Jaden crept back into the Splitter Center, hoping everyone was still asleep. In the one stroke of serendipity in the last twenty-four hours, they were. His hair had matted flat on one side and stuck out sideways on the other. His body smelled of stale beer, sweat, and smoke. He didn’t care. He’d eventually have to deal with Kim’s wrath over the missed bed-check, but the night’s adventure had worn him out, and sleep beckoned.
He had scarcely closed his eyes when his door slid open.
“Go away,” Jaden said, burying his head under his pillow. “I’m sick.”
“You’ll be feeling better soon,” Kim’s effervescent voice chimed. “You made the next cut. Sergeant Mack—”
“Call me Truck,” a low, gravelly voice spat.
Jaden peered out from beneath his pillow. A tall, burly man in a black ripper uniform stood stiffly at the foot of his bed. He wore his blond hair shaved like Reth and had an even stronger, square chin. A long scar was carved into the left side of his face.
“Sergeant Truck is here to interview you for the position,” Kim finished.
“Really?” Jaden asked. “When?”
“Now, boy!” Truck bellowed, chuckling.
“You’ll need to be in the exam room in ten minutes,” Kim said curtly. “Don’t make us wait on you.” They turned and left.
“Dammit!” Jaden muttered his malediction to the closed door. He couldn’t get a break.
With his mouth tasting like the side of that rusty tanker, Jaden stumbled into the shower. He had to get the noisome odor of the city off of him and get into some more appropriate clothes. He had no time to shave, and he brushed his teeth in the hall on the way. On zero hours of sleep and with a mouth full of hastily swallowed toothpaste, Jaden reeled into the interview room.
Jaden swallowed hard. Director Cameron was going to oversee the interview. It was bad enough that the panel was filled with the twin auditors who hadn’t been the slightest bit laudatory with him; Sergeant Truck, who had seen Jaden at probably his worst moment in years, and Director Cameron, who put a whole different spin on things.
The redoubtable Director Cameron was the head of the entire Tamlando area, not just the little old Splitter Center. If Jaden ever had hopes of being promoted, they depended on that man.
Jaden slid quietly into his seat. He felt woozy from the lack of sleep and found it hard to focus on the clock behind the panel, much less the panelists. To his surprise, Kim also joined the group. Jaden didn’t know if having Kim on the panel would be a boon or bane. He’d find out soon enough.
One of the auditors took the role of first inquisitor. “So tell us why you think you’re the best person for the Ripper Squad position.”
Reth jumped in immediately. “As you know, the Warren family has a history of producing outstanding splitters and rippers. Six generations now. It’s in my genes. It’s truly all about heredity, if you want to get the best man for the position.”
Pencils moved furiously across the computer tablets in front of the panelists. Everyone except the director took careful notes.
“And you?” the second auditor asked Jaden. “Why do you think you’re the best person for the job?”
The twin auditors didn’t show any expression. Jaden wasn’t particularly deferential. He didn’t much care what they thought of his answers. Once they found out what he had done, creating the portable splitting equipment, not reporting a proscribed operation, not to mention missing bed-check and putting the needs of individual people above that of The Corporation, he’d never get the job anyhow. He’d play their games for now, but he could say or do whatever he wanted. He’d never get the job.
Truck spoke next. “So why do you want to be part of my team?”
Reth launched into a dissertation about the golden record of Truck’s department, about Truck’s history as a brilliant ripper and leader. Fervent and specific, Reth sounded sincere, even though he was obviously sucking up to the sergeant. There was no question in Jaden’s mind that Reth was going to get the job.
“And you, boy? Why do you want to be part of my team?” Truck blustered.
“I don’t know that I do want to be part of your team,” Jaden replied smoothly.
Kim gasped at his response, and the twin auditors scribbled on their tablets. “I just met you,” Jaden continued, “and I judge people based on their specific experiences with me, not some write-up in a file. But I can tell you this. I want to be a ripper. I want to help the worst offenders, the dregs of society, become the very best employees they can be. I can’t imagine a more honorable vocation nor one I’m better suited for.”
The interview continued on for over an hour, with Reth giving textbook-perfect answers to the questions while Jaden could only muster flippant responses. Reth was indomitable and obviously had the job. The eminent Director Cameron even shook Reth’s hand as he left.
Depressed and exhausted, Jaden returned to his room. Years of hard work down the drain, and all because of a vacuous girl. He fell asleep across his rumpled covers and dreamed of blueberry-colored hair.
He awoke to the sound of someone rapping on his door. “Pizza delivery!” the voice called. “Pizza delivery for Jaden Emory!”
Jaden punched the door open. “I didn’t order any pizza.”
The pizza delivery person wore a cap with a long visor that shaded the eyes. “You’ve got one anyhow, bucko,” the delivery person said, stepping into Jaden’s room and shutting the door behind.
The pizza delivery person whipped off the cap and a cascade of blueberry-colored locks fell down.
“Happy to see me?” she asked genially.
“What are you doing here?” He knew he should still be mad at her, but the minute he saw her warm smile and sparkling eyes, he couldn’t stay angry. Still, he had to try. “Patients aren’t allowed in the splitter dorms,” he said gruffly.
“Is that all I am to you, Jaden? One of your patients?” She looked demurely down and then up again into his eyes.
He turned away. “You’re not even that to me, anymore. I’ve washed my hands of you.”
Ally flitted around to face him. She took his hands in hers. “I don’t think so,” she nearly purred, her fingers tickling his.
Jaden warmed at her alluring touch, the sensation of holding her in his arms all night surging back through his body. He pulled his hands away.
“You can’t bounce in here and make everything okay. You have no idea what you put me through.”
Ally softened, her tone no longer pert. She sat down on the bed and patted the space beside her. “Then tell me. We never talk.”
He sat down next to her. “This isn’t the appropriate forum. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Then meet me somewhere, tonight. We’ll talk.” She rested her hand on his leg. Jaden felt a blush rise to his cheeks but he didn’t move away.
“Why are you like this?” he asked.
“It’s just the way I am.”
“Do you want to be that way?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I love my passions. It’s what makes me, well, me.”
“You can’t be part of my life like this. You’re messing up my world.”
“Isn’t that what love does? It messes up everything until you don’t know which way is up, but all in all, it’s a wonderful ride.”
“Who said anything about love?”
“I did, just now. Isn’t it obvious that’s what’s happening between us? You’re the only person who has ever really cared about me. Not my parents, not my teachers, and certainly not The Corporation. I’m totally falling for you, Jaden Emory, and I think you’re falling for me, too.” She looked up at him with her big aqua eyes, entreating for an affirmation.
He didn’t know what to say. In his heart, all he wanted to do was hold her in his arms and tell her how much he wanted her. He wanted to stroke her hair, feel her soft lips against his again. She was so tempting . . .
But no. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t forgive her for what she’d put him through. He’d probably lost the ripper job because of her, or would once they found out about his and Ally’s exploits.
The warmth of Ally’s hand spread through his thigh. This was all just so wrong. He felt as if he was being played yet again.
“Jaden?” she exhorted.
“I’m not going to be played again, Ally Fayre. I’m done doing your bidding.” Even Jaden was surprised at his words. Every fiber in his being still wanted to reach for her, to hold her. But that was exactly why he had to push her away, the sooner the better.
“Is that what you think this is about? Me trying to get you to do something for me?”
“You can stop pretending. I’m done with you. I want you out of my life.”
Tears tumbled down Ally’s cheeks.
Without another word, Ally tucked her hair back under her hat and left.