He turned from Olsen and Kindra Jones, both watching him from a few yards away, and moved farther into the darkness, the frozen grass snapping under his feet.
“Ann, I can't see straight about this anymore. No one here knows the history. I need you.”
“Chadwick—oh, God. If you'd told me that a week ago . . . a month ago.”
He felt her despair pulling at his ear, as if they were children, speaking through a wall with cups and string.
“I'll try to arrange something,” she said at last, when he didn't answer.
“Call me with flight information. I'll meet you at the airport.”
He gave her his cell phone number.
“Just find Mallory,” Ann said. “Please . . . if I lose her . . .”
Chadwick tried to say something reassuring, but Ann had already hung up.
Down the gravel road, at the limestone-columned gates of Cold Springs, Asa Hunter was talking to the sheriff and a plainclothes detective. He turned, wearing that same look of cold anger he'd had years before when he'd impaled the blade of his knife in a live oak. He saw Chadwick, motioned him forward.
Chadwick wasn't worried about the sheriff—old Bob Kreech was as easy to understand as a water moccasin. But something about the plainclothes officer was wrong. He looked too young. His suit was too nice.
“Mallory made it as far as the road,” Hunter told Chadwick. “They found this.”
He held up a compass—the cheap plastic model all black levels were given for Survival Week training.
“They found fresh tire ruts nearby,” Hunter said. “A large vehicle pulled over. One guess, she flagged down a truck, hitched a ride.”
One guess, Chadwick thought.
“The shooter?” he asked.
“Dead.” Sheriff Kreech studied Chadwick, waiting for a reaction.
“Chadwick's a hero,” Hunter said. “He protected our kids.”
The other man—the young plainclothes officer—was staring at him.
Something clicked in Chadwick's brain.
“You're Special Agent Laramie,” he said. “From San Francisco.”
The young man smiled thinly. “You're a difficult man to catch up with, Mr. Chadwick.”
Chadwick had worked with the FBI on runaway cases a few times. He'd seen enough to know that when agents smiled, it was generally not a good sign. “The shooting was only an hour ago,” Chadwick said. “What did you do—teleport?”
“I got in this afternoon. Booked the flight right after yours.” Laramie asked, “You don't know the shooter?”
“His name was Julio de la Garza. ID in his pocket identified him as a Mexican national. I made some inquiries. Guy was ex-military. Had an interesting career before he was discharged—torched a house full of rebel sympathizers down in Chiapas, turned out to be Mayan schoolchildren. Last few years, he's been living in the Mission in San Francisco. Your old neighborhood, isn't it, Mr. Chadwick?”
“A long time ago.”
“Would it surprise you to learn that there were two shooters?”
Laramie's eyes were bright, almost glassy, but intently focused on Chadwick. With that little smile pulling up the corners of his mouth, the special agent could've been a kid playing a lethal video game he understood intuitively.
Hunter said, “Sheriff found casings at a different spot about twenty yards away—second guy was flanking the first, probably took a hike when you sent his buddy airborne.”
“Pérez,” Chadwick said. “The second shooter was Emilio Pérez.”
“Employee to Mr. John Zedman,” Laramie said. “Now why would you think that?”
“Pérez was sent to retrieve the girl. Maybe to kill me, too.”
“You can prove this?”
“Pérez is still out there. He's got Mallory or he's looking for her. He might not even know his boss is dead yet.”
“Missing,” Laramie corrected. “Not dead. Slip of the tongue.”
Chadwick felt his fists curl. “Pérez and the girl didn't get along, Mr. Laramie. If Pérez finds out his boss is dead—that he's suddenly unemployed and he's got a young girl who's undeliverable merchandise—”
“Look,” the sheriff interrupted, raising his hands. “I'm telling you, I ain't convinced these shooters were after anybody. Two idiots in the woods with rifles during hunting season—that ain't exactly a first. These guys spotted an opportunity to make some mischief and they took it.”
No one contradicted him. The silence made it clear enough nobody believed him, either.
“You didn't see a second shooter,” Laramie told Chadwick. “You didn't have any visual ID on this Emilio Pérez, or whoever it was.”
“The second shooter just disappeared.”
“Possibly with the girl,” Chadwick said. “And we're standing here talking.”
“Hell, the girl left under her own steam,” Sheriff Kreech insisted. “Who wouldn't?”
Hunter's neck muscles tensed, but he said nothing. He had to live with Bob Kreech, even if Kreech had been elected several times on a promise of closing down Hunter's campus to “safeguard the community.”
Laramie kept his eyes locked on Chadwick. “The firing started while you were still in sight. How long exactly were you out of sight from the rest of the group, would you say, while you did your act of heroism?”
“What are you getting at?” Hunter said. “Chadwick did nothing wrong.”
