I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I certainly can’t go back to that house, disfigured, broken, empty of those I love. I’m not dressed for the outdoors, especially not with the rain and cold, but I’m not going home. I think about calling Sam, but if he’s out on the search, he might not hear his phone in this mess.
My backpack vibrates against my foot, and for a second I can’t think why, until I remember I put the phone in there for protection against the rain. I lean forward and slip it out. The number’s blocked, but I can’t take the chance, so I answer. It’s another troll. This one’s masturbating while he tells me he’s going to tear my skin off. I hang up on him. As I do, I see that I have two texts. Both from blocked numbers.
“Anything useful?” Graham asks me.
“No. That was a pervert getting off on tormenting me,” I tell him. “That’s what it’s like, being the ex-wife of Melvin Royal. I’m not a person. I’m just a target.”
“Rough,” he says. “I’ve got to admit, you’ve got a lot of guts, the way you kept your family together and tried to move on. Couldn’t have been easy.”
“No,” I tell him. My family isn’t together. The ache of that hurts so badly it’s hard to take the next breath against it. “Not easy.”
“I’m a little surprised Prester let you keep that phone,” Graham says. “Usually they want to keep it, monitor the calls at the station. Must have some kind of trace on it, I suppose.”
“He said they cloned it. Maybe they can catch the assholes calling me.”
While I’m saying that, I check the first text. It’s from Absalom, because it has his peculiar little symbol at the end of it. It says U have a cop living close. I checked. Good resource.
That is a shock. Absalom’s standard advice is never trust a badge.
I delete it. I was hoping desperately he had good intel on my kids, but instead, it’s nothing I don’t already know. It feels like he’s checking out of our problems.
“This weather’s too hard to be out there tonight,” Graham tells me. “I’m going to turn around and go back to my house. You can stay on the couch tonight, join the search at first light. How’s that?”
“No, I need—I need to be looking, if the search party’s still out there. I’ll manage.”
Graham eyes me with a trace of a frown. “Not wearing that you won’t. Those boots are all right, but you’ll get hypothermic up there in an hour with what you have on, wet as it is. There’s a coat behind your seat. You can wear that.”
I put the phone down. I feel behind me on the floorboards and come across the silky fabric of a down jacket, one with a fur-edged hood. I pull it toward me, and as I do, the back of my hand skims over something smeared on the leather surface of the seat behind me—low, near the bottom. It feels tacky and slightly damp. I pull the coat free and dump it in my lap, and as I do, I see that my knuckles are smudged with what looks like grease. I reach for a tissue from the holder that sits in between us and wipe it off, and as I do, I think, This doesn’t feel like grease.
As my hand comes closer, I catch a dark copper scent that is utterly unmistakable. That smear on the back of my hand is not grease at all.
We’re out of Norton now, and Graham has his foot firmly on the gas, speeding faster than we should on these wet roads. The incline up to Stillhouse Lake is just a black screen with the lights firing raindrops and a gray, indistinct wash of road.
There is blood on the back of my hand.
The realization wipes me clear inside, light and clear and empty, and I think for a second or two that I might pass out from the enormity of it. Lancel Graham has blood in his SUV. And everything, everything, begins to make sense. I don’t dare let that show.
I finish wiping my hand and ball up the tissue and stick it in my jeans pocket as I say, “You sure Kyle won’t mind my taking this for a while?” It probably is his son’s jacket. It has that peculiar adolescent boy smell. “I think he spilled something back there, by the way.”
“Yeah, meant to clean that up; we hit a deer and I loaded the carcass. Dumped it off at my house on the way to the station. Sorry,” Graham says. “Listen, Kyle won’t care about the coat. Keep it as long as you need it. He’s got plenty.”
He has such a nice voice. Layered, nuanced, friendly. He’s got a ready explanation for the blood, but I don’t feel anything either way now. I’m numb inside. I’m not really here anymore. I’m just a mind, putting together puzzle pieces, all the emotion blocked the way a blood vessel will clamp down to slow the blood loss. That’s shock, I realize. I’m in shock. Fine. I can use it.
I remember him visiting the house, what seems an age ago, to return my son’s phone . . . or a phone that looked just like it. Another burner could have been programmed with everything my son’s phone contained—easy enough, since all he had in it were phone numbers and texts. It could have been cloned, just as Prester had demonstrated. The history copied over. Even the number replicated.
And what came back into our house could have been a different phone. A phone that could listen to us. A camera that could see us when left out. I thought about that phone sitting next to Connor’s bed, learning about our habits, our patterns, what time Connor got up and went to bed. It might have been able to record the tones and figure out our passcode.
Though maybe that one had been the easiest of all. Maybe Officer Graham had simply watched me enter it that night when he first came over.
Something cracks inside me, just a little. I feel the first, violent pulse of panic as the shock begins to let go, as the bleeding starts. I close my eyes and try to keep thinking, because this?
This is the most important moment of my life.
The silence is heavy in the SUV; the excellent noise canceling dims the roar of the rain to a dull, monotonous hiss, like the screaming of distant stars. There are no other cars behind us on the road, no friendly, glaring headlights approaching. We might be the only two people alive in the world.
My phone buzzes again. I position the coat so it covers my phone, and read the second text. We are at NPD where r u.
It’s from Sam Cade. He’s not on the mountain, searching. This whole trip has been a lie.
My phone is on silent, so it makes no noise as I carefully, slowly, type my reply. Graham has me.
I am hitting “Send” when the truck lurches wildly sideways, and next thing I know, I’m being knocked hard against the passenger door. My phone goes flying, and from the last glimpse I have, I can’t tell if the text sent or not. I grab for it.
Graham reaches for it at the same time, and as he does, he deliberately—I think—smashes it hard against one of the metal struts under the seat. The glass stars, obscuring the screen. The power sputters out.
“Shit!” he says, holding it up. Shakes it, as if he can magically reset it. It’s excellent theater. He even looks concerned, and if I wasn’t so terrified now, so angry, I’d have believed that, too. I try to slow the pounding of adrenaline into my bloodstream, because I don’t need it now; I need to think. I need to plan before I can act. Let him think he’s got me.
I have to kill this man. But first, I have to find out where he’s taken my kids. So slowly, very slowly, I pull the weight of my backpack up. The hiss of the rain and road noise may disguise the sound of the zipper pulling. My hands are shaking badly from the terror and the rapid-fire pulse of my heart. I feel around inside the opening and touch fingers to the pebbled plastic of the gun case.
It’s turned the wrong way. I need to move it to get access to the lock.
Lancel Graham is looking mournfully at the broken phone. “Goddamn it, I’m sorry about that. Look, they probably are getting copies of the calls at the station. Want me to check?” He doesn’t wait for a response. He takes out his own cell phone and seems to make a call; the screen lights up. It looks legitimate, but for all I know, he’s talking to a recording. “Hey, Kez—I just fucked up Ms. Proctor’s cell phone. Yeah, I know. Dropped it like an idiot, it’s busted all to hell. Listen, are her calls being intercepted? Recorded?” He glances at me and smiles in what looks like real relief. “Good. That’s good. Thanks, Kez.” He thumbs it off. “No worries. They’re monitoring the calls. Kez will call me if there’s any news about your kids, okay?”