I’m back to pacing, fists clenched at my sides, heart pounding while I continue wearing down the old motel carpet. They texted to say they were there—Kay even told me when she got the lab open—but I haven’t heard anything else and it’s been hours. Hours! Something must have happened. All my calls and texts have gone unanswered.
Something terrible happened. I can feel it in my bones.
It’s entirely my fault.
I never should have asked them to get the chemicals. Now I won’t ever get them and the girls are…. They’re gone. I can’t even save them or try to. The few fights I got made me only enough to eat and pay for the room. For lack of training, I only won two of the five. I still got paid for participating in them, just not the amount I hoped for. I’ve been running to stay in shape, but I don’t have anyone to spar with, so my skills are rusty.
I have no car and no way to pay for a plane ticket.
“Arrrrgh,” I yell, gripping my hair and pulling hard.
Being a sitting duck is getting so old. There’s nothing I can do to help them and it makes me sick. The only way I could get over there could get me killed, and I may not be any help even if I do.
After calling Mark to get more fights set up, I get in as much work as I can before I need to head out. I’ve stayed in contact with my dad, who’s helped more than I ever thought he would. Almost acting like he cares. I’m nearly done with the first stage of my plan, but I can’t get much further without those chemicals. Now I’ll have to put the entire thing on hold, but I can’t stomach the other girls being in the Elites’ hands. Kadence might be able to handle herself, but I don’t think sweet fifteen-year-old Reiley would survive them.
My warm-up is difficult with the bruised ribs, injured knee, and stiff muscles, but I manage. The Pit, where the underground fights are held, is a hole in the ground that usually smells of piss and booze. The fights are brutal, with only one rule enforced—no killing blows. But accidents still happen. I’m lucky to have survived the ones I have, but I may end up with a concussion if I keep getting knocked out.
Moments before I leave my lonesome room—adrenaline pumping through me to the rhythm of save them, save them, save them—someone bangs on my door. My heart drops to my ass. No one ever comes to my room. I specifically pay extra so housekeeping doesn’t bother. The equipment and chemicals would likely get me put in prison. I hurry to cover everything with the extra sheets I requested, just in case.
I have no arsenal, but I do have a spray bottle of toxic chemicals held behind my back that should buy me enough time to bolt if need be. A glance out the window only shows a giant frame dressed in black with a hood on, dimly lit by the light. My heart races.
I can get out of here if it’s only one of them.
But how did they find me?
Did they torture the information from the girls?
The thought has me both seeing red and fighting back vomit. I have to save them, even if it means leaving all this work behind. It can be redone.
Two deep breaths. I reach for the handle with a steady hand. Calculating, constantly calculating. I open the door. The world stops.
“What the hell happened to you?” he barks, a taunt in his tired eyes, probably referring to my bruised and battered face, but it disappears the instant he glances over my shoulder. “Where are they?” A snarl rips from him when he shoves past me, before I’m able to comprehend the ghost inspecting every crack and crevice of my room.
I think to shut the door when he removes the sheets from my equipment. He spins to stare at me, gaze alight with flames of fury. It takes all my concentration not to take a step backward. He may be on the verge of snapping my neck with his bare hands if I don’t start talking, but that doesn’t stop the goddamn delight and hope from blooming in my chest.
“You’re supposed to be dead. They think you’re dead,” I say in awestruck stupidity. I knew it couldn’t be true, even after hearing the convincing evidence from Reiley.
“I asked you a question.” His voice is calm, cool, deadly. As if I’m the reason they’re missing.
You are, idiot.
“I told her to bring them here. I said I would meet them here. You have two seconds to talk before I rip your throat out purely for being useless.”
So I tell him. Everything. Even the sheer stupidity of the request I made. He doesn’t move from where he stands, doesn’t clench his fists or rant and rave or even kill me for putting his girls in even more danger. I almost want to pinch myself, or poke him, maybe even hug him to make sure he’s real.
“What happened to your face?” he demands when I finish my story.
I tell him about the fights, about needing money. He only chuckles before turning for the door. “Let’s go,” he barks.
He turns a deadly stare in my direction when I don’t move.
“I have to finish my work. Now that you’re here, you can get them, and I can keep working,” I tell him. As much as I want to help the girls, I now have the opportunity to get Payton out.
“You said you couldn’t go much further without the chemicals. We’ll knock out two birds with one stone. Besides, I need backup.”
When he pivots and exits the room, I notice the limp he’s trying to hide, the stiff posture. He may be alive, but probably just barely.
I grab my hat and step out into the humid evening air. Cadmar leads me to a shitty Corolla in the lot and we get in. A duffel bag in the back catches my eye.
“They thought you were dead,” I say again as he pulls away from the motel, still unconvinced I’m not having a dream.
“I should be,” he says.
“Then how are you alive?” I press. “And where’d the bag come from?”
“I made a deal with a devil.” He glances sideways as if I should know who said devil is. And I’m pretty certain I do, based on the story Reiley told me. “I stopped at one of my houses on the way here to stock up on cash and left the devil there.”
He doesn’t expound, doesn’t ever say what the deal he made entails, but I don’t press. Whatever promises he made with that bitch are between him and her. So long as he doesn’t drag any of the girls into it, I don’t give two shits about it.
We’re back at the airport, back on a stranger’s plane, headed away from my girl. This zigzag of my life is driving me insane, and now we’re on our way back to where it all began. Every day since she disappeared, I’ve fought back the memories of her because they were too damn painful. Now I’ll have to face them all head-on.
He drills me about my plan during the flight, and I tell him the details, but leave out the bargain I made with my dad. He wants to keep his secrets about the deal he made, so there’s no need for me to share mine. He seems impressed by my plan but doubtful it will work, even though he never comes out and says as much.
After a short while, we fall into thoughtful silence, settling in for the short flight. I have so many questions, so many demands, but my mind is occupied with thoughts of all the girls. We may be headed away from Payton, but she would never forgive us if Reiley and Kadence were captured, especially if there was something we could have done about it.
“What if they’ve already taken them back to the facility?” I ask only half an hour into the flight.
“They haven’t.” He keeps his gaze forward on the pilot.
“What makes you so sure?” I demand, clenching and unclenching my fists on my knees.
He finally looks at me, face grim. “They want the information that’s in that lab. They’ll probably do anything to get it. The castle is the only place that still has it all. It’s encrypted, so Kadence will be their only chance at getting it intact. If they try hacking in, it will fry the whole system. Payton knows a lot of it, but not all of it. They’ll keep them there until Kadence gives them what they want. If you said it’s been a couple hours since you heard from them…. We just need to hope they can hold out until we get there.”
They’ll do anything to get it. He hopes they hold out. Oh God. Images of the things they might do or already have done to those girls start flashing through my mind. I clench my eyes shut. A hand lands on my shoulder.
“I’ve taught them well. They can survive this. Kadence is extremely intelligent. She will get them through this.” The way he says it seems more like he’s trying to convince himself rather than me, which makes my stomach roll.
“I hope you’re right” is all I can say, willing the plane to get us there faster.