Cassie began training under Julilla’s watchful eye. There were the regular sessions with Alex and the other guards, but it was in the penthouse with Julilla that Cassie developed her best skills, growing quick and strong in both mind and body. Now that she was a guard, she had access to better food, and she and Julilla supplemented their meals from the penthouse’s larder. Cassie’s occasional bouts of dizziness and nausea disappeared, her body filled out with lean muscle, and to her annoyance, she even started getting her period again.
Frustrated by the upkeep on her hair, now that she was out of camp shampoo, she contemplated cutting it all off. Instead, Julilla enlisted Alaina’s help in braiding it, producing dozens of small braids that hugged her scalp and flowed down her back. Sometimes she tied up all the braids in a knot, annoyed with even this much work. At other times, feeling sentimental, she tied little pieces of colored cellophane in them in imitation of May, whose shop she went to, pretending to buy bangles but really to deliver and pick up messages from their embedded team with the Obits.
Cassie didn’t like to admit that it was the possibility of a message from Galahad and not the errand itself she liked. Not that any of his messages were directed to her. They were official dispatches, written in code and describing the team’s contacts, hints of news, and their efforts to gain the trust of both Pharms and Obits so they could penetrate deeper. Sometimes May had more specific news of Galahad and these were the days Cassie lived for, even though she had to stand stony-faced, feigning nothing more than professional interest while May’s knowing eyes bored into her soul.
Cassie couldn’t let Galahad go. She trained to exhaustion, only to dream of him. She drank whiskey when she could get it, only to break down in drunken sentimentality. She even dated, such as was possible, but the kisses and fumblings of other boys left her cold. She wished her mother was alive to explain all this to her. Julilla didn’t get it and Rochelle understood only too well, still trying in vain to get Doc to see her as something more than a child nurse. So Cassie took out her anger on Julilla’s punching bag and ran up and down the stairs until she thought her heart would burst. But as the days grew warmer, her longing for Galahad grew worse, leaving her petulant and irritable.
It was on a warm day in early summer after nearly two weeks of petty drop-bys and threats from the Pharms that Danny and Danica showed up, dressed for summer in matching black tanks and cotton pants, overlaid with studded bandoliers. They hadn’t been to the hotel in awhile but now they walked right up to her guard station, and after a critical scan of Cassie’s clothes and hairstyle, Danica got to the point. “May is in danger. The Pharms closed down her shop.”
“We haven’t seen her come out,” Danny added. “It looks like they’re holding her prisoner.”
“Do you know why?”
Danica shook her head. “She was doing so much double-dealing it could be anything.”
“We heard them breaking things,” Danny said. “But there were too many of them for us to try and rescue her. We thought—” he looked at his twin and fell silent.
Cassie caught the look and understood. The twins weren’t used to asking for anything and probably weren’t aware that May was their primary link to the embedded team. “Of course we’ll help.”
She took them to Mundo’s summer office on the covered deck by the potato garden. But if she had hoped to be allowed to stay and strategize, she was disappointed. “You can return to your post,” Mundo told her. “We’ll let you know if you’re needed for anything else.”
Annoyed, she returned to the front door and two hours later was further frustrated when she wasn’t chosen for the rescue team. “What the hell?” she told Julilla. “I train like the rest of you. Why not me?”
“We can’t all go. Besides, you’re needed here.”
“Rochelle can cover the afternoon clinic shift. She’ll do anything to spend more time with Doc.”
“Fine.” She leaned against a pillar and pretended to watch the street for danger. She didn’t know how to explain her new longing to fight, since she didn’t understand it herself. “People are going to think you don’t believe in me. They’re going to say I must not be any good since you never let me fight or forage.”
“It’s you who don’t want to forage,” Julilla reminded her, making Cassie blush as she remembered her refusal to take orders from David. “And no offense, but you’re mostly a defensive fighter. That’s why we want you here, in case there’s trouble while we’re gone.”
“If I’m in the clinic, I can’t do much good.”
“Don’t talk like you think I’m stupid. When have you ever been chained to the ward?” Julilla gave her a sly look. “Would you rather spend the afternoon out here? I can recommend you be put on double shifts.”
“No thanks. Morning is enough.”
“Then quit complaining. Things are getting weird and you’ll probably have plenty to keep yourself busy with real soon.”
* * *
Cassie made the ward rounds in sullen silence, taking vitals and making notes on charts. The room was stifling in the early summer heat, even with a window broken out and replaced by netting held in place with duct tape while they waited for Sid to come up with a better solution. The sickest patients were allowed battery-powered fans, which didn’t help much. Everyone else was supposed to be fanned in rotation by one of two children assigned to make the rounds with sturdy palm fans from the hotel gift shop. The children spent more time fanning themselves and each other, though, and Cassie was in too sour a mood to correct them.
They had a new Telo victim—a girl named Mella who had been one of Sandra’s assistants in the kitchen. Cassie tried to help her sit so she could breathe, but Mella gurgled and flailed, bruising her delicate veins. Frustrated, Cassie eased her back onto the pillows. Mella no longer knew anyone around her or even where she was. She would likely be dead within twenty-four hours, so perhaps it was pointless to help her breathe, and it might even be cruel.
Cassie stood and wiped the sweat beading her forehead. If it was this hot now, what would August be like? She went into the treatment room to speak to Doc. They needed to start thinking of what they would do in late summer. No way could they get people well in an oven like this.
She found Doc examining the baby while Rochelle stood by in exasperation. “It’s just ordinary heat rash,” she said in a tone that suggested she was repeating herself. “I looked it up. We need powder, not zinc oxide.”
“Well, it’s a moot point, since I don’t have either.” Seeing Cassie in the doorway, Doc asked, “Don’t you girls have powder or something?”
Cassie shook her head. “Not me. And if there’s anyone who does, it’s probably not the right kind.”
“It should have corn starch,” Rochelle said, snapping the baby’s clothes together and scooping him into her arms.
“Well, good luck with that.” Doc frowned in irritation. “Anything that’s come into this place containing corn starch probably ended up in one of Sandra’s dinner pots.”
“If it’s really just heat rash,” Cassie added, “The best thing would be to take the baby out on the deck instead of hanging around in here where it’s all stuffy. Doesn’t Mundo want to see his kid?”
Rochelle shrugged. “He was playing with him earlier, but asked me to take him away when we got word what happened to May. You know the rescue team is back already, right?”
Cassie hadn’t known. It was too early to expect them back and she had expected there would be at least one or two casualties. “That was fast.”
“Yeah,” Doc said, his face settling into grim lines. “They got there just in time to see a van pulling away. A black one.”
“Obits? But they wouldn’t want her. They take young ones, not—”
“That’s all I know,” Rochelle apologized, bouncing the baby as he made irritated mewling noises. “Mundo sent me away. He said they needed to talk strategy and the baby would be a distraction.”
“So they’re up there talking now?”
“They were when I left.”
Before Doc could call for her to wait, Cassie made for the door. She didn’t make it far, though, running into Julilla in the hallway. “What happened?” Cassie demanded. “Rochelle says—”
“I know. Something’s not adding up, although we have some theories.” Julilla motioned toward the stairwell. “Come on. We want your take on this, since you’ve been going over to May’s lately.”