Rachel Caine - Just Beyond Normal

NEW FROM RACHEL CAINE: Adult thrillers

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AVAILABLE NOW FOR PREORDER
RELEASE DATE: 12/12/2017


The second book in the smash hit adult thriller series that began with STILLHOUSE LAKE, KILLMAN CREEK follows the story of Gwen Proctor—the ex-wife of a serial killer—in her quest to protect her children from not only their father, but from unseen enemies all around her.

Now that her husband is a direct threat, Gwen must make a terrible choice: stay and protect her children, or lure her husband into a fatal mistake by making herself a target. With allies increasingly doubting her, and lies chipping away at her relationship with her kids, Gwen must take herself to the limit to battle a nightmare she thought she'd escaped.

PREORDER:
Amazon US (ebook, print, Audible, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Barnes & Noble (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Indiebound (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)

EXCLUSIVE: Signed copies available via MURDER BY THE BOOK … limited copies available!

Available via Amazon worldwide

CHAPTER 1
GWEN

On the twelfth night since my ex-husband escaped prison, I am in bed. Not sleeping. Watching the play of light and shadow on the curtains. I’m lying on a narrow foldout cot and feeling every twinge of spring poking through the thin mattress. My kids, Lanny and Connor, occupy the two full-size beds in this midpriced motel room. Midpriced is the best I can afford right now.

The phone is a new one. Another disposable, with a brand-new number. Only five people have the number, and two of them are asleep in the room with me.

I can’t trust anyone outside that vanishingly small circle. All I can think of is the shadow of a man walking through the night—walking, not running, because I don’t believe Melvin Royal is on the run, though half the police in the country are hunting him—and the fact that he is coming for me. For us.

My ex-husband is a monster, and I thought he was safely contained and caged, awaiting execution . . . but even from behind bars he ran a campaign of terror against me and our kids. Oh, he had help, some of it from inside the prison, some outside; how wide and deep it went is still in question, but he also had a plan. He maneuvered me, through targeted fear and threats, into the place he’d wanted me: a trap we’d survived, but only just.

Melvin Royal stalks me in the brief darkness when I close my eyes. Blink, and he’s on the street. Blink, and he’s walking up the stairs of the motel to the second floor’s open walkway. Blink, and he’s outside the door. Listening.

The buzz of a text arriving on my phone makes me flinch so hard it hurts. I grab for the device as the room’s heater rattles on; it’s loud, but it’s efficient, and warmth glides through the room in a slow, welcome wave. I’m grateful. The blankets on this cot aren’t up to much.

I blink my tired eyes and bring the phone’s screen into focus. The message says Number Blocked. I turn it off, and put it under my pillow, and try to convince myself that it’s safe to sleep.

But I know it isn’t. I know who’s texting me. And the double locks on the motel room door don’t seem nearly enough.

I am twelve days out from rescuing my children from a murderer. I am exhausted, sore, and plagued with headaches. I am heartsick and tired and anxious and most of all—most of all—I am angry. I need to be angry. Being angry will keep us all alive.

How dare you, I think at the phone beneath my pillow. How fucking dare you.

When I’ve stoked my anger to a boiling, almost painful, temperature, I reach beneath my pillow and pull out the phone again. My anger is a shield. My anger is a weapon. I click the message firmly, expecting what it will hold.

But I am wrong. The text message is not from my ex-husband. It reads, YOU’RE NOT SAFE ANYWHERE NOW, and it is followed with a symbol I recognize: Å.

Absalom.

Shock diffuses my anger, sends it flowing in hot, electric waves through my chest and arms, as if the phone itself lashed out. My husband had help—help manipulating us, help abducting my children—and Absalom was that help . . . a master hacker who manipulated me into the trap Melvin had planned for him. I’d dared hope that maybe with the end of that plot, Absalom wouldn’t have more to threaten us with.

I should have known better.

For a moment I feel a wave of sheer, visceral terror, like all the childhood fears of ghosts have been proven real, and then I take in a deep, slow breath and try to think through the impossibility of dealing with this . . . again. I am guilty of nothing more than defending myself from a man who wanted to kill me, who gained my trust over the course of years, and gradually led me to the place meant for my execution.

But that doesn’t make the message on the screen go away.

Absalom has someone else coming for us. The thought runs through me like a lightning bolt, dries my mouth, makes all my nerves fire at once, because it feels right. Something has been bothering me all these long days while we’ve been in hiding and moving for our safety . . . the feeling that we’re being watched, still. I’d put it down to paranoia.

What if it isn’t?

I try to get up quietly, but the cot creaks, and I hear Lanny, my daughter, whisper, “Mom?”

