Chapter 28: Systematic
I dove under a kick aimed at my face and rolled out of the way. Back on my feet, I launched a kick at Ian’s torso. Another laundry wager had come and gone, and fighting Ian was becoming more difficult, but I wasn’t about to let that show.
“Looks like you’ll be doing my laundry again.” My breaths were labored.
A few laughs and “Ooooohhhs” came from the crowd around the room.
Ian responded with nothing more than a smile that said he knew something I didn’t. Was he toying with me? I’d been fighting with all I had. It wasn’t enough. He was controlling the match.
As I worked harder, he seemed to relax into the dance, working less, as if it were second nature to him. Normally, I flowed with the dance, taking the lead, controlling the fight.
I hadn’t even noticed when he’d stolen it from me. He was leading now and I was at his mercy. I needed to change my fighting style to throw him off if I were going to regain control. All he needed was one hit on me to win, and he could’ve gotten that already, but he hadn’t. He really was toying with me.
His fist came at my face, but instead of pulling off of it and attempting a throw, I spun around out of its path and went on the offensive with a hook kick, trying to catch him off guard from behind.
Bad move. He was ready for it, almost as if he’d been waiting for it. Did he know me that well now?
He ducked right into a sweep and took my other leg out from under me.
I dropped onto the mat. Ian was on top of me before I could really process what he’d done. His hands pinned me down, legs straddling my waist. His warm breath caressed my skin. I was speechless for a moment, my senses shaken.
“You didn’t hit me.” It was the only thing I could think to say.
Releasing my left hand, he slowly brought a finger to my forehead. “Does this count?” He tapped my forehead once with his index finger.
“Yeah,” I said, breathlessly.
Ian was on top of me again just like in my quarters, sparking the same vulnerability as before, but something made it even more intense now.
I gazed up into his hazel eyes senselessly. My heart pounded so hard I could hear it in my head. I couldn’t look away from him. Having him take me down was exhilarating. My entire body tingled with anticipation, like electricity.
“Looks like you’re finally ready for another supply run.” Really? That was the best thing I could come up with?
“I believe you’re right,” Joseph said, beaming with pride, half snapping me out of my daze.
I’d forgotten there were others in the room. Their cheers and applause faded into my consciousness. If no one else were there with us, I’d make little effort to control myself. I’m not sure why, but I wanted Ian more than ever.
I sat across from Lena and Reilly, with Jesse and Robert next to me in front of Kat’s Kitchen.
“You and Ian looked pretty cozy on the mat, earlier.” Lena smiled slyly at me.
“That’s the understatement of the century.” Kat’s voice startled me from behind. “They looked like they needed to get a room.”
“Hey!” I pursed my lips and gave Kat a sideways glare.
She smirked and sat salt, pepper, and ketchup on the table, then disappeared back into the restaurant.
I gestured at Lena and Reilly as a diversion. “You two seem cozy, too.”
Lena leaned into Reilly and kissed his cheek. “I’d say so.”
“I don’t know how I managed without her before.” Reilly smiled at her, then kissed her back.
“It’s good to see you two together,” I said. “Nobody dates around here.”
Reilly looked as though he thought the world of her, and Lena seemed to love the attention. Her memory still hadn’t come back. Hopefully, if it ever did, this new Lena would stick around.
The door opened behind me and Ian came out in an apron carrying our food.
“Speak of the devil.” Reilly got a big grin on his face. “Kat was just saying that you and Abby needed to get a room after training class earlier.”
“Why am I not surprised.” He tried to brush it off with nonchalance, but his face still turned a shade of red as he sat our meals on the table.
I put on mock surprise. “We’ve only known each other a few months, and you’re already cooking for me? I could get used to this.”
“Not if you value your life,” Ian said.
Everyone looked down at their plates, probably contemplating whether or not to dump the contents in the garbage as soon as Ian left.
“Kat already has you cooking?” Jesse’s question had a hint of surprise in it. He had an odd look on his face, one I couldn’t quite figure out.
“No, I’m just serving tables, chopping up veggies…nothing I can mess up too badly.” He didn’t sound enthusiastic about it. “I don’t think she trusts me around fire yet, which is fine with me.”
Everyone seemed to relax at that and started eating. Everyone except Jesse.
He left his food at the table and vanished into the restaurant. What was with him today? Maybe seeing me and Ian in training had gotten him upset.
“Excited about finally getting to go out on another supply run?” Robert said with a mouthful of burger.
“Yeah.” Ian pulled at the fringes of his apron mindlessly. “It gets a little stuffy in here after a while.”
“Well, you know how you get paranoid on your first supply run?” Robert said. “You’ve just learned the truth about the world, about Hunters, and you’re never sure if the guy down the street is one or not?”
“It gets worse the second time.” Robert’s lip curled up a little. “A lot worse.” Robert was a nice guy, but he liked to mess with people periodically. Probably because he was stuck in the mines with Euan most of every day. That could drive anyone mad.
Ian frowned. “What do you mean?”
