Home > Four Live Rounds

Four Live Rounds
Blake Crouch

The Wrong Stars


In the evening of the last good day either of them would know for years to come, the girl pushed open the sliding glass door and stepped through onto the back porch.


Will Innis set the legal pad aside and made room for Devlin to climb into his lap. His daughter was small for eleven, felt like the shell of a child in his arms.

“What are you doing out here?” she asked, and in her scratchy voice he could hear the remnants of her last respiratory infection like gravel in her lungs.

“Working up a close for my trial in the morning.”

“Is your client the bad guy again?”

Will smiled. “You and your mother. I’m not really supposed to think of it that way, sweetheart.”

“What’d he do?” His little girl’s face had turned ruddy in the sunset and the fading light brought out lighter strands in her otherwise-midnight-dark hair.

“He allegedly—”

“What’s that mean?”



“Means it’s not been proven. He’s accused of selling drugs.”

“Like what I take?”

“No, your drugs are good. They help you. He was selling, allegedly selling, bad drugs to people.”

“Why are they bad?”

“Because they make you lose control.”

“Why do people take them?”

“They like how it makes them feel.”

“How does it make them feel?”

He kissed her forehead and looked at his watch. “It’s after eight, Devi. Let’s go bang on those lungs.”

She sighed but didn’t argue. She never tried to get out of it.

He stood up, cradling his daughter, and walked over to the redwood railing.

They stared into the wilderness that bordered Oasis Hills, their subdivision. The houses on No-Water Lane had the Sonoran Desert for a backyard.

“Look,” he said. “See them?” A half mile away, specks filed out of an arroyo and trotted across the desert toward a shadeless forest of giant saguaro cacti that looked vaguely sinister profiled against the horizon.

“What are they?” she asked.

“Coyotes. What do you bet they start yapping after the sun goes down?”

When Devlin had gotten into bed, he read to her from A Wrinkle in Time. They’d been working their way through the penultimate chapter, “Aunt Beast,” but Devlin was exhausted and drifted off before Will had finished the second page.

He closed the book, set it on the carpet, and turned out the light. Cool desert air flowed in through an open window. A sprinkler whispered in the next-door neighbor’s yard. Devlin yawned, made a cooing sound that reminded him of rocking her to sleep as a newborn. Her eyes fluttered and she said softly, “Mom?”

“She’s working late at the clinic, sweetheart.”

“When’s she coming back?”

“Few hours.”

“Tell her to come in and kiss me?”

“I will.”

He was nowhere near ready for court in the morning, but he stayed, running his fingers through Devlin’s hair until she’d fallen back to sleep. Finally, he slid carefully off the bed and walked out onto the deck to gather up his books and legal pads. He had a late night ahead of him. A pot of strong coffee would help.

Next door, the sprinklers had gone quiet.

A lone cricket chirped in the desert.

Thunderless lightning sparked somewhere over Mexico, and the coyotes began to scream.


The thunderstorm caught up with Rachael Innis thirty miles north of the Mexican border. It was 9:30 P.M., and it had been a long day at the free clinic in Sonoyta, where she volunteered her time and services once a week as a bilingual psychologist. The windshield wipers whipped back and forth. High beams lighted the steam rising off the pavement, and glancing in the rearview mirror, Rachael saw the pair of headlights a quarter of a mile back that had been with her for the last ten minutes.

Glowing beads suddenly appeared on the shoulder just ahead. She jammed her foot into the brake pedal, the Grand Cherokee fishtailing into the oncoming lane before skidding to a stop. A doe and her fawn ventured into the middle of the road, mesmerized by the headlights. Rachael let her forehead fall onto the steering wheel, closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath.

The deer moved on. She accelerated the Cherokee, another dark mile passing as pellets of hail hammered the hood.

The Cherokee veered sharply toward the shoulder and she nearly lost control again, trying to correct her bearing, but the steering wheel wouldn’t straighten out. Rachael lifted her foot off the gas pedal and eased over onto the side of the road.

When she killed the engine, all she could hear were the rain and hail drumming on the roof. The car that had been following her shot by. She set her glasses on the passenger seat, opened the door, and stepped down into a puddle that engulfed her pumps. The downpour soaked through her black suit. She shivered. It was pitch-black between lightning strikes and she moved forward carefully, feeling her way along the warm metal of the hood.

