Ambrose, Ohio, was in the middle of nowhere, a fact Cole became excruciatingly aware of as he pulled off the side of the road around an honest-to-God Amish horse-driven buggy. Had it not been for the triangle caution sign on the bumper, he might have thought he’d been sucked back in time.
After passing through Columbus, Cole had traveled a hundred miles of backcountry roads, finally connecting to a small highway where the only other vehicles had been trucks and big rigs. To keep his mind occupied he’d started counting tractors. Then cows. He’d kept a running tally of billboards quoting Bible verses and advertising XXX stores. A head-to-head moral war waged on Midwest soil. But after the sun went down it was dark—locked-inside-a-coffin dark. The only lights ahead were the green mile-marker signs that gleamed when caught by his high beams.
With little but the white-dotted line to focus on, his thoughts had wandered, going to places he’d deemed off-limits—to his father, and sisters, and home. When he glanced down at the speedometer, he found the needle nearing one hundred. Reluctantly, he slowed, but the dread clawing within him did not ease. He was almost there.
Ambrose, Ohio. The last place he’d heard from his sister Marsella.
As he steered his hybrid Camry off the freeway, he spotted a few fast food restaurants and a truck stop, overshadowed by a blinking neon sign boasting a seductive-looking blonde biting her fingernail, and the words Great Food. Somehow he doubted anyone had ever gone to a strip club for food.
He could have asked Elaina, if she were actually speaking to him.
Or not. His little sister’s chosen profession as an exotic dancer was something they would never discuss. Ever.
Turning onto the main drag, Beech Acres, he followed his phone’s directions toward Flapjacks Diner. As the lights from town faded behind him, a chill crept up his spine. Was Marsella here? Was she close?
Two years she’d been gone—since his birthday dinner, when she disappeared from their father’s restaurant in Reno during a police raid. Cole had hired investigators, made missing person reports, and visited everyone in Reno Marsella had known. As the days turned to months, he’d begun thinking the worst. She wasn’t like their mom; she didn’t run away. Family meant everything to her. Her disappearance meant that something terrible had happened, and after a while, he’d begun to dread every call, and every knock on the door, fearful that they’d found his sister too late.
Finally, he’d gotten lucky. Using a college friend’s facial recognition software, he’d located her—at least, someone who looked like her—at a diner in Ambrose, Ohio. He’d sent a police officer the location, a man he’d made the mistake of trusting.
The throbbing at the base of Cole’s brain grew stronger as he remembered the phone call he’d gotten from his sister two weeks ago. Marsi’s voice hadn’t changed. She was still alive, still checking in on him. Jake had finally found her, and for five minutes Cole had had her back. Then she’d hung up, and he’d lost her again.
And Jake wasn’t answering any calls.
Something had happened in Ambrose, maybe to Marsi, maybe to both of them, and this time Cole wasn’t taking any chances. He’d packed a bag, intending to drive to Ohio that night, but by the time he’d reached the highway he knew he’d been followed. Whether it was the press, or the cops, or someone worse, he didn’t know. But he wouldn’t chance leading them to Marsi.
So he’d gone home and waited. It had nearly driven him insane.
His opening wouldn’t come for another nine days, when his entrepreneur father, August Talent, and Detective Singer, the lead investigator in their case, were arrested. New evidence had been found, a journal documenting drug transactions the police had been bribed to overlook. A journal Marsi had supposedly had when she’d left Reno.
Part of Cole had hoped the emergence of the journal was proof that Marsi was alive and well. That she’d completed whatever quest she’d been on and finally dropped the ring into the fiery chasms of Mount Doom. The other part of him feared this meant something terrible had happened to her after their phone call. A fear that grew each day he didn’t hear back from her or couldn’t get in touch with Jake.
Whatever the case, all eyes were back on their father, allowing Cole to slip out early from Rare, the restaurant he’d managed since Marsi’s disappearance, and head to Ambrose. He couldn’t chance flying, though it would have been faster and easier. If someone was tracking where he went, they could have hacked his accounts, seen credit card statements or emails from the airline. It wasn’t worth it. So he’d gotten in his car and begun the long drive across country.
Something had happened to his sister, and he was going to find out what.
His foot pressed down harder on the gas pedal. The quaint downtown he’d seen on the city data website looked a little grim at night and without the leafy oak trees hanging over the storefronts. It stretched out for all of two blocks then gave way to snow-covered fields, glowing a pale blue in the reflection of the moon. Lights from a truck fifty yards behind him pierced through his window, like the cold that pushed through from the outside. The muscles in Cole’s thighs began to flex. He’d been sitting too long. He needed to run, to feel the steady pounding of his feet against the pavement.
