The Asian boy kicks open the glass door and shoves Mia through it, the gun still hard against her head. Mia’s face is drained of blood, her eyes blank with terror. I want to reach for the gun in my jacket pocket, but that would probably get Mia a bullet in the head. As I stare, I realize I’m looking at the guy who shot Sonny Cross from the black Lexus on Beau Pr'e Road. He’ll have no qualms about blowing Mia’s brains out.
What does this guy want?
I start violently at the crack of metal against my window. I look to my left. A second Asian boy is aiming a stubby submachine gun at me. It looks like a Heckler and Koch MP5, a favorite of law enforcement. He motions for me to roll down my window. I do.
”Keep your hands where I can see ‘em,“ he says in a Southern accent.
For some reason I expected him to speak Vietnamese, but why should he? He’s from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
”Keys!“ he snaps. ”Give ’em here!“
If Mia weren’t part of this equation, I’d hit the gas and peel out of this tunnel. But she is part of it. I shut off the Saab and hand the boy my keys.
”That, too,“ he says, jabbing the gun at the portfolio on the seat.
I brought the portfolio with me because I knew other people had access to Quentin’s suite, and I didn’t want to take a chance on losing it. I glance at Mia as I reach into the passenger seat and pass the portfolio across my chest. Her mouth is hanging slack.
”Get his gun!“ yells the boy holding Mia. ”We’ll take his car.“
As the boy at my window reaches inside, a shadow appears behind the one holding Mia. I assume it’s another member of his gang, but then the right side of his forehead explodes, and he drops like a sandbag.
Mia screams and looks down.
The hand at my chest jerks out of the window.
”Run, Mia!“I shout, ramming my door into the gunman’s midsection. Then I yank out my father’s pistol, fire three times through the window, and scramble over the passenger seat for the opposite door.
Whoever shot the guy holding Mia is firing to give me cover. I shove open the passenger door and dive onto the cement, wondering who the hell it could be.
”Get in here, Penn!“shouts a male voice. ”Move!“
As my unknown savior fires, I crab-walk across the cement and dive through the glass door. It’s swinging shut behind me when a burst of machine-gun fire blasts plate glass all over my back.
”Over here!“shouts Mia. ”Hurry!“
Mia is hiding behind a gigantic Oriental vase. I crawl to her and take cover, searching for whoever saved us. Gunfire from the tunnel sends glass spraying through the lobby. Thank God it’s two in the morning.
”Get her clear!“ screams a voice from my right.
”Who are you?“
”Logan! Don Logan!“
The chief of police…
”Get her out of here, Penn! There’s probably more of them!“
He’s right. ”We’ve got to run for it, Mia.“ I look out into the seemingly empty lobby. ”Call for backup, Don!“
”On the way! Get moving!“
As I pull Mia to her feet, Chief Logan rises from behind a club chair and begins firing his handgun through the shattered windows.
Where do we run?The door to the parking lot is beside the check-in desk, but the lot offers no guarantee of safety. There’s another exit on Main Street, but that’s a long run from here, and something tells me the Asians will be covering the main doors. I sprint across the lobby toward the hall that leads to Main Street, pulling Mia alongside me.
”Don’t go outside!“ Logan yells.
I’m not headed outside. There’s a staircase in the hall that leads to the mezzanine, which has sheltered access to the elevators. When we reach the stairs, I start to send Mia up first, then change my mind. As I lead the way, I try to do what my father often preaches: realize the danger before you’re in it.
”Don’t hesitate,“ I say as I run. ”If something happens, shoot first, sort it out lat-“
Mia screams so sharply that it hurts my ears.
I whirl, figuring someone is chasing us, but Mia is pointing past me, up the stairs. I half pull my trigger as I spin, then depress it the final distance as a blurry figure comes flying down toward me. I don’t know if he’s armed or not, but I keep pulling the trigger until a hundred and fifty pounds of muscle slams into me, knocking me back onto Mia.
”Is he dead?“ she grunts, trying to scramble out from under me.
There’s an Asian boy lying half on top of me. I don’t know if he’s dead or not, but he’s still clutching a pistol in his hand. I slam my father’s Browning against his elbow. Nothing happens. Not even a reflex jerk.
With great effort, I roll the kid off us and pull Mia to her feet.
