“Asa, I have to see Mallory. She may be in danger.”
“The only danger is whether we disrupt her program with news like yours.”
“I heard about the cut harness on the rope course.”
“It wasn't cut,” Hunter snarled. “I checked it myself. I looked at every harness, every rope, every goddamn piece of equipment we own. The harness broke.”
“Along a straight line.”
“It can happen. It did happen. The gear was distributed randomly. There's no way anyone could've targeted her.”
“Anyone who wasn't there, you mean.”
Hunter raised a finger like a gun. “Don't push it, amigo. My program is safe. It was an accident. Mallory Zedman will finish Black Level. Her group's in the wilderness now. I won't let you disturb her any more than I'll let the police.”
“Someone's got inside the school, Asa. Someone who's working with the black levels. John Zedman said they could describe Mallory's day.”
“The girl knows something. I think she was being used as leverage to make John cooperate. Now that he's gone, the blackmailer may have what he wants. In which case, the girl is expendable.”
Hunter cut his eyes toward Kindra Jones, as if deliberating whether to ask her to leave.
“Jones says you let that kid go,” he told Chadwick. “Race Montrose.”
“As I recall, you wanted to make sure the boy got a fair shake.”
“Not at the expense of losing you. Not if it comes down to a choice between you and some kid in Oakland—”
“I couldn't turn Race in.”
“He lied to you, Chadwick. You understand that? What makes you so sure you didn't cause another murder by letting him go?”
Chadwick couldn't answer. He'd been plagued by the same thought, agonizing about it the whole plane trip back, ever since he realized Race had given him a snow-job about Samuel being alive.
At the very least, he should've told Damarodas that he'd tracked down Race. But Chadwick's gut still insisted the boy wasn't a killer. Letting him go had been the right thing to do. Free, Race might yet make some good decisions. There were no good decisions to make in a jail cell.
“Mallory needs to know what's going on,” Chadwick insisted. “I owe that much to her parents.”
Hunter balled his fists. He seemed to be searching his memory for a boxing routine that would fit the Quartet No. 14 in G Major. Failing to find one, he said, “Ten minutes. Clearing Six. And Chadwick—don't make me regret this.”
After he'd left, Jones sank onto the edge of the bed. “I don't think I want to see Hunter that mad again.”
“He's got a lot at stake.”
Kindra gave him a look he couldn't quite read. “Yeah, I suppose he does. Almost thought he wanted me to quit in that debriefing.”
It hadn't even occurred to Chadwick, but of course it was one week since Kindra had signed on board. Hunter would've done his standard debriefing to ascertain if, by some miracle, she was interested in staying with the job, or if he needed to keep his perpetual ad open in the educational journals.
The thought of losing another partner, on top of everything else, made Chadwick want to fly back to Oakland and take a high dive off Ella Montrose's fire escape.
Finally he mustered the courage to ask: “You moving on?”
The Mozart kept playing, bright and incongruous.
Jones looked at the CD player with distaste. “And leave this—the fun, the danger, the good taste in music? Naw, Chad. I'm still your partner. Just don't let me drink that much coffee ever again, all right? I feel like a fucking rocket engine.”
Chadwick's throat tightened. He felt more grateful for Jones' vote of confidence than he cared to admit.
Before he could figure out how to tell her that, she kicked him not-so-gently on the shin. “Come on, man. Let's get out of here 'fore Amadeus give me hives.”
“Any questions?” Leyland asked.
We're too damn tired to ask questions, Mallory thought. But she said nothing.
The four black levels stood in a semicircle, looking at the habitat Leyland had constructed—a neat little burrow, scooped out of the soft ground next to a fallen tree. The roof was woven out of branches, covered with leaves and moss.
Mallory didn't love the idea of sleeping in a hole in the dirt, but night was coming with a hard freeze, and she was ready to do anything if it meant getting to sleep.
The other black levels looked just as ragged—Morrison, who'd spent an hour starting her first fire without matches, only to have it die in the kindling stage; Smart, who'd run himself into a record twelve trees during the blindfold compass activity; and Bridges, who'd been practicing remedial knife-throwing with Leyland most of the afternoon and still sucked at it pretty bad. Mallory had proven much more skilled—she could impale the blade on target four times out of ten, which Leyland told her was damn good for a beginner.
The day had been a friggin' marathon, even by Cold Springs standards, and Mallory couldn't help but wonder if Leyland was overcompensating for what had happened the night before—driving them so hard they wouldn't have time to think about Mallory almost dying.
If that was his goal, he'd succeeded. All of them were ready to drop. Even the two counselors—Baines and Olsen—who were the team's designated cheerleaders, looked like they'd just swallowed raw crayfish.
Of course, they had. For dinner, Leyland had made them demonstrate how to catch, shuck and gulp the slimy things out of the river as a survivalist meal. That had been pretty funny, until Leyland reminded the black levels that tomorrow it would be their turn. Tomorrow, each of them would strike out on their own—no food, no shelter, no help for twenty-four hours. So they'd better learn how to fend for themselves.
