We were now on hour four, and my bladder was screaming. I hadn’t wanted to, but I’d succumbed to both the tea and the coffee. I drank the tea first, because that’s what I would’ve done at home. Tea and berries: my morning routine, along with a good workout or yoga. Blade sometimes joined me. Carol never did. She’d watch us do yoga and crack jokes while she crunched down on her chip of the week.
The tea hadn’t fulfilled me, and I’d itched for the coffee. After my two cups yesterday, I was starting to understand why everyone was obsessed with it. There was an addictive quality. I was now wanting to go to the bathroom and also wanting a second cup of coffee.
I was returning to my American roots, it seemed—not with the bathroom part, the coffee part. My mom used to love the stuff. So did my dad…
My stomach took a sudden dip down.
I hadn’t talked about Bruce Bello in years, and I was now sitting next to someone who knew him. Who knew the situation, fully.
“What is he like now?”
I asked the question before I realized I was going to. My voice sounded hoarse, as if I were half scared to ask, and I suppose I was. I was terrified of the answer.
Kai had settled down in his seat, reading on his computer, but he looked up.
I didn’t look over, but I could feel his gaze. I kept my head turned away.
I heard him close the computer. “Your father is one of the stupidest human beings I’ve ever met.”
I looked over.
His nostrils flared. His eyes were fierce.
He folded his hands over his computer, holding my gaze. “I met him when I was fourteen. He was having a meeting with my father. He was a fool. My father used yours. He transported our drugs alongside his products, and your father had no idea until it was too late. There are many factors on which to base your father’s stupidity, but that was the first I remember.” He broke away, turning to his window. “There’s not been a good meeting with him since.”
That lump in my throat was back. Growing.
I pressed my hands together, sliding them between my legs to still the shaking. “You still do business with him?”
“He’s a means to an end. That is all.” Kai looked back, his gaze piercing through me. “Would you like me to stop working with him? If I do, he will go out of business. He will lose all his companies. Your cousin will leave him, if he hasn’t killed her by then. He will suffer.”
The way he said that, I could tell it wasn’t a new idea to him.
My lips parted. “That’s what you were going to do to him? I thought you said you’d kill him.”
He didn’t even blink. “I could do that easily. He would get angry, curse us, proclaim he doesn’t need us. He would be lying, though, and he would soon learn he needs us. He would come back to us, at some point. He would beg even. You could be there. You could walk out and shoot him, if you’d like.”
He offered murder like he was offering me coffee.
I shook my head, my stomach twisting. “I don’t yearn to kill him.”
There was silence.
A full minute.
And then he said, “You’re a liar like your father.”
“I am not!” I hissed. “I am nothing like him.”
He quirked an eyebrow, undisturbed. “You want to kill your father. Admit that, at least to yourself. Just like you want to kill me, half the time.”
I closed my eyes. I wasn’t going to take that bait. He knew I was conflicted. He was too. So maybe because of that, I confessed.
“I daydream about revealing myself to him. I want to see the look on his face when he recognizes me, when I tell him my mother and I are both alive and he failed.”
“And then you want to shoot him?” I could hear his smile. “Or use a knife as you tried with me?”
Could I slice my father? Push a knife deep in his throat, or chest?
I envisioned the tearing of his skin, his tendons, and how I would embed that knife in his muscle. How he would spasm, his mouth gaping at me. He would grab for the knife, but he’d only hold it. If he pulled it out, blood would explode from him. There’d be a certain look in his eyes when he realized he was going to die, and at my hand. Blood would trickle from the wound, coating his hands, his chest, then run down his pants to pool at his feet.
It would be warm blood. I would probably be sprayed with it.
A sick feeling took root in me, and I knew Kai was wrong.
I shook my head again. “No, I don’t want to kill him. I just want him to know he failed and never to be able to hurt us again.”
“You’d like him ruined then?”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I shifted my head to him.
“Why do I get the feeling you’ll do just that if I say yes right now?” I murmured.