”What do we do?“ she asks, her chin quivering. ”Where do we go?“
”Up. Back to the suite.“
We race up to the mezzanine elevators. The wait is almost intolerable. When the door opens, I’m so nervous that I nearly fire a slug into the empty car, but we board, and before long I’m opening the door to Quentin’s master suite. I thought the gunfire would have awakened half the hotel, but no one on the seventh floor seems to have noticed anything.
Inside the suite, I go straight to the window. Flashing red and blue lights bounce off the buildings on Pearl Street. The cavalry has arrived. Blue lights mean police, red lights the sheriff’s department. It seems everyone has responded to Chief Logan’s distress call.
Mia walks up beside me, panting. ”Who was that? Why did they do that?“
”Those kids killed Sonny Cross. I guess they never left town after all.“
The phone beside the sofa rings. I pick it up. ”Hello?“
”Mr. Avery?“ says the desk clerk.
”No, this is Mr. Cage.“
”Hold, please. I have someone who wants to speak with you.“
A ragged voice says, ”Penn? Are you okay?“
”We’re okay. Is it secure down there?“
”Yes. We’ve got the PD and the sheriff’s department here now.“
”What the hell were you doing here?“
”I’ll explain in a minute.“
”Is my car still down there?“ I ask, desperately wondering about my leather portfolio.
”No. The guy who had the drop on you stole it and made a run for it.“
”Did you catch him?“
”Don…I shot a guy on the mezzanine staircase.“
”We found him. He’s dead. Why don’t you two come back down? It’s completely safe, and we’re going to need you to answer some questions.“
”We’ll be down in a minute.“ I hang up and look at Mia. ”Are you up to talking to the police?“
She nods slowly. ”I guess. God, my mother’s going to freak. “
My laughter starts as a chuckle, then blossoms into full-throated hysteria. Mia soon joins me. After we calm down and walk into the hallway, I consider waking Quentin. There’s really nothing he can do tonight. And since Chief Logan, the hero of the hour, can’t stand to be in the room with Quentin, it’s probably best to let Drew’s lawyer sleep. Especially since it looks like I lost Cyrus’s threatening e-mails.
Quentin can cuss me out in the morning.
The lobby of the Eola looks like the site of a terrorist attack. More than a dozen uniformed cops and deputies move through the capacious room with their guns at the ready, eyeing each other suspiciously. Chief Logan is standing by the doors he was shooting through only minutes ago. At his feet lies the body of the boy who murdered Sonny Cross. I seat Mia in one of the club chairs and walk over to him.
”Hey, Penn,“ Don says, his voice muted. ”The girl okay?“
”Yeah. I need to get her home, though.“
”Who is she?“
”Mia Burke. She was a friend of Kate Townsend.“
”I see,“ says Logan, but his eyes tell me he doesn’t see at all.
”It’s a long story.“
”I’ve got time. Why do you think they attacked you?“
I point at the corpse. ”Probably because I saw this punk kill Sonny Cross. They were wiping out the only witness against them.“
Don looks down at the boy’s shattered skull. ”He doesn’t even look human anymore. Are you sure that’s the same kid?“
”Positive. I knew it the second I saw his face.“
Logan looks relieved. ”Good.“
”What were you doing here? I mean, if you hadn’t been…we’d be dead.“
”An off-duty cop called in a report that he’d seen a black Lexus near the hotel this afternoon. I knew this was Avery’s command center for Drew’s defense, and I knew you’d seen the Asians hit Sonny. I haven’t been sleeping too well the past couple of nights, so I took a ride downtown. I saw you go into the hotel with the girl. I decided to hang around and see what was gonna happen after that.“
I clap him on the shoulder and squeeze hard. ”I owe you, buddy.“
He shakes his head. ”Just doing my job. Sonny Cross may have worked for the sheriff’s department, but I knew him for most of my life. He was a good cop. He shouldn’t have died the way he did.“
”No.“ I look around at the deputies prowling the lobby. ”Who called the sheriff’s department?“
”I did. They were closer.“ Logan laughs quietly. ”When the chief of police calls the sheriff’s department for help in this town, you know he’s desperate.“
As I chuckle, Chief Logan turns to make sure no one is within earshot. ”Did they take anything from you, Penn?“
I think about the evidence lost in the car. ”No. Just the car.“
He watches me carefully. ”I imagine we’ll find that soon enough. You sure there’s nothing in there I need to look for, if we find it?“
The chief must have seen the portfolio in my hand when I walked across the lobby with Mia. ”Spell it out, Don.“
He looks over at two deputies talking a few yards away ”I’m talking about something you wouldn’t want to accidentally get lost before it could be returned to you.“
Christ.If things have come to the point where the police chief can ask me this, this town is truly in bad shape. I look deep into Logan’s eyes. I don’t know him well-we’ve talked a few times at our daughters’ softball games-but what I see in his face now convinces me that the time has come to take a chance. I hate to rely on anyone but myself-especially with a friend’s life at stake-but sometimes you have to have a little faith. I lean toward Don and speak in a whisper.