“All right,” Leyland said. “If there are no questions, go forth and build.”
Mallory moved toward the nearest fallen tree, which she'd been eyeing all through Leyland's talk, but Bridges beat her to it. “Mine, Zedman. Get your own.”
“Working as a team,” Mallory mumbled.
The comment would've been enough to get Bridges punished, if Mallory reported it. But she moved on. It wasn't worth fighting about.
Morrison was down by the river, eyeing a rotten log. Smart stood at the north end of the clearing, getting chewed out by Leyland for God-knows-what.
Mallory studied a jumble of car-sized limestone boulders at the base of the hillside. There were lots of nooks and crannies that might serve as ready-made caves.
She tried not to think about what Olsen had told her earlier—a casual comment that the wilderness wasn't as complete as it appeared. That there was a road only a half mile away, toward the setting sun.
Why had Olsen told her that? To make her feel better? To tempt her? Or was it Olsen's idea of revenge for Mallory giving her the silent treatment?
It had been days since Mallory thought about running. In truth, she couldn't imagine going back to San Francisco—to Race, to Laurel Heights, to her parents. But the nightmares still pressed in on her: Talia Montrose, Katherine, the sound of her harness ripping, the dizzying jolt of free fall through the rain.
Mallory was so tired of being scared. She felt a sudden powerful urge to confide in Olsen, to get everything off her chest, to tell her the crazy things she'd been thinking. She should accept the fact that the accident was just an accident, like Hunter said. These people would take care of her. She truly wanted to get through Black Level. She wanted to work with horses all day. She wanted to learn to ride.
But she couldn't escape the feeling she'd been betrayed up on the rope bridge. She was in danger. Olsen and Leyland and Hunter had failed her, just like Katherine had, and tomorrow they would abandon her, send her out into the wilderness by herself. She knew she was being childish, but she'd snubbed Olsen all day, trying to let her know how badly she'd been scared. When she thought about last night, the old heroin hunger twisted her gut. The old anger flared up. And she considered Olsen's road.
Mallory tried to put away the idea. She trudged off toward the rocks, collecting branches as she went.
Before long, the last rays of the sun were cutting through the woods, the shadows of the trees and the limestone boulders as thick as India ink.
She worked so intently she didn't hear Olsen until she crouched next to her.
“The rock is a good idea, Mal, but you're on the cold side.”
Every muscle in Mallory's body tensed. She picked another branch, laid it against the rock.
“Been in the shade all day,” Olsen explained. “The other side has been baking. It'll let off heat for several hours into the night.”
“I've already built the shelter.”
It was a pretty bold description for the meager thing she'd constructed—a ragged line of branches propped against the rock face. She'd seen card houses that were more substantial.
“Tomorrow night,” Olsen said, “when you're on your own, try the warm side.”
Mallory bit back a retort.
She added a new branch, which promptly slid down and knocked over half the lean-to.
Mallory wanted to scream.
How could they send her out on her own tomorrow? How could they believe she was ready?
Olsen picked up a branch, offered it to Mallory. “Listen, kiddo, about last night . . .”
Her voice trailed off.
Mallory looked where Olsen was looking and saw Leyland talking to two people—outsiders in what should have been a closed camp. With a feeling of vertigo, worse than spinning in the floodlights the night before, Mallory realized it was Chadwick, tall and gaunt in his beige coat, and that young African-American woman she'd seen that morning at the obstacle course. Leyland was pointing in Mallory's direction, Chadwick's eyes met hers, and Mallory had a premonition that one of her nightmares was about to come true.
Chadwick didn't know any better way to tell her, so he gave her the news as straight as he could.
Mallory stared at the shelter she'd been building.
She looked healthier than she had seven days before. Her eyes were no longer dull. Her hair had been shaved and was starting to grow in again, its regular blond color. She was filling out her black fatigues better.
Her hands dug into the limestone gravel. “My father isn't dead.”
“We don't know that he is, sweetheart. The police—”
“Race told you Samuel was alive? Race said that?”
“Race was scared. He told me what I wanted to hear.”
“I was there,” Kindra said. “Man's telling you the truth. You really want to help your parents, maybe you should do the same, huh?”
The sun was going down so fast Chadwick could see the shadows rise from the ground, swell over Kindra's and Olsen's legs like a tide. He could feel the temperature dropping, or maybe that was just the force of disapproval emanating from Olsen. She hadn't said a thing, but he had no doubt how she felt about him being here, interrupting.
Mallory dropped pieces of gravel onto her shoe, as if she were counting money. “Race never told me Samuel was dead, but I think . . . I think maybe he tried to. He said when he was about six or seven—we figured it must have been just after Katherine died—he watched a drug dealer get shot. Race was playing in this abandoned building when this guy came in, so he hid between a couple of crates, in the dark. The next thing he knows a couple of other guys show up, gang members maybe. They start to argue with the first dude.”