“Jaden, Jaden! Wake up!”
Jaden pried his eyes open. An anxious Tail stared down at him, snake-spearing stake in hand. The sun hung low on the horizon. He’d been out cold on the ground for several critical hours. Grammy Snapple was nowhere to be seen, nor was anyone else except Tail. “What . . . happened?” he croaked, his voice barely a whisper. Something was wrong with his voice, no doubt an aftereffect of Grammy Snapple’s beverage.
“You tell me,” Tail said. “When you didn’t arrive when you were supposed to, Ally sent me looking for you. When I couldn’t find you along the arranged route, I guessed that Grammy Snapple got you. She snags runners all the time.”
“Is Ally . . . ” Jaden found speech difficult. His throat felt as if a cat had used it to sharpen its claws.
“She’s fine. She’s with Gaspar. I’ll take you to her.”
Jaden suddenly realized he wasn’t wearing his wet suit. “My bag, where is it?” Jaden forced out.
“What you see is what you get,” Tail said. “I found you like this, just now.”
Groggy, Jaden sat up. The world spun a bit before settling back on its normal course. Without the contraband and breathing devices, he was pretty much useless. Not only would he have nothing to give Gaspar for taking care of Ally, but he’d never be able to find his way out of the Unemployed Zone. He was stranded in the Unemployed Zone, with no way to escape, much less rescue Ally.
“We’ve got to get out of here before Grammy Snapple and her thugs return to Candyland. It won’t take them long to fence your stuff.”
Jaden appraised Tail. Was he telling the truth, or had the eleven-year-old stolen his stuff to sell to the highest bidder? The kid was the only one who knew how the homing medallion worked.
Tail dug in the small pouch at his waist. “Here, take this,” he said, offering Jaden an amber drop about the size of his fingernail.
Jaden shook his head. He had learned his lesson about eating anything in this forsaken place.
“Take it,” Tail repeated. “It’ll help you get your voice back.”
Jaden held it between his thumb and forefinger. “What . . . is . . . it?”
“Pirate’s gold.” Tail’s eyes sparkled. “We don’t get much in the way of medicine in the U.Z. so some of us take this. It’s got ginger and cinnamon, so it’ll help with an upset stomach, a sore throat, or just about anything.”
Jaden still eyed the aromatic drop suspiciously.
“Take it,” Tail said. “It’s my last piece.”
Jaden hesitated. Whether he could trust Tail or not, the kid was his only ally out here. He didn’t have much choice but to trust him, about the stupid cough drop or the bigger picture. Jaden took the lozenge in his mouth. Its spicy warmth permeated his throat as he sucked on it. He let Tail help him into the flat-bottomed boat and the eleven-year-old poled it away from the island.
They rode in silence as Jaden sucked on his drop of pirate’s gold and waited for his voice to heal.
“So what’s the plan, then?” Tail asked. “How are we getting out?”
Jaden’s stomach sunk. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? What kind of rescue mission is it that doesn’t have a plan for getting out?”
“I had two dozen breathing devices and homing medallions with me. Two dozen of us could have escaped. But they’re gone now. Grammy Snapple took them.”
“That’s not good.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“She and her men are probably already on the other side of the Unemployed Zone.”
“I know,” Jaden said despondently.
Tail poled faster. “If they’re already out, there’s a chance that they’ve already been discovered by the perims. If that’s the case, they’ll storm the U.Z. looking for the source of the breach.”
Jaden put his head in his hands. What was he going to do?
“What are you going to tell Gaspar? He’s waiting for the reward you promised him for taking care of Ally.”
Jaden snapped his head up. He wasn’t going to let this put him under. There had to be another way. “I’m not going to tell Gaspar anything. We’ll sneak into the camp, take Ally, and leave.”
“Leave for where? Without the equipment, we won’t be able to get out of the U.Z., and inside the U.Z. there’s no place Gaspar can’t reach to find us.”
“My boss will send help,” Jaden said, not even convincing himself. Squeeze would not be sending help into the U.Z. and even if he did, he wouldn’t be able to find them.
Tail arched a questioning eyebrow.
“Look, I can’t just leave her there. If I don’t get her out, when Gaspar realizes there’s no payment coming, he’ll kill her.”
“So let’s just get her out of there and get as far away from Gaspar as we can.”
“The Key West Casino might be prudent,” Tail said. “Blaze was down there just the other day. Put Mel into such a tailspin that the place is still in an uproar. Turmoil makes for good hiding.”
“Key West probably isn’t the best idea,” Jaden said. As they disembarked and hiked through the swamp, they swapped casino stories, and the two tales seemed oddly similar.
They neared the camp and Tail led them around to the less-patrolled edge.
“Wait a second,” Jaden said. “You know, you don’t have to do this. I can go in on my own. You’re never going to be able to do business with Gaspar again if you help me. Maybe you and I should say goodbye here.”
Tail grinned. “What, and miss out on the story of a lifetime?”
Jaden smiled. He was happy to have Tail with him. “Let’s do this, then.”
Tail guided him silently around the perimeter of the camp to a hut on stilts. He pointed up the ladder and Jaden climbed.
Ally sat cross-legged in the middle of the empty hut.
“I’ve come to rescue you,” Jaden whispered.
“You wasted your time,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”