“It’s okay,” I whisper back. I stand and slip my feet into shoes. I’m fully dressed in comfortable pants and a loose sweater and heavy socks, and I put on my shoulder holster and parka before I unlock all the security measures and step out into the chill.

It’s overcast and cold here in Knoxville. I’m not used to the city lights, but just now they comfort me a little. I don’t feel quite as isolated. There are people here. Screams will be heard.

I call one of the few numbers in my phone. It rings just once before it’s picked up, and I hear the ever-tired voice of Detective Prester of the Norton Police Department—the town nearest where we lived, no, live, because we will go back to Stillhouse Lake, I swear we will—say, “Ms. Proctor. It’s late.” He doesn’t sound happy to hear from me.

“Are you one hundred percent sure that Lancel Graham is dead?”

It’s an odd question, and I hear the creak of what is probably an office chair as Prester sits back. I check my watch. It’s after one in the morning. I wonder why he’s still at work. Norton is a sleepy little town, though it’s got its fair share of crime to deal with. He’s one of two detectives on staff.

And Lancel Graham used to wear a Norton PD uniform.

Prester’s reply is slow and cautious. “You got some pressing reason why you think he isn’t?”

“Is. He. Dead?”

“Dead as they come. I watched them pull organs out of his corpse on an autopsy table. Why are you asking at—” He hesitates, then groans, as if he’s just checked the time, too. “No fit time in the morning?”

“Because it kind of freaks me out to get yet another threatening text.”

“From Lancel Graham.”

“From Absalom.”

“Ahh.” He draws that out, and he does it in such a way that I am immediately put on my guard. Detective Prester and I are not friends. We are, to some extent, allies. But he doesn’t fully trust me, and I can’t really blame him. “’Bout that. Kezia Claremont’s been doing some digging. She says it’s possible Absalom’s not a he. More of a them, maybe.” I respect Kezia. She’d been Officer Graham’s patrol partner, at least some of the time, but unlike Lancel Graham, she’s fiercely honest. It had been a pretty devastating shock to her, finding out her partner was a killer.

Not as much as it had been for me.

My voice is tight and angry, for all that. “Why the hell didn’t you warn me? You know I’m out here with my kids!”

“Didn’t want to panic you,” he says. “No proof yet. Just suspicion.”

“In the time you’ve known me, Detective, do you find I am prone to blind panic?”

He lets that go without a comment, because he knows I am right. “I still say it’d be better for you to come back home to Norton, let us protect you here.”

“My husband turned one of your cops into a murderer.” I have to swallow a ball of sick fury. “You left Graham alone with my kids, remember that? God only knows what he could have done to them. Why the hell would I trust their safety with you?”

I still don’t know everything about what Lancel Graham did when he abducted my children. Neither Connor nor Lanny will tell me anything about it, and I know better than to push them. They’ve been traumatized, and though the doctors had said they were in good health, and nothing more had been physically done to them, I still wonder what kind of psychological damage they’ve endured. And how it will bend them in the future.

Because bending them, shaping them, breaking them is what Melvin Royal wants. It’s the kind of thing he takes a deep, unsettling delight in doing.

“Any word about Melvin?” Mel, a little voice in me, timid and ghostly, still whispers. He never liked being called Melvin, only Mel, which was why I now make it a point to only use his full name. A petty kind of power is still power.

“Manhunt is pretty heavy all over, and of those who broke out, about seventy-five percent are already back behind bars.”

“Not him.”

“No,” Prester agrees. “Not him. Not yet. You planning on running until he gets caught?”

“That was the plan,” I say. “But that plan just changed. If Absalom has more people to send after us, then they’re going to find me for him. It’s what he wants. It’s why he’s out. Running just prolongs this nightmare, and it means I don’t have any control of my life. I’m not giving that up to him. Ever again.”

There’s that squeak of his office chair again. This time I’m almost certain he’s leaning forward. “Then what the hell are you doing, Gwen?”

He still calls me that, by my new identity, and I appreciate it. The woman who’d been known as Gina Royal, wife of an especially horrible serial killer, is gone, another corpse Melvin left behind him. She’s better off dead. I am Gwen now. Gwen isn’t taking any more shit.

“I don’t think you’ll like it, so I’m going to spare you the details. Thanks, Detective. For everything.” I almost mean it. Before he can ask any more questions, I shut off the phone and stick it in my coat pocket and stand there in the moist, chilly wind a moment. Knoxville hasn’t quite shut down for the night yet, and I catch hints of music from passing cars on the street, see human shadows moving behind curtains in other motel rooms. A TV flickers across the courtyard, visible through cracked curtains. A plane passes overhead, slicing the sky.

