Головна Lock the Doors

Lock the Doors

Reclusive Bobby Dinwill comes home after a fruitless day of fishing to find an unfamiliar van parked in front of his lakeside cabin. When he hears voices appraising the value of his possessions, he realizes the strangers are already inside. His first thought is to run however many miles it takes to get to the nearest neighbor. Before Bobby can take his first step, his alarm goes off, reminding him he’s already late taking his medication. His terrified eyes back turn back to his cabin, where he left his supply of pills that morning. Left with no other option, Bobby now finds himself forced to sneak into his own house in an attempt to retrieve the medicine that could save his life. But given the hostile nature of the intruders, the path to regain those pills could cost him the life he’s trying to save.

Рік:
2020
Мова:
english
ISBN:
B083RPWCLY
File:
EPUB, 133 KB
Скачати (epub, 133 KB)
 
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LOCK THE DOORS





Damian Myron





Copyright © 2019 by Damian Myron. All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, business establishments, or locales is entirely coincidental.



Myron, Damian. Lock the Doors





1

Bobby paddled furiously toward the shore, muttering repeatedly that Pop would not be pleased. The fish hadn’t even teased him with a nibble, and if the alarm on his watch hadn’t gone off, he didn’t doubt he’d still be napping on the lake.

By the time he reached the shore, the day had ripened well into the evening, and all the chores he’d forgone in favor of fishing would have to wait until tomorrow. As he rebuked himself for his laziness, he found his voice growing as harsh as Pop’s, and counted himself lucky that the old man wasn’t around to administer one of his lashings.

Any thoughts of punishment would have to wait. His alarm went off again, reminding him he was late treating his condition.

Bobby grew crankier seeing his neighbor, Mr. Harris, driving along the shores. Residents along the lake were told not to drive across the shorelines because it would erode the already-thin coast, but Mr. Harris did it anyway, because driving along the winding road was inconvenient.

His patience was tested further still when Mr. Harris stopped to chat, telling him he was taking off for the weekend. In that regard, Bobby couldn’t blame him. The Boyle brothers had started their Memorial Day celebration even earlier than last year, not even waiting until Friday to set off their fireworks. Bobby was glad to know he wasn’t the only one who hated trying to fall asleep while it sounded like there was a shooting gallery outside.

Not picking up on Bobby’s desire to ; leave, Mr. Harris asked how his latest fishing excursion had gone. Bobby believed the question was a veiled jab at him as the man could plainly see he had come back empty-handed, and replied he had a whopper on the line that just got away.

Mr. Harris’s smirk suggested he’d caught Bobby napping, but Bobby refused to back down from the statement. The rest of his replies to Mr. Harris’s interrogation were curt until his neighbor finally took the hint and drove off.

He noticed some of the tools he’d left strewn about the backyard along the path back up the hill to his house, when he’d opted to play instead of work. The sun was already setting, which was only going to make it harder to find where he’d littered Pop’s tools.

And Pop wouldn’t like knowing that I’d left them out overnight, Bobby thought.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

Bobby may have towered over most people in town, but when he heard the question, he felt he could hide behind a blade of grass. The voice sounded just like Pop’s when he used to bark orders at Bobby.

But it can’t be Pop. You buried him three years ago.

He stared ahead to his house. A van he’d never seen was parked in the cracked semicircle of pavement that was his driveway. Someone had turned on the lights in his house.

They’re already inside!





2

Bobby scurried up the trail to his house, sprinting between trees, trying to limit his exposure from the windows.

The same voice boomed, “I asked you a question!”

The question reinforced one thing: They sounded hostile.

“Hmm?” a calmer, almost dreamy voice answered the angry one, as Bobby crouched behind the closest tree to the cabin he called home.

“I asked what the fuck are you doing?” the angry voice demanded. It was so loud the pane of glass couldn’t even muffle it.

Bobby could peer inside from his hiding spot and count how many intruders had invaded his home. If he dared to peek around the trunk. Which he didn’t. Two different voices were disturbing, but the appearance of the van suggested there were more. The voices were coming from his living room, which made up half the house, and also had plenty of windows to look out of.

“Oh, just checking out some of the antique guns in this case,” the calm, collected voice replied. This voice was softer as it passed through the closed window, but still spoke loud enough for Bobby to hear the words just fine.

Bobby’s stomach wrenched itself in a knot so violently he almost vomited. His body began to quiver over the thought that they were now armed. He hugged himself close to the tree. He didn’t like the idea of being seen. Not by this lot.

Bobby pictured the room. Pop had designed it to be the grandest room in the cabin. It was the first room guests saw when walking through the front door, and though the cabin had two floors, Pop hadn’t built any rooms above it, making the entire space two stories tall. The bedrooms were all built above the kitchen, laundry room, pantry, and a bathroom that made up the other half of the first floor.

Pop had built a staircase leading up to the top floor in the middle of the house where the living room met the rest of the rooms that were crammed into the remaining half of the house. A door leading to some stairs that went down into the cellar had been built under this staircase so the empty unused space didn’t detract from the magnificence of the living room.

He’d left a gap between the bedrooms and where the staircase finished its ascent to the top floor. Pop had explained to Bobby that this way, guests on the bottom floor could look up and see that the room had what looked like a balcony overseeing them, and guests on the top floor could look down from their perch and behold the grandeur of the room from another angle.

Bobby could’ve gone on and on, but reminded himself his mind was wandering and he needed to focus.

If they were admiring Pop’s rifles, they were probably standing in front of his gun case, which, when entering the front door, was tucked in the near right corner of the living room. Bobby was hiding along the side of the house where Pop had built the hearthstone of the fireplace, which when entering the front door was in the near left corner when you came through the front door, and with all the living room furniture huddled around and facing it. Before he could chastise himself for letting his mind wander again, he heard the van door slam shut. Bobby could see there was nothing blocking his view of the van.

Which meant he could be seen from the van.

3

He moved less than a statue. Bobby only saw the third member of the party when he walked into his line of sight, taken aback that he looked as hulking in size as Bobby did. To his relief, this new intruder was hauling a large duffel bag over his shoulder, which blocked his view of Bobby.

“That’s the last of it,” a deep voice called to the intruders inside, and Bobby was surprised again, this time by the fact he was tracking a woman.

He finally allowed himself to breathe when she disappeared inside. Bobby massaged his chest, repeating the mantra that she hadn’t seen him.

“I told you I’d help, Regina,” the calm voice said.

“I don’t mind,” she said, her words followed by a heavy thud.

What the hell did she have packed in that bag? Bobby asked himself.

“It kind of reminded me of my weight-lifting competitions,” she said fondly. “I miss those the most.”

“Let’s get started already,” another voice insisted, this one smug and bored.

There’s four of them!

“Not yet,” the rage-filled voice of the hothead snapped. “Antique guns, huh?”

Bobby guessed he was addressing the owner of the calm voice who had discovered Pop’s collection.

“Oh, yeah, Brady, this is a really valuable collection here,” the calm, collected voice responded. “I’ve hunted with my old man since I was eight, and we’ve tried out many different rifles over the years, but I’ve only seen most of these in magazines.”

“Really rare?” Brady asked.

“Some of the rarest.”

“Are they worth a lot, Decker?” the smug voice asked, no longer sounding bored, and a little too interested for Bobby’s liking.

“I know a couple collectors, Wesley, who’d pay handsomely to get their hands on one of these. That one there”—the one called Decker paused, and Bobby imagined them pointing to one of Pop’s rifles still in the case— “has one of the longest ranges for a rifle. That one”—he paused again to showcase another— “has got the softest kickback when firing.

“And this one,” Decker paused once more, and this time, Bobby envisioned him talking about the gun he was holding, “has a reputation for never jamming, if it’s properly maintained.”

Bobby shifted back and forth uneasily on his feet. It was creepy the way Decker sounded honored just to be in the same room with Pop’s guns, let alone holding them.

This is what happens when I don’t lock the doors, Bobby thought.

Well, why would you? Who comes down here, anyway?

Inside, Decker continued, still enthralled with the rifle. “There was one time my old man and I were hunting a bear. My old man had put one in its shoulder and we tracked its blood trail for almost two hours. Somehow it charged us from behind, and my rifle jammed. Could’ve used something as badass as this.”

Mr. Harris comes down here, Bobby continued the argument with himself.

He’s a businessman from the city. You remember the first time he vacationed down here? Said he loved the look of our house and asked Pop for a quote to build one just like his. Pop quoted him a ridiculous premium, and Mr. Harris didn’t even bat an eye. It was just money to him. He doesn’t care about any of our possessions.

“Did you have to kill it?” a voice asked so softly, he barely heard it through the closed window.

Bobby’s heart spiked to the moon when the voice spoke, confirming there were five of them.

