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My children are exposed, fragile, and it’s my fault.

I stick to my story, which is all the truth at this point. I’m told there are witnesses to swear that I was seen in town the day the first girl disappeared; turns out she was also eating at the bakery where Lanny and I stopped to gorge ourselves after her suspension from school. I barely remember her—the girl in the corner, with the iPad and tattoo. I wasn’t focused on anyone but my daughter, and all my petty problems.

It prickles needles all up and down my spine to think that no one saw that girl after the bakery. That someone abducted her out of that parking lot, maybe while we were still inside, maybe just after we’d gone.

Whoever was doing this, I think, watched us the entire time. Even worse, they must have been following us, following me, waiting until there was proximity to a victim who matched the profile that they could safely grab. Even then, it was a huge risk, not something for amateurs; even in a small town, especially in a small town, people notice anything out of the ordinary. Abducting a woman in broad daylight . . .

Something slips across my mind, something important, but I’m too tired to make sense of it. Prester wants to start at the beginning again. I go through my life since fleeing Wichita. I describe in detail my movements, from the time the first girl disappeared to the time the second surfaced in the lake. I tell him everything I can remember of my conversation with my ex-husband. None of it helps him at all, but I’m trying, and I know he can tell.

A knock comes at the door, and another detective offers another sandwich and a soda, and I accept. So does Prester. We eat together, and he tries casual chat; I’m not in the mood, and besides, I recognize it as technique, not interest. We finish our food in silence, and we’re just getting back to the questions when the knock comes again.

Prester sits back in his chair, frowning, as the other officer leans in. I don’t know him—he’s also African American but far younger than Prester. Barely old enough to be out of college, I think. He glances at me, then turns his attention to the detective. “Sorry, sir,” he says. “There’s been a development. You should probably hear this.”

Prester looks irritated, but he shoves back from the table and follows.

Before the door is closed, I see someone being led down the hall past the door. It’s only a glimpse, but I take in that it’s a white man, in handcuffs, and I have an instant impression of recognition well before I can think who it is.

When I do, I sit back hard in my chair, clutching the half-empty can of Coke so hard it crackles with pressure.

Why the hell is Sam Cade here in handcuffs?

And where the hell are my kids?

9

The interrogation room door is locked, of course, and though I batter at it and yell, I get no response at all . . . not until my voice has grown hoarse and my knuckles red from knocking.

It’s Prester who finally unlocks the door and shoves himself in the way to keep me from charging out. I don’t quite make contact with him. I back off a step, breathing hard, and say in the harsh, growling voice I’ve developed, “Where are my kids?”

“They’re fine,” he tells me in that low, soothing tone as he closes the door behind him. “Come on, now, Ms. Proctor, you sit down. Sit. You’re tired, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

I find myself sinking into the chair again, wary and tense, hands fisted on my thighs. He stares at me for a second before he sits and leans forward on his elbows. “Now then. You must have seen Mr. Cade being brought in a while ago.”

I nod. My gaze is fixed on his. I wish desperately that I could read him. “Did—did Sam do something to my kids?”

Prester’s face goes a little slack and then tightens, and he shakes his head. “No, Gwen, not at all. They’re just fine. Nothing’s happened to them. I expect they’re a little scared about what’s going on and where they are right now.”

“Then why do you have Sam?”

Prester stares at me for a long while this time, reading me. He has a file in his hand, I realize. Not the same one he had before. This one has a new buff-colored exterior. Hasn’t even gotten a label on it yet.

He puts it on the table but doesn’t open it. He says, “What exactly do you know about Sam Cade?”

“I—” I want to scream at him to just tell me, but I know I have to play the game. So I control my voice and say, “I ran a background check on him. Credit check. All that kind of stuff. I do it for anyone who comes around me or my kids. He was clean. A veteran who served in Afghanistan, just like he said.”

“That’s all true,” he tells me. He opens the folder and takes out a formal military photo: Sam Cade, a little younger, a little less ragged, in a sharply creased blue air force uniform. “Decorated helicopter pilot. Four tours, Iraq and Afghanistan. Came home to find out his beloved sister was dead.” He opens my folder now. Takes out the picture of the nightmare, the dead woman dangling from her steel noose. Suddenly I am there again, standing in the sun on the ruined lawn, staring into the shattered sanctum of Mel’s garage. I smell the stench of dead flesh, and it takes everything I have not to shut my eyes, hide myself from it.

“This,” Prester says, tapping the photo with one thick fingernail, one time, “is his sister, Callie. No surprise you missed his relationship to her; they got orphaned in a car wreck when he was eight and she was just four. Sent to separate foster homes. He kept his birth parents’ name, but she didn’t. She got a full adoption and grew up not even knowing him. They started corresponding when he was deployed. I guess he was really looking forward to reconnecting with her when he got home. And he comes back from serving his country to find this.”

My mouth has gone dry. I think about how close I came to discovering the connection. I think about the searches that turned up nothing. He must have gone to some lengths to keep his name off the web. Or he hired someone to clean it off.

Sam Cade has been stalking me. I have no question about it now; he moved in after I had, into that cabin, though he made a point of not encountering me until much later on. He made it seem natural. He worked his way in the door, into my life, into the lives of my kids, and I hadn’t seen a thing.

I wanted to throw up. Gwen Proctor wasn’t a new person. She was just Gina Royal 2.0, ready to fall for anything sold to her by a man with a nice face and an easy smile. I’d left him with my kids. Jesus. God forgive me.

I can’t get my breath. I realize I’m sucking in air too fast, and I duck my head and try to control my breathing. I feel light-headed, and I hear the scrape of the chair as Prester gets up and comes around to rest his hand gently on my back. “Easy,” he tells me. “Easy, slow down now. Deep breaths. In, out. Good.”

I pant the question out, ignoring his advice. “What did he do?” Anger is what I need. Anger steadies me, grounds me, gives me a purpose and forces the panic right out. I straighten up, blinking away the spots, and he takes a step back. I wonder what he’s just seen in my face. “Is it him? Is Sam the one who killed those girls?” Because wouldn’t that just be perfect. Gina Royal falls for a serial killer, twice. Can’t say I don’t have a type.

“We’re looking into that,” Prester says. “Point is, Mr. Cade is a person of interest, and we’re questioning him. Sorry about springing it on you that fast, but I wanted to know . . .”

“You wanted to see if I already knew who he was,” I snap back. “Of course I fucking didn’t know. I’d never have left my kids with him, would I?”

I can see him taking the idea out for a spin. No way I’d willingly allow a victim’s relative into my life, into my house, if I had known better. Prester’s trying to fit some scenario together where Sam Cade and I have done this together, but not only do the edges not fit, they’re not even from the same damn puzzle. Either I killed these girls or Sam Cade did, in some crazy attempt to implicate me and earn me the prison sentence he thought I’d cheated . . . or neither of us did it. But we didn’t do it together. Not by the facts he’s got before him.

Prester doesn’t like this at all. I can see him working at it, and I don’t blame him for looking like he needs a bottle of bourbon and a day off.

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