I hear the door to the room open, and Lanny steps out. She’s put on some shoes and her jacket, but beneath that she’s still in her pajamas. That relaxes a little anxious fist inside me. If she’d changed into her jeans and loose flannel shirt as well as running shoes, it would have been a sign she was afraid.

“The brat’s still asleep,” she says as she leans on the rail next to me. “Tell me.”

“It was nothing, baby.”

“Bull crap, Mom. You don’t get out of bed and make outside calls for nothing.”

I sigh. It’s cold enough that the wind drags the breath out in a faint, white plume. “I was talking to Detective Prester.”

I see her hands tense on the rail, and I wish I could take this away from her, this fear, this constant and crushing sense of oppression. But I can’t. Lanny knows as much as anyone how dangerous our situation is now. She knows most of the truth about her father. And I have to rely on her, at the tender age of almost-fifteen, to bear up under that weight.

“Oh,” my daughter says. “Was it about him?”

Him means her father, of course. I give her a slight, hopefully reassuring smile. “No news yet,” I say. “He’s probably a long way from here. He’s a hunted man. Most of the prisoners who escaped with him have already been caught. He’ll be back behind bars soon.”

“You don’t believe that.”

I don’t. I don’t want to lie to my daughter, so I just change the subject. “You need to go back to sleep, sweetheart. We’re moving early in the morning.”

“It is the morning. Where are we going?”

“Somewhere else.”

“Is this how it’s going to be?” Her voice is quietly fierce this time. “God, Mom, all you do is run. We can’t just let him do this to us! Not again. I don’t want to run. I want to fight.”

She did. Of course she did. She was a brave kid who’d been forced to face ugly truths about her dad when she was just ten, and it wasn’t surprising that she’s still angry at her core.

She’s also right.

I turn toward her, and she twists to look me in the face. I hold her gaze as I say, “We are going to fight. But tomorrow you’re going to go somewhere safe, so I can be free to do what has to be done—and before you argue with me, I need you to stay with your brother and make sure he’s protected. That’s your job, Lanny. That’s your fight. All right?”

“All right? You’re dumping us off on somebody else now? No, it’s not okay! Please tell me it’s not Grandma.”

“I thought you loved your grandmother.”

“I do. As Grandma. Not to stay with. You want us to be safe? She can’t protect us. She can’t protect anybody.”

“I’m going to make certain she doesn’t have to. Meanwhile, your father will be watching me, because finding me is his top priority.” I pray that to be true. It’s a huge gamble, but there is a very limited circle of people I can trust to look after my kids. My first instinct is to take them to my mother, but I also have to admit it: my daughter is right. My mom is not a fighter. Not like us. And this is an entirely different level of danger.

I don’t tell her yet, because I need to think it over, but Javier Esparza and Kezia Claremont have offered to guard my kids if I need them. They’re a formidable couple. Javier is a retired marine and runs a gun range; Kezia’s a police officer, tough and smart and capable.

The drawback is, they live outside of Norton, and relatively close to Stillhouse Lake. That beautiful, remote place started out for me as a refuge, a sanctuary, but it turned into a trap, and now I don’t know that I can ever feel safe there again. We certainly can’t go back to our lakeside house; we’d be easy targets.

Javier’s place, though, isn’t at the lake. It’s a remote, fortified cabin, and I intuitively believe that Melvin, and Absalom, would look everywhere but the place we’d just fled.

“Are you leaving us with Sam?” Lanny asks.

“No, because Sam’s coming with me,” I tell her. I haven’t asked him yet, but I know he will; he wants to find Melvin Royal as desperately as I do, for just as personal a reason. “Sam and I are going to find your father and stop him before he hurts anyone else. Before he can even think of hurting you and your brother.” I give her time to think about it, and then I say, “I need you to help me, Lanny. This is the best option we have, other than running and hiding again. I don’t want to do that any more than you do. Please believe that.”

She looks away and, with studied indifference, shrugs. “Sure. Whatever. You still make us do it.” All the running we’ve done before has been necessary. It had been the right thing to do at the time. But I understand how terribly hard it has been on my kids to live in constant vigilance.

“I’m so sorry, honey.”

“I know,” she finally says, and having made that pronouncement, she gives me a quick, unexpected hug and goes back into the motel room.

I stay out there for a while in the cold, thinking, and then I dial Sam Cade’s phone number and say, “I’m outside.”

It only takes him about a minute to step out on the narrow second-floor walkway beside me; his room is right next to ours. Like me, he is fully dressed. Ready for a fight. He leans on the railing right where Lanny stood and says, “I don’t suppose this is a booty call.”

“Funny,” I say, casting him a sideways look. We aren’t lovers. Not that we aren’t, in some ways, intimate; I think that eventually we might circle around to it, but neither of us seems to be in a hurry to get there. We have baggage, God knows. Ex-wife of a serial killer, constantly under threat from Melvin’s groupies, his allies, the baying hounds of Internet vigilantes.

