The obsession, p.52
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       The Obsession, p.52
 

          

  “Like I want to breathe, but I’ll get it. Go back to sleep.”

  “Don’t tell me twice,” she managed, and did just that.

  Even the dog didn’t get up. Xander saw Tag’s eyes gleam as he pulled on clothes, but the dog didn’t stir or follow him down to grab that coffee before he headed out.

  He used a travel mug, downing the coffee as he walked out to his truck.

  Thirty, forty minutes, he thought as he gave the house one last long look. He’d be back. The doors were locked, the alarm set, the dog right there.

  She’d be fine.

  Still, he wished he’d dumped the shift on Jimmy. He knew about the guy at the bar—had noted him himself. The way he sat alone, head down, the way he’d kept a bead on Naomi when she’d come in.

  Then again, he’d noted a guy sitting alone at a table, one who fit the basic nondescription, and who’d given Naomi a long study when she’d walked through the bar.

  Until a woman had come in, hurried over, and snuggled up with him.

  This murdering bastard didn’t break into houses anyway, he reminded himself. But he flicked a glance in the rearview as he drove away.

  “2013 Ford Escape towing a 2006 Fun Finder RV,” he muttered. “Can’t miss that.”

  He slowed rounding the turn, and indeed couldn’t miss it. SUV and camper both sat on the shoulder, emergency flashers blinking.

  Xander slid in, nose to nose, and watched the man get out of the driver’s seat.

  Another reason he hadn’t dumped on Jimmy. The murdering bastard liked hunting on Friday nights. Women, but why take chances?

  The man lifted his hands, waving one, blinking against the headlights. Then he turned back to the SUV and spoke to someone inside as Xander got out.

  “Keaton’s?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Mike Rhoder. You were really quick. It just won’t start. I got my kid in the back, and we were heading to Olympia to camp for the weekend. I just pulled over—he had to pee—and it wouldn’t start back up. Just clicks. No, we’re not there yet, Bobby.” He rolled his eyes. “Just go back to sleep.”

  Xander hit his own flashers. “Go on and pop the hood. I’ll take a look.”

  “Thought I’d be stuck here till morning, then I’d never hear the end of it from my ex. Hope like hell I don’t need a new battery.”

  With the hood latch released, Xander went around to the front while the man leaned into the SUV again. “We’re fixing it right now, and it shouldn’t take long. It’s an adventure, right, buddy? And we’re nearly there. Promise.”

  “Why don’t you try to start her up?” Xander said with his head under the hood.

  “Sure, I can do that.”

  There was just the faintest hint of . . . excitement in the tone to have Xander pushing back, bracing. But the blow to the side of his head flashed pain, flashed lights, then shut out into the dark.

  “Or I could do that. How about a couple more, for good measure?”

  He lifted the crowbar over his head just as he caught headlights beaming ahead of the turn.

  Swearing, he lowered the crowbar and gave Xander a shove with his boot to roll him off the shoulder.

  The car slowed. The Good Samaritan rolled down his window.

  “You all right there, pal?”

  “Sure am. Getting a jump, but thanks for stopping!”

  “No problem. Have a good one.”

  As the car pulled off, he swiped sweat from his face. Too close, and one good crack would have to do. No time for more. He slammed the hood, got back in the SUV, and drove toward the bluff.

  He checked the time, smiled to himself. Right on schedule. He’d pull the camper off the road, just far enough up her drive so any cars passing wouldn’t give it a thought, but not so close that she or that damn dog would hear.

  He’d thought about poisoning the dog, even researched methods. But they all took too long, were too unpredictable. He needed fast.

  He’d thought about shooting the dog, which, while satisfying, would be noisy and give her a chance to run or hide.

  And the knife? That meant getting too close to those teeth.

  So he’d keep back, and let her go through the routine he’d watched countless times already.

  She’d let the dog out the bedroom doors, then head down to the kitchen.

  All he had to do was wait.

  —

  The dog woke her, predictably, at five. She reached out first, hoping Xander had come back. Then she reminded herself he’d only been gone about a half hour.

  “I’m up. I’m up,” she grumbled as the dog did his predawn dance.

  She let him out, then considered crawling back into bed. But the routine was too ingrained. She grabbed cotton pants and a tank, pulling the top on as she walked out of the bedroom.

