“What is wrong with you people?” The boy was shrieking hysterically when the world faded into focus again. “You knock people out and stuff them in cello cases to carry them across the city on public transportation? What kind of psychopath does that?”
“A genius psychopath. Plus, they were extra-large double bass cases. We’re not inhumane.” The woman from the alley drawled on. “There’s no way you’d fit in a cello case.”
“I should report you to the Council!”
“Go ahead and report yourself while you’re at it.” Blazes, my head hurt. Why were these people yelling so loud? “Oh good, she’s awake. Now the fun can begin.” The woman had taken off her mask, and now that I got a good look at her, I saw she was shorter than me and probably not much older. She had harsh brown eyes and obviously dyed platinum blonde hair that was tawny brown at the roots. Her pursed lips were painted an obnoxious hot pink, and her eyes were lined in professional-looking makeup.
“Where’s Cade? I didn’t go through all this just to take a nap in a smelly room that hasn’t been cleaned in twenty years.” It was a cramped space, with wallpaper peeling off the walls and mold in the corners. Two large black instrument cases took up most of the small room, and the girl had settled back into a metal chair by the door. My strange new friend and I were curled up against the wall on opposite sides of the room.
He was glaring daggers in my direction, and I felt a slight twinge of guilt before remembering he practically begged to tag along. I gave him a shrug and mouthed, “Told you it wasn’t your type of meeting.” He kept scowling.
“Mr. Burnan is in a meeting right now. I’ve informed him he has a visitor, and he’ll come as soon as he’s ready.”
“Tell him it’s urgent. Trust me, he’s going to want to see me.”
Her mouth was a set line. “He will see you as soon as he’s ready. He’s a very busy man.”
I spent the next twenty minutes giving the mean girl the death stare.
When footsteps filled the silence, she leapt to her feet and swung open the door. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was getting uncomfortable at the staring.
“Dad.” Her tone was as harsh and professional as ever, but with a deference in it now I hadn’t heard before.
The man who walked inside was talking very quickly into a cell phone, and held a finger up to the girl, silencing her. His eyes roamed the room as he talked, passing over me and the boy before snapping back to me. Whatever Cade had been saying fizzled to a stop as his mouth gaped open and his phone clattered to ground. He looked older, but I was getting used to that. It was still weird. He was only nineteen when I knew him, now he was… forty-one?
“Tari. Get out.” His voice was tired and rough, but the same cadence I remembered. The girl disappeared through the open entryway behind him. Still watching me, he gestured at the boy. “You too. Follow her.”
The door slammed shut behind them, leaving Cade and I alone in the room. He kept staring, and I smiled at him.
“Hey, Cade. How’ve you been?”
He blinked several times and shook his head, like trying to clear it of a bad dream.
He met my gaze again with fiery eyes and a set jaw.
“Who put you up to this?”
“Who hired you to dress up as her? Did you drug me? Am I dreaming?” His voice shook and my smile faltered. Cade, always the realist, couldn’t see what was right in front of him.
“It’s really me, Cade. It’s Ara.” He didn’t believe me, but I could tell he couldn’t find any other viable options. “I wish I could explain it, but I didn’t die. Elliot gave me some kind of weird drug that saved my life.”
“It’s really you?” The hope in his voice broke my heart. I’d never heard his voice like that before. Before I could answer, he had crossed the room in two strides and wrapped me up in a bone-crunching hug.
“I missed you too,” I squeaked out.
When he pulled away, there were tears on his face.
“You’re real. You’re really here. You- I thought you were dead.” He looked at me with his piercing, evaluating gaze that used to give me butterflies but now just made me sad. “Tell me everything.”
One hour later, Cade was just as confused as I was and just as adamant that we needed to figure this out.
“So who is your friend you brought with you?”
“Who? Oh, him. Yeah, Aspen sicced him on me and I’ve been trying to ditch him since.” Cade let out a chuckle.
“And he managed to keep up with you? Either he’s some kind of professional or you have really lost your knack for escape.”
I gestured at my leg and sighed dramatically. “My knack?” Cade only laughed harder at my misery.
“What about you, old man?”
“What about me?”
“You know what I mean. What are you doing with your life?”
“Well, I founded this fine establishment. Dedicated in your name.”
“Yes, I heard.”
“And… I have a daughter.”
I blinked. I’d completely forgotten that obnoxious girl who’d called him Dad. “That’s very… domestic of you.”
“Yeah, I didn’t mean for it to happen, but it did. She’s Vera’s daughter.” I blinked in surprise.
“You and Vera-“
“Yeah. 18 years ago. Vera didn’t want her, so when she left, I raised Tari. I think I did an ok job.”
I smiled at him more sincerely than ever. “I’m sure you did amazing.”
Cade must have been a horrible father. Five minutes into a conversation about the phone with Tari, I was just about ready to snap her head off. I was trying to be open minded, for Cade’s sake, but it was proving to be a struggle. This girl was demon spawn.
“So, Terry, huh? That’s an interesting name.”
“It’s Tari. T-A-R-I. Short for Sitara. S-I-T-“
“Your name is short for Sitara?”
