After sixteen year-old time traveler Bree Bennis botches a solo midterm to the 21st century by accidentally taking a boy hostage (a teensy snafu), she stands to lose her scholarship. But when Bree sneaks back to talk the kid into keeping his yap shut, she doesn’t go back far enough. The boy, Finn, now three years older and hot as a solar flare, is convinced he’s in love with Bree, or rather, a future version of her that doesn’t think he’s a complete pain in the arse. To make matters worse, she inadvertently transports him back to the 23rd century with her.
Once home, Bree discovers that a recent rash of accidents at her school are anything but accidental. Someone is attacking time travelers. As Bree and her temporal tagalong uncover seemingly unconnected clues—a broken bracelet, a missing data file, the art heist of the millennium—that lead to the person responsible, she alone has the knowledge to piece the puzzle together. Knowledge only one other person has. Her future self.
Debut author Karen Akins introduces the intricate world of Shifters in Loop, available October 21st from St. Martin’s Griffin.
Hitting the ground is the hardest part. Nine times out of ten, it’s dirt or grass. But all it takes is that one time on concrete or, worse, asphalt to send even the most experienced Shifter into a panic.
My feet slammed into cobblestone. Muskets cracked and echoed down the alley where I’d landed. Acrid gunpowder stung my nostrils, searing my throat as I fought back a cough and crouched down. The gunfire grew louder and louder, bouncing off both sides of the narrow passageway, so I couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from.
Where was I? Valley Freakin’ Forge?
Wyck had missed the target by well over two centuries! Good grief. How hard was a twenty-third to twenty-first Shift? And of all the Shifts, it would have to be this one. He’d pay for this when I got back. Don’t get me wrong. I loved a good transporter prank as much as the next girl, but plop me in the middle of Lex and Concord? I am not having that crap.
Puffs of fresh gunsmoke clouded the already-dim alley. Get it together, Bree. I slipped behind a barrel and pulled out my QuantCom. A Virginia address and instructions popped up: “Bree Bennis, pre-Tricentennial midterm. Deposit package contents on Muffy van Sloot’s grave with following message: ‘There’s no time like the past.’ ”
I squeezed the small white box before sliding it into my pocket. I tried not to think about the other object, the one hidden in my shoe. Guilt burbled up in my stomach, but I squashed it down.
Hard to believe so much could ride on one trip back to the past.
Also hard to believe any person would name their child Muffy van Sloot. It almost sounded like some rich person’s pet.
Boom! The gunfire sounded right outside the alley.
So help me, I thought, if this is all for a dead cat, heads will roll.
Dr. Quigley could flunk me for all I cared. Okay, that wasn’t even a teensy bit true. I couldn’t afford a single red flag on this test. Still, I wasn’t taking a musket ball to the head for anyone. But at least I knew which state I was in. Unless Wyck had flubbed that, too.
What I needed was to find somewhere safe to figure out my next move. Without a sound, I pushed myself up and prepared to dash to the street for a better look at the battle. But before I could move, I heard an unexpected sound. A digital beeping. A boy and a girl, not much older than me, had slipped into the alley. The girl held up a mobile phone. “It’s Rachel,” she said.
“Hey, where were you?” the girl said into the phone. As she talked, the boy caressed the back of her neck. She flicked his hand.
What? I ducked back down and glanced at my Com as it analyzed the phone’s ringtone. Early twenty-first century. Right where I was supposed to be. Okay, maybe Wyck wasn’t a complete idiot after all.
So what the blark was going on?
“I swear we were at the pub for like twenty minutes. No, not Ye Olde Tavern. Ye Olde Pub,” she said. The boy nibbled her ear. She swatted his shoulder.
“Ah, c’mon.” He kissed a path of pecks down her neck to her jaw. She hesitated a moment, then turned the phone off.
The fade timer on my Com blipped down second by second. I only had five hours before being pulled back to my own time. Tight for any assignment, but even more so with today’s less-than-legal extracurricular activity. With a frantic finger, I tapped the edge of the round, smooth device—perfectly masked as a pocket watch to fit into most eras. Come on. It was taking forever to pinpoint my location, and my destination could be hours away. There was no more time to waste. I had to do something.