And Sam? Sam is the brother of one of my ex-husband’s victims. Melvin’s last victim. I can still see that poor young woman’s body strung up by a wire noose. Tortured and murdered for pure, sadistic pleasure.

We’re complicated. When I first met Sam, I’d believed he was a friendly stranger, no connection to my old life. Finding out that he had deliberately tracked me, stalked me, in hopes of finding evidence I’d been complicit in my husband’s crimes . . . that had nearly broken everything.

He knows now that I’m not guilty, and never was, but there are still deep cracks between us, and I don’t know how to fill them, or if I should. Sam likes me. I like Sam. In another life, without the rancid shadow of Melvin Royal between us, I think we could have been happy together.

For now, my vision is limited to surviving and ensuring the survival of my children. Sam is a means to an end.

Which, thankfully, he completely understands. I’m sure he sees me exactly the same way.

“What’s up?” he asks me, and I dig the phone out, pull up the text, and pass it over. “Shit. But Graham’s dead, right?” I hear the same free-fall disorientation in his voice, but he recovers faster. “They’re sending someone else?”

“Maybe more than one,” I tell him. “Prester says Absalom might be some kind of hacker collective. Who knows how many people they have in their network? We need to be even more careful now. I’m dumping this phone and buying a new one. We use cash, we stay off cameras as much as we can.”

“Gwen, I can’t keep doing this. Hiding isn’t—”

“We’re not hiding,” I tell him. “We’re hunting.”

He straightens and turns to face me. Sam’s not a big man, nor overly tall; he’s got a lithe strength, and I know he can handle himself in a fight. Most of all—and this is everything to me now—I know that I can trust him. He isn’t Melvin’s creature, and he never will be. I can’t say that of many people anymore.

“Finally,” he says. “So, the kids?”

“I’ll call Javier. He offered to take them before, and we can trust him.”

Sam’s already nodding. “It’s a risk leaving them behind,” he says, “but not as much as trying to protect them while we’re going after Melvin. Sounds right.” He pauses. “Are you sure about this?” He asks it almost gently. “We could leave it to the cops. The FBI. We probably should.”

“They don’t know Melvin. And they don’t understand Absalom. If it’s a collective, they could hide Melvin indefinitely while they track us down for him. We can’t afford to wait it out, Sam. Hiding doesn’t work.” I take in a sharp breath of the cold air and let it out as a warmed stream of fog. “Besides. I want him. Don’t you?”

“You know I do.” He looks me over impersonally. Assessing a fellow soldier. “You’re sure you don’t need more rest?”

I laugh a little bitterly. “I’ll rest when I’m dead. If we want to get to Melvin before the cops do, we’re going to have to be tougher than him, and faster, and better. And we’re going to need help. Information. You said before you had a friend who might be able to assist?”

He nods. There’s a hard set to his jaw and a glitter in his eyes. Sam’s not usually easy to read, but in this moment I see all his rage and heartbreak. Melvin is free out there, free to stalk and kill more women like Sam’s sister. Melvin will kill again. If I know anything about my ex-husband, I know he will want to go out in a blaze of selfish, murderous, Grand Guignol fury.

The FBI is after him. The police of every state adjoining Kansas are as well. But it’s unlikely that they’ll turn him up quickly in the Midwest, because the first thing Melvin has done, I am certain, is to make his way southeast, toward us.

Absalom tracked us this far, and that means that Melvin won’t be across the country, or across a distant border to a nonextradition country. He might not be here yet, but he’s coming for us. I can smell it in the wind.

“We’ll go at seven in the morning,” I tell him. “I want the kids to rest a little more. All right?” I look at my phone. “I’ll call Kezia and Javier to set everything up.”

In a quick move, Sam takes my phone and slips it into his pocket. “If Absalom has this number, you can’t use it to set up the kids’ shelter,” he says, and I immediately feel stupid I didn’t think of it. I must be more exhausted than I think. “I’ll wipe calls and contacts and leave it for someone else to steal. Better it stays on and leads Absalom on a false trail for a while.” He nods across the street, at a lit-up convenience store. “I’ll go get one new phone tonight. We use it to call Javier and dump it immediately. We don’t buy any more phones close to this location; that’s the first place Absalom will search for purchases.”

He’s right on every point. I need to think like a hunter now, but I can’t forget that I’m also prey. Melvin made me vulnerable before by luring me, manipulating me, to end up where he wanted me to be. Now we need to do the same to him.