He needed to find Marsi. He needed to see she was safe.
Flapjacks Diner was on a single-lane road across from a pasture. It was nostalgic in the kind of way a lot of newer, trendier places only tried to be, with the name spelled out in red neon lining the roof, and square, metal-rimmed windows. A sign hung in front door stating: We Proudly Serve Coca-Cola. His shoulders slumped when his eyes traveled lower to the bold white letters spelling CLOSED.
“What kind of restaurant closes at . . .” He glanced down to the clock on his dash, and then groaned. “Eleven at night.”
Every kind that didn’t exist in a twenty-four-hour town like Reno.
He’d driven for two and a half days, sleeping in his car at rest stops and eating only junk food. He’d come too damn far and waited too damn long to draw this out any longer. The lights were still on inside. Someone had to be here.
Pulling into a spot out front, he parked and jogged up the steps. Bells inside jingled as he pulled on the front handle. His breath clouded in front of his mouth, fogging up his plastic-rimmed glasses. The air outside was frigid, and bit at his neck and wrists.
“Hello?” he called, banging on the glass with his fist. “Anyone there?”
Stomping his feet to fight off the cold, he waited, but no movement came.
From the back of the lot came the growl of a car engine. Cole spun toward the sound, blinded momentarily by the headlights before he raised a hand to shield his eyes. In the dark, he hadn’t noticed the other vehicle, half hidden behind an outcropping of bushes, lurking like an alley cat in the shadows. Slowly, the black sedan bumped over the potholed asphalt, coming to idle in the spot directly beside Cole’s hybrid.
Images from the tollbooth scene in The Godfather started flashing across his mind.
Hoping he wasn’t about to become the next Sonny, he reached for the phone in his pocket, but remembered he’d left it plugged into the car—the map feature had been eating his battery life. A quick scan of the other vehicle showed no hidden lights in the interior, not like the highway patrol vehicles in Nevada that sometimes disguised themselves as regular cars just to lure you into speeding past. Salt glittered on the siding, splashes of white against the black paint, a sign of passage through snowy terrain.
The roads were clear and dry here, but there’d been a storm in Reno early last week.
He was being paranoid. After his father’s first arrest two years ago, people had started following Cole. Police. Reporters. Others he was beginning to think must have worked in some capacity for the Talent organization. It had made him gun-shy.
He’d been careful these last two days on the road. He’d made sure he wasn’t followed, and anyway, his father and Ben Singer were in jail. Those who’d worked with them were under investigation. They wouldn’t chance tailing him. This was coincidence. An employee who hadn’t left right away. Local cops, keeping an eye out for kids looking for trouble.
The headlights shut off, revealing a yellow New Jersey license plate. Garden State was printed beneath the black numbers and letters.
Not locals. Not even police.
“This is bad,” Cole muttered.
Two men emerged from the vehicle. The driver wore a gray tracksuit, the jacket open to reveal a white T-shirt beneath. His round face gave him a youthful appearance, but his buzzed head and challenging stare made him seem older.
“I think it’s closed, friend.”
There was something about the way he said friend that felt decidedly unfriendly. The man rested his forearms on the rim of the open door, stretching his back.
Cole’s gaze shot to the passenger, who was shorter, but built like a brick wall. A toothpick stuck out of his mouth. With one hand, he pulled the hood of his navy sweatshirt over his dark hair, shadowing his expression.
A tingling began at the base of Cole’s skull. The two men stared at him, waiting.
“Looks that way,” Cole said.
“Too bad for you,” the driver continued. “The food’s worth the drive. Best pancakes in the entire state. Isn’t that right, Jeremy?”
The other man nodded, moving his toothpick to the other side of his mouth.
“What do you want?” Cole asked.
Apart from the keys in his pocket, he had nothing to defend himself with. He didn’t know if these guys were carrying. Based on Jeremy’s size he doubted they needed to.
“I think the real question is what do you want?” said the driver. “What brings a Talent so far away from home just after his pops gets locked up?”
Cole went stone still.
They knew who he was.
He needed to get to his car. He wasn’t an idiot. The last time he’d been in a fight had been in high school, more than a dozen years ago, and even then he hadn’t done too well. If they both came at him he wasn’t going to win.
