The Mind Searcher

Chapter I

Sarai couldn't decide which was more horrifying: having to stare at the unidentified green stain on her date's otherwise pearly white teeth, or hearing him blab on and on about his achievement at zero ΩΩgravity tennis.


The pounding music blasting from the dance floor a few feet away helped made the latter more tolerable - not that she enjoyed such music; she merely appreciated how the mish-mash of beats and sounds drowned every other words Willard was trying to say - until he reached across the booth and grabbed her right hand, stroking the area between her thumb and forefinger.

She wasn't prudish by any mean. Considering the nature of her power, physical contact was practically a requirement. Still, between the clamminess of his skin and the salacious images barging into her head, she almost wanted to jerk her hands away, go to the nearest washroom and wash her hands in very cold water.

Almost was the keyword here. It had taken her three months of online back-and-forth messages and even longer sleuthing to convince Willard - or Will as he mentioned he would like to be called - to come to the bar on the outskirt of Obelisk. A feat considering most of her targets usually jumped within a couple of weeks. Besides, with him being the advisor to the Minister of Military, he would have important information stashed behind all the inappropriate, yet unimaginative thoughts.

"Oh, Lucy! You should see my trophies at home. Why don't we leave here and come over to my place?"

On a scale of one to ten, she supposed it wasn't even the worst pick-up line she had ever heard. One time someone had prepositioned her with the promise of petting his chinchilla if she went home with him to which she responded that she had a serious and deadly allergy to furry animals. Having the distinction of not giving out the worst come-ons however didn't stop her from giving a mental eye roll.

"That sounded lovely, Will," she said in a high-pitched, breathless voice she'd perfected in the last week. She put her other hand on top of his, batting her eyelashes. "But you know I have to be home early or my ma and pa would have my hide." She pouted, making sure her cotton candy lip-gloss coated lips were displayed to maximum effect, partly because she wanted to draw his attention to it and partly because she was proud of the bang-up job she had done on her makeup. 

Her hair was hidden beneath a soft pink wig with curls that cascaded all the way down her back. Her brown eyes were now an enchanting violet colour with flecks of gold on its irises and lined with layers of smokey eyeshadow and black eyeliner. Her skin shimmered with the fake tan she had applied liberally. She'd contoured her cheekbones to make it more prominent and even added prosthetic to her nose to make the bridge higher. All in all, she looked like a different person entirely - a fantasy came to life.

"I'll make sure to drop you off at your house on-time," he promised, half saying the words to her face and half to her cleavage spilling out of the tight red dress she was wearing. Chivalrous as it was, the thought of him knowing where she lived was as unappealing as having to swim in a pool filled with radioactive slugs.

"I have a better idea. Why don't we go to the hotel nearby?"

It didn't take her power to see that thoughts of being mugged were warring with the possibility of getting lucky. In those three months of tedious online hide and seek she had came to a realization that Williard James the Third was a scaredy cat which was why it had taken three months for him to agree to come to The Tempest in Rhinden. Not that she could blame him. Rhinden was no Goldtown but it had equally as bad of a reputation for its criminal activities and connection to the Lomar gang. But its lax security and lack of cameras and patrol drones were the reasons why she had survived this far. In a country where watchful eyes were everywhere, every little bit of freedom was precious.

She squeezed his hand tighter, letting tendrils of her power seeped underneath his skin. Come with me, she silently willed. Persuasion wasn't an aspect of her ability she had mastered. It would've made life easier if she could convinced anyone to do her bidding with just a touch, but alas, that wasn't the case. 

It required an open mind and the suggestion needed to be one that the other person had already been thinking or planning to do. Otherwise she run the risked of permanently damaging the mind - not an experience she care to repeat.

She saw the moment it worked. His jaw went slack and his face went blank as if he had been hypnotized. And in a way, he had. 

"That-that's a great idea!" He hailed for the waiter and the android server came ambling by. It must have been a late Republic era model - around thirty years ago - considering the eerie uncanny valley façade of its face. People these days either prefer their helper to be hyper-realistic or on the other extreme - so wildly out of the ordinary that it looked like it belonged in a contemporary art museum. Or a horror movie.

