David stepped aside for her, held the door to the staircase that led down the side of the building. The playground was deserted—motionless swings, a scatter of milk crates and crumpled juice containers, a clutch of dodge balls in a puddle of rainwater.
David stopped her at the middle landing.
“Um, sorry,” he said. “I'll need the keys.”
Before she could swallow her shame, or even put down the box, the door behind them creaked open and Norma appeared at the top of the stairs.
“He calls me,” Norma said, pointing at David. “Tells me you're packing up. Ann, what the hell's the idea?”
David looked sheepishly at Ann, rubbing his arm as if Norma had punched him. “I just thought Ms. Reyes should know—”
“Shut up,” Norma said. “Thank you for calling. Now get out.”
David's face mottled. “I'm supposed to watch her. The keys—”
“I'll get the keys.”
“Take your nose and put it in someone else's ass for a change, pinche weasel. GET OUT!”
Norma raised her purse like a blackjack and poor David fled.
As his car screeched away down Cherry Street, Norma said, “He's poison, you know. The little bastard.”
“You're too hard on him.”
Norma glared at her. “Where is it?”
Norma sifted her hand through the cardboard box. Then she reached into Ann's coat pocket and pulled out the airline receipt. “San Antonio,” she read. “Chadwick's idea?”
“I have to. Mallory is missing.”
“And you think running to Chadwick will bring her back?”
“You should be happy I'm leaving.”
Norma blinked. “You think that's what I want?”
Norma reread the receipt, clutching it as if she wanted to rip it in half. Then she carefully refolded it, pinching the creases.
“Oh, Ann . . . I'm not happy.” Her voice was as wilted and defeated as the orchid in Ann's box. “I'm ashamed as hell. When Chadwick was here . . . the Laurel Heights money . . . I told him I thought you'd stolen it.”
Ann stared out at the playground. She tried to remember where the new art room would have been built. The library. The theater. Larger classrooms flooded with sunlight. Ten years of work, convincing skeptics, prodding the school board and pleading for extensions when the money was slow in coming. Ten years carrying a dream uphill.
“You thought I would do that?” she asked Norma. “Steal from the school?”
“That's not what I want to think. I want to think you're a stupid damned optimist. You asked me not to say anything about the money because you really believed you could fix the problem. Just like you admitted Race Montrose to the school. Just like you're going to Texas now because you love Chadwick and you believe he can save your child and you don't see why going to him makes you look guilty as hell.”
“You could stop me. You could call the police.”
Norma closed her eyes. “You didn't do it, did you?”
“Race Montrose, his family.” There was an edge of desperation in Norma's voice. “You didn't keep the Montroses in my life to hurt me.”
“Norma . . . of course not.”
Ann longed to put down her moving box, to open her arms to Norma, reassure her friend, but she wasn't sure she had the courage. She wasn't sure she could keep going if she set the box down now.
A foghorn bellowed—a ship passing under the Golden Gate. She had always found it so easy to forget how close the ocean was, how tightly it hemmed them in.
“When Race came to me,” Norma said, “I tried to figure out why. And you know what? He was operating like you. He was apologizing, even though he'd never done anything to me. It was some kind of olive branch—for Katherine. You mentored him, Ann. He's learned to be like you. And the problem is . . . I need that stupid optimism of yours. If you go to Texas, I've got a feeling I'm not going to see you again.”
Ann tried to say something—to tell Norma her fear was ridiculous. But the look in her eyes, the look of a friend betrayed, closed her throat.
Norma dropped the flight receipt in the box. At the bottom of the steps, she picked up a wet dodge ball, threw it across the abandoned playground with such force it rattled the chain link fence on the opposite side, making the ivy shiver.
The gateway to the Allbritton ranch was a giant concrete horseshoe, flanked by American flags and wilted cardboard signs that read GOD BLESS AMERICA. A black mare was pushing up one of the signs with her muzzle so she could get at a patch of icy grass outside the metal tube fence.
Chadwick didn't bother calling from the security intercom. He knew the code, and he knew the only person at home would be the person they needed to see.
They drove in past acres of meadows studded with cactus, bright yellow stables, a lone ranch hand in the riding circle, morning mist wreathed around his boots as he trained an Arabian for the halter. Next to Chadwick in the passenger's seat, Mallory craned her neck to watch.
Chadwick turned uphill, into the circular drive of the ranch house.
The horse-head door knocker was plated gold. Chadwick had to bang a few karats off it before Joey Allbritton finally opened up, his pale Neanderthal features squinting in the sunlight, his boxer shorts and a tie-dyed T-shirt giving off a stench like day-old pizza boxes.
“It's six in the—” His eyes got wide.
“Hello, Joey,” Chadwick said. “Staying straight?”
“Yes, sir,” he blurted, an old reflex. Then his face broke into a lopsided grin. “Chadwick? Are you really here?”