For years, I clung to a terrible fiction of a marriage—a life in which Melvin Royal controlled every aspect of my reality, and I failed to realize or fear it. Gina Royal, the old me, the vulnerable me . . . she and the kids were Melvin’s camouflage for his secret, terrible life. On my side of the wall, I had only known that it all seemed so normal. But it never was, and now that I’ve left Gina Royal behind, I clearly see that.

I’m not Gina anymore. Gina was tentative and worried and weak. Gina would be afraid that Melvin would come hunting for her.

Gwen Proctor is ready for him.

I know in my heart that it all comes down to us. Mr. and Mrs. Royal. In the end, it always has.

Amazon US (ebook, print, Audible, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Barnes & Noble (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Indiebound (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)

EXCLUSIVE: Signed copies available via MURDER BY THE BOOK … limited copies available!

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11 WEEKS ON THE TOP 10 BESTSELLER LIST!

Gwen Proctor just wants to be left alone, to rebuilt a life for herself and her children … but that's not easy when you're the ex-wife of a convicted serial killer. Between random internet trolls who are dedicated to destroying her life, and the angry relatives of her husband's victims, her life has become a living hell, and Stillhouse Lake is her last stand.

But when a body turns up in the lake that matches her husband's crimes, suspicions come fast, and it's hard to know who to trust … if she can trust anyone at all.

ORDER:
Amazon US (ebook, print, Audible, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Barnes & Noble (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)
Indiebound (print, MP3 audio, CD audio)

Available via Amazon worldwide

PROLOGUE
GINA ROYAL
Wichita, Kansas

Gina never asked about the garage.

That thought would keep her awake every night for years after, pulsing hot against her eyelids. I should have asked. Should have known. But she’d never asked, she didn’t know, and in the end, that was what destroyed her.

She normally would have been home at three in the afternoon, but her husband had called to say he had an emergency at work and she’d have to fetch Brady and Lily from school. It was no bother, really—there was still plenty of time to finish up in the house before starting dinner. He’d been so lovely and apologetic about having to disrupt her schedule. Mel really could be the best, most charming man, and she was going to make it up to him; she’d already decided that. She’d cook his favorite dish for dinner: liver and onions, served with a nice pinot noir she already had out on the counter. Then a family night, a movie on the couch with the kids. Maybe that new superhero movie the kids were clamoring to see, though Mel was careful about what they watched. Lily would curl into Gina’s side, a warm bundle, and Brady would end up sprawled across his dad’s lap with his head up on the arm of the sofa. Only bendable kids could be comfortable like that, but it was Mel’s favorite thing in the world, family time. Well. His second-favorite, after his woodworking. Gina hoped that he wouldn’t make an excuse to go out and tinker around in his workshop this evening.

Normal life. Comfortable life. Not perfect, of course. Nobody had a perfect marriage, did they? But Gina was satisfied, at least most of the time.

She’d been gone from the house for only half an hour, just long enough to race to school, pick up the kids, and hurry home. Her first thought as she turned the corner and saw the flashing lights on her block was Oh God, what if someone’s house is on fire? She was properly horrified at the idea, but in the next, selfish second, she thought, Dinner’s going to be so late. It was petty but exasperating.

The street was completely blocked off. She counted three police cars behind the barricade, their flashing light bars bathing the nearly identical ranch houses in blood red and bruise blue. An ambulance and a fire truck crouched farther down the street, apparently idle.

“Mom?” That was seven-year-old Brady, who was in the passenger seat next to her. “Mom, what’s happening? Is that our house?” He sounded thrilled. “Is it on fire?”

Gina slowed the car to a crawl and tried to take in the scene: a churned-up lawn, a flattened bed of irises, crushed bushes. The battered corpse of a mailbox lay half in the gutter.

Their mailbox. Their lawn. Their house.

At the end of that trail of destruction was a maroon SUV, engine still hissing steam. It was embedded halfway into the front-facing brick wall of their garage—Mel’s workshop—and leaned drunkenly on a pile of debris that had once been part of their solid brick home. She’d always imagined their house as being so firm, so solid, so normal. The vomited pile of bricks and broken Sheetrock looked obscene. It looked vulnerable.

She imagined the SUV’s path as it jumped the curb, took out the mailbox, slalomed the yard, and crashed into the garage. As she did, her foot finally hit the brake of her own vehicle, hard enough that she felt the jolt all the way through her spine.

“Mom!” Brady yelled, almost in her ear, and she instinctively put out a hand to brace him. In the backseat, ten-year-old Lily had yanked her earbuds out and leaned forward. Her lips parted as she saw the damage at their house, but she didn’t say anything. Her eyes were huge with shock.

“Sorry,” Gina said, hardly aware of what she was saying. “Something’s wrong, baby. Lily? Are you okay?”

“What’s happening?” Lily asked.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine! What’s happening?”

