If I Could Stay, page 12
I stared at the table, trying to breathe through my panic. This was just supposed to be coffee with Jack, not meet the boys in blue.
“Who’s this?” one of them asked.
“This is Celeste, and she hasn’t decided if she likes me or not yet, so if you guys could move along…” He said it in that I’m-teasing-but-I’m-really-serious tone.
“Wait,” the other one said, moving closer instead of farther away. “Is this the girl you were talking about, with the broken-down car and—”
“Heinz,” Jack snapped, and Heinz shut up while I sat in an onslaught of hot and cold and betrayal and get-the-hell-out-of-here instinct. “You’re on duty. Go be on duty.”
“Sure thing, Trent. We’ll let you get back to schmoozing your girl.” I’m guessing there was an eye roll, but I was still staring at the table. Thankfully they moved out, gave Jack one more mocking goodbye, and then left the diner.
Jack huffed out a breath. “I’m really sorry about—”
I grabbed my coat and pulled myself from the booth, throwing the coat around my shoulders as I made a beeline for the door.
“Wait,” he called.
Glancing back, I could see him frantically digging in his wallet, but I didn’t slow.
I made it halfway down the block before he caught up with me. “I’m so sorry about that. I know how uncomfortable you are with cops. I really didn’t have any idea they’d be there.”
My feet came to an abrupt halt and I stared at him, incredulous. “You know that’s not the real problem, don’t you?”
He blew out a breath and looked at the ground. So guilty.
“You told them!” I yelled, jamming my finger back in the direction of the diner. “You promised you wouldn’t tell, and then you told them. Two guys who obviously can’t keep their mouths shut.”
“I wasn’t telling them about you.”
My eyes narrowed because—liar.
“I mean, yes, I was telling them about you, but I was telling them about the girl I liked, not the girl who was running from something.”
“And that’s okay? I’m supposed to forget that you betrayed my confidence and get all swoony because you admit that you have a crush on me? What happened to all that crap about trusting someone? Did you not mean any of it? And by the way, how does my burnt car come up when you’re telling the boys about a girl you like?”
“I didn’t tell them it had been burned, I told them it had broken down. And I only told them because that’s how we met. They’re my friends, and it slipped, okay? That’s how friendship works. Sometimes friends can pry stuff out of you when you don’t mean for it to happen.”
“Says the professional cop, who was talking to other cops, who you know that I don’t trust.”
His shoulders sagged.
I turned away, and then immediately turned back. “And I’m sorry if I don’t know all the ins and outs of friendship. I’ve been a little busy with other things.”
I walked away again, and he followed after me. “That’s not what I meant. I messed up. I did, and I admit that. But they don’t know the whole story. They’re not suspicious, they’re not investigating. They’re just giving me a hard time for liking a girl. It’s completely—”
I turned and faced him down. “Go get your truck, Jack! You’re wasting your time on me. I don’t have friends.”
This time when I walked away, he didn’t follow.
It stormed that night, rattling the windows and making the tree branches scrape against the side of the house.
I stayed awake, listening to the wind and thinking of the best way to make nice with Jack the next day. After stewing about it all day while helping Adeline arrange her candy jars in her window sills, I’d realized something. Jack was my friend. It had happened so gradually, and without my permission, that I hadn’t recognized it. We were probably more than that, yes, because there was the crush, and the attraction and the hot and cold, and wanting him to touch my hand. But we were friends, and I had fallen into the friend trap he’d mentioned. I had let him pry stuff out of me when I shouldn’t have. I’d told him about my dad. I’d told him too much, and that was because I’d let him in.
Could I really blame him for trusting his other friends enough to let something slip? Probably not. Plus, I didn’t want to. Being mad at Jack sucked.
Adeline slept in the next morning, as was her habit. It was Monday, and since I had completely spaced my grocery errand after the debacle with Jack, I needed to go today. So I waited for the cleaning lady to show up then left with a short grocery list in hand. It was nice to get out for a while, and my walk took me past Jack’s house. He didn’t answer my knock though—probably at work, or just living his life. So I kept heading toward town. An electrician stood beside his van, staring up at the power lines. Looked like the storm the night before had caused some damage. I huddled down in my coat, glad that the sun was out and chasing away a lot of the cold.
The electrician glanced up when I passed and I managed a smile before looking away. I had learned to acknowledge people and then turn away so they didn’t get a good look at my face.
I shouldn’t have looked away.
Arms wrapped around me from behind. My defensive reflexes kicked in and I threw my head back, hitting him in the face. His grip loosened a tiny bit, but before I could do anything more, a second man took my feet out from under me—literally picked up my feet—and they wrestled me quickly into the back of the van.
The door was shut and the second guy, who was all muscle, sat on my back as the electrician climbed into the driver’s seat and gunned the engine. I got out several good screams before Muscles duct-taped my mouth. Though he had me pinned on my stomach, I did my best to kick at him with my heels and scratch at his arms with my hands. At least if he killed me, there’d be some DNA evidence.
