A lonely room, naked wires clawing from the outlets and a heap of ash huddled in the fireplace. The ceiling joists crisscrossed in a matrix ten feet up, the floors and walls stripped to bare concrete and plaster, making the tiniest sound ricochet in the rafters. Even the faint moans of a woman nearly dead echoed like whispers in a cathedral.
The Angelmaker studied the woman, face up on a wooden table with duct tape binding her wrists and ankles. Her eyes stared at nothing in the rafters.
What do you see now, bitch?
Nothing, of course; she was almost finished. It rankled. She should have held up better.
But it was too late to worry about that now. The clock was ticking, lives counted in minutes now. A week ago, who'd have thought the grand finale would come so soon, or be so exhilarating? And yet, here she lay, ready for her transformation.
The Angelmaker pried a hunk of cold earth from a pile, kneaded it like artist's clay, then smeared it onto her jaw. Got another handful and pushed it over the edge of the first, thumbing it smooth with practiced strokes-not too thick and not too thin. Over the slender nose, over the high cheekbone, over the seam of ugly stitches at her temple. The Angelmaker smiled at that. On the inside of this mask would be something special: the imprint of stitches and the swell of a nasty welt on the side of her face. When the authorities found this mask, there would be no doubt whose face had provided the mold.
The mighty Erin Sims. Her death would come just in time to join her brother in hell. A twofer.
That thought brought a snicker and the Angelmaker worked faster. Tick tock, Dr. Sims.
Seven days earlier
Thursday, November 8
Outside the Florida State Prison, Starke, Florida
"Let me go."
Erin Sims jerked against handcuffs, the metal rings biting into her wrists. Tears rose to her throat but she held them back: Time was almost up. What was it, twenty 'til twelve? Quarter 'til? She couldn't see her watch but it was late. God, she had to stop them before midnight.
She took a step and a guard snagged her arm. "No," he said. He was a burly black man with tattoos vining his neck and an earring winking in the darkness. His tag read Collier but people called him Collie. Erin had been coming here long enough to remember when his son made the varsity football team and his wife beat breast cancer. Now, he and another guard stood on either side of her, each with a hand on her elbows. Just in case she decided to throw herself at one of the demonstrators or incite a riot.
"Stay back here," he said. "You're already hurt."
She followed his glance to her legs, where her jeans were torn and the skin of both knees ripped open. Sheriff's deputies had dragged her from the prison entrance. "I won't do anything this time," she said. "Just let me go back to the front. I need to see." I need to be close to him.
"There's nothing more you can do," the second guard said.
The words brushed a chill over Erin's skin. There had to be something more. Eleven years of fighting couldn't end with-
The chant started up again, cycling through thirty friends and relatives of Lauren McAllister, all gathered to witness justice, cheering and crying and waving handwritten signs: Death to Justin Sims, An Eye for an Eye, We Love You, Lauren. Nine reporters, the most permitted at an execution by law, wove among the demonstrators with their photographers trailing behind like Cyclopes. On Erin's side of the drive, three people-strangers-carried worn signs reading Stop the Death Penalty and Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right. Otherwise, Justin had no supporters. He was the murderer of a Senator's daughter.
Erin drew a shuddering breath. "What time is it?"
"Quarter 'til," Collie said. "Fifteen more minutes."
Illogically, as if to confirm the time, Erin glanced to the sky. It was a night made for tragedy: black clouds grumbling with thunder, security lights casting the air in thin shades of gray. A slivered moon had slunk out of sight, as if cowering from the travesty about to happen.
"They can't do this," Erin said, her voice coming out on a thread. "Victor Santos is still with the Attorney General. He's presenting new evidence."
Collie shook his head. "That might not matt-"
"It has to matter." She rounded on him. "Damn it, I found John Huggins. After all these years, I know where he is and gave them more evidence. He murdered Lauren McAllister, not Justin. How can the Attorney General ignore that? He has to listen."
Her own words stopped her. You have to listen, Mommy. Please. He scares me. She'd learned long ago that people don't listen to things they don't want to hear.
