“No, but I will shortly.”

“He doesn’t deserve her.”

“And you do.”

“I would love that woman like she was meant to be loved. She’ll be happier with me in Wayward Pines than she’s ever been in her life.” It took his breath away to say the words, to give them voice. He’d never shared this with anyone.

Pilcher laughed as he rose to his feet. “So at the end of the day, this is all just about you getting a girl?”

“No, it’s—”

“I’m kidding. I’ll make it happen.”

The men shook hands.

“When do we go under?” Hassler asked.

“It’s called de-animation. My superstructure is finished. All that’s left is to stock the warehouse and collect the last few recruits. I’m sixty-four years old, not getting any younger, and there’s going to be loads to do on the other side.”

“So…”

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“We’re having a party on New Year’s Eve in Wayward Pines. Me, my family, and a hundred and twenty members of my crew are going to drink the best champagne money can buy and go to sleep for a couple thousand years. You’re welcome to join.”

“Two weeks?”

“Two weeks.”

“Where will people think you’ve gone?”

“I’ve made arrangements. It’s been seven years since my last public lecture. I’ve become a recluse. I’m guessing it’s fifty-fifty whether the AP even carries my obit. What about you? Considered how you’ll make your exit?”

“I’ll cash out my 401(k), empty my bank accounts, leave a messy trail to some shady purveyor of fake passports. That isn’t the hard part.”

“What is?”

Hassler glanced back out the window toward the mist-enshrouded hills of Queen Anne—Theresa Burke’s neighborhood.

“Knowing I have to wait two thousand years to be with the woman of my dreams.”

III

14

Tobias lay flat on his stomach in the swaying grasses.

He barely breathed.

Five hundred yards away, the abby emerged out of the forest of lodgepole pines.

It entered the field, moving at a comfortable lope in Tobias’s general direction.

Fuck.

Tobias had just come out of a forest on the opposite side of the field not five minutes prior. Thirty minutes before that, he’d crossed a stream and lingered half a second on the bank, debating whether or not to stop for a drink. He’d decided to push on. If he hadn’t, he’d have spent five or ten minutes drinking his fill and replenishing his one-liter bottles. Upshot being he would’ve arrived at the edge of this field with the abby already out in the open. Could’ve tracked its trajectory from the cover and safety of the woods. Made certain to avoid the precise situation of f**kedness he now found himself in: he was going to have to shoot it. A run-in was inevitable. It was midday. The abby was downwind. No other option with him stuck out here and the nearest patch of trees several football fields away. The creature’s sense of smell, sight, and hearing was so finely tuned, the moment he stood it would spot him. Considering the wind direction, it was going to smell him any second now.

Tobias had dropped his pack and rifle in the grass at his first glimpse of movement in the distance. Now he reached out, grabbed his Winchester Model 70.

He gripped the forend stock and came up on his right elbow.

Settled in behind the scope.

It hadn’t been zeroed out in ages, and as the abby came into focus in the reticle, Tobias thought of all the times the scope had been jostled when he’d leaned the gun against a tree or thrown it down. All the rain and the snow that had beat the shit out of his weapon in his thousand-plus days in the wild.

He gauged its distance at two hundred yards now. Still a long shot, but its center mass loomed large in the crosshairs. He made a slight adjustment for the wind. His heart beating against the ground that was still cold from last night’s freeze. It had been weeks, months maybe, since his last encounter. He’d had ammo for his .357 then. God, he missed that gun. If he’d still had his revolver, he’d have stood up, shouted, let that beast come running at him.

Blown its brains out from close range.

He could see its heart pulsing in the crosshairs.

Pushed off the safety.

Touched his finger to the trigger.

He didn’t want to pull.

A gunshot out here would announce his presence to everything in a three-mile radius.

Thinking, Just let it pass, maybe it won’t see you.

And then, No. You have to put it down.

The report echoed across the field, deflected off the distant wall of trees, and began to slowly fade away.

Miss.

The abby stood motionless, frozen midstride on two legs that looked as sturdy as oak, its nose tipped up to the wind. There was a beard of dried blood down its face and neck from a recent kill. Tough to judge size through a scope, and truthfully, it didn’t matter. Even the smaller ones that clocked in around a hundred twenty pounds were absolutely lethal.

Tobias turned the bolt handle up, jerked it back.

The spent cartridge spit out with a puff of smoke.

He shoved the bolt forward, locked it down, looked back through the scope.

Damn had it covered some ground, the abby hauling ass now across the meadow at a full sprint in that low, scuttling gait reminiscent of a pit bull.

In his life before, Tobias had seen combat all over the world. Mogadishu, Baghdad, Kandahar, the coca fields of Colombia. Hostage rescues, high-value target acquisitions, off-grid assassinations. None of it could hold a candle to the shit-yourself-fear evoked by a charging abby.

A hundred fifty yards and closing and no idea how off his scope was.

He put the crosshairs center mass.

Squeezed.

The rifle bucked hard against his shoulder and a streak of blood appeared across the abby’s left side. He’d barely grazed its ribs, the creature still coming, undaunted.

But now he knew the scope’s deviation—off a few degrees right and down.

Tobias ejected the spent shell.

Jacked a new cartridge into the chamber, locked down the bolt, made the adjustment to the scope.

He could hear it now—rapid breathing and the sound of talons ripping through grass.

Noted a strange swell of confidence.

He put the crosshairs on its head and fired.

When the wind pushed the gun smoke out of the way, Tobias saw the abby facedown and motionless in the grass, the back of its head blown out.

Kill number forty-five.

He sat up.

Hands sweating through his fingerless gloves.