That image came back to him now as he stood with the requisition form for coffee in one hand and the form for early retirement in the other. He could opt out. It would mean he’d never hit the top, never hit that sweet spot in his career that inspired envy and respect from other men. On the other hand, somebody else would have to be in charge of killing the beauty queens.
Harris sauntered over, scratching his belly. “Hey, dude. So. Hear they’re cutting back on the pension plan. Sucks. Check this, though: I’ve been fast-tracked for management. Made a PowerPoint about how awesome I am and my idea about a show where contestants literally have to eat one another to survive? The suits loved it! I could just be your boss soon. Filling out another form for Hazelnut, huh? I hear the twentieth time’s the charm.” Harris overfilled his cup, spilling coffee on the counter, which he did not clean up. On the way back to his desk, he slapped hands with one of the black shirts. “Bros before hos!” he said, laughing.
Agent Jones tore up the early retirement form.
Not all men were like Duff and Billy and Jacques-Paul. Mary Lou knew this. Her father was kind and sure of her. He let her ride the combine with him and taught her to use the controls just like he’d done with her brothers. And there was Tane. Where was he? He’d promised to come back. Adina would get all cynical, say, “What did you expect?” But Mary Lou had smelled his scent, had examined his good hands. She knew Tane was a man of his word, and the fact that he hadn’t come back worried her. What if her prince was in some sort of trouble? What if he needed her help?
Mary Lou had had enough of waiting and wondering. It was time to take action. While the others were sleeping, she crept from her hut. Petra woke momentarily from where she lay cuddled next to Sinjin. His arm was still wrapped around her, and Mary Lou was happy that Petra had found someone, too.
“Wh-where you going, Nebraska?”
“Off to find my prince,” Mary Lou answered.
“That’s nice. Very romantic.” Petra mumbled. She rolled over and went back to sleep.
Mary Lou ran into the jungle as she had many times before. She kept low to the ground, inhaling, searching for Tane’s scent, her wild-girl senses alert. She passed Taylor’s lair deep in the jungle. A small fire crackled, casting long shadows across the towering form of Miss Miss. The sculpture seemed alive. Taylor stepped out from behind it and Mary Lou saw that she had an AK-47.
“Hey, Taylor. Where did you get that gun?”
“A Miss Teen Dream must be prepared at all times,” Taylor answered in a hollow voice.
A trickle of sweat dripped down the front of Mary Lou’s neck. “Have you seen my prince? He’s about so tall with long black hair and tattoos on his shoulders. His name is Tane?”
Taylor rested the gun lengthwise at the back of her neck and let her arms drape over it in front. “What would you do if you faced a grave threat, Miss Nebraska?”
“What do you mean?”
“Miss Nebraska, you are not prepared for this pageant.”
Mary Lou glanced nervously toward the jungle on the other side of Taylor. “I need to find Tane.”
Taylor stepped aside. Mary Lou had almost passed when she heard Taylor whispering, “Lies. All lies. Careful.”
And then Mary Lou was running. She was so spooked that she nearly missed the backpack. There it was in the bushes: Tane Ngata. Department of Ornithology. Heart beating fast, Mary Lou shouldered it and set off after her prince with renewed determination. His scent was strong now. She followed it in the direction of the volcano. When she got close, she saw a flash of white light at the top of the volcano, like a signaling tower of some sort. Shadowy figures led a shackled, hooded man. She spied the tattoo on his shoulder. Tane! Keeping low, she crept along the bush line.
A man ripped the hood from Tane’s head. The man wore sunglasses even though it was night. “What are you doing here? Who are you working for?”
“I told you, mate. I’m just an ornithologist on a research trip.”
“Ornithologist my ass. Put him in solitary.”
The others dragged him — dragged her Tane! — toward the volcano. She watched, astonished, as they flipped up a panel in the rock and entered a code and a door slid open, revealing another world inside. She had to warn the others. She had to rescue Tane. She needed to get away from here right away.
She turned to run and heard the click of the gun pressed to her temple.
Sinjin watched Petra sleep for some time, weighing his options. Finally, he woke the others and had them meet up by the ship.