“No,” Laramie agreed easily. “Just that he appears to be real good with a knife. Woman in Oakland, Talia Montrose—”
“Get the hell off my property,” Hunter said.
“We can't put this conversation off much longer, Mr. Chadwick,” Laramie continued, ignoring Hunter.
“Phone my lawyers in the morning,” Hunter told him. “Until then, Agent Laramie, get the hell out.”
Laramie picked a clump of Spanish moss off the tree branch above him before replying. “I'm here to help, Mr. Chadwick. Think about it. I'll be back tomorrow.”
He walked to one of the police cars, twirling the ball of moss between his fingers.
“Mr. Hunter,” Kreech said, “perhaps you'd give me another few words in private?”
The sheriff knew damn well that Hunter's title was Doctor, but he stubbornly resisted using it. Chadwick turned before he could lose his temper, walked back up the road to where Olsen and Jones were waiting.
“What?” Jones asked.
Chadwick filled them in.
“Where does the fucking FBI get off?” Jones asked. Her eyes burned with pride for her partner. “You took that guy out with a hunting knife. He deserved it.”
Olsen was not burning with pride. Chadwick got the feeling she shared his discomfort.
“Two shooters,” she said. “They could've killed you and Mallory—all of us. So why didn't they?”
Chadwick had no answer.
“We've got to find her,” Olsen said.
Kindra pushed her on her bad shoulder—the one Mallory had stabbed. “We? Girl, you're the one who lost her.”
Olsen winced. “Smart was hurt. I didn't think—”
“You got the last part right.”
“Kindra,” Chadwick said. “Check a car out of the pool. Meet me at the gate.”
Kindra waited for Olsen to return her challenge. Olsen didn't.
“No problem,” Kindra told Chadwick. “I'll try to get us something fast. Something dependable.”
She turned and stormed off.
Hunter and Kreech were still talking by the sheriff's car. Special Agent Laramie sat in the back seat of the police car, talking on his cell phone.
“You warned me on Thanksgiving,” Olsen told Chadwick, “you told me to watch out for her. And I promised her I wasn't going to leave her for any reason.”
“This isn't your fault.”
“I want to go with you. I want to help.”
“They need you here. Leyland will have his hands full calming down the other kids.”
“It won't matter. He'll cancel Survival Week.”
“No,” Chadwick said. “Hunter won't. He'll want them back in the woods as soon as possible. Order restored. The program goes on.”
Water was dripping from the roof of the Big Lodge, slower and slower, thickening into nubs of ice.
“I failed her,” Olsen said. “Out on the ropes course, when Mallory started to fall. I understood how you felt, that day you almost let Race Montrose kill you. I just stood there . . . I let Leyland handle it. I should've been out on the ropes. I froze.”
“She'll be all right.” Chadwick tried to sound more confident than he felt. “I'll find her.”
Olsen pulled her collar tighter around her throat. “Damn weather. I move to Texas and it freezes over.”
The police lights pulsed on the back of her coat as she walked away.
Hunter shook hands reluctantly with the sheriff, then turned and came over to Chadwick. They watched the police cars disappear down the road.
“I don't have to tell you this is a nightmare for the school,” Hunter said. “A kid escaping—that's worse than the shooting. Compromises the whole program.”
“We both know those were no hunters in the woods.”
“Maybe. Maybe Kreech knows it, too. We also know how much the lazy SOB will follow up. He never wanted us in this county. He'd be delighted to have us shut down by a scandal. As for Laramie, he doesn't give a damn about the girl. He's already on to the main course—you.”
“It's up to us to find her.”
Hunter glanced at Chadwick.
“This is what I do,” Chadwick reminded him. “I find kids and I bring them in.”
“You're in enough trouble,” Hunter reminded him.
“If Mallory got a ride, the driver might've stopped for the night. There aren't too many options out here. I need to get moving.”
“And if this Pérez got her?”
“Let's hope like hell he didn't.”
Hunter pondered that. “I'll need to call the mother. Get her approval.”
“I've already done it.”
“We'll go by standard policy,” Chadwick promised. “Treat it like any pickup on a runaway. Jones goes with me.”
Hunter's boot traced two lines in the gravel before he nodded.
“Chadwick, in case you were wondering, I'll back you up one hundred percent. They try to get to you, my lawyers are at your disposal, but you have to watch your ass.”
There was a new darkness in Hunter's eyes—the look of someone who'd just seen something evil and was trying to burn it out of his mind. Chadwick realized that Hunter's conversation with the sheriff and Laramie had not been about Mallory—not entirely.
“They asked you to sacrifice me,” Chadwick guessed. “Make me the scapegoat and spare the school.”
“No one asked me anything,” Hunter said. “I'm just telling you, I'll stand by you, but we play this very, very carefully.”