Officer Turner alters his body language into let’s-be-frank. For him, it involves leaning forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, and tenting his big hands together. “Ms. Proctor,” he says, “right now, local officers in Tennessee are going through your house up there at Stillhouse Lake, looking for anything that links you to your ex-husband. Your phone records are being analyzed. We know you went to see him before he broke out. You got something you want to get off your chest now, before those results come to light? Might do you some good.”
Amateur. I went through years of this, from interrogators far better—and worse—than he is. I gaze at him thoughtfully for a moment, and then I say, “I hate Melvin Royal. He’s hunting me, Officer Turner. Do you know how that feels? Do you really think I want to help him? Because if you stand me in front of him and give me a gun, I will not hesitate to put a goddamn bullet in that man’s head.”
I mean every word of it, with an intensity that takes even my own breath away.
Turner slowly leans back, hands smoothing flat against his thighs. He’s got those lightless, merciless eyes that all cops seem to share, the ones that are constantly taking in everything and giving back nothing. For all his awkwardly folksy manner, he’s a shark.
There’s a knock at the door, and Turner gets up to retrieve two flimsy cups. He hands one to me, and I gratefully wrap cold hands around it. The coffee is a crime in itself, but at least it’s warm, and it cuts the astringent hospital smell. This place stinks of fear and despair and boredom, of unwashed people whose body odor has soaked into the couches. There’s a tiny, sad little play area in the corner for kids. It’s currently deserted, but I think of Lanny and Connor, only ten and seven when a car smashed into Melvin’s garage and revealed his horrors to the world. In my gut, they’ll always be that age. That vulnerable, shattered age.
“You want to tell me what was in that basement?” I ask Turner, cutting my eyes suddenly to him. It startles him a little. “Because our guy didn’t want anybody to see it. Whatever it was.”
“It’s pretty well destroyed,” he tells me. “Ain’t nobody going to get down there to take a good look for a while. Going to be hours before it’s safe. We might still find bodies.”
I hope not, too. Desperately. I nod, then drink the rest of my coffee in a thirsty rush. “Right. Well, I’m going to go now. Thanks for the coffee.” He stands up with me, blocking my way. I stare at him and slowly allow the corners of my lips to curl, just a little. “Unless you’d like to arrest me . . . ?”
He’s got nothing concrete, and he knows that. He’s bluffing when he says, “Sit down, Ms. Proctor. We’ve got more to talk about.”
I don’t answer. I just walk toward him. At the last moment, he moves. Illegal detention wouldn’t do him any favors, and he’s smart enough to know I can’t be buffaloed into thinking he’s got cause. Yes, there’s a burned-out cabin. Yes, I was inside. But there’s ample evidence that the place had been booby-trapped, and I was lucky to escape alive, and they’ve got lots of tantalizing evidence to analyze that doesn’t have anything to do with me and my maybe-but-not-provable illegal entry.
I don’t break stride passing him. From behind me, he says, “We’ll be talking, Mrs. Royal.” That’s just spite, and I don’t dignify it by looking back at him. I keep going, and as soon as I pass the door frame, I feel a weight lifted. I take in a sharp breath, filtered by the fresh scent of the coffee I’ve just finished, and I dump the cup and go in search of where they’ve put Sam.
He’s still closeted with another officer, and when I look around for Mike Lustig, he’s nowhere to be found. I don’t much like that. I don’t like that he’s abandoned us here to fend for ourselves. I find a seat and wait, watching the door and watching the clock hands crawl. Sam’s conversation goes on at least twice as long as mine does, and it’s nearly six when he finally appears. He doesn’t look bothered, and he’s finishing coffee. He downs the rest in a gulp and tosses the empty cup, then stops beside me. “You okay?” I ask him.
“Nothing I can’t deal with,” he says. There’s a storm circling behind his eyes. I wonder what the cop said to him. Must not have been pleasant.
“Where’s your friend Mike? Fat lot of good he did us.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “He had to leave and go back to the scene.”
“So what did he tell you, if he told you anything?”
“To go home,” Sam says. “And forget this ever happened.” Go back to Stillhouse Lake, I’m sure he means. Hunker down, guns at the ready, for my husband to come for us. But when I try to imagine that, I can’t see us managing to defend ourselves. I see Melvin appearing, like some evil spirit, behind us. I see him killing Javier and Kezia. I see Sam dead on the floor.
I see me and my kids, alone against the darkness that is their father. And I am not confident that I can save them.
“We can’t just give up,” I say. “Let’s take a look at what we got first. Will Lustig tell us what they find in the basement up there?”
“Maybe,” Sam says, which doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. “I might have burned a bridge on that one. We’ll see. No, don’t apologize.” I’ve already opened my mouth to do just that, and I shut it, fast. “I’d burn every bridge I ever built to get to Melvin. Understand that.”
I wonder if he includes the bridge that we’ve so carefully built between the two of us. I think I understand Sam, most of the time. But when it comes to this . . . maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe, despite everything he’s done for me and my kids, despite the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be open and vulnerable around him, and he’s shown every sign of appreciating that . . . maybe, ultimately, if it comes to a choice between me and getting to Melvin, he’ll step over me to get a grip around my husband’s throat.
Fair enough. I might just do the same thing. Probably best we don’t discuss it.
There’s a gauntlet of uniforms around, but we aren’t blocked on our way out. Our car is still there in the lot, and still locked. Sam lets out a held breath as we turn onto the main road, and he accelerates—within the speed limit—heading south. “Right,” he says. “Let’s get the hell out of here. Where we headed?”
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