“Hello.” I stood up from behind the barrel. The boy and girl jumped apart.
“You sh-sh- should… Th-th-this is…private,” stammered the girl.
“Yeah, nothing says private like a makeout session amid musket fi re,” I said under my breath as I pushed my way past the lovebirds and stuck my head around the corner of the alleyway.
A sea of scarlet coats, side-holstered drums, and fifes greeted me. Crowds of spectators lined the street. Ahh, heck. Duped by a Revolutionary reenactment parade. I checked my fade timer again. I’d lost precious minutes. Then again, I couldn’t see my transporter doing something drastic like force fading me as soon as the time limit was up. Not that I would let it come to that.
I’d been rubbing the eyelash of a scar at the base of my skull without even thinking about it. Enough. Focus. I flipped my Com to the geolocator. Williamsburg. A good 150 miles from this Chincowhatever place on the other side of Virginia.
Contrary to public opinion, time travel is not an exact science. Whenever I need a good giggle, I’ll watch an antique movie where the hero zips back twenty years, mere minutes before an explosion, to save the heroine in the nick of time. Or for an even bigger laugh, watch one where he Shifts forward to meet his grandkids. Snort.
When Shift came to shove, getting me within two days and two hundred miles of my goal wasn’t shabby transporting. Not shabby at all. Not that I’d admit it to Wyck’s face.
I stepped into the bright street and disappeared into a mob of strollers and camera-wielding dads. I stood on my tiptoes, a necessary mea sure given my small stature, in search of…
Bingo. School buses.
It wasn’t like I got extra credit for being frugal on missions. But then again, nobody handed out medals for blowing a big wad of era cash on a three-hour cab ride. A few bonus points for resourcefulness might even push me up a grade if I was teetering on the line. Up until six months ago, I never would have worried about a measly midterm. Then again, there were a lot of things I never would have considered before six months ago.
Temporal smuggling, for one.
Stop it. I had precious little time as it was. And certainly not enough to waste on a squeaky conscience. Everything had to appear completely normal on this assignment or I could get caught.
I jogged across the street, into the sea of buses. Up and down the rows, I searched. Blark, there were a lot of them.
“Come on, come on, come on.” I raced down the final row and let out a sigh of relief. The last block of buses said “Accomack County” School District, My destination. I staked out a hiding spot near them, behind an old oak.
A swarm of elementary kids clambered past. Too bad I couldn’t hop on their bus. I was short for sixteen, but I wasn’t that short. Rule number one of Shifting: Don’t stick out.
Okay, technically, that would be Rule number two, the first one being: Don’t bring anything from the past back with you.
But that one’s a no-brainer. Fiddle with the past all you want, fine. It’s not like you can change it. Not really. (That’s what I had to keep reminding myself to go through with the extra job I’d been hired to do today.) But the future? No one wants to mess around with that.
A familiar voice drifted toward me, and I leaned deeper into the tree’s shadow.
“No, not the tavern. The pub.” It was the phone girl.
“Well, you should have been in the bathroom covering that hickey,” said her friend.
“Everyone knows it’s not a hickey until the blood vessels break. It’s a love bite.”
“Yeah, well, guess what you can bite?”
They stepped on one of the other buses with a group of high schoolers. Sweet relief. Their insipid banter was going to give me a headache.
I reached for the base of my skull.
My head wasn’t hurting. At all.
Most Shifters called it the Buzz—those painful twinges that scrambled your thoughts and blotched your vision. Like mosquito bites in your brain. Some Shifts were worse than others.
But it was always present. Until now.
I pulled out my vial of Buzztabs. God bless the Initiative. Without their Assistance Fund I couldn’t afford the pills, and they were the only thing that quashed the sensation. Of course, if today’s side mission went well I’d never need their help again. I shook the tube. I wasn’t sure if I should take one even though I felt fine. But why did I feel fi ne?
