stillhouse lake - Page 21

It doesn’t mean I’m in any less danger.

When he does finally speak, it comes out soft, almost a whisper. “How come you didn’t tell me?”

“About Mel? Why do you think? I left all that behind me. I wanted to. Wouldn’t you?” I let out a sigh. “Come on, Javi. Please. I need to get back to my kids.”

“They’re all right. Kez is watching them.” There’s something about the way he says her name that clears things up for me. Kezia Claremont didn’t come just because of her father’s concern; her father had met me exactly once, and while he seemed a nice old guy, that hadn’t quite rung true for me. She’d mentioned Javier in a businesslike way. But the way Javier refers to her is more revealing. I can see the connection immediately; Javier likes strong ladies, and Kez is definitely that. “Thing is, I almost helped you get out of town right after that first murder. Doesn’t sit right with me, Gwen. Not at all. You sat in my kitchen and drank my beer, and I think, what if you did know? What if you sat in your own kitchen back in Kansas and listened to those women scream in the garage while your husband did his thing? You think I wouldn’t care about that?”

“I know you would,” I tell him, and slip the backpack over my shoulder. “They never screamed, Javier. They couldn’t. The first thing Mel did was cut their vocal cords when he abducted them. He had a special knife for it; the police showed it to me. I never heard them screaming because they couldn’t scream. So yes. I fixed lunch in my kitchen, I made meals for my children, I ate breakfast and lunch and dinner, and there were women dying on the other side of that fucking wall and don’t you think I hate that I didn’t stop it?” I lost control at the end of that, and the echoes of my shout come back like bullets, striking me hard. I close my eyes and breathe, smelling burned powder and gun oil and my own sudden sweat. My mouth tastes sour, all the breakfast sweetness curdled. I see her in a flash again, that skinless girl dangling, and I have to bend over and put my hands on my knees. The gun case slides forward and knocks me in the back of the head, but I don’t care. I just need to breathe.

When Javier touches me, I flinch, but he just helps me stand up and braces me until I nod and pull away. I’m ashamed of myself. Of my weakness. I want to scream. Again.

Instead, I say, “I used all the ammo I brought. Can I buy a couple of boxes?”

He silently leaves and comes back to set two boxes on the ledge of bay eight. Turns to go. I slide the backpack off and sit it at my feet, braced against the wall of the bay, and say, “Thank you.”

He doesn’t answer. He just leaves.

I go through most of the two boxes, shredding target after target—center mass, head, center mass, head, targeting extremities for variety—until my ears are ringing even with the hearing protection, and the noise inside me is finally still. Then I pack up and leave.

Javier’s not in the store. I pay for the ammunition; Sophie conducts the transaction in mutinous silence, thrusting me my change across the counter rather than handing it to me. God forbid she might accidentally touch the ex-wife of a killer. That shit might be contagious.

I exit, still looking for Javier, but his truck is gone, and the parking lot is pretty much deserted, except for Sophie’s conventional blue Ford parked in the shady spot.

I reverse my run to head home, but as I pass Sam Cade’s house, I see that he’s sitting on the front porch, drinking a cup of coffee, and against my conscious decision I slow down to look at him. He looks back, sets the coffee down, and stands up.

“Hey,” he says. It’s not much, but it’s more than I got at the range. He looks uncomfortable, a little flushed, but also determined. “So. We should probably talk.”

I stare at him for a second. I think about kicking up my run and taking off, fast and hard. Retreating. But two things that Kezia said keep echoing in my head: First, Sam Cade has alibis for the girls’ abductions. Second, I need allies.

I look down at the house. Kez’s car is still there.

“Sure,” I tell him, walking over to mount the steps of the porch. He gets a little more tense, and so do I, and for a second there’s silence as deep as back in the shooting range. “So. Talk.”

He looks down at his coffee cup, and from where I stand I can see it’s empty. He shrugs, throws open the front door of the cabin, and walks inside.

I pause on the doorstep for one second, two, and then follow.

It’s dark inside, and I have to blink a couple of times as he turns on some dim overheads and skims back one of the checkered curtains covering the windows. He goes straight to a coffeepot, fills his cup, takes down another, and splashes it full. He hands it to me, along with the sugar, without a word.

It should feel comfortable, but it feels like effort, like a steel bar between us that we’re struggling to get around. I sip the coffee and remember that he likes hazelnut blend. So do I. “Thanks,” I say.

“You smell like gunpowder,” he tells me. “Been up shooting at the range?”

“Until they tell me I can’t, I will,” I say. “Cops let you go, then.”

“Seems like.” He studies me over the top of the cup, cautious, dark eyes guarded. “You too.”

“Because I’m not fucking guilty, Sam.”

“Yeah.” He drinks. “So you said. Gwen.”

I nearly throw the coffee in his face for that, but I manage not to, mainly because I know it would only get me arrested for assault, and besides, it’s not hot enough to scald. Then I wonder why I’m so damn angry. He has the right to hate me. I don’t have the right to hate him back. I can resent his deception, sure, but in the end, there’s only one of us with a real grudge. Real pain.

I sink down in a chair, suddenly very tired, and am only aware of drinking the coffee in a peripheral sense kind of way. I’m consumed with watching him, with wondering, suddenly, who he really is. Who I really am. How we can possibly rebuild any kind of ease between us.

“Why did you come here?” I ask him. “The truth this time.”

Sam doesn’t vary his focus at all. “I wasn’t lying. I’m writing a book. It’s about my sister’s murder. Yeah, I tracked you down. It took a friend in military intelligence to do it, and by the way, he was very impressed with how you kept disappearing. I missed you four times in a row. I took a chance you’d stay here, since you bought the place this time.”

So. The stalking isn’t in my imagination. Not at all. “That’s how. Not why.”

“I wanted you to confess what you did,” he says. He blinks, as if he’s surprised he said it out loud. “It was all I thought about. I’d built you up into . . . Look, I believed you were part of it. Knew everything. I thought you—”

“Were guilty,” I finish for him. “You’re hardly alone. You’re not even in the minority.” I swallow some coffee without tasting it. “I don’t blame you for that. I don’t. In your position, I’d have—” I’d have done anything to get justice.

I’d have killed me.

“Yeah.” He draws that out into a sigh. “Problem is, once I met you, talked to you, got to know you . . . I couldn’t see it. I saw somebody who barely survived what she’d gone through and just wanted to keep her family safe. You just weren’t . . . her.”

“Gina wasn’t guilty, either,” I tell him. “She was just naive. And she wanted to be happy. He knew how to take advantage of that.” Silence falls. I find myself breaking it by saying, “I saw your sister. She was—she was the last one. I saw her the day the car crashed into the garage.”

Sam freezes, holds for just a bare second, then smoothly puts down his coffee. The mug hits the table surface a little hard. There’s a matte, polished expanse of wood between us, not an invisible barrier, and maybe that’s better. I could reach across it. So could he.

Neither of us does.

“I saw the photos,” he says, and I remember how he told me never to let my kids see pictures. Now I know why. It wasn’t a vague sympathy after all, and it hadn’t been about what he’d seen in Afghanistan. “I don’t suppose you can forget it, either.”