“What?” she snapped. “It’s a cig. Jesus. You were smoking one too. I can smell it on you.” She rifled through something. “Fuck. Damn.” A thud on the bottom of the van. “Those little fuckers. They took my wallet. Why’d the fuck they take my wallet?” she growled. “I’m going to murder my own children. Do you hear me—wait.” She gulped. A sweet voice now. “I mean, I’m not actually going to do that, Officer. But look…” Irritation. Impatience. “They wanted pizza last night. I bet that’s when they took it, forgot to put it back. Or no… They wanted to go bowling today, and the mall! Those little shits went to the mall, when I told them specifically not to. I’m raising ingrates. Those little criminals—”
“Okay, ma’am.” A rapping on the top of the car. “You’re free to go.”
“You sure? I wasn’t speeding. The traction on these tires sucks too much for me to go fast. Another thing I need to fix. I tell you—”
The guy was brisk. He was done listening to her. “Here’s your cigarette. Thank you for your time.”
We heard him walk past us.
Carol took a drag, still grumbling under her breath.
His car started up, and he passed us by.
“See you later, pig.”
I couldn’t hold back my grin. She was a piss away from being a method actor.
Another moment, then, “He has feds on his payroll and local cops. Who are you sleeping with, Ri?”
I groaned. “It’s complicated.”
She laughed, rolling up her window and starting forward again. “Just hold on a bit. We have a plane waiting for us. Your boyfriend ain’t the only one with some connections.”
“The Network?” I asked Blade.
He shook his head, his first faint smile showing. “A friend of Carol’s.”
“Damn straight. I heard you. Tinder’s good for a few things other than a hook-up.”
“Carol, are you dating someone?”
She barked out a laugh. “You’re not the only one who’s got someone new and exciting in their life. My guy just happens to have his pilot’s license and a buddy with a plane. Took a bit of coercing, but he said he could fly you to Milwaukee.”
“Well.” I grinned at Blade. “Hot damn.”
“Hot damn, indeed!” Carol laughed again. “And hold on. I’m going to put the pedal to the metal, if you know what I mean.”
? ? ?
We turned into a small airport. I didn’t think it was the one Kai had flown out of since we’d driven for over an hour, but it was small. It was isolated. And there was only one plane getting ready for departure.
As soon as we parked, Carol went over to a guy coming out of the hangar.
Blade got out behind me, stretching a little. We’d stayed in the back until the last ten minutes, so our legs were a little knotted up. Rifling through a bag, he pulled out some papers and handed them over.
“Those are numbers to call for resources.”
He kept going, pulling out a phone, a smaller envelope, another fatter envelope. “You can’t use the phones Brooke gave you. He’ll have figured out which ones were taken and have trackers on them. There’s money.”
I had both backpacks from Brooke. If there were a tracker on anything, we already would’ve had guards pulling in for me. I was safe, but I took the phone he gave me. Checking the back, I asked, “Not a Network phone?”
He shook his head. “No. I didn’t want to risk it. Like you said, he has people in the Network too.” He paused a beat. “The Network didn’t want to risk it.” He looked away. “You’re right. They green-lighted Carol and me to come get you, but they want to know who his people are. They’re not risking anything. Everything I’m giving you is off the book so no one can find you. Even me. The envelope is sealed, and the envelope inside that envelope is sealed. No one’s seen it except the manufacturer.”
And the manufacturer wouldn’t give two shits. They were just doing a job. I was safe.
“Where is he flying me into?”
“Not Milwaukee. You’ll fly to South Riddance. It’s a small airport past Milwaukee. You’ll have to drive back, but a rental car should be easy for you to get.”
It was a good plan. If they were looking, they might not look at flights that didn’t go to Milwaukee. It’d be an oversight on their part.
He glanced at Carol, who was still talking with her pilot friend, before he pulled out another smaller box. “Put this in your bag. You know what it’s for.”
My mouth dried. It was a gun box.
