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He’s using us. Still. But I get why. I watched the video. I have a dim sense of what lies behind Mike’s calm face and unflickering smile.

I want to rip my fucking eyeballs out, he’d said, leaning heavily on me as we staggered back to our quarters that night. I want to scream until I throw up.

All night, he’d been smiling that same smile.

 

 

9

GWEN

Inside the perimeter fence, it feels like we’re alone on the face of the earth, and I instinctively check around me for escape options. It’s not good. One exit, behind us. I prefer multiple ways out. If I have to, I can scale that fence, sacrifice the jacket to provide some protection from the cutting wire edges. What if he’s in there . . .

He isn’t, I tell myself firmly. Though, honestly, what better place for Melvin Royal to be holed up? A deserted warehouse, with his followers to bring him food and comforts and victims. It’s so eerily possible that I slow, nearly stop, and earn a look from Sam. He doesn’t see it. He’s intent on finding clues.

I’m terrified we’re about to find something much, much more dangerous.

It feels like the zombie apocalypse has arrived inside this yard. The Atlanta sky has grown cloudy above us, and the coverage is low enough that I can’t see jets cutting through to remind me that the world still turns. I hear nothing but the wind hissing through the fence and the rattle of graying plastic trash as it listlessly drifts and flutters. The area where we stand was a parking lot once, but it’s long surrendered to the assault of weeds, grass, and weather. It’s a minefield of up-jutting, broken asphalt, mixed in with dead or dying stalks. Easy to lose footing in here. Impossible to run safely. Even from here, I can see the shiny padlock on the back door. The clasp that holds it looks newly installed.

“Gwen?” asks Sam, who’s retreated to stand next to me. “You okay?”

I don’t want to do this, I want to tell him. I want to remind him that I was right about the basement. But I know the difference between a genuine instinctive warning and the chaotic product of fear. So what if Melvin’s squatting here? There are two of us, both good shots, both with reason to see him dead. It means my nightmare could be over in a few minutes instead of days, or weeks, or never.

“Okay,” I tell him, and I make myself give him a nod. I’m still simmering about him watching that horror show of a video alone, because it feels like protection, like a man making decisions for me. We’ll have that conversation later. For now, it’s business. “Let’s do this. Careful of the footing.”

We move around the side. Wherever the corrugated siding might have peeled away, it has been nailed back; the nail heads are still bright, no sign of corrosion. Windows way up high, broken, but also unreachable; no handy stacks of crates or discarded ladders we could use to boost up to them, and even if I get on Sam’s shoulders, I’ll be several feet short of the goal. This is starting to look like a waste of time, I think, and then I see a side door. Like the back, someone’s put a new lock in place; unlike the back, they didn’t bother to swap out the original steel clasp. The nails look old. Rusted.

I point it out to Sam, and he nods. He reaches into his backpack and pulls out the kind of multitool pocketknife they don’t allow at airports anymore; he chooses the thickest blade and uses it to pry the nails, and it doesn’t take much for the entire clasp, lock still stoutly fixed, to swing away. It’s almost silent.

Sam stops me and hands me a pair of blue nitrile gloves; he puts on a pair himself. Smart. The last thing we want to do is leave fingerprints here. The fewer traces, the better.

I open the door and step inside, carefully and as silently as I can manage, and despite all my focus and control, I can feel sweat beading on my forehead, under my arms, on my back. I’m trembling with the thunder of adrenaline dumping into my body, and I’m flat-out terrified that I’m about to see Melvin’s pallid face looming out of the shadows, eyes as empty as a doll’s as he reaches for me. The fear is so real that I have to take a second to imagine locking it behind a door, where it can pound and rage without damage.

He’s not here.

But if he is here, I’ll kill him.

It’s a mantra I think to myself, and it helps.

The floor is gritty, cracked concrete, but at least I don’t need a flashlight to see my footing; the milky light that filters in shimmers on floating dust, but it provides enough light to see that this part of the warehouse is open space, littered here and there with rusted parts, a discarded engine, and a pile of old debris.

“Watch your feet,” Sam whispers to me, a thread even I can barely catch. “This place is a tetanus factory.”

He’s right. We’ve both got on thick-soled boots, but I keep watch for nails, broken glass, anything like that. Broken glass is often used as a cheap alarm system by squatters in these places, and nails are hammered through boards and placed points-up as home defense. Last thing I want to do is step on one of those improvised booby traps.

We stop and listen. Except for the whistle of the breeze blowing and creaking through the roof and windows, there isn’t much to hear. No movement at all. But there’s a smell. Rust. Blood. Decay. It’s so familiar, so loathsome, that I feel dizzy.

Melvin’s signature perfume.

There’s an open doorway ahead, and I make my way carefully toward it. I stay out of the line of sight of anyone on the other side, and I halt when I see what looks like a pile of clothes along one side of the wall beyond. I draw my gun, and Sam does the same. He moves to flank me on the other side of the door and raises three fingers. He counts down, and we both pivot in, smooth and quiet.

I almost run into the dangling chains. I flinch back at the last second, and I can’t help the silent explosion of breath that comes out of me, but at least it isn’t a cry. I look down. More chains, anchored in fresh, shiny steel loops driven into the concrete. The chains above are hooked to a pulley system, and I follow the line of the rope back to a tie-off on the wall beyond me.

The floor is thick with old blood, long ago clotted and dried to a rough, flaky crust of black. Still some flies, but nowhere near as many as would have stormed this place when the gore was fresh. I’m trying not to feel anything, but the door I’ve shut on my fear is breaking under the strain. I’m sweating, shaking, and I feel like I can’t breathe. I’m a second away from hyperventilating, and I know I need to calm down.

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