September stumbled from the car and plodded through snow drifts. Her feet clomped like dead blocks of ice. If she fell, she might not be able to get up.
Shadow’s hysterical yelps followed her. She worried his noise might give away her location, but wished she could bring him along. He gave her confidence the same way Dakota had kept nightmares at bay.
Screw post-traumatic stress. She’d been lost without Chris or Dakota, but had to do this without them; forget about fear, find Steven, and call the debt paid. She fortified her resolve and trudged on.
At the property edge, September scooted beneath loose strands of barbed wire supported by century-old bois d’arc fence posts. The open fields surrounded her house with a mix of short-cut winter rye and brambles, so she hugged the fence line for extra cover. Cedar elm, burr oak, hackberry and mountain ash carried mounds of white in skeletal arms. In the knee high grass, prickle vines hidden under the snow clutched her ankles and clawed her pants until her thighs and calves cramped before she’d slogged halfway home.
She slipped, grabbing a nearby tree branch for purchase, and spines of the honey locust speared through her glove. September barely noticed. Hurray for Reynaud’s numbness after all. Too many injuries, along with the combination of cold and adrenaline, anesthetized everything, but her brain revved into crystal clear focus. She gripped the enormous thorn with her teeth, yanked, and spat into the snow. September flexed her hand. It still worked well enough. Time to move. Find Steven. Stop the drug. Save the children.
September plowed another dozen steps before she peeked from the cover of the trees. Light spilled from her office windows. In her rush from the house yesterday she’d left on lights, although she had remembered to triple lock the front door. The place looked empty. Not even the police visit had disturbed more than tracks on the drive.
The drive circled the house in a dog-leg turn to reach the garage, and she couldn’t see inside. That created a blind spot where Lizzie’s cohorts could wait. Danger hid in unexpected places, even places you thought were safe, as she knew from experience. Her breathing quickened, and she almost gave in to the temptation to hide in the bushes outside and call the police when Lizzie arrived.
Suck it up, sweetheart. The old fears wouldn’t rule this day, not again. She’d lost herself for eight long years. She couldn’t let the killers get away. The lives of countless children, not just Steven’s, hinged on her decision.
She looked over her shoulder and satisfied herself that Pam’s dark vehicle wouldn’t be visible from the house. September sprinted in an awkward crabshuffle to the side of the house and the kitchen side door, spending several
nerve-wracking seconds unlocking deadbolts until she could hip-bump it open. The door was such a bitch to latch. For the first time in recent memory, she slammed the door closed but left it unlocked.
The floor was wet. Snow had drifted through the laundry room’s transom before someone—the police?—shut the window. The acrid stink from the dryer still clung to the walls. The 78-degree thermostat setting turned the room into a steam chamber.
“Mrrring.” Macy loped from across the room and wound around her ankles.
“Hey kitty, good to see you, too.” September smiled despite herself when he dropped Mickey on her shoe. But she couldn’t have him underfoot. She needed to stash him someplace safe.
September scooped up and tossed the toy onto the counter and gave the “jump-up” hand signal. The cat obliged. She pulled off her gloves, and spent ten precious seconds nuzzling the cat, thinking it might be their last time together. “We get through the next hour, I’ll buy you a plate of shrimp,” she whispered. “But right now you need to stay out of the way.”
His carrier was somewhere in the garage—where possible bad guys lurked—and would take too long to retrieve. The bathroom wouldn’t work. He could open the door. The rest of the unfinished house wouldn’t contain him, not when he could leap eight feet or more from a standing start.
“Macy, come.” He did, but dragged Mickey with him. She collected the toy. “Macy, jump.” She tapped the top of the refrigerator.
Macy merrowed and vaulted to his favorite perch. He watched September fill his bowl, top it off with several smelly salmon treats out of the canister, and set it beside him. His purr rumbled. He patted her head and settled down to crunch kibble. She prayed he’d stay with the food.
September unzipped her jacket, and moved to the stained glass table. The Number One Bitch mug was still half-filled with cold coffee next to the saucer from yesterday’s breakfast muffin. She emptied her pockets, and stuffed Macy’s mouse toy inside out of sight. Otherwise, once Macy ate he’d demand a game of Mickey-fetch.
Her phone needed juice. September pushed aside the treat canister and coffee maker and plugged it into the outlet to charge. The flash drive was bait, but the phone would spring the trap and, if she was lucky, it would save her life. And Steven’s. She switched the phone to speaker mode, dialed, and hid it from view before anyone answered.
“WZPP, you’ve reached ZAP105 FM Radio, giving you the best easy listening
24/7, how may I direct your call?”
Macy mewed. His ears twitched.
“Anita, it’s September. Put me through—”
“He’s expecting you, hon.” Fish’s broadcast came on the line.
“. . . So for the latest on the Blizzard Murders, keep it tuned to ZAP105 FM Radio. I’m Humphrey Fish servin’ it up fresh.” He paused before saying, “Caller, you’re on the air.”
“Fish, it’s time. Can you hear me okay?” She moved away from the counter, testing the range.
The stairwell door squeaked open behind her. Footsteps clumped on the landing. “I hear you just fine.”
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