The long-awaited fourth book in the Thieves Series
By Ella West
copyright Ella West 2014
So after the pizza is finished it’s back to work, back to the room and a new tracking unit in my pocket and a new earpiece and body armour on under my hoody.
And a new pile of folders, although some of them, I suspect, are the ones we didn’t get to last night.
Nothing much happens, besides us finding most of the people, either alive or dead. There is only one guy that stood out. He’s middle-aged, dressed in a suit and tie although it looks crumpled, and he’s sitting on a doorstep outside a building in the dark. Alone. I walk past him and he watches me until I turn the corner. He was muttering the whole time to himself, that he didn’t want to be found. Whatever happened he didn’t want to be found. I don’t know why.
The next day I ditch the crutches. Jake and I go to the gym and then to the beach and then muck around in a shopping mall for lunch and into the afternoon. When we get back to the apartment Joanna is there and she gives me a huge hug hello. Even more enticing are the smells coming from the kitchen.
“I’m cooking you real food,” she says. “I bet you Tim’s expecting you both to live on pizzas isn’t he?”
She tut tuts over my ankle, especially as I’m limping again after walking back from the mall. Jake had wanted to wait for a bus but sitting out in the hot sun hadn’t been that appealing. Remember, I was in winter weather only a few days ago. My body is taking its time adapting. And then she laughs about when we last saw each other which was sitting on the beach by the pier waiting for Jake to show up.
“And look, he finally did,” she says.
“He took his time though,” I reply. “Didn’t he?”
“For the record, I wanted him to ring you but I was outvoted.”
I give her a hug for that too.
Jake has flopped on the sofa, Mutt by his side, watching a baseball game on TV. I pass him a glass of orange juice then help Joanna in the kitchen, sipping my own. She’s cooking something with beef and rice and red beans and lots of bright red and green chillies. It looks amazing. Nothing like what my mum cooks at home. I wash salad leaves but keep glancing over my shoulder to see what she’s doing. She talks about work and shopping and an amazing new shoe shop that has just opened and she wants to take me to, and then I mumble something my ankle, and then she says it doesn’t matter because just owning these particular pair of heels would be therapeutic. I think just being around Joanna is therapeutic but I don’t tell her that. We make a shopping date for the weekend when she’ll be off work.
Tim comes home and Mutt makes a big fuss of him, slipping on the floor as he tries to run around him. With Joanna here, we are like one big happy family and dad has come home from work. It’s nice, if slightly weird. But the food is amazing.
Then it’s in Tim’s car and back to reality and my body armour. This time no one is muttering they don’t want to be found but a lot of them have not waited until I have got there. This city is full of dead bodies. One is even in a morgue. Tim apologises about that one when I get back. The last thing he does each day before heading to the apartment to pick us up is check the morgues and hospitals, he says. The body must have turned up while we were eating. At least it is now identified and not a Jane Doe anymore. Still.
I tumble into bed that night tired out, my ankle throbbing. Another day finished with. Another day closer to going home and leaving Jake once more.
Next morning it’s back to the gym, the beach, the shopping mall – waiting for it to get dark, so we can go to work. Except this time, Tim has a curve ball for us.
“You know we have software that finds when a security camera has recorded you disappearing and reappearing?” Tim asks in the ops room. “So we can wipe it, so there’s no recording?” We’re waiting for the folders, for him to get on with it, but tonight there are no folders. This is something different.
“Yep,” Jake says, as puzzled as I am.
“Well, that software picked up someone else today.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone else doing what you do.”
“It appears so.”
“It must be Shelley and Tina,” I say, suddenly excited.
“No. It’s a guy. Late teens we think.”
“Paul?” Now my heart goes cold.
“It can’t be Paul,” Jake mutters.
“Can we see it? Have you still got the recording?’
Tim answers by turning back to his laptop and looking at the screen on the wall. There, metres high, is a young guy turning into what looks like an alleyway. It’s daytime, maybe morning. He’s wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt and holding a backpack over his shoulder. His hair is white-blond, cut spikey, and he’s chubby, tough looking. He looks around several times but he doesn’t look up, he doesn’t look at the camera, we don’t see his face and then he’s gone. He’s travelled.
“Is it Paul?” Tim asks.
“No.” We both say it in unison.
“You’re sure? I know you guys were taught how to change your appearance, your hair colour, everything.”
“It’s not Paul,” Jake says.
“Is that all that the cameras picked up?” I ask.
“That’s all we have.” Tim sighs.
“Where is it? Where was this filmed?”
“So not far from the beach, the apartment?”
“Half an hour’s walk, if that.”
“You don’t know where he travelled to?”
“No. We haven’t found anything else.”
“And you don’t know who it is?”
“We can’t see his face, he didn’t leave any fingerprints behind so, no, we don’t know. I’m guessing you two won’t be able to travel to him either, not being able to see his face.”
Jake looks at me and I shake my head.
“No,” he replies for both of us. “So what do we do now?”
“Wait for him to do it again I suppose. If he does do it again and a camera somewhere picks it up and we get to see his face, then maybe we could find him.”
“And then what?” Suddenly my voice has got the shakes.
“I don’t know.”
I walk over to where the tracking devices are and put one in my pocket and give the other to Jake.
“Follow me,” I tell him before Tim can protest and then I’m gone.
The beach is quiet in the dark, the lifeguard hut locked up and empty. The tide must be out but I still can hear the gentle slap of the waves meeting the sand. There are pools of light over by the walkway, and along the pier, but none reach me here. I’m casting no shadows.
Jake takes my hand.
“Is Tim okay?” I ask him.
“Does it matter?”
Jake sits down on the sand and I follow him. It’s dry, not damp, the warmth of the day still held in each tiny grain.
“You know why it can’t be Paul,” I say and sigh.
“Because of me.” I keep going so he can’t interrupt. “When the soldiers came, at the end, I travelled to find him. He wanted me to come with him but I had to find you and the others. I pushed him away and he tripped. He fell and hurt his leg.”
“So he couldn’t travel away from there. He couldn’t escape.”
Jake puts his arms around me. He doesn’t have to say anymore. It’s taken me how long to finally tell someone, anyone, about how I practically got Paul killed. The guy I used to love. Now I’ve done it I just feel empty. I thought I would feel relieved or lighter or happier or something but I don’t. I just feel empty and sad and tired. And I wish we could go back in time to change what happened. But we can’t. Paul is dead and we don’t know where Shelley and Tina are, or even if they’re alive, and the Project is gone and everyone with it. There are just us. The two of us, looking out into the night, at the sea, somewhere out there in the dark.
“What do you think will happen if we find this guy?” I ask.
“I don’t know. We always knew there were probably more of us, somewhere.”
“Should we find this guy, I mean, if we can, if they get him looking at a camera?”
“Just, if you think about it, for his sake, it’s probably best we don’t.”
“You think too much about other people. You should think about yourself.”
“I just don’t want them using him.”
“They don’t use us. It’s our choice that we do what we do.”
“I know. But that’s Tim. What happens if other people get involved?”
“It’s not going to be like the Project. That won’t ever happen again.”
“But what’s going to stop it?”
“We are. We’re not kids anymore, we know what’s right and what isn’t and we know how to travel. Remember when the Project found us, they pretty well had to teach us how to do it. It’s not like that now. We’re not like that now.”
I snuggle into his shoulder. I hadn’t thought about that. I try to remember what I had been like when the Project first found me. I was fourteen and I remember being bewildered, terrified. Jake’s right. I’m not that kid anymore.
“Ready to go back?” Jake asks.
“Tim will be waiting for us.”
I follow him.
I forget to brush the sand off my jeans and I’m doing it in the ops room with Tim frowning at me. He’s sitting, with his feet up on another chair, his computer with the tracking programme running on it.
“Sorry, I just wanted to talk to Jake,” I say.
“About this guy?”
“We just were wondering what would happen if we found him,” Jake says.
“It’s more about risk assessment.”
“What would happen if we don’t find him.”
He takes in both of our stares.
“We can probably assume this guy has just arrived here, or has travelled only in private spaces before now, or has just learnt how to do it.”
“Because the software on the camera feeds hasn’t picked him up until now?”
“Yes. So why the change in behaviour? Is he planning to do something?”
