We travel through city after city, driving as long as we can without gas or a bathroom break. We chat when it’s necessary, but I usually have my earbuds in when she’s driving, and she reads while I drive. The two times we’ve had to stop to sleep, we found rest stops of some sort in order to park the Jeep and sleep in it.
We keep in contact with Conner the entire way, sometimes calling to check on his progress with his plan, which he always says is “coming along.” I never tell him about the mission they’re going to send Payton on, but he never talks about her anyway. It’s as if we have some silent agreement to not bring her up because it’s too goddamn painful to think of the horrors my awesome sister may be experiencing.
The first night we parked after only a couple hours of driving to get our batteries charged. Now we’re parked in a truck stop area somewhere in Nebraska, preparing to sleep. Thank God! I’ve been able to keep more and more food down, gaining my strength back, but I still get burnt out quickly.
While relaxing my brain, my phone buzzes, ‘Co’ popping up. If only it were just a ‘C.’ If only he could call. My heart cracks a little more.
Shake it off, Reiley!
“Yeah?” I answer, but my heart squeezes again when I remember where the greeting comes from. “I mean, hi.”
“Hey. I’m stuck,” Conner tells me.
“Stuck? With what?” I move on.
“I have all the equipment I need, and most of the chemicals, but I can’t go any further without sulfuric, nitric, and hydrofluoric acid. They each will be for different uses—”
“Whoa, whoa!” I cut him off. “I’m not the genius in the family. That would be….” I trail off, not wanting to say her name, not able to get it past my lips. I can’t. I failed them both.
My mouth opens and closes as I shake my head back and forth. Kadence grabs the phone from my hand while the world cracks and crumbles around me. She takes over the conversation, but her voice is a buzzing in the background.
When did I become such a baby?
I used to have my shit together, used to know exactly where I wanted to be in life. Now, with the two most important people in my life missing or… or… dead, I don’t know anything about life. I’m not some badass who can show no emotion. No, I have a lot of emotions bubbling up inside me. About to overflow. I couldn’t be more lost. More terrified.
“Reiley,” Kay shouts, shaking my shoulder.
“What?” I gasp, clawing my way out of the dark thoughts.
“You are going to get through this. We are going to.” Her gaze pins me to my seat. I can only nod, but I don’t believe her. Not one bit. “He needs us to stop at the castle. We have to go through northern Colorado. It won’t be too far out of our way, but it could be extremely dangerous.”
“Why? Why would we go back there?” I demand, trying to ignore my insides churning at the thought of visiting our old “home.”
“He’s certain he saw the things he needs in the lab. Chemicals are rather difficult to come by anywhere without breaking and entering, which we need to avoid at all costs. I’m not really the chemistry person either, but his plan seems sound. I wouldn’t risk us going to the castle otherwise.”
I shake my head back and forth, I don’t know what else to do.
The castle. My personal hell. The only reason I would ever go back there would be to get something of Cadmar’s to hold onto, something to always remind me of him. But even for that… that’s stretching. We may as well hand ourselves over to the Elites.
“They’ll be watching the castle. Even if they have what they want, who they want, they’ll still be watching.”
“That’s true.” She nods. “I just want to get her back. I’ll do anything to get her back.” The desperation, mixed with conviction, has me convinced.
I should be excited that I’m not the one doing the convincing this time, but the lump of dread in my stomach snuffs out all excitement. How odd to be terrified of danger when I used to live for any chance of it. Only a couple weeks ago, I would’ve died for a chance like this, to prove myself worthy. Now the thought of any mission has what little I’ve eaten turning to lead in my stomach.
After getting a few hours of sleep, we continue our drive, changing our course slightly. Kay estimates the detour to take us only a day longer than originally planned, but if something goes awry, it could take much longer. I doze for short spurts, long enough to give me the energy to drive. When I do drive, I’m always looking in the rearview mirror for a redhead following us. We may have gotten away while she slept through the night, but she’s my biological mother; I don’t see her giving up on finding me again.
Maybe the detour is a good thing. I’m certain she would think only an idiot would go back to the scene of the crime. Perhaps we are idiots, but who gives a crap what the adults think about us.
We never spot anyone following, and Kay is soon winding us through the Rockies, toward Loveland. The trees, the fresh air, the snow-capped mountains all make me cringe.
I never wanted to come back here, not in a million years, but there’s no turning back, especially not when the castle comes into view. My pulse quickens, palms sweating, acid rushing up my throat. Tears prick my eyes as I fight back the vomit.
“It’ll be okay.” Kay gives me a sideways glance when she pulls into the driveway, probably misinterpreting the tears, but I nod anyway.
