Home > Four Live Rounds(4)

Four Live Rounds(4)
Blake Crouch

Swicegood stopped the recorder. When he pushed his chair back, the Styrofoam cup tipped over, black coffee spilling across the table, falling in a thin dark stream onto the floor.

NINE

Will whispered into his daughter’s ear, “Wake up, Devi.” She stirred, turned away from him. He sat her up in bed. In the blue glow of the night-light, he watched her eyes open slowly.

She looked around the room, then looked at her father. “Where’s Mom?”

“She isn’t here, honey. Now listen, this is important. We’re gonna get you dressed now.”

“But it isn’t morning yet.”

“I know. We’re going on a special trip.”

“Where?”

“No more questions.”

In the darkness, Will helped his daughter dress.

“I’m going to carry you,” he said. “I need you to be very quiet. Don’t make a sound.”

He picked her up, walked to the bedroom door, and slowly pulled it open. The hallway was dark, quiet. He crept down it, heard Rachael’s mother snoring in the guest room.

Rachael’s sister, Elise, was asleep on the sofa in the den. The creak of the front door opening made her shift, but she didn’t wake.

Three A.M is one of the few comfortable hours in Ajo in the summertime, a cool, fleeting reprieve. The Beamer’s trunk was already packed with suitcases. Will put Devlin in the front seat, buckled her in. He climbed behind the wheel, shifted into neutral, let the car roll silently to the end of the driveway before shoving the key into the ignition.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” Will looked at his daughter, shook his head in disbelief at all that had changed in twenty-four hours, at how quickly, when the wrong stars align, it all comes apart. You will not die alone.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. And he turned the key and put the car into gear, driving slowly and without headlights through the subdivision.

The highway north out of Ajo was empty and shining in the moonlight. Aside from his wallet and a suitcase of clothes, he’d taken only one other thing—Rachael’s college sweatshirt.

They would not see their home again.

TEN

Two days later, Rachael awoke on a small, hard mattress. She sat up in a tiny room, barely the size of a walk-in closet, and illuminated by only a single bare lightbulb that swung from the ceiling.

Her head pounded and her mouth was dry, but she felt alert again.

The walls and the floor were covered in thick yellow foam. She saw five jugs of water in a corner, and beside them, a box filled with bags of potato chips, apples, candy bars, and packs of crackers. She heard a humming sound beyond the soundproofed walls.

She stood up, found it difficult to keep her balance, as if the floor were shifting beneath her. She looked at the foam walls again and thought, I’ve been committed. I imagined the kidnapping. The crowbar through the window. I’ve gone mad.

Rachael grabbed a jug of water and carried it back over to the mattress. She sat down and took a long drink, wondering if they were watching her right now.

But if I’m in the asylum, why am I still wearing this black suit?

There came a sudden blast that sounded vaguely like a foghorn. It blew once more, and as she considered it, there was something about the constant humming that unnerved her, and the way this place shifted beneath her. She looked up at the ceiling. No soundproofing foam there. Just shiny metal. And the dimensions of the room suddenly made perfect sense. So did the subtle rocking movement, the humming, the low drone, the horn. This isn’t a psych ward. I’m in the trailer of an eighteen-wheeler.

She wept, and her body shook with tremors.

Ghosts Present

ELEVEN

The man who was now Joe Foster floored the old Chevy down the hill into town. It was mid-October, the Colorado sky blue-screen blue, fresh snow gleaming above twelve thousand feet in the La Platas, the aspen and cottonwoods turning gold across the foothills. Five miles west, the profile of Mesa Verde shimmered in the Friday-afternoon sunlight. He could see the glint of cars crawling south on the high road that snaked through the park.

He drove into the small town of Mancos, pulled his pickup over to the curb, and cut the engine. It was still a few minutes shy of 3:00 P.M. and so quiet inside the truck, he could hear the trees chattering around him. A gold aspen leaf fell on the windshield wiper, twitched for a moment until a breeze pushed it up the glass and airborne again.

She would have liked this little town, he thought.