“It constantly amazes me that neither of you have yet robbed a bank.”
I start laughing and then stop. Tim is serious.
“Well, it wouldn’t be that easy.”
“It would take a little planning, I get that,” Tim interrupts Jake. “But you could do it?”
“I suppose so.”
“We don’t need to rob a bank, you pay us so well,” I add, still trying to figure out what Tim is getting at.
“So you think we should go around robbing banks or whatever and forget everything else and live on super yachts and drive fast cars and just have fun or something? Because we can?” Jake’s voice has an edge of grumpiness to it.
“I’m not telling you what you should be doing, I’m asking you why you don’t.”
“Because we’re freaks,” I say quietly. “What we can do is not normal, it’s not human.”
“So by saving people, finding missing people, you are trying to get rid of guilt? Is that it?” Tim’s eyes have gone wide, we’ve floored him.
Jake shrugs his shoulders.
“I think I need to get you guys some shrinks to talk to.”
“That’s what the Project used to do. Didn’t work,” Jake says.
“You’re sure? If you really feel this way, you should have help. You should talk to someone. You are not freaks. Don’t ever say that word again, okay?”
“It’s what we are.”
“Nicky, it is not. If anything you guys are superheroes.”
“Superheroes,” Jake repeats.
“You mean like Superman? Well didn’t he have a problem with flying?”
“It’s okay. We’re fine,” Jake cuts in after me.
“No you’re not. Nicky just said you’re freaks.”
“Freaks who find missing people. We’re good freaks. Valuable freaks. Freaks you want to keep around.”
Tim shakes his head, still trying to get it but Jake’s had enough.
“So what is it that worries you about this new guy?” he asks.
“That he could rob a bank?”
“Nicky, he could do anything. Being able to disappear and reappear, get into places without needing passwords or keys, find things or people, the possibilities are endless.”
“So he’s a security risk?”
“But if he is then so are we.”
“I know. And that’s what I’m trying to prevent.”
“You mean, if someone finds out about him, then they could find out about us.”
Suddenly there is quiet in the room as the three of us look at each other.
“Don’t go back to the beach,” Tim says quickly to me. “If you want to discuss it you discuss it here, with me.”
“There’s nothing to discuss, is there,” Jake says. “Where are the folders? Don’t we have work to do?”
Tim looks at both of us again, stares at us, then turns and heads towards the door muttering something about going to get them.
Jake looks over at me, his fingers drumming on the desk he’s sitting on.
“I haven’t heard you call yourself a freak for a bit,” he says.
“Doesn’t mean I no longer think it. I’m fine,” I add hurriedly. “Just, Tim doesn’t understand, does he?”
“No. Maybe we should go rob a bank.”
I roll my eyes at him.
“You know, what was that movie? Bonnie and Clyde. That could be us. Could be fun.”
“Didn’t they die at the end in a hail of bullets?”
“You think this is going to end any differently?”
“I quite like the idea of growing old together.”
Jake doesn’t get the chance to reply because Tim is back with the folders and appropriate sarcasm.
“Right, here’s twenty missing people you can find so you feel better about yourselves and can sleep at night.”
Jake raises his eyebrows at me but takes the first folder and opens it, glances at the details, grabs an earpiece off the table and is gone. We’re into it. Argument forgotten.
First person found for the night, and whatever Tim says, it does make me feel better.
We go through the motions, taking turns as usual, folder after folder and I get the last one. And ironies of all ironies, we do save a person. Literally.
“Jake, I need you now,” I yell because I’m sprinting across the grass towards a man I’ve just seen kick away a box or something and now he’s hanging by a rope which is around his neck. I grab his legs, lift him up as much as I can but he’s struggling against me. I hold on as tightly as I can, ignoring the pain from his kicks to my chest, and look upwards into the tree. I can’t see his face, I can’t see if he’s still breathing. Are his struggles against me or is it his body already dying?
“Jake,” I yell again.
“I’m here,” Jake says behind me then swears when he sees what I’m doing.
“Tell me what’s going on,” Tim demands in our ears.
“Call an ambulance,” Jake demands back. “This guy’s trying to hang himself.”
He’s grabbed the man’s legs, lifted him higher.
“We need a knife,” he says to me, “to cut him down.”
I don’t need to think. I’m in the apartment, rifling through the kitchen drawers, scaring Joanna who’s watching TV, the Mutt beside her and then I’m back under the tree, my eyes adjusting to the dark as I search for the box or whatever it was the man had been standing on.
“Hurray up,” Jake says. Choking noises are coming from the man’s throat.
I find the box, place it back upright, and climb up on it unsteadily, Tim’s carving knife in my hand.
“Ambulance is on its way,” Tim says. “Three, four minutes.”
I balance as best as I can and start sawing at the rope above me praying Tim’s knife is sharp and the rope is thin. The man is turned away from me but he doesn’t sound good. I saw as fast as I can, the man’s weight breaking the final strands and the three of us topple over and land on the grass.
Jake is still swearing but stumbles up first.
“Is he breathing?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
He rolls the man over, bends over his chest as I slowly get up, still trying to catch my own breath.
“He’s breathing,” Jake says.
An ambulance siren is suddenly loud. Did it just turn it on or had we not noticed it before? It’s pulling over, stopping, doors opening.
“Let’s go,” Jake tells me.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“Yes, now hurry up.”
He grabs my arm and hauls me away, into the darkness of the trees. I look over my shoulder and see the ambulance crew race towards the man and we travel, the knife still in my hand.
On the way to the apartment Tim talks to us from the driver’s seat about suicide. He says that in almost all cases if a suicide is stopped then the person is always grateful. He tells us of a guy he’s read about who lives by a bridge which is well known as a place to jump from. He would always invite the person in for a coffee or a cup of tea, if he saw them in time. He said he’d saved hundreds of lives in the few years he had lived there. All it took was one person to say stop, wait, don’t do it, or do what we did, actually physically stop it.
I think back to when I was a kid just starting high school. A girl in the seniors had hung herself in her parents’ garage. We never found out why. Well, were never told why, if there had been a reason why. There had been lots of assemblies talking about suicide, lots of talking about a lot of things. Maybe we had needed to be talking before though, and then she might not have done it. And why had no one tried to stop her?
We listen to Tim as we stare out of the car windows into the night, street lights rushing past us. It’s late. We’re both tired. Jake tired from travelling, me just tired tired. I am definitely sleeping in tomorrow. Forget the gym. I’m going to sleep until lunchtime.
At the apartment I put the carving knife in the dishwasher. Joanna is back sitting on the sofa watching TV. Mutt wags his tail at us from beside her but Joanna does the wordless stare at me which is not good.
“Sorry,” I tell her. “For before. I didn’t mean to do that.”
“It’s okay. Just you scared me like anything,” she says.
“Sorry.” I shuffle off to my bedroom, Jake doing the same heading to his. There’s been enough talking this evening. I’m all talked out, even to say goodnight.
But the next morning there’s not much of a sleep in. My phone goes off just after nine and I hear Jake’s through the wall do the same. Tim is on his way back to pick us both up.
Joanna has already left for work. I shower mechanically, hand toast to Jake, push Mutt away from slobbering on my plate and then Tim is through the door telling us to hurry up, we have to go, there will be coffee in the ops room.
And there is, along with a recording of the guy with the spikey hair walking into an alleyway, looking straight at the camera in the early morning light, and then travelling.
“Do you know him? You’re sure he’s not from the Project?”
“Never seen him before,” Jake says yawning, not seeming to care about Tim’s bombardment of questions.
I shake my head too.
“So do you know who he is?” Jake asks, his head to one side studying the video playing over and over on the screen.
“I’ve got photo recognition plus I got prints from the alleyway. See, there, he touches that steel pole. I went and dusted them and got a match.”
“What time did you get up this morning to do all that?”
“Not as early as he did,” Tim says, motioning towards the screen.
“So who is he?” I ask. Let’s get to the important stuff.
“Dylan Hodges, twenty-one, no known current address, no occupation.”
“But you’ve got his fingerprints on file?”