Gina didn’t answer. Her attention was pulled back to the house. She felt strangely raw and exposed, looking at the damage. Her home always seemed so safe to her, such a fortress, and now it was breached. Security had proved a lie, no stronger than bricks and wood and drywall.

Neighbors had poured out onto the street to gawk and gossip, which made it all so much worse. Even old Mrs. Millson, the retired schoolteacher who rarely left her house. She was the neighborhood gossip and rumormonger, never shy about speculating on the private lives of everyone within her line of sight. She wore a faded housecoat and leaned heavily on a walker, and her day nurse stood beside her. They both looked fascinated.

A policeman approached Gina’s vehicle, and she quickly rolled down her window and gave him an apologetic smile.

“Officer,” she said. “That’s my house there, the one that the SUV crashed into. Can I park here? I need to look over the damage and call my husband. This is just awful! I hope the driver wasn’t hurt too badly . . . Was he drunk? This corner can be dangerous.”

The officer’s expression went from blank to hard-focused as she spoke, and she didn’t understand why, not at all, but knew it wasn’t good. “This is your house?”

“Yes, it is.”

“What’s your name?”

“Royal. Gina Royal. Officer—”

He took a step back and rested his hand on the butt of his gun. “Turn your engine off, ma’am,” he said as he signaled to another cop, who came at a jog. “Get the detective. Go!”

Gina wet her lips. “Officer, maybe you didn’t understand—”

“Ma’am, turn your engine off now.” It was a harsh order this time. She shifted the vehicle into park and turned the key. The motor spun down to silence, and she could hear the buzz of conversation from the curious onlookers gathering on the far sidewalk. “Keep both hands on the wheel. No sudden moves. Are there any weapons in the van with you?”

“No, of course there aren’t. Sir, I have my kids in here!”

He didn’t take his hand off his gun, and she felt a surge of anger. This is ridiculous. They have us mixed up with someone else. I haven’t done anything!

“Ma’am, I’m going to ask you again: Do you have any weapons?” The raw edge to his voice derailed her outrage and replaced it with cold panic. For a second she couldn’t speak.

She finally managed to say, “No! I don’t have any weapons. Nothing.”

“What’s wrong, Mom?” Brady asked, his voice sharp with alarm. “Why is the policeman so mad at us?”

“Nothing’s wrong, baby. Everything’s going to be just fine.” Keep your hands on the wheel, hands on the wheel . . . She was desperate to hug her son but didn’t dare. She could see that Brady didn’t believe the false warmth of her voice. She didn’t believe it herself. “Just sit right here, okay? Don’t move. Both of you, don’t move.”

Brady was staring at the officer outside the car. “Is he going to shoot us, Mom? Is he going to shoot?” Because they’d all seen videos, hadn’t they, of people shot to death, innocent people who’d made the wrong move, said the wrong thing, been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And she imagined it happening, vividly . . . her kids dying and her unable to do a thing to stop it. A bright flash of light, screams, darkness.

“Of course he’s not going to shoot you! Brady, please don’t move!” She turned back to the policeman and said, “Officer, please, you’re scaring them. I have no idea what this is about!”

A woman with a gold police badge hanging around her neck walked past the barricade, past the officer, and right up to Gina’s window. She had a tired face and bleak, dark eyes, and she took in the situation at a glance. “Mrs. Royal? Gina Royal?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’re the wife of Melvin Royal?” He hated to be called Melvin. Only ever Mel, but it didn’t seem like a time to tell the woman that, so Gina just nodded in response. “My name is Detective Salazar. I’d like you to step out of the vehicle, please. Keep both hands in view.”

“My kids—”

“They can stay where they are for now. We’ll take care of them. Please step out.”

“What in God’s name is wrong? That’s our house. This is crazy. We’re the victims here!” Fear—for herself, for her kids—made her irrational, and she heard a strange tone in her voice that surprised her. She sounded unhinged, like one of those clueless people on the news who always made her feel both pity and contempt. I’d never sound like that in a crisis. How often had she thought that? But she did. She sounded exactly like them. Panic fluttered like a trapped moth in her chest, and she couldn’t seem to keep her breathing steady. It was all too much, too fast.

“A victim. Sure you are.” The detective opened her door. “Step out.” No please this time. The officer who’d called the detective stepped away, and his hand was still on his gun, and why, why were they treating her like this, like a criminal? This is just a mistake. All a terrible, stupid mistake! Out of instinct, she reached for her purse, but Salazar immediately took it and handed it to the patrol officer. “Hands on the hood, Mrs. Royal.”

