Chapter One: Message Skipped
I hurdled the bike stand and cut off the corner, racing for the apartment building entrance. On the sidewalk, Mike cursed and put on a burst of speed, but my hand still slapped the glass door a second before his.
“I win.” I grinned at my fiancé, panting unashamedly.
“Only because you cheated,” Mike said lightly. He mock- frowned. “You know, while we were running, I felt this strange buzzing vibration…” He took my palmtop out of the pocket of his denim jacket and held it over his head. “Well, well, lookee what I have here.”
“Oooh. When did you lift that?” I was impressed. As part of our training for Angel Security, Mike and I had not only been running obstacle courses, but also practicing a number of skills that, on the surface, might be mistaken as criminal. Things like security hacking, picking locks, and picking pockets.
I wanted my business to specialize in hostage rescue, which would mean first breaking in in order to break out the hostage.
“Trade secret.” Mike handed me back the palmtop and inserted his key in the lock. He frowned when it wouldn’t turn, took it out and studied it, tried again. Still didn’t work. Only then did he turn to me. “Angel?”
I grinned and held up the real key ring I’d filched from him earlier. I twirled it around my finger. “Well, lookee at what I have here.”
Mike raised his eyebrows. “You made a duplicate set? Where did you find an identical key chain? I picked that thing up as a freebie months ago.” The leather tag had an embossed M for Mike.
“Trade secret,” I told him. In fact, I’d noticed that my friend Wendy’s key chain looked the same—she must have picked it up from the same freebie table—and borrowed it from her. Her embossed W looked enough like an upside-down M to fool a quick glance.
Mike used the real key to let us into the apartment foyer. We tramped down the hall to our apartment. Once inside the door, he quickly punched in his security code, then we both lifted our faces for the camera to scan and ‘recognize’ us.
“Welcome home, Master Vallant,” an upper-class British voice said.
Mike glared at me. “Master Vallant? Really?”
I snorted. When we’d moved in together, we’d upgraded the security on our new apartment. Included in the upgrade had been a House Manager. Although not a true A.I., the House computer was programmed with several different personalities.
“His name is Alfred, and he’s better than your last pick,” I told him. “Sheila had the worst Australian accent I’ve ever heard. All those ‘G’day, mates’ were driving me up the wall.” I toed off my shoes, went past the half wall dividing the kitchen from the living room and flopped on the soft blue couch. I opened up my palmtop and checked for messages.
“Alfred, your days are numbered.” Mike shook his fist at the speaker mounted on the wall.
“Today’s date is April third,” Alfred told him.
I laughed as Mike gnashed his teeth.
“Master Vallant, you have three messages,” Alfred announced while Mike rummaged in the fridge. The House computer system came with an answering service among other things. I had routed Residence, Business and Personal numbers to my palmtop, but Mike preferred to keep his palmtop clean of all but Personal messages—and he gave his Personal number out to almost no one. “Would you like to view them at this time?”
“Sure, Alfred. Knock yourself out.” Mike crunched into an apple.
I peered at the small screen on my palmtop. I had two messages. I hoped one had to do with a job. Business was slow, and I was eager for a little action.
“Please restate your last command,” Albert said stiffly. “Do you wish to view your messages at this time?”
Mike sighed. “Yes. Go ahead and play the messages.”
“Message one is voice only, no hologram,” Alfred announced.
“Mike?” A woman’s breathy, tear-clogged voice came over the speakers.
Mike spit out a bite of apple. “Skip!”
Bzzzpp. “Message skipped,” Alfred said, sounding prim. “Should I play message two?”
Instincts on alert, I paused my own messages and stared at Mike. Why the overreaction? His dimpled smile had firmed into a rock-hard jaw. His shoulders were so tense I expected them to twang like a guitar string any minute. “Who was that?” I asked.
“Nobody,” Mike said. He didn’t meet my eyes.