“Got caught speeding through a red light two years ago in New Mexico, which is where he grew up. No other police record. Completed high school with A passes, maths, computer science, physics. No college record which is interesting so I’m assuming he didn’t go. He had the marks to get into the best. Mother died when he was five, car accident. She was alone in the car. The other driver, not injured, found at fault. Father reported Dylan missing shortly after he graduated from high school. No contact since, no records, no bank accounts, nothing. The police looked for him.”
“But they never found him,” Jake finishes for him.
We sit in silence, me perched on the edge of a desk, Jake and Tim in office chairs. Jake twirls his slowly, to the right and then to the left.
“Well, we know how he’s been living for the past few years,” he says.
“We can guess,” Tim agrees.
I look up at the screen at Dylan Hodges, twenty-one, and I know I can seek him.
“He might not stay in L.A. long. If he leaves then we won’t be able to seek him out,” Jake says.
“He’s still here now,” I say.
“If we’re going to find him it won’t be until it’s dark so no travelling to him now, understand?” Tim is giving me one of his looks.
“And if we do, tonight, seek him out, what’s going to happen? What are we going to say to him?” Jake asks.
“I don’t know but I’d appreciate suggestions.”
“Honestly, I’m still struggling with why we’re interested in this guy,” Jake says. “Has he robbed any banks?”
“No. Well, not yet. I’m monitoring the situation.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m waiting for the software to pick him up on a camera travelling again.”
“So you’re just waiting?”
“And I’ve put out a security alert.”
“Nothing specific, no face, no identity.”
“Maybe we should just figure out what he’s here for first,” I interrupt.
“You mean go and ask him?” Jake says. “Hey, Hodges, so you can, you know, well, we know, disappear and stuff, so we’re just wondering which bank you’re targeting.”
“No. Not that.”
“Well, what then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ve got the day to think about it,” Tim says.
“Sweet, so you don’t need us so then we’re out of here?”
“Unless anything happens,” I say cautiously, still watching the video of Dylan walking towards the camera, his hands deep in his jeans’ pockets, and then looking up, directly at me.
“I’ll get in touch if anything does happen. Just keep your cell phones on you. I’ll drop you back to the apartment now.”
After that we wander through the day. I think about going back to bed but we’re up now. What would be the point? Instead we snooze together on the beach, our fingers entwined on the hot sand. Our cell phones don’t ring and Joanna is not at the apartment to cook us tea. Maybe I really scared her last night. I want to talk to Tim about it, about what she knows and what we can tell her and what we can’t but there’s more important stuff when he takes us back to the ops room. We’ve picked up burgers on the way. He’s late and rushing. It’s already dark.
“So, nothing has happened all day?” Jake is asking though mouthfuls. I don’t like how they melt the cheese so much in the burgers here, if you can call it cheese. Cheese should not be this bright yellow colour. Maybe they add food colouring. And where is the beetroot? I like beetroot in burgers. That’s how the fish and chip shop around the corner from school makes them.
“Nothing has happened,” Tim says. He must have already eaten because he didn’t get a burger for himself at the drive through. Or maybe he’s not eating at all. A still shot of Dylan looking up is on the screen on the wall. It’s going to be weird meeting him, if we get to meet him.
“Like, nothing at all,” Jake says sarcastically. “Not even a small bank robbery?”
“I said nothing.”
“So what have you decided?” I’m losing onions out of my burger. They’re dropping on the floor. Whoever cleans this room must think we’re real slobs.
“There’s been a lot of talking.”
“Wait a minute, between who?” Jake asks.
Tim sighs. He’s looking at his laptop screen, not wanting to meet our eyes. We wait. Like Jake, I want an answer too.
“Because of this, because of Dylan Hodges, I’ve had to tell a few people about you both and sort out a few things and, let’s just say, it’s been a busy day.”
“People?” Jake has put his burger down.
“People in the FBI. Don’t worry, I haven’t said names, I haven’t given out your identity. No one knows who you are.”
“But they know what we can do.”
I swallow and I’m sure Tim and Jake must be able to hear me do it because it is so, so silent all of a sudden in the room.
“I have told the least amount people, the least amount of information necessary.”
“Any information is too much information,” Jake shouts back.
“You think I don’t know that?”
“You had no right.”
Tim is quiet. I finish my burger. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know how the FBI works, I don’t know how many layers of secret Tim could have put on our file, I don’t know even if he had to write anything down to put in a file. A file on us. The thought scares me. It’s scaring Jake too. He’s chucked his half-finished burger into the rubbish bin and has started pacing the floor.
“So what did they come up with?” I mumble. “These people?”
“About anything, about us.”
“Okay, first they don’t know really what it is you do. I mean I can’t explain it and how to make people believe it without actually seeing it happen, I don’t know how to do that. Instead I just talked about the results and the importance of what you’re doing and the threat that we have found.”
“The threat being Dylan Hodges?”
“So, we’re going to do actually what Jake suggested this morning.”
“You’re both going to go and ask the guy.”
“What, you’ve spent all day coming up with that?” Jake yells. “You’ve told people about us, jeopardised our safety, our lives, and you’ve come up with that?”
“Jake, just leave it, hey?” I tell him.
“We’ll seek him out. It’s no big deal.” I pick up the ear pieces and the GPS units and toss Jake one of each.
“I want you both to be careful,” Tim is saying.
“We’ll be fine.” I shrug as I put my bullet proof vest on, pull back my hair to stick the earpiece in, glare at Jake so he hurries up.
“Find out where he is, and talk to him. Don’t be aggressive, just play it as you see it.”
“Do we get a weapon?” Jake asks.
Tim shakes his head.
“You ready yet?” I ask Jake, more to shut both of them up before the shouting starts again than anything else. I know what we’re doing. I know how dangerous it is. If I think any more about it I won’t be able to do it at all.
Jake is grumbling about something, trying to do up his vest.
“You ready?” I repeat and he finally looks up and nods.
I concentrate on the picture on the screen. He doesn’t look twenty-one. Looks far too young to be twenty-one. Twenty-one is so old.
“We’re doing this together?” Jake asks me.
“You go and I’ll follow.”
He nods again. I know he doesn’t want to. I can read his body language just as Tim can. He’s stalling, looking up the screen again, staring at Dylan. Already I’m saying his name silently over and over, getting used to the sound of it, the feel of it in my mind but Jake is still staring at the picture. He’s still here. He hasn’t travelled.
“I can’t do it,” he says, turning to me, shrugging his shoulders.
I shake my head, roll my eyes, look up at the screen and I realise Jake’s right. Dylan Hodges is gone.
I take the tracker out of my pocket, the ear piece, as Tim sighs.
“Does that mean he’s too far away?”
“Don’t know,” Jake says, copying my actions.
“We should have seeked him out this morning,” I say.
“We shouldn’t be seeking him out at all,” Jack says, pulling off the vest.
Tim leans back in his seat, staring up at the screen again.
“Thoughts?” he asks us finally.
“That’s what you do, remember. Or supposed to do, instead of talking about it with your buddies.”
“Jake, just leave it will you?”
We glare at each other, again. I suddenly wish this evening would be over, that it had never happened.
“I’m asking because you both know more about all this than I ever will,” Tim says.
“Maybe try again tomorrow night, I don’t know,” I offer. “If he’s not in LA, is he still a problem?”
“Any answer to that would only be a guess,” Tim says, still staring upwards. Then he switches his gaze to us. We’re packed up ready to go back to the apartment. “Whoa, who said the night was over?”
“Well, we can’t find Dylan and you don’t have any folders for us.”
“Something else happened today which I haven’t told you about.”
“Why do I feel this won’t sound good,” Jake says, slumping back down in his chair.
“You don’t have to do it and I’m not even sure about it myself but,” Tim takes a deep breath, “there’s been a kidnapping.”
“A kidnapping as in a ransom has to be paid?” I ask.
“And the person is rich and famous and the kidnappers have said not to call the cops but that’s what always happens and the cops botch it up paying the ransom.”
“It’s a seven-year-old girl and it’s not a movie.”
“But her parents are rich?”
“Does it matter?”
“But you want us to find her?”
“The ransom is supposed to be paid tomorrow morning.”
“Why haven’t we done one of these before?” Jake interrupts.
“Kidnappings? I don’t hear about them. Just missing persons. Until now.”
“Someone asked you, when they found out what we can do, didn’t they?”
“Let’s just do it,” I say to Jake. “It’s no big deal.”
