Uncle Jim sighed and continued to fidget with his shirt. “Obviously they were gone when I came. I talked to the cops, didn’t see your father unfortunately, Camden, and they said they’d keep a lookout. They’ve at least got arson and assault charges on them. But I know those kind of men. I’ve been dealing with Ellie and her mother for way too long. They can’t be tracked or traced. You won’t find them but they’ll find you, you know? So I had to run. I came here. Figured it was a good place to lay low.”
I eyed the water stain on the ceiling. “You could have picked a better place.”
“I’m poor, Ellie,” he said. “And now I’m in more of a hole. Losing some of the crop, you know.”
My heart stung and I found myself biting my lip hard. He looked so conflicted and sad. I bet he wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful that I had showed up or if he hated me for ruining everything he had worked so hard for.
“When did all of this happen?” Camden asked.
Uncle Jim looked up in thought. “Uh, maybe around one or two in the afternoon.”
“And you came straight here.”
“That’s right,” he said. His voice was shaking again. The man needed a hug and a drink. “Then I called Ellie. I didn’t know who else to…”
I waited for him to say “trust” but he didn’t. He just trailed off and looked at the floor.
“What kind of car were the men driving? Did you ask?” Camden took another step closer.
Uncle Jim nodded. “Of course I asked, I had to know who to look out for. They said it was a white Ford Mustang. Looked brand new. Probably stolen.”
The room began to spin as my chest pinched. What?
“Are you sure?” Camden asked, finally sounding calm and patient as hell. “Are you sure that was the car your workers saw them driving this afternoon?”
My uncle looked him square in the eye. “That’s what they said.”
Before I could feel anything else, before I could even let my brain tussle with the conflicting information we were just given, the fact that there was no way it could have been the white Mustang since we totalled the white Mustang last night, Camden acted. As quick as anything, he whipped out the gun from his waist and pressed it up against Jim’s forehead, finger on the trigger.
“Why the fuck are you lying to us?!” he screamed, his face turning red, his eyes sharp like blue blocks of ice.
“Camden!” I yelled, going to him. “Put the gun down!”
Camden only pressed the gun harder into Uncle Jim’s forehead. He shrank back in shock, eyes wide and terrified.
“Why are you lying to us!? Tell us the truth, Jim, or so help me God I will blow your fucking brains out right here!”
“I’m not…I….I…” he stuttered, shooting me a look to help him.
“If I find out that you’ve put Ellie in danger by luring her here, I will kill. I will.” Camden’s voice was shaking now, the anger flowing through him and toward the barrel of the gun.
“Camden, please!” I screamed, trying to grab his arms. But he wouldn’t budge. He was going to lose his shit and I was going to lose my uncle.
“Tell Ellie the truth!” he commanded. “Tell her the truth, you owe her that!”
My uncle’s eyes fell to the floor and silence overtook him. Then, after a few beats, he burst out into a sob.
“He promised me he wouldn’t hurt her!” he wailed.
No. No, this couldn’t be. I found my head shaking back and forth, showing my disbelief. Even Camden looked shocked for a few moments before he tightened his grip on the gun, grinding his teeth.
“I’m so sorry, Ellie,” my dear Uncle Jim apologized through his tears. “It was so much money. I needed the money. You know I do. Fifty thousand dollars—I could save everything with that amount. I had no choice, I didn’t. I need it.”
I felt like I was being ripped apart inside, my heart a single sheet of brittle paper splitting down the middle.
“I think you always have a choice,” Camden whispered violently, pressing the gun harder, his eyes boring holes into his head. “You were like a father to her.”
“I know,” he sobbed, eyes tearing and locked on the gun above. “I know. But Ellie, Jesus, Ellie, how you’ve made my life so hard. I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for you. He promised he wouldn’t hurt you, Ellie, he did.”
Camden’s finger was about to pull back the trigger. Through all my pain, I tightened my grip on his arm and said, “Please, Camden.”
His nostrils flared as he tried to regain control of himself.
“Camden, he’s still my uncle,” I told him quietly, working the pain through my words. “He’s still the only family I’ve got.”
With great reluctance he ripped the gun away from his head. “Well now what? How much time do we have?”
Suddenly the room lit up with headlights from outside the gauzy window blinds. We had no time. They were here.
“I’m sorry,” Uncle Jim whimpered again. “I wish I could take it back.”
Camden shoved him hard. “Well you can start by helping us now.”
He ran to the bathroom and I heard him struggle with the window for a few minutes. “It won’t open and it’s too small. I can’t fit through it.”
Meanwhile I just stood there at the foot of the bed, feeling like my life was crashing down on me, reeling from the impossible betrayal by the man I had always trusted.
“Go under the bed, Ellie,” my uncle said to me. “I won’t break your trust again. Go under the bed.”