He spotted his daughter moving with the throng of students down the stone steps of the K–12 school. She was walking with two friends, a backpack slung over her shoulder, caught up in some breathless adolescent debate. The group of girls stepped off the sidewalk into the grass and formed a tight circle. Making plans, he imagined. Promising to call one another. Propagating silly rumors.

He watched his daughter through the cracked windshield. He could have watched her all afternoon. The truth was, he’d never expected her to reach her sixteenth year. For a long time, he’d dedicated himself to preparing for the worst-possible outcome, including plans to end himself when she was gone. But then something had happened. Or actually, not happened. She hadn’t died. She got sick several times a year. She’d been scary sick twice, but she always bounced back. The cocktail of meds and the chest physical therapy were working, and every day she was healthy felt like a sentence commuted, an execution stayed.

Now she was coming toward the truck, but as he slipped the key into the ignition, a woman intercepted his daughter on the sidewalk.

He sat up. His daughter had stopped, and she was talking to a tall woman in a navy skirt, white blouse, the matching jacket folded over her arm. His daughter shook her head. He couldn’t hear what they were saying. He reached to open the door, but his daughter was on her own again, moving quickly toward the truck, the woman walking in the opposite direction. She pulled open the squeaky door and climbed inside.

“Hey, baby girl.” She’d picked out a new name, but he rarely said it, called her “baby girl” or “sweetie,” or nothing.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Who was that woman you were just talking to?”

“She didn’t say.”

“What’d she want?”

“Asked me my name, if I lived around here.”

He cranked the engine, the noisy truck now vibrating beneath them.

“Why’d she want to know that?”

“I don’t know. I blew her off, told her I had to go. You think she’s a cop?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can I drive home?”

“Not today, honey.” He shifted into drive and pulled out into the street, cruising slowly past the school, looking for the woman who’d approached his daughter. “What color hair did she have?”

“Brown. She was pretty.” The upperclassmen were flooding out of the building now. They were taller. It made it difficult to spot the woman. “What’s wrong, Dad?”

She wasn’t there. Just a bunch of kids.

“You know we have to be very careful,” he said.

“Are we gonna leave again?”

“I don’t know yet, sweetie. Not tonight at least.” He spun the steering wheel, did a 180 in the street, and headed back up the hill, out of town, toward home.

TWELVE

The farmhouse stood in a grove of blue spruce, a mile and a half south of town. There was a little pasture out back, and the Mancos River formed the east border of the property. They could hear it from the house during spring runoff.

Now it was full-on dusk. Through the open windows, the night air swept in, carrying the scent of decaying leaves and sour apples and the odor of a dairy farm.

The girl got the pillows from the game closet while he queued up the DVD. They were near the end of Vertigo. Movies helped to make the therapy more bearable. They’d seen more than thirty Hitchcocks together this way. The man sat down behind his daughter and she leaned forward into a pillow and watched Jimmy Stewart kissing Kim Novak in the eerie green light of the hotel room.

With cupped hands, he began to pound on her back. After five minutes, he told her to cough. She switched positions, now lying on her side.

Not long after she was born, he and his wife had started calling her their “salty baby,” since whenever they kissed her forehead, they’d taste salt. His wife happened to mention this to the pediatrician, and he promptly ordered a sweat test, which came back positive. They had no idea, but overly salty sweat is a major indicator of cystic fibrosis.

The girl was diagnosed when she was two years old, and every day for the last fourteen years, the man had given his daughter CPT, chest physical therapy. The therapy broke up mucus in her lungs, made it easier for her to breathe, helped to stave off infection. CPT had long since become just another part of the routine, like brushing their teeth.

When they were finished, the girl sat at the table in the kitchen, working through her geometry problems. The man went outside. The truck had been running loud and hot, and he figured an oil change was long overdue. He crawled under the truck and lay on his back, struggling to unscrew the oil cap. Sometimes a car would pass on the nearby country road, but otherwise, the silence remained undisturbed.

The night grew colder as the moon rose over the foothills. An occasional breeze stirred the firs. From the next farm down, he could hear cows groaning at the moon, their bells clanging.

He finally got the cap off, smelled the scorched oil as it drained into the pan.

Another car was coming, which made three in the last ten minutes. Busy night.