  She’d make waffle batter—after coffee. If Xander hadn’t gotten back by that time, she could text him, get an ETA.

  Was it clingy or smothering to text about that?

  She didn’t feel clingy or smothering, so she’d text, if necessary.

  In the kitchen she hit the lights, put a mug under the machine, and punched the button for a shot of espresso in the coffee.

  While it brewed she got out a bowl, eggs, milk, flour, sugar—and stopped gathering ingredients the minute the coffee was ready. And taking it, she walked to the accordion doors.

  She wanted to smell morning.

  Even as she started to open the glass, she heard movement behind her.

  Thirty

  She whirled, saw him, threw the coffee, mug and all. The mug hit him dead center of his chest; hot coffee splashed into his face. He shouted, dropped the rag in his hand, and gave her enough time to leap toward the knives.

  She grabbed one, spun back. And slowly lowered it.

  “Yeah, you know what they say about bringing a knife to a gunfight.” He gestured with the .32 in his hand. “Put that down. You ruined this shirt. Let me tell you, you’re going to pay for it.”

  “They’re closing in on you.”

  “Yeah, you’d like to believe that, but the fact is, this is all just the way I pictured it.”

  “Why?” she demanded.

  “We’ll talk about it later. We’ll have plenty of time.” He grinned, pushed his fingers up the bridge of his nose.

  “I’m not—”

  It clicked, the gesture, the sarcastic quirk of his mouth.

  “Chaffins.”

  “Took you this long.” Obviously pleased, he grinned. “Well, I had Lasik—ditched the glasses. And a nose job. Decent haircut, bulked up a little. It’s been a while, Carson. Or should I say Bowes.”

  “How could you . . . We were friends.”

  “Bullshit. You wouldn’t—didn’t—give me the time of day until I headed up the yearbook committee, cleared you onto the school paper.”

  “This is because I didn’t pay enough attention to you? In high school?”

  “Please, like I carried a torch. I’ve had plenty of women. Girls. Old ladies.” He bared his teeth in a smile. “All of that. I figured out who you were. I figured it out, and I made a deal with you. You lied, and you sent that fucking cop over to tell me to keep it zipped.”

  How had she missed the madness in his eyes all those years ago? How could she have not seen what she saw now?

  “I didn’t make any deal.”

  “You fucking did, then you took my idea. You wrote the story yourself. It should’ve been my byline. It was my story.”

  “It was never yours.”

  “Because you’re Thomas David Bowes’s daughter?”

  If he lowered the gun, just lowered it, she thought, she had a chance. She’d have to be fast, but she’d take the chance.

  “It’s always been about my father.”

  “Maybe, maybe he kicked it off because I knew, way back, I’d put your father in the shade. It’s more about your mother.”

  “My mother.”

  “I said we’ll talk later. Get
moving.”

  “My mother.” He didn’t want to shoot her, didn’t want to kill her fast. So she planted her feet, took a stand. “You tell me what my mother has to do with any of it.”

  “Fine. I’ll give you another minute. But give me any trouble, I’ll shoot you in the knee. It won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt like hell.”

  “My mother,” she said again, and checked the time on the oven clock behind him. And thought: Xander. Where was Xander?

  “Your mother? Other than birds, some stray cats I killed, she was the first dead body I’d ever seen. Man, it was a revelation! She was cold, and her eyes. Man, her eyes. I got such a boner.” He laughed at the look of disgust on her face. “It’s just wiring, Carson. I was born for this, just like your old man. I’ve studied up on it, researched it. I bet your kid brother and I could have a hell of a conversation about it.”

  “You stay away from him.”

  “He doesn’t interest me. It’s always been you. I knew when we were on the floor with your mother’s cold, dead body, I’d do you one day. Then I figured out who you were, and that made it so fucking sweet. Now move, or I’ll kneecap you. Maybe I will anyway. I’ve never started out that way be—”

  He jerked back when the dog charged the door like a bull.

  The wild barks and Chaffins’s shouts exploded in the air.

  When he swung the gun toward the door, Naomi threw up her hands. “Don’t. Don’t. I’ll go with you. I’ll go.” She positioned herself in front of the door, hands up.