Frowning, I tried to place the voice. Female, but not girlish. Not Catherine. Not Wendy, Maryanne or Devon—all of whom were much more likely to call me anyhow. So who was it?
Whoever it was, she’d clearly upset him.
Intense curiosity gripped me, but experience told me it was better to let Mike tell me in his own time. I moved into the kitchen to give him a touch more privacy, then unpaused my own messages and held my palmtop up to my ear.
“Angel, this is Leona Weiss,” a new voice said briskly. “I wanted to personally invite you to the Renaissance Symposium this weekend at Crystal Waters Resort.”
I groaned. Not the salespitch again!
Across the half wall, Mike met my eyes. “Let me guess, you’ve got one from Leona, too?”
I nodded and put my finger in my ear to drown out his slightly-out-of-sync version of the same message, tapping my toe.
“If airfare is a problem, please let me know and I will comp you a ticket. If you have a conflict, reschedule it.” Leona’s voice hardened. “This conference is extremely important to all of us.”
By us she meant the violet-eyed, a new subspecies of human, Homo sapiens renascentia. We’d been genetically-designed to be smarter, healthier and more athletic than the norm. Blah, blah, blah. Leona was, in my opinion, a bit obsessed on the subject, if not downright paranoid.
“If you want your voice to be heard, you must be here,” she said. “Standing on the sidelines is shortly going to stop being an option.”
The message ended. I stared at the palmtop, perplexed. Now what did she mean by that? I liked the sidelines, thank you. And if Mike had his way, he wouldn’t even be in the same stadium, much less on the field.
My second message made my eyebrows rise into my hairline. I paused it. “I’ve got one from Hatcher. You, too?”
Dr. Hatcher was our liaison with the U.N. He’d talked me in out of the cold after the fiasco with Dr. Frank and our subsequent months on the run, culminating in my ‘employment’ by SilverDollar. Hatcher had personally supervised the removal of my Loyalty chip and he’d bullied NorAm’s government into allocating funds for both housing and university tuition at the institution of my choice.
He’d also provided encouragement and facilitated a loan when I decided to start up Angel Security.
In short, he was one of only four adults that I trusted—my parents and Catherine Berringer, Mike’s surrogate mother, making up the other three. I owed him my complete attention.
Hatcher called twice a month to check in, or rather to check up on the two of us. He wasn’t due to call for another ten days.
“Let’s view it together,” I suggested. “That way we can watch his expression.” The fancier House system had Holo capability.
I paused my messages and joined Mike on the sofa. Our arms brushed.
“Display next message,” Mike ordered.
“Message three,” Alfred intoned.
A full-size hologram of Hatcher appeared. In his forties, Dr. Hatcher had a lean build and graying brown hair. He was frowning, but then I’d seldom seen him smile. His first name could have been Serious.
“Michael, I wanted to alert you about a disturbing bill that has been introduced to the NorAm government. It goes under the innocuous title of the Resources Bill, but there’s a clause in it that will affect you and Angel. Basically, it allows for the ‘conscription of labour’ of ‘genetically-designed’ people such as Homo sapiens renascentia during times of ‘national emergency.’ Exactly what constitutes an emergency is not defined. Nor is there any mention of a time limit or monetary remuneration,” Hatcher continued.
My temper flared. So the government wanted to force us to work for them forever without pay?
“Needless to say,” Hatcher continued, “the U.N. will protest this bill and we will fight to have the clause stricken.”
His expression remained grim. How much of a chance did he think he had?
“To that end,” Hatcher continued, “I have a request. Please try to keep a low profile until the bill is defeated—“
“And what if it passes? Surrender quietly?” Mike growled.
“—it is vital that you not give the opposition any ammunition or evidence they can point to and say, ‘These people need to be curtailed and controlled for their own good.’ It may not be fair, but make no mistake: you are on trial right now in the court of public opinion. In a strange way, Nations Against did you a favour. Their hate crimes have led to increased sympathy for the violet-eyed. However, I’m giving you all the same warning: lie low. I believe we have a good chance of defeating this bill if nothing happens to make the public fear you. Nothing flamboyant, please.”
