She ate four handfuls of it, then forced herself to stop. Riley took an extra. There wasn’t much left in the tube.
Bryn wiped her mouth and sat back, and caught Joe staring at them. The expression on his face wiped out to impartiality, but there was no doubt that he’d found what he’d just seen disturbing, at the very least.
“Sorry,” she said, and swallowed the taste of iron and meat. “Better to go in full strength.”
“Copy that,” he said, and put the truck in gear without another word.
The elation the meat brought with it was unsettling. Despite that, Bryn felt sad and disoriented, and realized that it wasn’t so much for herself—she’d given up hope that she’d come out of this in any way normal—but for the world around her that had no idea it was on the verge of change. Because change it would; it wouldn’t have a choice. Whatever happened, even if they miraculously stopped the Fountain Group dead in its tracks, word about Returné would begin to creep out. People would seek it out of desperation and pain and anguish. And someone, somewhere would meet that need.
It would turn clinging to life into a drug-addicted plague.
She blinked as Joe steered the truck to a stop, and looked around. “We’re here,” he said, and nodded ahead. “See that building? That’s the address. Call me crazy, but it doesn’t exactly look like the high-dollar establishment I was expecting from these guys.”
It was a clinic. A free clinic, one of those charity operations that served the down and out and disenfranchised. Bryn felt a sudden sweep of chill, as she thought about the sick, old people who’d been used so cruelly at their supposedly safe memory care unit by the Fountain Group. “They like to pick off the weak,” she said. “Use them. This is a place they might find attractive.”
“Or maybe it’s a person we’re looking for,” Riley said, leaning forward. “Call Pansy.”
Bryn dialed the burner phone, and it rang three times before Pansy picked up, sounding breathless. “If you’re calling to offer me low rates on my credit card, it’s not a good time,” she said.
“It’s me,” Bryn said. “Everything all right?”
“That all depends on your definitions,” Pansy said. “Manny’s come out of his bunker, so that’s good. Your sister is bored out of her skull, which is bad. Liam is making amazing meals out of our food stores, and did you know he could cook? I think we might keep him. Oh, and we’re completely surrounded, and Jane’s people are trying to dig us out.”
Bryn took in a sharp breath and looked at Joe. “Are you going to be all right?”
“Sure. Nothing we can’t handle,” Pansy said. “Not if you can do your job and get this thing resolved within the next week, anyway. That’s about how long it’ll take them to break in, we think. What do you need?”
“We’ve reached the address you sent us to. What are we looking for?”
“All I was able to get was a last name: Ziegler. He, or she, was specifically named in Fountain Group comm that we decrypted. But I don’t know what role this person plays, only that he seems highly involved.” There was a shout on Pansy’s end of the phone, and her sunny tone grew brisk. “Okay, Manny’s calling, gotta run. Good luck, Bryn.”
“You too,” she said, but Pansy was already gone. Bryn shook her head, folded the phone, and relayed the information to her two remaining allies.
“Well,” Riley said, “I’m the logical choice to go collect intel. My new look fits in.”
She was right; the punk esthetic she’d put on would probably blend better than either Joe or Bryn could. “Keep your phone on,” Joe said. “We’ll be fifteen seconds away.”
Riley nodded, concealed the handgun under her shirt at the back of her pants, and bailed out of the van. She walked the short block, hands in the pockets of her jacket and head down, with slow, wandering steps.
If Bryn hadn’t known who she was, she’d have missed her altogether. “She’s good,” she said.
“By the time she reaches the door, she’ll already have a backstory worked out for her character, and she’ll have some specific medical problem that fits in with what they normally see.”
“But she won’t be sick.”
“Doesn’t matter. A lot of people coming into these places aren’t, they just want drugs. It’s pretty much foolproof,” Joe said. Just then, Bryn’s phone rang, and she put it on the console between them and pressed the speaker button. “Riley, you’re on, we’re here.”
Riley must have been holding the phone to ear while standing at some sort of reception desk, because she said, “Hold on,” and then, “Yeah, I need to see a doc. My back hurts real bad.”
The receptionist sounded muffled and world-weary, but clear enough. “Fill in these forms here. Have you been before?”
“Yeah, I saw Doc—um, Ziegler, maybe?”
“Dr. Ziegler’s here,” the receptionist said. “Take a seat. We’ll call you.”
