This time, she barely even hesitates. I sense that she’s been desperate to tell this story, and for simple human contact. Friendship, even if it’s temporary. “About a year ago,” she says. “I was never in the inner circle, you know. It was just a game at first. Trolling pedos. Taunting people who deserved it. Or we thought deserved it, anyway. And we got paid for doing it, too.”
This time, I am the one who sits back, because this is something I’ve never considered. “Paid? By whom?”
Arden laughs. It sounds like a rustle of leaves in a dry, dead forest. “Like I’d know. Good money, though. And I was fine with it until . . . until I found out why we were doing it. It wasn’t like they advertised it to the rank and file like me, but one of the higher-ups slipped and mentioned it.”
I swallow. I feel desperately in need of water for some reason, as if I’ve been crawling through a desert. I’m in strange territory now. “I don’t understand.”
“Look, we certainly did it for the lulz, no question; we were good at it, too, which was why they recruited us for the special projects. I thought it was some kind of crusade, you know? Pure. But they sent us after people when they stopped paying blackmail money. They sent us to punish them into cracking open the bank again,” she says. “We were just virtual leg breakers. When people dig in their heels, the hounds like me come off the chain. I know I’m a bitch, but come on.” Arden laughs again. It doesn’t sound any happier. “The idea somebody was making hard cash off ruining people—that’s just wrong.”
“It’s better to ruin them for free?” I ask. I feel a little dazed.
This time, I get an apologetic shrug. “If you’re doing wrong and you’re on the Internet, you have to expect some of that, don’t you?”
I like Arden, but this baffles me. It’s a blind spot, an assumption that cruelty is fine in the right context. Doing wrong. Everyone’s done wrong to someone. Even now, she can’t see the toxic effects of having that easy access to a victim.
I have to start rearranging the whole image I have of Absalom. I’ve been thinking of them as manipulative fanatics, in it for the sheer bloody chaos of destruction, and some of them certainly fit that description. What Arden is describing, though . . . this is bigger. More cynical. Had Melvin paid them to go after me? How? He hadn’t had access to cash in prison. Maybe he’d traded favors.
Dealing with dedicated, incredibly psychopathic trolls was one thing. Dealing with them when it was their job to come after me might be even worse.
“Arden.” I lean forward, putting out all the good intentions and sincerity I can. “Why did Absalom turn against you?”
Her face contorts into a grimace, and she sweeps a hand up and down her body. “They found out,” she says. “A lot of them hate women. All of them hate trans women. They started posting about me. I fought back. When they kept at it, I downloaded a bunch of their payment records from the server and told them I’d put it out public if they came after me. I thought it would stop them.” She looks away. “I had a friend staying over that day. I went out to get us Chinese food. When I came home, my apartment was on fire. The whole building went up. Seven people died.”
“And . . . you don’t think that was an accident,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”
She nods and fights back another wave of tears. “They thought they got me, for a while. But I’ve been moving around, finding places to stay low. One good thing, I took up painting, and the gallery I showed them to says I’m pretty good at it. I need to sell these and get out of the country. Maybe it’ll be easier somewhere else. Sweden, maybe.”
“These files you took,” I say. “Arden . . . do you still have them?”
I’m praying she says yes, but she gives me a sad look and shakes her head. “They were stored on a thumb drive,” she says. “It went up with everything else. I don’t have anything to hold over them now. I’m scared to death, Gwen. Aren’t you?”
“I am,” I tell her. “Are you sure you don’t know anything that can help me find them . . . ?”
She thinks about it. Picks at a stray red hair on her jeans and lets it drift down in a ray of sunshine. Watches it fall.
“I know one thing,” she says. “The asshole who was the angriest about me, I know where he lives. That was the last thing I found before I was afraid to push it anymore.”
I glance at Sam. He turns to look at us and nods. “Then . . . would you tell us? Let us go after him for you?”
Arden folds her hands together in her lap and sits up straight. She meets my gaze, and there’s defiance in there. Anger. Fear. But mostly, there’s resolve.
“I wasn’t a good person,” she says. “I hated myself, and I thought the world was shit and everybody deserved what they got. I wanted to see everybody hurt the way I did. But I’m not like that anymore. And I’m sorry for all the people I went after online. I never meant—” She stops and shakes her head. “I know that doesn’t mean much. But if you can get this guy, maybe that’s a step in the right direction. You got a pen?”
I’ve left pen and paper in the car, but Arden just shrugs, goes to the rolltop desk, and pulls out supplies. She writes, walks back, and hands it to me. I blink, because I’m expecting an address.
“GPS coordinates,” she tells me. “It maps to a cabin in Bumfuck, Georgia. But you be careful, Gwen. You be really careful. I was a terrible person, but this guy’s evil. I get the creeps just thinking about him.”
“Thank you,” I say, then put the paper away. I get up and hesitate. “Will you be okay?”
Arden looks up at me. Her eyes are clear, her perfect jaw set. I recognize the look. I’ve seen it in the mirror. It comes when you own your fear and use it as fuel. “Not yet,” she says. “But someday. Yeah. I will be.”
I offer her my hand, and we shake. Sam comes closer, and I see Arden’s body tense a little. She’s gun-shy with men, and I wonder how much abuse she’s already taken. But he just extends his hand, too, and she finally completes the gesture.
“You’re really good,” he tells her. “Keep doing this. And keep safe.”
She gives him a faint, cautious smile. “I will. You, too. Both of you.”
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