Mel’s voice rang out behind me, cutting into my thoughts.
“—unacceptable! I asked you to guarantee a level of security, and you didn’t deliver!”
My heels clicked against the stone as I pivoted and cut a straight path toward her. Mel turned away from the pale-faced university staffer, who’d been nodding, nodding, nodding, simply absorbing the publicist’s lecture. Her face was strained with barely muted anger.
Because of her job, Mel had been trained to be changeable, to shift between many roles depending on who she was with or what she was doing. To me, she’d been a coach, a defender, a guide, and a protector. Incompetence, especially when it came to safety, never sat well with her. This security breach, combined with the car incident, had clearly rattled her.
“It’s fine,” I assured her. “Just someone looking for a reaction—”
“It’s not fine,” Mel said, her hand closing over my shoulder. She drew me behind the nearest pillar, out of the lingering news cameras’ line of sight. “You were supposed to launch the voting order. That’s why I pitched this event to the press!”
I took a step back, lips parting as I searched for the right words.
“I told them you were ready for bigger announcements, but if that’s not the case—” she began.
“No!” Somehow I managed to throw off the shock that had blanketed my mind. “No, I am ready. It’s just, it didn’t seem like—It wasn’t—”
I couldn’t get the word out, not under the full force of Mel’s disappointment. The day’s heat was unbearable, but her words were coated with ice.
“It came directly from the interim president’s office. They chose you for this announcement,” Mel said.
Mel stared back at me like I’d asked it in another language.
I didn’t look away as I clarified, “Why did they want me?”
Someone touched my elbow, silencing any reply I might have gotten from Mel. “Ma’am? This way.”
The Defenders’ uniforms were as crisp and new as the fighting force itself. The gray jacket was cut close to the body, allowing for a black utility belt stocked with nonlethal weapons and tools, including the signature batons with their motto stamped lengthwise in silver lettering: FOR THE COMMON DEFENSE. A red leather sash ran from the left shoulder to the hip, pinned in place with a silver badge over the heart.
I’d been in the focus group that helped to choose the uniforms. One minute, I was sitting next to Cruz’s chief of staff and the man modeling the sample—the third of five final options—had come into the conference room. The next, I found myself standing at the door, heading out. I still didn’t understand why the sight of that particular one had put my heart in a vise. It was a nice uniform. A fantastic one. There was nothing wrong with it, even if the colors were…
I drew in a deep breath as I looked to the Defender and nodded. I’d been so embarrassed when the chief of staff asked me what was wrong that day, and even more embarrassed when the designer explained the concept. The boldness of the crimson against the gray represented the hope for a stronger, more peaceful future in the face of a dismal past.
There was nothing wrong with the uniform, or me, and I proved as much when I voted for it.
The Defender, with her neat braid beneath her helmet, her sunburned white skin, and rigid posture had likely come out of one of the country’s fighting forces and had gone through psychological evaluations and tactical retraining with the United Nations peacekeepers. She walked us forward with the controlled assurance of someone who was used to giving orders, or at least following them.
“Wait,” I said, trying to pull my arm free. The Defender tightened her grip as she walked me back down the steps of Old Main, toward the speakers and the podium. I only knew Mel was still behind me by the sound of her heels. “Agent Cooper said to—”
“Not now,” Mel said sharply, coming to stand beside me. She waved toward where a group of Defenders had lined up along the edge of the makeshift stage, keeping back the tide of curious attendees trying to snap photos and the few reporters shouting questions at her.
“What are the interim president’s thoughts about the approaching elections? Has she seen the latest polling?”
“Mel, what can you tell us about the rumors of the UN General Assembly coming back to Manhattan?”
Realizing how it must have looked to everyone, I stepped in close to the Defender’s side, ignoring the pressing buzz in the back of my mind. The speakers were still humming as power moved through them, whispering something I couldn’t quite hear.
But I heard Mel all too clearly when she hissed from her own plastered-on grin, “Smile.”
Across the impatient, jostling bodies, through the shouted questions, I accidentally caught the eye of the boy I’d seen before. He hadn’t moved from where he stood in front of his chair, and now it felt like I had frozen in place, too. His brow creased as his gaze finally broke away from mine and locked onto the sight of a tall male Defender wading through the crowd.
The Defender who had my arm tugged me forward, down the steps. Not away from the crowd, but into it.
“Why are we going this way?” I asked. It would have been quicker to go the opposite direction, following the path Agent Cooper had taken to the other side of Old Main.
“Security protocol has changed,” the Defender muttered. Her dark braid shone in the damp heat.
There’s something deep inside you that shifts—awakens, I guess—when, at one point in your life, you come face-to-face with death and narrowly escape it. From that moment on, it’s like an unacknowledged insight is plugged into your mind. It doesn’t ring like an alarm when it picks up on something that’s off. It doesn’t always make your heart pound. Sometimes, there isn’t the time for that.
Call it instinct or intuition or whatever word you have for self-preservation, but once it’s there, it never goes away. And when it stirs, you feel it like a layer of static on your skin.
I should know. I’d felt it from the moment I’d accidentally stalled my family’s car in the middle of the I-495. From that heartbeat before the truck rammed into the passenger side of the car. It’s saved me too many times to ever risk ignoring it. As Vida always said, there are times you have to listen to your gut and tell common courtesy to fuck right off.
It was just a little bit harder to do that with cameras rolling. I didn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me afraid. I wasn’t about to flinch again.
But…it wasn’t just a feeling of unease. A faint new vibration coated the air, tickling along the edge of my ear, whining and burning.
In the blur of the crowd moving around me, I caught sight of the girl with the marigold-colored dress. She reached out and
grabbed the boy’s arm, pointing at something behind me.
I glanced back over my shoulder, searching for whatever they were looking at. The whining grew in intensity, melting into the hum of the speakers.
“We should go a different way,” Mel said to the Defender in a low voice. “Avoid the crowd.”
Yes. Yes we should. The attendees had bottlenecked at the only entrance, and therefore exit, in the security fencing. The day’s heat boiled the stench of sweat and the mowed lawn, leaving a burning aftertaste in my mouth.
I turned again, looking for a clear path back up toward Old Main, for Agent Martinez, who seemed to have disappeared. But as the crowds parted, only one figure was still heading our way. It was the male Defender, his uniform too tight across his broad shoulders, sweat gleaming on his white face. He lowered his head but not his gaze. It fixed on me a second too long. Before I could point him out, he was an arm’s length away.
Close enough for me to see my face reflected in his gleaming badge.
Close enough to see that there were no silvered words along the length of his baton.
Close enough to see his free hand slip into his uniform jacket pocket. The deadly shape of the weapon there as he reached for its trigger.
I didn’t think. I didn’t scream. The old woman from the highway, her face, flashed through my mind as my arm shot up. My fingers strained forward, close enough to nearly brush the end of the baton. The man gritted his teeth, eyes narrowed with naked hatred. He raised the gun inside his pocket to level with my heart.