It was late morning when Mallory heard another sound directly ahead—a distant rumble that wasn't the river. It took her a moment to remember the sound of a car on a dirt road. The strange thing was, her impulse to turn away from it was as strong as her impulse to run toward it.
The presence behind her decided matters. She walked until she saw an opening through the trees.
The road was barely wide enough for one car, bulldozed shoulders piled high with frozen mud clods and clumps of cactus salted with frost.
She had a moment of doubt, wondering if this were the right road. If it was, where was the car she'd heard? Why hadn't it stopped? Perhaps she'd come out of the woods at the wrong place, maybe even on someone else's property.
What would she do if someone came along who wasn't from Cold Springs? She would look like a wild girl—an escaped killer with blood on her hands and her clothes. For a moment, she felt dizzy. Why had Hunter let her do this? What would keep her from hitching a ride again, escaping? She could bust off the GPS bracelet, be gone before anyone realized.
Then she realized how stupid that was. Where would she think of going?
Home was Cold Springs. No one else would understand what she'd gone through. Her team might. Olsen might. She wasn't going to leave until she found out what had happened to the others, until she was sure they all made it through the solo trip safely.
She reviewed her promise that she would talk to Olsen. It seemed scarier in the light of day, with the road in front of her. But she steeled herself. She would come clean. First opportunity. She owed it to her father. And to herself.
There had been no clear instructions about what to do once she found the road, so she decided to walk down it for a while, see what happened. Olsen had said they'd meet her this morning. Mallory didn't know if she was late, or how far into the morning Olsen had meant.
She walked toward what she assumed was north, thinking that this would be the way back to the main lodge. She imagined Dr. Hunter's face, all the counselors' faces, if she were to appear back at camp on foot, voluntarily returning. The idea made her smile.
Then she heard rustling, louder than before, the bushes right next to her parting. Before she even had time to grab her knife, Olsen appeared from the underbrush. “Well, kiddo, I had my doubts.”
She wore a camouflage jacket over black fatigues. She was spattered with ice and mud, and grass stuck out of her short blond hair, but she grinned at Mallory with an enthusiasm Mallory found hard to decipher. It had been a long time since anyone beamed at her with pride.
Mallory relaxed a little, but she still felt invaded, watched. “You were tracking me?”
Olsen held up her gear—binoculars, a receiver for the GPS unit, an extra med kit. “You didn't make it easy, kiddo. But yes, I followed you. Good job.”
Mallory's first opportunity to speak, just like she'd promised herself. But she couldn't get over her shock.
She understood Olsen being here. It made sense Hunter would have someone tracking her, just in case she got in serious trouble, but it seemed wrong that Olsen would reveal herself now, ruining the illusion that Mallory had been alone. It somehow undercut what Mallory had done. And the presence behind her in the woods had seemed evil, hateful, which didn't jibe with Olsen's smile. But Mallory had probably just imagined an evil intent, the way she imagined the shark.
Stick to your plan, she told herself. Trust her. Tell her.
Mallory was trying to get up the nerve to start when she saw the Cold Springs transport backing up toward them—a big blue van, reverse lights flaring white.
It stopped ten feet away. Kindra Jones got out of the driver's side and came around the front. She could've been stepping straight off of Haight Street—patent leather boots, corduroy slacks, flannel jacket and horn-rims, gold nose stud and rust hair pulled back in cornrows. Clean and showered—no blood or mud stains anywhere. An ambassador from the real world.
Just looking at her made Mallory's legs wobbly.
“Welcome back, girls,” Jones said. “Sorry I overshot. Ain't used to this GPS stuff.”
Mallory looked at the van, saw no one inside. “Where are the others?”
Jones hesitated, and Mallory knew something was wrong. “Leyland took them back to the lodge. Dr. Hunter asked me to come out and get you.”
“Why separate vans?” Olsen asked.
Jones peered over her horn-rims. “Weren't you supposed to hike back alone, Miss Olsen? Isn't that normal procedure?”
“Mallory's Survival Week hasn't been exactly normal. I wanted to stick with her.”
Mallory could feel the tension crackle between the two women, a quiet animosity that singed the air.
“Get in,” Jones said. “It's too damn cold out here.”
Olsen climbed in the shotgun seat. Mallory got in the back, disoriented by the smoothness of the upholstery, the pine air freshener, the heater going full blast. The doors rolled shut and the van headed away from the wilderness.
Mallory watched the live oaks go past, the cactus, whitetail deer raising their heads in the clearings as the van drove by. Morrison and Bridges would be waiting back at the lodge. There would be time to talk about their adventures. New privileges. All of Gray Level ahead of them. She didn't want to jeopardize that. She didn't want to tell her secret.
After a mile of slushy mud road, Jones said, “You tired of that bracelet?”
“A little,” Mallory admitted.
“I got a key I can sell you.”
In the rearview mirror, Jones' smile reminded her of Race's, on those rare moments he allowed himself to smile. She tossed Mallory a little metal rod that slipped into the bracelet's joint.
Olsen shot Jones a disapproving look. “Shouldn't you wait until we get back?”