I looked around the room, thinking there had to be a way out. The car doors slammed from outside. Footsteps.
Camden came back in the room and put his finger to his mouth, motioning for us all to be quiet. Then he pointed at the bed and nodded.
I didn’t think I could move my legs. The terror was too great. I heard a knock at the door. Someone tried to turn the knob. I was going to die.
But somehow I did it. I got on my knees on one side of the bed while Camden did the same on the other. We both flattened out and then squeezed in sideways, barely making it. The broken coils of the mattress pulled at my hair but I ignored the pain.
We were both under the bed, side by side. We wiggled as far back as we could go until our feet touched the wall. We tucked our limbs up against us just as Javier called out, “Housekeeping” from outside the door.
I held my breath and waited. Uncle Jim got off the bed, the mattress rising in front of us by a bit. I could see his legs, mid-calf to his dusty Timberland boots as he walked over to the door and opened it.
“What the hell is this?” Javier asked, his voice collected but with a sliver of annoyance poking through. His sleek leather shoes entered the room followed by Raul’s and Alex’s. I could. Not. Breathe.
“I don’t know what happened,” Uncle Jim said. He was trying to stay calm but his words trembled. “They came and then they left right away. I think they were suspicious, I don’t know why.”
“They what?” Javier seethed quietly. “They were here? And you let them go?”
Though I couldn’t see above his shins, I could tell he was coiling up like a snake. Seeking the right moment to strike.
“I…I don’t know what happened,” Uncle Jim went on. “I’ll try again. It was that McQueen kid; he didn’t want Ellie to be here.”
“Mmhmm,” Javier mused. It looked like he turned around to look at the others. His shoes came forward and walked, step by step, over to the bed. Over to us.
Camden’s fingers wrapped around mine as we held our arms as close to each other as possible. We were worse than sitting ducks. There was nothing to prevent Javier from dropping to the floor and peering under the bed. He could fire the gun underneath. He could shoot the mattress. We had no way of escape. Even with Camden’s gun, it didn’t look like we’d make it out of here alive.
He stopped right in front of us. I could see the grains in the leather of his brown shoes, see a speck of grey lint on his black cashmere socks. His feet turned as if he was looking around. Now his heels were facing us, inches away. I didn’t dare breathe and I couldn’t if I wanted to.
“Do you still want the money?” Javier asked delicately.
“Of course I do,” Uncle Jim said. “But I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why they left. I’ll try better next time. I need the money, you know I do.”
“You say they believed your story?”
“Ellie believes everything I tell her,” he said with a hint of sadness. Another kick to my gut.
“You know you’re not a very good uncle, leading her on like this,” Javier mused softly. “The poor girl put all her trust in you and you’re breaking it. Believe me, I’ve done it to her before. She can’t seem to catch a break.”
I could hear my uncle swallow hard. “Ellie made my life very difficult.”
“Oh, she made my life difficult too,” he agreed. “But I enjoyed every minute of it.”
I knew he was smiling. I could feel it.
“You promised me you wouldn’t hurt her,” Uncle Jim said. “When I bring her to you, you’ll promise, right?”
Javier chuckled. “I don’t break my promises.” He slowly started walking toward the door. With each step my heart rate slowed. He stopped and turned slightly. “Unfortunately, I once promised to kill any man who’d hurt her. You’re here, aren’t you? The damage is done.”
Javier moved. A gun with a silencer went off. There was a wealth of tension as my world slowed down. My eyes were glued to the legs in front of the bed. Uncle Jim’s staggered to the right a step.
Then he fell down to the floor hard, right in front of us. A bullet wound in his head.
I opened my mouth to scream but Camden’s hand was suddenly over my mouth, holding it in. I bit down on his fingers, I couldn’t help it. I had to bite or I’d reveal us in seconds. He kept his fingers there, letting me, until the scream was swallowed up inside.
“Such a shame,” Javier said to Raul and Alex. They left the room and closed the door behind them. I remained frozen in place, unable to look away from my uncle’s dead face, the tiny droplet of blood that was slowly making its way down his forehead, the way his eyes stayed open, caught in utter remorse. They stared at me, burning their way into my brain, an image that promised to never go away.
After we heard the car start and drive off, Camden got out from under the bed. He tore the bedspread off and quickly covered my uncle up with it. It didn’t matter. I could still feel his dead eyes on me.
Camden’s legs went over to the window. “Ellie, we have to go now. They’ll be back. Ellie?”
He came down beside the bed in a push-up position. “Please? We have to leave now.”
I’d never been in medical shock before but I knew this was it. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do anything.
Suddenly Camden reached in and grabbed me by my arm and the belt loop of my jeans. He pulled, dragging me on the stiff, hard carpet until I found enough sense to get out from under the bed with my own strength.