“Rendezvous at a convenience store? What's that about?”
“I still owe you breakfast, don't I?”
Jones closed the car door with a curse word. “Twinkies at the Kwik Mart. Be still, my heart.”
Chadwick started the engine and they headed east, back into town.
The convenience store interior was lit up fluorescent blue—the color of laundry soap. It smelled of junk-food grease and overboiled coffee.
Mallory Zedman slumped on a plastic bench in the back corner, next to the automatic teller machine and the Texas Lottery slips. She was wearing clothes she'd obviously stolen from someone's laundry line—a pink “Stock Show & Rodeo” T-shirt, a quilt-patch jacket, boy's jeans that were too long—but she still wore her standard-issue Black Level sneakers.
The night cashier was a large bleached-out woman, chewing colorless gum. She scrutinized Chadwick and Jones as they walked in, decided pretty quickly she didn't like Jones, then gave Chadwick a critical look, nodding with her chin toward Mallory in the back. “You her father? You'd better be. That's what she said.”
“Thank you for letting her wait here.” Chadwick was careful not to confirm Mallory's lie. “We've been searching all night.”
The cashier snapped her gum. “Girl that young shouldn't be out at night. A daddy ought to do better.”
“You're right, of course.”
Mallory looked terrible, even allowing for the two days she'd spent in the woods for Survival Week. As Chadwick and Jones approached, she started moving her shoulder blades as if she had an unreachable itch.
“What's she doing here?” Mallory demanded. “I said alone.”
“Ms. Jones is my partner,” Chadwick told her.
“I don't like her.”
Jones laughed. “Well, for that matter, honey—”
“Whether you like her or not is immaterial,” Chadwick cut in. “You can explain yourself to both of us.”
The store door jingled. Chadwick pivoted on his heel, watched a bleary-eyed trucker come in to buy a cup of coffee. Chadwick waited until the man had left.
When he looked back at Mallory again, her eyes brimmed with all the emotion a teenage girl could muster—fear, loathing, resentment, embarrassment. The whole hormonal cocktail.
“Explain myself,” she repeated. “Pérez is trying to kill me. Consider myself explained.”
“Where did you see him?”
“You mean after the woods?”
“You saw him there?”
“Yeah,” Mallory said. “I mean—he was wearing a ski mask, but it was him. He was up in the rocks with some other guy. They were shooting. Pérez saw me, started after me. I figured, screw that. I ran. When I got to the highway, I was sure he was going to come out right behind me, but he didn't. I flagged down a truck. The driver brought me here. I hung out with some local kids for a while and they told me a big Mexican guy had been showing around my picture, offering money. They recognized me from the picture. I guess it's the most excitement those hicks have seen in a while.”
“You think Pérez is here to kill you.”
“He had a goddamn gun. He was shooting. What the hell do you think he was doing?”
“I think he was sent to bring you home—to your father's. If he was here to kill anybody, I think it was me.”
Mallory looked stunned, as if Chadwick had suggested she liked country-and-western music. “You think my father—”
“Mallory, your father's been living on the breaking point for a long time. He believed he was protecting you.”
The front door jingled again. The cashier said “Morning” to another customer.
Mallory stared sullenly at the cuffs of her stolen jacket.
“Hey, girl,” Kindra said. “The cops think Chadwick killed your dad, you understand? He's in trouble.”
“Jones,” Chadwick said.
“Man's done nothing but help you. Now it's time you helped him.”
“My father wouldn't—”
“Who is it?” Chadwick asked. “Who blackmailed your father?”
“I told you I don't know.”
Her face colored. “Maybe I didn't tell you everything.”
Then, like a period at the end of her sentence, a bullet hole punched into the plastic wall of the teller machine next to Mallory's head with a heavy thunk. The woman behind the counter screamed.
Chadwick slammed Mallory sideways, into the cover of the snack food aisle. He drew his gun as another bullet hole blossomed on the blue plastic bench where Mallory's chest had been.
There was no sound except the puncture. A silencer.
The cashier abruptly stopped screaming.
Chadwick clutched Mallory against him, his back pressed against the end-cap, making tortilla chip bags crinkle. Kindra was crouching next to the window, behind a drink cooler. Her face was like a boxer's, the corner of her eye twitching, anticipating the next blow.
Chadwick pointed his gun barrel emphatically at the floor. Stay there.
“Make this easy, Chadwick,” Pérez said from the front of the store. “Give me the girl. I'll let you walk.”
Chadwick murmured in Mallory's ear, “Stay.” He waited until he felt her nod.
Releasing her, he crawled to the far side of the aisle—looked up a row of glinting junk food toward the front. He could only see the fat cashier, paralyzed against the cigarettes, gaping at someone Chadwick couldn't see. Pérez.
“I'll give you to ten,” Pérez bargained. “Because I like you, Chadwick. Then I open up, and I don't really give a shit who goes down with you.”
Chadwick crawled to the far end of the store, came to the front, then rose up into a sideways crouch, using an iced bin of soft drinks as a shield.
