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"Oh my God."
After the brutal fight, Juliette and AJ had taken the Cadillac and raced over to Rachel's house, leaving everything they had and the three men behind. Now they stood at her doorstep, the car parked haphazardly on the long driveway that stretched behind them.
Rachel was in sweatpants, her hair tied up in a messy bun and face clear of makeup. The disbelief was fresh in her expression and somehow her outfit made it funny. But no one was laughing; she was spluttering, trying to find words as she stared at them.
Sensing that she was probably nearing a heart attack, Juliette spoke calmly, "Rachel, there's no time to explain. I know how crazy this looks but we have to get out of here and we need your help." AJ stood next to her, his face unreadable in the dim hallway lights from behind Rachel.
She kept on staring and spluttering and it seemed like forever until she nodded her head and stepped aside to let them in.
Without another word, Juliette headed inside and up the stairs with AJ right behind her. Classical music echoed throughout the house from somewhere and the smell of lavender was faint. She recognized the combination as Rachel's home-alone relaxation: Mozart and a hot bubble bath. She hadn't been inside in a long time so she turned to ask Rachel and stopped. The woman was standing by the top of the stairs, standing motionless. Her grey eyes were glazed over and it was apparent that she wasn't actually going to relax unless someone relieved her.
Juliette touched AJ's wrist lightly as she moved past him. Her gaze was trained on Rachel as she tried to get through to her friend, taking her shoulders lightly. "Do you remember that day I asked you for a favor? When I told you that in case of an emergency, AJ and I would have to escape from here?"
The grey eyes remained wide but she nodded.
"That time has come, Rachel. I need you to show me your bedroom so we can find the emergency stash you let me hide."
Juliette released her hold and spun around, seeing AJ was no longer behind her. She sprinted down the hall, calling his name and trying to find him. He called her again and she found him in the last room, standing by an open window seat, a duffel bag in his hand. She let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. Nothing had happened—he had only found what they were looking for.
Crossing the room, she was careful to keep her voice low as she asked, "What about the others? They could be getting tracked too." Something twisted in her gut as the thought of Jesse or G. or anyone else getting attacked flashed through her mind, especially Rachel, who didn't know as much as Les Walters did.
"I'll call them. You get ready and worry about Rachel," AJ responded, pulling out a bunch of clothes from the bag. "She doesn't look so good."
When he left the room, Juliette heard him ask for the phone and Rachel reply as if she wasn't sure where it was. "Where's the little one?" She decided to go for a lighter conversation as she pulled on the pair of jeans that were in the duffel bag, wincing when she touched a bruise on her leg.
Rachel stood by the door, staring at the floor and looking lost. "Danielle. He's with Danielle. She offered to take care of him today and tonight while I was gone."
"How is your sister doing?" Juliette continued.
"Um…" Rachel hesitated before saying quickly, "Excuse me," and turned to leave.
Juliette looked after her, feeling guilty that her friend was being put through this. Though Rachel had been very keen to help Juliette and AJ when they asked about keeping an emergency bag for them, it was obvious that she'd never expected an emergency to actually happen. No one could blame her.
When she was done dressing in the spare clothes and shoes, she went through the other things that were buried in the duffel: a pocket knife, a few hundred dollars in U.S. currency and the Chinese Yuan, a blanket, and even a box of hair dye among other things. The sky outside was nearly black, the clouds appearing murky and ghostly against the dark backdrop. This side of the house faced away from the city and towards the street where traditional pagoda trees loomed. The watch that had come in the bag flashed 10:16. It had almost been ten minutes since Les Walters knocked on their door and, according to AJ, escaped while the fight broke out.
There was no time to waste. She needed to find AJ and get out of there.
Her hands went up to sweep her hair back into a ponytail when there was a tiny sting in her neck. Vaguely thinking it was a bug, she reached to find it but to her surprise, her fingers came away with a needle-thin dart about an inch long.
Confused, Juliette scanned the room and found Rachel standing by the door once again. She didn't appear to be in a state of shock anymore; in fact, she looked like she had recovered and the cloudiness had gone from her eyes.
"Rachel—" Juliette started forward and froze.
At first she hadn't seen it but it was obvious now, sending a jolt of surprise through her as she looked at it. Something was in Rachel's hand, something long and sleek. It was a familiar object, one that Juliette had used often enough, and it was pointed purposefully toward her:
A tranquilizer gun.
