CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


"I haven't seen much of you lately," Kingpin says, and Sol stifles the urge to flinch. Taking a moment to compose her face, she spins on her heel, away from the gaping maw of the open elevator doors, and lifts an eyebrow at him.

"I've been around."

He smiles at her. "Have you, now?"

"Sure." She stuffs her hands in her pockets. "You've just been spending too much time in your office to notice. What's with all the suits?"

"Meetings are inevitable, when one is in business," Kingpin says. He narrows his eyes at her, just to let her know that her change of topic hasn't escaped him, but he's smiling and his body language is relaxed: hands in his pockets, head cocked inquiringly to one side, necktie a trifle askew.

Sol knows that look. He's pleased with himself.

"Guess so," she says, turning back to the elevator. "I couldn't do it, myself. Not enough of a people person."

"Oh, you pick that up as you go along." He holds the door, indicates that she should precede him into the elevator with the wave of one manicured hand, then follows her in and pushes the button for the lobby. "But you're quite right. I've been more work than play recently."

"You look pretty happy about it. Maybe work is your play."

Kingpin laughs. "Maybe." He follows her out into the lobby. "And you, Eden? How have you been amusing yourself?"

She wills herself to hold his gaze. That name again! "I'm headed to the library."

"Not enough books upstairs? You know you can order anything you need."

"What I need," Sol says, "is a change of scenery."

"Do you, now." There's a thread of steel in his voice now that wasn't there before. "How opportune. I have an errand to run myself. If you'll consent to join me for it, I'll be saved the trip to the airport and six hours on the plane."

She should have known this was coming. "I have plans," Sol says, unable to keep the sulkiness from her voice.

Kingpin smiles thinly. "It'll only take you a moment," he says, "and will save me the whole day. Of course, if you can't, you can't. I wouldn't want to presume."

"I didn't say I wouldn't do it," Sol says, thinking hard. "I'll take you where you need to go. For a price."

Kingpin's eyes sharpen. "Think about what you're saying, Eden. Once you're my employee, things change."

"Not an employee. An independent contractor."

"That's not how it works."

"Great," she says, turning away. "Enjoy your airline peanuts."

He sighs. "What's your price?"

"Answer one question of my choice," Sol says, half-amazed at her own audacity, "with absolute truth, to my satisfaction."

He doesn't hesitate. "Done. What's the question?"

Sol opens her mouth to say, Have you been spying on me? The question that comes out instead, to her utter surprise, is "What do you want from me?"

He smiles. "That's easy enough. A lift to Pittsburgh."

"Wrong answer," Sol says, flushing with sudden ferocity. "Don't try to get around me with semantics. You know what I want to know."

"Let me counter that question with one of my own," Kingpin says. "What are you afraid that I want from you? Answer me that, and I'll tell you whether or not it's true."

Sol shoves her hands into the pockets of her jeans. The camera droid buzzes, faintly, against her right palm. It is noticeably weaker than it was when she captured it a few days ago; its battery must be fading. "All right, then," she says. "You want another minion."

"Hardly," Kingpin says. "No one with your level of Enhancement is destined for minion status, my dear. Give yourself some credit; you're a senior lieutenant at the very least. And yes, before you ask, I'd be delighted to have you join my team, at a level of employment that befits your talents. I'd be a fool not to want you working for me."

She grits her teeth. "A spy, then."

"It's true that you're well-suited in many respects for espionage," he says. "If I were sure of your loyalty, you wouldn't be a mere courier, that much is clear. I have other teleporters on my staff, and I have other Transparents, but their gifts are more commonplace and far more limited. You are something else altogether, and your place within my empire would reflect that singularity."

Sol swallows, spins, looks him straight in the eye. This is the real question, the niggling fear lurking in her subconscious that she's never been quite able to quell. "A mistress."

"Eventually," Kingpin says calmly. "Not now, of course; you're still a child, however precocious your gifts. And I rather prefer the word 'consort' to 'mistress'. But yes. If you're asking whether I find you attractive and interesting, not only as a source of power but as a superhuman being and as a woman, the answer is yes."

Sol, half-floored by his unexpected candor, feels a hot blush race up the back of her neck. "I don't think of you that way," she manages.

Kingpin nods.

