She heard him moaning first. For a split second she thought he was having a nightmare. Then the moan became all too familiar. So in the next second, she thought he was whacking off. She liked it when he did it in front of her, or as it often was, on her. But her assumption was short lived. A woman’s cry and groaning were quick to follow.
The sound, she’d never forget the sound of that woman, made her heart bleed in her chest. Her tattoo itched. She was frozen to the carpet, unable to move. She must have stood there for minutes, hearing the whole thing, trying to comprehend how the hell this could happen.
Then they came, her cries drowning out his. The girl finally snapped to attention, just as the beer was about to fall out of her hands.
The woman in the room made some sweet talk to the man, to her Javier, and Javier sweet talked back. He called her beautiful. His voice was gentle. He was being sweet. That hurt the girl more than their blatant fucking ever had.
The girl was so angry. All her pain, her humiliation, her revenge, came flowing through her. She was going to kill them. Kill both of them.
She crept down the hall, wanting to barge in on them and catch them in the act. She wanted them to be as humiliated as she was. But something happened.
As she pushed the door open a crack and peered into the bedroom—her bedroom—she saw them both naked, lying face down on the bed. They were facing away from the door, so the girl couldn’t see the woman’s face. But she looked curvy, silky, with a wild mane of auburn hair that cascaded down her golden back. Javier’s foot was hooked around hers and they swung it up and down, like two children who were sitting on a bridge. They looked intimate. They looked…happy.
The girl decided she couldn’t do it. She had one thing left—one secret of her own—and that was the fact that she was Ellie Watt. Javier had never known the real her, so he’d never loved the real her. He loved a woman who wasn’t a con, wasn’t a spy, wasn’t there because she wanted to bring down the man who ruined her.
She wanted to hold onto that secret for as long as she could. This other woman, this infidelity, it changed her heart. It made her the cold, heartless person she was supposed to be. The person she needed to be to survive.
The girl quickly slunk down the hallway before she could disturb them, plucking the beer off the counter. She went back to her truck and drove just a few houses down. She cracked open the beer and drank it while crying and watched in the rear view mirror as the woman eventually left the house and drove down the road in her Mercedes Benz. She never even looked the girl’s way.
Later that night, the girl pretended she had worked her whole shift. She brought Javier the beer. She pretended everything was okay, lying through her teeth. She kissed him goodnight and they fell asleep like nothing was wrong.
The next morning, Eden White stole the extra cash that Javier kept hidden in the house. Then, while he was off on his morning jog, she stole his car.
She never looked back.
We drove all through the night, heading west while the sun came up in the sky. Though we were both exhausted to the bones, neither of us slept. We didn’t talk either. We just listened to Guano Padano and tried to hold on as long as we could. I was worried about Javier still, wondering how I was going to avoid him down the line. I’d need a new identity again, a new look. He’d never stop trying to find me, I knew that for a fact now.
Camden, too, needed to start becoming Connor Malloy soon. Any day now someone would report him missing and perhaps that same someone would report the money missing too. We had checks in his name from the casino, but there was no way he could cash them until he had more ID and papers that could only come from Gus.
Now that it was a weekday, we were closer to getting everything ready. But we couldn’t do anything until we picked a place to hunker down for a while. Camden had Gualala on his mind and at times seemed convinced we could drive another ten hours to get there. But by the time the sun was high in the sky and we’d passed Tulare, we had to find a place to crash or we would crash ourselves. We would have gotten there quicker but the headlight and the windshield had to be repaired. We were lucky it was even done in two hours (though we were several hundred dollars poorer).
We pulled into a small motel on the roadside, making sure to park Jose behind the buildings and out of view from the highway. We must have looked quite the sight to the front desk clerk as he observed us behind coke-bottle glasses; me in boxer shorts and a bandaged leg, Camden in a tuxedo. But he didn’t give Connor Malloy or Emily Watson any grief.
Our room was shabby and smelled like too much Lysol, but it didn’t matter. Camden and I crawled into bed—now we were sharing—and passed out in each other’s arms. Our sleep was deep and we didn’t wake up until I heard my cell phone ringing.
I groaned and frowned at the clock, all messed up from the nap. It was 6 p.m. and the light outside had faded. I got up and looked for my phone, then remembered it was in my clutch. It was a bit unusual for my phone to ring—everyone I knew almost always texted me.
I peered at the screen, heart in my throat. It was Uncle Jim.
“Hello?” I asked, trying to hide the worry in my voice.
“Ellie!” he exclaimed. “Oh, Ellie thank God you answered. Are you all right?”
I eyed Camden nervously. He was sitting up, taking off his tuxedo jacket, now all wrinkled from our nap.
“Yeah, I’m fine Uncle Jim. Why, what’s going on?”
