They passed Salton City, which was about the only claim in the whole area to civilization; the Salton Sea Recreation Area had been a half-assed attempt to create a tourist trap by sheer force of will, on an inland saltwater lake that was in the process of ecological crash. The creators had envisioned a California version of Las Vegas, only without (presumably) as much gambling.
What was left of that utter failure was sunbaked, dry, and defeated; the boarded-up, crumbling motels looked postapocalyptic, and the few stores and restaurants struggling to stay open seemed like places to avoid, not frequent.
And that was the thriving part of the area. Bombay Beach was much, much worse.
The sedan slowed down as they entered the real devastation. Most of the eyesores around Salton City had been quietly bulldozed, but here, in Bombay Beach, they were the landscape. If anyone still lingered here, it was because there was no way out for them. Where there were actual houses, they’d been left to the elements, windows broken out and ragged, sun-rotted curtains flapping in the breeze. The departing owners must not have made much of an effort to take their furniture, because many pieces lay broken and dismembered. A disemboweled sofa with chunky sixties-style lines bled tattered foam where it lay half on, half off a sagging porch.
They kept going, past row after row of utter destruction and neglect. No sign of people, just circling, wheeling birds over the flat, harsh lake. The white spots she’d initially taken for foam on the water’s surface were, in fact, dead fish. Hence the greedy birds.
It was beyond any doubt the most blighted and depressing area Bryn could imagine that hadn’t been bombed out of existence.
Mercer slowed the sedan finally, as a chain-link fence appeared ahead. It was ancient, but still upright and doing its job—odd that it hadn’t been ripped apart by vandals, as so many others had been. Behind it lay a large, square cinder-block building that looked beaten, but not quite as broken as the others.
Mercer parked. Freddy got out of the car and slid back a section of the fence that had been cut loose from the post; Mercer scraped through with only a minor loss of paint, and Freddy restored the fence and twisted some kind of fastener back in place to hold it. That was why vandals hadn’t bothered to rip it down.…They didn’t need to do so. Easy access.
They parked in front of the building. It had a single closed door, and a faded, illegible sign that Bryn couldn’t make out. She thought it looked like the ghost of a sailboat, and water, but this place was like a real-world Rorschach test—you could impose your own meaning on anything you saw here.
“Out,” Freddy said, and opened her car door. She didn’t like it, suddenly, didn’t like this.…It was rarely good news to be driven to the middle of abandoned nowhere and marched out of a car. But in truth, if Mercer had wanted her dead, he could have let her go to the incinerator and not put forth the effort.
So she went…although she remained acutely aware of Fast Freddy’s knife and where he kept it. In a crisis, she’d go for that.
She also didn’t let anyone touch her. Not at all.
Mercer walked right up to the door and knocked. Three strong, steady bangs of his knuckles, then three more, as if it was some kind of signal. Bryn listened. There was no sound out here at all except the unearthly crying of the gulls diving on the fish and the rattle of wind. The smell of the place struck her hard—a hard-to-stomach aroma of pure, rotten death. Recreation area my ass. The only recreation still thriving out here was conducted in the dark, fueled by booze, drugs, and violence.
The door opened on shadows, and Fast Freddy tried to push her inside; that was a mistake. As he reached for her, Bryn stepped into the gesture, grabbed his arm, and twisted it behind him, then frog-marched him over the threshold as a human shield. “Touch me again,” she whispered in his ear, “and I’ll cut things off you, asshole.”
He laughed. Laughed. “I forgot,” he said. “You’ve met Jane.”
She twisted harder and got a wince out of him. “What do you mean by that? You think I’m her?”
“I think nobody is the same after they meet Jane,” Freddy said, and for once, there wasn’t any mockery in his voice. “I damn sure wasn’t.”
Mercer entered behind her, and Bryn backed to the side, taking Freddy with her; she didn’t want Mercer at her back any more than she did anyone else just now. He didn’t comment, not even to ask her to let go of his sidekick; he just shut and locked the door.
A rank of lights flickered on overhead—old fixtures, dirty bulbs. It was amazing any of it still worked. The room itself was just a rectangular box that vaulted up into a curved concrete roof spiderwebbed with cracks and peeling turquoise paint.
There were two people standing in the center of the room, and both of them were armed.
