Sitting in the passenger seat next to Logan Ashley stared unseeing at the rows of cars they passed on their way back to the highway. Just as had happened when Julian died, she thought of her excitement at discovering that her lover was a thief. How she had been desperate to be a part of that aspect of his life in a way she’d never imagined herself being before—but after which there was no stopping her.
She remembered that first conversation they had about that side of his life, how she asked to get into the game and he refused her.
“You don’t trust me,” she said to him.
“I’ve told you a great many things I’ve never told another human being, living or dead,” Julian told her. “Don’t you see? I’m trying to protect you.”
“Maybe I don’t want to be protected,” Ashley said.
Her behavior seemed manipulative to her now, shamefully so. And transparently so. Julian had probably seen right through it, yet felt helpless to resist it. All the way down to his death, the facts of which she was only able to guess at, but for which she hadn’t been able to escape a sense of responsibility, convinced that her obsessive thrill seeking was the cause. That it was her fault.
Now de Ruyter told her that this wasn’t a matter of decisions she’d made, but a decision that made her, a decision made by someone else. That de Ruyter’s experiment, which must have happened before she ever met Julian, “damaged her auto-receptors,” left her just waiting to turn into what she’d become, a bomb triggered by the thrill of discovering Julian was a thief, the thrill of that first job in the Hamptons—
Ashley accused herself of evading responsibility for her actions, because her whole life long she was told again and again and again that it was wrong to blame anyone but oneself for anything that one did, or even anything that happened to them. But then, she thought, didn’t the whole question of right and wrong, of choice and responsibility, assume human free will operating on some level? And how could that actually exist if human behavior was just a bunch of chemical reactions and electrical impulses beneath the level of human consciousness, and outside a human being’s control? And wasn’t that exactly what de Ruyter believed? Otherwise, how could he have controlled her with his machine the way he had . . .
It wasn’t the first time such ideas had come to Ashley’s attention. They’d come up once in some Humanities course she took to satisfy a requirement for credit hours outside her major area of study. But she’d just shrugged off the issue. It didn’t seem as if there was any way of knowing one way or the other, or anything to be done about the matter if she did know. And such matters didn’t really grab her interest; when she participated in those experiments at the psychology department, she did so with as little interest in the subject as she’d taken in art when she’d modeled for classes.
Now whether or not such a thing could happen seemed of the greatest importance.
“So, where do we go now?” Logan asked.
“I said, ‘Where do we go?’”
“Just drive around for a while,” Ashley said.
Logan skipped the exit, just went on driving in the same direction.
“What happened in there?” he asked in the tone of voice people used with someone who’d just been in accident, or heard that someone close to them had just died.
Ashley didn’t say anything right away.
“It was just like you said,” Ashley told him when she finally spoke. “And instead of making me feel like I’ve got a better handle on things, it’s making me feel like I’m losing my mind.”
Again Ashley thought of how much she had never told Logan. That they were talking about this at all was something she’d never expected, and she didn’t want to continue doing it, didn’t want to start letting everything out here, now.
“I got some information out of de Ruyter that might be useful,” Ashley said. “Ever hear of something called the Tom Galt Memorial Fund?”
“I might have,” Logan said. “Why?”
“He said they’re behind this.”
“’The Tom Galt Memorial Fund,’” Logan repeated, the name that had seemed innocuous at first mention sounding less so now. “But that’s not all?” he asked.
“No,” Ashley said. “He said they may be a front.”
“Who for?” Logan asked.
“He suggested the government, like Blake thought. What do you think?”
“I think Northrop’s not likely to keep information on a classified military program in his personal office safe,” Logan said. “Besides, what would it make the Client? A foreign spy? I just don’t see all that here.”
“No, I guess not,” Ashley agreed. “Anyway, he only said he thinks that’s what’s going on. He doesn’t actually know. And he didn’t spell out anything to really support that.”
Logan didn’t disagree, but then more immediate concerns seemed to be on his mind.
“So . . . are we going back to the hotel?” Logan asked.
Now it was Ashley who didn’t answer him right away.
She knew going in that she had little purchase on de Ruyter, just their rather vague information about what seemed the only real secret the man had, and her attempt at blackmail seemed pathetically clumsy now. Yes, the gun had forced him to stay, to appear to comply with her demands. The shock of seeing her, and maybe his ego, had made him talkative. But keep him quiet after . . . that was something else. She startled herself with her own actions, but she knew that she had far more to fear from his going back to his old sponsors than he did.
And she was sure that he not only knew it too, but that he would feel compelled to act on the fact. That same ego that made de Ruyter talk was also deeply offended by her getting him at a disadvantage, by her presuming to call him to account for his actions, something he probably thought beneath him, especially where a mere test subject he’d tossed back into the street was concerned.
Ashley remembered the way he bit his lip as she left his office. Not a sign of nervousness, it seemed, but an attempt to suppress a smile. Like he’d been laughing at her, at the way she’d been forced to cut the interview short, like he was already thinking about the trouble he was going to make for her.
So she pictured him phoning up his secret contacts at the first opportunity, which might already have been upon him (he’d quickly get rid of that girl who came to see him, give his colleagues some excuse about why he had to leave in a hurry), after which they would send their people down to Florida after them. And the fact was that Fort Denham was not an easy place for them to hide.
“No,” Ashley said. “Let’s go to Atlanta.”
They’d discussed it earlier as a reasonable place to lie low for a bit given its distance from Denham, and its size, and the fact that they didn’t have any obvious object in going there, so that their pursuers might not expect them to head in that direction. It also helped that they’d be able to make it in time to get a decent night’s sleep in a hotel in that city, if they headed there right away along the most direct route, and didn’t go too far under the speed limit, and avoided unnecessary stops, and didn’t get themselves lost on the way over.
“Atlanta it is,” Logan said.
“And I think I’d like to drive,” Ashley said.
“Right now, or—”
Ashley didn’t feel up to taking the wheel just yet. “Next stop’s okay.”
Logan got on his phone and checked them out of the Denham Palms. Meanwhile Ashley ate an energy bar and felt, not better exactly, but certainly steadier, even this news easier to take on a full stomach.
“What exactly did he do?” Logan asked her then. “I mean, can you talk about it or . . .”
“He said he used electromagnetic fields to alter brain activity,” Ashley said. “Make people more aggressive or passive. He thinks it did something to me.”
“What effect did he think this whole thing actually had?” Logan asked.
On me, you mean?
“That it’s why I am the way that I am,” Ashley said. Why Julian had to ask you to look after me, why I’ve been such a handful, why I couldn’t stop myself when he was alive, why I couldn’t stop myself even after he died so that we’ve ended up here right now . . .
“He knew, then?” Logan asked. “About who you are, what you do?”
“No, to him I was just a test subject from a long time ago,” Ashley said. “What he said was that it eliminated the ‘brakes on thrill-seeking behavior.’”
“Is that what all this is about?” Logan asked.
“No. That was just an accident.” He’d just reached into her brain and, while throwing switches, accidentally broke one, then just tossed her out afterward and tried to forget about it—and failed, but only because he was a perfectionist who couldn’t abide error.
Thinking of what he’d done to her, of how cold he’d been about it, Ashley wished she had Tasered de Ruyter anyway, if only as payback for what he’d put her through, what she’d been living with all these years.