Feelings of dread and realization washed over her like a wave of icy water, almost powerful enough to drown out the drug that was quickly taking effect. Her limbs were beginning to feel like they were liquefying and her sight went in and out of focus. Part of her knew that she only had seconds before she lost muscle movement, senses, and eventually consciousness.
Struggling to keep her eyes on Rachel, Juliette failed to believe what was happening. "Where did you get that?" she asked, her words tumbling out with no restraint.
The hazy figure before her slowly lowered the gun. "I'm sorry." Rachel's voice was low and controlled, making her sound not sorry at all. "I had to."
But why? Juliette wanted to ask but she was slipping away too quickly. The weakness in her knees was hard to fight as she tried to stay on her feet and she could no longer distinguish anything in her vision. It was all just colors and shapes. At this point, the drug had near-complete control and the world went sideways.
She felt the impact as she hit the hardwood floor, only partially aware of the pain that radiated through her injured arm. She heard the dim clink of the needle as it fell but she hardly acknowledged it. Her muscles were no longer responsive and her body urged her to let go, to close her eyes and sleep…
But Juliette tried hard, tried so hard to look at the blurry, unmoving silhouette that was her friend. Rachel, who had come up to her while shopping downtown and complimented her dress… It was Rachel who worked in high-end retail, was afraid of heights, and absolutely loved Juliette's artwork. Juliette tried to ask "Why?" but it came out a sigh and hung between them in the air, a wisp of the dandelion, and the desperate wish of a fading flower.
Yet whatever Rachel said was lost as she gave up. Through the oncoming oblivion, Juliette felt her. She felt her presence as her senses left her, lethargy replacing them, and the drug finally took control.
Juliette let her eyes close and the darkness pulled her under.
The first thing he felt was pain. Lots of it.
Burning, aching, stinging—he felt it all over his body, in his head, arms, and back. He struggled to come to his senses but the only thing he could feel was the pain.
Light washed over his eyelids, turning them bright pink, and his face was hot. In fact, the entire left side of his body was burning up. He was lying on his back… on what, he didn't know. He pried his eyes open and immediately shut them, momentarily blinded. Instead he tried to lift an arm to block the light but just moving it a few inches sent him groaning. Biting his lip, he forced his head to the right where the light no longer shone in his face. It didn't hurt as much as his arm.
Encouraged, AJ rolled over, painfully, onto his side, feeling the heat from the light transfer onto his back. The surface underneath him was soft. A clench of his fist told him he was lying on a blanket. He ignored the pangs of pain shooting through his body and pushed himself upright, letting his eyes adjust to his brightly lit surroundings.
The first thing that came to his mind was: home. For a brief and confused moment, AJ thought he was back inside the living room with its large glass wall and modern furniture. But this wall was broken into different panes and fully intact and the sofas and coffee table were unfamiliar except for their vanilla and chestnut shades. He appeared to be in a loft apartment and was sitting on a futon draped with a fluffy fleece blanket, basking in the light of the sun that hung high outside the window. The air reeked of something sweet and fruity.
Though he now understood why he was so hot, AJ was still as confused as ever. Looking around for an answer, his eye caught the mirror leaning against the wall before him and his heart jumped at his reflection: he was wearing a sleeveless shirt that revealed his tattooed arms and shoulders and his hair was a wild mess, but that wasn't what got his attention. Cuts and scrapes and bruises laced his skin from his neck to his hands. They appeared to be half-healed though and the worse injuries were patched over or stitched. He knew there were more of them hiding underneath his clothes.
Seeing them sent a flood of memories rushing through AJ's head. He saw his friends and their grinning faces. He saw Les Walters on the doorstep of his home. There was Juliette firing at a black-clad figure and then AJ tumbling down the stairs with another one. He remembered Rachel looking like a deer in headlights with her round grey eyes… then waking up to this.
All of this had barely gone through his mind when he heard "AJ?" He sat up immediately, eyes scanning the room. The voice was familiar, but it couldn't be…
"AJ, is that you?"
Jake Attica appeared in the corner of AJ's eye, looking just as surprised as AJ felt. He was still wearing the same suit AJ had last seen him in, though it was rumpled like he'd slept in it. His bright blue eyes shone with incredulity as he walked—no, limped— towards the futon. "What happened to you?"
"What happened to me? What happened to you?" AJ stood up to help him but instantly regretted it; his muscles ached horribly.
"No, sit down," Jake said when the other man fell back onto the futon. He made it across the room and asked, "What is going on?"
AJ shook his head and slowly sat back, grimacing. "I have no idea, man—"
"What the hell just happened?"