”There was a leather portfolio in the car. There were two computer flash drives in it, and one envelope. I need that stuff bad, Don. Drew’s life depends on it.“
Logan nods. ”What’s in the envelope?“
”A hair from the head of Marko Bakic.“
The chief’s head snaps up, his eyes questioning.
”Find that car, Don.“
”We will. You just make sure I know everything I need to know.“
”I will. Can I take Mia home now? I have a feeling she’s barely keeping it together.“
Logan blows out a stream of air and looks back at the men moving through the lobby. ”I guess we can take a statement from her tomorrow.“
The crunch of glass heralds the approach of someone from the tunnel. My relief at being released evaporates at the sight of Sheriff Billy Byrd. The sheriff stops before the body on the ground and leans forward to look down past his gut. Then he surveys the lobby through the shattered doors.
”Christ on a crutch,“ he says in his heavy drawl. ”They told me it looked like a war zone. I never thought I’d see something like this in my town.“
Chief Logan offers Byrd his hand. The sheriff takes his time about shaking it.
”Who killed this one here?“ Byrd asks, gesturing at the body on the ground.
”I did,“ says the chief.
”Contact wound, looks like.“
”It was a hostage situation.“
Byrd nods, then turns to me, his eyes boring into mine. ”You got one, too?“
”I don’t feel too lucky, Sheriff. And I’m about to go home. Do you need me for anything?“
”Got a couple questions for you.“
”I can pretty much fill you in,“ Logan says, tacitly claiming the crime scene for his department.
Byrd ignores him. ”It’s pretty late, Mr. Cage. What were you doing here with Mia Burke at this hour? She’s still in high school, isn’t she?“
”Does her mother know she’s here with you?“
”My mother knows I’m with Mr. Cage,“ Mia says, stepping up to us.
Byrd smirks. ”So what were you two doing here? Is this like Dr. Elliott and the Townsend girl?“
Hot blood rushes to my face. ”You’ve got no right to say that to us.“
The sheriff snorts and looks over at his men, who are gathering to watch our exchange. ”It’s my job to get to the bottom of this mess, ain’t it?“
”Actually, I believe that’s Chief Logan’s job. And since he just saved our lives while you were sleeping at home, I’m not too well disposed toward you and your bullshit just now.“
Sheriff Byrd pales. ”You don’t talk to me that way, smartass.“
”I didn’t hear anything,“ Chief Logan says quietly. ”Why don’t we let these two be on their way and concentrate on the work at hand?“
Sheriff Byrd hikes up his trousers and leans in close to me. ”This is where Avery’s staying, ain’t it?“
”Is the girl helping you with the case?“
”She’s working for us, yes. As a runner, basically. A gopher.“
”Is that right, Miss Burke?“
Mia nods uncertainly.
”Are they paying you anything?“
Mia looks worriedly at me. ”No. I’m doing it because I believe Dr. Elliott is innocent.“
The sheriff snickers. ”You’re one of the few.“
”All right, that’s it,“ I say. ”You want to ask more questions, you arrest us.“
Byrd looks as though he’s considering it.
Chief Logan takes a single step, but it’s a big one. He places himself directly between me and the sheriff. ”Get going, Penn,“ he says. ”Call me tomorrow morning.“
”Thanks again, Chief.“ I take Mia by the arm and lead her toward the corridor that runs out to Main Street. Then I stop and turn back to Logan. ”I don’t have a car.“
Logan motions to one of his patrolmen. ”Lee will drop you off.“
A young black patrolman detaches himself from a group of cops and walks toward us. Sheriff Byrd stares at me with open fury, but I ignore him. Too much has happened tonight to give a damn about a redneck sheriff and his agenda.
