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I push it, and it moves.

Magnetic. I detach it from the safe and pull it out. It’s a shallow box with a sliding top, like the old hide-a-key my grandmother used to put in the wheel well of her car.

This one holds a USB.

I never would have found it if I hadn’t dropped a page behind the safe. It was in a space that would have been missed in a search, and the gun safe is too huge and heavy to move without major effort.

I retrieve the fallen page, and I put that and the USB in the backpack.

“Got anything?” Sam calls.

“Receipts, some printouts, and a thumb drive,” I say. “No computer, just a power cord. He must have taken that with him. You?”

He appears in the doorway. I can’t read his expression, but something about it makes me step back from the closet and come toward him. “You’d better see this,” he says. I know I’m not going to like it, but I follow him out into the main room. Everything in its place. Everything clean and orderly. I wonder if this man has a military background, because every surface gleams. If there are fingerprints here, I can’t spot any.

Sam opens up a closet. It looks like a normal pantry, just deep enough to reach into. Eight shelves, top to bottom, packed with canned goods and sundries. Whoever this Absalom asshole is, he likes canned tuna and quick-prep casserole kits.

Sam puts a finger to his lips and pushes on the shelves. They swing back without so much as a squeak, and behind that is a set of stairs. Motion lights click on, revealing a wall with cheap faux-wood paneling, and below, at the bottom of the steps, like a living thing, crouches a steel door with a key lock. I feel the darkness of it breathe up through the chilly air, and for a moment I don’t move. I can’t. I feel like it’s watching me, assessing me for weaknesses.

I’m paralyzed by flashbacks to my ex-husband’s torture chamber, so carefully hidden inside my own house. To the basement of Lancel Graham’s tumbledown cabin up in the hills above Stillhouse Lake, where he lovingly re-created that horror.

This feels like something just as bad.

We go down slowly, careful of our steps; Sam’s probably concerned about noise, but I’m not. I’m worried about hidden traps and tripwires. This place feels like death. Like threats and consequences.

“Stop,” I whisper, when Sam takes the last step down. He’s about four feet from the door. He listens, and pauses, and looks at me. I keep staring at the steel face of the thing, and I slowly shake my head. “This is wrong. Don’t.”

“Gwen—”

“Please, Sam.” I feel sick, and I am shaking now. The urgency hurts. “We’ve got to go. Now. Right now.” I am not psychic, have no trace of any kind of power or gift, but I have instincts. Instincts I ignored for years with Melvin Royal. I should have known what he was doing, what kind of horror show was going on under my roof. I never did, at least not in any conscious way.

Never again. I don’t know what will happen if Sam touches that door, but I can feel it’s wrong. This is a job for the FBI now, not a couple of renegade amateur thieves. This place feels claustrophobic, and I feel like I’m being watched.

Sam accepts my decision, and that’s a gift I can’t measure; most men, I believe, would have ignored me and gone straight on ahead. As a consequence, we are almost to the top of the stairs when, with a whispering sigh, the door at the bottom of the stairs cracks open. There’s a faint, almost inaudible click.

Sam pauses. I don’t know what’s coming out of that door, and I don’t want to know. I grab Sam, lunge forward—past the shelves, out of the closet—and drag him along with me.

Sam has just cleared the doorway when something picks us up and throws us, violently, across the room. I lift and cross my arms in front of my face, draw my legs up in an instinctive attempt to protect my brain and belly, and I hardly feel it when I hit the wall. I definitely don’t feel hitting the floor, because suddenly I’m just there, lying on wood and looking up as a blast of orange light floods the room. I don’t understand what it is. I feel a wave of heat, and then the roof is, strangely, moving away from me, like a giant has picked it up. The lights we’ve turned on blow out like candles, and I’m looking at stars and trees and then everything, everything, is on fire.

 

 

5

GWEN

I come conscious again, coughing, with someone pouring water on my face. The water’s cold, and I’m shivering, and I roll over and cough helplessly for a few moments. Awareness starts somewhere in me, reporting pain in my back, in my leg, in my arm. My brain’s good at analyzing these things, and it tells me it’s nothing too serious. I hope it’s not lying to me. My head hurts as well, and that seems of more concern. My mouth tastes like an ashtray, and I grab blindly for the water bottle that’s been splashing my face and rinse out my mouth. I spit it out on the ground, then chug thirstily. That’s probably a mistake. The thick weight of water hits my stomach hard.

I roll up to my knees, sway a little, find my balance, make it to my feet. I’m in the clearing, near the tree line. Sam is kneeling next to me, and he looks worse than I feel—bloody from a cut on his head, shaking, favoring one side as he tries to get up. I help him. He winces and presses a hand to his ribs.

“How did we—” I turn back toward the cabin.

It’s an inferno. I lose my words when I see it, and the reality that we were in there comes down on me. I stare, mesmerized. How did we get out?

“I pulled you out. What the hell, Sam?” says a new voice. It belongs to a man standing a distance away, who’s watching the blaze. He’s more than six feet, wearing a black tufted parka, which I envy right now, and as he shifts, a gold badge on a chain around his neck catches the light. Cop, I think, and I freeze. But the badge is different. I can’t immediately identify it. My eyes won’t focus finely enough. He’s African American, and his voice has a slow southern accent that makes him sound amiable, though I can see him studying me, calculating, weighing my worth. He’s also wearing a bulletproof vest under the parka, I realize, as the wind blows a hot gust from the burning cabin and flaps it back.

FBI. It’s right there on his vest.

“Mike Lustig,” he says. “And you’re both a pair of goddamn idiots. What happened?” He directs that last part past me, and Sam winces as he shifts position.

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