The Last Child
© 2009 by John Hart.
This book is for Nancy and Bill Stanback, Annie and John Hart,
and Kay and Norde Wilson.
Parents, friends, trusted advisors.
A lot of people committed to making this book a success. For all that they’ve done-setting the tone, directing resources, and making such a strong commitment-I would like to thank Sally Richardson, Matthew Shear, Andrew Martin, and Thomas Dunne. For his genius at marketing the book, thanks to Matt Baldacci and to the wonderful people that work with him: Tara Cibelli, Kim Ludlam, and Nancy Trypuc. The jacket is beautiful and captures so much of the book’s spirit, and for that I thank David Rotstein and Ervin Serrona. In Production, my thanks go to Kenneth J. Silver, Cathy Turiano, and Nina Frieman; and to Jonathan Bennett in Design. As always, a special shout-out to the hardworking pros on the St. Martin ’s sales team-you’re the best. Few books could succeed without strong publicity; so to my publicity team, Hector DeJean and Tammy Richards-LeSure, my gratitude. I am lucky enough to have the best editors in the business-Pete Wolverton and Katie Gilligan-who know how much I appreciate their hard work. Nevertheless, I’ll say it here: “Thanks, you two. You’re fabulous.” Thanks, as always, to my agent, Mickey Choate. To my early readers, Clint Robins, Mark Witte, James Randolph, and Debbie Bernhardt-you guys continue to play a vital role in the process, so thanks for that. Special thanks to Clyde Hunt and John Yoakum, who gave their names knowing full well that I might abuse them. Thanks to Mark Stanback and Bill Stanback, who spoke to me of eagles. And finally, most important, thanks to my wife, Katie, who remains my best friend and the love of my life, and to my daughters, Saylor and Sophie, the wide-eyed masters of daylong joy and innocent enthusiasms.
Asphalt cut the country like a scar, a long, hot burn of razor-black. Heat had not yet twisted the air, but the driver knew it was coming, the scorching glare, the shimmer at the far place where blue hammered down. He adjusted his sunglasses and threw a glance at the big mirror above the windshield. It showed him the length of the bus and every passenger on it. In thirty years he’d watched all kinds of people in that mirror: the pretty girls and the broken men, the drunks and the crazies, the heavy-breasted women with red, wrinkled babies. The driver could spot trouble a mile away; he could tell who was fine and who was running.
The driver looked at the boy.
The boy looked like a runner.
Skin peeled from his nose, but beneath the tan he carried the sallow kind of pale that came from sleeplessness or malnutrition or both. His cheekbones made sharp blades beneath skin stretched tight. He was young and small, ten maybe, with wild hair that rose black on his head. The cut was jagged and uneven, like something he’d done himself. Frayed cloth hung from the collar of his shirt and from the knees of his jeans. The shoes were just about worn through. On his lap, he clutched a blue backpack; and whatever it held, there wasn’t much of it.
He was a good-looking kid, but what struck the driver most were the boy’s eyes. Large and dark, they moved constantly, as if the boy was overly aware of the people around him, the hot press of humanity typical of a broken-down bus on a sun-blasted morning in the North Carolina sand hills: a half-dozen itinerant workers, a few busted-up brawlers that looked ex-military, a family or two, some old folks, a couple of tattooed punks that huddled in the back.
The boy’s eyes most often found the man across the aisle, a slick-haired sales type in a wrinkled suit and sprung loafers. There was also a black man with a creased Bible and a soda bottle tucked between his legs; he seemed to catch the kid’s eye, too. In the seat behind the boy sat an old lady in a parchment dress. When she leaned forward to ask a question, the boy shook his head in a small way and answered with care.
His words rose like smoke, and the lady settled back, blue-veined fingers on the chain that held her spectacles. She looked through the window and her lenses flashed, then went dark as the road sliced into a stand of pine with shadows that pooled green beneath the limbs. The same light filled the bus, and the driver studied the man in the wrinkled suit. He had pale skin and a hangover sweat, unusually small eyes and an edginess that scraped the driver’s nerves. Every minute or two, the man shifted in his seat. He crossed his legs and uncrossed them, leaned forward, then back. His fingers drummed one knee of the ill-fitting suit and he swallowed often as his gaze drifted to the boy, then flicked away, drifted again and lingered.
The driver was a jaded man, but he ran things clean on his bus. He refused to tolerate drunkenness or debauchery or loud voices. His momma raised him that way fifty years ago and he’d found no reason to change. So he kept an eye on the boy, and on the drawn, shiny man with eager eyes. He watched him watch the boy, saw him push back against the greasy seat when the knife came out.
The boy was casual about it. He pulled it from a pocket and folded the blade out with a single thumb. He held it for a moment, visible, then took an apple from his bag and sliced it in a sharp, clean motion. The smell of it rose above the travel-stained seats and the dirt-smeared floors. Even above the diesel stink, the driver caught the sharp, sweet tang of it. The boy looked once at the man’s wide eyes and slick, washed-out face, then folded the knife and put it back in his pocket.
The driver relaxed and watched the road, uninterrupted, for a few long minutes. He thought that the boy seemed familiar, but the feeling passed. Thirty years. He settled his heavy frame deeper into the seat.
He’d seen so many boys.
So many runners.
Every time the driver looked at him, the boy felt it. It was a gift he had, a skill. Even with the dark shades on the driver’s eyes and the big curve in the face of the mirror, the boy could tell. This was his third trip on the bus in as many weeks. He sat in different seats and wore different clothes, but guessed that sooner or later somebody would ask him what he was doing on a cross-state bus at seven o’clock on a school day. He figured the question would come from the driver.
But it hadn’t happened yet.
The boy turned to the window and angled his shoulders so that no one else would try to speak to him. He watched reflections in the glass, the movements and the faces. He thought of skyscraper trees and brown feathers tipped with snow.
The knife made a lump in his pocket.
Forty minutes later, the bus rocked to a stop at a one-room gas station depot lost in the great swath of pine and scrub and hot, sandy earth. The boy made his way down the narrow aisle and dropped off the bottom step before the driver could mention that nothing but the tow truck sat in the lot, or that no grown-up was there to take possession of him, a thirteen-year-old boy who could barely pass for ten. He kept his head turned so that the sun seared his neck. He rocked the pack onto his back, and the diesel cloud rose; then the bus jerked and was rolling south.
The gas station had two pumps, a long bench, and a skinny old man in blue clothes stained with grease. He nodded from behind smudged glass but did not come out into the heat. The drink machine in the shade of the building was so old it only asked for fifty cents. The boy dug into a pocket, fingered out five thin dimes and purchased a grape soda that came out of the chute in a cold glass bottle. He popped the top, turned in the direction from which the bus had come, and started walking down the black snake of dusty road.
Three miles and two turns later, the road diminished, asphalt gone to gravel, gravel gone thin. The sign had not changed since the last time he’d seen it. It was old and abused, feathers of paint lifting to show the wood beneath: ALLIGATOR RIVER RAPTOR PRESERVE. Above the letters, a stylized eagle soared, and on its wings, the paint feathers rose.
The boy spit chewing gum into his hand and slapped it on the sign as he passed.
It took two hours to find a nest, two hours of sweat and sticker bushes and mosquitoes that turned his skin a bright, splotchy red. He found the massive tangle of limbs in the high branches of a longleaf pine that grew straight and tall from the damp soil on the bank of the river. He circled the tree twice, but found no feathers on the ground. Sunlight pierced the forest, and the sky was so bright and blue that it hurt his eyes. The nest was a speck.
He shrugged off the pack and started climbing, bark rough and raw on his sunburned skin. Wary and afraid, he looked for the eagle as he climbed. A stuffed one sat on a pedestal at the museum in Raleigh, and he remembered the fierceness of it. Its eyes were glass, but its wings spanned five feet from tip to tip, its talons as long as the boy’s middle finger. The beak alone could take the ears off a grown man.
All he wanted was a feather. He’d love a clean, white tail feather, or one of the giant brown feathers from the wing; but in the end, it could be the smallest feather from the softest patch, a pin feather, maybe, or one from that downy soft place beneath the shoulder of the wing.
It didn’t really matter.
Magic was magic.
The higher he climbed, the more the branches bent. Wind moved the tree and the boy with it. When it gusted, he pushed his face into the bark, heart thumping and fingers squeezed white. The pine was a king of trees, so tall that even the river shrank beneath it.
He neared the top. This close, the nest was as broad as a dining room table and probably weighed two hundred pounds. It was decades old, stinking of rot and shit and rabbit parts. The boy opened himself to the smell, to the power of it. He shifted a hand, planted one foot on a limb that was weathered gray and skinned of bark. Beneath him, pine forest marched off to distant hills. The river twisted, black and dark and shining like coal. He lifted himself above the nest and saw the chicks, two of them, pale and mottled, in the bowl of the nest. They opened splinters of beaks, begging for food, and the boy heard a sound like sheets on the line when the wind got up. He risked a glance, and the eagle dropped from a perfect sky. For an instant, the boy saw only feathers, then the wings beat down and the talons rose.
The bird screamed.
The boy threw up his arms as talons sank into him; then he fell, and the bird-eyes yellow bright, talons hooked in his skin and in his shirt-the bird fell with him.
At three forty-seven, a bus rolled into the parking lot of the same one-room gas station depot. Pointing north this time, it was a different bus, different driver. The door clattered open and a handful of rheumatic people shuffled out. The driver was a thin, Hispanic man, twenty-five and tired-looking. He barely looked at the scrawny boy who rose from the bench and limped to the door of the bus. He didn’t notice the torn clothes or the near despair on the boy’s face. And if that was blood on the hand that passed the ticket over, it seemed clear that it was not the driver’s business to remark upon it.
The boy let go of the ticket. He pulled himself up the stairs and tried to hold the pieces of his shirt together. The pack he carried was heavy, stuffed near to bursting, and something red stained the seams at the bottom. There was a smell about the boy, one of mud and river and something raw; but that, too, was not the driver’s business. The boy pushed deeper into the gloom of the bus. He fell once against a seat back, then moved all the way to the rear, where he sat alone in the corner. He clutched the bag to his chest and pulled his feet onto the seat. Deep holes punctured his flesh and his neck was gashed; but no one looked at him, no one cared. He clutched the bag tighter, felt the heat that remained, the broken body, like a sack of shattered twigs. He pictured the small and downy chicks, alone in the nest. Alone in the nest and starving.
The boy rocked in the dark.
He rocked in the dark and wept hot, bitter tears.
Johnny learned early. If somebody asked him why he was so different, why he held himself so still and why his eyes seemed to swallow light, that’s what he’d tell them. He learned early that there was no safe place, not the backyard or the playground, not the front porch or the quiet road that grazed the edge of town. No safe place, and no one to protect you.
Childhood was illusion.
He’d been up for an hour, waiting for the night sounds to fade, for the sun to slide close enough to call it morning. It was Monday, still dark, but Johnny rarely slept. He woke to patrol dark windows. He rattled the locks twice a night, watched the empty road and the dirt drive that looked like chalk when the moon rose. He checked on his mom, except when Ken was at the house. Ken had a temper and wore a large gold ring that made perfect oval bruises.
That was another lesson.
Johnny pulled on a T-shirt and frayed jeans, then walked to the bedroom door and cracked it. Light spilled down the narrow hall, and the air felt used up. He smelled cigarettes and spilled liquor that was probably bourbon. For an instant, Johnny recalled the way mornings used to smell, eggs and coffee and the sharp tang of his father’s aftershave. It was a good memory, so he drove it down, crushed it. It only made things harder.
In the hall, shag carpet rose stiff under his toes. The door to his mother’s room hung loose in its frame. It was hollow core and unpainted, a mismatch. The original door lay splintered in the backyard, kicked off its hinges a month back when Ken and Johnny’s mother got into it after hours. She never said what the argument was about, but Johnny guessed it had something to do with him. A year ago, Ken could never have gotten close to a woman like her, and Johnny never let him forget it; but that was a year ago. A lifetime.
They’d known Ken for years, or thought they had. Johnny’s dad was a contractor, and Ken built whole neighborhoods. They worked well together because Johnny’s dad was fast and competent, and because Ken was smart enough to respect him. Because of that, Ken had always been pleasant and mindful, even after the kidnapping, right up until Johnny’s dad decided that grief and guilt were too much to bear. But after his dad left, the respect disappeared, and Ken started coming around a lot. Now he ran things. He kept Johnny’s mother dependent and alone, kept her medicated or drunk. He told her what to do and she did it. Cook a steak. Go to the bedroom. Lock the door.
Johnny took it in with those black eyes, and often found himself in the kitchen, at night, three fingers on the big knife in its wooden block, picturing the soft place above Ken’s chest, thinking about it.
The man was a predator, pure and simple; and Johnny’s mother had faded down to nothing. She weighed less than a hundred pounds and was as drawn as a shut-in, but Johnny saw the way men looked at her, the way Ken got possessive when she made it out of the house. Her skin, though pale, was flawless, her eyes large and deep and wounded. She was thirty-three, and looked like an angel would look if there was such a thing, dark-haired and fragile and unearthly. Men stopped what they were doing when she walked into a room. They stared as if a glow came off her skin, as if she might rise from the ground at any moment.
She could not care less. Even before her daughter vanished, she’d paid little attention to the way she’d looked. Blue jeans and T-shirts. Ponytails and occasional makeup. Her world had been a small, perfect place where she’d loved her husband and her children, where she’d tended a garden, volunteered at church, and sang to herself on rainy days; but no more. Now there was silence and emptiness and pain, a flicker of the person she’d been; but the beauty lingered. Johnny saw it every day, and every day he cursed the perfection that graced her so completely. If she were ugly, Ken would have no use for her. If she’d had ugly children, his sister would still sleep in the room next to his. But she was like a doll or something not quite real, like she should be in a cabinet with a lock on it. She was the most beautiful person Johnny had ever known, and he hated that about her.
That’s how much his life had changed.
Johnny studied the door to his mother’s room. Maybe Ken was in there, maybe not. His ear pressed against the wood, and breath caught in his throat. Normally, he could tell, but sleep had dodged him for days, and when he finally crashed, he crashed hard. Black and still. Deep. When he did wake, it was with a start, like he’d heard glass break. That was at three o’clock.
He stepped back from the door, uncertain, then crept down the hall, and the bathroom light hummed when he flicked the switch. The medicine cabinet stood open and he saw the pills: Xanax, Prozac, some blue ones, some yellows. He picked up a bottle and read the label. Vicodin. That was new. The Xanax bottle was open, pills on the counter, and Johnny felt the anger fill him up. The Xanax helped Ken come down after a night with the good stuff.
That was his term.
The good stuff.
Johnny closed the bottle and walked out of the bathroom.
The house was a dump, and he reminded himself that it was not really theirs. Their real house was clean and kept up. It had a new roof that he’d helped to install. He’d gone up the ladder every day of spring vacation, passed shingles to his dad, and held nails in a tool belt that had his name scratched into it. It was a good house, with stone walls and a yard that boasted more than dirt and broadleaf weed. It was only a few miles away, but felt farther, a different neighborhood with cared-for homes on big, green lots. The place was steeped in memory, but the bank owned it now. They gave his mother some papers and put a sign in the yard.
This was one of Ken’s rentals. He had about a hundred, and Johnny thought this was probably the worst, a crappy dump way out on the edge of town. The kitchen was small, with green metal and scuffed linoleum that turned up in the corners. A bulb burned above the stove and Johnny turned a slow circle. The place was disgusting: butts in a saucer, empty bottles, and shot glasses. The mirror lay flat on the kitchen table and Johnny saw how white powder residue caught the light. The sight of it spread cold in his chest. A rolled-up hundred dollar bill had fallen to the floor. Johnny picked it up, smoothed it out. He’d not had a decent meal in a week and Ken was snorting coke with a hundred.
He picked up the mirror, wiped it off with a wet towel, and hung it back on the wall. His father used to look in that mirror, and Johnny could still see how he worked at his tie on Sundays, his fingers large and stiff, the tie unforgiving. He only wore his suit for church, and he’d get embarrassed when he caught his son watching. Johnny could see it: the sudden red flush and then the reckless smile. “Thank God for your mother,” he’d say, and then she’d tie the knot for him.
His hands at the small of her back.
The kiss and the wink that came after.
Johnny wiped the mirror again, then straightened it, tweaked it until it hung just right.
The door to the front porch moved stiffly, and Johnny walked out into the damp, dark morning. A streetlamp flickered fifty yards down the road. Headlights crested a distant hill.
Ken’s car was gone, and Johnny felt a shameful, sweet relief. Ken lived across town in a big house with perfect paint, large windows and a four-car garage. Johnny took a deep breath, thought of his mother bent over that mirror, and told himself that she was not that far gone. That was Ken’s deal, not hers. He forced his hands to unclench. The air was scrubbed, so he concentrated on that instead. He told himself that it was a new day, that good things could happen; but mornings were bad for his mother. There was a moment when her eyes opened, a flash before she remembered that they’d never found her only daughter.
Alyssa was born three minutes after Johnny, and they’d been as similar as nonidentical twins could be. They had the same hair and face, the same laugh. She was a girl, yeah, but from twenty feet it was hard to tell them apart. They stood the same, walked the same. Most mornings, they woke at the same time, even in different rooms. Johnny’s mom said they’d had their own language when they were small, but Johnny didn’t remember that. He remembered that for most of his life, he’d never been alone; there was a special sense of belonging that only the two of them had ever understood. But Alyssa was gone, and everything with her. That was truth, unavoidable, and it had carved the insides out of his mother. So Johnny did what he could. He checked the locks at night and cleaned up the mess. Today it took twenty minutes; then he put on coffee and thought about the rolled-up bill.
A hundred bucks.
Food and clothing.
He made a last check of the house. Bottles, gone. Signs of drug use, gone. He opened windows to let the outside in, then checked the refrigerator. The milk carton rattled when he shook it. One egg in the carton. He opened his mother’s purse. She had nine dollars and change. Johnny left the money and closed the purse. He filled a glass with water and shook two aspirin out of a bottle. He walked down the hall and opened his mother’s door.
The first raw light of dawn pushed against the glass, an orange bulge beyond the black trees. His mother lay on her side, hair across her face. Magazines and books covered the bedside table. He made room for the glass and placed the aspirin on the scarred wood. For a second, he listened to her breathe, then looked at the stack of bills Ken had left by the bed. There were some twenties, a fifty. Maybe a few hundred dollars, wrinkled and smudged.
Peeled off a roll.
The car in the driveway was old, a station wagon that Johnny’s father had bought years ago. The paint was clean and waxed, tire pressure checked every week, but that was all Johnny knew how to do. Blue smoke still belched from the pipe when he turned the key; the passenger window did not go up all the way. He waited for the smoke to turn white, then put the car in gear and rolled to the bottom of the drive. He was nowhere close to having a license, and looked carefully before edging into the road. He kept the speed down and stayed on the back roads. The nearest store was only two miles away, but it was a big one, on a major road, and Johnny knew that people there might recognize him. He added three miles to the trip and went to a small grocery store that catered to the low end of things. The gas cost money and the food was more expensive, but he didn’t really have a choice. Social Services had already been to the house twice.
The car blended with those already there, most of which were old and American. A dark sedan rolled in behind him and stopped near the entrance. Sunlight mirrored the glass and a lone man sat faceless behind the wheel. He did not get out, and Johnny watched him as he walked to the store.
Johnny had a great fear of lone men in stopped cars.
The cart wobbled as he went up one aisle and down another. Just the basics, he decided: milk, juice, bacon, eggs, sandwich bread, fruit. He bought more aspirin for his mother. Tomato juice also seemed to help.
The cop stopped him at the end of aisle eight. He was tall and broad, with brown eyes that were too soft for the lines in his face, the hard angle of his jaw. He had no cart, stood with his hands in his pockets, and Johnny knew at a glance that he’d followed him inside. He had that look, a kind of resigned patience.
And Johnny wanted to run.
“Hey, Johnny,” he said. “How you doing?”
His hair was longer than Johnny remembered, same brown as his eyes, shaggy and curling over the top of his collar with a bit of new silver threaded in at the sides. His face had thinned out, and some part of Johnny recognized that the year had been hard on him as well. Big as the cop was, he looked pressed down, haunted, but most of the world looked like that to Johnny, so he wasn’t sure. The cop’s voice was deep and concerned. It brought back so many bad memories that, for an instant, Johnny could neither move nor speak. The cop stepped closer and brought with him the same thoughtful expression that Johnny had seen so often, the same look of gentle worry. Some part of Johnny wanted to like the man, to trust him; but he was still the one who let Alyssa fade away. He was still the one who lost her.
“I’m good,” Johnny told him. “You know. Hanging in.”
The cop looked at his watch, then at Johnny’s grubby clothes and wild, black hair. It was forty minutes after six on a school day. “Any word from your father?” he asked.
“No.” Johnny tried to hide the sudden shame. “No word.”
The moment stretched, but the cop did not move. The brown eyes remained steady, and up close he looked just as big and calm as the first time he’d come to Johnny’s house. But that was another memory, so Johnny stared at the man’s thick wrist, the clean, blunt nails. His voice cracked when he spoke. “My mother got a letter once. She said he was in Chicago, maybe going to California.” A pause, eyes moving from hand to floor. “He’ll come back.”
Johnny said it with conviction. The cop nodded once and turned his head away. Spencer Merrimon had left two weeks after his daughter was grabbed. Too much pain. Too much guilt. His wife never let him forget that he was supposed to pick the girl up, never let him forget that she would not have been walking down the road at dusk if he’d only done what he was supposed to do.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Johnny said.
“I never said it was.”
“He was working. He forgot the time. It wasn’t his fault.”
“We all make mistakes, son. Every last one of us. Your father is a good man. Don’t you ever doubt that.”
“I don’t.” Sudden resentment in Johnny’s voice.
“I never would.” Johnny felt the color fall out of his face. He could not remember the last time he’d spoken so much to a grown-up, but there was something about the cop. He was old as hell, like forty, but he never rushed things, and there was a warmth to his face, a kindness that didn’t seem fake or put on to trick a kid into trusting him. His eyes were always very still, and some part of Johnny hoped that he was a good enough cop to make things right. But it had been a year, and his sister was still gone. Johnny had to worry about the now, and in the now this cop was no friend.
There was Social Services, which was just waiting for an excuse; and then there were the things that Johnny did, the places he went when he cut school, the risks he took when he snuck out after midnight. If the cop knew what Johnny was doing, he would be forced to take action. Foster homes. The courts.
He would stop Johnny if he could.
“How’s your mom?” the cop asked. His eyes were intent, hand still on the cart.
“Tired,” Johnny said. “Lupus, you know. She tires easily.”
The cop frowned for the first time. “Last time I found you here, you told me she had Lyme disease.”
He was right. “No. I said she had lupus.”
The cop’s face softened and he lifted his hand from the cart. “There are people who want to help. People who understand.”
Suddenly, Johnny was angry. No one understood, and no one offered to help. Not ever. “She’s just under the weather. Just run down.”
The cop looked away from the lie, but his face remained sad. Johnny watched his gaze fall to the aspirin bottle, the tomato juice. From the way his eyes lingered, it was obvious that he knew more than most about drunks and drug abusers. “You’re not the only one who’s hurting, Johnny. You’re not alone.”
The cop sighed deeply. He took a card from his shirt pocket and wrote a number on the back of it. He handed it to the boy. “If you ever need anything.” He looked determined. “Day or night. I mean it.”
Johnny glanced at the card, slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. “We’re fine,” he said, and pushed the cart around him. The cop dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“If he ever hits you again…”
“Or your mother…”
Johnny shrugged the hand off. “We’re fine,” he repeated. “I’ve got it covered.”
He pushed past the cop, terrified that he would stop him, that he would ask more questions or call one of the hard-faced women from Social Services.
The cart scraped against the counter at the register, and a large woman on a worn stool dipped her nose. She was new to the store, and Johnny saw the question in her face. He was thirteen but looked years younger. He pulled the hundred from his pocket and put it faceup on the conveyor belt. “Can you hurry, please?”
She popped gum and frowned. “Easy, sugar. Here we go.”
The cop lingered ten feet behind, and Johnny felt him there, eyes on his back as the fat lady rang up the groceries. Johnny forced himself to breathe, and after a minute, the cop walked past. “Keep that card,” he said.
“Okay.” Johnny could not bear to meet his eyes.
The cop turned, and his smile was not an easy one. “It’s always good to see you, Johnny.”
He left the store, visible through the broad plate glass. He walked past the station wagon, then turned and lingered for a moment. He looked through the window, then circled to check out the plate. Apparently satisfied, he approached his sedan and opened the door. Slipping into the gloom, he sat.
Johnny tried to slow his heart, then reached for the change in the cashier’s damp and meaty hand.
The cop’s name was Clyde Lafayette Hunt. Detective. It said so on his card. Johnny had a collection of them tucked into his top drawer, hidden under his socks and a picture of his dad. He thought, at times, of the number on the card; but then he thought of orphanages and foster homes. He thought of his disappeared sister and of the lead pipe he kept between his bed and the wall that leaked cold air. He thought that the cop probably meant what he said. He was probably a good guy. But Johnny could never look at him without remembering Alyssa, and that kind of thinking required concentration. He had to picture her alive and smiling, not in a dirt-floored cellar or in the back of some car. She was twelve the last time he’d seen her. Twelve, with black hair, cut like a boy’s. The guy who saw what happened said she walked right up to the car, smiling even as the car door opened.
Smiling right up until somebody grabbed her.
Johnny heard that word all the time. Smiling. Like it was stuck in his head, a one-word recording he couldn’t shake. But he saw her face when he slept. He saw her looking back as the houses grew small. He saw the worry bloom, and he saw her scream.
Johnny realized that the cashier was staring, that his hand was still out, money in it, groceries bagged. She had one eyebrow up, jaw still working a wad of gum.
“You need something else, sugar?”
Johnny shied. He wadded the bills and stuffed them into his pocket. “No,” he said. “I don’t need anything else.”
She looked past him, to the store manager who stood behind a low glass partition. He followed her gaze, then reached for the bags. She shrugged and he left, walked out under a sky that had blued out while he shopped. He kept his eyes on his mother’s car and tried to ignore Detective Hunt. The bags made rasping sounds as they rubbed together. The milk sloshed, heavy on the right side. He put the bags in the backseat and hesitated. The cop was watching him from a car that angled out, less than twenty feet away. He gestured when Johnny straightened.
“I know how to drive,” Johnny said.
“I don’t doubt it.” The answer surprised Johnny. It’s like he was smiling. “I know you’re tough,” he said, and the smile was gone. “I know you can handle most things, but the law is the law.” Johnny stood taller. “I can’t let you drive.”
“I can’t leave the car here,” Johnny said. “It’s the only one we have.”
“I’ll take you home.”
Johnny said nothing. He wondered if the house still smelled of bourbon. He wondered if he’d put all of the pill bottles away.
“I’m trying to help you, Johnny.” The cop paused. “People do that, you know.”
“What people?” The bitterness spilled out.
“It’s okay,” Detective Hunt said. “It’s fine. Just tell me your address.”
“You know where I live. I see you drive by sometimes, see you slow down when you do. So don’t pretend like you don’t know.”
Hunt heard the distrust. “I’m not trying to trick you, son. I need the exact address so that I can have a patrol car meet me there. I’ll need a ride back to my car.”
Johnny studied the cop. “Why do you drive by so often?”
“It’s like I said, Johnny. There are people who want to help.”
Johnny wasn’t sure that he believed him, but he recited the address and watched him radio for a patrol car to meet him at the house. “Come on.” Hunt climbed out of the unmarked police car, crossed the lot to the station wagon. Johnny opened the passenger door and the cop slid behind the wheel. Johnny buckled up, then sat very still. For a long moment, neither moved. “I’m sorry about your sister,” Hunt finally said. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her home. You know that, right?”
Johnny stared straight ahead, his hands clenched white in his lap. The sun cleared the trees and pushed heat through the glass.
“Can you say something?” Hunt asked.
Johnny turned, and his voice came, flat. “It was a year ago yesterday.” He knew that he sounded small. “Are you aware of that?”
Hunt looked uneasy. “Yes,” he said. “I am aware of that.”
Johnny looked away. “Can you just drive? Please?”
The engine turned over, and blue smoke rolled past Johnny’s window. “Okay,” the cop said. “Okay, Johnny.”
He put the car in gear. They rode in silence to the edge of town. No words, but Johnny smelled him. He smelled soap and gun oil, what may have been cigarette smoke on his clothes. He drove the way Johnny’s dad drove, quick and sure, gaze on the road, then on the rearview mirror. His lips compressed as they neared the house, and Johnny thought, one last time, of how he’d said he’d bring Alyssa home. A year ago. He’d promised it.
A marked car was waiting in the driveway when they got there. Johnny climbed out and opened the back door for the grocery bags. “I can help with that,” Hunt said.
Johnny just looked at him. What did he want? He lost her.
“I’ve got it,” Johnny said.
Detective Hunt held Johnny’s eyes until it was obvious that he had nothing to say. “Be good,” he finally said, and Johnny watched him slip into the police cruiser. He held the groceries and he did not move as the car backed into the road. He did not respond to Detective Hunt’s wave. He stood on the dusty drive and watched the cruiser rise on the distant hill, then fall away. He waited for his heart to slow, then took the bags inside.
The groceries looked small on the counter, but they felt like more: a victory. Johnny put them away, then started coffee and cracked a single egg into the pan. Blue flame popped in the iron ring, and he watched the egg turn white around the edges. He flipped it with care, then put it on a paper plate. The phone rang as he reached for a napkin. He recognized the number on caller ID and answered before it could ring twice. The kid on the other end had a scratchy voice. He was thirteen, too, but smoked and drank like a grown-up. “You ditching today? Let’s ditch.”
Johnny cut his eyes to the hall and kept his voice low. “Hello, Jack.”
“I’ve been looking at some houses on the west side. It’s a bad area. Real bad. Lot of ex-convicts over there. Makes sense when you think about it.”
It was an old refrain. Jack knew what Johnny did when he cut school and snuck out after dark. He wanted to help, partly because he was a good kid, partly because he was bad.
“This is not some game,” Johnny said.
“You know what they say about a gift horse, man. This is free help. Don’t take it for granted.”
Johnny pushed out a breath. “Sorry, Jack. It’s one of those mornings.”
Johnny’s throat closed, so he nodded. Jack was his last friend, the only one who still treated him like he was not some kind of freak or pity case. They had some things in common, too. He was a small kid, like Johnny, and had his own share of problems. “I should probably go today.”
“Our history paper is due,” Jack said. “You done it?”
“I turned that in last week.”
“Shit. Really? I haven’t even started mine yet.”
Jack was always late, and teachers always let him get away with it. Johnny’s mom once called Jack a rascal, and the word fit. He stole cigarettes from the teacher’s lounge and slicked his hair on Fridays. He drank more booze than any kid should and lied like a professional; but he kept secrets when he said he would and watched your back if it needed watching. He was likable, sincere if he cared to be, and for a second, Johnny felt his spirits lift; then the morning landed on him.
The wad of greasy bills by his mother’s bed.
“I gotta go,” Johnny said.
“What about cutting school?”
“I gotta go.” Johnny hung up the phone. His friend’s feelings were hurt, but Johnny couldn’t help that. He picked up the plate, sat on the porch and ate his egg with three slices of bread and a glass of milk. He was still hungry when he finished, but lunch was only four and a half hours away.
He could wait.
Pouring coffee with milk, Johnny made his way down the dim hall to his mother’s room. The water was gone, so was the aspirin. Her hair was off her face, and a bar of sunlight cut across her eyes. Johnny put the mug on the table and opened a window. Cool air flowed in from the shady side of the house, and Johnny studied his mother. She looked paler, more tired, younger and lost. She would not wake for the coffee, but he wanted it there just in case. Just so she’d know.
He started to turn, but she moaned in her sleep and made a violent twitch. She mumbled something and her legs thrashed twice, then she bolted up in bed, eyes wide and terrified. “Jesus Christ!” she said. “Jesus Christ!”
Johnny stood in front of her but she did not see him. Whatever frightened her still had its grip. He leaned in, told her it was just a dream, and for that second her eyes seemed to know him. She raised a hand to his face. “Alyssa,” she said, and there was a question in her voice.
Johnny felt the storm coming. “It’s Johnny,” he told her.
“Johnny?” Her eyes blinked, and then the day broke over her. The desperate gaze collapsed, the hand fell away, and she rolled back into the covers.
Johnny gave her a few seconds, but she did not open her eyes again. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.
“There’s coffee. You want any breakfast?”
“Damn.” She flung off the covers and walked out of the room. She did not look back. Johnny heard the bathroom door slam.
He went outside and sat on the porch. Five minutes later, the school bus pulled onto the dirt verge. Johnny did not get up, he did not move. Eventually, the bus rolled on.
It took most of an hour for his mother to get dressed and find him on the porch. She sat beside him, draped thin arms across her knees. Her smile failed in every way, and Johnny remembered how it used to light up a room.
“I’m sorry,” she said, nudging him with a shoulder. Johnny looked up the road. She nudged him again. “Sorry. You know… an apology.”
He didn’t know what to say, could not explain how it felt to know that it hurt her to look at him. He shrugged. “It’s okay.”
He felt her look for the right words. She failed in that, too. “You missed the bus,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to the school.”
“I make perfect grades. Nobody cares if I’m there or not.”
“Are you still seeing the school counselor?”
He studied her with an unforgiving eye. “Not for six months now.”
Johnny looked back up the road and felt his mother watching him. She used to know everything. They used to talk. When she spoke, her voice had an edge. “He’s not coming back.”
Johnny looked at his mother. “What?”
“You keep looking up the road. You do it all the time, like you expect to see him walking over the hilltop.” Johnny opened his mouth, but she spoke over him. “It’s not going to happen.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I’m just trying-”
“You don’t know that!”
Johnny was on his feet with no recollection of standing. His hands were clenched for the second time that morning, and something hot pushed against the walls of his chest. His mother leaned back, arms still crossed over her knees. The light fell out of her eyes, and Johnny knew what was coming. She reached out a hand that fell short of actually touching him. “He left us, Johnny. It’s not your fault.”
She started to stand. Her lips softened and her face slipped into a look of pained understanding, the kind of expression grown-ups gave to kids who didn’t quite get how the world worked. But Johnny understood. He knew the look and he hated it.
“You should have never said the things you said.”
“It wasn’t his fault that she got taken. You should have never told him that.” She stepped toward him. Johnny ignored the gesture. “He left because of you.”
She stopped midstride and ice snapped in her voice. The sympathetic twist fell from her lips. “It was his fault,” she said. “His fault and nobody else’s. Now she’s gone, and I’ve got nothing.”
Johnny felt tremors start low in the backs of his legs. In seconds, he was shaking. It was an old argument, and it was tearing them apart.
She straightened and started to turn. “You always take his side,” she said, and then was gone, into the house, away from the world and her last child’s place in it.
Johnny stared at the faded door and then at his hands. He watched them shake, then he swallowed the emotion. He sat back down and watched wind move dust on the roadside. He thought about his mother’s words, then he looked up the hill. It was not a pretty hill. There was an edge of ragged forest dotted with small houses and dirt drives, telephone lines that curved between the poles and looked especially black against the new sky. Nothing made the hill special, but he watched it for a long time. He watched it until his neck hurt, then he went inside to check on his mom.
The Vicodin bottle sat open on the bathroom counter; the door to his mother’s room was closed. Johnny cracked the door, saw that it was dim inside and that his mother was under the covers and still. He heard the rasp of her breath and beneath that a deep and perfect silence. He closed her door and went to his own room.
The suitcase under his bed showed cracks in the leather and a black tarnish on the hinges. One of the leather straps had broken off, but Johnny kept the piece because it once belonged to his great-great-grandfather. The case, large and square, had a faded monogram that Johnny could still see if he tilted it right. It read JPM, John Pendleton Merrimon, same name as Johnny.
He dragged the case out, got it up on the bed, and unfastened the last buckle. The top swung up clumsily and settled against the wall. On the inside curve of the lid were a dozen photographs, a collage. Most showed his sister, but two were of them together, looking very much like twins and sharing the same smile. He touched one of the pictures briefly, then looked at the other photos, those of his father. Spencer Merrimon was a big man with square teeth and an easy smile, a builder, with rough hands, quiet confidence, and a moral certainty that had always made Johnny feel lucky to be his son. He’d taught Johnny so many things: how to drive, how to keep his head up, how to make the right decisions. His father taught him how the world worked, taught him what to believe and where to place his faith: family, God, the community. Everything that Johnny had learned about what it meant to be a man, he’d learned from his father.
Right up to the end, when his father walked away.
Now Johnny had to question all of it, everything he’d been taught with such conviction. God did not care about people in pain. Not the little ones. There was no such thing as justice, retribution, or community; neighbors did not help neighbors and the meek would not inherit the earth. All of that was bullshit. The church, the cops, his mother-none of them could make it right, none of them had the power. For a year, Johnny had lived the new, brutal truth that he was on his own.
But that’s the way it was. What had been concrete one day proved sand the next; strength was illusion; faith meant shit. So what? So his once-bright world had devolved to cold, wet fog. That was life, the new order. Johnny had nothing to trust but himself, so that’s the way he rolled-his path, his choices, and no looking back.
He studied the pictures of his father: one behind the wheel of a pickup, sunglasses on and smiling; one standing lightly at the peak of a roof, tool belt angled low on one side. He looked strong: the jaw, the shoulders, the heavy whiskers. Johnny looked for some hint of his own features, but he was too delicate, too fair-skinned. Johnny didn’t look strong, but that was just the surface.
He was strong.
He said it to himself: I will be strong.
The rest was harder to admit, so he did not. He ignored the small voice in the back of his mind, the child’s voice. He clenched his jaw and touched the pictures one last time; then he closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the emotion was gone.
He was not lonesome.
Inside the case were all of the things Alyssa would miss the most, the things she’d want when she came home. He began lifting them out: her diary, unread; two stuffed animals she’d had forever; three photo albums; her school yearbooks; favorite CDs; a small chest of notes she’d passed in school and collected like treasure.
More than once, his mother had asked about the things in the case, but Johnny knew better than to tell her. If she mixed the wrong pills anything could happen. She’d throw things out or burn them in the yard, standing like a zombie or screaming about how much it hurt to remember. That’s what happened to the other photos of his father, and to the small, sacred things that once filled his sister’s room. They faded away in the night or were consumed by the storms that boiled from his mother.
On the bottom of the case was a green file folder. Inside the folder was a thin stack of maps and an eight-by-ten photo of Alyssa. Johnny laid the photo aside and spread out the maps. One was large scale and showed the county where it nestled into eastern North Carolina, not quite in the sand hills, not quite in the piedmont or the flood plains; two hours from Raleigh, maybe an hour from the coast. The northern part of the county was rough country: forest and swamp and a thirty-mile jut of granite where they used to tunnel for gold. The river came down from the north and bisected the county, passing within a few miles of town. To the west was dark soil, perfect for vineyards and farms, and to the east were the sand hills, which boasted a crescent of high-end golf courses, and, beyond that, a long string of small, poor towns that barely managed to survive. Johnny had been through some of them, and remembered weeds that grew from the gutters, shuttered plants and package stores, staved-in men who sat in the shade and drank from bottles in brown paper bags. Fifty miles past the last of the failed towns, you hit Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean. South Carolina was a foreign country beyond the edge of the paper.
Johnny tucked the big map back into the folder. The rest of the maps detailed the streets in town. Red ink marked a number of streets, small X marks over individual addresses. Notes in his handwriting lined the margins. Some neighborhoods were still untouched; a few were crossed off completely. He looked at the western side of town, wondering what part of it Jack had been talking about. He’d have to ask him. Later.
Johnny studied the map for a few more seconds, then folded it and set it aside. Alyssa’s things went back into the case and the case back under the bed. He picked up the large photo and slipped a red pen into his back pocket.
He was through the front door and about to lock it when the van turned into his driveway. Paint peeled from the hood in uneven patches; the right front fender was banged up and rusted. It slewed into the driveway with a shudder, and Johnny felt something like dismay. He turned his back, rolled up the map, and shoved it into the pocket that held the pen. He kept the photo in his hand so that it would not get wrinkled. When the van stopped, Johnny saw a flash of blue through the glass; then the window came down. The face behind it was unusually pale and bloated.
“Get in,” the man said.
Johnny stepped off the stoop and crossed the small patch of grass and weed. He stopped before he got to the edge of the drive. “What are you doing here, Steve?”
“You’re not my uncle.”
The door squealed open, and the man stepped out. He wore a blue jumpsuit with a gold patch on the right shoulder. The belt was heavy and black. “I’m your father’s first cousin, and that’s close enough. Besides, you’ve called me Uncle Steve since you were three.”
“Uncle means family, and that means we help each other. We haven’t seen you in six weeks, and it was a month before that. Where have you been?”
Steve hooked his thumbs in the belt, making the stiff vinyl creak. “Your mom is hanging with the rich folks now, Johnny. Riding the gravy train.” He waved a hand. “Free house. No need to work. Hell, son, there’s nothing I can do for her that her boyfriend can’t do a thousand times better. He owns the mall, the theaters. He owns half the town, for God’s sake. He doesn’t need people like me getting in his way.”
“Getting in his way?” The disbelief came off Johnny in waves.
“You’re scared of him,” Johnny said in disgust.
“He signs my paycheck, me and about four hundred other guys. Now if he was hurting your mom, or something like that. That’d be one thing. But he’s helping her. Right? So why would I get in his way. Your dad would understand that.”
Johnny looked away. “Aren’t you late for your shift at the mall?”
“Yes, I am. So get in.”
Johnny did not move. “What are you doing here, Uncle Steve?”
“Your mom called and asked if I could take you to school. She said you missed the bus.”
“I’m not going to school.”
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Jesus, Johnny. Why do you have to make everything so damn difficult? Just get in the van.”
“Why don’t you just tell her that you took me and leave it there?”
“I told her I’d take you, so I have to take you. I’m not going anywhere until you get in the van. I’ll make you if I have to.”
Johnny’s voice dripped. “You’re not a cop, Steve. You’re just a security guard. You can’t make me do anything.”
“Screw this,” Steve said. “Wait right there.” He pushed past Johnny and small metal jingled on his belt. The uniform looked very crisp and made a rasping noise between his legs.
“What are you doing?”
“Talking to your mother.”
“She’s asleep,” Johnny said.
“I’ll wake her then. Don’t you go anywhere. I mean it.” Then he was through, into the small house that smelled of spilled booze and generic cleaner. Johnny watched the door click shut, then looked at his bike. He could be on it and gone before Uncle Steve made it back outside, but that’s not what a strong person would do. So Johnny pulled the map from his pocket and smoothed it against his chest. He took a deep breath, then went inside to deal with the problem.
It was quiet in the house, the light still dim. Johnny turned into the short hall and stopped. His mother’s door angled wide, and Uncle Steve stood in front of it, unmoving. Johnny watched for a second, but Steve neither moved nor spoke. As Johnny drew closer, he could see a narrow slice of his mother’s room. She still slept, flat on her back, one arm thrown across her eyes. The covers had fallen to her waist, and Johnny saw that she was undressed, so still, and Uncle Steve just stood there, staring. Then Johnny understood. “What the hell?” Then louder: “What the hell, Steve?”
Uncle Steve twitched in guilt. His hands came up, fingers spread. “It’s not what you think.”
But Johnny wasn’t listening. He took five quick steps and pulled his mother’s door closed. She still had not moved. Johnny put his back to the door, and felt the fire come up in his eyes. “You’re sick, Steve. She’s my mother.” Johnny looked around, as if for a stick or a bat, but there was nothing. “What’s wrong with you?”
Uncle Steve’s eyes showed rare desperation. “I just opened the door. I didn’t mean anything by it. Swear to God, Johnny. I’m not like that. I’m not that kind of guy. I swear it. Hand to God.”
A sheen of greasy sweat slicked Uncle Steve’s face. He was so scared, it was pitiful. Johnny wanted to kick him in the balls. He wanted to put him on the ground, then find the pipe under his bed and beat his balls flat. But he thought of Alyssa’s picture, and of the things he still needed to do. And he’d learned this year. He’d learned how to put emotion last. His voice came cold and level. He had things to do, and Steve was going to help him. “You tell her you took me to school.” Johnny nodded and stepped closer. “If she asks, that’s what you tell her.”
“And you won’t say anything?”
“Not if you do what I tell you.”
“Just go, Uncle Steve. Go to work.”
Uncle Steve slipped past, hands still up. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
But Johnny had nothing else to say. He closed the door, then spread the map on the kitchen counter. The red pen was slick between his fingers. He smoothed his palm across the wrinkled paper, then slid a finger to the neighborhood he’d been working for the past three weeks.
He picked a street at random.
Detective Hunt sat at the cluttered desk in his small office. Files spilled from cabinet tops and unused chairs. Dirty coffee cups, memos he’d never read. It was 9:45. The place was a mess, but he lacked the energy to deal with it. He scrubbed his hands across his face, ground at the sockets of his eyes until he saw white streaks and sparks. His face felt rough, unshaven, and he knew that he looked every bit of his forty-one years. He’d lost so much weight that his suits hung on his frame. He’d not been to the gym or the shooting range in six months. He rarely managed more than one meal a day, but none of that seemed to matter.