“Well, Kerry, we were the only ones hunting in the area that weekend, and we were worried about any repercussions if the authorities found a bear with a slug in it.” Decker chuckled. “Let’s just say we didn’t exactly have a permit to hunt that bear.”

This Decker is unashamed talking about illegal activities? Bobby asked himself.

Start working that useless gray lump in your head! These intruders let themselves into your house while you were away, and are talking about the price Pop’s guns would fetch.

Bobby’s mouth stood agape as he stared through the window at the intruders. He started to tell himself that they couldn’t be there to rob him, but Brady interrupted his train of thought.

“If they’re that valuable, you better not damage them before we leave, or I’ll break your fucking neck.”

Bobby nearly yelped. If Brady was willing to do that to one of his own, Bobby didn’t want to think about what the hothead would do to someone he didn’t know. Someone who saw things they weren’t supposed to.

Hey, he finally gets it! Now will you do the sensible thing and get help?

Leaving sounded good to Bobby. He retreated back a step and tripped over the fishing pole he hadn’t realized he’d set down. He nearly stepped on a hatchet lying on the ground, and recalled that he’d started off the morning hacking off slim branches from the trees before deciding it would be smarter just to cut some of them down. His chainsaw and pickaxe rested on a stump, which he’d abandoned digging up in the backyard when it had gotten too grueling. From there, he’d set a coffee can filled with nails on his cellar door and got to work repairing the exterior shutters of his kitchen until the sight of his refrigerator convinced him fishing would be a worthy excuse for a break.

Bobby groaned, visualizing all Pop’s tools he’d have to collect around the house. He supposed under normal circumstances, it was good his alarm interrupted his nap, because at least he’d have some daylight left to pick them up after taking his pills.

But because Pop said I was prone to forgetfulness, Bobby thought, I programmed more than one—

Bobby’s hand scrambled to his watch in a desperate attempt to keep it from—

BEEPBEEPBEEP

4

“What was that?” Kerry asked as Bobby cut off the alarm and hugged himself close to the tree.

“Probably just some bird out there,” Regina replied. “Or some other woodland critter. This place is probably swarming with them. You saw how much roadkill we passed getting here, and they were still darting out in front of us.”

“Maybe we should’ve done our part and added to the carcasses,” Wesley’s arrogant voice added.

“It didn’t sound like some animal,” Kerry replied, sounding almost apologetic for disagreeing.

Bobby found he could breathe easy again, though he still held the tree like a security blanket. He assured himself if they were suspicious of his alarm or had seen him, they would’ve investigated.

“Bra-DY!” a new, spoiled voice whined. “This place has, like, no cell reception.”

There’s a sixth!

“Perfect, Misty,” Brady responded, sounding at ease for the first time. “Nothing to distract us this weekend.”

“I don’t like being isolated from the world like this,” Kerry protested.

“There’s a landline.” Wesley scoffed at the antique form of communication.

There’s one in the living room, and there’s one in Pop’s office upstairs.

The thought of the phone gave Bobby an idea. He craned his neck to his bedroom window on the second floor. Pop’s office was in the room next to his. All he had to do was call the sheriff’s department and hang up. Bobby wouldn’t even have to risk them hearing him speak. Just a call would get a deputy to pay them a visit. As soon as he saw their car pull into his driveway, he’d emerge from his hiding spot and tell them everything. That’d take care of the intruders.

He used to sneak out of his room and shimmy down the very tree he was using as a shield from the intruders. It had been years since he’d put his stealth skills to the test, but Pop had never woken up when he went on his nightly excursions to the lake, and that was enough to convince him he could crawl inside without attracting their attention.

“Still,” Kerry persisted, “being here creeps me out.”

But what about my pills? I need them, he thought.

“Would you remember what we came here to do?” Brady demanded, the barely contained rage returning to his voice. “RELAX!”

Bobby quickly thought up a new plan. His medication was in the upstairs bathroom, right next to Pop’s office. He could take his pill first, then call the sheriff, then escape down the tree. If he heard one of them coming up the stairs, there was always Pop’s room across from the bathroom he could hide in. There was also another tree that could be reached from the two guest bedrooms opposite his room and Pop’s old office. He had never tried climbing down that one, but it looked thick and strong enough to support his bulky weight.

As far as he could tell, there were only six of them, and they were all congregated in the living room. It would’ve been better if they’d discovered the door along the staircase that led into the cellar because that would put two floors of separation between him and them. He reckoned as long as they weren’t in the kitchen or downstairs bathroom, which were directly below the rooms upstairs, they weren’t likely to hear him once he got inside.

Bobby started to hoist himself up onto the lowest branch. He had scaled this tree enough times to master getting up and down it while using the trunk to shield himself from any prying eyes inside.

The living room window he’d been listening through popped open. Bobby froze in place, mostly suspended in the air. Only the tip of his toe still balanced on the ground. His arms were screaming at him to let go, but he didn’t dare. They were sure to hear him drop.

But they’re going to see your fingers holding the branches!

To his horror, more than his fingers were exposed to the intruders. He could peek past the trunk in through the open window, making the top of his head visible to anyone looking outside.

All he could bring himself to do was hang there and pray no one noticed him. A slender arm emerged from the window, swinging a cell phone. He stifled a gasp each time the hand came close to the tree, fearing whoever was attached to the phone would take notice of him hiding behind it.

“No reception here, either,” Misty’s whiny voice pouted before Bobby heard footsteps receding from the window.

Finally, a girl ignoring you pays off.

Bobby lowered himself back to the ground, giving his arms a quick reprieve. He still intended to get inside.

“I’m going to look around,” Misty announced over the other conversations taking place. “See what else this place has. Wesley, open all the windows, air this place out a little.”

“Me, too,” Kerry said pointedly.

Bobby groaned as he heard forceful footsteps ascending the staircase. He glanced up at his windows. If the intruders spread out upstairs, that point of entry might as well have been on Mars.

They’re wasting no time fanning out. They’ll comb every square inch and pick the place clean.

“Kerry!” Brady called out to her. The stomping cut out, and for a moment, Bobby saw he still had an opening to climb inside. Then his ears picked up the familiar creak of the stairs, and puzzled out that Misty was now upstairs.

“Don’t be—”

“You talked me into this, all right?” Kerry cut Brady off.

Given the way the rest of the room gasped, Bobby assumed doing this to Brady was unheard of. “You convinced me we needed to do this. So, if I’m forced to go along, give me some space, okay?”

Bobby braced himself against the tree, waiting for an eruption that never came. Kerry continued up the stairs, and Brady waited until she was out of earshot to start grumbling that she was a moody bitch. The only sound he heard coming from the bottom floor was the rest of the windows being opened. The rest of the intruders remained mute, and Bobby didn’t blame them. It didn’t sit well listening to Brady trash a girl like that, but Bobby didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that wrath.

Above him, his bedroom door closed. The thought of one of them in his room chilled him. He had always fantasized about a girl in his bedroom, but not under these circumstances.

“Last thing I need is for her to ruin the big plans I’ve got for us this weekend,” Brady continued to mutter inside.

Bobby studied the branches above him. The tree shed its leaves as soon as autumn struck, but being on the cusp of summer, he felt confident he could scale the tree and remain hidden in the foliage from anyone looking out his bedroom window.

“Why don’t you cool off?” Regina suggested, growing irritated by Brady’s rant.

Muscle memory took over, and Bobby got balanced comfortably on the top branch in a flash. He glanced down at the living room window to see if he had alerted the intruders.

“Good idea,” Brady snarled, failing to contain his frustration. “There was a place we passed about a mile from here that should have what we need. Why don’t I go pick up some more supplies for this weekend?”

As far as Bobby could tell, the brute hadn’t heard him. Nor had the rest of them.

Feeling safe, he turned his attention to the woman sitting on his bed. She had her back to him, but he got the impression she was doing her best to hold back sobbing. She also looked nothing like a hardened criminal.

The woman glanced at Bobby’s nightstand, and picked up a framed picture of him and Pop that had resided there since Pop’s passing. After getting lost inspecting it, she let out a deep sigh.

“What are you doing here, Kerry?” she asked herself.

This must be her first heist, Bobby thought. He wondered what she was doing with this crew as well. Downstairs, she’d said Brady had convinced her they needed to do this, and his mind lacked the imagination to dream up what this lost, innocent-looking girl could’ve gotten mixed up in that led to her falling in with this crowd.

“Anyone else need anything?” Brady asked below, though it came out as a demand. No one responded.

“Look at the size of this one!” Misty exclaimed from the other side of the house. “I’ve got this room!”

That’s Pop’s room!

As deftly as he’d gotten up the tree, Bobby negotiated his way back to solid ground. He wasn’t sure he could call the sheriff in time to stop them, and if he couldn’t, he had to know what to report missing. Bobby hadn’t been in Pop’s room much since he’d passed, and even before then he’d gone in sparingly. It was a mystery to him what he’d have to report stolen unless he witnessed what they found.

