My estranged brother’s text message was about as welcome as an outbreak of crotch crabs. Actually, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d have preferred pubic lice. I didn’t like surprises. I especially didn’t like surprises involving my crazy family derailing my career plans.
Before my phone heralded impending doom, I was in a buoyant mood. After months of hope and hard work, I, Angel Doyle, semi-reformed thief and accidental P.I., was about to realize my dream. I was in a rental car with my friend Sidney, speeding toward Zürich Airport. We were on our way to Florida and an all-expenses-paid P.I. training camp. In six months, Sidney and I would be fully qualified private investigators and full-time employees of the Omega Group, the supersecret international P.I. agency based in Nice, France, that my mother co-ran with her ex-husband.
Scoring a job with the Omega Group was my dream come true—Sidney’s, too. And it was right within our grasp. Or it had been, until thirty seconds ago, when my phone had pinged with news of my brother Del’s latest imbroglio.
“Hey, earth to Angel.” Sidney took one hand off the steering wheel and waved it in front of my face. “You feeling okay? Was the weapons-grade espresso I bought you too strong, even by your stomach-stripping standards?”
I put my phone facedown on my lap and forced a smile. “The coffee’s fine. I’m just tired.”
Sidney’s expression radiated skepticism. I didn’t blame him. Lacking his years at drama school, I sounded as believable as a politician denying a sex scandal. The sick sensation in my stomach turned into a cramp. I couldn’t drag Sidney into this mess. He’d be devastated if I told him I was considering skipping our flight. And if I told him why, he’d insist on accompanying me to Italy.
His gaze lingered on me for an uncomfortable moment before he returned his attention to the snow-dusted motorway. “I get it. We’ve had an insane weekend.”
This was the understatement of the millennium. Over the last couple of days, Sidney and I had battled a blizzard, vanquished violent criminals, and rescued a teenager from a literal ticking bomb. Our success in cracking our case had finally convinced my mother we’d make excellent additions to her team. She’d pulled strings to secure two last-minute places in a six-month P.I. boot camp.
A boot camp that I might have to bail on.
My fingers tensed around my phone, but I didn’t pick it up. I didn’t need to reread Del’s message. When his text had arrived, I’d stared at the screen so hard the words had seared into my brain with laser-like precision.
Is what Dad says true? Are you some kind of P.I.? ’Cause I need your help. Monterosso al Mare, Italy. Life or death. Please come, sis. You’re the only one I can trust.
Eight months of no contact, and now this mad missive? What on earth had my brother gotten himself into this time? And how did our father know about my P.I. experience? I hadn’t spoken to Dad in almost two years.
Del and I were half-siblings and shared the dubious honor of a career criminal father. Dad was a low-level crook working for a mid-tier London gangster. Two years ago, I’d given evidence against my abusive ex-boyfriend—Dad’s boss’s son.
Instead of supporting me, my paternal family had branded me a traitor.
Following the fallout, Del had been the only one to keep in touch. I didn’t kid myself that he’d chosen my side. More likely, he’d simply forgotten that I was persona non grata. That would be typical of Del. He’d always been slow on the uptake. For months, he’d continued to include me in silly forwards and generic “Yo, whazzup?”–style messages. Nothing personal. Nothing that showed he cared.
Earlier this year, he’d gone radio silent. I was hurt, but not surprised. I assumed he’d finally gotten the memo. Eight months had passed, and my brother hadn’t responded to my attempts to get in touch.
What’s that trite saying? Be careful what you wish for? Yeah. Totally that.
Sidney flipped the indicator and filtered into the lane for the Zürich Airport exit. “We’ll have enough time to grab breakfast before our flight. Seeing as we checked in online and just have carry-on baggage, all we need to do is drop off the rental car and get through security.”
Our lack of baggage wasn’t planned. The Swiss assignment had wrapped up yesterday, leaving us no time to get back to our house in France to pack our stuff. We’d buy clothes once we reached the US. Until then, we each had a small backpack with essentials. The idea of an imminent shopping trip thrilled the fashion-conscious Sidney. All I cared about was weather-appropriate clothing, regardless of my location.
I closed my eyes and tried to rally my racing thoughts. There were several explanations for Del’s message. Few reflected well on my brother. None boded well for me.
The most likely scenario was that Del had fallen afoul of a London gang and fled to Italy to hide out. Depending on what sort of scam he’d pulled, it might be the life-or-death situation he described. Or he might simply be on a drug-fueled high.
