Authors: Christopher Farnsworth
“What is it?” he asked, almost to himself.
Simon raised his eyebrows.
“The catch,” David said. “What’s the catch?”
Simon smiled. “Ah. Well. Here’s the part you’re not going to like. You cannot test the compound itself. You may have access to every one of our subjects, every bit of data we’ve got, every page of our research. You get bloodwork, DNA, MRIs, chemical analysis, every possible test we’ve ever run. But the compound itself is off-limits.”
The logical part of David said, There it is. The catch.
Out loud, he asked, “Why?”
“Think it through. This is the greatest discovery in history, and the supply is limited. I’m not going to give you a chance to waste any or, worse, steal a sample. It’s not just my ass on the line here, David. I have responsibilities to other people as well. I will not lose so much as a single drop. This isn’t a negotiating tactic. This is the one hard-and-fast rule. Take it or leave it.”
“Where did you get it?”
“I found it under a four-leaf clover.”
“Oh, seriously?” Simon smiled. “In that case, I got it from an alien who needed new parts for his flying saucer after he crashed at Roswell. No, seriously, I got it from a gnome after I guessed his name. No, wait, actually—”
“I get your point. But without the original sample, what you’re asking is impossible.”
“Not for you,” Simon said. “I have faith in you. If anyone can do it, it’s you. And you know it.”
David sat there for what seemed like a long, long time. It was probably only a few moments. But it felt like hours.
He had always felt his sister’s death was like a guiding star, pulling him in the direction of what was right. And now here was this person—this kid, really—telling him that it was all possible. That he could really do it. Save everyone.
But what he had seen was impossible. The fact that Simon would not share the actual compound—that sounded all kinds of alarms in David’s head. That was the gimmick: the part of the magic trick that the performer never reveals.
There was no way this was genuine. It was all much too good to be true.
That’s what the cautious, careful voice in his head told him.
But for the first time in his life, David stopped listening to that side of himself. He didn’t care.
He had to know what was in that vial. No matter what.
He looked back at Simon, who was waiting.
“I’ll take the job,” he said.
“Thank you,” Simon said. He leaned over the table and dragged David into an awkward hug, releasing him only after a long moment.
“Thank you,” he said again. “Together, we are going to save the world.”
David pulled away, slightly embarrassed. “I should get back to the hotel. Get some sleep before my flight.”
“Oh no,” Simon said, suddenly clownish again. “You are going to shower and get dressed and then we are going out.”
“I appreciate it, really. But I am exhausted.”
Simon’s grin turned mean. “Hey, you better have some fun tonight. Because on Monday, I am your boss, and you are not going to see anything but the inside of a lab until you get me what I want.”
“I’m not joking,” Simon said. “You’re going to earn that two million a year. Never thought you would have such solid negotiating skills.”
David was momentarily confused. “Really? I thought you sent that woman to give me that advice last night.”
Now it was Simon’s turn to look confused. “Tiffani told you to hold out for two million? Wow. Smarter than she looks.”
David was about to correct Simon, to tell him about the woman in the club. Then he stopped himself. He realized that Simon did not know about the woman, even if the woman did say she knew about Simon.
That was interesting. He didn’t know what it meant. But he was smart enough to keep it to himself.
Simon had been holding on to all the secrets. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few of his own, David decided.
ON THEIR WAY OUT
of the building, Simon ducked into a side office. “Just wait a second,” he told David. “Got to sign a couple things, then you and me, we’re going to tear this town a new one.”
David smiled at him wearily. “Sure. Whatever.”
Simon’s expression changed as soon as he was through the door. David was exhausted. Simon was grateful. David was smarter than he’d guessed, and having him tired and off-balance made it easier to fix the little details around the edges.
He walked through another door, into what looked like a medical exam room.
Mueller was there, dressed in a new set of clothes, fresh from the men’s section of the local Target.
“Mr. Mueller,” Simon said. “You look like a new man.”
“Yeah, well,” Mueller said. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
“That’s what I was told. How can I help you?”
“Seems to me you might have taken advantage of me when I came into this place.”
Simon closed his eyes. Unbelievable. You give someone the gift. The most precious gift possible. And they immediately want more.
“You believe we cheated you?”
“Look, I’m not stupid,” Mueller said. “What you did to me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t legal. Now, if you don’t want me to bring the cops around, it’s going to cost you.”
Simon didn’t respond. He let the silence linger. Mueller shifted from foot to foot. Just before Mueller opened his mouth again, Simon spoke.
