Desert Fire

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Eighteen

Conner

I lean against the building with my hands fisted in my pockets, trying to control my temper, trying to hold it at bay, but everything in me screams to let go. To charge in the building and drag Payton out, whether she wants to come or not. I could give two shits if it makes her hate me, so long as it means she’s safe and away from that monster.

Everything about this is wrong. We never should have come here to begin with, but Payton just had to meet her real mom. A part of me had hoped Cadmar would chain her up, refuse to let her out of his sight, but he caved. The man I saw as immovable caved under his adoptive-daughter’s request. He loves her as I imagine any dad would love his only daughter, even though she isn’t really his, which makes it dangerous, because he would probably do anything to keep her happy. Then again, she would have put up one hell of a fight to get her way on this, even if he had refused. When she brought it up, she would dig her heels in, refusing to see reason. Everyone was against her, people are hunting her, but it was as if those things only spurred her on.

Now she’s in there with the woman who chose to be a murderer over taking care of her daughter. There’s no way of knowing what might be happening to her. My stomach clenches with every new image my mind conjures up of ways her mom could be hurting her. Rage consumes me again. I imagine myself in the ring, taking my anger out on my opponent. So what if my opponent’s face takes on Janet’s features. It’s my imagination. Taking my anger out on her would benefit everyone as far as I’m concerned.

Leaning against the corner of the building, a good twenty yards from the entrance, my arms crossed over my chest, I hope no one bothers me for loitering. After all, there are tons of creeps around this city, whom no one bothers, why should I be any different? The last thing I need is for someone to call the cops while I wait for her to come out. I will wait for her. Even if she sleeps here, I’ll stay through the night. It shouldn’t take that long, though. Something’s off, something we didn’t plan for is going on here. Her mom wouldn’t have demanded she speak to Payton alone, wouldn’t have made her get rid of me if she didn’t have an agenda.

Our flight is leaving any minute, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to take it without her. Sure, I was pissed when she told me to leave. My stupid, angry side believed every word she said, so I let it take over, storming off like a deranged idiot. Now my rational side, the side that knows her, recognized the fear in her eyes. The fear she tried her hardest to hide. That’s why I agreed with Cadmar, made sure to follow her, because I care, so much it hurts. Besides, I should have noticed the fear to begin with, should have made her leave with me. Now I’m stuck standing on the damned sidelines while that woman does God-knows-what to Payton.

I can’t help thinking about our day, about the time we’ve spent together over the last week, while I wait for the other shoe to drop. I never would have imagined myself, the son of a scientist, running off with an assassin and basically falling in love. Although I can’t say I didn’t love her before, because I damn well did. When she would meet me on the weekends in Old Town, I lived and breathed for those days.

I was just waiting for her to trust me enough to share whatever it was she held back from me, before I told her as much. If she told me the whole truth that night in Old Town, I never would have believed her; probably would have thought she was telling a ridiculous lie to get rid of me. My buddies called me a pussy, made fun of me, called me every name they could think up for waiting around for her; I couldn’t even glance at another girl over the span of our friendship.

Over the last week, I’ve learned more about her, watched her grow into an even more amazing girl than she’s been the entire eleven months I’ve known her. The things I’ve watched her go through would make most people cringe in horror, but the one area she’s still naïve in is how savage some people can be. Yes, she’s dealt with killers, became one herself, but being put in a bubble most her life, she never got to interact with people, never got to experience real monsters, like the one she’s in that apartment with now.

I still can’t believe Payton was right about her mom having a way to track her down. The idea she put some sort of tracking device on the daughter she gave up, so she could call on her whenever she needed, makes me want to hit something. That’s something a real monster would do. I’ve had my fair share of shit from my dad, but I can’t imagine him doing something so…insane to me. Janet has to be a psycho, like the kind who feels no remorse, uses everyone around them for their own gain and manipulates anyone who will listen. I know for a fact she’s using Payton for something, but we won’t know what until it’s revealed.

It doesn’t take long to find out.

I take a deep breath, trying to calm my nerves, but peace will never come. The sight of three men in black suits getting out of a black SUV across the street from the building, slowly approaching the entrance, has my heart stopping. My insides turn to steel, my hands fisting at my sides. I would love to think I’m overreacting, but the symbol on the SUV’s license plate—the same symbol, which donned all the agent’s uniforms back at Cadmar’s house—solidifies my suspicion.

Payton’s mom brought her here to hand her over to the Elites.

