My phone buzzes in my pocket. I frown and check it. It’s not a number I recognize. I ignore it.
Another second later, Sam’s cell buzzes. He locks gazes with me, then puts the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
I freeze as I watch him, looking for clues in his expression, his body language. I see a slight frown, and—paradoxically—a relaxing in his shoulders. Then he says, “Hey, Mike? How’d you get Gwen’s number? I didn’t call you from it.” He puts the call on speakerphone and lays the device on the polished wooden table between us.
“How you think?” Mike Lustig asks, and his deep voice makes the small speaker rattle. “You were both unconscious at the scene. I copied her number down while you both were out. Not surprised Ms. Proctor skipped my call, by the way. I hear she’s a tough nut.”
“And she’s on speaker,” Sam says.
“Figured that. How do, Ms. Proctor?”
“Cut the country charm, Agent Lustig,” I say. “I’m not in the mood. So what did you find at the cabin?” I brace myself. Hard. The memory of that awful video grazes me, and I flinch away from it. As I’m asking the question, Sam gets up and goes into the right-hand bedroom, which seems odd until I realize he’s looking for a window with an angle on the road we came up. He returns, shaking his head. No sign of police coming our way.
I’m waiting for the obvious, for Lustig to tell us that they’ve found a torture room, bodies, horrors . . . but he says, “Nothing much. Some file cabinets, tough to salvage anything out of them but ashes. Some camera equipment and such. Some old-school videotape, but it’s melted to shit; the lab’s working on it, remains to be seen if they get anything. We won’t know for months, most likely, if they come up with a result. I’m trying to light a fire under them—so to speak—but every case they work on is a priority, so it’s not likely we’re getting the express lane.”
I’m so surprised I don’t know what to think. But we saw . . . I reach forward and stab the “Mute” button on Sam’s phone. Then I say, “They didn’t find shackles, chains, winches? Then that video wasn’t filmed there. Not in that basement!”
Sam’s standing near me now, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, as if he can’t quite bear to be still. “Son of a bitch,” he says. “Then why burn the place?”
“File cabinets,” I remind him. “Maybe there were documents in there that linked him to the videos. Or had info about Absalom. We still don’t know how big this group is, do we?” I wonder if Arden knows. It might be important to talk to her again—but I think and hope that she’s already gone. I imagine her landing in Stockholm and walking away free. I hope that’s where she is.
I hope Absalom hasn’t found her.
Before Sam can comment, Mike Lustig says, “Y’all still there? Take me off ‘Mute,’ because if you’re having a chat without me, that’s just rude.”
I’m starting to like Mike Lustig. Cautiously, which is the only way I like anyone now. I hit the button to add him back to the conversation. “Sorry,” I say. I almost mean it. “So we’re back to square one, then? No more leads from the cabin?”
“Look . . .” He stops, then sighs, and I can almost see him shaking his head. “I took a chance you two would keep your heads and not go charging in to make a mess of things, which you did. Why in the hell would I give you any more leads even if I have one? I like my job. Damn hard to keep it if there’s an obvious line to draw from you reckless fools to me.”
He is not, I notice, saying that he intends to cut us out. He’s saying, Don’t drag me down with you. That’s a different thing entirely. Mike Lustig is a hell of a good friend, I think, and I wonder if Sam will mind when I ask him how the two of them got to be so close. Mostly, he doesn’t care if I dig into his past . . . but then, mostly, I don’t ask.
“So,” Sam says, “why the hell would you give us any more leads? Great question, man. Do you want to know the answer?”
“Because we’re about to move your investigation along. We have a USB that came out of that cabin. And receipts. You’ve got ashes.”
I whip my head around to stare at him, but it’s too late to stop him. He’s not just let the cat out of the bag; he’s set the bag on fire, and the cat’s over the state line. I mouth, What the hell? at him, but he doesn’t take his gaze from the phone.
“Hmmm.” Lustig draws that out, a rumble that rattles the phone on the table. “Don’t suppose you plugged it in somewhere to take a look at what might be on that stick.”
“Don’t suppose you found anything interesting on it, then.”
“Might have done that, too. Look, Mike, I’ll hand it to you, no strings, but you have got to share the rest of what you know. We can stop this bastard if we work together. If you keep us out—”
“If I’d kept you out, as I should, then I’d have had that damn thumb drive, and the chain of evidence would be intact!”
“Most likely,” I say, leaning forward, “you or your guys would have opened that door downstairs and blown themselves up, all the evidence would be ashes, and not a damn thing useful would have come out of it. We didn’t make that mistake because we understand who we’re dealing with.”
His voice hardens just a touch, skimming off the charm. “And you think I don’t?”
“Have you met Melvin Royal?” I ask. I feel a cold ball forming in my stomach, heavy as lead, just from having his name on my tongue. “Interviewed him? Interrogated him? Even been in the same room with him?”
“I lived with the man for years. I slept next to him. I saw him when he was angry and happy and stressed. I know how he thinks.”
“Respectfully, ma’am, if you knew how he thought, you’d have known what was swinging in your own goddamn garage.”
It’s sharp, but I’ve felt that piercing observation before. I don’t let it stop me. “There’s a difference. I have the knowledge of him now, and what I knew then. And each informs the other. I’m an asset, Agent Lustig. You’re going to need me.” I take in a slow breath. “Because Melvin Royal isn’t like the other killers you hunt. If he was, you’d have already found him, wouldn’t you? You caught all the others he escaped with.”
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