Desert Fire

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Moving around the room at a sluggish pace, I gather my crap, or ‘shit’ as Cadmar refers to it. My eyes are puffy, still burning from my crying jag, as if I didn’t get any sleep, which I basically didn’t, because Cadmar woke us up at stupid-o-clock, saying we could sleep on the road. A sharp pain throbs behind my right eye, making it almost impossible to think straight. Stupid crying. Stupid no sleep.

While I sat in the bathroom last night, I realized how big of a baby I was being. I was still mad at Payton, sure, but I shouldn’t have thrown a fit and stomped off crying. I wanted to fix things, so they wouldn’t all think I was a baby, but when I came out, she and Conner were gone and I felt like an idiot. I ended up eating three pieces of pizza under the apprehensive eyes of Cadmar and Kadence before plopping into bed and passing out. What little sleep I did get wasn’t great, because the way I left things with Payton played through my mind over and over. If something does happen to her, she’ll be left thinking I hate her.

After washing up in the bathroom, I grab my backpack, still dilly-dallying. Cadmar keeps urging me to move faster, snapping at me multiple times, but I only half listen. He says something about needing to get to the base and Kadence states her worry about how dangerous it will be. She’s always worried it seems. He brushes off her concern then herds us out the door and to the car.

The night chill smacks me in the face, waking me up slightly. A full moon shines down on us while we get back in the Jeep and back on the road. I want to bang my head against the center console. I’m so tired of driving all over, but I guess there’s no way around it. I am glad we’re getting out of Crap-town, New Mexico, but I’m not happy we’re going back to Colorado. I wish we could go somewhere cool, like New York or Chicago, somewhere far, far away from Colorado. Hell, I wouldn’t even mind going to Greece. Cadmar and she-who-must-not-be-named used to vacation there all the time. Maybe I can convince Mr. Grumpy-pants to take us there.

We drive in complete silence for a long time while I daydream about crowded cities and bright lights. I think about sleeping as Cadmar suggested, but I have too much running through my brain. I can’t believe we’re going to the base, which I’m partly excited about. Having never been on an assignment, there was no reason for me to ever go there, and I’m excited to finally see it. But I wonder why Cadmar wants to go there.

I may have been tired as all heck when he and Kay were talking about it, but I remember her saying it would be dangerous, and for once, I actually agree. The Elites know where it is. If there aren’t any agents actually there, they may still be watching it. Oooh, but maybe I could get in on the action this time. With only the two of them, they’ll be too occupied to keep me out of it.

While I’m thinking up a great plan, Kay speaks up from the front seat. “I still don’t understand why you would risk going to the base.” Her tone is quiet, but it’s filled with an undercurrent of accusation.

“I came up with a plan,” Cadmar admits grudgingly after a long pause. I’m surprised he gave in so easily, even though it wasn’t a ton of information. So he has a plan, what said plan is, we may never know. “There’s something I need from the base in order to put this plan into action.”

Whoa, he gave even more away!

My interest piqued, ebbing some of my tiredness away, I lean forward on the center console, about to ask what the plan is, but Kay cuts me off again. “As you are putting us in danger—again—I believe we have the right to know what the plan is.”

Holy shiz! She never talks to Cadmar that way. In fact, I’ve only ever heard Payton challenge him; this is a nice change of pace. Face lit by the dash lights, Cadmar’s scrunched up brow and angry slit eyes look more intimidating than usual, but Kay appears almost as angry. Is she mad he hasn’t given us any answers, or that he let Payton leave? I’ll have to ask her later.

He grips the steering wheel, staying silent for freaking ever. He probably won’t tell us; she’ll be lucky if he doesn’t simply yell at her. Ask him, ask him, ask him! My curious side chants, but I bite my tongue until I taste blood, because things didn’t go so great the last time I pushed for information. I’ll sit this one out and let Kay get the heat for being nosey. Besides, with how tired I am, I’m sure I would throw another embarrassing fit if he didn’t give in. Staying silent for once is my best choice.

Kay continues watching him, waiting for his answer. I’m certain he isn’t going to give her one, until he sighs in defeat. All my nerve endings spike with excitement at the thought of actually getting answers; finally a taste of that forbidden fruit!

I can’t see his expression when he speaks, but he sounds less than thrilled. “You do deserve answers, but you have to know I’m not purposely putting you in danger.” He pauses, twisting his hands on the wheel some more while Kay watches him and I practically thrum with anticipation.

