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“I just abandoned my kids,” she says. Her voice sounds strange. I shoot her a quick look, but the road is narrow and curved, and I can’t spare much focus from keeping the SUV on the road. “Left them with . . . strangers.”

“They aren’t strangers,” I say. “Come on. You know they’re good people. They’ll do everything they can to keep the kids safe.”

“I should have stayed with them.” I can tell that she’s aching to ask me to turn the car around. “I just want to take my kids in my arms and never let them out of my sight again. I’m terrified . . .” Her voice fades out for a few seconds, thin as fog, then comes back stronger. “What if I never come back to them? What if they’re taken while I’m gone?”

She sounds so shaken that I pull the SUV off on the shoulder, in the blue shadow of trees. “Do you want to go back?” I cut the engine and turn to look at her. Not judging, but worrying. If this is going to work, I need to be sure that she’s up to it. I won’t blame her if she isn’t, but deep in my heart I know I have to go, with or without her. Melvin Royal is out there, and he’s going to come for Gwen, and those kids. This used to be about revenge for me, about getting justice for my sister, Callie, but now it’s something more.

“Of course I want to go back,” Gwen says, then takes in a deep breath. “But I can’t, can I? If I don’t fight for my kids and protect them now, how can I ever look them in the eyes again? He’s going to come for them. And I need to be in his way when he does.”

Gwen’s all raw pain, wired in place with steely control. Looking at her, you’d never doubt that she means what she says. And I don’t, not about Melvin Royal. She will face him head-on. And she won’t run.

“We’re going to kill him,” I say. It isn’t dramatic, and it isn’t a question. “We understand each other, right? We’re not in this to find him and call the cops and put him back in jail. The man will keep hurting you any way he can for as long as he lives. And no way am I letting him go on doing that.”

I don’t mean to betray that much, but there it is. If I feel love for this woman, it’s a harsh kind of love, dangerous to both of us until the ghost of Melvin Royal is finally put to rest.

“Yes,” Gwen agrees. “We’re going to kill him. It’s the only way to be sure the kids are safe.”

I nod slowly, then give her a smile. The one that answers me is grief and guilt and apology all together. “I have to confess, I never thought I’d be talking about becoming a straight-up murderer. Funny the things you learn about yourself, when you’re pushed.”

Gwen puts a hand on my arm, and I feel it through the cloth, hot as a brand. I let go of the steering wheel and slide my hand into hers. Our fingers twine. We don’t say anything for a long, long moment, and the peace of the wild country road, the trees, the distant call of birds, is so far from the darkness inside that it feels like another world away.

A ringing cell phone shatters the silence, and we both go for our pockets. “Mine,” I say, and because I recognize the number that shows up on the screen, I answer. “Hey, Mike. What’s up?”

“The hell you think is up, Sammy, I called you to shoot the shit? Business, son. I got a couple of leads on possible Absalom members. You want to take one?”

“Sure,” I say. “I take it this isn’t official.”

“Officially, I haven’t got enough to ask any of these sons of bitches what time of day it is, so you take it however you want. You want the tip or not?”

I have no pen or paper, so I make an air scribble with one hand, and Gwen takes the hint; she comes up with a pen and the rental agreement for the SUV. I listen to the two options that Mike Lustig reads out and make an instant choice. I jot it down. “Got it. We’ll take the closest one to us, in Markerville.”

“You go careful, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I tell him. “You, too.”

Mike hangs up without a goodbye, which is just his style. I hand the written note to Gwen.

“Arden Miller, Markerville, Tennessee,” she reads off. “Man or woman?”

“Don’t know.”

“And where’s Markerville, besides in Tennessee?”

Having a name, a direction, makes this feel real now. Momentum. I give her a sudden, broad grin and put the SUV in gear. “Don’t know that, either. First stop: buy a map.” That would sound weird to most people these days, but neither of us can afford to risk using the Internet. Not with Absalom watching everything.

The longer we can stay off the grid and off anyone’s radar, the better.

 

The map we buy doesn’t have Markerville on it, and I end up asking an old man sitting in a rocking chair outside the store, which is as rural as it gets. He squints his eyes at me—faded gold coins that used to be a dark brown, I think—and shakes his head. “Nobody got no business in Markerville,” he tells me. “Place been gone for years. Even the post office closed up shop back in the sixties. Nothing there but falling-down shacks.”

It doesn’t sound promising, but I get directions anyway. It’s a fair drive, at least a few hours, and it’s already getting dark by the time we hit the outskirts of Nashville.

“You want to keep driving, sleep in the car, or get a room?” I try to make sure there’s nothing in the question to suggest that it’s a come-on, because God knows, this isn’t the time even if there’s some possibility of it. “Two rooms, I mean.”

Gwen’s the practical one. “One room, two beds will do,” she says. “Someplace cheap. No point in getting to Markerville tired and having to wait for sunup, right?”

“Right,” I say. “Cheap. Got it.”

A half hour later, I spot a place called the French Inn, a drive-in motel that saw its best days back in the fifties, at the latest. It’s a plain U-shaped brick affair, slightly raised up a hillside, and it has all the curb appeal of a mortuary. There are two cars parked in the small lot, and a total of about twenty rooms, all first floor.

I give her raised eyebrows. “Norman Bates called, he wants his shower curtain back.”

Gwen laughs, and it sounds real. Warm. “Looks delightful.”

“Bedbug Central it is,” I say, then turn the wheel. We bump into the parking lot, which is just as rough as the paint job on the room doors, and park in one of the many free spaces. “Wait here. If there’s a camera, I don’t want you on it.” Gwen’s more recognizable than I am, and with any luck, Absalom hasn’t got their asses in gear scouring for pictures of my face yet. I add a Florida Marlins cap I found in the last convenience store, pull it low, and head inside. Before I close the door, I give her a straight look. “Doors locked.”

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