stillhouse lake - Page 22

“You need to think, Gwen,” she says to me. “You cannot go in there.” She takes her phone from her pocket and speed-dials, gets an almost immediate answer. “Detective? Gonna need you here fast at Gwen Proctor’s place. We have a possible child abduction. Multiple victims. All hands.” She hangs up, still holding me in place. “We good? Gwen? Gwen!”

I manage to nod. I’m not good, I can’t be, but there’s no point in arguing, and besides, that isn’t what she’s asking. She’s asking if I can control myself, and I can. At least, I can try.

Sam’s looming there, too, and it isn’t until I look at his face, at the sick focus there, the doubt, that I realize this scene could mean two different things.

One, the truth: my children have been abducted.

Two, the very plausible lie: I did something to my own kids before I left this house. Someone’s going to think that. Kezia can’t; she was out there, watching, and she talked to Lanny through the door. But I’ll be their first suspect. Maybe their only one, despite what she says.

“No,” I say. “Kezia, you know I didn’t do this!”

“I know. But let’s not get any evidence in there that confuses the issue,” she tells me, and moves me with professional ease toward the living room, the couch. Game controllers are in the way, and I pick them up and move them with numb care. Bad habit that Connor has, leaving those where he drops them. It occurs to me then that his hands were last on these controls, and I hold on to one gently, as if it might break, might vanish, as if my son might never have even existed except in my imagination.

“Gwen.” Sam’s crouching next to me, staring into my face. “If what you’re saying is right, then someone knew you’d be gone from this house. Who did you tell?”

“Nobody,” I say numbly. “You. And the kids. I told the kids I’d be back. They were fine.” This is my fault. I never should have left. Never. “You were supposed to be watching!” I throw that last at Kezia.

She doesn’t react to that, though she braces, and I have the sense that it hurts. That she knows she’s failed, and the price . . . the price may be higher than either of us wants to face.

“Who would they let in?”

“Nobody!” I half cry that, but I realize it isn’t true almost instantly. They’d probably let Sam Cade in, but Sam . . . would Sam have had time to do this? Yes. He’d have seen me heading up the hill. That would have given him at least an hour to come here and . . . do what? Talk his way in, somehow abduct my kids without getting a mark on him? And take them where? No. No, I can’t believe it was Sam. It didn’t make sense, not emotionally. Not even logistically. My kids would have fought like hell. He hadn’t had a drop of blood on him when I stopped at his house. And Kezia would have seen him.

Unless they’re in it together?

Meanwhile, I can sense he was thinking the same thing about me. Trying to work out how I could have done it to my own kids. Each of us mistrusting the other again, which might have been exactly the point.

Who else? Who else besides Sam? I don’t think my kids would have let Kezia Claremont in, despite the fact they’d liked her and she had a badge. Detective Prester? Maybe.

And then it comes to me in a cold, horrible, skin-tightening rush. I’ve forgotten someone. Someone they trusted. Someone they would let in without a second thought because he’d been trusted by me to stay with them before. Javier Esparza. Javier, who’d disappeared after delivering my ammo.

His truck had been gone from the range’s parking lot when I’d left.

He might know the code to the alarm system. He would have seen me arm and disarm, and seen the kids do it, too. Javier Esparza was a trained soldier. He’d know how to abduct people, and do it quietly.

I try to say that, and I can’t. I can’t get sound to my mouth. My lungs hurt, and I pull in air in a rush to soothe them, and the plastic of Connor’s game controller feels warm in my hands, like skin, and I think, Connor’s skin might be cold now, he might be . . . but my brain protects itself, it won’t tell me the rest of it. Javier, who would have had easy access to a shotgun from the range, or from the back window of his truck. Javier, whom I trusted enough to watch my kids. Who was trusted enough by them to be allowed inside, have the alarm turned off for him. Who could have easily gotten the code from the kids and reset it on the way out.

You’re forgetting something, Mel’s voice whispers to me. I flinch, because I don’t want it, don’t want his voice in my head, I don’t, but he’s right, too. I am forgetting something . . .

“I’m going to call the security company,” Kez says. “Going to need you to give them clearance to talk to me, okay? They should have records of when the alarm went off and came on—”

“Cameras!” I blurt. I lunge away, to where I’d left the tablet plugged in to charge. The cameras are streaming to the device. I can see exactly what happened.

But the tablet is gone. The cord is still there, dangling limp.

I take the end of it, as if I can’t believe it’s not connected, and I look wordlessly at Kezia, as if she can somehow solve this for me. She’s frowning. “You have cameras? Are they built into the security system?”

“No,” I say. “No, separate, there was a tablet—” I don’t know what makes my brain jump from one idea to the next; it happens so fast it’s a blur of thought, something about watching my kids to keeping them safe to safe, and then I realize what I’ve really forgotten.

The safe room.

I come bolt upright and charge around the kitchen bar toward the wall, while the other two look at me in baffled surprise.

The safe room of this house, the one that the old, wealthy owners built in, is hidden behind a piece of hinged paneling in the corner of the kitchen area, near the breakfast table. I shove the table hard, nearly sending it crashing into Kezia as she approaches, and push frantically at the paneling. It’s supposed to spring free, but it stays put. I have a strange out-of-body feeling, as if I’ve imagined the very existence of the room, as if reality has shifted around me into an insane funhouse version of my life and the safe room has vanished along with my children. I push again, again, again, and finally, the far corner springs up with a click. I grab it and yank it open. Beyond it is a heavy steel door, and a keypad inset beside it.

There’s blood smeared on the numbers. I stop breathing when I see that, but at the same time it means they’re inside, they’re okay. There’s no other option.

I type in the password, but my fingers are trembling hard, and I get it wrong. I take a breath and force myself to slow down. Six digits. I get it right this time, and the tone trills and a green light flashes. I turn the handle, and I’m shouting “Connor! Lanny!” even before the seal breaks.

Inside, the panic room is wrecked. Bottled water is scattered across the floor, knocked from a shelf, and a box of emergency high-protein supplies has been knocked over and spilled packages across the floor. Some are crushed from a struggle.

There’s blood. Drops. Long strings that show motion. A small pool of it near the corner, under a yellow sign that reads CAUTION: ZOMBIES HERE. Connor’s sign.

There’s still a crossbow broken on the floor. Also my son’s, because he adores the guy who carries one on that zombie show. The phone, with its hard line, has been ripped out of the wall and thrown broken in the opposite direction.

I keep looking at the blood. It’s fresh. Fresh and red.

My kids are not here.

I am so certain that I stand there for a moment, staring without comprehending; they have to be here, nothing else makes sense. This is their sanctuary, their safe place. Their escape. No one could get to them here.

But someone has. They were in here. They fought here. They bled here.

And they’re gone.

I lunge forward to the only possible cover in the room, the small toilet closet. It’s only got a frosted-glass door, and I can already see that nobody’s in it, but I yank it open anyway and gag on my own terror when I see the clean, empty stall.

I stand there, totally still, and the silence of the room soaks into me like cold. The absence of my children is an open wound, and the blood is so red, fresh, so bright it’s blinding.