“I was prepared to let you go with my blessing,” Simon said. “I assumed you would spend the limited time we’d given you as you did before we found you: drinking paint thinner, facedown in a gutter. You might tell someone what happened to you, but who’d believe a waste of flesh like yourself?”
“Hey, now,” Mueller said, trying to work up the nerve to be insulted.
“But as you’ve shown, we can’t trust you for even that. I apologize, Mr. Mueller. I apologize for thinking you might rise above your sorry, pathetic excuse for an existence.”
Mueller had no response to that. Probably because he was choking to death on his own blood.
From inside his pocket, Simon had drawn a short-handled dagger and shoved it deep into the old man’s chest. He’d driven it through the left lung on its way to the heart. It was a completely silent death stroke, expertly delivered.
Simon had many, many years of practice.
He withdrew the blade. Mueller dropped to the floor. Simon pressed an intercom button, and the nurse reappeared a moment later.
“Put this thing in the incinerator,” Simon ordered her. He gestured for her to step closer. She hesitated but complied. He wiped the blade on the hem of her scrubs, carefully checking to make sure he’d gotten all the blood. He’d had this dagger for years. He’d actually lost count of all the times he’d replaced the handle, then the blade, then the handle again. It raised the old question: was it really the same knife anymore?
He liked to think so. It was reliable. Faithful. That was why he always kept it by his side.
When the dagger was clean, he put it back inside his pocket.
Simon was smiling again when he rejoined David in the hall.
“What was that about?” David asked.
“Just the usual,” Simon said. “There’s always someone who thinks he’s more important than anyone else. And he’s always wrong.”
IMON ARRIVED AT
the board meeting last. It was his prerogative as chairman and CEO, but it was also in keeping with his character. He slouched into the boardroom twenty minutes late, sunglasses on, head bopping to the music blaring through his earbuds.
The door closed behind him, sealing the room like a vault. It had been constructed to demanding specifications. Completely soundproofed, it was a reinforced steel box wrapped in concrete and framed inside the girders on the top floor of Conquest’s office tower. It was impervious to any kind of radio wave, and used sophisticated jamming and baffling devices to prevent electronic eavesdropping. No one was going to get interrupted by a call on their cell phone while inside the boardroom. The only signal coming in or out was over a broadband cable with military-grade encryption.
The boardroom also served as a panic room, with storage tanks under the floor containing its own air and water supply, if it ever became necessary to lock out the entire outside world.
As soon as the door was shut, Simon stood straighter and yanked the earbuds out of his ears. Of all the tiresome requirements of his public face, the music was the worst. Call him old-fashioned, but he did not find repetitive shouting of obscenities at all entertaining or restful.
The other members were already at the table. There were four of them. Conquest’s board had more members than that, of course. Twenty-six at last count, not including the various subcommittees and part-time advisers. But that was the public board. They met in a different room.
This was the place where the real owners met. This was the Council.
Max was in his place, immediately to the left of Simon’s chair. Sebastian and Peter flanked him. Antonio sat alone on the other side of the table.
Each of them had a glass. In front of Simon’s empty chair was a crystal pitcher, filled with water, next to his own glass.
“Gentlemen,” Simon said, signaling that it was all right for the others to speak. In these meetings, they always used formal, Castilian Spanish. Despite everything, they held fast to some traditions.
“Simon,” Antonio said. “You look well.” He was currently stuck in his midforties, and they all knew he hated it.
They learned they aged faster the more time passed, if they didn’t have the Water. None of them knew how long they might last without a regular drink.
But they had to get older, just a little, or the world would discover what they were. They had to perform a balancing act. So Simon and the others had been succeeding themselves as father to son for generations now.
It was, frankly, exhausting. And painful. The interim period was the hardest. Carefully measuring the dosage, waiting for the change to be complete, and handling the physical pain as one advanced and retreated over several decades in the space of a few hours. Simon no longer remembered what real aging was like. Every time he was cut off from the Water—even willingly, even to advance the deception—a piece of his mind worried that he would never get his youth back, that this would be the time the miracle didn’t work.
It lasted for only a few seconds, but it was still terrifying. Simon suspected that they would all dry up and blow away if they tried to live like normal men again. The accumulated weight of centuries would crush them to dust.
In earlier times, even thirty or forty years before, it was easier. The press didn’t care as much about the private lives of the rich, and there was a certain distance enforced by wealth. The last time Simon had succeeded himself—gone from Simon Oliver II to Simon Oliver III—there had been a discreet funeral notice and a few faked pictures. These days, he had to contend with amateur paparazzi hunting for cell-phone videos, demands for childhood photos from supposedly respectable publications, and coroners and authorities who were increasingly difficult to bribe. He’d been forced to create a whole separate identity for himself, a celebrity image shiny enough to distract attention away from the fact that the supposed father and son were never seen in the same time zone, let alone the same room.
