I can’t lose. Not for an instant.
“You don’t want to do that,” he tells me. “You’ll just get lost out there, probably break your neck falling down a hill. Hey, I know. I’ll call Sam direct. Maybe we can get through.” He’s still playing the game.
I pick up the radio and smash it into his temple with as much force as I can manage in the small space, and I can hear the scream that rips out of me. It’s shatteringly loud in the cabin. My first hit rips a gash in his skin, and blood gushes out, and Lancel Graham screams and flails at the radio as I bash him again, and again, no control now, nothing but pure, glorious rage that makes me want to destroy him. The plastic casing splinters. I leave a thick fragment of it embedded in his cheek. He’s dazed. I lunge past him to the door control on his side, the one I’ve been staring straight at, and I hear the heavy thunk as the locks disengage. As I draw back, I slam my fist straight down into his balls, and I see him go still as the pain rockets through him. His eyes fix on mine for the second I’m there, and then I’m moving on before I hear his howl.
I grab my backpack from the back seat.
I throw my door open and roll out, backpack and coat held tight.
His hand closes over the trailing end of the coat and yanks, and the cold mud under my feet gives, and I slide, off-balance, and panic bolts through me in painful sparks. I can’t let him get his hands on me. I let go of the coat, catch myself on the door frame, and I run.
Because this time, I really will feel the monster’s breath against my neck.
Once I’m in the open, the rain hits me like a cold knife, cutting straight through me, but I don’t slow down. I’m panting, nearly blind with terror, but I push that back. I have to think.
I’ve hurt Graham, but I haven’t stopped him. I don’t know what weapons he has with him—a shotgun, probably a handgun, no doubt knives. I have my Sig Sauer and the scant remains of the ammunition I bought from the gun range. The loss of the coat, I realize, is deadly. The cold front that’s pushing through has pulled the temperature down into the fifties, maybe the forties, and with the damp I can already feel the chill biting, though my fear and rage are coating me in their own special warmth. The mud leaves the ground slippery and uncertain, and I don’t know these woods. I’m not native. I’m not military trained, like Sam, like Javier. I don’t have a prayer.
I don’t damn well care. I will not lose.
I make it to the thick line of undergrowth and thrash through it as fast as I can. I’m collecting cuts and bruises, and I know that running in the dark is a terribly stupid idea. I slow down, feel my way, and avoid impaling myself on a sharply broken branch. I touch it, and then I crouch down and open the backpack. I pull out my gun case and open it. I assemble my gun blind and check the mag. It’s empty. I look for the extra rounds in the backpack and realize that the bastards at the NPD must have test-fired nearly everything I had.
I load everything into the clip. Seven bullets left. Just seven.
It only takes one, I tell myself. It’s a lie, of course. I know it is. Adrenaline keeps people moving, keeps them dangerous, even when they ought to fall down.
But that works on my side, too. I am not going to lie down. I am not going to quit.
My fear is making me strong now. Alert. Weirdly steady.
A startling flash of white light blares, and I feel an electric hiss across the hair on my body, and then I hear the ear-shattering boom of the lightning strike. It’s on the next hill, and instantly, a pine tree is aflame. Half of it topples away, trailing fire.
In the light of the flash, I see the dark shape of Graham coming through the undergrowth. He’s only about ten feet away.
I have to move. He’ll have seen me, too.
It’s a nightmare lit by the distant, flaming tree: underbrush, tree trunks, rain, thick mud sliding underfoot and clinging hard to my boots and the legs of my jeans. I’m freezing, but I hardly feel it; my entire focus is on moving fast, as safely as possible. I don’t know where Graham is. I can’t risk a shot until I have a clear, unbroken line of sight. Panic shooting is stupid shooting.
And I can’t kill him by accident. I need him alive. I need to know where my children are.
My job is harder than his, and weirdly, in this moment, I imagine Mel whispering to me, You can do this. I made you stronger.
I hate it, but he’s right.
I’m halfway up a sloping, slippery trail when I feel the sting of buckshot. It’s a hot spray across my left arm, like being hit by boiling water from a fire hose. The shock clamps down quick and sends me dodging, slipping, grabbing for tree trunks to hold myself upright. The sharp, bright smell of burned gunpowder cuts through the rain, and I think, in a kind of genuine surprise, He hit me. The logical part of my mind tells me it isn’t bad; it was a glancing blow, not the full power of the shotgun. That would have torn my arm to ribbons. This is . . . inconvenience. I can still move my arm, still grip things. Everything else has to wait. The terror inside me threatens to make me swerve off the path, find a hiding spot and curl up and die, and I can’t let it get control.
I hear something through the roar of the rain and the distant rumble of thunder.
I slip behind a thick tree trunk and catch my breath, and as I look back I catch a lucky bolt of lightning that lights up the trail. He’s not far behind me, and he throws up a hand to shield his eyes from the bright flash—and I realize he’s wearing night vision.
He can see me running through the darkness.
I feel a wave of despair. I have seven bullets to his shotgun, no way to accurately sight my shots in this dark, soaking hell, and he has night vision. I feel it all slipping away from me. I’ll never find my children. I’ll die out here and rot on this mountain, and no one will ever know who killed me.
What steadies me again is a vision of what the Sicko Patrol will make of that fate. Served her right, the bitch. Justice at last.
I will never be their victory.
I wait while Graham closes the distance. If I’m going to shoot, I’m going to make it good. I can do this. Wait for the lightning flash to blind him again, step out, open up. He’s a paper target on the range, and I can do this.
It all happens perfectly. The hot, blue-white flash of the lightning lights Graham perfectly, and I aim, smooth and calm now, and just before I squeeze the trigger, I feel the barrel of a shotgun press hard against my neck and hear Kyle Graham, the older son, yell, “I got her, Dad!” Surprise dulls the flush of panic, but I don’t think. I just act.
I spin to my left, graceful and fast in the mud—finally, it’s working for me—and sweep the barrel away with the edge of my hand, reversing as I go to take a good grip on the metal and twist. While that’s in motion, I kick hard into Kyle’s groin. I pull it at the last moment, remembering that I’m not fighting a man. He’s a boy, just a boy about my daughter’s age, and it’s not his fault his father’s a world-class psychopath any more than it’s Lanny’s fault she is Mel’s child.
All this is still enough to shock Kyle. He chokes and staggers back, letting go of the shotgun. The weight of it drags at my wounded left arm. I jam the pistol into my jeans pocket, hoping to hell I don’t shoot myself, and shove Kyle hard in the flat of his back. “Run or I’ll kill you!” I scream at him, and the next flash shows him flailing through the underbrush, heading up the hill, not down. I wonder why, but I don’t have time to think. I bring the shotgun up and spin toward where his father must be, and I pull the trigger.
The weapon’s kick nearly knocks me on my ass in the slippery footing, but I manage to catch myself against the thick, moist bark of a pine. The photo-flash of the gun igniting showed me that I’d missed him. Not by much, though. Maybe I’d given him a couple of pellet kisses to remember me by.
“Bitch!” Graham yells. “Kyle! Kyle!”
“I let him go!” I shout back. “Where are my kids? What did you do to them?” I duck behind a tree in the darkness.
“You’ll be with them soon, you fucking—” Though thunder mutes the sound of the gunshot, I feel the tree shiver slightly as it absorbs the pellets. I wonder how well armed he is. If I can get him to run out of ammunition . . . but no. Lancel Graham would have planned this as meticulously as everything else. I can’t count on something so simple.
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