He taped up my ankles as the van careened around a corner then flipped me over so that he could tie my wrists in front of me. I tried to jerk my hands away, but this guy was big. Much bigger than the fake electrician who now drove the van. I kept kicking out with my feet, but he doggedly continued his efforts until I was bound at the wrists, ankles, and knees. Then he used rope to tie my bound hands and feet to some anchors in the side of the van, directly behind the driver’s seat. The rest of the interior was empty, with no windows.
I glared daggers at him, almost more pissed off than I was scared. Almost.
He didn’t notice my death stare, just calmly got up into a crouch once I was secured and moved to the passenger seat of the van.
I screamed at him through the tape. It got his attention, muted though the sound was. He turned to me, raising his eyebrows, as if asking a polite question. I jerked at my restraints and screamed again.
“Sorry, sister.” He had the audacity to shrug. “Boss’s orders.” He turned back to look out the windshield, dismissing me.
My breathing sped up to a panicked, uneven rhythm. Dad or Russo? Dad or Russo? I hoped it was my dad. I would probably fare better with him than with Russo. Though, if I were honest, I couldn’t claim that with any degree of certainty.
How could I have been so stupid? I had let my guard down, allowed thoughts of Jack to distract me. If I’d been paying attention, I might have realized what was happening. I could have used my Aikido training to incapacitate the electrician and run before Muscles had a chance to get the jump on me. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
It’s a shame I didn’t have my burner phone with me. I had never turned it on. No reason when I knew so few people, and I had wanted to keep it as a backup. If I had it now, perhaps I could have found a way to use Jack’s number. He’d given it to me weeks ago and I’d memorized it. If only wishing made it so.
But I couldn’t go back and change it. All I could do was pay attention now. As I tried to slow my breathing, I fixed my gaze on the seams of the panel van and opened my ears to the sounds of the road. We stopped and started several times as my captors made their way through town.
My concentration broke when a bug crawled across my line of sight. Usually bugs made me squeamish, but in this situation I found it comforting. It may have only been a bug, but at least I wasn’t trapped in this van completely by myself.
I shook off the wayward thought and craned around, trying to look out the front windows, but from my vantage point, I could only see only sky with the occasional tree breaking up the monotony.
It took maybe an hour before the van slowed and we exited the freeway. I did my best to keep track of the turns and stops, but it did no good. We stopped and the door opened to reveal the hangar of a private airport. Despite my efforts, they dragged me from the van and toward a waiting plane. The pilot waited just inside for us and had the nerve to nod at me and say, “Welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy your flight.”
I exhausted myself trying to throw them off even though I knew it was useless. I would hate for them to think that I was just going to go quietly into that crappy night.
They buckled me into a soft leather seat at the back of the plane, cut the tape that bound my knees, and went to buckle their big kidnapping butts into seats near the front. I eyed the window before throwing my elbow into it several times, hoping to get some runway worker’s attention. But this private hangar seemed to have no staff, and we taxied down the runway and took off without a hitch.
I sat back in my seat and pinched my eyes shut, breathing hard through my nose after all the exertion. Trying not to let my panic overtake my good sense. They hadn’t hurt me. That was a definite positive. They hadn’t threatened me. I hadn’t seen any guns bandied about.
Odds were looking good that it was my dad who had sent these guys to fetch me. That was good. I hoped.
My eyes flew open as I sensed someone coming close. I flinched away as a hand came toward my face before unceremoniously ripping the duct tape from my mouth.
“OW!” I pressed the backs of my fingers to my throbbing face and blinked away the tears that had come to my eyes. Then I looked up, hoping to fix a withering glare at whichever minion had attempted to deprive me of as many skin cells as possible, but Muscles was already walking away. I considered yelling some choice words after him, but decided it would just come off as unconvincing bravado. Strong and stoic would be a better approach to take.
It took me several moments to realize that there was a bottle of water sitting at my side. For a second I had the crazy thought that if it had been red wine, I could have “accidentally” dumped it on that pretty carpet. Instead I was just grateful for it. I had to pin the bottle between my knees so that I could unscrew the cap with my bound hands, but at least I knew it hadn’t already been opened before they gave it to me. The last thing I needed was some knock-out drug to leave me even more helpless.
Being helpless sucked, but that’s exactly what I was. The contrast of this vulnerability versus the unease I had felt when confronted with Jack’s cop friends left a bitter taste in my mouth. There was no comparison.
After I drank half of the water, I considered what else I could do now that my mouth was free, and immediately started using my teeth to rip at the tape binding my wrists.
I made a little progress, though my jaw started to ache quickly. The tape was wrapped several times and some of it was folded over onto itself. Only a centimeter rip had formed, and tiny pieces of tape were stuck to my teeth when the fake electrician decided to leave his comfy chair and come back to sit directly across from me.
“Don’t look so worried,” he said in what I suppose was meant to be a reassuring voice. “The boss doesn’t want you hurt.”
Was that supposed to make me feel better? Maybe it did—a little—as much as it could when he was probably lying. I gave an inward scream, pulled my feet up on the chair with me, and stared out the window, wishing for the shirt I’d once bought at a secondhand store in Baton Rouge that was all black and simply said “BITE ME” across the back.
The view outside the window was all puffy clouds and sunshine. It did not fit my mood.