Bobby kept himself low to the ground as he scrambled to the other side of the house. The untamed bushes surrounding the house he had neglected to prune that morning provided the perfect cover from the strangers inside. There was a brief moment when he almost kicked over the can of nails he’d left on the cellar door, but as far as he could tell, he was up another tree before they were any the wiser.

“I’ll be right back!” Brady called to the group inside.

The tree Bobby was perched on was planted between the two guest bedrooms on Pop’s side of the house. It didn’t give him a direct view into Pop’s room, but the angle he spied through caught enough of the mirror on Pop’s dresser to see the entire room.

Through the mirror, Bobby could see Misty fingering the antlers of the prized buck, the largest deer Pop had ever bagged hunting, that Pop had hung on the wall. She grew bored with it, and turned toward the mirror. Bobby’s breath caught. She had a captivating beauty Bobby thought only existed in magazines.

He tensed, fearing she might spot him in the mirror, even though the branch he was hiding in was lush with leaves, but she was too preoccupied admiring herself to notice him.

Even a goddess like her is drawn to her own radiance.

“I’m taking a shower,” she called out. “I’m tired of being a sweaty mess.”

He found it peculiar she’d take the time to shower during a robbery, but didn’t question it. She seemed right at home with home invasion. Bobby guessed she was experienced enough to know how not to leave any DNA at the scene of a crime.

Her back was to the mirror as she slipped her shorts down the curve of her hips. Bobby chuckled in delight. He had never had women lining up to take their clothes off in front of him, and definitely not women who could fill his head with lustful fantasies like Misty.

And the way she’s discarding her clothes . . . it’s like she knows you’re spying on her, and putting on a show for you.

But she doesn’t know.

That guilt stabbed at his conscience. He pried his eyes from the window. As much as he tried to justify the continued peeping, Misty wasn’t performing a striptease for him.

Bobby glanced down, searching for the best way to climb down from the tree, and froze. Waiting for him below was a man with eyes so filled with rage that he could only be Brady.

“Get a good look?”

5

Brady’s hands were like vise grips as they yanked Bobby’s ankles off the branch. Bobby’s chin smashed into the branch as he fell. He tasted blood immediately.

His fall was cushioned by Brady’s body. The brute let out a muffled grunt as he was bowled over. Bobby scrambled to his feet, and tried to flee. His mind was so frantic it took him a second to process that he was running downhill toward the lake.

“Misty,” Regina called from inside. “Before you shower, where did you put—?”

Bobby didn’t catch the rest as Brady caught him in his dominant grasp again. The force of the tug on his shoulder ripped Bobby from his feet. Brady was on him the moment he crashed to the ground.

“What’d you see? Huh? What’d you see, motherfucker?”

I warned you they’d be hostile if they caught someone spying on what they were doing.

Bobby threw his arms up, shielding himself as best he could. Brady kept repeating himself, but never waited for a reply.

He was too busy raining a hailstorm of fists down on Bobby.

Brady’s weight lifted off Bobby and he lowered his guard to see what was going on. He wormed away from his attacker, but was unable to avoid the sharp kick to his side.

The next kick connected with his ribs. The third folded him in two. Bobby started to roll away before Brady could launch a fourth. The strike had grazed his shoulder, and the impact was enough to accelerate his slide downhill. Brady lost his balance and fell on top of him.

The two of them tumbled down the slope together until they crashed into the stump Bobby had been digging up with the pickaxe and chainsaw.

Brady tried to brace himself for the impact, fracturing his wrist for his trouble. He would’ve cried out if Bobby hadn’t crashed into him a moment later, causing Brady to substitute an agonized wail with a muted grunt.

Bobby rolled over the top of Brady and the stump, missing the chainsaw but dislodging the pickaxe, and continued his descent toward the lake. Roots scraped his body as he rolled over them. He landed with a thud when he mercifully reached the shore.

A tumbling accelerated down on him. The pickaxe cartwheeled toward him, and he rolled to the side moments before the spike drove itself into the ground where his neck had been.

His ears caught something else bounding down the slope, and turned to see the maniac was still in full pursuit. He didn’t know where the lunatic got the energy to run after their descent.

Bobby stumbled to his feet as Brady yanked the pickaxe from the ground and chased after him.

Brady clutched his fractured wrist close to his body, but with Bobby in his sights, he was undeterred by the pain. He overtook his prey in no time, cornering him along the shoreline.

The hothead swung the pickaxe wildly, planting it in the ground.

The madman abandoned his weapon, lunging at Bobby, bowling him over into the lake. Bobby splashed around as he came up for air. His lungs filled with water as Brady was on him again, shoving his head back into the lake.

Bobby struggled to free himself from Brady’s control, but no matter how many times he struck the hothead’s arm, Brady’s dominant grasp yielded nothing.

He couldn’t hold his breath any longer. The lake poured down his airway. His pounding on Brady’s arm grew less impactful as his limbs began to tire. The water muted his screams for mercy. He knew there was none for him. Brady’s face held nothing but malice. It reminded him of Pop, and the similarity triggered something unexpected.

For the first time in years, he could hear Pop calling him a crybaby.

Pop’s term echoing in his head still made him shudder. Pop had always ridden Bobby hard about his unwillingness to exert himself, but started calling him that and never let up when their water heater burst and flooded the cellar. He’d gotten tired of berating Bobby, demanding to know what good all those muscles were if he couldn’t get through an hour of chores without complaining about being damp and whining for a break. Pop had told him whether he wanted to or not, they had to get everything out of the water before there was permanent damage, and that he better get used to life pelting him with these situations.

There were two types of people in the world, he’d told Bobby. Those who break down and cry for their mommies when things got tough, and those who steel themselves up and try. To Pop, crybabies were a dime a dozen, always bemoaning any setback, like life had it out for them. Something else was always to blame. Nature. The man. The system. Politicians. God. But trybabies, they were special. Whether they were tired, scared, what have you, they always buckled down and gave maximum effort. And when that happened, the things they tried started getting done, and they became that exceptional breed called dobabies. Anytime Pop caught Bobby slacking, his question was always the same: “Are you a crybaby or a trybaby?”

Summoning what was left of his strength, he pounded at Brady again. Bobby couldn’t even lift his arms high enough to strike the maniac’s arm. His fist flailed softly at the hothead’s chest. It had as much impact as a fly striking concrete. He swung again, connecting with Brady’s abdomen. No effect. Bobby mustered up one more swing.

And felt the maniac flinch.

He chopped both of his hands down on Brady’s fractured wrist. It wasn’t much. But it was enough.

Even hushed by the water, he heard Brady cry.

Bobby burst from the water with an effort that would’ve made Pop proud. He grabbed hold of Brady’s shoulders, shoving the hothead off him and driving his foe to the ground.

Brady gasped softly, and squeezed Bobby’s arm.

Bobby’s lungs expelled most of the water he’d swallowed. Brady was still holding his arm, and Bobby wrenched it free. The force of his tug pulled Brady onto his stomach, and seeing this, Bobby crawled away in a panic, expecting Brady to recover quickly and strike again.

He braced himself for an impact that never came.

Bobby threw up some more water, then cast a glance back at his attacker. Brady lay face down in the lake. His flailing arms did nothing to keep him from drowning.

The blade of the pickaxe was buried deep in his back.

6

Let him drown. He was ready to kill you.

No! Bobby screamed to himself. I’m no murderer.

Bobby’s mind may have wasted no time trying to save Brady, but his body didn’t follow. He retched up more lake water, this time noticing a tint of red in the puddle. Now that the adrenaline of fighting for his own survival had worn off, his body was feeling the effects of falling down the hillside and Brady’s thrashing.

By the time he reached Brady, the hothead was barely moving. Even Brady’s gurgling was dying down. Bobby could only manage a weak tug. The body barely budged.

And then he heard the siren.

7

He snapped his head back to his house. He couldn’t make out the vehicle, but the flashing lights came from his driveway. A sense of relief poured through his body. Law enforcement was here, and that meant the end of the saga with the intruders.

How did they know to come here, though? You never had the chance to get inside and call them.

Bobby fumbled coming up with an answer. While he groped for a reason why they had known to show up, Brady gave one last thrash in the water.

He gave the body jerk after violent jerk until he’d dragged Brady onto the shore. For the first time, Brady looked calm.

Dread swallowed the joy he’d felt a moment ago when he believed the cavalry had arrived. A cop was now on his doorstep for an unknown reason, and he was hunched over a dead body.

I was defending myself! Bobby thought. They’ll see all the bruises and cuts on me and they’ll believe me. They’ll have to believe me.

Will they? Even after you haven’t taken your pills? Go up and tell them what happened, then.

