“How much longer, Kaaay?” I draw out, twirling the hoop through my eyebrow around and around while counting the monitors in the room for the millionth time. There are two hundred itty bitty ones, which appear to show different areas of the facility, and one giant one in the center where Kay stares while typing away.
After I passed out, they picked their way through the field of corpses, through the rubble and into the crumbling building. They managed to get unconscious me, dying Cadmar, and shot Kay inside. It had to have taken two trips. I woke in the gray control room to the sound of Kay clicking away on the main computer.
The wound on my head caused a concussion, which led to the vomiting and passing out; it had absolutely nothing to do with my squeamishness.
They ordered Kay to keep me alert once I awoke. She told me they wandered off the second Cadmar was bandaged, so I had no clue what shape he was in when they left.
“I have no estimation for you. It could be hours, or it could be days, Reiley. But I implore you to refrain from asking again.” She click-click-clicks away.
It wasn’t as if I asked that many times. And I would push and argue till I ran out of breath, if it weren’t for the sheen of sweat coating her ivory skin.
“Are you doing okay?”
“I’m fine.” She glares at me before pushing her glasses up and turning back to the screen. “You should be more worried about your head. Now hush, or this will take even longer.”
I groan, rubbing my scabbed hands over my face. “You know, in lieu of my concussion, you’re supposed to be keeping me awake, not putting me to sleep with the silence.”
“‘In lieu,’ Reiley?” She raises an eyebrow but never stops typing. “That isn’t even the correct context. ‘In lieu of’ means ‘in place of,’ which makes your sentence mean my keeping you awake would be in place of your concussion. Therefore—”
“Dear Lord, stop!” I jump from my seat, then teeter sideways. She springs to the rescue, holding me up, giving me an up-close of the sweat drenching her face and the gray hue her skin has taken on. “You’re lying.”
“If you would just sit still for a bit, you would feel much better.” She ignores my statement and pushes me down in the chair before returning to hers with a strained expression.
“Kay, how bad is it?” I lean forward, resting my elbows on my knees, my face in my palms.
“As good as any bullet wound could possibly be,” she evades.
I refrain from pushing, even though I probably should, but I’m reminded that her injury is entirely my fault. She wouldn’t be in any pain if I hadn’t shot her in that car ride from hell with Scarlet. The bullet was meant for her, not Kay. A lot of this mess we’re in is Scarlet’s doing. If only Cadmar had married someone else. Like, oh, I don’t know—
“Oh my God,” Kay’s gasp yanks me from my thoughts.
I spring up again, ready to help her, but she’s just staring at the screen. “What is it?” I demand.
“Go get Cadmar. Right. Now.”
Her tone and even paler face have me rushing from the room. What could she have seen? There’s no way things could get any worse.
After taking a few turns in the gray hallway, I stare at the night sky, then the field of bodies, through the gaping hole in the building. Why did Kadence send me? I was unconscious when they went inside. The sight of so many agents dead in the field makes my stomach roll.
I take a steadying breath. No way am I going to pass out like a no-good ninny again.
A groan at the edge of the field has me backtracking. Then boots crunch across the gravel, a silhouette approaching the facility from the opposite side of the fence in the same direction we came in. The moon shines, illuminating her wild eyes, her blonde hair floating behind her in an eerie way.
No effing way!!
I’m running back through the never-ending maze, hoping I won’t end up right back where I was. Face-to-face with her. How could Cadmar let her live? He lectured me when I voiced the same question to him, about how little I valued life, but after everything she did? After almost killing Kadence? He still let her live. I should have faced her, but the last time I did that, Kay got shot. No, I need to keep a semi level head and warn the others.
What if I never find them?
What if she finds them before I do?
I could be wandering in circles and never even know it. My heart pounds, sweat leaking from every pore. Fear grips me in a way I’m becoming too familiar with, a way I wish I would never have to experience again. I run, continuously glancing over my shoulder to be sure she isn’t there. Rounding a corner, I check once more, right before slamming into a wall.
Oomph. The wall grunts as I fall on my ass.
“I’m in no mood to be tackled, Reiley.” Cadmar glowers, towering over me like a mighty giant.
“Are you okay?” Rae rushes forward to help me up.
I gladly take her hand with my shaking one. I’m so tired of the fear; will it never end? I brush my butt off once I’m upright, shaking my head. “I came to find you. Something’s wrong. Kadence, she said something’s wrong. And she’s here. The agents, they’re waking up. And she’s here. You should have killed her.” I jab a finger in Cadmar’s chest, then shove him backward, but Rae grabs my shoulders, pulling me to her chest. “She’s here!” I screech before curling into her embrace, sobs racking my body.
