Uncle Chris was climbing out of his SVU as I pulled up and into the circle drive in front of the house. He took one look at my face and came over to the driver’s side of my Jeep, his eyes narrowing.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’ll tell you inside. I have to pack.”
His brows lifted as I climbed out of my car and headed for the front door. He was wearing dress shoes. There must have been a board meeting or something today that I’d forgotten or that he hadn’t mentioned. “Pack?” my uncle echoed. “Where are you going now?”
“Virginia,” I said as we walked into the foyer. “I got a phone call today and I’ve got to get there tonight.”
“I can arrange—”
“I’m driving,” I said. “It’s going to take that long to get my head on straight.” I turned toward him, throat tightening around a lump. “Tim’s alive.”
“We knew that,” Chris said. “We knew that eighteen months ago after you and Kate came back.”
“He’s in Virginia, Uncle Chris. Brigid O’Connell called me and Tim was with her. He’s alive and he’s here, he’s back. I have to find out what’s going on.”
“He’s…” His voice trailed away and he stared blankly at a spot on the floor that was illuminated by the weak winter sunshine. “I’ll call Cath. She’s got to know something.”
Kathleen Catherine McCullough—still Cath Kingston to most of the men and women she’d served with before she became an ambassador’s wife—might have known something, but I doubted it. Something told me that if one of the founding forces behind UNSETIC had known something about my brother suddenly reappearing on Earth, my uncle would have been the first person she called. Clearly she hadn’t, which made me suspect that this news would be as much of a surprise to her as it had been to us.
“I don’t know what good that’s going to do, Uncle Chris.” I headed for the stairs. “I have to pack. Do you want to come with me?” Truth be told, I could have used company on the drive.
“Does Kate know?”
“Yeah.” I stopped on the stairs and turned back to look at him. “She can’t come with me, though. Stray bullet caught her in the arm so she’s getting that checked out before she comes. I can’t wait that long. I’m going tonight—leaving as soon as I can pack. Do you want to come or not?”
“I can’t. Meetings, things I can’t—they’d ask too many questions and I can’t—” His lips thinned and he blew out a frustrated breath. “I wish I could. I want to.”
“Maybe it’s better if you don’t,” I said softly. “If this turns out to be some awful, elaborate trick, only one of us is going to end up disappointed.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” He mounted the stairs and enfolded me in a hug so tight I thought he might crush the life out of me. For all of his wiry, slender build, my uncle was one of the strongest men I’d ever met. Even in middle age, he maintained the same level of fitness he’d cultivated during his days in the Navy.
“You be careful,” he murmured into my hair. “Call me the minute you get there and then call me after you’ve seen him. If Cath knows anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Okay,” I whispered, hugging him tight. “I have to pack if I’m going to make it to the Tristate before traffic gets any worse.”
“I’ll make you some coffee for the road.” He kissed my temple and released me, turning away quickly. He wasn’t quite fast enough to hide the tears that had gathered in his eyes.
I swallowed past the huge lump in my throat and ran up the stairs to my room before the waterworks really got started.
Once I made it to my room, I threw some clothes and toiletries into an overnight bag. I added my tablet to the mix and a spare clip for the lightweight semi-automatic that had lived in my desk drawer here at home since I’d joined the Portal Corps. I wrapped the gun in its holster and tucked that into the bag—just in case.
This could be a trap. I don’t think it’s a trap, but it’d be stupid of me to assume that it’s not.
Cabalists died like everyone else as long as the shot was good and they weren’t wearing too much body armor. I’d learned that over the past few years—we all had.
I stared at the bag for a few long moments, scrubbing away the few stray tears that had escaped despite my determination not to cry. I reached to zip it up, then stopped, turning abruptly and heading down the hall.
Tim’s room—the room he’d grown up in, the room he’d continued to use during his infrequent visits home after he’d joined the Air Force—was next to mine, the corner bedroom on the north side of the house. I eased open the door and slipped into the shadowed room—we’d kept the blinds mostly drawn in here for years, since he and Mat had gone missing—and snapped on the light. I rummaged in his drawers, untouched for two years, digging out an old high school swimming and diving tee, a pair of jeans I hoped might fit, a Northwestern hoodie, and four pairs of his favorite brand of athletic socks from a package that he’d tucked into the drawer but never opened. I leaned against his dresser and looked around the room, at the neatly made bed, the half-completed model of the original Starship Enterprise on his desk, still waiting patiently for his eventual return to finish it. My throat tightened again and I clutched the bundle of his clothes against my chest.
Too long, was all I could think. It’s been too long. Why hadn’t he come home?
Sucking in a breath, I spun on my heel and ducked back out into the hall, yanking Tim’s bedroom door behind me. Once I got back to my room, I shoved the bundle of clothes into my bag and zipped it up.
Time to go.
I left the bag near the front door and headed for the kitchen to say good-bye to my uncle. He was leaning against the counter, staring at the coffee pot like it was somehow about to give up a bunch of state secrets if he looked at it long and hard enough.
“I’m ready to go,” I said, wincing as he jumped at the sound of my voice.
My uncle scrambled to get a travel mug out for me. “Are you sure you won’t let me send you on the corporate charter?”
“I’m sure.” I came over to the counter and stood next to him, watching him. He seemed like he’d aged a decade in fifteen minutes. “The board would want to know why and we’d have to tell them. We need to keep this quiet until we know for sure. I don’t want to legally be the sole heir to the company yet.”
He managed to laugh, shaking his head as he set a huge travel mug on the countertop next to the coffeemaker. “You’re already the de facto sole heir.”
“Not if he’s back.” I kissed Chris’s cheek. “If he’s back, that changes everything.” It means we’re one step closer to normal. “I’ll be careful.”
“Good.” He filled the mug and screwed the lid on tight before he handed it to me. “Drive safe and call me when you get there. Hell. Call me when you stop for gas.”
“Even if it’s two in the morning?”
My uncle grinned. “Even if it’s two in the morning. Call.”
“Okay.” I hugged him again and headed for the front door. He drifted after me, watching as I threw my overnight bag over my shoulder and retrieved my keys and messenger bag. “I’ll see you,” I said.
He nodded. “If it’s him, AJ…”
“I’ll tell him,” I said softly. “I’ll tell him whatever needs to be said and more.”
I hugged him again and ran out the door.