Unwind / Page 31

Page 31



Connor looks to the dentures that still sit there, glistening, on the table. He thinks to grab them and hand them back to the Admiral as a peace offering, but decides the prospect is simply too disgusting. He lets the Admiral do it himself.

"Do you believe the things I've told you today?" the Admiral asks.

Connor considers it, but finds his compass is out of whack. Truth and rumors, facts and lies are all spinning in his head so wildly he still can't say what is what. "I think so," says Connor.

"Know so," says the Admiral. "Because you will see things today more awful than an old man's false teeth. I need to know that my trust in you is not misplaced."

* * *

Half a mile away, in aisle fourteen, space thirty-two, sits a FedEx jet that has not moved since it was towed here more than a month ago.

The Admiral has Connor drive him to the jet in his golf cart—but not before retrieving the pistol from his cabinet as "a precaution."

Beneath the starboard wing of the FedEx jet are five mounds of dirt marked by crude headstones. These are the five who suffocated in transit. Their presence here makes this truly a graveyard.

The hatch to the hold is open. Once they've stopped, the Admiral says, "Climb inside and find crate number 2933. Then come out again, and we'll talk."

"You're not coming?"

"I've already been." The Admiral hands him a flashlight. "You'll need this."

Connor stands on the roof of the cart, climbs through the cargo hatch, and turns on the flashlight. The moment he does, he has a shiver of memory. It looks exactly the same as it did a month ago. Open crates, and overtones of urine. The afterbirth of their arrival. He works his way deeper into the jet, passing the crate that he, Hayden, Emby, and Diego had occupied. Finally, he finds number 2933. It was one of the first crates to be loaded. Its hatch is open just a crack. Connor pulls it all the way open, and shines his light in.

When he catches sight of what's inside, he screams and reflexively lurches back, banging his head on the crate behind him. The Admiral could have warned him, but he hadn't. Okay: Okay. I know what I saw. There's nothing I can do about it. And nothing in there can hurt me. Still, he takes time to prepare himself before he looks in again.

There are five dead kids in the crate.

All seventeen-year-olds. There's Amp, and Jeeves. Beside them are Kevin, Melinda, and Raul, the three kids who gave out jobs his first day there. All five of the Goldens. There are no signs of blood, no wounds. They could all be asleep except for the fact that Amp's eyes are open and staring at nothing. Connor's mind reels. Did the Admiral do this? Is he mad after all? But why would he? No, it has to have been someone else.

When Connor comes out into the light, the Admiral is paying his respects to the five kids already buried beneath the wing. He straightens the markers and evens out the mounds.

"They disappeared last night. I found them sealed in the crate this morning," the Admiral tells him. "They suffocated, just like the first five did. It's the same crate."

"Who would do this?"

"Who, indeed," says the Admiral. Satisfied with the graves, he turns to Connor. "Whoever it is took out the five most powerful kids . . . which means, whoever did this wants to systematically dismantle the power structure here, so that they can rise to the top of it more quickly."

There's only one Unwind Connor knows of who might be capable of this—but even so, he has a hard time believing Roland would do something this horrible.

I was meant to discover them," the Admiral says. "They left my golf cart here this morning so that I would. Make no mistake about it, Connor, this is an act of war. They have made a surgical strike. These five were my eyes and ears among the kids here. Now I have none."

The Admiral takes a moment to look at the dark hole of the hold. "Tonight, you and I will come back here to bury them."

Connor swallows hard at the prospect. He wonders who he pissed off in Heaven to get singled out to be the Admiral's new lieutenant.

"We'll bury them far away," says the Admiral, "and we will tell no one that they're dead. Because if word of it gets out, the culprits will have their first victor)'. If someone does start talking—and they will—we'll track the rumors down to the guilty party."

"And then what?" Connor asks.

"And then justice will be served. Until then, this must be our secret."

As Connor chauffeurs him back to his plane, the Admiral makes his business with Connor clear. "I need a new set of eyes and ears. Someone to keep me abreast of the state of things among the Unwinds. And someone to ferret out the wolf in the herd. I'm asking you to do this for me."

"So you want me to be a spy?"

"Whose side are you on? Are you on my side, or the side of whoever did this?"

Connor now knows why the Admiral brought him here and forced him to see this for himself. It's one thing to be told, and another one entirely to discover the bodies. It makes it brutally clear to Connor where his allegiance must lie.

"Why me?" Connor has to ask.

The Admiral gives him his white-dentured smile. "Because you, my friend, are the least of all evils."

* * *

The next morning, the Admiral makes an announcement that the Goldens were sent off to organize new safe houses. Connor watches Roland for a reaction—perhaps a grin, or a glance at one of his buddies. But there's nothing. Roland gives no telltale sign that he knows what really happened to them. In fact, throughout the morning announcements he seems disinterested and distracted, like he can't wait to get on with his day. There's a good reason for that. Roland's apprenticeship with Cleaver, the helicopter pilot, has been paying off. Over the past weeks Roland has learned to fly the helicopter like a pro, and when Cleaver isn't around he offers free rides to those kids he feels deserve it. He says Cleaver doesn't care, but more likely he just doesn't know.

