one

Lark

Cold — that was the feeling Lark got from the room. Her feet were numb. Her chest ached from shivering, and her fingers were turning blue. She had her sleeves drawn up over her hands, but she still had goosebumps everywhere. She could hear the air-conditioning humming from a vent near the ceiling, tearing through her thin cotton sweatshirt.

Her hair and shoulders were still damp from the rain. It had been sprinkling when they’d disembarked the plane and piled onto the tarmac. She’d been blindfolded the entire time, but she’d felt a distinct chill in the air that told her they weren’t in Texas anymore.

The journey from Kingsville had been short and grueling. Within minutes of their arrest, she, Soren, and Axel had been blindfolded and loaded onto a van that smelled like industrial-grade cleaner. They’d driven for thirty or forty minutes over an extremely bumpy road and had then been shuttled onto an aircraft.

One of the agents had deposited Lark in an uncomfortable airplane seat, where she’d sat for hours listening for the sounds of Soren and Axel’s breathing. At one point she’d asked to go to the bathroom, and an agent had stood outside the door while she peed.

There hadn’t been a window in the lavatory as she’d hoped, and the agent had replaced her blindfold the second she was finished.

Soren and Axel had been with her when they’d deplaned, and a second van had driven them straight into some kind of hanger. The agents had led them down a cool echoey hallway, but there were no familiar sounds or smells to offer any clue as to where they were.

At one point the extra sets of footsteps faded behind her, and Lark was led into the cramped interrogation room. The agent had removed her blindfold, and she’d realized that Soren and Axel weren’t there. She was alone with Special Agent Reuben, who looked as though he’d just made the catch of his life.

Michael Reuben was a pale, thickset man with freckly skin and untidy red hair. He worked for the Department of Homeland Security, which meant that he could detain them virtually indefinitely.

The room was small — no more than eight by ten feet — with a shiny white floor and four plain white walls. She was seated across the table from Reuben in a metal folding chair that seemed to be growing colder and harder by the minute.

The table was bare except for a single manila folder and some sort of speakerphone. A fisheye camera was mounted in the corner of the ceiling, and Lark sensed more agents watching her from the other room.

“Can I get you anything?” asked Reuben, studying her with cunning olive eyes. “Coffee? Water? Pop?”

Lark narrowed her gaze. The back of her tongue felt like sandpaper, but she didn’t want to admit that she was thirsty. Need implied weakness, and she could not afford to appear weak in front of Reuben.

“Where are my friends?” she asked.

Reuben ignored her. “You must be hungry. Are you hungry?”

“They were with me on the plane,” said Lark. “Where did you take them?”

“I’m starving,” said Reuben, leaning forward as if he hadn’t heard her and pressing a button on the speakerphone. “Hey, Cole, can you run and grab us a couple of burgers? Cheeseburgers.” He took his finger off the button, hesitated, and then pressed it again. “Hold the mayo, yeah? And bring us some fries. And two Diet Cokes.”

There was no reply from the person listening on the other end, but Reuben didn’t seem to expect one. He just leaned back in his chair and propped his right ankle over his left knee. “So. Lark Roland . . . You’re a bit of a celebrity around here.”

Lark didn’t reply. Her brain was running a mile a minute. Earlier that day, Reuben and his partner had caught her, Soren, and Axel at Soren’s childhood home in Kingsville. The agents had been staking out the place for days, but as far as Lark knew, they hadn’t managed to capture Bernie, Portia, or Simjay.

The thought of Bernie triggered a swift kick of dread in Lark’s chest. She’d only just found her best friend alive after days of thinking she was dead. Bernie had warned them not to go to Kingsville, but they hadn’t listened.

In a few hours, Bernie would drive to their rendezvous point expecting to meet up with Lark and Soren, but no one would be there. Lark could only imagine what Bernie would think. She only hoped that Bernie would be smart enough to avoid Soren’s house. She’d never forgive herself if Bernie was captured.

“I must say, your mugshot does not do you justice,” said Reuben, annoyed by Lark’s prolonged silence. “We were all taking bets on which of the inmates you were boning . . .”

Lark forced herself to blink very slowly, determined not to give Reuben the reaction he was hoping for.

“I said it had to be Hensley, and after getting a look at Axel Park’s ugly mug —” Reuben broke off, shook his head, and then held up one pale, hairy hand. “I’m sorry. That was in inappropriate. Let me start over.” He cleared his throat and flicked open the file folder. “Lark Roland, 25-year-old female . . . Served five years in San Judas for murder.”

Lark didn’t say anything. She didn’t see the point in explaining to Reuben that she’d killed Levi Flemming in self-defense. She was sure that the criminals he dealt with all had some sob story they used to justify their crimes.