Chadwick had a momentary fear that Joey was going to hug him. Joey was a bear of a kid—a teddy bear, now, though he hadn't always been so. And his bad breath was the stuff of legends.
Chadwick rethought the word kid. Joey had to be at least twenty now.
Joey shook his head. “Kuala Lumpur. Or what day is it? Maybe Singapore. Doesn't matter. Dr. Hunter need another horse?”
“No. No horses.” Chadwick gestured toward the car. “I have a problem. Need your help.”
“Anything.” Joey looked toward the car, saw Mallory in the front seat, Jones and Emilio Pérez in the back—Pérez blindfolded, his mouth duct-taped. “Um . . . what kind of help?”
Chadwick didn't water anything down. He told the story, explained they were baby-sitting a would-be assassin and needed a quiet spot to talk to him.
“This guy shot at you?” Joey asked.
“He messed with Survival Week?”
Joey's eyes danced with excitement. “This guy is vulture meat. Let me get my shoes.”
Minutes later, they were following Joey's truck through the back acres of the ranch, past grain silos, fields tall with uncut sorghum. Like many local families, the Allbrittons did some farming, but they had apparently made the decision not to harvest their crops this year. With prices so bad, it was cheaper to leave the corn and sorghum and wheat standing. Chadwick had even heard rumors in town that some locals were plowing out huge mazes through the fields, charging admission for city folk to wander through. The profits promised to be much greater.
Joey's truck turned at the edge of a creek, rumbled down a dirt road to a barn set in a stand of live oaks.
Chadwick remembered the barn from his first trip to the ranch, three and a half years ago, when he'd picked up Joey for Cold Springs. The building was even more dilapidated now. Its roof sagged, and the once red walls had faded to dirty pink, paint peeling off in ugly patches like diseased skin.
Joey checked inside, then waved to Chadwick that the coast was clear.
“Walk with me,” Chadwick told Mallory.
He got her out of the car, leaving Jones to guard their guest of honor.
Inside the barn was a half-collapsed hayloft, a rusted pulley system hanging from the rafters. Spread out on a couple of hay bales was a sleeping bag—Cold Springs regulation issue, the kind white levels were allowed to take with them upon graduation. On the floor nearby was a Cold Springs gear bag. Chadwick guessed that if he were to open it, he would find all the supplies in order, just the way they were supposed to be for dorm inspection.
“Um, I just dump all my old stuff out here,” Joey said. “I don't come out here much.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mallory muttered.
“What?” Joey asked defensively.
“This will do fine,” Chadwick interposed. “Thanks, Joey. Go tell Miss Jones she can bring in our guest. It would be better if you waited outside. Better still if he didn't overhear your name.”
“Yes, sir.” Joey gave Mallory one more look, his eyes lingering on her Black Level shoes.
When he had gone, Chadwick told her, “Now would be a good time.”
“Back at the store, before Pérez came in, you wanted to tell me something.”
She stared at the Cold Springs gear bag, her cheeks turning red. “Nothing.”
Mallory stripped off her stolen quilt-patch jacket, pitched it across the hay bale. In the sleeve was a tear Chadwick hadn't noticed before—a perfect hay-colored circle, just above the wrist. A bullet hole.
“That kid Joey,” Mallory said, “he's a Cold Springs graduate?”
“That's what I'm training for? To be like him?” Her voice trembled, as if all her fear from their encounter with Pérez was just now coming to the surface.
“Joey runs his parents' ranch,” Chadwick told her. “He manages a five-million-dollar budget, provides the horses for Cold Springs, knows more about animals than most ranchers twice his age. You could do worse than end up like him; you didn't know him before Cold Springs.”
Mallory glanced over, trying to feign disinterest. “Why? What'd he do?”
“Last time I was in this barn, taking Joey into custody, those hay bales were stacked with fertilizer explosives. Pipe bombs. A box of grenades and an AK-47 Joey'd bought at a flea market. He was planning to blow up his high school—this was six months before the shootings at Columbine. If Joey hadn't gone to Cold Springs, he would've been Columbine. He would've been national news, and dead.”
The barn door creaked open and Mallory instantly tensed, like she was bracing for a blow.
Kindra Jones dragged Pérez inside, still blindfolded and gagged, hands cuffed behind his back.
Chadwick pulled him to the middle of the room and said, “Sit.”
Pérez remained standing.
Chadwick kicked his legs out from under him, and Pérez fell.
Chadwick knelt, stripped off the blindfold. Pérez's eyes blazed like a cornered wolf's.
“You're in the middle of nowhere,” Chadwick told him. “Scream all you want.”
Then he peeled the tape off Pérez's mouth.
Pérez just kept glaring at him.
Chadwick had stripped him of the Kevlar, thrown it into the woods off Highway 90. Now Pérez wore only his camo pants and T-shirt, which had rolled up to his ribs, revealing one of the massive bruises left over from Chadwick's gunshots, like an injection of chocolate under the skin.