In front of him, he’d spread his office copy of the Alyssa Merrimon file. A well-thumbed duplicate was locked in a desk drawer at home. He flipped pages methodically, reading every word: reports, interviews, summaries. Alyssa’s face stared out at him from an enlarged copy of her school photograph. Black hair, like her brother’s. Same bone structure, same dark eyes. A secret kind of smile. A lightness, like her mother had, an ethereal quality that Hunt had tried and failed to identify. The way her eyes tilted, maybe? The swept-back ears and china skin? The innocence? That’s the one that Hunt came back to most often. The child looked as if she’d never had an impure thought or done an ill deed in her entire life.
And then there was her mother, her brother. They all had it, to one degree or another; but none of them like the girl.
Hunt scrubbed his face one more time.
He was too close, he knew that; but the case had a grip on him. A glance at the office showed the depth of his fall. There were cases here that needed work. Other people. Real people who suffered just like the Merrimons did; but those cases paled, and he still did not know why. The girl had even found her way into his dreams. She wore the same clothes she had on the day she disappeared: faded yellow shorts, a white top. She was pale in the dream. Short hair. Eighty pounds. A hot spring day. There was no lead up when it happened; the dream started like a cannon shot, full-blown, color and sound. Something was pulling her into a dark place beneath the trees, dragging her through the warm, rotten leaves. Her hand was out, mouth open, teeth very white. He dove for the hand, missed, and she screamed as long fingers drew her down into some dark and seamless place.
When it happened, he woke sheeted in sweat, arms churning as if he were digging through leaves. The dream found him two or three nights a week, and it was the same every time. He’d climb from bed sometime close to three, shaky, wide-awake, then put cold water on his face and stare long into bloody eyes before going downstairs to pore through the file for whatever hours remained before his son woke up and the day put its own long fingers on his skin.
The dream had become his personal hell, the file a ritual, a religion; and it was eating him alive.
Hunt jerked, looked up. In the door stood John Yoakum, his partner and friend. “Hey, John. Good morning.”
Yoakum was sixty-three years old, with thinning brown hair and a goatee shot with gray. Thin but very fit, he was dangerously smart, cynical to a fault. They’d been partners for four years, worked a dozen major cases together, and Hunt liked the guy. He was a private man and a smart-ass, but he also brought rare insight to a job that demanded nothing less. He worked long hours when they needed to be worked, watched his partner’s back; and if he was a little dark, a little private, Hunt was okay with that.
Yoakum shook his head. “I’d like to live the night that made you look like this.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
Yoakum’s grin fell off and his words were brisk. “I know that, Clyde. Just messing with you.” He gestured over his shoulder. “I have a call you might want to take.”
“Yeah. Why is that?”
“Because it’s about Johnny Merrimon.”
“Some lady wants to talk to a cop. I told her that I was the only real cop here today. I said, Emotional wrecks, yeah, got one of those. An obsessive compulsive that used to look like a cop. She could have that guy, too. Both, in fact. At the same time.”
“What line, smart-ass?”
Yoakum showed his fine, porcelain teeth. “Line three,” he said, and left with an easy swagger. Hunt lifted the phone and punched the flashing button for line three. “This is Detective Hunt.”
At first there was silence, then a woman’s voice. She sounded old. “Detective? I don’t know that I need a detective. It’s not that important, really. I just thought someone should know.”
“It’s okay, ma’am. May I have your name, please?”
“Louisa Sparrow, like the bird.”
The voice fit. “What’s the problem, Ms. Sparrow?”
“It’s that poor boy. You know, the one that lost his sister.”
“That’s the one. The poor boy…” She trailed off for an instant, then her voice firmed. “He was just at my house… just this minute.”
“With a picture of his sister,” Hunt interrupted.
“Why, yes. How did you know?”
Hunt ignored the question. “May I have your address, please, ma’am?”
“He’s not in trouble, is he? He’s been through enough, I know. It’s just that it’s a school day, and it’s all very upsetting, seeing her picture like that, and how he still looks just like her, like he hasn’t grown at all; and those questions he asks, like I might have had something to do with it.”
Detective Hunt thought about the small boy he’d found at the grocery store. The deep eyes. The wariness. “Mrs. Sparrow…”
“I really need that address.”
Hunt found Johnny Merrimon a block away from Louisa Sparrow’s house. The boy sat on the curb, his feet crossed in the gutter. Sweat soaked his shirt and plastered hair to his forehead. A beat-up bike lay where he’d dropped it, half on the grass of somebody’s lawn. He was chewing on a pen and bent over a map that covered his lap like a blanket. His concentration was complete, broken only when Hunt slammed the car door. In that instant the boy looked like a startled animal, but then he paused. Hunt saw recognition snap in the boy’s eyes, then determination and something deeper.
His eyes gauged distance, as if he might hop on his bike and try to run. He risked a glance at the nearby woods, but Hunt stepped closer, and the kid sagged. “Hello, Detective.”
Hunt pulled off his sunglasses. His shadow fell on the boy’s feet. “Hello, Johnny.”
Johnny began folding the map. “I know what you’re going to say, so you don’t have to say it.”
Hunt held out his hand. “May I see the map?” Johnny froze, and the hunted animal look rose again in his face. He looked down the long street, then at the map. Hunt continued: “I’ve heard about that map, you see. I didn’t believe it at first, but people have told me.” Hunt’s eyes were hard on the boy. “How many times is it now, Johnny? How many times have I talked to you about this? Four? Five?”
“Seven.” His voice barely rose from the gutter. His fingers showed white on the map.
“I’ll give it back.”
The boy looked up, black eyes shining, and the sense of cunning fell away. He was a kid. He was scared. “Promise?”
He looked so small. “I promise, Johnny.”
Johnny raised his hand and Hunt’s fingers closed on the map. It was worn soft and showed white in the folds. He sat on the curb, next to the boy, and spread the map between his hands. It was large, purple ink on white paper. He recognized it as a tax map, with names and matching addresses. It only covered a portion of the city, maybe a thousand properties. Close to half had been crossed off in red ink. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
“Tax assessor. They’re not expensive.”
“Do you have all of them? For the entire county?” Johnny nodded, and Hunt asked, “The red marks?”
“Houses I’ve visited. People I’ve spoken to.”
Hunt was struck dumb. He could not imagine the hours involved, the ground covered on a busted-up bike. “What about the ones with asterisks?”
“Single men living alone. Ones that gave me the creeps.”
Hunt folded the map, handed it back. “Are there marks on other maps, too?”
“Some of them.”
“It has to stop.”
“No, Johnny. It has to stop. These are private citizens. We’re getting complaints.”
Johnny stood. “I’m not breaking any laws.”
“You’re a truant, son. You’re ditching school right now. Besides, it’s dangerous. You have no idea who lives in these houses.” He flicked one finger at the map; it snapped against the paper and Johnny pulled it away. “I can’t lose another kid.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, you told me that this morning.”
Johnny looked away, and Hunt studied the line of his narrow jaw, the muscles that pressed against the tight skin. He saw a small feather tied to a string around Johnny’s neck. It shone whitish gray against the boy’s washed-out shirt. Hunt pointed, trying to break the mood. “What’s that?”
Johnny’s hand moved to his neck. He tucked the feather back under his shirt. “It’s a pinfeather,” he said.
Hunt saw the kid’s fingers go white, and he saw another feather tied to the bike. The feather was larger, mostly brown. “How about that one?” He pointed again. “Hawk? Owl?”
The boy’s face showed nothing, and he kept his mouth shut. “Is that for luck, too?”
“No.” Johnny paused, looked away. “That’s different.”
“Did you see in the news last week? When they found that girl that was abducted in Colorado? You know the one?”
“I know the one.”
“She’d been gone for a year and they found her three blocks from her own house. She was less than a mile away the whole time. A mile from her family, locked up in a dirt hole dug into the wall of the cellar. Walled up with a bucket and mattress.”
“They showed pictures on the news. A bucket. A candle. A filthy mattress. The ceiling was only four feet high. But they found her.”
“That’s just one case, Johnny.”
“They’re all like that.” Johnny turned back, his deep eyes gone darker still. “It’s a neighbor or a friend, someone the kid knows or a house she walked past every day. And when they find them, they’re always close. Even if they’re dead, they’re close.”
“That’s not always true.”
“But sometimes. Sometimes it is.”
Hunt stood as well, and his voice came softly. “Sometimes.”
“Just because you quit doesn’t mean that I have to.”
Looking at the boy and at his desperate conviction, Hunt felt a great sadness. He was the department’s lead detective on major cases, and because of that, he’d taken point on Alyssa’s disappearance. Hunt had worked harder than any other cop to bring that poor child home. He’d spent months, lost touch with his own family until his wife, in despair and quiet rage, had finally left him. And for what? Alyssa was gone, so gone they’d be lucky to find her remains. It didn’t matter what happened in Colorado. Hunt knew the statistics: Most were dead by the end of the first day. But that made it no easier. He still wanted to bring her home. One way or another. “The file is still open, Johnny. No one has quit.”
Johnny picked up his bike. He rolled up the map and shoved it into his back pocket. “I have to go.”
Detective Hunt’s hand settled on the handlebar. He felt specks of rust and heat from the sun. “I’ve cut you a lot of slack. I can’t do it anymore. This needs to stop.”
Johnny pulled on the bike but couldn’t budge it. His voice was as loud as Hunt had ever heard it. “I can take care of myself.”
“But that’s just it, Johnny. It’s not your job to take care of yourself. It’s your mother’s job, and frankly, I’m not sure she can tend to herself, let alone a thirteen-year-old boy.”
“You may think that’s true, but you don’t know anything.”
For a long second the detective held his eyes. He saw how they went from fierce to frightened, and understood how much the kid needed his hope. But the world was not a kind place to children, and Hunt had reached the limit with Johnny Merrimon. “If you lifted your shirt right now, how many bruises would I see?”
“I can take care of myself.”
The words sounded automatic and weak, so Hunt lowered his voice. “I can’t do anything if you won’t talk to me.”
Johnny straightened, then let go of his bike. “I’ll walk,” he said, and turned away.
The kid kept walking.
When he stopped, Hunt walked the bike over to him. The spokes clicked as the wheels turned. Johnny took the handlebars when Hunt offered the bike back to him. “You still have my card?” Johnny nodded, and Hunt blew out a long breath. He could never fully explain his affinity for the boy, not even to himself. Maybe he saw something in the kid. Maybe he felt his pain more than he should. “Keep it with you, okay. Call me anytime.”
“I don’t want to hear about you doing this again.”
Johnny said nothing.
“You’ll go straight to school?”
Hunt looked at the clean, blue sky, then at the boy. His hair was black and wet, his jaw clenched. “Be careful, Johnny.”
People were not right. The cop had that part straight. Johnny had peered over more fences and into more windows than he could count. He’d knocked on doors at all hours, and he’d seen things that weren’t right. Things that people did when they thought they were alone and no one was watching. He’d seen kids sniff drugs and old people eat food that fell on the floor. He once saw a preacher in his underwear, hot-faced and screaming at his wife as she cried. That was messed up. But Johnny was no idiot. He knew that crazy people could look like anybody else. So he kept his head down. He kept his shoes laced tight and a knife in his pocket.
He was careful.
He was smart.
Johnny did not look back until he’d gone two full blocks. When he did turn his head, he saw that Detective Hunt still stood in the road, a distant speck of color next to a dark car and green grass. The cop was still for an instant, then one arm rose in a slow wave, and Johnny rode faster, careful to not look back again.
The cop scared him, and Johnny wondered how he knew the things he knew.
The number popped into his head.
He pedaled harder, pumped his legs until the shirt on his back clung like a second skin. He went north to the far edge of town, to the place where the river slid beneath the bridge and widened out until the current went flat. He rode his bike down the bank and dropped it. Blood pounded in his ears and he tasted salt. His eyes burned from it, so he wiped at them with a grubby sleeve. He used to fish here with his father. He knew where to find the bass and the giant cats that hugged the mud five feet down, but none of that mattered. He never fished anymore, but he still came here.
This was still his place.
He sat in the dust to untie his shoes. His fingers shook and he did not know why. The shoes came off, then he touched the feather to his cheek and wrapped it in his shirt. The sun put fierce heat on his skin, and he looked at the bruises, the largest of which was the size and shape of a large man’s knee. It wrapped around the ribs on his left side and he remembered how Ken held him down with that knee, shifted his weight whenever Johnny tried to squirm out.
Johnny rolled his shoulders, tried to forget about it, the knee on his chest, the finger in his face.
You’ll fucking do what I fucking say…
Open hand slaps to Johnny’s face, first one side, then the other, his mother passed out in the back room.
You little shit…
Another slap, harder.
Where’s your daddy now?
The bruise had yellowed out on the edges, gone green in the middle; and it hurt when he pushed it with a finger. The skin went white for a second-another perfect oval-then the color rushed in. Johnny scrubbed more salt from his eyes, and when he moved for the river, he stumbled once. He stepped in and river bottom pushed between his toes; then he dove, and warm water closed above him. It wrapped him up, shut out the world and bore him tirelessly down.
Johnny spent two hours at the river, too worried about Detective Hunt to risk more of his search, too ambivalent about school to make going worth his time. He swam across the river and back, made shallow dives from flat rocks baked hot by the sun. Driftwood lay in silver stacks and wind licked off the water. By late morning he was physically worn, stretched out on a flat rock forty feet downriver from the bridge, invisible behind a willow that dragged long strands in the black water. Cars made the bridge hum. A small stone clattered on the rock beside his head. He sat up and another pebble struck him on the shoulder. He looked around and saw no one. A third rock glanced off his leg. It was large enough to sting. “Throw another and you’re dead.”
“I know it’s you, Jack.”
Johnny heard a laugh, and Jack stepped from the wood’s edge. He wore cutoff jeans and filthy sneakers. His shirt was yellow white, with a picture of Elvis in black silhouette. He had a backpack on his back and more stones in his hand. One side of his mouth turned a sharp edge, and his hair was slicked back. Johnny had forgotten that it was Friday.
“That was for ditching without me.” Jack walked over, a small boy with blond hair, brown eyes, and a seriously messed up arm. The right one was fine, but it was hard to miss the other. Shrunken and small, it looked like someone had nailed the arm of a six-year-old to a kid twice that age.
“Are you angry?” Johnny asked.
“I’ll give you a free hit to make it even.”
Jack held the hard smile. “Three hits,” he said.
“Three with your girl arm.”
“Two with the hammer.” Jack cocked his good fist, and his smile thinned. “No flinching.” He stepped closer and Johnny flexed his arm, pulled it tight to his side. Jack spread his legs, drew back the fist. “This is going to hurt.”
“Do it, you pussy.”
Jack punched Johnny in the arm, twice. He hit hard, and when he stepped back, he looked satisfied. “That’s what you get.”
Johnny rolled his arm, tossed one of the pebbles and Jack ducked it. “How’d you know I’d be here?”
“It’s not rocket science.”
“Then what took you so long?”
Jack sat on the rock next to Johnny. The pack came off and he stripped off the shirt, too. His skin was burned red, peeling on the shoulders. A silver cross hung on a thin steel chain. It spun as he opened the pack, winked silver in the sun. “I had to go home for supplies. Dad was still there.”
“He didn’t see you, did he?” Jack’s father was a serious, hard-ass cop, and Johnny avoided him like the plague.
“Do I look like an idiot?” Jack’s good hand disappeared inside the pack. “Still cold,” he said, and pulled out a can of beer. He handed it to Johnny, then pulled out another.
“Stealing beer.” Johnny shook his head. “You’re going to burn in hell.”
Jack flashed the same sharp smile. “The Lord forgives small sins.”
“That’s not what your mom says.”
He barked a laugh. “My mom is one step away from foot washing and snake handling, Johnny man. You know that. She prays for my soul like I might burst into flame at any moment. She does it at home. She does it in public.”
“That time I got caught cheating? Remember?”
Three months ago. Johnny remembered. “Yeah. History class.”
“We had a meeting with the principal, right. Before it was done, she had him on his knees, praying for God to show me the path.”
“No shit. He was so scared of her. You should have seen his face, all scrunched up, one eye squinting out to see if she was looking at him while he did it.” Jack popped the top, shrugged. “Still, can’t blame him. She’s gone off the deep end and is trying just as hard to take me down with her. She had the preacher over last week to pray for me.”
“In case I’m touching myself.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Life is a comedy,” Jack said, but there was no smile left. His mother was scary religious, born again and taking no prisoners. She was on Jack all the time with threats of hellfire and damnation. He played it off, but the cracks showed.
Johnny opened his beer. “Does she know your dad still drinks?”
“She says that the Lord disapproves, so Dad put a beer refrigerator in the garage, his liquor, too. That seems to have settled it.”
Jack chugged. Johnny took a sip. “That’s some crap beer, Jack.”
“Beggars and choosers, man. Don’t make me hit you again.” Jack chugged the rest of his beer, then stuffed the empty in the pack and pulled out another.
“Did you do your history paper?”
“What did I say about small sins?”
Johnny scanned the area behind Jack. “Where’s your bike?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I didn’t feel like riding it.”
“It’s a six hundred dollar Trek.”
Jack looked away, shrugged. “I miss the old one. That’s all.”
“Still no sign, huh?”
“Stolen, I guess. Gone for good.”
The power of sentiment, Johnny thought. Jack’s old bike was piss yellow with a three gears and a banana seat. His dad bought it second-hand and it had to be fifteen years old. It had been gone for a long time. “Did you hop the train?”
Johnny’s eyes slid to the stunted arm. Jack fell from the back of a pickup when he was four and shattered the arm, which turned out to have a hollow bone. He’d had an operation to fill the hollow core with cow’s bone, but the surgeon must have been pretty bad, because it never really grew after that. The fingers didn’t work that well. The limb had little strength. Johnny gave him hell about it because it made the arm a nonissue between the two of them. But that was just cover-up. When it came down to it, Jack was sensitive. He saw the glance.
“You don’t think I can handle a train jump?” Angry.
“I was just thinking of that kid, you know.”
They both knew the story, a fourteen-year-old from one of the county schools who tried to hop the same train and lost his grip. He’d fallen under the wheels and lost both legs: one at the thigh, one below the knee. He was a cautionary tale for kids like Jack.
“That kid was a wimp.” Jack rooted through one of the outer pockets of the backpack and came out with a pack of menthols. He pulled out a cigarette with his bad arm and held it between two baby fingers as he lit it with a lighter. He sucked in smoke and tried to blow a ring on the exhale.
“Your dad buys crap cigarettes, too.”
Jack looked at the perfect blue sky and took another drag. The cigarette in his small hand looked unnaturally large. “You want one?” he asked.
Jack handed Johnny a smoke and let him light it off the coal on the end of his own. Johnny took a drag and coughed. Jack laughed. “You are so not a smoker.”
Johnny flicked the butt into the river. He spit into the dirt. “Crap cigarettes,” he repeated. When he looked up, he caught Jack staring at the bruises on his chest and ribs.
“Those are new,” Jack said.
“Not so new.” Johnny watched the current carry a log past their rock. “Tell me again,” he said.
“Tell you what?”
“About the van.”
“Damn, Johnny. You know how to suck the joy out of a day. How many times do we need to go over it? Nothing’s changed since the last time. Or the time before that.”
“Just tell me.”
Jack pulled in smoke and looked away from his friend. “It was just a van.”
“You know what color.”
Jack sighed. “White.”
“What about dents? Scratches? Anything else you remember?”
“It’s been a year, Johnny.”
“For fuck’s sake, man. It was a white van. White. Like I told you. Like I told the cops.” Johnny waited and eventually Jack settled down. “It was a plain white van,” he said. “Like a painter would use.”
“You never said that before.”
“No. You described it: white, no windows in the back. You never said it looked like a painter’s van. Why would you say that now? Was there paint spilled on the side?”
“Ladders on the roof? A rack for ladders?”
Jack finished the cigarette and flicked his own butt into the river. “It was just a van, Johnny. She was two hundred yards away when it happened. I wasn’t even sure it was her until I found out she was missing. I was coming home from the library, same as her. A bunch of us had been there that day. I saw the van come over the hill and stop. A hand came out of the window and she walked up to the side. She didn’t look scared or anything. She just walked right up.” He paused. “Then the door opened up and somebody grabbed her. A white guy. Black shirt. Like I’ve said a hundred times. The door closed and they took off. The whole thing took like ten seconds. There’s just nothing else for me to remember.”
Johnny looked down, kicked at a stone.
“I’m sorry, man. I wish I’d done something, but I just didn’t. It didn’t even look real.”
Johnny stood and stared at the river. After a minute, he nodded once. “Give me another beer.”
They drank beer and swam in the river. Jack smoked. After an hour, Jack asked: “You want to check some houses?”
Johnny skimmed a rock and shook his head. Jack liked the game of it, the risk. He liked creeping around and seeing things that kids were not supposed to see. For Jack, it was an adrenaline thing. “Not today,” Johnny said.
Jack walked to Johnny’s bike, where the map was wedged into the spokes of the front tire. He pulled it out, held it up. “What about this?” Johnny looked at his friend, then told him about his run-in with Detective Hunt. “He’s all over me.”
Jack thought it was bullshit. “He’s just a cop.”
“Your dad’s a cop.”
“Yeah, and I steal beer from his fridge. What does that tell you?” Jack spit in the dirt, a universal sign of disgust between the two boys. “Come on. Let’s do something. It makes you feel better. We both know it. And I can’t sit out here all day.”
“Whatever,” Jack said, and shoved the map back between the spokes. He saw the feather tied to Johnny’s bike. It dangled from a cord looped around the seat post. He took it in his hand. “Hey, what’s this?”
Johnny stared at his friend. “Nothing,” he said.
Jack ran the feather between his fingers. Light made it glisten at the edges. He tilted it against the light. “It’s cool,” he said.
“I said, leave it alone.”
Jack saw the new angle in his friend’s shoulders, and he let the feather drop. It swung once on its cord. “Jeez. It was just a question.”
Johnny relaxed his fingers. Jack was Jack. He meant no harm. “I heard that your brother picked Clemson.”
“You heard that?”
“It was all over the news.”
Jack picked up a rock, rolled it from his good hand to his bad. “He’s already being scouted by the pros. He broke the record last week.”
“Career home runs.”
“For the school?”
Jack shook his head. “The state.”
“Guess your old man is proud,” Johnny said.
“His son is gonna be famous.” Jack’s smile looked real, but Johnny saw how he tucked his bad arm more tightly against his ribs. “Of course he’s proud.”
They went back to drinking. The sun crawled higher, but the daylight seemed to dim. The air grew cool, as if the river itself had chilled. Johnny got halfway through his third beer, then put it down.
Jack got drunk.
They spoke no more of his brother.
It was noon when they heard the car downshift on the road. It stopped at the bridge, then turned onto the old logging track that led to the high bank above them. “Shit.” Jack hid the beer cans. Johnny pulled on his shirt to cover the bruises, and Jack pretended that it was a normal thing to do. It was an old argument between them, whether or not to tell.
A high, metal grill pushed through the weeds that grew between the ruts of the track, and Johnny saw that it was a pickup, waxed. Chrome threw off glints of sun and the windshield was mirrored. When it stopped, the engine revved, then died. Three of the four doors opened. Jack stood up straighter.
Blue jeans. Boots. Thick arms. Johnny saw all of that as the older kids circled to the front of the truck. He’d seen them around. They were high school kids. Seventeen, eighteen years old. Grown men, or close to it. One had a pint of bourbon in his hand. All three were smoking cigarettes. They stood on a lip of earth where the bank fell away to the water. They looked down on Johnny, and one of them, a tall blond kid with a raspberry birthmark on his neck, nudged the driver. “Look at this,” he said. “Couple of junior high faggots.”
The driver’s face showed no emotion. The guy with the bourbon took a pull on the bottle. Jack said, “Fuck off, Wayne.”
Birthmark stopped laughing.
“That’s right,” Jack said. “I know who you are.”
The driver thumped the back of his hand on Birthmark’s chest. He was tall and well built, handsome in a postcard way. He regarded Wayne coolly, then pointed at Jack. “That’s Gerald Cross’s brother, so show him a little respect.”
Wayne made a face. “That little dipshit? I don’t believe it.” He took a step, leaned over the bank and raised his voice. “Your brother should have signed with Carolina,” he said. “You tell him Clemson is for pussies.”
“Is that where you’ll be going?” Johnny asked.
The driver laughed. So did the kid holding the bourbon. Wayne ’s face darkened, but the driver stepped forward, cut him off. “I know you, too,” he said to Johnny, then paused and took a drag on his cigarette. “I’m sorry about your sister.”
“Wait a minute,” Wayne said, and pointed. “That’s this guy?”
“Yes, it is.”
The words came without visible emotion, and the blood fell out of Johnny’s face. “I don’t know you,” Johnny said.
Jack touched Johnny’s arm. “That’s Hunt’s son. The cop’s son. His name is Allen. He’s a senior.”
Johnny looked up and saw the resemblance. Different hair, but the same build. The same soft eyes. “This is our place,” Johnny said. “We were here first.”
Hunt’s son leaned out over the bank, but was clearly not disturbed by the confrontational tone. He spoke to Jack. “Haven’t seen you around in a while.”
“Why would you?” Jack said. “We’ve got nothing to say to each other. Gerald either, for that matter.”
Johnny looked at Jack. “He knows your brother?”
“Once upon a time.”
Allen straightened. “Once upon a time,” he said, and there was no emotion in the words. “We’ll find another place.” He turned around, stopped, and spoke to Jack. “Tell your brother I said hi.”
“Tell him yourself.”
Allen paused, then offered an empty smile. He gestured to his friends, then got in the truck and started the engine. They backed up the dirt track, disappeared; then it was just the river, the wind.
“That’s Hunt’s son?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah.” Jack spit in the dirt.
“What’s the problem with him and your brother?”
“A girl,” Jack said, then looked out over the river. “Water under the bridge.”
The mood soured after that. They caught a garter snake and let it go, shaved driftwood with their knives, but it was no good. Johnny was talked out and Jack sensed it, so when a distant whistle announced the southbound freight, Jack pulled on his shoes and packed up. “I’m going to split,” he said.
“Unless you want to pedal me back to town on your handlebars.” Johnny followed Jack up the bank. “You want to hook up later?” Jack asked. “Catch a movie? Play some videogames?”
The whistle called again, closer. “You’d better roll,” Johnny said.
“Just call me later.”
Johnny waited until he was gone, then unwrapped the pinfeather from his shirt and slipped the string over his neck. Dipping his hands in the river, he dabbed water on his face, then smoothed the feather on his bike. The water made it gleam, and it slid between his fingertips, crisp and cool and perfect.
Johnny skimmed some more stones, then went back to the rock and lay down. The sun was warm, the air a blanket, and at some point, he dozed. When he woke, it was with a start. The day had slid to late afternoon: five o’clock, maybe five thirty. Dark clouds piled up on the far horizon. A breeze carried the smell of distant rain.
Johnny hopped off the rock and went to find his shoes. He had them in his hand when he heard the whine of a small engine. It approached from the north, fast. The whine climbed to a scream, a motorcycle, pushing hard. It was almost to the bridge when Johnny heard another engine. This one was big and running wide open. Johnny craned his neck, saw the concrete abutment that ran along the bridge and beyond that a slice of green leaves and sky gone the color of ash. The bridge began to shake, and Johnny knew that he’d never heard anything hit it so fast.
They were halfway across when metal hit metal. Johnny saw a shower of sparks, the top of a car, and a motorcycle that cartwheeled once before the body came over the rail. One of the legs bent impossibly, the arms churned, and Johnny knew that it was a mistake, a pinwheel that screamed with a man’s voice.
It landed at Johnny’s feet with a wet thump and the double snap of breaking bones. It was a man in a muddy shirt and brown pants. One arm twisted under his back, angle all wrong, and his chest looked caved in. His eyes were open, and they were the most amazing blue.
Brakes squealed on the road. Johnny stepped closer to the injured man, saw skin torn from one side of his face, right eye starting to go bloody. His good eye locked on Johnny as if the boy could save him.
Up on the road, the big engine gunned. Tires barked in reverse. Johnny felt the vibration when the car rolled back onto the bridge.
The injured man’s jaw worked. “He’s coming back.”
“It’s okay,” Johnny said. “We’ll help you.” He knelt in the dirt. The man held out his hand and Johnny took it. “It’s going to be okay.”
But the man ignored Johnny’s words. With a surprising strength, he pulled the boy closer. “I found her.”
Johnny focused on the man’s lips. “You found who?”
“The girl that was taken.”
Johnny felt cold shock. The man’s body seized, and blood shot from his mouth onto Johnny’s shirt. Johnny barely noticed. “Who?” he said again, then louder. “Who?”
“I found her…”
Above them, the big engine idled. The injured man rolled his eyes up, his fear obvious. He pulled Johnny so close that he smelled blood and crushed organs. The man’s eyes crinkled at the edges, and Johnny heard a single word. A whisper.
The man’s grip tightened. Johnny heard how the big engine rumbled and spat, then something like steel on concrete. The man’s hand clenched so hard that nails cut Johnny’s skin.
“For God’s sake-”
The body seized again, spine locked tight, broken arm twisting.
Johnny looked down, saw a boot heel push dirt, and something clicked in his mind.
This was not an accident.
Johnny looked at the bridge and saw a hump of movement: a head and a shoulder, a man moving around the front of the car. It was a shadow man, a cutout. Johnny felt the blood on his hands, sticky wet and going cold.
Not an accident.
The man’s body seized, head slamming dirt, boot heel drumming. Johnny tried to pull his hand free, had to jerk with all he had. Noise on the bridge. Movement. Fear was a knife that went in low and touched some deep place in him. Johnny had never been so scared in all of his life, not the day he woke up to find his father gone, not the times his mom winked out and Ken got that gleam in his eye.
Johnny was terrified.
Then he turned and ran, along the river, down the trail. He ran until his throat closed, until his heart tried to claw free from his chest. He ran fast and he ran afraid. He ran until the giant black monster stepped from the shadows and grabbed him up.
Then Johnny screamed.
Levi Freemantle carried a precious thing on his shoulder. It was a heavy box, wrapped twice in black plastic and closed up with silver tape. Few men could carry it as far as Levi had, but Levi was not like other men. He ignored the hurt of it, the sense of it. He kept his feet on the path and moved his lips when words rose up in his mind. He listened to God’s voice in his head and followed the river like his momma taught him when he was a boy. The river was the river, never-changing, and Levi had walked the river trail a hundred times, maybe. Not that he counted that good.
But a hundred was a lot.
He’d walked it a lot.
Levi saw the white boy before he heard him. He was coming straight at him, tearing down the trail like the devil was at his heels and hungry for white boys. His head rode low on skinny shoulders, face gone purple red, feet skipping over rocks and holes as branches snapped at his face and missed. The boy never looked back, not once, and it was like watching a hunted animal run.
Levi wanted to let the boy pass, but there was no way to hide. There was river and there was trees, but Levi stood six foot five and weighed three hundred pounds. People with guns were looking for him. Cops with bright metal on their belts, guards with clubs and nasty smiles. So Levi asked God what to do, and God told him to grab the boy up. Don’t hurt him, God said. Just pick him up.
“Truly?” Levi whispered, but God did not answer; so Levi shrugged, then stepped from behind the tree and grabbed the boy up with one thick arm. The boy screamed, but Levi held him, gentle as he could. He was surprised, when God told him what to tell the boy.
“God says-,” he began.
But Levi did not speak fast enough. The boy got one of Levi’s fingers in his mouth and clamped down until the skin popped like a grape. His teeth went all the way to the bone, and blood pumped hard. It hurt, really hurt, and Levi flung the boy down into the dirt. He felt bad when he did it, like maybe he’d let God down.
But it hurt.
The boy rolled to his feet and took off like a rabbit, but Levi didn’t think once about chasing him. He couldn’t run with the heavy box on his shoulder, and he couldn’t leave the box, not even for a minute. So he held his bloody finger and wished it would stop hurting like it did. The pain made him think of his wife, and that was a worse kind of hurt, so he kept one hand around the bloody finger and listened for the voice of God. When he finally spoke to Levi, he said it might be nice to know what the boy was running from.
Levi shrugged his giant shoulders.
“God talks and Levi walks.”
That was a funny.
It took twenty minutes to get to the bridge. The blood on the rocks looked black and wrong, and Levi listened hard before laying his package on the ground and stepping out from under the willow tree. He wanted somebody to tell him what to do, but God had gone still. A finger of hot wind laid itself across his cheek and lightning flashed off in the west. The air was heavy with a dry, powdery smell that rose from the dust under the bridge and felt charged with static.
Levi thought he heard a voice in the river. He tilted his head, and listened for a full minute before deciding it was only water moving. Or a snake in the grass. Or a carp in the reeds at the river’s edge.
But not God.
When God spoke, Levi felt cool air pile up above him; he felt peaceful, even when he remembered the bad he’d done.
So this wasn’t God.
He stood over the body and his head wasn’t working right. It wasn’t that he was scared-although he did feel small, sharp nails on the back of his neck-Levi felt sad for the crooked man. Busted up and leaking red was wrong. So was the stillness, the open, flat-looking eyes.
Levi rocked from one foot to the other. He rubbed at the scars on his face, the right side where the skin looked melted. He didn’t know what to do, so he sat down to wait for God to tell him.
God would know.
God was good like that.
Johnny came onto his own street just as the sun set and the light faded to purple. Night sounds rose in the woods. He limped, in pain, but his mind was flush with hope. It burned with it.
I found her.
You found who?
The girl that was taken.
Johnny replayed the words over and over, looking for some reason to doubt the emotion that pushed him through the pain that radiated up from his feet. Eight miles, most of it running, all of it without shoes. His feet were torn and cut, but his right foot was the worst, gashed by a broken bottle two miles after the hobgoblin with the black box grabbed him. Johnny could still taste the man’s blood, the dirt on his skin. He tried not to think about it too much. Instead, he thought about his sister, his mother.
Johnny crested the second-to-last hill and a damp wind pressed against him. He saw lights strung out on the roadside. Windows. Houses. They looked small under the purple sky, crowded where the dark forest pushed them against the thin black road. Another mile, he told himself. One more hill.
His mother needed to hear what he’d heard.
He started down, and did not hear the car that rose on the crest behind him. He imagined what the news might do for his mother. Get her out of bed. Get her off the pills. It could be a whole new beginning. The two of them, and then Alyssa.
His father would come back.
They could get their old house.
The headlights found him and Johnny moved off the road. His shadow flowed left, then flickered out when the car pulled even and stopped. Johnny felt a spike of fear, then recognized Ken’s car. It was a Cadillac, big and white, with sharp edges and gold letters that said, Escalade. Ken’s window came down. His skin was almost tan enough to hide the bags under his eyes. “Where the hell have you been?” Johnny shook his head, winded. “Get in the car, Johnny. Right now.”
Johnny bent at the waist. “I don’t-” He shoved a fist into his side.
Ken jammed the transmission into park and threw open his door. “Don’t talk back to me, kid. Just get in the car. Your mother’s falling apart over this. The whole town is in an uproar.” Ken climbed out. He was tall and heavy, shapeless in the way that Johnny thought only middle-aged men could be. He had a gold watch, thin hair, and laugh lines that made no sense to Johnny.
Johnny’s words came with difficulty. “Falling apart over what?”
Ken gestured with a thick hand. “In. Now.”
Johnny climbed in and slid across the smooth leather seat. Ken put the car in gear, and Johnny thought of the dead man.
I found her.
The house was lit up like Christmas: inside lights, outside lights, cop cars that angled in the drive and painted the yard with slashes of blue. Uniformed cops stood under the darkening sky, and Johnny saw guns and radios and slick, black clubs that hung from metal rings.
“What’s going on?”
Ken opened his door and dropped a hand on Johnny’s neck. Fingers dug into the thin straps of muscle and Johnny rolled his shoulders.
“Not as much as it should.” Ken dragged him across the seat and out of the car. His hand came away and he offered the cops a perfect smile. “Found him,” he announced, and they stopped in the drive as Johnny’s mother stepped onto the porch. She wore blue jeans and a brown shirt faded to the color of chocolate milk. Uncle Steve stepped out beside her. Johnny took another step, and his mother flew down the stairs, hair gone wild, eyes wet and crazy. She threw her arms around him, and her words blurred: “Oh my God. Where have you been?”
Johnny didn’t understand. He’d come home after dark many times. Most days, she didn’t know if he was in bed or not. Over his mother’s shoulder, Johnny saw one of the cops lift his radio. “Dispatch. Twenty-seven. Please inform Detective Hunt that we’ve located Johnny Merrimon. He’s at home.”
A static-filled voice acknowledged what the cop had said. Then, some seconds later, the radio hissed again. “Twenty-seven, be advised. Detective Hunt is en route to your location.”
Johnny felt his mother’s arms loosen. She pushed him back, and suddenly she was shaking him, screaming: “Don’t you ever do that again! Not ever! Do you hear me? Do you? Say you do! Say it!” Then she grabbed him up again. “God, Johnny. I was so worried.”
Johnny was shaken and squeezed, rattled so hard he could barely speak. The cops moved down the stairs, and Johnny saw his Uncle Steve, who begged with his eyes. Then Johnny understood. “The school called?”
His mother nodded against his neck. “They went into lockdown right after lunch. They called here and said they couldn’t find you, so I called your Uncle Steve; but he said he dropped you off. He swore it. And then you didn’t come home, and I thought…”
Johnny pulled out of her grasp. “Lockdown for what?”
His mother caressed one side of his face. “Oh, Johnny.” Her fingers felt shaky and warm. “It’s happened again.”
His mother broke. “Another girl’s been taken. Right off the school grounds, they think. A seventh-grader. Tiffany Shore.”
Johnny blinked. His words came, automatic. “I know Tiffany.”
Her voice trailed off, but Johnny knew what she was thinking. Tiffany Shore was in the seventh grade. Same as Alyssa had been when she vanished. Johnny shook his head. He thought of the dead man’s words. When he’d said, I found her, he was talking about Johnny’s sister, about Alyssa. Not Tiffany. Not some other girl. “That can’t be right,” Johnny said; but his mother nodded, crying, and Johnny felt the hope go cold. He felt it crumble to ash. “That can’t be right,” he said again.
She rocked back on her heels, looking for the right words; but one of the cops stepped forward before she could find them. “Son,” he said, and Johnny looked up, “is that blood on your shirt?”
Levi waited with the broken body as the sun sank. The flies bothered him and his finger hurt so bad he wondered if God was testing him. He’d been to church and knew that God did that kind of thing; but Levi was nothing special. He swept floors to make money. The world confused him. But God’s voice had been with Levi for seven days. It came like a whisper and was a comfort when the world seemed dark and tilted left. A week of whisper left a huge hole in a man’s head when the whisper stopped, and Levi had to wonder why God was silent now. He was an escaped convict sitting in the dirt ten feet from a dead man. He’d been wandering loose for seven days.
I made the world in seven days.
The voice gushed into Levi like a flood, but it sounded different. It flickered in, faded out, and the thought felt unfinished. Levi held his breath, turned his head, but the voice didn’t come again. Levi knew that he was not smart-his wife had told him that-but he wasn’t stupid, either. Convicts and dead bodies looked bad together. The road was just above his head. So Levi decided that God would have to wait.
Just this once.
He knelt by the dead man and went through his pockets. He found a wallet and took the cash because he was hungry. He asked God to forgive him, then dropped the wallet in the dirt and straightened the man’s body. He pulled the broken arm from behind his back and crossed his hands on his chest. He dipped a finger in the tacky blood and made a cross on the pale, smooth forehead, then he closed the open eyes. He prayed to God to take the dead man’s soul.
Care for it.
He saw the flash of white when he stood.
It was in the dead man’s hand, a scrap of fabric that poked between two fingers. It came out easily when Levi pulled. Pale and ragged, it looked like a piece of shirt that had been cut free or torn. It was as long as a baby’s shoe, faded and dirty, with a name tag sewn into it. Levi couldn’t read, so the letters meant nothing, but the fabric was kind of white and just the right size. He twisted it around his bleeding finger and used his teeth to tie it off, pull it tight.
In the shade of the willow, he stopped beside the heavy package wrapped in plastic. He ran one of his massive hands along the top of it, then hoisted it onto his shoulder. To any other man, it would have felt heavy, and the thought of it might have oppressed. But that’s not how it was for Levi. He was strong, he had a purpose; and when the plastic rustled against his ear, he heard the voice of God. It told Levi he’d done good, and it told him to walk on.
He was fifty minutes gone when the cops showed up.
Detective Hunt’s car rolled to a stop on the bridge. This far out, there were no street lamps, no houses. The sky above was black, with a deep purple line on the horizon to the west. Above them, storm clouds pressed low, and a hard, dry light thumped twice before the thunder came. A line of marked cars, lights flashing, pulled in behind Detective Hunt’s car. Spotlights clicked on and lit the bridge. Hunt turned to Johnny, who sat in the backseat with his mother. Their faces were blacked out, and he saw strands of hair that stood out against the bright light from the cars behind them. “Are you okay?” he asked. No answer. Johnny’s mother pulled him tight. “This the place, Johnny?”
Johnny swallowed. “This is it.” He pointed. “That side of the bridge. Straight down.”
“Tell me one more time what he said. Word for word.”
Johnny’s voice sounded dead. “I found her. The girl that was taken.”
“He told me to run. He was talking about the guy in the car.”
Hunt nodded. They’d been through it six or seven times. Everything that had happened. “Nothing else to make you think he was talking about your sister? He didn’t mention her name or description or anything like that?”
“He was talking about Alyssa.”
Johnny’s head tipped in the harsh glare, and Hunt wanted to touch the boy on the shoulder, tell him that it would be okay; but it was not his place to fix every broken thing, no matter how badly he might want to. He glanced at Katherine Merrimon. She sat, small and immobile, and he wanted to touch her, too; but those feelings were complicated. She was beautiful and gentle and damaged, but she was a victim, and there were rules about that. So Hunt stayed focused on the case, and his voice was hard when he spoke. “The odds are against it, Johnny. You should prepare for that. It’s been a year. He was probably talking about Tiffany Shore.”
Johnny shook his head, but remained silent. When his mother spoke, she sounded like a child herself. “I know Tiffany,” she said.
She’d said that twice already, but no one mentioned it. Johnny blinked and saw an image of the missing girl. Tiffany was small and blond, with green eyes, a scar on her left hand, and a stupid joke she’d tell to anyone that would listen. Something about three monkeys, an elephant, and a cork. She was a nice girl. Always had been.
“The man on the bridge,” Hunt began. “Do you remember anything else? Could you identify him?”
“He was just a shape. A sense of movement. I didn’t see his face.”
“What about the car?”
“No. Like I said.”
Hunt peered through the windows as other cops began to exit cars and throw shadows against the stark concrete wall of the bridge. He was unhappy. “Stay here,” he said. “Do not get out of this car.”
He climbed out, shut the door behind him, and absorbed the scene. Heavy, damp air carried the scent of the river. Darkness welled up from beneath the bridge, and Hunt glanced north as if he could see the great swath of rough country that pushed down on Raven County: the stony woods and, at the foot of those hills, the twenty-mile stretch of swamp that vomited out the river. A drop of cold rain touched his cheek, and he gestured at the nearest cop. “Put a light over the side,” he said. “Down there.” He moved to the abutment as the cop pulled a light from the cruiser and shot a spear of light out into the night. It cut ragged patterns as the officer walked to the edge of the bridge, and when he put the light on the riverbank, it pinned the body on the dirt.
Johnny Merrimon’s bicycle lay on the ground five feet away from it.
The kid was right.
Hunt felt his people move around him. He had four uniformed cops and Crime Scene on standby. He heard a staccato burst on the windshield, felt more drops spatter on the top of his head. The rain was coming, and it was coming hard. He gestured with an arm. “Get a tarp over that body. Move. I also want tarps over the railing, right here.” He was thinking of paint scrapings, and of the glass shards that winked on the blacktop. “Somewhere around here, there should be a motorcycle. Find it. And somebody call for a tent.” Thunder crashed and he looked up at the sky. “This is going to get ugly.”
In the car, Johnny felt it when his mother began to shake. It started in her arms, moved to her shoulders.
She ignored him and dug into her purse. It was dark in the low part of the car, so she held the bag up until headlights struck it. Johnny saw one eye when she tilted her head, then he heard the rattle and click of pills in a plastic bottle. She shook pills into her hand, tossed back her head and swallowed them dry. The bag fell back into darkness and her head hit the headrest hard enough to bounce once. Her voice, when she spoke, was devoid of emotion. “Don’t ever do that again,” she said.
“Ditch school?” Johnny asked.
A difficult pause. Ice in Johnny’s chest.
“Don’t make me hope.” She turned her head. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
They got the tent up before the bottom fell out of the sky. Hunt squatted next to the body as the tent rattled and shook. The material snapped so loudly that he had to shout to be heard. Two uniformed officers held lights; a CSI tech and the medical examiner knelt on the other side of the body. Over Hunt’s shoulder, one of the uniforms said: “Water will be running under soon.” Hunt agreed. Thunderstorms in late spring rolled in hard and left fast, but they could drop a lot of water. It was a bad break.