“According to this report, you attempted to escape with Bernadette Mitchell and Finn McGregor as well, but Mitchell and McGregor were apprehended on the prison campus.” He glanced up at Lark, as if waiting for her to interject. “Mitchell was later hospitalized for her injuries and then escaped with Miss Portia Wong — another inmate in critical care.”

“Finn wasn’t apprehended,” Lark cut in icily. “He was killed. And Bernie was shot in the leg.”

Reuben’s eyebrows flew up, but he quickly schooled his expression.

“They have killer drones patrolling the perimeter,” Lark continued. “They shot Finn with a missile — blew him to bits. Why don’t you put that in your fucking report?”

Reuben looked mildly surprised by her outburst but didn’t make a note in the file.

Lark was furious at herself for breaking her silence, but she couldn’t just sit there and pretend that the prison administrators hadn’t blown Finn to smithereens.

Judging from Reuben’s initial surprise, the security procedures at San Judas weren’t something that the prison advertised. All the government cared about was that San Judas housed first-time felons in a “community” setting for a fraction of the cost of a traditional prison.

“Can I ask why you and Hensley decided to escape?”

Lark didn’t answer.

“I mean it’s clear from your psych evals that you two are the only ones in that group with the capabilities to pull off a stunt like that. Your friends all have IQs that we don’t usually see in convicted felons — well, except Park, of course — but not one of them has the leadership capability to organize it.”

Lark didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to give Reuben the satisfaction of confirming his assessment. She didn’t know much about Finn, but the short interaction she’d had with him had made her think he was kind of a basket case. Bernie and Simjay were both brilliant, but they were born followers.

“So why’d you do it?” Reuben pressed. “Did you feel that you were being mistreated at San Judas?”

“Why does the Department of Homeland Security care about us?” Lark spat, fed up with Reuben asking all the questions.

He frowned. “Are you aware of how dire the food crisis has become?”

Lark shrugged, feigning disinterest. She was aware of how bad things had gotten, but she figured that playing dumb was the best way to get information from Reuben.

“Famine is a serious threat to national security, Miss Roland. The drought here and down south, combined with the extreme weather events we’re seeing, has triggered a global food crisis like we’ve never seen before . . . Millions of people have already died, and millions more will die if we don’t come up with a solution.”

“And you think that GreenSeed has a solution.”

“We think that they have been using their private prison to test several dozen varieties of drought-resistant seed that could help us end world hunger for good.” He tapped the table with his fat index finger. “That’s where you come in.”

Lark sat back in her seat, thinking of all the crime movies she’d seen and weighing her options.

She could cooperate. Reuben might go easier on her in the long run, but her compliance wouldn’t guarantee their freedom. For all she knew, they could be shipping Soren and Axel off to some CIA black site at that moment.

Her other option was to say nothing until she got what she wanted. From what she could tell, Reuben was desperate. He might be willing to strike a deal.

“Where are Soren and Axel?” Lark asked.

“They’re safe.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“I realize that,” said Reuben. “But this has to be a two-way street. You answer one of my questions . . . Maybe I’ll answer one of yours.”

Lark rolled her eyes and let out a derisive laugh. “Why should I trust you?”

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.”

Lark opened her mouth to say something, but they were interrupted by a sharp knock on the door.

Reuben got up to open it, and Lark caught a strong whiff of greasy food. She leaned back to get a better look at her surroundings and saw a man standing in the hallway.

The newcomer was significantly younger than Reuben and much fitter. He had to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He had sandy blond hair, a hard, square jawline, and was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a long-sleeve black compression shirt.

Reuben snatched the bag out of the man’s hands and slammed the door shut without another word. There was no fast-food emblem on the front of the bag, so Lark guessed that the food had come from some sort of cafeteria.

“Listen,” said Reuben, flinging himself back into his chair. “You aren’t the first person to come to us with some wild story about San Judas.”

He opened the bag and pulled out two cheeseburgers wrapped in thin white paper. “We’ve been digging into GreenSeed International for a long time, but they’re a tough nut to crack.”

Reuben shoved one of the burgers across the table, but Lark didn’t move an inch. Reuben paid her no mind as he unwrapped his burger and took one enormous, grease-splattering bite.

“They’ve always been secretive about their policies at the prison.” He stuck his hand down into the bag and produced two cans of Diet Coke. “You have insight into their operations that very few people have.”

The heavy stench of grease was making Lark’s stomach growl, but she refused to take the cheeseburger. Taking food from Reuben would make him think that he was wearing her down, and she could not allow that to happen.

“So,” he said, talking around the hunk of beef rolling around in his mouth. “Tell me about prison. I bet they didn’t have cheeseburgers like this in San Judas, eh?”

Lark didn’t move or speak. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d had a cheeseburger. It had definitely been more than five years.