Sarai thought the server could also belong in a horror movie as it's glassy blue eyes blinked and its joints visibly contorted beneath its clothes. The owner of the establishment attempted to bring the android into the decade by giving it a sparkly canary yellow tank top and matching skirt and a neon blue wig but it just made her whole appearance even more incongruous.

In a stilted, monotone voice, the server recited their order and politely asked whether they would like to pay by credit or cash. Willard paid for their combined tabs. Sarai let him, not because she wanted to leech off him, but because she didn't have cash - it would've been stupid for her to carry anything valuable to this side of town - and giving up her credit would leave traces of her presence behind. 

He extended his card, purposefully angling it so she couldn't miss that he had the highest tier credit from the bank. Really. This time she didn't bother hiding her eye roll. If he wasn't being scammed by her, some other schmuck would probably reel him up in a heartbeat. Thankfully he missed evidence of her derision and his puppy dog face turned up toward her.

"Let's go." She exited the booth and beckoned him. 

He followed on her side as she led him toward the exit. The Friday night crowd that packed every inch of the club made their journey difficult. Bodies writhed against one another in skimpy outfits - male against female, male against male, female against female, and everything in between. There was a time when she was one of them - someone who could go to a club and let go of all their worries and fears and the thousands other things niggling at their brain and just let the music course through them. She reminded herself she had a purpose now and that was more important than all the fleeting fun she could be having. 

The air outside had a cold bite to it, signifying the arrival of fall. Wind blew from the East, carrying the smell of decaying leaves and vomit from the guy hunched over his belly at a nearby alley. Buckethead. It was the name of the newest drug that hit the streets of Obelisk - so called because after the high came down, everyone who used it will be sticking their head in a bucket in an effort to get rid of every single thing they had consumed. Despite it, everyone who had taken it thought it was worth the side effect and kept coming back for more. 

"Uh... Are you sure you don't want to come to my place instead?" Willard asked tentatively. From her research, she knew that he lived uptown in one of those sleek, newly built penthouses that jutted into the sky like some kind of monument to wealth and excess. She would bet therethere would be no homeless trying to find a place to sleep, vagrants looking through the garbage for scraps of meal, or addicts looking for their latest hit.

"Come on, Willard," she cajoled, adding a giggle for effect. "Everything will be fine." She grabbed his hand and held on to him. Follow me. She let her powers wrap around his mind like a comforting blanket. Follow me and your wish will come true. Like a drunk sailor following the call of a siren, he trailed behind her. 

The hotel stood between a massage parlour and a 24/ 7 fast food joint, and the smell of jasmine oil mixed with grease permeated the lobby, seeping into the old red vinyl couch that sagged against one corner and the tufted creme coloured carpet. Unlike the other establishments which opted for android staff, the figure sitting behind the counter was very much real flesh and blood. She could tell because no android could have that look of utter boredom that only a teenager possessed. The boy stood up and plastered a placid smile as they approached. 

"Give us the best room you have," Willard demanded as if he was in a five star accommodation, not a rundown establishment on the wrong side of the city. He squinted, trying to read the placard on the receptionist's chest. "Adi."

Adi didn't so much as blink at the demand. He produced two keycards and said "Room Twelve Thirty is empty. You can use the elevator on the corridor on your left." 

Willard scowled, staring at the keycards - not in anger, but in entitled befuddlementthat he hadn't been waited on hand and foot as he was used to. She nudged him aside as to not make a scene - not that there were anyone else except them - but because she was starting to grow impatient.

The room would've been spacious if not for the humongous four poster bed that occupied at least half of the space. A garish red duvet covered the bed and a multitude of flameless candles lit up the nightstand in an attempt to create a romantic atmosphere. Instead it looked as if they were trapped in a pagan ritual, ready to be sacrificed to a bloodthirsty god. The other half were filled with a desk - a minibar tucked beneath it - covered with a sheen of dust. A waterfall of matching red curtains concealed floor to ceiling windows that filled one side of the room. 