Hunt studied the blood-streaked face, then the splinter of bone where the arm bent at right angles. Grime caked the dead man’s clothes; it was black, almost green, ground into the cloth and into the treads of his shoes. A smell lingered, something organic, something that went beyond river water and recent death. “What do we know?” Hunt asked the medical examiner.
“He’s fit. Well muscled. Mid-thirties, I’d say. Wallet’s with one of your men there.”
Hunt looked at Detective Cross, who held a wallet in a clear plastic evidence bag. Cross was a big man whose face looked seamed and heavy behind the bright light. He was thirty-eight and had been a cop for over ten years. He’d made his reputation as a hard-nosed patrol sergeant who showed great courage under fire. He’d been a detective for less than six months. Cross spoke as he handed over the wallet. “Driver’s license says his name is David Wilson. Organ donor. No corrective lenses. He lived on an expensive street, carried a library card and a stack of restaurant receipts: some from Raleigh, some from Wilmington. No sign of a wedding ring. No cash. Two credit cards, still in the wallet.”
Hunt looked at the wallet. “You touched this?”
“I’m lead detective on this case, Cross. You understand that?” His voice was tight, forcibly controlled.
Cross drew back his shoulders. “Yes, sir.”
“You’re new at this. I understand. But being lead on this case means that I’m responsible. We catch the killer or not. We find the girl or we don’t.” His eyes remained fierce. A finger came up. “However this ends, I have to live with it. Night after night, it’s on me. You understand?”
“Don’t ever touch evidence at my crime scene without permission. Do it again and I will fuck you up.”
“I was just trying to help.”
“Get out of my tent.” Hunt shook with anger. If he lost another girl…
Cross left with a guilty step. Hunt forced a deep breath, then returned his attention to the body. The shirt was just a T-shirt, gray and stinking of sweat and blood and green black filth; the belt was plain brown and nondescript, with a brass buckle that showed heavy scarring. His pants were made of tough, worn cotton. One eye was partially open, and it looked flat and dull in the bright light.
“Hot as hell in this tent.” The medical examiner’s name was Trenton Moore. Small and sparely built, he had thick hair, large pores, and a lisp that grew more pronounced the louder he had to speak. He was young, smart, and dynamite on the stand, even with the lisp. “I think he’s a rock climber.”
“I beg your pardon.”
Dr. Moore gestured with his chin. “Look at his hands.”
Hunt studied David Wilson’s hands. They showed calluses, scratches, and abrasions. The nails were clipped and even but dirty. They could belong to any construction worker he’d ever met. “What about them?”
The medical examiner straightened one of the fingers. “See that callus?” Hunt looked at the fingertip, a thick pad of tough skin. Dr. Moore flattened out the other fingers; they all had the same callus. “I had a roommate in college, a climber. He’d do fingertip chin-ups from the doorjamb. Sometimes he’d just hang there and chat. It was sick. Here, feel that.”
Dr. Moore offered the hand and Hunt touched the callus. It felt like shoe leather. “My roommate had fingertips just like that.” He pointed. “The upper body musculature is consistent. Overdeveloped forearms. Significant scarring on the hands. Of course, we’re just shooting the shit here. I can’t make any official comment until I get him on the table.”
Hunt studied the placement of the hands, crossed over the dead man’s chest. The legs straight and side by side. “Somebody moved him,” he said.
“Maybe. We won’t know anything for certain until the autopsy.”
Creases appeared in Hunt’s forehead. He gestured at the body. “You don’t think he landed in that position, do you?”
The medical examiner grinned, suddenly looking all of twenty-five. “Just kidding, Detective. Trying to keep it light.”
“Well, don’t.” Hunt gestured at the shattered arm, the crooked leg. “You think those were broken when the car hit him or when he came over the bridge?”
“Do you know for a fact that he was struck on the bridge?”
“His motorcycle was definitely moved postimpact. Somebody pushed it down an embankment. A couple of branches broken off a tree and tossed on top. Somebody would have found it eventually. We found paint scrapings on the bridge that match the color of the gas tank. I suspect that chemistry will match. And there’s the kid. He saw it.”
“Is he here?” Dr. Moore asked.
Hunt shook his head. “I sent him home with a uniform. Him and his mother. They don’t need to be here for this.”
“He’s how old?”
Hunt thought about it. “I don’t know. I think, maybe. He’s a sharp kid. A little messed up, but sharp.”
“What’s his time line?”
“He says the body came over the rail two, maybe two and a half hours ago.”
The examiner rolled his shoulders. “That’s consistent. No lividity yet.” He returned his attention to the body, bending low over the dead man’s face. He pointed at the bloody cross on the forehead. “Don’t see that very often.”
“What do you make of it?”
“I deal in bodies, not motives. There’s blood on the eyelids, too. You may get a print.”
“How do you figure?”
“Just a hunch. Right size, right shape.” Dr. Moore shrugged a final time. “Whoever killed this guy, I don’t think he’s very smart.”
When Hunt emerged from the tent, the rain soaked his clothes, his hair. He looked at the bridge and tried to imagine the crunch of metal, the arc of the body, and how it must have been for the boy chosen by fate to bear witness. Hunt stooped for Johnny’s bike, which had been cast aside when the tent went up. It made a sucking noise when he pulled it from the mud. Brown water ran off the pocked metal and Hunt walked it to the dry space beneath the bridge. A handful of cops sheltered there, some with cigarettes, only one of them looking very busy. Cross. He stood apart from the others, a light in one hand, Johnny Merrimon’s map in the other.
Hunt walked over, still angry about the wallet, but Cross spoke first.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and looked it.
Hunt thought of the year since he’d lost Alyssa: the nightmares, the futility. It was not fair to take it out on Cross. He was young at this, and he’d have his own black nights, given time. Hunt forced a smile. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. “Where’d you find that?” He pointed at the map.
Cross had a square jaw under brush-cut hair. He lowered the map and stabbed his flashlight downriver. “It was with the kid’s bike.” Cross flinched. “It’s not evidence, is it?”
It was, but Hunt told himself to relax. “I’ll need that back.”
“No problem.” Hunt turned to go, but Cross stopped him. “Detective…”
Hunt stopped and turned. Cross looked tall in the gloom, his skin olive green, his eyes intent.
“Listen,” Cross said. “This has nothing to do with nothing, okay, but you probably should know about it. You know my son?”
“Gerald? The ball player? Yeah, I know him.”
Cross’s mouth drew down at the corners. “No, not Gerald. The other one. Jack. My youngest.”
“No. I don’t know Jack.”
“Well, he was out here today with the Merrimon kid. He ditched school, too. But look, he was long gone before any of this happened. The school called me after the lockdown. I found the kid at home, watching cartoons.”
Hunt thought about it. “Do I need to talk to him?”
“He’s clueless, but you’re welcome to talk to him.”
“Doesn’t seem relevant,” Hunt said.
“Good. Because he tells me that your boy was out here, too.”
Hunt shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Lunchtime or thereabouts. Your boy and a couple of his friends.” Cross’s face remained inscrutable. “Just thought you should know.”
“And Jack is certain-”
“My son is lazy, not stupid.”
“Okay, Cross. Thanks.” Hunt began to turn, when Cross stopped him again.
“Listen, speaking of relevant. This guy who assaulted the Merrimon kid, the black guy with the scars on his face.”
“What about him?”
“You’re assuming that he had nothing to do with what happened here? With this victim? Is that right?”
“With this murder?”
“No,” Hunt said. “I don’t see how he could. He was a mile or more downriver when it happened.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“We’re assuming that three men came into contact with Johnny Merrimon. The dead man, Wilson, whoever drove the car that ran Wilson off the bridge, and the big black guy with the scarred face. Is that accurate?”
“That’s our working theory, yes.”
“But the kid didn’t see the driver of the car. He saw a shape, a shadow, but he can’t actually identify the driver, he can’t say if it was the black guy or not.” Cross raised the map. “This is a tax map for this side of town, and that’s where the detail is. In town. Streets, neighborhoods. But here, top right, just on the edge. This is the river and this”-he pointed-“this is where we are. See the bridge?”
“I see it.”
“Now follow the river.”
Hunt saw it immediately. Just south of the bridge, the river bent into a tight loop; it wrapped around a narrow finger of land that was over a mile long but couldn’t be more than a quarter mile across. Hunt felt a hard spike of anger, not at Cross, but at himself. “The trail follows the river,” Hunt said.
“If the Merrimon kid stayed on the trail, he would need to cover a lot of ground to reach the place where he was grabbed, say ten or fifteen minutes at a dead run.” Cross tapped a finger on the map. “If I left the trail and cut across here, I could walk to that same place in five minutes.”
“Cut through the woods, and it’s close.”
Hunt looked out at the tent, a blur in the drumming rain. The man had been run off the road, crushed. “If David Wilson was killed because he learned something-”
“Knew something about the missing girl…”
Hunt bit down. “The man that killed him would want Johnny dead, too. And if he knew the way the river runs-”
“He could cross here and wait for the boy. Johnny runs for twelve, fifteen minutes. The killer walks for five, and there he is when Johnny comes around the corner.”
“Damn.” Hunt straightened. “Get on the radio. I want an all-points on a large black male, forty to sixty, with severe scarring on the right side of his face. His car will have visible damage, probably to the left front fender. Inform dispatch that he’s wanted in connection with the homicide of David Wilson but may also be linked to the abduction of Tiffany Shore. Use caution in apprehending. We need to question him. Get that out now.”
Cross pulled out his radio and called it in.
Hunt waited, and another wave of anger rolled over him. The past year had worn him thin, made him sloppy. He should have seen the river issue-the way it bent like that-not heard it from some rookie detective. But it was done. The girl was what mattered, so it had to be done. He let it go, drilled in on the matter at hand. Tiffany was missing for less than a day, eight hours, almost nine. This time, he would bring the kid home. He clenched his fists and he swore it.
This time it would be different.
He looked at Johnny’s bike, heard the boy’s voice in his head.
Hunt reached for the large, brown feather that hung below the seat of Johnny’s bike. It was tattered and sad looking, gritty between his fingers. He stroked it smooth.
Behind him, Cross lowered the radio. “Done,” he said.
“What do you have there?”
Hunt let the feather droop back on the cord that secured it. It swung once, then stuck on the wet metal. “Nothing,” he said. “A feather.”
Cross stepped closer and lifted the feather.
“This is an eagle feather.”
“How do you know that?”
Cross shrugged, looked embarrassed. “I was born in the mountains. My grandmother is half Cherokee. She was into all that totem stuff.”
“You know. Rituals and sacred plants.” He lifted a hand toward the river. “The river for purity. Snakes for wisdom. Stuff like that.” He shrugged. “I always thought it was kind of bullshit.”
“Totems?” Hunt repeated.
“Yeah.” He gestured at the feather. “That’s good magic.”
“What kind of magic?”
“Strength. Power.” Lightning thumped and he let the feather fall. “Only chiefs carry eagle feathers.”
In the back of the patrol car, Johnny’s mother slumped against his shoulder. Her head rolled when the curves came fast, bounced when the tires hit rough pavement. The river was behind them, the dead guy, too, and what was left of Johnny’s faith in the wisdom of cops. Hunt refused to consider that this could still be about Alyssa, and that had made Johnny angry.
He’d said it loud, then repeated it when Hunt’s eyes went soft.
Maybe it is!
But Hunt was busy and had his own ideas. He’d grown short with Johnny’s insistence, then declined further discussion and ordered them home.
Leave it alone, he’d said. This is not your problem.
But the cop was wrong. Johnny felt it in his heart. It was his problem.
The patrol car stopped in the driveway. Rain hammered on the metal roof and Johnny studied the house, the light that faltered in the small, muddy yard. Shadows moved inside. Ken’s car sat in the drive; Uncle Steve’s did, too. The pills had taken his mother. Her eyes were closed, and small sounds tripped past her lips. Johnny hesitated, and the patrolman turned in his seat, his face distorted behind the glass divider covered with handprints and dried spit. “She okay?” he asked.
“Well, this is it, kid.” He hesitated, eyes still on Johnny’s mother. “Is she going to need some help?”
Johnny defense mechanisms kicked in. “She’s okay.”
“Well, let’s go.”
Johnny shook his mother’s shoulder. Her head lolled and he shook harder. When she opened her eyes, he squeezed her arm. “We have to go,” he said. “We’re home.”
“Home.” She repeated the word.
“Yes. Home. Let’s go.” Johnny opened his door and the rain sound changed from metallic clang to muted roar. Sheets of water fell on wet earth and drooping leaves. Warm air flooded the car. “Don’t forget your bag,” he said.
Johnny got her out of the car and turned for the shelter of the porch as the patrol car backed out of the mud and spun tires on the slick blacktop. He was on the porch when he realized that his mother was not with him. She stood in the rain, face turned to heaven, hands palm up. Her bag lay in the mud where she’d dropped it. Water fell black around her.
Johnny splashed to her side, the rain stinging hard from its long fall down. “Mom?” He took her arm again. “Come on. Let’s go inside.” She kept her eyes closed but spoke, her voice too low to hear. “What?” Johnny asked.
“I want to go away.”
“I want to wash into the earth and be gone from this place.”
Johnny picked up her bag, squeezed her arm hard. “Inside. Now.” He sounded like Ken, he realized; but she followed him.
Inside, the lights burned sulfur bright. Uncle Steve sat at the kitchen table, a row of beer cans in front of him. Ken paced, bourbon in a glass between his heavy fingers. They looked up as Johnny led his mother in. “About time,” Ken said. “The nerve of that arrogant cop, telling me that I couldn’t come. Telling me that I could go home or wait here with him.” He gestured at Uncle Steve, and the disdain was plain in his voice. Steve’s head dipped between his shoulders. “I’m going to talk to somebody about that. He should know who I am.”
“He knows who you are. He just doesn’t care.” The words popped out of Johnny before he’d thought them through. Ken stopped and stared, and Johnny knew it could go two ways. But then his mother came in behind him. She was blank-eyed and soaking wet; her clothing clung to her. Johnny took her arm as Ken stared. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you to your room.”
“I’ll take her.” Ken stepped toward them, and Johnny felt something pop. “No,” he said. “Just back off, Ken. She doesn’t need you right now. She just needs to go to bed. She needs sleep and quiet and nobody messing with her.”
Red suffused Ken’s face. “Messing with her…”
Johnny thought briefly of the folding knife in his pocket. He put himself between Ken and his mother. The moment stretched until Ken decided to smile around his straight and brilliant teeth. “Katherine?” He looked to Johnny’s mother. “Tell your son it’s okay.”
“It’s okay, Johnny.” The words traveled from some distant place. She swayed a bit, then said, “I’m fine.” She turned from her son and shambled to the short and lightless hall. “Let’s just go to bed.” She put a hand on the wall, stopped for three long seconds, and Johnny watched water run down her face. When she turned, her voice had nothing left. “Go home, Steve.”
Ken followed her to the end of the hall, looked back once, and shut the door. Johnny did not hear the lock drop, but he knew that it had. He wanted to punch the wall; instead, he looked at his Uncle Steve, who gathered his cans in silence. He tossed them in the trash and collected his keys, a giant ring of them that opened every door at the mall. Paradise to any other kid. Just metal to Johnny. Uncle Steve stopped at the door. His eyes were troubled, and he looked at Johnny differently. He put an arm on the doorjamb. “Is this how it is?” he asked, opening one palm in a gesture that encompassed Johnny and the short hall to the locked door.
“Damn.” Uncle Steve nodded, which Johnny thought was about all he could ever do. “About this morning…”
“What about it?” Johnny asked.
“She’s just real pretty.” Johnny turned away. “Thanks for not telling.”
But Johnny, too, had nothing left. He went to his room and sat on the edge of his bed. He looked at the clock on the table and watched the tiny hand tick from one white slash to the next. He counted seconds until the headboard across the hall began its unholy thump; then he went in search of his mother’s keys.
Ninety-four, he thought, and locked the front door behind him.
He splashed through the mud and started his mother’s car. At the bottom of the drive he opened the door, leaned out, and picked up a rock the size of a tennis ball.
When he left the house behind, Johnny steered with care. The windshield was fogged and only one headlight worked. He saw wet pavement, a hint of ditch. He wiped the glass with his hand and looked for the turn that would take him to the rich side of town.
He slowed as he turned onto Ken’s street. The houses loomed, set back on huge lawns. Long walks curved across velvet grass and gates guarded the drives, the metal so black it looked cold. Johnny turned off the headlights as his tires crunched against the curb. He left the engine running. It would only take a second.
The rock felt perfect in his hand.
Detective Hunt drove fast down wet, narrow roads. The crime scene was three miles behind him, medical examiner packing up the body, Hunt’s people still on scene. Things had changed after Cross showed him the map. Pieces had shifted in Hunt’s mind, possibilities, variables. David Wilson was killed, Hunt believed, because he’d somehow found Tiffany Shore.
I found her, he’d told the boy, and now he was dead.
But where did he find her? How? Under what circumstances? And most important, who killed him? Hunt had drilled in on the car that ran him off the road, the man driving that car. That was logical, but the bend in the river impacted that logic. Hunt had assumed that there were three different men at or near the bridge when the deed was done: Wilson, now dead; the driver of the car that killed him; a random black male two miles downriver. Now Hunt had to question that. Maybe Johnny’s giant was not just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe he drove the car that killed David Wilson. Or maybe not.
Two men or three?
Hunt needed to talk to Johnny, not later, but now, right this minute. He had new questions. He radioed dispatch and asked to be connected to the patrol unit he’d assigned to take Johnny and Katherine home. He looked at his watch and cursed as the connection was routed. Almost ten hours, that’s how long Tiffany had been gone, and the stats were as cold and exact as only numbers could be. Few abductees made it past the first day; that’s just how it ran.
It all came down to speed.
I found her.
Hunt needed to ask Johnny about the man with the scarred face, about what he saw on the bridge. Hunt needed to know if the two men were one and the same. Not speculation or theory, fact.
“Connecting now,” dispatch told him.
A second voice crackled on the radio. Hunt identified himself and asked the officer for Johnny’s twenty.
“I just left his house. He was in the driveway last I saw him.”
“How long ago, exactly?”
A pause. “Twenty minutes.”
“Twenty minutes. Got it.” Hunt clicked off. Another five would bring him to the house. Come on, come on. He accelerated until the car went light beneath him, steered at dangerous speeds over the slick black roads.
More than three hours since the motorcycle was struck. Whoever hit David Wilson could be anywhere by now, out of the county, out of the state, but Hunt didn’t think so. It was risky to cover distance with an abducted child. Once an Amber Alert went out, the public became very aware. Most of these perverts wanted to grab the kid and go to ground. Johnny Merrimon was right about that. And while some abductions were carefully orchestrated, most were matters of opportunity. A child left in the car or untended in a busy store. A child walking alone.
Like Alyssa Merrimon.
She’d been walking home at dusk, alone on an empty stretch of road. No one could have known she’d be there. No one could have planned for that. Same with Tiffany Shore. She’d lingered near the parking lot after the bell rang. It was a matter of opportunity. And desire.
Hunt braked for a red light, then turned left without stopping and felt the back end lose traction. He corrected the drift, straightened. He thought of evil and of the hard lump in the holster under his arm.
When word came in of Tiffany’s abduction, Hunt had ordered a massive response. He’d sent patrol cars to verify the locations of all known sex offenders. Most were considered low probability: voyeurs, exhibitionists; but there were plenty of individuals convicted of rape or child abuse or some other heinous act. Hunt kept a short list of the worst: the deranged, sadistic individuals who were capable of just about anything. These men never got over the evil that drove them. There was no curing, no fixing. For these assholes, it was only a matter of time, so Hunt kept on top of them. He knew where they lived and what they drove; he knew their habits and their predilections. He’d seen photos, talked to victims, and seen the scars firsthand. None of those fuckers should be out of prison.
Most were accounted for; they’d been located and interviewed. Almost all had given permission for a search of their homes, and all of the searches had come up negative. Those who had refused were under constant surveillance and Hunt got regular reports. He knew what they were eating and when; if they were alone or not, and if not, who they were with. He knew their locations, their activities. Awake or asleep. Static or on the move. Hunt fielded calls and kept his men sharp as they continued to work the list.
Hunt ran the names in his head. No one on the list stood six and a half feet tall. None had scars like the Merrimon kid had described. If Cross was right, that meant they had a new player, someone off the grid. And if Cross was wrong…
The possibilities were endless.
Hunt pulled a photograph of Tiffany Shore from his jacket pocket and glanced at it. He’d taken it from her distraught mother just a few hours ago. It was a school photo, and in it Tiffany was smiling and self-aware. He looked for similarities to Alyssa, but there were precious few. Alyssa had dark hair and fragile features; she looked young and small and innocent, with the same dark eyes as her brother. Tiffany had full lips, a perfect nose, and hair like yellow silk. The picture showed a graceful neck, nascent breasts, and a knowing smile that hinted at the woman she might one day become. The girls looked as if they had little in common, but they did.
They were innocent, both of them, and they were his responsibility.
That thought still simmered in Hunt’s mind when his cell phone rang. He glanced at caller ID. The Chief. His boss. He gave it four rings, then, against his better judgment, he answered.
“Where are you?” The Chief wasted no time. It was barely twelve months since Alyssa vanished, and now they had another missing girl. He’d be under his own pressures, Hunt knew: Tiffany’s family, city government, the press.
“I’m en route to Katherine Merrimon’s house. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“You’re my lead detective. You should be at David Wilson’s house or at the crime scene. Do I really need to spell that out for you?”
But the Chief spelled it out. “If we assume that Wilson found Tiffany Shore -and that is what we’re assuming-then you should be backtracking his activities. Where he went. Who he talked to. Any choice he made today, any path that could have intersected with Tiffany Shore -”
“I know all that,” Hunt interrupted sharply. “I sent Yoakum to his house. I’ll meet him there shortly, but this comes first.”
“Do I want to know why you’re going to Katherine Merrimon’s house?” Hunt heard the doubt, the sudden distrust.
“Her son may have information.”
Hunt pictured the Chief: flunkies in his office, fat man’s sweat staining his shirt. His voice was a politician’s voice.
“I need to know that you’re on this, Hunt. Are you on this?”
“That’s a bullshit question.” Hunt knew the source of the Chief’s doubt, but could not hide the anger he felt. So he spent time on the Merrimon case. So what? Maybe he felt more than most cops would. It was an important case; but that’s not how the Chief saw it. No. He heard about Hunt, awake every night at three in the morning; Hunt, showing up at sunrise on a Sunday to pore over evidence he’d already seen a hundred times; harassing judges to sign warrants that never panned out; working overtime, then off the clock; leveraging other cops, resources that should be spent on other cases. He watched Hunt work himself ragged. He saw the pale skin and the weight loss, the sleepless eyes and the stacks of files on the floor of Hunt’s office. And there were other issues.
“It’s not a question, Hunt. It’s a demand, an imperative.”
Hunt clamped his teeth, barely able to speak around the emotion he was choking down. He ran major crimes. Lead detective. That was his job, his life. “I said, I’m on it.”
Hunt heard breath on the line, then a voice, muffled in the background. When the Chief spoke, his words came with precision. “I have no room for personal, Hunt. Not on this case.”
Hunt stared straight ahead. “Got it. No personal.”
“This is about Tiffany Shore. Her family. Not Alyssa Merrimon. Not her brother. And not her mother. Are we clear?”
A long pause, then a voice that hinted at regret. “Personal gets you fired, Clyde. It gets you drummed right the hell out of my department. Don’t make me do that.”
“I don’t need a lecture.” He left the rest unsaid: Not from some fat, politician cop.
“You’ve already lost your wife. Don’t lose your job, too.”
Hunt looked in the mirror and saw the rage in his own eyes. He pulled air deep into his lungs. “Just stay out of my way,” he said, and sounded like a reasonable man might sound. “Show a little faith.”
“You’ve been burning the faith candle for a year, and it’s burned pretty damn low. When the papers go to bed tomorrow night, I want to see a picture of Tiffany Shore sitting on her mother’s lap. Front page. That’s how we keep our jobs.” A pause, Hunt unwilling to trust his voice and therefore silent. “Give me a happy ending, Clyde. Give me that, and I’ll pretend you’re the same cop you were a year ago.”
The Chief hung up.
Hunt punched the roof of his car, then turned into Johnny’s driveway. He noticed at once that the station wagon was gone. When he knocked on the front door, it rattled enough to make the house sound hollow. Hunt looked through the small window and saw Ken Holloway emerging from the dark hall. He wore shined shoes under slightly wrinkled pants, and worked to get his shirt tucked in. He cinched up an alligator belt, then paused at a mirror to smooth his hair and check his teeth. A revolver hung in his right hand.
“Police, Mr. Holloway. Put down the gun and open the door.”
Holloway twitched, suddenly aware that he could be seen through the window. A deprecating smile rose on his face. “Police who?”
“Detective Clyde Hunt. I need to speak to Johnny.”
The smile disappeared. “May I see a badge?”
Hunt pressed his shield to the glass, then stepped away from the door and lowered one hand to the butt of his service weapon. Holloway donated money to good causes. He served on boards and played golf with powerful people.
But Hunt knew the man.
It had taken a year of watching Katherine and Johnny: odd encounters, like the one at the grocery store; things said and not said; a limp or a bruise; the boy’s naked eyes when he thought he was being tough. Hunt had pushed, but Katherine was gone most of the time, out of it, and Johnny was scared. Hunt had nothing solid.
But he knew.
Another step back cleared three feet between Hunt and the door. The dark bulk of Holloway’s chest was visible through the slash of window. He looked meaty and tan, with a broad chest above a thick stomach. His face appeared behind the glass. “It’s the middle of the night, Detective.”
“It’s barely nine, Mr. Holloway. A child has been abducted. Please open the door.”
The lock disengaged and the door swung open a foot. Creases cut the flesh of Holloway’s face, but Hunt saw damp spots at the hairline where he’d tried to make himself crisp. His hands were empty. “What does Tiffany Shore ’s disappearance have to do with Johnny?”
“Can you step away from the door, please?” Hunt kept his voice professional, which was hard. He’d as soon shoot Ken Holloway as look at him.
“Very well.” Holloway pushed the door wide and turned, his hands slapping the sides of his legs.
Hunt stepped inside, eyes cutting left and right until he spotted the weapon, a.38 caliber revolver. Stainless. It sat on top of the television, barrel angled to the wall.
“It’s registered,” Holloway said.
“I’m sure it is. I need to speak with Johnny.”
“This is about what happened today?”
Hunt smelled alcohol. “Do you really care?”
Holloway smiled without humor. “Just a minute.” He raised his voice. “Johnny.” No answer. He called again, then cursed under his breath. The hall swallowed him up and Hunt heard a door open, then slam closed. When he returned, he came alone. “He’s not here.”
“Where is he?”
“I have no idea.”
Anger rose in Hunt’s voice. “He’s thirteen years old. It’s dark out and raining. The car is gone and you have no idea where he is? As far as I’m concerned, that constitutes neglect.”
“And as I understand the law, Detective, that’s his mother’s problem. I’m a guest in this house.”
Their eyes locked, and Hunt stepped closer. Holloway was a two-faced user, slick and accommodating, but only when it served his needs. There may be buildings named after him at the college, but Hunt could not hide his dislike. “You need to be careful with me.”
“Is that a threat?”
Hunt said nothing.
“You have no idea who I am,” Holloway said.
“If harm comes to that boy…”
Holloway smiled coldly. “What’s your name again? I have a meeting tomorrow with the mayor and the city manager. I’d like to get it right.”
Hunt spelled it for him, then said, “About the boy.”
“He’s a delinquent. What do you want me to do about it? He’s neither my son nor my responsibility. Now, do you want me to get his mother? I may be able to wake her. She won’t know where he is, but I’ll haul her out here if it will make you happy.”
Hunt had admired Johnny’s mother since they’d first met. Small but full of life, she’d shown courage and faith under unbearable circumstances. She’d stayed strong until the day she fell apart, at which point the collapse was total. Maybe it was grief, maybe it was guilt, but she was tragic and lost, adrift in the kind of horror that few parents could imagine. The thought of her with a user like Ken Holloway was bad enough. Seeing her dragged out of bed by him would be even worse, a degradation.
“I’ll find him myself.” Hunt moved for the door.
“We’re not finished, Detective.”
“No,” Hunt said, “we’re not.”
His hand was on the door when Holloway’s cell phone rang. He lingered as Holloway answered: “Yes.” Holloway turned his back to Hunt. “Are you certain? Very well. Yes, call the police. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He closed the phone and faced Hunt. “My alarm company,” he said. “If you still want to find Johnny, you can start by looking at my house.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because the little shit just threw a rock through my front window.”
“What makes you think it’s Johnny?”
Holloway picked up his keys. “It’s always Johnny.”
“This is the fifth fucking time.”
Johnny drove down dark streets, and rain put mercury streaks on the glass. Tiffany Shore ’s parents were rich, and lived just three blocks from Ken Holloway. Johnny had been to a party there once. He slowed as he approached Tiffany’s house, then stopped on the street. He saw cop cars and shadows that moved behind draped windows. He watched the house for a long time, then looked at the neighbors on both sides. Warm light spilled out of those houses, and in the dark of the street, Johnny felt very alone, because nobody else knew. No one could understand what was happening behind the walls of Tiffany’s house, what her family was suffering: the fear and anger, the slow drain of hope and the end of all things.
No one knew what Johnny knew.
Except her parents, he thought.
Her parents knew.
Hunt sat in his car and watched Holloway come out of the house. He gave a cold stare that Hunt was happy to return, then settled into his car. The big engine caught and the Escalade rocked onto the road. Hunt listened to the rain on his car and looked at the light spilling from Johnny’s house. Katherine was asleep in there, and he pictured her buried under the covers, back curved against the night.
He powered up his laptop and keyed in Johnny Merrimon’s name. Ken had filed complaints, but there was no record of any arrest. No warrants. Whatever Holloway believed about Johnny’s involvement in the ongoing vandalism of his house, he had no proof of it.
Hunt thought about why Johnny would throw rocks through Holloway’s windows. Only one thing made sense. Johnny wanted the man out of his house, away from his mother, and he’d figured out the one thing that would do it every time. No way would a man like Holloway leave his house unguarded. Not overnight.
Five times and never caught. Hunt shook his head and tried not to smile.
He really did like that kid.
For another two minutes, Hunt sat in the car and pored through the Tiffany Shore file. It was thin. He knew what she was wearing when last seen. He had a list of identifying marks. A dime-sized birthmark marred the back of her right shoulder blade; a fishhook scar still showed pink on her left calf. She was twelve years old, blond, with no major dental work, no surgical scars. Hunt had her height, weight, date of birth. She owned a cell phone but records showed no outgoing calls since yesterday. Not much to go on. What they did have was a couple of kids who heard her scream but couldn’t agree on the color of the car she was pulled into. Hunt had also questioned her closest friends. As far as they knew, Tiffany had no secret boyfriend, no problems at home. She made good grades, liked horses, and had kissed a boy maybe once. A typical girl.
Hunt jotted a note in the file: Were Tiffany and Alyssa friends? Maybe they both knew the wrong guy.
Hunt thought of the things he did not have. He had no description of the perp, no calls of suspicious activity, and no ID on the car. Basically, nothing. What he did have was Johnny Merrimon and the things that David Wilson had told him before he died. He claimed to have found the girl that had been taken. Found her where? Found her how? Dead or alive? Whoever ran David Wilson off the road did so on purpose. But was it Johnny Merrimon’s giant, as Cross suspected? Or was it someone else?
Hunt needed to find the kid.
He called the station, got one of his detectives. “It’s Hunt. What have you got?”
“Nothing good. Myers and Holiday are still with Tiffany’s parents.”
“Are they holding up?” Hunt interrupted.
“Their doctor is there. The mother, you know. They’re sedating her.”
“Anything on Tiffany’s cell?”
“Nothing. No hits on GPS, either.”
“Is Yoakum still backtracking David Wilson?”
“He’s at the house now.”
“Do we know anything yet?”
“Just that Wilson was a professor at the college. Biology of some sort.”
“What about prints?” Hunt asked.
“We got a thumb print from the victim’s eyelid. We’re running it now. Should know something soon.”
“Over a hundred so far. We’re trying to get that organized for an early start. Should be working the countryside by six.” A silence fell between the men, both thinking the same thing: It’s a damn big county.
“We need more people,” Hunt said. “Get the churches involved, the civic clubs. We had a hundred college kids when Alyssa Merrimon went missing. Call the dean.” Hunt rattled off a number from memory. “He’s sympathetic. See if he can make something happen. Also, I want Tiffany’s school canvassed again tomorrow. Send the least intimidating officers you can find. Young ones. Females. You know the drill. I don’t want to miss something just because some kid is too scared to talk to us.”
“Got it. What else can I do?”
“Hang on.” Hunt pulled up Katherine Merrimon’s registration on his laptop. “Write this down, then put it on the wire.” He gave the model, make, and license plate. “The kid is in his mom’s car. It’s a beater. Shouldn’t be too hard to spot. Check Tate Street first, Ken Holloway’s house. I doubt he’ll be there, but it’s worth a look. If anyone sees this car, I need to know immediately. Stop and detain. Call me when it happens.”
“Good. Give me David Wilson’s address.” Hunt reached for his pen, but saw movement on the porch of Johnny’s house. A pale arm reached out.
What the hell?
He heard a scream, muted by the rain. His fingers found the lights, and bright beams slashed through the rain. “Holy shit.”
Hunt pressed the phone to his ear. “I have to go,” he said.
Hunt clicked the phone shut. His hand moved for the door, and he spoke again, even as rain hit his face.
But another scream drowned out the words.
Johnny stuck to the side streets and drove from one side of town to the other. Jack lived in a neighborhood with small houses and neat yards, a place full of cops and grocers and deliverymen. Swing sets and toys dotted the grass. On sunny days, kids played catch in the street. It was a good place, if you lived there, but strange cars stood out, so Johnny parked two blocks away and hoofed it through the rain. A light was on in Jack’s room. Johnny peeked over the sill and saw his friend. He stretched across the bed, comic books strewn around him. He scratched himself as he read.
Johnny was about to tap the glass when Jack’s door opened. Gerald walked in. Tall and muscular, he wore jeans and no shirt, a Clemson hat spun backward. He said something that pissed his brother off, because Jack threw one of his comic books, then pushed his brother out and locked the door.
Johnny tapped on the glass, watched Jack look up. He tapped again and his friend crossed the room. The window came up a few inches. Jack knelt at the crack. “Jesus, Johnny. Are you okay? I heard about what happened. Crap. I can’t believe I missed it. A real live dead guy.”
Johnny checked the door over Jack’s shoulder. “Can you come outside?”
“I don’t think so.” Jack looked shamefaced. “You know about the lockdown, right? Tiffany Shore?”
“I know about it.”
“The school called my dad when they couldn’t find me.”
“My mom, too.”
“Yeah. Well. He caught me with his beer and I was still drunk. I’m in it deep. Mom’s at church, praying for Tiffany’s life and my eternal soul.” He rolled his eyes, then hooked a thumb at the door. “Dickhead’s in charge. He’s supposed to keep an eye on me.” Jack pressed closer to the crack. “But this dead guy. That must have been intense. What’s happening now? I heard some of the stuff my dad said. Did he really have something to do with Tiffany?”
“Or my sister.”
“I doubt that.”
“It could be her.”
“It’s been a year, Johnny. You’ve got to be realistic. Odds are-”
“Don’t tell me about the odds!”
Jack hesitated. “You’re going out, aren’t you?”
“I have to.”
Jack shook his head, face gone serious. “Don’t do it, man. This is not the night to be sneaking around. Every cop in town is out there. Whoever did this is going to be looking out. He’s going to be alert.”
Johnny shook his head. “Tiffany was taken today. It’s early. That’s when people make mistakes.”
“Where are you going?”
“You know where I’m going.”
“Don’t do it, man. I’m serious. I’ve got a bad feeling.”
Johnny did not back down. “I want you to come with me.” Jack looked over his shoulder. The door was still closed. Johnny put his fingers on the sill. “I need help.”
“I never agreed to go to those houses. That was always the line for me, and you know it.”
“This is different.”
“You’re gonna get killed. Some freak show is going to catch you, and he’s going to kill you.” Jack’s face bled out and he begged with his entire body. “Don’t do it.”
Johnny looked away, out into the dark neighborhood. “I choked, Jack.”
“What do you mean?”
“The guy landed right at my feet. I heard his bones break. There was blood everywhere. One eye was about to pop out of his head.”
“Get out. Really?”
“He knew where she was. You get that? Whoever ran him off the road did it on purpose so he couldn’t tell.” Johnny raised a fist. “I was right there.”
“I got scared. I ran.”
“So you ran. So, what? I’d be in Virginia by now.”
Johnny didn’t hear him. His words came like he could still see it. “The guy was coming around the car.” He shook his head. “I heard metal, like he was dragging a pipe. Big engine, just growling. And the guy, man, he was shitting himself he was so scared. He told me to run.”
“There you go. He told you.”
“Don’t you get it, man? He knew where she was and I ran! She’s my sister. My twin.”
“I have to make it right.” Johnny’s face filled the crack at the bottom of the window. “And it has to be tonight. This is my chance, Jack. I can fix it, but I don’t know if I can do it alone. I need you to come with me.”
Jack fidgeted, threw a desperate glance at the closed door. “Don’t ask me, Johnny. I can’t do it. Not tonight.”
Johnny leaned back, disappointed and angry. “What’s wrong with you, Jack? Earlier today, all you wanted to do was get out there and look. You couldn’t wait to play outlaw.”
Jack pleaded. “But this is not for play, is it? This just happened. This is fresh. For real. Say you find this guy… You’re gonna get fucking killed.”
“This is the time. Now. Right this second.”
“In or out, Jack.”
“Dude…” The answer was all over him.
Johnny saw it, plain as day. “No sweat,” Johnny said, and then he was gone.
Katherine Merrimon stumbled down the last step and into the rain. She bent at the waist, lurched into the yard. “Johnny!” Her mouth shone pale and pink. She was barefoot and wild-eyed, her pupils dilated. She stumbled again, went down in the mud. An oversized T-shirt hung to her knees, and within seconds it was soaked. Mud shone on her legs.
She was frightened, probably medicated, so Hunt moved with caution. He’d seen mental breakdowns before, and that’s what this looked like, like she was ripped at the seams. He held out his hands, fingers spread. “Mrs. Merrimon.”
“Johnny!” Irrational. Face turned up as the rain beat down.
Hunt guessed that Tiffany Shore ’s abduction had scraped the soil off whatever poor grave she’d made for thoughts of her daughter’s fate. She’d woken to an empty house, to another empty bed.
“Mrs. Merrimon,” Hunt spoke softly.
She looked up, and even with the light full on her face, her eyes remained wide and dark. “Where’s my son?”
Hunt knelt and placed his hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay,” he said. “Everything will be okay.”
For that second, she calmed; then her face cracked, and when she spoke, her voice was so soft he barely heard it. “Where’s Alyssa?” she asked, but Hunt had no answer. He watched the grief take her down. It broke her at the waist. She splayed her hands on the ground, dug her fingers into soft earth. “Make it stop,” she whispered.
Hunt’s duty was clear. She needed help. Johnny needed to be taken from her and placed in a stable environment. He should be on the phone to Social Services; he knew as much. But he knew something else as well. If he took her son, it would destroy the last good bit of her, and he couldn’t do that. She rocked in the mud.
“Please make it stop.”
Hunt sat back on his heels, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Trust me,” he said. When she looked up, eyes tortured and lost, he said her name again, then took her arm to help her stand.
Twenty minutes later, the rain had stopped. A marked car turned into the drive, and Hunt saw a flash of blond as the dome light winked on and Officer Laura Taylor made for the porch. She was in her late twenties, broad-bodied but with a narrow face. She’d had a thing for Hunt once upon a time, but that was ancient history. Now she was in love with a NASCAR driver out of Charlotte. The driver had no idea who she was, but that didn’t bother her. Persistence, according to Officer Taylor, was a virtue.
She clumped up the steps and frowned as she spoke. “You’re looking sharp, Hunt.”
“What do you mean?”
She gestured at his clothes. “Wet clothes. Mud on your suit.” The gesture rose to include his head. “What are you, a surfer now?”
“A surfer?” Hunt touched his hair. Soaking wet, it hung below his collar.
“I can cut that for you.”
“Suit yourself.” She pushed past him to glance through the open door. “You were pretty vague on the phone.”
Taylor was a stickler for the rules, but Hunt chose her for a reason. Underneath it all, the cop, the regulations, and the ball-breaking attitude, Taylor was a soft touch. Hunt trusted her to do what was right. “I just need you to keep an eye on her,” he said. “Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“How bad is it?”
“She’s in bed, calm for the moment; but she’s on something, pills probably. She’s lost it once. Could pop again. But she’s a good person and tomorrow’s another day. I think she deserves a chance.”
When Taylor leaned back, she looked unimpressed. “Word around town is that she’s pretty messed up.”
“Messed up, how?”
“Don’t get defensive.”
A smile under glittering eyes. “Bullshit. Look at you. White lips, those ropes in your neck. You look like I’m talking about your mother. Or your wife.”
Hunt lowered his voice, forced himself to relax. “Messed up how?”
Taylor shrugged without sympathy and tilted her head toward the house. “She showed up at school once to pick up her daughter. That was four months after the girl got snatched. When they told her that Alyssa wasn’t there, she refused to leave. Demanded to see her. Started screaming when they tried to explain. It got so out of control that the resource officer escorted her off the school grounds. She sat in her car for three hours, crying. And you know Officer Daniels?”
“The new guy?”
“He responded to a breaking and entering call about six weeks ago and found her asleep in her old house, just curled up on the sofa. Fetal, he said.” Taylor looked around at the dilapidated house. “Messed up.”
Hunt held his words for long seconds, and when he spoke, he tried hard to make her understand. “Do you have children, Laura?”
“You know I don’t.” She showed small teeth. “Children would interfere with the job.”
“Then trust me on this. She deserves a break.” Taylor held Hunt’s gaze, and he knew she was doing the math. Taylor was a street cop, not a babysitter; and Hunt’s request was not about channels or procedure. “Someone needs to be here in case her son returns. That’s legit.”
“And the rest of it?”
“Just make sure she doesn’t wander off or take any more pills.”
“You’re hanging your ass out on this, Hunt, and you’re asking me to bare my fine, sculpted backside, too.”
“I know that.”
“If she’s this bad-booze, pills, whatever-then the kid should be in state custody. If something happens to him because you refused to take action…”
“That’s my risk.”
She looked out at the rain, and the worry showed. “People are talking. About you and her.”
“The talk’s unfounded.”
Hard eyes. “Is it?”
“She’s a victim,” Hunt said coldly. “And she’s married. I have no interest beyond a professional one.”
“I think you’re lying,” Taylor said.
“Maybe,” he replied. “But not to you.”
Taylor drummed her fingers on the slick, vinyl belt that held her weapon, her cuffs, her Mace. “That’s deep, Hunt. So profound it’s downright female.” The words were not unkind.
“Will you help me?”
“I’m your friend. Don’t bring me into something sordid.”
“She’s a good woman and I lost her kid. That’s it.” The moment stretched. “Johnny Merrimon,” Hunt said. “Would you know him if you saw him?”
“A kid shows up, I’ll assume it’s him.”
Hunt nodded. “I owe you.”
He turned but she stopped him. “She must be something special.”
Hunt hesitated, but had no reason to lie. “They both are,” he said. “Her and her son.”
“Not to take anything away from these people, but why?”
Hunt pictured the kid, the way he understood his mother’s vulnerability and did what he could to protect her when no one else would. Hunt saw him buying groceries at six in the morning, throwing a rock through Ken Holloway’s window, not once, but five times, just to get him away from his mother. “I used to see them around town before all this happened. They were always together, all four of them. Church. The park. Concerts on the green. They were a beautiful family.” He shrugged, and both knew that there were things left unsaid. “I don’t like tragedies.”
Officer Taylor laughed without humor.
“What?” Hunt asked.
“You’re a cop,” she said. “Everything is a tragedy.”
“Yeah, right.” Her tone was disbelieving. “Maybe.”
A hundred yards down the road, parked in a darkened drive, Johnny watched Hunt’s car pull away from his house. He dipped down as it sped past, but another one still sat in the place that his mother normally parked. Johnny had seen the cars just in time, Hunt’s sedan, the marked car with dark lights on the roof. He chewed on a fingernail, tasted dirt. All he wanted to do was check on his mom. Just once. But the cops…
An old couple lived in the house where Johnny was parked. On warm days, the husband sat on the porch, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and watched his wife garden in a faded housedress that gapped in the front and showed more white skin and blue veins than Johnny thought a body should have. But they always waved and smiled when he passed on his bike, the woman with stained hands, the man with stained teeth.