A soft hand brushed my shoulder before I had a chance to pop a tablet in my mouth.
“You need to give those back to the nurse, dear. We’re about to leave.” The chaperone, who thankfully appeared to be a frazzled mother rather than a teacher, nudged me along without making eye contact. I put the pills back in my pocket.
Chincoteague Island, here I come.
While I hadn’t taken any formal classes like some of my friends, I considered myself a master of social camouflage. A pulled-down wisp of bang here, a curled-up slouch there, and I was all but invisible. As the bus filled, I fixed my eyes out the window and splayed my arms out so that I took up exactly two-thirds of the seat. Not so much that the chaperone would come and make a fuss. But enough to make it clear I liked riding solo. No one in their right mind would choose to sit by me.
Unless it was the last seat left.
A scrawny redheaded kid who was being devoured by a backpack twice his size shuffled up the aisle. His thick, concave glasses squished the sides of his head in like an insect. Everyone else on the bus appeared the typical sixteen or seventeen years old, but I doubted the increasingly flushed kid had seen the better side of fifteen yet. He gripped the back of the padded seat two rows up in desperate search of another vacant spot. When the chaperone began calling out names, he gave up and slumped next to me.
“Here,” he responded to the name “Finn Masterson,” saving me even the most basic of pleasantries. He watched me out of the corner of his eye with a look of part anticipation and part curiosity as we neared the end of the list. When the bus pulled out onto the highway, he broke down and said, “They didn’t call your name.”
“Nope,” I said.
“Why didn’t they call your name?”
“Probably because it wasn’t on the list.” I rubbed my thumb against some graffiti on the vinyl seat in front of us.
“What is it?”
“My name? Bree.”
“Oh.” He stared past me out the window, either deep in thought or avoiding eye contact, I couldn’t tell. Or care. I wasn’t even sure why I’d given him my real name, especially right now. Most of the time on Shifts, I doled out fake ones. But this kid had a sweet earnestness about him that kept the lie off my tongue.
Plus, he might prove useful when we got to our destination. A little civility never hurt anyone. On occasion, it made the difference between getting home to the twenty-third century to sleep in my own bed and standing in line at a nineteenth-century soup kitchen while I figured out an assignment.
Today it might be the difference in life and death.
Finn dove into a comic book. I pulled out my mission package. There was no point in thinking about the extra job if I didn’t finish the assigned one. Nothing special with the wrapping. I shook it, and whatever was inside rattled around—probably a long-forgotten wedding ring or some other sentimental crap. It never ceased to amaze me the stuff people sent back to their ancestors. Lost love notes, baby teeth, underwear.
Oh, the undies.
And for what? Shifters saw it for what it was—pointless. It was always nonShifters who wanted to forge some imaginary connection to their past. So they could know that they were the ones who returned Great-Aunt Gertrude’s precious applesauce muffin recipe when it mysteriously showed up tucked in her front door after she’d misplaced it all those years before.
Something bothered me now as I stared down at the box. Something amiss. Muffy van Sloot. The name oozed money. Rich people never used the Institute for deliveries, any more so than they’d walk into a barber school for their next haircut. They used professional chronocouriers. Ehh. Maybe this was a feeble attempt to make amends for losing the family fortune.
Or maybe it was all for a dead cat.
Finn tucked away his comic and pulled out a dinky action figure. At first I thought he was engrossed in putting it together, but without looking at me he said, “You a new student?”
“Kind of.” Vagueness was usually the best policy on missions. I hated lying, and technically, I wasn’t. I was a student. Just not of this school. Or century.
“You weren’t on the same bus before.”
“Do you live on the island or inland?”
“You’re just a bundle of questions, aren’t you?”
Finn’s cheeks flamed, and he snapped the last piece onto his toy. “I’m collecting the whole set.” He held up his little treasure and examined it before unzipping the leg pocket of his cargo pants. “I’ve seen the movie three times already. Seen it yet?”
I looked at the action figure before he put it away. “Yeah.” And all three horrible sequels as well. Plus the franchise reboot that came out forty years after the original.