He and Jake looked up to see Jesse coming through a doorway to what appeared to be a bedroom. He seemed to be fine except for the scowl on his face and an angry red mark on his forehead.
"Jesse?" Jake tried to walk over but his leg injury forced him to stay. "Are you okay?"
"I think so." The younger brother plopped down onto a nearby chair and buried his head in his hands. "All I know is my head hurt likes I got hit by a bus." He looked up in confusion. "Where are we?"
"We'd like to know the same thing," a voice said from above.
The three men glanced up and saw Gordon and John descending the stairs, both looking disheveled and disoriented. Gordon looked absolutely panicked, practically jumping down the steps while John was obviously fighting a hangover. "What's going on? What just happened?" Gordon demanded, striding towards them.
"No one knows, G. I think we're all as confused as you are," Jake said, spreading his hands out.
"No one knows how we got here?" Gordon cursed and began pacing the room.
AJ looked around at his friends. "Well, does anyone have any idea where 'here' is anyway?"
When no one answered, John put in, "Las Vegas."
At first AJ didn't believe it but when he squinted out the wall and tried to make out the shapes beneath the sun, he finally saw it. The massive city spread out before them, the Strip perfectly laid out to their right. Beyond the glittering buildings of Planet Hollywood and the Stratosphere and the sparkling lights of downtown were stretches of earth- and dust-colored communities and neighborhoods. Surrounding the city was the Nevada desert, hazy and bright to AJ's eyes.
For several moments it was silent until Gordon said, "We need to get out of here."
"It's locked," Jesse called from what looked to be the front door. He had already gone over to try it before Gordon spoke. He stepped back and threw himself against it. It didn't budge.
John shook his head. "Well we obviously can't get out through a window. We're hundreds of feet above the ground."
"Find a paper clip or something like it." Jake began digging through the drawers of the coffee table. The very act seemed to cause the other three to start going about the loft, throwing drawers and cabinets open, looking under cushions and furniture.
"The last thing I remember was getting out of my shower after the party," John mused, going through a bookcase. "I don't know how I'm dressed in my clothes."
"I'd been taking a shot of scotch in my hotel room," Gordon said.
Jesse made a sound of disbelief. "I think I got knocked out by the room service lady."
His brother stopped digging and lifted his head. "Knocked out? Is that what happened to all of us?"
The four of them looked at AJ who was staring into an empty drawer. "We just got kidnapped." He glanced up at them. "I was at Rachel's house…" he began.
"At Rachel's house? You mean that red-headed girl?" Jesse asked, staring at him.
"She… we had a break-in at our house. We had to go to Rachel's to get our backup gear—"
"Someone broke into your house?!" Surprise and alarm coated Gordon's voice as he went over to AJ.
AJ gave an impatient wave of his hand. "Yeah, some guy named Les Walters or something came to our door and he knew who we were—what we did, I mean. The bank heists, con plans, everything. He offered us some work with him but when we refused…" AJ shut his eyes and pressed the heels of his palms against them.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and heard Jake ask, "What happened after that?"
"We went to Rachel's. She kept a duffel for us in case we needed it and when we found it, I went to call you guys and warn you while Juliette—"
It was as if someone had flipped a switch in his brain. AJ's pulse quickened and panic arose in his chest. He lifted his head. "Juliette. Where is she?"
The bewildered look on all his friends' faces gave him the answer. He stood up and swung at the porcelain vase standing in the center of the coffee table. It flew across the room and shattered against the wall near Jesse. "Dammit, I shouldn't have left her alone!"
"AJ, AJ, calm down!" Jake grabbed at him but it seemed his violent outburst was short. "We'll find her. Just take it easy."
"It wasn't your fault, J. You were knocked out too," Jesse pointed out.
"She could be here with us," John suggested, sweeping an arm through the loft.
The five men split up, searching the loft that turned out to be a lot larger than they'd expected. There were several rooms alone on the bottom floor; up the stairs was like a whole new apartment. AJ was beginning to feel sick to his stomach as he opened the last door in a hallway. At first it appeared that it was just like the others—a normal bedroom with a made bed, walk-in closet, and bedside table. He was about to turn back when he saw her.
Juliette was lying on the bed dressed in her backup clothes—a red zip-up hoodie, jeans, and tennis shoes—and her eyes were closed. Though he felt a flood of relief at seeing her, AJ was still fearful as he checked her for a pulse.