When she pushed back the curtains, the shadows of Goldtown loomed from the East behind the billboards the government erected around its perimeter in an effort to hide it as if it was an unruly child a parent tried to hide from their acquintances lest they ruined the illusion of a perfect life. Goldtown wasn't called that because it was a wealthy neighbourhood. It was an ironic name due to the blanket of yellow dust that covered the buildings and streets from the nearby industrial complex. The dust shimmered as the sun set, which would've been pretty until one realized those same particles could cause respiratory issues. Over time, they had even wormed their way to the water supply which consequently had caused some residents to call the area "Pisstown" instead.

She let the curtain fall back as she heard the rustle of fabric. She turned around and stifled a groan. Willard had stripped down to his underwear, his clothes sitting in a pool a few feet away from his feet. 

He was in good shape - no doubt from all of those zero gravity tennis he wouldn't shut up about - and was a fairly attractive in a classical way with his blonde hair, square jaw, and blue eyes. And except for having a personality of a wet lump of clay and the weird stain on his teeth, he had been tolerable.

That didn't stop her however, as he swooped in and reached out for her, bending his head and exclaiming "Lucy, you don't know how long I've waited for this", from jabbing the syringe she'd hidden in her pocket into his right shoulder. 

He staggered. His hands reached up, trying to grab at the needle. "Wha-" He squeezed his eyes before unceremoniously falling face first onto the carpet.

Even though he was only a few inches taller than her own five foot eight, her pointy heels and tight dress didn't help as she dragged him onto the bed. She kicked said heels and put her arms beneath his armpit as she hauled him, cursing as several of the multitudes of flameless candles tumbled down onto the floor. She heaved him into the bed, the mattress dipping beneath his weight. All the while, Willard remained oblivious as he snored loudly.

The tranquilizer would give her thirty minutes to work with and she had already wasted five minutes of it. She supposed she could've just used her power while he was on the floor, but she had to draw a line somewhere after all.

Taking a deep breath, she placed her palm against his hand. 

Reading someone's mind was like going to a library - except there was no kind, wise librarian to guide you or useful signs to show where everything were. Instead she was left to wander, flipping around useless volumes about someone's childhood or in Willard's case, copious memories of frat parties he attended in college. She skipped those, moving to another metaphorical aisle. Zero gravity tennis - no, tidbits of women he slept in the past - heck no, a strangely encyclopedic records on how to skin fish - useful if she was stuck in an apocalyptic scenario. Pushing deeper, she finally found what she was looking for. When she reached for it however, all she could hear was an unending diatribe about boredom.

She frowned. Taking a step back, she broke contact. 

She gripped the cover underneath him and jerked it away. She tied one end of the fabric around one post then wound it over his leg, circling a couple times before moving to his other leg and tying the excess fabric to the other post. With the sheets, she did the same to his arms until he was splayed on the bed with his arms and legs outstretched in an X. Then she grabbed a bottle of water from the minibar, uncapped it and splashed it against Willard's face. 

He woke up with a start. "Wha- What happened? What the-" He stared at his arm then started tugging the sheets - lightly at first then harder when he realized his situation. "Lucy! Lucy!" He said when he spotted her. "Help me!" The panic in his eyes turned into complete horror when he saw her standing still. "Are you the one... why... I have money! You can take it!"

This was why she preferred her mark to be deep in slumber. 

She grabbed the closest weapon in hand - which in this case was a pen embossed with Roland: Your go-to choice in comfort. When she pressed it against his neck, Willard thrashed around as if she was holding a ten inch cleaver. 

"Don't do this! Do you know who my family is?"

Of course she knew who his family was, she wanted to tell him. Why did he think she approached him in the first place? Clearly not because of his sparkling personality or his unmissable presence. 

