As soon as Jared realized he’d never find Cassie in the dark, he turned around and hurried back to the cave. No sense to wasting valuable time or risking a collision with a tree. Or worse— running into whoever had put hollow-point rounds into his friends’ skulls. Besides, he’d trained Cassie too well. If she didn’t want to be found, then in all likelihood she wouldn’t be. It was as simple as that.
You forget she’s just a kid, he reminded himself. You give her too much credit.
But he knew she was more than just a kid. He’d always known it deep down, had seen signs that she wasn’t, well, typical. There was always this strange sort of energy about her, almost electrical. Plus the fact that she was never sick, not with colds or ear infections or other things that affected children. She’d sometimes complain of achiness right before severe thunderstorms, which would sometimes be accompanied by a slight fever. But the ague would always pass without intervention. It happened so often that both he and Eve would simply brush the episodes off, forget about them. Until the next bad storm.
But now those memories floated to the front of his mind, and there they bobbed in the most irritating way possible, as if to say, “Bravo, buddy. You’ve finally caught yourself something. But you best be careful reeling it in, because you'll lost it if you yank too hard.”
Whatever it was, he knew it would come to him eventually. He just needed to be patient.
After the power went out, and especially now, he’d come to accept that Cassie was somehow involved in what was happening, not just Eve. Even if he didn’t understand how or why. That was why Emerson’s news hadn’t thrown him off balance as much as it should have. Or why Jared hadn’t flatly denied it. And the matter-of-fact way in which that madman had suggested the trade — Your wife for Cassie — it was like he almostexpected Jared to already know.
He stopped halfway into the cave, suddenly uncertain of what he was going to do. The tiny flame on the candle flickered from his movement, casting ghoulish shadows on the walls that seemed to dance to some macabre tune. He felt lost.
There was no radio here to send or receive transmissions — Cassie had seen to that — and he had no idea where she was going. He assumed it was to save her mother, to offer herself up in exchange. But that begged the question: How did she know where to go?
The bobber tugged at him: Because she knows where Emerson’s holding Eve.
Which meant that wherever it was, it had to be somewhere nearby, somewhere within walking distance.
Another tug: It’s somewhere Eve’s taken her before.
He absently patted his pockets, his eyes desperately scanning the meager trappings they’d brought with them into the cave, hoping the answer would present itself. His fingers found the shape of his cell phone, and a jolt passed through his body from the sudden understanding which came to him then.
Trapped inside of the palm-sized rectangle was Eve’s contact lens GPS data for the weeks leading up to the power outage and, supposedly, images of those places. He’d been perplexed by her willingness to be tracked by him, to see where she’d been. He’d promised her that he would never look at it, that to do so would feel like a breach of trust, a violation. And she’d laughed his discomfiture off with a careless flip of her hand before wrapping her arms around him in an embrace that now seemed loaded with some other meaning. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, honey.”
But he had been sincere about it at the time, so much so that he’d pushed the whole episode from his mind.
After the pulse, Eve had insisted he continue carrying the phone around, even checking to make sure he’d slip it into his pocket each morning. “Some routines help keep us grounded,” she’d said. “Besides, you never know when the service might come back up.” It was a strange thing to say, and they both knew it. The service wasn’t going to come back, not any time soon, anyway. And when it did, the phone would be fried anyway. Anything with a circuit board was toast.
It had to be the GPS recordings. That’s why she’d made him keep the phone.
So, assuming the chip was still intact, he still needed to extract the data. Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. The equipment he would need was secreted safely away at the main camp, inside its own Faraday cage. Beneath the boards of the raised platform to the outdoor classroom where the bodies of his three dead friends now sat in silent vigil.
He prayed the chip was still intact.
* * *
Jared stumbled over the two-way radio on his way to there. The casing had been violently smashed. More tread marks marred the soft ground — two, maybe three different pairs of boots, each with a distinctive chevron pattern on their soles, and a single partial print of one of Cassie’s smaller sneakers. That’s when he knew she’d been taken, and he nearly collapsed in despair at the thoughts which forced their way into his mind.
Get it together, man! You can still save her. You have to!
Who would do it? Who would take her? If it was Emerson’s men, then the immediate danger was to Eve, not Cassie. Given Emerson’s willingness to swap, Jared had to assume the man behind the outage wouldn’t need Eve anymore. The moment Cassie was safely in his hands, his wife was just as good as dead.
But if it was someone else—
He wouldn’t let himself finish the thought. It was just too horrible to contemplate. For the first time, he actually hoped Emerson’s people had gotten to his daughter—
She’s not your daughter! his mind corrected.
“She is, damn it,” he growled. “I don’t care what anyone says. She’s my girl.”
He stood up and ran.
* * *
Stage floorboards pried up, Jared unlatched the lid of the first thick-walled container and set it aside. Then he reached down past the insulating mesh. He set the small computer tablet on the edge and cursed himself for not adding a few hand-cranked flashlights. In the darkness, he struggled to find the port for the power cable. Once connected to the static generator, he carefully cranked the handle.
Please work. Please work.
After a moment, the power button began to glow. He kept at it for another ten minutes, patiently resisting the urge to crank faster, knowing he could easily burn out the delicate circuitry if he didn’t. Finally, the light turned from yellow to green. The screen woke and cast enough of a glow for the next step.
Fingers shaking, he gingerly removed the back of the phone and tweezed out the tiny chip with its precious digital cargo. To the naked eye, the tiny black object, no larger than his pinky nail, appeared undamaged.
Jared had been in such a state coming back that he had barely even noticed his friends as he passed them, had blocked out the smell of their death. But now, as he prepared to insert the chip into its tiny port in the tablet, the mental bobber popped once more to the surface of his mind. He flashed on the scene he and Cassie had encountered earlier in the day, and now two things registered to him as strange. First was way the bodies had been arranged, seated without bindings. The other was the absence of wounds besides the single small holes just above the bridges of their noses.
None of them had put up a fight.
He could see Percy not resisting. The man had never raised a hand against anyone. Had, in fact, dedicated himself to saving lives.
But both Wade and Ed were highly trained, fit, and young. They knew more about weapons and hand-to-hand combat than just about anyone Jared had ever met. They would never have let themselves be taken without a fight. Not even if the odds were stacked heavily against them.
Which meant only one thing: They knew their killer. And they trusted him
Had to be. But what did it mean?
The tiny chip slipped from his trembling fingers and fell into the darkness at Jared’s feet. “Son of a—”
Panic rising in his throat, he carefully tipped the tablet to direct the meager light into the darkness beneath him, and there he saw the black square balancing on the toe of his shoe.
With excruciating slowness, he bent down and retrieved the chip. Then, just as carefully, he inserted it into the tablet. A folder popped open and asked whether he wanted to view the data. He did.
File upon file scrolled across the screen. He let out a deep sigh and wondered how he would ever find what he needed in time.
“Help me out here, guys,” he murmured, glancing one last time at his silent colleagues. Beyond them, that damn beacon blinked on and off again. Then it came on once more.
This time, however, instead of going out, the light grew brighter and brighter until it lit up the whole southern sky.
And Jared got this awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that something terrible had just happened.