Giving Kay a sideways glance, he continues, “You girls are my life and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make you all safe again. We’re going back to the base because there’s a USB drive with software on it that I’ve been working on for a while. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to use it for, but now I know. Once we have it, we’re going to the Elites’ database.”

Wait. What? That all sounded like a ton of gibberish.

Kay’s mouth hangs open, which is crazy to see because she’s usually pretty good at keeping composed. Apparently, whatever he wants to do is a big deal, but I seriously have no idea what he’s talking about.

Finally, her mouth closes. “And you expect this software will still be there? You don’t think they ransacked the base and took everything with them?”

He shoots her another look, which appears to be filled with surprise. I must be seeing things. “So you know what I want to do, only by me telling you where we’re going?”

She nods once, making him chuckle darkly, shaking his head. “I apologize for underestimating your intelligence, Kadence.” She jerks back, eyes popping out. An apology? From Cadmar? Unheard of. “And

don’t worry about them having found it,” he tells her, but doesn’t expound, per usual.

“No comments from the peanut gallery?” he asks, smirking at me in the rearview mirror.

Giving him a fierce glare in return, I try thinking up a good retort, but I’m just too tired to come up with one. “I would love to know what the crap you two are talking about with all this database software talk, but I’m really too exhausted to care at this point.”

Usually, I would push until I had the answers, but my mind is foggy, my eyelids drooping. Maybe after I rest a little, I’ll have my spunk back and maybe I’ll even bring up the topic of my parents again…who knows?

“Well, I said you could sleep on the drive,” he tells me, focus returning to the road.

I do exactly that. After turning AFI on at a semi- reasonable volume, I use the entire backseat to stretch my legs out. It’s stiff, but after some shifting around and the use of my sweater as a pillow, I fall asleep quickly, although it’s a restless sleep. The sound of them mumbling about software configuration and agents guarding someplace invades my mind, causing weird dreams. I should be awake and listening, because this is probably the most information I’ll ever get, but my eyelids are too heavy, keeping me in a half-sleep state.

They wake me when we stop at a gas station right outside Grand Junction. Anger overtakes all other thoughts, because we’re back in Colorado, the worst place on Earth. Thankfully, my bladder hurts too much for me to focus on our current location. Stepping out of the Jeep, the bright sun shining in my eyes makes me groan. The chilled wind blasts through my thin, black long-sleeved shirt. I rush through relieving my bladder in the rancid smelling bathroom, which has some questionable stains on the stall walls. Who wouldn’t rush through that horror?

Once out of there, I gasp for breath while grabbing some powdered doughnuts and coffee before meeting Kay and Cadmar at the checkout. They chuckle at my expression with raised eyebrows. “You do not want to go in there,” I tell them with a fervent headshake, making them laugh, which is actually an amazing sound to hear coming from Cadmar.

We head back to the Jeep and Cadmar starts pumping while Kay and I get in. I sip at the sweet, burning nectar then shove two whole doughnuts in my mouth while Kay eyeballs me between sips of her own coffee. Irritation nags at the back of my mind, because she obviously has something to say. So come out and say it! I want to yell, but I keep composed…mostly.

“Have something to say?” I bite out, but the doughnuts muffle it, causing powdered sugar to puff out in an attractive cloud.

Eyes softening with concern, she sighs while playing with her coffee cup. “I was just wondering if you’re okay?”

Her concern aggravates me even more, causing my eyes to become slits. Yeah, I threw an epic tantrum last night, but that doesn’t mean I’m broken. “I’m great.” I shrug, trying really hard to be a big girl and not snap at her. They all think I’m a child; I need to prove them wrong.

“Okaaaay,” she draws the word out, as if it really isn’t ‘okay.’ “If you ever want to talk, I am here. I am your sister after all; we’re supposed to be here for each other.”

Lucky for her, Cadmar gets in, bringing the strong scent of gasoline with him, before I’m able to respond with the snide remark sitting on the tip of my tongue. He starts the Jeep, glancing at us.

“We’re twenty minutes out,” he tells us. “I’m only getting us a little closer before I run in and scout it out. You two will stay put until I confirm the coast is clear. Understood?” He gives me a pointed look and I try super hard not to glare.

We both agree, me rather reluctantly. I want to insist on going with him, but he’ll only shoot me down, as always.

But…you could always sneak in after him…but Kay won’t allow that.

Allow it? I’ll convince her we need to help him.

She’s always a sucker for helping people.

