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She knew she wouldn’t enjoy killing an innocent person. She was sure that corner had not been turned, nor would it be. Some people in her line of work – her former line – were well and truly psychotic, but she liked to think that this was the reason her peers were not as good as she was. They had the wrong motivations. Hating what she did gave her the power to do it best.

In the context of her current life, killing was about winning. Not the entire war, just one small battle at a time, but each was still a win. Someone else’s heart would stop beating and hers would keep going. Someone would come for her, and instead of a victim he would find a predator. A brown recluse spider, invisible behind her gossamer trap.

This was what they had made her. She wondered if they took any pride at all in their accomplishment or if there was only regret that they hadn’t stomped on her fast enough.

Once she was a few miles down the interstate, she felt better. Her car was a popular model, a thousand identical vehicles on the highway with her now, and the stolen plates would be replaced as soon as she found a safe spot to stop. There was nothing to tie her to the town she’d just left. She’d passed two exits and taken a third. If they wanted to blockade the freeway, they’d have no idea where to do it. She was still hidden. Still safe for now.

Of course, driving straight home was out of the question at this point. She took six hours on the return, twisting around various highways and surface roads, constantly checking to be sure there was no one following. By the time she finally got back to her little rented house – the architectural equivalent of a jalopy – she was already half asleep. She thought about making coffee, weighing the benefits of the caffeine boost against the burden of one extra task, and decided to just muscle through it on the vapors of her energy supply.

She dragged herself up the two rickety porch steps, automatically avoiding the rot-weakened spot on the left of the first tread, and unlocked the double dead bolts on the steel security door she’d installed her first week living here; the walls – just wooden studs, drywall, plywood, and vinyl siding – didn’t provide the same level of security, but statistically, intruders went for the door first. The bars on the windows were not an insurmountable obstacle, either, but they were enough to motivate the casual cat burglar to move on to an easier target. Before she twisted the handle, she rang the doorbell. Three quick jabs that would look like one continuous push to anyone watching. The sound of the Westminster chimes was only slightly muffled by the thin walls. She stepped through the door quickly – holding her breath, just in case. There was no quiet crunch of broken glass, so she exhaled as she shut the door behind her.

The home security was all her own design. The professionals she’d studied in the beginning had their own methods. None of them had her specialized skill set. Neither did the authors of the various novels she used as implausible manuals now. Everything else she had needed to know had been easy to pull up on YouTube. A few parts from an old washing machine, a microcontroller board ordered online, a new doorbell, and a couple of miscellaneous acquisitions, and she had herself a solid booby trap.

She locked the dead bolts behind her and hit the switch closest to the door to turn on the lights. It was set in a panel with two other switches. The middle was a dummy. The third switch, the farthest from the door, was patched into the same low-voltage signal wire as the doorbell. Like that fixture and the door, the panel of switches was newer by decades than anything else in the small front room that was living area, dining room, and kitchen combined.

Everything looked as she’d left it: minimal, cheap furnishings – nothing big enough for an adult to hide behind – empty counters and tabletop, no ornaments or artwork. Sterile. She knew that even with the avocado-and-mustard-vinyl flooring and the popcorn ceiling, it still looked a little like a laboratory.

Maybe the smell was what made it feel like a lab. The room was so scrupulously sanitary, an intruder would probably attribute the pool-supply-store scent to cleaning chemicals. But only if he got inside without triggering her security system. If he triggered the system, he wouldn’t have time to register many details about the room.

The rest of the house was just a small bedroom and bathroom, set in a straight line from the front door to the far wall, nothing in the way to trip her. She turned the light off, saving herself the walk back.

She stumbled through the only door into her bedroom, sleepwalking through the routine. Enough light made it through the mini-blinds – red neon from the gas station across the street – that she left the lamp off. First, she rearranged two of the long feather pillows on top of the double mattress that took up most of the space in the room into the vague shape of a human body. Then the Ziploc bags full of Halloween costume blood were stuffed into the pillowcases; close up, the blood wasn’t very convincing, but the Ziplocs were for an attacker who broke the window, pushed the blinds aside, and shot from that vantage point. He wouldn’t be able to detect the difference in the neon half-light. Next, the head – the mask she’d used was another after-Halloween-sale acquisition, a parody of some political also-ran that had fairly realistic skin coloring. She’d stuffed it to roughly match the size of her own head and sewn a cheap brunette wig into place. Most important, a tiny wire, threaded up between the mattress and box spring, was hidden in the strands of nylon. A matching wire pierced through the pillow the head rested on. She yanked the sheet up, then the blanket, patted it all into shape, then twisted together the frayed ends of the two wires. It was a very tenuous joining. If she touched the head even lightly or jostled the pillow body a bit, the wires would slip silently apart.

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