Nobody on the street bats an eye, even though three men in suits crossing the street at nine at night looks pretty damn suspicious. I’m frozen in place while I watch them enter the building. What the hell should I do? I can’t possibly stop them; they would kill me in seconds. I pull my phone out to call Payton’s phone, but it doesn’t go through. Damn it! I try Cadmar and Reiley, but they don’t answer. Dear God, could they pick a worse time not to answer? I shove my phone in my pocket, run my fingers through my hair, pulling on it. There isn’t anything I can do to stop them, but I approach the entrance anyway, hoping I’ll come up with something brilliant by the time I get to the apartment.

I don’t even get inside the building. They weren’t in there for more than five minutes, but they’re already exiting the building. My stomach heaves, my vision reddening at the sight of Payton’s unconscious body slung over the middle guy’s shoulder. Her wrists are bound, her pile of hair hanging down the man’s back, her pink backpack slung over his other shoulder. I’m shocked again that no one even looks twice at the men hauling around an unconscious girl. My girl.

I don’t realize I’m moving across the street toward them until I’m only a few yards from their SUV with my fists clenched at my sides. Two of them are already in, and the one with Payton just tossed her in the back seat along with her pack. I hurry toward him, trying not to get hit by oncoming cars. The ringing in my ears drowns the honking horns out. I can’t let them leave with her, even if they kill me. He spots me, but doesn’t do what I was expecting. He should have attacked me or shot me, but he only gives me a hard look, before getting in the back seat with Payton, right before the SUV pulls away from the curb.

I only freeze for a second, before hailing a cab. Luckily, the first one I flag down stops. I jump in, pulling two hundred dollars of the money Cadmar gave me from my wallet. “Follow that black SUV,” I demand, shoving the money through the window.

The driver stares at the money, but doesn’t take it or start driving. The SUV is stopped at a light, but they’ll be out of sight soon. “Look kid.” The driver with the bad comb-over turns in his seat to gaze at me. “You may see that kind of shit happen on TV, but I don’t do that.”

“They have my girlfriend!” I yell, slamming my fists on the window, the scabs cracking open again, but the sting never comes. Too much adrenaline pumps through my veins for me to feel anything.

The driver’s eyes bug out, making me want to reach through the window, strangle the life from him. “Sounds like you need the cops,” he grunts.

“Please.” I pull three more hundreds out while watching the SUV take a left way down the road. “The cops can’t help me.”

He stares at the money for another long second and it takes everything I have not to lose it again. Finally grabbing the money, he pulls away from the curb without another word. The nightlife teems the streets, but he weaves through the mass of traffic quickly.

“They turned left up there.” I point to the turn.

He gets to it quickly, but the SUV is nowhere in sight when he takes it. My heart pounds, my fists still clenched at my sides, while my blood boils. I can’t lose her. I can’t lose her. I can’t lose her. I chant over and over in my head. The city lights glint off the black paint a good mile ahead of us.

“There it is,” I shout.

The driver only nods while continuing to weave through the traffic. We gain on them once we’re out of the heart of the city. My phone buzzes in my pocket and I take it out with shaking hands.

“They have Payton,” I say before Cadmar can talk.

“What? Who has her?” he yells.

“Who do you think?” I demand. He knows who wants her. “It was a freaking setup. She handed Payton right over to them.”

“And you didn’t stop them?”

“How the hell was I supposed to do that without getting killed? If I got killed, they would still have her and we wouldn’t know where they’re taking her.”

“You’re following them?”

“Of course I am. It looks like they’re headed to the airport we landed in.”

“Shit,” he breathes, making a sharp pain shoot through my chest. I don’t need any more bad news, probably can’t handle anymore. But I’m going to get it.

“Shit? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That means they’re going to take her somewhere and you won’t be able to follow.”

“Can’t we find out where they’re going? And I could find that pilot and ask him to follow them?” The driver snorts, looking at me through the rearview mirror, causing a snarl to rip through my chest. He’s pissing off the wrong guy.

“That isn’t how things work,” Cadmar sighs while I grind my teeth together. “By the time you land again, they would be gone and you wouldn’t have a way to find them.”

“At least we would know what state they’re in,” I yell. I don’t want to panic, don’t want this to be hopeless. I can’t let them have her.

“Kid, keep your head on. We’ll figure this out.”

“Don’t. Call. Me. Kid.” I spit each word. “They have Payton, Cadmar.”

“I get that. Give me five minutes. I’ll call you back.”