Robert looked at Reilly, and Reilly answered the question instead. “The paranoia just compounds on itself. You’ll think you see Hunters around every corner. And believe me, they are.”
“No they’re not. Stop it.” I reached over the table and slapped Reilly’s shoulder. “Everyone gets used to the supply runs. The paranoia goes away after a while.”
Robert started again. This wasn’t the first time they’d done this to a new citizen. “Everybody tells you, ‘act normal’, but that’s the hardest thing to do when someone tells you to do it. Suddenly, normal becomes alien to you. You seem nervous and out of place, like you’re not part of the world at large. It’s bizarre, at first.”
Ian looked at me. “Is he serious?”
“Don’t listen to him,” I said. “You’ll be fine.”
Ian looked at Jesse’s empty seat. “Where’d Jesse go?”
I shrugged. “Bathroom break?”
“Not unless he’s got granny-bladder. He and I just came from the restroom,” said Reilly.
“Is he okay?” I turned to look back at the door.
Kat came through the door and snapped a hand towel at Ian’s bottom, making him jump. “Back to work you dirty wench!”
Ian rolled his eyes. “Duty calls.”
A while later, I lay on the south beach at the waterfall taking advantage of the sunlight streaming in at the edge of the sand. Fiber-optic cables carried sunlight to the entire city, but there was no substitute for the warmth of direct sunlight. The engraving from the graveyard about Gail of the Abbey was on my mind.
Joseph’s voice startled me. “You haven’t seen Robert pass through here, have you?”
I propped myself on my elbows and looked back at him. “No. Haven’t seen him since lunch. Everything okay?”
“I wish I knew.” He looked concerned. “Euan said he never showed up back in the mine after lunch. He’s not answering his door either.”
I shifted on the sand toward Joseph and adjusted my purple bikini. “That doesn’t sound like Robert.”
“I have some people looking for him. Mind helping?”
I shook my head. “I’ll see what I can do.” I got to my feet, dusted sand off my legs, and grabbed my sandals.
After asking around in the Commons, Gardens, and Library, I figured I’d try his room again.
In front of Robert’s quarters, Artie stood over Euan, who held a tension wrench against the lock while quickly moving a pick back and forth inside. Joseph supervised from behind.
“No one’s seen Robert,” I said.
“Maybe he was the murderer all along.” Euan sounded serious. “Decided it was time to get out of here.”
Joseph folded his arms across his chest. “No, not Robert.”
Euan cursed, pulling the pick from the lock. “Had to make the new locks nearly unpickable, didn’t you, Artie?”
“No need to worry.” Artie wore a confident smile. “I timed the locks exactly for your speed. You’ll have no problem picking it if you’ll go as fast as you can.”
Euan gave Artie a flat stare. “Says the guy not picking the lock.” He glanced at Joseph. “You might wanna send someone to the city entrance to make sure Robert’s not trying to flee or let Hunters in the gate.”
“I’ll do it,” I said.
Joseph nodded. “Alright. Hurry back.”
I headed off toward the town square, but click stopped me in my tracks.
“It’s about time,” Euan said.
When I turned, Euan opened the door and his expression turned dark, angry. “Son of a…”
Joseph shook his head. “No need to check the entrance. We found Robert.”
The looks on their faces told me all I needed to know. We’d just lost another citizen of Winter’s Edge.
Everyone was gathered in the town square as Joseph stood on the East Bridge. Its base filled with people anxiously awaiting the announcement.
“We’ve lost another citizen. Robert Kovach was found dead in his room an hour ago. The door was locked, and his key was on him, just like Braden. The knife that murdered him was from Kat’s Kitchen, and we managed to lift prints from it this time, so we may have some answers soon.” That stirred the crowd a little. “Robert’s the second Watcher we’ve lost. Someone among us is systematically taking down our Watchers—our first line of defense against Hunters. Please be diligent about reporting any unusual behavior or activities.”
The crowd began to talk amongst themselves, speculations flying.
“What does this mean?” Murph said.
Joseph’s gaze fell for a moment. “Well, if I were working for the Hunters, the first thing I’d do if I wanted to get them into the city would be to eliminate the Watchers so we can’t see them coming. Next, I’d figure out how to find the city entrance while on a supply run. Then I’d leave instructions on finding our city entrance at a dead drop. It’s possible that one of us has been turned by the Hunters during a supply run.”
“Someone sold us out?” Kat sounded incredulous.
Joseph shook his head. “We don’t know. It’s possible.”
Lena spoke up. “If our locks won’t keep us safe, what do you expect us to do?”
Artie was next to sound off in his speedy cadence. “I’ll be changing all of the locks on every door in the private uarters tomorrow. They’ll be impossible to pick.”
“The supply run’s been moved up to tonight,” Joseph said. “Kat, Murph, Lena, Jesse, Ian, Artie, and Abby—be ready by 7pm sharp. Let’s go people.” He looked at me. “Help Ian get packed up.”
I nodded, and Ian and I headed to the private quarters.
Joseph was right. Unless we caught this killer quickly, it was only a matter of time before the Hunters made it into the city and wiped us all out.