Memories of past Del disasters flashed before me like a Worst-Of clip collection. The dude was a bona fide mayhem magnet. Take the time he’d forgotten a sports bag full of cash on the London Underground, necessitating a trip to Morocco to outrun his gangster boss. Or the art gallery heist when he’d mistaken an unmarked police vehicle for his getaway car. Del’s life was a litany of calamities worthy of an Oscar-winning slapstick comedy. The best part? He had a tendency to drag others into his disaster du jour. Today, it was apparently my turn.
Sidney took the exit, and the airport buildings loomed into view—gray and snow-dipped against the pale blue sky. I had to decide what to do, but my heart beat so fast I could barely breathe, let alone think. I prided myself on my ability to keep my head, but my nerves were shot after yesterday. In the space of twenty-four hours, I’d survived an ambush, two explosions, and a shoot-out. No wonder my fight-or-flight mode was permanently on.
I inhaled slowly and held my breath, allowing my stomach to expand. All I’d wanted was to wish my brother a happy birthday. I’d assumed he’d ignore my text, just as he’d ignored all the others I’d sent him over the last eight months. I hadn’t expected my message to generate such a response.
With a controlled exhale, I picked up my phone and began to type. Then I stopped, my thumb hovering over the delete button. Knowing Del, it’d require several incoherent replies for me to decipher the mess he’d landed himself in on this occasion. Calling was the smarter move.
The connection went straight to voicemail. Frustrated, I made a couple more attempts. When I received voicemail for the third time, I released a silent sigh. I loathed leaving voice messages, but it seemed I had no choice. I kept it terse and to the point. “Hey, I got your text. Call me back ASAP.”
Aware of Sidney sitting beside me, I tried to keep my voice neutral. I needn’t have bothered. My friend had an unerring ability to pick up on other people’s emotions, and he was particularly good at reading mine.
He glanced my way, a crease marring his otherwise smooth forehead. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Catching his pointedly raised eyebrow, I amended my statement. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
The crease in his forehead deepened. “That sounds ominous. Who are you trying to call? Your mother? Is there a problem with the boot camp?”
“There’s no problem with the course.” Or there wouldn’t be, if I got on that plane.
I massaged my temples and ran through my options. Could I drive to Italy, find Del, and then fly to Florida before class started? Unlikely. However, I could book a flight from an Italian airport and fly out tomorrow. I’d be a day late, but I’d plead a family emergency. Depending on whatever Del was embroiled in, it wouldn’t be a lie.
When Sidney pulled into a space in the rental car company’s parking lot, I still hadn’t heard from my brother. The concern that had gnawed at me since I’d first read his message had morphed into a full-blown, bile-inducing panic. An icy trickle of sweat slithered down my spine. What should I do? Drop everything and run to Del’s rescue? For all I knew, he’d been out of it when he’d composed that text. It had the hallmarks of a bad trip. But what if he was in genuine danger?
Sidney unbuckled his seat belt. “We’d better get moving. A shuttle bus to the terminal leaves in five minutes.”
Fear had switched on my stomach’s high-speed spin cycle. I reached into the space under the dashboard computer and groped for the key fob. My fingers closed around it with white-knuckled strength, mainly to stop them from shaking. Drug-fueled hoax or not, my brother’s message had pushed me close to a panic attack. Why was my reaction this intense? Del and I had been close as kids, but we’d drifted apart by our late teens, long before he’d gone no-contact eight months ago. Old times’ sake? A stronger sibling bond than I’d assumed we shared? A premonition of danger?
Still clutching the key, I climbed out of the car.
Sidney leaned into the boot and took out our backpacks, unfurling to his full height. He was so much taller than me—not that beating my five feet two was difficult. His skinny frame made him appear even taller than his six feet two. He had an angular face with enormous blue eyes, a straight nose, and cheekbones sharp enough to cut granite. His were the sort of uniquely striking looks that’d fit right in on a Paris runway.
He shrugged his backpack over his shoulders and handed me mine, examining one of my loose curls. “I know you’re not convinced, but I love your natural shade.”
“Don’t you mean my unnatural natural shade?” I quipped. “Dying my hair back to strawberry blond hardly embraces Mother Nature.”
In a fit of drunken celebration before we left for Florida, I’d allowed Sidney to dye my hair, changing my curls back to something resembling my natural color for the first time in a decade. His handiwork thrilled him. I felt uncomfortably seen. Until I’d woken up this morning and seen my reflection through sober eyes, I hadn’t realized how much my dyed hair was part of my self-defense strategy. A reaction I’d ponder later, when I had time to navel-gaze.
