Cora wasn’t the only person to cut out of work early. Crossing the street from the Kaiser building to the bus stop, Cora was almost hit by three different cars. People tore by in their vehicles, clogging the streets. What they were running to or from, she wasn’t sure, and she suspected neither were they.
If traffic was forgiving, it took about ninety minutes to make it home by bus, but panic on the roads made Cora’s journey closer to two hours.
The Sabinos lived in a three-bedroom house that had been illegally converted to four when they moved in. That had been the only renovation the house had ever gotten in the forty years since its construction. It still had the same peeling linoleum, the same swamp-brown carpet, the same bleached-out 1960s wallpaper.
Before they had moved in four years ago, it had been a rental unit owned by Nils’s mother. The house had once been adjacent to an active oil well. Since the late ’90s, most of the oil wells in the South Bay area had dried up and been replaced by million-dollar McMansions. The humble Sabino home was currently flanked by two of them.
Cora made it inside, locked out the rest of the world, and exhaled a massive breath. Thor and Monster Truck had been whining at the door before she’d even gotten the key in the lock and were happily pawing at her thighs. Her nerves were too fried to give them any real attention.
It took her a moment to notice the shadowy figure on the sofa. Cora nearly screamed before she recognized the familiar copper-colored curls. Cora’s aunt, Luciana, sat on the couch, playing a video game. Music and fighting grunts emanated from the TV.
“What are you doing here?” Cora’s nerves made the question louder and more accusatory than she’d intended.
“What are you doing here?” Lu countered, not even pausing the game or turning to look at Cora. Cora usually envied Lu’s head of tight, rusty-red curls. The fact that, right now, it looked like a crown of drunken tumbleweeds belied Lu’s casual demeanor.
Cora’s purse slid off her shoulder and fell to the floor. “I live here,” she said, walking over to the couch. It wasn’t unusual for her aunt to use her spare set of keys to arrive home ahead of Cora or Demi, usually to babysit. It was weird that she was here alone. Playing Oblivion. Lu hated that game.
“How did you get home?” Lu asked. “I saw your car still outside.”
“Bus.” Cora used to idolize her aunt, the independent older sister she’d never had, the one adult who she felt understood her, especially where matters of Nils were concerned. It had been awesome; going to shows with Lu, even a trip to Vegas for Cora’s twentieth birthday. Lu had not been the type to care about legal drinking age.
Now that Lu was unemployed and Cora a college dropout, their new dynamic was just depressing. Officially, ROSA, had fired Lu for time card fraud. The real reason had more to do a government agency not trusting top level clearance with the sister of a notorious whistleblower.
Cora lowered herself into a crouch. Monster Truck, a wall-eyed pug who looked older than her eight-ish years, had already lost interest in Cora and returned to Lu. But Thor, a mutt who, as best anyone could tell, was a chihuahua-dachshund mix, was insatiable. “Most of the windows shattered on the floor where I was working,” Cora said. “So I left.”
“I heard that happened in really tall buildings. Downtown is apparently a mess.”
Cora stood up, eyeing her aunt. Between the chaos of a meteor event and Nils making the news, Lu should have reacted with a little more than, you know, nothing. “Two meteorites landing in the same spot in the course of a month lends some credibility to Nils,” she said, trying to goad her aunt out of her affected coolness. “What do you think?”
Lu snorted but didn’t look up from the game. “Who knows how long Nils was sitting on the Fremda Memo. He only released it after the Altadena Event to make it seem like the two things were connected.”
Nils had also leaked the fact that the CIA’s codename for the Altadena Event was Ampersand. The new name had been colloquially adopted by everyone, even mainstream outlets. Only Lu still called it the Altadena Event. “So if it’s not alien invaders, what is it?”
Luciana shrugged. “Downed satellite? I have no idea, but if I were an alien, I would not conspicuously crash my ship in the mountains next to one of the biggest cities in the world.”
“Right,” said Cora. “Well, I tried to call you after it happened. I was kind of freaked out.”
“Oh, sorry. I had my phone off.” Luciana pulled out her BlackBerry and turned it on. “It’s just that with that article Nils released today—”
The phone in the kitchen rang, and Cora moved to answer it.
“Don’t,” said Lu. “It’s probably the press. That’s another reason I’ve had my phone off.”
Cora returned to the couch. “About that,” she said. She picked up Thor and hugged him tightly. The little dog emitted a beleaguered urrf. “I think the article caught some attention, because I’m pretty sure some guys were spying on me before the meteor hit. There was a black Town Car following us this morning. Demi said it wasn’t the first time.”
“Oh,” Lu said, looking up from the game. “That’s … new.”
“Two guys. Followed us all the way to Kaiser, then right before lunch, I saw the car on the roof of the parking garage.”
“Are you sure it was the same car?”
“Yeah, it didn’t have a front plate, which is, you know, weird. Did you read the article?”
“Yes. That ass.” Luciana shook her head. “Unbelievable. I’m sorry he’s trying to drag you into this.”
Cora put her dog down and crossed her arms. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
“I promised Felix I’d play Soulcalibur with him, so I decided to swing by early.”
Cora didn’t believe her. “Are you hiding from the Feds again?”
Lu’s expression remained impassive. “I am hiding from the possibility of the Feds.”
“Won’t they be too busy with the meteor to bother with you?”
Luciana chuckled. “They always find time for me. They were at my door within about three hours of the Altadena Event. Like zombies, hungry for brains and moaning, ‘CIA.’”
Lu shrugged. “It’s a CIA thing. I hope that’s not who was following you.”
