The white van was gone.
I stood fifty feet from the door of the café, staring at the spot where it had sat. The flow of traffic on the sidewalk bent around me, people throwing me annoyed or confused looks as they passed. Fair enough; I’d come to a screeching halt in the middle of the sidewalk, and now it must look like I was just standing here daydreaming.
Where the hell was the van?
I blinked a couple of times and then looked up and down the street, wondering if the feds had moved it for some reason. Maybe they’d parked illegally, and a pesky town official had threatened them with a ticket.
Sweat beaded on my forehead. The sun beat down, baking the pavement. Heatwaves rose from it in a way that made me wonder if I’d finally snapped and was hallucinating.
No. I wasn’t. The van was really gone.
I frowned and forced myself to walk toward the café. Jakob had known about Nick. How? Howww? And why hadn’t he said anything sooner? Why had he let me into Kearny, into Charley’s, knowing that I used to sleep with an FBI agent? Maybe Jakob had friends still in government work too. One at the NSA who agreed to illegally hack my Messenger account, and so Jakob knew I’d turned Nick down. Or maybe he’d told Daniel about the risk I posed, and they agreed to let me in only so they could teach the FBI a lesson. Through my violent murder.
I barked a laugh. It sounded as hysterical as I felt. The woman passing me on the sidewalk picked up her pace to get away from the crazy woman. I wanted to apologize to her, tell her I was fine, but I didn’t know if I was. Jakob was right; I wasn’t used to his world. As warped as I thought I was after surviving two wars and a plane crash, I still had morals. My mind might have some dark corners, but there was light in there too. I looked for the good in people. Jakob was proof of that. My first instinct was to befriend someone, not to look for ways to manipulate them.
I was in way over my head with all these devious motherfuckers, and I wanted out.
With that thought ringing through my mind, I pulled open the café door and stopped dead in my tracks for the third time in less than five minutes. It was silent as the grave inside. The gentle music that had filtered down from overhead was cut off. No quiet conversation met my ears. No tinkling of ceramic mugs, no whirring of machinery, no scraping of chair legs over floor tiles. Nothing.
The door opened into the middle of the shop. Straight ahead was the service counter. When I’d walked in earlier, three people had been manning it. A pimply teenage boy worked the register. Two baristas were behind him, foaming, whipping, and pouring coffee. The counter stood empty now, and it freaked me out. I jerked my gaze away and took in the rest of the space.
The entire goddamn café was empty.
What the fuck was going on?
A motion caught the corner of my eye. I turned to see Nick emerging from the back.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
He smiled that megawatt smile at me, like everything was okay. This time, I didn’t fall for it.
“Come sit with me,” he said, pulling out a stool at the table we’d shared earlier.
I stood rooted to my spot by the door. “Answer my question, Nick.”
“I will,” he said, still smiling. “Just come sit down.”
The only reason I obeyed was because it felt like my legs were about to give out. Too much shit had happened in the past few hours, hell, the past few days, and my mind was unraveling. Calm, logical Krista Evans, who, if she’s honest with herself, thinks she’s smarter than the average bear, had gotten everything wrong again and again, and now she was in the middle of an empty café with an FBI agent having a full-blown existential crisis. Maybe the sky wasn’t blue. Maybe it was purple. And really, what is life?
I dropped down hard on the proffered chair. “Where the hell is everyone?”
Nick smoothly took his seat beside me, looking unflappable. “They’re out back, taking their fifteen-minute break together.”
I eyed him. “You didn’t have them all killed?”
He laughed, his whole face lighting up with amusement. “No. They’re fine.”
“Where’s Redding and his lawyer? What happened to our plan?”
He sobered. “Redding said something about you I didn’t like, so I arrested him.”
What the fuck?
I eyed him. He didn’t look like he still held a torch for me. From all appearances online and in person, he seemed to really love his wife. I didn’t think him arresting Redding was born from jealousy or overprotectiveness, so what was this about?
“Do you even have jurisdiction?” I asked. “A reason to hold him?”
In answer, he pulled his cell from the inside pocket of his suit. “I did more digging into him after we got off the phone last night.”
“Yes, you said.”
He tapped his phone screen and then slid it over to me. “Take a look at these.”
I picked it up. A woman stared back at me. I frowned up at Nick. “What is this?”
“Keep going,” he said.
I dropped my gaze back to his phone and dragged my finger to the left, moving to the next picture. And then the next. A pattern started to emerge as I rifled through the photos. They were all women. Women who had long dark hair, tan skin, full lips, and brown eyes. Women who looked a hell of a lot like me.
Nick straightened the cuffs of his suit jacket. “You can’t tell from the photos, but they’re all taller than 5’8”.”
“Are these…are these Redding’s victims?”
Nick’s eyes rose to mine. “Yes.”
It felt like the floor dropped out from under me. Holy shit, was this Redding’s ulterior motive? Had he agreed to meet with me because I fit his profile and he wanted to canvas his next rape?
I handed Nick’s phone back, fingers shaking. “This is why you didn’t say anything about what would happen if The Jokers talked to Redding instead of killing him.”