I pressed my forehead against the window and watched trees whir past in a blur of green and brown. There was something comforting about forests, sticking around from one lifetime to the next. The cool glass rattled and thrummed against my temple, sending Buzz-like vibrations all the way to my teeth. But it wasn’t real. I still felt fine—better than fine. Did it mean something was wrong? A startling thought addled my mind: Maybe Mom stopped getting the Buzz before…
She would have mentioned something like that. Mom wasn’t reckless, no matter what people whispered.
Six months of what-ifs had seared me with a perpetual paranoia. But I needed to stay focused, especially today. Everything about this midterm had to appear absolutely normal. The sky started to peek through the foliage in a blipping Morse code, and the next thing I knew the bus began kathunk-kathunk-kathunking across a bridge. A long bridge.
I gripped the seat in front of me and leaned as far from the window as possible.
Finn scooted away and finally tapped my shoulder. “Welcome to my lap,” he said.
“Sorry. I don’t like the water.” I inched back toward the window.
“And you moved to an island? Sucks to be you.”
Dirt, asphalt, concrete…heck, I could land in a vat of Jell-O for all I cared. Just not water. Anything but water. Asphalt carried the risk of being seen. Water carried the risk of never being seen again.
After the bridge’s last bump, my muscles unclenched. A sea-and-sun-cracked sign welcomed us to Chincoteague Island. The shuttered motels and deserted crab houses screamed “off-season.” It reminded me of Spring Break two years before, when Mom and I had thrown a suitcase each in the back of the old beat-up Pod Grandpa left her after he died. Right before it died. We took off up the coast and stopped in every brine-caked tourist trap we could find, ate so much chowder we thought we’d explode. I liked this town already, not that I intended to stay long. The faster I finished the midterm, the faster I moved on to the other delivery, the faster I could put this whole business behind me.
At the school parking lot, a stream of parents circled the block to pick up their children. Older students chattered a play-by-play of the trip on the way to their cars. Finn hung back and eyed me as I twisted my finger around a lock of hair. A cab ride was out. Public buses were unlikely. We really were in the middle of nowhere. Ugh. I was down to an hour and a half, and I had no idea how far away the cemetery was or how big it might be. I’d already made up my mind that I would finish the assignment before I dealt with the contraband item hidden in my shoe. Any red flags and school officials would swarm this place and investigate. I couldn’t afford any chance of getting caught.
“Would you like a ride?” Finn dug his hands into his pockets and scraped a rock across the ground with his foot.
“That’s okay.” The last thing I needed was to be trapped in the back of some crusty station wagon while his mom pried me for information. I’d rather hitchhike. “I wouldn’t want to put your parents out.”
“I drove myself. My car’s right over there.”
I followed his finger to a black Porsche SUV. “You drive?”
“You can’t be more than fourteen years old.”
“I’m fifteen.” He straightened up to his full height, still barely reaching the top of my head. “And I have my hardship license.”
“Hardship?” I looked at the Porsche emblem again and scoffed.
“Both my parents work, and the bus leaves before I get out of soccer. I can drive myself to school and back.” He pulled the keys out. “Look, do you want a ride or not?”
Given the long walk back to the highway, I didn’t have any other options.
“Do you mind if I sit in the back? I need to stretch out. Umm, leg cramp.”
He gave me a look that let me know my excuse was as pathetic as it sounded, but what did I care? It wasn’t like I would see him after I got to my mission site. I settled in and twiddled with my QuantCom until the geolocator came up.
“Is that a pocket watch?” he asked.
“Family heirloom.” Again, not a total lie. It did connect me with the past. It just had more in common with his car’s GPS than his wristwatch.
“Let me know where to turn,” he said.
“No problem. Take a right at the main road.”
Finn tapped his foot timidly on the gas, and we snailed forward through the parking lot.
My mission timer beeped. “Umm, I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
Finn shot me a really look in the rearview mirror but sped up. We turned onto the main road. Right. Left. Right. Right. No, I meant left.
