“I told Lanny. I told her I’d be gone about an hour. Then I asked Kezia to keep an eye on the house.”
He nods, and I think, He’s judging me for leaving them, but I left them in a locked, fortified house with a safe room, with clear plans for what to do if anything, anything went wrong. With a police car right in front. It was an hour! It had ended up being more, by twenty minutes, because I’d stopped off at Sam’s, and someone had tried to kill him. An hour and twenty minutes. That’s how long it took for my life to fall apart.
“So you’d say about, what, half an hour between when Kezia left your house after breakfast, and when you went out to go up the hill?”
“I saw her pass my house,” Sam says without being asked. “Seems right. It was almost exactly an hour from the time she went up to the gun range to when she came down, and I invited her inside.”
Prester gives him a slitted look, and Sam holds up his hands and sits back. But he’s right. “Half an hour at the very most before I left the house,” I tell Prester. “And Sam sees me on the road then. Look, none of this matters. Talk to Kezia. She spoke with my daughter.”
“I’m not concerned with what she says right now. So. There’s half an hour between when Officer Claremont last sees your kids and when you are next seen heading up to the gun range, alone. Does that sound right?”
“You think in half an hour I somehow slaughtered my kids and spirited them away, and went for a run without a single speck of blood on me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t need to say it!” I sit forward, hands on my knees, and stare at him with all the intensity that I have. I know it has to be a lot, but Prester doesn’t back off. “I. Would. Never. Hurt. My. Kids.” My voice breaks on that word, and my eyes blur, but I don’t let it stop me. “I am not Melvin Royal. I’m not even Gina Royal. I am the person I had to be to save my kids from the people who wanted to hurt them and still do. If you want suspects, I’ll give you the files. Maybe you can do something useful with them for a change!” I’d love to be able to throw the files at him, the vile pictures, the reams of paper full of deadly, violent words designed to kill my hope and peace. “It’s all in my office. And talk to Melvin. He knows something about this. He has to know!”
“You think he’s broken out of death row and somehow made his way all the way to Stillhouse Lake without a soul seeing him?”
“No. I think that Melvin has people. For all I know, he might have had a partner after all. They tried to put that on me, but it wasn’t me. Maybe his real partner—” I stop, because I sound like I’m losing it, even to my own ears. Melvin Royal hadn’t had a partner. He hadn’t needed one. He was the king of his particular little, horrible kingdom, and I can’t imagine him sharing it with anyone else. But followers? Yes. He would love to have followers. He thought of himself as charismatic, as influential as a cult leader. If he couldn’t torment me on his own, he’d love to have someone else act as his puppet.
But Prester’s already shaking his head. “Been checking out your ex,” he tells me. “Man’s on a real tight leash. No computer time at all. He gets a few books a month, some time with his lawyer, some letters but they all get checked ahead of time by prison officials. He gets some . . . I guess you could say fan mail from women, of the he’s not bad, he’s just misunderstood variety. One of them wants to marry him. He says he’s thinking about it since—his words, not mine—his wife abandoned him.”
“Can you check—”
“I already did,” he heads me off. “Royal Wife Wannabe never left her home, which is in rural Alaska, of all places. She’d be almost as noticeable as Melvin if she made a move. Local cops say she’s deranged but harmless about it. Kansas staties are already looking into the entire list of correspondents he has, and it’s short.”
“They’re not catching it all. I don’t know how he’s getting his letters to me out, but he’s doing it somehow.”
“And we’re looking into that. And the shooting at Mr. Cade’s cabin. And the false officer down report. And the phone call you said you got. We’ve got a lot to sort right now, and we’re doing it as fast as we can.” He leans forward on his elbows. “I’ve got people looking into all your kids’ friends, too. Couldn’t find much in the way of social media—”
“You know why!”
“Yeah, I guess. But if you can think of anybody we need to talk to, you say it now. We need to get on every possible track, right now.”
What he’s not saying, I realize, are the odds. The harsh truth is that if my kids are alive, they probably won’t be for long, especially not if they’ve been taken by someone with a grudge against me, or against Mel. Probably even less time if they were taken by the Stillhouse Lake killer. I flash back to the blood, and I feel suffocated again by the possibility of failure.
I’m still forgetting something. I can’t grasp what it is. It’s something I’ve seen, something that didn’t make any difference, and now I can’t slow my mind down enough to find that nagging, whispering, elusive thing. It’s about Connor. Something about Connor. I close my eyes and see him, just as he was this morning: my serious kid, quiet, self-contained, charmingly nerdy.
I try to chase that thought, but I can’t; it shatters as Prester says, “I’m going to need for you to come down to the station. Lots to do here, and you can’t be in the way. Mr. Cade, I’d like you to join us, too. Need some more information about this shooting situation.”
I say something meaningless, an agreement of some kind, but I am not agreed. My mind is working fast, too fast, spinning out in a thousand different directions, and nothing makes sense anymore. But there is something I can do, I realize. Just one thing.
I ask for my phone back, and I text Absalom to say, Someone has my kids. I don’t know who. Please help.
I hit “Send,” not knowing if that is going out as a prayer into the darkness or a cry of despair. I can’t be angry if he doesn’t want to get involved; Absalom is a bottle thrown into the vast, dark ocean of the Internet, and the Internet, as I have good reason to know, is not a friendly place.
No reply comes. I ask Prester to wait, which he does, impatiently, for a solid five minutes, and then he takes the phone away and seals it into an evidence bag.
If it chimes again, I don’t hear it, because it goes into a brown cardboard box, part of an inventory of evidence that will be taken back to Norton from the house. Not my home, not anymore. Just bricks and wood and steel, with a not-quite-finished deck. I regret not finishing it and sitting out there, at least one time, with Sam and the kids. Maybe I’d have one last happy memory of this place.
Sam offers his hand to me, and I stare at it without much understanding until I realize that Prester’s waiting by the sedan. It’s time to go.
I won’t be back here, I think.
One way or another, it’s not home.
The interrogation room at the police department is wearily familiar, even down to the chipped corner. I work at it with a fingernail restlessly, waiting. Sam’s been taken to another room—separate interviews, of course—and Kezia left us to go put on her uniform and join the rest of the force out on patrol, tracking down my children. I don’t put much faith in the police, even though Prester’s given me calm, logical talk about roadblocks and local knowledge and hiring up some of the finest tracking dogs around to get the scent out of Connor’s bedroom.
I imagine all it will do is lead them to a place where a car once sat, or a truck, or a van. If parked at the right angles, I think, the van that Javier tried to sell me would be perfect for the purpose . . . angled in toward the front of the house, a sliding side door behind the passenger seat. Perfect cover to carry unconscious young bodies from the house out to the van, load them in, lock them down.
The dogs wouldn’t take us to them. They’d only take us to where they’d been last, maybe to the road.
I hadn’t noticed it until the car ride, but the heavy, humid air has finally turned dark overhead, clouds wisping and clumping and layering, and as I wait in the interrogation room, I hear the faint drumming of the beginning of rainfall. Rain, to wash away the scent tracks.