THEY LEFT US THERE.
"Wish we could work together, but you two are a risky proposition," Mwadi said, pulling herself up into the open maw of the truck.
"We didn't mean to lead them to you." Jen's face was blackened by smoke, streaked by tears. "We were just playing them for information."
"They wound up playing you."
"We'll be more careful next time, I swear."
Wickersham nodded. "You better be careful. The purple heads will be keeping their eyes on you. You're their only link to us. And that makes you useless for future operations."
"But we know the territory, like you said."
"Exactly, and the purple heads know you do. If you keep looking for us, you'll bring them straight to my doorstep."
"Just forget we exist, Jen James. Pretend this never happened." She smiled. "If you're good, I'll put you on our mailing list."
Mwadi stamped her skate once against the metal bed of the truck, a sovereign, final sound, and it jerked forward, rumbling in a slow circle around the blackened pile, then out of the courtyard and down the alley.
Jen followed for a few steps, as if to plead her case again, but didn't say anything. She stood silent until the sound of the truck had faded to nothing.
When it was gone, she turned and faced the pile.
"There must be something left."
"Pieces, clues." She strode forward to the blackened edge, teeth gritted, her feet kicking ash into the air. "Maybe we can find a sample of the canvas, or an eyelet, or one of those laces."
I almost smiled. With everything in ashes, Jen had returned to her roots: shoelaces.
She dropped to her knees in the smoking pyre, pushing her hands through the ruin, face averted from the heat still coming off the smoking plastic.
"We might even find a whole shoe in here. When houses burn down, they always find weird stuff the fire didn't—" She lost the rest of her words, coughing from the smoke and ash she'd raised. Her hands went to her face, leaving solid black streaks on her cheeks. She gained control of her breathing, then spat out something black.
"Jen, are you crazy?"
She looked up at me, clearly wondering why I wasn't down there with her.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm looking for the damn shoes, Hunter. That's what we've been doing all along!"
I shook my head. "I was looking for Mandy."
She spread her blackened hands. "Well, she turned out to be fine. She's probably up for a promotion. You want to give up now? Just because Mwadi Wickersham tells us to?"
I sighed and walked into the pile, feeling the warmth of the ashes through the soles of my shoes. The sun had gone down, and the remaining light in the courtyard came from the still-glowing core of the fire. I knelt next to Jen.
"Give what up?"
"For what? The shoes are gone."
She shook her head, as hard and angry as a twelve-year-old forced to move to New Jersey. Like the answer couldn't be expressed in words, and only an idiot would think it could. She was looking for lost cool, the hardest thing to find.
I spoke softly. Jen, maybe it's better this way.
"I mean, do you really want to work for those guys? Carrying out the grand plans of the Jammers? Spending every minute of your life thinking you've got to change the world?"
She glared at me, eyes flashing. "Yeah, that's exactly what I want."
"That's what I've always wanted." She dug into the ash again, raising a black haze that settled over us, forcing me to turn away, eyes shut. "I mean, what do you want to do, Hunter? Go back to watching advertisements for money? Hang out in focus groups and debate whether leg warmers are coming back? Poach the latest shoelaces? Just watch instead of making something happen?"
"I don't just watch."
"No, you take pictures and sell them, theorize and read a lot. But you don't do anything."
My eyes opened wide.
"I don't do anything?" I sure felt like I'd been doing things, at least for the last two days. Since I'd met Jen.
"No, you don't. You watch. You analyze. You follow. That's the part of the pyramid you like the best: the outside, looking in. But you're afraid to change anything."
I swallowed, the taste of smoke in my mouth like burned toast. No denials came to my lips because frankly, she was right. I'd followed her every step of the way here. Whenever I would have given up, she'd provided the next step. Just as cool hunters have always done, I'd latched onto Jen's initiative, her dogged pursuit of the weird and terrifying.
And in the end, I hadn't even managed the one thing I am good at: watching. I hadn't noticed us being followed and had let Jen be used by a bunch of stupid purple heads, leaving her with nothing but ashes.
I remembered sending the picture of her laces to Mandy—selling Jen out the very first time I'd met her. I was nothing but a fraud. As I'd found out from the moment we'd left Minnesota, there wasn't anything cool about me.
I didn't belong with the Jammers or deserve to be with Jen.
"Okay. I'll get out of your way." I stood up.
"No, I really want to get out of your way." I'd never heard my voice so harsh or felt the lump in my stomach so hard.
I walked away, and even before I reached the alley, I heard her back at work, picking through the pile.