"Of course not," he agrees. "Like I said, you're still very young. And the imbalance of power between us must seem very great to you." His voice is utterly modulated, utterly level; he could be talking about the weather, about the subway strike, about the last Mets game. "But neither of those things will always be true, or even true for very much longer. And I am very patient, Eden. I can afford to wait for what I want, until the playing field between us evens and you no longer feel yourself at a natural disadvantage."

"You have no idea how freaky you sound right now," Sol says, but she's thinking: disadvantage? Who said anything about a disadvantage?

What can he do that I don't know about yet?

Kingpin shakes his head, his slight half-smile still intact.

"I know more about your reactions and motivations than you might think," he says. "But never mind that now." His gaze travels over her flushed, outraged face. She can't read anything in his eyes but his customary reserve, laced with a hint of cool amusement. "I find that I rather fancy a plane ride this morning, after all. And you, as you made so very clear earlier, have plans of your own. Don't let me keep you from them."

He signals to his driver, who comes around to open the door for him. Sol pivots on one heel and starts walking, forcing herself not to run, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of standing and gaping after him as he drives away.

I'm not a child, she thinks, mutinous, the expression on her face so fierce that it clears a path ahead of her through the mid-morning Manhattan foot-traffic. I haven't been a child since the night I bashed that bastard's head in with a reading lamp. I know my own mind. And I'll never want you, not ever, not in a million years.

I know who I want.

The droid flutters weakly against her fingers. She closes her hand around it, barely registering its faint scrabble of protest.

Time to find out where it came from, and what it wants. And she only knows one person who can talk to machines.

Colin, she thinks, and launches herself into blinkspace mid-stride.


She doesn't know if this is really possible, but she's been suspecting that it is for a while. If she can find a place through a photograph or a description, why not a person? She is stronger in the blink than ever, more sure, more precise, more energized. And she knows this particular person by memory: tall, messy-haired, honest eyes, mischievous slant to the corner of his mouth. She thinks about his laugh, about the calluses on his fingertips from soldering electrical wires and tearing down hard drives, about the feel of his hand, solid and strong in hers, under a sea of silver balloons. She thinks about the look on his face the last time she saw him in that greenhouse in Cambridge, wild-eyed and panting but not out of his head, not far gone enough to give them both away once she warned him off.

Colin, forever running to her rescue. Colin, her defender. Colin, who made declarations with his eyes but seemed instinctively to know that he shouldn't say them out loud, that as much as she wanted words of affection from him, she was too closed off to hear them for what they were. Colin near, Colin far, Colin who wherever he is has always understood and accepted her.

Find him, she tells herself, and goes into the blink.

And there he is, just like that, right in front of her, sitting at a computer desk in a windowless room lit with fluorescent tubes, intent on a computer screen while next to him a man with a scarred face and a plump silver-haired woman in green scrubs and Crocs converse in low tones. Sol settles herself in blinkspace and prepares to wait out their conversation.

" … are you sure it was him?"

"I saw her body," the woman says. "Third-degree burns all over her torso. Shaped like fingerprints." She nods toward the scarred man. "If I was a betting woman, I'd wager they're a perfect match to yours."

"Anything else?"

She looks away from them. "You know. The same. Wrist and ankle lacerations, puncture wound in the femoral artery. No thaumic signature."

"So they drained her, then."

"Looks that way." She squeezes his hand. "You were luckier than you knew, Vinton, to get away. That's not a pretty way to go."

"Autopsy report," Colin says, turning the computer screen toward them. "Says 'accidental death'. And here, look at these pictures. No marks."

The grey-haired woman purses her lips. "So," she says under her breath, "they have a mole in the coroner's office. Someone who knows how to use Photoshop, apparently."

"Nice girl, minor Enhancement, no known enemies," muses the scarred man. "It's a harvest, pure and simple."

"She couldn't make it work without killing them," the woman says, turning away from the computer screen. "I suppose we should give her at least some credit that she tried."

"The question is," Colin says, "how did they find her? Wasn't she living undercover?"

Sol takes a deep breath. Now or never.

Will he be happy to see her? Will she be able to tell if he isn't?

Why is her mouth so dry?

"I have a theory about that," she says, stepping out of blinkspace. "Want to hear it?"