“Flamboyant, us?” I murmured.
Mike elbowed me.
Hatcher rubbed his forehead. “Frankly, I’m worried about the repercussions of this Renaissance Symposium. I’ve spoken to Leona Weiss about rescheduling it after the bill has been defeated, but she refused. If you have any influence on her, I’d appreciate it if you could urge her to postpone it.” He gave a brief, tired smile. “Michael, I know you’re still wary of me, but I am trying to help. This is my job, and I’m very good at it. Please don’t give up on the human race just yet. We need people like you and Angel. I’ll keep you informed. Bye.”
His hologram winked out.
Mike and I looked at each other. “Can you believe this?” I asked.
“Sadly, yes.” Mike jumped up and paced. “I mean, is it even a surprise that the government wants to control us? They think they own us just because they paid for us to be made. And Hatcher wants us to play meek mild mice. I have a better idea. Let’s run away.”
I blinked. “You’re not serious.”
He stopped in front of me. “Oh, yes, I am. We drop out of sight for a few weeks. If the bill is defeated, we come back, but if it passes we’re not here for them to scoop up.”
My heart thudded. He was serious.
“I have fake identicards for both of us. They aren’t good enough to get us across the border, but they’ll stand up to casual scrutiny.”
My jaw loosened. “How long have you been preparing to bug out?”
He shrugged. “You know I never trusted Hatcher as much as you did. And I was right. Not that he isn’t a good guy, but he’s one voice of reason versus a bunch of fear-mongerers. Let’s face it: his chances of defeating the bill are probably only 50/50. It just seemed like a good idea to have an insurance policy.” He studied me worriedly. “Are you mad?”
“No. I, uh,” I cleared my throat. “I have a cash stash in case we have to run. Someday. I’m just not ready to do it yet.” I stood up and curled my fingers around his bicep. “I like it on campus.”
I had ties here. Wendy. My parents. A half-completed term of university. My business. I’d started to dive into wedding plans. All of that would crumble to ashes if we ran.
“I like it here, too,” Mike said. “But I pretty much like it anywhere you are.” He gave me an affectionate squeeze.
My heart melted. I hooked an arm around his neck, went up on tiptoe and gave him a quick kiss. “Me, too. We need to learn more before we make any decisions.”
“To start with, I think we need to listen to your first message.”
Instantly, he tensed up. “Why?”
“In case it’s related.” His muscles felt like steel springs underneath my fingers. “You recognized the voice.”
It wasn’t a question, but he nodded. “I don’t see what she can have to do with anything.”
My confusion cleared. Betty Vallant was the actress who’d played the role of Mike’s mother during his decade in the Historical Immersion program. I’d only spoken to her twice, but that had been more than enough to form an instant dislike of her.
A frown wrinkled my brow. “Has she called you before?”
A shrug. “Twice since our names got plastered across the news after the NextStep thing. I didn’t respond. She probably wants to beg money,” he added bitterly.
Knowing Betty Vallant, that could very well be. “I’d still like to be sure. Do you want to listen to the message alone?” I made the offer reluctantly. Betty Vallant was a different creature from my own mother. Though my parents, too, had initially been hired to do a job, they’d quickly come to love me and we were a real family. Mike’s relationship with Betty and Drake Vallant had been much chillier. But still, until Catherine came into his life, Betty had been the only mother he knew.
He shuddered. “No. Please. Stay with me.”
We sat side by side on the sofa, legs pressed together. “Alfred, play first message from the beginning,” Mike ordered.
“Mike?” the tear-clogged voice asked again. Pause. “It’s Mom.”
I dug my fingernails into Mike’s leg. Betty had no right to call herself that!