Reuben swallowed and washed down the bite with a long glug of soda. “You look like you spent quite a bit of time outside,” he said, waving his burger in front of her. “Were you a planter?”

Again, Lark didn’t answer. A silent battle over the food was waging inside of her. She hadn’t eaten since early that morning, and she was starving. Who knew what Reuben would do if she refused to cooperate? They might decide not to feed her until she answered their questions.

She could see a ring of grease seeping through the paper beneath the burger. Reuben’s had pickles but no lettuce or tomato. She suspected that the cafeteria was stocked with nonperishables and frozen food — no fresh produce. Still, the gooey drip of  cheese leeching out from under the bun was making her mouth water.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said Reuben. “What is it with you women? Just eat the damn burger.”

Lark clenched her jaw. Reuben’s comment only strengthened her resolve.

He made a noncommittal noise in his throat that sounded like “Suit yourself” and reached one fat, hairy hand into the bag to withdraw a handful of limp fries. He stuffed them into his mouth and chewed loudly, watching her watch him.

When Reuben had finished his cheeseburger, he downed the rest of the soda and opened the second can with a hiss. He drank greedily for several seconds and then set it down with a burp.

“Okay, here’s the deal. The way I see it, you’ve got two choices: You can cooperate and answer all our questions, and things will go pretty smoothly from there. We’ll get what we need, and we’ll see what we can do about reducing your sentence and getting you moved to a prison that still has things like food and running water.”

Prison?” said Lark. “What prison?” As far as she knew, the entire country was in shambles. The idea that there could still be prisons up and running was absurd.

“We have been forced to close about eighty percent of our state-run facilities,” Reuben conceded. “Most low-level offenders have been released, but people like you and Hensley have been relocated to facilities that are still operational. The places that are left won’t be Club Med like you’re used to, but they’re serviceable.”

Lark stared at him for a moment, trying to decide whether or not he was bluffing. “And if I don’t cooperate?”

Reuben’s mouth twisted into a scowl. “If you don’t cooperate, quite frankly, I can make your life an absolute living hell.”

Lark sat back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. She knew men like Reuben. She’d had lots of experience with power-hungry C.O.s in prison and thugs like Mercy who got off on intimidating people. The only way to deal with them was to stay out of their crosshairs or meet them on their level.

“You can’t scare me,” said Lark after a moment. “You need me.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Reuben snarled. “We need intellectual property that belongs to GreenSeed. That is all. You are just a means to an end.”

“And you’d have gotten those patents by now if there were any other way,” she said cooly, holding up a hand on the pretense of inspecting her nails. “Bottom line . . . You need the crops that GreenSeed’s been working on to save the country. No seeds, no food . . . No USA.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Reuben with a cold laugh.

“I would,” said Lark. “We’re your last best option. From where I’m sitting, I’m in a good position to start making demands.”

Reuben scoffed and rolled his eyes, but Lark could tell that she’d gotten under his skin. He paused for a moment, studying her with those predatory green eyes.

“Even if that were true . . . Would you really sacrifice millions of lives just to get what you want?”

Lark shrugged. “No skin off my back.” She forced what she hoped would pass for a creepy, serial-killer smile. “I’m a murderer, remember?”

Reuben’s jaw tightened. Clearly the conversation wasn’t going the way he’d planned.

At first Lark thought that he might circle back to his “good cop” routine and order another round of food, but then he brought his palm down hard on the table and leaned forward until his faces was mere inches from hers. His breathing was shallow and very fast. Lark could smell the fries on his breath and the off-putting mixture of cheap cologne and old sweat.

“Listen to me,” he said in a deadly whisper. “You may think that you’re a big-time criminal because you spent some time on the inside of GreenSeed’s little human experiment, but let me tell you something . . . Those were mostly low-level thugs in the women’s colony, hand-selected by GreenSeed because they were predisposed to function in that sort of environment.” He shook his head slowly, and Lark saw that he had a spot of dried mustard on his chin. “You have no idea what you’re up against.”

Lark didn’t move a muscle. She didn’t even blink. She just stared right back at him, waiting for the rest of his little speech.

“Do you really think you’re gonna get the best of me?” he murmured. “After all the human shit-stains that I’ve dealt with in my career?” He let out a sinister laugh. “I’m talking about people who would peel off your toenails one by one . . . blind you with hydrochloric acid . . . melt your skin off with a blow torch just for the fun of it . . .” He shook his head with an off-putting smile. “You are in way over your head.”

Lark stared at him for a long moment, torn between the urge to say nothing and the urge to spit in his face. Her heart was pounding in her throat. It was hammering so loud and so strong that she was almost sure that Reuben could hear it.