"Shut up, Willard," she said instead in a harsh, commanding tone. Her words sent him into silence. "Answer my questions and nothing will happen." She pressed the pen deeper where the vein in his neck thumped rhythmically. Early in her life she learned that anything could be a weapon in the right circumstance and she bet that if she jabbed the pen hard enough, she would hit the carotid artery. 

Willard closed his eyes and whimpered, a whining cry that pierced her eardrum. At least, he had stopped thrashing.

"Tell me what you know about the attack at Morse," she told him. 

When Marcelle started annexing countries in the continent thirty years go, Morse had somehow held its ground. An amazing feat considering that it was just a tiny slip of a country past the border of Sorrel. Its main strength came from the concentration of magicians. Usually for every million of kids born in the year, one will be a magician, but in Morse that number was one in a thousand. It was for that reason that they were able to withstand the attacks from bigger countries for centuries and have its borders - shaped like peas in a pod that stretched and covered the western peninsula - virtually unchanged.

Not that wars between countries existed anymore - at least, not on the surface. Pressures from the international government had led to Marcelle stopping its campaign fifteen years ago. Still, it was an open secret that Marcelle was waiting for any signs of weakness from Morse before it swooped in like a jeweller adding one more bauble to their ever growing collection. Or a cantankerous bully in the playground taking another kid's candy even though they already had ten of them and was in danger of getting a toothache.

Six months ago an explosion occurred at Morse central square where the main legislative complex was. The public said that it was the work of a domestic terrorist but whispers underground said it was an attack orchestrated by the Marcelian government. If she could find evidence of that sort and release it to the public, the other government would have no choice to step in. Maybe, maybethen this country and everyone in charge would crumble down.

When she pressed her palm against his hand again, fear slammed against her. Reading someone's mind when they were awake can be difficult. Emotions muddled their thoughts, and those same emotions could be so strong that they alter someone's memories, rewriting their recollection based on what they felt. But it was the most effective method as the conscious forced the person to remember what happened.

She forced through the torrents of terror and was met with... nothing? It wasn't actually nothing - she saw a vision of Willard munching on cereal as he briefly flitted over the news before moving to the sports section on a lazy Saturday morning. She took that back. That was worse than nothing. 

"Mo-Morse?" His brow scrunched up. "I don't-"

"The bomb at the central square. The one meant for the president but killed his assistant instead."

"I don't know anything about it! Believe me-" He yelped when she dug the pen deeper. "Listen! Listen! I only got my position because of Uncle Nic, okay?" He said, referring to Nikolai Blackwell, the Minister of Military Affairs and who many considered to be the second in power within the administration. "My parents are tight with him and they donated a tons of money to the government so when I graduated he offered me the position. I don't actually do any work. I don't even know what work I should even be doing." 

As he talked, images rushed inside her head and a sinking feeling built in her stomach. He was speaking the truth. And while nepotism within the supposedly staunch government was juicy gossip, it was nothing compared to what she was looking after.

The moment she stepped away, pulling the pen away from his neck, he visibly sighed. "Can you get me off these restraints now-" Before he could even finish that sentence, she took the extra syringe she had - the one with a higher dose that will make him sleep until the morning - and jabbed it on his arm. He was out in an instant. 

This time when she delved into his mind, she took every single memory he had of her or more accurately - Lucy - and erased it. She took her time, making sure that nothing remained. When she was confident, she started to wound new memories. When he woke up, he will think that he had somehow met some old college friends by chance and headed to the bar before choosing to sleep in the motel.

She took off the mock-shift restraint and used the blanket to cover his mostly naked body. The sheets, she threw to the ground, finding it too laborious to put it back on with him on the bed.

She peeped at the keyhole before she left the room, finding the corridor empty. Adi was still there, playing a game on his phone as he slouched against the chair. He gave her a tiny, imperceptible nod as she left. By now, he knew the drill. All that's left would be for her to transfer money to him in exchange for his silence.

The air outside had grown considerably colder and she cursed at her outfit. Why was it that every femme fatale outfit have to be so skimpy? She bet she could make a killing if she could figure out a way to be warm and wear revealing clothes at the same time. She shook her head and snorted at herself. Who was she kidding? Engineering had never been her strong suit, even back at the Academy. 

