We meet up with Jonathan just outside the city. We’ve decided he’ll take Ellie and return to Unstable to see what he can learn about my sisters’ disappearance. In a town that small, someone must have seen something. The stop is really just a chance for me to reassure Ellie that Jonathan hasn’t cat-napped her. Well, actually, it’s so I can reassure myself that I haven’t abandoned her—however temporarily—without a goodbye. Ellie doesn’t care. She’s with Jonathan. That’s all that matters.
I take my bag as Connolly waits, car idling.
“He’s clear,” Jonathan says. “I ran a basic check, made a few calls. I’d stay well away from his parents. No one has anything bad to say about Aiden Connolly, though. They don’t have much good to say about him either—he’s not a popular guy—but he’s definitely the white sheep of the family.”
“Background check. Friend-finder tracking. Emergency code-words. I think you’re ready to ride off into the sunset with a total stranger.”
“I am.” I hug Jonathan and whisper, “You doing okay?”
He makes a face. “I’d rather be chasing Ani’s kidnappers. That’s a lot more heroic than cat-sitting duty.”
“If you want to come with us—”
“No.” A quick embrace. “I’m just venting. Someone should ask around town and gather data. Just . . .” He lowers his voice, mock-conspiratorial. “When you find Ani, tell her I got a flat tire or something. Otherwise, I’d totally have been there, busting down the door to rescue her.”
I smile and squeeze his arm. “With any luck, no door-busting will be required. Ani and Hope were taken to uncurse the necklace. That makes them valuable. They won’t be mistreated and, once we know who has them, we can negotiate for their release.”
One last hug, and one last goodbye to Ellie—who totally ignores me—and then we’re off, heading in opposite directions down the highway.
We’ve been on the road for an hour, and I’m ready to throw myself into traffic. Not that Connolly is a chatty driving companion. I’d be fine with that. I’d love to ask him about luck working and his insurance business and the woman we’re going to see. But he’s busy talking . . . to other people.
He’s been on the phone since we got in the car. He dug up an old Bluetooth earpiece, so I don’t even get the mild entertainment of listening in on his calls. It’s all business. Regular business, as he tells employees that the fumigation was a false alarm, but they may work from home today. Then he proceeds to conduct several appointments he’s missing.
I don’t do well with boredom, especially when I’m ready to scream with panic and frustration. Lacking headphones, I put my cell against my right ear and play a podcast. I have it as low as possible, but Connolly must still catch a murmur of voices—far softer than the “murmur” I’m catching through his earpiece, let me say—and he casts me annoyed glances until I shut it off.
We’re on a very dull stretch of highway. There’s nothing to do. Nothing to see. Just time to worry and fret. Not only about my sisters either. My biggest concern right now is whether I will survive Connolly’s driving long enough to rescue them.
As I expected, Connolly drives a very nice car. High-end luxury sedan with a logo I don’t recognize, but honestly, I don’t know which logos I would recognize. Still, I can appreciate a fine ride, with a smooth suspension and buttery leather seats that heat up and cool down and can achieve more positions than a yogi.
Connolly is, I hate to say it, acting exactly like the sort of entitled assholes who drive cars like this. He sticks to the fast lane, even when other vehicles get on his back bumper and flash to pass. When cars don’t get over fast enough for him, he passes on the right. And I swear, with every lane change, another vehicle beeps to warn him that they’re in his blind spot. He still makes his turn.
Finally, my already frayed nerves can’t take it. I wait until he’s between calls and say, “Why don’t you let me drive?”
He shakes his head and starts hitting buttons on his phone.
“You have business to conduct,” I say. “Business I pulled you away from. I get that. So at least let me drive while you handle it.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“It’s not really a request, Connolly. I’m being polite, while insisting that either you stop making calls or you let me drive.”
“Can you drive? I thought you didn’t have a car.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t have a license. Or that I’m not a good driver. And with a car like this, it practically drives itself. All you need to do is listen to the warning signals, like the ones telling you someone is in your blind spot.”
A frown says he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. As if he’s learned to tune out that particular sound, like Hope learns to tune out the alarm of every clock we buy her.
I continue. “You have insurance. The best insurance, I bet. It will cover another driver and any scrapes she gets into. It will not cover the damage you cause by being on your phone.”
“My calls are hands-free.”
I glance down at the phone, clutched in his hand. He jams the cell into the center console.
“I was trying to minimize noise,” he says. “I can operate it by voice.”
“It’s the operation of the motor vehicle I’m concerned about. I really am insisting, Connolly. Either you let me drive or we pull off and I rent a vehicle. I’d like to live long enough to rescue my sisters.”
His mouth opens, and I know an argument is coming. Then he snaps it shut and veers onto the next off-ramp.
For ten minutes, Connolly sits like Dad during our first driving lesson, his back ramrod straight, hands clutching whatever they can find. Then, like my dad, Connolly relaxes, if somewhat awkwardly. I’m sure he expects I’ll be all over the road, chatting away, only a quarter of my attention on the car. For me, though, driving is like weaving a curse. It requires—and deserves—my full focus.
Once Connolly realizes I’m fine, he starts responding to texts and e-mails. We’re about an hour from Boston when my phone rings. I glance over to see an unknown number.
“Could you answer that?” I ask. “Just take a message, please.”
He lifts the phone, and I unlock it with a glance.
“Hello,” he says. “You’ve reached Kennedy Bennett’s phone. She’s busy right now. May I take a message?”
I half expect him to beep after that. Instead, he listens and then hangs up.
“Uh, when I said ‘take a message’ I didn’t mean it quite so literally.”
