Fear turned Jared’s body cold. He peeled his hand away from Cassie’s mouth and they stared at one other, wide-eyed. Disbelieving. Silent. The Institute wouldn’t hurt Eve. They wouldn’t dare, surely? She was one of them. She was too important. Eve was the one who had given them the means in the first place. She was vital to their plan−whatever it was−wasn’t she? But no, they weren’t bluffing; they had just killed Rourke.
“Mommy,” Cassie whispered. “Mommy!” she screamed, this time. “Daddy, don’t let them hurt her!”
Jared crouched down and pulled his trembling daughter close to him, kissing her damp hair, inhaling her sweet scent, wishing he could’ve prevented her from hearing Emerson’s chilling words on the radio. He lowered his face, so his cheek rested next to hers, and he whispered in her ear through gritted teeth. “No one is hurting Mommy. Do you hear me, Cassie? No one.”
“But that man said . . . “
Jared jerked his head back and stared into his daughter’s terrified eyes. “That man’s an idiot,” he said. He’s lying.”
“You promise she’ll be okay?”
Still gripping the radio in his right fist, he squeezed it hard, imagining it was Emerson’s head. Imagining crushing it into a mass of wires and circuits and brains and blood. Emerson’s grin turning to terror as he squeezed . . . Jared shook himself; he was losing the plot.
Cassie’s screams would have alerted anyone close by to their whereabouts. He had to get them out of there. The camp was compromised for now and he didn’t have time to scope it out. There was no time to bury his dead friends. No time to mourn them even. He had to save Eve and he had to protect Cassie. Scooping his daughter up into stiff, aching arms, he jogged out of the camp security gate and back toward the ragged tree line. The fast-gathering darkness now almost absolute. Their breaths uneven and raw. Cassie’s sweat-soaked body, making his arms and hands slick.
“Jared, did you hear me?” Emerson’s voice on the radio, infused with a note of irritation.
As he ran, Jared pressed the radio button. “Yes. Yes, I heard you.” He came to a stop about twenty yards inside the woodland, squatted, and propped his daughter up against a broad-trunked tree. “Wait here, sweetie,” he whispered. Pushing himself upright, he took a few paces back the way he’d come, staring across at the dark shape of the camp. The calm, quiet night mocked the rising panic crashing through his body, just as the enduring landscape mocked the ongoing turmoil of humanity. “What is it you want, Emerson?” Jared exhaled. “Whatever it is, it’s yours. Just let Eve go and then you can carry on with whatever twisted plan you’ve got going on. But leave us out of it.”
“Glad you’re seeing sense, Jared.”
“How do I know you’ve even got her there? You could be . . .”
“Jared?” Eve’s voice came low and defeated over the airwaves.
“Baby, have they hurt you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine . . . I love you.” Her voice broke, and then she yelled: “Forget me! Take Cassie and get as far away as you . . .” A squeal and a thud cut her off.
“Eve! Evie!” he hissed.
“She’s alive for now.” Emerson’s voice was back on the radio. “But I’m afraid that little stunt earned her a pretty little bruise on her face . . . and possibly a few broken ribs.”
Jared wanted to unleash all hell on the man, but Cassie was close by, her staccato sobs and shivers sending stabs of anguish through him. He had to keep things as calm as possible, for her sake. She was too young to hear any of this, but it was more dangerous to move her completely out of earshot.
“Tell me what you want,” Jared repeated flatly.
“It’s quite simple. We’ll do a straight swap.”
Jared wondered what this powerful man could possibly want from him. His brain trawled the list of possibilities. Too bad he’d lost all his electronic devices. If Emerson wanted any of his working tech kit he was screwed.
“Eve for Cassie,” Emerson said.
For a moment, the impossible words hung in the air.
“You . . . You want Cassie?” Jared thought he must have heard wrong.
“That’s what I said.”
Jared choked out a short laugh. “You’re dreaming. If you think I would ever hand over my little girl to anyone−let alone a murderer. What could you possibly want with my eight-year-old daughter? You’re crazy.”
“So should I shoot Eve? Or slit her throat? You can choose.”
Jared’s mind went numb. His head swam and for a moment he thought he might throw up. This could not be happening. Why had he let Eve go off like that? What kind of a husband was he who would just let his wife go off into the murderous black night on her own, while he cowered in the house like a . . . like a . . . But she hadn’t given him a choice. Cassie was sick and Eve had had to go. There was nothing he could’ve done to stop her. Was there?
“Don’t hurt my wife,” Jared said. “Please. There must be something else you need. Anything. I’ll get you anything else. Whatever you want.” He realized he was crying. His anger had evaporated and desperation had slayed him. He sank to the ground and swiped a hand across his face.
“I’ve told you what I want, Jared. You know I won’t settle for anything else. Bring her to me and you and Eve can go free. Your daughter is sick. You know she won’t survive out there. She has days left. Weeks if she’s lucky. With me she’ll have a chance at life.”
“Shut up,” Jared snarled. “Shut your mouth. You’re not getting my daughter. However long she’s got, she won’t be spending a second of her precious, beautiful life with you! Why? Why is Cassie so important to you?”
“Calm down, Jared. Take a breath and listen to me. I’m going to tell you something. Something that is the God’s honest truth. Something that might make this trade much easier for you.”
Jared ran his hands through his hair and waited for the man to speak. Not holding out any hope that Emerson’s words would hold comfort, or make anything ‘easier’. Knowing that nothing would induce him to turn over his daughter to a lunatic.
“Jared . . . Cassie’s not your daughter.”