Get a freaking grip, Reiley!
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
She’ll never stop.
Images fly through my mind like a slideshow of Scarlet. Her scowling at me while my sisters beat me; her nasty claws ripping my hair out while she points a gun to my head; her pulling the trigger to fire the bullet that almost killed Kay.
“Who’s here?” Rae demands, pulling back to gaze at me. “Who did you see?”
“Scarlet.” It’s Cadmar who answers. The idiot who didn’t kill her, who knows how badly that woman broke vital parts of my soul.
“Your wife is here?” Rae spits. I shudder.
She’s right. That psychotic woman, the one who never really was a mother to me, she’s his wife. He allowed her to hurt all of us in so many ways. I should hate him for that. For the terror just her name can cause in me, and the sight of her reducing me to this blubbering mess.
“I have some things I would like to say to her,” Rae snarls, squeezing me tighter with a lift of her chin.
“Not now. This isn’t the time,” Cadmar declares, moving farther down the hall I just came from.
My legs quaking, accompanied by Rae’s death grip on me, keeps me from following.
“You allowed that woman to hurt my daughter so badly she’s terrified of her, and you say ‘now’s not the time’? Maybe you’ve forgotten who I am.”
He stops but doesn’t turn. “I haven’t forgotten, which is why now is not the time. She’s most likely the one who shot the grenade launcher. She’ll do whatever it takes to stop me, hurt whoever she has to in order to get me back. I will not allow her to win. I will finish this. I need to get back to my other daughter before Scarlet finds her.”
He continues walking without looking back. He limps on his right side, almost imperceptibly, but it makes me wonder how badly he’s hurting. Rae follows without arguing further, arm still wrapped around me. I let her hold me like a mother would, I guess. The comfort and solidarity her embrace brings to this giant sissy is almost ridiculous. I should be pulling away, should be pulling it together and stop being a coward, but I can’t bring myself to.
Turns out I passed the control room in my frenzy of fear. We only take one turn down the hallway I came from, and the door is directly on the left. Cadmar is already at the giant screen speaking in hushed tones with Kadence. He’s hunched over the control panel, gripping the edge and taking deep breaths. Rae lets go of me to shut the door. They both turn to look at us.
“Is there a way to lock this door?” she asks.
Kay turns to tap a few keys and a loud clank sounds at the giant metal door. She returns to the screen, going back to whispering with Cadmar. I want to shout, or maybe strangle both of them. I scoot forward to see what they’re looking at, but none of it makes sense.
“Cadmar, what’s going on?” Rae moves to the screen they’re staring at.
Kay glances up at her, adjusting her glasses. “This is going to take a lot longer than we thought” is all she says before getting back to work.
“But Payton!” I shout, causing all of them to turn to me.
“That is precisely why it’s going to take longer,” Kay says, but keeps typing.
“What’s happening, Cadmar?” Rae asks.
“Keep an eye on the screens. We need to be ready,” he says before acknowledging us. Kay nods, keeping her eyes on the monitor, but Scarlet isn’t shown on any of them.
Does that mean she’s still outside, where the three black screens would show if the cameras hadn’t been blown up in the explosion?
Cadmar turns to face us, rubbing the back of his neck. “The database has thousands of files on Payton. It appears they’ve been planning to use her for some time now. Like since her fourth or fifth assignment. They must have seen how effective her methods were and decided they wanted that kind of talent closer to home.” He pauses to rub his hands over his face and groans. I’ve never seen him so unhinged. Not in my entire life.
“They’ve been collecting data and… other teenagers for the past year.” Rae gasps, holding a hand to her mouth. My insides turn to stone, my blood running cold. “It seems they want to use Payton, along with the other teens they’ve acquired, in order to take out a large group of very important individuals. Even if we’re able to wipe us from their system, I won’t be able to get her out of it.”
“What group of people?” Rae asks, her voice sounding dead.
“It doesn’t matter who it is! We’ll get her out before it happens, won’t we?” I look at them all, but no one makes eye contact, making me want to scream again.
“This may actually be the best thing to happen.” Kadence turns to look at us.
My mouth is the only one hanging open. She can’t be serious!
“This means they don’t plan to kill Payton,” she goes on. “They would probably avoid it at all costs. We can still try to get her out of the facility, but as it’s next to impossible, we can make a plan to ambush this mission and acquire her then. She’ll be out of the protection of the facility and in the open.”
