“Tell me about Hassler.”
“We’re all going to be starving to death in a matter of years. Do you really think you’re up to solving that problem, Ethan? Ready for that weight on your shoulders? What are you going to do? Put it to a vote? Look, I messed up. I realize that. But you need me. You all need me.”
Ethan struggled onto his feet, started for the door.
“Okay, okay. At first, it was just a standard bribe,” Pilcher said.
“What’s a standard bribe?”
“Money. To buy Adam’s silence for you, Kate Hewson, and Bill Evans. To shut down the investigation into your disappearances. But then something changed. He decided he wanted to come along with me and my crew. Be a part of our journey.”
Ethan cocked his right arm back and punched the door.
Blood from his busted knuckles smeared across the steel.
He hit the door again.
“Between you and me,” Pilcher said, “I always thought Hassler was an arrogant prick. I let him have one good year in Wayward Pines, and then I sent him out on a suicide mission beyond the fence. He never returned.”
Ethan shouted for the guard.
“You need me,” Pilcher said. “You know you need me. If something isn’t done, we’ll die out in a matter of—”
“It’s not your concern anymore.”
The guard opened the door.
“How did you like your supper?” Ethan asked.
“Your supper. How was it?”
“Sorry about that, especially considering it was your last.”
“What does that mean?”
“Remember when you asked me what was going to happen to you, and I said that’s for the people to decide? Well. They decided. We took a vote a few hours ago, right after we finished burying all the people you murdered. And it’s happening tonight.”
Ethan walked out into the corridor as Pilcher screamed his name.
The sun already behind the cliffs.
The sky sheeted over with a uniform deck of clouds that seemed to threaten snow.
The power in town had yet to be restored, but still a handful of people had returned to their homes to begin the process of cleaning up, of trying to reassemble the pieces of a life that could never be made right again.
In the distance, the pile of abbies still burned.
Ethan wasn’t sure what it was—maybe the lateness of the day, the darkening clouds, the cold, gray indifference of the towering cliffs—but Wayward Pines felt, possibly for the first time since he’d come here, like exactly what it was: the last town on earth.
He parked on the curb in front of his Victorian house on Sixth Street.
The vibrant yellow and the white trim struck him as off-key in light of the past few days.
They didn’t live anymore in a world where life was to be colorful and celebrated. Life had become something you clung to, that you bit down hard on against the pain, like the rubber block in a session of electroshock therapy.
Ethan jarred open the Jeep’s door with his shoulder and stepped down onto the street.
The neighborhood stood silent.
There were no bodies visible, but a large bloodstain still marred the pavement nearby. It would take a day of solid rain to wash it away.
He stepped over the curb.
From the front yard at least, his house looked intact.
No windows broken.
No door smashed down.
He walked the flagstone path and stepped up onto the porch. The floorboards creaked.
He pulled open the screen door, pushed open the solid wood door.
It was dark and cold inside, and Adam Hassler sat in the rocking chair beside the dormant woodstove, looking like a wasted version of the man Ethan remembered.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” Ethan’s voice came out like a low growl.
Hassler looked over, his cheekbones and orbital rims pronounced from starvation.
He answered, “Believe me, I was just as surprised to see you.”
Suddenly, they were on the floor, Ethan struggling to get his hands around Hassler’s neck so he could squeeze the f**king life right out of him. He’d assumed that Hassler’s emaciated state would make overpowering him simple, but the man’s wiry strength was resilient.
Hassler torqued his hips and flipped Ethan onto his back.
Ethan swung, his fist glancing off Hassler’s shoulder.
Hassler returned with a hard, stunning blow.
Ethan’s world went pyrotechnic.
He tasted blood, felt it sliding down his face as his nose burned.
Hassler said, “You never knew what you had.”
He threw another punch, but Ethan caught his arm at the elbow and jerked it the wrong way.
Hassler cried out as the ligaments stretched.
Ethan shoved him into the toppled rocking chair and scrambled up, looking for a weapon, something hard and heavy.
Hassler regained his feet, advanced in a boxer’s stance.
Too dark in the living room for Ethan to see the punches coming.
Hassler connected a jab, then a hard right hook that might have turned Ethan’s lights out if Hassler wasn’t in such a weakened state.
Still, it snapped Ethan’s neck and spun him ninety degrees as Hassler delivered a devastating kidney shot.
Ethan screamed out, stumbling back into the foyer as Hassler kept coming, calm and controlled.
“It’s a mismatch,” Hassler said. “I’m just better than you. Always was.”
Ethan’s fingers wrapped around the iron coatrack.
“I even loved your wife better than you could,” Hassler said.
Ethan sent the hard, metal base arcing through the air.
It punched a hole through the drywall.
Hassler charged, but Ethan caught him with an elbow to the jaw and the man’s knees buckled. Ethan landed his first direct hit to Hassler’s face, his cheekbone crunching under the blow, and it felt so goddamned good that Ethan hit him again. And again. And again. Hassler growing weaker, Ethan stronger, and with each punch the need to do more damage grew exponentially. The fear inside of him breaking out in a whirlwind of violence.
Fear of what this man could do.
Fear of what Hassler could take away from him.
Fear of losing Theresa.
Ethan let go of Hassler’s neck and the man moaned on the floor.
Ripping the coatrack out of the wall, he clutched the metal in his hands and raised the heavy base over Hassler’s head.
I’m gonna kill him.
Hassler looked up at him, his face a bloody mess, one eye already swollen shut and the other filling with the realization of what was coming.