Zu nods, all sympathy, but there’s something about her expression that makes me think she wants to ask him a question.
“I’m guessing the skip tracer was lurking around the neighborhood, waiting for one of you missing kids to turn back up?”
This is the part where I’m supposed to say something to make him feel better. I know it is, because Zu is giving me this look like That’s your cue, buddy.
“Well…it was nice of you to try. I’m sure, um, your brother appreciated it.”
“If I were smart, I would have taken Marty with me. He’s a Blue—he could have, like, thrown her down the street to help us get away, or something.”
“What are you?” Do not say Red, please, God, do not say Red….The Yellow was scary enough at first. I’m not really sure I could handle that.
“Which means what?” I press. Jesus, where am I even going? I need to pull off eventually, but I just want to get as far away from Phoenix as possible. “You have a good memory?”
He shakes his head. “I’m just good at math—puzzles. Sooo dangerous. Too bad you can’t throw puzzles at a gun.”
I let out a low whistle, more at the bitterness in his tone than the mental image.
“I’m really…I’m really scared I messed it up for everybody. That somehow the skip tracer figured out where I was hiding and got Della and Jim in trouble and the others—”
“Nah, man, I doubt it, not unless you said something,” I say, cutting him off. If I’m not allowed to panic and freak out about this situation, no one else can. “Do you have a way to contact them?”
He has a phone number I can call; it’s just a matter of finding a working, unoccupied pay phone. They basically went extinct once cell phones came around, and then, when no one could afford cell phones or their service, suddenly there were lines around the block to use the precious few pay phones remained.
I find one, finally, at one of those outdoor strip malls that have one nail salon and one Chinese food restaurant still open. I have no idea what they’re doing that the rest of us aren’t, but whatever. Good for them.
Just to make sure no one’s going to stumble across us, I decide to wait it out a few minutes. Make sure it’s safe to leave them here alone. When I’m convinced it’s safe, I turn to interrupt their conversation.
“But I’m sure Della would let you stay, if you wanted to,” Bryson is saying from where he and Zu are huddled in that little bit of space between the dash and the seat. “The attic is big and we have video games!”
I snort, but a second later, a sharp pang cuts through me. I look down at Zu for her reaction as she scribbles out her response on the back of the same worn scrap of notebook paper I saw her looking at earlier.
I lean over his shoulder to see her response. It’s weird, because her handwriting looks the way I’d expect her voice to sound—big, girly, light. I’m going to my uncle’s ranch in San Bernardino.
Which is…where, exactly? California, I think. If she expects me to drive her all the way out to Southern California, she has another think coming.
“I’ll be right back,” I tell them. “Lock the doors, okay? And stay down.”
I pick up the receiver gingerly, wiping down the mouthpiece against my shirt, like that’s going to help. I pop in the dollar in change and dial the number Bryson wrote out on the back of my hand. It takes a moment for the call to click through to the tone; I glance back over my shoulder, making sure they aren’t peeking over the dashboard to watch when I specifically told them not to.
It rings three times, and just when I’m sure I’m going to be kicked to voice mail, a breathless voice answers.
“Um, yeah, hi, I think I…” Oh, shit. Does Gray still have his cronies listen in on calls? I mean, would they have any reason to listen in on this particular house’s calls? “I think I found your, um, stray…ra-dog.”
Shit, I almost said rabbit. Be cool, Gabe.
The woman—Della, I’m assuming—is silent.
“I’m happy to drop him off, but maybe it would be, um, better for you to come get him? He is a big dog. Nice…uh, reddish fur? Do you know which one I’m talking about?”
“Yes,” she says, her voice soft. She’s Southern—unexpected. “Can you tell me where you are? I’d be happy to meet you.”
I lean back out of the booth, trying to see the nearest street name. Sweat is pouring down my back, and not just because of the heat. “I’m grabbing dinner at Mr. Foo’s on Baseline and Priest Drive.”
“All right.” I can hear her keys rattle as she grabs them. “Okay, I’ll be there in less than a half hour. Do…do I need to bring anything with me? To thank you?”
“What do…” Oh. Oh. She’s asking if I need some kind of reward, I think. Crap. I mean…I guess I just assumed the only financial gain was in turning the kids in, not, you know, returning them. I’m so stunned I can’t think of a thing to say.
“Some gas money would be great, I guess,” I manage to get out, “if that’s okay?”
I can’t really sort out my thoughts, even as I hang the phone up and make my way toward the car. The kids both turn and look at me, these little faces with big eyes, as I slide in and slam the door behind me. My forehead falls against the steering wheel as I lean into it, closing my eyes.
“Did you get Della?”
There’s a rustle of paper and faint scratching. I open one eye just in time to see Zu pass a note back to Bryson. It’s such a natural, typical thing for these kids to be doing in such a bizarre setting under such horrible circumstances that I have to smile, just a little bit.
“Zu wants to know if you need her to find us something to eat,” Bryson says, reading the paper.
I sit back, giving her an exasperated look of my own. “Della’s coming in a half hour. If you’re hungry, I can get whatever fifteen bucks will buy at Mr. Foo’s.”
They both shake their heads, and I realize, my exasperation blooming to a whole new level, that they’re worried about me being hungry. “I’m fine. We’ll wait until Della gets here.”
It’s my job to keep a lookout in the parking lot for her car or anyone or anything that could be suspicious—which in this day and age is pretty much everything, but this part of town is as dead as we could hope for. Out of boredom, I start fussing with the skip tracer’s tablet I swiped.