I’m not so big a sissy that I would cry over being back at this place, but it does make me sick when thoughts of snarling faces, fists and feet pounding on me from all directions fog my mind. The stone building rising in front of us is a joke, a façade to veil the ugliness our “family” really was. The enormous garage door slides open as we approach, and every fiber in me screams for us to flee this place.
But Payton. There isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do to get her out of the Elites’ claws.
We both release our breaths that we were holding when the garage appears completely empty, save for Cadmar’s amazing car collection. A few more cracks fracture through my heart when my gaze finds his La Farrari. The car he loved more than anything, the one he wouldn’t let any of us touch. I avert my eyes, but he picked every car in this damned garage.
Kay parks in an empty space. All looks quiet. Peaceful.
Not my forte.
“In and out, okay?” she says, hands still gripping the wheel, not making a move to turn the Jeep off. “In and out,” she repeats on a whisper.
“Let’s get this over with!” I snap without meaning to.
She gets two guns from the back of the car, handing me one after grabbing her backpack. I take it with a good amount of reluctance, having had terrible luck with them lately. Walking through the garage brings back a million memories that threaten to bring me to my knees. I don’t want to think about her right now, but she’s my best friend. None of my memories don’t include her.
The door into the house stands slightly ajar. Kay raises her gun higher before nudging it open with her foot. It doesn’t squeak, doesn’t make a sound, but my pounding heart and panting breaths fill the silence. Kay, like the door, is entirely silent. Even limping on her left side, she’s silent as an assassin moving into the house.
I always forget what she is. She is an assassin. She’s a killing machine. She may not have killed anywhere near the amount Payton has, but she was good at it. She never gloated like Bryn and Eva, but watching her practice with daggers, you could never doubt how good she is.
The thought should horrify me, but my heartbeat slows and I’m able to take a steadying breath. My hands tighten on the frame of the gun, more confident, more collected while I follow her into the house. I am the victim no more.
I am Reiley Morros, and I will survive.
Nothing makes a peep, no menacing shadows following us down the empty stone hallway. Kay glances around each archway as if one of those enormous agents could wedge themselves in the tiny space.
“Is there anything you want to grab from your room?” she whispers when we pass our doors.
Everything in me screams for me to get some extra clothes that are actually fashionable, but what if the memories are too much to handle? With a shake of my head, we continue down the dark hall. My heart pounds with every foot we gain. The sitting room isn’t ransacked or destroyed as I thought it would be. The enormous front door isn’t busted in—everything eerily in the place it was before we left. When the Elites came to find Scarlet, Bryn, and Eva chained up in the garage, I thought they would destroy the place.
We finally get to the other end of the house without a hitch. When she opens the door to the arena, I release a breath. Like the rest of the house, not one thing is out of place, not one weapon was moved along the wall by the springboard. Everything pristine, everything, but—
“Holy shit,” I gasp, raising my gun as a reflex.
The dented lab door, surrounded by smoke residue as if they tried blowing it open but failed, is somewhat comforting. They were here. But they aren’t any longer.
“They couldn’t get in,” Kay breathes, quickening her pace across the arena. She runs her hands over the dented metal door, sighing at the fried panel next to it. “It held. It actually held.”
Her awe only confuses me. “Wasn’t it designed to keep anyone but Payton and Cadmar out?”
She glances sideways while pulling her laptop out of her backpack. “Yes, but it was never tested this thoroughly. Cadmar never wanted his designs, his equations and formulas, in the wrong hands. I never thought the Elites were the wrong ones, but here we are.”
She gets her computer set up, typing away the instant the screen lights up. While working away she tells me that the same information, if not more, was held at the base, but Cadmar told her he destroyed it all while he was there. He had wished he did the same here because he wasn’t sure the security would hold, but it did. The evidence that the Elites wanted in this room so badly worries her, but she doesn’t say much on the topic.
She has a lot of work ahead of her, as she explained with each failed attempt at getting in, more security was put in place, more panels of steel, the panel being fried, and many more precautions. Apparently she had helped Cadmar with the security on this door, so she only had to get into the fried system and break through the extra security—which, quite frankly, sounds freaking impossible. When she said “in and out,” I didn’t realize we would be here more than a few minutes.
“I’m gonna replenish our weapons and clothes,” I tell her.
She nods, keeping her eyes on her work.
