United We Spy (Page 24)

“You mean the good guys or the bad guys?” he asked.

“Either,” I said with a shrug. “Both.” Then I had to laugh. “It’s getting harder to tell the difference.”

Zach shook his head. “I know the feeling.” Then he turned, and the sunlight sliced across his face.

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

I brought my sleeve up to touch the scrape near his hairline, but Zach moved away.

“It’s nothing. I’m fine. It’s not mine.”

“Bex.” I exhaled the word.

“She’ll be fine,” he told me. “I’m fine.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever be fine again.”

“Hey.” Zach reached for me.

“What are we doing, Zach?” I asked, pulling away before he could surround me in his arms. “What is it all for? Are we really going to stop the Circle? Is that even possible?”

“Yes.” I’d never heard Zach’s voice so confident and full of strength. But I didn’t let myself believe it. I was too busy rambling on.

“What good will it do? What are we supposed to do if we stop them? We can’t trust the CIA. The FBI. Where are we supposed to go, Zach? Are there any good guys?”

“Yes.” He grabbed me, pulled me close. “You’re looking at one.”

And then he kissed me, hard and fast. He pulled back. “And when it’s over—”

“No.” I stopped him. “Let’s not think about the future.” I kissed him again. “Let’s just not think.”

Chapter Twenty-nine

Light and dark blurred together. Eventually, the sun set and rose again, but I was like a newborn with my days and nights mixed up, and I almost never slept in coordination with the sun. I almost never slept at all. I just stayed by Bex’s bedside, listening as she said, “Cammie.” Her lips were dry and cracking, and I dabbed at them with a damp cloth.

“I’m here, Bex,” I told her. I felt her forehead, but it was cool. No fever, no infection, just a deep and fitful sleep; and I had to hold her down to keep her from tossing too badly and opening up her brand-new stitches, courtesy of Macey and the Gallagher Academy’s intensive emergency medical procedures training.

“We have to find Cammie,” she mumbled.

“I’m here, Bex. I’m back,” I said, and only then did I realize that a part of her was still looking for me. Part of her might never stop.

“How is she?”

I turned at the sound of the voice.

“The antibiotics in the med kit that Liz brought with us from school were really strong. They’ve knocked her out. But she’s fine,” I told Preston. “It’s just her shoulder.” I said again, “She’s fine.”

“Do you think I could sit with her?” Preston asked from the doorway. He took a step forward, his hands shoved into his back pockets. “Let me rephrase. I’m going to sit with her. You’re going to take a break.”

When I stood and walked into the main room, my legs didn’t want to work. My head swirled a little, too light on my shoulders. I hadn’t eaten. I hadn’t slept. I’d done nothing for days but worry and doubt and pray.

A light was flickering in the kitchen. An eerie fluorescent glare filled the room, the bulbs humming and buzzing and clinging to life. Liz lay with her head on the table, laptops sprawled around her, running through lines and lines of code, analyzing news stories and weather patterns—searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

I wanted to wake her up and tell her to go get some sleep in a real bed, but I knew there was no use, so I just took a seat beside her and turned one of the laptops to face me, holding my breath as I called up the website I’d been quietly checking for days. There wouldn’t be anything, I was certain.

I was wrong.

I couldn’t breathe as the website came to life. It was supposed to advertise farm and ranch land for sale in the Sandhills. I still remember my father looking at the site when I was a little girl. He would talk about a future when we would return to Grandma and Grandpa’s and never leave. When we would be safe and sound in Nebraska. All spies have an exit plan, an anonymous city or stretch of abandoned beach. My father was going to have a rock house and a natural spring, good fences and enough horizon so that the spy in him would always be able to see what was coming.

I blinked twice and read the ad again.

M&M properties offering twenty acres for sale. Excellent condition. And a phone number I’d never seen before.

It had been years since my mom had told me about it, put the plan into place. It was just for emergencies, she had said, just in case we ever got separated. Because, deep down, I think we’d both always known something like that was coming.

I read the lines again.

M&M properties: Matthew Morgan.

Twenty acres: Two agents.

Excellent condition: They were fine.

And a phone number that—to anyone else—wouldn’t work. But if I added one to every digit, I could finally hear my mother’s voice.

I ran to our stash of burner phones and dialed without thinking. I couldn’t breathe as the phone rang and rang, and then finally: “Hey, kiddo.”

“Mom!” I practically shouted. I was on the verge of crying. “I’m so glad to hear from you. We’re—”

“Wise Guy and I are fine,” she talked on, not stopping, not caring what I said or how many tears broke through my throat—and I knew she wasn’t listening. She probably didn’t even have that phone anymore. It was just a recording.

