Bryn pulled over to the side of the road with a sudden jerk of the wheel, spewing gravel and bringing the truck to a juddering halt. She bent forward and rested her forehead on the steering wheel, gasping for breath, gagging for it. The wheel was gritty on her skin, coated with the sweaty, oily deposits of those who’d driven it before. It stank of strangers, and she thought of her own skin rubbing off, joining this horrible anonymous mixture of castoff. Thought about rolling down that hillside, ripping into the flesh of a man she’d never seen before. Thought of snapping necks and slicing flesh and the joy, the unclean joy of it made her stomach suddenly twist and try to escape.
Patrick’s hand on the back of her head, gentle and steady. His other holding the gallon of water, uncapped and ready. She took it and gulped, gulped, trying to wash the taste of all of that away.
All of her away.
The water tasted like tears.
She sat back, taking deep breaths, and said, “Dr. Reynolds, we need to know where to find the rest of the Fountain Group. Please tell us where they are.”
He turned that terribly dull look to her, and she saw him in there, trapped. Maybe not a good man. Maybe a man who deserved every wretched and awful thing that was going to happen to him. But, like Thorpe, she couldn’t look into his eyes and not see herself . . . not understand that human spirit, however twisted, however flawed. He was staring into eternity, and she knew how that felt.
She knew how it would feel, when she arrived there. It was something every single human, even those like her, would eventually face.
She couldn’t look at eternity and not feel small, and frail, and alone. She had to reach out.
“I’m sorry, Martin,” she said, and took his hand. His fingers were limp and cool against hers. Not damp quite yet. The skin still felt firm. A near-perfect simulation of life. “I’m so very sorry. Please. Please tell us before it’s too late. You know what’s going to happen to you. You know how horrible it is. You don’t want that for your children, too. The Fountain Group—what they’re doing is evil. You know that. Somewhere deep inside, you know. Listen to it.”
“Bryn,” Patrick said, and his warm hand cupped the back of her neck for a moment. “He’s conditioned to respond. You don’t have to convince him.”
“I know,” she whispered. Tears blurred her vision. “I want to convince him.”
Reynolds let his breath out in a slow, rattling breath. It smelled of slow death and sickness. “I don’t know where they all are,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you know where any of them are?”
“Yes,” Reynolds said. And that was the moment when she knew she’d reached him, because even as she started to ask for the necessary clarification the conditioning required . . . he went on. “Most of them are going to be gathering in the Trigon offices in San Francisco in a few days. All the ones that matter will be there. The others—the others are like Thorpe. They don’t agree with the program. They were outvoted.” He swallowed. She heard the wet, thick sound, and she remembered how that felt, dissolving inside. Coming to pieces in slow, dreadful motion. “If you want to stop it, stop them. They can give you everything.”
She nodded. “We will.”
He held her gaze very steadily, and said, “Will you kill me now?”
The awful thing was, some part of her was still eager for it. Still hungry for pain and blood and flesh and screaming.
“Do you want me to?”
“No,” he said. “I’d rather live.”
Still. Even now.
How very . . . human.
“Then we’ll find a way to keep you alive,” she told him, and locked gazes with Patrick on his other side. “Somehow.”
She put the truck in gear and sprayed gravel again merging back into the sparse traffic. It was colder up here, and the skies were gloomier. Thick silver-edged clouds threatened rain, or snow, or worse.
“Bryn?” Patrick said. “San Francisco is the other way.”
“I know,” she said. “But we have to go somewhere else first.”
He didn’t even ask if she was crazy.
The perfect definition of love.
They traded the truck for tickets aboard a sightseeing vessel from Seattle to Anchorage. Reynolds’ deteriorating condition was disguised by use of a wheelchair, oxygen tank, and blanket over his lap. Bryn was surprised to see how many similarly impaired people were traveling by water. . . . It didn’t seem like a great idea for people who, by definition, couldn’t swim worth a damn. Still, Bryn had to admit, the cabin they shared wasn’t bad, and neither was the food—open buffet, and she went back for about five helpings of the rare roast beef, every meal. The ship’s store took care of her clothing and toiletry needs, and by the time they disembarked
in Anchorage, she looked and felt . . . normal. Patrick looked stronger, too. By avoiding the Canadian borders, they hadn’t had to produce passports, which would have been . . . well, impossible. Patrick’s contacts had gotten them past the necessary ID checkpoints for the ship, on and off—but that was all they could promise.