A finger of panic touched her heart. Even if Justin's attorney had gotten a last-minute audience with the Attorney General and convinced him there was enough evidence to warrant investigating John Huggins again, even if just now they were waking up a judge and working through paper or chewing through levels of bureaucracy, what if it was too late? Where was Justin? Strapped to a gurney already, an IV dripping into his arm, awaiting the toxins that would end his life?
The unspeakable passed her lips. "What if it's not enough? What if-"
She couldn't finish. She had to save Justin. People didn't see him the way she did; no one else would keep up the fight. He needed her.
No, he didn't. And he didn't want her, either.
Erin cursed. Damn it, she was a shrink, an advocate. She'd made her career unearthing the emotions of people who were victims, and serving as their voice when they couldn't do it themselves. She ought to understand why Justin had pushed her away.
But she didn't.
"I should be in there," she said, tears stinging the backs of her eyes. "He could have had three people in there with him. Why didn't he let me-?"
A siren cut her off. She whirled and the crowd turned en masse to see a deputy's car swing in, the wail of the siren lopping off with a whoomp. A guard stepped out, talked to the driver in the strobe of blue and red lights, then waved the car through and picked up his radio. From a nearby tower a voice roared through a bullhorn, commanding people to clear the way and make a path.
Erin held her breath. Three men spilled from the car. Deputies who had been stationed outside the prison to aid security guards swooped in to provide escort, and the group rushed through the gates. Erin rose on tiptoe trying to see. She caught Victor Santos's eye a second before he was swallowed into the maximum security prison.
A wave of hope washed over her. "Oh, God," she whispered. Collie and the guard behind her stood like pillars. A pall of silence lowered on the larger crowd-the McAllister camp-like a damp wool blanket on fiery coals.
Please. Please, Erin prayed. Let me have done enough.
Moments passed, the crowd holding its collective breath, then the front doors opened. Erin's throat tightened into a knot. From the black maw of the entrance, a handful of people plodded outside with their heads down. The sobs of a woman scraped the air.
"It's the senator," Collie said, and Erin could hardly believe it. She noticed hands at her back, and heard the cuffs jangle as the second guard said in her ear, "That means they didn't do it. They stopped it."
Erin stared, her hands coming free. What? It was over?
Like a giant beast that had been thrashing just seconds before, the crowd gaped at their fallen warriors emerging from the prison. Senator and Mrs. McAllister made their way through the inner and outer gates, and as realization crept through the bystanders, the great beast collapsed into groans and sobs and curses. Erin stood rigid, afraid to move. Beside her, the three anti-death penalty activists issued kudos, but their triumph was bathed in macabre tones, like a dream that wasn't yet real. Lauren McAllister's father, supporting his wife with an arm, glared at Erin as they drew near, a security guard handing them off to a local police escort. McAllister stopped in front of her.
"You," he said, his voice like chipped ice. "You did this."
She nearly wilted with relief. Dear God, Justin was alive.
"Yes," she managed, and couldn't suppress the joy that bubbled into her voice. It was over. At least for now. "Justin didn't kill your daughter, Senator. I've found the man who did."
McAllister's head moved back and forth, the hot emotion Erin had seen in the early years now gone cold. He'd heard it all before. Never listened.
His wife stepped forward. "May you rot in hell," she said to Erin, her voice trembling with emotion. "My angel is dead. He should have paid. Someone has to pay-"
A cop nudged her and piloted the couple past. Mrs. McAllister walked as if a steel rod held her, her skirt tangling below her knees as she twisted to keep her eyes glued to Erin. News cameras flashed, catching it all.
Erin steeled her spine. She ought to be used to it; she and the McAllisters had faced off more than once over the years, sometimes in public and other times in private. But this time, Erin realized, they'd believed Justin would finally be put to death.
Dear God. This time, so had she.
The crowd fragmented, clusters of mourners following the McAllisters, others trailing to the parking lot with defeat dragging their steps. Erin pushed through a handful of lingering reporters and saw Victor. He paused outside the prison gates to give a statement to the press, then said "no more" with his hands and walked over to Erin.
Collie gave her a nod and both guards stepped away. She could hardly speak.
"Thank you, Victor," she began, but he held up a hand.
She blinked. "What?"
"The judge stayed the execution for a week."
"No." The momentary high of knowing Justin had escaped death gave way to a surge of alarm. "That's not enough time."