“But you’d let her kill again?” I demand, wanting to shove Cadmar for not protesting. He doesn’t respond, but actually seems to be pondering the option. “You would leave her in their hands for God knows how long—”
“I know the exact dates,” Kadence interrupts, making me want to snarl or shake her.
“But what if they’re hurting her. We can’t allow this. We all know how much she hates this life! Just having to train again would kill her slowly.” I pause, taking a million breaths. “Cadmar, don’t do this!” I plead with him.
“Hush, Reiley, while I think,” he snaps.
“I will not hush! I’m tired of you constantly ignoring my opinion. I should have a say in this, too.”
“Reiley.” It’s Rae’s soothing tone, her soft hand on my shoulder. “Let him think.”
My seams splinter and crack. I can’t survive this life. How did I ever think I was cut out for this crap?
We don’t have time for thinking. Scarlet could be here any minute.
Cadmar finally sighs. “It’s our best option.” I want to argue, but he holds a hand up. “Conner should be there by now. He can still scout the building for us and start planning a way to get in. This will be our backup plan.” He turns to Kadence. “Copy everything to that flash drive. Delete all files except for the ones on Payton. We don’t want to draw too much attention. I need you to add me in as a head agent with full access to the system, but disguise it. Then upload the virus to scramble their surveillance on the other facilities. We’ll do everything we can to get her out before that mission.”
When Kay nods, I want to ask if she really knows how to do all that. “It’ll take me some time, which I’m not certain we have.” She points to a screen on the top right side, showing Scarlet followed by three agents, one of whom was the one who had a gun pressed to Cadmar’s head.
“Dammit,” Cadmar snarls.
“We need to get out of here, Cadmar. We have to abort this mission,” Rae adds her two cents, putting a possessive hand on my shoulder as if she might drag me away. If it weren’t for the stupid fear gripping me at the sight of Scarlet, I would move from her grasp.
“Finish it,” he tells Kay, ignoring Rae’s protest.
“Don’t you dare ignore me,” she snaps, making me flinch away. “I will not let you put my daughter’s life in even more danger than you already have.”
“Don’t push me, Rae,” Cadmar growls, but she gets in his face, standing on her toes. “She’s my daughter, too—you made it so. I told you I would protect her and this is the only way I can keep that promise. But even if I hadn’t made that promise, I would still do everything in my power to get her out of their system, to keep her out of their grasp. I am her father, by blood or not. She is mine. I won’t let even you take that from me, not after all these years.” He breathes heavily, as if simply arguing wore him out.
Rae looks like she has no retort. Hell, I have no words. I knew he cared, but not how much.
Of course, he does, idiot. He sacrificed himself for you. He’s in pain because of you. Just like Kadence is.
How can you live with yourself?
“I’ll distract them,” Cadmar goes on when Rae doesn’t say anything, looking at Kay. “Kadence, work as quickly as possible. I’ll only be able to buy you so much time.” He pauses, glancing back at Rae. My heart stutters in my chest. “When she’s done, get out. I’ll meet you back at the Jeep. If I’m not there shortly after you get there, leave without me. I need you to promise to get Payton out, by whatever means necessary. Her boyfriend is in LA. Find him and get her out.”
Rae only nods before wrapping an arm around my shoulders.
“Promise me,” he snarls, leaning toward her.
“I promise we’ll do what we can to get her out,” Rae says after they have a long stare-down.
Cadmar nods, turning for the door. It’s déjà vu. I can’t stand it. When I shove away from Rae and grab his arm, I notice his bandage peaking through the hole in his shirt. It’s glistening with blood. How the hell is he still alive? He looks at my hand on his arm before meeting my gaze. He has to be hurting, and yet he’s going to sacrifice himself again.
“You can’t do this. Please don’t.” I shake my head, digging my nails into his arm as if that will keep him with me. “You’re still bleeding. You’re obviously hurting. Any confrontation could kill you.” I’m sniveling, nearly shrieking, when he puts a hand on my cheek, covering half my face.
“I will find my way back to you girls. No matter what happens. I promise you. You’re the only light in my life.”
With that, he gives Kay a nod. Mouth hanging open, she turns to unlock the door. When the metal clangs, he brushes a tear from my face, giving me a small smile before turning. The door shuts behind him, the lock slamming back into place.
I spin on Kay. “Unlock it. Let me out. I can help him!”
Rae’s hand is on my shoulder again. I really wish she would stop doing that. I’m not some baby who needs coddling. Despite my previous state of fear.
“He’ll be okay, Reiley,” she assures me. “It’ll only make things worse if you interfere.”
Ouch. Way to rub salt in my open wound.
