The voice was English. That was a useless deduction, because I was surrounded by bloody English people, and it wasn’t his real voice, anyway.
“Actually,” I said, hoping to keep them talking, “I’m pretty sure you’re the one putting her in danger, Hadrian.”
I was pretty sure it wasn’t Hadrian in the car with me, but it was worth a shot. Who else would have a fleet of black cars and bother kidnapping me to make their point?
(That said, I’d noticed that the Holmeses had at least one of these black cars, and a driver who took them around town. So did Milo. I wondered if a black car appeared in your garage the morning after you came into some money, like some kid’s movie. Frog chauffeurs instead of coachmen. A bloodthirsty art dealer instead of your fairy godmother.)
The voice paused. “According to my instructions, I’m supposed to laugh at you now.”
The voice managed a kind of embarrassed chuckle.
More soft tapping sounds, but the voice spoke again before they finished.
“I won’t give you my identity. It’s not important. Know that I am an interested party, and I want you to begin booking your travel back home. You have no particular skills. You know this. You’re a fairly standard teenage boy. You have no use but to be used.”
“I know it’s fun to be cryptic, but that last thing made zero sense.” I wanted the voice to keep talking, because as I wiggled my hands, I realized the zip tie wasn’t as tight as it needed to be.
“Think of yourself as a package. It’s Christmas, so picture a nicely wrapped present. Charlotte carries it around. It’s heavy in her arms, but it’s pleasing to look at it. Maybe the package talks. It’s witty. It’s flattering. It makes her feel special, and she likes that feeling. And one day Charlotte leaves it somewhere in public, and poof, it is taken from her. Charlotte is sad. Then furious. Charlotte will do anything to get her present back. Horrible things. Things that will end in her death, or imprisonment. We don’t want Charlotte to do these things.”
“So in this weird children’s story you’re telling me, I’m a talking package.” I’d put my wrists between my knees, and slowly, slowly, I worked one curled hand out of its binding. “That’s a pretty stupid extended metaphor. Did you fail English class? You were more of a math person, weren’t you?”
A pause. “Go home, James. You know that you can’t offer her anything.”
My hand was almost free. With my elbow, I felt as unobtrusively as I could for the location of the door handle. “I do make a pretty mean pasta carbonara.”
The car slowed. Were we coming to a stoplight?
“Go home,” the voice said sadly, “or we’ll call your father.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Please,” I said, “I haven’t talked to him in a few hours, he’ll want an update,” and when I jerked my hand out of the tie, I pulled the door open and tumbled out of the car.
Wheels skidding on concrete. My fingers yanking off my blindfold. Honking, someone shouting, and a mess of cars pulling around me, but I’d learned at least one thing in the last few months. Before I crawled the two feet to the curb, I committed the black car’s plate number to memory.
I TOLD THE CRYING BYSTANDER THAT I HADN’T BEEN KIDNAPPED. I told the other one that she didn’t need to call the cops. She did anyway, so I told the police my friends and I were doing a German fire drill. No, I didn’t know the name of the driver, or the person the car was registered to. I’d just met them today. No, I didn’t want to make a statement. Yes, I’d pick my friends better in the future. No, I was fine walking down the block to Greystone, because that’s where we were, within sight of Milo’s headquarters, and I wanted to be spared the indignity of being driven the final five feet.
I limped the rest of the way there. I’d sort of wrenched my shoulder in my roll out of the car. Scratched up my hands. They were still battered from a run-in I’d had this fall with a two-way mirror, and it didn’t take much for them to start bleeding again. The guards at the Greystone front door took pity on me. This time, I was only subjected to a retinal scan.
I needed to find Holmes, though I wasn’t looking forward to it. Breaking news: I got into a strange car where someone told me I was useless. How was your afternoon?
No one in our shared room. No one in Milo’s penthouse, at least the areas I was allowed into—I definitely wasn’t going to ask the guard in the hall to let me search his bedroom. I asked her if she’d seen Holmes or August, and she shrugged, like it was beneath her to answer.
“Well, is there a lab here? One that’s usually off-limits to Holmes?”
“If you’re referring to Charlotte, then yes. Ninety-four percent of this building is ‘off-limits’ to Mr. Holmes’s sister.”
“I’ve had a very bad day,” I told her, “and I’m one hundred percent sure you know where she is. Will you just take me there?”
Down three floors and around the corner, and the weary guard led me to a keypad-locked door. She punched in the code and nosed the door open with her rifle. “Our audio-visual laboratory.”
The lab was the kind of bright-white clean I associated with the dentist. Computer terminals were set up in a cluster in the center of the room, and big buglike speakers and screens mounted on the walls. Holmes sat below a cluster of those screens. She’d taken one apart with a screwdriver—at least I assumed that’s what she’d done, because she had a toolbox beside her—and now she was plucking at a series of black wires with a pair of pliers. She was whistling something tuneless and gleeful, so I assumed it was going well.