“I know you want to cut all ties with your past life. And I’ve respected that and haven’t called,” she said virtuously, “but, well, the truth is, I need your help. I’ve lost something very valuable that some very nasty people want. In fact, if I don’t get it back,” her voice trailed off into a sob, “they’ll kill me!” More little-girl bawling.
I chanced a look at Mike. From the granite set to his jaw, he wasn’t buying this.
“I’ve been so stupid!” Betty continued dramatically. “It sounded like an easy way to earn money, but these people are very serious about getting their property back. Please, if I mean anything to you at all, call me.” She recited her contact information. Another sniff. “If you don’t call, the next time you see me may be at my funeral.”
“Message ends,” Alfred intoned.
I exhaled. “What do you think?”
“I think any trouble she’s in, she got into all by herself and she can get out again.” Mike’s words were harsh, but his expression was conflicted.
I folded my fingers around his cold hand. “What about the threat? Do you think her life is really in danger?”
“Maybe,” he said reluctantly. “She talks like that—all out of order and not making sense—when she’s upset. If they’d given her lines to memorize, she’d be smoother. Still, I’d bet money that ‘they’ suggested she call me.”
I took a deep breath. “I think we should talk to her.”
“What?” Mike squinted at me. “Are you crazy? You weren’t taken in by her poor-pitiful-me act, were you?”
“I despise her,” I said truthfully.
“The timing. As you pointed out, it’s likely that someone pressured her to call you. There’s a plan afoot. Based on Hatcher’s warning to lie low, I’d say that someone wants to implicate us in a scandal.”
“That’s an argument not to help her,” Mike said. “We ignore her plea, problem solved.”
“Whoever set this up doesn’t know how bad your relationship with Betty is,” I pointed out. “They nudged Betty to call you. In essence, this is them threatening to kill your mother.” And however difficult his relationship with Betty was, it would hurt Mike if she died because of him. “We need to assess if she’s truly in danger—if she’s a dupe or an accomplice.”
“Don’t discount the possibility that she’s both. I still say we’re better off ignoring her—” Mike’s eyes narrowed. “Except if if the threat to Betty doesn’t work, our enemies won’t give up. They’ll try again and threaten someone else.”
My mouth fell open. I hadn’t seen that. “You’re right. But it just reinforces my point: better to spring the trap now than wait until they threaten someone we do care about: my parents or Catherine or our friends.”
Mike slouched down. “Well, crap. I guess that means I have to call her back.” He lifted his upper lip in disgust.
I squeezed his hand. “No, we’ll call her together. Better yet, let’s set up a meeting and discuss things in private.” Discreet Betty was not.
“Okay.” Mike nodded. “So we pretend to stick our heads into their noose. What about Hatcher’s message?”
I grimaced. “Try to lie low, I guess and avoid the media.”
“Actually,” Mike said slowly, “I have a better idea. I say we publically go to the Renaissance Symposium.”
I frowned. Betty was living in the Midwest; the symposium was in the Caribbean. The two were not compatible. It wasn’t like we could spend the day with Betty and then pop in and make an evening appearance with Leona—
Except we could.
“Do you think they’ll agree?” I asked.
“They’d better. They owe us,” Mike said.
True. And it was about time we reaped some of the benefits of having clones. We’d had a truckload of the downsides.
I stood in front of the Holophone unit and took a deep breath, preparing to call Devon. When would this stop feeling so awkward? In the months since we’d parted at the end of the NextStep Titanic simulation I’d only spoken to my clone twice, though Catherine mentioned her frequently. Both Devon and Gabe, Mike’s clone, were under the protection of Catherine’s organization, Ultraviolet, but both times Mike and I had visited Catherine, Devon had been absent.
I’d figured the avoidance was mutual.
Calling up my clone, after all the trouble she’d caused and the danger she’d put Mike in—well, let’s just say part of me was still furious with her.
“Hello?” Devon said, voice only.
“It’s Angel,” I identified myself.
