Missing you, p.32
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       Missing You, p.32

          

  What would her father tell her to do?

  The answer was so obvious now.

  It didn't matter why Jeff ran off, why he changed his name, none of that. Sugar wouldn't care. Dad wouldn't care. Death teaches you that. You would give anything, forgive anything, for just one more second. . . .

  When this was over, Kat would drive back up to Montauk and tell him how she felt.

  The sun was setting, coloring the sky a deep purple.

  Up ahead, the black SUV finally exited the turnpike onto Route 222.

  Kat followed. It couldn't be too far now.

  *

  Brandon asked "What do you want with my mother?" one time too many.

  Titus clocked him in the mouth with the butt of his gun. Brandon's teeth broke. Blood flowed from his mouth. Brandon ripped off his T-shirt and pressed it against the wound. He stopped talking then.

  When they hit Route 222, Titus checked his watch. They were less than forty minutes away. He did a few calculations in his head--the size of the fire, the visibility, how long it would take local firefighters to arrive, especially if he called them and told them he had it under control.

  An hour, at least.

  That was all the time he would need.

  He called Reynaldo. "Have you finished spreading the gasoline?"

  "Yes."

  "Is she still trapped in the basement?"

  "Yes."

  "Where are Rick and Julio?"

  "They're in the yard. One in the front, one in the back."

  "You know what has to be done."

  "I do."

  "Take care of it. Then set the fire. Make sure it burns all the way to the ground. Then get to the boxes and finish cleaning up."

  *

  Reynaldo hung up the phone. Bo stood by the barn. He'd be safe. That was the important thing now. Rick was in the front of the house. Reynaldo walked toward him.

  "Did you speak to Titus?" Rick asked.

  "Yes."

  "Are we going to set the fire?"

  Reynaldo had the knife hidden in his hand. He stabbed him fast and deep in the heart. Rick was dead before he slid to the ground. Reynaldo took out a book of matches. He headed back to the house, lit one, and dropped it on the front steps.

  The flames leapt to life, traveling in a fast, blue line.

  Reynaldo kept walking. He reached the back door. His gun was by his side. He aimed and shot Julio in the head. Reynaldo lit another match and threw it by the back door. Again, flames exploded in a glorious blue wave. He took a few steps back so he could see both exits.

  There was no other way out. He saw that right away. Dana would burn to a crisp in the fire.

  He watched the flames climb higher and higher. He wasn't a pyromaniac or anything like that, but you couldn't help but be enthralled by the sheer power of the blaze. It quickly ran through the house, eating everything in sight. Reynaldo listened for her screams. He had hoped to hear them. But there were none. He kept his eyes on the doors, especially the kitchen one, hoping that the fire would drive her out, that a flaming figure would whirl into sight, driven by agonizing pain, pirouetting in a final death dance.

  But that didn't happen either.

  Reynaldo lifted Julio's body and tossed it into the flames. He and Rick would end up charred but perhaps identifiable. That might help. If anyone would take the fall, it would be the dead.

  The blaze was at full power now.

  Still no screams, no sightings.

  He wondered whether the fire or the smoke had killed Dana. He might never know, of course. He was sure, however, that she was dead. He could see no way she could have escaped.

  And yet, as he turned away from the wreckage, he felt a funny sense of unease.

  Chapter 43

  When Dana Phelps saw the flames, she hurried down the awful path she had taken too many times before.

  Where, she wondered, would be the last place he would look for her?

  Back with the boxes.

  It was odd about what we consider luck, fate, timing. Her husband, Jason, had grown up in Pittsburgh and was an avid Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins fan. He loved cheering his teams, but he understood better than most how random the whole world was. If there had been full replay rules with HD cameras back in the seventies, many believed that we would see the ball hit the ground before Franco Harris made the catch on the Immaculate Reception. Did it? If so, would the Steelers have then lost that game and not won four straight Super Bowl titles?