Bobby stayed rooted to the ground. It was well past when he was supposed to take his prescription. He was sure people around town knew how he got when he wasn’t medicated. If he charged up there trying to explain what happened, would he make sense, or would it all come out an excited, jumbled mess?

It’ll sound like another wild story from Bobby Dinwill, his inner demons tormented him.

Bobby crushed his palms to his temples, trying to silence the thought. He needed to find out why the cop had arrived in the first place. It was possible they were already there to deal with the intruders. He didn’t know how, but he wouldn’t question it, either. If they were, he’d rush up the hill, screaming he’d been attacked, hoping he’d make enough sense to be believed, and try to take his pill the first chance he got. Bobby didn’t want to think what would happen if they weren’t there to arrest the intruders.

He heard a car door open and shut on his driveway. There was only one pair of footsteps, which told him it was a sheriff’s car that had pulled up. They usually rode solo. That was a good sign. The sheriff and the deputies knew him. They knew this was his house, and that he lived alone.

Bobby started to climb back up the hill, hunched over and favoring his ribs where Brady had kicked him. He wanted to get the cop’s attention as soon as they saw a stranger in Bobby’s house. The slow saunter of authority stopped at the sound of the front door opening.

“Is there a problem, Officer?” the snobbish voice that sounded like Wesley called out from Bobby’s front door. Bobby could tell it was said with a forced smile.

Pompous ass, Bobby thought. He smiled, fantasizing about that smug grin being wiped off Wesley’s face when the cuffs were being fitted to his wrists.

Just as long as it’s not—

He didn’t have time to finish his thought before Sheriff Knotts responded—the last voice he wanted to hear.

8

“No problem, just gettin’ clumsy in my old age,” Knotts replied with a sheepish chuckle. Even though it’d been years since he’d heard Knotts’ voice, the sheriff still sounded like the same bumbling fool who always bungled details about everyone in town. He and Pop had laughed up a storm when Knotts extended his condolences to Mrs. Jenkins on the passing of her husband, continually reassuring her Phil was in a better place until she finally snapped “That’s great for whoever that is, I just hope my beloved Will is doing half as well!”

“Accidentally hit the siren as I was getting outta the car,” the sheriff explained.

Unbelievable. He’s apologizing? To them?

Bobby trudged farther up the hill, still staying low to the ground as he approached the house, partly because of the pain in his side, partly because he wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen yet, even by the sheriff. Knotts, in his usual shamble, closed the distance between himself and Wesley.

“Has anyone seen my brother?” Misty called out from the top floor. An avalanche of steps raced down the stairs. “Oh,” she said, seemingly taken aback. “Hello, Officer.”

“Sheriff,” Knotts corrected her.

“He went out to get some more things for this weekend,” Regina’s husky voice explained.

Do something! Bobby’s mind implored the sheriff. He knows everyone in town. He knows they don’t belong here.

“If there’s no problem, why have you stopped by, Officer?” Wesley asked, with the same attitude he’d given the intruders earlier. The more Wesley spoke, the more Bobby got the impression Wesley looked down on everyone who wasn’t Wesley.

“Sheriff,” Knotts corrected again. “And I stopped by because I noticed the strange van parked in the driveway.”

Bobby could have let out a cheer. Knotts did know something was amiss. The sheriff had probably waited until he could assess the situation and see how many perps he was dealing with before letting them know he was onto them. Bobby quickened his pace up the hill, ready to volunteer as the witness Knotts needed to make arrests. He felt relieved that he’d be able to explain the body by the lake.

“That’s right. I booked the cabin for the weekend, off of one of those websites where people rent their houses out like they’re hotels,” Wesley explained, taking great pride that he’d bankrolled the rental.

Knotts stood silent, contemplating what Wesley had said. For a moment, Bobby believed he was about to pick apart Wesley’s lie.

“Oh, right, he told me about that.”

Knotts’ words brought Bobby to a dead stop. I did no such thing! Bobby roared to himself. He suddenly didn’t feel safe standing out in the open, and quickly crouched behind a bush along the trail. Bobby stepped on another tool he’d left lying about, this one a screwdriver he’d misplaced a month ago, and wondered why he’d dropped it here.

Focus!

Bobby had no plans of moving from where he’d rooted himself to the ground until the conversation with Knotts played out further. Bobby still couldn’t work out why he’d first arrived, and now there was this new puzzle of Knotts lying about Bobby telling him they’d be here.

What struck him the most was that Knotts didn’t even sound like a cop when talking to them. He’d sounded apologetic, self-deprecating, and friendly. Bobby conceded that Knotts always spoke that way around town, but the sheriff had known the residents of the town for decades.

He’s so chummy talking to the intruders, it’s like they’re all pals.

I need him to be more than the bumbling bozo with a badge right now, Bobby countered to himself.

“It’s odd that the van is still here,” Bobby heard Decker observe from the house. Even Decker’s soft-spoken voice carried perfectly to Bobby’s ears.

“Why’s that?” Knotts asked, a slight pang of suspicion in his voice.

“Because Brady isn’t. And if he didn’t take off already, why didn’t he come up when the siren blared?”

There was a brief pause as they contemplated it, and then Kerry offered, “You heard him raving about this place coming down here. He’s probably just scoping everything out before he leaves.”

The conversation informed Bobby they didn’t know what had happened yet. He and Brady must’ve tumbled far enough down the hill they were out of earshot when the mayhem started.

“Where’d you folks say you came down from? Chicago?” Knotts asked.

“We didn’t, actually,” Wesley said. His tone more than suggested he wanted the sheriff to leave.

“Yes. Chicago,” Regina replied. Her response was for Knotts. Her annoyed tone was for Wesley.

Chicago was the worst answer they could’ve given. Pop had been obsessed over the mafia, consuming countless mob movies and documentaries. A lot of those films centered around syndicates in Chicago.

“I thought I recognized your accent,” Knotts said.

“Sheriff, would you like to come in?” Misty offered, her voice friendlier than it should have been.

“Don’t mind if I do, darlin’.”

His response was too quick. Knotts had always possessed a fascination about the cabin. When he’d first been elected sheriff, he’d paid them regular weekly visits. Pop had always told Bobby to head inside whenever Knotts came around. Bobby knew it was because Pop didn’t want him hearing what was said, but Bobby always listened from his bedroom anyway.

Every visit was the same. Knotts was curious about Pop’s finances. He’d speak in that friendly tone of his, posing his questions like he was asking for advice. How could Pop be retired at his age? And own a house outright? And all that land? What was his secret?

Initially, Bobby assumed Knotts had jumbled the details again. Maybe he’d gotten a tip that one of the neighbors was sitting on a stash of unclaimed income, and thought it was Pop. But even though Knotts had to be mistaken, and spoke in that same chummy manner of his, he didn’t seem like a doofus who constantly got his facts mixed up. He seemed like the keen lawman the town had elected in the first place.

Pop refused him every time he asked to peek inside. Knotts would nod like he accepted the answer. But he’d always return.

This lasted the whole summer. Only on his last visit did he drop the friendly act. Taking on the air of authority, Knotts demanded to know how on no income Pop was able to provide for himself.

And the little retard he was raising.

To that point, Bobby had always thought Pop was overreacting when he sounded off on Sheriff Knotts. The constant bitching about unlawful searches grew old, and he always thought they’d get Knotts out of their hair if Pop just explained to Knotts that he sold Momma’s old artwork from time to time.

Bobby never did, feeling Momma was still a sore subject as she was no longer with them. Pop could never bring himself to display any of her art around the cabin. He always kept her work tucked away in the crawlspace of the cellar, only retrieving one of her pieces if he was selling it.

After hearing Knotts call him that, Bobby despised the sheriff more than his old man.

Bobby wasn’t the sharpest tack, but he knew he wasn’t retarded. The school had performed the tests to prove it. As long as he was on his medication, he could function just fine.

Knotts’ weekly poking around ended after that, maybe from embarrassment for saying that about someone’s kid. The only other time Knotts had come knocking at his door was when Pop had died. Pop wasn’t even in the ground a day, and Knotts had pulled up in his driveway.

The sheriff had tried to play it off as coming to offer his condolences. He wasted no time asking if Bobby was going to invite him inside. Even though Pop was gone, Knotts still suspected him of having something stashed away somewhere, something he couldn’t explain having. Bobby said the one word Pop had made him promise to tell Knotts if he ever came around looking to get inside.

Warrant.

Bobby scowled as Knotts disappeared inside his house. The bastard had finally found his way in.

“Must admit, it is nice getting out of that heat,” Knotts said once inside. Even though he could hear the sheriff just fine, Bobby inched closer to the house, resuming his position behind the closest tree. He wanted to see if Knotts was actually smiling now that he could poke around the house.

“I’m always happy doing anything to please law enforcement,” Misty flirted.