I glare at her hand on my shoulder, then brush it off before moving to stand behind Kay, knowing this isn’t a battle I can win. I watch the screens as Scarlet makes her way through the building and Cadmar comes closer and closer to them. It looks as if he’s going to meet them head-on, but then they’re all on the same screen, Cadmar glancing around a corner right behind them. Kay keeps clicking away while I watch the horror show.
Rae comes up beside me, but I refuse to look at her. I don’t know her at all, have no clue what her motives may be in this mess. What if she wants to take me from Cadmar? I’ll never go willingly. He’s my dad, the only real parent I have. He may not be a genius dad, but he cares more than anyone else ever has. If she cared as much as he does, she wouldn’t have given me up in the first place.
“How’s it coming, Kadence?” Rae asks, staring at the screen where Cadmar edges around the wall with his gun at the ready. He fires two shots, hitting two of the agents in the back. He’s back behind the wall before the blood sprays and the agents hit the ground. The metal door is so thick we don’t even hear the shots. Even though the blood pooling around the agents is black on the black-and-white screen, the sight of it still makes my stomach roll. I force myself to watch as Scarlet and the burly agent spin around, guns raised. There’s no sound, but I can tell Scarlet yells something.
“I finished downloading and deleting the files,” Kay answers the question I completely forgot was asked. I can’t stop watching the screen. “I’m working as quickly as possible. It’ll take time to get Cadmar disguised in their system and the virus uploaded.”
“We may not have time for that,” Rae grits out. The screen she’s staring at shows two separate groups of at least ten agents each moving down two different hallways, about to corral Cadmar in.
Kay looks at the screens and gasps but never stops working, switching from screen to screen. “Give me five more minutes,” she demands.
Cadmar goes to swing around the wall again but looks over his shoulder, then drops his gun, raising his hands over his head. My heart pounds while I watch my worst nightmare being played over again.
“We have to help him!” I yell at Rae, who stares at the screens. “We can’t just leave him to those agents!”
“We can’t, Reiley,” she whispers, but she grips the control panel as if to keep herself from leaving the room.
The screens go black right when the agents reach Cadmar and force him to his knees.
“What happened?” I screech, grabbing Kay’s chair.
“We won’t be able to make ourselves leave if we watch him, Reiley,” Kay says in a too-calm tone, but the tears running down her cheeks keep me from arguing and quite possibly strangling her. “I’ve finished,” she continues, swiping the tears away before pulling the flash drive from the control panel. She stands to look at Rae, who is white as a ghost. “I checked the blueprints. There’s a grate outside, just beyond the door. It tunnels out toward the hill we came down.”
“You’re extremely intelligent,” Rae tells her, her gaze burning with rage I’m certain is meant for the agents, not Kadence. “Grab a gun and let’s move, before they find us out.”
We do as we’re told, Kay unlocking the door. I ignore my shaking hands as I grip the solid death trap. Rae swings the door open, checking the hall after instructing us to stick close behind her, then motions for us to follow. The grate is only a few feet left of the door, but it isn’t as large as I thought it would be. Rae has it propped open, telling us to get in. I’m a sluggish zombie moving to the grate. I keep gazing down both ends of the hall, not checking for agents but expecting Cadmar to round one of them. He doesn’t come.
Rae helps Kay and me before dropping in herself and closing the metal grate over us, the darkness consuming us. Right when it clicks shut, two gunshots sound above. I launch back for the grate but am jerked backward, a hand slamming over my mouth to muffle my scream. My heart cracks in my chest as I’m shoved forward, Rae urging me to move.
How can I move? How can I keep going?
Within the dank, musty stone basement, we move through the dark, following the dim light of Rae’s flashlight. Kay and I sob the entire way. Kay never sobs, but for him she does. Who wouldn’t? We move in a daze, Rae keeping Kay and me in check, somehow making it out the other end without being detected. We climb out a hole surrounded by trees, a little way behind the hill we looked over only last night. The sun peeks over the horizon while we hike to the Jeep.
Rae keeps her gun out, urging us to keep moving. No one follows, no one intercepts us before we reach the Jeep that’s sitting exactly where we left it. After Rae grabs a bag from her motorcycle, we’re in the Jeep and driving away before we can think twice. Rae didn’t even wait five minutes to see if Cadmar would come. My heart aches as if it’s being ripped to shreds. Those two gunshots sound off in my head, over and over, and I keep imagining Cadmar in a pool of dark blood like those two agents.
Exhaustion, hunger, a never-ending sadness. I’m so overwhelmed with the grief, I can’t think any thoughts without wanting to die.