Art laughed. “I don’t know how many guys like him you knew in college, but here’s a little secret. Guys that age want women desperately and have no idea what to do about it. You’re good looking. Even if he never says anything, he’ll probably get nervous every time he gets near you.”
Zola shook her head. “I hope not, but I’m not sure it’s nervousness. I’m still figuring out what all these smells mean, but that doesn’t seem quite right. Besides, doesn’t he have a girlfriend? I thought I heard he was with someone or maybe Stephanie?”
Shaking his head, Art said, “Not Stephanie. At least that’s what Victor told me, but that might be wishful thinking. You know, I’ve seen the intern talking with Emmy every time he comes in.”
Zola laughed. “Emmy’s not going to date some college kid right after breaking up with Sandy. Of course, knowing Sandy, if she’s into geeky guys, Nick qualifies.”
Snorting, Art said, “If she’s into geeky guys, I qualify, and she’s not into me. No, could be Emmy’s into money. There’s Sandy first of all, but then this kid is friends with one of the Hardwicks. That’s what Ronnie told me.”
Zola’s raised an eyebrow. Art stopped and then continued. “You don’t know Ronnie? He’s one of the security guards. He was special forces—I don’t know which one—and now he works for Russell Hardwick. Anyway, if the intern is a friend of the Hardwicks, he’s probably rich too. Rich kids run together in my experience.”
Turning her head in the direction of my cubicle, Zola said, “A friend of the Hardwicks? He seemed normal to me.”
Art grinned. “Well, if you’re interested, I’m sure he is.”
“What is he, like twenty? No. I’ve dated guys that age when I was that age and believe me, the geeks aren’t the only ones with no idea of what to do in a relationship.”
Then she looked in the direction of my cubicle again. I made a point of keeping my head facing the computer screen and not looking away.
Leaning in toward Ryan, she said, “Let’s say he’s a friend of the Hardwicks and he knows too much. Maybe he’s even a spy for the Hardwicks. They’ve put millions of dollars into this place. They’d want to know what they’re buying. Well, let’s say we tell Ryan. What’s he going to do? They can’t do anything to this kid or the Hardwicks will come down like a hammer on all of us.”
Art shrugged. “Not my problem.”
Zola’s eyes widened and she began to open her mouth.
“No,” Art said, “it isn’t and it isn’t yours either. The way I see it we both sold our souls to the group when we agreed to let Ryan and Victor run us through the damned machine. I’m pretty sure the government didn’t have human experimentation in mind when they let Sandy have the birthing chambers. So we’ve got something on them. Problem is, you can bet they’ve got something on us. I know they’ve got something on me. I did some work for the Nine as an analyst a few years back. I don’t know how Ryan found out, but he found out.”
A hint of an animal snarl entered his voice. “They said they wouldn’t tell anyone, but you know they will if we snitch on them. Sure, it won’t get them out of trouble, but you know Ryan. He’ll take us down with them. Why’d you say yes? What have they got on you?”
Checking both ways before speaking, Zola’s voice must have come out louder than she intended. I could hear her through the glass and across two rows of cubicles. “Why do they have to have anything on me?”
In my mind’s eye, I saw Zola slap her hand across her mouth as she sobbed or maybe hyperventilated. As she did, Art slowly looked around and into the main room, stopping on my cubicle.
I considered standing up and looking over there because that would be a normal person’s response, but then decided not to because I didn’t want to have a normal person’s response. I wanted to have an oblivious, flaky genius’s response.
I looked back at the function I was editing and typed a few words, stopped and typed a few more.
I managed to keep on typing even as Zola started talking again. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anyone. Too many people know already. When I was in college, I roomed with a supervillain. She goes by Preying Mantis now—that’s with an ‘e’—but she didn’t have a codename then. We were just art students and we had no money so she’d steal from people and I’d act as lookout. One night someone discovered us and Paula—Preying Mantis—ripped her head off. I helped her hide the body.
“Ryan knew somehow. I think Preying Mantis works for the Nine now. I haven’t heard from her in years. If he’s got a connection to the Nine, that’s got to be why.”
Art stared at her. “I thought I’d screwed up, but wow. You helped murder somebody.”
Zola’s face tightened. “I didn’t murder anyone. I just helped Paula hide the body. That and burglarize some stores and houses.”
Back in my cubicle, I knew I had to get this to Isaac Lim. Having the leadership of Higher Ground using Abominator tech for some purpose seemed like the kind of thing the Feds would shut down the investigation for.