Nick nodded. “I knew they’d never get the chance to. Once I realized you fit his profile, I wasn’t willing to take the risk that he would slip out of their grasp and come after you.” He took the phone from me and dropped another bomb. “Dr. Perez woke up an hour ago.”
Finally, some good news. “Oh, thank God.”
“Redding was the one who beat her up.”
Rage swamped my relief. “Fucking piece of shit. Please tell me he didn’t…” Like Beth at the bar the other night, I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“He didn’t sexually assault her.”
Some of the tension eased from my shoulders. Thank heavens for small miracles. “How did he think he would get away with all of this?”
Nick shook his head. “I don’t think he expected the doctor to survive. She sustained a lot of damage. As for the rest,” he shrugged. “Sociopaths tend to get sloppy the longer they’re active. They inflate their own egos. The more they get away with, the more they tell themselves they can never be caught. They’re too smart for us dumb law enforcement officers. It helps that he has family members in power helping him. When I arrested him, he made some crack about how the charges would never stick.”
“Thanks to his uncle, the state rep.”
“And another one, who’s a federal judge,” Nick said.
Redding was even more of an elitist prick than I first assumed. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Please tell me you have proof they’ve been covering up for him.”
“Not yet. But we will by the time Redding goes to trial for what he did to Dr. Perez.”
He sounded so confident I almost believed him.
“What now?” I asked.
He pulled something else from his pocket and slid it over to me. It was a thumb drive. “All the photos you need are on there. You might not get to take out Redding, but once The Jokers see him with me, they’ll pull out of Magnolia.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll figure out some way to get it to them.”
He grinned. “I’m sure your boyfriend’s father will know how.”
Goddamn it. Everyone knew everything but me. Why the fuck had I even gotten involved?
Nick’s smile slipped. My stupid, expressive face must have given me away. “Don’t take it personally, Skywalker. We’ve all been watching each other for years. It’s our business to know every move the other player makes.” He eyed me for a second before continuing. “Once everything cools down, you might want to take a step back and give yourself some space to think about whether or not you really want to be involved in this world. You’re not in so deep that you can’t get out.”
The “yet” at the end of that sentence was heavily implied. The longer I stuck around, the more complicit I would become, the more shit I would see, and the harder it would be to break free. Nick made a good point. Everything had happened so fast this week. It was like that movie Speed. Jakob and I had been thrown together under duress. The dangerous circumstances had forced us to form a quick bond, working toward a mutual goal, with disaster dogging our steps. I knew from my time in the military how strongly these situations could bond people. Add in our chemistry, and I had fallen for him hard and fast. Once the threat of imminent destruction passed, what was left? And did I even want to stick around and find out if anything was?
“Think about it,” Nick said, rising from his seat to leave.
I nodded, staring out of the window, looking back on the madness of the last few days. The stress of it all had wreaked havoc on my body. Everything hurt, not just my leg. My brain felt foggy. I didn’t know up from down anymore, and a strange sort of detachment was settling into my psyche. Anticipatory fear lingered in the back of my mind. What would happen next? Who else had I underestimated? Would I leave this café only to learn that Jakob had been working with his father all along? Or that Daniel hadn’t gone to Georgia but stuck around to start World War III? If I’d learned anything since getting involved in all of this, it was that I was godawful at anticipating the next bullet fired my way.
Nick paused beside me, hand on my shoulder. “You okay, Skywalker?”
I shook my head. “No. But you know me. I’ll be fine.”
He squeezed me once and let me go. Then he was gone.
I should leave too. I didn’t want to be here when the café workers filed back in, wondering what the fuck had happened in here after they’d been ordered to leave. I was so out of it that I might just blurt out the truth.
I shoved my chair back and stood. The heat slapped me in the face when I stepped outside, and my whole body instantly broke out in sweat. I needed to call Jakob.
He answered on the first ring. “What happened? Are you okay?”
The fact that he was even asking meant that he must still care about me at least a little bit. It might have given me hope if I wasn’t so fucked up in the head about everything. Did I want there to be hope? Or was it better if I simply walked away?
“I’m okay,” I said.
His shaky exhale was audible over the phone. Yes, he did care.
“You were right about Nick keeping things from me. I got back and the café was empty. He arrested Redding.”
“What?” Jakob bit out.
I filled him in as I walked back to my car, starting with Dr. Perez being conscious, and working my way backward. I had to yank the phone away from my ear when I got to the part where Nick showed me Redding’s victims.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU FIT HIS PROFILE?”
“Would you stop yelling? You’re going to make my ear bleed.”
He dropped his voice. “Where are they holding him?”
I shivered despite the heat. Maybe him yelling was better than this terrifying calm he’d descended into. It was like we were back at the police station, when he’d casually mentioned assaulting a government facility to get to me. He couldn’t find out where Redding was. He’d get himself killed.
“I don’t know where they’re holding him, and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Call Nick. Find out.”
“No, psycho. I’m not going to aid you in your suicide attempt.”
His voice dropped into a low, amused rumble. “You need to stop underestimating what I’m capable of.”