“Well, actually it is,” Tim says. “You can’t be seen. They just want you in and out, find out where she is, if you can possibly sight her so they know where she is in the building, how they’re holding her.”
“They going to go in with guns and they don’t want her in the crossfire,” Jakes says, no longer swinging in the chair.
Jake glances over at me, the glares are gone. We’re both thinking the same thing. If we do this, if we’re successful, it will prove to whoever asked Tim for us to find this kid, what we’re capable of. Since Tim and I started this months ago, and now with Jake, we have worked so hard to keep what we do secret and now one seven-year-old’s life is going to cost all of it. And I know I’ll do it, because it is about someone else’s life, and however stupid it is to do it, to let others know what we can do, helping to save one child’s life is more important to me. And Jakes knows that’s what I’m thinking too. That he won’t be able to talk me out of it. That’s why his eyes are pleading now, his head slowly moving from side to side.
“I’ll do it,” I say before I can think about it anymore.
Tim, stone-faced, hands me the folder. It had been in his briefcase, hidden from us all along.
My hands are trembling as I slowly open it. I look up at Jake again and see his eyes are on the floor but now his whole body is swinging in the office chair from side to side, saying no, don’t do it.
Seven-year-old Sara Robbins is sitting on a brown horse looking as if she has ridden all her life. She has this huge grin, freckles on her nose, no helmet. She’s laughing at something, her hands on the reins, the horse’s ears are forward.
I pick up the GPS tracker, the earpiece, shrug on the vest once again.
I’m in some sort of warehouse. It’s huge, I’m sure of that. The lights where I am are turned off but over to my left the hanging bar fluorescents throw harsh shadows at me. There are pallets of boxes on the smooth concrete floor, stacked up high, wrapped in plastic. I can’t make out the words on the boxes. Maybe they’re not words, maybe they’re symbols. Or maybe they’re in a language which uses a different alphabet. I crouch down silently next to one and listen.
Something is happening where the lights are. Is it voices or someone moving around? I can’t tell. The rest of the warehouse seems quiet.
Maybe there are no windows, maybe the sun never reaches in here.
“I have your location,” Tim says in my ear. “Travel back after you have made visual contact.”
I wait a few seconds longer, still not sure if it’s voices, then get up slowly and creep forward, towards the light.
The pallets make the floor into a maze.
I walk, half bent, from one to another, keeping in the shadows. My shoes don’t make a noise. There’s only the sound of my lungs, the rub of my bare arms against the edges of the bulletproof vest. I hadn’t bothered to put my sweatshirt back on to hide it. If I do get caught, maybe seeing it will stop anyone trying to shoot me. Or maybe they will just get it over with quicker and shoot me in the head.
“I have you on the move,” Tim says.
The lights are getting closer. It is voices I can hear but I still can’t make out what they’re saying. They’re quiet, it’s not an argument. Maybe a conversation about the weather, the sports scores, about how hard it is to find a car park in this city. I don’t know. I slide down next to a pallet listening, watching. Waiting for movement, for a shadow that is not made by a pallet, a moving shadow, to cross the floor in front of me. But there is nothing.
The floor is cold against my knees and hands and I suddenly shiver.
“Okay, you’ve stopped,” Tim says. Maybe he’s going to keep up a running commentary of what I’m doing in my ear.
I edge around the pallet slowly, silently, and look towards the lights. There’s no boxes over there, a clear space on the floor. Two men, no a third sitting behind one of the two, are at a small table, playing I think cards. They look bored. One is fiddling with an unlit cigarette in his fingers. I can’t see if they have guns. Maybe they’re in shoulder holsters beneath their jackets, maybe they’re strapped to their legs, in the back of their jeans. From how they’re sitting I can’t tell. Above them, high up, is a small window. They must be on the edge of the building. I edge round further. They’re sitting under the third window from the left. Got you.
Suddenly one gets up. Have I moved? Made a sound? Have they seen a shadow? I still haven’t found the girl. I can’t travel back yet.
No, he’s not walking towards me. He’s walking over to my right, looking at something. One of the other men is shuffling the cards, while the third, he has a beard, is watching where the first one is going. I can’t see. There are boxes in the way.
There’s a noise, then a sound of pain, as if someone has been kicked.
“You awake?” the voice must be the man’s. It sounds bored. Disinterested.
“Yes.” The reply is hardly above a whisper, high pitched, female and young. It must be the girl’s.
“Can I have some water please.” It’s a hesitant plea. Desperate, needy, afraid.
“Wait a minute.”
The man ambles back into view, bends down and gets something out of a bag. It’s a plastic bottle of water. New, unopened, like straight from the supermarket. He chucks it towards where he came from and I can hear it bouncing on the floor and then rolling. There is the sound of frantic crawling, the noise of a body stretching itself out on concrete, metal scraping, and then silence.
“I can’t reach it,” the girl cries out.
The man shuffling the cards stops and looks over to where the voice came from. The first man has sat down again at the table.
“Go and get it for her, will you,” the man with the cards says to him.
“Do I have to do everything around here?” he grumbles but gets up and disappears again from view.
There’s the noise of him kicking the water bottle and it rolling along the floor again and then stopping.
“Thank you.” The girl’s voice. It sounds croaky. Like she really needs that water. If she drinks from the bottle I can’t hear it. Maybe she is too polite to slurp, to make the water glug. Maybe all she can do is sip anyway, her lips and throat too parched.
I’ve got to get her out of here.
“Once you have a visual on the girl travel back,” Tim’s voice says in my ear. I sigh inside, not making a sound. If Jake is going nuts in the ops room about how long this is taking I can’t hear. Maybe Tim has gagged him, stuck a sock in his mouth and taped it shut so he can’t yell at me through Tim’s mic to get the hell out and travel now.
I slip from my hiding spot and backtrack, the way I’ve come. All three men are playing the card game again, the deck has been dealt, they’re studying their hands, the girl forgotten about.
“I have you on the move,” Tim says.
There are more pallets of boxes to the right, easy cover. Even so, I linger behind each one before making a silent dash to the next, head down, breathing stopped but heart thumping away assuredly, reminding me I’m still alive and to make sure I stay that way.
“You’re moving,” Tim says. Shut up I tell him silently. I don’t need to know what I’m doing. I need to concentrate on what I’m doing and I don’t need his distraction, or the thought of him, or the thought of him and Jake safe in the ops room while I run an obstacle course made of pallets looking for a girl held captive by at least three not very nice looking men no doubt with guns, or knives, or both.
I take another deep breath and rush to the next tower of boxes, my shadow sliding across the concrete floor with me as silently as its creator.
And there she is. I hear her before I see her. She’s sobbing, quietly, I can hardly make it out and I’m only a few metres away. The men playing cards won’t be able to hear her at all. Maybe she knows that, and although she can’t stop herself crying, at least she can do it without drawing their attention. I glance around the pallet I’m hiding behind and take a good look at her and then fall back to where I was. She hasn’t seen me. Sara Robbins is no longer the happy kid in the photo with her horse. She’s a mess, hair everywhere, eyes red. She’s lying on a mattress on the floor, against a wall. She’s curled up tightly, her body shaking with her every sob. There’s a chain wrapped and padlocked around her ankle, the skin around it red and bleeding. The other end is attached to something in the wall. I couldn’t see.
I can’t do anything for her. Without the key for the padlock, I can’t get her out of here. If I get her attention somehow she might make a noise and bring the men over. I can’t rescue her, I can’t even reassure her that help is on the way. I have to leave her.
The ops room is warm and comforting after the coldness of the warehouse. It’s a different world, a sane world, a safe world. I breathe a sigh of relief, pull off the vest, the earpiece, the locator as Tim turns around, nods and then looks again at the screen. Jake is sitting quietly in his chair. He reaches out his hand and I take it, hold it, cling to it.
“You’re cold,” he says and rubs my hand.
“You saw her?” Tim asks.
“She’s not good. We’ve got to get her out of there.”
“And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. These are the movements we tracked so talk us through them.” He’s got my path marked up on the screen within what must be the floor plan of the warehouse.
“Can you mark the windows? The men were sitting under a window.”
Tim does something on his computer keyboard and windows and doors come up on the plan.
“Okay, they were sitting there, at a table, playing cards. Under the third window. The windows are really high up, you couldn’t see through them.”
