The hinges on the door creaked like fingernails down a blackboard.
Pitch black inside.
The damp-earth smell of a crawlspace.
Ethan tugged the Maglite off his belt, clicked it on, paired it with the Desert Eagle.
Steps had been cut into the earth.
Ethan carefully descended.
After nine, he had reached the bottom.
The beam of light showed a passageway framed up and supported by four-by-fours.
The construction looked makeshift and hurried, confidence not inspired.
Ethan walked under tree roots and rocks lodged in the dirt.
The walls seemed to narrow in the middle, his shoulders brushing against them, and he had to move like a hunchback so his head didn’t scrape the ceiling.
Midway through, he thought he heard the fence humming through the ground, thought he felt a tingling in the roots of his hair from his proximity to that astronomical voltage straight above his head.
There was a tightness in his chest, like his lungs were constricting, but he knew that was a purely psychosomatic response to moving through this subterranean space.
Then he was standing at the foot of another set of earthen steps, his light shining skyward onto another steel door.
He could go back, get the shovel, take an awkward whack at it.
Instead, he pulled his pistol, drew a bead on the rusted padlock.
Took a breath.
An hour later, Ethan closed the tailgate and the back hatch.
He returned the rifle to the gun rack.
He draped himself across the hood, saltwater burning his eyes.
The light down here in the gloom of the forest was nearly gone.
It was so quiet he could hear his heart pounding against the metal.
When he could breathe normally again, he stood.
He’d been hot, but now the sweat felt clammy and chilled his skin.
“What the hell are you into?”
Pam stood peering through the tinted glass into the back of the Bronco, as if she’d materialized out of nothing.
Wore tight-fitting blue jeans that showed her figure and a red tank top, her hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Ethan studied her trim waistline.
She wasn’t armed as far as he could see unless she was packing something compact in the small of her back.
“You checking me out, Sheriff?”
“Do you have a weapon?”
“Oh, right, that’s the only reason you’re ogling me.”
Pam lifted her arms over her head like a ballerina, went up on point in her tennis shoes, did a little twirl.
She didn’t have a weapon.
“See?” she said. “Nothing in these jeans but little old me.”
Ethan pulled the pistol out of his holster, held it at his side.
“That’s a big gun, Sheriff. You know what they say about guys with big guns.”
“It’s a Desert Eagle.”
“You could kill a grizzly bear with that beast.”
“I know what you did to Alyssa,” Ethan said. “I know it was you and Pilcher. Why?”
Pam ventured a step toward him.
Eight feet away.
She said, “Interesting.”
“I’ve now closed the distance between us. Two steps—two big steps—and I could be all up in your personal space, and yet you haven’t even threatened me.”
“Maybe I want you in my personal space.”
“I made myself available to you and you would rather f**k your wife. What’s bothering me, the rub if you will, is that you’re a pragmatist.”
“I’m not following.” But he was.
“A man of few words and less bullshit. One of the things about you that make me want you. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if there were any bullets in that gun, you’d have drawn down on me at first sight and wasted my ass. I mean, that’s really your only move at this point, right? Am I onto something?”
She took another step toward him.
Ethan said, “There’s something else you haven’t considered.”
“Maybe I want you in my personal space for another reason.”
“And what might that be?”
He could smell her now. The shampoo she’d used this morning.
Her minty breath.
“Shooting is so impersonal,” Ethan said. “Maybe instead of that, I want to pin you down and beat you to death with my bare hands.”
Pam smiled. “You had that chance before.”
“You got the jump on me. Wasn’t a fair fight.”
“For who? I was drugged, for f**k’s sake.”
Ethan raised the pistol and pointed it at her face.
She said, “That’s a big hole at the end of that gun.”
Ethan thumbed back the hammer.
For a beat—hesitation in her eyes.
Ethan said, “Think long and hard. Out of all the moments you’ve experienced, is this the one you want to be your last? Because it’s heading fast in that direction.”
She was wavering.
Not exactly fear in her eyes, but uncertainty.
Disdain for a situation she was not controlling.
Then it passed.
That steel resolve returning.
A smirk curled her lips.
She had balls. No way around that fact. She was about to call his bluff.
When her mouth opened, he squeezed the trigger.
The hammer snapped down into the firing pin.
Pam flinched—a split second of am-I-dead self-doubt.
Ethan spun the pistol in his hand, gripped it by the barrel, and swung with everything he had, four point five pounds of Israeli-made steel on a collision course with her skull, and it would’ve smashed it in, but Pam weaved at the last conceivable second.
As the momentum of Ethan’s swing turned him sideways, she hooked him in the kidney with a blow of such stunning and direct force it brought Ethan to his knees, a bright release of incendiary pain flashing through his lower back, and before he could even fully appreciate that pain, she punched him in the throat.
He was on the ground, face against the forest floor, world askew, and wondering if she’d crushed his trachea because he couldn’t draw breath.
Pam squatted down in front of him.
“Don’t tell me it was that easy,” she said. “I had this all built up in my mind, you know? But two shots and you’re asphyxiating on the ground like a little bitch?”
He was fading, his vision igniting with oxygen-deprived pyrotechnics.