Turned out they didn’t need to worry, because when they docked, sitting at the exit to the ship terminal was a big black limousine, and it had a sign that read DR. REYNOLDS & PARTY.
Bryn looked at Patrick, and then at the driver. He was a tall, good-looking young man with a military buzz cut; his livery uniform fit well.
He turned over the sign. It read COURTESY OF PANSY.
Bryn almost laughed. She steered the wheelchair in that direction, and the driver smiled and opened the back door. “Allow me, ma’am,” he said. He had a pleasant Southern twang, long vowels and musical lifts. He helped her lift Reynolds out of the chair and into the easiest accessible seat. As he straightened, he handed her a slim cell phone. “Miss Pansy would like you to call her when you have a chance.”
Bryn blinked at him, nodded, and pocketed the device. She and Patrick slid in the other side of the limo, and sank into the luxuriously soft leather upholstery. The driver loaded the wheelchair, and they were on the road in under a minute.
“I know I’m going to be stating the obvious when I say this, but . . . what the hell?” Patrick said. “A limousine. Really.”
Bryn shrugged. “It got our attention, didn’t it?” She took the phone out and scrolled through the address book. One number in it. She dialed it as the limo crunched through snow—snow, already—and headed in toward Anchorage proper. The sun was out, glittering on glass and steel and thin patches of snow, turning everything into fairyland.
Until it turned into an ice palace, at least.
“Bryn?” It was Pansy who picked up on the other end. She sounded breathless, but it was definitely her, and the sound of her familiar voice made Bryn suddenly feel shaky inside. “You’re okay?”
“Relatively,” she managed to say, and cleared a throat that was suddenly too tight, stuffed with emotion. “How are you and Manny? Is my sister okay?”
“Yeah, everybody’s fine. We’ve run through just about our entire DVD collection, though. We may be facing a serious rerun problem.”
“Joe and Riley?”
“Yeah . . . They made it to us. We have them locked down in a separate wing, though, because Manny—well. You know. But he’s working on the formula they brought. Pretty scary stuff.”
“How did you know—”
“Hang on. I’ll conference.”
There was a click, and then Joe’s warm baritone said, “Sorry, that was me. We were pretty desperate to keep track of you. I know most of Patrick’s contacts, so I focused on the ones closest to where we lost you guys. That led us to the shoot-out up in Paradise at Dr. Reynolds’ place, and I thought about Walt as a possible place for Patrick to go.”
“You called Walt? And he just . . . told you where we were going?”
“Nope. Never talked to him. But he’s on some federal lists, and there’s an eye in the sky that takes a look at his compound twice a day. We saw—well, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, we saw your body in a ditch. Pansy was pretty upset.”
“Not you? Joe. I’m crushed.”
“I’ve got more faith,” he said. “But yeah. It was unsettling. We tracked the truck from the compound. When it was obvious where you were going, Pansy hired the driver.”
“I’m guessing the driver isn’t just a standard wheelman?”
Patrick was gesturing for the phone. She handed it over. “Hey, Joe. I’m assuming this is a secure line. . . . Yeah, of course. I want you to double-check on your family and move them somewhere double secure. No, nothing specific. It’s just that I know Jane, and we’ve kicked her ass twice in a row now when she expected it to be a walkover—three times, if she runs right into the Walt buzz saw. She’ll go for the throat now, and that means what’s close to us.”
His glance went to her, and she swallowed, suddenly catching his unease. Her sister was safe, and she had assurances from Brick that he was on guard for her mom and other brothers and sisters. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t get hurt. Jane would . . .
Jane would do anything to hurt her. Bryn felt a shiver of dread pass over her like falling silk, and then it was burned off by anger. Then we have to keep her busy, she thought. We have to keep her focused on us, not on our families.
Patrick finished up and handed the phone back. It was Pansy again. “Well, this is just getting cheerier,” Pansy said. “I’m starting to think Manny has the right idea about living in a perpetual state of paranoia. Gotta love a man who sticks to his principles. How are you feeling?”
“Good,” Bryn said. It wasn’t a lie. Physically, she was fine—better than she had been in a while. Mentally . . . well. Better to avoid that topic. “I need to take more cruises.”