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I froze. He always asked that question, and I never knew how to answer. I knew that SymboGen paid at least part of my salary at Cause for Paws; it was how I could get away with scheduling all my shifts around my various medical and therapy appointments, and why they never said anything about vacation time when I had to go spend a day or two on the SymboGen campus. What I didn’t know was how much of Will’s salary was being paid by SymboGen. For all that I knew, every word I said went straight from him to Dr. Banks.

That thought didn’t bother me most of the time. Most of the time, I wasn’t getting ready to call mysterious numbers that might lead to corporate espionage or—or whatever other labels you could slap on this sort of thing.

Will was still looking at me, waiting. I forced myself to return his smile and said, “It was eventful, but it ended, and really, isn’t that what we’re all hoping for when we have to spend a day at the doctor’s office? I was just going to grab a shower before we got busy, since I’m covered in dog yuck. Is that cool with you, or did you need me to do something while I’m still filthy?”

“Your noble sacrifice with the dogs means you’re not on box duty tonight, so no, Sal, you’re off the hook,” said Will, already turning back to his screen. “Go get yourself cleaned up. Adoptions go more smoothly when the potential adopters aren’t trying to figure out whether that smell is the puppy or the shelter employee.”

“Thanks, Will,” I said, and practically threw the bucket into the supply cabinet before turning and bolting, double-time, for the big employee bathroom. I paused only long enough to grab my shoulder bag from the wall.

One definite advantage to showering at the shelter: Cause for Paws had an old gym-style shower, with four shower heads all feeding into the same large tiled area. Add the industrial-level water pressure, and I didn’t even really need soap: if I turned the water on full and stood where the streams converged, I’d have the dirt blasted right off of me. I appreciate a shower that’s capable of leaving bruises.

I also appreciate a shower that’s capable of generating that much white noise. I cleaned myself off quickly, and then hiked the water up as high as it would go, creating the sound of an artificial indoor waterfall. I dug my notebook out of my bag and retreated to the corner of the room farthest from the office. The mystery message was still there when I flipped to the appropriate page. For a moment I just stood there, looking at it.

CALL FOR ANSWERS IF YOU ARE SURE YOU WANT THEM.

YOU MAY WANT TO RECONSIDER YOUR DESIRES.

KNOWING THE DIRECTION DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO GO.

Whatever it meant, I knew one thing: dialing that number would change everything. I might not know how just yet, but I knew that it was going to happen. All I had to do was close the notebook and leave it alone. I could shred the page when I got home. I could put it in the recycling. I could…

I dialed the number.

It rang four times. I was just beginning to worry about what I’d do if I wound up rolling to voice mail when there was a click and a warm, almost maternal female voice said, “Well, if it isn’t little Miss Sally Mitchell, actually taking an invitation to chat. I wasn’t sure you’d be up for it so soon, you know. I don’t know that I would have been, in your position.”

“Who is this?” I asked, keeping my voice low. “Are you the one who left the message in my notebook?”

“No, that wasn’t me. I would have needed to set foot on the SymboGen campus for that, and there are reasons I can’t do that—you’ll understand them soon. But I still have friends on the inside, and they told me what happened yesterday. That’s part of why I thought it was finally time for us to meet.”

“You didn’t answer my first question.”

The woman chuckled. “That’s true; I didn’t. I won’t, either, until we’re looking each other in the face. But I’ll tell you this much, Sal: I’m on your side. You may not believe me—you may decide I’m just one more person trying to play you, and believe me, a lot more people are going to be trying to play you in the days to come—but it’s the truth. I’ve always been on your side. There’s no one in the world who’s been pulling for you longer than I have.”

I frowned warily. Part of me wanted to believe her, even though she wouldn’t tell me her name. Something about her voice was familiar, like a voice that I’d heard before on television or maybe on one of Nathan’s parasitology podcasts. She sounded like someone that I was supposed to trust. Maybe that was what made trusting her feel so hard. If she was someone I was supposed to trust… I’m not always good at doing what I’m supposed to do.

“The message said that this was the number to call if I wanted answers. So far, I’m not hearing any answers from you. Just a whole bunch of hot air and some vague ‘I know something you don’t know.’ ”

Now the woman outright laughed. “Oh, Sal. You truly are splendid—better than I’d hoped for. I can’t give you the answers that you’re looking for over the phone. That would be silly. Even with the precautions you’ve obviously taken to keep from being overheard, there’s always a chance we could be monitored, and I don’t think that’s a risk either of us can afford. But now I know that you’re ready for answers. I’ll have someone contact you inside of the week with an address. Then we can finally meet in person.”

“You seem pretty confident that I’ll come.”

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