Connor had assumed that Roland would offer rides to his own inner circle of kids, but that's not the case. Roland rewards work well done—even by kids he doesn't know. He rewards loyalty to one's team. He lets other kids vote on who should get a chance to do a flyby of the yard in the helicopter. In short, Roland acts as if he's the one in charge, and not the Admiral.

When the Admiral is present, he feigns obedience, but when others are gathered around him—and there are always others gathered around Roland—he takes every opportunity to cut the man down. "The Admiral's out of touch," he would say. "He doesn't know what it's like to be one of us. He can't possibly understand who we are and what we need." And in groups of kids he's already won over, he whispers his theories about the Admiral's teeth, and his scars, and his diabolical plans for all of them. He spreads fear and distrust, using it to unite as many kids as he can.

Connor has to bite his lip to keep himself quiet when he hears Roland mouth off—because if he speaks out in defense of the Admiral, then Roland will know which side of the line he's on.

* * *

There's a recreation jet at the Graveyard, near the meeting tent. Inside there are TVs and electronics, and under its wings are pool tables, a pinball machine, and reasonably comfortable furniture. Connor proposed setting up a water mister, so that the area beneath the wings will stay at least a little bit cooler during the heat of the day. But even more importantly, Connor figures the project will allow him to be a fly on the wall, hearing conversations, cataloguing cliques, and performing general espionage. The problem is, Connor is never a fly on the wall. Instead, his work becomes the center of attention. Kids offer to help him like he's Tom Sawyer painting a fence. They all keep seeing him as a leader when all he wants is to be ignored. He's glad that he never told anyone he's the so-called "Akron AWOL." According to the current rumors, the Akron AWOL took on an entire legion of Juvey-cops, outsmarted the national guard, and liberated half a dozen harvest camps. He has enough attention from other kids without having to contend with that kind of reputation.

While Connor works to install the mister line, Roland keeps an eye on him from the pool table. He finally puts down the cue and comes over.

"You're just a busy little worker bee, ain't ya," Roland says, loud enough for all the kids around to hear. Connor's up on a stepladder, attaching mist piping to the underside of the wing. It allows him the satisfaction of carrying on this conversation while looking down on Roland. "I'm just trying to make life a little easier," Connor says. "We need a mister down here— wouldn't want anyone to suffocate in this heat."

Roland keeps a cool poker face. "It looks like you're the Admiral's new golden boy, now that the others have left." He looks around to make sure he has everyone's attention. "I've seen you go up to his jet."

"He needs things fixed, so I fix them," says Connor. "That's all."

Then, before Roland can push his interrogation, Hayden speaks up from the pool table.

"Connor's not the only one going up there," Hayden says. "There's kids going in and out all the time. Kids with food. Kids cleaning—and I hear he's taken an interest in a certain mouth breather we all know and love."

All eyes turn toward Emby, who has become a fixture at the pinball machine since he arrived. "What?"

"You've been up to the Admiral's, haven't you," Hayden says. "Don't deny it!"

"So?

"So, what does he want? I'm sure we'd all like to know."

Emby squirms, uncomfortable at the center of anyone's attention. "He just wanted to know about my family and stuff."

This is news to Connor. Perhaps the Admiral's looking for someone else to help him ferret out the killer. True, Emby's much less visible than Connor, but a fly on the wall shouldn't actually be a fly on the wall.

"I know what it is," says Roland. "He wants your hair."

"Does not!"

"Yeah—his own hair is thinning, right? You got yourself a nice mop up there. The old man wants to scalp you, and send the rest of you to be unwound!"

"Shut up!"

Most of the kids laugh. Sure, it's a joke, but Connor wonders how many think Roland might be right. Emby must suspect it himself, because he looks kind of sick. It makes Connor furious.

"That's right, pick on Emby," says Connor. "Show everyone just how low you are." He climbs down off the ladder, facing Roland eye to eye. "Hey—did you notice Amp left his megaphone? Why don't you take his place? You're such a loudmouth, you'd be perfect for it."

Roland's response comes without the slightest smile. "I wasn't asked."

* * *

That night Connor and the Admiral have a secret meeting in his quarters, drinking coffee made by a machine rumored to be broken. They speak of Roland and Connor's suspicions about him, but the Admiral is not satisfied.

"I don't want suspicion, I want proof. I don't want your feelings, I want evidence." The Admiral adds some whiskey from a flask to his own coffee.

When Connor is done with his report, he gets up to leave, but the Admiral won't let him. He pours Connor a second cup of coffee, which will surely keep him up all night—but then, he doubts he'll be sleeping well tonight anyway.


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