"It's more than I thought you'd get. Even if you're right and this man you found on the Internet in Ohio really is John Huggins, it doesn't mean he's the man who shot Lauren McAllister through the heart and scrubbed her face with paint thinner. You've accused Huggins before and they cleared him."
"John Huggins had an affair with Lauren McAllister. She was afraid of him. He changed his name and ran away. He had another affair with a woman in Virginia and she's believed dead, too. Besides, Justin wasn't with her that night. He wasn't."
"So he claimed," Victor said, a weary sigh in his voice. "But you're the only one who believes that. You have no proof, Erin."
"What about the picture of Lauren that Huggins drew?"
"It was dismissed as irrelevant-again-just like everything Justin claimed to know about Huggins and Lauren. Look, Erin, this is a stay, not an acquittal. It doesn't mean you won't be here next Thursday night, doing the same thing you're doing now."
Erin closed her eyes. Damn him, he sounded just like David. Giving up without a fight. On the trial, on their marriage, on Justin's life.
Well, she wouldn't give up. She couldn't. "Then why the reprieve?"
"The AG's giving authorities a week to talk to the Calloway fellow you found in Ohio and see if he's really Huggins. And to look into the Virginia woman's disappearance."
Erin balled her hands into fists. "Authorities?"
"The sheriff in Hopewell, Ohio-the town where Calloway lives," Victor said, rooting in his breast pocket for a scrap of paper. He unfolded and handed it to her. "Nikolaus Mann. A good German name, probably a no-nonsense kind of guy. He'll determine if Jack Calloway on the Internet is really John Huggins."
Victor hedged. "It's the weekend..."
"Justin has seven days," she snapped. "A weekend is a third of his life." Every tendon in her body constricted. She couldn't leave this to the authorities over their precious weekend-
"Erin," Victor said, with a warning in his voice, "don't even think about. Leave it to Sheriff Mann. Don't forget that Huggins still has a restraining order against you in North Carolina. Let the system do its thing."
"The system just tried to kill my brother." Her voice vibrated with emotion, but Victor was unfazed. He was a lawyer; he belonged to the system. Or, she thought-the expression on Victor's face lifting the hairs on the back of her neck-there was something more. Something he wasn't telling her.
"Victor?" she asked.
He dropped his head, then blew out a breath and looked at her. "I'm finished, Erin. If you want to go forward you need to find another lawyer."
"If I want-" Her blood stopped moving. "You don't mean that."
He took her arm, lowering his voice. "Do you know that my secretary was afraid to come to work today? That I found graffiti painted on my car when I left my office this afternoon?" Frustration morphed to something that sounded like true fear. "Damn it, I don't want to be on the wrong side of McAllister anymore."
Erin's bones went cold. She glared in the direction McAllister had gone, anger and powerlessness colliding in her chest. She couldn't believe Victor was bailing. He was a friend; he'd stood up with David at their wedding and stuck by her when even David hadn't. To lose him now, when a sliver of hope glimmered on the horizon...
"One more week, Vict-"
"No," he said, with a finality she knew was real. He glanced around, as if an assailant might be lurking along the dark edges of the prison yard. "I wish you luck, Erin. Really, I do. But I've got a wife, kids. I'm finished."
He turned away and Erin snagged his arm. "Wait," she said. Tears came in a flash. "Did you see him? Did he see you?"
"I saw him, through the one-way window. He didn't see me."
"He's thin but strong; his hair's long again. He looks- He looks okay." Victor put up a hand before she could ask more. "Don't picture the details, Erin. It won't help."
He headed for the parking lot and Erin looked at the stone sprawl of buildings that made up the Florida State Prison, forcing herself to visualize Justin no longer strapped to a gurney with IVs in his veins and witnesses watching through one-way glass. She closed her eyes. Picture him in his cell, no IVs, sitting up. Alive.
She pulled out a copy of the Internet picture she'd given to Victor three days ago. It was too dark to see the details, but they were emblazoned in her memory: a large, scenic inn in rural Ohio, with a folksy Pennsylvania Dutch pineapple stenciled on a sign that said WELCOME TO HILLTOP HOUSE. It did indeed appear to be set on a hill, surrounded by sprawling yew and chesty oak trees, with a whitewashed porch and homey ferns hanging at even intervals. Along the front walkway, ceramic sculptures of a girl and boy waded through beds of coreopsis and snapdragons. And on the front steps of the inn, the proprietor leaned against the porch railing with a caption that read, OWNER: JACK CALLOWAY.