Johnny climbed out of the car and closed the door. He heard rustling sounds and water dripping, the churr of frogs on trees and the hiss of tires as another car angled down the hill and splashed its lights against the low-slung cottage. Ducking, he slipped around the side of the house and began working his way through the backyards that stretched between the car and his own house. He moved past sheds that smelled of lawn clippings and rot, a trampoline that had rusted springs and a dangerous tilt. He ducked clotheslines, went over fences, and caught glimpses of neighbors he barely knew.
He slowed as he drew near his mother’s window. Her light burned yellow, and when he raised his head, he saw her sitting on the side of her bed. Tear-stained and splashed with mud, she sagged as if some vital string had been cut. She held a framed photograph, and her lips moved as she laid a finger on the glass and rolled her back to an unseen weight. But Johnny felt no sympathy. What leapt up in his chest was a sudden anger. She acted like Alyssa was gone for good, like there was no hope left.
She was so weak.
But when the photograph tilted, Johnny saw that it was not his sister’s photo that had wrecked his mother.
It was his father’s.
Johnny dropped below the sill. She’d burned them. Johnny remembered the day, a bright afternoon with fire in the backyard and the acrid smell of photographs charring down to nothing. He saw it like it was yesterday, how he’d stolen three of the photos from his mother’s hand and run crazy circles as she’d stumbled and wept and screamed at him to give them back. He knew where all three of those photos were, too: one in his sock drawer, two in the suitcase he kept for Alyssa.
The one his mother held was different. In it his father was young, with parted lips and flashing eyes. He wore a suit and tie. He looked like a movie star.
For an instant, the image blurred in his mind, then Johnny knuckled moisture from his right eye and moved through the shaggy yard to the tree line. He pushed hard into the darkness, trying to forget the sight of his mother with that photograph. It made him sad, and sadness made him weak.
Johnny spit in the dirt.
This was no night for weak.
A small trail took him under trees that scratched the night sky with a canopy so vast and dense it gave a whole new meaning to dark. Beyond the old growth was a tobacco farm gone to scrub. The tall trees disappeared. Poison ivy crawled over bare earth and milkweed rose taller than his head. A hundred yards in, he hopped a creek that ran swollen and brown. Briars took skin from his arms. When he came to the old tobacco barn, he stopped and listened. He’d once found two older boys inside smoking pot. That was months ago, but Johnny never forgot the chase they gave him. He put a hand on the barn. The squared-off logs were ridged by age, and most of the chinking had crumbled to ruin, but it was solid enough. Johnny put an eye to a gap and peered inside. Darkness. Silence. He made for the door.
Inside, he stepped on an old bucket and reached above the lintel. It took all the length of his arm, but he felt it there, just where he’d left it. The bag came out with a dragging sound and a rainfall of mouse droppings. It was blue and moldy, still stained reddish-brown along the bottom seams. Johnny breathed in the smell of it, the stink of dirt and bird and dead plants. He dropped to the ground outside and felt his breath go shaky. Johnny peered into the scrub and listened hard.
Then he pulled dry wood from the barn and built a fire.
A big one.
Hunt pulled into David Wilson’s driveway as a high wind assaulted the last of the storm clouds. When he looked down he saw that small parts of the world had gone silver white: a puddle on the concrete drive, beads on the hood of his car. The street ended at the back of some faceless building that marked the edge of the college campus. Well-kept houses sheltered faculty families and a few students with parents wealthy enough to swing the rent. The lots were narrow, the trees tall and broad. Thin strips of green marked old joints in the concrete sidewalk. Weeds. Moss. The air smelled of growing things.
The rain that kept the neighbors in had also kept the police presence quiet, but Hunt saw signs that that would soon end. A man stood at the curb four houses down, a plastic bag hanging from his hand as he stared. Across the street, a cigarette sparked in the darkness. Hunt cursed under his breath and turned for the door. The house was a small Tudor with age-stained beams set into dark brick. A strip of grass separated it from its neighbor; a detached two-car garage filled the back corner. Hunt saw Yoakum through an undraped window and made for the door.
Inside, wood floors showed scars from long use and little care. Stairs rose to the right, the banister dark and slick. The kitchen was in the back, a glint of stainless steel and white linoleum that gleamed under hard lights. A uniformed cop nodded from the living room and Hunt nodded back. Another turned, and then a third. None of them looked Hunt in the eye, but he understood.
It all seemed very familiar.
David Wilson had been a professor, and the house felt like it: dark wood, exposed brick, a smell that was either fresh tobacco or old pot. Yoakum stepped in from the dining room and offered a smile that was perfunctory and meaningless. “I am not the bearer of glad tidings,” he said.
Hunt studied the interior of the house. “Start at the beginning.”
“The house belongs to the college. Wilson gets to live here as a perk. He’s been here for three years.”
“Nice perk.” Hunt reconsidered the house, noticed more quick glances from other cops.
Yoakum saw it, too, and lowered his voice. “They’re worried for you.”
“Alyssa was a year ago, yesterday. No one has forgotten.”
Hunt looked around the room, eyes tight, mouth, too. Yoakum gave a shrug, trouble and worry in his eyes, too. “Just tell me about David Wilson,” Hunt said.
“He’s the head of the biology department. Well respected, as far as I can tell. Widely published. Kids admire him. Administration admires him, too.”
“You made it plain to the college that Wilson ’s not a suspect? I don’t want to ruin a good man’s reputation for no reason.”
“Material witness, I told them. Saw something that got him killed.”
“Good. Tell me what else you know about David Wilson.”
“You can start with this.”
Yoakum crossed an oriental rug that was probably older than the house. He led Hunt to a wall that held a number of framed photographs, each of which showed basically the same thing: David Wilson with a different beautiful woman. “Bachelor?” Hunt asked.
“You tell me. Engine parts on the dining room table. Steak and beer in the fridge, and not much else. Seventeen condoms in the drawer of the bedside table.”
Yoakum shrugged. “It’s my brand.”
“Any indication of where or how he might have crossed paths with Tiffany Shore?”
“If there’s a great big clue in this house somewhere, I haven’t discovered it yet. If he really did find the kid, I’m guessing it was by accident.”
“Alright,” Hunt said. “Let’s break it down. We know that he’s lived here for three years. He’s athletic, well paid, and smart.”
“The ME thinks he may have been a rock climber.”
“Smart man, that Trenton Moore.”
“Come with me,” Yoakum said, and threaded his way through the kitchen to a narrow door at the back of the house. He opened it and warm air gushed in. “Garage is through the backyard.”
They stepped out onto wet grass. A privacy fence shielded much of the yard, and the garage loomed, square and blunt, at the far corner. Made from the same brick as the house, it was wide enough to hold at least two cars. Yoakum entered first and flicked on the lights. “Check it out.”
Rafters spanned a gulf beneath the peaked roof. Oil stained a dull cement floor. Two of the walls were made from peg boards, and on the pegs hung all kinds of climbing gear: coils of rope, carabineers, pitons, headlamps, and helmets.
“I’d say he was a climber.”
“With some stupid-looking shoes,” Yoakum said, and Hunt turned.
The shoes were ankle high, leather boots with smooth, black rubber soles that curved up the front and sides. Three pairs hung from different pegs. Hunt lifted a pair. “Friction shoes,” he said. “They’re good on stone.”
Yoakum pointed at the rafters. “Guy’s not scared of water, either.”
“Kayaks.” Hunt pointed to the longest of the kayaks. “That’s oceangoing.” He pointed to the short one. “That’s river.”
“There’s no car registered in his name,” Yoakum said.
“But oil stains on the floor.” Hunt lifted a set of keys from a nail by the door: black plastic at the fat end. “Spare set, I’m guessing. Toyota.” He looked at tire marks on the concrete. “Long wheel base. Maybe a truck or a Land Cruiser. Check with the college. Maybe it’s registered to the biology department.”
“We did find a trailer registered to David Wilson.”
“For his dirt bike, probably. The one he was riding when he was killed wasn’t street legal, so he probably took it out on a trailer. What he was doing out in the most forbidding corner of the county is the question. What he was doing and where he was doing it.”
They left the garage and pulled the door shut, started back across the yard. “It’s wild country up there. Lot of woods. Lot of trails.”
“Good place to dirt bike.”
“You think his car is still out there somewhere?” Yoakum asked.
They mounted steps to the back door, went inside and passed through the kitchen. “It has to be.” Hunt pictured the county in his mind. They were a hundred miles from the state capital, sixty from the coast. There was money in town: industry, tourists, golf; but the north country was wild, riddled with swamps and narrow gorges, deep woods and spines of granite. If David Wilson was dirt biking up that way, then his car could be anywhere: back roads, unmapped trails, fields. Anywhere. “We need some designated units up there.” Hunt ran some numbers in his head. “Make it four patrol cars. Get them up there now.”
“It’s pretty dark.”
“Now,” Hunt said. “And get the trailer’s plate number to Highway Patrol.”
Yoakum snapped his fingers and a uniformed officer materialized. “Make sure the state police have Wilson ’s plate. Tell them it’s related to the Shore case. They already have the Amber Alert.” The cop disappeared to make the call. Yoakum turned back to Hunt. “Now what?”
Hunt turned a slow circle, studied the shots of David Wilson with his collection of pretty females. “Bedroom. Basement. Attic. Show me everything.”
Levi moved carefully on the mud and slick rocks. The river tossed bits of light that reminded him of something from when he was a boy. There was a rhythm, a pattern, like a kaleidoscope his daddy gave him the year before the cancer took him. The trail bent to high ground and Levi used his free hand to pull on roots and saplings to get him up the slick clay. He dug in the edges of his shoes for traction. When he reached the high, flat stretch, he stopped to catch his breath; and when he started again, the river lights winked out behind the willows and the ash, the sweet gums and the long-fingered pines. It went truly dark, and that’s when he saw the faces. He saw his wife laughing at him and then suddenly not, her face gone reddish black and wet, almost by itself. He saw the man who was with her, and how his face went wrong, too, all red and crooked and flat on one side.
And the sounds.
Levi tried to stop thinking; he wanted to wash the images out of his head, pump water in one ear and flush it, dirty, out the other. He wanted to be empty, wanted to make room for when God spoke. He was happy then, even if it was just one word repeated over and over. Even when it was just a name that rang in his head like a church bell.
Levi heard it again.
He walked on and felt warm water on his face. It took a mile for him to understand that he was crying. He didn’t care. Nobody could see him out here, not his wife or his neighbors, none of the ones that made jokes when people said things he didn’t understand, or laughed at how he went quiet when he found dead animals on the roadside. So he let the tears come. He listened for God, and let the tears run hot down his ruined face.
He tried to remember the last night he’d slept, but could not. The week behind him was a colored string of blurred images. Digging in the dirt. Walking.
That thing he done…
Levi closed his eyes, so tired; and when his foot went out from under him, he fell on the slick clay. He landed on his back and slid down the bank, over stones that tore deep and cut. He struck his head on something hard, saw a burst of light, and felt pain explode in his side. It stabbed through him, horrible and jagged and raw. He felt something break, a violent tug, and realized that his box was gone. His arms flailed, touched plastic once and felt it glide away.
It was in the river.
God almighty, it was gone in the dark.
Levi stared out at black water and pinprick lights. His big hands clenched.
Levi couldn’t swim.
He worried about that for a second, but was in the water even before God told him to jump. He landed, legs spread, arms out, and felt dirty water push into his mouth. He came up spitting, then went down again, his hands loud on the river, water fast and cold between his fingers. He struggled and choked and feared he would die, then found that he could stand in water that rose to his chest. So he stood and beat his way downriver, tore through bits of light until he found his package spinning idly behind a fallen tree.
He fought it to shore, crawled up the bank, and ignored the pain that tried to cripple him. He thought again of his wife.
She shouldn’t have done the things she done.
He wrapped himself around the package. Pain all in him. Something not right in his body.
She shouldn’t have done it.
Eventually, Levi slept, still curled around the package, moaning as his giant limbs twitched.
“Nothing.” Hunt stood in the low basement at David Wilson’s house. John Yoakum slouched beside him. Two bulbs hung from rust-stained sockets screwed into bare floor joists; a black furnace sat cold and still in the far corner. Hunt scuffed one foot on the floor and a puff of mold and dust rose and then settled. The room smelled of earth and damp concrete.
“What did you expect?” Yoakum asked.
Hunt looked into the crawl space that ran under the living room at the back of the house. “A lucky break. For once.”
“No such thing as luck, good or bad.”
“Tell that to Tiffany.”
Fifteen hours had now passed since some unknown individual had jerked the girl into his car, and they were no closer to finding her. They’d been over every inch of the house and grounds with nothing to show for it. Hunt beat one palm on the bare wood of the basement stairs, and dust drifted down. “I have to check on my son,” Hunt said. “I forgot to tell him I’d be late.”
“Just call him.”
Hunt shook his head. “He won’t answer.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What do you want me to do?” Yoakum asked.
Hunt gestured up the stairs. “Clean it up. Close it down. I’ll meet you at the station in half an hour.”
“And when we’re there?”
“We work the angles. We pray for some luck.” Hunt put a finger in Yoakum’s face. “And don’t you say it.”
Yoakum raised his hands. “What?”
“Not one damn word.”
Outside, Hunt found a crowd of neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. Two uniformed officers kept them at bay, but he had to push through to get to his car. He was almost there when a thin, angry-looking man asked: “Is this about Tiffany Shore?” He raised his voice. “No one will tell us anything.” Hunt moved past him, and the man pointed at Wilson ’s house, spoke even louder. “Is that man involved?”
Hunt almost stopped, then didn’t.
Nothing he could say would make it better.
In the car, he turned the air on high and eased away from the crowd. He needed to go home, check on his son, throw some water on his face, but he found himself skirting the edge of town, then looking down the long, fast drop to Katherine Merrimon’s house. Officer Taylor opened the door before he could knock. Her features were drawn, lips pressed tight. Hunt noticed that her hand rested on the holstered weapon. She relaxed when she saw who it was, then stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind her.
Hunt nodded. “Any sign?”
“Of the kid? No. Of that asshole, Ken Holloway, yes.”
“He showed up looking for Johnny. He was so pissed, he was red, kept going on about a ruined piano. A Steinman, Steinbeck.”
“Yeah, that’s it. The rock that went through the window hit the piano, too.” Taylor smiled. “I think maybe it’s expensive.”
Something tugged at Hunt’s mouth. “Maybe. Did he give you any trouble?”
“Oh, yeah. Starts screaming for the kid’s mother when I refuse to let him inside. I tell him to calm down, he starts telling me that he can get me fired.” Hunt sensed her anger. “I’ll tell you, if that boy had been here, I think he’d have been hurt.”
“How long ago?” Hunt glanced at the street.
“An hour, maybe. He said he’d be back with his lawyer.”
“Are you serious?”
She shrugged. “He wanted in the house and he wanted in bad.”
“If he comes back,” Hunt said, “and if he gives you any excuse, lock him up.”
“I’m not going to have him scaring off my witness or messing up my investigation.”
“And that’s the only reason?”
Hunt bit down, looked at the house behind him. He smelled rot from the soffits and low clapboards, saw tears in the screens, cracks in the windowpanes. He remembered the house that Katherine lived in when Alyssa was torn from her, saw her dark eyes and heart-wrenching faith that God would return her child to her. She often prayed by a south-facing window, the light so pure on her perfect skin that she’d looked like an angel herself. And Ken Holloway had been there all along, offering a smile, money, support. That lasted a month. Once she was ground to dust, he’d dropped on her like a vulture. Now, she was strung out. Hunt was pretty sure he knew who was doing the stringing.
“I hate the guy,” Hunt said, and his gaze went distant. “I hate him like I could kill him.”
Taylor glanced away. “No way did I just hear that.”
Hunt felt his shoulders rise, the blood in his face. “Forget it.”
Taylor stared at him. “You sure?”
“That’s good.” She nodded.
Hunt looked up the road and said, “You have to be kidding me.”
Ken Holloway’s white Escalade slowed on the street, then dropped a tire into the ditch as it turned into the drive. For a second, the car stalled; then the engine gunned and the tire clawed free. A raw gash gleamed black at the edge of the ditch. Clumps of mud and grass hung from the chassis on the right side. Through the window, Hunt could see Holloway’s face: jaw set, flushed. Next to him sat a resigned-looking man that Hunt remembered seeing around the courthouse once or twice, a lawyer of some skill. His face shone pale and damp. He levered the door open, then looked with distaste at everything outside the vehicle: the house, the mud, the cops. His exit from the vehicle was the most dainty that Hunt had ever witnessed.
Hunt stepped down into the yard and Officer Taylor moved down with him. Holloway wore a pink shirt tucked into new jeans, boots that cost more than Hunt’s service weapon. He was big, well over two hundred pounds. In his anger, he looked tall and threatening as he dragged his attorney through the mud. “Tell them.” He aimed a finger, copper bracelet dancing on his wrist. “Tell them how it works.”
The lawyer straightened his jacket. He had polished skin, perfect nails, and a voice to match. “I’m not even sure why I’m here,” the lawyer said. “I’ve already explained to you-”
Holloway cut him off. “You’re my attorney. You’re on retainer. Now, tell them.”
The lawyer looked from Holloway to the cops. He shot his cuffs as if he were in court. “Mr. Holloway is the owner of these premises. He wants access to his property.”
“Demands access,” Holloway interrupted. “It’s my house.”
Hunt kept his voice calm. “When I was here before, you said that you were a guest in the house.”
“Semantics. I own the property.”
“But Katherine Merrimon is the legal tenant.”
“Mr. Holloway charges her a dollar a month,” the lawyer said. “That hardly makes her a tenant.”
“Rent is rent,” Hunt said, and eyed the lawyer. “You know that.”
“Nevertheless, he has the right to inspect the premises.”
“At a reasonable time and with notice provided,” Officer Taylor corrected. “Not in the middle of the night. If he wishes to call Mrs. Merrimon, he’s welcome to do so.”
“She is not answering the phone,” the lawyer said.
Holloway stepped forward. “I want to see that child. He’s damaged a valuable piece of private property and needs to be held accountable for that. I just want to speak with him.”
“Is that right?” Hunt could hide neither the dislike nor the disgust.
“Of course. What else?”
“And if I told you that he’s not here?” Hunt asked, stepping forward until a bare six inches separated the two men. He knew that Holloway had a temper. Knew it. Now he wanted to see it.
Begged to see it.
Holloway’s eyes tightened, and Hunt recognized the first crack in the facade. The man didn’t like being crowded, didn’t like the challenge, so Hunt leaned even closer. He showed Holloway the contempt in his eyes, and saw him take the bait. At the last second, the lawyer realized, too, what was about to happen. He opened his mouth: “Mr. Holloway-”
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Holloway raised a finger and planted it square in Hunt’s chest. And that was all it took. In one smooth, economical movement, Hunt gripped Holloway’s wrist, spun the man in place and shoved his hand all the way to his shoulder blades. Holloway stepped forward to relieve the pressure, and Hunt kept the momentum going. He walked him to the Escalade and slammed him facedown across the hood.
“You just assaulted a police officer, Mr. Holloway. In front of witnesses.”
“That’s not assault.”
“Ask your lawyer.”
Holloway flattened one palm on the car and tried to push himself up. Hunt had to lean into him, and spoke again as he did. “And that’s resisting an officer.” The cuffs came out. He cinched the manacle around one thick wrist, clamping the steel as tight as he could, squeezing hard for that last click. Holloway cried out, and Hunt jerked the other hand behind his back. He put all of his weight on Holloway to keep him on the car, then ratcheted down the cuff. “Those are serious charges, Mr. Holloway. Your lawyer can explain them to you later.”
Hunt hauled Holloway upright. The arrogance had vanished, but the anger was alive in his face. “You can’t touch me,” he said.
Hunt caught the chain of the cuffs and manhandled Holloway to Officer Taylor’s car and opened the door. He put a hand on Holloway’s head. “Nothing personal,” he said, and stuffed him into the back. When he caught Taylor’s eyes, there was no smile or irony in his voice. “Officer Taylor, would you please drive Mr. Holloway to the station and process him?”
Taylor kept her face straight, but could not hide her feelings. “Yes, sir.
Hunt watched them go: the squad car with Holloway’s florid face pinned in the window, the big Cadillac with the girlish attorney behind the leather wheel. They rose on the hill and dropped from view, tomorrow’s problem. The anger drained away, the hot spark of satisfaction. He stood alone in the yard, thinking of Katherine, and then he turned. Inside the house, he pressed an ear against her door. He spread his fingers on the sandpaper wood and for one second pictured himself walking into her room. She would be small and pale, very still on the bed, but she would smile, and her hand would rise.
Hunt felt that moment roll out like a mile of warm sand, but that’s all that it was, a moment. An illusion. He was the cop who’d failed to bring her daughter home. He could no more change that fact than she could forget it. It would be unfair to even ask.
His hand fell away and he stepped to Johnny’s door. It stood open and a small lamp pressed a yellow circle on the neatly made bed. The room was so different from the rooms of other boys. So empty. Hunt saw no toys or games, no posters on the wall. An open book lay facedown on the bed. More stood on the dresser, a long row pressed between two bricks. There was a photograph of Johnny’s mother, three of Alyssa. Hunt lifted the nearest photo of the girl. Her smile was secretive and small. Dark hair dipped across her left eye, but the right one carried such a light; she looked as if she knew something special, as if she were waiting for someone to ask and might burst from the expectation of it. Her energy made Johnny seem stark and compressed, and Hunt wondered if he’d always been like that. Or had he merely changed?
Hunt shook his head at the absurdity of the word. There was nothing mere about the boy Johnny had become. The evidence was everywhere: in his actions and his attitudes, in this bare-walled room and even in the books he kept. They were not a boy’s books. Johnny had books on history and ancient religions, vision quests, and the hunting rituals of the Plains Indians. There was one on druid lore that weighed three pounds. Two more on Cherokee religion. They were library books, stamped with square white placards on the spines. Hunt picked up the one that lay open on the bed and saw that Johnny had checked it out fourteen consecutive times. Never overdue. Not once. Hunt pictured Johnny on his bike, pedaling eight miles each way to present his card and sign where they told him.
He examined the title-An Illustrated History of Raven County-then looked at the page to which it had been opened. On the right side was a black-and-white lithograph of an older man in a perfectly creased suit. A whitish beard covered the front of his collar and his eyes were specks of flint. The caption beneath read: “John Pendleton Merrimon, Surgeon and Abolitionist. 1858.” Johnny’s ancestor, Hunt realized. He looked a bit like Johnny’s father, and nothing like the boy.
He flipped a few more pages, put the book back on the bed, and did not know that Johnny’s mother was in the hall until he turned. Her legs descended from a shirt that barely covered her, and she was loose on her feet, one hand pressed flat to the wall as her shoulders cut small ellipses in the air. Her eyes were undressed wounds, her voice shockingly calm. “Do me a favor, Johnny.” One palm turned to catch the yellow light. “Tell Alyssa I need to speak to her when she gets home.”
“Katherine…” Hunt stopped, uncertain.
“Don’t argue with me, Johnny. She should be home by now.”
She turned, slid one hand along the wall and closed her door behind her. Bedsprings crunched and silence rippled through the house.
Before Hunt left, he turned on lights and checked the doors. In the yard, he tried to focus. There was still Tiffany Shore and the ruin of her parents; a wax-faced giant who might or might not be gone by now. There was Ken Holloway, Hunt’s need to see his own son, and Johnny, out there somewhere doing God knows what. Hunt felt it all, a swirl, a massive weight, but he pushed it aside and stole one more moment. That’s all it would ever be, and so he took it selfishly. He stood beneath a blanket of ink, and he thought of Katherine Merrimon, of her bruised eyes and her emptiness.
Nothing else seemed to matter.
Less than a mile away, Johnny’s fire pushed against the night air; it curled orange and shot sparks into the sky. He squatted beside it, shoeless, shirtless. Yellow lines moved in the sweat on his chest, and soot marred his face where he’d dragged blackened fingers from cheek to jaw. His shadow was a stooped giant on the barn wall behind him. He reached for the blue bag that smelled of bird’s blood, mildew, and dried vegetation. The buckles were corroded, stiff under his fingertips, and one of the straps had begun to rot. He opened the bag and took out a stack of crumpled papers. Writing covered both sides of the pages, but he didn’t look at the words. That was for later, so he put the pages on the ground and weighed them down with a pebble the size of a quail’s egg.
Next came a dark leather thong strung with rattlesnake rattles and the skull of a copperhead. The rattles he’d bought from a kid at school. The copperhead he’d killed himself. He’d spent four days in the woods looking for it, then found it sunning on a piece of old tin a hundred feet from his own back door. Meant to be, he’d decided. The snake wanted to be found. He’d killed it with a piece of cottonwood, then taken its head with the knife his father had given him for his tenth birthday.
A second leather thong held five more eagle feathers. They were twice the size of the one on his bike: three golden-brown wing feathers, two that were perfect and white, their hard, pointed ends as thick as his second finger. They still smelled of the bird, and three of them were edged with a rime of dried blood: eagle’s blood, his blood.
He closed his eyes and slipped the thongs over his head. Feathers rustled. Rattles clicked against his skin.
Then he took out the Bible.
It was black and heavily fingered. Johnny’s name was embossed on the cover, gold and shiny. It had been a childhood gift, presented in a satin box by a Baptist minister who’d told Johnny that the words inside were a gift from God.
A gift, young man.
Say it with me.
The same preacher came after Alyssa was taken. His voice did not waver when he promised Johnny that, yes, God still loved his children, that all Johnny had to do was pray. Pray hard enough, he’d said, and God will bring her home. So Johnny had. He’d prayed with all his might and all of his soul. He’d sworn his life to God if only he would bring her back.
Johnny remembered long nights of prayer, and his mother’s fingertips, hot on his arm. He remembered her voice, and how it showed the last of her strength that he would ever see.
Pray with me Johnny.
The desperate, hungry faith.
Pray for your sister.
Next time the preacher came, fingernails buffed and fat face shining, he’d told Johnny that he wasn’t praying hard enough. “Do better,” he’d said. “Believe more.”
Johnny shifted his feet on the damp earth, crowded closer to the fire. He tore the cover off the Bible, and firelight flashed gold on the letters that spelled his name. He felt a burst of superstitious fear, then laid the cover on the fire and watched it burn. He watched until it was ash, then with one hand, he lifted the bag and emptied its contents onto the dirt. Dried leaves rained down, bits of branches and twigs bundled into piles. Cedar and pine, spruce and laurel.
The image of a child carved from birch bark.
A red ribbon that belonged to Alyssa.
He tied the ribbon around his wrist, then looked from the dried vegetation to the Bible, still in his hand. He hefted it, then laid it on the ground, and pages lifted in the heat as if knowing that they, too, were destined to burn.
The sight gave Johnny a grim satisfaction.
He needed older gods.
The need started months ago, and it started with a prayer. It was winter, furnace broken, no heat in the house, and cold burned his words to smoke as he prayed for his sister to come home. He woke at four, blades of air on his naked back, and prayed for his mom. He prayed for an end of pills, for his father to come back to her. He prayed for the slow, painful death of Ken Holloway. That’s what sustained him, thoughts of salvation and the past, sweet, hot pleas for revenge.
An hour later, as the sun stretched some far horizon, Ken beat Johnny’s mother bloody for reasons Johnny never understood. Johnny tried to stop him, so he came next. That’s what started it: helplessness and blood, a failed prayer, and a gilded book that spoke of meekness and submission.
None of it gave Johnny strength.
None of it gave him power.
He laid cedar on the fire, then pine, spruce, and laurel. He stood close to the fire and let the smoke roll over him. His eyes watered and his lungs burned, but he sucked the smoke in and then pushed it out, first to the sky and to the earth, then to the four unseen horizons. He cupped smoke in his hands and wafted it across his face. He said words he’d learned in a book, then crushed juniper berries into his palms and smeared the juice on his chest. He shoved snakeroot into his pockets, lifted the child-image carved from birch bark and laid that, too, on the fire. It caught in a starburst of flame and pale, white smoke, and he did not look away until that, too, flew skyward. Then he tossed the remainder of his childhood Bible on the flames.
He recognized the split second when he could have taken it all back, snatched the book from hungry fingers, and made his way home, still his mother’s child, still weak; but he let the moment pass. Pages curled, a black rose spread, and it was done.
He was ready.
The car still sat in the dark yard of the old couple who lived down the street. Johnny could see it as he cut through a neighbor’s yard. The smoke smell hung on his damp skin and he was dark with berry juice and ash. He hopped a fence and found himself next to a patch of turned earth and fragile young plants. He started for the car but froze when a light flashed on in a rear window of the house. The old lady was there, the veined leaves of her hands very still on the yellow countertop of a bathroom sink. She dipped her head and tears followed one seam and then another. When her husband appeared behind her, he touched the side of her neck and spoke softly in her ear. For an instant something lighter moved on her face, something like a smile. She leaned her back into his brittle chest, and they froze like that, peaceful.
Johnny touched his own chest, felt sweat and ash and the deep thump of his heart. For an instant, he wondered what the old lady was crying about and what her husband had said to bring that flash of smile. He thought of his own father, and of how he’d always known what to do or say. Looking at the old couple, a bitter lump lodged in Johnny’s gut, but he crushed it through sheer will. For one second, his teeth flashed white, then he crept past the window and was gone.
They never saw him.
Few ever did.
The car smelled old and stale. Pushing against the stiff leather of the seat, Johnny arched his back and shoved one hand into his pocket. The pages were crushed and rumpled, their scent reminiscent of pine resin and fire. He smoothed them on his leg and turned on a flashlight. The names were in his handwriting, the addresses, too. Notes and dates were scratched into the margins.
Six men. Six addresses. Registered sex offenders. Bad men. They scared him, but less than a day had passed since Tiffany Shore was taken, and Johnny figured it was probably the same man who took Alyssa. These were the worst that Johnny had been able to find, and he’d looked hard. He knew their routines and their jobs, what shows they liked and what time they went to bed. If one was acting differently, Johnny would know.
He drove out the fear and put his fingers on the key. His eyes, in the mirror, showed red lines and blackened lids. He was untouchable, he told himself, a warrior.
The engine turned, and he put the car in gear.
He was an Indian chief.
Hunt called Yoakum from the car. It was the dead of night, roads empty and scrubbed by the rain.
The phone rang twice. A third time.
After his brief moment of weakness, Hunt had forced down his thoughts of Katherine Merrimon. He’d spent less than a minute standing in her yard, but Hunt felt his guilt. Tiffany was still missing, so he focused all of his energy on the case: questions posed, actions taken. What were they missing? What more could be done?
The phone rang again.
Come on, Yoakum.
When Yoakum answered, he apologized. “It’s crazy down here.” He meant the police station.
“Tell me what’s happening.”
“We’re doing the things you told us to do.”
“Run it for me.”
“The print we lifted from David Wilson’s eyelid is in the system. No hits yet, but it’s early. We have four cars combing the back roads for Wilson’s Land Cruiser, which is, as you guessed, registered to the college. We’re working up a list of Wilson’s friends and relatives, anyone who might be able to tell us where he was today, what he was doing. We’ve already canvassed his colleagues at the college, but they’re useless. There’s a handful of known offenders that we’ve been unable to locate, but we have units on that. Two that we’re looking for seem to be out of town. Houses locked up and dark. Newspapers stacked up out front. I’ve been told that one is in lockup in Wilmington, and should have confirmation on that soon. Two auxiliary officers are working up the search grid for the morning-”
“About the grid.”
“Like you said. We’re going to run the same search pattern we did for Alyssa Merrimon. Logical then, logical now. We just need the manpower.” Yoakum paused. “Look, Clyde. You know all of this. You gave the orders. Why don’t you go home and get some sleep. It’s what? Like two in the morning? Have you checked on your kid, yet?”
“Jesus, Hunt. Did you even call him?”
“I’m on my way to you,” Hunt said.
“This is me talking as your friend, okay? You should go home. Get some sleep.”
“Is that a joke?”
“No, actually. It’s not. You were ragged this morning and I doubt you’re any better now. What’s going on down here, this is grunt work. We don’t need you for this, so get some sleep. I need you sharp tomorrow. Tiffany needs you sharp.”
Hunt listened to the tires on pavement. Trees flashed, black, at the edge of his headlights. “Maybe for an hour,” he said.
“Maybe two,” Yoakum replied. “Hell. Get crazy and go for three. I’ll call if anything breaks.”
“Okay. Fair enough.” Hunt was about to disconnect when Yoakum said, “Look, Clyde. You’re good at this. The job, I mean. But you need to keep it together.”
“What are you saying?”
Yoakum exhaled, and the sound spoke volumes. “Just keep it tight, brother.”
Yoakum hung up and Hunt turned the car for home. He knew that he would never sleep, but knew, too, that Yoakum was right. He should try. And his son…
That was a whole different matter.
He parked in the drive and switched off the engine. The neighborhood was quiet, so he heard the music before he opened the door to his house. A muted throbbing. The wail of heavy strings. He let himself in and went upstairs, the wallpaper pale and slick against his shoulder. At his son’s door, he knocked, doubting that it would be heard over the music. Eventually, he opened the door.
His first impression was that of pale skin and little motion, a flash of white blond hair and eyes that looked too much like his own. The boy would be eighteen in two weeks. He was big, athletic. He’d been a good student for most of his life. A good kid. But that had changed over the past year. He was disrespectful, intolerant. He sat on the edge of the bed, wearing gym socks, yellow shorts, and a shirt that read CANDY IS DANDY BUT SEX WON’T ROT YOUR TEETH. He held a car magazine and thumped his foot as the music screamed.
Hunt crossed the room and turned off the stereo. His son looked up, and in that instant Hunt saw what could easily pass for hatred.
“Can’t you knock?”
He turned a page, eyes back on the magazine. “What do you want?”
“You know what happened today?”
“Yeah. I heard. But not from you, thanks. I heard like everybody else did.”
Hunt stepped farther into the room. “Were you out there? At the river?” Silence from his son. Another page turned. “Did you ditch again? We’ve talked about this.”
“Just leave me alone.”
Hunt was looking at a stranger.
“I said, leave me alone.”
Hunt hesitated, and his son stood. Muscles twitched and rolled under his skin. For an instant, Hunt felt his own hackles rise. There was such naked challenge in the boy’s posture. But that impression lasted for little more than a few seconds. Hunt blinked and saw his son the way he’d been not very long ago. A gawky kid, full of curiosity and innocent enthusiasms. A kid who rose at six to make his own breakfast, built kites from balsa and packing paper. Hunt relaxed his posture. “I’ll be downstairs. We need to talk, so take a few minutes and think about what you want to tell me.”
His son ignored him. He crossed the room and started music that followed Hunt all the way down to the kitchen.
Hunt sat on a chair by the kitchen table and called Yoakum. “Any changes?”
“Didn’t we just talk?”
“Yes. And I want to know if anything has changed since then.”
“Nothing. How’s the kid?”
Hunt reached for a bottle of scotch. “I think he wants to kill me.”
“Does he need an alibi? Tell him to call me.”
Hunt sloshed two fingers into a glass, sat back down. “What he needs is his mother. I can’t relate to him anymore.” Hunt took a sip. “He should have gone with her.”
“The kid didn’t have a choice, Clyde. She left and I don’t recall her giving him an invitation to join.”
“I could have forced the issue,” Hunt said.
“He’ll pull out of it.”
“He’s listening to grunge and ready to throw down with his own father.”
“Grunge. Wow. Somebody call the evening news.”
“Ha-ha.” It was not a laugh.
“Stay home,” Yoakum said. “Take care of the kid.”
“The clock’s ticking, John. I’ll be there in ten.”
“Don’t do this again.”
“Do what?” Hunt heard the anger in his voice. Yoakum heard it, too.
“Haven’t you lost enough, Clyde? Truly.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“For God’s sake, man. Put your own kid first for a change.”
Hunt wanted to respond. He wanted to say something fierce and scathing, but Yoakum slammed the phone down. Hunt laid the receiver back on its cradle, took another sip of scotch, then poured the rest of it in the sink. Yoakum was trying to do right. Hunt understood that, so he dipped his head and thought about the real problem. He was addicted to his job, but that was not the whole of it. In the still and dark of the kitchen, Hunt admitted, for once, that he did not much like his own son. He loved him, of course, but he did not like him. Not his attitudes, his beliefs, or his choices.
The boy had changed.
Hunt rinsed out his glass, and when he turned, Allen was standing in the door. They held stares, and the boy was the first to look away. “So I ditched. So what?”
“For starters, it’s against the law.”
“Can you ever just turn it off?” He slid a hand along the arm of his chair. “Why do you have to be a cop all the time? Why can’t you just be a normal dad?”
“Normal dads don’t care if their kids ditch school?”
Allen turned his head. “You know what I mean.”
“A man was killed out at the bridge. You know that. Killed right where you’d been.”
“Hours after I was there.”
“What if something had happened to you? How am I supposed to tell your mom if anything bad ever happens to you?”
“Well, nothing did, so you’re off the hook.”
“You saw Johnny Merrimon out there? Jack Cross?”
“You know I did, or you wouldn’t be asking. That’s what cops do, right? That’s how they interrogate their suspects.”
“Other than today, do you ever see Johnny Merrimon?”
“He’s in junior high. I’m a senior.”
“I know,” Hunt said. “But do you ever see him around? Do you ever talk to him?”
“No one talks to him. He’s a freak.”
Hunt straightened, a coal of anger in the hollow place behind his eyes. “He’s a freak how?”
“He never talks, you know; and he’s got those dead eyes.” Allen rolled his shoulders. “He’s messed up. I mean, twins, you know. How do you get over something like that?”
“What about Tiffany Shore?” Hunt asked. “You know her?”
The boy’s head came around, and his eyes were unforgiving. “It never stops with you, does it?”
“The damn job.” His voice spiked. “The damn, fucking job!”
“I’m so sick of hearing about Alyssa and Johnny and what a terrible tragedy it all is. I’m sick of seeing you with that file, looking at her picture, going through it all night after night.” He shoved a finger toward Hunt’s study, where a copy of the Merrimon file had taken up permanent residence in the locked top drawer of his desk. “I’m sick of the way your eyes cloud up and you never hear me talking. I’m sick of hearing you up at three in the morning, pacing and muttering. Sick of your guilt and takeout food and doing my own laundry. Mom left because of your obsession.”
“Now, just a minute.”
“It’s the right word, isn’t it?”
“Your mother understood the demands of my job.”
“I’m not talking about the job. I’m talking about what you bring home every night. I’m talking about your obsession with Johnny’s mother.”
Hunt felt his heart accelerate.
“That’s why she left.”
“You’re wrong,” Hunt said.
“She left because you’re obsessed with that kid’s mom!”
Hunt stepped forward and realized that his right hand was fisted. His son saw it, too, and raised his own hands. His shoulders squared up, and Hunt realized that the kid was big enough to take him.
“You going to hit me?” Allen wiped the back of one fist across the side of his mouth. “Go ahead. Do it. I dare you.”
Hunt stepped back, uncurled his fingers. “Nobody’s hitting anybody.”
“That family is all you care about. Alyssa. Johnny. That woman. And now it’s Tiffany Shore, and it’s going to start all over again.”
“I know all about these kids! It’s all I ever hear about! And it’s never going to stop.”
“It’s my job,” Hunt said.
“And I’m just your son.”
His voice was subdued, the words explosive. They stared at each other, father and son; then Hunt’s phone trilled in the silence. Caller ID showed that it was Yoakum. Hunt held up a finger. “I have to take this.” He opened the phone. “This had better be good.”
Yoakum was curt. “We made the print on David Wilson’s eyelid.”
“Yeah, and it gets better.”
“How much better?”
“Like you would not believe.”
Hunt looked at his watch, then turned back to his son. He held his eyes and detested the words even as he spoke them. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He closed the phone, lifted a hand. “Allen-”
But his son had already turned. He pounded up the stairs and slammed his door. Hunt stared at the ceiling, cursed in a whisper, then left the house as the volume ramped up and his son played the same messed-up song.
The police station was on a side street downtown. Two stories, red brick, functional. Hunt blew through the station doors and found Yoakum on the second floor, bent over a city map. “Tell me,” Hunt said.
“The print is solid. Levi Freemantle. Forty-three years of age. Black male. Six foot five. Three hundred pounds.”
“Damn. I thought the kid was exaggerating.”
“No. He’s big.”
“Why does that name seem familiar?”
“Freemantle?” Yoakum leaned back in his chair. “Never heard it before tonight.”
“Do we have a photo?”
“Not from DMV. He has no driver’s license. Nor does he have a credit card or a bank account. Not that I can find.”
“David Wilson was run off the bridge by a car.”
“Maybe he has a license from another state. Maybe he just doesn’t give a shit.”
“What else do we know?” Hunt asked.
Yoakum rifled some papers. “He popped up on the radar a few years ago. Nothing before that. No arrests. No bank records or utilities or phone service. The guy was a ghost. He probably moved in from another jurisdiction. Since then, we have a number of arrests, a few convictions. He’s done time, but nothing serious. A month here. Two months there. But get this, he walked off of a work detail a week ago.”
“He’s an escaped prisoner? Why haven’t I heard about this?”
“It was in the paper last week, but buried on page nine. He’s low priority, a nonviolent offender. He was not considered a threat. Besides, it’s a county problem.”
“What kind of work detail?”
“Minimum security. Road work on a two-lane out in the country. Litter collection. Weed trimming. He just walked off into the woods.”
Yoakum smiled, his teeth so smooth and white they looked painted. “Are you ready for the big news?”
“He’s done time, right. In and out. Well, get this. He was released from another stint just three days before Alyssa Merrimon was abducted.”
Hunt felt a nail of excitement. “Do not kid me, Yoakum.”
“We have an address. It’s local.”
“What about a warrant?”
“I sent Cross to get the judge out of bed.”
“Has the judge signed off on this yet?”
“You sure about that?”
“She’s white. Her parents are rich.” Yoakum shrugged. “Just a matter of time.”
Hunt looked around the room, cataloging faces. “Come on, Yoakum. You can’t say things like that. We’ve talked about this.”
Yoakum rolled his shoulders, and his voice came surprisingly hard. “The world is what it is, unjust and tragic and full of crying shames. Don’t hate me for it.”
“One of these days your mouth is going to get you in trouble. So keep that shit zipped.”
Yoakum popped gum and looked away. Hunt started reviewing what information they had. Levi Freemantle lived on Huron Street with Ronda Jeffries, a white female, age thirty-two. Hunt entered her name into the computer. Arrested twice for solicitation. No convictions. One bust for possession of a Class A narcotic. Convicted. Served seven months of an eighteen-month sentence. Good behavior. One conviction for public indecency. Simple assault. “Ronda Jeffries,” Hunt said, “what’s her relationship with Freemantle?”
“Shared address is all we know. Could be housemates. Could be more.”
Hunt studied the arrest sheet for Levi Freemantle. It seemed incomplete. “These are bullshit arrests. Trespass. Loitering. Shoplifting, for God’s sake. Nothing violent. No sex.”
“It is what it is.”
The sheet looked like a hundred others, so nondescript that Hunt felt like he knew the guy, like he knew a thousand of them; but six five and three hundred pounds was not something to forget. He double-checked the dates and confirmed that Levi Freemantle had been released from jail three days before Alyssa Merrimon was abducted. He’d walked off an inmate road crew one week before Tiffany Shore’s disappearance. If it was a coincidence, it was a big one. Then there was David Wilson, murdered, who claimed to have found the missing girl. Freemantle’s print was on the body. Johnny’s description matched. The timing. The bend in the river.
Hunt put down the papers. “Call Cross. Find out where we are.”
“He knows what to do.”
“Call him, John.”
Yoakum dialed Cross’s cell and asked how long he would be with the warrant. When he hung up, his voice was flat. “He says he doesn’t know. The judge won’t be rushed.”
“Damn it.” Hunt stood. “Let’s take a ride.”
Yoakum grabbed his jacket and shrugged it on as he hurried after Hunt. “We’re not going in without a warrant, are we?”
“Doing so would be stupid.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Hunt ignored him, his feet loud on the hard, textured steps going down. Yoakum spoke louder. “Damn it, Clyde, that’s not an answer.”
Huron Street turned sharp left off one of the main thoroughfares, then died on the wrong side of the tracks four miles from the city square. This part of town was near the front edge of the sand hills; you could tell from the temperature and from the vegetation. The sand held the heat, so the air was hotter. Trees grew smaller in the weak soil. The street ran narrow and short, with yards full of weed and dirt and dogs on strong chains. Hunt knew it well enough to take it seriously. Two years ago, he’d worked a murder scene on the third block in: a woman stabbed to death in her own bathtub. Turned out her son did it because she’d refused to loan him money. She died over fifty bucks.
A mean street.
Hunt took the left and slowed two houses in. He killed the lights, drifted over a shattered bottle, and stopped. The road stretched out, a river of dark and poverty that died at silver rails leading to better places. Small, blue light leaked through curtains in a house to the left. Crickets scraped in the weeds.
“This is a bad idea,” Yoakum said.
Hunt moved his chin. “Last block down. On the right.”
Yoakum’s head swiveled. His lips drew tight as he peered down the dark stretch. “Jesus.”
Hunt studied the street, too. He saw dull yards with dirt tracks that ran from the front stoop to the road, a mattress on the curb, sofas on porches. Cars sat on blocks. Even the sky seemed heavier than it should.
