I run down the crowded hospital hallway, my head and heart still reeling from Lorenzo giving himself the vaccine and learning that Lizzie is pregnant with his child. I think back to how he swore to me they had never slept together.
What I don’t understand is why he felt the need to lie. Why not just tell me if he desired her over me? Why lead me on?
Why marry me?
Once I get out of the royal wing and into the main part of the hospital, I glance over my shoulder to make sure Mike Burnes isn’t behind me. I know he has questions. Lots of questions.
But I also know he probably won’t believe me.
If Lorenzo doesn’t believe me, no one will.
And that means a whole lot of people are going to die.
People I care about. People I love. And I can’t be here to watch it happen.
I stop and look up at the television playing loudly in the corner of the waiting room.
A news channel is reporting how countries are declaring martial law. How and when the vaccines are being airlifted around the world. How militaries will be administering them. How those who refuse will be imprisoned and quarantined.
The television flashes with a Montrovian flag before a local reporter takes over the screen.
“I’m here at Princess Serafina Hospital in Cap de Playa Antilles, reporting live,” she says with a perky smile. “I’m very pleased to say that our country has been able to maintain its peaceful and respectful vibe, compared to other parts of the world where looting and chaos have ensued. I’ve been talking to the affected here, and I’ve learned a few big things.” Her expression turns somber. “We’ll start with the bad news. As many of you know, our country has been surrounded by warships. We have been quarantined. What you might not know is that those militaries have been discussing the destruction of Montrovia as a way to stop the spread of the disease.” She rolls her eyes at the screen. “As if we don’t have enough on our plates, let’s add the threat of nuclear annihilation.
“But, in the midst of pending doom, we find that life and love still prevail. I’ve just learned that Lady Elizabeth Palomar, who has been affected by the virus, is currently pregnant with”—she gives a dramatic pause—“a Montrovian heir to the throne. We are sending Lizzie best wishes for her speedy recovery after she receives the vaccine. And, speaking of that, our country’s allocation will arrive via air courier first thing in the morning. Our Health and Human Services Department’s leadership has advised us that the first shot will be administered tomorrow at precisely ten a.m. I know I’ll be anxiously awaiting my turn.”
As I turn away from the television, I notice Bella’s mother, Belinda Smith, leaning up against a wall, looking shell-shocked.
“Where is Bella?” I ask, immediately worrying about the bubbly, now-cancer-free girl who watched Daniel compete as part of the Dream Wish program. “Tell me she hasn’t gotten sick.”
Belinda lets out an odd laugh and shrugs her shoulders, her eyes filling with tears. “Not anymore. This is going to sound horrible of me, but Bella went through a lot over the past few years. Surgeries, procedures, chemotherapy, and what felt like an endless array of hospital visits and stays. It tore me apart to watch her struggles, her pain, and sometimes, I actually prayed, if it would be better for her, that God would take her from me.” She completely breaks down. “And, now, he has. Just when she was finally well. Just when she was ready to start her life again.”
My throat goes dry. “Are you saying—”
“She got a sore throat and a little fever. After that, she got the rash. She passed away about thirty minutes ago. Four hours after the rash first appeared.”
I pull her into an embrace. “I’m so, so sorry.” I’m also worried.
Originally, we were told that, once the rash appeared, you’d die in twenty-four hours, but it appears to be speeding up. Amanda passed six hours after she got the rash. Bella, only four.
We hug for a few moments, and then she says, “Do you know if there is a church nearby? Like a real church, not just a chapel here at the hospital. It’s packed, and I’d like to say a prayer in peace.”
“Of course there is. In fact, I’ll go with you.” I take her hand in mine and lead her out of the hospital.
I want to completely freak out. Like, really, just have a good old-fashioned lie-on-the-ground-wail-and-pound-my-fists temper tantrum. Over everything. From warships surrounding the country to the First Lady’s passing to Lorenzo taking the vaccine that will kill him to Lizzie being pregnant with his child. I feel like a toddler who can’t handle her emotions, but I close my eyes, exhale, and let my training take over.
I am in control.
I am in control.
I am in control.
I am a firestorm.
I can handle every situation.
No matter how dire.
No matter how hopeless.
There is always a way out.
You just have to find it.
Every problem and situation, regardless of how complex it is, has a solution. It’s just a matter of quickly running the variables through your head, processing the possible outcomes, and choosing what will allow you to survive.
And, right now, I have no answers.
No answers as to how any of us are going to survive this. And no amount of scenarios is going to change that fact.
Whatever fire was inside me is gone.
Maybe going to the chapel will help me, too, somehow.
Divine intervention perhaps?
Goodness knows I could use it.
Memories are drifting through my mind when we arrive at the National Cathedral on the Plaza de Vallenta.
I’m remembering when the dean pulled me into his office and told me about my mission. How cocky my brother was when we first met. The way Daniel looked when he showed up late at the gala and his sexy dimple. How being with him was for fun. How easily we became friends.
But then I met Lorenzo. Even though I played it very cool, when he spoke to me in the tailor’s shop in that deep, sexy voice, I knew right then and there that I was done for. That I loved him. It sounds crazy, like the rambling of someone who’s never experienced love before. But I knew I was in trouble. I knew I had to protect him beyond my mission at all costs.
