The cold bit my bare ankles like a nasty dog as we stood facing each other. Well, as I stood facing his broad chest.
I glanced up at a shaven but somehow still untidy face. His shoulders were about as wide as I was tall and I didn't even need daylight to see that he was packed with pure muscle. I tried not to gulp.
"Rupert," I managed to croak. James laughed.
"I know who you are."
"Do you want to come over to the van to talk? It's fucking freezing out here." He scuffed the ground. I glanced down the street - at the white van parked right on the corner. The road was dimly lit. No one would see me if they decided to snatch me. I opened my mouth to excuse myself back to bed.
As if reading my mind, James quickly reassured me, "Don't worry. This isn't a set up. We seriously want your help. We want to help bring Stephen back."
And of course I knew he was telling the truth. I could taste it. The sincerity there was achingly obvious.
Nodding to him as much as to myself, I followed James down the silent street to his van.
He slid the door across and held it open for me as I clambered in. He was right. The heaters were on full blast here, and there was enough body heat to ensure the air was kept toasty. I hesitated as I clocked the two big lads in the van staring at me. None were quite as terrifying as James, but that didn't make it any less intimidating.
"Don't worry about them; they don't bite," James chuckled from behind me. I didn't think that was necessarily true, but I got in anyway.
James pulled the door shut behind us, and the driver started to pull away from the curb. My heart sprang into action and my veins suddenly jerked alive. A trapped breath struggled against my throat.
"It's okay," James immediately calmed me down. "Wayne is just driving us to somewhere a little emptier - we don't want anyone sneaking around us."
Despite having never met this terrifying giant of a man before in my life, I seemed to trust him. His voice was as truthful and honest as Bonny's. His face - although clearly frightening with his fighter-features - displayed no signs of aggression or violence towards me.
But even so, I couldn't fight the panicky feeling of being manhandled somewhere I didn't want to go - a feeling that was all too familiar to me.
I breathed deeply.
"You're Stephen's little brother huh?" a skinhead in front of me asked, cracking a grin which exposed his two missing front teeth. Timidly, and trying not to grimace, I nodded.
"You sure do look alike!"
"You think so?" James butted in, taking his turn to stare intently at my face. I was careful not to squirm under his gaze.
"It's the brow," Toothless insisted, pointing a large index finger just above my eyes. James shrugged.
"I don't see it."
We drove in silence for awhile until I worked up the courage to ask in an embarrassingly mouse-like voice, "So how do you know Stephen?"
James rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, you see ... a few years ago me and my boys got into a bit of a pickle with the police over a dealing situation."
Drugs, I immediately thought.
"We were pretty much sunk - they'd got so much shit against us they had us cowering in a corner, begging for mercy." James took a moment to glance out the window. "And then your brother came along. And he fixed it. He sorted us all out - I don't know how, and I've never asked. He has his ways, and we have ours. But he helped us live as free men, walking with our heads held high once again.
"We swore loyalty to your brother after that. How couldn't we? He saved our lives. Anything he'd ask, we'd do it. And we have once already - helped him save his company from going under."
So these were Stephen's scary biker friends, I thought. It felt like two disconnected parts of a circuit had just linked together; I could see the whole picture now. Stephen had helped these guys out with the law, probably after having realised their debt to him would be invaluable. And then these guys - whose morals obviously revolved hugely around loyalty - had dropped down onto the ground to let Stephen walk across their backs to cross the mud to whichever direction he wanted to go. Nicely played Stephen, I subconsciously thought.
"And now it looks like he needs us again."
James' dark eyes held my gaze with deadly seriousness. I took a moment to digest the information.
"And you want me to help you? Like, team up?"
"Exactly right, Rupert. We believe you're the last one who's seen him?"
I swallowed hard as the muscles suddenly clamped around my stomach. "Yes," I whispered.
James glanced at Toothless.
"Tell us what you know."
So I told them. I told them about getting kidnapped a week ago. I told them about Boss keeping me as a hostage - using me against Stephen. I told them it also probably had something to do with my 'gift'. At this, I was forced to explain it to James, Toothless (who I later learned was called Calvin) and Wayne. They all regarded me with eyes bulging so hard I almost spread my hands out under their faces to catch them when they fell.
"Holy shit, Rupert," James murmured. I saw him glance at the remains of the bruise on my head. Then his gaze flickered back to me - it scoured my face, searching for who knows what.
"Man, Stephen always said you were a special kid, but fuck. He didn't tell us about that."
I smiled. "He said I was special?"
"Better believe it kiddo," Wayne grinned. My cheeks flushed with pride as it swelled in my chest.
"So this thing ... it's really real? You can really taste lies?" Calvin asked, having trouble wrapping his head around that fact. I can't say I blamed him.
I nodded seriously.
"So I could tell you a lie right now - and you'd know?"
"For fuck's sake, Cal, that's what the kid said, didn't he?" James muttered irritably. "He can taste lies. What's not to get?"
I could tell James was only getting defensive because he was trying to cover up the alarm - the shock of trying to absorb all I'd said to him.
To clear steer of the uncomfortable topic, I said, "Jesse knows where Stephen is. I know he does."
Wayne turned to me with big black serious eyes. "Stephen's still hanging around with that wanker? Christ, I thought he had better taste in friends."
So did I, I thought to myself.
"So we need to find Jesse?" James asked.
"Yeah ... but he won't help us. I've already tried talking to him. He won't listen. And he said if we try to find Stephen they'll-"
"Rupert," James interrupted me. A smile played with his lips. "Don't worry. Leave Jesse to us."
And he turned around to catch Calvin's and Wayne's eyes. I saw a dangerous flash glint in their irises. It made me automatically shrink back in my seat. Calvin even flexed his muscles under his tight t-shirt.
"We're gonna make him listen."