Inside Out Page 34

“Trella?” His voice rasped like a rusty hinge. “You caught?” He struggled to sit up with frantic haste.

“No. I’m in the air shaft above you.”

He relaxed, resuming his prone position. “Good, ’cause I can’t break those bars to the duct to help you escape. So don’t get caught.”

“How are you—”

He waved his hands in a pushing motion. “No worries. Did you find Gateway yet?”

Despite being beaten his confident tone astounded me. I squashed the honest reply between my molars and hedged. “Not yet.”

“How soon?”

“Don’t know.”

“I hope I’m alive when it’s opened. Just to see the look on the lieutenant commander’s face.”

My jaw ached as the Chomper vision flashed. “Cog, can I bring you anything?”

“No, but you can do something for me.”

“Name it.”

A harsh bark erupted from him, and, at first, I worried he was choking but then realized he was laughing. Between gasps he said, “And I…had…to beg you…to see Broken…Man. Wish…you were this…cooperative before.”

“Cogon,” I warned.

“Whew. Back to your old…self. I need you to plant Broken Man’s clothes to help my alibi. Obviously, the Pop Cops haven’t found him and they think he’s moved to another hiding place. But after the next—” he drew in a deep breath “—next round of torture, I’m going to confess to killing him and I need evidence. I’m going to tell them I shoved his clothes into the space behind storage closet two-two-one in the care facility. Do you know where it is?”

I smiled at the memory of Cogon showing me his hidey hole. “The one where you hid your…what did you call them?”

“Spirits.”

“Now I remember. So called because they burned on the way down and floated right to your head, making you feel as light as a ghost.”

“And you believed me, too.”

“Did not.”

“Did, too. You used to follow me around the common room, making sure I didn’t turn into a ghost.”

“You have it all wrong. You followed me. And I’m the one who kept you from getting into trouble.”

“Me? Who covered for you when you went exploring? Me. That’s who! And I’m still protecting you.”

The dagger of truth popped the warm bubble of memories. Cold reality rushed in, shocking me into the present.

A bang echoed through the cells, and a wedge of daylight sliced the yellow glow.

“Who’re you talking to, scrub?” a man asked.

“The rats,” Cog said.

The man’s harsh laughter grated on my nerves. “Did they respond?”

“No.”

“I’m not surprised. Rats wouldn’t demean themselves by interacting with a low-life scrub.”

“You’re talking to me, Vinco. Does that make you worse than a rat?”

Vinco growled. “That’s Commander Vinco, scrub. Since you’re in such a chatty mood…Porter bring me my knife!”

There was a muttered reply. I strained to see Commander Vinco. I wanted to put a face to the man who hurt both Riley and Cog.

“Damn assembly. My knife will be talking to you on my next shift,” Vinco said.

The white light shrank then disappeared with the slamming of the doors.

“Trella?” Cog pitched his voice low.

“Still here.”

“You shouldn’t be. Get going before you’re marked tardy for assembly.”

“But I need to hide Broken Man’s stuff for you.”

“You have time. The Pop Cops won’t be looking for it until hour twelve.”

His matter-of-fact tone about the exact time had an ominous ring. A cold unease crept up my spine. “How can you be so sure?”

“Vinco’s next shift starts at hour ten. I can take a beating and I can endure most pain. But two hours of Vinco’s knife is all I can bear.”

The bell rang for the hundred-hour assembly as I climbed from the bag-filter’s chamber. Damn. No time to change the stained and sweat-soaked uniform. I raced to my assembly station—the cafeteria—and ended up last in the short line. Only three scrubs between me and LC Karla. She leaned against a table, watching the check-in process. I wondered why she was here again.

My voice didn’t waver when I repeated my stats, but my heart beat a faster rhythm when Karla eyed my work suit with a contemplative purse on her lips. I tried to sidle past her.

“Running late?” she asked.

“Sorry, sir.” I stepped toward the dining room.

She blocked my way. “You weren’t scheduled to work. What have you been doing during your off time?”

Her stare could have frozen the warmest heart. I blinked. Caught by surprise, my mind blanked.

“Hey, Trella,” another scrub called. An older man with short gray hair and a stooped posture, he had gone through check-in just before me. “Thanks for helping with that clogged drain. Without your little hands, I don’t know what we would have done.”

“Anytime,” I said, waving.

Karla snatched my hand and inspected my short fingernails.

“No dirt under your nails?” She waited.

“I washed my hands, sir. They were in raw sewage.”

She dropped my hand as if I were contagious and gestured for me to join the scrubs assembled in the cafeteria. I stood next to the man who had covered for me. As Karla pushed her way to the front, I leaned close and whispered my thanks.

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