Erin didn't think so. This had to be Huggins. Even if the photo was too distant to see his eye color, even if there were thousands of men of his age and build, even if it were true that everyone had a lookalike somewhere in the world, those two ceramic sculptures in the garden gave it away. Erin would swear Huggins's wife had made those.
The adrenaline that had sustained her for the past three days leaked from her limbs. She tucked away the picture, then put a finger to her lips and breathed a kiss and a promise toward the prison. She started for the parking lot. A security guard muttered "'Night, miss" as he pushed the various buttons that swung the final gate open and closed behind her. She headed across the pavement toward her car, fifty yards away, and squinted when she glimpsed a straggling figure standing in the far corner of the lot. A woman, she realized, the silhouette of a long, flowing skirt moving as the figure scurried into the darkness.
Mrs. McAllister? She glanced around. The skirt was right, but the senator's entourage was gone. Bitterness rose to Erin's throat: just one more gawker. Executions were good entertainment.
A raindrop hit her cheek and she looked up. A thin smile of moon slipped out from behind a cloud, mocking her, the same moon that looked down just now on John Huggins a thousand miles away. Hopewell, Ohio. A small town with a quaint bed-and-breakfast and a no-nonsense sheriff. Online, it had all the earmarks of a Norman Rockwell painting, a place so peaceful people probably didn't even lock their doors. The perfect haven for a murderer.
Determination straightened Erin's spine. She did the math: a five-hour drive back to Miami, put her caseload on hold, pack a bag. She could be in Ohio by tomorrow afternoon. Erin knew the way authorities worked. No way would she leave her brother's life to some sheriff who wouldn't care whether he lived or died, and if Victor wasn't going to help her anymore, then she'd do it alone. God knows, she'd learned how to fight her own battles when she was sixteen years old.
An engine turned over. Erin jumped; she hadn't noticed another vehicle. She glanced around. Nothing. Just the hum of an engine somewhere in the darkness.
Her pulse kicked up and she clicked her key fob-twice, three times-but her car was still too far away to read the signal. The engine grew louder and she picked up her pace, her skin pulling into goose bumps. She looked behind her. Darkness, but instinct pushed her to start jogging, her fingers frantically working the key fob to her car. Finally, her headlights blinked but the phantom engine drew nearer. Two columns of lights swept across her back.
She veered right, running now, the headlights bearing down. She glanced over her shoulder and winced, blinded by the glare. The white disks barreled in, the car coming fast. She lunged for the fence and tried to scream to the guard.
The sound never came.
Thursday, November 8
Midnight, a sliver of moon hanging over the rooftops and a couple of chimneys still breathing into the air. It was a settled neighborhood, the kind grown comfortable with squeaky screen doors and broken sidewalks. The kind that leeched kids into the streets on Saturday mornings and where folks let themselves into the house next door to borrow an egg. The kind whose residents would be seen on tomorrow morning's news, white-faced, saying, "We never thought something like this could happen here..."
The Angelmaker sat in a new Ford F-150, munching saltines, keeping track as the last few night owls turned in. A couple of houses down the street, the Richardsons' front door cracked open to swallow a howling cat. A half-block behind the truck, the lights of Yaeger's television snapped to black. And at the end of the street, where a single light burned in the front window, Rebecca Engel stepped out onto the porch.
The Angelmaker stopped chewing. Rebecca. Right there, just yards away, and alone. She was one of the chosen ones-able to see things she shouldn't-yet there she was, oblivious to the fact that she was about to die.
She dropped down the front porch steps, hunching into her coat and throwing a scarf around her face to ward off the sleet. She climbed into an old Camry and headed east, then north out of town. The Angelmaker followed, headlights picking out thin veins of fog. Easy now. No need to hang too close-there was no doubt where she was going. She'd be headed to Ace Holmes's place, twenty miles out on County Road 219, just over the Hopewell County line. The middle of nowhere.