The night had been a complete, utter failure. Maybe she should've seen the signs along the way - the way Willard had been interested in talking about everything else except his work and the utter confusion he'd exhibit when she steered their conversation to world news, but she had been so wrapped up in her vision of glory that she wanted to make it work no matter what. 

Sighing, she kicked a loose can out of the way. That'd teach her to be more discerning.

She walked a few blocks down to a run-down strip of shopping mall and into the dingy washroom inside. She waited until she was alone and took off her makeup, stripping away the layers of powders and foundation and everything else that was used to build the illusion. Slowly the face underneath was revealed - the almond-shaped brown eyes that came from her mother's Lao ancestry, the cleft on her chin that came from her father, and the stubborn set of lips above it that just somehow decided to appear in her family line out of nowhere. People had remarked that she was pretty in a delicate, flowery way despite the fact that she could fight men twice her weight. Her instructors had told her how it was an advantage since most people wouldn't expect to be strangled hold by someone who looked like her. Even years later, she still couldn't quite decide if that was a compliment or an insult. 

Once her face was free of any artifice, she grabbed the canvas bag she'd taped beneath the sink. It was wrapped in layers of black plastic and contained the stash of clothes she'd hidden. In the bathroom stall, she slinked off her dress and dumped it into the bag along with her heels and wig. She would have to throw those out in a garbage vaporizer on the way home. A pity since they costed her a pretty penny, and between the clothes and the bribe she had to pay Adi, her savings were quickly dwindling. 

The woman who exited the shopping mall bore no resemblance to the one who entered it, choppy shoulder length black hair tied in a ponytail; grey, oversized hoodie over black leggings that fell mid-thigh; neon yellow sneakers that had seen better days.

Despite her new outfit offering much better protection against the elements, Sarai drew her hoodie closer, shielding her face against the wind. If she was lucky, she could still catch the last bus and be in her bed within thirty minutes. If she wasn't, then that duration would stretch to one hour. Not that she minded a little bit of physical exercise. But on a night like this, with the moon at a waxing crescent and the air prickly from the cold, it reminded her of the folk stories her mother had told her when she was a child - of monsters that came when there was no light in the sky to steal mortal souls. Those thoughts made her steps lengthened. 

She rounded a corner, just a few yards away from the bus stops before she slowed down, moved past the bus stop and into a deserted alley. The person behind her followed suit. Any normal person would've run to the nearest police station or a crowded place where they can lose their pursuer. But those heavy steps were unmistakable. 

"Have you not learn by now that if you're gonna stalk someone you should do it more quietly?" She said.

Tripp was a man of few words - or more accurately a man of no wordssince in the last three years she'd known him he had said nothing to her except for a few well-timed grunts that expressed either disgust, anger, or annoyance. He let out one of those grunts now, a cross between all three emotions. 

He stepped forward into a pool of light that came from a spotlight someone had installed on the sides of the building. His face was ordinary if slightly plain - hawkish nose, square jaw and brown eyes, but his six foot five figure of pure muscle had sent many grown men and women cowering before him. It didn't help that his reputation preceded him. Everyone within the Lomar gang territory had heard stories of him beating someone to a pulp with his bare fist or crushing someone's skull with one hand... she'd suspected that last one was exaggerated but the point was no one would or should mess with the right hand of the Lomar gang's leader.

Once upon a time, she'd thought that their shared Lao heritage would lent him sympathy against her plight but that notion was swiftly dashed away when she realized that Tripp was wholly devoted to his evil overlord the way a brainwashed cult member looked at their guru. 

Another person stepped from behind Tripp's ginormous shadows. She didn't recognize him. Fresh meat, she thought. He was tall - not as tall as Tripp but taller than her - with a lanky build wrapped in a flannel shirt and shaggy blond hair capped underneath a black beanie. A full beard framed his jaw while an equally bushy brow sat on top of hazel eyes. If she had seen him on the street, she would've thought he was a tourist that came from one of those quaint northern towns she'd heard about. The only thing that stopped her from thinking that right now was the long, jagged scar running down his cheek.