Despite this, he didn’t move. Logic was overridden by the steady heating of his blood. He’d been left in the dark for two years. Ignored, forgotten, for two years. If he had a superpower, he was pretty sure it was activating.
“I do love pancakes,” he said.
The driver smirked. “Where’s your sister, Cole?”
He flinched. Marsi. They’d come here to find her, just as he had. Maybe they’d seen her picture on the Flapjacks website, too. However they’d figured it out, Cole’s presence confirmed they were on the right track.
“I have no idea where she is,” he said, adjusting his glasses, which had slid down the bridge of his nose. He reached for the keys in his pocket and took a step away from the diner. If Marsi had been here, he couldn’t stick around. Not while these guys were waiting.
Jeremy closed his door, moving up to the sidewalk. Behind him, the driver did the same. Cole’s eyes darted to the lot behind them, then to the road. No other cars. No one outside.
He was a runner; had been since high school. It was the only sport where he could put his long, lanky muscles to use without the kind of coordination it took to catch, or swing a bat, or throw a punch.
But he wasn’t running now.
“Who are you?” Cole asked, voice lowering. Jeremy reached the bottom step, face still hidden beneath the shadow of his hood.
“Friends of the family,” said the driver.
He doubted that.
Jeremy stopped on the bottom step, bouncing on his toes on the concrete. Though he was on lower ground, Cole could tell he had Jeremy in height. Five inches, maybe more.
“Concerned friends,” said Jeremy. He had an accent. Northern Irish. Cole recognized it from his time abroad.
“You worked for my father,” he guessed.
They both laughed.
“Not exactly,” said Jeremy.
“More like the other way around,” said the driver.
Cole didn’t understand the logistics of his dad’s drug empire. He didn’t want to. He’d distanced himself from the mighty August Talent since the birthday fiasco two years ago. Call it a hunch, but that first arrest hadn’t sat well on Cole’s conscious. The second, a few days ago, when his father had changed his previously innocent plea to guilty and accepted a sentence of ten years without early parole, had only validated Cole’s efforts to stay away.
But it seemed it didn’t matter what he did. Trouble followed the Talents, whether they asked for it or not.
The driver stretched his arms overhead, as if this were no more than a casual meeting at a rest stop. “We’ve heard good things about you, Cole. Seems like you’ve done all right for yourself this past year.”
Cole gritted his teeth. Rare, the restaurant his dad had given him two years prior—the same night August had been charged with using it as a base to sell drugs—had survived the police raid and following insurance investigations and was finally in the black. August’s legal trouble had made sensational news, even as his lawyer’s bills had sliced their throats. People loved to be a part of the drama. They loved it so much, Cole had a few solid offers on the table now to sell the place. He hadn’t yet, but it had given him the push he’d needed to finally prep the opening of Raw, Rare’s companion restaurant, in Las Vegas.
“I’ve done all right,” he said warily.
“That’s good,” said the driver. “Hard work pays off, doesn’t it?”
“What do you want?” Cole asked.
A pause, and then the driver stepped around his open door to the sidewalk.
“We want our cash flow back on track,” said the driver. “As a business owner, you can appreciate that, can’t you? Only problem is Marsella really fucked that up for us and, well, we can’t let that slide.”
Cole flinched, his muscles flexing in tandem. He met Jeremy’s stare, imagining these men coming after Marsi. Scaring her. Threatening her, like they were doing to him now.
If she’d been in trouble, she should have come to him. Just because he was a year younger didn’t mean he couldn’t look out for her.
“That little book had a whole lot of secrets,” the driver added. “Things we didn’t need getting out.”
August’s journal. His record of criminal activity. If Cole had any doubt that his sister had turned it in to the cops, that was gone now.
“We were hoping she might come back here for a visit,” said Jeremy. He took another step up, then another, putting Cole and him on level ground. With the light from the restaurant behind him, Cole could make out close-set eyes and a thin scar running down the center of his chin. “She needs to be held accountable for her actions.”
“She doesn’t have that book,” said Cole. “The cops do.”
“Sure, sure,” said the driver. “We know.”
Their gazes aligned. Cole was starting to get the feeling they didn’t care about the book at all, but about hurting his sister.
“If you have a problem with my family, you can take it up with me.”
“Oh, we have a problem,” said Jeremy. “We have ounces and ounces of problems.”