“How many men?”
“I saw three.”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see.”
“And where’s the girl?”
“Sara’s over here.” I point to beyond where I stopped, to where I travelled from. “She’s against a wall on mattress. They’ve got her chained by her ankle to the wall.”
“Was she awake?”
“So what else was in the room, you must have been hiding behind something for them not to see you.”
“Pallets of cardboard boxes. Stacked really high but there weren’t any by the walls, where the men were sitting, where she was.”
“The floor was clear?’
“And no one saw you. The men, the girl?”
“You left no sign, footprints in the dust on the floor, anything to alert them that something is about to happen?”
“No. The place was really clean. Just cold.”
I realise then that Jake is still holding my hand, and remember how he didn’t want me to go, remember what finding the girl, what I’ve just done, could mean for both of us.
“Come here,” Jake says and he lets me bury my head into his shoulder. He wraps his arms around me, his warmth around me and finally the shakes stop. Tim is talking to someone on his phone. It’s a long conversation but I don’t care. All I care about is Jake and being warm and safe and maybe that this horror of a day is over and we can all go back to the apartment.
At last Tim is finished talking. He does something on his computer and the screen on the wall above us goes dark. We must be packing up. Finished. But then the screen comes on again, picture by picture. Tim isn’t doing it.
“It’s a live feed. They’ve taped us into it. So we can watch,” he says, as if we know what he’s talking about.
“Is that the outside of the warehouse?” I ask, trying to figure out what I’m seeing. There’s a street, the side of a large building, street lights, parked cars. Two views. Two different angles. The same door.
“They’re going to rescue the kid now?” Jake asks.
“Yes. I thought you might like to see it.”
“So, they’ve had a couple of people searching for this kid for how many days and Nicky finds her and that’s it? They go in?”
“They’ve been looking for her for three days and not just a couple of people, I think more like a couple of hundred.”
Jake is silent and so am I. Thinking. Two hundred cops, FBI agents whatever searching for a kidnapped girl for three days and we find her and give them all the information to rescue her that they need in less than an hour.
A car is arriving in the picture on the screen. Black, SVU. Then another. Within seconds it seems the street is full. And an ambulance.
Tim fiddles with the computer and we have sound. We can hear the cars stopping. Doors opening, people getting out. There’s no sirens, no yelling. Just the quiet loading of weapons, muted conversations. Another picture comes up the screen. It must be a head cam. The picture shakes around, as if the person is running then it pauses, outside the warehouse door. A gloved hand reaches forward and tries the handle. There’s no give. A figure in black comes into the frame, attaching something to the door, to the lock, the hinges and then everyone gets back. A bang. The door is blown, a whiff of smoke in the street lights and they’re piling in. The sound of gunfire but we can’t see who or what. People running, darkness. They must have cut the power. The picture has switched to night vision. Greens and whites and greys. Yelling and more shots and the head cam is weaving through the tall towers of pallets and then there’s the girl, huddled against the wall, eyes large staring straight at us.
“It’s all okay, we’ve got you, it’s going to be okay now,” a voice says and he must take her is his arms because the picture goes blurry, too close for the camera to focus.
Somewhere, near us, through the walls of the ops room we hear people cheering. Clapping and cheering. Jake and I look at each other wondering as we listen.
“They’re just down the corridor, the team who have been looking for her,” Tim says. “Three, four rooms away.”
The cheering keeps going as the picture feeds cut one by one on the screen.
Tim is talking to someone again on his phone.
“No casualties, three men in custody,” Tim tells us as he ends the call.
“Is Sara okay? The girl.”
“She’s going to be fine. Well done.”
I nod at his acknowledgement. Get up slowly. Maybe now we can go. Suddenly I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to think about it all anymore.
But the door’s opening, the door to the ops room. There’s a man standing there. Tall, grey hair, wearing a suit, the tie loose around the collar. He’s looks like he’s been running but now he’s staring at us, at me and Jake.
“You two did that?” he’s asking. “Did you two really do that?
After we get back to the apartment, after the mess of the night, Jake and I end up in my bedroom. I no longer care about what Tim might say or think or do. To hell with everything.
I don’t know who falls asleep first, whether it’s Jake or me. Maybe we fell asleep together.
But I’m first awake. It’s early, the sun just glimmering through the bedroom’s blind. At home there would be birds chirping. Here there is just car noise. Although here there is always car noise, whether it’s light or dark. I lie silent for a moment, listening to the cars on the street outside, Jake’s steady breathing beside me, watch the sun grow brighter and then I realise why I’ve woken.
Dylan is back.
I can travel to him. The image of his blond spikey hair, his round face, muscular frame, it’s in my head. I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought about him since we figured out he was gone early yesterday evening. But it doesn’t matter. He’s back.
I slip out from between the sheets, grab shorts, a T shirt, my sandals and cautiously open the door. No one is in the living room. Tim’s door is shut. The Mutt must be inside with him. I silently close the bedroom door behind me glancing at Jake as I do it. He hasn’t stirred.
I get dressed in the bathroom.
If I travel not too close to Dylan I might be able to get an address. Then travel back and at least then if he disappears again, goes outside the city, too far for me to seek him out by the time everyone wakes up, then at least we have that. The FBI, whoever, can then go around and at least check the place out. Decide who we’re dealing with, why he’s here. It seems like a plan anyway. Maybe not one that Tim and definitely not Jake would approve of but, well, maybe Jake would. I think he wants to clear up this whole Dylan Hodges thing as much as I do so we can forget about it and move on. Maybe.
Let’s do this.
I’m in an old house, faded green wallpaper on the walls, threadbare carpet on the floor. Early morning sun from open doorways is lighting up the dust in the air. I’m at the end of a long hallway and at the other end someone is in a bathroom cleaning his teeth. The door is wide open. I can see him clearly.
It’s Dylan. He’s standing cleaning his teeth, the brush going up and down, up and down as he stares straight at the mirror in front of him, straight at me down the hallway. He keeps brushing his teeth, watching me, then he puts down the toothbrush, rinses it under the water from the tap and places it back into the holder on the basin. He’s watching me the whole time and I stand there, not sure what I should do.
“So you’re a seeker, aren’t you?” he asks loudly, so I can hear him, at the end of the hall. He still hasn’t turned around. He’s still looking at me in the mirror, our eyes locked. My heart is skipping a beat. How did he know that? How did he know that word?
My heart keeps skipping beats. My feet feel like they’re cemented to the floor and I just stare at Dylan in the mirror and cold fear erupts inside me. That word, the meaning of that word and the fact that he knows that word and its meaning bounces around my chest instead of my heart beat. Dylan smiles at me in the mirror, starts to turn around to face me, down that long hallway and suddenly I can go.
Him moving somehow releases me from this frozen state and I turn and run. There’s a door behind me and I try it, wrench it open. I think if it was locked I would still have managed somehow to get it open but it’s not and I flee the house, outside, into the early LA morning. Without thinking I slam the door shut behind me, shut away Dylan and that word, shut it away from me. There’s a number on the wall of the house. Forty-three. I run onto the road. There’s a street sign on the corner. Forbes Road. Got you. I glance around. See no one.
I’m back at the apartment, in the living room, and I’m yelling for Tim, yelling for Jake in between gasps for breath as I try to refill my lungs and then once they’re full I start sobbing. On my knees, on Tim’s brown rug, which doesn’t show the Mutt’s dog hairs, and I’m sobbing and I’m afraid. I am so afraid. And I’m repeating, over and over in my head, forty-three Forbes Road, forty-three Forbes Road.
The Mutt gets to me first, not that it’s a race. Anyway, I need his big shagginess to bury my face into. Tim must have opened the door to his bedroom and the Mutt bounded out to see what all the fuss was about. Tim’s next, he’s managed to pull a pair of jeans on and lastly Jake, in boxers and a T-shirt. I’m better than an alarm clock. It’s weird the crazy thoughts you have when you’re so, so scared.
“What’s wrong?” Tim is asking.
“You’ve got to send someone to forty-three Forbes Road, that’s where Dylan Hodges is. Forty-three Forbes Road.” I manage to get the words out between sobs.
Tim stares at me.
“Just do it,” I plead.
Tim goes back into his bedroom.