Are they really the mafia? Bobby wondered. Brady, maybe. Regina has the size of someone who could be the muscle. The less I know about Decker, the better. But are they really Mafioso?

Misty didn’t fit the mold of a gangster. Neither did Kerry. Bobby could wrap his head around Misty being born into a family of gangsters. Misty certainly sounded comfortable around Knotts, suggesting she’d dealt with cops in the past. He supposed Kerry could have unwittingly found out she was dating a criminal.

“I’ll bet you do, darlin’,” Knotts said slyly, returning her suggestive tone.

“Office—Sheriff,” Wesley interjected. “I’m sure you can imagine we don’t want to be disturbed this weekend.”

Wesley spoke like someone who expected to rise to nothing less than greatness. Bobby wouldn’t have been surprised if Wesley was the son of a don.

That might be why he talks down to Knotts so freely. He knows if push comes to shove, he’s got Daddy as an ace up his sleeve.

“Me, neither,” Knotts stated absently.

Bobby imagined Knotts hadn’t pried his eyes from Misty yet. “Last thing I want is to get any sort of complaints from the residents here about this house.”

If Bobby was dealing with the mob, they hadn’t sent their best. The intruders he’d seen looked young, barely above drinking age. If Wesley was the heir apparent to the family, this may’ve been done so he could feel in charge. Or this could’ve just been a job to throw at new recruits hungry to “make their bones.”

“Trust me, Sheriff. We don’t want to attract any attention while we’re here,” Wesley insisted, his patience running thin.

“You should be more careful, then,” Knotts grunted. “I can’t turn a blind eye if people see what you’re doing.”

There was a mad scramble inside. Latches opened, and something dropped with a gentle thud, as though its landing had been heavily padded. Bobby worked out that something incriminating must’ve been left out in plain sight, and rather than do his job, Knotts had merely warned them to put it away. His best guess was that it’d been tools to burglarize the house.

“We’ll make sure no one hears us,” Wesley said quickly. For the first time, there was no trace of haughtiness in his voice. He sounded apologetic, and humble. The tone sounded bitter on his tongue.

If they’ve got their tools out, why isn’t he arresting them? Bobby demanded to himself.

Just having the tools might not be enough. Maybe he’s got to catch them in the act.

“Good,” Knotts said coldly. “The residents here like the added revenue they’re starting to get from tourists who’ve discovered this lake, but they still like to think of this place as a quiet little town where everyone knows everyone. They don’t want to worry about any riffraff getting in, and I’d like to keep it that way. But if I get any complaints, I’m gonna have to come back here and do my job. We understand each other?”

There were murmurs of assent, followed by silence. Bobby envisioned that Knotts was taking a good long look at everything. The sheriff used to always do that the one summer he’d paid his weekly visits. The conversations in which he’d all but accuse Pop of hiding something around here would be over, but before he’d walk back to his car, he’d survey everything.

Bobby still had no idea what Knotts thought he was after, but when Knotts gave that long stare of his, Bobby always ended up praying for the sheriff to leave before he found it.

“You really found this place off a website?” Knotts asked.

“Yes,” Kerry replied softly when no one else did. “Why?”

“Nothing. Just . . . surprised he even owns a computer.”

Bobby’s head perked up. For a moment, he convinced himself he’d had Knotts all wrong. He was even prepared to kiss the man.

He knows! He knows they’ve been lying this whole time. He’s just kept up the whole friendly sheriff routine until they dropped their guard and started talking long enough for him to corner them in a lie.

Bobby didn’t fight the smile carving itself onto his face. Although he lived out in the woods, he was still connected to the town’s power and sewer lines. But one thing Knotts had to know was not connected to his house were Internet cables.

The couches groaned, and Bobby relished the thought of them shifting uneasily inside. Bobby just hoped Knotts would be able to handle all five of them if they had no plans of going quietly. He still feared they had ties to the mob.

“He must still be getting used to having one,” Wesley offered. “When I was booking this place, there were barely any pictures uploaded. All of them had terrible resolution. When I was exchanging messages with him, it was tough to decipher what he was saying because of all the misspellings, and I had to repeatedly explain the shorthand I was using.” Wesley scoffed, the superior tone returning to his voice. “The lingo I was using has been pretty standard online for years now.”

Bobby had to hold in a laugh. He almost called out to Knotts that after all this time, he’d give his permission for the sheriff to search his house top to bottom. It’d be worth it just to hear Knotts tell the intruders there was no computer anywhere.

“Yeah,” Knotts agreed. “That sounds like him. He probably went to the library or that Internet café to post this house online.”

The response caught Bobby off guard. He believed Knotts had them trapped, and couldn’t make out why he was letting them off the hook.

Because he wasn’t trying to trap them. He was making sure they all had their stories straight in case someone spotted the van and got nosy.

No, it can’t be! He’s . . . he’s still playing them.

What’s he waiting for, then?

Bobby pressed himself for a plausible explanation and came up empty. The harsh reality set in.

Knotts had to be in on it.

9

Bobby ducked low to the ground as Knotts emerged from his house. The tree he hid behind shielded Knotts’ view of him, and shadows created by the setting sun provided camouflage, but Bobby wasn’t taking any chances of being spotted.

As far as he was concerned, Knotts was more dangerous than all the intruders combined because he had a badge.

Knotts stopped a few feet from his car. He turned to study Bobby’s house, and when the sheriff’s eyes swept past him, Bobby’s blood ran cold, terrified Knotts had seen him.

Why’s he settling for just looking at the house? Why not help them look for whatever he thinks Pop stashed inside?

Because he can’t stay here. Knotts thinks you’re gone for the weekend, but he’s got to believe you’ll file a police report. If a neighbor tells you they saw his car parked in your driveway for hours on the same day you got robbed, that’ll spell trouble for him. He’s got to make himself seen all around town. I’ll bet he’ll be writing ticket after ticket just to establish an alibi for himself.

He didn’t know what Knotts expected them to find. Bobby didn’t think Knotts knew about Momma’s artwork. The only thing of value Bobby could think of was Momma’s old jewelry, which Pop could never bring himself to get rid of. Bobby had no idea how much it was worth, if it was even worth anything. Whatever Knotts had told the mob was here, it’d been enticing enough that they’d sent people all the way from Chicago to help a small town Missouri sheriff rob a house. He supposed if they were looking to expand, having Knotts in their pocket was a start.

The thought of gangsters in his house, and Knotts’ potential association, was suffocating. A small part of him still held out hope Knotts hadn’t sold his soul to the mob, reminding himself that Knotts had to ask where they were from.

Bobby had watched enough gangster films with Pop to know that didn’t mean anything. It was possible whoever Knotts had organized this heist with had deliberately kept the sheriff in the dark about who they were sending for this job. That way, Knotts couldn’t testify against them if things went south. That Knotts was not only here, but asking questions about them, probably didn’t sit well with his co-conspirators.

Knotts ended his cursory examination of the house and shambled into his car. Bobby didn’t move from his spot until he could no longer hear Knotts’ engine. Even with Knotts gone, Bobby didn’t feel any better.

He still had no idea what to do next.

Run to a neighbor.

Mr. Harris isn’t there.

So run to the next one. It might be a mile or two, but keep running until you find someone you can tell.

People will know I haven’t taken my medicine.

No one knows about that. You always wait outside Mr. Manning’s pharmacy until no one’s inside to pick up your refill. You always rush back home immediately so no one sees you take your pills. No one will know.

Knotts will tell them. He’ll make sure everyone knows if I accuse him of being involved in this.

There was no doubt Knotts would tarnish Bobby’s name to save his own if Bobby implicated him in the robbery. He’d reveal every grisly detail he could dig up about Bobby to the public. If everyone didn’t already know about Bobby’s medical history, Knotts would have them all well-versed in no time.

He was also well liked as sheriff. Knotts may have been a bumbling oaf when he was first elected, but he kept crime down, kept the Boyle brothers in line (aside from their growing fireworks shows around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July), and the residents had kept him at the same post for decades now. They’d bend over backward to believe he wasn’t the mastermind behind this heist.

It wasn’t hard to envision how things would play out if he bolted for the nearest neighbor accusing Knotts of organizing a break-in. His story would already lack credibility if he showed up on their doorstep, drenched in sweat from running for miles, bouncing off the walls as he excitedly told a wild story implicating Knotts. That he’d been robbed would lend some credence to his claim, but when (not if) his condition got out, the whole town would be more than willing to sweep this incident under the rug.

Everyone would rally around Knotts. You’d likely get hauled off to the loony bin. Don’t forget, there’s the body you left by the lake.

I didn’t kill him!

People’ll believe that as much as they believe your crazy allegations about Knotts. They’ll throw you in some hole and forget about you. And Knotts will have unlimited access to your house because it’ll be a crime scene. He’ll even be able to cut those jokers out of the score. You’ll be doing him a huge favor.