  Jason loved asking questions like this. He didn't care about the big stuff--the work ethic, the schooling, the training. Life, he suspected, hinges too often on chance. We all want to convince ourselves that it is about hard work and education and perseverance, but the truth is, life is much more about the fickle and the random. We don't want to admit it, but we are controlled by luck, by timing, by fate.

  In her case, the luck, the timing, the fate had been blood on Bo's paws.

  Checking the dog for injuries had slowed Reynaldo down just a few seconds, but it was long enough. It was long enough for her to drop the phone and run into the kitchen and realize that he would quickly find her because of her bloody footprints.

  So what did she do?

  There was no time to consider a bunch of cute plans or alternatives. The idea was there and, if she did say so herself, near genius. She walked straight to the cellar door, opened it and tossed her socks down the stairs.

  Then, fully barefoot, she managed to hop-sprint outside. She made it to the woods and ducked down to hide. A few seconds later, Julio appeared.

  As soon as the fire started, as soon as the flames began to crawl up the sides of the wooden frame, Dana realized that they were covering their tracks. It was all coming to an end. So she ran down the path, remembering that when she had first arrived, when she was first forced to take off her yellow sundress, she had seen something that troubled her.

  Other clothing.

  The sun was setting fast. Darkness had already started to settle in when she reached the clearing. There was a small tent where Reynaldo hung out. She quickly looked inside. There was a sleeping bag and a flashlight. No phone. Nothing she could use as a weapon.

  Of course, she still had the axe.

  She took the flashlight although she didn't dare turn it on yet. The clearing in front of her was flat. The box where she had been forced to live for . . . again, she had no idea how long . . . was camouflaged. Even she couldn't remember exactly where it was. She walked over, bent down, and finally found the open padlock. Amazing. Without the padlock, she would have passed right over the door.

  A crazy idea darted through her head--get into the box and hide there. Who in their right mind would look for her there? But then again, who in their right mind would ever, even if it meant helping themselves, voluntarily go underground again?

  Not her.

  This was all beside the point anyway. The house was burning.

  Darkness had fallen now. She could barely see. She started to crawl across the grass, still not sure what she should do here. She had gone about ten yards when her hand hit something metallic.

  Another padlock.

  This one was locked.

  It took Dana two blows with the axe to break the lock open. The door was heavier than she would have imagined. She needed all her strength to pull it up off the dirt.

  She peered down into the dark hole. There was no sound, no movement.

  Behind her the blaze was still burning. No choice now. She had to risk it.

  Dana turned on the flashlight. She pointed it down to the box and gasped out loud.

  The sobbing woman looked up at her. "Please don't kill me."

  Dana nearly started to cry. "I'm here to save you, not hurt you. Can you get yourself out?"

  "Yes."

  "Good."

  Dana crawled another ten yards and found yet another padlock. She broke that one open on the first try. The man inside was also weeping and too weak to climb out. She didn't wait. She moved toward a third box and found the padlock. She broke it, opened the door and didn't even bother checking inside. She moved to a fourth box.

  She had just cracked that lock with her axe when she saw headlights by the farmhouse.

  Someone had come up the drive.

  *

  Clem opened the gates. Then he got back behind the wheel.

  It wasn't until they were halfway up the drive that Titus saw the flames.

  He smiled. This was a good thing. If he couldn't see the fire from the road, there was an excellent chance that nobody would notify the fire station. It gave him plenty of time to finish up and clear out.

  Reynaldo was up ahead, dragging a body toward the flames.

  "What the hell," Clem said. "Isn't that Rick?"

  Titus calmly put the muzzle of the gun against the back of Clem's head and fired one shot. Clem slumped forward on the wheel.

  This had all begun with Titus and Reynaldo. That was how it would end too.

  Brandon cried out in shock. Titus swung the gun back toward the kid's chest. "Get out of the car."

  Brandon stumbled out. Reynaldo was there to greet him. Titus followed. For a few seconds, the three of them stood there together and watched the flames.

  "Is his mother dead?" Titus asked.