I pulled the phone from my ear. Good Lord, hadn’t I just said the same thing to myself?
“You’re right,” I said, pulling the phone back up. “I do need to stop doing that. Speaking of which, how’d you know about Nick?”
“I looked through your Facebook friends and did a little digging on all of the ones with prior military or law enforcement experience.”
“Yeah, but how’d you know I slept with him?”
“We live in a small world. I still have friends in the service, and I asked the right people the right questions.”
“But you didn’t know he’d asked me to work for him?”
Jakob sighed. “No. But I assumed.”
“And yet you still let me into Charley’s. Why? To make an example out of me?”
His laugh was humorless. “I’m not that fucked up. I let you into Charley’s because I saw the way you interacted with club members. You didn’t seem like the kind to rat us out, and I went with my gut.”
“Your gut is good,” I said, parroting his father from the other night.
“Don’t give me too much credit. Half of why I let you in was because I was into you.”
“Into me?” I asked. He could have said, “because I wanted to sleep with you,” but he didn’t. His choice of words made it sound like it had been more than just sex for him since the very beginning.
“Yes,” he bit out, sounding like this was a confession he didn’t want to make.
I nearly grinned, feeling that messed up little sadistic side of me come to attention. “Aw, you had a crush on me, and it took you three months to work up the courage to ask me out.”
“That is adorable, Jakob. I knew you were a softie deep down.”
“If I promise to go deep down on you when we get back, will you shut up?”
“No. You’re never living this down,” I said. “Anything else you want to confess while you’re at it?”
“Your parents came to town about a month ago.”
I wasn’t ready to hear that, and I tripped over my own feet and nearly faceplanted onto the sidewalk. “What?”
“I drove them off before they could fuck up you or your Gran’s lives again.”
Jesus Christ. “Okay. That’s enough. I’m not sure how many more plot twists I can survive.”
He laughed. He actually laughed.
“How did you know they would fuck up our lives?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself.
“I saw their arrest history. I saw the child services complaints.”
“Oh,” I said, voice soft, thinking of that nice CS woman asking four-year-old me where my mommy had punched me.
“You seemed like you were doing pretty good, and I know firsthand how parents can wreck your life.” He was obviously talking about Liam.
“Why do you put up with him?” I asked.
“Because it’s better to stay close to him so I know what he’s up to. If I break off ties, he might snap. I might not see the next manipulation coming.”
Well, that explained that then. I felt stupid for ever thinking of him as a victim to his father.
“And because of Mom,” he added in a softer tone.
“I understand,” I said. I’d want to stick around for Jennifer too, if she was my mother.
We fell quiet as I walked the rest of the way to my car. There was so much I wanted to say to him, to ask him, but I couldn’t seem to find the words. It was one thing to agree with Nick that I needed to take a step back, another thing to hold to that when talking to Jakob. I could feel my willpower slipping. The low rumble of his voice brought back too many memories from the past few days: him whispering delicious sexual threats into my ear our first night together, us snapping at each other outside Magnolia, his deranged smile when he asked me if his psychosis turned me on. It all made me want to stick around a little longer to see what he would do next.
That and the physical pull he seemed to have on me. I was keyed up again with no outlet to vent all of my fear and anger and anxiety, and I needed another hit of life. I needed to revel in the fact that Redding hadn’t gotten to me. Stripping Jakob naked and tracing all of his glorious muscles with my tongue seemed like a great way to achieve that.
But was that healthy? I’d taken a couple of psy-ops courses in the military. I knew enough about human psychology to understand that we craved the unknown. It was why so many people were glued to their social media accounts. It was less a popularity contest and more brain hacking. What would we see when we logged in? Ten likes? Twenty? Or none? The fear of the unknown kept us coming back for more, and the spikes of endorphins when we got what we wanted out of it was quickly turning us all into addicts. It was the same reason that some women were attracted to unstable assholes, not because they liked being treated like shit, but because they couldn’t resist the draw of the unknown. Was that what this was between Jakob and me? He didn’t treat me like shit, but he was definitely unpredictable.
I reached my car and stopped, breathing deeply, solidifying my will. I needed to step back. At the very least, I needed a couple of stress-free days to unwind from this insanity and unpack all of my feelings. Only with a clear head could I really know how I felt about Jakob, and my head was far from clear right now.
“I’m at my car,” I told him. “I assume you want me to meet you so you can follow me back to your parents’ house?”
“Yeah, but first I want you to drive by where I’m parked so I can make sure the feds aren’t following you.”
Fair enough. After everything that happened today, I didn’t think I would ever trust anyone again, and I was glad for once that he was three steps ahead of me. I climbed into my car and followed Jakob’s directions. He was still tracking me through GPS.
“Take the next road on your left,” he said.
I made the turn.
“I’m in the lot to your right. Keep driving straight. When you get to the end of the street, make a left and then circle back around.”
I raised my hand and waved as I passed.
“Hi,” he said into the phone, voice soft, reminding me that there was more to Jakob than his tough exterior. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Tears filled my eyes. “I’m glad I’m okay too,” I said, wondering why I was lying to him.
I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay at all.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.