She didn’t know if Reuben was bluffing or not. All she knew was that her gut was screaming at her not to say anything. She didn’t trust Reuben as far as she could throw him, and there was nothing to keep him from locking her up the moment she gave him what he wanted.

From what she knew about the expansion of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Department of Homeland Security was authorized to detain virtually anyone it deemed a threat or an obstacle in times of national crisis. If he wanted to, Agent Reuben could lock her up and throw away the key. Her only leverage was what she knew.

“So what will it be?” asked Reuben, crushing the soda can between his fingers and throwing it across the room. It missed the trash can by several inches and clattered to the floor.

Lark straightened up in her chair and cocked her chin in defiance. “I’m not saying anything,” she whispered. “Not until you give me want I want.”

“And what is it that you want?”

“I want pardons for me and my friends. I’ll tell you what I know, and then we all go free.”

Reuben let out a fake burst of laughter and shook his head. “Come on.”

“That’s my offer.”

Reuben studied her for a long moment, as though he found her boldness entertaining rather than offensive. Then finally, he said, “Consider your offer declined.” He pressed a button on the intercom. “Take her back.”

Lark’s heart sank, and a surge of panic shot through her veins. A second later, the door to the interrogation room flew open, and two men appeared. One was a svelte black man with a bald head and a thin mustache; the other was the blond guy who’d brought Reuben the burgers.

They filed into the room in absolute silence, and blond grabbed Lark by the shoulder. He dug his thumb into the depression below her collar bone, and a sudden jolt of pain shot through Lark’s chest. He’d found a pressure point.

Lark tried to fight the pain but buckled almost immediately. Then the men hoisted her into an upright position and marched her bodily from the room.

They led her down a long white hallway where strips of florescent lights hung from the ceiling. Exposed metal pipes and steel trusses snaked above their heads, and Lark had the odd feeling that they were somewhere underground.

She shivered. Reinforced steel doors flanked her on either side. There were no letters or numbers on the doors, and they were all secured with padlocks.

They rounded a corner and reached a set of double doors. The black agent swiped his keycard, and the doors swung open to reveal a wide chamber about double the width of the hallway.

The tiled floor ended, and the clean white walls gave way to a sweeping concrete archway. The walls of the chamber looked slightly damp, with hundreds of feet of metal pipe winding up toward the ceiling. Lark could hear the persistent hum of an HVAC system rattling somewhere above them, but there was a damp chill in the air that confirmed her suspicions that they were deep underground.

Her captors led her through another set of wide double doors, and Lark began to lose her bearings. The agents were leading her deeper into the heart of the maze, and when the agent on her left swiped through the last set of doors, she knew they’d reached the end of the line.

They’d entered another hallway full of heavy steel doors, but each of these had a small safety-glass window cut into the top and a slot at the bottom for receiving food. Each room was roughly six feet by eight and equipped with a narrow cot and a metal toilet.

All of a sudden, Lark felt as though a cold vise had clamped down on her throat. Her lungs fluttered hopelessly in her chest, and she found herself struggling to breath.

They were cells.

The agents led her to one at the very end of the hall and swung the door wide open. Lark opened her mouth to utter one final plea, but the blond agent whipped her around by the shoulders and started to unlock her handcuffs.

Lark’s brain was working a mile a minute. She was about to be thrown into a cell in some secret underground prison. Soren and Axel were missing. Agent Reuben had no intention of setting her free. She was desperate, she was terrified, and she knew what she had to do.

As soon as the agent released her cuffs, Lark threw out her arm with lightning-fast speed. She caught the blond agent squarely in the nose, and she heard a slight crunch as she made contact.

Instantly, the second agent reacted, but Lark anticipated his movement. She threw back an elbow that caught him cleanly in the jaw and brought her fist around to the blond with a devastating cross.

For one glorious moment, Lark had the upper hand. But then the blond agent launched himself at her torso and slammed her against the wall. Lark’s head flew back and hit the concrete — rattling her brain — and tiny stars erupted in her vision. Then the blond twisted her around by the shoulders and smashed her face into the wall. He yanked her arms behind her back and tossed her bodily into the cell.

Lark threw out an arm to break her fall, and the door slammed shut behind her with a deafening bang!

It reverberated in the tiny space, and then silence folded in around her. Wrists aching, knees throbbing, Lark staggered to her feet and scrambled to the window. Both agents were standing on the other side of the door — the blond sporting a bloody nose and the black guy rubbing his jaw where she’d struck him.

Lark felt a perverse swell of satisfaction that she’d managed to inflict some damage, but her moment of triumph fizzled out as they started back down the hallway.

She was trapped. She’d hit a dead end with Reuben. She was hundreds of miles away from anyone who could help her, and she was an escaped convict with twenty years left on her sentence.

Legally, she was a ghost. She was completely and utterly alone in the world, and she was out of options.

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