Partners in Crime
Section 2: A year later
I caught Kenz’s eye from across the book shop. Her face was set in determination, her hands inside the pockets of her long coat clenched into fists. There were faint lines around her eyes and a tiny knot between her eyebrows. I let the corners of my mouth twitch upward in the faintest of smiles as I nodded. I hoped it was reassuring. She inhaled deeply and then slowly blew out the breath as she disappeared around the corner of the shelf.
Several teens were in The Second Story, an old used book store, their hands filled with volumes of officially approved poetry, romances and travel books. Bland reading. Bland lives. Lives from which adventure had been banned. The kids wandered through the store in pairs or small groups, occasionally stopping to whisper to each other, then moving apart. They ignored me.
I circulated around the store until I reached the dead zone, a spot in the store that was out of range of any of the security cameras. Today’s dead zone was large. A camera was out of order, a common situation with the rapid breakdown of the computer network in the city. And with a little help from the Shadow Web. As usual, word had spread among the young like magic. The sidewalks outside the shop were busy with teens going in and out of the other shops or simply loitering in the shade. They were more organized than they looked. Every once in a while, someone would exit the shop with books, then more would enter. Enough stayed inside to make tracking any one a difficult proposition.
The task Kenz and I had today was to supply what the teens were seeking: volumes of forbidden books. I had already placed nearly a dozen on the shelves in the dead zone and had six more secreted in pockets sewn into the lining of my own duster jacket. I strolled past the safe shelves slowly, running my fingers casually over the spines of the dusty books. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kenz approach from the opposite direction. She ignored me. In a practiced move, she paused, removed a book from the shelf and simultaneously slipped a volume from her pocket. As she perused the blurb on the back of the book she chose, she placed the second book underneath it. A moment later she returned both books to the shelf and moved a few feet away to repeat the process. My heart swelled. She was even better at this than I am.
The illicit books did not bear their normal covers. Instead, one task of the Shadow Web, a task Kenz had happily taken on, was to replace the covers of banned books with ones that would not attract attention. We then sneaked the doctored volumes into stores and into the hands of the youth. It was a worthy project.
I was around the corner on the next aisle when she approached and bumped my shoulder with hers. “Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” she murmured, “I should watch where I am going.”
“Quite all right, ma’am, no harm done,” I replied as I stepped aside with a smile and a tip of my hat. That was our signal. Time to leave this shop. We could risk planting no more books here today. I had to fight down a smile as I saw a young man who looked to be about sixteen turn onto the aisle where we had left an assortment of books written by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and other writers from the Golden Age of science fiction. Kenz’s personal favorites were Ray Bradbury’s books.
Kenz parked the car while I checked the security system again and then stood beside the door to watch the orange glow of the sun fade into the mountains, painting them purple. I felt her beside me and reached out for her hand. “Kenz, do you still think about that day?” I asked, remembering the time almost a year before when Kenz became a member of the Shadow Web. How little we anticipated the changes that could come to us both.
Kenz squeezed my hand warmly. “Yes, Will. Every day.” She took my shoulders and turned me to face her. “I still get the shakes when I think about how close we came to dying.” She kissed me hard. Kenz had used my real name, Will Grady instead of John Smith like I used for the rest of the world.
I returned the kiss and pulled her into a tight embrace, her curly brown hair tickling my nose. “I’m sure glad Kristen arrived when she did.” I pushed back a couple of inches so I could look into her light brown eyes, “You never had any idea that Kristen was Enforcement Division? I didn’t know she was Shadow Web, but that isn’t strange. Few of us know each other.”
Kenz shook her head and nipped playfully at my nose, “Nope. I suspected there was more to her than I knew, but ED? No.”
We entered the house and I reset the alarms. Kenz headed for the bedroom while I went to the kitchen and opened a chilled bottle of wine. She emerged a few minutes later clutching shut a fluffy white robe that drug the floor around her feet with one hand while rubbing her wet hair with a blue towel. I handed her two long stemmed glasses and she released her grip on the front of the robe. I whistled appreciatively as it fell open and kissed her forehead. “My turn in the san, don’t go away,” I whispered.
Kenz set the wine glasses on a table next to the couch and sprawled, one knee bent provocatively, the gaped robe revealing her form beautifully. “You had better hurry. I am totally keyed up from the afternoon and you are going to make me relax.” She winked. “If you take too long, I’ll start without you. Scoot.”
Our loving was long and slow, the closeness of our souls a balm for the intensity of the nervous afternoon. Kenz lay dozing in my arms, her head nestled in the hollow of my neck. She inhaled long and slowly as she eased down into deeper sleep, her breath scalding my chest. My eyes misted. Happily alone for so long, I had not been looking for a relationship. She hadn’t been either. It just happened. I was her sponsor in the Shadow Web, responsible for her training and safety, so we naturally spent a lot of time together. I couldn’t remember the exact day when I first kissed her, but it had felt right. It still felt right.
Hours later, Kenz nudged my ribs with her elbow, “Will, message,” she murmured, her voice thick with sleep. I groaned. The signal came again, a soft ding, barely audible in the darkness. I rose up on one elbow and saw a blue light blinking on the computer screen that meant a message from someone in the Shadow Web. It could not be good news, not at this time of night.
“Smith, we have a problem,” Jones began without preamble. His dark face bore deep concern in place of his normal smile. I raised an eyebrow. It must be something serious to take the good humor off his visage.
“Good morning to you, too, Jones. I hope I didn’t wake you from pleasant dreams of your new bride…oh wait, that’s what happened to me,” I intoned.
Jones didn’t crack a smile. This must be bad. He froze me with a baleful stare, “Kids are disappearing. From book stores.”
I heard a gasp behind me and Kenz laid a warm hand on my shoulder. “What stores?” she asked, bending down so the camera would show Jones her sleepy face.
“The latest one was The Second Story. Three teens went in this evening and never came out.”
I growled, “That’s where we worked this afternoon. It has to be connected.”
Kenz squeezed herself onto the stool beside me, one arm warm around my waist. I could feel her tremble. Was it fear or anger? Probably anger. Her voice confirmed it. “The bastards. The utter bastards,” she growled. “We have to go after them. We have to get those kids back. It’s our fault they were in there, we have to help them.”
My stomach fell. This would be dangerous. I punched off the screen and Jones’ face disappeared. I didn’t even want him to know what we were going to do. I turned and looked into Kenz’s eyes, “Are you sure you want to do this? You know what we are going up against.”
The look on her face told me all I needed to know. She was pale, but her jaw was set. I held her close and whispered, “We’re going to need a plan.”