A few times, Finn double-checked my directions. “This street? How much farther?”
After fourteen excruciating minutes, we pulled into a long, brick driveway. I had expected a graveyard or a church. It was a mansion. Or at least the biggest house I’d ever seen. After all the quaint shake-shingled cottages, it seemed especially daunting. But whatever. As long as there was a dead Muffy under the sand or dirt somewhere, I didn’t care. I was within spitting distance of finishing this midterm; then I could get to the real business at hand. I snapped the Com shut and opened the door.
“Thanks for the ride.”
Finn flipped around to face me. “Do you realize where we are?”
“Yeah, Thirty-Four Seventy-One Woodman Estates.”
“I know. We’re at my house.”
Crap. Crap. Crippity Crappity. Crap.
“What’s going on?” asked Finn. His eyes darted back and forth between the rearview and side mirrors even though we were just sitting there in his driveway.
Dang if I knew. And I wasn’t sticking around to find out. I fidgeted with a tube of lip gloss in my jacket pocket. The mission address must have been wrong. Yes. Yes, a logical explanation. If this Finn guy could point me to the town cemetery, I’d drop the package off at Muffy’s grave and go on my merry way. I could squeeze in the drop-off afterward if I hurried. As I leaned forward to ask him where the nearest graveyard was, my gloss accidentally pressed into his rib cage.
“What do you want from me?” he said, his voice rising with each word. “Wait, is that a…Do you have a gun?”
“A gu—?” The laugh was on my lips, but then he fumbled forward, reaching for his phone. I panicked and jabbed the gloss hard into his side. “I mean, yeah. It’s a gun. Don’t make me use it. My gun, I mean. The one in my hand.”
“Where did you get a—?”
“I’ll ask the questions.” I tried to make my voice as menacing as possible. “Don’t move.”
The color drained down Finn’s neck in streaks. He looked like a chameleon that couldn’t decide on a shade. “Look, you can have my wallet, the car, whatever you want,” he said. “Just let me go, okay?”
Breathe, Bree. Breathe.
Before last spring, the lowest grade I’d ever gotten was a B-, in my third year. And that was after a little snafu when I accidentally asked someone to switch on the lights in a pre-Edison home. Not taking a kid hostage. While making a black market delivery.
Leto Malone had timed his proposal perfectly when he showed up in Mom’s room last Tuesday. The doctor had finished his weekly don’t-lose-hope speech. The accountant had delivered his monthly abandon-all-hope report.
Leto slithered in wearing a slick suit and an oily smile. He held out a piece of junk so technologically obsolete it took a minute for me to figure out what it was—an old, paper-thin flexiphone. Then he asked if I wanted to earn an astronomical amount of money.
He placed it in my hand. Just a simple delivery to the past.
When I realized who he was—what he was—I practically threw the gadget back at him.
“Hear me out, kid,” he said. “You know well as I do this widget always popped up back then. Why shouldn’t I give some garage hack with a few hundred quiddie the glory of becoming its inventor?”
“You want me to break the law for a few hundred dollars?” I fought back a snort.
“Are you tiffing me, kid?” He looked around like he was suddenly worried we’d been watched. “You leave this in a secure spot, call the buyer, he deposits the funds in a Swiss bank and gives you the account number. The guy thinks he’s dealing with a disgruntled corporate snitch. You disappear. I collect the payment in our time. Plus interest.”
Two hundred years of interest. Leto smiled as the potential amount dawned on me.
“But if I got caught—”
“You gonna get caught?” Leto scowled.
“No.” What he asked of me could land me in prison. “No, I mean, I won’t do it.”
“These, heh, transactions happen all the time. No different from your school assignments.”
It was completely different from our school assignments. Different from legitimate chronocourying. Anything delivered to the past had to pass strenuous scrutiny for era appropriateness—a fancy way of saying it had to belong in that time. Had to already exist. And it couldn’t result in any personal gain on the sender’s or receiver’s part.