“I thought CIA wasn’t allowed to investigate domestic citizens.” Cora bit her lip. Nils had always fostered a particular hatred for the CIA and their history of covert abuses of power, and Cora couldn’t help but internalize some of that. “Nils said their whole raison d’être was every country besides this one. If we’re being spied on, it should be FBI or NSA.”
“Well, first, CIA involvement doesn’t preclude any other agencies. Second, Nils isn’t domestic. He’s committing espionage against the U.S. government from a foreign country. Ergo, he is a CIA matter.” She looked at Cora. Her expression softened into something like sympathy. “He’s a malignant narcissist,” Lu said. “He’ll use anyone or anything to bring attention to himself, but if we don’t respond, he’ll move on. I suspect he’s already trying to capitalize on the second meteor. He’s probably forgotten about his think-of-the-children angle.”
Lu’s phone rang, and she snatched it and silenced it in a swift move, barely looking at it. “No Caller ID.”
But Cora had spotted the name of Lu’s old coworker John Lombardi. Lombardi went by ‘Bard’, almost certainly a D&D reference or something. Cora was pretty sure that Bard was actually Lu’s ex, but Lu would never admit it, and Cora would never ask. “No Caller ID, huh?”
“He’s been calling me all day,” Lu said.
“I see why you wanted to keep it turned off but isn’t Bard being illegal, since you’re not top-secret clearance anymore?”
Lu dropped the controller onto her lap and slumped, rubbing her hands over her face. “It’s not about clearance levels. Someone we worked with killed themselves.”
“Oh.” Cora didn’t know what to say. “Who?”
Lu shifted a side-eye at Cora. “Someone.”
“Right, sorry, forgot.” She hadn’t, really, but she sometimes hoped Lu would slip up. “Were you close to him? Or her?”
Lu shook her head. “No. I knew them, but no. But it’s surprising. They weren’t the type that came off as suicidal. I hadn’t seen them since I got let go, but –it’s surprising.”
Cora shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to respond. “Sorry.”
Lu sat up straight, her attention snapping to the front window. “Someone’s here.”
Cora moved to look out the window, expecting a cavalcade of black Town Cars barreling in from both directions. Instead, Demi’s Olds Cutlass, had pulled into the driveway.
Demi caught sight of Cora through the window, and glared. She stalked toward the house while Felix helped Olive out of the car. “She’s mad,” Cora said.
Cora didn’t have a chance to respond. Demi jerked open the front door, stormed in, and rushed at Cora. Cora flinched, but her mother pulled her into a fierce hug. “You’re okay,” she said, her voice breaking in Cora’s ear.
Cora, stunned, took a moment to return her mother’s embrace. Demi pulled back, wiping at her eyes as Felix and Olive entered the house.
“Lu!” Olive shouted, her backpack bobbling as she ran across the room and jumped into her aunt’s arms. Thor and Monster jumped in, barking excitedly.
Felix spared Cora a withering glance before sauntering over to join his aunt and his little sister on the couch. “Can we turn on the news?” said Felix, pushing a jumping Thor away from of him. “I hope this is an invasion!”
“You left work without a word,” Demi said, her quiet voice camouflaged by the dogs and Olive’s giggles. “Nobody could find you. I’ve been calling your cellphone, for hours. I stopped by Kaiser, but then I had to pick up the kids –”
Cora felt a flush of guilt, as her mother’s eyes welled up again. She’d ignored the calls, assuming her mother was calling to verbally excoriate her for leaving work early, how it would reflect on the company, blah, blah, blah. It hadn’t occurred to her that her mother would be worried about Cora’s safety.
“I — assumed everyone would just leave,” Cora said. “I wasn’t thinking. I freaked out. And my phone — was dead. I’m sorry.” She was so accustomed to a disapproving Demi that a worried Demi had completely thrown her. She cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Did you read the article? About how noble Nils is spearheading this movement for a brighter future for his three beautiful children?”
“You didn’t tell me Dad mentioned us.” Felix had obviously realized that it was too early for the news, and had snuck up on Cora and her mother.
Cora’s lip curled involuntarily. “Please don’t call Nils that.”
“I didn’t know,” said Demi. “And please, Felix, not now.”
Felix snorted. At thirteen, with his lithe frame, black hair, and blue eyes, was looking more and more like a miniature Nils every day. Even the way he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head when he was annoyed mimicked Nils at his most arrogant. “Fine. I’m going to go online and find out about the aliens that are literally invading our planet.” He stalked toward the computer room; a small alcove just outside of the living room. It was just big enough for a computer desk and a couple of chairs.
Olive overheard this. “Are the aliens real?” she squeaked, burrowing into Lu’s shoulder. At just shy of six, she was a little small for her age, with light brown hair and Nils’ gray eyes.
“No, Butternut,” Cora said, projecting a comforting smile at Olive.
“Hello?” A masculine voice sounded from the still-open front door. The dogs, caught off guard, now overcompensated by tumbling off the couch in a heap of barks and rampaging toward the door.
A man stood just inside the door frame. He was tall and willowy, with dark hair, a slender face, and a plastic smile. “Demetra Sabino,” he said as he took off his big, shiny aviators. “You prefer Sabino now, right?”
Monster Truck had gone silent, seemingly awed by the man’s taste in music, but Thor was still challenging the intruder. Cora moved Thor back, nearly choking on her own sharp intake of air, as she recognized the man. He was the passenger from the Town Car that had been tailing them that morning.
“Yes,” Demi said. “I’m not giving any press statements.”
“Not with the press.” He pulled out a badge. “Special Agent Sol Kaplan, CIA.”