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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.