Two houses down, a pit bull paced side to side and eyed them from the end of its chain.
“I hate this shit,” Yoakum said.
“Let’s go in a bit farther.”
“I want to see if there’s a car at Freemantle’s house. Or lights.”
Hunt kept his headlights off and eased the car into gear. They rolled another twenty feet and the pit bull stopped pacing. Yoakum pushed back into his seat. “Bad idea,” he said, and the dog lunged the full length of its chain, barking with such venom that it felt like it was in the car. Chains rattled up and down the street as other dogs joined in. Lights flicked on in two of the houses.
“Bad idea,” Hunt agreed, and put the car in reverse. He whipped around the corner and shifted into drive.
After a minute of silence, Yoakum said: “That might be a problem.”
“He’ll hear us coming four blocks away.”
Hunt looked at his watch. “Maybe not.”
Yoakum looked out the window. Hunt opened his cell and dialed Cross, who answered on the first ring. “I need that warrant,” Hunt said. “I need it in twenty minutes.”
“It’s this judge.” Cross’s frustration showed. “He’s going over the affidavit for the third time.”
“What? The document is crystal clear. There’s probable cause written all over it. Lean on him.”
“I tried already.”
“Which judge is it?” Hunt asked, and Cross told him. “Put him on the phone.”
“Just do it.”
Hunt waited. Yoakum looked sideways. “You’re going to pressure the judge?”
“I’m going to threaten him.”
The judge came on the phone. “This is highly inappropriate, Detective.”
“Is there some problem with the warrant application?” Hunt asked.
“I have your affidavit and I will make my ruling once I’ve had the full opportunity-”
Hunt cut him off. “Twelve-year-old child dies while judge dallies over warrant. That’s the headline if we’re too late. I have connections at the paper, people who owe me. I’ll make sure of it.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“Fucking try me.”
Thirty minutes later, the cops assembled in an empty lot behind one of the local banks. They had their warrant. It was ten minutes after three, dark and quiet. Overhead, a street light snapped and sizzled, then burned out with an audible crack. Five cops, six counting Hunt. He shrugged a vest over his head, slapped the Velcro in place and checked his weapon a second time. Yoakum met him at the back of the dark blue panel truck with the small gold shield on the back door. “You ready?”
Yoakum looked concerned. “We should wait.”
“Going in dark is a needless risk. Strange house, hostile street. He’ll hear the dogs when we’re still four blocks out.”
“We move now.”
Yoakum shook his head. “You’re going to get somebody hurt.”
“Everybody here knows what they signed up for. This is not the Boy Scouts.”
“And this is not some effete judge rubbing you the wrong way. This is the street. This is you putting good cops in harm’s way when a few more hours might make a world of difference. The Chief is looking for an excuse to fry your ass, and getting somebody hurt is the best gift you could give him. Be smart, Clyde. For once. Put this in perspective.”
Hunt seized his friend by the arm. He squeezed hard and felt bone. “What if it was your daughter? Your sister? That’s the perspective, and you need to line up on it.” Hunt dropped the arm and tried to turn away, but Yoakum wasn’t finished.
“You’re running on emotion.”
Hunt studied his friend, eyes black in the night, face pale and clenched. “Don’t go against me on this, John. I’m finding this kid and I’m finding her alive.”
“It’s on your head if somebody gets hurt.”
“And on yours if she dies while we dick around in this parking lot. Now, are you done?”
Yoakum’s features settled into determined planes. He cracked his knuckles and nodded. “I’m tired of talking anyway.”
Hunt snapped his fingers and the other cops circled around: Yoakum, Cross, and three uniforms in full body armor. “This is who we want.” He held up a poor copy of an arrest photo pulled from one of the old files. “He has severe scarring on the right side of his face. The kid that identified him said it looked melted, like wax. He’s six and a half feet tall and weighs three hundred pounds. I don’t think we’ll find more than one guy with this description, so it should be easy.”
A few nervous laughs. Hunt let them have it. “It’s the last block before the tracks, last house on the right. It sits back from the road with an empty lot behind it, tracks on one side, an occupied residence on the other. I want those three sides covered before we go in. The streetlamps are mostly busted, so it’ll be dark. The yards will be dead grass and flat dirt except for where the roots and trash make it not so flat. So watch your step. Once the van stops, Yoakum deploys first. He takes two of you with him.” Hunt pointed at two of the uniformed cops. “You’ll cover the back and sides in case he bolts. I’ll take the rest and go in the front. Cross is on the hammer, but I’m first man in. Now, this guy is huge, so no messing around. Get him down and get him down fast. The girl may be stashed elsewhere, so control your fire. We need him alive and we need him talking.”
“What about the dogs?” Yoakum interrupted.
Hunt looked at his watch. “Fuck the dogs.” He opened the back of the van; one of the uniformed officers got behind the wheel. Inside, it smelled of gun oil and sweat. The men sat shoulder to shoulder. “I hate this shit,” Yoakum said, and two of the uniforms smiled.
Yoakum always said that.
The engine caught and the truck turned a tight radius before sliding out onto the empty street. Through the back window, the tarmac was so shiny and black, it looked like volcanic glass. Hunt spoke to the driver. “Stop a block before the turn. There’s a convenience store. It’s closed.”
Ninety seconds later, the truck eased into a deserted lot and jolted to a halt ten feet from a rusted Dumpster. Hunt looked at his watch. “Three minutes.”
“Why wait?” Yoakum asked.
Hunt ignored the question. “Three minutes.”
Fingers tightened and relaxed. Men stared at their shoes. Cross fingered the heavy sledgehammer. “Right on the lock,” Hunt said. “Then get out of my way.”
Cross nodded. Two minutes later, Yoakum nudged Hunt with an elbow. “Grunge, huh?”
“Not now, Yoakum.” Another minute passed. The first hint of train came like a tide, so thin it was transparent.
“You feel that?” Yoakum asked.
Hunt looked around the dark space. “Here we go.” He tapped the driver on the shoulder. “When I say.”
The driver nodded, and the night air began to swell. A rumble approached from the south, grew deeper, louder. The vibration climbed into an avalanche of sound, and when the whistle cried, one of the men twitched.
“You’re a freaking genius,” Yoakum said.
Hunt put a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “Now.”
The truck ran out of the lot, went left and left again, hit Huron street dead center and tore down its length as dogs lunged and howled and choked on stiff collars. Then they were there. Hunt saw a car in the driveway, one window with a light burning. The van rocked to a halt. The doors split wide and spilled cop all over the street. Yoakum and his men ran for the sides, weapons ready, black boots so lost against the dark earth that they almost seemed to float.
Thirty feet away, the train tore through the night, a thunderclap that shook the earth. Hunt gave the driver one second to catch up, then felt air tear his throat as he ran. Cross came up on his other side, and they took the yard in long strides, ate up the dirt and dead grass until the porch sagged under their weight. Hunt pointed at the space between the door handle and frame, then stepped back, flashlight in one hand, service weapon in the other. He nodded once and didn’t even hear the sledgehammer strike. It burst the door with a spray of desiccated wood and a flash of bright, tortured metal. The caboose flashed past, brought the suck of vacuum and a fading clatter; then Hunt was through.
Inside, a lamp burned above a chair with torn cushions; something fluorescent at the back spread white light near the end of the hall. Hunt checked right, then tracked the gun left. Gaps in the wall showed black rooms and humps of furniture. Something hissed to the left, static from a speaker, the thump of a needle at the end of a long, vinyl groove. Hunt stepped aside and Cross pushed in after him, then the driver. The room was hot and close. Shadows danced on tobacco-colored walls but nothing else moved.
Hunt smelled it first, an oily burn that filled his sinuses. Cross caught his eye as the driver convulsed twice and buried his nose in the crook of his arm. “Steady,” Hunt whispered, then pointed at the dark room to the left and sent the other cops that way. Hunt swung his light into the narrow hall, checked his stride at the door, then stepped into the rank gloom. The space was narrow and felt longer than it should be. Ahead, a sharp edge of white light cut a triangle on the carpet. Hunt called out: “Police. We have a warrant.”
Silent. Still. Hunt moved down the hall and came to a kitchen on his right. A long tube of white flickered over a sink filled with dishes. He checked the room, found an empty liquor bottle, and an open window with a torn screen. He turned his back, moved deeper into the gloom, and saw the smear of blood on Sheetrock. He stepped past an open door, swung his light into the room, and flies exploded from the bodies.
The woman was white, possibly in her thirties, possibly Ronda Jeffries. It was hard to tell because most of her face was gone. She wore filmy lingerie, crusted with blood. One breast hung out, the skin more gray than white. Her face was crushed, jaw broken in two or more places, left eye distended from a shattered orbit. Her torso stretched toward the hall, her legs near the bed. One arm angled above her head, and on that hand two fingers were clearly broken.
The black male was not so horribly disfigured. In life he must have been large; but not now. Now he was reduced. Trapped gas distended his stomach, making his arms and legs look unusually small. His head was staved in on the right side, giving his face a slack, unfinished appearance. He was nude, slumped in an overstuffed chair as if he’d simply decided to sit.
Hunt reached for the wall switch and flicked on the overhead light. It made everything look worse, the violence more complete. Hunt felt the other cops arrive behind him. “Nobody in,” Hunt said.
He knelt by the woman, careful of how he placed his feet. He studied the corpse from the bottom to the top. She had a pedicure, with acrylic beads set into the bright red polish. Calluses on the bottoms of her feet. Legs shaved to the knee. False nails, close to an inch long, made a spike of each finger. No visible scars or tattoos. Thirty-two seemed to be about the right age.
He did the same with the dead man, squatted by the chair and looked him over. Black. Forties. Strong. Maybe six foot two. He had old surgical scars on both knees. No jewelry. Gold fillings. He needed a shave.
Hunt stood. A glance showed work boots by the closet door, jeans, satin briefs the color of candied apples. He found the cinder block beside the bed. “Yoakum.” Hunt gestured and Yoakum crossed the room. Hunt pointed at the cinder block. One side of it was greased with coagulated blood. “I’m thinking that’s the murder weapon.”
“Looks like it.”
Hunt straightened. “Hang on.” He stepped around the dead man’s feet and over the female victim’s arm. The other cops pressed against the open door but Hunt ignored them. He knelt by the door, ran his fingers across the carpet where parallel indentations stretched the length of a cinder block. When he stood, he found Cross at the door.
“What can I do?” Cross asked.
“Tape off the yard and the street. Get Crime Scene and the medical examiner out here.” Hunt rubbed his face. “And find me a Diet Coke.” He caught Cross by the sleeve as he turned. “Not from the refrigerator in this house. And clear this hall.”
Hunt watched the hall empty, sensed Yoakum behind him and turned. Framed against the death and violence, his friend looked flushed and very alive. Hunt looked past him, and when he spoke, he kept his voice low. “It’s early, I know, but I don’t think this was premeditated.”
Hunt flicked a finger toward the base of the door. “Dents in the carpet. It looks like they were using the cinder block for a doorstop.” He shrugged. “Killers with a plan usually bring a weapon.”
“Maybe. Maybe he knew the cinder block would be there.”
“Too early,” Hunt agreed. “You’re right.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Hunt indicated the room with an open palm. “Seal this off until Crime Scene gets here. Canvass the street. Get a cadaver dog out here, just in case.” Hunt stopped speaking, turned into the hall. “Damn!” It came from the gut, an explosion. He slammed a fist into the wall, then stomped into the living room. When Yoakum stepped into the room, Hunt had both palms pressed against the frame of the front door. His forehead made a dull, thumping sound as he tapped it against the wood. “Damn it.” He hit his head harder.
“If you want to bleed,” Yoakum said. “There are better ways.”
Hunt turned, put his back against the splintered door. He knew that his face was naked. “This is not right.”
“Murder never is.”
“She was supposed to be here, John.” Hunt felt a sudden need for fresh air. He tore open the door, tossed words over his shoulder with something like hate. “It was supposed to end today.”
“All of it. Everything.”
Yoakum didn’t get it, but then he did.
The hell that Hunt was living through.
His life as he knew it.
The old station wagon coasted to a halt on a bent strip of narrow black. The road was empty, a dark, lonely stretch beyond the edge of town, bracketed by forest and quiet. Johnny eyed the house, where dim light pushed out from one of the windows. Two weeks had passed since the last time he was here, but the same vehicles rusted under the same trees, the same beer can balanced on the mailbox.
The house itself was a bare hint: a yellow gleam and a collection of hard edges that didn’t seem to line up properly. A rotten-sweet poison seeped in from the dump a mile away. In daylight, the crows flocked and a distant gun barked as the junkman shot rats and cans. At night, the crickets called; but sometimes, for no reason, they fell silent. It was as if the world suddenly closed its mouth. Johnny always froze in that silence, and the air around him felt breathless and cold. Johnny dreamed of that sensation more than he cared to admit, but still he came.
Burton Jarvis was on the list because he was a recidivist. That was the biggest word Johnny knew: it meant, sick motherfucker likely to do it again. He was a registered sex offender who made his money stuffing gut-shot deer and hauling refuse on a flatbed trailer. His nickname was Jar, as in: “Look at the size of this freaking buck, Jar. Think you can stuff one that big?”
Jar didn’t have what Johnny would consider friends, but a few men came by more than once. They passed computer discs between filthy palms and made small talk about how Thailand was still the best place to get laid. Johnny had found those men, too. Where they lived. Where they worked.
They were on his list.
One guy came more than the others. Sometimes he had a gun, and sometimes not. Tall and wiry and old, he had eager, shiny eyes and long fingers. He and Jar drank liquor from the same bottle and talked about stuff they’d done outside some village in Vietnam. They got all smoke-eyed when they talked about a girl they called Small Yellow. They’d spent three days with her in a strafed-out hut full of her dead family. Small Yellow, they’d say, bottle going up, one head shaking. Fucking shame.
Their laughter was not nice at all.
It took Johnny two trips to become suspicious about the shed behind Jar’s house. It sat at the end of a narrow footpath through dense trees, hidden from the road and from the house. The walls were cinder block, the windows nailed shut and packed tight with pink insulation and black plastic. Johnny could not see in. Light never came out. The lock was half the size of Johnny’s head.
That’s where he went first.
By six o’clock the bodies were bagged. Hunt stood on the porch as the stretchers clattered through the door, the black vinyl looking awkward and slick. He eyed the street and the yard, both colorless under a dull, dark sky. The sun had yet to rise, but he felt it coming. Gray light gathered on treetops beyond the tracks and the eastern sky showed the barest hint of something new. Cop cars were all over the place, blocking off the street, angled at the curb. The medical examiner’s van sat at the edge of the yard, back end yawning wide. A dusting of reporters stood behind yellow tape, but it was the neighbors that Hunt studied the hardest. The street left a narrow footprint. Small lots pushed the houses together. Somebody knew something. They had to. His eyes cut back and forth, lingered on an old white man in a yellowed shirt, a black kid with shifty eyes, gang colors, and homemade tats. He studied a wide-faced woman with pendulous breasts and a child in each arm. She lived next door but claimed to know nothing.
Didn’t hear nothing.
Eyes full of hate.
Didn’t see nothing.
One of the department’s canine handlers appeared around the side of the house, his clothing smeared with filth, his face drawn. The dog, a black-coated mongrel, pressed against his thigh. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth as it gazed, unblinking, at the body bags. His handler shook his head. “Nothing in the crawl space or on the grounds. If there’s another body, it’s elsewhere.”
“You’re positive of that?” Hunt asked.
“Absolutely.” He thumped the dog’s head with an open palm.
Hunt felt something like relief, but was loath to put too much faith in the feeling. Just because Tiffany Shore was not here did not mean that she was still alive. He remained viscerally aware of the bodies behind him. “No chance that these threw the dog off?” He gestured at the bags.
“No chance at all.”
Hunt nodded. “Okay, Mike. Thanks for checking.”
The handler made a clicking sound with his mouth and the dog followed him out.
Nothing. They had nothing. Hunt thought about what Johnny Merrimon had said about the girl they’d found in Colorado: walled up in a hole dug into the side of the cellar, caged for a year with a mattress, a bucket, and a candle. Disgust was an organ in Hunt’s gut. The more he thought about it, the more that organ churned. He tried to imagine if he’d been the cop to find that girl. What would he have done first: Would he have lifted her from that stained mattress or put six rounds in the bastard’s face? He wondered if he could do it, forget seventeen years of cop and just pull the trigger.
More than maybe.
Hunt watched Trenton Moore secure the bodies in the back of his van. The medical examiner looked like Hunt felt: tired and gray, stretched as thin as the morning light. When he stepped back onto the porch, Hunt smelled coffee and formaldehyde, a morgue smell. “Sorry to give you two more so quickly,” Hunt told him.
Moore waved it off. “I was going to call you anyway,” he said. “I have a preliminary workup on David Wilson.”
“That was quick.”
“What can I say? I love my job.”
Hunt stepped to the far side of the porch, away from the door and the foot traffic. Moore followed him. “Talk to me.”
“He was alive when he came over the rail. The boy told us that, and my findings are consistent. Most of the obvious injuries, you saw. Broken leg and arm; multiple fractures, actually. Full details will be in the final report. Extensive abrasions from contact with the concrete and the ground. Fractured orbit on the left side. He had seven crushed ribs, also on the left side, massive trauma to his internal organs, internal bleeding, a punctured lung; but none of these things killed him.”
“I found a single large contusion on his throat.” Moore indicated the front of his own throat, just above the collarbone. “The larynx was crushed, the esophagus. Massive weight was applied until the entire airway was damaged to the point of total obstruction.” A pause. “He suffocated, Detective.”
“But he was alive when Johnny left him. Breathing, able to speak.”
“The contusion on his throat has a pattern. It’s extremely vague, only visible under magnification and not enough to take an impression or get any kind of match, but it’s definitely there.”
Moore’s expression was pained. “A tread pattern.”
Hunt felt sweat cool on his neck.
“Somebody stepped on his throat, Detective. Somebody stood on his throat until he was dead.”
Moore’s report changed the tone of the Hunt’s morning. It implied a viciousness that seemed colder, somehow, more cruel and personal.
Hunt walked into the house, unsettled and angry. The bodies were gone, but the black dawn felt darker still. At twenty-five minutes after six, Hunt’s phone rang. It was his son. Hunt recognized the number and flinched. With all that was going on, he’d not thought of the boy. Not even once. “Hello, Allen.”
“You didn’t come home.”
Hunt moved back onto the porch. He looked at the flat, gray sky, pictured his son’s face. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“You coming home for breakfast?”
Hunt’s guilt intensified. The kid was trying to make things right between them. “I can’t.”
Silence then. “Of course not.”
Hunt’s fingers tightened on the phone. He felt his son slipping away, but had no idea what to do about it. “Son. About last night…”
“I would not have hit you.” Hunt heard breath on the line, then the kid disconnected. Damn. Hunt pocketed the phone and put his eyes back on the idlers. They watched the van with dark fascination; all of them except one. The old man in the stained shirt stood on the tracks, one hand clutching the waist of his ragged pants. His eyes drooped enough to show red skin at the bottom lids, and his other hand shook with a palsy as he sucked on a damp cigarette. He stared at Hunt, then gestured with a curl of his fingers.
“Yoakum,” Hunt said, and Yoakum stuck his head through the door. “I’ll be back.” Hunt indicated the man on the tracks, and Yoakum studied the decrepit figure.
“You need backup?”
“Fuck off, Yoakum.”
The bank crumbled under Hunt’s feet as he climbed to the tracks. Smoke curled around the wine-dark root of the old man’s nose, and, up close, Hunt saw that the palsy infected much of his body. He stood seven inches over five feet, bent at the shoulders and tilted right, as if that leg was too short. White hair rose in the breeze. He held out a hand, and his voice made Hunt think of soda crackers. “Can I have a dollar?”
Hunt studied the hand, saw the faded tattoo on the back of it. “How about five?” The old man tracked the bill out of the wallet, took it, and slipped it into one of his pockets. He licked chalky lips and flicked his eyes down the bank on the opposite side of the tracks. Following the gaze, Hunt spotted a tattered green tarp slung in the low brush beyond the kudzu. It faded into the trees, almost invisible. He saw a pile of empty cans, a ring of blackened earth. The man was homeless.
A raw and sudden fear flared in the man’s eyes. Tension put new creases in the hollowed-out cheeks. “It’s okay,” Hunt told him. “No problems.” He took out another bill and the old man’s head bobbed as he cackled, a rasp of noise that ended in a hacking cough. Something brown hit one of the gleaming rails. Hunt had to look away, and when he did he saw the bottles scattered down the bank. Cheap wines, forty-ounce beers, a few pint bottles of inexpensive bourbon. “Did you see what happened here?” Hunt asked, pointing at the house.
The man looked vacant, then lost and afraid. He turned away and Hunt caught him by the reed of his arm. He kept his voice soft. “Sir. You motioned to me. Remember?”
The old man shifted in place, fingers curled and yellow at the tips. “Sh…? sh…? she liked to walk around naked.” He gestured to the bathroom window. “She was laughing at me.” One eye twitched. “F… fucking bitch.”
Hunt spoke with care. “Are you referring to Ronda Jeffries?”
The man’s chin made a violent twitch, but he didn’t seem to understand the question.
“Are you alright?” Hunt asked.
Both arms rose. “Ain’t I king of the world?” He made as if to walk off, and Hunt put two fingers on the hard bone of his shoulder.
“Sir, can you tell me what happened here?”
The man’s left eye closed. “I just saw the shovel,” he said, and stood on one foot to scratch his calf with the front edge of his shoe. “He got that shovel.” He pointed. “Got it right out of that shed.”
“Do you mean Levi Freemantle? Black male. Three hundred pounds.” Hunt looked at the shed. When he looked back, the man’s face had gone slack again. “Sir, you were saying?”
“What do you want?” He waved a hand as if chasing flies from his face. “I don’t know you.” He turned and shambled off down the tracks, looked back once, then swatted at more imaginary flies.
Hunt sighed. “Cross,” he called, and waved him up the slope.
“Yes, sir?” Cross appeared on the tracks.
“Go get him,” Hunt said. “He may have seen something. Maybe not. See what you can get, but go easy. When you finish, call Social Services and the veteran’s hospital. Get them out here to help this guy.”
Hunt gestured at the back of his right hand. “He has a tattoo. USN. The guy’s a sailor. Show him some respect.”
When Hunt made it back to the front porch, Yoakum stuck his head out again. “I think you ought to see this,” he said.
“You remember the empty room on the southwest corner?”
“The bedroom?” Hunt asked, picturing it in his head. It was a small bedroom, stripped bare. A yellow shade in the window. Tape marks on the wall. It was remarkable only in its emptiness. “What about it?”
Yoakum’s voice dropped. “You just need to see it.”
Hunt followed Yoakum through the house. He pushed past technicians collecting prints, a photographer in a police jacket. Two uniformed cops made room for him as he approached the room. “It’s in the closet.” Yoakum opened the closet door and flicked the switch. Light spilled out, filling the closet, making its white walls seem brighter than they were. The picture, drawn with crayons on the back wall, was seven feet tall, childish and distorted. The man was outlined in black, had red lips, wide purple pants, and tremendous, stick-finger hands. The brown eyes were perfectly round, as if traced around the bottom of a mason jar. A series of lines rippled across the right side of his face, but looked sinuous and nonthreatening. He clutched a little girl to his chest and waved one hand, as if at a friend in the distance. The girl had oval eyes and a ribbon in her hair, a speck of pink almost lost against his wide chest. She had one hand up and wore a yellow skirt. Her smile was a violent gash of red.
“What the hell?”
“Exactly,” Yoakum replied. “That is exactly what I said.”
Hunt scanned the rest of the room. “No other drawings?”
“Somebody has to know something.”
“We’ve canvassed the neighborhood, but they won’t talk to cops. Not on this street.”
“Is there any sign that a girl was held in this house?”
“The room’s been cleaned,” Yoakum offered. “That’s odd in itself. The rest of the place is disgusting.”
Hunt played his eyes over the bare walls, noted the spots where tape had been ripped off. The marks were angled, as if to hold sheets of paper by the corners. Hunt started in one corner and moved slowly along each wall. He studied the stained Sheetrock, the floor. He found crayon marks on the walls. There was not another picture, no kind of design. He found random squiggles and short, hard lines, like someone had drawn off the paper’s edge. He looked behind the yellow shade, then stooped for something in the far corner. He picked it up by the edges, and Yoakum came over to examine it. “Is that a button?” he asked.
Hunt tilted it, squinted. “It came off a stuffed animal.”
Hunt looked closer. “I think it’s an eye.” He held out a hand. “Give me a bag.” Yoakum passed over a plastic bag. Hunt placed the plastic eye in the bag and sealed it. “I want this room dusted.” Hunt stood.
“Where are you going?” Yoakum asked.
“I’m tired of this shit.”
Hunt stormed out of the house and onto the porch. People still stood in tight knots, captivated by the sight of cops who presented no actual threat. Looking at them, at their complacence and their disregard, Hunt felt his anger boil into rage. Pitching his voice to carry, Hunt said, “I want to talk to someone who knows what has been going on in this house.” People froze. Blankness dropped into every single face. He’d seen it a million times. “People are dead. A girl is missing. Can anyone tell me what has been going on in this house?”
Hunt’s eyes found those of the angry woman with a child on each hip. He focused on her because she was a mother, and because she lived right next door. “Anything might help.” The woman stared, face cold and distant. Hunt panned the crowd, saw the anger and distrust. “A girl is missing!”
But he was a cop on the wrong street. He saw a paint can at the corner of the porch, label gone white, lid rusted shut. With a violence that surprised him, Hunt kicked the can. It arced into the yard, struck dirt, and exploded in a belch of gray. Hunt stared at the splatter, and when he looked up, he saw the Chief standing at the curb. He was fresh at the scene; his car still idled. He stood at the open door, arms crossed, frowning, his gaze intent on Hunt. Their eyes locked for a long second, then the Chief shook his head. Slowly. Resignedly.
Hunt counted two heartbeats, then turned for the open door.
The smell of death rolled over him.
Burton Jarvis left the shed at twenty minutes past six. He’d been up all night, strung out on tequila and speed, and now a fuse burned behind his eyes, something hot and bright. Something like fear. He was angry and unsatisfied, full of sharp regret that had nothing to do with right and wrong. His mind spun on ideas of consequence and risk, the knowledge of things he probably shouldn’t have done. Things that could get him caught.
He swayed in the damp gray space beneath the trees, felt the slash of grin spread on his face.
The smile wilted as he manipulated the big lock, died when the sweat sprang out on his skin. He staggered down the path from the shed to the house. His eyeballs itched, and it felt like somebody had poured wax into his sinuses.
Jar was not a nice man. He knew this about himself, but did not care. In fact, he took a perverse pride in watching young mothers drag their children into traffic just to avoid passing him on the sidewalk. After nine arrests and thirteen years behind bars, caring for his own needs had become his religion. He was sixty-eight, with bristled hair, two loose teeth, and eyes like raw oysters. Three packs a day kept him lean; the drugs and booze kept him out of prison. They dulled the edge, took the sting out of the places his mind liked to travel. With enough dope, he could get through the day.
Jar kept a ramshackle house on twelve acres at the edge of town. The two-lane slithered past on its way to the landfill. In the front yard he had trees and dirt, a nineteen-year-old Pontiac, and a truck that spewed black smoke. In back, he had barrels of empty bottles and a ditch filled with trash.
And he had the shed. It sat on the back of the property, in a patch of woods so deep and dense he could have grown it just to serve this one purpose: to hide his shed. It was not on any tax map or plat. There was no permit. There was the shed, two miles of woods, and then there was the river.
Jar had seen the kid before, of course: a flash in the window, a blip of color in the deep brush. He had no idea what the little shit wanted, but had almost caught him once. He’d seen the boy at a rear window, then slipped out the front door and come up quiet and slick. He got a handful of hair but the kid tore free before he could snag a meaty part. Jar had chased him for a quarter mile before his lungs revolted. He remembered the moment, though: on his knees in the dirt, yelling with what breath he could find: Come back here again and I’ll kill you. I will fucking kill you.
But the kid had come back, twice that Jar knew about. He never expected to see him like this. Not in broad daylight.
The car was what caught his eye first. It was parked along the side of the road, its leftmost tires all but in the ditch. Jar saw a slice of dull chrome through the trees and stepped out onto his porch. He was in underwear, stretched around the legs and old, but he didn’t care. This was a barren street, the nearest neighbor more than a quarter mile away. Cars came by on the way to the dump, kids dragged loud cars, but that was about it. This was his patch of heaven, and he did whatever the hell he wanted to do. Besides, it was early. The sun hadn’t even cleared the trees.
What the hell was a car doing parked in front of his house?
Most people knew better.
He reached inside and caught the bat where it leaned against the doorjamb. It had dents and scars from a time he beat the television to death over a fumble in a playoff game. Jar staggered when he hit the bottom step, his lower back full of dull pain and the odd sharp needle. Trees leaned into him as he walked. A branch took a swipe and peeled some skin off his cheek.
He hit it with the bat, almost fell down.
The car was an old wagon: yellow paint, wood-grain panels. It had bald tires and weather stripping sprung from two of the windows. It looked empty. Jar stopped at the end of his dirt drive and put bleary eyes up the road and down. Nobody coming. Nothing on the road but the wagon. The blacktop was warm and smooth, the bat busted up and full of splinters. It scraped against his leg and drove slivers of wood under the skin. He stopped and saw pinpricks of blood that looked as bright as candy on the white, hairless meat of his calf.
The car windows were down, the boy curled up on the front seat. He had on filthy jeans and ragged sneakers, feathers or something around his neck. That was weird. His chest and shoulders were bare and streaked with what looked like soot. His face was the same as Jar had seen at the window, smudged and thin and up to no good. He lay on his side, asleep, and Jar could already feel his fingers around the boy’s bony neck.
This was the kid. The sneak that had Jar looking over his shoulder every other night. Jar flicked his gaze up and down the road, looked back into the car. He saw binoculars on the floor, a half-empty bottle of water and a goddamn camera. What the hell was the camera for? The kid had a knife in his hand, a pocketknife, folded open.
Jar would have laughed, but he was too busy doing the math.
Nobody in sight. Thirty seconds to get the kid out of the car, another minute to get him behind the house.
It was doable.
But he was drunk and sloppy, worn-out; and people like Jar did not do well in prison. Plus, there was the car to worry about. He’d have to ditch it fast and untraceable. If the kid put up a fight, it would get ugly. Jar had a temper-he didn’t deny that. There was the risk of somebody on the road: a random driver. The way the road bent, cars could pop up plenty quick. If somebody saw him dragging some boy out of a car, they’d call the cops for sure. And the cops were already riled up about the missing girl.
And luck only went so far.
A battle raged in Jar’s mind. This was the kid, and he knew something. He had to. Otherwise, why’d he keep turning up? Just the sight of him made Jar’s skin itch. There was something about this kid…
But Jar had a good thing going. He had liquor and space, long nights to remember other days. He had his shed and the occasional opportunity. Two good miles of empty woods.
But only if he was careful.
He rocked on the smooth tar, felt the fear begin to win. There was too much going on. He was drunk and unsteady.
But it was the same boy.
Jar realized that he’d been staring at the kid for over a minute, standing and staring in his underwear on a public road. That’s what made up his mind. His thoughts were ticking slowly, and that made for trouble. He’d learned that one the hard way. Nine arrests and thirteen years, all from stupid mistakes. Forget that. He’d get the plate number and find the kid later.
But the boy opened his eyes. He blinked once, started screaming.
Jar went through the window like a rat down a hole.
Johnny woke to a nightmare stained gray. He saw the sky through glass, then dishwater eyes dashed with blood, fingers tipped with yellow plaster. He knew it was a nightmare because he’d seen it before-same face, same broken nails. Johnny blinked, but nothing changed. The dirty man stood there, fingers going tight, and Johnny realized where he was. The scream tore out of his throat and Burton Jarvis came through the window so fast Johnny barely had time to move. He shoved himself away, but bone-hard fingers caught an ankle. Johnny screamed again and Jar grunted, the sound coming from the same deep, foul place of Johnny’s dreams. Another hand closed around his ankle, and Johnny flew across the seat.
He lashed out with the knife, cut one arm and then the other. Red lines appeared, then opened, and Johnny tried to cut him again; he jerked Johnny so hard his head slammed into the wheel. The door clanked, and then Johnny was on the street. His head struck pavement. A foot slammed down on his hand and the knife clattered away.
He tried to get under the car, but Jar caught him by the neck and flipped him onto his back. Gravel dug into his skull. The fingers squeezed and Johnny felt a long line of ice form on his chest. For an instant, it was that cold, but then the heat came, the pain, and Johnny knew that he’d been cut with his own knife. Jar screamed in his face, dirty words and insanity, ropes of spit. Another cold line opened and turned to fire. Johnny was dying, he knew it. The old bastard was killing him on the street.
The knife flashed. “You like that?”
He cut Johnny again.
“You like that, you little bastard?”
He was insane, raging; then the sky thundered and he was flying, a red flower on his chest. Sound compressed Johnny’s eardrums, the cotton push of thunder and the wet thump Jar’s body made when it hit pavement. Johnny closed his eyes and saw how the old man had come off the ground, the whiplash that left a strand of spit in the air. None of it made sense, but it hung there-fresh paint on Johnny’s mind-then the pain hit. Johnny sat and agony sheeted his chest. His hand came up stinging red. He looked at his fingers, then away. He saw the bottom of Jar’s feet. A twitch in the old man’s leg.
A stone rasped on the street behind Johnny. He saw the gun first, big and black and shaking in fingers squeezed white. They were small fingers, grimed at the nails. Her arms were skinny, the muscles taut and barely able to hold the gun. The muzzle cut wild circles in the air. A dirty blue shirt hung to her knees. Jar’s name was on a patch over the pocket. There was an oil stain and a button missing near the bottom. Handcuffs clattered on her wrists. Her lips bled where she bit them.
She did not look at Johnny as she stepped past him. She looked at Burton Jarvis, whose leg still thumped, whose fingers curled.
Johnny understood. “Tiffany.”
She ignored him. He saw the welts on her legs, the angry gashes under bright cuffs. “Tiffany, don’t.”
Her thumbs found the hammer. Metal clicked twice, and Jar’s leg went still. When Johnny stood, he could see Jar’s face, the eyes wide and silver. The old man’s hand rose. “Don’t,” he said.
Blood rolled from one nostril and trembled on the edge of Tiffany’s lip.
She was going to do it.
“I need to talk to him.” Johnny lifted his hands. “He knows where my sister is.”
Tiffany hesitated. Blood ran from her lip to one perfect tooth. Her arms straightened.
“No,” Johnny said.
But she pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through Jar’s palm and blew through his teeth. The head rose and bounced. The leg went still.
Tiffany sat down on the road and stared into space. She placed the gun beside her as Jar’s blood pooled against her leg. Johnny ran to the old man’s side and dropped to his knees. He grabbed Jar’s shattered head as if he could hold in all of the things that leaked out, but the eyes were dull and empty, the silver turned to lead. For a second, Johnny saw black, and then he screamed. “Where is she?” He screamed the question, kept screaming it, and then he was beating Jar’s head against the road, slamming it until the sound went from hard to wet. Eventually Johnny stopped.
He was too late.
Levi woke disoriented, vision blurred, and it was the sound of a gunshot that woke him. He didn’t think it was close, but sound did funny things on the river. The gunshot could have come from anywhere.
He blinked until his vision cleared. There was the memory of pain, and when he tried to sit, the pain woke up, too. Something sawed at his gut, and when he put his hand there, it came back red. He looked and saw the end of a broken branch sticking out of his stomach. It was as thick as a pool cue, a jagged stump of wood that jutted out on the right side, just below his bottom rib. He put a finger on the rough end of it and felt it move deep inside him. He blinked back tears and tried to pull it out.
The next time he woke up, he knew better, so he left it alone. It hurt when he moved, but not so bad he couldn’t move at all. He had to not think about it-so he thought about not thinking. He struggled to his knees, placed his forehead on the box, and spread out his hands. He asked God for the strength to go another day, to do what needed doing. He felt sure that God would talk to him, but when he opened his eyes, he saw a crow on a limb. Black-eyed and unmoving, it stared at the box, and Levi felt a stab of fear. He didn’t trust the birds. They were too still, too intent on the doings of people. And there were stories about crows, stories from his grandmother’s grandmother, from way back-stories of crows and the souls of the newly dead.
Tales of souls that twisted and burned on the long fall down.
Levi spread his hands and leaned protectively above the box. For a long second, the crow considered him, then flapped to the top of another tree. Its trunk was charred from a lightning strike, and the fork on the river side had gone dead to white. The bird landed among a dozen of its kin, called once, and fell quiet. Not a single feather moved. They looked at Levi, and cold touched his heart. It was a murder of crows on a crown of dead wood. He heard it like a whisper.
A murder of crows.
The voice startled him. It was not God’s voice. It was oily smooth and sweet. It filled his head and put the taste of sugar in his mouth. He tried to stand, and pain ripped through him again as his ankle crumpled. He bit down hard, then rolled onto his back. Hot air rose around him, and when he looked up, the birds took wing in a rustle and flap that made the dead wood groan. Levi gripped the ankle and felt the wrongness of it, the cantaloupe of swollen flesh. It was sprained, maybe broken, and he guessed it must have happened in his dash down the riverbed. He’d not even felt it. But he felt it now; he pushed on his foot and felt the blade in his nerves, so sharp and eager it made him cry.
He looked at a slash of gunmetal sky and heard the same strange whisper.
A murder of crows.
The voice scared him. “Where are you?” he pleaded, and he was talking to God. But no one answered. The sky was empty of crows, and the dead wood still moved, up and down, side to side, long after the birds had gone.
It took Levi an hour to find the courage to try and walk again. When the same blade went off in his ankle, he decided he had to crawl. So that’s what he did, along the bank, upriver, weeping soft as he pulled the box behind him.
The hospital parking lot could not handle all of the news trucks. They’d packed in so dense that Charlie had to fight to keep a lane open in case an ambulance needed to deliver a patient. That was Charlie’s job, guarding the parking lot, tending to the door and keeping people out. He stood under the portico, blinking under the bright lights.
This was his fifth interview.
He raised an arm, heedless of the crowd, eyes on the reporter from Channel Four. She was as pretty in real life as she was on television. She looked like a movie poster. “Right there,” Charlie pointed. “The car came in that entrance, all erratic-like. Weaving. It hit that piece of concrete, bounced off, then ended up here.” Charlie moved his arm again, pointing to the place he stood. “Luckily, I’m quick on my feet.”
The reporter nodded, and her face showed none of her doubt. Charlie carried enough belly for three men. “Go on,” she said.
Charlie scratched at a thin spot on his head. “Well, that was about it,” he offered.
The reporter smiled so brightly, Charlie felt the glow. “It was Johnny Merrimon behind the wheel?”
“That’s right. I remembered his face from last year. Hard to forget it, really. They had pictures of his twin sister up pretty much everywhere. They look just alike. He was all cut up, though, and dirty. The car was just full of blood.”
The reporter cut her eyes to the camera. “Johnny would be thirteen…”
“Had no business being behind the wheel…”
“But the girl with him was Tiffany Shore.”
Charlie nodded. “The one that went missing. Yes. That was her. She was in the newspaper, too.”
“Did Tiffany appear to be injured?” A light kindled in the reporter’s eyes. Painted lips parted to show the glisten of her perfect teeth.
Charlie took his hand off of his head. “Don’t know about injured. She was handcuffed and out of it. Bawling. Started screaming when we tried to get her out of the car. She wouldn’t let go of Johnny’s arm.”
“And what about Johnny Merrimon. What was his state?”
“His state? Damn. He looked like a wild Indian.”
“A wild Indian?”
The reporter shoved the microphone closer. Charlie swallowed, took his eyes from her mouth. “Yeah. He’s got that jet black hair, you know, and those black eyes. He’s lean as a ferret, and didn’t have no shirt on. Had feathers and bones around his neck-I saw a skull, swear to God, a skull-and his face was done up all black and red, kind of striped.” He made a motion with spread fingers. “You know, like face paint.”
The reporter became excited. “War paint?”
“He just looked dirty to me. Dirty and white-eyed and wild, breathing like he’d just run ten miles.”
“Was he injured?”
“Cut up, mostly. Sliced, I’d call it. Just sliced and all covered with blood and dirt. He had trouble letting go of the wheel. They had to pull him out of the car, too. It was a mess, I’ll tell you.” He nodded. “A mess.”
She pushed the microphone closer. “Is it your understanding that Johnny Merrimon saved Tiffany Shore from the man who’d abducted her?”
“I don’t know about that.” He paused to stare at the reporter’s cleavage. “Neither one of them looked very saved to me.”
Hunt stood in the bright hall, his reflection a twisted curve in the gleam of the well-scrubbed floor. A vein thumped in his temple, and a hot, acid flush rose from his chest. He was talking to his boss, the chief of police, and trying hard not to lay the man out.
“How in hell did you miss it?” The Chief was a slope-shouldered man with an expanding waistline, a reputation for intolerance, and a politician’s instinct for survival. Normally, he had the sense to stay out of Hunt’s way, but this was not a normal day. “For God’s sake, Hunt, the man’s a known pedophile.”
Hunt counted silently to three. A doctor passed, then a thin nurse with an empty gurney. “We interviewed him twice. He gave us permission to search his home and we did. It was clean. He’s not the only known offender. There were others deemed higher risk. Manpower is limited.”
“That’s not good enough.”
Hunt ticked off points on a finger. “His last offense was nineteen years ago. He’s been off probation for sixteen of those years. There are other registered offenders with worse records, and no way for us to know about the shed. No permits or utilities. Nothing on the tax maps. It’s off the grid, totally dark. There could be ten thousand sheds just like it in this county and we’d never know. Then there’s Levi Freemantle. I’ve never seen a lead that looked more solid. David Wilson said he found the girl. Freemantle’s print was on Wilson’s body-”
“I’m being crucified out there.” The Chief stabbed a finger toward the front of the hospital. “On national television.”
“Well, that’s beyond my control.”
The Chief’s eyes narrowed. His voice fell dangerously. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“They want to know how that kid found Tiffany Shore when we couldn’t. He’s thirteen, for God’s sake, and they want to make him a hero.”
“We don’t know what happened out there.”
“I look like an idiot! And speaking of the kid, thanks, too, for giving Ken Holloway an excuse to chew on my ass. I’ve had four calls from city hall. Four, including two from the mayor. Holloway is making serious allegations. He’s threatening a lawsuit.”
Hunt’s anger kicked up a notch. “He assaulted one of your officers. You should care about that.”
“Cry me a river, Hunt. He put a finger on your chest.”
“He was interfering with my investigation.”
“Interfering with something.” The Chief’s face made it plain that words were left unsaid.
Hunt’s shoulders squared. “What does that mean?”
“Holloway maintains that you have a personal interest in Katherine Merrimon. An emotional interest.”
“Is it? He says you’ve been harassing him. He says you antagonized him.”
“He was becoming aggressive. I acted as I saw fit.”
“Officer Taylor confirmed Holloway’s side of it.”
“She would never say that.”
“She didn’t have to say it, you idiot. In her small but entire life, Officer Taylor has never been able to hide an honest emotion. I just had to ask the question.”
Hunt stepped away, and the Chief continued. “What I care about is how your actions reflect on me, so I’m going to ask you straight out. Do you have a thing for Katherine Merrimon?”
“Just tell me what you want me to do.”
“I want you to answer the damn question.”
“The question is despicable.”
Seconds stretched. The Chief was breathing hard. “Maybe you should take some time off.”
The Chief pushed out another hard breath, and for an instant he looked sympathetic. “Look, Clyde. We never found Alyssa. And the way this case has unfolded… people are asking questions.”
The same look of sympathy. “About your competence. I’ve told you before, you take these matters too personally.”
“No more so than any other cop would.”
“This morning, you were yelling at a crowd of bystanders. You kicked a paint can all over your own crime scene.” The Chief looked away, then shook his head. “It’s been a long year. I think you need a break.”
“Are you firing me?”
“I’m asking you to take a few weeks off. A month at most.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
The sympathy vanished. The anger surged back. “Then let me tell you what you are going to do. First of all, you’re going to take any heat that comes from this entire, screwed-up business. If the press wants a whipping boy, I intend to give them you, and I expect you to take it. Same thing with city government. Same thing with Tiffany Shore’s parents.”
“Why would I agree to that?”
“Because I’ve been carrying you for a year.”
“Second.” He raised his voice, slapped two fingers into an open palm. “I want you to back off Ken Holloway. The man has more money than God, more friends in high places than either of us could dream up, and I don’t need that kind of headache. Other than sleeping with a woman that apparently holds some interest for you, he’s never done an evil thing in his life, far as I can tell. No arrests. No charges of any kind. So if he wants to put his finger on your chest, you take it like a man. And if he wants to slum it with Katherine Merrimon”-the Chief put one finger squarely on Hunt’s chest, shoved hard-“you let him.”
Hunt watched the Chief storm off. He was a little man, with a little man’s priorities, and Hunt had larger concerns; so he buried the conversation, flushed it. Forgot it.
Ah, crap. Who was he kidding?
