Lanna coughed and struggled, her face turning red. Gaspar kicked her feet out from under her and slid to the floor with a whomp, her throat bearing the weight of the rest of her body.
Jaden didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t just stand by and watch Gaspar kill the girl, but even if he could do something to stop Gaspar, he’d never make it out alive. He’d never be able to evade a camp full of pirates. He shifted from one foot to the other, clenching his fists at his sides.
Lanna’s face flushed deep red, almost purple as her arms and legs flailed in the air in a final desperate attempt to free herself.
Gaspar’s maniacal grin remained as he continued to choke her, as if the man were actually enjoying committing murder.
Jaden felt fury course through him. He took a step forward to help Lanna, but immediately a strong hand clasped his shoulder and pulled him back.
Mitch whispered in his ear, “A raver’s not worth getting killed over, Runner. Don’t make me have to bury two people tonight.”
Jaden shook him off. “Gaspar!” His voice rang out, silencing the pirates as they turned to look at him.
Gaspar paused, regarding Jaden, his breathing heavy. “You have something to say, kid?” He fixed his gaze on Jaden as if he were planning to throttle him next.
“I almost forgot—I have something else for you.”
Gaspar relaxed his hold on Lanna, forgetting her for the moment, and stalked up to Jaden. Lanna fell to her knees, retching and gasping for air.
“Runner, I don’t like being toyed with. If you’ve got a package, cough it up. Now.”
Jaden regarded Gaspar through his mop of dreds. “It’s not a package, Gaspar. It’s a message.”
“A message? What message?”
“A message from Squeeze. For your ears only.” Jaden beckoned conspiratorily, and Gaspar leaned forward so Jaden could speak it into his ear. “Squeeze says that Chicken Little was right.” Nonsense words invented to sound portentous and encrypted.
“Squeeze said that?”
Jaden nodded. Apparently, against all odds, the words had struck a chord with Gaspar.
Gaspar nodded thoughtfully, sunk in a reverie. Momentarily, he shook it off, looking up. “That kid’s here, right?” Gaspar asked Mitch.
“I’ll go get him.”
Jaden felt his pulse start to race. He really wanted to get news about Ally, but after what he had just witnessed, his primary goal was to escape this violently mercurial character as soon as possible. Now what was he going to have to watch?
Mitch returned with a wiry eleven-year-old with a loping gait—Tail.
Tail didn’t look to either side as he sidled forward. “Evening, Gaspar,” Tail said. “What can I do for you?”
“This runner is looking for some raver wench.” Gaspar’s bored tone made it clear his hospitality was ebbing.
Tail turned and faced Jaden. “Figured you’d show up here eventually, Jaden,” Tail said. “Everyone does. Gaspar’s the man with the juice.”
Gaspar seemed to perk up at the sincere and legitimate flattery.
“Do you know something then, about Ally?” Jaden asked.
“Checked with the ravers along the northern border. She’s not with them, but a small band just recently set off for Ibiza.”
The now-familiar cackle of the pirates was punctuated with the giggles of Gaspar’s harem.
“There is no such place!” Mitch said.
“The ravers think there is,” Tail said. “They’re searching the Ten Thousand Islands.”
“What’s Ibiza?” Jaden asked. He’d never known what the rave password had meant, even when he used it to get in to the tanker.
“It’s the mythical island haven of the ravers,” Tail said. “Their utopia.”
Murmurs rose from the darkness as several of the girls around Gaspar spoke in hushed, reverent tones.
“Ibiza means peace . . . Ibiza means love . . . Ibiza means unity . . . Ibiza means respect . . . ”
Gaspar threw his hands up in the air. “And Ibiza means death if you’re stupid enough to go looking for it!”
“He’s right,” Tail said. “Ravers aren’t hardened survivalists like Gaspar and his crew. There aren’t many supply distribution points in the Ten Thousand Islands. They’ll be lost and hungry in a matter of days. If the gators don’t get them, the cottonmouths will.”
“Or the pirates,” Mitch said.
Cheers of cocky agreement arose from the men.
“Write her off as dead!” Gaspar bellowed.
“Even if you found her, you couldn’t keep her safe,” Tail said. “The only sure way would be to take her and leave. It can’t be done. No one has ever escaped the Unemployed Zone. If they had, I’d know.”
“The kid knows everyone’s story,” Gaspar said.
“I’d better. It’s why you let me hang out here from time to time, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not for yer pretty face,” Gaspar said, his demeaning laugh harsh. Tail took no notice of it.
“I can’t give up on Ally, not until I know for sure what happened to her,” Jaden protested.
“Your funeral,” Gaspar said.
Jaden knew he’d better take the opening to leave while Gaspar was still in a benevolent mood. “I think I’m all packed up,” he said, patting his full wetsuit. “Is there anything else you need from me, Gaspar, or do I have your permission to leave?”
“You can leave if you want, but my crew ain’t heading out until morning.”
“I really need to get back to my boat tonight,” Jaden said. “I can’t have a patrol picking it up.”
“Good luck with that,” Mitch said, laughing.
“It’s time I get moving again, too,” Tail said. “I’ll guide him back—for a price, of course.”