“A victim. Sure you are.” The detective opened her door. “Step out.” No please this time. The officer who’d called the detective stepped away, and his hand was still on his gun, and why, why were they treating her like this, like a criminal? This is just a mistake. All a terrible, stupid mistake! Out of instinct, she reached for her purse, but Salazar immediately took it and handed it to the patrol officer. “Hands on the hood, Mrs. Royal.”
“Why? I don’t understand what’s—”
Detective Salazar didn’t give her a chance to finish. She spun Gina around and shoved her forward against the car. Gina broke her fall with outstretched hands on the hot metal of the hood. It was like touching a stove burner, but she didn’t dare pull away. She felt dazed. This was a mistake. Some terrible mistake, and in another minute they’d apologize and she would graciously forgive them for being so rude, and they’d laugh and she’d invite them in for iced tea . . . she might have some of those lemon cookies left, if Mel hadn’t eaten the rest; he really loved his lemon cookies . . .
She gasped when Salazar’s hands slid impersonally over areas that she had no right to touch. Gina tried to resist, but the detective shoved her back in place with real force. “Mrs. Royal! Don’t make this worse! Listen to me. You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent—”
“I’m what? That’s my house! That car drove into my house!” Her son and daughter could see this humiliation, right in front of them. Her neighbors all stared. Some had cell phones out. They were taking pictures. Video. Uploading this horrible violation to the Internet so bored people around the world could mock her, and it wouldn’t matter later that it was all a mistake, would it? The Internet was forever. She was always warning Lily about that.
Salazar continued to talk, telling her about rights that she couldn’t possibly comprehend in that moment, and Gina didn’t resist as the detective pinned her hands behind her back. She just didn’t know how to even begin.
The metal of the handcuffs felt like a cold slap on her damp skin, and Gina fought a strange, high buzzing in her head. She felt sweat rolling down her face and neck, but everything seemed separated from her. Distant. This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. I’ll call Mel. Mel will sort this out, and we’ll all have a good laugh later. She could not comprehend how she’d gone in a minute or two from normal life to . . . to this.
Brady was yelling and trying to get out of the car, but the policeman kept him inside. Lily seemed too stunned and scared to move. Gina looked toward them and said in a surprisingly rational voice, “Brady. Lily. It’s okay—please don’t be afraid. It’ll be okay. Just do what they tell you. I’m all right. This is all just a mistake, okay? It’s going to be all right.” Salazar’s hand was painfully tight on her upper arm, and Gina turned her head toward the detective. “Please. Please, whatever you think I did, I didn’t do it! Please make sure my kids are okay!”
“I will,” Salazar said, unexpectedly kind. “But you need to come with me, Gina.”
“Is it—do you think I did this? Drove this thing into our house? I didn’t! I’m not drunk, if you think—” She stopped, because she could see a man sitting on a cot by the ambulance, breathing oxygen. A paramedic was treating him for a wound to the scalp, and a police officer hovered nearby. “Is that him? Is that the driver? Is he drunk?”
“Yes,” Salazar said. “Total accident, if you call drunk driving an accident. He hit early happy hour, made a wrong turn—says he was trying to make it back to the freeway—and took the corner too fast. Ended up with his front end inside your garage.”
“But—” Gina was utterly lost now. Completely, horribly at sea. “But if you have him, why are you—”
“You ever go into your garage, Mrs. Royal?”
“I—no. No, my husband turned it into a workshop. We put cabinets over the door from the kitchen; he goes into it from a side door.”
“So the door at the back doesn’t go up? You don’t park in it anymore?”
“No, he took the motor out, you have to go in through the side door. We have a covered carport, so I don’t need—look, what is this? What is going on?”
Salazar gave her a look. It wasn’t angry now; it was almost apologetic. Almost. “I’m going to show you something, and I need you to explain it to me, okay?”
She walked Gina around the barricade, up the sidewalk where black tire marks veered and careened in muddy ditches through the yard, all the way up to where the rear of the SUV stuck obscenely out of a jumble of red bricks and debris. This wall must have held a pegboard with Melvin’s tools. She saw a bent saw mixed in with the chalky drywall dust and for a second could only think, He’s going to be so upset, I don’t know how to tell him about any of this. Mel loved his workshop. It was his sanctuary.
Then Salazar said, “I’d like you to explain her.”
Gina looked up, past the hood of the SUV, and saw the life-size naked doll hanging from a winch hook in the center of the garage. For a bizarre instant, she nearly laughed at the utter inappropriateness of it. It dangled there from a wire noose around its neck, loose arms and legs, not even doll-perfect in proportions, a flawed thing, strangely discolored . . . And why would anyone paint a doll’s face that hideous purple black, flay off pieces of the skin, make the eyes red and bulbous and staring, the tongue protruding from swollen lips . . .
And that was when she had one single, awful realization.
It’s not a doll.
And against all her best intentions, she began to scream and couldn’t stop.
FOUR YEARS LATER
Stillhouse Lake, Tennessee
I take a deep breath that reeks of burned gunpowder and old sweat, set my stance, focus, and pull the trigger. I keep my body balanced for the shock. Some people blink involuntarily with every shot; I’ve discovered that I simply don’t. It isn’t training, just biology, but it makes me feel that much more in control. I’m grateful for the edge.
The heavy, powerful .357 roars and bucks, sending familiar shocks through me, but I’m not focused on the noise or the kick. Only the target at the end of the range. If noise distracted me, the constant din of other shooters—men, women, and even a few teens at the other stations—would have already spoiled my aim. The steady roar of gunfire, even through the thick muffle of ear protection, sounds like a particularly violent, constant storm.
I finish firing, release the cylinder, remove the empty shells, and set the gun on the range rest with the wheel still open, muzzle pointed downrange. Then I remove my eye protection and put the glasses down. “Done.”
From behind me, the range instructor says, “Step back, please.” I do. He picks up and examines my weapon, nods, and hits the switch to bring the target forward. “Your safety’s excellent.” He has his voice pitched loudly to be heard over the noise and the barrier of hearing protection we both wear. It’s already a little hoarse; he spends most of his day shouting.
“Here’s hoping my accuracy is, too,” I yell back.
But I already know it is. I can see it before the paper target is halfway back on the glide. Empty holes fluttering, all in the tight red ring.
“Center mass,” the instructor says, giving me a thumbs-up. “That’s a letter-perfect pass. Good job, Ms. Proctor.”
“Thank you for making it so painless,” I say in turn. He steps back and gives me space, and I close the cylinder and replace the weapon in its zipped bag. Safe.
“We’ll get your scores in to the state office, and you should get your carry permit in no time.” The instructor is a young man with a tight burr haircut, former military. He has a soft, blurred accent that, though Southern, doesn’t have the sharper lilt of Tennessee . . . Georgia, I think. Nice young man, at least ten years below the age I’d ever consider dating. If I dated. He’s unfailingly polite. I am Ms. Proctor, always.
He shakes hands with me, and I grin back. “See you next time, Javi.” Privilege of my age and gender. I get to use his first name. I said Mr. Esparza for the first solid month, until he gently corrected me.