For the first time in days, I smiled.
I want to be that person you see.
Priyanka barreled toward the car, her face glowing with excitement.
“Uh-oh,” Roman said, turning the key in the ignition. But before she reached us, he turned to look at me one last time and said, “I more than like your hair. You look like yourself.”
I knew what he meant.
“What’s up?” I asked Priyanka as she slid into the backseat and slammed the door shut with flourish. She must have gotten a good charge on the extra battery. The power had jumped from a spark to a steady flame.
“Your genius friend has had a genius moment,” she announced. “Remember how, after we tried calling the number creepy Clancy texted and got the invalid-number error message, you told me to leave it alone so you could have time to think about what you wanted to do, et cetera?”
“Priya,” Roman said. “The point?”
She gave him an exasperated look. “I did a quick search on the area code, except the area code isn’t in use.”
“Really?” I asked.
“It’s close to three-three-four, which is an Alabama area code, so I tried that number, and that one had also been disconnected.”
“You think it’s a typo?” I had never known Clancy Gray to get facts incorrect. If this was the number she’d left with him, I had a hard time believing that he hadn’t tried it at least once, if only out of curiosity. He would have known it wasn’t connected before giving it to me. I told the others as much.
“I was thinking about that, too,” Roman said. “If his aim is to protect Ruby, then he might want to see how quickly you’ll follow up for the correct information. How eager you are to track her down. That, or he’s giving everyone who comes looking the same bad information to throw us all off her trail.”
“Or he just didn’t check and was helping out a friend by passing along the information she asked him to,” Priyanka said. “Which is what I’m leaning toward now that I know it’s not a phone number at all, but something else entirely.”
She held up a scrap of newspaper she’d picked up somewhere, pointing out where she’d tried out a few ways of breaking the number up into coordinates. The last one was circled.
“This is the only one that brought up an actual address when I searched it,” she said. “It’s just outside of Athens, Georgia. It looks like a little house.”
“Do you want to go?” Roman asked me.
“It’s a long drive, but if there’s a chance that she’s there, I think we have to try, right?” I said.
“We can do that,” Roman said softly. “But we’re going to have to find more gas. And get more supplies. Food, water, and the like.”
“Except we don’t exactly have money for all that,” Priyanka pointed out.
They both turned to me, but there wasn’t another choice. We all knew what that meant.
“I’ll find us a drugstore that’s closed for the night,” Roman said. “In and out.”
Thank God the economy had recovered enough to reopen drugstores we could steal from. I should have felt worse about it than I did, but the world had taken so much from me over the last week. Maybe it was okay to take this much back from it.
I hated the feeling of waking up without realizing I’d nodded off almost as much as I hated opening my eyes to an empty car.
I sat up, trying to swallow the sour taste of sleep. There was a little water left in one of the bottles in the cup holders. I drank it down greedily, wiping my mouth against my sleeve.
As promised, Roman had found us a drugstore. The store was dark from what I could see through the windows, and the parking lot was empty, but it didn’t do much to soothe my spiky anxiety. I had no idea how long they’d been inside.
Roman had taken care to leave the car outside the halos of light from the streetlamps. I rolled down the windows, trying to wake myself up with some cooler, cleaner air. Small bursts of power indicated security cameras nearby. Even with Priyanka’s device, I didn’t want to risk getting out and having one capture my face. Instead, I climbed awkwardly over the console and into the driver’s seat.
Roman’s limbs were so much longer than mine that I had to shift the seat up a good foot. I caught sight of them in the rearview mirror as I adjusted it. Their voices carried farther in the quiet night than either of them seemed to realize.
“If something happens—” Roman was saying.
“I don’t need it,” Priyanka shot back. “What I need is for you to let me do whatever I have to do. I shouldn’t have to hold back because you’re scared.”
Roman didn’t say anything, but I caught a glimpse of his face as he walked up to the driver’s side, the deep unhappiness and worry there. When he saw me, Roman jerked to a stop, and then climbed in the back; Priyanka took the front. Both slammed their doors shut.
“What was that all about?” I asked. “What do you have to do, and what are you scared of?”
“Nothing,” Priyanka said even as Roman said, “Everything.”
I blinked. “Okay.”
“Roman wouldn’t let me take money out of their safe,” she said, handing me a packet of Goldfish from her plastic bag, “that’s all. I don’t like feeling useless when I know I could be doing more.”
“You are not useless,” I told her.
I couldn’t see Roman’s face in the rearview mirror.
“Are we good?” I asked.