“We're not following normal procedure, remember? She won't run. Will you, Mal?”
Mallory's hands trembled. She clicked the bracelet open, set it on the drink holder between the front seats. She rubbed at the pale skin of her wrist. She'd only worn the bracelet twenty-four hours, but taking it off made her feel exposed, the way she'd felt when she'd lost Katherine's necklace.
“I need to say something,” she told the two women. “Something important.”
Jones raised her eyebrows. “Doesn't bother me. Bother you, Miss Olsen?”
Olsen glared at her wristwatch, as if trying to contain her anger with Kindra Jones, the way she'd told Mallory to do on Thanksgiving, so long ago. Ten minutes without an outburst. Starting now.
Then she turned, tucked her left foot under her, forcing her attention back on Mallory with an insincere smile. “Go ahead, kiddo. What's on your mind?”
Mallory wanted to back out. She wanted to wait until Olsen wasn't angry, until Kindra wasn't around. The timing was bad. It would be easier to do nothing.
But that was the danger. It was always safer to do nothing—to curl up in the black leather chair, sit paralyzed with fear, stare at the doorway and hope no one died. If she waited until the lodge, she would get caught up in Gray Level. She would lose her courage to speak. Part of her would curl up in that chair and be six years old forever. She drew a shaky breath.
“The night Katherine Chadwick committed suicide, I saw a girl on the porch of the Montrose house. She talked to Katherine, handed her a brown bag, then went inside. It was only for a second, but I saw her. It was you, Ms. Jones.”
For a moment, neither woman reacted. Then Jones laughed.
“Me? You think I dealt drugs for Chadwick's daughter?”
“You're Race's sister.”
Olsen was watching them as if they'd just pulled some elaborate magic stunt. “What is she talking about? Jones?”
Jones said nothing.
They had reached the end of the mud road, the far edge of Hunter's kingdom, where a paved farm to market T'ed to the left and right, fields of corn and sorghum spreading out before them. Jones yanked the wheel hard to the left, throwing Mallory into the arm of the passenger's seat.
“What the hell are you doing?” Olsen snapped.
Jones cracked her window, threw out the GPS bracelet. “Relax, counselor.”
“That was a three-hundred-dollar piece of equipment. The school's the other way.”
“We're making a little detour.”
Olsen looked back at Mallory, asking a silent question.
In the rearview mirror, Jones' expression was hardening—making her look very much like Race, but not Race . . . like some other enraged teenage boy.
Mallory thought of the river somewhere behind them, her lost backpack floating down toward the sea, or maybe stuck to some frozen branch, water breaking around it in a velvety arc. She wished she could trade places with the backpack right now, take her chances with the rapids.
“You're the older sister,” she said. “I thought . . . when Race talked about his sister getting protected by Samuel, being sent away to live with her real dad, I thought he meant his pregnant sister in L.A., Doreen. But Doreen would've been a baby back then. He meant you. Talia's first husband—the guy's name was Johnny Jay. J for Jones.”
“That were true, Ms. Detective, what the hell am I doing here?”
“Keeping an eye on me, using me as leverage against my dad. You were blackmailing him. You forced him to steal the school's money for you. He did it because he knew you'd kill me if he didn't cooperate.”
“Man, I'm devious.”
“Is she right?” Olsen asked.
Jones spun the car onto another side road. A quarter mile down, she pulled over with the driver's side wedged against a wall of corn, hit the unlock button for the doors. “Everybody out.”
There was nothing outside—just icy road and cornfields. The van had a sliding door on the left side, behind the driver's seat, pressed up against the corn. Mallory's fingers wrapped around the handle.
“Jones,” Olsen said, “start the car.”
“We need to get out and talk.” Jones' hand reached into her coat by her hip, as if she were unfastening her seatbelt. “The girl is partly right. I'm Race's sister.”
“I'm here because of Chadwick.” Kindra looked back at Mallory, her eyes burning with intensity—Race's eyes, the moment he'd seen his mother dead. “Chadwick's the one you should be worried about, Mallory. He's a fucking monster. He killed Emilio Pérez the night after we talked to him. He killed my brother Samuel. And I'll tell you something else Olsen doesn't want you to know—Chadwick killed your dad.”
“No.” Olsen was shaking her head. “Mallory, he did no such thing.”
“She doesn't want you to hear it. Your dad was found last night. Dead in Chadwick's old house. Shot three times, stuffed in a closet. Chadwick did that. And you'd better ask yourself why Olsen isn't surprised by the news, even though she was out in the woods with you all night.”
Mallory's heart was unraveling into veins and arteries. This couldn't be true. None of it.
“You're the monster,” Olsen told Kindra. “Mallory—don't listen to her. Chadwick would never do that. My backpack is behind you. Get the phone out. Do it now.”
“Okay,” Jones conceded placidly. “You don't want to get out of the car? That's fine. Messier, but fine.”
The gunshot jerked Olsen back in her seat like an electric shock. She gripped her abdomen with both hands, gaped at Jones in disbelief, blood oozing through her fingers.