THE NINE LIVES OF CHLOE KING- THE STOLEN

ONE

 

“No!”

 

Chloe woke up covered in sweat and trembling.

 

“It was a dream,” she said, letting her tense muscles sink back into the bed. She had fought the Rogue a day ago—and she had won, if you could call it that. He had fallen off the bridge when Chloe failed to grab his arm, and now he was the one who was dead. Chloe was okay. Alyec and Brian were both alive. Everything else was just a nightmare.

 

The room was bathed in a soothing half-light that could have been dawn but somehow felt like dusk. She wasn’t home; the crisp richness of the bedding and the velvet fringe of the throw someone had tucked around her were definitely alien to the King household. Where was she? Slowly it came back to her.

 

Alyec had taken her to this place after the fight. His leg was injured by one of Brian’s throwing stars. Brian had claimed that he was trying to stop them from running deeper into Tenth Blade territory, but Chloe still wasn’t sure if that was true…. They had taken a taxi; she remembered looking out the window and seeing that they were on the bridge, the beautiful lights of San Francisco receding behind them. When they finally stopped, she was led through pitch darkness up to a house, where a short blond woman greeted and welcomed them, even though it was the middle of the night. She led them through narrow halls and—

 

Chloe sat up, remembering more from last night.

 

Something had passed them in one of the halls that still scared Chloe, even now that she was safely tucked in a luxurious bed.

 

The hall was dark and empty, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, a girl her own age drifted past them, silent as a black ghost. Her eyes gleamed in the low light, green and slit like a cat’s. From underneath her straight black hair poked two giant ear tips, pointed, black, and covered with fur. She was gone as quickly and silently as she came.

 

Chloe had gasped and pointed and Alyec rolled his eyes and explained that the cat girl was just Kim. The other woman nodded nonchalantly. But even that simple explanation didn’t make Chloe feel any better. She had no idea where she was or who these people were that Alyec had taken her to.

 

“I’ll come by soon,” he had promised after they stopped at a door.

 

“Go away, Alyec,” the woman said sweetly, pushing Chloe into the room. For some reason it was that maternal tone, the nice-but-ordering voice, that had set Chloe at ease again. Wherever they were, there were normal rules and people.

 

She couldn’t see much in the tiny space except for a bed with about a thousand down pillows. She collapsed on it without asking.

 

“You have a nice little nap,” the woman had said, clucking her tongue and pulling a velvet chenille throw up over Chloe’s shoulders.

 

As exhausted as she was, Chloe hadn’t been able to fall asleep instantly, and when she had, her dreams had all been nightmares: she was back on the Golden Gate Bridge, fighting for her life against the Rogue, the Order of the Tenth Blade’s most lethal—and psycho—assassin. Sometimes in her half dreams Alyec was there, sitting on the side and watching like he had or fighting beside her. Sometimes Brian was there, helping her like he had—or chasing her the way she thought he had. Even though it had all really happened, it still didn’t feel real. But it was.

 

Now that she was awake, Chloe was still tired and without answers to the questions that had been plaguing her nightmares: Why me? What did I ever do to anyone?

 

Chloe noticed a little side table that had been set up next to her while she slept. It was covered with a large doily and on it was a plate with various cold cuts and cheeses, slices of bread, and little cups of mustard and other condiments. A glass—crystal?—of water was placed next to a can of Diet Coke.

 

Chloe made herself the largest sandwich she could manage between two slices of thick brown pumper-nickel, slathering it with mustard. It took only about a minute for her to gobble it down, maybe another to toss back the water and the Diet Coke. She let out a mighty burp (then looked around nervously, but no one was there). Somehow she wasn’t as frightened as she should have been. Her belly was full, she was in a beautiful room, and she was safe. Strangely, she sort of felt happy.

 

Chloe looked around: the beams and floor planks were ancient wood, dark and polished just enough to keep the dust away, not so much as to be shiny. The room itself was small but cozy: there was an intricate Oriental rug in dark colors in one corner, on top of which sat a lightly worn velvet armchair. Over its back was another chenille throw. An old-fashioned floor lamp with a slightly cracked marble base and brass upright lit the room with a soft orange glow from three fake candle lightbulbs. If Chloe had the money—and the right house—this was exactly how she would decorate it.

 

She rose and stretched, feeling her joints and muscles snap into place. Back to my old self, finally. She pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket and turned it on. Three-quarters battery left. No one had left her a voice mail, not even her mom. She must have bought that whole “I’m going over to Keira’s” thing, thought Chloe. She called Amy and was a little surprised when she didn’t pick up—both Amy and Paul had seen the whole Rogue-Alyec-Brian-Chloe mess last night—shouldn’t they be worried?

 

Amy’s voice mail beeped.

 

“Hey, it’s Chloe. I’m fine. I’m staying with some …” She paused for a moment, trying to think of the right word. “Uh, distant cousins and friends. Don’t call—I’m going to keep my phone off for a while. Save the battery. I’m safe, and I’ll call you later.” Chloe then left a message for her mom, who wasn’t home. “Hey, I’m going to be with Keira for a little longer….”

 

She heard the sound of old-fashioned high heels clicking down the hallway outside her room, growing louder as they came closer.

 

“Um, love you. And, uh, I’ll call you later—I’m turning off my phone. Okay, bye.”

 

Chloe quickly shut off her phone and put it away. Soon a woman appeared at her door, finishing up a conversation half in Russian and half in English on a tiny cell phone dangling with charms. It took Chloe a second to realize that she was the same woman from the night before who had taken her to this room, just in more professional clothes.

