She stepped onto the broken concrete and stopped directly under the ladder. When she stood on the balls of her feet and reached her hands up, her fingers just grazed the bottom rung. Bending her legs, she jumped and grasped the lowest rung with one hand, then both, grunting as she pulled her eyes parallel with her blanching knuckles.
Her right arm shot up, fingers catching on the next rung and tightening around the metal.
She cried out, fighting through the next pull-up, the hardest she’d ever done.
Her knees slid over the bottom rung and she let her weight rest upon it.
Sweat burning in her eyes.
Violet clung to the rusting ladder, allowing her pulse rate to slow. When she could breathe without panting, she got her tennis shoes onto the bottom rung and stared up toward the base of the water tank.
“Is this safe?” she asked.
“Does it look or feel safe?”
She began to climb.
The ladder itself was impossibly narrow, a foot wide at most. As she stepped onto each new rung the weight of her footfall set the metal vibrating on a low and haunting frequency.
Forty feet up, and she still hadn’t looked down, maintaining a hyperfocus on each rung, down to the rust-speckled metal. It was all that mattered—making clean steps. Certainly not the world opening up all around her, or the perceptible leaning of the tower that grew more pronounced the higher she climbed, or the picture her mind’s eye kept conjuring—the bolts that held this ladder to the top slowly pulling out of their housings.
The wind pushing against her carried tiny ball-bearings of sleet.
Halfway up, she had to stop and make herself breathe.
Not breathless from exertion, but fear.
When she opened her eyes, she was staring down the length of the ladder between her feet, figuring it must be seventy or eighty feet to that concrete slab at the tower’s base. It moved back and forth, or seemed to at least, though she knew that was the tower itself swaying and a surge of bile lurched up her throat.
Hold it together. You’ve been through worse. This is for Max. For Andy.
“You aren’t freezing on me up there, are you?”
Her words thick in her throat, palms sweating, sliding too easily across the metal rung. There was a tremor in her right leg as she started to climb again. Exhaustion and fear and the adrenaline running out, leaving her muscles shaky.
But she kept climbing.
A freezing drizzle needled the side of her face.
The steps becoming slippery.
Vi looked up. Three more rungs. Almost there.
She pushed on.
Then reached up, her right hand clutching the water-beaded railing, and pulled herself onto the catwalk that encircled the water tank.
It spanned twenty-four inches, but at least it had a railing, a flimsy semblance of protection.
A small camera, just out of reach, had been mounted to the water tank.
It aimed down toward where the ladder joined the catwalk.
Violet flattened herself on the cold metal, her heart beating against it. She didn’t want to do it, but she couldn’t stop herself from looking out across the urban wasteland that sprawled beneath her—block after block of derelict neighborhoods. A six-story housing project—black windows, a crumbling playset in what remained of the courtyard. She craned her neck. Abandoned factories loomed in the distance around the other side of the tower. A series of buildings. Brick chimneys, smokeless and soaring into a ceiling of slate. Everywhere, nothing but industrial decay. A ghost town. Only in the far distance, a mile or more away, did she discern the hum of automobiles, and further on, the feeble skyline of the city.
The speaker crackled in her ear.
Vi wiped the rainwater out of her eyes and got back onto her feet.
“I told you I had something for you, didn’t I?”
“That was a lie. Not something. Someone.”
Violet felt a vibration under her feet. She grabbed hold of the loose railing, didn’t like standing upright, the swirl of vertigo threatening.
She staggered back over to the ladder and looked down.
They’d only just started, but someone climbed quickly, with purpose.
“You’re coming up here?” she asked.
“That’s not me. Her name is Jennifer. She woke up here just like you, about an hour ago. Also like you, she’s a new mother. Her daughter, Margot, is sharing a crib with Max as we speak.”
Vi could hear the woman’s footfalls clanging on the metal rungs.
“Why’s she coming up here?”
“Because she doesn’t want her daughter to die. I assume you feel the same way about Max?”
Vi felt a tightening in her chest.
“Whichever one of you isn’t thrown to their death in the next ten minutes can also rest assured their child will be safe a little while longer.”
“Luther, for God’s—”
“Should be fun.”
“I can’t do this.”
“No one’s asking you to do a thing.” Clang. Clang. Clang. “Just stand there for all I care, let her throw you off.”
Violet backed away from where the ladder joined the catwalk.
Still, she had that lilting wooziness in her stomach, the height unnerving.
She leaned against the side of the empty water tank, her hands beginning to shake, listening to the woman approach.
And then the clanging was right there, and she saw hands grasp the railing and a head of dirty-blond hair lifting into view.
The woman climbed onto the catwalk and stood facing Violet. Ten feet away. She was a few years older, early thirties at most, wore a pink tracksuit and had about six inches on Vi. Deep, black bags formed half-crescents under her eyes, her skin molting with old mascara. The drizzle had flattened her hair. She looked sturdy, scrapy, angry, and scared.
“Hey,” Vi said.
The woman just stared, but something was breaking inside of her.
“Oh, I should’ve mentioned,” Luther said, “what with you being a cop and all your training, I gave her a knife. It’s only fair.”
Violet said to the woman, “Let’s climb down. We don’t have to do this.”
“He has my angel.”
“I know. He has my son. But we can’t do this. What he’s trying to force us into.”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“Let’s go down,” Vi said again. “We’ll figure something out.”
The woman shook her head, tears already trailing down her face. She reached back and her hand reappeared grasping a large hunting bowie with a wicked point and a nasty, serrated blade that looked unnatural in her hand, her eyes constantly shifting down to look at it, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she held.