Horace came to his feet.
The footsteps stopped.
He strained to listen.
The darkness gaped with a silence that seemed to hum though he knew that sound was only the blood between his ears.
A light overhead flicked on and off.
So brief was its illumination he’d have missed them had he blinked.
But he didn’t.
And in that half-second snapshot of light he glimpsed tunnel walls, dirt floor, ax and shotgun, and not twenty feet away, the two men who held them—one old, one young—grinning at him.
A voice emerged from the darkness.
“What do you think you’re doing, young man?”
Horace could hardly breathe.
“I was following Andrew Thomas.”
“Who are you?”
Horace backed slowly into the tunnel as they conversed in darkness.
“I saw Andrew Thomas in a bookstore in Alaska last April.” Then fighting tears, “I’ve been following him because I want to write a book about him. I swear that’s all. I have a notebook in my backpack that’ll prove it.” His voice broke at the end.
“You came here on foot?”
“I left my car in the trees near your mailbox. I just want to write a book about—”
“And you’re here alone?”
“Yessir. I’m so sorry. I know I shouldn’t’ve—”
“Well, Luther, what do you think? Should we give him a head start?”
A flashlight suddenly burned in Horace’s eyes.
He saw the twenty-eight-inch barrel pass through the lightbeam, shook shook, and he dove to the floor as the light went out.
There was an orange blossom.
He smelled gunpowder as the spray of buckshot hit the stone behind him.
And Horace was back on his feet, running blind into the dark.
IT was in the late afternoon when the shaft of light passed through the stone and lit the oval patch of rock.
Beth staggered to her feet.
The manacles and a sixteen-inch length of chain still hung from her left wrist. She’d spent several hours to no avail trying to squeeze her hand free.
Beth stood in bare feet, in her filthy yellow teddy, gazing down at Andy and Violet.
They’d all huddled in darkness last night, listening to the shotgun blasts, wondering what had happened to that young man.
“Come here,” Andy whispered.
She knelt, their faces close in the musty twilight.
“Beth, just get out of this place. That’s your first priority. Get somewhere safe before you try to do anything.”
She nodded, moved over to the twenty-something blond, whose once smart black suit now adorned her like rags.
“Violet,” she whispered, touching her face, running her fingers across the top of her dirty matted hair, “You’re going to have your baby.”
Vi’s eyes welled.
“Be safe, Beth.”
And Beth stood, stepped from the alcove into the tunnel, glancing back at her cellmates, barely visible in the temporary stream of sunlight.
Then she started into the corridor.
After three steps the darkness was total. She could hear hammering somewhere in the black distance. She dragged her right hand along the wall as a guide. Shards of laughter reverberated through the darkness, the dirt cool beneath her feet. She thought of her children. Drove them from her mind, thinking, Just get outside, under the blue sky, and go from there.
She walked into three deadends before she saw the light.
It came from a doorway twenty feet ahead.
The chain dangling from her wrist knocked into the stone wall.
Spurning the impotence in her knees, she crept forward until the voices became perfectly clear.
Rufus carefully let go of the oak strip he’d been pressing into the back of the chair for the last five minutes. The strip would serve as a sleeve for the heavy copper wire that ran up the backside of the four-by-four. Now that the wood glue had hardened, Rufus stepped back and admired his chair. It was crude, yes, but in a terrifyingly utilitarian fashion.
It would be so beautifully lethal.
Maxine sat in a corner reading At Home in Mitford.
Luther was crouched over a sheet of copper.
“Pop, what’d you do with the hacksaw? I have one more cut to make, and I can’t find it.”
“Haven’t seen it.”
“Mom, you haven’t touched it?”
Maxine peered over the top of her book.
“Do I look like I have any use for—”
“What?” Rufus said.
Luther stood up.
“You don’t think our visitor took it?”
“Well, do you see it here? I didn’t take it. You didn’t take it. Mom sure as hell didn’t take it.”
“Watch that language, boy.”
“The f**ker”—Luther glanced at his mother—“didn’t walk off.”
“Beautiful, were they all chained up when you fed them this morning?”
“Gee, Sweet-Sweet, I don’t remember. I wasn’t really paying attention. What kinda question is that? Of course they were.”
“We better go check on them, son.”
Rufus and Luther were halfway through the doorway when they heard the dingdong.
The doorbell had been recently wired to a speaker near the stairs and they stared at it in amazement as it dingdonged again.
Beth froze, watching the Kite family emerge into the corridor. She did not move for fear the chain would clink against the stone or they would hear her footsteps. She wondered if the darkness were sufficient to hide her, should one of them happen to glance back in her direction.
The young man, the old man, and the old woman walked up the corridor away from her, guided by the light of a lantern.
The young man carried a shotgun.
The dingdong echoed again through the darkness.
In the orange illumination of the lanternlight, Beth saw them turn and disappear. She thought they had swung around into another passageway until the sound of their footsteps reached her.
They’re climbing stairs.
And knowing she’d found the way out, she crept after them.
RUFUS alone answered the door with a bright toothless smile that never faltered, even when he saw the badge. Two men stood facing him on the stoop, the sun in their eyes, just moments from sliding behind the house on its way into becoming a puddle of light in the Pamlico Sound.
The one with the badge was a big bear of a man in a JC Penney’s suit that should’ve been donated to the Salvation Army years ago. His hair was frosting, mustache just as dark and thick and pure as a stallion’s mane. The curly-haired man standing behind the cop looked half his age—mid-twenties, lean and tall, wearing jeans and a pinstripe button-down, with the eyes of a dog who’d been kicked.