Threading his way through the winding corridors, he eventually reached the pediatric hall where they’d placed Johnny. Hunt was not allowed to see the boy, but he hoped to find the doctor and a change of heart. What he found instead was an austere woman who sat, knees clenched together, on a bench down the hall from Johnny’s room. She had gray hair, pulled back, and a severely cut suit. Hunt recognized her.
The woman caught his eye and began to rise, but he turned away before she could say anything. He made it to the lobby, but stopped when he heard Katherine’s voice. “Detective Hunt?”
Standing beside the elevator bank, she looked like hell. Hunt crossed to her side, and they found themselves strangely alone in the crowded room. “Katherine,” Hunt said. “How’s Johnny?”
She rubbed one arm, then lifted hair from her eyes and Hunt saw that she was on the verge of a breakdown. “Not good. He was cut seven times, two of them pretty deep.” She traced a finger beneath each eye before the tears spilled out. “It took two hundred and six stitches to close the wounds. He’ll be scarred for life.”
Hunt looked beyond her. “Is he awake?”
“Not now. He was, briefly.”
“Did he say anything at all?”
“He asked about Alyssa. He wanted to know if we found her.” Hunt looked away, but she put a hand on his arm. “Is it the same man?”
She was asking if Burton Jarvis was the man who took her daughter. “It’s too early to say.”
“Is it?” She squeezed, and Hunt saw the hope and dread that filled her up.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’re looking into it. We’re checking. When I know something, you’ll know it, too. I promise.”
She bobbed her head. “I should get back… in case he wakes up.”
She made to leave and Hunt stopped her. He thought hard before he spoke. “Katherine.”
“Social Services is going to want to speak with you.”
“DSS? I don’t understand.”
“Johnny was gone all night. In your car. He was almost killed by a known pedophile.” Hunt paused. “I don’t think they’ll let Johnny stay with you.”
“I don’t understand.” Then, quickly, “I won’t allow it.”
“He came in wearing feathers. He had rattlesnake rattles and a skull on a string around his neck. I don’t know a judge that would let him stay with you. You’ve seen the press outside? That’s national media. CNN. FOX. They’re calling him the Little Chief, the Wild Indian. It’s a story now, and that makes it political. DSS will take action because they have no choice.”
The defiance melted. “What can I do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Please.” Her fingers tightened on his arm. “Please.”
Hunt looked up and down the room. In seventeen years, he’d never crossed the line, but here it was, as clear as any line he’d ever seen. In full control of himself, Hunt stepped over it. Why? Because some things mattered more.
“They’ll do a full evaluation,” he said. “That starts with a surprise inspection of your home.”
“You need to go home now. You need to clean up.” Her hand moved up, touched a strand of limp hair. Hunt paused, but some things had to hurt. “You need to lose the drugs.”
Hunt stopped her. “Please don’t lie to me, Katherine. Right now, I’m your friend, not a cop. I’m one friend trying to help another.”
She held his gaze for as long as she could, then looked down.
“Katherine, look at me.” She tilted her face, and it was naked in the harsh light. “Trust me.”
She blinked away dewdrop tears, and her words came with effort. “I need a ride.”
Hunt peered through the glass doors, took in the crowd. The reporters. The cameras. He found Katherine’s hand with his own. “This way.” Hunt led her down successive corridors, onto an elevator, then outside through a double door at the back marked FOR DELIVERIES ONLY. “Car’s this way.”
“What about my car?”
Twenty feet into the hot sun, she took back her hand. “I can manage.” But when they got to the car, Hunt saw that she clearly could not. A flush burned her cheeks and her fingers twisted white. She pressed against the door and kept her head down.
At her house, Hunt pulled the car as close to her door as he could. “Do you have money for a cab? To get back to the hospital?” She nodded. “My number?”
She swept hair from her face, met his gaze, and some small pride glinted in her eyes. “I have several of your cards.” She opened her door and heat spilled in. He watched her legs swing away, her hand on the top of the door. When she leaned in, her voice was clipped. “I love my son, detective.”
“I’m a good mother.”
She was trying to convince herself, but the wide pits at the center of her eyes made the statement a lie. Johnny was in the hospital, and she was still stoned. “I know you are,” Hunt said; but that’s not what he believed.
I know you were.
I hope you will be again.
Hunt put the car in reverse.
She stood in the dirt and watched him go.
Thirty minutes later, Hunt was at the shed, working the scene with Yoakum and several techs. His back was to the house. “Heads up,” Yoakum told him.
Hunt looked down the trail and saw the Chief push through the last bit of low vegetation. Two assistants followed him. A uniform held branches out of his way. “I just did this,” Hunt said.
“Good things come in fat packages.”
Hunt crossed his arms over his chest. If the Chief decided to check up, that was fine, but Hunt wasn’t going to look happy about it. The Chief stopped fifteen feet away to survey the scene, hands on hips, chin at an angle.
“Did he see this in a movie?” Yoakum whispered.
“Button it, John.”
“It’s Patton. Shit. The man thinks he’s George C. Scott.”
The Chief lurched into motion and closed the last gap, his small entourage bunching up behind him. He nodded once to Yoakum and showed Hunt his serious eyes. “Walk with me.”
Hunt turned his palms, taking in the dense woods, the thick undergrowth. “Where?”
The Chief studied the dense growth. “Give us a minute.” His assistants melted away. “You, too, Yoakum.”
“Me?” Hand on his chest. Eyes shocked.
Yoakum got behind the Chief before he started goose-stepping, but Hunt was in no mood for humor. He stared at the Chief and the Chief stared back. Tension ramped up, but the Chief broke first. “About earlier. Maybe I was out of line.”
“And maybe I wasn’t.”
The Chief studied the tall trees, the wall of forest. The shed was a speck in a sea of green. “If you tell me that you’re not too close to this, I’ll accept it.”
The gaze held. “It’s just another case.”
“Okay.” A tight nod. “We’ll play it like that, but consider this your absolute last final fucking chance. Now, before I change my mind and fire you for being such a poor liar, tell me what you’ve learned out here.”
Hunt pointed toward the house, which was invisible beyond the trees. “We found where Jarvis tapped into his circuit box. The cable is buried two inches down. The shed is completely off the grid. And you saw the trail in. It’s barely a footpath. None of this is visible from the road or the house. No permits. No utilities. It’s a shell. A dead zone.”
“Any luck with the kids?”
“They’re sedated. The doctor won’t let me see them.”
The Chief stepped into the shed and Hunt followed. He felt his skin crawl. “As you can see, the walls are padded with mattresses, probably for sound baffling. The windows are packed with fiberglass insulation and sealed with industrial plastic. Again, to muffle sound, but also to keep the site black. Look at this.” Hunt stepped to the far wall and pointed at a small, ragged hole. “This is where she tore out the hook that held her cuffs.” The hook had been bagged and numbered. Hunt picked it up and felt cold metal through the slick plastic. He held it out for the Chief, who touched it once, then knelt and placed a finger on the hole in the wall. It was a shallow hole. The concrete was crumbly and dry. “Tough kid,” Hunt said.
“So how’d she get out of the shed?”
Hunt led the Chief to the door and stepped outside. He gestured at the lock. It was a Yale, big and brass and solid. It was in the locked position, secured to the steel, U-shaped hasp. “He locked the lock, but failed to lock the door.”
“Accident?” The Chief lifted the lock, let it drop and swing. “Or arrogance?”
“Does it matter?”
A shrug. “The gun?”
“Unknown. It could have been in the shed all along. She could have found it in his house. That was unlocked, too.” Both men looked again in the direction of the house. Nothing was visible through the trees. Before dawn, though, with lights burning, Tiffany would have seen it. “I’m guessing he was intoxicated. We found liquor and drugs. The autopsy should tell us.”
“Any sign that there may have been other children?” The Chief kept his tone professional.
“Are you asking about Alyssa Merrimon?”
The Chief was unflinching, his eyes implacable, as Hunt peered into the deep woods. “We’ll need the dog,” Hunt said. “If she’s buried out there, I want to find her.”
“Not much light.”
Hunt’s voice was bleak. “I’ve already made the call.”
Behind the thin walls of a house that was not her own, Katherine Merrimon stared into the bathroom mirror. She’d recognized the lie in the cop’s face, felt it like a slap. So she asked herself the hardest question.
Was she a good mother?
Her skin stretched across the bones of her face, washed out and too pale. Hair hung with more weight than it should, and her fingers shook when she raised them to her cheek. She saw how chipped her nails had become, the way dark flesh rose up around her eyes. She looked for something familiar, but the eyes were cardboard eyes.
An image of Johnny pressed into her mind. He was bandaged, bled white; and his first thought had been of his sister.
The name channeled through her lips, almost took her down. She gripped the sink until one hand rose. She found the mirror, and with great loathing, she opened it. Pill bottles lined three shelves. Orange plastic. White labels. She picked a bottle at random: Vicodin. She got the top off, dumped three pills into her palm. They could take it all away, the kaleidoscope memories, the loss.
Sweat trickled down her back. Her mouth went painfully dry and she could feel how they would be on her tongue-the hard swallow and the short, bitter wait. But when she lifted her gaze to the mirror, she saw those cutout eyes, and they looked faded, like copies of copies. They were the same as Johnny’s eyes, and they had not always looked like that. Not for either of them.
She tilted her hand and allowed the pills to fall. They made small sounds as they struck the porcelain. In a sudden frenzy, she scooped out all of the bottles, raked them into the sink. One by one, she tore them open, dumped the pills into the toilet. One bottle. Twenty. She emptied them all and flushed the pills down.
It had to be fast.
She carried the empty bottles to the kitchen, threw them in the trash and hauled the bag outside. Time collapsed as she cleaned and scrubbed. Floors. The refrigerator. Windows. The hours became a hot blur of sweat and ammonia. She stuffed sheets into the washing machine, poured liquor into the weeds and threw bottles into the open can where they shattered and burst as she spun and went back for more. In the end, she confronted the same mirror. Blood hammered in the soft place beneath her jaw. She turned the water scalding hot and scrubbed her face until it hurt, but the eyes still looked wrong. She tore off her clothes and stepped into the shower; but it was not enough.
The dirt was on the inside.
Johnny woke alone in a strange room. He heard footsteps beyond the door, a muted voice. A doctor was paged over an intercom, and bits of memory came back. He touched the bandages on his chest, felt pain, then tried to sit as nausea pushed through him. Colors spiked at the edge of his vision: dull red through the window, flat white under the door. He looked for his mother and the walls twisted. When he sat, he saw remnants of soot under his nails, hints of berry juice and blood stains on his fingers. His feathers were gone, but that didn’t matter anymore. He closed his eyes and felt Jar’s impossible grip. He smelled car leather, felt the long, cold lines as Jar crushed his neck and slashed him with his own knife.
Johnny pulled his hands beneath the sheet, but still felt the warm, spongy hole in the back of Jar’s head. He heard sounds that went from hard to wet and remembered that Jar was dead. Johnny rolled onto his side and closed out the light.
The door opened so quietly that Johnny didn’t really hear it. He sensed the movement of air, the presence of someone by his bed. He opened his eyes and saw Detective Hunt, who looked haggard, his smile forced. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he said, then gestured at the chair. “Do you mind?”
Johnny straightened against the pillows. He tried to speak, but the world was wrapped in cotton.
“How do you feel?” Hunt asked.
Johnny’s eyes settled on the gun whose butt showed under the detective’s jacket. “I’m okay.” The words sounded thick and slow and false.
Hunt sat. “Can we talk?” Johnny did not respond, and Detective Hunt leaned forward. He made a steeple of his fingers and put his elbows on his knees. The jacket gapped open so that Johnny could see the worn holster, the black lacquer that seemed to coat the steel. “I need to know what happened.”
Johnny didn’t answer. He was transfixed.
“Can you look at me, son?”
Johnny nodded, but his eyes felt too heavy to lift.
Johnny stared at the gun. The checkered grip. The white bead of the safety.
His hand moved, all on its own, and the cop was dimming, even as Johnny stretched for the gun. He just wanted to hold it, to see if it was as heavy as it looked, but the gun receded into a ball of soft light. A weight came onto Johnny’s chest. It pressed him into the mattress and he heard the cop’s distant voice. “Johnny. Stay with me, Johnny.”
Then he was falling, and somebody drove black spikes into his eyes.
Katherine ironed her clothes and dressed. She fought to keep her fingers steady, but the buttons felt very small. She dried her hair, combed out the tangles, and debated over makeup. In the end, she looked like a normal woman stretched over the bones of someone very ill. When she called for a cab, she had to think hard to remember the numbers on the house; then she sat on the sofa’s edge to wait.
A clock ticked in the kitchen.
She kept her back straight.
When the sweat began to form, it started between the blades on her back. She imagined the taste of a drink and heard the lullaby of one more forgotten day.
It would be easy.
So very, very easy.
The decision to pray stole across her like a shadow. It was as if she’d blinked, then opened her eyes to an absence of light so distinct, it made her look up. The temptation rose from a deep place in her soul, a once-fierce heat now compressed to something black and cold. She fought the temptation, but lost, and when she knelt, she felt like a liar and a fake, like a traveler lost in a night of ceaseless rain.
Words, at first, refused to come, and it felt like God, himself, had closed her throat. But she dipped her chin and strove to remember how it felt. Nakedness. Faith. The humility to plead. And that’s what she did. She begged for strength, and for her son to be well. She begged God for help, silently, ardently. She begged to keep what she had: her son, their life together. When she stood, she heard the sound of tires on gravel, and it sounded like rain. And then the sound stopped.
Ken Holloway met her at the door.
His suit was creased, the tie a rich purple, loose around his neck. Katherine froze when she saw the displeasure on his face, the sweat on his collar. She stared at the brush of hair that covered the back of his hand.
“What are you doing?” He cupped her chin with a thumb and two hard fingers. “Who are you so dressed up for?” She could not answer. He squeezed her chin. “I said, who are you so dressed up for?”
“I’m going to the hospital.” Small voice.
Ken looked at his watch. “Visiting hours will be over in an hour. How about you pour us a drink and you can go tomorrow? First thing.”
“They’ll wonder why I’m not there.”
“Who will wonder?”
She swallowed. “DSS.”
“Bureaucrats. They can’t hurt you.”
She raised her head. “I have to go.”
“Fix me a drink.”
“There’s nothing here.”
“It’s gone. All of it.” She tried to move past him. He stopped her with one massive arm.
“It’s late.” He ran a hand down the small of her back.
“I was in jail all night.” He gripped her arm. “That was Johnny’s fault, you know. Your son’s fault. If he hadn’t thrown that rock through my window…”
“You don’t know that he did that.”
“Did you just contradict me?”
Pain flared in her arm. She looked down at his fingers. “Take your hand off me.”
He laughed, and she felt him move against her, the press of his chest as he filled the doorway. He began to drive her back. “Let go,” she said. But he was pushing her into the house, his lips thin below unforgiving eyes. A sudden image of her son came to Katherine, his small chin in one still hand as he sat on the stoop and looked up the hill for some sign of his father’s return. She’d chastised him for it, but she felt it now, the hope he must have felt. Her gaze slid up from Ken’s arm and she looked up the same hill. She imagined the rise and fall of her husband’s truck, but the hill was empty, the road a stretch of silent black. Ken made the same raw sound in his throat, and when she looked up, she saw a smile cut his face. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Johnny. First thing.”
She looked again to the hilltop, saw metal flash as a car rose at the crest. Her breath caught, then she recognized the car. “My cab,” she said.
Ken stepped back as the cab began to slow. Katherine pulled her arm free, but felt him there, tall and thick and angry. “I have to go,” she said, then pushed past him and met the cab in the drive.
“Katherine.” His smile was broad, and to anyone else might have seemed genuine. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
She threw herself into the cab, felt the seat on her back, smelled cigarettes, unwashed clothes and hair tonic. The driver had folded skin and a scar on his neck that was the color of damp pearl. “Where to?”
Katherine kept her eyes on Ken Holloway.
Ken kept his smile.
“The hospital,” she said.
The driver watched her in the mirror. She felt his eyes and met them. “Are you okay?” he asked.
She was sweaty and shaking. “I’ll be fine,” she said.
But she was wrong.
Johnny stood with woods at his back, a narrow clearing before him. It was a scratch in a sea of trees, an imperfection; but from where Johnny stood, it was everything, a rolling thatch of green that bent to a silent breeze.
His sister stared at him from the center of the glade. She raised her hand, and Johnny found himself walking, grass at his ankles, then at his knees. Alyssa looked as she had the last time he’d seen her: pale yellow shorts, a white top. Her hair was as black as ink, her skin very tan. She kept one hand behind her back, and tilted her head so that strands of black fell across her eyes. She stood on a piece of rusted tin that pressed the grass flat. Johnny could smell the crushed-grass smell, the summer ripeness.
The snake curled at her feet. It was the copperhead he’d killed. Five feet long, brown and gold and silent. It tasted the air with its tongue, and when Johnny stopped, it raised its head.
Johnny remembered how it struck at him on the day he’d killed it. How close it had come.
Alyssa stooped for the snake, and her fingers closed around its midsection. The tail wrapped her wrist. The head rose higher as she straightened, and the snake met her gaze. Its tongue flicked out. “This is not strength,” she said.
The snake struck her in the face, and when it withdrew, two holes appeared, followed by dots of blood that looked like small, perfect apples. She held the snake higher, took a step and the tin shifted beneath her feet. “This is weakness.”
The snake struck, a blur that slowed only when the fangs snagged in her face. She faltered, and the snake hit her again. Twice. Once on the brow, once on her lower lip. More holes. More blood. She stopped walking, and suddenly her eyes shone, so brown they were black, so still they could pass for empty. They were Johnny’s eyes, their mother’s eyes. Her hand tightened on the snake, and Johnny saw that she was not afraid. Her face radiated violence and anger. Her lips paled and the snake began to struggle. She squeezed and her voice gained strength.
“Weakness,” she repeated, fingers white, snake becoming frantic as she crushed it. It struck her hand, her face. It hit the neck and hung on, pumping its venom even as it writhed. Alyssa ignored it, moved her other hand from behind her back. In it, she held a gun, black and gleaming in the hard, hot light.
“Power,” she said.
And ripped the snake from her neck.
Johnny woke with a start. The drugs had worn off, but the dream kept its grip: his vanished sister, and how she’d smiled as Johnny laid fingers on the warm, bright metal in her hand. He touched the bandages on his chest, then he saw his mother. She sat alone in a chair by the wall. Mascara stained the skin beneath her eyes. One knee twitched.
Her head came around and her voice caught. “Johnny.” She found her feet in an instant, crossed the room and stood over him. Her hand smoothed his hair, then she bent and wrapped her arms around him. “My baby.”
Detective Hunt came two hours after breakfast. He appeared in the door, gave Johnny a tight smile, then crooked a finger at Katherine and moved back into the hall.
Johnny watched them through the glass. Whatever Hunt said, his mother didn’t like it. They argued hotly. She shook her head, stared twice through the window, then dipped her chin. Hunt’s hand touched her shoulder once, but she threw it off.
When the door finally opened, Hunt entered first, Johnny’s mother right behind him. She offered an unconvincing smile, then perched on the edge of a slick, vinyl-covered chair in the corner. She looked as if she might throw up.
“Hey, Johnny.” Hunt pulled a chair closer to the bed. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny looked from his mother to the glint of metal under Hunt’s arm, the black and shining steel. “Is Tiffany okay?”
Hunt twitched his jacket closed. “I think she will be.”
Johnny closed his eyes and saw her sitting in the dead man’s blood; he felt the dry, hot skin of her arm as he’d tried to get her in the car. “She didn’t know who I was. We’ve been in school together for seven years.” He shook his head. “Halfway to the hospital, she finally recognized me. She wouldn’t let go of me. Crying. Screaming.”
“I’ll find out how she is. First thing.” Hunt paused and his voice went grown-up serious. “It was a brave thing you did.”
Johnny blinked. “I didn’t save anybody.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what they’re saying, isn’t it?”
“Some people are saying that. Yes.”
“He was going to kill me. Tiffany is the hero. They shouldn’t be telling stories otherwise.”
“TV people, Johnny. Don’t take it seriously.”
Johnny stared at the white wall and one hand touched the bandages on his chest. “He was going to kill me.”
Katherine made a noise that sounded like a sob, and Hunt turned in his seat. “There is really no need for you to be here.”
She rose from the edge of her seat. “You can’t make me go.”
“No one is suggesting-”
“I am not leaving.” Her voice climbed, hands shaking.
Hunt turned back to Johnny, and his smile seemed real, though troubled. “Are you strong enough to answer some questions?” Johnny nodded. “We’re going to start at the beginning. I want you to picture the man you saw on the bridge, the one driving the car that hit the motorcycle. Got it?”
“Now, picture the man that assaulted you after you ran.”
“He didn’t assault me. He just picked me up, kind of held me.”
“Like he was waiting for something.”
“Is there any chance that it could have been the same man. The man on the bridge. The one that picked you up.”
“They were different men.”
“You barely saw the man on the bridge. You said he was a silhouette.”
“Different shape, different size. They were a mile apart, maybe even two.”
Hunt explained about the bend in the river. “It’s possible that it was the same man.”
“I know how the river runs. The middle of that bend is a swamp. If you tried to cut across it, you’d sink to your waist. The trail follows the river for a reason. They’re different men, trust me. The one on the bridge didn’t even look big enough to carry that box.”
“Like a trunk,” Johnny said. “Wrapped in plastic. He had it on a shoulder and it looked real heavy.”
“Black plastic. Silver tape. Long. Thick. Like a trunk. He held me with one arm, held the trunk with the other. Just stood there, like I said, and then he spoke to me.”
“You didn’t tell me that before. What did he say?”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
Hunt stood and walked to the window. For a long minute, he stared through the glass. “Does the name David Wilson mean anything to you?”
“What about Levi Freemantle?”
“David Wilson is the man that got knocked off the bridge. Levi Freemantle is the man that picked me up.”
“You said that the names meant nothing to you.”
Johnny rolled his shoulders. “They don’t. But Freemantle is a Mustee name, so that has to be the big guy. That makes David Wilson the dead one.”
“Indian blood mixed with African.” Hunt looked vacant. “Lumbee, Sapona, Cherokee, Catawba. There were Indian slaves, too. Didn’t you know that?”
Hunt studied the kid, not sure if he should believe him. “How do you know that Freemantle is a mustee name?”
“Raven county’s first freed slave was a mustee named Isaac. When he was freed, he chose the name Freemantle as his last name. Mantle of freedom. That’s what the name means.”
“Before this case, I’d never heard of Freemantles in Raven County.”
Johnny shrugged. “They’ve been around. Why do you think Levi Freemantle is the same man from the bridge?”
“Let’s talk about Burton Jarvis.”
“No,” Johnny said.
“Not unless you answer my question. That’s only fair.”
“This isn’t the playground, Johnny. It’s not about fair.”
“He’s very stubborn,” Katherine said.
“Very well,” Hunt said. “One question. One time.”
Johnny dipped his chin, and his eyes never left Hunt’s face. “Why do you think that Levi Freemantle is the same man from the bridge?”
“Freemantle left a print on David Wilson’s body. It makes us wonder if Freemantle was the one that drove him off the bridge. If you could tell us they were the same men, Freemantle and the one you saw on the bridge, it would clean things up.” Hunt did not mention the bodies found in Freemantle’s house, the drawing of the giant stick figure holding a girl with a yellow dress and a blood-red mouth.
Johnny sat up straighter, and something pulled beneath the bandages. “Was David Wilson still alive when Freemantle got to him?”
Hunt pictured the bloody prints on the dead man’s eyelids. “Doubtful,” he said.
“Maybe he told Freemantle where she was.”
“I wouldn’t go there, Johnny.”
“What if he was talking about Alyssa. Maybe he told Freemantle where he found her.”
“It’s doubtful that he was talking about Alyssa at all, and it’s just as doubtful that he was still alive when Freemantle got to him.” Hunt studied the kid, watched him do the math. “Don’t even think about it,” he said.
“Think about what?”
He was so wide-eyed and innocent, any other cop would buy it. “Your days playing at cop are over, Johnny. No more maps. No more adventures. Do I make myself clear?”
Johnny turned his head away. “You asked about Burton Jarvis. What do you want to know?”
“Start at the beginning. How did you find his house? Why were you there? What did you see? What happened? All of it. Everything.”
Johnny pictured his first few times at the house: the dark and the shed, how the house looked through the trees and the noise of small animals in the deep woods. He thought of plaster nails and months of bad dreams, Jar’s terrible friend and their talk of Small Yellow. The laughter that made Johnny’s legs get weak. He could not suppress the anxiety, and his mother picked up on it. She stood and paced, worried, and the movement annoyed Detective Hunt. “Would you mind sitting down, Katherine?”
She ignored him.
“How am I supposed to sit there like everything is okay?” She twitched, and her eyes glittered. “Social Services.” She glared at Hunt. “I won’t allow it!”
Hunt lowered his voice. “We agreed to leave Johnny out of this for now.”
“I can’t stand it!”
“I’m doing what I can, Katherine. You have to believe me.”
“You told me that you’d bring Alyssa home. You told me to believe that, too.”
Hunt paled. “This is not helpful.”
“Is that what you were talking about? “Johnny gestured toward the hall. “DSS?”
“Social Services is concerned for your welfare, Johnny. Given all that’s happened, they’re required to make a full evaluation. That means interviews, home inspections. They’ll talk to the school. But all of that can take awhile. In the meantime, they want to remove you from your mother’s custody. Temporarily. For your own protection.”
“They think you’re at risk.”
“From me,” Katherine said.
“Nobody is saying that!” Hunt lost his patience.
“This is wrong,” Johnny said.
“Take it easy, son.” Hunt looked at Johnny’s mother, who was close to tears, then focused on the boy. “I’m talking to your Uncle Steve. I think I can arrange for you to stay with him while this runs its course.”
“Steve is an asshole.”
“Well, he is, Mom.”
Hunt leaned closer. “It’s Steve or a court-appointed guardian. With Steve, your mother can visit when she wants. You’ll still be with family, at least until a final decision is made. If it goes to court, it’s out of my hands. The judge makes the call and you take what you get. It’s not always good.”
Johnny looked at his mother, but her face was in her hands. “Mom?” She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” Hunt said. “But this has been a long time coming. In the end, it will be for the best.”
“We need to find my father,” Johnny said.
He didn’t hear his mother’s footsteps. Suddenly, she was just there, by the bed. Her eyes shone, large and dark and sad. “No one knows where to find him, Johnny.”
“But you said he wrote. You said Chicago, maybe California.”
“He never wrote.”
“I lied.” She turned one palm, and it flashed white. “He never wrote.”
Johnny’s vision blurred. “I want to go home,” he said, but Hunt was unforgiving.
“That’s not going to happen.”
Katherine stepped to her son’s side. She lifted her chin, and Hunt saw the protectiveness, the thin measure of pride. “Please,” she said, and took her son’s hand.
“I want to go home,” Johnny repeated.
And for an instant, Hunt was kind enough to look away; but this was the job. He admired a lot of things about the kid, but whatever fantasy world the boy lived in, it was time to knock it down, before somebody else got hurt or the boy got himself killed.
Hunt crossed the room and picked up the paper bag that held the boy’s feathers, his rattles, and the lone, yellowed skull. He pulled out the necklaces and turned so that they hung at eye level. “You want to tell me about this?”
“What is that?” Katherine asked.
“Johnny was wearing these when he came in. He was painted with soot and berry juice, half dressed, his pockets stuffed with something they tell me is snakeroot, whatever that is. DSS is going to ask about that, about all of it. They’re going to push, hard, and I think maybe Johnny should start by telling me.”
Johnny stared at the feathers, saw that Jar had sliced one of them clean in half. Nothing, he realized, had changed. The cop was still a threat, his mother still weak. No one would understand.
“It’s not normal,” Hunt stressed.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Tell me about Burton Jarvis.”
“How did you find him? How many times did you go there?”
Johnny looked out the window.
Hunt dropped the necklaces, scooped up the pages that contained Johnny’s notes. “Are these notes accurate? This indicates more than a dozen visits. And others, too. Not just at the Jarvis place.”
Johnny glanced at the notes. “Those are just pretend.”
“Like a game.”
“Johnny-” Disappointment hung on his features.
Johnny didn’t even blink. “Last night was the first time.”
“I understand why you feel the need to lie, son, but I need to know what you saw. You have five names on here, people that we’re aware of, known offenders that we’re watching. Then there’s the sixth man. The one that came to Burton Jarvis’s place on multiple occasions.” Hunt studied the page. “There’s a full page of notes on this man. You have a general description: height, weight, hair color. You have the make of his car and three different license plate numbers, all of which were reported stolen sometime in the past year. I need to know who this man is. I think you can help me.”
“What is ‘small yellow’? What does that mean?
“You work for the same people as DSS.”
“Damn it.” Hunt’s patience evaporated, and Katherine stepped between her son and the cop. She spread slender fingers, and her words came with rare conviction.
“That’s enough,” she said.
“Half of these notes are illegible. There may be information here that is important in ways that Johnny doesn’t fully understand. He needs to talk to me.”
Katherine looked at her son’s writing. She scanned the notes, then read them more closely. It took some time, but Hunt waited. When she finished, she looked frightened. “If he answers your questions, will that help us with DSS? Or hurt us?”
“You have to trust me.”
“Nothing is more important than keeping my son,” she said.
“Not even getting Alyssa back?”
“Are you saying that might happen?”
“Your son, I believe, has discovered a previously unknown pedophile operating in the area. A smart one. A careful one. There could be a link.”
“Is that likely?”
Hunt’s doubt showed in his voice. “I don’t know.”
“Then I have to think about the child I still have.”
“I’m worried for your son.”
She held his gaze, and her voice was as sharp and brittle as a shard of glass. “You want us to trust you?”
“Trust the police?”
Katherine stepped forward, shoved the pages at Hunt. “You want to talk about this unknown pedophile. The smart one. The careful one. The one associated with the man that almost killed my son…”
Hunt tilted his head, and she pointed one finger at an ink scratch that only a mother could read. Her face paled into a porcelain mask of anger and fear. “That word,” she said, “is not ‘cup’ or ‘cap’ or anything safe. It’s ‘cop.’ It says the man with Burton Jarvis was a cop.” She pushed the pages into Hunt’s chest and stepped closer to her son. “This interview is over.”
After Hunt left, Katherine stood by her son’s bed. She stared at him for a long time but did not ask about the feathers or the notes or the things that Hunt had said. The color fell from her cheeks, and she looked calm. “Pray with me, Johnny.”
He watched her kneel, felt the anger stir someplace low. For a moment, she’d been strong, and for an instant more, he’d been so proud of her. “Pray?” he asked.
She scrubbed her palms on her jeans. “I think I forgot how good it felt.”
Johnny heard the words as if a stranger had spoken them. It was so easy for her to quit, to throw up her hands and settle for feeling better.
“He doesn’t listen,” Johnny said.
“Maybe we need to give him another chance.”
Johnny stared at her, so disgusted and disappointed that he could no longer hide it. He gripped the rail and felt as if he might bend metal with his fingers. “Do you know what I prayed for? Every single night until I realized that God doesn’t care? That he never would. Do you know?”
His voice was brutal, and she shook her head, eyes both sad and startled.
“Three things only,” Johnny said. “I prayed for the rest of our family to come home. I prayed for you to stop taking pills.” She opened her mouth, but Johnny spoke over her. The words came fast and cold. “I prayed for Ken to die.”
“Every night, I prayed for it. Family home. An end of pills. Ken Holloway to die a slow and painful death.”
“Please, don’t say that.”
“What part? For Ken to die? Slow and painful?”
“I want him to die in fear like he’s put on us. I want him to know how it feels to be helpless and afraid, and then I want him to go someplace where he can’t touch us anymore.” She laid a finger on his hair-sad eyes gone liquid-and he pushed her hand away. “But God’s not about that, is he?” Johnny sat up higher, anger gone to rage, rage taking him fast to tears. “Prayer didn’t bring Alyssa home. Or Dad. It never kept the house warm or kept Ken from hurting you. God turned his back on us. You told me that yourself. Remember?”
She did. A cold night on the floor of a depleted house, blood on her teeth and the sound of Ken pouring a drink in the other room. “I think that maybe I was wrong.”
“How can you even say that after everything we’ve lost?”
“What God gives us can’t be so absolute, Johnny. It can’t be everything we want. He doesn’t work like that. It would be too easy.”
“Nothing has been easy!”
“Don’t you see?” She begged with her eyes. “There is always more to lose.” She reached for his hand but he jerked it away. In its place, she gripped the bed rail with both hands and light glinted in her hair. “Pray with me, Johnny.”
“For us to stay together. For help in letting go.” Her fingers, too, went white on the rail. “Pray for forgiveness.” She held his gaze for a long second, but declined to wait for an answer. Her head tilted, and the words came quietly. Not once did she look to see if Johnny had his eyes closed, if he had, in fact, joined her in prayer; and that was just as well.
There was nothing like forgiveness in Johnny’s face.
Nothing like letting go.
Hunt felt so many things as he stepped out of the room: confusion and doubt about what Katherine had claimed to read in Johnny’s notes; anger and frustration that the boy would not talk to him; relief that the kid was alive, and that Tiffany, too, had survived. Hunt pressed his shoulder blades against a cold wall and ignored the people who passed, the looks they gave. He was exhausted and worried, but hoped that the death of Burton Jarvis was the beginning of the end, that the old man’s violent end was the first step in unraveling Alyssa’s disappearance, too. He tried to convince himself that the sick bastard was alone in the terrible things he’d done; but something foul and slick worried through the back of his mind.
Was it even possible?
Hunt tried one more time to decipher the tight scrawl of Johnny’s notes. Some of it was in pencil, smudged. Parts were water stained, others marred by soot and pine sap and tears in the paper. Hunt could read just enough to know that there was more. He wanted to kick the door down and squeeze an answer from the boy.
The kid knew things. Hunt was certain of it. He pictured again, as he had so many times, the black eyes and wariness, the profound stillness of deep and careful thought. Johnny was messed up in so many fundamental ways, confused, twisted sideways; but the clarity with which he saw certain things…
Loyalty. Fierceness. Determination.
These attributes made the boy so much more than mere impediment. They made Hunt proud and protective. Johnny should know how rare these things had become, how precious in this world. Hunt wanted to put an arm around the kid, make him understand, and, at the same time, he wanted him to stop.
Hunt stepped into the parking lot, and the sun was too bright, the air too pure. Green grass and sunshine made no sense on a day like this. He looked up at the sixth floor. Johnny’s room was at one end, Tiffany’s at the other. The building gleamed white, and the windows threw back perfect blue.
Hunt moved for his car and was halfway there when he saw the man in the suit. Reedlike, hunched at the shoulders, he moved from a recess near the far corner of the building, ducked between two cars, and came up on Hunt’s right side. Hunt catalogued him automatically. Hands in plain view, affable smile. He carried folded pages in one hand. A hospital administrator, Hunt guessed. A visiting relative.
Thirties, wispy hair, skin slightly pocked. His teeth were white and straight. “Yes.”
The man’s smile broadened and one finger rose. He looked as if he were trying to place a familiar face. “Detective Clyde Lafayette Hunt?”
He handed Hunt the folded pages and his smile dropped away as Hunt took them. “You’ve been served.”
Hunt watched him go, then studied the papers. He was being sued, by Ken Holloway.
Levi Freemantle’s probation officer worked in a warren of offices tucked away on the third floor of the county courthouse. Linoleum peeled from the hall floor and eighty years of nicotine stained the plaster walls. The office doors were dark oak under transom windows that leaned out on brass hinges. Sound carried from behind the doors: arguments, excuses, tears. It had all been heard before. A hundred times. A million. Lies came in a flood, which made a career probation officer one of the most astute judges of human nature that Hunt had ever seen.
He found Freemantle’s PO in the ninth office down. The plaque on the door frame said Calvin Tremont, and the door stood open. Files were stacked on chairs and on the floor. A fan churned warm air from its place on a scratched metal cabinet. The man behind the desk was known to Hunt. Medium height, wide through the gut, he was close to sixty, with salted hair and lines that looked almost black where they creased his dark skin. Hunt knocked on the door.
When Tremont looked up, his face carried a ready frown, but it didn’t last. He and Hunt had a solid relationship. “Hello, Detective,” he said. “What brings you up here?”
“One of your people.”
“I’d offer you a seat, but…” He spread his fingers in a gesture that included the files on both chairs.
“This won’t take long.” Hunt stepped into the office. “I left a message yesterday. This is about the same matter.”
“First day back from vacation.” He gestured again. “I’m not even through my e-mails yet.”
“Family at the coast.” He said it in such a manner that it could mean almost anything. Hunt nodded and did not push. Parole officers were like cops; they rarely did personal.
“I need to talk about Levi Freemantle.”
Tremont’s face offered up the first real smile Hunt had seen. “Levi? How’s my boy?”
“He’s a good kid.”
“Trust me, he’s a child.”
“We think your child killed two people. Maybe three.”
Tremont’s head moved like the neck joint was oiled. “I suspect that you’ve made a mistake.”
“You sound certain.”
“Levi Freemantle looks like the biggest badass on the street, like he’d kill you for a nickel bag, which is not always a bad thing when you have nothing. But I’ll tell you straight, Detective. He wouldn’t kill anybody. No way. You’ve made a mistake.”
“You have his address?” Hunt asked.
Tremont nodded and rattled it off from memory. “He’s been there about three years.”
“We found two bodies at that address,” Hunt said. “A white female, early to mid-thirties. Black male, approximately forty-five years of age. We found them yesterday. They’ve been dead for most of a week.” Hunt gave it a moment to sink in. “Do you know a Clinton Rhodes?”
“Is he the dead guy?”
“Not my case,” Tremont said. “But he’s been in and out of here for a long time. Bad dude. Violent. Now him I could see doing a murder. Not Levi.”
“We’re fairly confident.”
Tremont shifted in his chair. “Levi Freemantle is pulling three months on a probation violation. He won’t be out for another nine weeks.”
“He escaped a work detail eight days ago.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“He walked off and hasn’t been seen since, except by a burned-out drunk who barely knows his own name, and by a young boy who puts him near the scene of another murder. That was two days ago. So you see, I’ve got three bodies, each with some connection to your kid.”
Tremont pulled Freemantle’s file and opened it. “Levi has never been convicted for a violent offense. Hell, he’s never been accused of one. Trespass, shoplifting.” He snapped the file closed. “Look,” he said. “Levi is not the sharpest tool in the toolbox. Most of these crimes, hell-if somebody said, Levi, go in there and get me a bottle of wine, he’d just walk into the store and get it. He has no sense of consequence.”
“Neither do most killers.”
“It’s not like that. Levi…” He shook his head. “He’s childlike.”
“I have a dead white female. Early to mid-thirties. Any thoughts on that?”
“He’s been involved with a Ronda Jeffries. She’s white, likes to party. Been known to turn a trick or two on the side. For fun, she likes big, bad men. Specifically, she likes big, bad black men. She got involved with Levi because that’s what he looks like, the toughest mother on the street. She keeps him around because he’s easy to handle and he does what she says. He makes a few dollars and gives them to her. He takes care of the house. Makes her look legit. When she needs a break, or another man, she generally finds some way to get Levi locked up for a spell. It’s like I said, he’ll do whatever she tells him to do. The first time he got arrested, it was for shoplifting. She took a bottle of perfume off a display counter and told him to carry it; then she walked him past the security guard and out the front door.”
“Are they married?”
“No, but Levi thinks they are.”
A smile. “Because they’ve slept together, and because…” The words trailed off. “Oh, shit.”
“Who’s taking care of their kid?”
Hunt felt a chill. “Their kid?”
“A little girl. Two years old.”
Hunt reached for his phone.
“Got a smile that would melt your heart.”
The hospital forced Katherine to leave Johnny’s room at nine that night. In one sense, it was hard for her, but in another, it was a blessing. Ken Holloway had called the room four times, refusing to hang up until she agreed to meet with him. He’d been insistent and she’d been strong, refusing each time, explaining that now, finally, she had to put her son first. Eventually, she’d been forced to hang up on him. Twice. After that, she twitched in fear every time the door opened or a noise rose too quickly in the hall.
And then there was the dryness. She tried to be strong, but felt it in every part of her body.
She lingered by the bed for a final moment. Her son was asleep, his face, as always, like that of his sister. Same mouth. Same lines. She kissed him on the head, then met her cab at the rear entrance of the hospital.
The ride home was white-knuckled. They passed three stores advertising beer and wine, two different bars. She tightened her jaw and dug nails into her palms. When the downtown lights fell away, she allowed herself to breathe. There was dark road, the steady hum of tires on black pavement. She was okay. She repeated it.
I am okay.
The cab started down the final hill, and she saw the house from a half mile out. Light spilled from every window, stained the yard in bumblebee patterns of black and yellow.
She’d left the place dark.
Climbing from the cab, she started for the door, then hesitated. Her hand found the cell phone in her purse. She got as far as the porch, then changed her mind and stepped back. Everything was so still: the yard, the woods, the street.
That’s when she saw the car. It was parked two hundred feet down the road, edged far onto the shoulder. It was too dark to make out the color. Black, maybe. A big sedan that she did not recognize. She stared hard, took a step toward it, and realized that she could hear its engine running.
She took two more steps and the car lights snapped on. Spitting dirt and gravel, the car made a tight, squealing turn and flew up the road, taillights growing small, then dropping away as the road fell.
Katherine tried to slow her breath. It was just a car. Just a neighbor. She turned back to the house and saw that the front door stood open a crack, a long slice of yellow that spread wide when she pushed.
Inside, music played.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas…”
It was late May.
She turned off the music and moved down the hall. The house felt empty, but the music freaked her out. It was the one song, set to play again and again. She checked the bedrooms first, found nothing out of place. The bathroom was fine, too.
She found the pills in the kitchen.
The orange bottle sat in the exact center of the chipped Formica table. It was bright and shiny, its label a slash of perfect white. Katherine stared at it, felt her tongue thicken. The pills clicked when she picked the bottle up to read the label. It had her name on it, dated today.
In a rage, she tore open the door and flung the bottle into the yard. The lock twisted in her fingers as she drove it home. She checked every window, every door, then sat on the sofa by the front window. She kept her back straight, and felt the bottle out there, a presence in the dark. She ground her teeth and cursed Ken Holloway’s name.
It wasn’t going to be that easy.
Johnny left the hospital at noon the next day. They rolled him to the curb and he stood carefully. “You okay?” the nurse asked.
“I think so.”
“Give yourself a minute.”
Thirty feet away, cameras clicked and whirred. Reporters shouted questions, but the cops held them at a distance. Johnny took it in, one hand on the roof of Uncle Steve’s van. He saw news trucks from the Charlotte stations, the ones in Raleigh. “I’m ready,” he said, and the nurse helped him into the van.
“Nothing too stressful,” she said. “Two of those cuts went plenty deep.” She gave a final smile and closed the door. Behind the wheel, Steve studied the cameras. Next to him, Johnny’s mother kept one hand up to shield her face.
Hunt stepped to the window once Johnny was secured in the back. When he spoke, it was of the deal he’d arranged with DSS. “This is only going to work if you all play by the rules.” He moved from face to face, stopped on Steve’s. “I need to know if you can handle this.”
Steve glanced at Johnny in the rearview mirror. “I guess. Assuming he does what I tell him.”
Hunt looked at Johnny. “This is a gift, Johnny. With all that’s happened.”
“How long does he have to stay away?” Katherine asked.
“It’s up to DSS now.”
“This is bullshit,” Johnny mumbled.
“What did you say?”
Johnny kicked at the floor mat. “Nothing.”
Hunt nodded. “That’s what I thought.” He stepped back, spoke to Steve. “On my taillights. All the way out.”
The drive took twelve minutes, and nobody spoke. At the house, Hunt parked on the grass. Johnny and his mother climbed from the van. She stared at a distant streetlamp, touched her throat once, then went inside. Johnny followed her to his room. On the bed lay his clothes, neatly folded. Her voice was full of apology. “I laid them out last night. I didn’t know what you’d want to take.”
“Are you sure?” She gestured at his bandaged chest.
“I can do it.”
He looked at her, saw how stretched she looked. She’d always been strong, and then, after the abduction, the exact opposite. This face now, it was different, as if the two sides of her were engaged in some fierce struggle. “I should not have lied to you,” she said. “I should never have told you that he wrote.”
“I didn’t want you to know that we were so alone. I thought-”
“I said I get it.”
She ran a hand over his hair. “So strong,” she said. “So self-contained.”
Johnny stiffened because those were the words she’d once used to describe his father. Johnny had walked into a rare argument, the source of which was still unknown to him. But those had been her words: You don’t always have to be so self-contained! He’d just smiled and kissed her, and that had been the end of the argument. Johnny’s dad was good like that. When he chose to smile, no one could stay angry at him. To Johnny, even now, self-containment and strength were one and the same. Don’t complain. Get the job done. He had that in full measure. What he lacked was the same easy smile. Whether he’d never truly had it, or whether he’d forgotten its feel, he could no longer say. Life, for Johnny, had become a matter of self-containment. He scooped up a pair of jeans, shoved them into a duffel. “Let’s just do this.”
