Never Fade Page 64

“Where did you find them?” He crouched down at the edge of the platform to peer at my face. His eyes were green, for the most part—a large blotch of brown covered the upper half of his right eye.

“Up by the creek,” Michael answered.

“You,” the leader said, turning to one of the girls on the stage, “give him that blanket before he freezes. This guy is a king tonight. Look at the haul he brought in.”

The girl didn’t seem to understand why or how he could ask her to do something like that. She stared, dumb and mute at his back, until one of the boys grabbed a fistful of her short chestnut hair and shoved her forward to the edge of the raised platform. Underneath the warm brown wool sheet, she was wearing a stained yellow T-shirt and a pair of someone’s old boxers. No shoes, no socks.

Michael ripped the blanket from her fingers, clucking his tongue at her resistance. One of the other kids, a small boy, gave him the water bottle he had been holding, watching with hooded eyes as the bigger kid polished off the rest of it before tossing the crushed bottle back to him. Then, he fell into place at the leader’s right. How it was even possible for someone to look so smug and proud cocooned in a blanket with dried blood all over his face was beyond me.

The leader tossed his cigarette onto the ground at our feet, one end still glowing a pulsing red. I kept my eyes at the sliver of exposed skin above the collar of the PSF jacket.

An unworn jacket. I had worked on enough of them in the Factory to recognize one at first glance. There were no patches, not even the standard American flag. Unless he had ripped all of the stitching out, which was unlikely given that the material wasn’t frayed, he had probably plucked the jacket out of a shipment, rather than off a soldier.

He broke his gaze long enough to glance at Michael. A tight shark’s smile stretched across his lips.

“He did that?” A nod toward Chubs.

The other teen used his new blanket to wipe at the crusted blood covering his top lip. He opened his mouth, but then clearly thought better about admitting a girl half his size had given his face an adjustment.

The first let out a low laugh as he turned back to me. “Elbow, fist, or foot?”

“Elbow,” I said. “I’m happy to perform a demonstration on you if you need one.”

The muttering was back, a few wolfish chuckles rising around me. I set my jaw to keep from saying something else equally stupid. Curb it, I told myself. Feel him out.

“A fighter?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “What’s your color, baby?”

I didn’t realize Chubs had moved at all until he was standing beside me. “She’s Green. I’m Blue. And you are?”

“They call me Knox,” he said. “The name Slip Kid mean anything to you?”

“If you’re the Slip Kid,” Chubs said, “I am the goddamn Easter Bunny. This is supposed to be East River?”

Knox stood suddenly at that, his amused smile tightening into a much harsher one. “Not what you thought it’d be?”

“We caught them the same place we grabbed the other two, just off the highway,” Michael supplied oh-so-helpfully. “That girl was a Blue, too. We could have an initiation tonight—”

Knox silenced him with a look. Overhead, the snow had apparently warmed to rain. It slanted down over the metal roof, the only sound aside from the eager whisperings of the kids crowding in around us.

“What do you know about East River?” he demanded.

“Well, to begin with—” Chubs began, crossing his arms over his chest.

“We heard it was in Virginia.” I cut him off. “We were heading that way when your friends picked us up.”

Here was the thing—this smug kid, whoever he was, wherever he had come from, was clearly not the real Slip Kid. We knew that. Knox knew that. But if he knew that we knew, I didn’t doubt for a second that Knox would dispose of us before we could let everyone else in on the secret, too. The name was legendary; anyone who could gather this many kids, set up this kind of shop—why wouldn’t they believe he was the Slip Kid?

“This is some operation you have,” I continued, straining my neck to look behind me. No Jude. No Vida. But this was clearly the tribe of Blues Cate had tried to warn us about. “A nice little place. Is this everyone?”

Knox snorted, motioning to one of the younger teens next to him. The boy, twelve or maybe thirteen, went fire-red at the attention. Knox muttered something in his ear and the boy nodded once, then took a running leap off the platform. The last I saw of him was the back of his navy jacket, stained with soot, disappearing out one of the side doors.

“I’m Ruby,” I said, then thrust a thumb toward Chubs. “This is Charles. Like I said, we’re just making our way through, heading east.”

Knox returned to his seat and, without any sort of prompt, the same girl as before scurried back to him, handing him the bowl of food. Soup, judging by the splatters that hit his jacket. I didn’t miss the way the teens around him seemed to lean in, watching as the broth vanished spoonful by spoonful.

Do not look at Chubs, I ordered myself. I wouldn’t have been able to hold back. The girl, in her threadbare outfit, was skin hanging off birdlike bones.

Knox waved Michael forward, and he and another teen dumped our backpacks on the platform. Two other girls, younger than the first, sprang to action. Piece by piece, they disassembled the packs of supplies we had so carefully stowed. Good-bye, food bars; good-bye, first-aid kits; good-bye, water bottles and blankets and matches…

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