The temptation to sleep on the ground was strong.

Something about sleeping on the soft pine needles seemed massively appealing.

But that would be stupid.

He’d already fixed his bivy thirty feet up in one of the overhanging pine trees. He’d slept off the ground he didn’t know how many nights running. One more wouldn’t kill him.

And tomorrow night, if all went as planned and he didn’t get himself eaten his last day in the wilderness, he’d have a warm bed to crawl into.

Tobias opened his rucksack, shoved his arm to the bottom.

His fingers touched the cloth bag containing his pipe, a book of matches from the Hotel Andra in Seattle, and the tobacco.

He laid everything out on a rock.

It was strange. He’d thought about this moment so many times.

Built it up in his mind.

His last night in the wilderness.

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He’d brought a pound with him—all the weight he could justify—and burned right through it in those first months, saving only enough tobacco for one last smoke if he made it this far. There were so many nights when he’d almost smoked it anyway.

The rationalizations plentiful and compelling.

You could die at any time.

You’ll never make it back.

Don’t get eaten still holding on to what could’ve been a half hour of pipe-joy.

And still, he’d held out. It made no sense. His chances of returning were nil. But as he opened the plastic baggie and breathed in the smell of the aromatic blend, it was unquestionably one of the happiest moments of his life.

He took his time filling the bowl.

Then tamped it down with his finger, making sure each sprig was lovingly nestled.

The tobacco took the flame beautifully.

He dragged on the stem.

God, the smell.

Smoke clouding around his head.

He leaned back against the trunk of what he hoped was the last tree he would ever have to sleep in.

The sky had turned pink.

You could see the color of it on the river.

He smoked and watched the moving water and felt, for the first time in ages, like a human being.

23

At 8:00 p.m., Ethan was back behind his desk in the station.

His phone rang.

When he lifted the receiver, Pilcher said, “Doctor Miter is more than a little angry with you, Ethan.”

The image of Pilcher climbing up on that autopsy table and stabbing his daughter surfaced in the back of Ethan’s mind.

You monster.

“Do you hear that?” Ethan asked.

“Hear what?”

For five seconds, Ethan was silent on the line. “That’s the sound of me not giving a f**k.”

“You’re still unchipped, and I don’t like that.”

“Look, I didn’t feel like going under the knife again so soon. I’ll come up to the mountain tomorrow first thing and get it over with.”

“You haven’t run into Pam, have you?”

“No, why?”

“She was supposed to be in the mountain thirty minutes ago for a meeting. Her signal still shows her down in the valley.”

After returning to town, Ethan had walked to Main Street and slipped Pam’s bloody microchip into the purse of a woman he passed on the sidewalk. Sooner or later, Pilcher was going to start studying camera feeds. When Pam’s chip pinged a camera but Pam herself was mysteriously absent, Pilcher would know something had happened.

“If I see her,” Ethan said, “I’ll tell her you’re looking for her.”

“I’m not too worried. She tends to go on walkabouts from time to time. At the moment, I’m sitting in my office with a bottle of very nice scotch, watching my wall of screens, ready for the show to begin. Do you have any questions?”

“No.”

“You’ve looked over the manual? You understand the sequence of calls? The instructions you’re about to give?”

“Yes.”

“If Kate and Harold are killed in the forest, if they’re killed anywhere other than Main Street, center of town, I’m going to hold you personally responsible. Keep in mind they have underground support, so give the first wave of officers a little extra time.”

“I understand.”

“Pam delivered the phone codes to your office earlier in the day.”

“I’ve got them here on my desk beside the manual, but you can see that, can’t you?”

Pilcher just laughed.

“I know your history with Kate Ballinger,” he said, “and I’m sorry if that’s going to put a shadow over tonight for you—”

“A shadow?”

“—but fêtes don’t come along all that often. Sometimes a year or two passes between them. So in spite of everything, I hope you’ll try to enjoy yourself. Much as I hate them, there’s something truly magic in these nights.”

In his previous life, Ethan had developed the bad habit of flipping off the phone when he didn’t like the person or the message on the other end of the line. He somehow, and wisely, found the strength to restrain himself.

“Well, I’ll let you go, Ethan. You’ve got lots to do. If you don’t have too bad of a hangover in the morning, I’ll send Marcus down to pick you up. We’ll have breakfast, talk about the future.”

“Looking forward to it,” Ethan said.

Belinda had gone home.

The station was silent.

It was 8:05 p.m.

It was time.

Hecter Gaither’s piano came through the tube radio beside the desk. He was playing the Rimsky-Korsakov edition of A Night on Bare Mountain. The frantic and terrifying section had concluded, and he was entering the slow, calming-down movement that conjured up the feeling of daybreak after a night in hell.

Ethan’s thoughts were with Kate and Harold.

Were they sharing a quiet dinner at this very moment, with Gaither’s piano in the background?

Utterly blind to what was about to happen?

Ethan picked up his phone and opened the folder Pam had left with Belinda.

He looked at the first code and dialed.

A female voice answered, “Hello?”

There was a ping.

The ringing continued.

Each time someone answered, there was another ping.

Finally, a voice that sounded computer-generated said, “All eleven parties are now on the line.”

Ethan stared down at the page.

The script had been typed out for him beneath the code.

He could still just hang up.

Not do this.

There were so many ways for it all to go so badly.

None of the ten residents of Wayward Pines on the other end of the line breathed a single word.