arms and look away, struggling to maintain my usual grudge against him. Everything and everyone is way too enchanting during glory hour. And if a person was alluring to you before glory hour, their allure increases a millionfold. Hell, even breathing is a wonderful, sensual experience during glory hour.
He says, “Once she touches you, she has you.”
“How was I supposed to zing her without touching her?”
Packard pulls a pair of long silver gloves from his pocket.
I take them. No wonder he wanted me to wear my silver dress. “They’re lovely.” I run a palm along the smooth cool silk. Everything is so wonderful during glory hour!
I look up to find him staring at me strangely. Packard is the most intense person I know. Even when he’s just stirring his coffee or adding up columns of numbers, he has this intensity to him. Like white-hot lava churns inside him, 24/7.
“Let me put this in a way that even your glorying mind can understand. I touched you while you were touching an extremely dangerous dream invader. She’s probably linked to us both now.”
“Packard, why do you have blood on you?”
He stares at my shiny shoes. I grab his sleeve. “Packard. The blood. What happened?”
Silence. Then, in a whisper: “Rickie and Francis were shot.”
“No! Are they …”
“They’re both alive. Rickie needs a lot of surgery. Francis was just hit in the shoulder.”
“Shit!” Now I’m focused. Rickie’s a telekinetic Packard took under his wing; Francis is a regular human and Packard’s right-hand man.
“Three figures. Hooded gray sweatshirts,” he adds.
He nods gravely. The trio of serial killers known as the Dorks has been terrorizing Midcity for two weeks. Five shootings and eight dead. Regular people think it’s random. It’s not.