Rebecca's car led the way for fifteen minutes, then the Angelmaker hustled around back roads and jumped ahead, got back on 219 and nosed the big Ford halfway across the double yellow line. Parked and popped the hood to wait. Two minutes after the truck was in position, the Camry's headlights pierced the mist.
Rebecca neared, slowing her car. Blood rushing now, the Angelmaker got out and circled the truck, exhaust fumes rousing a cough. It was a nice touch: a lone driver stranded at night in the cold, hacking up a lung...
The Camry rolled closer, unable to pass, and the driver's side window cracked an inch. The Angelmaker's fingers tightened around a stun gun, a surge of power flooding in. Such a simple device: plastic-cum-mother-of-pearl, one hundred thousand volts, seventy-five bucks on the Internet. It was no bigger than a cell phone, no louder than a whisper, and for twelve years now, all it had ever needed was a couple of three-volt lithium batteries.
"Rebecca." Use her name, take away that edge of natural fear.
Her window slid open a little farther-just a few inches, but enough for the stun gun. The Angelmaker stepped closer. "Rebecca, I need help. I need a phone. Do you have a phone?"
"What?" she said. Cautious, but not overly fearful.
Another cough. "P-please, a phone."
"Hold on." She cranked the car into park and twisted toward the passenger seat to find her phone. The Angelmaker reached in. Pzzt. The stun gun sizzled against her shoulder.
Now time surged forward, racing as if God had pushed a button on a remote. Move, move. Ditch the car, get the truck turned around and get Rebecca home and into the workshop. So much to do-the transformation, the possession, the preservation-and the clock started running from the first shock of the stun gun.
The Angelmaker opened the driver's side door and Rebecca lolled sideways, hanging half out onto the pavement. A click of the seat belt released her and she tumbled to the ground, a baffled uhhhh vibrating in her throat and the scarf dragging from her face. She was a pretty girl, but wore too much makeup. Always caked on like-
The Angelmaker froze. What? The girl's face glowed in the truck's headlights.
Panic leaked in. This wasn't right, this wasn't right. Who was this girl? Not Rebecca. This girl was a stranger, a nobody. She was nothing.
Shock hardened to sheer rage. Stupid, stupid girl. Goddamn, stupid bitch, pretending to be Rebecca-
Her arm moved, trying to fight the leaden state brought on by the stun gun. No. The Angelmaker swallowed back a primordial scream, hooked a foot beneath her ribcage and shoved. Her body rotated half a turn. Again, another half-turn, and again and again, and five kicks later, gravity took over and rolled her into the gully along the road. She groaned and the Angelmaker followed, dropped a knee into the middle of her back and straight-armed her face-that wrong face-into the mud, pressing down on the back of her head and neck. The girl who wasn't Rebecca gasped for air, sucking rain and wet clay up into her nostrils. Her sinuses filled with mud and her lungs seized and the Angelmaker held tight, muscles screaming with tension while the girl made a series of wet, rasping sounds, jerked, then went limp.
Bitch. Stupid girl. Wrong girl. How dare she?
The Angelmaker staggered out of the ditch, panting. The wrong girl lay dead in the mud. Not Rebecca. A nobody.
The magnitude of that error clenched inside, and the weight of failure bore down like a hand from heaven, pushing, pushing. The Angelmaker fought the invisible weight, tapping every last ounce of strength, and looked up at the sky.
The sight set every bone to shaking: The moon was smiling.
The dream was the same as always-a three-year-old boy hiding in a cardboard box while his mother lay in a dumpster, choking on the fragments of her own hyoid bone-except this time the phone cut in. Nick Mann jolted from bed, reaching for his gun and the phone in one motion, then stood by the bed blinking details of the here-and-now into focus. Thursday night. Friday morning, really. The house was empty, the clock on the nightstand punching red numbers into the darkness: three-sixteen a.m.
The phone rang again and Nick frowned. Eight deputies had the overnight shift. If a call was coming through in the middle of the night-
His gut tightened and he grabbed the phone. "Yeah," he said, trying to holster the gun. No place to put it. He was wearing SpongeBob pajama bottoms.