A slash of lightning hit the desert just a few hundred yards out. It set her body tingling, her ears ringing. I’m going to be electrocuted. There came a train of earsplitting strikes, flashbulbs of electricity that illuminated the sky just long enough for her to see that the tires on the driver’s side were still intact.

Her hands trembled now. A tall saguaro stood burning like a cross in the desert. She groped her way over to the passenger side as marble-size hail collected in her hair. The desert was electrified again, spreading wide and empty all around her.

In the eerie blue light, she saw that the front tire on the passenger side was flat.

Back inside the Cherokee, Rachael sat behind the steering wheel, mascara trailing down her cheeks like sable tears. She wrung out her long black hair and massaged her temples, trying to alleviate the headache building between them. Her purse lay on the floor on the passenger side. She dragged it into her lap and shoved her hand inside, rummaging for the cell phone. She found it, tried her husband’s number, but there was no service in the storm.

Rachael looked into the back of the Cherokee at the spare. She had no way of contacting AAA, and passing cars would be few and far between on this remote highway at this hour of the night. I’ll just wait and try Will again when the storm has passed.

Squeezing the steering wheel, she stared through the windshield into the stormy darkness, somewhere north of the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Middle of nowhere.

There was a brilliant streak of lightning. In the split-second illumination, she saw a black Escalade parked a hundred yards up the shoulder.

Thunder rattled the windows. Five seconds elapsed. When the sky exploded again, Rachael felt a strange, unnerving pull to look through the driver’s side window.

A man swung a crowbar through the glass.


Will startled back into consciousness, disoriented and thirsty. It was so quiet—just the discreet drone of a computer fan and the second hand of the clock ticking in the adjacent bedroom. He found himself slouched in the leather chair at the desk in his small home office, the CPU still purring, the monitor switched into sleep mode.

As he yawned, everything rushed back in a torrent of anxiety. He’d been hammering out notes for his closing argument and hit a wall at ten o’clock. The evidence was damning. He was going to lose. He’d closed his eyes only for a moment to clear his head.

He reached for the mug of coffee and took a sip. Winced. It was cold and bitter. He jostled the mouse. When the screen blinked back on, he looked at the clock and realized he wouldn’t be sleeping anymore tonight. It was 4:09 A.M. He was due in court in less than five hours.

First things first—he needed an immediate and potent infusion of caffeine.

His office adjoined the master bedroom at the west end of the house, and passing through on his way to the kitchen, he noticed a peculiar thing. He’d expected to see his wife buried under the myriad quilts and blankets on their bed, but she wasn’t there. The comforter was smooth and taut, undisturbed since they’d made it up yesterday morning.

He walked through the living room and into the den, then down the hallway. Rachael had probably come home, seen him asleep at his desk, and gone in to kiss Devlin. She’d have been exhausted from working all day at the clinic. She’d probably fallen asleep in there. He could picture the night-light glow on their faces as he reached his daughter’s door.

It was cracked, exactly as he’d left it seven hours ago when he’d put Devlin to bed.

He eased the door open. Rachael wasn’t with her.

Will, wide awake now, closed Devlin’s door and headed back into the den.

“Rachael? You here, hon?”

He went to the front door, turned the dead bolt, stepped outside.

Dark houses. Porch lights. Streets still wet from the thunderstorms that had blown through several hours ago. No wind, the sky clearing, bright with stars.

When he saw them in the driveway, his knees gave out and he sat down on the steps and tried to remember how to breathe. One Beamer, no Jeep Cherokee, and a pair of patrol cars, two uniformed officers coming toward him, their hats shelved under their arms.

The patrolmen sat on the couch in the living room, Will facing them in a chair. The smell of new paint was still strong. He and Rachael had redone the walls and the vaulted ceiling in terra-cotta last weekend. Most of the black-and-white desert photographs that usually adorned the room still leaned against the antique chest of drawers, waiting to be rehung.

The lawmen were businesslike in their delivery, taking turns with the details, as if they’d rehearsed who would say what, their voices so terribly measured and calm.

