stillhouse lake - Page 24

It’s all pure theater. He damn sure hasn’t called the police station.

The gun case is heavy inside the backpack. If I make too obvious a move, he’ll punch me, and one solid hit from a man this size in close quarters might put me down. I have to control my fear. I have to.

I work to inch the case up and turn it sideways. It seems to take forever. I’m praying that Graham can’t tell what I’m doing; the gloom’s heavy in the car, and we’re on a very dark road. But I can see him glancing over.

I’ve managed to turn the case, but this side is the hinges. I need two more turns to get to the lock, and I want to cry, I want to scream, I want to take the backpack and slam it into the side of his head, but there’s no advantage to this, not now. Not here, on this deserted road, on this rainy night. I’m sure he’s armed.

I’m sure his gun is far easier to reach than mine. If I don’t keep control, if I react with pure emotion, I will lose.

I have to be better at this than a psychopath.

We make the turn for Stillhouse Lake. There are no boats out tonight; lights blaze in almost every house to keep away the dark, the monsters, as we pass. At the turnoff that leads to the Johansens’ house, he takes a left up the hill. We pass their driveway, and I see the couple standing in their kitchen, glasses of red wine in their hands, talking as they carry plates to a dinner table. The cozy life of total strangers. That eerie postcard of normality is gone in the next instant.

We keep driving. I see Graham’s house off to the right. It’s genuinely country, a sprawling ranch house with no pretentions to elegance like the Johansens’ modern, sharp-cornered glass monstrosity down the way. It’s something generations have built onto, and you can see the differences in brick colors.

There’s another SUV parked up front and a couple of trail bikes and one ATV. A medium-size boat on a tow, ready to be taken down to the lake. All the necessary trappings for a man living the lakefront dream.

We keep going past his house. Now the trail gets rough, the suspension bouncing and sloughing in mud as the gravel begins to run out. I’ve missed my shot. Somehow, I really thought he’d stop at his house, and my plans were to bail out, lose myself in the dark, and fire a shot or two into the Johansens’ plate-glass windows. That would damn sure get them to call 911, even if they wouldn’t let me in.

But he isn’t stopping, and I turn the gun case again. Faster. Another blank side to my searching fingers.

“I dropped Sam off top of this ridge,” he tells me. Liar. “The road goes that far, but then it’s just game trails from there on. You wanted to catch up to them, right? This is the only way to do it. Sorry about the rough ride.”

I’m well aware that this man is playing a game with me. His voice is warm and quiet and ever-so-slightly pleased. I can’t tell in the ghostly glow of the dashboard light, but I think he’s a bit flushed from his success. Enjoying himself, but trying not to show it. This is the part he likes, the part where he has control, where he’s in charge and his prey doesn’t even know how badly things have gone yet.

But I know.

I’m turning the gun case the last bit when suddenly we hit a huge bump, and the backpack jumps and I lose my grip entirely. God. Oh God no. This is going wrong. Very wrong.

Lancel Graham reaches down for the backpack, which has become wedged between us. He heaves it up and tosses it in the back seat without any comment at all. I can tell the game’s starting to wear thin. I’m out of time. I’m out of time, and I don’t have a gun, and my God, he’s going to kill me and my children, and he’s going to get away with it.

I need to act. Now.

“Does the search team have radios?” I ask him, reaching for his police band, which is tucked into the space between us. “We should probably find out exactly where—”

He grabs my hand, and for a second I think, This is it, and I start finding options. I calculate things in fractions of a second: he has one hand on the wheel, one holding my left hand. If I lean across, I can punch him as hard as I possibly can in the balls; his legs are relaxed and open, and it’ll give me at least a minute or two. But then what? He’s big, and I suspect he’s fast. I don’t know his pain tolerance, but I know mine. If he wants to stop me, he’s going to be in the fight of his life. I need to disable him long enough to get my gun out of the backpack, put it together, and shoot until he tells me where my kids are. Then shoot him again until he is gone from the face of this earth.

There’s a shotgun in the rack behind me. I see it from the corner of my eye, like a long metal exclamation point. I can also see the padlock shivering as the truck bounces. The shotgun is firmly locked in place. No help.

I’m ready to move, to let loose with everything I have, when Graham lets go of my hand and says, “Sorry, Gwen. It’s just that the thing is police property. Can’t let you use it on your own like that.” It’s just enough to stop me. He enters some code with his thumb and switches the radio on; the screen glows an unearthly blue, and he changes to a channel I don’t see. “NPD search party two, do you read me? NPD search party two, looking for a location. Relay your coordinates.”

It startles me that he’s actually playing this out, and the fear inside me doesn’t go away, but it’s crowded by doubt. I don’t know what the hell he’s doing. I blink and draw back, adrenaline bubbling uselessly in my veins, shaking in my muscles. He lets the button go, and listens. Static like rain. The SUV hits a deep muddy patch, and he gives me an apologetic grin as he has to drop the radio to straighten the steering out. “Weather sometimes plays hell with these things. Plus, the mountains aren’t great for signals. You want to try? Go ahead.”

I keep my eyes on him as I take the radio, press the switch, and repeat the words. “NPD search party two, do you read me? Relay coordinates of your location.” I know what he’s doing. He’s playing with me, the way Mel played with his victims in that workshop. Testing me. Little cuts, to see me bleed. It’s exciting to him.

There’s no reply, of course. Only static. I glance at the glowing screen, then out the front window. The rain is obscuring everything, but I can tell that we’re approaching the end of the road. Once we reach the ridge, we’ll be far, far from anyone. Out here in the rain and the mud, nobody’s going to come looking.

Just as he’s planned.

I can’t diagnose what’s wrong with the radio. Could be that it’s on the wrong channel, or that he’s done something to the antenna. It’s probably useless to me, useless to even try to—

My thought is derailed by a changing frequency of static, and a weak voice says, “NPD search party two, roger. Our coordinates are . . .” It fades out in a renewed wash of noise before I can catch more than two of the numbers. I forget my plans. I press the button.

“Say again, NPD search party two. Say again!” Is it possible, somehow, that I’ve misread all of this? That somehow, Graham is really telling the truth? It seems impossible, but I’ve been wrong, so wrong, so often these days.

Another burst of static. No discernible voice this time. I try again, and again, and when I look up the tilt of the vehicle is changing, and we are on the ridge at the end of the road.

Graham brings the truck to a stop under the overhanging branches of a giant tree; the drops that fall from the branches are thicker and more emphatic than the rain beyond, like sharp taps of a hammer. I hear them clearly as he shuts off the engine, pulls the parking brake, and turns toward me. I press the radio button again, but he takes the radio from my hand and turns it off. He puts it in the well between us. “No use,” he says. “Like I said. Hard to get a signal.”

He sounds amused, and I wasn’t wrong, I was never wrong at all. Not about the blood. Not about his actions.

Not wrong about Lancel Graham.

I was never talking to a Norton Police Department search team.

“We’re on our own here, Gina,” he says. It sounds obscenely like a come-on. I want to scream. I want to punch him in the balls, but he’s ready, I can tell he’s ready, and I’m not.

“My name isn’t Gina. It’s Gwen,” I say. “Which way did Sam go? I saw the map from Prester, was he taking the northeast route?” I try my door. As I feared, it won’t open. Useless. Something dies inside me, that last hope of retreat. I have no choice now. I fight. And I’m scared out of my mind, alone, unarmed, against a much larger man.