On the West Coast, he played the idiot boy, spending money, wrecking cars, chasing whores. On the East Coast, he’d played the disapproving father, managing the day-to-day affairs of Conquest—which grew only more challenging over time—and letting himself age.
The others didn’t have to be quite as careful, or take such elaborate measures. They weren’t the public faces of the company. The last time they had “died” had been in a faked plane crash during a corporate retreat in the Bahamas.
Antonio had been in Europe at the time, and felt left out. He couldn’t act as part of the group in public anymore. It would have looked too suspicious—and foolish—for the boys to be out partying with a friend of their fathers’. “I wish we could find some way to make the change all at the same time,” he said. “This sort of imbalance breeds division, and we cannot afford that, with our numbers so few.”
“Perhaps we can arrange for you to be murdered, Antonio,” Simon said as he took his seat. “Would that satisfy you?”
“What? Who? Who was murdered?”
The voice came from a speakerphone placed at the seat next to Antonio and hooked into the room’s hard line for the occasion. Carlos had not appeared in person at a meeting in nearly twenty years. He moved constantly, from stronghold to stronghold throughout Latin America. Simon honestly had no idea where he was right now.
Simon held back a sigh of frustration. The line was capable of carrying an ocean of data. A phone call was a mere trickle compared to that. It was Carlos’s hearing—or his attention—that was the problem.
“I was making a joke,” Simon said. “We’re all here now, Carlos.”
“We need to talk,” Max said. “Antonio has some disturbing news. And we need to discuss the Robinton decision—”
Simon gave him a hard look. There were rules. Protocol had to be observed.
“My apologies,” he said.
“Calling this meeting to order,” Max said. He opened a beautifully bound leather journal on the table in front of him. “Simón de Oliveras y Seixas, presiding. Also present, Maximillian de Cortez y Anquilles, Sebastian de Hernandez y Quinto, Pedro de Alvarez y Fonseca, Antonio de Ortega Montez, and Carlos Gaspar de Valenzuela.”
Simon stood and took the pitcher from its place. He filled his own glass first, then carefully filled the others’, with movements like a surgeon’s in their precision. He did not spill a drop.
They all stood. Each man raised his glass solemnly. The water inside appeared completely ordinary—save, perhaps, the slightest blue tinge. But that could have been a trick of the light.
“El agua es vida,”
“The water is life,” the others repeated.
They all drank, draining their glasses.
It was a maintenance dose, nothing more. Still, they all shuddered slightly, as if downing eighty-proof vodka.
They waited in silence for a moment.
The moment was shattered by Carlos. “What happened? Did we lose the feed again?”
This time, Simon had to restrain himself from laughing. He couldn’t help it. He was in a good mood today.
“You didn’t lose the feed, Carlos. Are you drinking with us?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Carlos snapped. “As much as you’ll send me, anyway.”
Simon doubted that. Carlos sounded peevish and irritable. Old. He’d have to send someone to check on him in person.
He sat in his chair again. The others took their seats as well.
“First,” he said. “Any old business?”
Max’s patience, however, was at an end. “There’s always old business. Too much of it. You need to listen to Antonio.”
Simon nodded. The mark of a good leader was allowing his subordinates some leeway. He turned in his chair. “Antonio, what has Max so upset on such a fine day?”
The word. The name. Two syllables. And such a terrible weight they carried, Simon thought. He could feel it, coming down over the entire room. For a moment, it felt as if they were in a tomb together, not safe but trapped.
“What about her?” he said as carefully as he could.
“She tried to kill Aznar two weeks ago,” Antonio said.
“Good,” Simon said. “He should have died a long time ago.”
The others did not take that well. They expected shock or outrage. Or at least an attempt to feign concern. They scowled at him, their dissatisfaction plain.
Antonio was the only one to say it out loud, however. With the difference in their appearances, he looked like an uncle scolding an unruly nephew. “That is not right,” he said. “Whatever you think of him—”
“He is a pig and a rapist and a murderer,” Simon cut in.
“Whatever you think of him,” Antonio continued, not hearing Simon or not caring, “he was one of us. We owe him some loyalty.”
“We owe him nothing. Aznar lost his place at this table a long time ago,” Simon said. “The worms can have him, if they don’t gag on his flesh.”
