There was no wind and the woods stood tall and silent.
Mist drifted by all around him, seemed to carry an electric charge, but he knew that hum was only some microscopic noise within himself, in his head, exposed only in the total absence of sound.
The road should not turn here.
It should barrel on through these pines another half mile and then begin the long series of switchbacks up the side of that mountain to the south.
He stepped carefully down off the shoulder into the trees.
The pine needle floor of the forest like walking on cushions.
The air damp and chill.
These trees...he’d never seen pines so tall, and with little in the way of undergrowth to contend with, moving between the massive trunks was easy—a forest with breathing room. You could be lost before you knew it.
He walked out of the mist, and now when he looked up, glimpsed icy points of starlight through the tops of the trees.
Another fifty yards, and he stopped. He should go back now. There were certainly other roads out of town, and he could already feel the disorientation creeping in. He glanced back over his shoulder, thought he saw the general route he’d taken to arrive at this spot, but you couldn’t be sure. Everything looked the same.
Out of the woods ahead of him: a scream.
He became very still.
There was the thumping of his heart and nothing else.
The scream could only be compared to human suffering or terror. Like a hyena or a banshee. Coyotes at their maddest. The mythologized Rebel Yell. High and thin. Fragile. Terrible. And on some level, humming under the surface like buried electrical cables, was a dim awareness that this wasn’t the first time he’d heard it.
Again, the scream.
An alarm going off between his eyes, in the pit of his stomach: Leave this place now. Don’t think about it. Just. Go.
Then he was running through the trees, gasping after twenty steps, back into the mist and the cold.
Up ahead, the ground sloped upward, and he climbed on hands and knees until he’d stumbled back out into the road. Despite the cold, he was sweating, eyes stinging with saltwater. He jogged along the double yellow line, back through the curve, until he saw two cylinders of light in the distance, cutting through the mist.
Slowed to a walk, and above the noise of his exertion, he heard the idle of the stolen car.
He reached it, opened the driver’s-side door. Climbed in behind the wheel, put his foot on the brake, and reached for the gearshift, desperate to leave this place.
He caught movement out of the corner of his left eye—a shadow in the side mirror. His eyes cut to the rearview mirror above the dash, and in the red glow of the brake lights, he saw what he’d missed—the cruiser parked thirty feet behind his rear bumper, just shy of complete invisibility in the mist.
When he looked back through the driver’s-side window, a shotgun barrel stared him down, just a few inches away. A flashlight blazed inside, firing the interior of the car with a harsh light that glared off the chrome and glass.
“You must be out of your goddamned mind.”
The irate gravel in his voice came slightly muffled through the glass.
Ethan still had his hand on the gearshift, wondering if he jammed it into drive and floored the gas—would Pope fire on him? At this range with a twelve gauge, you were talking decapitation.
“Very slowly,” Pope said, “put both hands on the wheel, and use your right to turn off the car.”
Ethan said through the glass, “You know who I am, and you ought to know better than to interfere. I’m leaving this town.”
“The hell you are.”
“I’m an agent of the United States government, with the full—”
“No, you’re a guy with no ID, no badge, who just stole a car, who might have murdered a federal agent.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I won’t tell you again, partner.”
Something needled Ethan to comply, whispered that pushing this man could be dangerous. Even fatal.
“All right,” Ethan said. “Just give me a second. The car’s hotwired. I have to separate the wires to turn it off.”
Ethan flicked on the dome light, got his hands under the steering column, pulled the white wires apart.
The lights died.
The engine shut down.
Nothing but the painful brilliance of Pope’s flashlight.
Ethan found the handle, had to dig his shoulder into the door to jar it open. He stepped outside. Mist streamed through the light beam. Pope, an angry shadow behind the flashlight and the shotgun, eyes hidden under the brim of his Stetson.
Ethan smelled the gun oil, figured Pope for a man dedicated to the tender loving care of his armory.
“You remember that part where I told you not to leave town?” Pope growled.
Ethan would have answered, but the light beam struck the ground, Ethan realizing a split second before it hit him that the shadow moving toward his head was the stock of the shotgun.
* * *
Ethan’s left eye had been closed by the blow—it felt hot and huge and it throbbed with his pulse. Through his right, he saw the interrogation room. Claustrophobic and sterile. White cinder-block walls. Concrete floor. A bare wood table, on the other side of which sat Pope, sans Stetson and jacket, the sleeves of his hunter-green button-down rolled up to expose his forearms—thick and freckled and knotted with muscle.
Ethan wiped away the fresh line of blood sliding down the side of his face, oozing out of the gash above his left eyebrow.
He stared at the floor. “May I have a towel, please?”
“No. You can sit there and bleed and answer my question.”
“Later, when this is all over, and you’re out of prison, I’m going to invite you over to my house to see your badge. It’ll be behind glass, in a frame, hanging over my mantel.”
This elicited a radiant smile. “Think so, huh?”
“You assaulted a federal agent. That’s a career-ender.”
“Tell me again, Ethan, how exactly you came to know about the body in six-oh-four? And none of this vanishing-bartender bullshit.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What I told you is the truth.”
“Really? You want to keep heading down that path? Because I went to the pub.” Pope drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “They don’t even have a female bartender on staff, and nobody saw you there four nights ago.”