Pacing back and forth in front of the queen-sized bed, I stare at the phone in my hand, waiting for it to ring. It’s been seven days. Seven freaking days. And I haven’t heard a word back from Cadmar. I tried calling him the second I got to LA, but he didn’t answer. I even tried Reiley’s phone, more than a hundred times, and it just kept going to voice mail.
Don’t they care? Don’t they want to know what’s happening to Payton? What if she’s dead already? Or what if they’re torturing her? The thought makes me gag, heaving to the point that my breakfast almost comes back up.
I’ve driven myself insane, thinking of the horrors she may be experiencing. After I met Cadmar’s contact once I landed, he took me straight to this shitty motel, telling me to sit tight until Cadmar called. He was a big guy, bald, with black tattoos covering both arms. A bit intimidating, if that type of thing intimidates you, but not me. Not when I’d been through hell and was still sitting in it, waiting to make my next move. Like hell was I going to sit and wait for Cadmar to do something. He was obviously held up with something. Maybe they got caught trying to pull off whatever this huge plan of his was. Whatever happened, they aren’t here and they aren’t calling. That leaves me as Payton’s last line of defense.
It’s not as if I’ve been sitting on my ass, waiting for something to happen either. Before Cadmar’s contact could get away, I demanded he tell me where Payton was taken. He was hesitant, but finally gave me directions before rushing off. After eating something to refuel, I went out that night to find the place. The mission was a bust.
Oh, I’d found the place. At least, I’d found the twenty-foot-high walls surrounding the building. There was no way inside, unless you flew in or had access to the underground parking. You couldn’t even stand around it due to the surveillance. I thought I would scout it out and figure something out as soon as I heard back from Cadmar, but that never happened. I tried going back, tried finding a way to get in. It’s impossible. I have no idea how I’m going to get her out, but I’m not giving up just yet.
I groan, falling onto the bed, continuing to stare at my phone. Since I couldn’t get ahold of Cadmar, I only had one other option. After waiting seven days to see if something might happen, I called my last resort—my dad. He didn’t answer, of course, but I had the feeling he would call me back after listening to the voice mail I left him.
After staring at the screen for what seems like hours, it finally buzzes, my dad’s number popping up. I click the Send button with the hopes that I’m not making a huge mistake. Holding the phone to my ear, I croak out, “Hello.”
“Conner?” my dad demands. “What the hell is going on?”
“Dad, it’s a long story.” I sigh, gripping the phone. “I need your help.”
“You need my help?” he scoffs, making me grip the phone tighter to keep myself from throwing it across the room. “After telling me you’re an adult and can figure things out on your own, you’re asking me for help?”
“Can we not do this? Please? Payton’s in trouble. I don’t know what else to do.”
“You expect me to help that girl after what she’s brought on us?”
A growl builds in my chest. It takes all my concentration not to hit something. “Dad, someone has her. They took her. I watched them take her. I need your help getting her back. I can’t just leave her there. I don’t know what else to—”
“Wait,” he interrupts. “Who has her? What the hell is going on, Conner? What have you gotten yourself into?”
“They call themselves the Elites.” I croak out the word, it leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. “They have her. They took her.”
He makes a choking noise, but I’m certain I imagined it. “You mean to tell me that you got mixed up with the Elites?” His voice sounds thin, stretched, like he’s afraid to say the words.
“What do you know about them?” I demand. If I had known he knew anything about them, I wouldn’t have waited so long to call.
“I know we’re both dead now.” Something shifts in the background before he clears his throat. “These are the ones who were already after me, aren’t they?”
“Goddammit,” he yells.
“Dad, tell me what you know. I need to know everything. They have Payton.”
“You don’t have a chance, son.” His tone condemns us all. “Even if they haven’t killed her yet, there’s no way you can get her back by yourself. And again, that’s if she’s alive, which is highly unlikely. If she did something to piss them off, they are extremely unforgiving.”
Now I make the choking sound, the phone trembling in my hand. The image of a dead man twitching on top of her flashes through my mind. She did piss them off. She killed one of them. But she can’t be dead. That’s not possible. They would have killed her instead of dragging her off, wouldn’t they? It’s what Cadmar said. They needed her. They won’t kill her.
I rub a hand over my neck, squeezing hard to ground myself. I have to focus, have to stay calm. If I lose control, I’ll never get her back.
