"Charlaine? Are you okay?"
It was the popular yappy mother. Charlaine ignored her.
Okay, Charlaine, think.
What, she wondered, would the dumb heroine do? That was how she'd try to play it in the past - imagine what the waif would do and do the opposite.
Charlaine tried to battle through the near-paralyzing fear. She had not expected to see this man ever again. Eric Wu was wanted. He had shot Mike. He had assaulted Freddy and held him captive. The police had his fingerprints. They knew who he was. They would send him back to prison. So what was he doing here?
Who cares, Charlaine? Do something.
The answer was a no-brainer: Call the police.
She reached into her pocketbook and pulled out her Motorola. The mothers were still barking like small dogs. Charlaine flipped the phone open.
It was dead.
Typical, and yet it made sense. She had used it during the chase. She had left it on all this time. The phone was two years old. The damn thing was always going dead. She glanced back across the schoolyard. Eric Wu was talking to Grace Lawson. They both began to walk away.
The same woman asked again: "Is something wrong, Charlaine?"
"I need to use your cell phone," she said. "Now."
Grace just stared at the man.
"If you come with me quietly, I will take you to your husband. You will see him. You will be back in an hour. But the school bell rings in one minute. If you do not come with me, I will take out a gun. I will shoot your children. I will shoot random children. Do you understand?"
Grace could not speak.
"You don't have much time."
She found her voice. "I'll go with you."
"You drive. Just walk calmly with me. Please do not make the mistake of trying to signal someone. I will kill them. Do you understand?"
"You may be wondering about the man assigned to protect you," he went on. "Let me assure you that he will not interfere."
"Who are you?" Grace asked.
"The bell is about to ring." He looked off, a tiny smile on his lips. "Do you want me to be here when your children come out?"
Scream, Grace thought. Scream like a lunatic and start running. But she could see the bulge of the gun. She could see the man's eyes. This was no bluff. He meant it. He would kill people.
And he had her husband.
They began to walk to her car, side by side, like two friends. Grace's eyes darted about the playground. She spotted Cora. Cora gave her a puzzled look. Grace did not want to risk it. She looked away.
Grace kept walking. They reached her car. She had just unlocked the doors when the school bell rang.
The yappy woman rummaged through her purse. "We have a terrible calling plan. Hal is so cheap sometimes. We run out of minutes in the first week and then we need to watch ourselves the rest of the month."
Charlaine looked at the other faces. She did not want to cause a panic, so she kept her voice even. "Please, does anyone have a phone I can borrow?"
She kept her eyes on Wu and Lawson. They were across the street, by Grace's car now. She saw Grace use one of those remote controls to unlock the doors. Grace stood by the driver's door. Wu was by the passenger's. Grace Lawson made no move to run away. It was hard to see her face, but she didn't look as if she was being coerced.
The bell sounded.
The mothers all turned toward the doors, a Pavlovian response, and waited for their children to emerge.
One of the mothers, eyes on the school door, handed Charlaine her cell phone. Charlaine tried not to grab it too quickly. She was raising it to her ear when she glanced over at Grace and Wu one more time. She stopped cold.
Wu was staring directly at her.
When Wu saw that woman again, he started for his gun.
He was going to shoot her. Right here. Right now. Right in front of everyone.
Wu was not a superstitious man. He realized that the odds of her being here were reasonable. She had children. She lived in the area. There must have been two or three hundred mothers here. It would make sense that she would be one of them.
But he still wanted to kill her.
On the superstitious side, he would kill this demon.
On the practical side, he would prevent her from calling the police. He would also cause a panic that would allow him to escape. If he shot her, everyone would run toward the fallen woman. It would be the ideal diversion.
But there were problems too.
First, the woman stood at least a hundred feet away. Eric Wu knew his strengths and weaknesses. In hand-to-hand he had no equal. With a gun, he was merely decent. He might only wound or, worse, miss altogether. Yes, there would be a panic, but without a body falling, it might not be the sort of diversion he wanted.
His real target - the reason he was here - was Grace Lawson. He had her now. She was listening to him. She was pliable because she still held out hope that her family could survive this. If she were to see him fire a shot, standing as she was out of his reach, there was a chance that Grace Lawson would panic and bolt.
"Get in," he said.
Grace Lawson opened her car door. Eric Wu stared at the woman across the schoolyard. When their eyes met, he slowly shook his head and gestured toward his waist. He wanted her to understand. She had crossed him before and he had fired. He would do so again.
He waited until the woman lowered the phone. Still keeping his eyes on her, Wu slid into the car. They pulled out and disappeared down Morningside Drive.