He said, “Always, my love.”

17

Standing in the forest among the pines, she thought there was nothing prettier than snowflakes falling through night vision.

Ten years ago, there’d been a forest fire three miles from the center of town. She’d stood in the burning trees watching embers rain down from the sky. This reminded her of that day, except the snow glowed green. Burning green. Each flake leaving a luminescent trail in its wake. And the floor of the forest and the road and the snow-covered roofs of the houses in town—they all glowed like LED screens.

The snow that had collected on Ethan’s and Theresa’s shoulders glowed too.

As if they’d been sprinkled with magic dust.

Pam didn’t even have to hide behind a tree.

As far as she could tell, Ethan hadn’t brought a flashlight, and it was so dark out here in the woods, beyond the reach of streetlamps and porch lights, that she had no fear of discovery. She needed only to stand in total silence, fifteen feet away, and listen.

She wasn’t supposed to be here.

Technically, she’d been sent to observe the new arrival, Wayne Johnson. It was his second night in Wayward Pines, and night two was historically a night for runners. But she was starting to think that Wayne might fall in line faster than the projections. That he wouldn’t pose any significant problems. He’d been an encyclopedia salesman after all. Something about the nature of his profession, at least to her, suggested conformity.

So instead, she’d slipped into the empty house across from Ethan’s Victorian and dug in behind the curtains in the living room with a straight-on view of his front door.

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Pilcher would be pissed that she’d abandoned her mission. There’d be a little hell to pay on the front side of this decision, but on the back—when her boss had finally calmed down and heard her out—he’d be thrilled with the results of her choice.

She’d done it before with Kate Ballinger. Staked out the woman’s house at night for two weeks before she finally caught her leaving. But tracking her and her husband had been another story. Pam had lost her soon after when Kate had literally disappeared underground. She’d tried to convince Pilcher to let her devote some real resources, but he’d shot her down since Alyssa was already on the case.

How’d that f**king work out for you?

Her opinion, the old man put up with way too much shit from his sheriff.

She didn’t get it. Didn’t understand what it was exactly that Pilcher saw in Burke. Yes, Ethan could handle himself. Yes, he had the skill set to run the town, but Jesus, no one was worth the trouble he’d put them through.

If it was her call—and one day it would be—she’d have dealt with Ethan and his family two weeks ago.

Chained Ben and Theresa to the pole beyond the fence.

Let the abbies come for them.

Sometimes, she fell asleep imagining the screams of Ethan’s son, picturing Ethan’s face while he watched his boy, and then his wife, eviscerated and eaten before his eyes. She wouldn’t feed Ethan to the abbies, though. She’d put him in lockup for a month, maybe two. Hell, maybe a year. However long it took. Make him watch and rewatch the abbies devouring his family. Keep the footage rolling on an endless loop in his cell. The screams turned up. And only when the man was broken in every way imaginable, when his body had wasted itself into nothing but a shell for a shattered mind, then, only then, she’d release him back into town. Give him a nice little job—maybe a waiter, maybe a secretary—something subservient, boring, soul crushing.

Of course, she’d check in on him each week.

Hopefully, if she’d done it right, there would be just enough of his mind left to remember who she was and all that she had taken from him.

And he would live out the rest of his days as a pathetic scab of a human being.

That was how you dealt with men like Ethan Burke. With men who tried to run. You annihilated them. You made them a horrifying example for everyone to see.

You sure as f**k didn’t make them sheriff.

She smiled.

She had caught him.

Finally.

This fantasy that she’d been dreaming about as she lay in her room inside the mountain struck her, for the first time, as achievable.

She wasn’t exactly sure of what to do next, of how to use this ammunition to realize that dark, beautiful fantasy, but she would think of something.

It made her so happy.

Standing in the dark between the pines with the burning specks of green falling all around her, she couldn’t make herself stop smiling.

18

Ethan stood on the corner of Main and Eighth in front of the double doors that opened into the four-hundred-seat opera house. The building had been locked up for the night, and through the glass, the lobby was dark, none of the framed movie or Broadway posters visible. Performances were held on a semi-regular basis—music recitals, community theater, town hall meetings. Classic movies were shown on Friday nights, and every two years, mayoral and city council elections were held here.

Ethan checked his watch—3:08 a.m.

It wasn’t like Kate to be eight minutes late to anything.

He buried his hands deep in his pocket.

The snow had stopped. The cold was merciless.

He shifted his weight between his feet, but the movement did little to warm him.

A shadow appeared around the corner of the building and moved straight toward him, footsteps squeaking in the snow.

He straightened—not Kate.

She didn’t move like this and wasn’t nearly as big.

Ethan clutched the Harpy in his pocket, thinking, I should’ve left when she was five minutes late. That was a sign something was wrong.

A man in a black hoodie stepped in front of him.

He was taller than Ethan and wide through the shoulders. Wore stubble on his face and reeked of the dairy.

Ethan slowly tugged the folder out of his pocket, working the tip of his thumb into the hole in the blade.

One flick, he’d have the knife open.

One swipe, he’d have the man open.

“That is a very bad idea,” the man said.

“Where’s Kate?”

“Here’s what’s going to happen. First. Knife goes back in your pocket.”

Ethan slid his hand into his pocket, but he didn’t let go of the knife.

He recognized the man from his file photo, but he’d never seen him in town, and in this moment, outside in the cold and his nerves beginning to fray, he couldn’t recall his name.

“Second. See that bush?” The man pointed across the intersection of Main and Eighth toward a large juniper. It loomed behind a wooden bench—a bus stop that had never seen a bus. Just one more artificial detail of this place. Once a week, an old woman who was losing her mind sat all day long on that bench, waiting for a bus that would never come.