I flip the display back on again to the map.
There’s no blip.
It’s just intermittent, I tell myself. Wait. I do. I stare at the screen for a second. Five seconds. Ten. I feel the sick, hot weight condensing in the pit of my stomach. Sweat on my forehead. No. God, no.
There’s no signal.
She’s gone. She’s gone.
“Mike,” I say. I think he can hear the desperation in it.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” he says. He is. The hill is steep, and slick as glass, and if he gooses it at all, we’ll break traction and slide back.
“The signal’s failed,” I say. I feel sick. Empty. “Get us there. Now.”
“They’re right up ahead,” he tells me. “Hang on. We’re going to see them as soon as we come up to the top. Just hang on.”
I keep watching the screen, praying for a blip, a flicker, anything. This can’t happen. It can’t. They can’t just make a whole van disappear.
They can if they found the tracker and crushed it.
We crest the hill. We can see for miles ahead. There are four vehicles in view, inching their way along. A red sedan. A police SUV, lights flaring as it makes a slow-motion progress. A black Jeep older than the one we’re in, cruising at an unsafe speed. An eighteen-wheeler, sticking to access roads and slow, steady miles.
I can’t see a van. Any van. In these conditions, they couldn’t get that far ahead of us. They can’t disappear.
I feel sick now, and I’m sweating. The flashing lights of the police car paint everything in lurid splashes.
“Could be just ahead of the truck,” Mike says. His control isn’t as perfect now, and I can hear the worry. “Son of a bitch, where is he?”
“Just go,” I tell him. “Push it.” I sound desperate. I am.
We take off, moving faster now. We match the black Jeep’s progress, which takes us past both the sedan and the cops; the latter give us cold looks, but I don’t give a shit if we get stopped now. I put Gwen at risk. I stood by and watched her get abducted. I will fight anybody, badge or no badge, who gets in my way right now because we have to find her.
There’s no van in front of the tractor trailer.
There’s no van anywhere.
There’s no signal.
There’s no Gwen.
We’ve lost her, and I can feel panic closing in, cold as sleet.
“Go back,” I tell him. I hear the edge in my voice. “They must have pulled off. Maybe they took a side road. Changed vehicles.”
“Just do it!” I feel like cut meat inside. I remember the rubber Melvin mask and taste bile. I manage to swallow it back. “We have to find her!”
We do. We turn back on the slick road, find a way back. We check every side road, every lay-by, every building.
The van is gone. I feel his hand roughly pat my shoulder, but I don’t want comfort. I want this not to happen because if I’d done this, if I’ve killed her . . .
The tablet I’ve almost forgotten lights up. A message has come in. I grab for it, and Mike puts the Jeep in park in the empty lot of a closed restaurant as I thumb the device on.
The text is from Absalom. It says, You cheated. You think we wouldn’t know? But we keep our word.
A link comes in the next message. I click it.
A map opens. It zooms in, and with shaking fingers, I pinch in to get an overview. What am I looking at?
It’s a map of Kansas. There’s a pin in the map, in a rural area outside of Wichita.
I look up at Mike. His face is blank. I wonder if he feels the same deep, scorching guilt, or if this is just a goddamn maneuver to him. A gambit that didn’t pay off.
I switch back to the message window. Where is she? I can’t scream it at them in a text, and the letters look stark and desperate. Fuck you, you assholes, what’s in Wichita? It makes an awful kind of sense that Melvin would go back to his old hunting ground. And that he’d take Gwen there.
There’s no response for a long moment, and I want to break this thing, destroy it into pieces too small to find, because there’s no one else to punish. No one but myself.
The reply suddenly pops back. Forget the bitch. She’s not your problem anymore.
I let out a shout and punch the dashboard so hard that I feel something pop in my hand with a firecracker burn, but I don’t give a shit. No, goddamn it, no, not like this, not like this . . .
I type back, Wrong, assholes, she is my problem, and I’m going to find her. You hurt her, I’ll make it my mission to put bullets in every one of you.
That’s my rage talking. I don’t have a clue how to find any of them. It’s an empty threat, but I can’t help making it.
There’s another long pause, and then a message comes back. You want to play? We told you where to find Melvin Royal. Get him fast enough, maybe she lives.
The breath goes out of me. You’re lying.
No. We want you to be there. To see.
My hands are aching. I’m panting for breath, and I want to break the tablet in half, feel that glass shatter and splinter like breaking bones.
But that’s what Absalom does. Taunt. Misdirect. Threaten.
“They want us to go to Wichita,” I say aloud. Mike’s looking at me with real concern when I turn to look at him. “Why?”
“Keeps us from looking somewhere else,” he says. “I’ve been smelling a rat since Atlanta. They’ve been playing you and me. Sending us where they want us, getting rid of their deadwood, like Suffolk; son of a bitch was already on the FBI’s radar anyway. We got too close, and all of a sudden they’re working on dividing us up. Sam, we need to think right now.”
I don’t want to think. It’s the last damn thing I want. But deep inside, I think Mike’s right. They’ve got Gwen. We can’t stop that by chasing bait. We have to get ahead of them.
I take in a deep breath, hold it, let it out. “Okay,” I say. “What first?”
“We rewatch that video you got at the cabin,” he says. “Because I think that’s where they got us heading the wrong direction.”
I stare at him. “You think they meant for us to find that?”
“No. I think they didn’t, and everything since then has been countermeasures. We get that lead and suddenly there’s a video implicating Gwen. Then a second one, when we grab Suffolk—and I’m pretty sure Absalom wanted to get rid of that rank bastard anyway, because he was careless. Somebody’s leading us on a pretty little path, and we need to get off that trail, now.”