“Okay,” I tell him. I take a step to my right, and he takes a wary step the same direction, keeping in front of me. I do it again, and again, until I’m the one with my back to the ridge, and he’s got his back to the trail. “We do this the hard way.”
He doesn’t expect it when I step forward and push him, and he’s clumsy with shock, slow to react. I’d never have tried it if he weren’t already wounded, but it works perfectly. Graham staggers backward, and he screams. His feet go out from under him, and his weight falls back, and I see the bloody, sharp point of the branch I’d nearly impaled myself on earlier punch through him, at just about the level of his liver. Not an immediately fatal wound, but serious. Very serious. He flails and breaks the branch off. The mud doesn’t do him any favors. He falls. He tries to grab the wood and pull it out, but there isn’t much that’s sticking out, and his right hand won’t work properly.
“Get it out! Get it out!” His voice has gone high and desperate. “Jesus Christ!”
The rain’s almost stopped now. He’s writhing in the mud, fingers brushing that ugly, sharp point that’s soaked with his blood, and I crouch down and put my gun to his head.
“Jesus doesn’t like it when you take his name in vain,” I tell him. “And that didn’t sound like a prayer. Tell me where my children are, and I’ll get you help. If you don’t, I’ll leave you here. These woods have black bear, cougars, wild hogs. Won’t take them long to find you.”
My arm hurts so bad now. It feels like it’s been set on fire. I keep it steady despite that, because I must. Any show of weakness will be fatal.
His face has gone starkly pale, luminous in the dark. I take the truck keys from his pocket. He has a hunting knife in a case, and I take it, too. I search in his pockets for his phone. It needs a thumbprint to unlock, and I take his wildly shaking right hand to press it in place. It doesn’t work the first two tries as he tries to jerk away, but finally it’s ready to use.
“Last chance,” I tell him as I pick up the shotgun. “Tell me where they are and I’ll save your life.”
His mouth opens, and I think for a second that he is going to tell me. He’s scared, suddenly. Vulnerable. But he closes it again without speaking and just looks at me, and I wonder what has made him so afraid. Me? No.
“Mel doesn’t care if you live or die,” I tell him. I mean it almost compassionately. “Tell me. I can save you.”
I see the moment he breaks. The moment his fantasy disappears and the cold truth of his situation really hits him. Melvin Royal won’t be coming for him. No one will. If I leave him here, he’ll die of blood loss, and the animals will tear him apart—or, if he’s not lucky, the order of that could be reversed. Nature’s brutal.
So am I, when I have to be.
“There’s a hunting cabin,” he tells me. “Up mountain. Belonged to my grandfather. They’re in it.” He licks very pale lips. “My boys are watching them.”
“You son of a bitch. They’re all just children.”
He doesn’t answer that. I feel a surge of rage and weariness, and I just want this to be done. I turn away and make my way through the clinging mud toward the truck. He tries to get up, of course, but between the shoulder wound and that stab through the liver, he isn’t going anywhere. The cold will help keep him alive for now; it’ll slow blood loss. But as I climb into the truck and start it up, I scroll through the call list, looking for Kezia Claremont’s number.
I stop on the A list of names, because right there at the top is one I recognize. It isn’t common. I’ve never seen it before, except in the Bible.
It sinks in on me, then, the magnitude of the deception. The game. Absalom, the troll who’d become my constant ally. Absalom, who took my money and made my new identities. Who could locate me at a moment’s notice, anywhere I ran. Could direct me where he wanted me to go.
It explained why we’d been looking the wrong way. Lancel Graham’s family had been here for generations. His Stillhouse Lake home was a family heirloom, and Kezia and I had marked him off the list immediately as not a suspect. Hell. I’d even sent Absalom names to check out. He must have found it hilarious.
He’s never been helping me. He’s been helping Melvin all this time, moving me like a chess piece, setting me up, knocking me down.
Putting me in the backyard of his copycat fanboy.
I have to close my eyes for a moment to contain the incandescent rage that burns through me, but then I keep scrolling. I find Kezia’s phone number, and I dial.
There are only two bars of connection, but the call completes. She’s in a car. I can hear the engine noise just before she says, carefully, “Lance? Lance, I know. You need to let that woman go, right now, and tell me where you are. Lance, listen to me, okay? We can make this right. You know that needs to happen. Talk to me.”
I’d been afraid that she was part of it, too, but I hear the tense anger in her voice, though she’s trying to hold it back. She’s trying to talk him down.
She’s trying to save me.
“It’s me,” I say. “It’s Gwen.”
“Jesus!” I hear a confusion of noise, like she’s nearly dropped the phone. I also hear another voice, male, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. “Jesus, Gwen, where are you? Where the hell are you?”
“Up on the ridge past Graham’s house. We need an ambulance up here,” I tell her. “He’s shot, and he has a stab wound in his side. I need police. He told me my kids are up in his grandfather’s cabin. Do you know where it is?”
I’m shivering so hard my teeth are clacking together. The truck’s engine has warmed a little, and the blast of the heater feels fantastic. I drag Kyle’s down jacket over and put it over my shoulders. My left arm still burns, but when I look at it in the overhead light, I find the pellets haven’t gone deep enough to do real damage. The wound to my head, though . . . I feel sick and weak and dizzy. The bleeding hasn’t stopped. I reach up and feel the pulse of warm, watery blood coming from the slash in my scalp, and fumble for tissues to press against it. I almost miss Kezia’s reply.
No, it isn’t Kezia. It’s Sam. He’s in the car with her. “Gwen, are you all right? Gwen?”
“I’m okay,” I lie. “My kids. Graham’s boys are at that cabin, too. I don’t know if they’re armed, but—”
“Don’t you worry about that. We’re coming to you right now, okay?”
“Graham needs an ambulance.”
“Fuck Graham,” he says, and I hear the vicious edge in his voice. “What about you?”
The tissues I’ve pressed to my wound are already a sodden mess. “I might need stitches,” I say. “Sam?”
“Please. Please help me get the kids.”
“They’re going to be okay. We’ll get them. You just stay there. Hang on. Kez has the location of the cabin. We’re coming to you. It’s all coming straight to you.”
Kezia’s driving, and I’ve been in the car with her; she’s using police tactics, driving with controlled wildness and tremendous speed. I look in the rearview mirror. I can see the headlights of a police cruiser swerving and speeding down the main road. I see them turn at the Johansens’ cutoff.
Sam’s still talking, but I’m tired. The phone rests on my leg, though I’m not sure when I put it down. My aching, pulsing head is leaning against the window glass. I’m not shivering anymore.
I say, Get my kids, or at least I think it, before everything goes very, very dark.
“Gwen? My God.”
I open my eyes. Sam is crouched beside me, and he looks . . . odd. He turns and says, “I need that first-aid kit!”
Kezia is right behind him, and she dumps a large red bag beside him. He rips open the Velcro top and searches inside.
“What are you doing?” I ask him. I’m not clear. I’m definitely not, but I’ve stopped hurting, mostly. Amazing what a little sleep will do. “I’m okay.”