One of them was Liam. It was very odd seeing him here, dressed in his sweater vest and dress pants under Kevlar, with what looked like a .380 semiautomatic pistol in his hand—what was even odder was that he looked completely comfortable with it, especially as he aimed it two-handed with impeccable form at Mercer’s head. “Please don’t move,” he said. “This might not damage your friend, but I understand it would greatly hamper your future plans.”
Mercer, looking amused, shrugged and raised his hands. “And here I thought we were all friends.” He glanced at Bryn. “You can let him go now. You’re safe.”
She released Fast Freddy, because the other armed person was Pat McCallister. No comfortable sweater, no dress pants. He was dressed for war and death, and he looked very intimidating. His dark, very cold stare fixed on Fast Freddy as Bryn let go of him. “Hands,” he said. “Up on your head. Down on your knees.”
“Do it, Freddy,” Mercer said. “Let’s not start off our collaboration with so much drama. Please have your man stop posturing. You can’t afford to kill me, McCallister. You need what I know.”
“Not as much as I’d like to blow your brain stem out the back of your skull for all the misery you’ve caused,” Pat said. “Don’t underestimate how much I hate you, Mercer.”
Mercer made it look like the prisoner-of-war pose was his own idea, even as Pat slammed him facedown onto the concrete, zip-tied his hands and ankles, and flipped him over on his back to search him. He came up with two guns, which he added to his own arsenal, and then repeated the process with Fast Freddy. He didn’t miss the knife.
Only after the two men were down and helpless did he nod to Liam, who relaxed and stepped back.
And then he finally looked at Bryn.
She didn’t remember him moving, but suddenly he was there, within touching distance, arms open for her, and McCallister was the only safe place she could imagine left in the world. The only solace.
But she flinched when he reached out. It was sheer gut reaction, utterly beyond her control; she saw the flicker of shock in his face, and then the understanding, which was worse. He didn’t try to embrace her.
Instead, he slowly, carefully put his hands on either side of her face. They felt sunshine-warm. So did his voice. “I’m sorry,” he said. It was little more than a whisper, and his eyes were fierce and desperate. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come for you myself. It was safer this way. We didn’t have the firepower to take that place, Bryn. The only thing we could do was trust that Mercer could pull this off. I hated leaving you there even an extra second, believe me.”
“I know,” she said, and wrapped one hand around his wrist. His pulse was tapping hard against her fingers. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay now.” She was lying—to him, to herself—but she couldn’t say anything else. Nothing else would help that anxious, tense look on his face. “Where’s Joe?”
“With his family. I wouldn’t ask him to leave them now, not after—”
“After Jeff went missing,” Bryn said, and felt a horrible surge of fear. “He’s all right, isn’t he? They let him go? He wasn’t hurt, was he?” That was the one rock to which she’d clung through all that horror with Jane—that at least she’d saved Jeff. If she hadn’t…if she hadn’t, the tide would rush her over the cliff.
“He’s fine. Scared as hell, like his mom. Kylie was going out of her mind, and Joe—” McCallister cut himself off, and shook his head. “I can’t let him put them at risk anymore. Or himself. Joe’s out of this—he has to be.”
“Yes,” she said. “I don’t want him hurt, either.” She took a deep breath and said, “I also don’t want you putting yourself at risk. Or Liam. This isn’t about you; it’s about me, and Annie. About the Revived. You’re just going to get hurt, Pat. These people…they’re not like Pharmadene, as bad as that was. They’re something else. Something far worse.”
“She’s right,” Mercer called from where he was on the floor. “You have no idea how much worse this really is. I’m nothing. Pharmadene is nothing. Widen your scope of disaster, McCallister.”
Patrick stepped away from Bryn and walked to Mercer. He put a booted foot on the man’s chest, and said, “What do you know?”
“More than you.” Mercer gave him a chilling smile. “If you want a clue, then I’ll give you one for free. The nursing home where they were holding your girl is just a start. Just a tiny little air bubble on the tip of the iceberg, if you will. But to give you an idea of scale, they’ve killed at least fifty people there. Old, sick people. Who misses them? Who cares, when they’ve got nobody left? It’s inevitable progress—they’re dying anyway. But they’re still useful for one thing.”
“Test subjects,” Bryn guessed.
“Oh no,” he said. “Incubators. In a way, you really have to admire their ruthless efficiency, don’t you? And all I had to use were chimpanzees.”
Pat’s expression had gone just a little bit unhinged, and he pressed down hard with his heel, driving the breath out of Mercer’s chest with a pained gust. “Start making sense while you still can.”