This time, neither of them answered.
I PARKED THE CAR ALONGSIDE a cracked driveway, staring up at the small house at the end of it. My head was heavy and ached with the need to sleep, but my heart had been galloping since we crossed the Georgia state line.
“Here,” Roman said, passing me a water bottle. I took it gratefully, chugging until it was gone.
Priyanka squinted at the structure through the darkness. “Wow, what a super-fun murder house. Can’t wait to go in.”
Roman slid the rest of the way across the backseat, rolling down the window. “No movement inside. No lights.”
The white cottage-style house appeared bigger on second glance. The left half of it had been built into the hill’s natural curve, adding a lower story to the home. Over the years, wildlife had crept up on the property. The trees in the backyard were overgrown and threatening to topple onto the roof.
It looked abandoned. But that didn’t mean it was.
“I’m glad we came,” I said. “Even if this is a dead end, at least we can rule it out.”
I hadn’t put enough hope into this to feel truly disappointed if that ended up being the case. The idea of Ruby living in a place like this only filled me with more dread.
“Let’s go have a quick look and be on our way,” Priyanka said. She reached into the backpack at her feet for one of the flashlights, prompting me to pull the other one out from the seat pocket.
The night was alive with a symphony of cicadas and moaning power lines. Heavy cables stretched over the front yard. As I passed beneath them, sound became sensation. Every nerve in my body lit up with awareness of the electricity around me. The streetlamp, another house’s garage door, and something…something inside the house.
My footsteps stilled. Priyanka swept her flashlight’s beam over the front of the house. Roman clicked off the safety on his gun.
An object moved at the edge of my vision. I switched on my flashlight, searching for the small wind chime I’d thought I’d seen hanging at the slumped edge of the porch.
I hadn’t imagined it. The wind chime glinted as the beam’s glow passed over it. A breeze swept up from behind us, making it shiver out light notes, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that small piece of glass. The one shaped like a crescent moon.
I bolted ahead, jumping up over the stairs and onto the porch.
“Zu, wait!” Priyanka called. She lunged, catching the back of my shirt. “Slow down. You don’t know what, let alone who, is inside.”
“I think it’s her,” I said, breathless.
“There’s a power source inside, something electronic….”
“This place could be rigged to explode,” Roman said. “The door could be on some kind of trigger.”
“Okay, I wasn’t thinking that,” Priyanka said. “Thanks for the mental image, though.”
He reached over us, grabbing one of the boards nailed over the front windows. The rusted nail keeping it in place slid free with one strong pull. Roman peered through the window, angling his body just enough to keep from giving anyone inside a target to shoot at.
“It’s clear,” he said, moving in front of the window to pry another board loose.
“There’s some kind of machine in there,” I told them. “The feeling is faint, but…it’s almost like it’s not fully on or off?”
“That’s not exactly reassuring.” Priyanka turned toward the door, raising her booted foot. “One way to find out.”
She kicked it open, splintering the door from where it had been locked into its frame.
Roman ducked inside first, doing a quick visual scan of the house.
“Zu? Priya?” he called. “I think you’d better come here….”
“Every time someone says that, it’s bad news,” I said, taking in a steadying breath.
“Well, we didn’t blow up just now,” Priyanka said, dropping an arm over my shoulder as we stepped inside. “How bad can it be?”
I’d been prepared for bad. I hadn’t been prepared for this.
“Huh,” I said, putting my hands on my hips.
“Hello, gorgeous,” Priyanka cooed.
The house was devoid of furniture. Even the cabinets in the kitchen had been stripped of their doors. As far as I could tell, the only thing inside the house was a freestanding server rack, complete with a monitor. It was the source of the low voltage I had felt outside.
Roman circled the server rack, kicking at its cord. It was still plugged into the wall, but the system had clearly idled. “Is it malfunctioning? It doesn’t seem to be on.”
“There was probably an outage and it just needs to be rebooted,” Priyanka said. “Want me to do the honors?”
I wiped my finger along the monitor, slashing through the thick dust. No one had been here recently. Certainly not Ruby. But if she’d sent us here, I wanted to know why. “Yeah. Turn it on. Let’s see what information she felt was too dangerous to keep at Haven.”
Priyanka passed her flashlight to me, cracking her knuckles. “I’ve been dying to get my hands on an Arclight four hundred. This one is a few years old, but it’s the sweet, sweet rose of secure servers. You’ve got to have careful hands to avoid its thorns.”
Roman returned my perplexed look with one of his own.