"This is the girl that the boss warned us about?" The guy - who'd she'd christened as Tripp No. 2 for now - scoffed, jabbing a thumb in her direction. "I could've handle her myself."

Tripp No.2's words made her cross her arms over her chest. "Oh yeah? Why don't you come over here and fight me, lumberjack?"

He sneered. "You see this, little girl?" He tapped the scar on his face as if she could ignore such a hideous thing. "The guy who gave me this also said the same thing and he is now six foot under."

"Is that supposed to be impressive?" She put as much derision as she could in her voice. "If he left you that scar then that meant he almost had you. Did you see Trippy there?" She nodded at the after-mentioned general vicinity. "Did you see him sporting any scar? That's because he never let anyone get him." 

Even though they'd never met each other, she knew his type. He was that person who was so eager to prove he was better than anyone that he didn't care what the cost was - the one kid in school who had to be the star in every project he was on, the fastest in every race, the strongest at every match. She was that person once, and still was in some ways. It was why she understood immediately what made him tick. 

Tripp shuffled on his feet, letting out another grunt, seemingly uncomfortable at being the centre of attention. Interesting. She had never seen him displaying any emotion other than general apathy. His companion, on the other hand, was seething. 

"You bitch. I'm going to get you-" His words were cut-off as Tripp held him back when he tried to launch himself at her. 

She yawned. The game had been amusing but she was growing tired and had better things to do. "So what did the head honcho-"

"Tripp, David, what was the hold-up for?"

She squeezed her eyes close for a second. Speak of the devil. The hoarse, raspy voice sent shivers up her spine and made her stomach churn. "Oh, hi, Randy. Fancy seeing you here," she said when she finally gathered herself, mustering her most nonchalant voice.

Randy Lomar, the leader of the gang itself, stood a few feet away. The tip of his cigarette glow like ember as it hung from the corner of his lips. He spat it out to the ground, crushing it under one immaculate handmade loafer. All the while he stared at her with beady eyes the color of the blackest coal which probably matched the color of the putrid soul squirming beneath the navy suit. 

He might have been handsome a decade or so ago - he had the makings for it: high, patrician nose, sharp cheekbones, full lips, naturally tanned skin the color of warm sand on a desert - but time - or maybe all the chain smoking - hadn't been kind to him. Wrinkles lined his skin like creases on well-worn leather. His jaw was now rounded, his jowl sagging beneath his chin, and his belly protruded from his waistband.

Stories about how he built the gang with his younger brother had became a legend around these parts - a quasi folk stories passed down by the inner gang kids on the streets and between alleyways. The stories were even more brutal than Tripp's, and she believed every single one of them because she'd seen enough to know that Randy had no scruples about anything as long as it benefited him.

"Lin, are you giving us problems again?"

She flattened her lips, indignant. "Me? I'm just teaching your new recruit here the ropes. He's gonna get himself killed in five minutes walking around here with a stick up his ass like that."

Tripp's no. 2, whose real name was David, bared his teeth but didn't say anything. Apparently being in the presence of Randy was enough to deflate his gargantuan ego a little bit. Randy continued staring at her, a tic on his jaw. His greatest vice was his temper. Blood had been spilled just for looking at him the wrong way, and right now, he looked like he wanted nothing more than strangle her with his hands. She would welcome that. Because it would allow her to put her own hand on him and turn his mind into mush. But he knew her too well which was why he suppressed his temper and just said "Follow me" before turning on his heels. 

A thousand retorts clogged up her throat. She swallowed them all. She was already testing her luck as it is. As much as he found her power useful, he wouldn't hesitate to carve her up and strung her on the nearest lamppost. 

Tripp and David were right behind her as their little group proceeded through the alleyway. At the entrance, a black stretch limousine sat idle, its spotlight illuminating the ground in front of it. The driver held the back door open and she could feel the heat radiating from the interior. 