There wasn’t much information yet. Rachael’s Cherokee had been found on the shoulder of Arizona 85 in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Right front tire flat, punctured with a nail to cause a slow and steady loss of air pressure. Driver’s side window busted out.

No Rachael. No blood.

They asked Will a few questions. They tried to sympathize. They said how sorry they were as Will just stared at the floor, a tightness in his chest constricting his windpipe in a slow strangulation.

He happened to look up at some point, saw Devlin standing in the hall in a plain pink T-shirt that fell all the way to the carpet, the tattered blanket she’d slept with every night since her birth draped over her left arm. And he could see in her eyes that she’d heard every word the patrolmen had said about her mother, because they were filling up with tears.


Rachael Innis was strapped upright with two-inch webbing to the leather seat behind the driver. She stared at the console lights. The digital clock read 4:32 A.M. She remembered the crowbar through the window and nothing after.

Bach’s Four Lute Suites blared from the Bose stereo system, John Williams playing classical guitar. Beyond the windshield, the headlights cut a feeble swath of light through the darkness, and even though she was riding in a luxury SUV, the shocks did little to ease the violent jarring from whatever primitive road they traveled.

Her wrists and ankles were comfortably but securely bound with nylon restraints. Her mouth wasn’t gagged. From her vantage point, she could only see the back of the driver’s head and occasionally the side of his face by the cherry glow of his cigarette. He was smooth-shaven, his hair was dark, and he smelled of a subtle, spicy cologne.

It occurred to her that he didn’t know she was awake, but the thought wasn’t two seconds old when she caught his eyes in the rearview mirror. They registered her consciousness, flickered back to the road.

They drove on. An endless stream of rodents darted across the road ahead, and a thought kept needling her: At some point, he was going to stop the car and do whatever he was driving her out in the desert to do.

“Have you urinated on my seat?” She thought she detected the faintest accent.


“You tell me if you have to urinate. I’ll stop the car.”

“Okay. Where are you—”

“No talking. Unless you have to urinate.”

“I just—”

“You want your mouth taped? You have a cold. That would make breathing difficult.”

Devlin was the only thing she’d ever prayed for, and that was years ago, but as she watched the passing sagebrush and cactus through the deeply tinted windows, she pleaded with God again.

Now the Escalade was slowing. It came to a stop. He turned off the engine, stepped outside, and shut the door. Her door opened. He stood watching her. He was very handsome, with flawless brown skin (save for an indentation in the bridge of his nose), liquid blue eyes, and black hair greased back from his face. His pretty teeth seemed to gleam in the night. Rachael’s chest heaved against the strap of webbing.

He said, “Calm down, Rachael.” Her name sounded like a foreign word on his lips. He took out a syringe from his black leather jacket and uncapped the needle.

“What is that?” she asked.

“You have nice veins.” He ducked into the Escalade and turned her arm over. When the needle entered, she gasped.

“Please. If this is some kind of ransom—”

“No, no. You’ve already been purchased. In fact, right now, there isn’t a safer place in the world for you to be than in my possession.”

A gang of coyotes erupted in demonic howls somewhere out in that empty dark. Rachael thought they sounded like a woman burning alive, and she began to scream until the drug took her.


They started arriving after four o’clock in the afternoon. By five, Rachael’s disappearance was the lead story on all the local news stations, even in Tucson and Phoenix. When six rolled around, there were more cars parked along No-Water Lane than when the Hasslers had hosted their last Fourth of July barbecue.

Come 7:15 P.M., more than forty people had crowded into Will and Rachael’s modest adobe home in Ajo, Arizona. They packed the den, the living room, the kitchen, even spilling out onto the deck. It was a strange assembly, all these people drawn to a tragedy in the making. The ambience mirrored the hushed formality of a postfuneral gathering, with the glut of food and alcohol, whispered conversations, the absence of laughter. And it struck Will as he sat on the sofa holding Devlin, surrounded by those he loved, friends he’d not seen in years, neighbors he rarely spoke to, that these people had come to hold vigil with him. They were waiting to hear that she’d been found, though everyone knew that people weren’t found alive when they went missing near the border, if they were ever found at all.

“Will?” He broke from his trance and looked up at Rachael’s mother standing by the built-in bookshelves, a glass of bourbon in her hand.

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