“She found him,” Carlos interrupted, over the speaker. “However distasteful you thought he was, we should worry about that. She’s getting closer to all of us.”
“She already knows where to find us,” Peter said. “The only one in hiding is you, Carlos.”
“That seems like a wise decision now, doesn’t it?” Carlos shot back.
Antonio would not be deterred. He stabbed a finger at Simon. “We should have eliminated her as a threat long ago and taken her supply of the Water, wherever she hides it.”
Simon rubbed his eyes. “You’re a genius, Antonio.”
That derailed his growing outrage. “What?”
“Find her and kill her. And take her supply of the Water as well. My God. What a strategy. What a plan. You must play chess. Why didn’t I think of that? It’s as brilliant as it is simple.”
Antonio scowled. “Mock me all you want—”
“Oh, I will, thank you. You know we have tried.” He pointed at all of the men around the table. “All of you know we have tried. We have tracked her every time she has appeared. We have followed her. We have sent our best men. And we have never seen them again. It’s not that we cannot find her; we cannot even find the bodies. Tell me, what would you do differently? What would you have me do, Antonio? What is your plan, aside from find her and kill her?”
Silence around the table. Antonio looked away. The other men would not meet his eyes, either.
“We could always go back to the original source,” Antonio said, much quieter now.
“The original source? Not this again. It’s gone. I know—believe me, I know—how much you want to believe that it’s still there, buried somewhere. But that is a dream. We lost it long ago, and we will never get it back. You know we’ve tried. You know we have attempted to purchase the land, to buy our way into the good graces of the Seminoles. It has never worked. They remember us. She makes sure of that.”
“Simon,” Max said, his voice pitched to soothe, “we are not questioning your efforts. We know how hard you have worked. We have been there, all of us. But perhaps there is someplace else, some other source that we’ve missed.”
“Max, we have looked all over the planet. We have only found the one source. You know this.”
Max said, “Then perhaps this is a good time for you to tell the others about—”
Something occurred to Simon. He raised a hand for Max to be silent. “How did you know?” he asked Antonio.
“How did I know what?” Antonio said.
“How did you know that she tried to kill Aznar? How would you even know he was still alive?”
There was a long silence.
Carlos, over the speaker, sounded mocking: “This is a terrible connection today.”
“Shut up,” Simon said. “Answer the question, Antonio.”
Antonio shrugged. “It only makes sense. If any of us goes missing or dies, it has to be her. She’s the only one capable of doing it.”
Simon ignored the challenge in Antonio’s voice. “No,” he said. “As far as any of us were aware, Aznar died in Serbia in 1993. Now, how do you know any different?”
Antonio slumped in his chair, all fight gone out of him. “He has been in contact with me. I’ve sent him money, when he asked. Arranged travel and sanctuary when he needed it,” Antonio said. He regained a little of his dignity. “Like it or not, we are brothers. We are the only ones in the world who understand each other. That forgives all manner of sins. You remembered that once. You never should have turned your back on Juan.”
Outwardly, Simon’s face was as blank as an empty slate. Inside, however, he felt a quickly building rage. But he wouldn’t allow himself to show any loss of self-control. It was how he ruled.
“And what else?”
“What else have you sent him?”
Antonio went pale. “Nothing.”
“You’ve been sending him the Water.”
Panic made Antonio’s face go white. “Simon, I would never do that. I barely have enough for myself. You see to that. You all know that! We have too little as it is!” He looked around the table for support. No one would meet his eyes.
“This is why you’ve aged,” Simon said. “You have been dividing your allowance. Sharing it with him. How else would Aznar even be alive? You know what happens without the Water. How is he still breathing?”
Antonio was sweating now, squirming in his seat. “It is not me. I swear.”
“Yes,” Simon said. “You swear. You swore an oath. Over and over, I’ve heard you swear. But you broke it when you helped him.”
Simon stood up. Every man at the table held his breath. They could even hear Carlos do the same, over the phone. He walked around the table and stood over Antonio.
“You have forgotten the rules,” Simon said.
Antonio refused to look up at him.
“Let me remind you, then. We agreed to forsake family and children. We are not bound to this world, and we have no heirs. This Council is our only family. We do not make the mistake of looking to our offspring for immortality. Until we have perfected this world, we do not lower ourselves to become common men. We have to be able to see beyond our immediate futures. We have to be able to make the sacrifices beyond the requirements of blood, kinship, family, tribe, and race. In return, we received—you received—the greatest gift any man could ever know. And you have betrayed us.”