After a pause, she clicked over to Holo. Seeing a three-years-younger stranger wearing my face always gave me a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. My clone. My copy.
Or, looked at another way, my younger twin sister.
Her hair was still dyed black, but her eyes were their natural violet. Her hair was wet as if she’d just taken a shower, and her face was washed clean of makeup.
With someone else I would have chit-chatted for a bit before getting to the point of my call, but with Devon casual conversation would have felt false. We weren’t friends. We tolerated one another.
Misgivings tugged at my sleeve like a toddler trying to get my attention. Why had I thought this was a good idea? Too late now. I plunged ahead. “I need a favour.”
“Anything,” Devon said at once.
The intensity in her expression took me aback. I’d expected to need to convince her. I blinked. “You don’t even know what I’m asking.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, gaze unwavering.
“Oh, really?” I said with bitter amusement. “So if I asked you to jump off a bridge, you’d do it?”
“Yes.” She paused, uncertainty clouding her eyes. “That isn’t what you want though, is it?”
“No,” I said, amused. “It’s just a favour. You could even consider it a vacation. Nothing dangerous, I promise.”
“It wouldn’t matter if it was. I owe you Gabe’s life.”
“No, you don’t.” My protest was instinctive.
“He’d still be trapped in Virtual Reality if not for you.”
“Well, yes, but saving him was the decent thing to do. Anyone would have done it.”
She shook her head. I kept talking, cutting off her protest.
“You don’t owe me for Gabe’s life.” I leaned forward. “You owe me for your treatment of Mike, for almost getting him killed.”
Devon’s expression said she disagreed, but she waved a hand. “Why doesn’t matter. I owe you. You’re collecting. What do you need me to do?”
“Mike and I need you—and Gabe—to attend the Renaissance Symposium.”
Her eyebrows pinched together. “The thing at the Crystal Waters Resort? Gabe and I both received invitations from Leona What’s-her-face.”
“Refuse them,” I said.
“Already did,” she muttered.
“We need you to attend as Michael Vallant and his fiancée, Angel Eastland. Make kissy-faces for the cameras and get filmed.”
“Can you pull it off?” I asked sharply. “Can you be me?”
Her chin came up. “Of course.”
“Good. Mike and I will drop by Catherine’s with our identicards. Be prepared to leave by tomorrow.”
She nodded. “Will do.”
I sneaked a sideways glance at Mike while we travelled the last leg to Catherine’s office building via subway. We needed to establish video proof of our presence there before Devon and Gabe publically left in our places tomorrow, thus no private aircar. Using public transport meant we had to guard our tongues, but Mike had been very quiet during the trip. I feared he’d been brooding over Betty and bad memories.
Time to lighten the mood.
He looked up.
“I know we haven’t set a date yet, but Wendy has been bugging me about who her escort is going to be for the wedding. Who do you want as your best man?”
Mike shrugged. “I haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, I’m asking Wendy and Maryanne, of course, so you’ll need at least two guys.”
“No problem,” Mike said carelessly. “I can dig up some of my former baseball teammates. Ask Wendy if she has a preference.”
Hmmm. Wendy and a hot baseball player. She’d probably go for that in a heartbeat, but… “Don’t you have a preference?”
I quirked an eyebrow. “Have you talked to any of your teammates since quitting the Trentham Tigers?”
“Nah, but don’t worry. They’ll be happy for an excuse to party.”
I chewed on my lower lip. A former teammate would work fine for an usher, but seemed too impersonal for a best man. ”Maybe you should ask Gabe.” As soon as the suggestion popped out of my mouth, I wanted to retract it.
Sure enough, Mike raised his brows. “Are you going to ask Devon to be your bridesmaid?”
“Uh…” I winced, thinking about yesterday’s awkward conversation. I didn’t want Devon in my wedding party and it would feel even more awkward to invite Gabe without including Devon. “Never mind.”