  "I think so."

  Brandon let out an agonizing, primitive cry. He lunged toward Reynaldo, hands raised. Reynaldo stopped him with a deep punch in the gut. Brandon fell to the ground, gasping for air.

  Titus pointed the gun at the boy's head. To Reynaldo he asked, "Why did you say 'I think so'?"

  "Because I think she was in the basement. Like I said."

  "But?"

  Bo's bark shattered the night air.

  Titus grabbed a flashlight and moved it around until he located Bo standing on the right. The old dog was looking down the path to the boxes and barking like mad.

  "Maybe," Titus said, "you were wrong about her being in the basement."

  Reynaldo nodded.

  Titus handed him the flashlight. "Start down the path. Have the gun ready. Shoot her as soon as she reveals herself."

  "She could be hiding," Reynaldo said.

  "Not for long she won't be."

  Brandon yelled, "Mom! Don't come this way! Run!"

  Titus pushed the gun into Brandon's mouth, silencing him. With as loud a voice as he could muster, he shouted, "Dana? I have your son." He hesitated before adding, "Come out or he will suffer."

  There was silence.

  He called out again. "Okay, Dana. Listen to this."

  Titus pulled the gun out of Brandon's mouth. He aimed for the boy's knee and pulled the trigger.

  Brandon's scream shattered the night.

  *

  Kat stayed on the road, making sure not to slow down and give the SUV a bead on her. She was in constant phone contact with the FBI now. She gave them the locale and pulled off the road about a hundred yards up.

  "Good work, Detective," ADIC Keiser told her. "Our people should be there in fifteen or twenty minutes. I want to make sure we have enough men to take them all down."

  "They have Brandon, sir."

  "I know that."

  "I don't think we should wait."

  "You can't just barge in. They have hostages. You have to wait for our team, let them get a dialogue going. You know the drill."

  Kat didn't like it. "With all due respect, sir, I'm not sure there's time. I would like permission to go in on my own. I won't engage unless absolutely necessary."

  "I don't think that's a good idea, Detective."

  That wasn't a no.

  She hung up the phone before he could say more and put it on silent. Her gun was in its holster. She left the car where it was and started back. She would have to be careful. There could be security cameras at the gate, so she entered from the side and hopped the fence. It was dark now. The woods were thick. She used her iPhone--thank goodness the guy with the Ford Fusion had a built-in charger--as a dim flashlight.

  Kat was walking slowly through the trees, when up ahead, she saw the flames.

  *

  Dana managed to get another box open when she heard Brandon shout: "Mom! Don't come this way! Run!"

  She froze at the sound of her son's voice.

  Then she heard Titus: "Dana? I have your son."

  Her whole body began to shake.

  "Come out or he will suffer."

  Dana almost dropped the heavy door, but the first woman she'd helped was suddenly beside her. The woman took the door from Dana and let it drop to the ground. Someone inside the box groaned.

  Dana started toward the path.

  "Don't," the woman whispered to her.

  Confused, dazed, Dana turned toward the voice. "What?"

  "You can't listen to him. He's just playing games with you. You need to stay here."

  "I can't."

  The woman put her hands on Dana's cheeks and made her look her straight in the eye. "I'm Martha. What's your name?"

  "Dana."

  "Dana, listen to me. We need to get the rest of these boxes open."

  "Are you out of your mind? He has my son."

  "I know that. And once you show yourself, he'll kill you both."

  Dana shook her head. "No, I can save him. I can make a trade--"

  Titus's voice cut through the night like a reaper scythe. "Okay, Dana, listen to this."

  The two women turned as the gunshot blasted through the still night air.

  Dana's son's scream got lost in her own.

  Before she could react more, before she could surrender and save her son, this woman--this Martha--tackled her to the ground.

  "Get off me!"

  Martha stayed on top of her. Her voice was remarkably calm. "No."

  Dana bucked and fought, but Martha held on with everything she had.

