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We have to get Gwen out of there. The idea that she’s in that house, with him, makes my skin crawl and my stomach turn. I don’t care how it happens, but I want her safe. I want to hold her again and tell her how sorry I am that I let this happen to her.

And every passing minute means the chances are smaller I ever will.

Mike’s first call is brief, and when it’s done, he says, “My guy’s on the way. He’ll make the van and Rivard disappear until I say different.”

“He understands who Rivard is, right?”

“He knows. He’s solid, and he owes me.”

I wonder what kind of person is solid against the wealth Rivard has, but I have to trust he’s right. “What about the cops?”

“I’m calling the New Orleans FBI office instead,” he says. “Rivard could well own half the cops in that parish down there, but I know the NOLA folks. He doesn’t own them.”

Except, when that call ends, I can tell it doesn’t go well, and my blood pressure spikes up again, pounding my temples. “What?” I ask him.

“Major stuff going down in New Orleans. Terrorist alert,” he tells me. “My guys say there’s no way they can break loose to help us. They say call the locals.”

“What about the state police?”

“Most of them are going to be stretched thin, and dispatched to New Orleans to assist. Besides: same problem as the locals. We don’t know who Rivard’s bought off, and I don’t have any personal friends down there I can count on.”

I check my watch. It’s just gone six o’clock. Gwen’s murder starts at midnight, streamed live.

We have seven hours to get to her. Time zone change gives us the extra hour.

Hold on, I think. Jesus, Gwen, hold on for me. You promised.

Hold on.

 

 

25

GWEN

When I wake up this time, I wake up in bed.

The nausea hits me immediately in a violent rush, and I curl in on myself to try to hold it back. My head pounds so hard I think my skull will crack, and I can feel myself trembling—not cold now, but shaking from the aftereffects of the drug. Once that begins to recede a little, and the burning bile calms in my stomach, I feel other things. The same pains from before, but with more added. My back feels raw. I think the rough wood of the crate left a small forest of splinters.

When I open my eyes, I try to make my foggy mind tell me where I am. The room’s dim, but I can make out white sheets over me. They feel damp and smell like someone else’s skin. A stench gradually creeps over me: mold, an old smell: bodies in the ground. The reek of age and decay.

The fear creeps back sluggishly, too tired to continue . . . but it brings clarity with it. Purpose.

I shift to relieve a torturous cramp in my hip, and I feel the bed shift in a way that isn’t due to my motion at all. I freeze. There’s someone next to me in the bed. I can feel the animal warmth of his body, and every instinct in me screams at me not to move, as if like a child, I can make myself invisible. Staying still won’t help me.

I have to help myself.

I try to edge away, hoping to slide out of bed quietly, but I stop when I realize I can’t move my left wrist.

The one that aches so badly.

My wrist is tightly handcuffed to the old wrought iron bedstead. I must have broken something, maybe a small bone in my hand, because trying to pull at the restraint, however gently, earns me a pulse of agony so bright it takes my breath. I want to scream, and I can’t.

I’m not in my clothes. Someone’s changed me into an old, stiff nightgown. The nylon feels brittle, as if it might crumble into dust if I move too aggressively.

The light outside the window is getting dimmer. The sun’s going down. I turn my head, and I can just make out the features of the man who’s lying next to me.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s Melvin Royal, but I am. Seeing him here, asleep without a care in the world, is such a shock that it feels like a punch to my heart. A fatal blow. I feel a scream gathering in my throat.

Kill him is the next thought that rushes into the void of my mind, and I bend my right elbow and lunge. I’m trying to bury it in his throat, lean my weight on the point of it until I shatter his hyoid bone, and for a second it feels like I’m going to accomplish that. I feel my elbow bear down on his throat and I start to push . . . and then he’s rolling away. Laughing.

I claw at Melvin, drag my fingernails through any piece of him I can reach, and take strips of flesh off him as he escapes. I’m yanking savagely at my pinned wrist now, and every pull sparks an agonizing burn, like fireworks in the palm of my hand. I don’t care. The fury in me is stronger than the fear, the pain—stronger than anything.

Melvin, rolling to the far edge of the large bed, stares at me as I flail at the edge of my reach. He props himself up on one elbow and watches me with awful fascination. I’m livid with rage, burning with it like a candle, and it doesn’t leave room for more sensible emotions, like fear or confusion or horror.

I just want to kill him.

“Is that how you thank me for letting you have one last comfortable rest?” he says to me. “I should have put you in the cellar. Let you worry about the rats and roaches for a while.” He twists and looks at the deep fingernail gouges I’ve left in the flesh of his side. He’s lean now. Fit. He’s been spending his prison time lifting weights, I think, but he’s the pale color of something that lives in caves. He was only allowed an hour of yard time a day, I remember. It didn’t do him much good. He’s grown a beard. But other than those changes, he’s exactly as I remember him.

He’s capable of anything, and I damn well know it. I’ve seen it, in decaying flesh and broken bones and drying blood, a sculpture of horror and agony he made. But cowering isn’t something I do anymore. “Put me in the cellar. Rats and roaches would be better company,” I say. It comes out more like a growl. I wonder if my eyes are bloodshot. It feels that way. Feels like every vein in my body is bursting with fury. “You bastard.”

He shrugs, and that slow, cool smile makes me want to claw it off his face. “You were such a nice woman when I married you. Look what being single’s done to you. I don’t like the muscles, Gina. When I start cutting, I’ll get rid of those first. I like my ladies delicate.”

My white-hot anger flickers a little, but I deliberately feed it images of his victims. I’d rather be enraged than terrified, and those are my only choices now. This is what I signed up for, back on that road in Tennessee when I thought about darting into traffic and ending it all. I told Sam that I’d rather give my life this way, keeping Melvin occupied, tied down, so that he could be found.

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