He nudged me with my backpack, bringing me back to the here and now. “Why don’t you check the car for anything we forgot? I’ll drop off the key.”
I took my backpack from Sidney’s outstretched hand, but I didn’t release my grip on the key. For all Del’s faults, I couldn’t abandon him. Even if it meant temporarily abandoning my course.
“I’m sorry, mate,” I blurted. “Something’s come up. I’ll catch a later flight and join you tomorrow.”
This time, both of Sidney’s blond eyebrows arched into his shock of fair hair. “Are you serious? What’s so important that you need to ditch the flight at the last second?”
I swallowed past a painful lump in my throat. “I’ll tell you once I’ve dealt with it. Promise.”
“Not good enough, Angel. You’ve been angling for this opportunity ever since we moved to Nice. Why would you bail on the chance to train to be a private investigator?” Concern tinged his tone, but his stare was so intense it felt like a mind probe.
I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, dropping my gaze from Sidney’s confused face to my scuffed boots. “I’m sorry,” I repeated. “I’m bailing on this flight, not on the course. I’ll catch a later flight.”
“Does your sudden change of mind have anything to do with that text message you got in the car? Who were you trying to call?”
I moved to the driver’s side of the rental car without meeting his eye. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get to Florida. The cocktails are on me.”
“You can’t just leave with no explanation, Angel. And what about the rental contract? The car’s due back now.”
“I’ll call them later. Don’t worry. I’ll cover the extra cost.”
His sigh expressed exasperation. “The cost isn’t my concern. You’re stressed, and I want to know why. No way you’d willingly turn your back on the opportunity to take this P.I. boot camp.”
“I’m not quitting the course. I’m just not catching this flight.” If I looked at him, I’d burst into tears.
I’d only known Sidney since July, but the situations we’d been through since our first encounter had made us close. Well, as close as I allowed myself to get to anyone. Regardless, he was a friend. A good friend. Probably the best friend I’d ever had.
Which was why I couldn’t tell him the truth. Sidney would never let me go to Italy on my own. He’d insist on tagging along to help, even though he wanted to be a professional P.I. just as badly as I did. My showing up a day late for our boot camp was a major no-no. For all I knew, I’d get the proverbial middle finger and find myself on the next flight back to France. I couldn’t let Sidney share that risk.
On impulse, I closed the space between us and hugged him tight. He smelled of shampoo, posh scent, and dependability. My tight shoulders relaxed, and a comforting warmth replaced the icy tension.
And then the text message flashed through my mind in glowing neon letters—a garish reminder of what I had to do.
I broke the embrace and stepped back, my cheeks growing warm. I didn’t do physical affection. My sudden desire to hug Sidney had to be caused by stress.
Sidney stared down at me, agog and slightly pink. He affected a laugh. “Angel Doyle engaging in a PDA? The Apocalypse must be nigh.”
“Not quite.” I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. “I’ll call you when you land in Florida and let you know when I’ll arrive. It’ll be tomorrow at the latest.”
Without waiting for a response, I leaped into the car and started the engine, neatly reversing out of our space and speeding toward the exit. In the rearview mirror, Sidney watched me go for a second, hands in his hair, mouth open. Then his lips formed words I couldn’t hear. He ran after the car, waving for me to stop.
Doubt crept over me. Did I want to face the Del situation on my own? No. How likely were Sidney and I to miss the start of our course if I booked us seats on a flight out of Italy this evening? Depending on the connections, we could still make it.
I switched my foot to the brake, about to press down on the pedal when my phone pinged with an incoming text. My innards lurched, and my clammy palms grew clammier. Ignoring road safety regulations, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and scanned the screen.
Can’t talk right now. Not alone. Can’t give deets. I think my phone’s hacked. Remember our hideout when we were kids? Meet me at the place that looks like it. Four p.m., Italian time. Come alone. No cops.
Our hideout? But that was in London. What place in Monterosso, a town I’d never been to, resembled the abandoned shed we’d transformed into our childhood fort? A shaft of unease pierced the dented armor of my self-control. The first message might have resulted from a bad trip, but the second? No. Del was in trouble.
I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and took a last look in the rearview mirror. Sidney was still running after me, a lanky blond blob growing smaller by the second. If Del was in genuine danger, no way was I involving my friend. Blinking back tears, I hit the gas.