"Sheriff." The dispatcher's voice vibrated with tension. "Jensen just took a call at LeeAnn Davis's out on Pine Lake Road. There's an intruder in the house."
"Inside? Inside, with her and the kids?"
"Just the kids. LeeAnn's at work."
"Ah, God." The dregs of the nightmare vanished. "I'm on my way."
Pine Lake Road ran due east and west across the south end of Hopewell County, a ten-minute ride outside of town. Nick did it in six, his mind revving as fast as the Tahoe's engine. LeeAnn Davis was a single mom who rented an old farmhouse from a neighbor, Jerry Gaffe. Gaffe ran the rural equivalent of a slumlord's dwellings, but LeeAnn, like his other tenants, couldn't afford any better. A forty-something divorcée, she'd quit college to pay for her husband's dental school, and just about the time the fourth kid was born, he found heaven in the arms of his hygienist. Now, LeeAnn worked days at the middle school cafeteria and nights at the 7-Eleven on Gritt Road. Out of necessity, the kids were largely left to take care of themselves, but as far as Nick could tell, they were pretty good kids.
With an intruder in the house.
He batted back a thump of fear and dumped the SUV in LeeAnn's driveway. Chris Jensen had beaten him there by one minute, his cruiser door hanging open and flashers off. He held a phone pressed to his ear.
"Dispatch put one of the kids through to me," he said to Nick, his breath frosting the air. Another cruiser swerved into the driveway. The troops were rolling in. Two men climbed out and hurried into vests. "It's Kayla," Jensen continued. "She's hiding in the bathtub with the youngest girl."
Toddler hiding in a cardboard box. Mother in a dumpster, choking...
Focus. "Any reports of nearby robberies, escaped prisoners, like that?" Nick asked.
"No, sir. Quiet night, like usual."
Nick took the phone. "Kayla, this is Sheriff Mann. Everything's gonna be all right."
"Someone's h-here," she whispered. "He was on the porch. He came inside."
Nick pointed, wordlessly sending the new pair of deputies around to the back. "Was the front door locked?" he asked into the phone.
"I think..." Kayla said. "Unless Josh came in that way."
"Are the others locked? Can we get in?"
"Y-yes. No. They're locked. I heard the front door open. It squeaks." The last was issued under her breath, her voice breaking. She was only thirteen years old. Terrified, losing it.
Two more deputies wheeled into the driveway. Bishop and Fruth.
"Kayla," Nick said, "where are the other kids?"
"Lizzie's with me. Josh and Kimmie are asleep, down the ha- Oh, God!" Her voice jumped a notch. "I hear something. H-he's coming, he's coming."
"Hang on, sweetie."
"What happened?" Bishop asked.
Nick traded him the phone for a vest and jammed his arms into it. He pulled out his gun. "Someone may have gone in the front, from the porch. The kids are all upstairs."
"Surround the house?" Jensen asked.
Nick nodded and said, "The front's probably open. Bishop, stay here. Keep Kayla on the phone and keep her where she is. You," he said to Jensen and Fruth, "we're going in."
LeeAnn's screen door lay on its side, propped against the porch rail. Nick flashed a light on it: cobwebs-down a while. But Kayla was right about the wood door. It was open a foot.
Jensen and Fruth flanked Nick and he pressed on the door with an outstretched hand. He stepped inside, leading with his 9mm and a flashlight, with Jensen coming in behind. The house smelled of firewood and musty curtains, and he blinked to let his eyes adjust. Listened.
They stepped into the living room, the hairs on Nick's forearms standing up. It had been a long time since he'd shot anybody-close to seven years. The memory wasn't a bad one.
Nick tightened his fingers on the gun then caught a sound from the stairwell. He spun on it, searching. Jensen did, too, but Fruth stayed with the living room, covering the doorways and clearing the other rooms as Nick and Jensen moved toward the place where the sound had been two seconds before. Silent now, but someone was there; Nick could feel it. He skimmed the stairwell with his gun hand, saw nothing in the narrow column of light. He jerked his head to the wall behind Jensen. A light switch right there.
Jensen flipped it but nothing happened. Bulb out. Nick took a step closer, swung the flashlight beam back and forth again, above the landing and lower, then finally low enough. He caught the culprit square in the eyes.