I missed Jack. He would figure out I was gone eventually, and then what would he think? Would he look for me? Our morning yesterday had ended with me telling him off and rejecting him as a friend. What if he thought that I left because I was mad at him? It wasn’t lost on me that if I had told him the truth, he’d have a lot better chance of helping me out. He could have gone to the FBI and told them about me. Instead I’d done the “smart” thing and kept everything to myself.
I FLINCHED WHEN we touched down. The flight had only been a couple hours, so we were still in the country—probably.
The fake electrician who had sat down across from me cleared his throat.
I didn’t acknowledge him, but he spoke anyway.
“I’m going to let you walk off the plane if you’d like. We’re at a private hangar. There’s no one around. The security cameras aren’t working at the moment. You can try to scream, but no one will hear you, and I don’t much like the sound of screaming, so I can’t guarantee I’ll be nice about making you quit. Understood?”
I turned to look at him, trying to keep my face passive. “Sure thing.”
He cut the tape from my ankles and gestured for me to stand. I did so slowly, trying to work out my muscles and restore normal circulation. He only gave me about ten seconds before taking hold of my arm and nudging me toward the airplane door.
The sunshine was blinding as we stepped into the hot air. We’d definitely gone south. I might have to break my stoic routine and ask them to let me take my coat off.
I considered screaming, but the electrician had been right. There was no one around, and the SUV was parked only a couple of feet from the airplane stairs.
They put me in the backseat then climbed in on either side, their hard biceps crowding my shoulders.
As soon as we started rolling, Muscles turned to me, lifting a brow. “You going to fight us if I untie you?”
I narrowed my eyes in derision. “Would it do any good?”
“No.” The word held no inflection.
I held up my hands, an invitation for him to cut them free. He pulled out a knife from somewhere and unbound my hands. I immediately unzipped my coat and awkwardly maneuvered out of it.
As I alternated between fisting my hands and stretching my fingers, the electrician tried to hand me something that looked like a wad of black fabric. “It’s important you don’t see where we’re headed. Put it on.”
I took it from him with a fair amount of trepidation and saw that it was a sleeping mask/blindfold. The idea of riding between these two muscle-bound goons while not being able to see made my stomach turn.
Both were staring at me, so I only hesitated a moment in order to take a deep breath before putting the mask over my eyes. The darkness left me with nothing but my fears for company, whispering sweet nothings in my ears.
Luckily my captors had music on, providing an auditory distraction. The rest of the ride felt like hours, though from the number of songs that played, I estimated it was only about one.
When we arrived at our destination, I was allowed to take the mask off. My hands shook as I did so, and my nervous fingers ran through my hair as I slid out of the car and looked up at the mansion before me. I looked to the left and right, easily determining that this was a compound with lots of land surrounding the house. Nowhere to run.
Most frightening of all: I didn’t recognize it. If this belonged to my father, he must have purchased it in the last few years. Unfortunately for me, that was unlikely. Dad didn’t buy new property. Dad took care of all the properties he had inherited from his own father.
I desperately tried to claw together all of my inner strength as I climbed the stairs and entered through doors that were fancy and elaborate, but that I couldn’t pay attention to because of the raw fear eating at my throat.
I tried to comfort myself with the fact that
The gigantic entryway was echoey and cavernous. Lots of marble or some other kind of stone. Pillars. Chandeliers. Money.
My captors guided me past the curved stairs that led to the upper floor and down a hallway with windows from floor to ceiling along one wall. Halfway down the hall, they stopped in front of a door.
Muscles looked at me. “The boss wants a word,” he said before pulling it open.
The room was furnished in hard gleaming wood and cold marble, though the floor was a plush carpet. I fixed my eyes on the upper corner of the wall and kept them there. Whoever the boss was, I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of my curiosity. I strove to appear as indifferent as possible.
I was brought to the center of the room and left there. Muscles and the electrician left, shutting the door as they went.
I heard movement in the corner behind me and braced myself for whatever was to follow. If I was unlucky, Russo would be the one lurking behind me. If I was less unlucky, it would be my father.
The boss’s muffled footsteps sounded from behind me, approaching then stopping just to my left. I stared so hard at that upper corner of the room that my vision blurred. As the moments stretched, I wondered if he was going to wait me out, try to make me sweat.
“Not even a hello for your own sister?”
Shock like a boulder dropped on my chest, squeezing all the air out. I ever so slowly turned my head until I met the eyes of my older sister. “Renee?” Joy, relief and confusion all welled up inside me.
She smiled, the same beautiful smile I’d known for years. “Hey, baby girl.”
I threw my arms around her, blinking furiously and holding my breath in an attempt not to cry.
She hesitated just a moment before gripping me back in a fierce hug. “I’m so glad I got to you in time,” she said.
A laugh escaped me. One laced with joy and wonder. And then my brain kicked in. “Wait.” I pulled back, my eyes once again taking in the opulence, remembering the reason I was here. “Wait. What’s going on?” I looked at her face, the one I had loved and missed for so long. Then I looked at the rest of her. The immaculate, bold, architectural dress, the perfectly set hair. The manicured nails and gorgeous heels.
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