I keep my thoughts to myself while we get back on the road. Cadmar might just chain me to the Jeep if he knew what I’m pondering. Watching the bare terrain pass by, I take out the crappy cell phone Cadmar gave me, and text Payton. It’s still pretty early, but she should be awake soon enough. I don’t want her to be mad at me or worried while she’s on her trip, so I may as well put her mind at ease. She doesn’t reply right away, but I wasn’t expecting her to. Hopefully, she will soon. Ugh, I am not going to be all longing for her reply. Lame.

I turn my attention back to our surroundings right when Cadmar pulls onto a dirt road. As opposed to the mountains the castle was surrounded by, river rock and a bunch of sand make up this area. Dust kicks up behind the Jeep when he peels down the isolated road, turning with the curves, which are enclosed in tall rock plateaus.

Only a few minutes on the dirt road and we’re left parked on the side of it, encased by walls of rock, while Cadmar runs off into the sandy landscape. We were given strict instructions to stay inside the Jeep, but I disobeyed—with much argument from Kay—the second he was out of sight. He also said if we saw anyone coming from either direction, we are to leave, which seems like a dumb idea.

I kick the back tire with my worn Vans, a rhythmic thump thump thump, while Kay watches with crossed arms and disapproving eyes as if she knows I’m going to run off any second. I am; she’s right to worry, but it’s still annoying. If I just try to take off, I’m sure it will piss her off a lot more than if I actually talk to her about it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to. I should have already started following him. Now I’ll never be able to figure out where the stupid base is!

I’ll have to talk to her about it; otherwise I’ll get lost out here. I really don’t want everyone annoyed with me. While I think about my options, I keep glancing at my phone, irritated with Payton for not answering yet. It is only seven, but she should be up now, doing whatever the heck it is she plans to do. Unless she’s treating it as a vacation and sleeping in super late, which would be totally stupid of her. I can’t help sending another text, letting her know exactly how aggravated I am while Kay glances around us as if to make sure no one is nearby. Like anyone would want to hang out here in the middle of nowhere. I’m certain not even the Elites finest would tolerate that.

The silence makes my irritability a million times worse, causing a heavy sigh to escape me. Kay shoots me a worried glance. Always worried!

“I know what you’re planning,” she tells me while I continue hammering the innocent tire with my foot and raise my pierced eyebrow. “I’m not stupid, Reiley. And I will tell you if you attempt to find the base on your own, you’ll only get lost.”

I cease my thumping, trying to keep my face blank, like Cadmar always does. “Don’t make me find it on my own then.” No matter how hard I try retaining my cool-headedness, it’s impossible to keep the plea out of my voice. “If we go together, we can help him. I mean, what if agents are there and he can’t handle them all? Wouldn’t you feel terrible if we just sat here and something happened to him?” Low blow, I know, but I need to convince her. I will not be left out of the action this time.

Only a slight twinge of guilt courses through me when the resolve in her eyes waivers. She twists her long braid for a second before sighing in defeat. “I shouldn’t agree to this.” I keep myself from bouncing with excitement, but, wow, that didn’t take too much

convincing. “But he may need our help and I believe it was rather foolish of him to leave us sitting here.”

My mouth almost drops in the sand, but I clamp it shut; no way am I gonna let her see how excited or surprised I am. While we arm ourselves, she goes over some ground rules about how I have to stay behind her or run if there’s trouble, blah blah blah. I barely hear a word she says because my heart pounds like a drum in my ears. The Desert Eagle I’m holding is solid and deadly, making me feel like those things as well. I almost want an ambush to be waiting for us so I can finally get rid of this pent up need. Always training, training, training, and I’ve never been able to use it. I might finally be able to show them how I do know what I’m doing.

“Reiley,” Kay suddenly snaps, giving me a sharp look. Oh dang, I wasn’t listening at all. I don’t want her to change her mind only because I wasn’t paying attention. “If you get in the mindset that we are going on some killing spree, I will get you in the Jeep and drive in the opposite direction.”

She doesn’t ask if I understand as Cadmar usually would, but I know she totally would do it. Somehow, she would get me in the Jeep no matter how much of a fight I put up. Holding in my retort, which wants so badly to come out, I give her a tight nod. With that, we begin our trek through the sand and towering rocks.

My shoes and socks fill up with sand only a few minutes into our hike, but I’m too excited to care about the dirt between my toes. We’ll both be covered in dust by the time we get there. Kay glances over her shoulder at me over and over, as if she’s afraid I’ll run off or she’s nervous about the decision she’s made.

