Chapter 29

Life does not stop.

Grace had to do some food shopping. That might sound odd considering the circumstances. Her two children, she was sure, would gladly survive on a steady diet of delivered pizzas, but they still needed the basics: milk, orange juice (the kind with calcium and never, ever, pulp), a dozen eggs, sandwich meats, a couple of boxes of cereal, loaf of bread, box of pasta, a Prego sauce. Stuff like that. It might even feel good, food shopping. Doing the mundane, doing something so numbingly normal, would surely be, if not comforting, mildly therapeutic.

She hit the King's on Franklin Boulevard. Grace held no supermarket loyalties. Her friends had favorites and would never dream of shopping elsewhere. Cora liked the A amp;P in Midland Park. Her neighbor liked the Whole Foods in Ridgewood. Other acquaintances favored the Stop amp; Shop in Waldwick. Grace's selection was more haphazard because, to put it plainly, no matter where you shopped, Tropicana Orange Juice was Tropicana Orange Juice.

In this case the King's was the closest to Starbucks. Decision made.

She grabbed a cart and pretended that she was just an average citizen having an average day. That didn't last long. She thought about Scott Duncan, his sister, what that all meant.

Where, Grace wondered, do I go from here?

First off, the purported "Cora Connection"-Grace dismissed it. There was simply no way. Duncan did not know Cora. His job was to be suspicious. Grace knew better. Cora was out there, no question about it, but that was what had drawn Grace to her in the first place. They had met at a school concert when the Lawsons first moved to town. While their kids butchered the holiday standards, they'd both been forced to stand in the lobby because neither of them had arrived early enough to secure a seat. Cora had leaned over and whispered, "I had an easier time getting front row for Springsteen." Grace had laughed. And so, slowly, it began.

But forget that. Forget Grace's own biased viewpoint. What possible motive could Cora have? The smart money was still on Fuzz Pellet Josh. Yes, he would naturally be nervous. Yes, he was probably antiauthority. But there was more there, Grace was sure of it. So forget Cora. Concentrate on Josh. Figure an angle on that.

Max was on a bacon kick. There was some newfangled premade bacon he'd had at a friend's house during a play-date. He wanted her to buy it. Grace was checking the health claims. Like the rest of the country she was concentrating more on lowering the carb intake. This stuff had none. No carbs at all. Enough sodium to salt a large body of water. But no carbs.

She was checking the ingredients-an interesting potpourri of words she'd need to look up-when she felt, actually felt, someone's eyes on her. Still holding the box at eye level, she slowly shifted her gaze. Down the corridor, near the bologna and salami display, a man stood and openly stared at her. There was no one else in the aisle. He was average height, maybe five-ten or so. A razor hadn't glided across his face in at least two days. He wore blue jeans, a maroon T-shirt, and a shiny black Members Only windbreaker. His baseball cap had a Nike swoosh on it.

Grace had never seen the man before. He stared at her for another moment before he spoke. His voice was barely a whisper.

"Mrs. Lamb," the man said to her. "Room 17."

For a moment the words did not register. Grace just stood there, unable to move. It wasn't that she hadn't heard him-she had-but his words were so out of context, so out of place coming from this stranger's lips, that her brain could not really comprehend the significance.

At first anyway. For a second or two. Then it all flooded in...

Mrs. Lamb. Room 17...

Mrs. Lamb was Emma's teacher. Room 17 was Emma's classroom.

The man was already on the move, hurrying down the aisle.

"Wait!" Grace shouted. "Hey!"

The man turned the corner. Grace went after him. She tried to pick up speed but the limp, that damn limp, kept her in check. She reached the end of the aisle, coming out on the back wall by the chicken parts. She looked left and right.

No sign of the man.

Now what?

Mrs. Lamb. Room 17...

She moved to her right, checking down the aisles as she went. Her hand slid into her pocketbook, fumbled a bit, touched down on her cell phone.

Stay calm, she told herself. Call the school.

Grace tried to pick up the pace, but her leg dragged like a lead bar. The more she hurried, the more pronounced the limp became. When she really tried to run, she resembled Quasimodo heading up the belfry. Didn't matter, of course, what she looked like. The problem was function: She wasn't moving fast enough.

Mrs. Lamb. Room 17...

If he's done anything to my baby, if he's so much as looked at her wrong...

Grace reached the last aisle, the refrigerated section that housed the milk and eggs, the aisle farthest from the entrance so as to encourage impulse buy. She started toward the front of the store, hoping that she'd find him when she doubled back. She fiddled with her phone as she moved, no easy task, scrolling through her saved phone numbers to see if she had the school's.

She didn't.

Damn. Grace bet those other mothers, the good mothers, the ones with the perky smiles and ideal after-school projects-she bet they had the school's phone number preprogrammed into their speed dial.

Mrs. Lamb. Room 17...

Try directory assistance, stupid. Dial 411.

She hit the digits and the send button. When she reached the end of the aisle, she looked down the row of cashiers.

No sign of the man.

On the phone the thunder-deep voice of James Earl Jones announced: "Verizon Wireless four-one-one." Then a ding. A woman's voice now: "For English please stay on the line. Paraespanol, por favor numero dos."

And it was then, listening to this Spanish option, that Grace spotted the man again.

He was outside the store now. She could see him through the plate glass window. He still wore the cap and the black windbreaker. He was strolling casually, too casually, whistling even, swinging his arms. She was about to start moving again when something  -  something in the man's hand  -  made her blood freeze.

It couldn't be.

Again it did not register immediately. The sight, the stimuli the eye was sending to the brain, would not compute, the information causing some sort of short circuit. Again not for long. Only for a second or two.

Grace's hand, the one with the phone in it, dropped to her side. The man kept walking. Terror  -  terror unlike anything she had ever experienced before, terror that made the Boston Massacre feel like an amusement park ride  -  hardened and banged against her chest. The man was almost out of sight now. There was a smile on his face. He was still whistling. His arms were still swinging.

And in his hand, his right hand, the hand closest to the window, he held a Batman lunchbox.