Drugs. Of course. Cole’s father had used the restaurant as a cover to sell drugs. Since Cole had been in charge, they hadn’t been able to keep that up. To prevent August’s earlier mishaps, Cole had run background checks and done random walk-throughs of every employee, assuring that no one bought or sold drugs anywhere near Rare’s property.
New Jersey. And here he’d thought his father’s corruption had been limited to his small hometown.
“I can’t help you with that,” Cole said.
“You sure about that?” the driver asked. “Our boss is a fair man. He’d be willing to consider a deal, should you offer one. You do something like that, we might show a little mercy. Boss might even forget the things she’s done and let her off the hook. It’d be nice having her back home, wouldn’t it?”
The man’s intent was clear. He wanted Cole to sell drugs, just as his father had done before him.
Cole stiffened. “I’m not August.”
His words weren’t as strong as he’d meant them. He wanted Marsi home. He wanted whatever mess she’d fallen into wiped away.
But he couldn’t involve himself in his father’s chosen life. Crime had broken his family apart. Involving himself in this mess would not bring it back together.
“That’s too bad,” said Jeremy. “You could learn a thing or two from your old man.”
The driver nodded. “He certainly knows how the game is played. It’s a shame you’re not interested. We’ll be sure to let your sister know just how much she means to you when we find her.”
Cole saw red. Hands, used to laptop keyboards and whipping out texts on his cell phone, hardened into fists.
He was done. Done with them. Done with the secrets. Done with the lies. Pulse jackhammering through his temples, he shoved by Jeremy on his way to the steps. The man didn’t let him pass. He grabbed Cole’s shirt, and slammed him back into the door. The bells jingled as the door handle pressed into his spine.
“Hey,” snapped the driver. “Keep him alive. In case he changes his mind. We can use him.”
Cole’s eyes went wide.
He pushed the other man back hard, something wild in him taking over. Jeremy chuckled again, and then swung hard for his midsection, but Cole was quick enough to dodge to the side. The man’s fist slammed against the glass, not hard enough to break it, but enough to rattle the frame.
He wasn’t a fighter, but his reflexes were fast enough. In the time it took Jeremy to pull back, Cole swung an elbow into his jaw. The impact ricocheted up his arm all the way to the shoulder, making his flexing muscles numb. Jeremy toppled sideways, catching himself against the armrest of a bench. Cole went to hit him again, but was slammed backward by the driver, who tackled him into the door.
The ringing of bells. The thud of a fist striking flesh. This time Cole wasn’t fast enough to hit back. The air had been knocked out of his lungs. The driver elbowed Cole hard in the side of the head, sending his glasses flying somewhere into the bushes beside them.
Panic gripped him in its hard, hot embrace.
Without his glasses he could barely make out his hand in front of his face.
Another punch landed on his jaw, this time from his other side. His eye felt like it might burst, the muddled colors before him masked by white stars. Jeremy must have been up again. He blinked that direction, trying to anticipate the moves of the shapeless mass before him.
“What’s the matter?” taunted the driver. “Not so tough anymore?”
Blindly, Cole swung, his fist swiping through the air.
He couldn’t see.
He couldn’t defend himself.
Cole spun toward the bushes, hoping against all hope that his glasses were close, somewhere he could reach. He took another hit to the gut and toppled forward, knees colliding with the cement. Stretching his fingers over the ground, he felt for his frames, but couldn’t find them. The men above him were laughing.
He’d had nightmares of this all his life. Someone attacking while he was defenseless, while he was forced to stand by and take it.
Something hard connected to his right temple, and the fuzzy world around him went dim. He blinked. Blinked again. Heard that throbbing heartbeat in his head, slower now. He tasted blood, hot and metallic. The hard ground scratched his elbows.
“Get the hell out of here!” The voice came from above him, as if through a long tunnel. A woman. Marsi? He tried to turn his head, but it felt too heavy, too clouded.
“I already called the cops,” she said. “They’re on their way.”
It wasn’t Marsi’s voice, and even through the pain he felt relief. They hadn’t found her. She might still be safe.
The bells on the door kept ringing. He couldn’t shake the sound from his throbbing head.
“That wasn’t smart, love,” said the Irish man. Jeremy. Cole blinked again. His mind was clearer now. He rose to his knees.
Fury had him rising to his feet.
He may not have been able to see, but he was damned if he was going to let these two take a shot at this woman, whoever she was.
One hand gripping the door, he stood before her, swiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You heard her,” he said. “Get the hell out of here.”