“Ethan, you’re all set!”
He grabbed one more book for his son and went to the counter to collect his cappuccino.
“Thanks, Miranda. I’m going to borrow these books, if that’s okay.”
“Of course.” She smiled. “Keep ’em straight out there, Sheriff.”
“Do my best.”
Ethan tipped the brim of his hat and headed for the door.
Ten minutes later, he pushed through the glass double doors under a sign that read:
OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF OF WAYWARD PINES
Reception stood empty. Nothing new there.
His secretary sat at her desk looking as bored as ever. She was playing Solitaire, laying cards down at a steady, mechanical pace.
She didn’t look up.
“Anyone been by?”
“How was your evening?”
She glanced up, caught off guard, an ace of spades clutched in her right hand.
It was the first time since becoming sheriff that Ethan had pushed his interaction with Belinda beyond perfunctory greetings, goodbyes, and administrative chitchat. She’d been a pediatric nurse in her past life. He wondered if she knew that he knew that.
“I was just asking how your evening was. Last night.”
“Oh.” She pulled her fingers through a long, silver ponytail. “Fine.”
“Do anything fun?”
“No. Not really.”
He thought she might return the question, inquire after his evening, but five seconds of uncomfortable silence and eye contact elapsed and still she didn’t speak.
Ethan finally rapped his knuckles on her desk. “I’ll be in my office.”
He propped his boots up on the massive desk and kicked back in the leather chair with his steaming coffee. The head of a giant elk stared down at him from its mount across the room. Between it and the three antique gun cases behind the desk, Ethan felt he had the trappings of a country sheriff down cold.
His wife would be arriving at work right about now. In her past life, Theresa had been a paralegal. In Wayward Pines, she was the town’s sole realtor, which meant she spent her days sitting behind a desk in an office on Main Street that people rarely entered. Her job, like the vast majority of those assigned to the residents, was mainly cosmetic. Window dressing for a pretend town. Only four or five times a year would she actually assist someone with a new home purchase. Model residents were rewarded with the option to upgrade their home every few years. Those residents who had been here the longest and never violated the rules lived in the biggest, nicest Victorians. And those couples that became pregnant were all but guaranteed a new, more spacious home.
Ethan had nothing to do and nowhere to be for the next four hours.
He opened the book from the coffeehouse.
The prose was terse and brilliant.
He choked up at the descriptions of Paris at night.
The restaurants, the bars, the music, the smoke.
The lights of a real, living city.
The sense of a wide world brimming with diverse and fascinating people.
The freedom to explore it.
Forty pages in, he closed the book. He couldn’t take it. Hemingway wasn’t distracting him. Wasn’t sweeping him away from the reality of Wayward Pines. Hemingway was rubbing his face in it. Pouring salt into a wound that would never heal.
At a quarter to two, Ethan left the office on foot.
He strolled through quiet neighborhoods.
Everyone he passed smiled and waved, greeting him with what felt like genuine enthusiasm, as if he’d lived here for years. If they secretly feared and hated him, they hid it well. And why shouldn’t they? As far as he knew, he was the sole resident of Wayward Pines who knew the truth, and it was his job to make certain it stayed that way. To keep the peace. The lie. Even from his wife and son. In his first two weeks as sheriff, he’d spent most of his time studying dossiers on each resident, learning the particulars of their lives before. The details of their integrations. Surveillance-based reports of their lives after. He knew the personal histories of half of the town now. Their secrets and fears. Those who could be trusted to maintain this fragile illusion. Those with hairline cracks in their veneer.
He was becoming a one-man gestapo.
Necessary—he got that.
But he still despised it.
Ethan hit Main Street and headed south until the sidewalk and the buildings ended. The road went on, and he walked its shoulder into a forest of towering pines. The murmur of town life dropped away.
Fifty feet past the road sign that warned of a sharp curve ahead, Ethan stopped. He glanced back toward Wayward Pines. No cars coming. Everything still. No sound but a single bird cheeping in a tree high overhead.
He stepped down from the shoulder and set off into the woods.
The air smelled of pine needles warming in the sun.
Ethan moved across the cushiony floor of the forest through spaces of light and shadow.
He walked quickly enough to sweat through the back of his shirt, his skin cool where the fabric clung.
It was a nice hike. No surveillance, no people. Just a man on a walk by himself in the woods, briefly alone with his thoughts.
Two hundred yards from the road, he reached the boulders, a collection of granite blocks scattered between the pines. At the point where the forest swept up the mountainside, a rock outcropping loomed, half-buried in the earth.
From ten feet away, the smooth, vertical rock face looked real. Right down to the quartz vein and the bright smatterings of moss and lichen.
At close range, the illusion was less convincing, the dimensions of the face just a touch too square.
Ethan stood several feet back and waited.
Soon, he heard the muffled mechanical hum of the gears beginning to turn. The entire rock face lifted like a giant garage door—wide and tall enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer.
Ethan ducked under the rising door into the dank, subterranean chill.
Same escort as before—a twenty-something kid with the buzzed hair and sharp jawline of a grunt or a cop. He wore a yellow windbreaker, and it dawned on Ethan that he’d forgotten to bring his jacket again. He was in for another freezing ride.
Marcus had left the doorless, topless Wrangler idling and facing back the way it had come.
Ethan climbed into the front passenger seat.
The entrance door thudded closed behind them.
Marcus pulled the emergency brake and shifted into gear as he spoke into a headset, “I’ve got Mr. Burke. We’re en route.”