"Stay here," Randy ordered David. She sneaked a look back and saw him nodding while failing miserably to hide his disappointment at not being included. To her surprise, Randy also turned to Tripp and said, "You too." 

In all the years she'd known him, he'd never let himself be alone with her. His orders were either passed down through his lackey or in the rare case he had to talk to her himself, Tripp was usually beside him. For him to deviate from his usual routine meant he either was trying to pull a fast one on her or whatever he wanted to talk to her about was so confidential that he didn't even trust Tripp to be within earshot. She didn't like any of those options.

"Don't do anything strange or you'll be sorry."

Sarai blinked. She was so surprised by the sound of Tripp's voice that it took her a second to register the holo-gun's muzzle pressed against her side. She should've guessed that out of everything, the thought of her injuring his big boss Randy was the thing that made him talk. "Don't worry, Trippy. I'll make sure our lord and saviour here is in one piece when I'm finished with him." He dug the the gun deeper. "Be careful there," she told him coolly. "I don't think Randy would be very happy if you injure me before I can do whatever he wants me to do." The words had the desired effect of making him retreat. 

The door closed behind her once she was inside. She took the seat across from Randy. He didn't look at her for the first few seconds, more interested in rolling the fresh cigarette he took out from his pocket and lighting it up. "You've been busy running your cons lately," he finally said. 

She fought to keep her expression neutral. Of course nothing gets by under his nose. As a consolation however, at least he thought she was running scams rather than committing treason against the government. The former would net her a maximum of five years whereas the latter was instant capital punishment. Not that she had a chance of coming out alive if the government realized who she was.

She shrugged. "I would've given you a cut, but I'm pretty terrible at picking my marks so it's not very profitable really. But I'll make sure you get your payment." 

Three years ago, she had come to Goldtown, scared and battered, running away from the military. Randy had offered her protection then a new identity once everything settled down. Her sixteen year old self hadn't realized then that those favours would come with a hefty price tag that she would still be paying years later. So here she was, sitting across one of the most dangerous man in Obelisk with a mountain of debt hanging around her neck. Even with all the favours she'd done for him, she had barely make a dent. 

"You can always join the gang full time if you need more money."

And be one of your minions?she wanted to say. "Thanks for the offer. But I don't like to be tied down. I prefer to be... what's the term... ah, independent contractor. I prefer to be an independent contractor." She was quite proud of herself at that moment. In fact, she quite like how that all sounded. It made her seemed like she was in charge and was offering a service, rather than the reality of being browbeaten lest she risked being hunted down by one of the most vicious gang in the country. "Anyway, what is it this time? I heard someone else is selling Buckethead. You want me to ask around and rat it out of their head?"

"You're awfully informed for someone who claimed they don't want to be part of the gang."

"Just following your lead, Randy. You did tell me once that I need to stick my nose in every corner if I want to survive around here."

Surprisingly he let out a bark of laughter. "Then you would've remember as well that I told you that your smart mouth would get you killed someday." Before she could reply, he threw something at her. The light glinted off the object as it flew in an arch.

She caught it and saw that it was a micro storage unit, the size of the pad of her thumb. She pressed the side of it and the unit lit up, vibrating under her skin as it spit out a holo projection of a house - no, a mansion - built in the style of one of those houses caved into cliffs on the beaches of Sorrel. White, sun-washed walls made up the exterior of the building, punctuated by bright blue domes that was strewn around the top of the building in no particular symmetry or order but yet somehow made the building more arresting. A zig-zag of stairs ran the perimeter of the building cobbled with multi-colored tiles and led to patios and decks that opened up to the sky. In the middle, a pool beckoned from its azure depth. 

"Are you planning to buy a new property? Not really your style, isn't it?" She remarked. Randy's preference ran more into the showier side of things which was why he had built a monstrosity of golden fences, marbled pathways, and rolling lawns littered with classical reproduction of statues in the middle of Rhinden.