He had miscalculated. Pérez was much closer than he'd realized, doing exactly what Chadwick was doing—sneaking around. Pérez was turning in Chadwick's direction, and for a quarter second Chadwick was too startled to move—long enough to die had Pérez not been distracted by a loud THWACK-FIZZ at the storefront—the sound of a full can of beer slamming into the window. Pérez fired.
The glass shattered as Chadwick discharged three rounds into Pérez's chest—insanely loud, the force of the blasts knocking Pérez all the way to the welcome mat. He landed on his back, his arms trying to curl up, his knees trying to rise.
Chadwick stepped forward, kicked the pistol out of Perez's hands.
Pérez's eyes were open, fish-eyes. There was no blood.
Outside, the street was still empty, dark, and quiet.
The convenience store cashier inhaled like a cadaver coming back to life. “Lord Jesus . . .”
Jones called out, “Chadwick?”
“It's okay,” he called.
Jones came up, dragging Mallory, who was frantically trying to pry Jones' hand off her wrist.
Chadwick flipped aside Pérez's coat, knocked on Pérez's shirt with his knuckle, felt the hardness of Kevlar. “He came prepared. Got the wind knocked out of him. Probably broke some ribs. He'll live. Thanks for the beer, Jones. Stupid move, but thanks.”
“Next time I'll let you get killed, I promise. So what do we do with him?”
The cashier made another inhale. “I'll call the police.”
“No!” Mallory said. Her eyes implored Chadwick. “No police! Please—you promised you'd listen to me. We have to . . . we have to talk.”
“We can't leave him,” Jones said.
Chadwick didn't like any of his options, but after his conversation tonight with Kreech and Laramie, he liked the idea of the police the least. Handing Kreech this situation would be like handing the sheriff a Mensa test. As for Laramie, Chadwick had a feeling the special agent would find a way of using Pérez to hang Chadwick, not the other way around.
“I'll handle him,” Chadwick told the cashier. “I'll bring him to the proper authorities.”
“Ain't my business, but—”
Then her pale eyes fixed on the revolver still in Chadwick's hand, and she decided against finishing her comment.
“Our car is out front,” Chadwick told Mallory. “Jones will make sure you get in.”
“Where are we going?”
“A friend's,” Chadwick said. “You and Pérez, me and Ms. Jones—we need to have a nice long conversation.”
“You need help with the box?” David Kraft asked her.
Ann was staring at the tarnished brass hand bell, wondering if she should take it. She remembered the old headmaster, a grizzled ex-hippie named Luke, handing it to her her first day on the job, telling her it had been a gift from Pete Seeger, back in the 1960s, when the teachers at Laurel Heights used to take the high-schoolers on field trips to civil rights protests and try to get the whole class arrested. They had helped Seeger sing, “If I Had a Hammer.”
Bell is yours now, Luke had told her. Ring it if you want, man.
Was it hers, or the school's? After twenty years, how could she tell the difference? Cleaning out her office was worse than the divorce. Leaving John had been in the middle of the night, a hastily packed suitcase and Mallory. Everything else John had taken care of for her—throwing it out, smashing it, burning it.
No . . . she wouldn't think about John. She wouldn't think about the night before last, in their old kitchen, surrounded by policemen, telling them too much.
David shifted uncomfortably in the doorway, his wet blond hair raked back from his face, his expression like a first-grader's, hungry for approval. Ann found it ironic that the board couldn't find anyone else to be her watchdog. She was contagious, virulent. Only a former student would take the risk—a young man who'd worked the very first auction, who'd been there from the start to the end of her grand dream to rebuild the school. David Kraft, sad-eyed and apologetic, would be the last one to see her at Laurel Heights. He'd watch her pack up her personal effects, make sure she didn't steal any files, or the school silverware, or markers out of the supply cabinet.
She put the bell back on the desk. Let the next headmaster use it. Think positive—there would be a next headmaster. There would still be a Laurel Heights.
She took one more look around her office—her desk, which had never been bare before; the window that someone had left open overnight, turning her papers, now the school's papers, moist with fog; the halls outside empty and silent, all the students on winter break.
She told herself she wasn't officially fired yet, but in her heart, she knew it was over. She had only one more choice to make—her lawyer's office, or the plane to Texas.
She pressed her coat pocket and felt the electronic ticket receipt—purchased with her last working credit card.
I need you, Chadwick had said.
For years, she had wanted him to say that. If she were honest with herself, the hope of reclaiming him had been part of the reason she'd called for his help with Mallory in the first place. Now her daughter was gone. She had paid too dearly for Chadwick to need her.
She hefted the cardboard box, found it sadly light—a few framed pictures of Mallory; the postcard she'd sent from Cold Springs, a dozen precious words spotted with tears or rain; a potted orchid; a scrapbook of photos the faculty had made for her last Christmas; and the Japanese curtain that had hung on her doorway forever—folded up, smelling of a thousand colognes and perfumes from every parent who had ever walked through it.