David praised Cassie on the rest of the drive to the hotel, but she could take no satisfaction in what she had done. She didn’t know whether she had killed the boy or merely wounded him, but it would be the same, either way. Blood loss and infection were just as lethal as any bullet, and murder wasn’t something to be proud of. Besides, in spite of David’s instructions, she had aimed to miss. She caught a glance at the way Galahad was looking at her, curious and vaguely critical, and she hardened her features and turned away.
The van pulled into the circular drive of the once-elegant downtown hotel. The glass was broken out of the doors and front windows, and crude attempts had been made to patch the gaps with signs, plywood, and heavy curtains. A teenage girl and young boy stood guard under the tattered canopy, so much alike in features that it was obvious they were siblings. The girl said something to her brother and he scurried inside, then returned a minute later with a group of kids of all ages. David threw open the back doors and Galahad began handing down their scavenged goods.
As Leila and Cassie stepped off the van, the group paused, cans and boxes in their arms.
“Oh, yeah,” David said. “This is Cassie and Leila. They’ll be joining us.”
A redhead appraised the girls coolly. “They’ll need to be voted on.”
“I know.” He turned to Galahad. “You mind taking them to Mundo? He’s pissed at me right now.”
Galahad led the girls into the lobby, where some youngsters lounged on dirty plush sofas and chairs. They looked up at the group’s approach and a dog near a girl’s feet lifted his head, but no one made any move to get up.
“I thought you were having school, Galahad remarked.
“Alaina said we were a bunch of stupid ingrates,” a boy said from where he had draped himself over an ottoman. His clothes were damp with weeks of dirt, and grime was embedded in rings around his neck. He didn’t seem at all concerned about the insult or his education.
Galahad frowned but kept walking, with Cassie and Leila at his heels. They passed the hotel restaurant, but saw no sign that any cooking or eating was going on. They wound down another hallway, carpeted in what was still a blue and gold pattern at the edges, but was mostly dried mud and debris down the center. Walls showed hand prints, graffiti and scuff marks, with only token attempts at cleaning. Finally they came to a door with a brass plate: Conference Suite A.
Inside, a small conference table was littered with dirty cups and plates, and in a clear spot at one end, a powerfully-built older teen sat slumped in a chair while a younger boy with glasses and a lab coat wound a bandage around his hand. They both looked up and two guards who had been playing cards on a sofa under the window grabbed their weapons and jumped to their feet. When they realized it was only Galahad and a couple of girls, they sat down and resumed their game.
Galahad introduced Cassie and Leila to the young man at the end of the table, and Mundo smiled politely. “Sorry I can’t shake hands. Doc here is slow.”
The boy in the lab coat frowned. “Not my fault there’s no more band-aids. You guys need to be more careful. You’re lucky we’ve still got antibiotic ointment. Once that’s gone, we’ll have to cut a deal with the Pharms.”
Mundo waved his other hand. “Got to get something they want first.” He looked brightly at Galahad. “So how was the foraging? Anything good besides a couple of pretty girls?”
Before Galahad could speak, Cassie said, “I’m not a commodity.”
“She’s a survival expert,” Galahad explained. “She says she knows about fire safety, plant identification…things like that.”
Mundo started to lean forward, but Doc’s tug on his hand stopped him. Annoyed, Mundo stretched his arm back out, but kept his eyes on Cassie, sizing her up with greater interest than before. “So tell me what all you can do. Food and water are our big concerns right now. Winter sucked and we need to do some long-range planning.”
“She says she knows how to make jerky,” Galahad offered.
“We can’t live off jerky,” Doc said. He finished wrapping Mundo’s hand and dropped his scissors, ointment and bandages into a leather bag. “We need to find a new source of vitamins or we’re going have our teeth fall out from scurvy. And don’t even get me started on pellagra.”
“Have you tried rose hips?” Cassie asked. “If you can find some dead roses, you’ll have plenty of vitamin C.”
Doc’s thin face broke into a smile. “Are you sure about that? There’s a florist shop near here. No one’s touched it.”
“If we can find a book on plant ID, we can find a lot of uses for dead flowers.”
Mundo nodded. “I’ll arrange a guard so you can go to the library.”
Galahad cleared his throat. “She still has to be voted on.” Then he indicated Leila. “And her.”
Mundo turned to Leila with interest. “Are you a survival expert, too?”
Leila’s cheeks flushed. “No. I’m sorry. I can sew a little. And cook.”
This answer didn’t please anyone, but Mundo covered nicely and told Galahad to find the girls a room on one of the upper floors. “After supper, we’ll have you brought to our evening meeting and we’ll take a vote on whether to let you join.”
After Mundo dismissed them, Galahad led them from the room and down a dark hallway. “I hope you don’t mind stairs,” he said, picking up a common-use flashlight. “Only group members and VIPs get to stay on the lower floors.” He switched on the light and pulled open the stairwell door. “But you’ll be taken care of. And I’m sure they’ll vote you on, even if it’s only provisional.”
As they puffed their way to the sixth floor, Leila said, “Provisional?”
“There’s three possible outcomes to a membership vote: yes, no, or provisional.”
“But what does provisional mean?” Cassie asked.
“Two weeks.” Galahad pushed open the door at the sixth floor and led them to a musty room at the end of the hall. “After that, we vote again. We’ve only had one person not come off provisional status, and it was because he was lazy and we kicked him out before he could come up for vote a second time.” Galahad opened the curtains so they could see out the window. “Lots of natural light in here, even if it is kind of stuffy. Someone will be up soon with food, water and a lantern.”
“What about our bags?” Cassie asked.
“They’re safe. Unless there’s something specific you need, you’re better off waiting until after the vote. If you get voted on, you’ll be given another room on a lower floor and it’ll be just another thing to carry up and down the stairs.”
She nodded and was about to sit down, but the way Galahad stood watching her gave her pause. “Was there something else?”
“What you said about rose hips. Are you sure?”
“My cousin is sick. It looks like scurvy and he needs vitamins pretty bad. The idiot kept giving away his vitamin ration during the winter, something about doing Jesus’ work.”
“If it’s only a deficiency, we can get him well.”
“And another thing….”
From the look in his eyes Cassie could guess what was coming next. “No,” she said, answering his unspoken question. “I didn’t mean to shoot that boy. I just wanted to scare him.” She looked away, blinking so he wouldn’t see her sudden tears.
To her surprise he touched her on the shoulder. “You did right. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. It doesn’t make us bad people.”
Cassie nodded but refused to meet his gaze. She would have to be tougher than this if she was going to survive in a gang.
After he had gone, Leila and Cassie each sat on a bed.
“Don’t lie. You killed that boy on purpose.”
“I did not. Besides, we were in danger.”
“Oh, come on,” she scoffed. “It was just a bunch of little kids.”
“They had Molotov cocktails. They could’ve set the van on fire.”
Leila folded her arms across her chest. “You just wanted to get in good with them. You want to make yourself look special so I’ll look even more useless than I am.” She lay down and pulled a corner of the bedspread over her face.
“You’re not useless,” Cassie said. “I’m sure you’ve got more to offer than those kids we saw in the lobby. A good attitude is all that’s really needed.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” came the muffled voice from the bed. “They’ll vote you on right away and I’ll be lucky not to end up alone on the streets.”
“No. We’re a two-for-one deal. They vote us both on, or neither of us.”
Leila moved the bedspread away from her face. “You really mean that?”
“Of course I do. You know I don’t want to run with a gang, anyway. If we weren’t so damn hungry….”
“Yeah,” Leila said. “It makes us do stupid things.”