“Kids are stronger than you think. Morbid, too,” Sam says. “I was. I poked around dead things. Told gory stories. But there’s a difference between imagination and reality. Just never let them see the pictures.”
I remember he was in Afghanistan. I wonder what he saw there, to give him that dark tone. More than I had, most likely, even though I’d had to be faced with all the horrible pictures, the horror and rage of the victims’ families at my trial. Those who had the stomach to come, which by that time wasn’t nearly as many. When I’d been acquitted, there had only been about four of them who’d stayed for the verdict.
Three of them had threatened to kill me.
Most of the families had been there for Mel’s trial, or so I’d heard, and they’d been destroyed by it. He’d found it all very boring. He’d yawned, fallen asleep. He’d even laughed when a mother fainted on seeing for the first time a picture of the decaying face of her child floating under the water. I’d read the accounts of it.
He’d thought that woman’s pain—that mother’s pain—was the shit.
“Sam . . .” I don’t know what I want to say to him. I know what I want him to say: that it’ll be all right. That he forgives me. That the peace we’d formed between us, the fragile, unnamed relationship, hasn’t just been murdered by my words.
He stands up, still facing toward the lake, and puts his hands in the pockets of his jeans. I don’t need to be a psychologist to know that’s a withdrawal.
“I know how hard this was for you to talk about. And I’m not saying I don’t value your trust, but . . . I have to think about this,” he tells me. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anybody. Promise you that.”
“I’d never have told you if I’d thought you would,” I say. The hard part, I realize, isn’t letting him know the truth; it’s this ripping fear inside now that he’ll turn his back on me, that this is the last moment we’ll be friends, or even friendly. I never thought that would hurt, but it does. The fragile little roots I’d been putting down, ripping away. Maybe it’s for the best, I try to tell myself, but all I feel is grief.
“Good night, Gwen,” he says as he starts down the steps . . . but he doesn’t go quite all the way. He hesitates, and finally he looks back at me. I can’t read his expression well, but it isn’t angry, at least. “You going to be okay?”
It sounds, to my mind, like good-bye. I nod and say nothing, because nothing I can say will help. Paranoia bursts out of its shell and starts to wind tendrils around me. What if he doesn’t keep his word? What if he gossips? Goes online and talks about this? What if he posts who we are?
In a way, I realize, I’ve made the decision without making any decision. I’ve closed off options with this conversation. Mel knows where we are. Now Sam Cade knows everything, too. Friend or not, ally or not, I can’t trust him. I can’t trust anyone. I never could. I’ve been fooling myself for months now, but the dream is over. It might set my kids back, but I need to protect their bodies first, their minds second.
I watch him walk away into the dark, and then I take out my cell and text Absalom.
Last msg for a while, I send. Leaving soon. Have to burn idents & phones, will need new packet on the fly. Can use standby docs for now.
It only takes a few seconds to get a reply. I wonder when Absalom sleeps, if he ever does. New idents same price in Bitcoin. Might take a while. You know the drill. He never asks what’s happened to make us run. I’m not sure he even actually cares.
I go inside and check the kids. They’re fine, living in their own separate worlds; I wish for that peace, that luxury. The savage, black joy in Mel’s stare has ripped all that away, and now that Sam’s gone, I feel naked to the world in a way I never have before.
I get another beer and sit at the computer. I follow the steps that Absalom has drilled into me to send the Bitcoin payment. It occurs to me that I’m going to have to burn this computer, too; it has too much info buried in it, and I’ll need to take it with me, fry the hard drive, smash it to bits, and sink it in a river. Start over with a new machine from the backup drive.
Fresh start, I tell myself, and I try to believe that it isn’t just another retreat, another layer of self that I’m stripping away. I’m almost sanded to the bone by now.
I start making a mental list of the things to destroy, the things to pack, the things to leave behind, but before I can get very far, I hear a hard, firm volley of knocks on the front door. It’s so loud and forceful that it shocks me out of my chair, and I retrieve my handgun before I go to check the security camera feed and see who’s outside.
It’s the police. Officer Graham, tall and broad and as sharply creased as ever. I don’t like it, but I put the gun back in the safe, lock it, and open the door. He’s been a casual visitor, has eaten at my dining table, but now, he doesn’t even smile.
“Ma’am,” he says. “I need you to come with me, please.”
A number of things flash through my mind as I stare at him: first, he must have been surveilling me to know I’d arrived back home. Either that, or Sam has called him, which is equally possible. Second, this late hour is designed to startle me and keep me off my game. Tactics. I know the game as well as he does; I’m almost certain of that.
I wait a few seconds without replying, without moving. I fight the irresistible tide of memory and fear, and finally say, “It’s very late. You’re welcome to come inside if you have questions to ask me, but I’m not leaving my kids on their own. No way in hell.”
“I’ll get a colleague to stay with them,” he says. “But you need to come with me to the station, Ms. Proctor.”
I stare him down. Gina Royal, the poor, stupid weakling, would have fluttered and complained and still gone along passively. She’d been nothing but passive. Unfortunately for Officer Graham, I am not Gina Royal. “Warrant,” I say, in a flat, businesslike tone. “Got one?”
It takes him back a step. His eyes study me harder, reevaluating his approach of shock and awe. I see him consider and reject a few, before he says, in a far friendlier tone, “Gwen, this will sure go a whole lot easier if you just come voluntarily. There’s no need to put yourself through the mess that happens if we end up getting a warrant. And what happens to your kids if this all gets ramped up and you end up with a criminal record? You think you keep them?”
I don’t blink, but it’s a good line of attack. Cunning. “You need a warrant to compel me to come to the station with you. Until you do, I don’t have to answer any questions, and I choose not to. That’s my right. Good night, Officer Graham.”
I start to close the door. My pulse jumps, and my muscles tense as his palm hits the wood and holds it open. If he puts his weight into it, he can push me off-balance and step inside. I’ve already considered options. The gun safe is useless now; even the fingerprint lock takes too long, he’ll be on me before I can clear it. My best move is to fall back to the kitchen, where I have a small .32 concealed at the back of the junk drawer, not to mention a bristling block full of knives. This calculation is involuntary, drilled in by years of paranoia. I don’t honestly expect him to turn violent.
I just know how to react if he does.
Officer Graham stands there, holding the door ajar, looking slightly apologetic. “Ma’am, we’ve received a tip from someone in the neighborhood that you were seen in a boat out on the water the night that woman’s body was put in the lake. As it happens, the description fits the same boat your daughter described. Either you come with me now or the detectives will be here in half an hour, and they’re not taking no for an answer. If it takes a warrant to compel your cooperation, they’ll bring one. It’d just be so much easier for you, and show better good faith, if you’d come with me right now.”
“So what I’m hearing is you’ve got nothing but an anonymous tip,” I say, even while my brain is howling, Sam, Sam could have done this to you. But it’s more chillingly probable that Mel’s behind it, somehow. “Good luck with that warrant. My record’s clean. I’m a law-abiding woman with two kids, and I’m not going anywhere with you.”