She paused and took the time to meet a few gazes. “I promise you don’t want to go out there. And I promise that we’re the good guys. I don’t know what the Right Arm has planned, but I do know that part of it includes getting all of us out of Denver.”
“Then why are you treating us like prisoners?” someone yelled.
“I’m just doing what I was hired to do.” She turned her attention back to Thomas and continued. “I think it’s a stupid idea to leave this place, but like I said, if you’re going to, you can’t take more than a couple of people. Those Cranks spot a big group of fresh meat walking around and it’s all over. Weapons or no weapons. And the boss might not like it if a crowd shows up—our guards see a van full of strangers and they might start shooting.”
“Brenda and I will go,” Thomas said. He didn’t even know he was going to say it until it popped out of his mouth.
“No way,” Minho shook his head. “Me and you.”
Minho was a liability. His temper was too short. Brenda thought before she acted, and that was what they needed to get out of this alive. And Thomas didn’t want to let her out of his sight—plain and simple. “Me and her. We did pretty well for ourselves back in the Scorch. We can do it.”
“No way, man!” Thomas could swear his friend almost looked hurt. “We shouldn’t split up. All four of us should go—it’ll be safer.”
“Minho, we need someone back here to watch over things,” Thomas said, and he meant it. This was a whole roomful of people who might be able to help them take WICKED down. “Plus, I hate to say it, but what if something does happen to us? Stay behind and make sure our plans don’t die. They’ve got Frypan, Minho. Who knows who else. You said once that I should be the Keeper of the Runners. Well, let me do it today. Trust me. Like the lady said, the fewer we are, the better our chance of going unnoticed.”
Thomas looked his friend in the eye and waited for a response. Minho didn’t answer for a long time.
“Fine,” he finally said. “But if you die I will not be happy.”
Thomas nodded. “Good that.” He hadn’t realized how important it was that Minho still believe in him. It went halfway to giving him the courage he needed to do what he had to do.
The man who’d said they could take Thomas and his friends to the boss ended up being the one to guide them. His name was Lawrence, and regardless of what was outside, he seemed eager to get out of the room full of angry people. He unlocked the big door and gestured for Thomas and Brenda to follow him—Thomas with the pistol and Brenda with the Launcher.
The group made their way back down the long hallway and Lawrence stopped at the door leading out of the building. The dull light from the ceiling shone on the man’s face, and Thomas could see that he was worried.
“Okay, we have to make a decision. If we go on foot, it’ll take a couple of hours, but we have a lot better chance of getting through the streets. We can hide on foot easier than if we take the van. The van would get us there faster, but we’d be spotted for sure.”
“Speed versus stealth,” Thomas said. He looked at Brenda. “What do you think?”
“The van,” she said.
“Yeah,” Thomas agreed. The image of the bloody-faced Crank from the day before haunted him. “The thought of being out there on foot scares me to death. The van, definitely.”
Lawrence nodded. “Okay, then, the van it is. Now keep your mouths shut and those weapons ready. First thing we gotta do is get in the vehicle and lock the doors. It’s right outside this door. Ready?”
Thomas raised his eyebrows at Brenda and they both nodded. As ready as they’d ever be.
Lawrence pulled a stack of key cards out of his pocket and unlocked the many latches lined up on the wall. He clenched the cards in his fist and pushed his body up against the door, then slowly cracked it open. It was dark outside, a lone streetlamp providing the only light. Thomas wondered how long the electricity would hold up before it stopped, like everything else eventually would. Denver could be dead in days.
He could see the van parked in a narrow alley about twenty feet away. Lawrence peeked his head outside, looked left and right, then pulled it back in.
“Seems clear. Let’s go.”
The three slipped out, and Thomas and Brenda sprinted to the van as Lawrence secured the door behind them. Thomas felt like a live wire. Anxiety had him glancing up and down the street, sure he’d see a Crank jump out at any second. But though he could hear the far-off sound of crazed laughter, the place was deserted.
The van’s locks disengaged and Brenda opened the door and slid inside just as Lawrence did. Thomas joined them in the front seat and slammed the door shut. Lawrence immediately engaged the locks and started the engine. He was just about to gun it when a loud pop came from right above their heads and the van shook with a couple of thumps. Then silence. Then the muted sound of a cough.
Someone had jumped onto the roof of the van.
The van shot forward, Lawrence’s hands gripped tightly on the wheel. Thomas turned and looked out the back windows—but there was nothing. Somehow, the person on top of the van was hanging on.
Just as Thomas spun back around, a face started creeping down the front windshield, staring at them upside down. It was a woman, her hair whipping in the wind as Lawrence sent the van tearing down the alleyway at breakneck speed. The woman’s eyes met Thomas’s, and then she smiled, showing a set of surprisingly perfect teeth.