Bobby balled his hands into fists. Running for help was the safest thing to do, but he couldn’t leave just yet. If he had a prayer of people believing him, he’d have to appear of sound mind. Then when (not if) Knotts started telling people Bobby was “hopped up on goofballs” Bobby could at least say he hadn’t stopped his regimen.

The intruders were still congregating in the living room. Bobby determined the best way inside was to climb one of the trees and sneak in through a window. His bedroom window was unlocked, but he’d have to make it down the hallway to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and back without being seen or heard. The guest bedroom next to Pop’s room was a lot closer to his target.

He believed he could be just as successful climbing into the guestroom as he was his own room. The only question was whether he’d left it unlocked as well.

“Where are you going?” Regina asked.

“To open the windows,” Misty replied as footsteps clomped up the stairs. “It smells so musty and awful in here. Makes me wonder if the owner ever bathed?”

I shower!

Bobby felt Misty’s deep inhales when she opened his bedroom window were a bit much. When she finished opening all the upstairs windows on his side of the house, he rounded the cabin to confirm she was opening them on Pop’s side.

Footfalls came from the stairs. Bobby took it to mean Misty was vacating the top floor, allowing him a clear path to the medicine cabinet directly across the hall from Pop’s room, but the rhythmic beat of soft thuds intertwined between the steps gave him pause. Misty cackled from the guestroom closest to the stairs, across from his own bedroom. Bobby realized Misty hadn’t been going down, someone else had come up.

“I almost died at how fast you threw all your gear into your case,” she said. “I wish I’d thought to take a picture of it. Not that I can post anything while we’re here. Why’d you bring an attaché case anyway? Why not a duffel bag or travel case like everyone else?”

“Shut up,” Wesley murmured.

“Aww, whatsamatter?” she teased him. “You worried that mean sheriff will come back and arrest you for what you’ve got in there?”

“He obviously hasn’t returned or you’d be throwing yourself at him again,” he replied dryly.

Misty huffed. “You obviously don’t want to bunk with me tonight,” she snapped as she stormed down the hallway.

Wesley groaned and a soft thud came from Bobby’s bedroom. Bobby guessed Wesley had thrown his case in there. “Misty,” he called, nearly pleading. “You know that’s not true.”

Bobby groaned as Wesley pursued her. He’d been so close to the top floor being unoccupied. A door slammed as Wesley drew near. Bobby judged the bang came from across the hall.

Great, Bobby thought. Now she’s in the bathroom. The one place I need to get into.

“Misty,” Wesley said, softly rapping at the door. “C’mon, open up. I didn’t mean it.”

He spoke barely above a whisper. Bobby had no doubt Wesley would promise Misty he’d do whatever it took to be forgiven, as long as the others didn’t hear him grovel.

“Just . . . just don’t degrade yourself flirting with a bum like him. He may’ve tried to throw his weight around down there, but it’s all an act. You heard him. He’s got to negotiate this town’s transition into a tourist destination. But the residents, the registered voters, still want to pretend they live in this little undiscovered part of Middle America. They never want to be aware that people like us are here. The . . . . What did he call us? The ‘riffraff.’ As long he keeps them believing this is a quiet little town, they’ll reelect him until he’s ready to retire. Believe me, if he had to fill out any incident reports over this weekend, it’d be more trouble for him than for us. Just a handful of complaints will feel like a crime wave to the people of this town.

“We’re out of here after this weekend, never to return. We’ve got lives to go back to. What’ll he have? Because they’ll vote him out so fast in the next election if he can’t keep the illusion going. Where’s he going to go? You think any other law agency would hire someone his age?

“And that’d be the least of his problems if we actually did get in serious trouble. If he tried to press charges to save his own ass . . . well, let me just say he would not want to face my father in a courtroom.”

There was another pause. Bobby found it insufferable waiting for a response.

So did Wesley. “What’re you doing in there?” he sniped.

“Trying to find something for my headache,” Misty said as the door swung open. The vacancy in her voice told Bobby she hadn’t been paying attention to Wesley.

“Look at all the meds this guy takes,” Misty exclaimed.

A familiar rattle twisted Bobby’s stomach. At first, he tried to remain calm, assuring himself Misty had only grabbed one prescription bottle, and that it was unlikely it contained the pills he was already late taking. But then he heard a second spurt of clattering as another bottle changed hands. Then a third. Then a fourth.

By the sixth, he started to believe she’d emptied his entire cabinet.

Wesley chuckled. “I know a bunch of people who’d trade their left arm for these.”

“Really?” Misty asked, for the first time expressing interest in what Wesley had to say.

“Oh, yeah. There’s huge demand for these at any Ivy League school.”

“Why?”

“They’re desperate to keep their grades up. You’ve got valedictorians from Podunk little towns like this who busted their ass to get a full ride they can’t afford to lose. You’ve got kids on student visas who dread being sent back home. This shit will keep you focused for hours, long enough to pull all-nighters. You’ll crash. Hard. But after finals, who cares?”

Bobby cursed his bad luck. They had the pills he needed.

“How much would you charge them for something like this?” Misty asked. Her tone was packed with too much greed to allow any room for subtlety.

“No, you don’t sell to them. You’re leaving too much money on the table. You sell to those preppy assholes who need to keep off academic probation so Daddy stays happy and doesn’t cut them off. That’s where the money is.”

Leaning on the tree was the only thing keeping Bobby on his feet. The intruders. The dead body on the lake. Knotts. The plot to steal his pills. Bobby may have been outside, but he felt like everything was closing in on him.

“We’d split it, right?” Misty asked, eagerly. “I found them, after all.”

Wesley laughed. “Guess I’d have to give you a cut. Like a finder’s fee. Would hate to have you rat me out to the rest of them downstairs.”

If they take my pills . . . . But he couldn’t finish the thought.

The consequences were unimaginable.

10

Whatamigoingtodowhatamigoingtodowhatamigoingtodo

Upstairs, Wesley and Misty were snickering over what they’d spend all that money on. Each coy idea Misty suggested turned into a gift for herself. Wesley not only agreed immediately with every proposal, he kept encouraging her to brainstorm, promising he’d fulfill her every desire.

It drove Bobby mad.

“All right, put those back,” Wesley instructed. Misty started to protest, but he cut her off. “Where’re you gonna put the bottle, hmm? You left your bag in the living room. What’re they going to think if you walk downstairs with a bottle of prescribed medication that you didn’t walk upstairs with? Where’s Brady’s mind going to jump to first?”

“Fine,” she said, irritably.

Bobby didn’t like her tone. It more than suggested she’d return for the pills the first chance she got.

He didn’t know if he could get to the bottle before she could. He had to skulk in the shadows. She could move about freely. Even if he could beat her to the pills, she knew what to look for now. When (not if) she returned, she’d know they were gone. She might accuse Wesley of hiding them first, but when they established none of them had taken it, the missing pills would draw attention to his presence.

Bobby clamped his hands on his skull, tugging at his scalp. It was already well past when he should’ve taken his pills, and now he couldn’t even if he wanted to without putting them on alert.

“What does the door by you lead to?” Regina asked from the bottom floor. Bobby could tell which one she referred to by the way it creaked open.

“The cellar,” Kerry replied.

To say Bobby had gotten lax maintaining the cellar would’ve been a massive understatement. He’d abandoned Pop’s strict basement organization soon after his passing. His neglect had reached a level that he only remembered its existence when treating it as a dumping ground for things he hoarded, believing he’d put them to use someday.

That’s it!

My old travel bag is down there, when I still used to go camping. And I always made sure to pack my prescription on those trips.

It’s been so long since those trips, though. Even if a bottle had been left in there, its expiration has to have passed by now.

Probably. But at least it’d be something.

Bobby once again stalked around the house, doing his best to keep out of sight. He stared intently where their voices were coming from, and paid close attention to what they were saying.

If they spotted him, he had to be able to bolt immediately.

“So I was the one they chose to make an example of,” Regina continued whatever story she’d been telling. “Fucking disgraceful. Revoked my track and field scholarship. Lost my full ride, and I’ve been struggling to make the minimum payments on my student loans since.”

Bobby exhaled when he rounded the corner. He was outside the kitchen, staring at the door that led below ground to the cellar. Misty and Wesley were upstairs, and the rest of the vermin were still in the living room on the other side of the house.

They’ll never even know I was inside.

“But,” Kerry started, tentatively. “You were taking something for your training.”

“Fucking disgraceful,” Regina repeated, as though she hadn’t heard Kerry. Angry footsteps pounded toward Bobby, paralyzing him.

“Nothing I took was on the banned substance list at the time.”

Bobby heard the furious rattling of condiments as his refrigerator door was thrown open. He pressed himself tightly against the wall of the cabin. They’re in the kitchen.

Regina muttered that it looked pretty bare.

