Something about HG’s letter had stirred up curiosity and suspicion in Claudia’s mind – not suspicion of Wells herself, but of the events of her past. A woman who loved as clearly and deeply as HG did couldn’t possibly be the monster everyone thought she was. By this point, Claudia was fairly sure she’d picked the Warehouse’s brain as much as it could be picked on the artifact subject, so she at long last concluded her “Help Myka” search and began her “Help Myka, Part Two” search: digging through HG’s secret history.
The files on Helena were much easier to hack, and soon Claudia had access to all the nitty-gritty details of the author’s years at the Warehouse – perhaps more than she wanted to know. She confirmed with sickening detail what Helena had meant by making Christina’s killer suffer, but the more she read about the events afterwards that led to her bronzing, the more she understood that Helena was a woman consumed by her grief, and though it did not condone her actions in any way, it softened Claudia’s previous judgment of her.
She was about to close the file when she noticed a detail on her search program that made her pause. The original file had been logged when the Warehouse first started its computer log, due to its age, but part of it had been changed some ten or fifteen years ago. Curiosity and suspicion ramping up a notch, Claudia tried to locate the paper file so she could have a look…only for the search to tell her that the original file had been destroyed.
“I call shenanigans,” she muttered, opening a top-secret program she’d written for purposes of the “Help Myka” project. In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “of course, you do realize, this means war!”
With the press of a key, Claudia once again ordered her virtual troops into the bowels of the Warehouse brain (if that made any sense), scouring its depths for the original file. The phalanx met heavy resistance, but the bowmen managed to punch holes in the archive’s defenses with their unceasing attack. The Trojan warriors wormed their way through the cracks and opened the gates for the cavalry, who came charging in with a vengeance. The battle was swift and bloody, the Warehouse’s pike men being no match for Claudia’s determination as she ordered her generals to make a frontal assault while her trebuchets and ballistae bombarded the inner keep. The monarchy refused to surrender, but Claudia’s best spies had already infiltrated the treasury (“Checkmate!” she whooped with a first-pump. “Hah!”), and within ten minutes, the spoils of war appeared on the victorious hacker’s computer screen. What she saw made her jaw drop.
No… Oh no, oh no, oh no….
She needed to contact Myka. Now.
* * *
“Moulin Rouge?!” Myka demanded the instant Claudia’s face popped up on Skype.
It took the hacker a moment to figure out what Myka was talking about, but when she did, she cringed, shaking her head. “I’m not sure I wanna know how that conversation started. I’d love to hear how it ended, though,” she added, propping her chin on her hands and looking at her friend with eager interest.
Myka flushed as she deigned not to answer, which only prompted an evil cackle from Claudia. “Was there a reason you called me? Myka prompted, raising her voice over the girl’s laughter. Said laughter immediately faded, and when Claudia bit her lip and looked away, Myka couldn’t help but feel a growing dread. “Claud…?”
Claudia tapped a few keys on her computer, and Myka’s attention was drawn to the file that had just been transferred. “It’s HG’s – the original,” the hacker emphasized. “Read the last entry.”
Myka did, and Claudia looked on with sympathy as the information sank in. As the brunette’s eyes flicked back and forth across the screen, her expression went from curiosity to shock, then dismay, then unbearable sadness, and then something that made the young techie shiver. Myka’s gaze had become hard and cold, but her eyes held an inferno of roaring fury that Claudia hadn’t imagined her capable of. Igniting within that inferno until its own flames entwined with those of her rage came a bloodthirst, a craving for justice and vengeance, and the hacker suddenly pitied anyone and everyone who tried to stand in Myka’s way.
Claudia gave the fire more time to burn before asking in a quiet voice, “Are you going to tell her?”
Myka looked up at the girl, and her eyes softened. She bit her lip as she thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No,” she murmured, “but you can bet it’s coming up at the trial,” she added with a growl.
Claudia gave her a vigorous nod. “I’ll back you up all the way.”
The brunette gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks, Claud. That really means a lot to me.”
The techie was about to respond when she heard swift footsteps heading in her direction. “Shit! I gotta go – someone’s coming!”
“Love you, Claud. I really do,” Myka said in farewell.
Claudia beamed at her. “Love you, too,” she replied before cutting the connection and erasing all traces of their conversation.
She had just closed her laptop when Pete came through the hole in the alternate B&B wall. Claudia looked up, feigning surprise. “Hey, Pete, what’s…”
The expression on his face made her feel like she’d just done a polar bear plunge off the coast of Antarctica. Gone was the despondent-but-healing Pete she had sadly come to accept and in his place was a Pete she wouldn’t have believed possible if he hadn’t been towering over her. He stood tense and rigid in a way that could only be interpreted as menacing, especially considering the way he was clenching and unclenching his fists. His eyes burned, and the unrestrained fury on his face actually made Claudia afraid of her friend. This wasn’t the controlled, directed rage she’d seen in Myka but a wild force threatening to lash out in all directions.
“You were talking to her!” he accused, growling through clenched teeth.
“I told you weeks ago,” Claudia began, trying to remain calm as she packed away her computer. Shouldering her bag and standing, she continued, “I’m testing the – ”
“YOU WERE TALKING TO MYKA!!!” he roared, making Claudia flinch. Unable to deny anything now, she bit her lip, debating how much to tell him.
“I’m helping her with an assignment,” she admitted, treading carefully. “Mrs. Frederic ordered the project, and it’s top secret. I wasn’t allowed to tell you.”
Hurt flashed across Pete’s face before it went back to anger twice as strong as it had been, which Claudia didn’t think possible. “The hell you weren’t!” He grabbed her arm and began dragging her out of the B&B. “Let’s see what Artie has to say about this, shall we?” His voice was dripping with venom that could only come from envy and bitterness.
Claudia was so stunned that she gaped in disbelief for a moment before remembering to fight back. “Pete, let go! You’re hurting me!” He ignored her. If anything, he gripped her harder as he dragged her along.
Terrified by his violence, Claudia stopped struggling, letting herself be led through the Warehouse. This time she was biting her lip to hold back tears. That Pete didn’t care if he hurt her was far more painful than his grip could ever be.