“Where are you?” he asked.
I had to remember what the last lie I told him was.
A pause. “Ellie, I don’t want you to freak out, but I…I need your help.”
My heartbeat got louder. “What? Why?”
“I’m in a lot of trouble,” he said in barely a whisper. “Some men came to my house while I was in town. They…they roughed up one of the workers and lit fire to some of the trees.”
“Holy shit!” Now Camden was at my side, trying to listen, his solid grip on my shoulder steadying me. “Did you call the cops?”
“I did,” he said. “They got a description of the men from the workers and said they’d look for them, but that’s all they could do. Ellie, I’m scared. These men…I think they were after you.”
I felt like bricks were being shoved on my chest. “Oh, I…I’m sorry, Uncle Jim, I…”
“It doesn’t matter. I just don’t know what to do. I left, I got out of there. I packed up some stuff, told the workers to stay away for the week until I figured things out.”
“Good, good,” I told him, feeling relieved. “Where are you?”
“I’m at the Shady Acres Hotel. It’s just outside of Hemet. Do you remember Hemet?”
Of course I remembered Hemet. It’s nothing but a town in the green mountains between the Coachella Valley and San Diego. But it had an amazing music store where I used to drag Uncle Jim when I was a teenager just so I could get some bootleg CDs.
“Okay, stay there. I’m coming to you. What room are you in?”
“Room eight,” he said. “Thank you, Ellie.”
His voice cracked, bordering on tears. There was a pause, then a click as he hung up the line.
Guilt. I used to wear it like a badge, now I wore it like a ball and chain. I couldn’t believe this was happening to him, my only family left, the only one who I could depend on. I was ruining his life with all my past mistakes.
I looked at Camden, his face shadowed in the dark of the room. “We have to go to him. We have to help him.”
He didn’t nod like I thought he would. His lips were pressed together in a firm line.
His jerked his head as if saying no.
I frowned. “Look, I know it’s out of the way and not part of our plans, but I can’t let my uncle hide out on his own. They’re after him, Camden.”
He licked his lips quickly. “Are they?”
I looked at him askew. “I don’t follow.”
“Yes, you do.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He strolled over to the window then drew the blinds shut and flicked on the light. “But you don’t want to think about it.”
I crossed my arms. “Think about what?”
“That he’s lying to you,” he said. He flinched a little as he said it, as if I’d hit him. I almost did, too. Smart boy.
“How dare you say that,” I seethed at him. “He’s my uncle.”
He raised his palms in defense. “I know he is. And I know it’s a terrible thing to even think, but I’m just being cautious. Your life is more important than his.”
“Maybe to you! Not to me. He’s been there for me when no one else has. My parents left me with him. They basically screwed him over! They left me and ran and they never came back. Sure, they talk on the phone now, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t sacrifice a lot of his life to raise me. And through high school, of all places. He was there during my deepest, darkest hours. There’s no way I can’t repay that.”
He nodded. “Okay. I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page, that’s all.”
“Well I’m not on your page. Shit, Camden. I’m tired of fucking people over! I need to make amends and do things right for a change. If I endanger myself trying to help him, then so be it. He deserves my help and everything else he can get from me.” I flopped down on the bed, trying to calm myself, trying to pretend the next words wouldn’t hurt. “You don’t have to come with me, you know. Go rent a car, go to your Gualala. You don’t need to be dragged deeper into this sorry mess.”
He sat down beside me and grabbed my hand, giving it a squeeze. “I’m not letting you go on your own. We’re in this together, until the ocean waves crash on our feet.”
I squeezed back, giving him a shy smile. “You really paint this Gualala as a paradise,” I told him.
“If you’re there with me,” he said, “it will be.”
He kissed me softly, his hand getting lost in my hair. I started to fall back onto the bed but he caught me and kept me up. “We can do this later,” he murmured into my neck. “We’ve got your uncle to save.”
We got changed into normal clothes and threw our stuff into the car. We hadn’t even had the chance to unpack.
It felt completely wrong to be driving south to Hemet when we should have been driving north to Gualala, but my concern for Uncle Jim was too overpowering. Thankfully the drive was just under six hours, even with the rush hour traffic, and it wasn’t long before we were passing Lake Perris and winding through the mountains. With darkness enveloping us, the roads seemed extra treacherous, and Camden was tense as he drove. I’d decided Jose was probably safest with him—they’d been through a lot together.
The atmosphere inside the car was tense too. I could tell Camden was worried and for different reasons than I was. I was busy planning what to do with Uncle Jim. Telling him we were on the run from Javier wouldn’t come as a surprise, but I wanted to leave the whole “by the way I tried to rob Camden” thing out of it. It would only hurt him that I tried to do it in his hometown, and looking back now, I felt ashamed for even trying it.