Sam’s probably not doing as much self-analysis, but then again, he isn’t coming forward, either. He stays safely on his side of the line.
“Could still be something in those receipts,” Sam says, and I think it’s just to say anything to break the silence. “Some of the supplies he bought don’t look right. We didn’t see any heavy chain in the house, did we? Saws?”
Those aren’t unusual purchases for a rural cabin, but still, he’s right. We didn’t, not inside the cabin, anyway. I’d think Mike Lustig would have mentioned if he’d found them down in the wreckage of the basement. “You’re thinking he bought them for someone else . . . ?”
“I’m thinking that this could be the beginning of a long thread we can follow. Don’t you?”
I nod. I suddenly flash on something, and I get up and walk back to the rolltop desk. Sam follows and stands near as I quickly thumb through receipts, looking for the most innocuous thing of all.
Paper towels. Toilet paper. The bulk purchases are on the same online order for other household things, like air freshener and bleach, in quantities normally reserved for large businesses. I don’t even know why it’s attracted my attention.
I stare at it for a second, not quite sure what it is that I’m seeing in it. Probably nothing. People buy things in bulk. Paper towels don’t go bad. So why does it bother me?
“Shit,” I say out loud when I finally see it. I hold the page out to Sam and watch him go through the same exact process. It takes about the same amount of time. We’re well matched, Sam Cade and I.
“The address,” he says. “This didn’t get sent to the cabin.”
“No,” I agree. And even though I’m reluctant, I say, “You’d better call Mike.”
Mike Lustig cheers up considerably when he hears our news. He wants a fax, but we compromise and send the address to him instead. Or rather, I do that. Sam is busy mapping the address from the invoice on the Internet; he’s careful to launder our connections through anonymizers to disguise our IP address, and I don’t even have to remind him to do it. Google Maps shows us the location. It’s a nothing-much sort of industrial address in Atlanta. I’ve been half expecting a remailing place, but this looks like a warehouse, as anonymous as all the other ones squatting near it. No cars visible in the snapshot of time that the map vehicle passed by it. Concrete and metal, rusting and dented. Isolated, too, by tall barriers of weeds that have grown up, in, and through the sagging chain-link fence. NO TRESPASSING signs, buckshot-scarred into near illegibility.
This place doesn’t need volume-store levels of toilet paper.
“Jesus,” I say, staring over his shoulder at the still image. “What the hell is this?” But I’m afraid I already know. My voice goes soft. “Do you think that’s where—”
“Where they filmed? I don’t know,” he says.
Mike calls back in five minutes. He doesn’t sound happy. “I can go with you to check this place out, but there’s not a hope in hell I can get a search warrant based on what you’ve got,” he says. “Seeing as how you appropriated the evidence and any judge who isn’t pass-out drunk can see I don’t have a legal leg to stand on. Tell you what: tomorrow, you bring that goddamn drive and the paperwork, and you give it to me. We’ll take a nice long walk around the perimeter of this place, and I’ll put my people to work digging up ownership. Maybe we can come at this from a different direction that gets us into court.”
He’s frustrated. I don’t blame him. The FBI is overstretched, handling crime and terrorism at the same time, and he doesn’t need the complication we’ve given him. Then again, he’s probably aware that we’ve given him a tremendous gift, too. At least, I hope so.
“Right,” Sam says. “Where do you want us to meet you?”
Lustig rattles off an address, which happens to be in a suburb of Atlanta. A six-hour drive from where we are tonight. We agree on a 10:00 a.m. rendezvous. That means we need to be up and driving before dawn, but that doesn’t bother either of us much. I feel lighter when Sam closes off the call. I feel dizzy with it. Yes. Finally.
Without thinking, I put my hand on Sam’s shoulder. He reaches up and puts his fingers over mine. His touch feels so unexpected, so warm, that I realize how chilled I am. Why not, I think, and I am almost giddy with it. The kids are safe. We’ve got a short rest in a beautiful, calm, secure place.
He looks up at me, and I see the spark. I feel it.
He smiles a little sadly. “I know,” he says. It’s not exactly a question. Not exactly a statement. But it’s a toe across the line, inviting me to match him.
And I want to, so much. I look at Sam, and I think that in another life I would have met this man, and liked him, and loved him, and we would have been something good. Something lasting.
But this is not that world.
I lean forward and kiss him gently on the lips, and it’s sweet and soft and lovely, and it doesn’t feel like mines, or traps. It feels right.
But it also feels wrong. It feels like the ghosts are screaming, and my ex is laughing, and I can’t do this.
So I leave. Fast. I hear Sam say my name, but I don’t look back. I go into the bedroom. I shut and lock the door. Lock it—against Sam, against myself, against the memory of Melvin crawling into the bed we shared at night. I get beneath those lavender-scented covers, still wrapped in my robe, and I ache; I ache for all the lost things, the lost moments, the cost of ever choosing Melvin Royal, even though I was young and naive and virginal when he romanced and married me. Because some mistakes you have to keep paying for, forever. Marrying a monster like Melvin . . . that’s a mistake that never, ever goes away.
I can allow myself to be happy when this is done. When he’s done. Maybe.
Or I will be dead. But at least I will have paid in full.
When I close my eyes, I see Melvin standing down that hill, just in the shadow of the trees with his eyes shining like silver coins. Smiling. And I whisper, “Just wait there, you son of a bitch. I’m coming for you.”
Why the fuck did I push her?
I say Gwen’s name, but she doesn’t respond. I want to say all the things bouncing around inside my aching head, like I need you and I’m not going to hurt you, but the fact is that although both those things are true right now, I can’t guarantee they’ll be true in the morning. The need part, probably. I’ve felt that since . . . since when? I’d memorized her face from the online photos first, and I damn sure hadn’t needed her then. She’d been an empty set of pixels, something to pour my rage into. I’d looked at a thousand pictures of her and felt nothing but contempt and blind hatred. This woman helped kill Callie. I remember thinking that, over and over again. I remember wanting to hurt Gina Royal, pay her back for every wound my sister had to suffer.