  There was still time, still a chance, she thought desperately. Xander would come back. She could get close enough to try to fight, to get the gun away. Or far enough away to run.

  “Out the front, and fast, or I swear to God—”

  Tag shoved the opening wider, gathered himself, and leaped.

  As the gun swung back, Naomi threw herself over the dog.

  The shock of pain dissolved her legs. She heard the dog’s sharp yip as fire burned in her side, as the room spun, as she fell, the dog beneath her.

  “Bitch! Stupid bitch, stupid bitch.”

  She saw his face swimming over her, the mad fury in his eyes. “This is the way you want it? You want a bullet in the brain? Maybe that’s how it was always supposed to be.”

  She stared at the gun, mildly puzzled. Why did it look so small? Like it was a hundred miles away.

  Then it was gone. She heard shouting, thought something crashed, but it was all, again, so far away. Nothing really to do with her. Not when she was floating away.

  —

  Look at me! Damn it, Naomi, open your eyes. You fucking stay with me.”

  Pain seared back, like a brand in her side. She cried out against it, her eyes wheeling open.

  “That got your attention. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I have to keep pressure on it.” Xander fixed his mouth on hers. “I have to hurt you. I’m sorry.”

  “Xander.” She lifted a hand that didn’t feel like her own, touched his temple. “You’re bleeding. You’re bleeding a lot.”

  “Yeah. You, too. Help’s coming. You just look at me. You talk to me.”

  “Were you in an accident?”

  “No. You’re going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”

  “I can’t . . .” Memory flooded back, washing through the pain. “Tag. The dog. The dog.”

  “Stay down, stay still! He’s okay. He’s going to be okay, too. Hear that? Hear the sirens? Help’s coming.”

  “He was in the house. He was going to shoot the dog. I couldn’t let him shoot the dog. He . . . the gun. He has a gun.”

  “Not anymore. Don’t worry about him. Broke his nose for you,” Xander murmured, laying his brow to hers.

  “I was going to fight. Going to try, but the dog—he came to save me. I need to close my eyes.”

  “No, you don’t. You need to look at me. You need to stay awake. Back here!” he shouted. “Hurry, for Christ’s sake. I can’t stop the bleeding.”

  “High school nerd.”

  “What?”

  “Chaffins. Anson Chaffins. Tell Mason,” she said, and slid away.

  —

  She went in and out in the ambulance, caught snippets of words, mixed voices. She felt Xander’s hand clutching hers, and once turned her head and swore she saw the dog on a gurney beside hers.

  “Anson Chaffins,” she said again.

  “Got it. They got it. They got him. Just take it easy.”

  She surfaced again, moving fast, lights blurring overhead, voices, more voices shouting out medical terms like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

  She heard, “I’m going to give you something for the pain.”

  And said, “Oh, yes. Yes, please.”

  —

  Furious they’d blocked him from going with Naomi, Xander argued with the burly nurse who stood in his way. If she’d been a man, he’d have decked her.

  He considered doing it anyway.

  “You need to get that dog out of here, and you need that head wound examined.”

  “The dog’s hurt. He’s been shot, for God’s sake.”

  “I’ll give you the number for an emergency veterinary clinic. But you have to—”

  “You’re going to take care of this dog.”

  “That’s exactly right.” Mason, face set, strode up, his ID held out. “The bullet is evidence, and needs to be removed. The dog is a material witness, and needs to be treated immediately.”

  “He’s a fucking hero.”

  “That’s right. I suggest you get a doctor, get this dog prepped for surgery, or I swear, I’ll arrest you for obstructing a federal investigation.”

  They wouldn’t let him in with Naomi, but loosened up enough to let him sit with the dog while they removed the bullet, treated the wound. And while they cleaned his own wound, stitched up his scalp.

  “He’s going to be fine.”

  The surgeon who’d volunteered for the procedure neatly closed Tag’s wound.

  “It’s going to be sore, and he’ll limp for a few days. I’ve given him some antibiotics, and I’ll write up a report for your vet. She should do a follow-up.”

  “Thanks.”

  “He’ll sleep another hour, I’d say. He looks like a good dog.”

  “He’s a damn good dog. Please, God, somebody find out about Naomi. Naomi Carson. Just—shit!”

  “I need you to hold still.” The intern doing the scalp
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