“What’s she holding on to?” Thomas yelled.
Lawrence answered, his voice strained. “Who knows. But she can’t last long.”
The woman’s eyes stayed locked on Thomas, but she had freed one of her hands and balled it into a fist, then started pounding the window. Thump, thump, thump. Her smile stayed wide, her teeth almost glistening in the lamplight.
“Would you please get rid of her?” Brenda shouted.
“Fine.” Lawrence slammed on the brakes.
The woman flew into the air, shooting forward like a launched grenade, her arms windmilling and her legs splayed, until she crashed to the ground. Thomas winced and squeezed his eyes shut, then strained to get a look at her. Shockingly, she was already moving, shakily getting to her feet. She regained her balance, then turned slowly toward them, the headlights from the van brightly illuminating every inch of her.
She was no longer smiling, not at all. Instead her lips had curled into a fierce snarl; a big welt reddened the side of her face. Her eyes bore into Thomas once more, and he shivered.
Lawrence gunned the engine, and the Crank looked like she was going to hurl herself in front of the vehicle, as if she could somehow stop it, but at the last second she pulled back and watched them pass. Thomas couldn’t take his eyes off her, and in his last glimpse, her face melted into a frown and her eyes cleared, as if she’d just realized what she’d done. As if there was something left of the person she used to be.
And seeing that made it worse for Thomas. “She was like a mix of sane and not sane.”
“Just be glad she was the only one,” Lawrence muttered.
Brenda squeezed Thomas’s arm. “It’s hard to look at. I know how it felt for you and Minho to see what’d happened to Newt.”
Thomas didn’t answer, but he put his hand on top of hers.
They reached the end of the alley, and Lawrence swerved to the right onto a bigger street. Small groups of people dotted the area up ahead. A few were struggling as if they were fighting, but most were digging through trash or eating things Thomas couldn’t quite make out. Several haunted, ghostly faces just stood and stared at them with dead eyes as they drove by.
No one in the van said anything, as if they were afraid that speaking would somehow alert the Cranks outside.
“I can’t believe it happened so fast,” Brenda finally said. “You think they were somehow planning to take over Denver? Could they really organize something like that?”
“Hard to know,” Lawrence replied. “There were signs. Locals disappearing, reps from the government disappearing, more and more infecteds being discovered. But it looks like a huge number of them suckers hid out, waiting for the right time to make their move.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said. “It seems like it was a matter of Cranks finally outnumbering healthy people. Once the balance tipped, it tipped all the way over.”
“Who cares how it happened,” Lawrence said. “The only thing that matters is how it is. Look around us. The place is a nightmare now.” He slowed down to make a tight turn into a long alley. “Almost there. We need to be more careful now.” He turned off the headlights, then picked up speed again.
As they drove, it became darker and darker, until Thomas couldn’t see anything more than large, formless shadows that he kept imagining would suddenly leap out in front of them. “Maybe you shouldn’t drive so fast.”
“We’ll be fine,” the man replied. “I’ve driven this route a thousand times. I know it like the back of my—”
Thomas flew forward and was snapped back by the seat belt. They’d run over something, and it was caught beneath the van—metal, from the sound of it. The van bounced a couple of times, then came to a stop.
“What was that?” Brenda whispered.
“I don’t know,” Lawrence responded in an even quieter voice. “Probably a trash can or something. Scared the crap out of me.”
He inched forward and a loud, scraping screech filled the air. Then came a thump and another crash and everything fell silent.
“Got her loose,” Lawrence murmured, not bothering to hide his relief. He continued, but slowed to a fraction of his earlier speed.
“Maybe you should turn the lights back on?” Thomas suggested, amazed at how fast his heart was beating. “I can’t see a thing out there.”
“Yeah,” Brenda added. “I’m pretty sure anyone out there heard that racket anyway.”
“I guess so.” Lawrence turned them on.
The headlights illuminated the entire alley in a spray of bluish-white light that, compared to the previous darkness, seemed brighter than the sun. Thomas squinted at the glare, then opened his eyes fully and a bloom of horror rose up in him. About twenty feet in front of them, at least thirty people had emerged and now stood packed together, completely blocking the road.
Their faces were pale and haggard, scratched and bruised. Ripped, filthy clothes hung from their bodies. They stood there, every one of them looking into the bright lights as if they weren’t fazed in the least. They were like standing corpses, raised from the dead.
Thomas shivered from the chill that iced his body.
The crowd started to part. They moved in sync, and a large space cleared in the middle as they backed to the sides of the alley. Then one of them waved an arm, gesturing that the van should go ahead and drive past.
“These are some awfully polite Cranks,” Lawrence whispered.
“Maybe they’re not past the Gone yet?” Thomas answered, even though the statement sounded stupid even to him. “Or not in the mood to get run over by a big van?”