“It was phishing,” he says. “They asked if you’d accept a collect call from Tehran.”
“Turani?” I say, my voice rising.
“Perhaps? I thought it was Tehran, but either way—”
“Turani is my sister’s name.”
“I thought your sister’s name was Hope.”
“Ani. Turani. After the Turani Atok curse. We’re all named after famous—” I cut off the explanation. “Give me that phone.”
I veer onto the shoulder. “Not anymore.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to pull over here.”
“My kidnapped sister just tried to collect call me.”
I grab the phone from him. As he reaches over, I expect him to snatch the phone back, but he only turns on the hazards.
I nod my thanks as I hit redial. It rings. Rings. Rin—
“Hello?” a voice says.
“Ani? Is this Ani?” My words come out in a barely intelligible rush. “Someone called me from this number saying—”
“It’s me, K.”
“Oh—Oh God. Oh God.”
Tears stream down my face, the dam breaking in a tidal wave of relief, complete with hiccuping sobs as I clutch the phone, barely hearing my sister’s soothing words. Connolly tries to hand me something. A handkerchief? Is that an actual handkerchief?
I wave it off and squeeze my eyes shut as I gulp breath.
“I’m okay,” I say. “Which is what I should be asking you. Are you okay? Is Hope okay? What happened?”
“I’m fine. Hope . . .”
“Is she all right?” My voice rises to glass-shattering octaves. “What’s going on? Where is she?”
Connolly gestures, asking if I’d like him to take the call, presumably so we can get more coherent information. He’s trying to help, but there’s no way in hell I’m letting go of this lifeline to my sister.
“May we switch spots?” he asks. “Tell me where she is, and I’ll start driving.”
I lift a hand to wave him off. Then I stop. He’s right. I might want all the information right now, but the important thing is getting to Ani. I interrupt whatever she’s trying to tell me to ask where she is.
“I-I don’t know,” she says.
“Is she safe?” Connolly asks. “Is she someplace safe?”
I relay his words and that calms her a little, the ever-practical Ani returning. “Yes. I’m safe. I’m at a gas station. The sign says Redmont Gas and Tires.”
Connolly already has his phone out, typing into the search engine, hearing her before I can pass along her words. In that moment, I forgive him for at least fifty percent of the shitty things he’s said and done. Maybe even seventy-five.
Before I can speak, he’s out of the car and walking around to the driver’s side. I scramble over the console.
“We’ve got it,” I say. “We’re on our way.”
Connolly gets in and hooks up his phone to the car, the map appearing on the screen, GPS already running. I tune that out and focus on my sister.
“You were kidnapped, yes?” I say.
“Who’s with you? I thought I heard a man’s voice. Is that Jonathan?”
“Jonathan is the one who realized you were missing,” I say. “He showed up at my doorstep at 3AM because the cell tower was down at home.”
Which isn’t what she asked, but if she interprets it as answering her question, so be it. I can explain about Connolly later.
“Yes, we were kidnapped,” she says. “We were at home and—”
“Just tell me about Hope. I can get the rest later. If you’re safe, then I want to know about Hope.”
“I . . . I don’t know. She isn’t with me. I escaped and—”
I miss her next words as Connolly, obviously eavesdropping, glances over. “She escaped and left your sister behind?”
A lethal glare shuts him up and turns his attention back to the road. On the other end, Ani didn’t hear him, and she’s still talking.
“—thought she was in the same place. We were sedated, so all I knew was that I woke up in this rundown shack. I managed— Right. No details.”
A deep breath. Part of me wants to say just go ahead and give me the full story, but a bigger part wants to shove her toward the finish line. Get to the important thing. What happened to Hope.
“I got out of my ropes,” she continues. “I figured Hope was in the next room. Except there was no next room. Apparently I didn’t Houdini-wiggle out of my bonds. Our captors must have only half-assed secured me. Left me in a one-room hunting shack and took Hope.”
“Is she sure Hope wasn’t there?” Connolly asks. “Did she search the area?”
He gets another glare, and again Ani thankfully doesn’t overhear. No one is more responsible or careful than my sister, and even if she did everything possible, she’s already going to blame herself.
Even without hearing Connolly, she tells me how hard she searched—looked for a basement, checked the outhouse, searched the woods for an hour before finally making her way to this payphone.
“They ditched me because I was being difficult,” she says, and I bite my tongue against any comment on that. “I wasn’t arguing with them. I said we’d do whatever they needed. It was curse weaving, I knew that much. But I asked too many questions, made too many demands. I wanted them to treat us like professionals and make it a business deal. I was trying to be reasonable.”
“And Hope let you do all the talking. Which made them think she was the pliable one, the easily intimidated one.”
Ani makes a noise that’s half sigh and half growl of frustration. “You know how she is. When I take over . . .”
“She steps aside. She was letting you bluster and negotiate while she worked on an escape plan. They mistook her silence for compliance, and they decided they only needed one curse weaver.”
“If I’d foreseen that, I’d have shut up. Or I’d have insisted she do the talking.”
That isn’t true. Ani couldn’t have sat quietly by. Nor would she have pushed Hope to talk, in case their captors did something far worse than abandon the “difficult one” in a hunting shack.
“You were rejected,” I say, forcing levity into my tone. “Now if I’d been there, they’d totally have kept me. I’m the shiny, vibrant, irresistible sister.”
That makes her laugh. “If you were there, K, they’d have dumped you at the first off-ramp, like Dad threatened to do on every road trip. Now how far out are you?”
“About an hour. Plenty of time to give me all the details.”