And I did.
What I couldn’t protect him from was himself.
I find myself taking a deep breath, just like I did after I discovered Lorenzo and my brother had been kidnapped, and I try to let go of my emotions. To focus on what drives me.
But, just as it was then, I find my answer to be the same answer.
I’ve come to care for so many people since I left Blackwood. None of whom I want to die.
Belinda has been quiet on the walk to the chapel, probably lost in her own thoughts. When she sits in a pew, hands folded and head down in prayer, I find myself wishing that Lorenzo the Magnificent could help me save his country.
Because this place has become more than just the people I love. It’s about everyone who lives in this great country. I feel responsible for their well-being, too, because, somewhere along the way, the people of Montrovia embraced me. They wanted me to marry Lorenzo. To be the girl who finally tamed the Playboy Prince.
Other than calling me an orphan once, which kind of hurt my feelings, the press has been quite kind to me.
Could I use that to my advantage?
Could I tell the world the truth about everything? About me, my mother, Black X, and The Echelon?
Could I tell them about the treasure—their treasure—that’s hidden in the desert?
Could they help me spread the word?
Would they believe me?
Could we make governments at least stop to think about the repercussions of what they are about to do?
I’m lost in thought when Belinda gently elbows me and points toward the front right corner of the church.
“What do you know about that area up there?” she says, getting up. “For some reason, I’m drawn to it. I’m going to sound crazy, but I feel like Bella wants me to see it.” She shakes her head. “That’s not quite right. I feel like she wants me to show it to you.”
“I’ve seen it before,” I say as I follow her toward it. “It’s called Magnifico and named after Lorenzo the Magnificent, the first king of Montrovia. Some people say the trees, animals, and rolling hills are representative of Arcadia. The perfect place. Possibly heaven, depending on your religious beliefs.”
“Oh,” she says. “Maybe she’s letting me know she’s okay. That she’s somewhere beautiful.”
I smile at her and nod, not sure how to reply.
“It’s too bad all this is happening in Montrovia. It’s such a beautiful country,” she comments. “To be honest, there were two reasons I wanted to come to a church. I was looking for both a quiet place to pray as well as a safe place to hide.”
“Why do you want to hide?”
“I was thinking of not getting the vaccine, giving up on life, so I can join my daughter in that beautiful place. I don’t want the military to interfere with my wishes.” But, the second the words come out of her mouth, she starts shaking her head. “I can’t believe I just said that. Bella would be ashamed of me. She was such a fighter.” She smiles to herself, and I get the feeling she’s remembering something happy. “I used to buy her a comic book before every chemotherapy treatment.”
“What was her favorite comic book?” I ask, wanting to indulge her in these scattered memories. The poor woman has been through so much.
“When Bella was first diagnosed, she carefully listened to the doctors, but she didn’t take their word for anything,” she says, not answering my question. “She did a ton of research on her own, studying everything from traditional chemotherapy to alternative, holistic approaches to Eastern medicine practices. She spoke with doctors at length about the power of the human mind and was convinced that, through meditation and positive thoughts, she could help heal herself. There was a handsome young intern on her rotation, and she always lit up when he came into the room—mostly because she thought he was so cute, but also because he loved comics, too. During one particularly rough week of treatments, she wasn’t her normal, cheerful self, and he asked her what was wrong.
“She broke down to him and confessed that she didn’t think she could do it. Didn’t think she could beat cancer. He grabbed a Wonder Woman comic and told her that, in every story, the hero had a dark moment when they thought all was lost, but they always found it within themselves to prevail. He told her that she’d need to be a superhero in order to fight cancer. After that, Wonder Woman was always her favorite.”
“That’s so cute,” I say slowly, looking up at the memorial of Lorenzo the Magnificent as pieces tumble around in my brain, recalling a memory of another time I was staring at a depiction of Arcadia.
“I’m sick of the sand,” the girl I was playing with at the TerraSphere in Iraq said, plopping down into it and running it through her hands. “I miss home.”
“Where is home?” I asked.
“Denmark. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. But my mother died, and my dad brought us here for his job.”
“What does he do?” I drew a tic-tac-toe board in the sand and put an O in one of the spaces to start a game.
“He’s a scientist and sort of like a superhero. He fights germs with the vaccines he makes. Only he works underground, and I can’t go see him during the day because it’s too dangerous.”
A superhuman virus resistant to antibiotics.
A scientist who fights germs like a superhero.
“You know what?” I say to Belinda, suddenly knowing what I need to do and where I need to go. “Your daughter was brilliant. And, because of her, I just might be able to stop people from dying.”
“But how?” she asks.
“I have to go find a superhero—and fast,” I reply, giving her a tight hug before barreling out of the massive wooden doors.
I mentally calculate how much time is left.
It’s two in the afternoon.
The vaccines will be given at ten tomorrow morning.
That means, I have twenty hours, four minutes, and fifty-three seconds to find the TerraSphere scientist, get him to prove that the vaccines will kill, and get him back to Montrovia to tell the world.
Get The Echelon