The intruder didn't move. For half a second, Nick wanted to fire a round just to release the tension in his body, then he cursed and loosened his fingers on the gun.
He should have known.
"Go on through the rest of the downstairs," he said to Jensen, "but I think this is it."
Nick pinned the intruder in place with the light beam, stepped around him, and climbed the rest of the stairs. He stalked through the upper level of the house, checking closets and under beds, behind the shower curtain in a second bathroom. Kim, about eleven, stirred when Nick swept through her room, then fell back out without really waking. Josh, the fifteen-year-old who lay sprawled across a high bed in the next room, never budged.
Nick called to Kayla as he entered the hall bathroom. "Kayla, it's Sheriff Mann." He tucked his gun away and crooked the shower curtain back with a finger. "You're safe, honey. Come on out."
He picked up the littlest girl and propped her on his hip, then offered a hand to Kayla. She was shaking.
"Did you find him? He's gone?"
"We found him. He's not gone yet; I thought you might wanna meet him."
Out in the hallway, Kim had rolled from bed, wearing a Snow White nightgown and rubbing her eyes. "What happened?" she asked, and fell in behind them.
They went to the top of the stairs. Jensen had finally found a working light switch.
"Your intruder," Nick said, gesturing to the possum on the stairs. It hadn't budged. He set down Lizzie and bent to his haunches. "You ever heard the expression 'playing possum'? It's that: frozen like a statue in order to fool someone. No, no," he said, pulling the five-year-old back when she started toward the creature. "They can be nasty." He turned to Kayla, who was finally breathing again. "Have you got a blanket I can use?"
Rodent removal took ten minutes. No, not rodent: marsupial, Nick remembered, as he carried the blanket out the front door. He went fifty yards to the side of the house and dropped the animal on the ground. It stood frozen a minute, then, getting comfortable with the darkness, waddled into the tall grass.
Nick walked back to the house with the empty blanket. Three more cars had arrived and he groaned. One belonged to LeeAnn, who hugged each of her three daughters hard. But the other two cars belonged to Leslie Roach and company. Roach was a reporter for the local newspaper, good enough to freelance for the bigger papers now and then, and ambitious enough to make a story out of anything. Nick thought her name must offend the insect world.
"Sheriff," she said, coming at him with a digital recorder, trailed by a cameraman. "What happened?"
"It was nothing." The irony of that statement sank under his skin like a bee sting. In LeeAnn's front yard were seven vehicles, the county sheriff, five deputies, one reporter, and two photographers. Even as they spoke, Jerry Gaffe's truck bumped into the drive.
Not nothing. Not for Hopewell, Ohio.
A muscle twitched in Nick's cheek. Easy, man. Someone has to save the world from dumb, blind marsupials.
"Sheriff," Leslie Roach said, "give me a statement."
"Damn it, Nick. What happened?"
"Nothing happened." He picked up his pace but she jogged along beside him in her heels. Nick placed reporters in a stratum of society just below whale shit. The fact that he'd taken this one to bed before he'd learned she was a reporter had only affirmed his opinion.
"Did anyone get hurt?" she asked.
"The citizens of Hopewell deserve to know what their elected official is doing out here in a single woman's home in the middle of the night."
Nick turned on her, baring his teeth.
"Gotcha," Leslie said, smiling. "Now, what happened?"
"Goddamn it. We got a report of an intruder. Turned out to be a fucking possum. Do you want me to spell that for you?"
"I know how to spell 'possum'. Sometimes it starts with O."
"I meant 'fucking'. It's an adjective."
"Nick, Nick, Nick. Do the citizens of Hopewell have to worry about rabies, wild animals encroaching the city limits, anything like that?"
He might have chuckled if it weren't so sad. "Sorry. No public terror to sell the paper tomorrow. The only thing the citizens of Hopewell have to worry about is making sure their teenage boys shut the front door."
Jerry Gaffe was out of his truck, surveying his property. "What happened?" he asked.
Nick spent the next ten minutes settling Gaffe down-nothing damaged, no one hurt, no lawsuits coming-while Leslie Roach crawled around the scene, interviewing anyone who would talk to her. Finally, it was over. The photography floodlights came down, the patrol cars eased back to the streets, and Roach's entourage rolled out. Just as Nick said good-bye to LeeAnn, fifteen-year-old Josh appeared at the front door he'd left open. He wore polka dot boxers and an Adio t-shirt, and looked out over his front lawn while scratching a spot on his stomach.
