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“Always.”

She’s also armed, and a great shot, and I’m not particularly worried about leaving her out here alone. Gwen Proctor won’t go anywhere. Not quietly. And if some random predator decides to take her down, he’s got a surprise in store.

The motel office is as unenthusiastic as you’d expect, and I wonder about the slack-faced man behind the counter; he has the dead-fish eyes of someone who’s seen it all and covered most of it up. I take the greasy plastic-tabbed key and hand over cash, and I’m back out the door in two minutes.

We leave the car where it’s parked, since it’s near a floodlight, and take everything of any value out. We have the third room, and when I unlock the door and swing it open, there’s a familiar smell of bleach and despair that radiates out. Soul-crushing. At least when I flick on the light there aren’t any visible cockroaches scuttling for cover, and everything seems clean enough, though I wouldn’t care to run a black light over the surfaces.

Less than reassuring are the furnishings, which look like the world’s worst garage sale, and the water stains on the sagging ceiling. There are, as requested, two beds, and I motion Gwen to take the one nearest the bathroom for no better reason than it’s farther from the door. I watch as she lifts the drab bedspread, which drapes all the way to the carpet, and bends over to look underneath. She grabs a flashlight from her pack and checks it again.

“What exactly are you looking for?” I ask her.

“Creepy dudes,” she says. “Dead bodies. Stashes of methamphetamines. Who knows?”

Checking suddenly sounds like a damn good idea, so I borrow the flashlight. While I’m down there peering at a mummified condom and at least three beer bottles, and regretting life choices, I use the cover to ask, “Night or morning shift in the bathroom? Because I’m guessing this place only has enough hot water for one coffeemaker and a two-minute shower every few hours.”

“I’ll take night,” Gwen says. “You need in there first?”

I straighten up and shake my head, and Gwen avoids looking at me directly. She grabs her bag and takes it with her into the bathroom, and I hear the door shut and lock.

I can either sit here and listen to her undressing, or I can do something useful.

I choose to go get us some food.

When I come back, Gwen’s done with her shower, the room’s desperate smell has been replaced with a warm, fruity scent, and she’s fully dressed again except for shoes. I approve. Sleeping vulnerable here isn’t a plan I’d recommend. I hand over a bag with a burger and fries, along with a canned soda, and we sit on opposite beds silently refueling for a while.

“I should have asked,” she says. “Was that your FBI friend on the phone? Mike?”

I nod without replying. The hamburgers are a crime against beef patties, but I choke down the last bites anyway. I need the fuel.

“And why exactly is an FBI agent helping us out . . . ?”

“Because sometimes I do him favors. And he owes me at least three right at this moment. Besides, he’s low on bodies to follow up leads, and he thinks I’m probably more reliable than the state troopers.”

“Only probably?”

I shrug. “Mike’s not a guy who trusts anyone completely. He wasn’t really detailed about his tip, so what you saw is what he gave me. Arden Miller, Markerville. He didn’t have an address, and said we wouldn’t need one. If it really is a ghost town, that’s probably true.”

“And how does Arden relate to Melvin?”

“Lustig heads up a task force that investigates dangerous Internet groups. Absalom’s on his radar, and apparently, Arden has something to do with them.”

“So are we dealing with a hermit? A survivalist? What?”

“Not a clue,” I say. “But we will be really damn careful.”

“Yeah, about that. Before we head straight for the town, let’s take time to do some research on Arden Miller and see if we can put together a decent game plan for this place. We can hit the local library in the morning. I’ll take the Internet searches, you take the book searches . . . ?”

“It’s a plan,” I say. We’ve finished the burgers by then, both of us wolfing them down at a speed that meant we were actively trying to avoid tasting them. I take the wrappers to the trash, and while I’m up, I take a good look at the door. There’s a flimsy chain lock that’s clearly been ripped out several times, and neither the door nor the frame looks sturdy enough to resist a stiff breeze, much less a solid kick.

“How’s the bathroom?” I ask her. “Security-wise?”

“There’s a window, but it’s small and barred, and no fire release.”

“Let’s not start any fires.” I drag over a chair upholstered in baby-shit brown and wedge it under the door handle. It might not help much, but it’s better than nothing.

“What time in the morning do you want to get up?” Gwen asks me. Her voice sounds a little tight. Nerves. It’s a normal enough question, but it feels like something you ask a spouse, or a lover, and we both feel the implication hanging in the air. I walk to my bed, take the clip-on holster from the back of my jeans, and put it on the bedside table. Gwen’s shoulder holster is already hooked over the bedpost, like a particularly edgy piece of bondage gear.

Yeah, maybe don’t go that way, I tell myself. I lean over and start unlacing my boots.

“Seven’s early enough,” I tell her. “Or whatever time the werewolves attack.”

“I think we’re more in zombie territory,” she says. She’s sitting cross-legged on top of the covers, but she gets up, folds back the sheets, checks for bugs, and then crawls in. “Okay, well, good night.” Sounds awkward. Feels the same.

My second boot hits the floor. I move them under the nightstand, in easy grabbing distance if I need them, and lean back against the pillows. The mattress is lumpy and tired. It matches my mood. “Good night, Gwen.” It sounds ridiculous.

We’re both silent for a long few seconds. The laughter starts deep in my guts, as ridiculous and infectious as shaken champagne, and when I can’t help it anymore, I let it out.

Gwen laughs, too. It feels good, cleansing, and in the aftermath, even the drab room seems brighter. “Sorry,” I finally manage. “It just seems so polite. Fuck, we’re adults, aren’t we? Why is this so . . .”

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