“It’s not that rare.”
Uh, yeah it was. I’d never met anyone else with my same name here in Justix, but my father told me it was a fairly common name in Faren.
“Seems like every other teen girl in Justix is named after that weird dead angel lady. Come on, just let me take it. I have a very techy friend who can take it apart and-“
“I said, no.” My teeth were gritted so hard I was in serious danger of breaking something
“Look, you obviously don’t know what you’re doing. We’ll just take a look at it-“
“Hey, Tari! Who’s this?” A boy strolled through the doorway with his hands in his jean pockets. His black curls bounced slightly as he approached, and Tari smiled for the first time since I’d met her. The instant change in her demeanor was alarming.
“Julian! Thank god! Get over here.” The guy, who looked to be about my age, laughed at her enthusiasm and winked at me. I stared back.
Tari dragged him over by the arm and jabbed a finger dangerously close to his eye.
“This is the tech whiz I told you about! He’s a complete genius with phones-“
“Geez Tari, I fix your phone one time and all the sudden I’m customer service employee of the month?” Tari ignored the obvious sarcasm and grinned at me only slightly maliciously.
I met his gleaming emerald eyes and leaned my crutch against a wall to hold out a hand. “Ara. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Julian. Charmed.” He glanced at the phone grasped precariously between my fingers and the hold on my crutch. “Mind if I take a look?” I nodded and passed him the phone and Tari gasped in indignation.
“So you argue with me about it for like 20 minutes but the instant a cute guy comes along, you hand it right over?”
I glared at her and Julian smirked.
“You think I’m cute?” Neither of us paid him any attention.
“It’s because he blazing asked nicely, moron.”
Cade walked up and beamed at Tari. She snapped to attention comically like a soldier.
He nodded. “How are you settling in, Ara?”
“Wonderful place you’ve got here.” I glanced around. We were in a small unfinished house by the slums that Cade boasted he’d gotten “cheaper than dirt.” I doubted it had been very cheap at all, but the combined efforts of the milling groups of fed up people definitely helped things. “This is much fancier than how we did it back in the day.”
I got some weird looks at that comment and I coughed awkwardly into my sleeve. Cade, the lifesaver, jumped in.
“Is Julian working on that phone-bomb thing?”
Julian’s head snapped up. “Bomb?”
I laughed. “It already blew up, don’t worry. It won’t explode again.”
“Probably,” Tari added. Julian didn’t look particularly reassured.
I left them to themselves and gestured for Cade to join me outside. “Where are all these people from?” I waved an arm in the general direction of Julian and the few others he came and went between the ground floor and the basement room.
“These are all the people who have decided that the Council needs to go.”
“Don’t they need to work? How do you feed them? Where do they sleep?”
“They don’t stay here. We have lots of people who pass through when they can, and whatever we steal from the Council we split up.”
“Back up. You steal from the Council?”
“Yup. Welcome to our rebellion.” Cade gazed proudly at his little headquarters. “Plus, we have some orphans who stay here from time to time.”
His smile was infectious. “You feed orphans and give them a place to sleep.” I laughed. “Have I ever told you how much I like you?”
He flashed a shadow of his old flirtatious grin. “You mean after all this time, you still can’t find room in that tiny heart of yours to love little old me?”
“You know me.”
He sighed melodramatically. “Yes, yes I do.”
We stood together in a cramped silence until Julian followed us out with the phone in one hand and Tari half-dragging him by the other.
“Well?” Cade’s voice was clipped and unfamiliar to my ears, but Julain met it with a grin.
“Well, we’ve got a lead.”
The only sign of Cade’s surprise was a slight blink. “Already?” He coughed and glanced at me. “What kind of lead?”
“So here’s the weird thing- this smartphone (which is completely unique, I’ve never seen anything like it, but that’s a tangent for another day) isn’t connected to cellular data. It doesn’t have it’s own number, email address, anything, but it somehow received a message from an unknown number last night. And another thing- that number is disconnected. I tried calling it. Nada.”
“So a phone without a number got a text from a number without a phone?” Cade made it sound much simpler like that, but I was still very confused.
“So?” Cade looked expectant, arms crossed over his chest.
Tari punched Julian in the arm. “Tell them what the message said, you dimwit.”
“Oh, right.” He smiled apologetically. “Find the Justix Angel. Or else.”
“Or else what?” Cade demanded.
Julian shrugged. “No clue. That’s just what the message said.”
Cade huffed. “So this helps us how?”
“Hey, cut me some slack. I’m not completely useless. There’s GPS directions connected with the sender.”
“So we can track the person who sent the phone?”
“In theory, yes. But the problem is-”
“It requires facial recognition to unlock the GPS.” Everyone swiveled to face the stranger standing in the doorway. My stranger.
“Who are you?” Julian asked. I was just the smallest bit curious to hear the answer.
He extended a hand. “Aaron Kent. Pleasure to meet you.” Now at least I knew his name and could stop dodging around it. But that wasn’t what bothered me.
