Never Fade Page 26

Oh my God. “Cate knows about this, but…she’s still with him? Why would she stay with someone who could even think about something like that?”

“Conner is a smart woman. If she’s with him, it’s for a reason, and probably not the one you think. We’ve both seen how Meadows handles things.”

“Then you know that Jarvin ‘handled’ Blake Howard?” I asked. “The kid he shot in the back on the Op last night?”

“You know that for sure?” he demanded. “You have some kind of proof?”

“Security camera footage,” I said. “It was downloaded before anyone could wipe it remotely from here.”

“Keep it to yourself for now. When you bring the intel back, we’ll take that to Alban, too. Nail Meadows and the others into their coffins.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet.”

“You’re killin’ me, kid,” he said, rolling his eyes again. “You’ll go and find Liam. You’ll bring the intel back. There’s never been any doubt in my mind about it. Because, Gem,” Cole said, smiling when I rolled my eyes at the new nickname, “I know that you don’t want Alban to figure out what really happened and that Liam’s involved, and I know you don’t want to give him any reason to invest in Meadows’s plan. And I’ll make sure Alban does turn his attention to freeing the camps—the right way, the one you suggested in your report. That’s what you’ve been after all this time, right? The reason you put together that whole packet of info for him? I know it wasn’t to give Meadows a way to turn it against you.”

You can find him. Want was overpowering the cooler, quieter, rational part of my brain. You can see him again. You can make sure he gets home this time. And you can help all of those kids. All of them.

“If I agree to this,” I started, “you have to guarantee I won’t be reprimanded when I get back for taking this little joyride. And you have to swear on the terms, because if you go back on your word, I will tear every thought out of your head until you’re nothing but a drooling puddle of snot. Got it?”

“Atta girl,” Cole said. “That’s my Gem. I’ll see if I can’t get you on the next Op back east. You’ll have to get creative in how you ditch the Minder they send with you, but I think you’re up for the challenge. Address is 1222 West Bucket Road, Wilmington, North Carolina. Can you remember that? Start there. Lee’s a creature of habit; he’ll try heading home to see if our stepdad left a clue about where they were headed.”

I took a deep breath. My body was completely still, but everything inside me seemed to be galloping—my heart, my thoughts, my nerves.

“You can do this,” Cole said quietly. “I know you can. I’ll have your back the whole way.”

“I don’t need your protection,” I said, “but Jude does.”

“The beanpole? Sure. I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“And Vida and Nico.”

“Your wish is my command.” Cole gave a small little bow as he backed out of the curtain. I closed my eyes, trying to block out the familiar tilt of his smile and the way it made my chest feel like it would explode. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

“Hey,” I said suddenly. If anyone might know, it would be another deep cover agent. “Have you heard of an Op they’re calling Snowfall? An agent called Professor?”

“I think I’ve heard of Snowfall, but only that it was a project they were running in Georgia. Why? Want me to look into it for you?”

I shrugged. “If you have time.”

“I have all the time in the world for you, Gem. Trust me on that.”

I was still standing there when the locker room door slammed shut and the last of the water drained at my feet.

Two long, torturous weeks passed before I found the red folder in my locker. I felt each day tick by, went through the carefully structured routine of training, food, training, food, bed. I kept my head down but my thoughts moving. I was too afraid to look anyone in the face on the off chance that he or she would see the guilt or what I was planning. I almost cried, half in relief, half in panic, when I saw the Op folder balanced on my small stack of books.

The locker room was roaring with speculation around me, one voice bleeding into another. Someone had been brave—or stupid—enough during our lesson for the day to ask Instructor Johnson what they had done with Blake’s body and whether we’d have any kind of service for him. Nico had gone green around the gills, but Johnson had only waved the question off.

Team Two’s Leader, a Blue named Erica, was loudly airing her opinion that he was still down in the infirmary being studied, but another, a Green named Jillian, insisted she had seen them take a body bag out through the Tube a few days before.

“They obviously buried him,” she was saying.

I stood by my locker, reading the folder behind the cover of the door. I could hear Vida a few feet away, laughing loudly at something another Blue had suggested. When I turned, I craned my neck around, trying to look into her locker. Good. Nothing but the messy heap of shirts she had shoved in there. She would be here. I could tell Jude and Nico to stay close to her—no one would try anything with her there, not even Jarvin. There was too much sting in that honeybee.

I opened the folder again, letting my eyes skim down each line. Please be East Coast, I thought, please be back east.… I could get to North Carolina so much easier from Connecticut than I could from Texas or northern California.

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