He ignored her question. "Do you know who Roan Ferro is?"

Of course she did. She'd made it her business to know every single person connected to the government. Not that she'd let him in on that. "The son of Marco Ferro, the president of Sorrel?" she said, referring to the country south of Marcelle. It was one of the earliest countries absorbed and unlike the others, Sorrel had signed a treaty of surrender which decree that it would be able to retain its own government.

"That's his house."

Well, that would explain the choice of architecture. "I assumed you're not showing me this because you want my opinion on it?" she asked as the projection shifted, flattening until it showed the floor plan of the building with red dots of what she assumed was where the security cameras were. 

He snorted. "I need you to break into the mansion."

"What-" She jerked in surprise, then cursed when the micro storage unit dropped to the ground, the projection flickering out of sight. 

"Don't tell me you're developing a compunction now?"

This time she was the one who snorted. Her concern was more of the logistical kind. It was one thing to commit all these acts in Rhinden and Goldtown where the laws bent toward the shadows, and where, as much as she hated to admit it, the gang could offer her protection when push came to shove. The mansion, in its clean, elegant prettiness, was probably located in the middle of Obelisk where security was tight and only a select few could get in. And she'd tried sneaking in before with zero success. "I would be shocked if I would be able to set a foot on the mansion, much less the whole area. I might as well walk in to the nearest police station and tell them to arrest me, right? Actually, I should probably skip all of that and tell them to execute me on the spot."

"Leave that details to me. I'll make sure you'll be able to enter the mansion," Randy said as he breathed out a cloud of acrid smoke that made her eyes water. "There'll be a party there in three days. You'll go in as one of the servers and sneak into the study room on the third floor and plant this." He threw another object. It was a wireless transmitter meant to steal all digital information as well as any audio recording within two hundred foot radius. 

Now she was intrigued. As ambitious as he was, Randy rarely strayed from his territories. And between that and the transmitter - a technology only available to the military - it must mean that he had backing from someone powerful. Possibly someone from the government. Interesting. Very interesting, indeed. 

She shifted in her seat, crossing one leg over the other. "So what did he do?" As far as she heard from the news, the only crime Roan Ferro ever committed was excessive partying and blowing too much money on gambling.

"You're overreaching your position, Lin," he told her, that tic appearing again on his jaw. 

She backed off. "Would it be overreaching my position if I asked what's in it for me?" Not that she would reject the order. If she could figure out how to duplicate the signal so that she too could get the information sent her way, then she could figure out who was sponsoring Randy. Besides there were bound some very important people in the party. Maybe she could read some interesting information from their brain. 

"I'll take thirty percent of your debt off."

Thirty percent was damn good. But because she was an opportunist by nature, she pushed. "How about fifty percent? You must have a lot riding on this personally if you're not letting in Tripp or your brother in on this."

His face scrunched into an expression of pure anger. "Careful," he growled in a tone that would no doubt sent his lackeys to their knees. "I would bet your name is still on the wanted list somewhere." She swallowed. "Thirty percent and make sure nothing goes wrong. The micro storage unit should have additional information you need. " She knew she was dismissed then. Just as she reached for the door handle however, his warning stopped her. "In the event you're caught, don't let them connect anything to the gang or I will make sure to serve your head on a platter myself."

Because she was quite fond of said head, she gave a jerky nod in response. 

Tripp and David stood on either side of the car. The hulking giant cocked his head as soon as she exited, treating her with a stare full of distrust. 

"Relax. I haven't done anything. Why don't you give your boss a real up-close examination if you're so concerned?"

He didn't say anything, relapsing to his familiar non-verbose state. He motioned to David, a sign that business was completed and it was time to move on. David went to the front of the car while Tripp went through the door she'd exited moments ago.

The limo revved and pulled from the curb, speeding into the dark until only its rear-light was visible before that too was swallowed up by the night.

Sarai stood there, gazing at the spot where the vehicle once stood. One day, she promised, she would burn Marcelle down, including Randy and every rotten thing within in. 

Chapter II

and perseverance!