“How do you know?” Jake asks.
“I went there.”
“You travelled to him?”
Tim is back in the room with his phone. He’s dialling and staring at me again at the same time.
“You travelled to him without telling us first?” Jake is demanding.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Tim says into the phone. “Can you get people around to forty-three Forbes Road now and arrest all occupants? And I want the house cordoned off too. It’ll need to be searched.” He stops and listens. Jake uses the silence to glare at me, hands on hips.
“And keep eyes on those you’ve arrested at all times, make sure of that, at all times.” Tim ends the call and puts the phone in his pocket.
“Start talking,” he tells me.
“Dylan called me a seeker,” I say, taking a deep breath, wiping my face, trying to get rid of the tears.
Jake reels backwards, his face suddenly white and I swallow hard, but the sobs are again in my throat, the fear.
“He saw me travel and he called me a seeker.”
“He can’t of,” Jake says.
“He saw me. He was looking right at me.”
“How would he know?”
“Okay, explain it to me,” Tim interrupts, “what’s the big deal?”
“It was a word the Project used,” I blurt out. “Only the Project used. Finders and seekers. Seekers seek out people or things, finders find places. Jake was a seeker and I was a finder and then I figured out I could do both. It was words the Project made up to explain what we did, to classify us.”
“In the end though, they didn’t matter. We could do anything,” Jake says. “Not that they realised that.”
“So you think,” Tim says slowly, “because Dylan called you a seeker, that he’s part of the Project.”
“The Project is gone, it was destroyed,” Jake says. “You said yourself, there was nothing left on the satellite pictures. Everyone died.”
“Except you two.”
“Maybe someone else survived,” I say, hoping, not hoping that what I’m saying is true. How could Dylan have known that word? We all stare at each other, silent, confused, for minutes. It seems like hours.
Tim’s phone is buzzing. He answers it in one swift practised motion.
“Okay, just do a thorough search then. Find out everything you can about who was living there. And they might turn up again so keep your eyes open.”
He puts the phone back in his pocket.
“He’s gone isn’t he?” I ask.
“Yes. There was no one there.”
“Can you still travel to him?” Jake asks.
I try, I concentrate, quiet my still-jangled nerves but there is nothing. I shake my head.
“For him to be gone so fast, does that mean he’s a better traveller than you?” Tim asks.
“No one is better that Nicky.”
“He could be doing just several hops, anything. I don’t know. He could be better than me. It’s
Tim thinks for a moment, looking from one of us to the other and then makes a decision. Being Tim, it’s the practical one. Let’s get dressed and have breakfast. The Mutt, at least, is hungry. And the shower helps get rid of my puffy face.
Over toast crumbs we figure it out. There are three options, well four really but the fourth is a non-starter: that it was just a coincidence that Dylan Hodges used the word seeker. Coincidences don’t happen, not like this. So there are only three options:
Option One – that Paul or Jake’s sister Shelley or Tina are alive and told Dylan.
Option Two – that the Project is somehow still operational and told Dylan.
Option Three – that whoever it was who had the Project destroyed told Dylan.
Tim’s still wanting Jake and I to figure it out, that we will remember seeing Dylan in the past, that Jake didn’t see everyone killed, that we will remember an identifying mark on the clothing of the people who came and bombed the Project base and then shot everyone. But we have nothing to give him. We have no ideas. It could be option two, or three, or maybe, just maybe, option one. Please let it be option one.
“I want to go back,” I say at last.
“Back where, to where Dylan was?”
“No. I want to go to Mexico. I want to see what’s left of the Project.”
“You can see what’s left on satellite photos. I can show you.”
“I know, but I want to go back. I want to go back for real. I want to see for myself what’s left.”
“There won’t be anything,” Jake says.
“I’ll see what I can do about getting a flight, a helicopter,” Tim says finally. “Look, I’m going to go into work, see what they’ve found at this house. You guys, just keep your phones on and don’t travel anywhere. Nicky, if you think you can travel to Dylan again let me know and we’re figure out what to do. Just don’t travel to him again without me knowing.”
Jake looks at me and I nod. It’s a plan for the day, or for the morning at least. Maybe this afternoon we’ll be able to go back to the Project, maybe tomorrow. The sooner the better. I don’t know why I want to go. Closure? Some clue that may be there, if we can find it? Some message left for us, or for whoever survived? Maybe there will be nothing. Maybe it will be a wasted trip.
We give the gym a miss. Go straight to the beach. There we watch groups of people in matching running gear jog ungainly along the sand in front of us, mums building sandcastles with little kids with bright-coloured plastic buckets and spades, a man in black shorts doing yoga or Pilates or something on a mat he’s laid out on the sand. The waves come in, go out, white foamy tips coming to nothing on the hot sand. It’s hot enough already that they could sizzle when they stop, boil and evaporate into steam but they don’t. It’s disappointing.
“Why do you want to go back?” Jake asks, staring out to sea.
“I don’t know, I just do. How about you, do you want to go back?”
“No.” He sighs. “Yes, yes I do. I want to see it for myself too. You know,” he looks at me,
“sometimes, it’s like it never happened. It was just some sort of bad dream, a time in my life that I want to forget but I can’t because everything that happened there, everything, every little thing, has put me in this beach with you right now. So it wasn’t a dream, a time to forget. I don’t want to forget. I want to remember. And I want to make sure it was real.”
The shadow of the helicopter follows us along the desert floor. To the right, slightly behind us. I watch it through the window from the back seat, stare down at it mesmerised as it floats over rock formations, scrub and endless dry. Even though it is late afternoon, there is little shade down there. Heat shimmers hide the horizon every time I look forward, to where we are heading. But I don’t do it often. I don’t want to see what’s in front of us. Instead I keep my eyes fixed on our shadow.
Tim picked us up from the apartment. Told us to pack an overnight bag. At the airport we got lunch at Subway and then queued through security checks for more than an hour to board a crowded flight, complete with upset little kids, to Tucson, Arizona. For some reason Tim didn’t flash his FBI credentials to get us straight on the plane like usual so we had to wait with everyone else for our bags to go through a scanner, for us to go through a scanner and then get sniffed and swabbed for whatever. By the end of it my feet were sore for standing so long. Two hours flight time and then we were on the tarmac in the heat in Arizona climbing into a helicopter, dumping our bags in the back, to fly into Mexico. Just Tim and Jake and me and the helicopter pilot who hardly looked at us and we hardly looked at him. And now we’re flying across the border and back to where we once escaped from, it seems, a lifetime ago.
I glance across at Jake. He’s looking out of the window, staring down, not looking forward either. His jaw has that clenched look he gets when he’s worried. I reach across and grab his hand and his fingers intertwine with mine, joined, holding fast together. Unbreakable.
In a week (maybe less than a week? I’ve lost track of the days somehow), I will be back home and facing another term of school work and teachers stressing about exams and a swim coach who will want to test my once broken ankle to the max. I circle my foot around in the helicopter, to see how it is. This morning’s sprint doesn’t seem to have done it any damage, or the standing at the airport. Maybe it’s finally coming right. I think about laps in the pool. I think about life at home, friends, Mum and Dad, and suddenly I realise I can’t do it. I can’t go back. Not now, after everything that has happened in the last few days. Not without Jake, not without knowing about Dylan and what has finally happened to whatever remains of the Project. How can I leave Jake and Tim to deal with it? Figure it out? How can I go back to my normal life, to safety, to exams and lengths of the pool?
Jake’s hand tightens on mine, as if he knows what I’m thinking. I glance across at him again but he’s still staring out of the window, his expression unchanged.
I can’t go back. I’m not the same person anymore. Once, somewhere down there, in the desert, that’s all I dreamed about – going home. Escaping from the Project and going home. And I finally did it. And now I’m going back to where the Project was and home suddenly no longer seems an option.
The helicopter pilot is saying something to Tim in the front seat and Tim is nodding back. We’re slowing down, losing altitude. We’re going to land.
We must be there. Jake’s hand tenses in mine.
We wait for the helicopter’s rotors to stop turning before we try the doors. Tim has pulled off the head set and has twisted around to look at us both. Jake ignores him and takes a deep breath, jerks the door open on his side and is gone. The helicopter pilot continues shutting the engines down, flipping switches, ignoring us.