She left the room and he heard the click of her door, the small crunch of bedsprings. He didn’t know which side of her had finally won, the softness or the strength, but experience told him that she was under the covers, eyes shut tight. Her sudden presence in the door, moments later, took him by surprise. She held out a framed photograph, a color shot from her wedding day. She was twenty, all smiles, and the sun spilled perfect color across her face. Johnny’s dad stood by her side, the same reckless smile bending his features. Johnny remembered the photograph. He thought she’d burned it with the rest. “Take this,” she said.
“I’m coming back.”
And Johnny did.
Then she hugged him with great tenderness; and when she returned to her room, the door stayed closed.
Johnny stopped behind the screen door, duffel pulling hard on one shoulder. Outside, the leaves twitched in a fitful wind. Hunt stood with his head down, hands shoved deep into his pockets. He peered out from deep-set eyes, staring at the house. He did not see Johnny; his gaze touched first one window, and then another, head unmoving, forehead creased in the center. He shifted when Johnny nudged the door with one foot. “You’re not supposed to be carrying that.” He lifted the bag from Johnny’s shoulder. “You’re going to pull those stitches.”
“They felt okay.” Johnny stepped into the yard and Hunt stopped beside him.
“Before we go.”
“When you saw Levi Freemantle…” Hunt hesitated. “Did he have anybody with him?”
Johnny considered the question, looking for danger. He’d refused all of Hunt’s questions, but could not see how this could cause trouble with DSS. He saw the hope on the detective’s face, watched it fade as he shook his head. “Just the trunk.”
Hunt’s eyes were tortured, his voice tight. “Nobody at all?” Hunt could not ask the rest of it: No child? No small girl that could melt a heart?
Johnny shook his head.
Hunt paused, then cleared his throat. “Here.” He held out one of his cards, and Johnny took it. “You can always call me. You don’t even need a reason.” Johnny tilted the card, then tucked it into his back pocket. Hunt looked one last time at the house, then forced a smile. His hand touched Johnny’s shoulder. “Be good,” he said, and tossed Johnny’s bag into the back of the van.
Johnny watched Hunt’s car ease into the road, then turn. The van door squealed when he opened it. He climbed in, Steve’s lips twisted in forced cheer. “Guess it’s just us.”
“This is bullshit,” Johnny said.
Steve’s smile fell away. He started the car, and pulled out of the drive. He licked his lips, cut his eyes right. “Can you tell me what happened?”
He was talking about Tiffany Shore.
“I didn’t save anybody.” It was automatic now, metallic. Johnny kept his eyes away from the house. He feared his reaction if he looked at the shell he’d left his mother in, the vacuum wrapped in flaked paint and rotted wood.
Steve accelerated. “Still, your dad would be proud.”
Johnny risked a final glance as the house grew small behind them. The swaybacked roof seemed to straighten, its blemishes faded, and for an instant the house shone like a dime. “Are we going to be okay with this?” Johnny asked. “Me staying with you? It’s not my idea, you know.”
“Just stay out of my stuff.” The van crested the hill, and Steve twisted his jaw like it had popped out of joint. The road dropped into shadow. “You want to buy some candy or comics or something?”
“That’s what kids like, isn’t it.”
Johnny said nothing.
“Feels like I owe you.”
“Well, you don’t.”
Steve inclined his head toward the glove compartment, more relaxed. “Reach in there and grab my smokes.”
Papers and other junk stuffed the glove compartment. Cigarette packs. Receipts. Lottery tickets. Johnny pulled out a wrinkled, half pack of Lucky Strikes and handed them to his uncle. Then he found the gun. It was wedged into the back corner, tucked away beneath the owner’s manual and a coffee-stained map of Myrtle Beach. The grip was brown wood, nicked, the metal blued with a silver shine on the hammer. Cracks discolored the dry leather holster. Next to the gun rested a faded cardboard box of shells that said:.32 hollow point.
“Don’t touch that,” Steve said easily.
Johnny closed the glove compartment. He watched whiskered trees march beside them, the dark spaces between that hinted of giant men the color of smoke. “Will you teach me how to shoot?”
“It ain’t that hard.”
Steve glanced sideways, appraising, then flicked a skin of ash out the window. Johnny kept his features still, and he was proud of that, because still was not what he felt. He was thinking of his sister and of a giant man with a melted face and a mustee name.
“What for?” Steve asked, and Johnny showed his most innocent eyes.
Steve worked the van through town. He passed storefronts and columned mansions, the parklike town square with its canopy of twisted oaks and the statue erected more than a century ago to honor a proud county’s Confederate dead. Johnny saw a brush of mistletoe in a tree, and thought of a girl he’d once dared to kiss, whose face now he could barely recall.
A different life.
Once past the square and the sun-dashed campus of the local college, Steve turned onto the four-lane that led to the mall. It was Ken’s mall. He owned it. “Where are we going?” Johnny asked.
“I have to stop by work. It won’t take long.”
Johnny sank into his seat. Steve sensed it. “Mr. Holloway won’t be there,” Steve said. “He never is.”
“I’m not scared of Ken.”
“I can take you to my place first.”
“I said I’m not scared.”
A half laugh. “Whatever.”
Johnny forced himself to sit up. “Why does he care so much about my mother?”
“He treats her like crap.”
“She’s the prettiest woman in this part of the state, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“It’s more than that.”
Steve shrugged. “Mr. Holloway doesn’t like to lose.”
“Anything.” Johnny’s confusion showed, and Steve saw it. He narrowed his eyes and pushed smoke through his lips. “You don’t know, do you?” He shook his head. “Christ, almighty.”
“Your mom used to go out with Ken Holloway.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“Well, you’d better.” Steve took another drag, drawing the moment out. “She was eighteen, maybe nineteen. Just a girl, really.” He shook his head, pursed his lips. “Hotter than a three-dollar pistol, your momma. Could have gone to Hollywood, maybe. New York, for sure. Never did, of course, but could have.”
“I still don’t believe it.”
“He was older, but even then he was the richest man around. Not like he is now, mind you, but rich enough. It’d be hard for a pretty girl to resist the kind of attention he could apply if he set his mind to it, and your mother was no different from most other girls. Flowers. Gifts. Fancy dinners. Anything he could think of to make her feel important.”
“She’s not like that.” Johnny was angry.
“Not now. But young people like to feel bigger than the place they come from. It lasted for a few months, I guess. But then your dad came back to town.”
“Back from where?”
“The service. Four years. He’s what, six years older than she is? Seven? Anyway, she was just a kid when he left, but that changed.” Steve laughed and blew out a low whistle. “Boy, did that change.” Johnny stared out the window, and Steve continued. “Your old man fell for her like a ton of steel.”
“Her, too? For him I mean?”
“Your mom was like a butterfly, Johnny. Pretty and light and delicate. Your old man loved that about her, cherished it. He was as gentle and patient as you’d need to be for a butterfly to land in your hand.”
Steve stubbed out the cigarette, spit out the window. “Holloway just wanted to put her in a jar.”
“And she figured that out about him?”
“You should have seen him when she said she was leaving him for your father.”
“Angry. Jealous. He pursued her hard, tried to change her mind, but three months later your folks were married. You came a year later. It was as sharp a rejection as I ever saw, and I don’t know that Holloway ever got over it.”
“But dad did work for Holloway. All those houses he built. Holloway was over all the time.”
“Your daddy sees good in all people. It’s part of what makes him so fine. But Holloway was just waiting to bury him.”
“Dad didn’t know?”
“I told him as much, but your daddy always thought he could handle him. He’s prideful like that.”
“Confident,” Johnny said.
Blacktop slid under the truck. The fan belt made a sudden, screaming noise. “You work for Holloway.”
“Not all of us have a choice, Johnny. That’s a life lesson for you. Free of charge.”
Steve stopped the van at a light. In the distance, Holloway’s mall rose like a battleship. Johnny watched Steve’s face, and when he spoke, it was of his mother. “Did you want to date her?”
Steve’s eyes were as flat as a snake’s. “Hell, son.” The light turned green. “Everybody did.”
The parking lot was slammed, which reminded Johnny that it was Saturday. Steve parked near the employee entrance at the back. When he opened the door, his mirror splashed sun into Johnny’s eyes. “Come on,” he said.
“Can I wait in the van?”
“Too dangerous back here. Homeless. Drug abusers. God knows what else.” Johnny watched as Steve touched the objects on his belt: Mace, radio, cuffs. “Come on. I’ll show you something cool.”
Inside, a key card granted access to a narrow door, metal stairs, and a third-story hallway that led to an office marked SECURITY. Steve swiped his card and leaned a shoulder against the office door. “Kids never get to see this.”
The security office was large and complex, with a bank of video monitors that covered an entire wall. Two guards sat in black swivel chairs, hands on keyboards and joysticks, changing images on the screens, zooming in and out, observing. They turned as Johnny stepped in, then did a double take.
One of them was twenty-something and fat, with hair mowed short and a razor-burned face. His smile was at once awe filled and dismissive. “This the kid?”
Steve put a hand on Johnny’s back, propelled him farther into the room “My nephew. Sort of.”
The fat guard offered a meaty hand, and Johnny studied it warily before shaking it. “Good job, kid. Wish I could have been there.”
Johnny looked at his uncle, who offered two words. “Tiffany Shore.”
The guard made a shooting motion. “Pow.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Johnny said.
But the guard was eager. “You see this?” He whipped a newspaper from the counter. “Front page. Check it out.”
The picture was of Johnny, taken through the window as he sat in the front seat of his mother’s car. His hands still gripped the wheel. His mouth hung open, face shocked and empty. Blood sheeted everything, dark where it had dried, bright where it wept red on Johnny’s chest. Feathers and rattles shone black on his skin, the skull as yellow-wet as a stone soaked in honey. Tiffany angled across the seat beside him, sun so fierce on her face that it shattered in her eyes. Men with clean clothes and long arms reached through the door to pull her out, but she was fighting, mouth tight, fingers desperate on Johnny’s arm.
The caption ran below the photograph: “Stolen Child Found, Pedophile Killed.”
Johnny’s voice came in a choked whisper. “Where did they get this picture?”
“The security guard at the hospital took it with his cell phone. They’re using the same picture on CNN.” The fat guard shook his head. “Probably paid him a fortune.”
Steve stepped in front of Johnny and pushed the paper away. “He doesn’t need to see that.”
The guard shifted as he took in Johnny’s face, saw how shadows multiplied in the hollow places. “I didn’t mean nothing.”
“Is the boss in?” Steve interrupted.
The guard hooked a thumb at an office door but kept his eyes on Johnny. Johnny followed Steve’s gaze and saw a window and white blinds sheathed in dust. An eye peered out and the blinds snapped shut. “Shit,” Steve muttered. “Has he been looking for me?”
“Should he be?”
Steve shrugged, but looked nervous. “Anything exciting?”
“One shoplifter. Two D-and-Ds.”
Steve explained. “Drunk and disorderly.” He tapped Johnny on the shoulder and crossed the room. “Come here,” he said, and Johnny followed him past the bank of monitors to a wall of glass that was nine feet high and twice as long. The view was onto the Food Court. Steve tapped the glass. “Mirrored,” he said.
Johnny peered through the windows and could see everything spread out below: storefronts and food stands, escalators, people. The fat guard ambled up, cupped both hands and breathed deeply. “This must be what God feels like.” Johnny wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the comment, the sheer smallness of it.
Then he saw Jack.
Red-faced, humiliated, awkward-looking Jack.
He stood at the edge of the crowd, a small, tan boy with a shriveled arm and no meanness in his entire body. He stood, taking it, because fighting back would get him nowhere, and because walking away would imply that he actually cared about the shame that was being heaped upon him. His tormentors were seniors, lean, muscled kids with self-aware smiles.
Johnny cringed when he saw spit go down the back of Jack’s shirt; but his anger spiked when he saw Jack’s brother, who stood ten feet away and did nothing to stop it. He was surrounded by fawning girls, four at least.
Johnny pointed. “Do you see that?”
Steve leaned forward. “Gerald Cross? Yeah, I see it. The girls have been like that ever since he signed with Clemson. He’ll go pro in a year. His contract will be ten million, minimum.”
“Can I go down there?”
Steve shrugged. “Go. Stay. I’m not your daddy.”
Johnny pounded down the stairs, through the security door and into the crowd. He smelled pizza and scorched beef, the crush of overheated bodies and, somewhere, an unchanged diaper. He angled for Jack and heard his name whispered. Fingers pointed.
That’s the guy.
It took Johnny a minute to understand, but then he did.
The story was everywhere.
By the time he crossed the Food Court, a dozen people were watching him, but he didn’t care. One of the seniors was snapping rabbit punches at Jack’s bad arm, hitting beneath the meat of the shoulder, right where the hollow bone had the least protection. Jack was trying to hide it, but Johnny saw that his friend was about to cry.
Johnny bulled his way into the group and punched the senior as hard as he could. He connected with the kid’s mouth, felt whiskers, teeth, and the ripe softness of a burst lip. The guy stumbled left, caught himself, and his hands came up, fisted. He drew back to throw a punch, then recognized Johnny. “Holy shit,” he said.
Johnny stared at the startled brown eyes, the stained teeth, and the long hair spiked with gel. The kid spit blood and stepped away. “Damn freak.”
Johnny shook with rage, with a long year’s silence and with all of the things he’d repressed since waking in a hospital room stained red. The senior mistook the trembling for fear and started to smile, then looked over Johnny’s head at the suddenly watchful crowd. He lowered his hands, tried to laugh it all off. “Easy, Pocahontas.”
No one else laughed. Johnny was a celebrity of the darkest kind, a strange, wild kid with eyes that were savage and black. He’d seen things no boy was supposed to see. He’d lost a twin, found Tiffany Shore, and maybe killed a man.
He was war paint and fire.
Johnny held up a single finger, then looked into his friend’s bright, brimming eyes. “Let’s get out of here.”
He started to leave, then saw Gerald, who stood three rows back, tall and broad, with sandy hair and skin the color of fired clay. Johnny pulled Jack into his wake, and the crowd parted. He stopped in front of Gerald and saw how the pretty girls stepped back, how naked Gerald looked without them.
Johnny dragged Jack from his shadow and draped an arm around his neck. He did not see how his friend lowered his eyes and rolled a curve into his spine, did not see the shame and the fear and the quick, nervous twitch. Gerald towered over Johnny, ten inches taller, a hundred pounds heavier. He was summer sweat and green grass, a hero in the making, but no one watching could doubt who was in charge.
Johnny held up the same finger, stabbed Gerald in the meat of his chest. “He’s your brother, you dick. What’s wrong with you?”
The boys stalked through the press of silent people. Johnny looked straight ahead and tried to avoid eye contact, but he did see one person he recognized, another senior, tall with white-blond hair and wide-set eyes. It was Detective Hunt’s son, Allen. From the river. Alone, in steel-toed boots and a jean jacket, he leaned against a column near the back of the crowd. A toothpick rolled between his teeth, and he guarded his eyes. When Johnny looked at him, he neither blinked nor moved. Just the toothpick. Side to side.
The security door accepted the key card that Steve had given him. The door clicked open and Johnny pushed through, into a cool, open space that smelled of damp and cement. Stairs rose to the right and beneath them was a low, gray space. Jack threw himself onto the floor, back against the wall, feet drawn up. Johnny sat next to him. Chewing gum made dark marks on the floor. One of Jack’s shoes was untied, and his jeans, at the knees, were stained with grass.
“Well,” Johnny said. “That sucked.”
Jack put his face on his knees and Johnny looked up. His fingers explored a rivet, then a weld line. When Jack’s face came up, Johnny saw wet spots that turned the grass stains black.
“How did you get us in here?”
Jack sucked in two quick breaths, smeared mucus along the back of his bad arm.
“Those guys are dicks,” Johnny said.
Jack sniffed. “Shit munchers.”
Jack laughed, a nervous expulsion, and Johnny relaxed. “What was that all about?”
“He wanted me to say something,” Jack explained. “I wouldn’t do it.” Johnny looked the question and Jack shrugged. “Jocks rule. Gimps drool.”
“Fucking Gerald. How’s your arm?”
Jack rotated his arm at the shoulder, then pressed it across his chest. He pointed at Johnny’s chest. Bandages were visible above the buttons. “You’re bleeding, man.”
“I tore some stitches.”
Jack stared at the bandages. “Is that from the other night?”
The bandages darkened. Johnny pulled the shirt closed.
“I should have gone with you, Johnny. When you asked me for help, I should have gone.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Johnny said.
Jack beat a fist on his leg. “I’m a bad friend.” The fist sounded like a hammer on meat. “I am”-he paused, hitting again-“a bad friend.”
“I didn’t do anything for Alyssa.”
“You couldn’t have.”
“I saw it happen.”
“There was nothing you could do, Jack.”
But Jack ignored him. “I didn’t do anything for you.” He hit again, hard.
“Stop it, Jack.”
Jack stopped. “Is it true?” He looked at Johnny. “The stuff that they’re saying about you? You know?” He made a motion over his face, fingers wiggling.
Johnny knew what he meant. “Some of it, I guess.”
“What the hell, Johnny?”
Johnny looked at his friend, and knew, without a doubt, that Jack could never understand Johnny’s desperate need to believe in something more powerful than his own two hands. Jack had never felt the loss or the fear. He had never lived the nightmare that had become Johnny’s life, but he wasn’t stupid, either.
Johnny had to tell him something.
“You remember that book we read in English? The Lord of the Flies? About those boys on the deserted island and how they go feral with no adults around to tell them different. They make spears and blood paint. They run wild through the jungle, hunt pigs, beat drums. You remember?”
“One day they were normal, then one day the rules didn’t matter anymore. They made up their own rules, their own beliefs.” He paused. “Sometimes I feel like those boys.”
“Those kids tried to kill each other. They went insane.”
Johnny shrugged. “I really like that book.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Jack picked at a thread on his jeans, looked around at the concrete and stairs. “I thought you hated your Uncle Steve.”
Johnny explained about DSS, Detective Hunt. “That’s why.”
“I wouldn’t do anything special for that cop,” Jack said.
“What do you mean?”
He waved a hand. “Stuff I hear from my dad. Cop stuff.”
“Like he’s sweet on your mom. That they’ve been… you know.”
“That’s what my dad says.”
“Well, your dad’s a liar.”
“He probably is.”
A silence fell. They were awkward together for the first time. “You want to spend the night?” Johnny asked. “It’s just Steve’s place, but, you know-”
“My dad won’t let me hang out with you.”
“Lord of the Flies, man. He thinks you’re dangerous.” Jack tipped his head against the wall. Johnny did the same. “Dangerous,” Jack said. “Dangerous is cool.”
“Not if we can’t hang out.”
They fell into another long silence. “I really loved your dad,” Jack said. “He made me feel like the arm didn’t matter.”
“I hate my family.”
“No, you don’t.”
Jack wrapped his arms around his knees and his fingers went white where he squeezed them. “You remember last year? When I broke my arm?”
The arm was weak; it broke easily. Johnny remembered at least three times that Jack had been in a cast. Last year, though, had been a bad one, with breaks in four places. Fixing it took more surgeries: screws and pins and other bits of metal. “I remember.”
“Gerald’s the one that did it.” The small hand danced at the end of its narrow wrist. Jack’s voice fell down a well. “That’s why my dad gave me the new bike.”
“That’s why I never ride it.”
“I hate my family.”
Hunt stood in the Chief’s office. Flags graced the corners of the room, and on one wall hung pictures of his boss with various state functionaries: the lieutenant governor, a former senator, a two-bit actor who looked vaguely familiar. Photos of his children were spaced along the credenza. The local paper sat on the desk. So did the papers from Wilmington, Charlotte, and Raleigh. Johnny’s picture was on the front page of each of them. Face paint and feathers, blood and bone.
A wild Indian.
The Chief filled his chair, tilted back, hands crossed on his stomach. Anger carved deep lines at the corners of his eyes. He was tired, with unwashed hair that glistened on his forehead. The county sheriff, a lean man in his sixties, with cracked skin on his knuckles and leathery bags beneath his eyes, stood against the wall. He’d been sheriff for almost thirty years and was as feared for his temper as he was respected for his abilities. He studied Hunt with dark, impenetrable eyes and looked no happier than the Chief.
Hunt refused to flinch.
“Do you have any idea,” the Chief began, “how many people work for this department? How many officers, how many trainees?”
“I am well aware.”
The Chief gestured at the sheriff. “And in the Sheriff’s Department? Any idea?”
“A lot, I’m sure.”
“And how do you think those people would feel if we let you root around in their personnel files? Their confidential personnel files?”
“I have reason to believe-”
“We’ve seen your reason.” The sheriff’s voice cut through the room. He shifted but kept his shoulder on the wall, his thumbs in his heavy, black belt. “And neither one of us can tell what that word says. Maybe it’s “cop,” but maybe it’s something else. Maybe this kid is mistaken.”
The Chief leaned forward. “Or full of it.”
“Or crazy as a shithouse rat.”
Hunt stared at the sheriff. “I respectfully disagree.”
“Are you some kind of expert now?” The Chief thumped a finger on the newspapers. “Just look at him.”
The photograph damned the boy to ready judgment: feathers, wild hair, Tiffany frozen in terror, and his eyes shocked to utter blankness.
“I understand how that looks, but this is a smart kid. If he thinks he saw a cop, there’s a reason for it.”
The sheriff interrupted. “The boy claims he made it up. You said so yourself. Now, that’s all I really need to hear.”
“He’s worried that DSS will take him away from the only family he has left. He thinks a cop was involved with Burton Jarvis.” Hunt could not contain his frustration. “He’s terrified. He’s protecting himself.”
“Do you have any other reason, beyond this kid, to think that one of ours, a cop for God’s sake, might be involved in this unholy mess?”
“Tiffany Shore’s handcuffs were police issue.”
“Found at any decent surplus store,” the sheriff said.
“It’s strong circumstantial evidence, especially in connection with Johnny’s observations.”
“We’re done discussing that boy’s observations,” the Chief said.
“Is there anything that links Tiffany Shore’s cuffs to either department?” The sheriff’s features barely moved. “Serial numbers? Anything?”
“Anything at the scene? In Jarvis’s past? On his property?”
“No. But at the very least, the kid has identified a dangerous predator who has so far avoided detection. The files are a logical place to start. If he’s right, then we take a bad guy off the street. If he’s wrong, no harm done.”
“No harm done? For God’s sake, Hunt.” The Chief splayed his meaty hands on the desk. “Giving you access to those files would piss off every employee I have and probably violate more employment laws than I care to count. Not to mention the image problem we’d have if word gets out.”
“And it would,” the sheriff said.
“The kid has already made me look like an ass on national television, and you-my lead detective, my right arm, or so I’ve been told-you have managed to drag this department into a lawsuit with one of the city’s most respected businessmen.”
“That lawsuit is crap and you know it.”
The Chief ticked off points on his fingers. “Police brutality. Harassment. Intentional infliction of emotional distress. False arrest. Is there anything else? I’m running out of fingers.”
“There may be a pedophile with a badge running loose in this county. That’s the issue, and it should concern both of you. Ignoring that possibility puts children at further risk. You”-Hunt stressed the word, repeated it-“you would be putting children at further risk.”
The Chief came out of his seat. “If you repeat anything like that outside of this office, I will have your ass and I will burn it.”
“Ignoring this won’t make it go away.”
“If another child goes missing because of self-serving public relations concerns-”
“Why are we listening to this son of a bitch?” the sheriff demanded. “If we lose another kid, it’ll be because of his incompetence. That’s the bottom line here and everybody knows it. Just look at him, for Christ’s sake.”
Hunt bristled and the Chief tried to settle everyone down. “Jarvis is dead. Tiffany is safe. That’s what matters.”
The sheriff barked a laugh. “Thanks to a twelve-year-old girl and a thirteen-year-old punk.”
“I’ll handle my own people,” the Chief said, and stared the sheriff down. “Is that clear?”
The sheriff returned to his post on the wall and nailed Hunt with a finger. “Well, you tell supercop to keep his eye on the ball. ’Cause I think he’s losing it. I think he’s trying to make himself look better by dragging other cops through the mud. My people. Your people. Us, for all I can tell.”
The Chief held up a hand and spoke to Hunt, a red flush climbing his neck as he did. “Are we clear on this issue of cop pedophiles? I don’t want to hear one damn word about this.”
“I think your stance is painfully clear.”
“Good. Because you should be looking into the circumstances of David Wilson’s death, Levi Freemantle, Burton Jarvis’s known associates. Not figments. Not maybes. Known, as in factual. If someone else is involved with Jarvis, that’s the way to find him. I want every loose end nailed down. We will reconsider your request to examine personnel files if and when Johnny Merrimon decides to talk about what he saw.”
“If he saw it,” the sheriff said.
“If he saw it,” the Chief agreed. “What he saw. How it happened. All of the usual things we, as cops, like to hear before going off half-cocked. Is that clear, Detective?”
“Then get the hell out.”
Hunt did not move. “There’s more, I think.”
“You think?” The sheriff’s scorn was pronounced.
“The Freemantle case.”
“Have you found him?” the Chief asked.
“We have ID on the bodies: Freemantle’s girlfriend and a guy she was probably sleeping with. We’re pretty sure Freemantle did it. No forced entry. Looks extemporaneous. Crime of passion, maybe. We think he walked in on them.”
“Extemporaneous,” the sheriff said. “That’s a big word.”
“Freemantle walked off a work detail that morning. Probably went straight home and caught them in the act. His probation officer says the girlfriend was pretty much a whore.”
“Fine. A good, clean case. I like it.”
Hunt pushed out a breath. “They have a daughter.”
“And?” The Chief’s entire body swelled.
“No.” The Chief stood. “No, she’s not.”
The Chief kept his voice calm and level, but a fierceness underlay it. “No one has filed a missing persons report. No one has called us for help.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“She could be with relatives, a grandmother, an aunt. Levi Freemantle probably has the kid. He’s the father, isn’t he? He hasn’t lost custody rights yet.”
Hunt stood, angry. “You’re just going to ignore this?”
“Ignore what?” The Chief turned his palms flat. “There is nothing to ignore. There’s no case here.”
“I get it,” Hunt said.
“You do?” The fierceness moved to implicit threat.
“No one wants another missing kid, so you bury it. You stick your head in the sand and pretend there’s no problem.”
“If you utter one word about another missing child…”
“I’ve had enough of your threats.”
The Chief straightened. “Don’t you have enough on your plate?”
“I want you to think hard about this,” Hunt said.
“And if I don’t?”
Hunt looked at the sheriff, the Chief. “I think that would be bad for all of us.”
Johnny went home to Uncle Steve’s two-bedroom apartment. It was a dump, even from the outside. Steve opened the door and looked embarrassed. “This okay?” he asked.
Johnny smelled beer and dirty clothes. “Sure.”
Steve showed Johnny his room and closed the door when Johnny asked him to. The room held a single bed with a table and lamp. A closet. A dresser. Nothing else. Johnny dropped his bag and opened it. He put the photograph of his parents on the table, then opened his shirt and checked the bandages. Red spots had soaked through in a diagonal line eight inches long. It was the worst of the cuts, but the blood was dry and Johnny guessed it would be okay. He buttoned up.
At sunset, Steve called out for pizza and they ate in front of a game show that he described as educational in nature. Afterward, Steve put his hands on his knees, looked awkward. “I have a lady friend…” His fingers shifted on the weave of his fine polyblend pants.
“I’ll stay in my room. Or you can go out if you want. It won’t bother me.”
“What about DSS?”
“If they come, I won’t answer the door. We can say we were out for dinner.”
Steve looked at the phone, the door. Johnny made it easy for him. “I’ve been alone plenty of times. You don’t have to worry.”
Relief softened Steve’s hard-edged mouth. “I’d just be gone for a few hours.”
Steve rose and pointed. The nail on his finger was brown and broken. “Stay out of my stuff,” he said.
“And don’t let anybody inside.”
Johnny nodded solemnly and saw that Steve still needed help. “I’ll probably just read. Homework, you know.”
“Homework. Good idea.”
Steve left and Johnny watched him all the way to the curb. Then he went through Steve’s stuff. Methodically. Carefully. He felt no guilt, no remorse. If Steve was going to get stoned or drunk, Johnny wanted to know. Same thing with guns and knives and baseball bats.
Johnny wanted to know where they were.
If the gun was loaded.
He found vodka in the freezer, a bag of pot in a casserole dish. The computer was password protected, the filing cabinet locked. He discovered a hunting knife on the floor of the bedroom closet and a sex manual on the shelf. An interior door led from the kitchen to the garage, where he found a pickup truck with worn tires and gouges in the dirty white paint. Johnny stood under the bright light and ran his hands along the hood, the mud-caked fenders. The truck was old, a beater, but it had air in the tires and the needle lifted off the peg when Johnny turned the key to check the gas. He stood in the garage smell and thought hard about things he should probably not do; but two minutes later he sat at the kitchen table, truck key in front of him, phone book open.
There was one listing for Levi Freemantle.
Johnny knew the street.
He picked up the key but jumped when the phone rang. It was his mother, and she was distraught. “Are you being a good boy?”
Johnny picked up the key, tilted it in the light. “Yes.”
“This is only temporary, honey. You need to believe that.”
Johnny heard a noise through the phone, a crash. “I believe it.”
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you, too.” Another sound.
“I have to go,” she said.
“Are you okay?”
“Be a good boy.” She hung up.
Johnny stared at the phone, then put it down. The key was warm in his hand.
No one had to know.
Katherine put the phone on the floor, next to her leg. Against her back, the front door was hard and cold. She pushed against it, even as a fist slammed into it from the outside. “Go away, Ken!”
Above her, the deadbolt held fast. Another blow, this one low. A kick. “You are my girlfriend. This is my house.”
“I changed the locks!”
“Open this damn door!”
“I’ll call the cops. I swear I will.”
The door shuddered from successive blows; the knob twisted but held. “I just want to talk!”
“I’m dialing.” A lie.
Silence, sudden and complete. She held her breath and listened. She imagined his own ear to the door, his fingertips pressed white on the dirty paint. The silence built. Ten seconds. A minute. She screamed when he kicked the door a final time. Then she felt vibration as he descended the steps. His car started and headlights stabbed through the tattered lace curtains as he turned in the yard and sped up the road.
She collapsed against the door, shaking so violently her jaw hurt. He had to be drunk or coked up. But she’d made a decision. Johnny first. No drinking, no pills. And that meant no Ken Holloway.
Katherine bit down on the heel of her hand. At least Johnny was not here. At least he was safe.
She waited until her heart slowed and her breathing settled. Five minutes. Maybe ten. She was about to stand when she heard stealthy movement in the yard: gravel under foot, a rasp of bare earth. Fear paralyzed her so badly that she literally could not breathe. Outside, an old plank bent with the sound of wind through a dead tree. Weight on the porch. A thump against the door, very quiet. Katherine heard the bottom step groan and then silence.
Total, terrifying silence.
She had the phone in her hand but decided that 911 was not good enough. She wanted Hunt, trusted him. Keeping low, she moved to the kitchen. His card was in the top drawer. He answered on the first ring. She spoke in a whisper.
“Do not open the door,” he said. “Whatever you do. I’ll have a car there before you know it.”
She kept the phone in her hand even after they’d disconnected. She crept to the window and risked a glance. She saw shadows and trees, the friction of light and dark as low clouds raced across a rising moon. Nothing on the road. Nothing in the yard. She leaned right, pushed her cheek into the glass. She saw part of the porch but not enough. At the door again, she listened and heard a scratching sound, like a fork on wax paper. She heard it twice, faintly, then the unmistakable sound of a muffled cry. Faint. Somehow familiar.
She heard it again. It was outside the door. On the porch.
Katherine looked at the phone, then heard the cry again. For one wild second, she thought it was a baby. Someone had left a baby on her porch; but that was insane, she knew it; but the sound came again, and she found her fingers on the deadbolt, one hand on the knob.
She froze, thinking of Ken.
In the distance, an engine turned over. The sound rose then drifted south. The cry came again and she felt air on her cheek as the door opened to the length of the security chain. She did not remember making the decision to open it.
On the porch was a cardboard box sealed with silver tape. An envelope sat on top of it. The box shifted and the sound from within came more clearly. Johnny’s name was written on the envelope. “Oh my God.” She studied the yard, found it empty, and stepped out. The envelope was unsealed, a single piece of paper inside. The message was typed and unsigned.
You saw nobody. Heard nothing. You keep your damn mouth shut.
Katherine stared in dread at the box. She knelt and peeled back the line of bright tape. It came off with a tearing sound. Inside was a cat. Alive.
Its back was broken.
Katherine fell backward into the house, frozen, and one thought filled her head.
She punched in the number for Steve’s apartment but misdialed. She tried again, fingers clumsy. “Please, God,” she said.
The phone rang six times, ten; but no one answered. In mortal fear, she hung up the phone. Then she called Hunt again.
Johnny opened the garage door and started the truck. It ran rough and spilled blue smoke, but it was drivable. He stuck to side streets until he hit the four-lane, then he stepped on the gas and the truck jolted beneath him. He slowed as he approached Main Street, then cut right down a one-way to avoid traffic.
He drove slowly. Neighborhoods decayed the closer he got to the tracks. Johnny heard music and raised voices, the crump of a misaligned door slamming shut. He found Huron Street and turned left. Parked cars cluttered the narrow street and glass winked in the gutter. Weeds grew tall from cracks in the curb and a dog exploded at him from the darkness. It was a patch of brown on black, a jagged outline that jerked to a halt at the end of its chain. Johnny drove on, but there were other dogs in other yards. He imagined fingers on thin curtains, people stained television blue as they bent to peer through filthy windows. And it was not just imagination. To the left, a man stepped through his front door and onto the porch. He had pale feet, wore jeans with no shirt, and sucked on the cigarette that hung between his lips. Johnny ignored him and drove on.
Freemantle’s house solidified ahead and to the right. It was a lightless hulk pinned on a dark lot. Behind it, pale gravel spilled down the bank that led to the tracks. Johnny smelled creosote, rock dust, and oil. He pulled to the curb and killed the engine. Behind him, in a house the color of mustard, a baby cried.
Johnny stepped onto the street and the baby fell quiet. The dogs settled down. Stepping into Freemantle’s yard, Johnny saw yellow tape strung between the posts that held up the porch roof. Ducking beneath the tape, he cupped his hands around his face and tried to see inside. Nothing. More dark. Johnny pulled down more yellow tape. The door swung open at his touch. Johnny stepped inside, but there was no one. The house was empty. He flipped on lights and saw blood on the wall.
That scared him.
That was real.
The blood was streaked and black. Gray powder stained light switches and doorknobs. In the back room, the blood was worse. So was the smell. Oily and thick, it stuck in his throat. Dried blood was a desert on the floor. Tape marked where the bodies had fallen.
A desert of blood.
Johnny turned and ran for the front door. The hall constricted and his shadow twisted as he ran. The door stood open, a hard, black empty with yellow tape that slapped at his arms. He leapt off the porch, landed badly, and tore skin from his palms. He stumbled once more, then cranked up the truck and got the hell out. The dogs rose to send him on his way.
Hunt bulled his way through town. He crested the last hill doing eighty and felt the car rise on its shocks; then he was in the trough, foot pressing down as the needle swung to ninety. He braked hard at Katherine’s drive, hung a right, and slid to a halt.
Lights burned in the house. Darkness gathered in the trees.
No squad car.
Hunt spilled out, lights thumping blue behind the grille of his car. He scanned the tree line and the yard, one hand on his holstered weapon. It was quiet and still; the porch felt hollow beneath his feet. He hammered on the door, sensed movement inside and stepped back, checking the yard behind him once again. The lock disengaged and the door opened a crack, then swung wide. Katherine Merrimon stood in the light, tear-stained and small, an eight-inch butcher’s knife gripped between fingers squeezed to bone.
“Any word on Johnny?”
Hunt stepped through the door. “I’ve already sent a car to Steve’s apartment. It’s probably there already.” Hunt held out a hand. “May I have the knife?”
“Sorry.” She handed it over and Hunt placed it on the counter.
“You’re okay,” he said. “I’m sure that Johnny is, too.”
“He’s not okay.”
“We don’t know anything yet.”
“I want to go to Steve’s.”
“And we will. I promise. Just sit down for a minute.” He got her onto the sofa and then straightened. The box was on the table. “Is that it?” Hunt asked.
She nodded. “I think it’s dead, now.”
Hunt approached the box, saw the silver tape, torn free, and beside the box an envelope and a sheet of paper. “I couldn’t leave it outside,” Katherine said. Hunt used a pen to lift the flaps. A film glazed the cat’s eyes. Its tongue protruded.
“It’s dead.” Hunt closed the flaps, then read the note: You saw nobody. Heard nothing. You keep your damn mouth shut.
Katherine crossed the room and stood beside him, looking down. She was shaking. “Do you think Ken did it? It came ten minutes after he left.”
“I doubt it.”
“You sound certain.”
“I’m not, but it feels wrong. Why drive off and come back? Why announce himself like that? And why do it in the first place?”
“What does it mean?” Katherine asked.
Hunt read the lines again. “I think it has to do with Burton Jarvis.”
“The news coverage has been extensive.” He held her eyes. “You saw Johnny’s notes?”
“He was there, Katherine, at Jarvis’s house. No matter what he wants me to believe, Johnny was there a lot.”
“Somebody thinks that Johnny saw him?”
“Johnny identified five of the six men who visited on a regular basis. Just five.”
“And number six?”
“Number six was careful. He changed license plates three times that we know of. He’s worried that Johnny can identify him.”
“Are you talking about the cop?”
“We don’t know that it was a cop.”
“Johnny thinks it was.”
“He’s wrong. He has to be.”
“But what if he’s not?”
Hunt lacked an answer. In its place, he offered a hand. “Let’s go find your son.”
It was late when Johnny turned into Steve’s development. He weaved between the buildings, made the final left, and stopped a hundred yards short. Steve’s van was back. Cops cars were parked in the street in front of his apartment. Hunt’s car was there, too. That meant Social Services.
Johnny cursed himself. He should have come back more quickly. He should not have gone at all. They’d take him away for good, now. Sure as apple pie. Sure as anything.
He killed the engine and opened the door. A stand of pines rose to the right of the road, halfway to the building. Johnny kept his shoulder on warm metal, maneuvered between parked cars until the trees were close, then he sprinted for cover. He dove into a bed of needles, pulled himself up, and scrambled for the darkest pocket he could find.
Jack was already there.
“Damn it, Johnny! You scared me.”
Johnny smelled the bourbon on his friend, saw the bottle clutched to his chest. “What are you doing here, Jack?”
Jack shifted, sat up against the trunk of a pine tree. “Where else would I be?”
“Do you know what’s going on?”
Jack pointed at the police cars. “When I got here, that’s what I found.”
“How’d you get here?”
“It’s four miles.”
“Are you drunk?” Johnny asked.
“Are you preaching?”
“You sound a little preachy.”
Johnny ignored the dig. “Is my mother in there?”
“I think I saw her once. Truth is, I don’t really know. I’ve just been waiting for you.” Johnny maneuvered closer to the edge of trees. Jack hissed at him. “Don’t do that, Johnny. For all I know, my old man’s in there, too. I can’t handle that.”
“He’s trying to make an impression. Working overtime and all. He wants to make detective first grade by the time Gerald goes pro.” He took a pull on the bottle. “Like it matters.”
Johnny slid back into the gloom. Jack was slurring his words, slipping off the tree trunk. He could barely sit up straight. “What’s wrong with you?” Johnny asked.
“Nothing.” Sullen. Johnny turned his attention back to the apartment. “If you must know…” Jack spoke too loudly.
“Shut up, J-man! Jesus.”
Jack lowered his voice. “If you must know, I had a fight with my dad. Somebody called him about what happened at the mall.”
“Let me guess. He took Gerald’s side.”
Jack shook his head. “I expected that anyway. This was about you. He said we couldn’t be friends anymore, said it was my official warning. The last warning.” Jack waved a hand and staggered to his feet. “But don’t worry. I told him to fuck off.”
“You did not.”
The bottle went up. “As good as.”
Johnny studied the window. “If I go in there, they’ll take me away for real.”
“DSS. They’ll take me from Steve’s and lock me up with some stiff-necked do-gooder who makes me take a bath three times a day and won’t let me out of the house.”
“That or somebody looking for a check from the state. They’ll feed you bread and water. Make you sleep on the floor. Make you their slave.”
“Shut up, Jack.”
“No, you’re not.”
Jack stumbled closer and squinted at the windows. When he spoke this time, he really was serious. “They’re probably worried. Your mom and all.”
“I can’t think about that right now.”
Johnny took Jack by the shirt and pulled him up. “Come on,” he said.
“Just come on.”
He marched Jack to the truck. “Wait here.”
But Johnny wasn’t listening. Ignoring the cop cars, he tried the door on Steve’s van. Locked. In the yard, he pried a loose brick from the edge of the sidewalk. A straight walk back to the van, brick up in his right hand. He smashed the van’s window, reached in and opened the glove compartment.
At the truck, he snatched the bottle out of Jack’s hands and tossed it into the dark. He handed Jack the box of shells. “Hold these.”
“What is that?”
“And this.” He shoved the pistol into Jack’s hands.
Johnny opened the door and looked hard at his friend. “You coming this time?”
“Oh, fuck,” Jack said, and Johnny fired up the truck.
Johnny kept it at the speed limit, then coasted to a stop at the top of the hill. Below them, the road stretched all the way to Johnny’s house.
“What are we doing?”
“I need to get something.”
“Anybody there, you think?”
“One way to find out.”
Johnny took them down the hill and the house came up on the right. A few lights burned. Nothing in the driveway. He eased the truck in and switched off the engine. The night air was still. Nothing moved in the house. “Looks empty.” Johnny climbed out and tried his key in the front door. “It doesn’t work,” he said.
“Is it the right key?”
Johnny tried again. “She must have changed the locks.”
“Holloway, I guess.”
“That’s good, right?”
“If that’s what it means.”
“Well…” Jack looked around, and Johnny threw a rock through the window. “Jesus, Johnny! Freaking warn me next time.”
“Who throws a rock through his own window?”
Johnny turned, his voice intense. “Don’t you get it?” He pointed up the road, back the way they’d come. “The cops know I ran off from Steve’s, so they’ll call Social Services for sure. They’ll put me some place I don’t even want to think about. They’ll lock me down and that’ll be it. Game over.”
“Huh?” Jack was drunk.
Johnny gripped his shoulder and squeezed. “This is my last chance to find her. You think I give a crap about Ken’s window? Steve’s van? None of that matters.”
Johnny released his friend with such force that Jack staggered. Johnny picked up a broken branch and used it to knock shards from the window frame. When he tossed the branch down, he made sure Jack knew who was in charge. “Wait here,” he said. “Keep an eye out.”
He climbed through the broken window, flicked on the overhead light. The place looked the same but felt different. A pang of loss stabbed him in the heart, but he ignored it. Going first to his mother’s room, he pulled open the bedside table drawer and scooped out the cash he found there. Two hundred bucks, give or take. He took two twenties and put the rest back. In his room, he opened his backpack and stuffed in clothing and a blanket. From his closet, he took two jackets, one made of denim, the other of cotton twill. Turning to the bed, he scooped up his copy of An Illustrated History of Raven County. It fell open to the page dedicated to John Pendleton Merrimon, Surgeon and Abolitionist. For a second, he touched the picture of his namesake, then he turned the page. The bold heading read: “The Mantle of Freedom: Raven County’s First Freed Slave.” There was the story of Isaac Freemantle, and there was a map.
On the map was the river and a trail.
The trail led to a place.
Johnny snapped the book closed and stuffed it in the pack.
The gun went in on top of it.
In the kitchen, he found canned food and peanut butter, a large flashlight and a box of matches. He pulled bread off the shelf, two cans of grape soda from the refrigerator. For an instant he considered writing his mother a note, but the moment passed. If she knew what he planned, she would only worry more. He walked outside and tossed the cotton jacket to Jack. “Here.” Johnny pulled on the jean jacket. Jack was starting to sober up. Johnny saw it in his damp, miserable face, in the wary manner in which he looked down the stretch of lonely road. “You don’t have to come,” Johnny said. “I can do this by myself.”
“Johnny, man. I don’t even know what you’re doing.”
Johnny looked into the deep woods behind the house. He thought of the gun that weighed down the pack. “I’ll tell you when you’re sober. If you still want to come, then you can come.”
“Where are we going now?”
Jack looked blank, and Johnny put a hand on his shoulder. His mouth was a sharp line, his eyes very bright. “Think of it as an adventure.”
Hunt stood by the fireplace and kept a wary eye on Katherine Merrimon. She sat on the sofa in Steve’s living room, shaking and flushed. Every few minutes she would stand and stare through the window. Yoakum was in the kitchen. So was Cross. Steve paced and threw frightened looks at Hunt. He tried to speak to Katherine, but she slapped him. “It’s your fault,” she said.
“That damn kid.”
She slapped him again.
“I’m going outside,” Steve said. “I need a smoke.”
“Don’t come back.” She didn’t even look at him.
She stared into the dark and Hunt stepped forward. “Go have your smoke, Steve. Give us a few minutes.”