The subway jerked and whizzed through two more stops, and we stepped out onto the platform. As we climbed the green-and-white tile steps up to street level, I kept worrying about the problem. Mike had lots of pals, so I’d never noticed his lack of a best friend before. Was that just a guy thing, or a Mike thing?
I thought back to our time in high school. ”What about Carl?”
“Sure,” Mike said. “I like Carl. Ask Wendy if she knows how to contact him.”
“She does.” Although Wendy and Carl were no longer dating—from Earth to Mars being way too long a commute for any sort of long distance relationship—I knew Wendy was in contact with him because she’d complained to me last week about how long it had been since his last message. Which had made me wonder if Carl was getting serious about someone else. I grimaced. “Actually, Carl may not be the best choice.”
A new thought broke in and I stared at Mike, perplexed. “Why don’t you have Carl’s addy? Haven’t you spoken to Carl since we left the ‘80s Historical Immersion? Are you friends or not?”
“We were friends,” Mike said judiciously. “But the truth is, if Wendy had been dating some other guy, I would have been tight with him. I wanted an excuse to hang around this fascinating girl with violet eyes.” He squeezed my shoulders and gave me a slow smooch. “I loved ruffling your feathers.”
I could live with that.
My lips twitched in amusement when Catherine ushered us inside her office break room. The entire back wall had been turned into a Catopia in the weeks since we’d gifted her with guardianship of Stripes, an enhanced-intelligence mini-tiger.
Mike outright snickered. “Where’s the Jacuzzi?” he asked.
A hot tub was about the only thing missing. I counted four different platforms for cats to lounge on, numerous scratching posts and lots of little toys.
Stripes himself lolled on his back, one paw adorably up in the air, on the highest platform. Asleep in a sunbeam.
“He needs stimulation,” Catherine said firmly. “Now then, as pleased as I am to see you, what’s this visit about?”
Mike inclined his head to me and I obligingly explained what was going on as Catherine set some tea to steep and produced a plate of chocolate marshmallow cookies that Mike had a weakness for.
Catherine stared at us in growing dismay, but waited until I finished before pronouncing, “This is a bad, bad idea.”
The expression looked wrong on her face. Catherine was a perpetual optimist. Even though she wore suits and ran a business, in my mind I always thought of her as a pony-tailed cheerleader.
I explained our reasoning: we wanted to draw out the person trying to trap us before they grew desperate enough to move against someone we actually cared about.
“I have a better idea,” Catherine said when I finished. “You two take Dr. Hatcher’s advice and lie low, and I’ll put Ultraviolet Security on Angel’s parents.”
I glanced at Mike. Catherine’s plan wasn’t unreasonable, but… it required me to be passive. I was happy to have Catherine’s advice and assistance, but I wanted to solve this problem myself. I wanted to catch the people behind this, not merely thwart them.
Mike shrugged, as if to say he was all right with either option.
“We appreciate the offer,” I said politely, “but lying low isn’t our style.”
Her jaw tightened. “Please, rethink this decision. Rushing into a trap is seldom the best plan. Don’t let your pride get ahead of your common sense.”
“I prefer to think of it as confidence.” I met Catherine’s gaze, letting her know that I wasn’t going to budge on this, but threw her a sop. “Besides, right now we haven’t committed to anything more than meeting with Betty. Acting now allows us to wade in a little way and assess if Betty is a dupe or in on it. If the waters get too deep later, we have the option of pulling the plug. We won’t have that option, if it’s my mother’s life on the line.”
Across the room, Stripes rolled to his feet and stretched—until he scented us. His tail went straight up and he bounded toward us. The mini-tiger had his own upholstered stool, but paused to rub against my legs before jumping up on it.
A tablet with a large button keyboard designed for chubby-toddler fingers or paws was strapped into place in front of him. Stripes started swatting at it and a text window popped up on the wall display: “HELLO. DID YOU COME TO PLAY WITH ME? I HAVE A NEW SCRATCHING POST. IT HAS A FAKE MOUSE THAT SWINGS WHEN I BAT IT.”
