“Where are you?” he shouted, just as Bryson and Sarah came barreling through the door on his heels.

“Up here! Quick!”

A staircase loomed on the right side of the hall. Michael went to it, this time taking only two steps at a time because they were steeper. His breath came ragged—more from the adrenaline than the effort—by the time he reached the top. He caught a glimpse of Walter’s shoulder in the nearest bedroom and ran to it. He slowed down and stepped inside.

An odd, haunting scene awaited him. A chair stood alone on the far side of the room, between a curtained window and a large wardrobe. Gabby sat in it, her hands tied behind her back and a gag wrapped around her mouth. She was disheveled, her hair a mess, her face red, and her clothes soaked with sweat. She looked awful, and she was trying to speak through the cloth.

And her eyes. She stared at Michael, pleading with her eyes for help.

He took a step toward her, but Helga quickly moved in front of him, blocking his path.

“No,” she said. “Not yet.” She turned to look at Gabby.

Jackson’s girlfriend still had her gaze fixed on him.

“Take her gag off, at least,” he said. “She’s obviously got something to say.”

Helga sighed, turned her attention to Walter. She raised her eyebrows.

Walter shook his head. “We need to leave. Now.”

“It won’t hurt to take off her gag,” Sarah said, moving around everyone else and walking straight up to Gabby.

“Wait!” Michael shouted, suddenly picturing some sort of trap.

But nothing happened.

Sarah reached behind Gabby, fiddled with the knot in the cloth behind her head until it loosened, then let it drop around the girl’s neck.

Gabby sucked in a big pull of air. “Thank you,” she whispered in a hoarse voice. “Don’t worry, no one’s going to hurt you. They promised.”

“What do you mean?” Michael asked. “Who else is here?”

“Just listen.” She took a couple more deep breaths, then looked around. “Someone is here—someone who wants to talk to you. They used me to get you to come. Forced me to send the message.”

“What’re you talking about?” Helga asked before Michael could.

“Enough of this!” Walter yelled. “Let’s leave. Now!”

Gabby shook her head adamantly. “No! Whatever you do, don’t do that. They let you in, but they won’t let you out unless you at least listen to what they say.”

“Who?” Michael asked.

“Just wait. He’s coming. Like I said. He promised me that no one would get hurt unless you tried to hurt him.”

Suddenly a deep, resonant roar filled the room. It sounded like an enormous machine had started, rumbling from everywhere at once. There was a piercing whine and a grinding of gears. Then, just as abruptly as it had begun, the noise stopped.

Michael stood frozen, wondering what was about to happen. Then movement to the right of Gabby caught his eye. The doors of the wardrobe opened, bright lights shining from within, like something out of Narnia.

And out stepped a man. Short, dressed in a three-piece suit. Agent Scott.

He closed the doors behind him and frowned at Michael, who couldn’t believe he’d remembered the guy’s name.

5

Michael wasn’t that surprised to see the VNS pop back into his life so quickly, but the timing had him at a loss.

Also not surprisingly, Bryson was the one to speak.

“Who’s this dude? You obviously know him, Michael.”

“I met him back when…back before I knew. In Lifeblood Deep. He works for Weber. He followed me into an alley a million years ago. Guys, meet Agent Scott.”

“Who apparently likes to play in closets,” Bryson added.

Scott didn’t even grace him with a disapproving glare. His eyes stayed on Michael, expression blank, but Michael had no doubt there were a million unwelcome truths hiding behind the man’s look. He reminded himself that this man represented everything Weber stood for.

“Why in the world did you just step out of a wardrobe?” Michael asked, feeling surreal.

Agent Scott turned and gave a passing glance to the closed doors, then faced Michael again. “Yes, I’m sorry for the theatrics. We have a secret location hidden under this farmhouse. It’s a place we feel no one would ever come looking for us. This wardrobe just happens to be one of the ways in and out.”

Michael’s heart thumped heavily, his adrenaline racing. Helga had been right. He willed his mind to come up with a sensible line of questions, stay in control of the conversation.

“I thought your systems were wiped out,” he said. “I thought you were crippled for months. We saw your leader’s…heartfelt confessional.”

Scott seemed perfectly happy to continue along this path. “That’s why we’re here, Michael,” he said. “We are crippled. Very seriously. Since you were the ones who did it to us, I’d think you’d know that.”

Michael sensed Bryson’s temper stirring. He quickly reached out and grasped his wrist and shook his head. “He’s just trying to bait us,” he said to his friend. “Or maybe they’re recording our reactions. Don’t fall for it. We’ll get our answers, don’t worry.”

Bryson shook himself free but didn’t say anything. As for Michael, he swore he wasn’t leaving that farmhouse until he got some information out of Weber’s subordinate.

He returned his attention to the VNS agent. “Why’d your boss do it? Why the whole setup? Why trick us into thinking she’d Squeezed us into Lifeblood Deep? And the Lance. I mean, couldn’t there have been an easier way to accomplish all that destruction?”

“Did you guys set up that entire purple ocean of broken-down code, too?” Sarah asked. When she spoke, Agent Scott didn’t even glance at her. His eyes stayed riveted on Michael.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man said calmly. “You came to us, remember? You were the ones who decided where to go, where to attack, how to do it. You tricked us. Why would we, the VNS, purposely—voluntarily—assist you in bringing down our entire firewall and security network? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Michael let out an exaggerated sigh. “Whatever. If you need to say all this so you can have it on record to save Weber’s butt, fine. If you’re going to arrest us, arrest us. But it’s probably not going to go so well for you when we tell our side of the story—not to mention when we share pictures of my friend here all tied up like some kind of serial killer’s plaything. All we want is her. Let us untie her and leave. You can go back to doing whatever the hell it is you people pretend to do.”

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