Riley’s clothes rustled, and then she said in a low voice, “I’m on the list. Will redial when they call me back.”
“Riley, no, don’t hang up—” But it was too late, and Bryn was talking to a dial tone. “Dammit.”
“She’s trying to save on battery power,” Joe said. “It’s a clinic. Could be an hour before she sees anybody but homeless dudes and crying kids.”
“It could be seconds before they drag her off, if Ziegler was a hot name,” Bryn said. “Right?”
“Not arguing that, but we have to let this play out. It ain’t Riley’s first prom.”
“Maybe not, but this is the Fountain Group, and they’re not playing, Joe.”
He thought about it for a second, then sighed and nodded. “Okay, you win. Check that first aid kit there for bandages.”
“Uh—okay?” She opened the kit built into the wheel well and pulled out a roll of gauze. “This?”
“Yep, that’ll do. Spool some off and get ready.”
“This,” he said, and pulled out his combat knife from a wrist sheath. Before she could ask what he was about to do, he sliced a cut in his forehead, above the eyebrow. It was about half an inch long, but the blood immediately sheeted out down his face in a shiny red stream, pooling around his eyes, snaking down his chin and pattering in thick drops on his shirt. It kept coming, a steady red rain, and she was mesmerized by it. Glad I ate, she thought, because the smell of the blood tantalized.
“Old fighter trick,” he said. “You can give me the gauze now.”
She blinked, flinched, and handed it over with guilty haste. He pressed it to his forehead and said, “How do I look?”
“Gruesome,” she said.
“Excellent. I’m just going to lurk. This cut’ll seal itself in about thirty minutes; all I need is a couple of butterfly bandages and a cleanup, but it gives me an excuse to sit and watch Riley.”
“Be careful,” she said.
“My phone will be on,” he said. “You hear me say the word wife, get your ass in there, because something will be on fire. Probably me.”
She nodded, and then Joe got out and walked toward the clinic. Like Riley, he did a good job of selling his distress, but instead of looking like someone in need of a fix, he walked fast, a little unsteadily, like a man urgently in need of help.
Her phone rang when he was still outside the door, and when she put it on speaker he said, “Going in, radio silence.”
She listened as he did the same exchange with the receptionist, who sounded just as disinterested with a bloody man as she did with drug-seekers, though at least she asked him a few more triage questions. He sold it just enough to need to see a doctor but not enough to be rushed through to the front of the line, and Bryn heard him settle into a chair. “In place,” he said in a low voice. “Riley’s secure. . . . Wait one.”
In the distance, Bryn heard a voice calling a name she didn’t recognize, but Joe muttered, “She’s going back. Hang on. Stepping it up.”
He must have stood up, because she heard him say, in a louder voice, “Hey, can I get some help here? I feel kinda—”
And then there was a loud, concussive thud, as if he’d keeled over and hit the floor.
Bryn resisted the urge to speak, but she quickly armed herself with a handgun and extra ammo, and got out of the vehicle. She took the keys with her, and locked it, since there were weapons inside she didn’t want to see walking away in the hands of scavengers. Then she faded into the shadows of a doorway, well out of range of the fading daylight, and watched the clinic’s brightly lit entrance.
She heard sounds and mumbling that signaled Joe being escorted to the treatment area, she guessed; within about thirty seconds he was professing that he was fine, and they must have left him alone because he muttered, “In the back. Riley’s got a bed across from me, but she’s curtained off. Will try to get a look.”
“Careful,” she whispered back, but she wasn’t sure he could hear her, and it was superfluous advice, anyway. He rose, and she heard the scrape of curtain rings as he exited his treatment area, then another similar sound as he entered Riley’s.
And then he said, in a slurred, confused voice, “Wait’ll I tell my wife about this!”
She gasped in a breath and burst from cover, crossing the thirty feet to the clinic in seconds. The swinging door slammed open under the force of her outstretched arm, and she vaulted over the reception desk feet first, sending the openmouthed lady sitting there over backward in her rolling chair.
Bryn didn’t stop for more than an instant to get her bearings, and didn’t need to, because she could hear the sounds of things falling and breaking from her left. She charged that way, just in time to catch Joe as he staggered backward down the hall. His head wound was still bleeding, but he was now also sliced down the arm, and it looked deep. She steadied him and pushed him behind her, and took in what was in front of her.