“Why? I don’t understand what’s—”

Detective Salazar didn’t give her a chance to finish. She spun Gina around and shoved her forward against the car. Gina broke her fall with outstretched hands on the hot metal of the hood. It was like touching a stove burner, but she didn’t dare pull away. She felt dazed. This was a mistake. Some terrible mistake, and in another minute they’d apologize and she would graciously forgive them for being so rude, and they’d laugh and she’d invite them in for iced tea . . . she might have some of those lemon cookies left, if Mel hadn’t eaten the rest; he really loved his lemon cookies . . .

She gasped when Salazar’s hands slid impersonally over areas that she had no right to touch. Gina tried to resist, but the detective shoved her back in place with real force. “Mrs. Royal! Don’t make this worse! Listen to me. You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent—”

“I’m what? That’s my house! That car drove into my house!” Her son and daughter could see this humiliation, right in front of them. Her neighbors all stared. Some had cell phones out. They were taking pictures. Video. Uploading this horrible violation to the Internet so bored people around the world could mock her, and it wouldn’t matter later that it was all a mistake, would it? The Internet was forever. She was always warning Lily about that.

Salazar continued to talk, telling her about rights that she couldn’t possibly comprehend in that moment, and Gina didn’t resist as the detective pinned her hands behind her back. She just didn’t know how to even begin.

The metal of the handcuffs felt like a cold slap on her damp skin, and Gina fought a strange, high buzzing in her head. She felt sweat rolling down her face and neck, but everything seemed separated from her. Distant. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. I’ll call Mel. Mel will sort this out, and we’ll all have a good laugh later. She could not comprehend how she’d gone in a minute or two from normal life to . . . to this.

Brady was yelling and trying to get out of the car, but the policeman kept him inside. Lily seemed too stunned and scared to move. Gina looked toward them and said in a surprisingly rational voice, “Brady. Lily. It’s okay—please don’t be afraid. It’ll be okay. Just do what they tell you. I’m all right. This is all just a mistake, okay? It’s going to be all right.” Salazar’s hand was painfully tight on her upper arm, and Gina turned her head toward the detective. “Please. Please, whatever you think I did, I didn’t do it! Please make sure my kids are okay!”

“I will,” Salazar said, unexpectedly kind. “But you need to come with me, Gina.”

“Is it—do you think I did this? Drove this thing into our house? I didn’t! I’m not drunk, if you think—” She stopped, because she could see a man sitting on a cot by the ambulance, breathing oxygen. A paramedic was treating him for a wound to the scalp, and a police officer hovered nearby. “Is that him? Is that the driver? Is he drunk?”

“Yes,” Salazar said. “Total accident, if you call drunk driving an accident. He hit early happy hour, made a wrong turn—says he was trying to make it back to the freeway—and took the corner too fast. Ended up with his front end inside your garage.”

“But—” Gina was utterly lost now. Completely, horribly at sea. “But if you have him, why are you—”

“You ever go into your garage, Mrs. Royal?”

“I—no. No, my husband turned it into a workshop. We put cabinets over the door from the kitchen; he goes into it from a side door.”

“So the door at the back doesn’t go up? You don’t park in it anymore?”

“No, he took the motor out, you have to go in through the side door. We have a covered carport, so I don’t need—look, what is this? What is going on?”

Salazar gave her a look. It wasn’t angry now; it was almost apologetic. Almost. “I’m going to show you something, and I need you to explain it to me, okay?”

She walked Gina around the barricade, up the sidewalk where black tire marks veered and careened in muddy ditches through the yard, all the way up to where the rear of the SUV stuck obscenely out of a jumble of red bricks and debris. This wall must have had held a pegboard with Melvin’s tools. She saw a bent saw mixed in with the chalky drywall dust and for a second could only think, He’s going to be so upset, I don’t know how to tell him about any of this. Mel loved his workshop. It was his sanctuary.

Then Salazar said, “I’d like you to explain her.”

She pointed.

Gina looked up, past the hood of the SUV, and saw the life-size naked doll hanging from a winch hook in the center of the garage. For a bizarre instant, she nearly laughed at the utter inappropriateness of it. It dangled there from a wire noose around its neck, loose arms and legs, not even doll-perfect in proportions, a flawed thing, strangely discolored . . . And why would anyone paint a doll’s face that hideous purple black, flay off pieces of the skin, make the eyes red and bulbous and staring, the tongue protruding from swollen lips . . .

And that was when she had one single, awful realization.

It’s not a doll.

And against all her best intentions, she began to scream and couldn’t stop.



1
GWEN PROCTOR
FOUR YEARS LATER

Stillhouse Lake, Tennessee

“Begin.”

I take a deep breath that reeks of burned gunpowder and old sweat, set my stance, focus, and pull the trigger. I keep my body balanced for the shock. Some people blink involuntarily with every shot; I’ve discovered that I simply don’t. It isn’t training, just biology, but it makes me feel that much more in control. I’m grateful for the edge.