I don’t wait for Tim’s approval to follow. Jake is wandering away from the helicopter, looking, kicking the dirt, hands on hips.
“Is this it?” I ask his back.
Jake shrugs then slowly shakes his head.
“There’s just nothing here,” I say, stopping, turning a full circle. “This can’t be it. There would have been something, anything.”
Tim joins us. He’s holding a tablet. The helicopter pilot has stayed put, his door open, feet hanging out. That’s all I can see of him. His boots. He’s too far away to hear us.
“The co-ordinates are right. This is where the Project base was,” Tim says.
“It can’t be,” I say.
“There’s the rock,” Jake says, pointing to the distance.
I shade my eyes and stare where he’s pointing. He’s right. I can’t believe it. There it is. The weird outcrop of red rock rising above the desert.
“That’s where I travelled to, to escape and then I just kept going,” Jake says.
I look at the rock, the rock that saved his life.
“We could see it through the fence in the garden,” I say, trying to remember, to not remember. “Even the garden is gone?”
We walk, keeping the rock in sight, trying to see it from the angle we’re used to, the right distance.
“The fence must have been about here,” Jake says, stopping. “The buildings there. The road to the town over there.”
I look where he’s pointing and there is just dirt and rocks and nothing.
“This must have been where the door to the garden was. I saw it explode. A bomb or something. I was walking down the corridor.” The memory seems still etched onto the back of my eyelids. The bright light, the fire.
“And over there would have been the carpark, the entrance,” Jake says.
“Everything is gone,” I still can’t believe it. How can buildings and fences and roads just be taken apart, destroyed, as if they never existed?
“Not everything. Look, that’s where the pond was,” Jake says, walking over to what looks like a damp spot on the ground.
“It was a lake.”
“It was a big pond.”
“It was a lake, I almost drowned Paul in it.”
“I wish you had.”
I look up at Jake wondering if he had really meant that but he’s already walking in front of me again. Then he stops, kneels down, places his hand on the dirt.
“It’s damp. There must be an underground spring or something here. That’s how they made the pond. I bet you if we started digging we would find water.”
I try to remember the stony bank of the lake, the grass, the trees and flowers. This is where I skimmed stones, this is where I got to know Paul, this is where so many things happened and all that is left is this damp depression in the ground.
“Whoever did this made a good job of covering everything up,” Tim says. He’s been following us as we have walked in circles, fiddling with his phone. I glance at it again. It’s not the one he usually has, I’m sure of it. He dials a number as I watch, listens but there can’t be any answer. Maybe there is no signal out here.
Jake is scraping at the dirt with the heel of his shoe.
“If we started digging, what would we find?” he asks Tim when he has put the phone back in his pocket. I wonder if Jake has noticed it is different one too.
“You’re thinking bodies aren’t you?” Tim replies.
I suddenly look down at my feet. I have been wandering around not realising that this place is probably now a mass grave. I’m walking through a cemetery. Tina and Shelley could be somewhere beneath us. A sob escapes me. Suddenly every round stone looks like a skull, every jagged rock broken ribs or a femur.
“Whoever did this did too good a job for us to find anyone, and I definitely doubt there are remains left here that could be identified,” Tim continues. “Even buried deep down. The people who wanted the Project gone weren’t going to botch it up. They had too many resources. They obviously are powerful people. Whatever you guys were doing out here made them very, very nervous.”
“What we were doing was just what we do with you now,” I say.
“No we weren’t. This was a business,” Jake argues. “The Project was paid serious money for what we did. They must have been, to keep all this going. The base, the people. We weren’t finding some suicidal businessman or teenagers who had run off the road in their car. We were stealing things, corporate secrets. We were finding the children of billionaires.”
“I suspect you were doing a lot more than that,” Tim says.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s only one organisation really that could clean up a site like this, hide everything so well.”
“It was the government wasn’t it?” Jake says calmly. “Got to be.”
Tim doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have to. Jake’s guess is the only one that could be right. It was Paul’s guess too, when it happened. When I saw him last.
“You think the government found out what we can do and for some reason decided to stop us?”
“Nicky, what you and Jake do is incredibly powerful. Forget missiles, forget intelligence, drones, anything. Whoever controls you two can win wars, take over any corporate, collapse economies. You two are like the Doomsday Clock all over again. You are massive nuclear war heads that can destroy the world, you are the ultimate upper hand.”
“So why didn’t they want to keep Jake and me? Why didn’t they just grab everyone and use the Project themselves for whatever they wanted?”
“Because like any loaded gun, you could be taken by our enemies and used against us. It was too big a risk. Better to eliminate you. Easier.”
“So that’s what they did. Everything, everyone. Gone.” I look around again. The desolation, the emptiness. I don’t know what to feel. How to feel. I’m as empty as this desert is.
“We should go, there’s nothing here,” Jake says, his voice sounding as hollow as I feel. “We shouldn’t have come.”
The three of us start back towards the helicopter. My eyes are on the ground. I don’t want to look anymore, remember. Think that somewhere far beneath us could be Shelley and Tina’s remains, and all the other people we knew, that we worked with, that fed us, looked after us. I tread lightly, not wanting to disturb the dead, the past. My past.
“What this?” Tim is asking puzzled, over to my left. He’s stopped by some sort of shrub.
I walk towards him, wondering what he’s on about and then I realise what he’s standing beside. It’s not a shrub, some desert native, it’s a rose bush. Its leaves look dry as if it’s struggling to survive, petals falling from one remaining faded red flower but I know its scent without bending down to reach it.
And I know its name.
“Jake,” I call out. He’s almost at the helicopter. He stops, looks back at us. I can see his indecision. He wants to be gone, away from this place, but he’s seen the look on my face too and he starts back at a run.
“What’s wrong?” he says when he’s by my side.
“The Guardian’s alive,” I stutter.
“What do you mean?”
“The Guardian was the guy who built the Project, wasn’t he?” Tim asks.
I nod, not trusting my voice again.
“Nicky, how do you know the Guardian’s alive?” Jake asks slowly, panic edging his voice.
“This rose. It’s called Remember Me. He showed it to me once,” the words suddenly tumbling out.
“Right here. He told me he had planted the garden to remember his wife, Paul’s mother, that this was her favourite rose. He told me how she had died, how he had tried to travel to save her but couldn’t. He wasn’t good enough.”
“Look around, there’s nothing else left is there? The garden’s gone. Everything’s gone. But this rose is here. How?”
Jake kneels down and picks up the fallen petals, cradles them in his hand.
“This can’t be a coincidence,” Tim says.
“He came back, after everything was buried. And he planted this rose for me. He knew I would come back eventually too. It’s a message for me. He knows I’ll understand it. That he’s alive.”
Jake and I wait over by a wall while Tim pays for a rental car. The airport is still crazily busy. I’ve got my overnight bag on the floor between my feet, Jake has his slung on his back. In front of us are guys in suits, guys in shorts and sandals, guys with families in tow all lining up to sign forms, hand over their plastic and get a shiny set of keys.
“Why don’t we just fly back to LA?” I ask as we catch up with Tim who is following the signs to the carpark.
“Not a good idea,” he replies.
“There must still be flights back tonight. It’s not that late.”
He doesn’t answer.
“Who’s going to look after Mutt?”
“We have neighbours you know?”
Again he doesn’t answer, just lugs his bag over his shoulder and walks faster towards the exit.
Outside the air is hot and dry – sandblasted. Tim is fiddling with his phone again but this time he gets through to whoever it is he has been trying to reach. He starts talking quickly then shuts up, stops walking and listens. Jake and I come to a halt behind him, exchanging glances.
There’s no shade out here and I’m an instant sweat ball. I wish Tim would hurry up so we can get in the air conditioning of the car but the call goes on for at least a minute then without another word from Tim it ends. He’s put down his bag, is sliding the back off the phone, taking the chip out then casually lets it drop to the ground and then steps on it and starts walking again with his bag, looking for the rental car again, as if nothing has happened.
Jake and I start following but our eyes are on the phone chip on the pavement. It’s in pieces.
Tim walks up and down the queues of cars pressing the button on the key ring as he searches the numbers of the parking bays. His face is unreadable. A black Chrysler sedan lights up and Tim opens the boot and we stuff luggage in, no more questions.
