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“See? Cake.” I turned to look toward the front. The windows were back up; Becks and Mahir had apparently passed their own tests while I was distracted.

“It’s not going to last,” said Becks. Her eyes met mine in the rearview mirror as she started the engine. “We just showed up with a woman who looks like she’s been kidnapped from a lab, and is basically a walking hot zone right now, with those feet. This isn’t cool.”

“Maybe not, but what else was I supposed to do?”

“This discussion is not going to end well,” said Mahir sharply. “We’re going to go inside, meet with Maggie, and decide what happens next. No one gets the deciding vote. Am I understood?”

“It is so good to see you,” said George. She got up onto her knees, half kneeling as she looked through the windshield at the hotel. Her eyes widened. “Where are we? Hill House?”

“Whatever walks here walks in the presence of a large, well-trained staff ready to attend to your every need,” said Mahir. “As the gentleman said, welcome to the Agora. It’s a resort of a kind, for people whose monthly allowance puts my annual income to shame.”

“You let Maggie choose the hotel, didn’t you?”

“Don’t answer that,” said Becks. “Until we know what’s going on, we’re not telling you anything more than we have to. I’m pretty sure this place is expensive enough that they’ll dispose of a body for us if we ask them.”

“The privileges of wealth.” George sank back to the floor. She gave me an anxious look, and I took her hand, squeezing it. The solidity of her was still the most amazing thing I’d ever felt.

“It’s going to be okay,” I said.

“Maybe,” she replied.

None of us said anything after that. Becks drove up the long driveway to the parking garage, where the valet waved us through the open gate, apparently remembering our preference for self-parking. Becks got out first. By the time I opened the van door, she was already there, pistol out, covering us.

“I think it says something deeply disturbing about me that I find this comforting,” said George, wincing as her cut-up feet hit the cool cement of the garage floor.

“That’s Becks. Always ready to offer a helping headshot.” I restrained the urge to pick George up and get her feet away from the ground. I needed to let her walk on her own. She’d never forgive me if I didn’t.

“I thought I learned from the best,” said Becks. She stayed where she was, letting us step away from the vehicle. It was clear she intended to follow us to the door, rather than risking George getting the drop on her. Oddly, it wasn’t only George who found her paranoia comforting. Knowing there was someone behind me, ready to shoot if something started to go wrong, made me a lot more comfortable letting George take my hand, even though it would keep me from getting to a gun as fast as I might need to.

Mahir walked on my other side. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. The worried, faintly disapproving look on his face said volumes.

True to the concierge’s word, a man in the hotel uniform was waiting by the airlock with a pair of fluffy blue and gold slippers in one hand and a matching robe in the other. He held them out to us as we approached, saying, “The management is thrilled that you’re here, but would prefer that you not distress the other guests.”

“What?” I asked blankly.

Mahir cleared his throat and nodded toward George. I turned, looking at her.

There were stains on the sleeves of her once-white lab coat. Some were clearly chemical; others could have been blood. Some of the stains on the cuffs of her pants were definitely blood, as were the streaky smears on the tops of her feet. The fact that she was dressed like a medical professional would just make those little spots more terrifying for most people. We trust doctors because we have to. We never forget that they’re the profession with the highest day-to-day risk of infection.

George looked down at herself, clearly coming to the same conclusion. “Thank you,” she said, reaching out to take the robe and slippers. Putting them on made her look less disheveled, and oddly younger; the robe was at least three sizes too large, and hung on her like a shroud. She tied the robe around her waist, sleeves all but swallowing her hands, and flashed a quick, professional smile at the attendant. “It’s great.”

“Welcome to the Agora, miss. We hope you’ll enjoy your stay.” He bowed before turning and stepping into the airlock. I was pretty sure any charges associated with the robe and slippers would be appearing on our master bill, and would be hefty enough to make me choke. Good thing none of us were ever going to see the price tag for this place.

Once the attendant was clear of the airlock, George and I stepped inside. A little more of the tension went out of her shoulders as soon as we were past the first layer of glass, like even that thin barrier took us farther from her captivity. I couldn’t reach her hands, swaddled as they were in layers of plush terry cloth, so I squeezed her shoulder instead.

The smile she flashed my way was a lot less professional. “You can keep doing that forever,” she said quietly.

“Planning on it,” I said. Then the door was sliding open in front of us, and we left the airlock together, letting it begin a new cycle as Becks and Mahir were processed through.

George looked around the Agora lobby with a cool, calculating curiosity, like she was assessing the whole place for acoustics, security, and exit routes—the three most important functions of any space as far as a journalist was concerned. Every move she made just convinced me a little more that she was who she said she was. I knew I wanted to believe her, which put me at a disadvantage, but… if she’d been off in anything but the superficialities of her appearance, I would have been the first to notice. So far, she was doing everything right. That meant she was either the real thing, or an unbelievably good fake.


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