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“But offense isn’t defense. Listen, you know Javier. He’s the other reason I’m here. He likes you. Not willing to believe you’re all the way innocent just yet, but he’s willing to help keep the wolves off you if you’ll agree.”

I think about how things might have been different if only I’d loaded up the van and departed that first time I had the impulse, headed hellbound and out of town instead of lingering like some fool who couldn’t see it coming. I had good reasons, but those reasons seem useless now. They seem like illusions. I can’t trade for that van now that I’ve wrecked the Jeep, and anyway, Javier would never give it to me. Neither of us will want paper trails.

“If he’s willing to keep an eye out for us, I’m good,” I say. “I’d feel better if I had the rest of his regiment along with him.”

Kez raises a sharply arched eyebrow. “You’d better take what you get. Allies are going to be thin on the ground for you right now.”

She’s right, and I shut up and nod. “I’ll take half the list,” I say. “I have someone who might be willing to help do the research.” Absalom won’t be free, but trying to avoid paying for help would be cutting my own throat right now. I can’t run. I might as well put my money to use cutting myself out of this net that Mel (because it has to be Mel) has thrown around me. Can’t start a new life with it if I’m behind bars. Can’t save my family if my kids are taken from me and sent to foster care.

Kezia’s right; at this moment I need to take every ally I can get.

So when we finish breakfast, I thank her and get her phone number in return. I realize that if I’ve read her wrong, everything we’ve discussed could be recorded, documented, part of the official Norton police record . . . but I don’t think Prester would go that route.

I text Absalom, who replies with a simple WHAT, as if I’ve caught him in the middle of something important, and I tell him in simple terms what I need. His reply is blunt and to the point: thot u in jail. I text back not guilty and get silence for a full minute before he types one single question mark, which I know means what do you need in his particular, peculiar shorthand.

So I take a picture of the piece of paper, with Kezia’s neat, precise handwriting, and I tell him which names I want him to research. He texts back a price in Bitcoin that makes me wince, but he knows I’ll pay it, and I do, from my computer. I don’t check e-mail. It’s time to destroy the account again; even if there are clues in there, I can’t swim in the toxic flood without corrupting my soul along with it. I leave it for now, transfer the money to him, and send an e-mail with the same picture of the list, names marked, to the private investigator I’ve used before, along with her standard fee.

I’m the bathroom peeing when my burner phone rings, and I grab it and look at the number. I don’t recognize it, but it could be Absalom.

I quickly wipe and flush before I hit the “Answer” button and say, “Hello?”

“Hello, Gina.”

The voice takes my breath away. It’s the voice from my head, the voice I can never exorcise no matter how much I pray. My fingers go numb, and I lean against the sink, staring at my horrified, stark face in the mirror.

Melvin Royal is on the phone with me. How is this happening?

“Gina? Still there?”

I want to hang up. Keeping an open connection is like holding a bag full of spiders. But somehow, I manage to say, “Yes. I’m here.” Melvin likes to brag. Likes to savor his victories. If he’s orchestrated this, he’ll say so, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll say something that I can use.

He has my number. How did he get my number? How could he?

Kez. She was new in my life . . . but I hadn’t given her my number. Sam. No, not Sam. Please, not Sam.

Wait.

I’d taken my phone to the prison. I’d had to surrender it on the way in, pick it up on the way out. Someone inside there is responsible for passing along his mail. Not impossible they hacked my phone, too. They’d have had enough time. I’m ill that I didn’t think of it before.

Mel’s still talking. His voice holds that artificial warmth now. “Sweetheart. You’re having a real bad week. Is it true there’s another body?”

“Yes. I saw her.”

“What color was she?”

I’d expected a lot of responses from him. Not that one. “Sorry?” I say blankly.

“I made a color chart once, of how they look at different stages without skin. Was she more of a raw-chicken color, or was it more of a slimy brown?”

“Shut up.”

“Make me, Gina. Hang up on me. But wait, if you do, if you do, you’ll never find out who’s coming for you.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“Absolutely, you should do that. But you won’t have time. I promise you that.”

I’m colder than I think I’ve ever been. His voice still sounds so like him . . . reasonable, calm, measured. Rational. Except nothing he’s saying is rational at all. “Then tell me. You’re wasting time.”

“I guess you found out about your new friend Sam. You just can’t catch a break with men, can you? I’ll bet he was thinking about all the things he was going to do to you. Got him off every night, that anticipation.”

“Is that what gets you off, Mel? Because it’s all you’ll ever get. You’re never seeing me again. Never touching me. And I’m going to get through this.”

“You don’t even know what’s happening. You can’t see it.”

“Then tell me,” I say. “Tell me what I’m missing. I know you’re dying to tell me how stupid I am!”

“I will,” he says, and suddenly his tone shifts. The mask shreds loose, and I hear the monster talking. It’s very, very different. It doesn’t even sound human. “I want you to know that when it comes, when it all falls down, it’s your fault, you worthless, stupid bitch. I should have started with you. But I’ll finish with you, one of these days. You think I won’t touch you? I will. From the inside out.”

It raises my skin into goose bumps, makes me back into a corner, as if somehow he can reach out and grab me even through the phone. He isn’t here. He won’t be here. But that voice . . .

“You’re never leaving that cell,” I manage to say. I know I no longer sound like Gwen. I sound like Gina now. I am Gina now.

“Oh, didn’t you hear? My new lawyer thinks I have a rights violation case. Might get some evidence thrown out. Might be a new trial, Gina. What do you think, you want to go through it all again? Do you want to testify this time?”

The idea makes me physically sick, and I feel acid scorch the back of my throat in a bitter wave. I don’t answer him. Hang up. I’m screaming it at myself, as if I’m standing outside of my body. Hang up hang up hang up! It’s like being trapped in a nightmare, and I can’t seem to move . . . and then I take a breath and the paralysis breaks, and I move my thumb to the “Disconnect” button.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he says, but I’m already pressing. “I’ll tell you—”

Click. I did it. He’s gone. It feels like I won a point . . . did I? Or did I just run away?

Oh God. If they got into my phone, they might have more from it. The kids’ numbers. Absalom’s. What else did I have in there?

I sink down to a crouch with my back wedged in the corner between the sink and the hinges of the door, and I put the phone carefully on the floor and stare at it as if it might change into rotting meat, or burst into a flood of scorpions. I reach up and take down the hand towel and I bite into it hard, so hard my jaw muscles ache, and I scream into the muffling comfort of it.

I do that until my mind is clear again. It takes a couple of minutes. Finally, I start to close in on the questions. How? Someone at the prison must have ganked my number from the phone while I was there. But how did he call? Melvin’s phone privileges are strictly reserved for his lawyer; he’s not allowed contact with anyone else, and I am specifically on his do-not-call list. But even on death row, I imagine it’s possible to buy time with a smuggled cell phone.

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