 

“Yes,” she said. “Two dozen. And tell Ernest thanks for the purple pens. The kids love them. Spaceba.” She hung up and gave Chloe a weary smile.

 

“Sometimes I feel more like an office manager than president of this little place. How are you feeling?”

 

“Uh, fine, thank you …”

 

It was hard to tell how old the other woman was; her body was Tinkerbell perfect, small and curvy with a tiny waist and amazing calves that were highlighted by what looked like six-inch stiletto heels. She had short, elfin blond hair and black eyes. The skirt and jacket suit she wore were a little flashy for Chloe’s taste but obviously expensive. There was something more about her, though … the way she held her head, the way she stared without blinking, a certain smell that Chloe couldn’t put her finger on. Chloe knew this woman was just like her. A cat person.

 

“I’m Olga Chetobar,” she said, extending a hand with long, perfect nails. One of them had a little golden charm dangling from the end. “I’m president of Firebird’s, well, we call it ‘human resources’ department. We find and rescue, shall we say, strays and bring them home.”

 

“Home?”

 

“Sergei will explain—he’s very anxious to meet you.” Olga checked something on her phone again.

 

“Thanks for the—uh, lunch,” Chloe said, wondering if it would be rude to ask about a shower, new clothes, or getting in contact with her mom.

 

“Don’t get used to it,” the older woman said with a warm smile. “We all pitch in together around here. You will soon, too.”

 

“I don’t mean to be rude—it’s great here—but when will I get to go home? I think my mom is going to start to worry.”

 

Olga held up her hand. “Sergei takes care of this. Your mother will be informed that you were witness to a potentially lethal crime—which you were—and are in police custody. Or federal witness protection. Or something. Maybe he already told her? I don’t know the details—his people always do a good job, though. Come with me now.” She looked at her watch, something expensive with gold and diamonds. “He is expecting you.”

 

Chloe pulled on her Sauconys as fast as she could without tying them and followed Olga out of the room. They walked down a dimly lit narrow hallway, possibly the one from the night before. Inthe daylight she saw that the walls were decorated with reproduction vintage paper with little roses and stripes and things, and the floor was made up of little tiny planks of different-colored wood.

 

“Sorry we practically put you in the attic,” Olga said over her shoulder as her tiny feet rapidly tapped their way toward a narrow stair. “We were a little unprepared and figured you shouldn’t be disturbed for a while. This place can get busy and loud during the workweek.”

 

Chloe had to double-time it to catch up, practically tripping down and around two flights of narrow stairs tightly clustered around a center well.

 

“What is this place?”

 

“Firebird Properties, LLC,” Olga said crisply, proudly, looking at her watch again. “A real estate and marketing company. Mainly we deal with investment and commercial properties, not so much with housing.” Olga flowed off the stairs and was halfway down a new hall as she spoke; Chloe had to run to keep up. It was a much more modern area, with gray wall-to-wall carpeting and art prints framed on painted walls.

 

“Housing? Market? What …?” Suddenly Chloe ground to a halt as she passed a big picture window on her left. She stared out.

 

They were one floor above ground; the first thing that was obvious was a huge lawn sweeping down, spreading out to the road. When she pressed her face up to the glass and looked directly down, she could see a fountain in the middle of a circular gravel driveway that led gently along one side of the lawn and downhill to the road. There was, as Chloe had guessed there might be, a gate at the end of it.

 

“This is that house,” she said slowly.

 

“What house?” Olga asked, coming back to look.

 

“The one that Alyec showed me. When I was depressed. He drove me out somewhere near Sausalito and showed me this incredible house….” It had been a wild day. The fight with Amy, the car that Alyec stole from the senior running back, the way Alyec liked catching air on the San Francisco hills, the escape from the city to see this huge old mansion. From the outside it was all stone and marble and as impressive as a museum.

 

And now she was inside.

 

“Alyec took you here?” Olga asked, faintly amused.

 

“I thought this was someone’s house.” Like somebody really rich, thought Chloe, though she didn’t add that part.

 

“It is. A few of us live here full time besides Sergei. Me, Kim, and Ivan and Simone. But it is also the headquarters for Firebird and for our people…. Sometimes it is important to stay out of everyone’s way, and this is certainly as nice a place as any. Nicer, even,” the older woman reflected without a smile on her mouth, but her eyes danced. Chloe couldn’t tell if the lack-of-facial-expressions thing was Russian or a cat-person attribute.

 

“You mean this is a place where—?”

 

Sergei will explain,” Olga said, shaking her finger. Then she spun and tapped away again. “Come!” she ordered.

 

Chloe followed.

 

There were offices in this part of the building, and actual people. It kind of reminded Chloe of her mom’s accountant or their dentist, both of whom worked out of retrofitted nineteenth-century Italianate houses. When she was little, Chloe thought they were mansions—they were bigger than her, Amy’s, and Paul’s houses combined—and mentioned that freely, embarrassing the hell out of her mother.

 

“Who was that?” Chloe asked after she stepped aside for another person. He was a young, serious-looking man with brown eyes, who gave her a cursory smile as he made his way past her.

 

“That’s Igor, director of sales.”

 

Olga walked Chloe through a lobby with fresh, expensive flower arrangements and real paintings. She spoke rapid-fire Russian with a girl in a gaudy T-shirt with rhinestones and then brought Chloe up to a half-closed mahogany door. It bore a neat brass plaque with the name Sergei inscribed on it. ...

 

 

 

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