“He triggered it for us,” I finish. “So he could be anywhere. We’ve got nothing.”
“Not necessarily,” he says, nodding to the packs we’ve got dumped in the floorboards between our feet. They’re stuffed with papers. It’s something. I hope. “Gwen, remember—”
Whatever he’s about to tell me, he’s interrupted by Lustig, who yanks the door open and says, “Okay, here’s what’s about to happen. All hell is going to break loose and rain down shit on us. County sheriffs, fire, ambulance. I’m going to claim federal jurisdiction. You two get taken to the hospital, but you do not move until I get there. And you do not answer questions until I get there. Understood?”
“Mike,” Sam says. “What the hell did we get into?”
The look Mike Lustig gives him is a two-parter: one says, Not here, and then flicks to me to indicate I’m not someone he wants to be letting in on the story. And why would he? Mike knows who I am. Who my ex-husband is. He probably doesn’t trust me any farther than he can throw a Sherman tank. That’s fair. I don’t trust him at all, and the fact that he’s got a badge and a gun and these doors don’t open from the inside makes me itch all over. He’s Sam’s friend, sure. But he isn’t mine. My trust isn’t contagious.
Lustig shuts the door again, cutting off a cold blast of wind that carries an edge of ice with it, and leans against the SUV as the first responder—a black-and-white county-sheriff SUV—rounds the curve and pulls to a stop beside us. No sirens, but the pulsing flare of the lights turns everything raw and cold in bursts, renders everything alien, even Sam’s face. I try the door. It doesn’t open. My heart thumps faster, and I look around for something, anything, I can use. Reflex. I can slither over the seat to the front and get out that way, I reassure myself. There might even be an extra gun in the glove compartment. If not, I can be out and running in seconds, and in these woods, in the dark, they’d have a hell of a time tracking me down.
It’s an academic exercise, this escape plan. I do it for every situation when I feel the least bit out of control. It helps. I’ve practiced the art of evade, attack, escape for years now in my head, and I’ve trained for it. My life—and the lives of my kids—depends on it.
“So what’s our story?” I ask Sam. “Because the truth isn’t going to fly. Not for this.”
“Stick as close to it as we can,” he says. “We came looking for answers. Found the door wide open. Went in to see if someone was hurt, discovered the secret room, got the hell out just in time.”
It doesn’t paint us as innocent, but it doesn’t indicate we brought dynamite and blew the place to smithereens, either, which I’m completely behind. I nod. Door is wide open. I visualize it in my mind, imagining our cautious approach, calling out, looking for someone who’s hurt. I imagine it until it seems so real it could be true, and then I keep on imagining it until it is true, and the other thing is a distant possibility. It’s the only way to consistently, convincingly lie: you have to believe it.
So I make myself believe it. Of course, if the door doesn’t burn completely, and they can determine it was locked, then we’re screwed. But given the inferno, I think we’re safe on that score.
More vehicles crowd around us, penning us in: two fire trucks, a single ambulance, another official-looking SUV, maybe from the forest service. The firefighters are carrying loads of hose into the woods up toward the blaze, and I hear the buzz overhead of a light aircraft; they’re spotting for spread of the fire.
It takes the better part of an hour before the glow of the fire is completely out, and then the night is lit only by the still-burning strobes of the emergency vehicles and flaring headlights. All the different sources paint everything a semiconsistent purple, with pops of blues and reds out of sequence. I keep my eyes closed after a while, and so I’m surprised when the door beside me is yanked open. I straighten up fast and realize I’m looking at a young, slender African American man in an ill-fitting paramedic’s uniform. “Ma’am,” he says, and his Georgia accent is already in full force. “I need to check you over. Can you walk for me over to the ambulance?”
“Sure,” I tell him, getting out of the SUV with a little burst of relief. No escape required, after all. At least, not yet. Another paramedic is guiding Sam, and we end up perched together on the step of the ambulance as we’re checked out. Sam is diagnosed with a mild concussion and cracked ribs; he’s tagged for transport to the hospital. My headache earns me the same privilege, but no way do I want to leave our bags behind in Mike Lustig’s SUV, or rob us of getaway transportation. I decline. While they put Sam in the ambulance, I move our stuff back to our own rented vehicle, which is thankfully pulled far enough off to the side that I can back it around the blockage.
I’m halfway out when Mike Lustig steps into my path, and I have to brake hard to avoid giving him a bumper kiss; once I’m stopped, he steps around to my driver’s side door and taps on the window. I roll it down. “I’m heading for the hospital,” I tell him. “And I’ll wait there.”
“Fine,” he tells me. “You two need to be right about this. You ready?” His gaze tells me I’d better be. I nod. “Don’t leave the hospital. I’ll be there soon as I can.”
I nod, and then I back up and turn to follow the ambulance down the winding mountain road, away from the ashes of what we’d hoped to discover.
The first thing I do, once the doctors have checked me, is sit down and call Javier, even though it’s now nearly five in the morning. I don’t tell him about the fire, or the near miss. I just tell him we’re okay. He can tell we’re at a hospital, though thankfully he doesn’t ask many questions, and I don’t have to lie.
“How are they?” I ask him. I’ve woken Javier up, and I feel bad about it, but hearing his voice is an immense relief. “Are they adjusting?”
“I don’t know yet,” he says, which is honest. He’s keeping his voice down, and I hear the rustle of clothes and footsteps. I imagine him putting on a coat and stepping out onto his porch, because I hear the slight hiss of wind over the phone speaker, and the creak of wood as he sits down on the chair he keeps there. “Jesus, it’s freezing tonight. The kids are fine, but I can’t say they’re happy. It’s setting in on them that you’re in danger. Lanny’s dying to get out of the house. Connor just . . . reads. Is that normal?”
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