Leto was right on one account, though. The black market for illegal deliveries to the past was alive and well. Technology, medicine, and probably unsavory things that never made the news. But that didn’t mean I wanted anything to do with it. I looked away.
“Suit yourself.” Leto patted my mom’s foot on his way out. “I thought you might be…motivated. But maybe you like your free options.”
I shot Leto a dirty look behind his back. We both knew there was only one free option, even though I didn’t see it as an option at all. I squeezed Mom’s hand and willed her to squeeze back. But of course she didn’t.
“Wait,” I said before he reached the door. “Just this one time?”
“And you’d pay all my mom’s bills?”
Leto nodded again, this time more slowly.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “But how am I supposed to—”
“Shh.” He gave my cheek a not- so-gentle thwap. “You’re a resourceful gal. Figure it out.”
It actually wasn’t that hard, once I realized no one would check my shoes. And if I didn’t deliver this package, Leto would find someone else who would. The buyer would get his gadget one way or another. History books told us that. Leto would get his money. Whoever really invented it would go forever nameless and faceless. You can’t change the past. One of those weird temporal loops that couldn’t be explained. Also one of the reasons I sometimes didn’t blame nonShifters for not trusting us past where they could track us.
A car drove by Finn’s house—the driver craned his neck and waved as he passed. I ducked my face down. I had to get Finn and me inside the house, out of view. Then I could explain to him it was a silly misunderstanding. We’d have a chuckle, and I’d slip out the back door.
As the plan, sketchy as it was, solidified in my brain, my pita-patting pulse slowed its erratic pace. My training took over. I could salvage this.
“Open your door,” I said. Finn obeyed, and I shimmied over the car’s center console after him, careful to keep my gloss in contact with his back. “Now get out of the car…no, slow down…walk to the front door.”
Again, he did as he was told. His whole body trembled, and I was thankful for it. He wouldn’t detect the tremor in my own hand. Standing there, I wondered how ridiculous we’d look to a passerby. Me, a barely five-foot wisp of a thing, hijacking the silver medalist of the Nerd Olympics. Part of me wanted to reassure the poor guy that, worst-case scenario, I’d stain his expensive shirt. But that wouldn’t get me in the house. The key scratched feebly against the lock, Finn was shaking so hard at that point. His fear pushed the last bit of mine away. I grabbed his hand, shoved the key in, and pressed him inside.
There were two light switches on the electrical panel next to the door. I gouged the gloss deeper into his back and reached for the closest one, flicking it to the “on” position.
A massive blown-glass chandelier exploded to life above us and bathed the foyer in golden light. I couldn’t help but gawk at my surroundings. Vases, paintings, and tapestries lined the two-story entryway, floor to ceiling. The antiquities in that one room alone were worth several million dollars. A small Renoir hung next to one of the creepy Dutch Baroques, the kind that follows people around with its eyes. I wasn’t sure which painter it was. Vermeer, maybe? Mom would have known in an instant and would have scolded me for not remembering. One of those infuriating Mom things that I sometimes missed more than the stuff I was supposed to.
I snapped back to attention and, curious to what other treasures the house held, reached for the remaining switch. At first, I thought it was a dead button when nothing turned on. Then, I noticed that the top of Finn’s head had taken on an odd grass-colored tint. An eerie green light slowly filled the entire room. I looked for the source and spotted it above the doorway—three electric candles glowing like emeralds.
“Is that a Haven Beacon?” I asked when my tongue began working again. All other thoughts slipped from my brain. The forgotten lip gloss hit the floor with a clink.
I’d read about Beacons, of course. I’d always found them kind of fascinating. It was an ancient tradition. Those who knew of time travelers’ existence, who passed the knowledge generation to generation, placed three green-flamed candles in their window. A glowing welcome mat—come in, warm yourself. Your secret is safe with me. But Havens had disappeared long before Finn’s time and centuries before mine.
I couldn’t peel my gaze from the viridian flickering. Making contact with the Haven was forbidden. Totes verbote. Our teachers claimed it would give us an unfair edge on assignments, but that wasn’t the real reason. The real reason was the threat of who we might run into at a Haven—Shifters from the past. And, more important, what information we might let slip. Most Beacons had been tracked down ages ago so our transporters could steer us away from them. How had this one managed to slip through the cracks?