“It seems rude to eat his food,” Kerry mumbled.

They come to rob me, Bobby thought, but draw the line at emptying my fridge?

The kitchen floor creaked as Regina was joined by another. The footsteps sounded too heavy to belong to Kerry.

“You all right?” Decker inquired.

“Yeah.” Regina sighed. “Really glad you talked me into coming. It’s a relief not having to worry about paying the university back.”

Bobby surmised her massive debt was the reason Regina had tagged along for this burglary. He almost felt bad she was going to walk away empty-handed.

“Seriously, why’d Brady pick this place?” she continued, shifting to a fuming tone. “Look around. The only thing of interest is those damn guns, and you’re the only one that’s into them.”

Bobby glanced down at the cellar door. It was within arm’s reach, and he hadn’t replaced the lock since he’d lost it two years ago.

“What about the lake?” Decker commented, still calm, even in the face of her tantrum.

Bobby was always suspicious of people who were overly calm or kind. No one could stay that tranquil all the time. They had to get mad like everyone else. He’d seen when people like that finally lost their cool.

Their eruptions were unforgettable.

Bobby couldn’t remember the door creaking, but it had been awhile since he’d gone in the cellar this way. He grasped the handle and raised it slightly.

Not even a whisper.

“What about it?” Regina pressed. “Just because a house is on a lake doesn’t mean it’s worth a damn. God, I would’ve thought with Wesley involved in the selection, we’d at least get something decent.”

Bobby lifted the door all the way, flinching at a groan that never came. The quicker he found some pills to take, the better. He didn’t want to be around when Regina found out this house held little of value.

She was liable to be more violent than Brady.

“Come on, now,” Decker said, as serene as ever, even in the face of someone practically screaming at him. “Brady wouldn’t’ve gone along with this spot if it wasn’t perfect. You know the big plans he’s got for this weekend.”

Bobby placed a tentative foot on the top step leading to the basement. When it didn’t moan beneath his weight he descended lower.

Regina scoffed above him. “Has Brady even picked a ring?” Her question drew Bobby’s eyes to where Regina and Decker were standing on the other side of the cabin wall.

There’s no way Brady found Momma’s jewelry box.

But you don’t know how long they’d already been here before you saw them. You were too busy napping on the lake.

He replayed the first encounter he’d had with the intruders. Brady had come charging down the stairs to scream at Decker. With enough time to snoop around, it was possible he could’ve found her hoard.

“He said he had his eye on some but wanted to run them by Wesley to see which ones were the best value,” Decker answered. “I don’t know if Brady already spoke to him about it.”

Bobby’s arms started to shake under the weight of keeping the cellar door open above him. They eased the door shut each time he furthered his descent. His ribs, still sore from Brady’s thrashing, joined in the chorus of agony.

He grit his teeth to combat his suffering. Half of him was still sticking out of the entryway, even when he crouched down. Once he got inside, he still had to ease the door shut. If he let it go, it would slam down above him.

Regina laughed above. “Wesley does love to remind everyone he comes from money.”

Bobby’s steps became increasingly wobbly as the trembling in his arms started to spread across the rest of his body. He nearly missed the next step and slipped down the rest of the stairs. His forehead had broken into a sweat from the exertion. He wanted to hurry, but he couldn’t risk the old steps betraying him with a loud creak.

How much longer?

Bobby squinted past the salty perspiration stinging his eyes to count the steps he had left, and let out a soft groan. He was only halfway down the stairs, but he saw that another problem already awaited him.

The remaining sunlight had seeped into the basement from the door he was keeping ajar. He tried to recall if Regina had closed the door to the basement after confirming where it led. He couldn’t remember it shutting.

One more step, and I’ll be able to sit down on the stairs. I can then close the door above me, silently.

And then how will you see?

Bobby glanced down again to assess the situation. Light had poured in from the door, but the rest of the basement was shrouded in darkness. If the intruders hadn’t closed the interior door to the basement, he wouldn’t be able to turn on a light to see what he was doing.

He made up his mind to cross that bridge when he got there. Bobby extended his leg, placing a tentative step on the next plank.

Something squealed under his foot. If he’d had a hand free to steady himself along the stair rails, he could’ve kept his balance. But when whatever he stepped on wrestled its way out from under his weight, his foot slipped completely off the step.

His hands instinctively went to the rail, catching it before he tumbled down the stairs. Above him, the door banged shut.

11

“What was that?” Kerry shrieked upstairs.

Bobby pulled himself back to his feet as footsteps swarmed from the kitchen and living room to the basement door inside the house. The pitter-patter of the critter he’d stepped on fled across the basement. His first instinct was to go back the way he came.

He caught himself before he opened the door. Opening the door would flood the cellar with light. Bobby could run, but he used to get winded running a mile for school. Regina had been quick enough to earn a full scholarship. He doubted he’d get far.

“Did you guys hear something?” Wesley called as his footsteps galloped down from the top floor.

Bobby’s eyes slowly started adjusting to the darkness. He’d accumulated plenty of junk down here since becoming a homeowner.

“It came from the basement,” Regina explained.

There was a familiar click at the top of the stairs. Bobby’s breath caught, until nothing happened.

“The lights must not work down there.”

The temptation to run hit him like a second wave. His feet danced toward the stairs, but he forced himself to keep them planted to the ground.

Running for his life wasn’t an option. Bobby knew it was crazy, but his best chance of survival was staying in the cellar.

The intruders rushed to the sound, but they haven’t come—

“Someone should go down there to see what made that noise,” Kerry suggested. Her voice was as shaky as ever, but she willed herself to say the words.

Really? The girl who sounds afraid of her own voice is the only one brave enough to state what needs to be done?

The urge to run overwhelmed his thoughts. He pushed the cowardice back down. Kerry might be steering them to inspect the cellar, but they hadn’t come down yet.

“Are you kidding?” Wesley nearly shrieked. “Going alone to investigate a suspicious noise in the basement is a good way to get yourself killed.”

Bobby grew more comfortable hiding in the dark. His night vision made out most of his surroundings. He was familiar with the basement. They weren’t. In the dark, that gave him an advantage.

But you keep a flashlight in the kitchen. They’ve surely spotted it by now, his inner demon reminded him.

“You’re free to join me,” Kerry said dryly.

Bobby fought the itch to escape again. Even with nothing between him and the door, he couldn’t run. He had to assume if they came down to search the cellar, they’d have his flashlight. His only option was to hide.

He scrambled to think where to go. There was plenty of junk to hide behind, but if they came down with a light, they were sure to check behind everything. He’d have to keep moving without making a sound if he wanted to evade them.

“I should really stay up here in case Misty needs me,” Wesley said hurriedly. The pace with which he flew back up the stairs was even faster.

Bobby pressed himself to remember what was down here. Pop’s old workbench was close by, but it couldn’t provide him with any cover. There was an old fridge that had died two years ago that Bobby hadn’t gotten around to removing. That was no good, either. If he tried to move it from the wall to create a hiding spot for himself, they were bound to hear.

“What about you two?” Kerry asked upstairs.

The old crawl space.

Bobby’s eyes snapped through the darkness to his favorite hiding spot growing up. When he was a kid, his cousins would come to visit for two weeks each summer, and they used to love playing hide-and-seek. Bobby’s favorite place to hide was a small cutout along the wall in a corner of the cellar. He chuckled over the memory of them never being able to find him. It had felt spacious as a child. He hoped that it was still roomy enough to fit him now.

“I really don’t think it was anything,” Regina said. “I think we just got startled is all. Old places like this creak and make weird noises all the time.”

Bobby’s smile faltered. The crawl space was on the opposite side of the cellar, which he’d cluttered over the years. He now had to wade through a labyrinth of garbage to get to it.

In the dark.

“It was more than just a creak,” Kerry protested. Her voice was still soft, but for the first time, Bobby heard a slight edge to it.

These hardened criminals turn into cowards the second they hear a bump in the night.

Go! Go now. While they’re still squabbling with each other.

Bobby trekked toward the crawl space as soundlessly as he could. He lifted his feet slightly off the ground to keep them from dragging across the floor. Each tentative step was placed gently to keep from tripping over the rubbish he’d polluted the basement with. His arms waved in front of him, probing for any piles he might bump into.

It was slow going.

“If something was down there, we would’ve heard it make another sound by now,” Decker tried to reassure Kerry.

Almost on cue, Bobby’s hand brushed against the top of one of the piles. He felt the peak start to tip over. Both hands shot through the dark to grab it before it toppled to the ground. It felt like a model airplane he’d built nearly two decades ago. He settled it on the ground and moved on.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep without knowing for sure,” Kerry insisted.

The mountains of discarded knickknacks closed in on him the closer he got to the crawlspace. Pop’s constant lectures to take care of the house echoed through his head, mocking him.