"AJ, we can't find her—" John stopped in the doorway and stared at them. "Is she….?"
"She's alive," AJ said, mostly to himself than John. He gently shook Juliette and patted her cheek. "Juliette. Juliette, can you hear me? Jules, wake up."
John stuck his head out into the hall and yelled "We found her!" Then he walked over to the foot of the bed and took Juliette's foot in his hand, prying the shoe off. "Let me try something."
"What are you…?" AJ started but then watched as John started tickling her socked foot. Nothing happened for a few seconds until he saw Juliette's eyelids flutter and open.
One moment his hand was resting on her cheek while John held her foot and the next, she was crouched on the bed, her hands posed in front of her in a defensive position. No one moved.
"John?" Juliette squinted at him, not relaxing from her stance. Her eyes scanned the room and came to rest on AJ. "AJ? Oh my God, AJ!" She jumped off the bed and threw her arms around him, almost knocking him off his knees.
"Whoa!" he exclaimed, catching her. "Watch the back, watch the back." He flinched as she squeezed him more, his sore muscles complaining.
"What? Sorry," she said, pulling back. "I didn't realize—" Her grey-blue eyes widened as she took him in. "What happened to you?"
AJ furrowed his brow. "You mean, you don't remember…?" When she remained confused, he continued, "The break-in at home? Rachel's house?"
"Rachel." The alarm on her face grew as she frantically said, "Rachel, she—"
"I'm sure she's fine," AJ tried to soothe her.
But she shook her head, standing up and pacing the room. She didn't seem to notice John standing a few feet away, watching them. "No, you don't get it. Rachel—"
"Juliette!" Gordon appeared in the doorway with Jesse behind him. "You found her," he said to John and AJ. "Come on, we've got to get downstairs. Jake can barely walk with that leg he's got. We don't know who could be coming for us right now."
AJ attempted to calm Juliette as they made their way to the lower floor after John gave back her shoe. "How did you know that would wake her up?" he whispered to John.
The other guy shrugged. "Hasn't she always been ticklish?"
AJ didn't say anything. It was true that Juliette was sensitive in that matter but if it wasn't for the situation they were in, he probably would've laughed at the way she woke up.
"Well, everyone's here," Gordon stated, standing in the middle of the room to assess them while the others gathered around him.
"Unfortunately," Jake added. "Someone knows who we are, that's a known fact."
Gordon turned to Juliette and said, "Jules, AJ told us about what happened with the strange businessman, the fight, and going to Rachel's place. What about after that?"
"The last thing I can recall is when Rachel offered me one of her husband's shirts. I remember smelling it and then… that's it," AJ explained.
"Did she say something to you?" Juliette asked, turning her gaze on him. Her arms were crossed and the panic and fear was gone from her eyes—bitterness and something else replaced them.
Taken aback, he said, "What? What do you mean?" He didn't understand the rapid change in her mood.
"I mean, did she say something to you?" she repeated, unfolding her arms. "Did she tell you to smell the shirt?"
AJ thought back and shook his head. "No, she told me she wasn't sure if she'd washed it and that she was sorry if it smelled."
Juliette was silent for a moment before shaking her head, first slowly then more vigorously. "No. No, no, no. It can't be… She wouldn't…" She put her hands on the back of one of the sofas and hung her head.
"Juliette, what are you talking about?" Jake asked, frowning.
AJ crossed over to her and put a hand on her lower back. "Hey, are you okay?"
She lifted her head and said in a hoarse voice, "She betrayed us, AJ." Pushing off the sofa and turning to face him, she explained, "There was chloroform on that shirt. There had to be. She offered it to you, said something to make you smell it, and now you're here."
They stared at each other, unmoving. AJ was unable to comprehend her words.
Then Jake asked quietly, "And what about you?"
That's when Juliette looked away. She hesitated for a split second and then reached up to brush the dark locks away from her neck. On her light skin, standing out like a sore thumb, was a small dark red dot placed right over her jugular vein.
"A tranquilizer dart." John's tone was bleak as he gazed at her neck.
"Shit," Jesse spat, putting his hands behind his head and turning away.
"Why would she…?" AJ began but Gordon was heading towards the front door.
"We have no time to guess her motives. We've been kidnapped and there's a high chance we'll be killed. Juliette, can you open this door?"
Juliette seemed to have snapped from her state and followed him. "Do you think it's the same people that wanted me and AJ?"
But Gordon didn't have time to answer. AJ watched in horror as the doorknob between him and Juliette began to turn.