He opened the door. “Fine. Whatever.”
Hunt waited for the door to close, then took Katherine’s arm and led her to the sofa. “We’ll find him.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I will do everything that I can do to bring your son home. That’s a promise.” Both of them recognized the empty nature of the promise. Katherine folded her hands in her lap. “Nothing matters more to me, right now. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know.”
“I promise, Katherine. I swear.”
She nodded, shoulders turned in, hands still folded into a small, perfect package. “Do you think somebody took him?”
Hunt could barely hear her. “No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
“Maybe somebody decided that a threat wasn’t good enough.”
Hunt turned on the sofa. “There was no forced entry, no sign of a struggle. Steve’s truck was taken. Johnny knows how to drive. He had access to the key.”
“I need him back. Do you understand?”
“I need my son home.”
Hunt watched her stare through the glass. Yoakum appeared in the kitchen door. “Clyde,” he said, and motioned with a finger.
Hunt walked to the kitchen. “What is it?”
Yoakum led Hunt into the kitchen and stopped at the small table. “You see anything here that bothers you?” Hunt looked at the table. It was mostly bare. There were a few magazines, some mail, yesterday’s newspaper and an open phone book. He was about to shake his head when Yoakum said: “Phone book.”
It took a second, then Hunt saw it. Levi Freemantle, 713 Huron Street.
“Why would he care about Levi Freemantle?”
“He thinks Freemantle knows where Alyssa is.”
“Why would he think that?”
“He thinks that David Wilson might have told him before he died.” Hunt closed the book. “This is my fault.”
“No one could have guessed he’d do something like this.”
“I could have.” Hunt scrubbed his hands over his face. “The kid’s capable of just about anything. It was stupid of me to think he’d just let this go.”
“I can be there in eight minutes.”
“No. The kid trusts me, more or less. Better if I go.”
“Well, you’d better hump it.”
They went back into the living room, but Steve burst in before they made it across the rug. He pointed a finger at Katherine, then closed his hand into a fist. His lips were drawn, his face red. He pumped his hand, as if trying to control his temper.
“What is it?” Hunt asked.
Steve cut his eyes to Hunt. His words were clipped, and he stabbed a finger toward the street. “That little shit stole my gun, too.”
Ten minutes later, Hunt had been through every room in Freemantle’s house. He called Yoakum from the living room. “I missed him.”
“Any sign he was there?”
Hunt stepped onto Freemantle’s porch and fingered the torn, yellow tape. Up the street, dogs howled. “Tape’s down. Door’s open.”
“Should we put an all-points on the truck?”
Hunt considered. “What if Johnny was right? What if the sixth man was a cop?”
“I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“But what if? What if we put out an all-points and the wrong cop finds him?”
“You think we should keep this quiet?”
“I don’t know. Thinking this way feels twenty kinds of wrong.”
“I’m with you. Hang on a sec. What?” The phone was muffled. Hunt heard muted voices, then Yoakum was back. “Aw, shit.”
“Cross says he already called it in.”
“Nobody authorized that.”
“He says a runaway kid in a stolen truck carrying a stolen gun is a no-brainer. Frankly, I can’t disagree with him, especially since…”
Yoakum paused and Hunt imagined him stepping away from Katherine. “Since what?”
A door closed. Yoakum spoke in a whisper. “Since he’s out looking for a stone-cold killer.”
Johnny had to go two roads over to find the entrance to the abandoned tobacco farm. The gate was unlocked, the track overgrown with weeds and low brambles. Jack closed the gate behind them. He’d never been to the old barn. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” Headlights cut into the darkness. Feathers of pine reached in and turned from black to green. Sap glistened on knotted trunks, then winked out as they passed.
They bounced through ruts and deep gouges made by spring rains. When they came out of the woods and into the abandoned fields, the sky opened above them: high, lonely stars and a trace of moon behind tissue clouds. “This was a plantation once,” Johnny said. “Then just a bunch of farms.” The track cut right, straightened, then split. Johnny went left. “You can still see where the big house burned.” He jerked his head. “Over there. Chimney stones in a pile. The old well shaft.”
“It’s overgrown now. I found it six months ago.”
The barn loomed ahead, a wall of grayed-out logs on a foundation of chiseled granite. Milkweed rose, pink and green, and fingers of ivy clawed up the length of the back corner. Black showed where chinking had crumbled to dust. Johnny pulled around to the other side and stopped. The doorway gaped. Charred wood and ash marked the fire pit. Johnny put the truck in park. “Give me the pack.” Jack shrugged it off. “Don’t turn off the engine until I say.” Johnny dropped the pack on the ground and pulled out the flashlight. He disappeared inside the barn, found the moldy blue backpack and three stubs of candle. “Alright,” he said.
Jack switched off the engine and the headlights winked out. The night collapsed to a twitching beam of light that flashed on white skin, wide eyes, and filthy clothes. “Ken’s house is that way.” Johnny pointed with the flashlight. “Through the trees. Not far.”
“How’d you find all this?”
Johnny squatted and dug the matches out of the pack. “Getting out of the house when things got bad. Looking for snakes.”
“About the snakes-”
“Hold this.” Johnny handed the light to Jack, then put the candles on a slab of granite and lit them. Jack watched and said nothing, but Johnny felt him there. “I’ve slept out here more than a few times. It’s not bad. Inside is full of spiders. Mosquitoes are worse out here.”
“I’ll take the mosquitoes.”
Jack put the light on the blue pack. “What’s that?”
“Let’s make a fire.” Johnny stood and began foraging for wood. Eventually, Jack helped him. They gathered twigs and fallen branches. The fire was still small when Jack found the scrap of Bible. It was pebbled leather, black; part of the spine, two inches long and charred. Some of the gold letters could still be seen. Jack held it for a long minute, and Johnny could tell that he knew what it was. He watched Jack’s tiny fingers trace the letters, then he stood, took it from him and threw it on the fire. Rocking back on his heels, Johnny watched his friend. Jack was not what most would call a good boy, but Johnny knew for a fact that he believed in the devil.
“I’m not going to burn in hell, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Jack’s small arm moved. He pointed at the fire. “What are you doing, Johnny?” His head shifted and red light filled up his eyes. “I’ve been good and I’ve been quiet. About all of this.” He moved his fingers over his face again. “What they said in the paper. The things you’ve been keeping secret from me. Snakes and charms and voodoo shit.” He shook his head. “But this ain’t right. Whatever this is, you can’t go burning Bibles. Even I know that.”
“It’s just a book.”
“You take that back.”
Johnny raised his voice. “It’s just a book and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make a difference.” Jack’s mouth opened, but Johnny rode his words down. “The preacher said it would, but he was full of shit, too.”
“I think I might be sick.”
“Well, go over there if you’re going to do it.” Johnny stabbed a finger at the darkness. “I’m going to eat some dinner and I don’t need to be smelling your puke.”
Jack closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he looked better, less green. When he spoke, Johnny knew that he’d decided to let it go. “What’s that?” Jack asked, pointing at the pack.
An eddy of smoke wafted against Johnny’s face and he narrowed his eyes. “You really want to know?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
Johnny unhooked the straps and dumped the contents of the bag on the ground. He separated the bundles of vegetation. There were four of them, each tied with string. He put them in a row, caught Jack’s eye and touched each in turn. “Cedar,” he said. “Pine. Spruce. Laurel.”
“They’re supposed to be sacred.” He touched them again, each in turn. “Wisdom. Strength. Courage. Perseverance. You’re supposed to burn them.”
“Is that an Indian thing?”
“Indian. Some other things.” Johnny scooped up the bundles and threw them into the darkness beyond the fire. They landed with a crunch, and Johnny spat on the dirt. “You hungry?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”
They ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank grape soda. Jack kept his eyes on his friend and looked away when Johnny caught him staring. Johnny ignored him. He didn’t want to talk about the things he’d done and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let Jack judge him. He wiped peanut butter fingers on his jeans and picked up the gun. It was heavy and smooth. He opened it up and saw that it was loaded.
“There’s no safety on that,” Jack said. “Careful where you point it.”
Johnny snapped the cylinder closed. “You know guns?”
Jack rolled his shoulders. “Dad’s a cop.”
“Can you shoot?”
“Straight enough, I guess.”
Johnny slipped the gun back into its holster. They fell into silence and night sounds rose up around them. Moths danced about the candle flames and their shadows licked the ground. Jack tossed his can into the fire to see if it would burn; paint blistered and burst. “Johnny?”
Jack kept his eyes on the fire. “Do you think cowardice is a sin?”
“Are you scared?”
“Do you think it’s a sin?” Insistent. Thin jaw clenched.
Johnny tossed his own can into the fire. Long seconds passed and he didn’t blink until he felt his eyes go bone dry. “That man at the river, David Wilson. He knew where my sister was. He knew, and I ran away before he could tell me.” Johnny looked at his friend. “So, yeah. I think cowardice is a sin.”
“God or no God.” Jack’s eyes were wide and still.
Jack stared into the dark and wrapped his arms around his knees. “What are we doing out here, Johnny?”
Johnny poked at the fire with a stick. “If I tell you, there’s no wimping out. No take-backs. So you need to tell me now if you’re in or out.”
“Hard to do if I don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Johnny lifted his shoulders. “I’ll take you home right now, but not if you know what I’m doing.”
“Jesus, Johnny. I wouldn’t tell anybody.”
“In or out?”
Across the fire, beyond the curtain of smoke and scorched air, Jack scrubbed a forearm across his nose. Orange glazed his eyes until he turned his head, then the color fell away and he was just a dirty boy with a washed-out tan and hair that stood out in all directions. “You’re pretty much all I have that’s good, Johnny. I don’t guess there’ll be any take-backs.” He turned back and his eyes were so simple and brown they made Johnny think of a dog’s eyes. “May as well tell me.”
“Come here.” Johnny dug into the pack from home. He pulled out the book on Raven County but did not open it. Jack came around the fire, sat in the dirt, and Johnny explained it from the beginning: David Wilson going off the bridge and what he’d said; Levi Freemantle, how he’d grabbed Johnny up by the river; the blood Johnny had found in Freemantle’s house.
Jack bobbed his head. “Dang, Johnny. That was in the papers, too. Same day as you. Not his name, I don’t think, but they found bodies in that house. Two people with their heads bashed in.”
“I kind of figured somebody was dead when I saw all the blood.”
Jack’s face scrunched up. “Was there a lot of it?”
“It was everywhere, and I mean like paint.”
The boys were silent for a minute.
Then Jack shook his head. “I don’t understand what this has to do with us.”
Johnny clicked on the flashlight and opened the book to the page about Isaac Freemantle. He pointed at the map. “Here’s town.” He moved his finger north, made a circling motion. “This is mostly swamp.” He moved his finger slightly. “This is where the granite rises up and you have that huge stretch of woods where those old mines are. You remember?”
“Yeah. Fourth-grade field trip. They made us hold hands so nobody wandered off and fell into a hole.” He was embarrassed, Johnny knew, by the memory. Nobody had wanted to hold Jack’s bad hand. There had been pushing and shoving. Some girl had said it was gross.
Johnny traced his finger south, to the trail that ran beside the river. “This is where I ran into him, right about there. Over here is the bridge.”
Johnny continued tracing the path along the river. His finger stopped near the edge of the swamp. There were two words there: Hush Arbor. “This is where he was going. This is where we’ll find him.”
“You’re talking over me, man.”
Johnny closed the book. “This goes back, okay. Back to slave times.”
“Slave times. Concentrate. See, slaves came over with their own religions. African stuff. Tribal stuff. Animal gods and spirits in the water, fetishes, charms. Root work, they called it. Hoodoo. But that was good for the white folks, just fine, in fact, because nobody here wanted them learning about Jesus and God and stuff. They didn’t want a bunch of slaves thinking they were equal in the eyes of God. Do you see? If you’re equal, then nobody should own you. That was dangerous thinking if you owned slaves.”
“So, they didn’t want the slaves to learn.”
“But they did. African slaves, Indian slaves. They learned to read and they took to the Bible; but they had to do it in private, ’cause they understood the danger of it, too. They were smarter than the slave owners thought they were. They knew they’d be punished for their faith. Sold off. Killed, maybe. So they’d worship in the woods and in the swamps. Secret places. Hidden places. You see?”
“Think of them as hiding places for church. They called these places “hush arbors,” and they’d go there to worship in secret, to hide their faith from the whites that didn’t want to share their religion.”
“Hush arbors? Like the place on the map.”
Johnny nodded. “They were too smart to build a church because they knew somebody would find it. But woods are just woods, a swamp is just mud and water and snakes and shit. So that’s where they’d go. They’d sing their songs to God, dance on the dirt, and testify to their new faith.”
“That’s in the book?”
Johnny looked away, hesitated. “Some of it. Not all of it.”
“Not all of what?”
“There was a slave named Isaac, who was a preacher of sorts. He taught those who couldn’t read. He spread the word, even though he knew the danger of it.” Johnny swatted a mosquito, rolled it off his neck and squeezed blood between thumb and fingertip. “They were discovered eventually, and three slaves were lynched right there in the hush arbor, strung up from the trees that made their church. They were going to hang Isaac, too, but his owner intervened. He stood the mob down with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other. They say he called God down from the heavens and threatened to shoot the first man who took a step. Nobody had the courage to chance it. He saved that slave’s life.”
Jack was enthralled. “What happened next?”
“He took Isaac home and hid him for three weeks, waited for the mob to cool down, waited for some guilt to set in, I guess. Then he gave that slave his freedom, and he gave him the land where his people had worshipped.”
“And been lynched.”
“And you want to find this guy there?”
“Isaac Freemantle lived there the rest of his life. Maybe Freemantles still do. The trail goes right to it. Probably how they got to town and back.”
Jack frowned. “How do you know all this? You say it’s not in the book.”
“My great-great-grandfather’s name was John Pendleton Merrimon. Same name as me.”
“He was the one with the gun and the Bible.” Johnny tossed a stick on the fire. “He’s the one that set Isaac free.”
“And you want to go out into the swamp, to find this guy’s great-grandson or whatever, a killer, so you can ask him about Alyssa?” Johnny nodded in absolute certainty, and Jack shook his head. “You think he owes you?”
“I don’t think he knows who I am.”
“You’re an idiot. I mean, you are off the fucking reservation.”
“Off the reservation.” Johnny’s voice was bitter. “That’s funny.”
“It’s not a joke. This is stupid, Johnny. It’s mental.”
“No take-backs. That’s what you said.”
Jack scrambled to his feet and sparks popped in the fire. “Jesus, Johnny. This guy just killed two people. He’ll kill us, too. Sure as shit.”
Johnny rose as well. “That’s why I took this.” He pulled Steve’s gun from the holster, and fire devils danced in the metal.
“And you’re coming with me.”
Jack looked around, as if for help; but there was nothing there. Light pushed dark and the sky pressed down. Jack opened his hands and begged with his eyes. “It’s been a year, Johnny.”
“Don’t you say it!”
Jack swallowed, took a desperate look at the scrub beyond the fire; then he said it. “She’s fucking dead, man.”
Johnny swung with all he had. The blow struck the side of Jack’s face and he went down in the dirt. Johnny stood over him, his breath like glass in his throat, the gun a dead weight in his hand. For that instant, his oldest friend was not his friend, but his enemy; Johnny wondered why he’d ever thought that Jack could be more than that. Then he recognized the terror in his friend’s face.
The heat drained out of Johnny, and he became aware of the sky, suddenly dark and huge. He saw himself through Jack’s eyes, and knew, freaking knew, that he was the crazy one. But that changed nothing.
“I have to go.”
Johnny’s fist fell open. Jack pushed back in the dirt.
“Please, don’t make me go alone.”
Hunt drove Katherine Merrimon back to the small house at the edge of town. He tried once to make conversation, but she was unresponsive. Stopping in the drive, he peered through the glass and frowned. “When you saw the strange car on the street the other night, where was it parked?”
Katherine pointed and Hunt looked up the street, past the distant light. “It was just sitting there. Its engine was running. I’d never seen it before.”
“What kind of car?”
“I thought it was a police car.”
“Why a police car? What makes you say that?”
“It had that look. A big sedan. The shape of it. It looked like a cop car.”
“Lights on the roof?”
“No. Just the shape of it.” She gestured at the car in which they sat. “Like this.”
“A Crown Victoria?”
“It just looked like this. American. Big. I don’t know. It was dark. I don’t care about cars. I don’t know about them.”
“And it took off when?”
“When I started walking toward it.”
“Which direction did it go?”
She pointed, and Hunt frowned again. “I don’t think you should stay here, not with all that’s happened.”
“Where else would I stay?” She waited for an answer. “Your place?”
“I’m not like that, Katherine.”
“All men are like that.” She could not hide the bitterness.
She held his gaze and Hunt was struck by the intensity of it. So jaded, so weary. Damn Ken Holloway, Hunt thought. Damn him for making her like that.
“I was thinking of a hotel. Something anonymous.”
She must have heard the hurt in his voice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That was unfair. You’ve been nothing but aboveboard.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Johnny might come home. I need to be here for that.”
“Then I want a squad car on the street.”
“No to that, too.”
“It’s not safe here,” Hunt said. “Things are happening that we don’t understand.”
“A police car would scare Johnny. If he did run away, I want him to know that he can come home. How will he know that if the cops are parked in front of the house?” Katherine opened her door. “Thank you for the ride, Detective. I’ll be fine from here.”
Hunt stepped out of the car and put his hands on the roof. “I’d like to check the house.”
“I need to be alone.”
Hunt studied the street because her pain was killing him. He’d seen her courage before, and he’d seen that courage fail. It had been like watching a redwood fall or a river die. He looked at the dark house, then at her. “Please,” he said.
“If you insist.”
Hunt found the broken window three seconds later. “Back in the car,” he said, and drew his service weapon. “Get in the car and lock the doors.”
She bolted for the door.
“I changed the locks. Don’t you see? It’s Johnny.”
Hunt caught her on the steps and pulled her back. “Wait,” he said. “Just wait.” Then he called out. “Johnny.” He tried the door. It opened easily. “Johnny. It’s Detective Hunt and your mother.” Nothing. Hunt held up a hand. “Stay here.”
Inside, Hunt flicked on the lights. Glass shards glittered on the carpet. He checked the back rooms, turned on every light. When he came down the hall, he found Katherine in the living room. He holstered his weapon. “Nobody. It’s empty.”
She sat on the sofa and held herself still.
“Is anything missing?” She said nothing, and Hunt stepped closer. “Has anything been stolen?”
She looked up, eyes wet and vacant.
“I’m going to check the yard,” Hunt said. “I need you to look around and tell me what you see.”
“It won’t do any good. I haven’t seen anything for most of a year. I wouldn’t know if something was missing.”
Hunt understood the comment, but let it go. “Check Johnny’s room. Start there.”
She moved to the hallway. Johnny’s light burned. She heard Hunt leave the house, then she stood in the entrance to Johnny’s room. She realized, looking in, that it was unfamiliar to her. How many times had she been in this room, she wondered. Three times? Five? And how many times sober? None, she thought. The year behind her was a blur of days. She ate. She slept. Ken Holloway came and went.
Her son’s room was strange to her.
Her son, she realized, was strange to her.
She checked the closet, but did not know what should be there. Same thing with the drawers and the shelves. There was no recollection of buying clothes, or of washing them. Johnny had been doing that, she realized. He cooked. He cleaned. She covered her mouth, overwhelmed.
Where was her son?
She found the suitcase under the bed. It was old and battered, vaguely familiar. She dragged it out and heaved it up onto the bed. She opened it and froze.
Johnny’s and her husband’s.
Photos covered the inside of the lid. It was a collage of sunshine and her children; life, like a promise. Her eyes burned, her throat closed, and she touched one of the photographs.
She had one arm around her brother’s neck. They were grinning like imps.
In the suitcase, she found an eight-by-ten photograph of her husband. He wore a blue T-shirt and a belt of tools. He stood sideways to the camera, an angular, strong man with a wide smile and hair so black it gleamed. Dark glasses hid his eyes, but she knew what they would look like, blue and sharp and unflinching. For a moment, she was overwhelmed with regret for the blame she’d dumped on him, for the horrible thing she’d said. Then the anger spiked: It was his fault! She should never have been walking home alone.
But the anger was wasted. “Where are you, Spencer?”
There was no answer to that. He was gone.
Her fingers touched the other items in the suitcase, Alyssa’s things. Her stuffed animals, her diary.
She’d burned this, all of it. Burned everything during three bad weeks of drug-fueled insanity. She lifted a stuffed lamb from the bottom of the case and pressed her face into it, trying to find some small scent that lingered.
Hunt’s voice was a distant thing. The toy came away wet. “Go away,” she said.
“Property’s clear.” He was in the hall. His steps put a vibration in the wood and the vibration found her knees.
“Don’t come in here.”
He stopped in the door.
“Don’t come in.” She felt a break, somewhere deep, a flow of memory so keen and strong that it took down every wall she’d built. Without the drugs, she was naked in the river.
“Leave me alone.” The lamb was soft in her hands. “I’m begging you.”
Hunt backed away, and she heard the front door close. She looked at the lamb: the shiny, black eyes, the fleece so white it could be a cloud on a perfect day. She buried her face and drew in a breath, but there was no girl smell left. There was the scent of an old suitcase and of the unclean space beneath an empty bed.
She waited for Hunt’s car to leave, then rose on numbed legs and opened the door. The night air was a fog that tasted of growing things. She crossed the drive to the edge of the yard, to the high weeds where she’d last seen the wink of white and orange. It took several minutes to find the bottle of oxycontin and carry it back inside. She locked the door. Her fingers shook and the pills tumbled out. She selected four of them, spilled them on her tongue and swallowed them dry. Then she went back to Johnny’s bed, cupped the lamb beneath an arm and laid herself on the covers. She stared at the photographs, and for ten long minutes she endured the pain; then a soft and heavy hand pressed her into the mattress; it took her to a place where she could bear to touch the pictures that her son had hidden for so well and so long. She could say their names without hurt, and in her mind’s eye, she could see them move.
Hunt made a slow drive through the area. He checked side streets and driveways, but saw nothing that looked out of place. Houses were quiet and still, their driveways cluttered with pickup trucks, utility vans, and tired cars. No big sedan with its engine running. No silhouette behind glass.
When he circled back to Katherine’s street, he chose his place with care: far enough from her house to be unobtrusive, close enough to see if anyone came calling. She didn’t want a patrol car on the street. Fine. But he refused to leave her alone, here on the dark edge of things. He pulled off the road, rolled down his window and turned off the engine. He checked the time. Late.
Pushing down a twinge of guilt, he dialed his son and told him to lock the house, set the alarm.
“You’re not coming home, tonight?”
“I’m sorry, Allen. Not tonight. Did you get some dinner?”
“I’m not hungry.”
Hunt looked at his watch again. He cursed his wife for leaving, then remembered the things his son had said. Maybe it was his fault. Here he was again, another night away from his family because of the job. He stopped himself.
Not because of the job.
He looked down the road to where Katherine’s drive spilled gravel onto warm blacktop. He saw lights through the trees, and wondered if he would be here, watching, if it was just another victim. If it was anyone but her.
But the signal was dead. No one was there.
Hunt hung up the phone and settled lower in his seat. He watched for strange cars, and for Ken Holloway. He thought of her alone in that swaybacked house, and when, hours later, he dozed, he dreamed of taking her away from it. They were in his car, windows down, and he saw her the way she’d been. Wind whipped her hair. She put a hand on his face, said his name, and light made clear, sweet water of her eyes. It was a good dream, but he woke cramped and unhappy. The sun was low, in his face, and the dream was as false as a trick of light. His phone was ringing.
“Yeah.” Hunt scrubbed sleep from his eyes and sat higher.
The sun sliced in mercilessly. Hunt dropped his visor. “What is it, John?” Hunt glanced at the time: 7:21.
“I’m out at the Burton Jarvis site.” Yoakum paused and Hunt heard a voice in the background. A dog chuffed twice. “You need to get out here.”
Hunt’s fingers found the key in the ignition. “Talk to me.”
“We’ve got a body.”
“Is it Alyssa Merrimon?”
Yoakum cleared his throat. “I think we’ve got a lot of bodies.”
The Jarvis house was dark and silent when Hunt rolled into the drive. No patrol cars. No other detectives. There was Yoakum, pale and unshaven, popping mints from a metal tin. His shoes were slicked with mud, his pants wet from the knees down. Next to him stood Mike Caulfield, one of the department’s few officers dedicated to the canine unit. A veteran of thirty years, he was tall and stooped, with large, callused hands and a lick of hair so black that it had to be dyed. He wore thornproof overalls, equally wet and muddy. On a leash, at his side, sat the same mongrel dog that he’d used to search Levi Freemantle’s property. They met Hunt when he stepped out of the car.
“Yoak.” Hunt nodded, looked at the dog handler. “Mike.” They looked oppressed, both of them. The dog neither moved nor blinked. He watched his handler. “You haven’t called in support yet?”
Yoakum snapped the lid on his tin of mints. “I wanted you to see this first.” They started walking toward the woods behind the house. “Tell him, Mike.”
Mike’s head bobbed. “I woke up early this morning. Normally, when I do that, I like to go hunting; but I decided to give this place one last run.” He gestured ahead. “I’ve been working a grid, see, in a pattern out from the shed. But I decided, screw that, just for once, just to stretch my legs. I got out here at five and took a straight line for the river. That’s about two miles.”
They walked past the shed, still draped with yellow tape. Mike moved without hesitation, ducking branches, talking as he moved. “I got a bit more than a mile in when Tom started perking up. Another hundred yards, and he went ape shit.” Mike ducked his head again, embarrassed. “Relatively speaking.”
“I was at the station early,” Yoakum said. “I took the call.”
They pushed through a thicket, crossed a narrow stream that ran quick and light across a bed of exposed granite. The sun angled between gray-skinned trunks. The temperature rose. Yoakum slipped once and went down on a knee.
“What’s that smell?” Hunt asked. It was sickly sweet and furtive. A hint one moment, then a good, strong stench the next.
“The dump is that way.” Mike pointed. “A mile or two. You can smell it when the wind gets up.”
They walked farther, and Hunt saw the dog’s ears come up. His head rose, nose up and sniffing; then he dipped his nose to the ground and started pulling. The handler caught Hunt’s eye. “See what I mean?”
They passed through a final thicket and entered a wide, shallow depression. Hardwoods towered like monuments. Dead leaves, damp and rotting, made a carpet of the forest floor. Three orange flags protruded from the earth. They were small, mounted on thin, stiff wire. Otherwise, the earth was undisturbed. “You’re sure these are bodies?” Hunt asked.
Mike gave the dog a hand signal and he sat, eyes intent, nostrils flaring, but otherwise perfectly still. “Thirty years, Detective Hunt, and this is the best dog I’ve ever handled. You’ll find human remains under those flags.”
Hunt nodded and stared out at the flags, so bright and small in the vast, subdued depression. They were widely spaced, maybe fifty feet apart. “Three more. Damn.”
Mike and Yoakum exchanged a glance. Hunt caught it. “What?”
“I only had three flags,” Mike said.
Mike patted the dog. “Meaning, I’ll need more.”
Hunt stared at the wiry, leather-faced dog handler. His ears were drooping knots of cartilage, his nose long and hooked and ruddy. His lips hung with unnatural stillness, and Hunt knew that he was waiting for the question. “Are you saying that there are more bodies out there?”
Mike blew his nose into a bandanna. He nodded once, and the skin of his neck folded. “I think so.”
Hunt looked at Yoakum. “How long did Jarvis own this property?”
Yoakum’s face was bleak. “Twenty-four years.”
“What do you want me to do?” Yoakum asked.
Hunt looked up, saw leaves that moved and jagged cracks of blue. “Call it in. Get everybody out here.”
Yoakum stepped away and opened his phone. Mike honked his nose one last time, then shoved the bandanna back into a pocket. “What about me?” he asked.
“Work the dog,” Hunt said. “We’ll improvise some flags.”
“Yes, sir.” Mike made a motion with his hand and the dog moved without hesitation. Nose down, tail up, it set off in a straight, determined line.
Hunt felt a breeze on his neck.
The dump smell rose.
The sun was less than a hint behind the trees when Johnny nudged Jack with a foot. The fire was dead and gray, the blanket heavy with dew. “It’s time,” Johnny said.
Jack blinked up at Johnny, who was dressed and ready. He scratched at his neck. “I’m eaten alive.”
“Me, too.” Johnny held out a hand and pulled Jack to his feet. “Want some breakfast?”
“What do we have?”
“Canned sausage or peanut butter. We’re out of bread.”
“Any grape soda?”
Jack shook his head. “I’m good.
Johnny knocked dirt off the blanket, then took a leak on the side of the tobacco barn. His hands were smudged with soot from the fire. He thought of sacred things that weren’t sacred after all, and of the gun tucked under his jacket. He’d sat up late, spinning the cylinder, tilting its barrel against the light. He’d rubbed a wet thumb on the site, aimed at the fire and tried to keep his arms steady under the weight of it. He thought of Levi Freemantle and told himself that he knew what he was doing, then decided that it didn’t really matter. In the end, only Jack had a choice.
“You don’t have to come.”
Jack shrugged on the jacket. “You’re my best friend.”
“I’m serious,” Johnny said.
“So am I.”
Johnny stuffed the blanket in the pack, then cinched up the straps. “Thanks, J-man.”
“Don’t go pussy on me.”
“I’m not. I’m just saying-”
“I know what you’re saying.
Johnny opened the truck door. “Ready?”
“Rock and roll.”
Johnny drove through the stubbled field and under the surrounding trees. Out of the woods, they passed through the same gate, then followed the two-lane north toward the county line. Johnny stuck to the roads that he knew, then cut east, through a trailer park, to an unfamiliar road that turned, in a slow bend, away from town and the clutter that surrounded it. They rode past small vineyards and stone walls, went deeper into open country still dotted with antebellum mansions perched above rolling fields. Once, he stopped. He compared the map in the book with a road map of Raven County. “Do you know where we are?” Jack asked.
But Johnny didn’t answer. He stared down the road, then doubled back to a stretch of old, cracked pavement that grew increasingly narrow. He checked road signs twice, then made a left onto a single-lane stretch of black that descended for a few miles until it turned hard right and ended at a gravel road. Johnny stopped. Except for crows on a wire, nothing around them moved. “You smell that?” Johnny asked.
“The river. It bends east just outside of town, then cuts back. I think we’re about twelve miles north of town. Maybe a little east.” He pointed down the gravel road. “I think this is it.”
Jack looked around at the trees, the fields, the windswept silence. “You think this is what?”
“Let’s see.” Johnny turned right and the tires spit gravel. A half mile farther, he passed a shot-up yellow sign that read: END OF STATE MAINTENANCE. Immediately, the forest pushed in. The river smell intensified. The road turned north again. Johnny pointed right. “The river’s that way. We’re going parallel.” He drove for another mile and passed the first gate. It stood open, but the sign was unmistakable. PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO TRESPASSING.
Johnny ignored it.
The second gate was closed, but unlocked. It was age-stained aluminum, bowed in the middle as if backed into by a truck. It hung from a cedar post, and part of its lower edge pressed upon the road where it had buckled. “Get the gate.”
Jack got out of the truck and dragged it open. Grass bent beneath it at the road’s edge, and Johnny moved the truck through. Jack closed it after he’d passed.
They dropped into the flood plain, saw the river, black and oily slow, and Johnny pointed at a broad swath of flattened grass where the river had spilled over its banks in the last big storm. “It’s going to get swampy.”
The road bent away from the river, and swamp began to push in from both sides. The road rose a few feet, until it was a high strip above soft earth and dark water that flashed beyond gashes in the trees. Johnny rounded a bend and almost struck a snapping turtle that basked in the middle of the road. Its shell was two feet across, black with dried algae. He steered around it and it opened its hooked mouth as they passed.
The road dipped a final time, then rose onto a causeway that crossed a wide stretch of still water. They drove into the hollow place, then up onto the hump of earth. On either side, shallow water stretched away, its surface marred by fallen trees, half submerged, and tussocks of grass that broke the surface where the bottom rose. Across the causeway, dry land clawed from the swamp. It was an island of sorts, a mile of hardwoods and vine. Johnny stopped the truck. Ahead of them, gravel grew sparse, then nonexistent as the road turned into a tendon of rutted, black earth that crossed the bog and disappeared into forest. Giant limbs swept the ground and roots stretched the length of a man before plunging into the earth.
Johnny crossed the causeway, stopped in the last patch of sun and killed the engine. The air hung silent, then swamp sounds began to return. They started small and rose like notes from a flute. At the water’s edge, a heron stabbed its beak into the mud and came up empty. It stalked a few feet, then froze, one eye tilted at the water. The boys climbed out of the truck. Johnny saw the sign from ten feet out. Half-covered by honeysuckle and some other creeping vine, it seemed as old as everything else, weathered boards nailed to a tree. Johnny pulled off the vines. The words were carved into the wood beneath, deep cuts, black at the bottoms as if burned.
HUSH ARBOR, 1853.
“This is it.” Johnny stepped back.
“The place where they hanged those people.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“This is a death place, Johnny. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t let your imagination get away from you.”
“It’s up and gone.”
Johnny ignored the comment for a long moment. Honeysuckle put a sugar scent in the air, and he put two fingers on the rough-cut letters. “Just a place,” Johnny lied. The heron speared a frog, tore it from the mud. “Just a place.”
Jack skimmed a rock and spread ripples in the tar-colored water. The heron took wing, frog still twitching in his beak. “Do you really think somebody lives out here?”
Johnny looked up, twisted his head. “No power lines. No phone lines. Maybe not.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”
Johnny peered under the trees. He moved under the branches and felt the temperature drop. The canopy rose into a cathedral quiet.
“What about the truck?”
Johnny looked back. His friend clung to the sunlight, one hand on hot metal. “Too loud. We leave it.”
Jack stepped into shadow. “Quiet, now,” Johnny said. And the forest swallowed them up.
Cops descended on the Jarvis scene: city cops, the sheriff’s office. Someone mentioned the state police, but Hunt shot that down. In seventeen years, he’d seen nothing but conflict and disruption when too many fingers found their way into the pie. Keep it local. Keep it tight. But they had seven flags, now, too many for the local medical examiner. Dr. Moore approached Hunt with mournful eyes, all of his normal exuberance crushed. He wore latex gloves stained with dark matter. For most of two hours he’d worked his way through layers of earth on a single, flagged site. He’d found bone and teeth, some small bits of rotted cloth. Hunt kept everyone but Yoakum at a distance. They milled about on the edge, speaking in hushed tones as the sun climbed.
“Doc.” Hunt looked the question.
Moore shook his head, then mopped his face with a mud-stained handkerchief. “It’s a child,” he said. “Female. Nine to twelve years of age, I’d estimate.”
Hunt caught Yoakum’s eye. “How long?”
“How long ago did she die? Years. I can’t say for certain. Not yet.”
“Cause of death?”
The man compressed as he stood. His shoulders fell. His lips turned down. “There’s a hole in the skull.” He gestured at the curve of bone behind his right ear. “Too early to say more than that.”
“Gunshot?” Yoakum asked. “Blunt trauma?”
“Both. Neither. It’s too early.”
“And the other sites?”
Moore cast sad eyes at the flags. “I’ll need help. I’ve already called the chief medical examiner in Chapel Hill. He’s sending people.”
“What else can we do for you?” Hunt asked.
Moore tipped his head, indicating the police officers massed on the edge of the scene. “Get rid of them.”
“Are they in your way?”
“It’s not helpful.”
Hunt nodded. Moore was right. “I’ll make it happen.”
“Thanks.” Moore raised a hand, then trudged back to the shallow grave.
“Want me to do it?” Yoakum asked, staring at the Chief.
Hunt allowed a tight smile. “Don’t think I can handle him?”
“I think he’s looking for an excuse to fire you and bring in the state cops. That would keep it clean, take the pressure off him, the department.” Yoakum gestured at the field of flags. “No one could blame him. This is big, maybe too big to stay local. You’re his lead detective. Firing you could give him a legitimate excuse to wash his hands and bring in the SBI. Politics, Clyde. Ugly business. You should let me talk to him.”
“No,” Hunt pointed at the ME. “Stay here. Make sure he gets anything he needs.”
“Your funeral, brother.”
Hunt left Yoakum with the remains of their unknown victim and walked to the Chief. The man was rumpled and flushed. Here in the woods, on site and out of place, he looked even more like a politician than a cop. As Hunt approached, uniformed officers stepped aside so that an aisle opened. The Chief spoke before Hunt could.
“What did the ME say?”
Hunt looked from the Chief to the sheriff. Both men looked pinched, and Hunt guessed that his face bore the same expression. Memories of their last meeting still poisoned the air. “He said he wants these people out of here.”
“I’m talking about the body. What did he say about that?”
“Female. Nine to twelve years old. Time and manner of death as yet undetermined.”
“Is it Alyssa Merrimon?”
Hunt looked at the sheriff and shook his head. “This one has been in the ground for years.”
The Chief peered across the swale. Skin folded at the bottoms of his eyes pulled back to show bright pink crescents. “Six more out there. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
“I wouldn’t call that lucky,” Hunt said.
The sheriff’s lips turned at the corners. “You still think you’ll find her alive?”
Hunt returned the hard stare. “Maybe.”
The sheriff said, “You’re such a Boy Scout, Hunt. I swear to God.”
“I’ve had enough of your cr-”
“That’s enough,” the Chief said. “From both of you.”
Hunt forced the tension from his frame. “You’ll let me clear these people out of here?”
The Chief nodded. “Keep whoever you need, send the rest home.”
“I don’t need anybody from the sheriff’s office.”
Hunt waited for a reaction from the sheriff. Jarvis’s house was inside the city limit, but out here, in the deep woods, they were pretty much standing on the city line. If he wanted to push a jurisdiction claim, he could. The sheriff broke first. “Perkins.” He snapped his fingers and an unfamiliar deputy crossed to his side. “Round our people up. Get them out of here.” He smiled at Hunt, rocked the hat back on his head, and spoke in a low voice. “When you fuck this up and are long gone, I’ll still be running this county.”
“Don’t count your chickens.”
Another cold smile. “Have a nice day, Detective.”
Hunt watched him go. The Chief was waiting when he turned, but his face showed none of the animosity Hunt expected. Instead, he looked deflated, troubled. He lifted the hat from his head and scrubbed the sleeve of his shirt across his forehead. He dipped his head toward the flags and spoke softly. “If those are all children…” He trailed off. “God help us.”
“Maybe he already did. Jarvis is dead.”
“Do you think Jarvis did this?” He nodded again at the flags. “All of this?”
Hunt watched Trenton Moore begin excavation on the second site. “Maybe.” A pause. “Maybe he had help.”
“You still believe there’s a cop involved?”
“You know about the dead cat? The threat warning Johnny Merrimon not to talk?”
“His mother says that before that happened, she came home from the hospital and saw a car parked near the house. Late at night. Engine running. He was just sitting there.”
“Hardly against the law.”
“There’s nothing out there. Some houses, a stretch of empty road. There is no legitimate reason for someone to be there. When she approached the car, it sped off. This was right after Johnny was identified in the Burton Jarvis story. His name was in every paper, on every channel. His picture, as you know. He would not have been hard to find.”
The Chief turned his palms, impatience crossing his features. “So?”
“She says it looked like a cop car.” Color pushed into the Chief’s face, but Hunt ignored it. “Whoever Johnny saw out here with Jarvis-”
“If he saw anybody.”
Hunt raised his voice. “Whoever Johnny saw out here had the presence of mind to put stolen plates on his car. If a cop had something to hide, that’s what he’d do.”
“That’s what anyone would do.”
“I want access to employee files.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I want you to reconsider.”
The Chief hesitated. “I’ll think about it.”
“When will I know?”
“Give me a day. Alright? Give me a day and some peace of mind.”
“I need something else. If there are bodies under those flags, and they are all children…”
“No way did they all come from Raven County. Not even over a two-decade stretch of time.” He shook his head. “We’d have known.”
“I need some people to contact surrounding counties, nearby metropolitan areas.” The Chief was already nodding. “We need to look for other missing children.”
They fell into silence, each man alone with his thoughts. Hunt pictured grieving parents in museum bedrooms, surrounded by pink animals, dress-up clothes, and framed photographs, carefully dusted. He hoped to bring them closure, some small measure of peace. He wanted to deliver the remains of their children home to them, tell them that the monster responsible was dead, sent out of this world not by time, disease, or the police, but by one of his victims, by a small girl with the strength to pull the trigger. Hunt found poetry in that. Maybe they would, too.
The Chief’s thoughts were more basic. “The media will eat this up. I expect you to manage that, Hunt. No leaks. No unnamed sources. Keep your people quiet. Keep this shit locked.”
“Leave Yoakum and two uniforms here. Put a few units on the road to discourage media or anybody else that gets curious.”
The Chief frowned and palmed sweat from his forehead. “It’ll be a circus.”
“Another reason to send everybody else out of here.”
Hunt heard footsteps approaching and turned in time to see Cross moving quickly downslope. He glanced at the sealed area, then made a line for Hunt and the Chief. His face was flushed, his collar dark with sweat. “Hunt,” he said. “Chief.” He was eager, excited.
“What are you doing here?” Hunt asked.
“Looking for you.”
“Well, you’ve found me. What is it?”
“We have a location on David Wilson’s truck,” he said.
“North. Dumped in a ravine.”
Hunt left the Chief alone in a shaft of yellow light, head bent, fingers working the brim of his hat. Hunt looked back twice, the Chief small and unchanging until the endless ranks of trees marched between them. They climbed out of the woods and walked past the shed, the empty house. Hunt looked at neither. “How did we find it?”
“Somebody called it in.”
“Wouldn’t give a name. He found it early this morning, an hour before sunrise, maybe. He sounded drunk. When I asked, he admitted that he’d been out shining deer. He said the spotlight lit it up pretty good.”
“Do we have people on scene?”
“I came straight for you. I knew you’d want it.”
“Are we sure it’s his car?” Hunt asked.
“The caller had the license number. Registered to the college. Has to be it.”
“Did we get a phone number on the caller?”
“Pay phone at a convenience store.”
“That’s unfortunate. Any idea if he touched the vehicle? A drunk out shining deer at five in the morning… I doubt he’d hesitate to scrounge around.”
“Unknown. He gave the location, then pretty much hung up on me.”
They came out of the woods and into the bright, morning sun. Hunt stopped at the road’s edge. “You could have called me.”
“I was hoping you’d take me with you.”
Hunt studied the younger man. His face was intent, determined. “You’re up for promotion. Is that right?”
“A good word from you would go a long way.”
Hunt considered it. “I haven’t slept much,” he said. “You drive.”
The boys moved slowly. The road was soft underfoot, the trees alive with birds and twists of shadow. Vines drooped to the ground, gray and smooth and thick as a large man’s wrist. Not far away, a woodpecker hammered for its breakfast.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Jack said.
“Just keep your eyes open.”
The forest darkened, and noise fell off with the sun.
“The screaming willies.”
“Shut up, Jack. Jeez.”
They walked for twenty minutes. None of the wheel ruts on the road looked recent, but that meant nothing. Freemantle was on foot when Johnny last saw him. Once through the trees, the road widened out, flattened, and the forest began to open up. They passed an overgrown orchard, apple trees heavy with bloom. Muscadine vines crawled over a collapsed trellis.
“We’re getting close,” Johnny said.
“Whatever’s out here.”
The road came to a crumbled gate, then turned right and disappeared around an elbow of brambles and heavy growth. The gun came out of the holster and Johnny tilted it awkwardly. “Does this have a safety?”
“No. I told you. Jesus, watch where you point it.”
“Sorry.” Johnny aimed the barrel at the ground. Wind lifted leaves to show their dull, silver bottoms. At the bend in the road, there were granite posts where the gate had fallen. The gate itself was on the ground, grass between the pales, its soft wood slowly rotting. White paint still showed in the grain.
Johnny edged his head past the granite, then pulled it back.
“What?” Jack asked.
“Nothing.” He stood. “Come on.”
They passed between the granite posts and the forest curved away. They saw shells of buildings, a house that had burned to the ground. There were blackened timbers, a bone of chimney. A granite step sat where the front door had been. A claw-foot tub lay on its side, spilling char and a few green shoots of some wild plant. An iron bed frame protruded from the rubble. So did other items too hard to burn: shattered crockery, a cooking pot, the steel handle of a well pump rusted solid. Johnny picked up a door hinge and saw hammer marks in the metal.
“What a mess.” Jack spoke for both of them.
The barn still stood, as did a smokehouse with an open door and steel hooks that hung on chains rusted red. Johnny saw a padlock on the door of a shed. Another building stood next to it. It had a single door, narrow windows, and two small chimneys. Like the main house, a single block of stone made a step to the door. It was worn smooth in the center. Peering through the glass, they saw a fireplace and a brick oven. A plain table and iron cookware. “This was the kitchen,” Johnny said. “They used to build them separate from the house to reduce the risk of a fire.”
Johnny stepped back and looked at the burned house. “No electricity out here, so it could have been a candle.”
“Check that out.” Jack pointed.
Johnny turned. He saw a post, eight feet high, and a brass bell turned green. “That’s strange.”