I doubted there was a permit for it, but I put it in one of the bags anyway.
“He could lose his license.”
Blade glanced back at Carol’s friend. “Don’t get caught.”
I hoisted my bags to my back. Blankets. Clothes. I knew what was in the backpacks: cash, credit cards, the phones to use, fake identification. I had everything I needed to start a new life. It was a bit of overkill, all this to sneak into Milwaukee under Kai’s watch, but if I knew Kai, I would need it. He’d have his resources looking for me nonstop. I’d have to go all the way underground.
Carol and her friend walked toward us.
I asked under my breath, “We’re certain this guy is legit? He’s not on anyone’s payroll?”
Blade looked at me from the corner of his eye. “You mean on Bennett’s payroll?”
I didn’t answer because that wasn’t what I meant. I looked at Blade, and his eyebrows shot up.
“Carol swears she met him by chance, on Tinder. They’ve hooked up for six months.”
But he could be a setup. He could be working for the Network. And maybe I was becoming paranoid? Too many times going around the block with Kai? He was making me see moves in a game that wasn’t being played. Maybe.
Blade came to the same conclusion. “Ditch him as soon as you land.”
“That was already my plan.”
The guy nodded to me as he walked up and shook my hand. “You ready for this flight?”
Carol hugged me. She hugged the guy. He climbed into the plane, and she went back to the minivan, leaving only Blade and me.
He gave me a smile, another sad one. “Until we see each other again?”
There were words to say, sentiments to express, and tears I was trying not to shed. All I did was nod and promise, “I’ll see you again.”
As I climbed in and watched Blade go over to where Carol was waiting, I felt the same thing I’d seen on his face.
Everything was about to change. I felt it coming on like an impending doom. The pilot yelled at me to buckle up, and moments later, we were hurtling down the airstrip.
I was being dumb.
This hit me as we flew over Milwaukee. I was being so beyond dumb. Yes, Kai had said I couldn’t go with him to see my father. But I wasn’t a captive, and I had snuck out of there like I was. Both Brooke and I had. I’d continued to hide, using this friend of Carol’s to take me the rest of the way. Disappearing was a skill I had, but it wasn’t one I needed in this instance.
I didn’t know.
God. Why was this so hard?
“You ready to touch down?” the pilot yelled at me over the system.
“Yes!” I yelled back. I was cold, I had to pee, and I was ready to try to right my world again.
Once we landed, I grabbed my bags and nodded to him. “I need to head to the bathroom.”
He pointed where to go, and because I didn’t really know if he was just Carol’s friend, I disappeared again. I did have to pee, but I needed every advantage I could get. Bypassing the bathroom, I swiped a set of car keys hanging in the hallway. I went out to the lot and walked around, pressing the unlock button. In the second to last row, I slipped behind the wheel of a Taurus and headed into town.
The GPS was set up on one of the burner phones, and I put in an auto repair place. Not the one with the best website, but one that didn’t have a website, one that had Yelp reviews from local customers. I pulled in and used their bathroom.
We had landed during business hours, though it was getting late.
After I peed, I asked for a female employee, because there usually was one. When she approached, she was older—gray hair, makeup done. I couldn’t tell her exact job title, but it didn’t matter. I could see in her eyes she’d been around the block.
“I need a car,” I told her. “My boyfriend is in the mafia, and I’m running from him.” White lie. “I need anything you can give me. I have cash for something cheap and desperation enough to let you know I stole the car I drove here in.”
She hesitated, scanning me up and down.
I wore the same black clothing I’d had on when I left the house. I was sure I smelled. My hair was pulled low into a no-nonsense ponytail. If I needed to sell being on the run, I’d hit that out of the ballpark.
She ran a hand over her face. “He hit you?”
I didn’t want to lie any more than was necessary, so I chose my words carefully. “I just have to get as far as I can from him.”
“You stole that cash from him too?”
My eyes flicked up. “No. Cash is good. A friend gave it to me.”