It took a little over an hour to reach the truck stop on the other side of the Forest that Zoe had told him about. He parked the car and practically flew out of it and into the diner. He skidded to a stop and searched the dining room for his sister.
Espinal entered a moment later and came to stand next to him. “I don’t see her,” Zeb said, starting to panic. “What if they’ve already been here? What if they have her?” He began to pray frantically, whispering the words as he scanned the faces in the diner a fourth time.
The vertigo was starting up again, pressure building up in his ears. He winced and put a hand to his head. Not now, he begged. He stepped forward to intercept a young dark-haired waitress wearing too much makeup to ask her if she’d seen Zoe, but he stumbled a bit instead, catching himself on Espinal’s arm. When he was righted, he got a picture of his parents and sister out of his wallet and stopped the waitress.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said as politely as his panic allowed, “I’m supposed to pick up my sister here-” he showed her the picture, “but I don’t see her anywhere. Have you seen her? Her name is Zoe.”
The waitress looked at the picture and shook her head. “Sorry, hon,” she said, though she was at least ten years younger than Zeb, “I haven’t seen her. But I just got here, so who knows? She could be around.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” Zeb asked, suddenly wincing again and grabbing his ear as the pressure made a dramatic increase in his right ear.
Espinal put a hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Zeb replied, trying to shrug him off, but succeeding only in lurching sideways into the nearest table instead.
“Hey, Mister!” The waitress glared at him as he straightened the napkin dispenser and condiment caddy. She stepped close and lowered her voice. “I don’t know what you’re on, but I suggest you let your buddy here take your druggie self out of my diner and someplace you can get yourself together before I call the police.”
Zeb closed his eyes and took a breath. Then he looked at her and forced a smile. “It’s a medical condition, ma’am. I have an inner ear disease that makes me lose my balance, sometimes. I appreciate your concern, though, thanks.”
Her pale skin turned bright red under all that mascara and blush. “Oh, sorry,” she muttered. She muttered an ‘excuse me’ and walked through a door that he guessed led to the kitchen.
Zeb leaned heavily on the back of the chair that sat at the table he’d nearly overturned. Espinal took the photograph from his hands. “I will look in the convenience store side.”
“Wait,” Zeb said, seeing the door to the ladies room past the counter to their left opening. He felt a huge weight lifted off of his shoulders at the sight of that familiar face. “Zoe,” he whispered. Then, “Zoe!”
She looked up and began to cry, with the biggest smile on her face. She ran to him and hugged him tighter than a vise. “Thank you, God,” she said, laughing and crying at the same time.
Zeb stepped back and looked her over, taking in the sight of her torn and dirty clothes and banged up face and hands. He saw ragged cloth, like a ripped up shirt, tied around her upper arm through a hole in the hideously ugly flannel shirt she was wearing. A perfectly round hole. And there was blood on the cloth beneath it.
“What happened to you?”
“Not here,” she said. “Long story. I just want to go home.” Then she spotted Espinal near them. “Um, who’s that?”
Zeb lowered his voice to match hers. “That’s the Inspector from Madrid – the one who didn’t believe me. He says he knows Andres and can help stop him.”
She shook her head. “You’ve got it all wrong,” she insisted. “Andres is not the bad guy here. He’s as much a victim as we are. He helped me.”
“Oh, yeah,” Zeb scoffed, “and he did a bang up job, obviously. Oh, wait, no – he’s nowhere around and you’re the one banged up. Zoe, don’t believe whatever sob story that guy fed you.”
“Stop,” she whispered fiercely. “I’m not a kid anymore, Zeb. Or an idiot. Okay?”
“I never said-”
“Yeah, but you obviously don’t think I’m capable of knowing when I’m being lied to. Do you know how many people in the hospital lie to me every day? Almost every single one of them. My BS radar is well tuned.”
Zeb sighed. “Okay, fine. But Espinal can still help us.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t trust it. Why would he show up now, with promises to stop Andres? What if he works for Seve?”
“Why don’t you ask him? Put that radar to use.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, but he stepped back and gestured to Espinal. “Inspector, meet my sister, Zoe.”
Espinal held out his hand. “Nice to see you in one piece, Zoe,” he said with a quick smile. “Inspector Hector Espinal.”
She tentatively shook his hand. “Zoe Martin.” Then, not letting go of his hand, she stepped closer to him. “How do you know Andres and Seve?”
Espinal looked down at her tightly gripped hand in surprise, then leveled an open gaze at her. “I don’t know Seve,” he replied, “and how I know Andres is…complicated. That’s all I’m going to tell you about that just now.” He then looked at Zeb. “Shouldn’t we be getting her to the hospital?”
She let go of his hand. “No, I don’t need the hospital, I just need my kit and to go home.”
Zeb chewed his lip. “Have you eaten?”
“No,” she admitted. “I’ve been too hyped up.”
“I, for one, just need to make a stop,” Espinal said. He intercepted a different waitress from before – this one an older lady with her hair in a bun – and asked, “Excuse me, madam, but do you have any Amontillado?”
She stared at him like he was speaking a foreign language. “Any what?”
“It’s a type of sherry,” he clarified. “A liquor.”
She shrugged and gave him an uncertain smile. “We got beer in the store side.”
“Ah, thank you,” he said. Then he strode off to the men’s room.
When he was out of earshot, Zoe tugged on Zeb’s arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What? Why? We need to get you fixed up first. We can’t just leave him here.”
“Yes, we can. And we should. I’ll be fine until I get home.” She tried to drag him toward the exit, but turned back to him when he wouldn’t budge. “He’s lying about not knowing Seve.”
Zeb glanced over at the men’s room door. “What are you talking about?”
“I’ve taken more pulses than I can ever count, many times while someone is spinning me some story about how a gun ‘just went off’ or they ‘have no idea’ how something happened or whatever. Just about every time, their pulse is unusually high.” She pointed toward the men’s room with the hand of her uninjured arm. “His pulse spiked when I said Seve’s name. He recognized it.”
“Okay,” he said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s working for him. Either way, I still think we ought to keep him in sight, maybe especially if he knows Seve.”
Espinal walked out of the men’s room and stepped through the doorway into the convenience store out of their sight. He had his cell phone in hand, Zeb noticed. “Go get in the car,” he told Zoe. “I’ll be right there.”
Zeb slowly followed Espinal, weaving slightly and having to put a hand out to support himself on various objects as he passed by. He stepped into the convenience store and saw the Inspector standing in front of the liquor cooler, one hand on his forehead as he considered his options. His other hand held his cell phone up to his ear. Zeb eased around to come up behind him, staying in the next aisle – where bags of chips and other salty junk food were displayed – and listened in on his conversation.
The task proved to be a little more difficult than he imagined. The pressure in his ear made his hearing muffled. He tried to ignore this – and, along with it, the knowledge that this hearing loss would soon be permanent – and concentrated a little harder. “”Don’t worry,”” he heard Espinal saying, “”I will make sure they are both taken care of.””
Zoe was right. They had to leave. Now.
He left as quickly and quietly as possible at the moment and was glad to see Zoe already behind the wheel and the car idling. He got in the passenger seat. “Let’s get out of here,” he told her. She didn’t hesitate, and they were pulling out of the parking lot and onto Forest Top Highway before Zeb even had his seatbelt secured. “Uh-oh,” he said, looking into the side mirror.
He could see the Inspector running out of the diner, waving his arms to try to get their attention. “He’s trying to get us to go back.”
She slowed slightly. “Do I keep going?”
Zeb chewed his lower lip. “Yes. Go.”