The heavy, powerful .357 roars and bucks, sending familiar shocks through me, but I’m not focused on the noise or the kick. Only the target at the end of the range. If noise distracted me, the constant din of other shooters—men, women, and even a few teens at the other stations—would have already spoiled my aim. The steady roar of gunfire, even through the thick muffle of ear protection, sounds like a particularly violent, constant storm.

I finish firing, release the cylinder, remove the empty shells, and set the gun on the range rest with the wheel still open, muzzle pointed downrange. Then I remove my eye protection and put the glasses down. “Done.”

From behind me, the range instructor says, “Step back, please.” I do. He picks up and examines my weapon, nods, and hits the switch to bring the target forward. “Your safety’s excellent.” He has his voice pitched loudly to be heard over the noise and the barrier of hearing protection we both wear. It’s already a little hoarse; he spends most of his day shouting.

“Here’s hoping my accuracy is, too,” I yell back.

But I already know it is. I can see it before the paper target is halfway back on the glide. Empty holes fluttering, all in the tight red ring.

“Center mass,” the instructor says, giving me a thumbs-up. “That’s a letter-perfect pass. Good job, Ms. Proctor.”

“Thank you for making it so painless,” I say in turn. He steps back and gives me space, and I close the cylinder and replace the weapon in its zipped bag. Safe.

“We’ll get your scores in to the state office, and you should get your carry permit in no time.” The instructor is a young man with a tight burr haircut, former military. He has a soft, blurred accent that, though Southern, doesn’t have the sharper lilt of Tennessee . . . Georgia, I think. Nice young man, at least ten years below the age I’d ever consider dating. If I dated. He’s unfailingly polite. I am Ms. Proctor, always.

He shakes hands with me, and I grin back. “See you next time, Javi.” Privilege of my age and gender. I get to use his first name. I said Mr. Esparza for the first solid month, until he gently corrected me.

“Next time—” Something catches his attention, and his easy calm shifts to sudden alertness. His focus goes down the line, and he bellows out, “Cease fire! Cease fire!”

I feel a sweep of adrenaline ping every nerve, and I go very still, assessing, but this isn’t about me. Raggedly, all the percussive noise of the range dies, and people pull their weapons down, elbows in, while he walks down four stalls. There’s a burly man there with a semiauto pistol. Javi orders him to clear the firearm and step away.

“What’d I do?” the man asks in a belligerent tone. I pick up my bag, nerves still jangling, and head for the door, though I do it slowly. I realize the man hasn’t done as Javi instructed; instead, he’s chosen to get defensive. Not a good idea. Javi’s face goes stiff, and his body language changes with it.

“Clear that weapon and place it on the shelf, sir. Now.”

“Ain’t no call for this. I know what I’m doing! Been shooting for years!”

“Sir, I saw you turn your loaded weapon in the direction of another shooter. You know the rules. Always point the muzzle downrange. Now clear it and put it down. If you don’t follow my instructions, I will remove you from the range and the police will be called. Do you understand?”

Smiling, calm Javier Esparza is now someone else entirely, and the force of his command blasts through the room like a stun grenade. The offending shooter fumbles at his gun, gets the clip out, and throws it and the weapon down on the counter. I notice the muzzle still isn’t pointed downrange.
Javi’s voice has gone clear and soft now. “Sir, I said clear your weapon.”

“I did!”

“Step back.”

As the man stares, Javi reaches for the gun, ejects the last cartridge from the slide, and sets the bullet down on the counter beside the clip. “That’s how people get killed. If you can’t learn how to properly clear a weapon, you need to find another range,” he says. “If you don’t know how to obey a range instructor’s orders, find another range. In fact, you might want to just find another range. You endanger yourself and everybody here when you ignore safety rules, do you understand?”

The man’s face turns a puffy, unhealthy red, and he balls his fists.

Javi puts the gun back down exactly the way it had been when he picked it up, turns it downrange, and then pointedly turns it to lie on its other side. “Ejection port goes up, sir.” He steps back and locks eyes with the man. Javi’s wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt, and the shooter is wearing a camo shirt and old army-surplus uniform pants, but it’s clear as day which one is the soldier. “I think you’re done for the day, Mr. Getts. Never shoot angry.”

I’ve never seen a man so clearly on the edge of either outright, unthinking violence or a massive heart attack. His hand twitches, and I can see him wondering how fast he can get to his gun, load it, and start to fire. There’s a heavy, sick weight to the air, and I find my hand moving the zipper slowly down on the bag I’m holding, my mind calculating the steps—just as he is—to preparing my gun to fire. I’m fast. Faster than him.

Javier isn’t armed.


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