"Bricked? You mean, like …" Nita started, then thought better of it. "What the hell, lady? You have your phone set up with a code that bricks it? Who the fuck are you?"
"I told you," smiled Katie in a way Nita found infuriatingly smug. "May name's Kathleen."
"No ID, no keys, no cash, but you have a phone that deletes itself instantly. I want to know a whole lot more than just your bloody name. Out with it!"
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Ms. Herrera." Katie smiled again. "I mean, unless you just want to know about my taste in food, favorite places to shop, that sort of thing. Though I'm guessing from the knife in your hand and the pulsating bulge in your forehead that you're not wanting to make friends with me."
"Oh, so you think you're funny, too, huh?" Nita waved the knife about casually and turned to Lewis. "Looks like we've got ourselves a couple of comedians, here. We'll see how funny they think they are when the police get here." She leaned in close to Katie's face. "Assuming they're still breathing by then."
"Right. First of all, though this would all go far more easily for me if the local authorities actually were on their way, I very much doubt they are." And here Katie gave Nita a particularly infuriating smile, before adding, "Secondly, I don't respond well to threats. So, you might want to put that thing away before you hurt yourself."
"That so?" Nita asked. "But what about your boyfriend here?" With the smooth easy motion of a person accustomed to handling a blade, she quickly placed the tip under Seth's chin. "How does he respond to threats?"
"Hey now," Seth said, voice shaking, "You don't need to threaten me. I'll tell you anything you want to—"
"He's not my boyfriend, you idiot," Katie sighed. "I barely know the man." No emotion, she told herself, and no fear—these people are puppets, you just have to find the right strings. She focused her mind on keeping her eyes and her voice as icy as possible. Show them nothing. "My interest in him is purely professional."
"Well, then I suppose I could ruin your payday real quick, huh?" Nita felt she might have found a lever. Lewis looked at her with concern and fear, as though he didn't recognize she wasn't really the person she was pretending to be. His eyes widened suddenly as they flashed towards Seth. When she looked, she noticed a drop of blood running down the blade of her buck knife. Oh my God—I think I may have pushed this act a bit too far.
She barely had time to register the thought before her whole world dropped into slow motion. She was aware of everything that happened, but she seemed to have lost the ability to react to it. She felt as though she were set in aspic.
Seth broke his masking-tape bonds and grabbed her wrist with his left hand, giving it a sudden, painful twist. As she dropped the knife, he caught it with his right hand, and whipped it through the air where it buried itself in the wall across the room. Nita sat suddenly and involuntarily on the coffee table. Lewis lunged forward at Seth, but Seth made a swift turn, pushing his chest with the flat palm of his right hand—the hand that, a split-second before had been holding the knife—pushing Lewis backward into the kitchen doorway. He stepped quickly and confidently around Nita and across the room before turning. His back was now to the wall where the knife had stuck, and so he was facing everyone else present.
"That's enough of that," he said, wiping at the smear of blood under his chin. "I'm no threat to you, and, well, I don't think she is, either." He nodded towards Katie. "I'm not really sure who she is, though, so maybe I'm … wrong about that."
Seth suddenly dropped into the couch, dazed. He wondered: how the hell did I just do that?
Nita rubbed her wrist, shocked into quiet. Lewis stood up from the floor, where he'd fallen against the refrigerator. He had nothing to say, either.
"I knew it!" Katie exclaimed. "You've been under cover this whole time! What's your story, Seth? What's Strange Animal? Is that where you met him?" She nodded towards Lewis, who was standing still in the kitchen doorway.
"What?" Seth and Lewis both had just time enough to say before the front door suddenly opened and Mary walked in, mouth agape.
"What the hell is going on here?" She dropped her bag on the floor, and pointed at Seth and Katie. "And, what the fuck are they doing here?"
Everyone remained where they were, frozen in silence. The tableau before Mary was more than she could handle. She turned on her heel and started right back out the front door.
"Wait!" Nita and Seth said together.
"I can explain everything," Seth added before Nita shot him a silencing look.
"I don't know what he has to say," said Nita, "but I'm as confused as you are and I want some answers, too."
"All right," replied Mary, sighing and turning around. "I do want some answers. But if I don't get them damn quick, I'm calling the cops!"
"Why aren't you at work?" Lewis asked. "I mean, you just left a few minutes ago."
"I forgot my stupid phone," Mary said. "If I had known I was coming back to this, I would have just left it!" She closed the door behind her and added, "OK, so why is there tape everywhere, and why's the Russian bound up like that?"
"Mary, this is all my fault," said Seth. "At least … well, sort of. I mean, the part where you're involved."
"Whatever it is, I don't want to be involved." Mary retorted. "What are you even doing here? How the hell do you know my name?"
