This was not happening. My stomach churned at the look on Agent Adams’s face. How could Kevin be missing? How could the FBI have let this happen? The bile was rising in my throat and I wasn’t sure if it was a result of fear or anger; probably both. I swallowed hard and tried to block out the fact that Brian was breathing rather erratically beside me. Like me, I knew that he was thinking about the most recent chapter of ‘Dancing Blueberry’s’ novel; the one that had ended with Kevin being tailed by some unknown assailant. Once again, I had let the guys down. I had known that Kevin was going to be attacked, and I hadn’t done a single thing to prevent it.
“Nick?” Howie sounded frazzled. “Are you okay?”
I pulled my attention away from Agent Adams and focused on Howie’s face. As I studied the dark circles around his eyes, it finally registered that I was crying. The tears were running down my face at an alarming speed, and I could feel the guilt threatening to explode. I was the reason that Kevin was missing.
“No, I’m not fucking okay!” My shaky voice echoed throughout the room. “How could I possibly be okay?! Someone is trying to kill us and now Kevin is missing! Tell me, Howie, how the fuck am I supposed to be okay when all of this is my fault?!”
Howie looked taken aback. “This isn’t your fault Nick. If anything, it’s the FBI’s fault.” Howie narrowed his eyes and turned towards Agent Adams. “Security should have been following Kevin. You told us that you were going to protect us.” Howie’s voice was rising now; his English was becoming more heavily accented. “Your men didn’t do their God-damn job!”
“Richardson left the hotel without informing anyone that he was leaving. He chose to abandon his security team.” Agent Adams insisted. “This wouldn’t have happened if you had listened to reason and cancelled the tour. The FBI is not a babysitter! The five of you need to smarten up and realize that you’re in real danger.”
“You think that we don’t know that?!” Howie was positively screeching at the detective. He gestured wildly in AJ’s direction. “Do you really think that we were going to carry on after what happened to AJ?! We’re not idiots! Kevin was putting together a press release to inform the fans that we were cancelling tonight’s show when he went missing. He disappeared doing what you and your supposedly highly-skilled team told us to do!”
“Mr. Dorough, questioning the competency of the FBI is not going to help us find your friend.” Agent Adams jammed a Halls into his mouth and began smacking his lips in frustration. “You need to calm down.”
“Calm down! Calm down?” Howie pounded the edge of AJ’s bed in frustration. “I’ll calm down when you’re able to tell us what happened to Kevin.”
I swiped roughly at my face and turned to look at Brian. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had seen Howie this upset. The fact that he was freaking out was making me feel even worse. What would he say if he knew the truth; that I had known about the attacks on both AJ and Kevin in advance?
It took me almost a full minute to realize that Brian was gone. The chair next to mine was empty. I had been so caught up in Howie’s outburst that I hadn’t even noticed that he had gotten up, let alone left the room. My heart rate was increasing by the second. Where was Brian? Had he left to find his cousin on his own?
I looked hastily around the room as I slowly began to extricate myself from my chair. Howie was still screaming at Agent Adams, and AJ was watching the argument in a drug-induced stupor. Nobody was paying any attention to me. Seizing the opportunity, I stood up and slipped into the hallway, pulling the door closed softly behind me.
“Finally! It took you long enough to realize that I had left! We have to tell the FBI about the story.”
I flinched violently and nearly punched Brian in the face as his icy fingers curled around my lower arm. I hadn’t been expecting him to be waiting in the hallway.
“We can’t!” I lowered my voice to a whisper and shook my head fiercely in Brian’s direction. “They wouldn’t believe us anyway.”
“We can show it to them.” Brian dropped his pitch to match mine as his hand left my arm. “How could they not believe us when it’s right there in black and white?”
I shook my head again and began walking towards the stairwell at the end of the hallway. “I have to go.”
“Go?” Brian hissed. “Where are you going?” He caught up to me as I pushed open the door to the stairwell. “Kevin is missing! Do you really think that this is a good time to run off without security?”
“I’m going to talk to her.”
I could hear Brian’s footsteps thundering behind me as I took the stairs two at a time. The plan was ripe in my mind. I already had all of the information that I needed. I was going to redeem myself for not speaking up by solving the case myself.
“Talk to who?” Brian jumped the last five steps and landed next to me on the small landing that marked the first floor. He grabbed my shoulder with enough force to spin me around and then dug his fingers into the excess fabric of my shirt. “You can’t just leave!”
“Watch me!” I wiggled easily out of Brian’s grip and slammed both of my hands against his shoulders. I felt a pang of remorse as I watched him stumble backwards, but my mind was set. “I have to do this on my own. The FBI will just think that I’m crazy if I show them that story.”
Brian reached for me again, but I quickly sidestepped his advance and pulled open the door to the first floor. The hospital lobby was already fairly crowded for so early in the morning, and I kept my head down as I strode towards the exit. The last thing that I wanted was for someone to recognize me.
“Nick!” Brian was on me again; pulling me backwards by my shirt. “Wait!”
“Are you trying to fuck this up even more?” I whipped around, causing Brian to stumble backwards for the second time. “Do you want to make things even worse? Just let me take care of this!”