The line goes dead. I stare at the phone in disbelief, debating whether I should throw it or crush it. We’re only a few miles from the airport. I don’t know how I’m going to get to her. The driver is right; this isn’t TV or an action movie. I can’t just sneak onto the plane and save her. No matter how badly I want to. I sigh in relief exactly five minutes later when my phone vibrates right as we’re pulling off the highway.

“Yeah?” I answer.

“They’re taking her to Los Angeles; they have a facility there. Ted will be there in ten minutes, but I’m not sure what good it will do. Once they have her inside, it will be next to impossible to get her out. Of course, you can scout it out, I’ll give you directions once you land.”

“What do you mean ‘next to impossible’?” I demand, my gut clenching.

“The facility is…guarded…high security shit. You’ll understand when you see it. Just get there, find a motel, and sit tight. I’ll let you know where to go from there.”

“We can’t just leave her in there. There’s got to be a way to get her out. I mean, what if they kill her?” I pause, thinking about that. They should have killed her in the first place if that’s what they wanted. “I thought they wanted her dead. Why go through all this trouble? Why not kill her to begin with?”

“They don’t want her dead,” his reply is grim. “They want her.”

Those words have bile ripping at my throat. “Then I can’t let them leave with her. I have to stop them. Tell me what to do to stop them.”

“Conner,” he shouts. “You don’t want them to get you, too. They wouldn’t hesitate killing you. We can get her back, but we can’t stop what’s already happening. She chose to go there and there’s nothing I can do to save her right now.”

“Don’t say that! She doesn’t deserve to be taken just because she wanted to meet her mom.”

“Do you think I’m happy about it?” he yells, the earpiece rattling. “Do you think I wanted to let her go in the first place?”

“Then you shouldn’t have,” I growl, spit frothing in my mouth from the adrenaline pumping through my veins. “You should have made her stay.”

He’s silent for a long minute, making me think he hung up on me, until he sighs. “I have something to finish here. We will meet you there. You have a plane to catch.”

I want to yell more, to demand to know what could be more important than getting Payton back, but we’re about to pull into the airport; I have my own shit to take care of. If he doesn’t care what happens to her, someone who does needs to help her. “Fine. I’ll call when I land.”

“Be careful kid.”

The line goes dead again. I shove it in my pocket when the driver turns. The SUV is a good quarter mile ahead of us. “Stop right here,” I tell him and he complies immediately, as if he’s anxious to be rid of me. “Thanks,” I say over my shoulder when I get out.

He shakes his head and takes off, turning the car around before speeding back toward the highway. I stick to the shadows, running for the hangar the SUV parked by. Cadmar said not to get caught by them, but I have to see. I have to watch.

I hide behind a plane about twenty yards from them, watching the three men get out of the vehicle, the same one slinging Payton over his shoulder. My fists clench and unclench, my eyes burning…everything burns. I need to get her. I have to. I start moving forward, but think twice. I’ll just end up getting killed. I’m sure Cadmar could get her even if I was dead, but I want to save her. And she would be pissed if I got myself killed in the process of saving her right now. Ha! Of course, I’m worried about pissing her off, even at a time like this. The irony makes my head ache. Every muscle, every bone inside me protests while I watch them load her onto the small jet.

I want to hold her. Want to brush her hair out of her face and kiss her amazing lips.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I back away when their jet starts up. I spin on my heel, running for the plane I’m supposed to be on. Ted stands next to the small white plane, with a blue pinstripe running down its side with his hand resting on it. It’s much smaller than Cadmar’s jet, but I’m okay with that, actually more comfortable with it that way. All the fancy stuff was a bit too much for me, added on top of their occupations.

He watches the jet take off with my girl while I approach him, but I don’t turn to watch it, too. I can’t. His lips are in a thin line, a grim look in his eyes, making me wonder how much he knows. His gaze meets mine before we nod at each other. “Let’s get you in the air, kid,” he says in his gruff tone.

I only nod again. I want to tell him not to call me kid; I hate being called kid, because it makes me think of my dad, who always treated me like one. But I’m afraid my voice might crack and I don’t want to sound like the pussy I am. My girl is in the air in the hands of people who want to do unthinkable things to her and I just stood there, watching them, doing nothing. When I get on the plane behind Ted, I can’t decide if I want to throw up or hit something. I get in my seat, squeezing my eyes shut again, imagining Payton in my lap, my arms wrapped protectively around her.

I will get her back. Even if I have to call in some favors of my own.

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