Finn’s eyes grew wide. I didn’t see any answers in them, but I repeated my question.
“Is that a Hav—?”
“Are you insane?” Finn roared. He pointed at the tube of lip gloss at my feet. I felt a fleeting sense of shame as he touched the place on his side where he, moments ago, believed I’d held a firearm. “Get out of my house!”
I ignored him and looked around the room again, searching for a clue as to how a Beacon could have ended up in the possession of a kid who clearly had no idea what a Shifter was.
Finn grappled with the door’s handle behind him, not taking his eyes off me for a moment. “Out!” he shouted as he wrenched the heavy front door open.
A short, plump woman with curly auburn hair stood on the front porch. Her arms sagged with grocery bags, but her face was taut with surprise. The house key hung from her hand limply at the lock as she took the scene in. The woman’s gaze lifted to the green lights above the door, then back down to me. I glanced up at the Beacon on reflex. She narrowed her eyes in an unspoken question: Are you what I think you are? I looked at the wall, at the door, anything to avoid her gaze, but I could tell I hadn’t fooled her. She bobbed her head in an almost imperceptible nod.
She knew. She knew who I was—what I was. And didn’t appear fazed in the slightest.
The woman turned to Finn. “That’s hardly what I’d call hospitality, pumpkin.”
Pumpkin didn’t seem to appreciate the flippant attitude at his predicament.
“Mom, I didn’t…She isn’t… This nut job could have killed me. She forced me in here at gunpoint.” He gestured to the tube, which had rolled over to a nearby chair. “Okay, maybe not gunpoint. More like—”
“Glosspoint?” A gangly girl with a dark purple streak running through her hair leaned around Finn’s mother on the porch and snickered. The girl looked a couple years younger than Finn but at the same time was a good half a head taller than him.
“Not helping, Georgie.” Finn’s mom handed the grocery bags to the girl. “Take these to the kitchen, then unload the rest from the car.”
Finn opened his mouth to protest, but his mother silenced him with one arch of her eyebrow. When she turned back to me, her expression softened. She walked into the foyer, holding both hands out.
“Welcome to our home, honey,” she said in a dripping southern drawl. “I’m Charlotte Masterson. Would you care to stay for dinner—I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
Finn looked back and forth between his mom and me with his jaw hanging open. Charlotte gave his chin a gentle tap as she passed. “Don’t let the flies in.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t stay.” I had to get out of there.
“Hush now,” she said. “Nothin’ fancy.”
I gave the green lights a significant look and said, “I have a task to do.”
I’d lost enough time as it was. I had to find that grave. Not to mention get in touch with this black market buyer. I never should have agreed to do it on this mission. Well, I mean, I never should have agreed to do it, period. I just didn’t realize how blarked up this midterm would get.
Charlotte leaned around Finn and switched off the Beacon. “I’ll set a plate for when you change your mind.”
“Are you kidding me?” Finn said. “Hey, while we’re at it, let’s drop by the county jail and invite a few prisoners.”
His mother rolled her eyes and tossed him her key fob. “I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. Go pull the car around to the garage and help Sissy unload it.” Finn didn’t budge, so she added, “Now, please.” More “now” than “please.”
When the door slammed behind him, Charlotte let out one of those sighs they must teach when you become a mother.
“What was your name again?” she said.
“Bree.” Might as well tell her, since her son already knew it.
“My, but you’re a slight thing.” She took a step back and gave me a look like she was sizing me up for a roaster pan. “Doesn’t your mama feed you?”
“Actually, I go to a boarding school.”
In the setting sun it might have been a trick of the light, but I could swear all the color drained from her face. “I see.” Charlotte changed the subject: “When John gets back from wherever he is, I’m sure he’d like to meet you. He loves to talk…timey stuff with other people like him.”
“Is a Shifter?”
