“No.” I swallow coffee, but my mouth feels dry anyway. I’ve taken the seat nearest the open window, and the buttery light illuminates him in ways that are both kind and unkind. It reveals the fine lines around his eyes, bracketing his mouth, a peculiar little indention near his left eyebrow. A pale, almost invisible spiderweb of scarring that runs from under his hairline onto his right cheek. It sparks color flecks in his eyes that make them mesmerizing. “I see her all the time. In flashes. Whenever I close my eyes, she’s there.”
“Her name was Callie,” he tells me. I already know that, but somehow it’s been so much easier to think of her as the body and the woman and the victim. Putting a name on her, hearing him say it with that mixture of sorrow and love—it hurts. “I lost track of her when we got separated in the foster system, but I found her—no, she found me. She wrote to me when I was deployed.”
“I can’t begin to understand how you feel,” I tell him. I mean it, but he hardly seems to hear me. He’s thinking about the living girl, not the dead one I remember.
“She Skyped with me when she could. She’d just started at Wichita State. No major yet, because she couldn’t decide between computer science and art, and I told her—I told her to be practical, to pick computers. I probably should have told her to do what made her happy. But you know. I thought—”
“You thought she’d have time,” I finish for him in the silence. “I can’t imagine, Sam, I’m so sorry. I’m so—” My voice, to my horror, breaks right in two, cracks on the word, and inside, I begin to shatter. I hadn’t realized I was made of glass until now, when it all gives way and the tears come, tears like nothing I’ve felt before, a tsunami of grief and rage and fury and betrayal and horror, of guilt, and I put my coffee cup aside and sob openly into my hands, as if my heart is broken along with everything else inside me.
He doesn’t speak. Doesn’t move, except to push a roll of paper towels across the table. I grab handfuls and use them to muffle my grief, my guilt, the keening awful pain that I’ve felt at a distance for so long and never quite faced head-on.
How long we sit there, I don’t know. Long enough that the handful of paper towels is soaked with tears, and when I drop it to the wood it makes a soft, wet plop. I murmur a shaky apology and clean up after myself, carry everything away to the trash, and when I get back, Sam says, “I was stuck in country during your husband’s trial, but I followed it every day. I thought it was your fault. And then when you were acquitted . . . I thought—I thought you’d gotten away with it. I thought you helped.”
He doesn’t believe that now; I hear it in the pain in his voice. I don’t say anything. I know why he thought it; I know why everyone did. What kind of idiot did you have to be to have that going on in your house, your bed, your marriage, and not be part of it? I’m still dimly surprised anyone ever acquitted me at all. I haven’t begun to forgive Gina Royal.
So I say, “I should have known it. If I’d stopped him—”
“You’d have been dead. Your kids, too, maybe,” he says, without any sign of doubt. “I went to see him, you know. Melvin. I had to look him in the eyes. I had to know—”
That takes my breath away, the idea that he sat in that same prison chair, looking into Melvin’s face. I think about the corrosive horror Mel wakes in me. I can’t imagine how it felt for Sam.
So I reach impulsively for his hand, and he lets me take it. Our fingers lie loose together, not demanding anything except the lightest possible contact. Either his or mine are trembling slightly, but I can’t tell which. I only feel the motion.
I see something in the window behind him. It’s just a shape, a shadow, and when my brain finally identifies it as human, that no longer matters, because human isn’t as important as the thing the shape is carrying, raising, aiming.
It’s a shotgun, and it’s aimed at the back of Sam’s head.
I don’t think. I grab Sam’s hand hard and haul sideways, knocking him off-balance and down, and at the same time I throw myself down out of my own chair. I keep pulling. Sam is yanked out of his chair and sprawls halfway across the table, and then the chair spins out from under him and he falls heavily sideways on the floor just as I hear an incredibly loud boom. I dimly register the feeling of the coffee cup falling from the table and striking my thigh. It spills heat and liquid over me, warm as blood, and then a shower of glass shards hits me, and I shield my face against the cuts.
If I hadn’t seen, if I hadn’t reacted, the back of Sam’s head would have been jam. He’d have been dead in a second.
Sam’s on the ground next to me, and he lets go and rolls across the glass to crab-crawl with shocking speed to a corner, where a shotgun of his own leans, half-concealed by shadows. He grabs it on the roll, comes to a stop with his elbows braced on the floor, shotgun raised, and sights the window before he pistons his knees forward and levers up to a crouch. I don’t move. He comes slowly up, ready to dodge or drop, but he clearly sees nothing, and he quickly swivels to the front door. He’s right; that could be the next threat to appear.
I take the opportunity to crawl over to my backpack, unzip, unlock the box. I assemble my weapon with fast, practiced motions, rack one into the chamber, and roll on my elbows on the floor. We have an unspoken agreement: he shoots high, I shoot low.
But there’s nothing. Someone’s shouting out on the lake, a distant smear of sound, and I think, It came from the side of the house by the trees, the one hardest to see from the road or the lake. All anyone will know is that someone shot a gun. They’ll know it came from this direction. And I’m covered with gunpowder residue, I think, and wonder if that, too, was part of a plan. Wouldn’t be surprised. Not at all. Still, the forensics are blindingly obvious: we were in here, at the table. Someone shot in at us.
I hear more shouts from around the lake area, the dimly heard cry of “police,” as in call the, and Sam rises from his crouch. He doesn’t lower the shotgun; he advances toward the door with military caution, checks the window, throws open the door, and waits. I can see the view of the lake beyond, the boats hastily making for docks. Peaceful. Distant. Utterly out of sync with the adrenaline racing through my body, sending hot and cold flashes through me that mask any actual injuries I might have.
Nothing happens. Nobody fires. Sam flashes me a wordless look, and I scramble up and hug the wall beside him, and as he eases out, I go behind him, watching the other angles as he focuses forward.
We circle the entire house.
There’s nobody there. Sam points out some scuffed footprints—waffle-soled boots, but the prints are indistinct and incomplete. But it’s clear that someone stood here, took aim, and fired right at the back of his head—and I saved his life.
The shakes set in. I make damn sure I’m careful as I clear the round from the chamber, then snug the gun back into the shoulder holster. The familiar weight feels good, even as it digs into the curve of my breast. I crouch to take a closer look at the footprints. I’m no expert. There isn’t anything obvious to learn.
“You’d better put that Sig back in the case,” Sam tells me, as he rests his shotgun against his shoulder. “Come on. Cops will be on the way, again.”
Sam’s right. I haven’t fired my gun, and I damn sure don’t want to be shot accidentally-on-purpose for carrying a legal gun, either.
Inside the cabin, I break the weapon down and lock it up; just as I put the box back in my backpack, Sam leans his own shotgun in the corner and opens the door to afford me a fine view of a car burning rubber up the road toward us.
It isn’t Officer Graham. It’s Kezia Claremont, who steps out of the car with her weapon drawn and at her side. “Mr. Cade. Got a report of shots fired here.”
I look down the road at my house, which sits quietly down the slope. She just left them. It’ll be okay. The only thing even slightly different is what looks like an SUV disappearing over the hill on the other side. The Johansens, maybe.
“Yep,” he says, as calmly as if the whole thing is just a hunter’s poor aim. “Take a look. It took out the window. There’s buckshot inside, too.”
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