“I don’t think she’s dead,” I say after a long pause. “They’ve had plenty of chances. They would have killed her instead of dragging her off. It isn’t logical that they would go through the trouble only to kill her.” Saying this all out loud is more to convince myself than anything else.
He stays silent, and I wonder if he’s hung up, but then he sighs loudly. “Your voice mail said you were in LA, so I’m guessing you’ve seen the walls?”
“How do you know about all of this?” I yell in exasperation.
“I’m not slow, Conner. It bothers me that you would think as much,” he chides, making me grind my teeth. “I’ve known for a while now that they’ve been hunting scientists. A lot of them have gone into hiding, but I guess I was conceited enough to think they wouldn’t come for me. Scientists, specifically working in the market I do, started showing up dead, some of them just dropping dead on the side of the road or in the middle of a crowd.”
I refrain from reacting to his last sentence. The ones he’s talking about, just dropping dead, that’s Payton’s work. It’s one thing hearing about what she’s done from her, but hearing my dad talk about it makes me sick. I shake my head to dislodge the fresh image of her killing while he goes on. “When it started happening, I did some research, trying to find out who was hunting us. It wasn’t hard to come back to the Elites, even with their security precautions. They’re at the heart of most assassinations. Once I found out who they were, I found their facilities. One in Utah—that’s their database—the other in LA, the one you saw. They have some others around the world, but those are their main sites in the United States.”
The mention of the database in Utah makes me think of Cadmar. That’s where he must be, but what would he be doing at the database? Shaking my head again, I force myself to stay focused. “They appear to only have two entrances,” I add, and he confirms. “I obviously won’t be able to get in one of those ways.”
“In my research, I devised some plans in order to get through those walls. I obviously would never try to do something by myself, but as a scientist, I thought of the possibilities.”
“How? How can I get in?” I urge, impatience seeping into my bones. If there’s a way for me to get in that place, I’ll get to work this second.
He stays silent again, and it takes everything in my power not to yell at him. “I’ll help you, Conner,” he says, but I hear a condition coming. “I’ll help you save this girl, but only if you promise to come to London once you’ve freed her.”
Dread clenches in my stomach and I suck in a sharp breath. Of course, there’s a catch. He would never offer to help without demanding a price. My dad was never one to do something for free for anyone, so why would I be any different? The thought of getting Payton out of there and then having to say good-bye immediately after makes me want to hurl. She’ll be a mess, I’m certain of it, and then I’ll just take off to London and let her sort it out herself. But if that’s the price I have to pay to free her, then I have to do it. I can live with saying good-bye so long as she’s free from that place, from those monsters.
Clenching my eyes shut, I groan. “Okay,” I say through gritted teeth. “I’ll come to London. Now tell me what to do.”
“You’re going to need a pen and paper.”
A few hours later, I move through the hardware store with my head low, the hat I wore pulled down to hide my eyes. I wasn’t sure if I would be recognized here, but I don’t want to chance anything. So far, I haven’t had any problems. Walking every aisle, I make sure I don’t miss anything. The list of equipment I need is long, but I think I got it all. When I get to the checkout counter, I pull my wallet out, counting the remainder of my money.
Even with the large amount Cadmar gave me back in Colorado, the equipment is going to eat up most of it. That doesn’t even include the chemicals I need. On top of that, I still need to be able to pay for the motel. I can live off a box of granola bars for the next few days and walk everywhere I need to go, but I’m going to need more money. After checking out, I get outside and find a cab. I shouldn’t waste the money, but I’ll look pretty damn suspicious carting this load of equipment back to my motel room.
So maybe no granola bars. I can live off water.
Back at the motel, I go over the list again while I unload my loot, making sure I didn’t miss anything. It seems everything is in order, so I lock up the room before heading out again, needing to do a couple more things before I can call it a night.
After a six-mile walk, I pass the enormous walls for about the twentieth time since I’ve been in this city. This time, I stay far on the other side of the road, moving quickly to make it all the way around. By the time I reach the spot I want to work from, the sun is setting, but that’s okay. This area of the wall appears to have the fewest security cameras and is surrounded by multiple deserted buildings, so it probably doesn’t get much traffic. It’ll still be tough, but it’ll be the best place to get in.
Making my way back toward the motel, I pull out my phone, dialing a number I haven’t called in a few weeks.
“Who’s this?” is his answer, not bothering with social niceties.
“Mark,” I say my best friend’s name, hoping he doesn’t hate me now.