I was impressed by how quickly he’d produced the message, but glancing over, I saw he’d selected three pre-recorded messages, things he must commonly say.
“Your scratching post looks awesome,” I told Stripes. “I will play with you, but in a little bit. Right now, we’re talking to Catherine.” I rubbed his head, and he pushed against my hand, demanding more.
Mike cleared his throat. “So, Catherine, what do you think the chances are of the Resources Bill passing?”
“Better than I’d like,” Catherine said frankly. “You kids don’t remember this—you either, Stripes—but the Blight came close to wiping North America out. Iris Cartwright saved us, but there’s been growing concern that the Blight has mutated and is coming back in spots. The thought of having a brain trust on tap is very appealing to the generation most affected by the Blight. And most of our elected officials fall into that age group. I’m afraid, when society is threatened, individual liberties often get tossed out the window.”
I frowned, vaguely recalling a news item about a localized Blight resurgence. “Wasn’t the Blight return found to have been caused by a farmer not following regulations?”
Catherine shrugged. “The follow-up article was a footnote. It doesn’t erase the terror of the ‘BLIGHT IS BACK’ headlines from people’s minds.”
Ping. Another text message from Stripes. “ARE PEOPLE REALLY THAT STUPID?”
“Some of them? Yes,” I answered.
“Great.” Mike rolled his eyes. “Maybe Leona has the right idea, after all.”
“If Leona doesn’t watch it, she’s going to cause the very reaction she’s trying to prevent,” Catherine said tartly. “At least this plan will keep you two away from her symposium.”
I winced. “About that…” I explained our idea to use Devon and Gabe as our alibis. “That’s the other reason we’re here, to drop off our identicards.”
Catherine heroically refrained from saying this was a bad idea, too, but I could see her opinion on her face.
Ping. “ARE YOU GOING ON A TRIP? MAY I COME, TOO?”
Catherine picked Stripes up and put him on her lap. “Sorry, Stripes, the trip is out of town and you can’t go.”
He flattened his ears, but after a minute of petting he began to purr like a sewing machine, disappointment forgotten.
“About Betty,” she began.
I nudged Mike with my knee. I’d told him Catherine might need reassurance on this point. He’d only recently allowed Catherine into his life, and he still called her Catherine instead of Mom.
“Uh, yes,” he cleared his throat. “About her. I want you to know that I’m not going to help her because I feel protective or anything. She isn’t my mother. She never was.”
Catherine lifted blonde eyebrows. “She was the closest thing you had to a mother for a decade,” she said gently. “It’s normal that you have some residual feeling for her.”
“Then I’m abnormal,” Mike said. “Because I don’t.” He met her gaze, but I could feel that his leg muscles had tensed where they rested against mine. He wasn’t as indifferent as he was pretending.
The question was: were his feelings for Betty love or hate?
Catherine opened her mouth, then stopped and petted Stripes again. “I’m sure your feelings for her are complex. And it’s possible that Betty also has some feelings for you. But you need to understand that she’s not a good person.”
My gaze narrowed in sudden speculation. “Do you have personal experience with her?”
“Yes.” Catherine flushed. “When I was working undercover and spying on Dr. Frank, I approached her. We struck up a conversation, which I then steered around to you, Mike. She, uh, sensed my interest, and I bought several photos of you from her. For exorbitant prices. Betty was quite willing to sell pictures of a young teenage boy, her son, to a virtual stranger when she had no way of knowing what kind of interest I had in Mike.” Catherine’s embarrassment turned to anger. “I could have been a pervert or a murderer and she would have still happily sold them to me. That’s what kind of woman she is.”
Appalled, I sneaked a peek at Mike, but he seemed unsurprised by this revelation.
“You be careful of her,” Catherine said fiercely.
“We will,” Mike said. He touched her hand. “I promise, Mom.”