"Yeah, that part," Seth said. "That's the part that's all my fault. I was … well, I was looking for you. I overheard your name at the BMV the other day when you gave it to the woman at the counter. And then I picked up your book—"
"For the last time," Mary screamed, "it wasn't my goddam book!"
"Oh, yeah, right, right. It was your friend Nita … her library book."
"Look," said Lewis quietly. "Can we all just sit down a minute and figure out what is going on here, in a calm way? Without anyone threatening anyone?"
"That's up to her, I think," put in Katie as she nodded towards Nita. "I mean she is the one who started with the death threats—it wasn't either of us."
"Oh just shut up, you!" Nita glared at her. Katie only smiled back in response.
"Huh," interjected Mary. "So she's not Russian, after all. What's her deal, then?"
"I was just trying to figure that out, when her boyfriend over there went all SAS on us."
"What?" Asked Mary, just as Katie said, "I said he's not my fucking boyfriend, you stupid bitch!"
"Whoah," replied Nita, "I think I may have struck a nerve there, wouldn't you say, Honey?"
"That denial did seem awfully forceful," said Lewis.
Katie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. No emotion. No reaction. She didn't understand how she had let Nita get to her like that. Find their strings, Katie, stop exposing your own.
"I'm sorry if I hurt you, ma'am," Seth said to Nita. "I just … I had to get that thing away from you. I was worried you were about to do something you'd regret."
"Um, yeah, I guess …" began Nita. "I mean, I'm OK. You—you could have really hurt one of us, you know."
"Yeah, I think I could have," he replied, "but I didn't . I mean, I don't want to hurt anyone. I don't mind talking, anyway, so you didn't really need to threaten me. OK?"
"Fine," said Mary. "We can all get along and no one needs to threaten anyone. I'm still not ready to start singing Kumbayah just yet."
"That's fine," said Seth. "I'll start explaining—but I want an answer from Svetla— ... err, I mean, Kathleen over there."
"You can call me Katie." Her eyes snapped open. "What do you want to know?"
"Why? Why me? What … what did I do? Who are you working for?"
"I'm sorry, Seth," she said. "I really am. But, I can't tell you that."
Lewis interjected at this point. "Can you at least tell us why you thought he and I knew each other?"
"You really don't know, do you?"
"Not a clue," said Lewis. "Though I'm guessing he was part of that project you were asking me about … TIER?"
"I still can't talk about it, sorry."
Seth looked at her, frowning. "Katie?"
Katie's eyes grew sad. "Yes?"
"I—I don't know … I don't know who you're working for, but you know I have my suspicions." Seth turned away from Mary, lowering his voice. "If there was any of you in Svetlana, if there's any of that caring, concerned person left in you … please."
"Seth, I—" Katie closed her eyes again and turned her face away from him.
"Yes, it was TIER," she blurted out. "You were both a part of TIER. And … it all has to do with LaBelle."
"What's TIER—" Nita began.
"It stands for Total Identity and Ego Removal. It was a psychological program LaBelle was working on in combination with some other things. I think they were trying to create super-soldiers."
"They?" Seth asked. "Not We?"
"No," replied Katie, "definitely, not. I mean, I'm working for LaBelle, yes, but only as an independent agent. They hired me to look into you, Seth. They thought you were a mole—at least that's what they told me at the time. Now I think that was just a cover story. I think they just wanted someone to keep an eye on you, but they didn't want that someone to know what was really going on."
"So, what you're trying to say," interjected Nita, "is that you were just a Patsy."
"Of a sort, yes," Katie sighed deeply. "Would you mind untying, err, un-taping me now?"
"No way," said Nita. "I'm not buying it."
"Why not?" Seth asked.
"LaBelle hired you to spy on Mr. O'Keefe, here," said Nita. "But that doesn't explain why you got in touch with Lewis."
"That's nothing," replied Katie. "Once they hired me, I started digging. Despite what you might think of me for having allowed myself to get into this stupid situation, I am not a stupid person. It didn't take me long to figure out the whole situation had a funny smell to it. So … I started looking into Seth's case. As soon as I found TIER, I connected it to the psychologists working various parts of the program. Lewis's ex-wife was one of them, and Lewis was listed as a subject."
"What the?" This was Lewis. "No, that can't be right. Celia never had anything to do with the studies I was in."
"Not directly, no," answered Katie. "But she was involved in other aspects."
"She would never work on anything like that! Celia's not the kind—"
"Relax, Mr. Wright," said Katie. "Whether or not she would really doesn't enter into it. The project was broken up into various minor studies. I don't think most of the doctors involved even knew LaBelle was involved, and I seriously doubt any of them were aware of the wider project to which they were contributing."
"OK, but here's the thing," said Seth, "I've never met Wright or his wife. And I was never involved in any psych studies or super-soldier programs or anything like that. So that brings me back to my original question: Why me? How is it I'm involved in any of this?"