When I leave the arena, instead of heading down the hall to my bedroom, I detour through the kitchen, grabbing a bag and filling it with the few snacks left in the pantry. Then I saunter up the spiral stairs to the second floor. If I were Kay, I would stop in the library, but I’m not. There’s only one room on this floor I need to visit. When I get to the double doors at the end of the hall, my hands shake, my throat clogging up. I swallow several times before reaching out and turning the handle. The door rasps open across the thick carpet, and I’m unable to hold in my gasp when I take in the room beyond.
Even with the lights out, the destruction before me can’t be hidden by the dark. I should have known the psycho would destroy the room they shared, but the bed ripped to shreds, the drapes, pillows, and duvet, all ribbons and tatters littering the floor, still surprise me, almost keeping me from entering the room.
Leaving my shoes on takes more effort than I’d like to admit. As if Scarlet would know from wherever she is right now. But she isn’t here. She can’t reprimand me. The carpet squishes beneath the soles of my Vans when I enter the room as a shadow. I don’t bother with the lights, letting my eyes adjust, allowing me to navigate around the debris. The flat-screen TV dangles from the wall by the cord, still plugged in. A dent adorns the wall of his side of the bed where she must have thrown something at it.
Her perfume lingers in the air, so strong it’s almost as if she’s here. It chokes me, flooding my mind with horrors, but the scent remaining under it keeps me grounded. It isn’t nearly as strong, but it means so much more. If she hadn’t destroyed the bed, I may have laid on it to soak up the remainder of him, but that would make me crazy. I’m not like that. No, I’m a whole other level of crazy.
My feet stop at the mouth of the closet. It’s too dark for me to see within, even with the daylight streaming in through the tattered curtains. I already know what I’ll find, but one can hope. My eyes burn when I flick on the light, and a sigh huffs past my lips. She did her damage in here. His side of the closet is littered with his shredded suits and jackets. I wonder if she did this after the Elites came or even earlier, like when he and Payton were in Chile, when she learned of their betrayal.
Either way, she must have run out of steam or time, because a few of his suits and jackets remain unscathed. After running my hands over them, holding them to my nose to breathe in his scent, I gather every last one and hurry from the room.
Back down the stairs and hidden in my room, I lie on my bed, engulfed in one of his most favored leather jackets, the rest of his suits piled on top of me. I breathe him in, what’s left of my dad, and weep, mourning a loss so deep and earth-shattering, I may never resurface.
That’s where Kadence finds me. She doesn’t scold or even judge. My bed sags where she lies down next to me and takes a deep breath. We waste more time than we should, sharing stories, memories of training with the brute, of rarely getting him to chuckle. It was like a contest for me, my life purpose to bug the hell out of him. We were allowed very little joy, but he always stood up for us, always tried to bring as much light into our lives as possible.
After another minute of silence, Kay sniffs and then sits up, gazing down at me, eyes gleaming through her glasses. “I finished. It’s open. We should get what we need and be on our way.”
Back to business. I huff out a sigh but follow her from the room. She doesn’t say anything about the jacket still wrapped around me. She stops dead when we pass the front door, tilting her head to the side. I almost crash into her, but I hear it and my heart jumps up my throat, my stomach clenching. Footsteps near the front door, what sounds like many of them.
“Run.” Kay’s urgent whisper pushes us into action.
I bolt down the hall after her, toward the arena. But shouldn’t we be heading for the garage?
“We can seal ourselves back in the lab,” she says over her shoulder between gasped breaths.
The door explodes behind us, but I keep my eyes forward, Cadmar’s jacket flapping around me. Kadence’s limp becomes worse and worse after we burst through the arena door, sheer panic and fear pushing us on. I wrap an arm around her, taking some of her weight, our pace never slowing. We’re almost there, we’re almost there, we’re almost there. Shouting fills the arena, them yelling for us to stop. We stay the course, even though my out-of-shape legs and lungs burn in protest. Kay gasps and grunts, but never stops.
“Faster,” she pants through gritted teeth.
They continue shouting, getting closer and closer. Feet from the door. So, so close. Something sharp pierces the back of my neck, the worst shock of pain I’ve ever experienced zapping through my entire body. Kay yells out as I slam to the floor, taking her with me. We both jerk on the floor as shock after shock slams through us. To top off the hopelessness, despair, the utter humiliation, around the tenth shock of white-hot, blinding pain, I wet myself, warm liquid soaking my pants. Luckily, the huge jacket wrapped around me hides it from sight.
When it finally subsides, they’re standing over us, teeth bared on their hideous faces. If I hadn’t already, I would’ve pissed myself when the bigger one nudges my paralyzed body with a boot, saying, “We’ve been looking for this one.” He shows his teeth in an awful grin.
I would curl up and die if I could.
There’s no way out of this. These two little mice got caught in the trap.