  "He'll kill you both," Martha whispered in her ear. "You know that. For your boy's sake, you can't run out there."

  Dana started twisting and turning in panic. "Let me go!"

  And then Titus's voice again: "Okay, Dana. Now I'm going to shoot his other knee."

  *

  Kat was moving forward a few trees at a time, making sure per protocol that she stayed out of sight, when she heard the man threaten Brandon.

  She needed to move faster.

  A few second later, when Kat heard the gunshot and Brandon's scream, she tossed all protocol to the wind. She veered from the woods onto the main drive where she could run at full speed. She would, of course, be easy pickings if anyone saw her, but that didn't seem like such a big deal right now.

  She had to save Brandon.

  Her gun was in her right hand. Her breath echoed in her ears as though someone had pressed seashells against them.

  Up ahead, she saw the SUV. A man holding a gun stood next to it. Brandon was on the ground, writhing in pain.

  "Okay, Dana," the man shouted. "Now I'm going to shoot his other knee."

  Kat was still too far away for a shot. She yelled, "Freeze!" without slowing down her sprint.

  The man turned toward her. For a half second, no more, he looked perplexed. Kat kept running. The man swung the gun toward her. Kat dove to the side. But the guy still had her in his sights. He was about to pull the trigger when something made him stop.

  Brandon had grabbed his leg.

  Annoyed, the man pointed the gun toward Brandon.

  Kat was ready now. She didn't bother shouting out another warning.

  She pulled the trigger and saw the man's body fly backward.

  *

  From a spot midway through the path, Reynaldo was able to hear the screams in stereo. From behind him, the sound came from the boy who'd just been shot. In front of him, he heard the more anguished cry of a mother who was paying the price for trying to escape.

  Now he knew for certain where she was.

  The boxes.

  He wouldn't let her escape again.

  Reynaldo rushed down into the clearing that he had called home for these many months. It was dark, but he had the flashlight. He cast the beam to his right, then his left.

  Dana Phelps was lying on the ground about twenty yards away. There was another woman--it looked like Number Eight--on top of her.

  He didn't ask why Number Eight was out of the box or how. He didn't call out or give them any kind of warning. He simply raised his gun and took aim. He was about to squeeze the trigger, when he heard a guttural, primitive shout.

  Someone jumped on his back.

  Reynaldo stumbled, dropping the flashlight but holding on to the gun for dear life. He reached behind him, clawing for whoever was on his back. Someone else picked up the flashlight and struck him in the nose. Reynaldo howled in pain and fear. His eyes watered.

  "Get off me!"

  He reared back, trying desperately to buck the person off his back. It didn't work. An arm snaked around his enormous neck and started to squeeze.

  They were everywhere, swarming all over him.

  One bit his leg. Reynaldo could feel the teeth digging into his flesh. He tried to shake his leg loose, but that just made him lose balance. He teetered before falling hard to the ground.

  Someone jumped on his chest. Someone else grabbed his arm. It was as if they were demons coming out of the dark.

  Or out of the box.

  Panic engulfed him.

  The gun. He still had the gun.

  Reynaldo tried to raise his gun, tried to blast all these demons straight back to hell, but someone was still holding his arm down.

  They wouldn't stop attacking him.

  There were four of them. Or five. He didn't know. They were relentless, like zombies.

  "No!"

  He could make out their faces now. There was the bald man in Number Two. The fat guy in Number Seven. That man from Number Four had joined in too. Someone smashed him in the nose with the flashlight again. The blood started flowing down into his mouth. His eyes started rolling back.

  With a desperate roar, Reynaldo started pulling the trigger on the gun. The bullets dug harmlessly into the ground, but the shock and suddenness made whoever was holding his arm loosen their grip.

  One last chance.

  Reynaldo used all his strength to pull free.

  He swung his gun up in the air.

  In the light of the moon, Reynaldo could see the silhouette of Dana Phelps rising above him. He started to take aim, but it was too late.

  The axe was already on its way toward him.

 
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