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I hear a whisper in my ear. It’s as clear as if he’s standing next to me. This is how you die, Gina. Melvin’s voice. It seems to have been an eternity already. I try to fight, to twist, I try to keep my neck muscles stiff against his crushing grip, but I know that’s only going to prolong my agony.

Melvin’s voice comes again. It takes a long time, strangling someone. Three or four minutes at least. Maybe longer.

It seems like an eternity, but it’s only been seconds, I realize; I see Sam punching Suffolk, solid blows to his kidneys. Suffolk doesn’t even notice. His rage has become armor.

Shoot him, I want to scream at Sam. For God’s sake . . .

I scrape my toes along a hard surface. My flailing fingers catch onto something soft. I thought I was trying for his eyes, but this isn’t his eyes, it’s a lip, and I dig my fingernails in and pull and twist as hard as I can. I hear a bellow as loud as thunder wash over me . . . but his hands don’t relax.

It’s getting darker. I can hear tissues crunching, compressing. I’m listening to my body break.

And then, suddenly, I’m falling. My flailing feet hit the ground, but my knees are weak, and I tip backward as they give way. I’m pulling in a sweet, burning breath even as I fall.

Sam catches me.

I collapse against his chest, and his arms go around me to hold me upright until my knees steady, and all I can do for a moment is pull in air, push it out, even though it hurts. Once my body has its demands for breath satisfied, I start to take it all in again.

Carl Suffolk is down on the ground, bleeding from a head wound. There’s a pipe next to him. Sam clocked him hard enough to finally break through that shell of rage.

“Gwen?” Sam asks me. “Can you breathe?” He sounds scared. I manage to nod, though I’m sure the bruises around my throat are going to be black in a couple of days. I swallow. Nothing feels broken. If Suffolk had managed to collapse my larynx, snap my hyoid bone, I’d be beyond anyone’s help. I think he almost managed it.

The rolling back door of the business is up, and there is a crowd of white-shirted employees—men and women both—staring out at us from the loading dock. Roberts shoves his way through with a phone in his hand. “Yes, right now!” he’s saying. “I need police right now. One of my employees is being assaulted—”

“Uh, sir, that’s not what happened,” one of his employees says. “He attacked her!”

“I always said he wasn’t right in the head,” one of the others says, and more nod. “Creepy asshole.”

“All right, all right, settle down!” Roberts says. His face is flushed, and he’s clearly out of his depth. “Let’s let the police settle this—”

“Back inside, folks!” calls a deep, cheerful voice, and I look back down the alley to see Mike Lustig, of all people, striding toward us. He’s wearing an FBI protective vest and windbreaker, and he’s got his badge prominently displayed; it catches the low western light and flashes like real gold. Behind him, he’s brought two other agents, who look stone-faced and dangerous. They’re all in sunglasses against the glare of the setting sun. “Roll that door down. Go on now. Thank you for your cooperation. Nobody leaves. I’ve got agents on the front. Just sit tight.”

He sounds so incredibly self-assured that Roberts ushers his people back inside and rolls down the door without so much as a protest. I can see him curiously peeping out the window, phone still in his hand. Probably on with the local police again.

“Jesus, son, you clocked him good,” Mike says, crouching down next to Suffolk. The man’s groaning and stirring. “Going to have to get him checked out before we do anything else.”

“Trust me,” Sam says. “Cuff him first.”

“This guy?”

“He choked Gwen half to death,” Sam says. “That’s why I used the pipe.”

Mike looks up at me, and his face goes still for a moment. Then he nods. “Okay,” he says. “Cuffs it is. Closest emergency room, and then the nearest field office. Nobody say anything until we’re on the record. Gentlemen, you go get everything that he touches in there. Computers, printers, desk, every goddamn thing. I want it all. If the manager fusses, call me.”

I send a frantic look at Sam and manage a rough whisper. “But Rivard wanted us to—”

“I know,” he says. “I gave Suffolk Rivard’s message. He opened it and ran for it. Nothing else we can do.”

“Have you got the envelope? What did the message say?”

Sam produces it from his pocket. It’s been torn open.

There’s nothing inside.

 

Claiming federal agent privilege skips the ER waiting list and gets us immediate attention from a doctor who pronounces me okay, except for the pain, swollen vocal cords, abrasions, and a neck that will look like I’d survived a hanging for the next couple of weeks. He thinks I’m lucky to be alive. I do, too.

X-rays and a head CT scan reveal that Suffolk has a mild concussion, thanks to either his original fall to the ground or Sam whacking him soundly on the head, but either way he’s released, as am I, and half an hour later we’re in a plain interrogation room at the FBI’s Wichita field office. The old days of reinforced one-way glass are gone. These days it’s cheaper to mount multiple cameras in the room that capture every angle of the conversation.

I don’t get a seat at the table. Me, Sam, and our escorted-visitor badges get to park ourselves in the monitoring room with an FBI staffer who lets us watch as Lustig sits down with Carl Suffolk. There’s a good half an hour of chitchat, lulling Suffolk into a sense of security, before Lustig looks up at the camera and says, “Would you please run that video we talked about for Mr. Suffolk now?”

The tech in the monitoring room, who’s only glanced up long enough to see our prominent visitor badges, presses some buttons, and a flat-screen TV in the interrogation room begins to show something I can’t make out, but I can see it running on a separate screen here in the studio. I’ve never seen what’s being shown, but it’s obvious on the face of it that it’s . . . horrific. And familiar.

It’s video taken in Melvin’s garage, before the wall was broken. Before his secrets were out. I recognize everything, down to the oval braided rug on the floor.

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