Rain, to wash away tracks and evidence and wipe it all clean, until the bodies of my children float slowly to the surface, breaking like pallid bubbles of flesh.
I put my face in my hands and try not to scream. At least I muffle it, but someone outside the door opens it and looks in, frowning, then closes it when they see I’m not bleeding or unconscious. I don’t know how they’d have treated the parent of two other missing children, but Gina Royal? Gina Royal is a suspect first, last, always.
Prester takes his good time getting to me. When he finally does, the rain has intensified into a hissing storm on the roof, and although there are no windows, I can hear the distant booms of thunder rolling through the hills. It’s distinctly cooler in here. Damp.
He’s been out in the storm, that much is clear, because he’s using a hand towel that has probably last been on a rack in their break room to wipe his face and hair, and dab the worst of the rain off his suit jacket. It patters down to make dark stars on the floor, and I think of the drops, the smears in Connor’s room. Brown smears, brown drops now, surely. It no longer looks like what people expect when they think of blood.
Connor’s blood is hours old, and I am sitting in this room, cold and shivering and desperate, and Prester is telling me that he hasn’t found them yet. “We haven’t found Javier Esparza, either,” he tells me. “Sophie up at the range tells me he took a fishing trip.”
“Not a crime, not up here. About ten percent of Norton’s out camping, fishing, or hunting any given week. But we’re looking hard. Got Fish and Game on it, checking campsites; we’ve asked Knoxville for a helicopter. Have to wait a bit for it to get free, but it’s coming.” He walks me through a map of the area around Stillhouse Lake, of the search parties, roadblocks, checks of every Stillhouse resident. I tell him about the Johansens in their shiny SUV, looking the other way while offering us up for a beating, or worse. My fists clench hard and press down, and I realize that where the edge of the wood is chipped, the hardened top surface is a little curled up, a little sharp. With work, someone could cut a wrist here.
“Can I leave?” I ask him quietly. He studies me over the top of the reading glasses he’s put on to look at the map. He looks like a dry college professor, like the horrific abduction of my kids is some kind of academic puzzle. “I want to look for my children. Please.”
“Rough conditions out there,” he tells me. “Mud. Rain’s coming down in buckets, makes it hard to see in those trees. Easy for someone to get turned around and lost, fall and break something, you name it. Right now it’s best left to experts. Tomorrow maybe it’ll be better. Easier going, and we’ll have the chopper to help.”
I can’t honestly tell if he thinks he’s being kind to me, or if he’s just intent on holding me here as long as possible, in case any evidence comes back. I’m sitting now in different clothes; Kezia has retrieved a pair of jeans from my closet and a shirt, and with uncanny precision has chosen my least favorite things to wear. My other clothes—the hoodie, the shirt, the sweatpants, the running shoes and socks—all have been sent off to the lab for testing for, presumably, the blood of my children.
I want to scream again, but I don’t think Prester would understand. And it won’t do any good. If anything, it will let him keep me here even longer.
I just stare back, wanting to blink and somehow managing not to, and Prester finally sighs and sits back. He removes his glasses, dropping them on top of the map, and rubs his eyes. They’re tired. He looks wrecked, his skin loose and drooping, as if the last few days have taken pounds and years off him. I’d feel sorry for him if I didn’t feel worse.
“You can go,” he tells me. “I can’t keep you here. There’s no evidence of anything except you being the victim of not one but two crimes today. I’m sorry, Ms. Proctor. I know that isn’t much, but I really am. Don’t know what I’d do if my girls were gone like this.” I’m already out of my chair. “Wait a second. Wait.”
I don’t want to. I stand there, vibrating, ready to leave, but Prester heaves himself up and leaves the room. He locks the door; I hear it engage. Son of a bitch! I’m ready to batter it down, but he isn’t gone long. He comes back carrying . . . my backpack. And the evidence bag with my phone in it.
“Here,” he says. “We already checked your gun and test-fired it. Sophie confirmed your timeline, and Officer Claremont’s statement clears you as well. We cloned your phone.”
He shouldn’t have given me these things, I think; police don’t release evidence, not so easily as all that. But I can see in his tired eyes that he’s worried about my kids, and about me. He has good reason for both.
I take the backpack and sling it over my shoulder, then slip my phone out of the evidence bag and turn it on. I’ve still got decent battery on it, which is lucky, because I can’t go back home for my charger. I slip it into the side pocket of the backpack.
“Thank you,” I tell him, twisting the door handle. It opens without resistance, and though there’s a police officer passing, he just gives me a look and moves on. Nobody steps in to block my path.
I turn and look back at Prester. He looks defeated. Frustrated.
“Get them to sand down that edge on the table,” I tell him. “Somebody could open a vein with that thing.”
He looks where I point and reaches over to run a finger across it.
Before he can say anything, if he intends to, I’m heading out through the bullpen. I grab the first detective I see—the young one who was holding Prester’s coffee this morning—and ask where Sam Cade is. He tells me that Cade’s out with one of the search teams, and I tell him I need a ride to join them. I can see by the look on his face that he’s not here to be my taxi service.
“I’ll take her,” says a voice from behind me, and I turn to see Lancel Graham. He’s not in his uniform; he’s in a light flannel shirt, worn old jeans, hiking boots. He has at least a day’s growth of heavy, blond beard. He looks like a Nordic travel poster. “I’m headed out there to join them. Gwen, sorry. I’d taken my boys out camping up on the mountain. Came back as soon as I heard about your kids. You okay?”
I swallow and nod, suddenly feeling wrecked by his sympathy, the steady way he’s looking at me. Kindness is hard. The detective, who’s not looking at me at all, as if I might infect him with Serial Killer Relative disease, seems relieved. “Yeah,” he says to Graham. “You do that.” They, I sense, are neither friends nor friendly. Graham doesn’t spare the other man a glance, though. He leads the way out through the doors under the awning, and the sudden chill in the air surprises me. My breath puffs faintly white.
Rain falls in a shimmering silver curtain, kept at bay only by the roof above us that extends out in a blunt square. I can see red and green stoplights in the distance, and the glow of streetlights over the parking lot, but the details are watercolored. “Wait here,” Graham says. He takes off into the rain at a jog. In about a minute he’s back at the helm of a massive SUV, one that’s seen rough road that even the current monsoon can’t completely wash off. A dark gray or black. The orange-tinted streetlights make it difficult to judge.
He pops the front passenger door and I scramble in fast—not fast enough to avoid a torrent of cold water that slicks my hair and runs chilly fingers down my neck and back. My backpack slips to the floor and blends in with the darkness in the foot well. He’s got the heater on, and I warm my hands in front of it, grateful for the consideration. “Where are we going?” I ask him. He puts the SUV in gear and as he does, the automatic feature pops the locks down with a harsh snap. I put my seat belt on. This vehicle rides far higher up than my Jeep; I feel like I’m on a double-decker bus. But I admit that the ride’s smooth as he pulls out of the parking lot, into the rain-clogged, nearly deserted streets of Norton.
“You wanted to find Sam Cade, right?” Graham says. “I gave him a ride into the back country, up the hill from my house. Rough out there, though. He was joining up with a party that was going to work their way up. Might not be easy to catch up to him now; you sure you want to do that?”