The car was slowing now. He heard it stop at the end of his driveway. A city car. A rental perhaps, not the big rumbling gas guzzlers most of his neighbors owned.

The tires began to turn. What the hell? He wriggled himself out from under the truck and came to his feet, stood there shielding his eyes from the headlights as the car rolled toward him down the gravel drive.

It stopped behind the Chevy. The engine quit. The headlights died. For a moment, he couldn’t see a thing, temporarily blinded. A door opened. Slammed. Footsteps moved toward him. The man thinking, Now you’ve fu**ed up. Should have left this afternoon. Packed a suitcase, gotten the hell out of here. He backed away as his eyes readjusted to the darkness.

“You blinded me with your brights,” he said, “so I can’t see too well right now. Who’s there?” The footsteps stopped. He could see the shape of his visitor now, light from the front porch falling across her face.

It was the woman who had approached his daughter after school.

“Sorry to blind you,” she said. “I must have driven past your mailbox three times before I saw it.”

“Who are you?”

She offered her hand. “Kalyn Sharp.” She was his height, maybe a few years younger, with straight brown hair, pronounced cheekbones. He couldn’t determine the color of her eyes in the poor light, and he didn’t take her hand.

“What do you want?”

“Are you William Innis?”

Surging blast of adrenaline. “No.”

“Well, I have a picture of Mr. Innis here in my purse. You could be twins.”

“You need to leave.” He turned away from the woman, started back toward the house.

“Mr. Innis!” she called after him. “Please!”

He went inside, let the screen door bang shut behind him.

“Who’s out there?” his daughter asked.

“Go finish your homework in your room.” She recognized something in her father’s voice—nonnegotiable fire. The girl gathered up her textbook and notebook and headed down the squeaky hardwood floor of the hallway.

The man stood at the kitchen sink, ran the tap, scrubbed the oil and grease from his hands with hot water and soap, trying to piece together exactly what he would do, what they would need to take, what they could leave. As he looked up to see if the car was backing down the driveway, there was a knock on the door.

He walked over, stared through the screen at the woman standing on his porch.

“Out here in the boondocks,” he said, “when someone tells you to get the hell off their property, it’s usually a wise thing to—” Now she was holding something up against the screen, and when he saw it, his stomach turned.

FBI credentials. A crippling weakness spread into his knees.

What are you willing to do to stay with your daughter?

“Relax,” she said. “If I were here to take you in, you’d already be in handcuffs.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I believe you’re innocent, Mr. Innis.” Her words stopped him cold.

“And why is that?”

“Because your wife . . . Rachael. She wasn’t the first. Or the last.”

THIRTEEN

As Will filled a pot with water from the tap, he glanced over his shoulder at the FBI agent seated at the kitchen table.

“How’d you find us?”

“Year and a half chasing down your aliases. What are you using now?”

“Joe Foster.” The pot was full. He set it on the stove, turned up the gas, took a seat at the kitchen table across from Kalyn. The woman had draped her coat over one of the chairs, laid her briefcase on the hardwood floor. “Which field office you out of?” Will asked.

“Phoenix. So, I’ve been dying to ask—why’d you run?”

“My daughter has cystic fibrosis. I had to assume her mother was dead, and this Ajo detective had a giant hard-on for me right out of the gate. I figured there was a decent chance I was going to be charged. I don’t know how familiar you are with CF, but it’s a terminal disease. Most people who have it never see their thirtieth birthday. I wasn’t taking a chance that my daughter would die without me there by her side.”

“But she’s okay now?”

“We’ve had three good years. That’s not to say she won’t get sick again.”

“How are you making a living?”

“Web design. I work out of my house.”

“Must be hard, knowing what everyone thinks of you. What they think you did.”

“Look, we have a new life now, and it’s pretty good. I know what happened the night my wife went missing. My conscience is clear.”

“You shouldn’t have run.”

“If you aren’t here to arrest me, what is it you want?”

Kalyn reached down and lifted her briefcase. She opened it, pulled out a manila folder. The first thing she handed Will was a map—New Mexico, Arizona, SoCal. Red X’s had been marked in four locations across the Southwest.

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