"What happened?" he asked.
Nick followed Jensen back to the office, filed the paperwork on LeeAnn's intruder, then dialed the Hopewell Daily Gazette. Got Ralph Winston, the editorial supervisor in the mornings.
"It was nothing," Nick said when Ralph came on the line. "Don't let Roach turn it into a story."
"It got four county cars and newspaper coverage in the middle of the night, cost the taxpayers a little chunk of change. Like it or not, Sheriff, that's a story."
"Damn it, Ralph."
"Tell you what. I'll have McCoy walk over there to get a statement from you, too."
Nick looked at his watch. "Make it fast, I'm leaving town."
"Oh, yeah, November ninth. I forgot."
At the core, Ralph was a newspaper guy. He never forgot. "I'm going hunting up at the cabin for the weekend."
"Right. You know, Mann, no one believes you go up there to hunt. Wanna know what I think?"
"I think there's a lover from your past life in the glamour world-Jennifer Lopez maybe, or Angelina Jolie, or both-" he hesitated and Nick thought he heard a faint Mmm "-and they meet you there once a year for a weekend of hot, wild sex. Either that or you staff the place with a harem and every November ninth you live out my oldest fantasy."
"Wow, Ralph. That's exactly right."
"Take your pick. Journalist's prerogative, right?"
"Keep the story down, Ralph. It was a fucking possum."
"Can you spell that for me?"
And that was the start of his weekend. Nick drove home a little before seven in the morning, his temper illogically frayed, his headlights picking out tacky signs of the season. A pumpkin the size of a beach ball sat at the end of the Myers's drive. Indian corn hung on every fifth or six mailbox, and at those homes lacking corn, a cardboard turkey or pilgrim adorned the front door. Mrs. Piltzecker, whom Nick had always thought was aesthetically challenged, had put a pair of plastic fawns in her dead garden every winter since Nick was old enough to remember. He and his brothers had gotten caught once trying to hoist them onto her roof on Christmas Eve.
He rolled past the timeworn deer and hooked into his driveway, the thought passing that life here could be a Kodak commercial: festooned yards, affable neighbors, thriving businesses. Hopewell had a respected private college, an active community theater, an historic bed-and-breakfast, and even a sculptor who was a little bit famous. In Hopewell, youth groups caroled door-to-door at Christmas and kids set up lemonade stands for the Fourth of July. In Hopewell, the local rodent population-marsupial-posed the greatest challenge a sheriff would ever face.
Nick forced himself to stop grinding his jaw. This was what he'd wanted: no gangs, no drug warfare, no organized crime. None of the day-in, day-out crises of urban detective work, and except for the likes of Leslie Roach, no relentless buzz of media. All that had been a high for Nick when he was a young, hungry cop in L.A., but now what he wanted was peace and calm. A sanctuary where he could keep the people he cared about safe.
He got out of the Tahoe and popped open the back, the urge to get to the cabin gnawing at his bones. Frost hung in the air-not the picturesque kind that would shimmer in a winter calendar photo, but the wet kind that went up your nostrils and opened your sinuses, and clung to your skin like a cold rubber sheet. He zipped his bomber jacket and started loading the truck.
The long guns went in first: a 12-gauge shotgun and scoped Remington rifle. A pair of 45-caliber Hechler & Koch machine pistols followed, guns that made his county-issue 9mm Glock feel like a toy. Three bottles of tequila were next-the good kind from Mexico, illegal and complete with the worm. Then a Styrofoam cooler with beer and cold cuts. Ten boxes of ammunition.
A sickly sun edged over the horizon as he drove out of town, the radio weatherman euphemistically pronouncing the morning "brisk" and promising a break in the sleet and rain. It would turn into a classic November weekend in the Midwest, the voice promised, perfect for playing tag football or raking leaves or roasting marshmallows at a bonfire.
Nick would spend it shooting demons.
He was thinking about that when he pushed the Tahoe to seventy-five, crossed the county line, and ran over a woman.