“Yeah… it’s me.” I rub a hand over my neck while walking down the crowded sidewalk. The humid night air clogs my senses, making it hard to think straight. My lungs long for the crisp air of Colorado.
“Who the hell’s phone is this? And where have you been?” There’s rustling and low voices in the background. He shushes whoever he’s with. “You blew off your last fight, and then I never heard another word from you. I tried your phone about a million times, like a freaking chick crushing on you, and it’s gone straight to voice mail every time.”
I’m the shittiest friend ever, but I didn’t have any other choice. “I, um, had some trouble and I’m trying to get it figured out.” There’s nothing else to say. There’s no way I can give him any details.
“What kind of trouble? Does this have to do with Christen?”
“What? Who?” I ask, shaking the fog from my mind.
“Chris, you know.” He sounds uneasy. “The girl you’ve been infatuated with for the last year?”
Oh God, I’m an idiot. How could I have forgotten what I used to call her? My mind reels. It was only a month ago that I found out her real name, but Payton fits her so well I had completely forgotten about her alias. I clear my throat. “Yeah. Why would you think it has something to do with her?”
“When I couldn’t find you, I went to the pub on the weekends to see if I might run into her, but she never showed. Thought you two ran off together or some shit.”
I chuckle darkly. If only life were so simple. “Um, yeah, I guess it does have something to do with her.”
“Dude, what’s up with you? You know what, don’t answer. I’m coming over.”
“No!” I shout, then take a deep breath, avoiding eye contact with the concerned pedestrians. “I mean, I’m not there right now.”
“Well, where are you?”
There’s no way I can avoid telling him if I plan on getting his help. “I’m in LA. But I can’t tell you any more than that. Sorry, man.”
“LA? You didn’t even tell me you were going somewhere.”
“Like I said, I ran into some trouble. But I kind of need your help.”
After a long pause and some more rustling, he sighs. “You didn’t get mixed up in drugs or anything, did you, Conner? I don’t know if I’m the best person to help with shit like that. Maybe call Craig.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that. I just wanted to see if you have some contacts, if you can set me up with a fight here? Maybe even a couple?”
“Oh, ha. Yeah, I’ll see what I can do. This the phone number I need to call back?”
“Yeah. Thanks, Mark.”
With a quick good-bye, we disconnect right as I’m walking up to the motel. Hopefully, I’ll hear back from him tonight and have a fight tomorrow. Right when I shut the door, my phone begins buzzing again and I rush to answer it, hoping it’s Mark calling back. But it’s an ‘R’ on the screen. I can’t help staring at it for a second, wondering if I really have gone crazy.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Conner? Is that you?” Reiley asks in a whisper.
I hold the phone back, looking at the screen to make sure I actually got a call and I haven’t completely lost my mind. “Reiley! What’s going on? Why haven’t I heard from you? Where the hell is Cadmar?”
“It’s a long story. I don’t have time. Where are you?”
“What do you mean you don’t have time? Did you guys get caught or something?” What does she mean she doesn’t have time? Does that mean the mission was a bust?
“Where are you? Like where in LA?” She doesn’t answer any of my questions.
“I’m in Northern LA in a shitty Motel Eight.” I take a deep breath. “Could you put Cadmar on? I really need to talk to him.”
“He isn’t with us,” she says after a really long pause. Not with them? What does that mean? “I said it’s a long story. Look, Kay and I will be leaving for LA tonight. We’ll call you along the way.”
“Reiley, you can’t leave me hanging like this!” Panic runs through my veins. Rules my entire being. “I’ve sat around long enough. I need some damn answers. And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Kay to go sneaking off to LA no matter how angry you are with Cadmar, so just—”
“Cadmar is dead,” she interrupts, her voice void of emotion.
I must not have heard her right. That’s impossible. He’s the only way we’ll be able to get Payton out. It takes everything in me not to throw my phone across the room. To scream at the world about how unfair this is.
“I said I would catch you up when I see you. We’ll call when we’re on the road. We’re going to get Payton out of that hell hole.”
“Wait, wait!” I yell, but the line is already dead.
I drop the phone on the floor and fall back on the bed. Cadmar. Dead. The words can’t even be said in the same sentence. There’s no way. He was so solid. But he cared about those girls so much, I’m certain he would take more than a bullet for them if there was no other way out. I rub my hands over my face, unsure of whether I’m sad or angry. If Cadmar can’t help get Payton out, that really does leave only me. I can either lie on a musty hotel bed or get my ass up and do something about it.