He gives up then and lets me shut the door. I do it quietly, though I want to slam it. My hands are shaking a little as I affix all the locks and bolts back and reactivate the alarm.
I turn to see Connor and Lanny standing in the hall, staring at me. Lanny has moved in front of her brother. In her hand is a kitchen knife. It strikes me in that moment how my paranoia’s touched both of them, especially my daughter, who’s so obviously ready to kill to protect her brother, even when there’s no immediate threat. I’m so glad she didn’t get her hands on a gun.
Officer Graham’s right. I need to take her to the range and teach her properly, because I know my child, and soon, all my orders not to touch the guns won’t be enough. She takes her cues from me, though she doesn’t want me to know it. As I look at her standing there, holding the knife, pale and afraid and yet fearless, I love her with an intensity that hurts me. I also fear what I’ve made her into.
“It’s okay,” I say, very gently, though of course it isn’t true. “Lanny. Please put the knife away.”
“Guess it’s not a great idea to murder-stab cops,” she says, “but Mom, if—”
“If they come back with some official paperwork, I’ll go quietly,” I tell her. “And you will take care of Connor. Connor, you’ll do whatever Lanny says. All right?”
“I’m the man of the house, you know,” he grumbles, and it chills me, because I hear an echo of his father in it. But unlike his father, it isn’t aggressive. It’s just a complaint.
Lanny rolls her eyes as she slots the knife back in the block, but she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she gently shoves Connor in the direction of his room. He plants his feet and doesn’t go. He’s too busy looking at me, that knot of concern in between his brows, his eyes fierce with worry. “Mom,” he says. “We should get out of here. Now. Just leave.”
“What?” Lanny blurts it out before she can stop herself, and I can see that the idea hasn’t been far from her mind, either. She’s been dreading the news, and expecting it. I’ve kept my kids balancing on that knife edge for too long. “No. No, we’re not. Are we leaving? Do we have to? Tonight?”
I can see the unmistakable plea in her. She’s only just found friends, something she lost in Wichita in an unimaginable whirlwind of horror. She’s found, however briefly, a little happiness. But she isn’t begging. She’s just hoping.
I don’t need to answer, because she does it for herself. She looks down and says, “Yeah. Yeah, of course we are. We have to, right? If the cops dig deep, they’re going to find out . . .”
“If they take my fingerprints, yes. They’ll find out who we are. I’m delaying to give us some time.” I take a deep breath, so deep in hurts. “Go get what you need. One suitcase, okay?”
“You’ll look guilty if we run away now,” she tells me. And of course she’s right. But I can’t stop this train; it’s well beyond any control I can exert. If we stay, I risk the storm descending from both sides. Running may make me look guilty, but at least I can get them away from this, get my kids safe, and come back to clear myself.
Connor’s off like a shot. Lanny looks at me with a mournful silence, then follows.
I say, “I’m so sorry,” to her back.
She says nothing at all.
It’s damn late, but I call Javier and ask him to bring the van as quick as he can; I tell him the Jeep’s ready for pickup, and I’ll pay him extra for the trouble. He doesn’t ask questions but promises to be with us in half an hour. It’s cutting things close.
I go to my room, unhook my laptop, and stow it in my go-bag for dismemberment and disposal later. It isn’t lost on me that in this I have some common ground with my ex-husband.
It’s different this time, isn’t it? Mel’s haunting voice whispers to me as I stuff extras into the bag, things I want to keep. You’re not just running from stalkers, or even from me. You’re running from the police now. How far do you think you’ll get once they’re really hunting for you? Once everyone is hunting for you?
I pause in the act of grabbing the photo album I never leave behind. There are no pictures of Mel in it, just me and the kids and friends. Mel might as well have never existed . . . Except that he is right. Mind-Mel, anyway. If I run, and they decide I’m worth chasing, it becomes a whole different paradigm. I doubt Absalom will help me evade the law. He’d be the first one to rat me out.
There’s a knock at the door. I shove the photo album in, zip the bag, and leave it on the bed. Everything else I own is cheaply acquired, easily replaced, and disposable.
When I answer the door, Javier is standing there.
“Thanks,” I tell him. “I’ll get your keys—”
He interrupts me to say regretfully, “Yeah, about that. We never got around to talking about it, but just so you know, I’m a reserve deputy. Heard on the radio that they were looking to question you right about the time you called about the van. You’re not going anywhere, Gwen. I had to make the call.”
Standing right behind him is Detective Prester. He’s wearing a dark suit today, and a blue tie so ineptly knotted I wonder if he just made a square knot and called it good. He seems tired and pissed off, and in his hand is a crisp triple-folded piece of paper with an official seal showing on the front. He says, “I’m disappointed, Ms. Proctor. I thought we had some kind of civil conversation between us. But you were about to go and run away on me, and I have to tell you, that doesn’t look good. Not at all.”
I feel the trap closing over me. It’s not a bear trap, but silk strands weaving together into an unbreakable net. I can scream, I can rage, but I can no longer run from this.
Whatever this is.
I give Javier a smile I don’t feel and say, “It’s all right.” He doesn’t smile back. He’s studying me with wary intensity. They are all, I think, well aware that I hold a concealed carry permit. They know I’m dangerous. I wonder if they have snipers out in the darkness.
I think about my kids, and I hold up my hands. “I’m not armed. Please. Check me.”
Prester does the honors, quick, impersonal sweeps of hands over me, and I flash back to the first time this happened to Gina Royal, bent across the burning hood of the family minivan. Poor, stupid Gina, who’d thought that invasive. She hadn’t had a clue.
“Clean,” Prester says. “All right. Let’s make this nice and easy, shall we?”
“I’ll come quietly if you let me talk to my kids first.”
“All right. Javier, you go in with her.”
Javier nods and reaches down to take a black case from his pocket and slot it onto his belt. A gold-washed deputy’s star gleams there. He’s officially on duty now.
I go inside and find Lanny and Connor sitting tensely, staring at the door; relief melts over them, but then I see the change as Javier comes in, too, and takes up a guard stance at the door. “Mom?” Lanny’s voice breaks a little. “Is everything okay?”
I sink down on the sofa and put my arms around them both, holding them close. I kiss them before I say, as gently as I can, “I have to go with Detective Prester for now. Everything’s okay. Javier is going to stay here with you until I get back.”
I look up at him, and he nods and looks away. Lanny’s not crying, but Connor is, very quietly. He wipes his eyes with both hands, and I can tell he’s angry with himself. Neither of them says a word.
“I love you both so much,” I say, and then I get up. “Please look out for each other until I’m back.”
“If you’re back,” Lanny says. It’s almost a whisper. I pretend I didn’t hear because if I look at her now, I’ll break, and they’ll have to drag me away from them.
I manage to walk on my own out of the house, down the steps, and I join Prester at the car. When I look back, I see Javier stepping inside and locking up the house.
“They’ll be okay,” Prester tells me. He ushers me into the back and ducks in after me. It’s like sharing a cab, I think, except the doors don’t open from the inside. At least the ride’s free. Graham gets in the front seat and drives.