“We’re safe. We’re closing in on the Delauhunt heir, we think.” I heard her take a deep breath, static temporarily filling the line. “I heard what happened at school, sweetheart. And I’m glad you left. You’re doing the right thing. I’m so proud of you. But you have to promise me you won’t worry about us. Wise Guy and I…we’ll keep each other safe. You girls…you do the same, okay? Keep each other safe.”

I thought about Bex’s blood, her fitful dreams. And, finally, I thought about how easily we all could have died on that mountain.

“I won’t use this number again, and you should destroy your phone too. We have the dead drop. Use it if you need it. But, sweetheart, just promise you’ll be careful. You’re doing the right thing,” Mom said again.

“And, kiddo. Happy birthday.”

Birthday. I had forgotten my own birthday. Sometime in the past week I’d turned eighteen, and I hadn’t even realized it. I looked down at the phone in my hand. I knew I was supposed to destroy it immediately, but I couldn’t. Instead, I listened to the message again and again and again.

“You’re doing the right thing.”

I listened until the words lost all meaning, until I became numb to even my mother’s voice. I listened until I didn’t even hear the words anymore.

You’re doing the right thing.

Zach was in the kitchen. He wore old jeans and had bare feet, and I thought that maybe bacon-frying was a pretty dangerous thing to do without a shirt on, but I didn’t say so.

“Gallagher Girl?” He looked at the burner phone I carried in one hand, the SIM card I held in the other.

“It was my mom,” I told him.

“What did she say?”

“She’s fine,” I said, then hurried to add, “They’re fine. They’re closing in on Delauhunt and… It was just a message, Zach. She didn’t tell me what to do. She just said that I was doing the right thing.”

“You are.”

“I couldn’t tell her about Bex or Preston. I couldn’t tell her—”

“Hey.” He reached me in one long stride, arms going around me, so strong and sure, and I pressed my cheek against his chest. He smelled like soap and bacon. “Tell me what she said.”

So I did. I told him every word, not that any of them mattered. Even Rachel Morgan didn’t know what we were supposed to do next.

“I forgot my own birthday, Zach. I’m eighteen now,” I said, but I didn’t feel like an adult. I felt like a little girl, alone and afraid and desperate for my mother.

“It’s going to be okay. Hey.” He wiped my tears away. “We’re going to be okay.”

Here’s the thing about being a spy: sometimes all you have are your lies. They protect your cover and keep your secrets, and right then I needed to believe that it was true even when all the facts said otherwise.

“What’s going on?” Macey said from the bedroom door. At the sound, Liz stirred and bolted upright.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Liz asked. She yawned and looked down at the laptop in front of her. Two seconds later, her face went whiter than I’d ever seen it. Her lips trembled, and her fingers froze on the laptop’s keys. She looked away, but it was too late. Even without her photographic memory, Liz could never un-see what the computer said.

“This is it.” Liz pushed her favorite laptop away with so much strength it would have fallen off the table if Zach hadn’t been there to stop it. “It’s happening now.”

I looked at the screen and read the words aloud for no one’s benefit but my own. “‘Exiled King Najeeb of Caspia to address protesters outside the United Nations.’”

As much as I wanted to deny what was happening in the world outside our little cabin, I knew there was no use trying to hide. The facts will always find you. And the scarier they are, the faster they travel.

Liz was up and moving across the room. She’s always had this habit of bringing her right hand to her mouth, resting her fingertips against her lips while she talks to herself, almost as if learning to read her lips by touch. She was doing it then. She spoke so quickly and so softly that I could barely make out the words.

“This is it. This is happening.” Then she seemed to doubt herself. “Is this it?”

Liz was walking, but it wasn’t with the panic-ridden steps of a caged animal. It was the careful, cautious pacing of a genius who needed time and space to think.

I risked a glance at Zach, but he was quiet, like he didn’t want to break whatever trance Liz was in, like he too knew she was our single best chance at stopping the Circle.

Liz paced and talked like it was just another test. Another challenge. She was looking at it like an exercise in probability—cause and effect. It’s the physics of human nature, and to truly understand it, one has to be objective and cool. Two things every operative is supposed to be. Two things I was becoming less and less acquainted with all the time.

“Tension,” Liz said at last. She was still pacing, though, and I knew the word was meant only for her. “That region is filled with conflict, but the Circle will need to ratchet up the tension. It will have to be something big. And public. Something that is symbolic and practical at the same time.”

Some people always want to fight. Some are always looking for a reason not to. And Liz was right: For the Circle to cause World War III, they had to take away any cause for diplomacy and caution.