Brian’s face quickly shifted from concern to anger. “How are you going to take care of it? Do you know where Kevin is? Why are you shutting me out? I thought that we had finally moved past all of this bullshit! I thought that you could trust me again.”
Tears prickled the corners of my eyes at Brian’s final statement. “I do trust you.”
“So, then tell me where you’re going.” Brian’s face softened ever so slightly. “I won’t – I don’t – I need to know that you’re going to be okay.”
I started walking again; knowing that Brian would follow. “I’m going to see ‘Dancing Blueberry’.”
“You’re going to do what now?” Brian hissed as he trailed after me into the brightness of the late summer morning. “How do you plan to do that? All we need to do is tell Agent Adams about the story and let the FBI look into it. Why are you so intent on handling this on your own?"
“Because it’s my fault that AJ and Kevin ended up getting hurt!” I exploded as the two of us reached the parking lot. “I knew, Brian! Like I told you last night, I knew the entire time that AJ was going to fall and I didn’t say anything. I was too – too embarrassed to open my mouth, and now AJ is hurt and Kevin is missing. I need to fix this. I need to save Kevin!”
“Nick ...” Brian shook his head gently. “What happened is not your fault. You’re just going to make things worse by leaving on your own. What if something happens to you while you’re off trying to be the hero? What if you end up missing like Kevin, or hurt like AJ, or – or something even worse?”
“I’ll risk it.” I was stubborn to a fault. I knew that what Brian was saying made sense, but my mind was made up. “I’ll be fine. I’m just going to talk to her.”
I could hear Brian cursing under his breath as I hurried towards the rental car that Eddie had arranged for Howie, Brian, and I that morning. I knew that he was following me, but I didn’t dare to look back as I reached the car and slid into the driver’s seat. If I turned around, there was a chance that Brian could talk me out of my plan and I couldn’t risk that happening.
“How do you even know who ‘Dancing Blueberry’ is?” Brian wrenched open the passenger door and slid into the seat beside me as I got into the car.
“What are you doing?” I ignored Brian’s question as I started the car. I watched in surprise as he slammed his door and began fiddling with his seatbelt.
“I’m buckling up.” Brian paused. “You’re not the best driver.”
“You’re not coming with me.” I dropped my hands from the steering wheel. “What if – what if something happens? You have Baylee and Leighanne ...”
“Just drive, Nick.” Brian shot me a determined look. “If you’re going, then I’m going.”
“Bri ...” I rubbed anxiously at my face. “Are you sure?”
“I’m not letting you go anywhere alone.” Brian’s face was set. “You either take me with you or we both go back upstairs and explain the situation to Agent Adams and the rest of his team.”
“Jesus.” I swore as I eased the car into drive. “You know that there was a time when you just would have let me leave?”
“I know.” Brian turned his eyes towards the window as I pulled out of the parking lot. “I wish that time period never existed, but there’s nothing that I can do about that now.”
We drove in silence for a few minutes; both of us lost in our own thoughts. As much as I had protested, I was glad that Brian had come with me. If nothing else, it was nice just to have him around. It felt like we had stepped back in time in the sense that the two of us were sneaking off to do something without the others. Of course, in the past, Brian and I had snuck off to play basketball or video games. Now, we were tracking down someone who could potential hold the key to our survival.
“So, you never did tell me how you know who ‘Dancing Blueberry’ is.” Brian broke the silence as he turned his face away from the window.
“I paid someone to trace her IP address for me.” I pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of my pocket and handed it to Brian. “This is where we’re going.”
Brian carefully unfolded the paper, smoothing out the wrinkles as he peered at the lines of text. “Who did you pay, exactly?”
My face flushed as I merged onto the expressway. “A private investigator. I found him online. It’s one of those ‘no questions asked’ type of deals.”
“Jesus.” It was Brian’s turn to swear. “Didn’t he recognize you?”
“I paid him a premium to get me the information as soon as possible and to keep his mouth shut.” I could feel my face getting warm. “He knew exactly who I was.”
Brian pressed his lips together and continued to stare at the paper. “He didn’t give you an actual address.”
“He narrowed it down as best as he could. He said that it’s pretty much impossible to determine a specific address, but he was able to tell me the general area based on signal towers or something like that. I didn’t actually listen to what he was saying.” I shrugged. “He also ran some kind of a search on her user name, and he was able to figure out that her real name is Ashley Bass.”
Brian snorted. “Any relation to Lance Bass?”
I laughed. The thought had never even crossed my mind. “I hope not.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Brian’s face turned serious once again. He started punching the intersection into the car’s GPS system. “Are we just going to drive to this approximate location and stand in the middle of the street screaming her name? We don’t even know what she looks like.”
I shrugged again. “I haven’t actually thought that far ahead.”
Brian gave me a look that was eerily similar to the one that he used to give me when we were younger and he didn’t want to tell me that I had just said something incredibly stupid. He glanced at the GPS. “Well, we have exactly thirty-four minutes until we reach Severna Park. We better start thinking.”