”Follow me, Mr. Cage,“ says the patrolman.
The ride to Mia’s house is mostly silent. The young patrolman driving us asks a couple of questions, but his only intent is to learn more about the kind of gun battle he is unlikely to see in this town again.
”How’d you get the guy on the stairs before he shot you?“ he asks. ”He was carrying a Glock, and there was a round in the chamber.“
”I’m not sure. I killed a man like that once before. When I lived in Houston.“
Mia is staring at me from her corner of the backseat.
”No,“ I reply, watching her. ”He was the brother of a white supremacist I’d sent to death row. He broke into my house to kidnap my daughter. She was an infant then, and he was actually holding her when I shot him. I was so scared to shoot, I almost let him get out of the house.“
”But you didn’t.“
”No. I was lucky then, too.“
”Sho‘ was,“ says Lee, looking at me in his rearview mirror. ”Man alive.“
The squad car slows, then stops before Mia’s house, a thirty-year-old home in a middle-income subdivision off Liberty Road.
”This it?“ asks Lee.
He releases the locking mechanism on the rear doors, and we get out.
”I’ll walk you up,“ I tell Mia.
She nods gratefully. After thanking Lee at his window, she starts up the sidewalk.
”I’ll come by tomorrow morning,“ I promise, walking beside her. ”I’ll talk to Meredith and explain what happened.“
”Or try to,“ Mia says, laughing nervously.
”Yeah. I think your Nancy Drew days are over.“
She makes a sound I can’t interpret. ”You lost Kate’s flash drives, didn’t you?“
I nod. ”And her journal.“
”I’m sorry. How badly will that hurt Drew?“
”I was never going to use the journal. But we needed those drives.“
”What about Marko’s flash drive?“
I tap my pants pocket. ”I still have that. Let’s just hope it has something useful on it.“
”And that Lucien can crack it.“
”If he can’t, someone can.“
Mia unlocks her front door and steps through it. She looks into the depths of the house, then back at me. ”Mom’s asleep, thank God. I hope no one hears about everything tonight and decides to wake her up.“
”I think you’ll be okay on that.“
Mia reaches out and pulls my hand until I’m standing inside with her. All I can see clearly are her wide eyes shining in the dark.
”What is it?“ I ask.
”I almost died, didn’t I?“
”You could have,“ I admit. ”And it would have been my fault. If Chief Logan hadn’t been there-“
”Look at me, Penn.“
”I’ve never felt more alive than I do at this moment.“
My palms are still tingling from the aftereffects of the fight at the hotel. But there’s something else happening within me, too. ”I think that’s pretty common in these kinds of situations.“
”I want to kiss you,“ Mia says.
”We talked about this before.“
”I know. I know we can’t have a relationship. I even respect that. I just want this moment, okay?“
Before I can think of a response, she stands on tiptoe, takes my face in her hands, and kisses me full on the mouth. I don’t kiss her back, but neither do I pull away. The truth is, I feel exactly as she does about our brush with death-phenomenally alive to every molecule of existence. And I can’t imagine anything more alive than the swelling mouth pressing against mine. Mia’s lips part slightly, and I feel her tongue brush against my lips. For one moment, I open my mouth and taste her, and in that moment I feel a rush of overwhelming desire, the first few feet of a plunge into bliss that Caitlin dubbed evolutionary nirvana. Mia gives my lower lip a soft bite, then pulls away.
”There,“ she says, her eyes shining. ”See? No harm, no foul. Tomorrow I’ll act like it never happened. I promise.“
”Try to sleep, Mia.“
”Not a chance. But don’t worry about me. And don’t feel guilty. Promise me.“
Her teeth flash in the darkness. Then she gently pushes me out the door.
As I walk down the sidewalk, the chatter of a police radio brings me back to the present. I’ve got a lot of work to do tonight. I might have lost Kate’s flash drives, but I still have Sonny Cross’s computer and case notes. If I’m lucky, something in them will lead me to the dark soul who has brought so much death to this town. My town.