Lights in the distance.
The pasture fell away behind him.
Soon, he was passing houses again.
The road widened, lost the double yellow divider.
It had turned into First Avenue.
He was back in town.
Ethan pulled over to the curb, stared through the windshield, trying to keep the panic in check. There was a simple explanation: he’d missed the turnoff to the pass. Had shot right past it in that patch of dense fog.
He whipped the car around and burned back up the road, hitting sixty by the time he reached the pasture.
Back in the mist and the towering pines, he searched for a sign, for some indication of where the road veered off toward the pass, but there was nothing.
In the sharpest section of the curve, he pulled off to the side of the road and shifted into park.
Left the car running, stepped out into the night.
He crossed to the other side and started walking along the shoulder.
After a hundred feet, the fog was thick enough to hide his car completely. He could still hear it idling, but the sound grew softer with each step.
He walked two hundred yards before stopping.
He’d come to the other side of the curve, where the road straightened out again and ran back into town.
The rumble of the car engine had died away completely.
There was no wind and the woods stood tall and silent.
Mist drifted by all around him, seemed to carry an electric charge, but he knew that hum was only some microscopic noise within himself, in his head, exposed only in the total absence of sound.
The road should not turn here.
It should barrel on through these pines another half mile and then begin the long series of switchbacks up the side of that mountain to the south.
He stepped carefully down off the shoulder into the trees.
The pine needle floor of the forest like walking on cushions.
The air damp and chill.
These trees...he’d never seen pines so tall, and with little in the way of undergrowth to contend with, moving between the massive trunks was easy—a forest with breathing room. You could be lost before you knew it.
He walked out of the mist, and now when he looked up, glimpsed icy points of starlight through the tops of the trees.
Another fifty yards, and he stopped. He should go back now. There were certainly other roads out of town, and he could already feel the disorientation creeping in. He glanced back over his shoulder, thought he saw the general route he’d taken to arrive at this spot, but you couldn’t be sure. Everything looked the same.
Out of the woods ahead of him: a scream.
He became very still.
There was the thumping of his heart and nothing else.
The scream could only be compared to human suffering or terror. Like a hyena or a banshee. Coyotes at their maddest. The mythologized Rebel Yell. High and thin. Fragile. Terrible. And on some level, humming under the surface like buried electrical cables, was a dim awareness that this wasn’t the first time he’d heard it.
Again, the scream.
An alarm going off between his eyes, in the pit of his stomach: Leave this place now. Don’t think about it. Just. Go.
Then he was running through the trees, gasping after twenty steps, back into the mist and the cold.
Up ahead, the ground sloped upward, and he climbed on hands and knees until he’d stumbled back out into the road. Despite the cold, he was sweating, eyes stinging with saltwater. He jogged along the double yellow line, back through the curve, until he saw two cylinders of light in the distance, cutting through the mist.
Slowed to a walk, and above the noise of his exertion, he heard the idle of the stolen car.
He reached it, opened the driver’s-side door. Climbed in behind the wheel, put his foot on the brake, and reached for the gearshift, desperate to leave this place.
He caught movement out of the corner of his left eye—a shadow in the side mirror. His eyes cut to the rearview mirror above the dash, and in the red glow of the brake lights, he saw what he’d missed—the cruiser parked thirty feet behind his rear bumper, just shy of complete invisibility in the mist.
When he looked back through the driver’s-side window, a shotgun barrel stared him down, just a few inches away. A flashlight blazed inside, firing the interior of the car with a harsh light that glared off the chrome and glass.
“You must be out of your goddamned mind.”
The irate gravel in his voice came slightly muffled through the glass.
Ethan still had his hand on the gearshift, wondering if he jammed it into drive and floored the gas—would Pope fire on him? At this range with a twelve gauge, you were talking decapitation.
“Very slowly,” Pope said, “put both hands on the wheel, and use your right to turn off the car.”
Ethan said through the glass, “You know who I am, and you ought to know better than to interfere. I’m leaving this town.”
“The hell you are.”
“I’m an agent of the United States government, with the full—”
“No, you’re a guy with no ID, no badge, who just stole a car, who might have murdered a federal agent.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I won’t tell you again, partner.”
Something needled Ethan to comply, whispered that pushing this man could be dangerous. Even fatal.
“All right,” Ethan said. “Just give me a second. The car’s hotwired. I have to separate the wires to turn it off.”
Ethan flicked on the dome light, got his hands under the steering column, pulled the white wires apart.
The lights died.
The engine shut down.
Nothing but the painful brilliance of Pope’s flashlight.
Ethan found the handle, had to dig his shoulder into the door to jar it open. He stepped outside. Mist streamed through the light beam. Pope, an angry shadow behind the flashlight and the shotgun, eyes hidden under the brim of his Stetson.
Ethan smelled the gun oil, figured Pope for a man dedicated to the tender loving care of his armory.
“You remember that part where I told you not to leave town?” Pope growled.
Ethan would have answered, but the light beam struck the ground, Ethan realizing a split second before it hit him that the shadow moving toward his head was the stock of the shotgun.
* * *
Ethan’s left eye had been closed by the blow—it felt hot and huge and it throbbed with his pulse. Through his right, he saw the interrogation room. Claustrophobic and sterile. White cinder-block walls. Concrete floor. A bare wood table, on the other side of which sat Pope, sans Stetson and jacket, the sleeves of his hunter-green button-down rolled up to expose his forearms—thick and freckled and knotted with muscle.