Never Fade Page 117

His eyes were still shut and stayed that way, even as I saw him struggle to swallow. There was nothing to say now. Our linked hands rose as he guided them to rest against his chest, and they stayed there, through the song, the mountains, the cities. Until the end.

Pueblo—HOME OF HEROES! or STEEL CITY OF THE WEST, depending on which sign you believed—was close to abandoned, but not quite empty enough to ease my mind as we drove past a line of flickering streetlights and empty car dealerships. It looked like much of what we’d seen so far, with mountains circling from all sides, rising up from otherwise flat, dry landscape. I had always pictured the state to be one giant mountain, I guess, covered in a thick skin of snow-dusted evergreens and ski slopes. There was snow, all right, capping the distant Rockies, but here in the daylight, there were no trees to provide cover, no blooming flowers to lend some beauty. Life in a place like this felt unnatural.

Vida parked the SUV across the street from the address “Cate” had sent us, letting the car roll to an anticlimactic stop.

“Are you sure this is right?” Chubs asked, glancing down at the tablet again. He had a point. Meeting at a deserted Dairy Queen did seem strange—it seemed in line with what I had seen of Cole’s sense of humor, I guess, but the randomness of it all made me doubt myself.

“I don’t see anyone in there,” Chubs said for the tenth time. “I don’t know…maybe we should circle around it again?”

“Grannie, chill—you’re giving me an ulcer,” Vida said, shifting the car into park. “She’s probably waiting in one of those cars.”

“Yeah,” Liam said, “but which one?”

Most were smaller sedans in a variety of colors and shapes. The one thing they had in common, aside from the beating their paint had taken from the sun, was that every inch of them seemed to be coated with dust. The roofs, the windows, the hoods. The only exception was a white SUV—the wheels and lower half of the car were caked with grime, but the rest of it was otherwise clean. It hadn’t been there long.

“She said to meet her inside,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt. “We’ll start there.”

“Wait,” Chubs began, a note of panic underlying his tone. “Can’t we just…wait a few more minutes?”

“We can’t keep her waiting,” Jude said. “She’s probably worried sick.”

I met Vida’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “Why don’t you stay here and pack a bag of supplies,” I suggested, keeping my voice casual. “Vida and I will get the full picture from her. We’ll see what her plans are and if it’s safe for you guys to travel with us.”

“Okay,” Jude said, “I’ll meet you in there in a second!”

“Take your time,” I said, stepping over his long legs. “Think about what we’re going to need.”

“But Cate will probably have everything we need,” he protested. “And anyway, I want to see her. It feels like it’s been forever.”

Vida took her cue from me and unbuckled her seat belt.

I shut the door behind me, careful not to look at Liam’s face as I walked around the back of the car to meet Vida. There was a faint click as she checked the magazine of the gun in her hand.

“We don’t go inside unless we confirm we’re not going to walk into a wall of guns, capisce? In and out only long enough for you to do brain voodoo and see if the others are all right,” she said. “How long until Judith gets whiny and impatient and comes after us?”

“Ten minutes, max.” Maybe twelve if Liam distracted him.

We kept to the street’s shadows, weaving in and out of the cars. I hadn’t felt nervous until that very moment, when I thought I caught a flicker of light and movement in one of the restaurant’s windows. But Vida was gripping my arm, dragging me around the enormous garbage Dumpsters and their rotting, forgotten innards. The back door was propped open with a small rock. Vida wasted only one second to look at me, then ducked into the Dairy Queen’s dark kitchen. The door slipped shut behind us, and I turned the lock as quietly as I could.

Vida’s reflection flashed in the stainless steel refrigerator on the other side of the room, and I turned to see her crouching, moving along the silver fryers and empty shelves. I met her at the door leading out to the service counter and dining room.

Switching the safety off my gun, I ducked low, moving along the front counter and the empty spaces where the ice-cream machines should have been. No—despite the lights, the faintly sweet smell still clinging to the air, this wasn’t an operating restaurant.

And the only soul alive in that dining room aside from us wasn’t Cate.

He was sitting in the one white plastic booth not in the line of sight of the large glass windows, idly flipping through an old ratty paperback of a book called The Collected Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. He wore khakis, and a gray sweater over a white button-down shirt with the sleeves of both neatly rolled up. The dark hair was slightly longer than I remembered; it fell into his eyes every time he leaned forward to turn the page. And still, the strangest part of this picture of Clancy Gray wasn’t the fact that he was here, in the desert, in a Dairy Queen under a faded sign advertising some kind of new waffle cone—it was the fact he was relaxed enough he had propped his feet up on the other side of the booth.

He knew I was there—he must have—but Clancy didn’t move as I came up behind him and pressed the barrel to the back of his head.

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