“Here,” Cole said, passing me a pen. “Mark them for us.”
Gates muttered something under his breath and I turned toward him, crossing my arms over my chest, meeting his gaze dead-on. He looked away immediately, playing it off as he wiped his mouth and nose against his sleeve. That flicker of fear I saw in his expression was better for my confidence than the steadying hand that Cole dropped on my head as he leaned over my shoulder to study the marks I made.
“I’m sure there are more,” I said, “but these were the only ones I saw.”
Cole glanced around the room, silently calculating how many there would be per group if we only had three potential exits. Seventeen kids. Twenty-four agents, down twenty from the group that had come to liberate HQ. Five had died in the initial attack, and the rest had deserted. Eight groups of five or so. It was doable.
“It’ll have to be quick and timed exactly right,” Sen said. “It could be hundreds of miles before we reach an area the EMP didn’t affect. All on foot.”
“They had it marked on the map I saw,” I said, uncapping the pen again and sketching out the area for them. Beverly Hills to the west, Monterey Park to the east, Glendale to the north, and Compton to the south. All in all, not a huge area. At least, much smaller than I’d expected.
“We’ll assign teams tonight and head out in a few hours—three or four A.M.?”
“We need to talk our strategy through,” Gates protested. “Gather supplies.”
“No, what we need is to get the hell out of this city,” Cole said, “as quickly as possible. The others are waiting for us at the Ranch.”
I gripped his wrist, eyes flicking toward the door.
He gave me a slight nod before shifting his focus back onto the room. “Y’all need to hit the sack ASAP, because we’re rolling out in a few hours. Yeah, that’s right, Blair,” he said, turning toward one of the younger Green girls who actually gasped. “That’s what I like to hear. Excitement! We have a change of scenery coming our way.”
“You can’t make a decision like that without the rest of us having a say,” Sen interrupted. “You don’t make the call.”
“You know what?” Cole said. “I think I just did. Anyone got a problem with that?”
The room was silent. The kids shook their heads, but the agents were a gallery of grim, tight expressions. No one spoke up, though.
“What about the people in the detention camps?” Senator Cruz asked, making her way over to us to study the map for herself. “We just leave them to their own fates? I’d rather stay here and—”
“Get yourself caught and put on one of those trials?” Cole cut in. “You said you were in the middle of a big negotiation with world leaders; why would you want to table that discussion when seeing it through will help everyone? Unless you were lying about it?”
“I wasn’t lying,” she shot back, dark eyes flashing. “Those people are my friends and colleagues. We’ve risked our lives trying to right this country.”
“People will know what happened here,” Cole promised. “They won’t be left for long. I’m going to make sure of it, and you’re going to help me.”
The conversation shifted then, moving toward strategy, the right way to break the groups up and which surface-street routes to take up north.
“Everyone good?” Cole asked the clusters of kids, slowly working his way toward the door. His eyes jumped back to me as he continued, “Everyone get enough to eat?”
There was a chorus of Yeah!s. They were lying, of course. I wondered if they thought the truth would disappoint him, or if it would send him back out again. Even if you were to subtract Cole’s ability to charm a cat into giving up its fur coat, he still would have won them over, by virtue of just acting like he cared.
“I still want in on the crazy eights tournament,” he added, pointing at one of the Green boys as he passed. “I’m coming for that crown, Sean. Watch yourself.”
He snorted. “Keep trying, old man. Let’s see if you can keep up.”
Cole mimed like he’d been shot clean through the heart. “A bunch of whippersnappers! I could teach you a thing or two about winning—”
“Or what the rest of us would call cheating,” Liam called over from where he, Chubs, and Vida had posted themselves by the window, talking quietly with Nico and another Green. My eyes darted from their backs to their hands to their feet. Where is it?
“Which is why he always lost,” Cole told the others with a wink.
The agents had migrated to the other side of the room to be closer to the map to, I assume, make their own plans. Whatever Senator Cruz was trying to tell them, they ignored her.
Where’s the backpack? I circled back around the kids who were blocking me, searching the ground—and found it slung over Ferguson’s shoulder. The temperature in my body shot up five degrees. And I knew, just like that, if I wanted the cure’s research in my hands again, I was going to have to force them—I would need to compel each and every one of them to hand it over.
Cole reached the door to the hall and tilted his head. I waited a minute longer before following him. If the agents noticed, they just didn’t care. I’d given them everything they needed to see their plan through, hadn’t I?
The hallway was still a good ten degrees cooler than the room was; once I was outside of the dim glow escaping through the open door, I could barely see a few feet in front of me. I wished for a second that I had grabbed my stolen flashlight, but this seemed like a conversation best suited for shadows. Stripped of everything but its concrete and colorful piping, this building was like a tomb—even the air inside was stale.