“Jake, ride up front with me. It’ll look odd if you’re both sitting in the back.”
We get in as we’re told.
As we pull seatbelts on, Tim tosses the phone to Jake and a packet with what looks like a new phone chip in it.
“Put it in could you?” his asks.
“I thought with a burner phone you had to smash the whole thing,” Jake says as he opens the packet.
“That’s just what they do in the movies. Looks better. Don’t have to do it in real life. Just the chip.”
Tim swings the steering wheel and we leave the rental carpark, following the signs out to the freeway or motorway or whatever it is. About half an hour later we’re trolling motels, or at least that’s what I think we’re doing.
“Pick one,” Tim says, looking at me in the rear view mirror.
“A motel? Why me?” I ask back
“Because you’ll do it at random.”
“Okay,” not that I get what he’s talking about. “How about that one?” The motel is advertising out the front TV channels, spas and a swimming pool and it doesn’t look quite as seedy as some of the others.
Tim parks and takes the phone off Jake, dialling a number from memory as he gets out of the car, shuts the door behind him. We wait in the car.
“He’s not getting through to who he wants to,” Jake says watching.
Tim has given up on the call, puts the phone in his jeans pocket and goes into the motel office. We wait in the car which is slowly warming up now the air con is off.
“Hope he’s not going be too long,” I say.
“What do you think’s going on?” Jake asks.
“What do you mean?”
“The phone, not going back to LA. Did you see our boarding passes on the plane, the tickets?”
“Nor did I. I beginning to think there was a reason he didn’t give them to us. Maybe they didn’t have our names on them.”
“What, our real names or our American names/”
“Does it matter?”
“You think Tim has kidnapped us and no one knows we’re here?”
Jake turns around in the front seat enough to shake his head at me.
“I think he doesn’t want anyone to know we’re here for a reason. There’s something going on.
Something that started this morning and that’s why he was suddenly so keen for us to head out here, get away from California. Because first thing he wasn’t so excited about the whole idea of going to see where the Project used to be and then suddenly he was back from the office and we were heading to the airport. Something happened.”
I nod, because I think he might be right and that’s all I have time to do because Tim’s getting back into the car.
He starts it up and drives around the back of the motel units and parks outside one. We all get out. The car can’t be seen from the street. Behind us a high concrete wall. No prying eyes here. Maybe I picked a good one.
Inside it’s brown, brown and more brown – the universal colour of motels. That and pink. At least it’s not pink. I immediately go for the air conditioning remote and start it going.
“You guys take the double bed, I’ll take the sofa in here,” Tim says, dumping his bag on the floor.
The double bed is, well a double bed in a room with one window, a small wardrobe, and a badly done painting of a (brown) desert above the bed. Jake and I chuck our bags by the bed and look at each other.
“When you’re ready we need to figure some things out,” Tim calls from the other room.
So we’re not investigating the eighty TV channels on offer or the swimming pool. Jake and I troop back in to the living room and Tim hands us cans of drink from the fridge. I rub the ice-cold metal against my cheek. At least part of me feels good. A small part. I edge next to Jake on the sofa, Tim is sitting in a kitchen chair facing us looking way more serious than I think I have ever seen him. Jake pulls the tab off his can and the noise is the only thing happening.
Jake breaks the silence again.
“So, you going to tell us what’s going on?” he asks Tim. We look at him expectantly.
“I think your situation is more pressing at the moment, mine can wait.”
“Rose bushes that shouldn’t be there, people who should be dead who are alive, people who know things
“It’s not really that big of a deal,” I say.
Tim ignores my comment and opens his can of drink.
“Okay, let’s take it from the start,” he says. “The only person who could have planted that rose bush as a message is the Guardian and the only person who would understand the message is you, Nicky?”
“You’re totally sure?”
“So it means the Guardian is alive but it also means he thinks you’re alive, otherwise why would he have left the message?”
“He wouldn’t have left it for someone he thought was dead,” Jake says slowly.
“Correct. So does that mean he thinks you are the only traveller to have survived?”
“You mean, if he thought Jake could be alive would he have left a message for him too?”
“Is it possible?” Tim asks, looking at us both.
“Like a basketball hoop or something?” Jake asks, looking doubtful.
“Why would he leave a message for Jake?”
“Good point but then we haven’t actually figured out the message to you yet.”
“Yes we have. The Guardian’s alive and he’s looking for me. He wants me back. He wants to start the Project again and he needs me.”
“Maybe it’s not.”
I stare at Tim.
“Maybe it’s I’m alive and if you are alive, which I think you are, take care.”
“What?” Jake says.
“Just think about it. Think how long it’s been and the Guardian has not found you, not tried to contact you, there’s been nothing. If he wanted you back he would have done something by now.”
“He doesn’t know where I am.”
“But it would be easy for him to find out, knowing you, knowing what you can do. He was in LA when we met, he knew we talked.”
“Okay then, why hasn’t he found her. If he could figure out where she is, why did he leave a rose bush in the middle of a desert for her when he could have just rung her up?”
“Good point. Maybe it’s because he didn’t want to be found himself.”
“Be careful. You think that’s the message. Be careful.”
“Could be. Is that what he would say? I don’t know him. I only met him briefly. You two were the ones who knew him.”
“Be careful. Be careful not to be found out?”
“So how does Dylan fit into this?” Jake changes the subject.
“Maybe the Guardian taught him.”
“Maybe that’s why he was in LA. The Guardian knew we were there and he sent him.”
“Better reason than robbing a bank.”
“So really we need to talk to Dylan.”
“The chances of that aren’t good though, not here in Arizona,” Tim points out.
“So why are we in Arizona?”
“I’m hungry,’ Tim says getting up. “Let’s get something to eat. I wonder what the pizza is like here.”
Jake must be hungry too because he doesn’t protest. I do think of demanding to have Hawaiian pizza unless Tim tells us what is going on but then decide it would be a pretty feeble standoff. Tim’s always done the need to know stuff. He’ll tell us when we need to know and obviously it’s not yet. I just hope he wasn’t covering when he said the neighbour would feed Mutt. Maybe if the mysterious neighbour who’s best mates with Tim doesn’t exist Joanna will go around and feed the slobber hound.
And the pizza is good. Not so much cheese, more peppers or whatever those green things are. Could almost be marginally healthy. The place is a bit of a dive though. Crappy tables that wobbly, uncomfortable metal chairs, no pictures on the walls. Nothing. And uncomfortable conversation. As in none. We eat the pizza. We get up and we leave.
Back at the motel, Tim searches through the eighty channels and settles on football, or gridiron or whatever it’s called here. It’s a game I don’t get (someone chucks the ball to a team mate who runs across a line while everyone else finds someone in the opposite team to crash into – really?) so after sitting there trying to watch it, and since it’s still warm and I just happened to pack a bathing suit in my overnight bag, Jake and I check out the pool.
It’s open air which is nice and there are stars out which is even nicer but it smells like it’s got enough chemical in the water to bleach my hair. But it’s about twenty metres long so I slip in, do a couple of lazy strokes, turn onto my back and watch what Jake is doing.
He’s watching me.
“Just like it used to be. Me watching you swim,” he says. He gives me a half smile.
I remember. The Project had let me swim in the town’s pool. Jake had come and watched me swim. He became almost my coach, my mentor, the guy who yelled at me from the side of the pool to go faster. Well, he didn’t yell that much but he was there, he was always there and that’s what mattered.
“How is swimming going in New Zealand?” he asks.
“Really well, until I stuffed up my ankle. My coach was talking Olympics. I don’t know now. Will depend on how I go when I get back.” I duck dive under the water, come up wiping my hair off my face.
“Is that a good idea? The Olympics?”
“That I could be seen, someone would figure out who I am? I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Tim about it. It’s still a long way off. Might never happen.”
“I’d like to be there. I’d like to watch you swim in the Olympics.”
“You better be there. Where do you think you were going?”
I duck under the water then reach up into a freestyle stroke. At the end of the pool I do a flip turn and then crank up the power until the other end which is woefully close. It doesn’t matter though. My ankle feels good. That’s all that matters. When I get home I’ll be back in the pool with Sharon my swim coach screaming at me and I’ll be loving it. But Jake won’t be there watching.