Winter Kim and her sister, Rose, have escaped the past and started over in a new place where no one knows who they used to be. Now they work as digital stunt girls for Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Gideon, engaging in dangerous and enticing activities while recording their neural impulses for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Whether it’s bungee jumping, shark diving, or grinding up against celebrities at the city’s hottest dance clubs, Gideon can make it happen for you, for a price.
When Rose disappears and a ViSE recording of her murder is delivered to Gideon, Winter is devastated. She won’t rest until she finds her sister’s killer. But when the clues she uncovers conflict with the digital recordings her sister made, Winter isn’t sure what to believe. To find out what happened to Rose, she’ll have to untangle what’s real from what only seems real, risking her own life in the process.
Paula Stokes weaves together a series of mysteries and a love story between sisters in this unforgettable high-tech thrill ride.
Vicarious will be available August 16th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
THREE YEARS LATER
Rose is crowding me out as usual, the reflection of her slender elbow obscuring part of my face in the mirror. Her scattered powders and potions cover the marble vanity of the bathroom we share. They’re made of all things bold and glittery, just like she is. In contrast, my neat little cluster of toothbrush, hairbrush, and eyeliner feels like an unruly child put in the corner.
“Move over,” I say.
She’s busy curling her eyelashes. I watch as she clamps a little torture device over one eye. People say we look alike, but what they mean is we look alike except she’s more striking. She has the same basic bone structure and pale skin, but bigger eyes, fuller lips, longer hair, and now, apparently, curlier eyelashes.
“You move over. I have plans tonight.” Rose tosses the eyelash curler into the sink and blinks sweetly at my reflection before rummaging through the mess on the vanity to find a tube of mascara.
“Me too.” I finger-comb my shoulder-length black hair, and then grab my eyeliner. A soft brush of black pencil across my lower lash line is usually all the makeup I wear.
“With Jesse Ramirez?” Rose wrinkles her nose at my pencil. “I could help you with your makeup.”
“Maybe.” I ignore her offer to slather me up with products. Jesse’s not my boyfriend, and even if he were, I wouldn’t waste time trying to impress him by masquerading as someone else.
“Winter,” Rose starts, her voice getting that whole mothering tone like she’s forty instead of twenty. “You know Jesse loves you.”
“No he doesn’t. We just work together, all right?” I’ve caught Jesse staring more than once, but I’m fairly certain his feelings are more practical in nature. He wants what all guys want. Too bad for him.
Rose blots her eyelashes on the back of her hand and applies a coat of shiny red lipstick. She looks like something out of a black-and-white movie. I’ve never seen a dress with so much fringe before.
“You should just give him some. See what it’s like to be with someone who actually cares about you.”
I flinch slightly as I tug at her scooped neckline, pulling up the fabric to cover her cleavage. “Maybe you should try not giving some to everyone you meet.”
“Funny.” Rolling her impeccably made-up eyes, Rose twists her curtain of black hair up under a white-blond wig. “I’m going to Inferno. Come by later if you want.”
Inferno is the club in the building next door. I’ve only been there a couple of times since I turned eighteen three months ago. “Are you … working?” I ask.
She smiles coyly. “Maybe.”
“Then I’ll just see you tomorrow.”
Lately, Rose’s idea of work has gotten increasingly provocative: modeling, club dancing, switch parties. Inferno holds a switch party every Saturday night. It’s basically a make-out version of speed dating, where they turn out all the lights and then everyone pairs up, hooks up, and then switches partners. As you can imagine, finding enough men isn’t a problem, but the club usually ends up having to pay the women. Rose swears she doesn’t seriously hook up with anyone, that it’s all about teasing and control, but sometimes I wonder. It’s her body and she can do what she wants with it, but the thought of some dirty stranger’s hands on my sister makes my insides wither.
I love Rose, but sometimes I don’t understand her.
“When’s your next therapist appointment?” she asks suddenly, as if the look on my face might indicate an impending breakdown.
“Why are you asking me that? You know I quit seeing her.”
Rose arches a dark eyebrow. “I’m surprised Gideon doesn’t force you to go.”
Gideon and Rose ended their relationship shortly after we left Los Angeles. Despite the breakup, they’ve remained friends and the three of us still live together in Gideon’s penthouse. Which means now he’s sort of our landlord, older brother, and boss rolled into one. It’s complicated.
“He’s so busy working that he probably doesn’t realize I’ve stopped going,” I say. This is a half-truth. My therapist’s office seems to be a few weeks behind on billing, so that’s why Gideon doesn’t know I’ve been skipping sessions. “I’ll make an appointment if I need to.”
Rose acts like I might kill myself at any moment, but that’s just her being dramatic. Maybe I was depressed in Los Angeles, but I got better once we escaped. My therapist here diagnosed me with PTSD, but even at its worst, it was never anything that serious. I just sometimes got my dreams confused with reality, or saw things a little differently than they actually were.
Now, other than the occasional nightmare or bout of anxiety, I’m fine. I don’t need to waste time in Dr. Abrams’s soothing blue-green office talking about how it felt to be repeatedly violated. Sometimes it’s best to just move on.
“All right.” Rose raises her hands in mock surrender. “You seem fine to me.”
Rose lived the same life I did, but she doesn’t have PTSD. No bad dreams, no missing memories. Sometimes I’m jealous that she seems to deal with everything better than I do. But then I’ll catch her with this hollow look in her eyes and think maybe she just disguises everything for my benefit.
Maybe she’s broken on the inside too.
She leans in to give me an air kiss on each cheek, and her jasmine perfume makes me sneeze. A row of shiny bracelets jangle against each other as she pulls a chunk of my hair forward from behind my left ear. It falls in front of my eye, kind of seductive-like. Satisfied, she smiles.
“I’m just going to put it in a ponytail.” I lift my arm so she can see the plain black elastic band looped around my wrist.
She sighs deeply. “You’re hopeless.” She reaches out to hug me, and her warmth makes my rigid muscles start to loosen.
And then go tight again.
Sometimes when we touch, I flash back to the two of us huddled together in a tiny room in L.A. after one of our “dates.” I’m sobbing. She’s consoling. I’m hoping for death and she’s demanding I stay alive.
She usually gets what she wants.
Rose spins around once to check her reflection in the full-length mirror mounted on the outside of the bathroom door. Fringe flares out from her slender body.
“Be safe,” I say.
“But not too safe.” Flashing me a grin, she sashays out into the living room.
Still trapped between here and thoughts of L.A., I grab the bar of soap and turn the faucet on all hot. Clouds of steam blanket the mirror as the scalding water turns my hands pink. I close my eyes and count to ten. My flesh protests, but I lather for another ten seconds and then rinse. The pain washes away the memories.
Someone raps sharply on the front door of the penthouse. It’s probably Jesse, and I’m not ready. “Can you answer the door?” I ask. “I think Gideon is already in bed.”
No response. More rapping. I turn the faucet off and dry my hands on an embroidered hand towel. “Eonni? Did you hear me?” I head for the living room.
Our cat, Miso, sits just inside the front door, his black-and-white tail twitching with anticipation. Otherwise, the penthouse is empty except for a whiff of jasmine perfume. Rose must have left when I was washing my hands.
“I’ll be right there,” I call. I head into my bedroom and grab my lightweight Kevlar body armor from a hanger in my closet. I slide it over my head and pull the Velcro straps tight. Then I open the top drawer of the nightstand and pull out a stun gun and a pair of throwing knives.
I’m in a slightly different line of work than my sister.
Copyright © 2016 by Paula Stokes
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