It seems like it takes for-freaking-ever before we come around a larger rock wall. I can’t help my exasperated laugh from escaping and Kay gives me a sheepish grin. Ahead is an enormous field of sand, weeds, and brush; in the middle of it all is a long landing strip and two huge, metal buildings. The fact that Kay lied, saying I wouldn’t be able to find it by myself, makes me wonder if she really wanted to come out here before I even said anything. I don’t know what I was expecting—maybe a secret cave like Batman has or something—but it wasn’t this boring building in the middle of a field of dirt.

“So all I would have had to do was follow the damn road?” I ask, unable to hold back my smile. It’s as if someone is on my side, which may seem dumb, but it’s the little things that count.

“Yeah.” She shrugs, but doesn’t say anything else.

We’re out in the open now, without the rock walls to shelter us. If anyone is there, they’ll see us coming and we still have about two miles before we get to the building. Trudging along, my muscles thanking me for

the workout and the light sweat I’ve put on. I’m surprised I’m not gasping for air with how much junk food I’ve ingested in the last couple days. Yay for fast- working metabolism!

When we reach the bigger of the two buildings, which looks like a giant, gray warehouse—the smaller one being the hangar—all seems calm and quiet. My shoulders slump, all my steam deflating, but Kay remains alert, giving me a sharp look when she realizes I lowered my gun.

“It may seem quiet,” she whispers, “but that does not mean all is safe inside. Never lower your weapon until you are certain the area is clear.”

Damn! Now I really look like the amateur they all think I am.

Before she goes to open the door, I raise my gun, alerting all my senses as I’ve been trained to do. She turns the metal handle, swinging the door open before stepping back swiftly with her gun raised. It’s extremely anti-climactic when we step inside the long, gray hallway, which is lined in doors. Again, not what I was expecting. I imagined something like the training arena, but I guess this isn’t made for training. I want to ask what all the doors lead to, but she’s in business mode, moving toward the door at the end of the hall. Each door we pass is cracked open, but all the rooms are dark, so I’m unable to see inside. I wonder why we aren’t checking all of them; couldn’t someone be hiding in one?

Glancing back at me, she nods toward the door we’re heading for. “I’m certain he’s already checked them all,” she whispers when I notice the door we’ve arrived at is slightly ajar, as well. Jeez, she doesn’t miss a thing. “If something was amiss, we would know, since he is anything but discrete in situations such as these.”

She sure is talking a lot. Aren’t we supposed to be quiet? Even if no agents are here, Cadmar is going to shit a brick when he realizes we are. She swings this door open and I’m astonished to see an empty stairwell. This whole place is full of surprises. Once at the top, we’re met by another door, which Kay cracks open slowly, peeking through. After a few seconds, she swings it open, motioning for me to follow. Blood pounds through me at the thought of us finding Cadmar unharmed and alone. He’s going to be so pissed. But isn’t that what I wanted, to rebel, get in a little trouble?

Beyond the door is another hallway, but it’s much shorter than the other, with only a couple doors lining it and one huge door at the end with a digital pad next to it, exactly like a few we have back at the castle.

“It appears everything is okay,” Kay whispers, approaching the door at the end of the hall. She sounds

really relieved. Ha! Now we have to deal with Cadmar; there’s nothing to be relieved about!

“What do all these doors lead to?” I ask while peeking through one of the cracked doors, but all that’s visible are shadows within the dark room.

“The ones downstairs are bedrooms, a bathroom, and an office,” she explains in a low voice before gesturing to the doors around us. “These are the weapon rooms and that,” she points to the big door at the end of the hall, “is the lab, where I’m guessing Cadmar is.”

I give the door a wary eye. He could come out any second and we’ll be in deep shit. “Why don’t we go back downstairs before he finds us,” I suggest, trying not to sound nervous.

“He’ll find us no matter what.” A smirk tugs at her lips as if him finding us amuses her, which is insane. “But it couldn’t hurt if it took a little longer.”

Smiling full on now, she leads me down the stairs. I get she’s relieved everything is okay, but I’m thinking it’s a damn shame no one else was here. At the bottom of the stairs, she heads straight for the exit, but I’m not ready to leave. I’m itching to look around and explore everything I’ve missed out on.

“Are we leaving already?” I whine a little when passing one of the doors I’m longing to open all the way.

“If we can get back out to the Jeep before him, he’ll never know we came,” she says over her shoulder, but doesn’t stop.

She really did only want to make sure Cadmar was safe. Bummer. I’m about to argue, when something or someone grabs a fistful of my hair, yanking me backward, sending a searing pain down my neck and back. Yelling out, I drop my gun like an idiot while Kay spins around, pointing her gun in my direction. The blood drains from her face when cold metal touches my temple.

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