A Shifter’s house. I was at a blarking Shifter’s house. It was the rule that didn’t have a number. The Rule: If you should see a Shifter Past, run away and very fast. Yeah, it rhymed. They said it was to help the First Years remember it, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know it by heart from the cradle.
This was the red flag to end all red flags. If anyone from the Institute found out I’d had direct contact with a Shifter from the past, they’d swarm this place like fly on poo. This settled it. Forget Leto’s delivery. I couldn’t risk it. He said if I changed my mind I could return the package to him, no questions asked. I still had to figure out a way to pay for Mom’s care, but I’d deal with that later.
“Obviously,” Charlotte went on, completely oblivious to my meltdown, “we haven’t told Finn and Georgie about their father’s ability yet. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t either.”
Seriously? I mean, it wasn’t my place to judge. When I was eight, my mom had picked up a bunch of pamphlets at the doctor’s office (“So You Think You Might Be Time-Traveling?”) and laid them on my bed. That was her way of having the talk. Even though I knew…what to expect, it threw me for a loop. I was an early bloomer. At eleven, the blinkies started, little micro-Shifts a few seconds and minutes back before synching up to real time. After three days straight of me complaining of wicked déjà vu, Mom clued up and took me to get microchipped. But then again, by my time Shifters hadn’t had to conceal their identities for almost half a century. Maybe keeping your kids in the dark was normal in their time.
Hard to know anything that was normal for Shifters this far back. It wasn’t like we could ask them.
“When are you from?” asked Charlotte, as if she were inquiring about the weather.
“I…I’d rather not say.”
“Oh, don’t worry. John and I have been married almost twenty years. I’m the model of discretion.”
I shook my head. Charlotte didn’t press further.
My mission timer beeped, one hour. A fresh wave of panic crashed over me. I had one goal now. Finish this midterm and finish it fast. No red flags in my report, and I’d be in good shape to do a different delivery for Leto on my next assignment.
“Do you come to the twenty-first century often? You’re always welcome here.” Charlotte pointed up at the lights.
“Umm, no.” I glanced at the door. I had to get out.
She must have thought I was looking at the Haven Beacon. She flicked it on and off a few times in an absentminded way. “Not even sure why we keep this thing around—more sentimental than anything. John’s gotten out of a few sticky jams thanks to the Haven. But I’m surprised you even knew what it was.”
“Pre-Schrödinger Elements of Shifting,” I said without even thinking. Apparently, I was on track to throw out every Rule of Shifting on this trip.
All of her light flicking had started to give me a headache, which was soothing in an odd way, since my head typically throbbed by this point in a mission. The lack of Buzz still disturbed me. It was weird enough on its own but combined with all the other inexplicable elements of this mission. Of all missions.
Charlotte’s voice turned wistful: “I’ve always wondered if—” But I didn’t get to find out what she’d always wondered. A door on the other side of the house banged open. A few seconds later Finn stomped into the living room. Georgie trailed at his heels talking eighty light-years a minute.
“So when she sat down next to you on the bus, did she gloss over the fact that she had a weapon?” Georgie snorted in laughter. “Oh, oh. Or did she make up a bunch of lies about where she was keeping it? Did you catch that one? It was subtle. Makeup. Wait, wait, I have one more.”
“Georgie.” Charlotte shot her a warning glance. “Why don’t you put away the groceries while I start dinner? And, Finn, you can help Bree with whatever it is she needs to do.”
“You want me to what?” he said.
“Go and help Bree.”
“Help her do what?” Finn asked. He, Charlotte, and Georgie stared at me, waiting.
I shook my head. No help. But then my QuantCom let out a shrill chime. I’d lost five more minutes. And it was getting dark outside. I didn’t have a choice. This was their property. They’d know where it was.
“I need to lay something on top of Muffy van Sloot’s grave.”
It was like I’d nominated Finn to run for Governor of the Moon, the looks they all gave me.
Charlotte regained her composure. “Did you say ‘Muffy’?”
Georgie lost it. “What the bleep is a Sloot?”
“I told you she was psycho,” said Finn.