His eyes narrowed, but the lines around his mouth softened. “Maybe I’m looking for an excuse to get rid of Bruce Bello? Maybe helping out my sister’s friend is good enough.”
I scoffed, trying not to feel affected by his words. “Then who’ll transport your drugs for you?”
“We aren’t in the drug business anymore.”
Oh. My shoulders relaxed.
“We transport guns now.”
Oh! My shoulders slumped.
“But to answer your original question, your father is worse than he was when you were a child. He’s more vain. He’s weak. He’s greedy. He’s more violent. He barely remembers to show empathy or consideration even to keep up appearances, and he needs to die. Whether at my hand or yours, that’s up for debate.” Kai spoke succinctly, as if he were at a business meeting.
He turned and pressed a button on his door. “Let’s take C route and pull off at the next gas station. Miss Bello needs the bathroom.”
He released the button, opening his laptop once more.
“How did you know?”
He didn’t spare me a look. “You’ve been shifting in your seat for the last thirty minutes, and glancing at the coffee with both yearning and regret for the last ten.” He lifted his gaze to me. “You’re not as hard to read as you hoped you would be. It’s a quality you might want to work on if you continue as a 411 Network operative after this.”
He went back to working, and I was effectively dismissed.
I tried to rally up indignation, disgust, or even anger. All of them failed me. For some reason, I was more mystified than anything.
That was another emotion I’d never felt before.
The ride after our stop was more comfortable.
Tanner must’ve gone to bat for me, because Kai allowed me to ride with him and Jonah when we left the gas station. They told me stories about Brooke, starting from when she left Hillcrest and continuing through just before she’d disappeared. I knew they skipped over the bad parts, like their father’s death or whatever happened that led to Brooke going missing, but it was nice to hear about her.
It felt like my old friend was back with me, and she was just as vivacious and adventurous as she’d been with me at school. Tanner told most of the stories, with Jonah jumping in. He spoke quickly, seeming excited to be able to add something to the conversation. But Tanner was clearly the one with the closest relationship with her.
Just as it had been in the Hillcrest days.
They were cautious when speaking about Kai, but sped up as soon as he wasn’t involved. Both were smiling, laughing.
The last few hours sped away like that, until I realized we’d been traveling for eight hours.
“Why don’t you guys fly?”
They quieted, seeming startled by my question.
I looked between them. “I mean, it’d save you time. Right?”
Jonah coughed and turned toward his window.
The car went from feeling light to being suffocating. I frowned.
Tanner responded, his voice low, “Cord died in a plane accident.”
That was how he’d died?
Tanner frowned. “Shit. What’d Brooke say about how he died?”
I must’ve reacted.
I shrugged, suddenly interested in my hands. They were dry. Very dry. Too dry. I needed lotion.
“Nothing, just…that he died.”
I was still looking at my hands when Tanner snorted. “Right.”
The conversation ended, and we rode in silence for another twenty minutes until Jonah said out of the blue, “She talked about you all the time.”
A shiver went down my spine.
They were talking about her as if she were dead, not somewhere else.
I tried to shake that feeling. It was wrong. She was fine. She would be fine, wherever she was.
“Yeah.” His head rested against his headrest, and he swallowed before adding, “She never shut up, actually. It was sweet in a way, but annoying too.” He opened his eyes enough to squint at me. “No offense. It was just that she acted like she was back at school, even up till last year.”
Tanner coughed, and whether it was intentional or not, Jonah quieted.
The brothers shared a look before Tanner glanced down, then murmured in an almost distraught tone, “It was six months ago. She changed six months ago.”
Those questions burned in my throat, and I wanted to know all the answers. I wanted to know the adult Brooke, what she’d been like before she changed and how did she change.
“Yeah.” Jonah’s eyes closed again. “Six months ago.”
I looked between the two. What the hell had happened?
It was as if Brooke was yelling at me. I imagined her voice, crying out in my head.
“What happened six months ago? How did she change?”
Please don’t shut up now. Please don’t remember I’m the enemy and shut me out.