Cade and I exchanged a look. “It’s a pretty common last name, right?” I asked cautiously. Cade saw my true question in my eyes and shook his head ever so slightly. We turned back to face Aaron, but I couldn’t shake the unease in my stomach.
“Uh, yeah, yeah it is.”
“So how does this clown know about the phone?” Julian didn’t look happy at the interruption.
“It’s not rocket science, buddy. All you have to do is click a few buttons.”
“Yeah, yeah, I never claimed to be a professional hacker,” Julian muttered with a glare at Tari. “But how did you even know-”
“What do you mean?” Cade sounded interested. I’d already told him everything I knew, but I frankly didn’t really know that much about where the phone came from.
“I got it from a friend, who immediately left town after giving it to me.” Aaron seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “I saw the message and went to the Justix Angel memorial this morning, but when I got there, the phone, which looked really old back then, separated into two parts and sprayed mist everywhere. One part was that,” he gestured at the phone, “and the other part was the shell of the ‘old phone’ that had the mist in it. I found the shell when I went back to the memorial after saving her life,” he pointed an accusatory finger at me and I flinched, “but she took the phone.”
His bomb was met with silence.
Finally, Julian spoke up. “Back up. The phone ‘looked really old’? What is that supposed to mean?”
“Uh,” Aaron shrugged, “it just did. You know, how cell phones looked like twenty years ago? Not smart phones or anything, but the boxy type with the tiny buttons?” He rifled around in his pockets for a spell. “Here, let me show you.”
He pulled a hollow-looking cell phone from his jacket. It looked more like what I was used to, but without a screen. Julian handed him the new phone without a word, and Aaron slipped it seamlessly into the shell of the old. Something inside clicked, and the phone screen lit up to fit the frame with older-looking text.
“Wow,” Tari breathed. It was, admittedly, pretty cool. Cade said nothing, but when I looked over at him he was staring intently at the phone.
“Take it out.”
Aaron complied with Cade’s command, and with another click the old shell was empty again and the new phone blared to life with a now-familiar welcome screen. Cade held out an expectant hand, and without a word Aaron deposited the cell into his open palm. We all stared at it hungrily.
“Take me to the GPS thing,” Cade grunted and extended the phone to Julian, who accepted it gingerly and started pressing buttons. When Cade held the phone to his face again, it vibrated in his hand and text flashed across the screen.
I snatched the phone from Cade as the text cycled through so I could get a better view, but before I could read anything the phone buzzed again and new text appeared.
FACIAL RECOGNITION ACCEPTED. ACCESS GRANTED.
The text faded to reveal a small map, which I recognized as the West half of Justix, with a blue line tracing from our location out of the city and off the map. Directions filled the bottom of the screen, but the everything beneath the basic instructions to exit the city were grayed out and impossible to read. I clicked on them, but only got an error message.
REACH CHECKPOINT ONE TO RECEIVE NEXT DIRECTIONS.
“Checkpoint one?” I jumped back. I hadn’t even noticed Tari sneak up behind me and start looking over my shoulder. I bumped into Aaron, who had crowded my other side, and nearly careened into Julian.
“Blazes! Give me some space!” I hollered, and my small herd fanned out a bit.
Cade stepped forward. “What happened?”
“I think it liked her face,” Aaron said.
Everyone turned to face Julian, who shrugged and nodded his head at Aaron. “Yeah, something like that. Seriously, what made you guys think I’m a tech genius?”
Cade wrenched the phone from my hand and I whirled on him. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he tapped away. I crossed to him in two strides and peeked around his arm to see the screen.
The phone vibrated and Cade shoved it in front of my face again. When the map reappeared on the screen, he nodded and stared intensely off into the distance.
I waved an impatient hand before his eyes until he faced me again. “What does this mean?”
“I’m not sure.” He rubbed his chin in thought and I turned to Julian.
“Well? What do you think?”
Before he could answer, Tari shoved him out of the way and glared at me, arms crossed over her chest.
“Why does the facial recognition thing recognize your face?”
“I don’t know any more than you do.” But I had a horrible feeling that I was going to find out.
She huffed and stormed off. I met Aaron’s gaze. “What’s her problem?” He mouthed. I prided myself on my ability to read lips like a pro.
I only shrugged in response, and he looked away. I pulled Cade aside. “I’m going to follow those directions, ok?”
“Well, good. Glad we’re on the same page.”
“But you’re not going alone.”
I gave him a hopeful look. “You tagging along like old times?”
He laughed “I wish. No, I’ve got to stay here. But I’ve got some great kids here who’d probably love to join you. Tari, for one. Probably Julian, and I’ll ask Ellie if she wants to come-”
“What about me?” Cade and I turned to see Aaron standing alone, eyebrows raised.
Cade shrugged. “Sure. I don’t care.” I glared at Cade half-heartedly, but I didn’t really have any reason for him not to come.
I sighed. “Great. Could you get some more clothes for me? I have something I need to do, but I’ll be back in a couple hours. Tell whoever wants to go that we’re leaving then.” I started walking, but shouted over my shoulder as I remembered, “And blazes, keep the group small! I don’t feel like playing field trip chaperone, ok?”