This is what you get for being a crybaby over maintaining the cellar. A trybaby would’ve kept this place in order and wouldn’t have this problem.

His hand settled on the wall above the crawl space. He breathed a sigh of relief as he pawed his way down to the hole in the wall. Bobby felt a slight draft and knew he was close. He continued swatting at the wall until he came up empty.

Jackpot.

Bobby crouched down to sit in front of the opening. It was partially blocked by one of the mounds of junk. This tower of trash was light, and he had no problem lifting it and clearing the entrance to the crawlspace. He felt around to see if it was as wide as he remembered.

Was it always this small?

He desperately slid feet first into the crawlspace. By the time his hips reached the opening, his toes touched a cardboard box he didn’t remember being there as a kid. Bobby reminded himself he was a lot taller now, and that his legs wouldn’t have gone that far within the crawlspace when he was a child. He tried to lift his leg over the box, and found the wall.

“If you really need to go down there to investigate . . . .” Decker started to say.

Bobby turned to the stairs in horror. Decker’s tone suggested Kerry had swayed him into searching the basement with her. The way he’d spoken about hunting, Bobby didn’t think he stood a chance if Decker came down.

“Take this with you,” Decker finished his thought. A moment later, a beam of light shone down into the basement.

They’d found the flashlight.

“Thanks,” Kerry muttered, in a tone that was anything but gracious.

Steps receded back into the living room, leaving Kerry by herself at the top of the stairs. She sighed deeply and descended into the cellar.

She kept the light in front of her, but Bobby suspected she’d check every corner before she was satisfied nothing was down here. Even behind a couple heaps of junk, he felt exposed.

“This is what you get,” Kerry muttered aloud to herself as she reached the second step from the top.

Bobby started to crawl back out of the wall, stopping when he felt a tug. He turned back over his shoulder, but couldn’t make out what the problem was in the blackness.

He pressed forward again and got nowhere. The entrance to the crawlspace squeezed him as he tried to slip free.

Stuck!

“Knew this wasn’t the crowd I wanted to get in with,” Kerry continued, taking another two steps.

Bobby squirmed, tugged, and yanked as silently as he could, still not wanting to draw her attention. There were only five more steps until Kerry was in the basement. He prayed she’d abandon her cause before she reached that point.

“All they care about is filling their wallets or when they’re getting their next fix.”

Four steps.

He dug his nails dug into the ground attempting to free himself from the mouth of the opening. Bobby clamped his mouth shut to stifle a whimper as the wall that held him slowly peeled skin off his thigh. A tear forged a path past his closed eyelids and down his cheek.

“Regina pumping anything into her body that builds mass. Misty taking anything she can get her hands on. That is, when she’s not going for a cleanse at some fancy rehab center.” She snorted. “Which she treats like a spa. And a nightclub.”

Three steps.

There was a faint pitter-patter by the stairs. The rodent he’d slipped on falling into the cellar had taken up shelter under the stairs leading upstairs. As Kerry came down the stairs, it darted away from her, toward Bobby.

Its scampering sounded deafening. Kerry was bound to hear it and swing the light in his direction.

It’s over. It’s all over. They got you now.

“Or they’re a sadistic psychopath like Decker. How many stories could he have shared about trapping and killing animals?”

Two steps.

His ears tracked the scurrying across the floor. He raised his arm above his hills of hoarding, unconcerned about Kerry flashing the light his way, and swatted down at the critter, grabbing a firm hold of it around its neck. The last thing he needed was for it to start squealing.

“Or they’re Wesley with his grand plans for spending Daddy’s money. And Brady.” She had to pause before she went on. “The way he’s obsessed with other people’s money now. . . . He practically follows Wesley everywhere, obeying his every command like a puppy. That need for money . . . it’s changed him.”

One step.

The critter was bigger than he’d expected. It wrestled to free itself from his firm grasp. He grabbed its hind legs with his other hand to keep it from clawing at the palm of his hand as it struggled for leverage to yank its head free.

“How long have you been telling yourself you wanted to end things with Brady? Why’d you let him convince you there was anything he could do to inject any glimmer of hope beyond this weekend? Why do you keep letting him talk you into doing things you don’t . . . want . . . to . . . do!”

Her feet touched down on the basement floor.

“Stop making excuses. Start standing up for yourself.”

Teeth clamped down on his finger. One hand shot to his mouth to silence his screech.

The beam of light swung in his direction.

12

One of the stacks of boxes filled with long-forgotten items blocked him from Kerry’s view. The protection they provided wouldn’t last. Her footsteps rushed to the corner he was hiding in.

The vermin continued to claw and gnaw at his hand. He couldn’t take it anymore.

Bobby flung the rodent in the direction of the light, skipping it across the ground. The light darted to the sound of its shriek. A moment later, the pitter-patter resumed, dashing to the other side of the cellar.

Please think my screech was the critter. Please think my screech was the critter. Please think my screech was the critter.

Kerry howled. The light wobbled all around the room as it bounced off the ground. Above, footsteps raced to the cellar door, intercepting Kerry as she bounded up the stairs.

“Kerry, what was it?” Regina asked, trying to calm her down.

Bobby didn’t dwell on his success. He ripped himself out from the wall, grimacing as it tore at his thigh. The flashlight settled, lighting up a path in front of him. He hobbled his way through the labyrinth of trash as fast as he could. His shoulder brushed up against one of the heaps. Bobby blindly grabbed at one of the falling items, nabbing a screwdriver. What sounded like a small cardboard box hit the ground.

Decker cleared his throat. “I heard some—”

“Rats!” Kerry wailed above. “This place has rats!”

Bobby took the stairs leading out the back quickly, but quietly.

Doesn’t matter that you don’t make a noise if they see the dwindling sunlight fill the cellar when you open the door, his inner demon antagonized him.

I’m dead anyway, if I stay down here.

“What’s all the screaming about?” Wesley asked in a quavering voice from the top floor.

Bobby popped through the cellar door leading back outside. Twilight had set in rapidly since he’d entered the basement. He doubted any light had shined through the open door.

“There’re rats!” Kerry screamed. “What kind of place did you bring us to?”

He took care to ease the door closed. Everyone had converged around Kerry. No one was chasing after him. As far as he knew, they weren’t even aware of his presence.

He intended to keep it that way.

“Now wait just a minute,” Wesley said, defensively. Footsteps galloped down the stairs to join the rest of the party.

Are they all downstairs now? Bobby wondered.

His eyes shot up to the top floor. The windows were still wide open. Even in the dusk, Bobby stayed low to the ground until he was behind the tree between the two guestrooms.

“I only went along with Brady because he was adamant about this place,” Wesley yelled.

Bobby did his best to ignore the shouting match, which was impossible. Their voices carried perfectly through all the open windows. He strained his ears to pick up any sound from the top floor.

“You gotta admit, this place has nothing,” Regina snapped.

You might not get a better chance to get to your pills.

Ascending the tree wasn’t as smooth this time. He’d scraped the skin off his thigh getting out of the crawlspace. He felt a slight burn every time he raised his leg to climb higher.

“Brady picked this place!” Wesley insisted. His tone was a worthy challenger to any playground debate. “He kept saying it reminded him of the places he and Decker used to go to when they were younger.”

Bobby’s ribs gave him the most trouble. It was the first time he’d put them to use since Brady’s beating. He noticed for the first time that he’d been hunched over since the attack because he couldn’t stand up straight. When he pulled himself higher up the trunk, his upper body retracted into the fetal position. His reach became more and more limited the higher he scaled the tree.

He took a moment to catch his breath when he reached the branch outside the guestroom next to Pop’s. His clothes clung to him, held tightly by his sweat.

“But you’re always talking about enjoying the finer things,” Regina shot back. “What’d you think a dump like this had to offer?”

If there’s nothing here you want, then leave me alone!

They’ll never leave you be. You killed one of them.

His legs wobbled as he balanced on the branch, and his perspiration stung his scraped thigh. He doubted his ability to make it in through the window.

“I want to get out of here,” Kerry stated boldly. It was the first time, outside of her shouts about the rats, that Bobby didn’t detect a trace of meekness.

His reservations mounted the longer he stood on the branch. His frayed thigh shook so bad the branch started to bounce.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Wesley snarled.

Bobby flailed his arms to keep his equilibrium. His body threatened to tumble off the branch.

Climb in already! They’ll hear the thud if I drop.

Won’t matter when the fall breaks your neck.

Shut up!

He leaned forward, catching the window frame of the guestroom next to Pop’s room softly with his hands. The wood barely grunted. Bobby thrust his wounded leg onto the window sill, making sure his footing was secure before he abandoned the branch completely.

“I don’t care what Brady had planned for this weekend,” Kerry said below him.

Bobby would have sworn he was listening to a new woman.

Bobby tested the floorboards with a probing step. They didn’t even emit a whisper under his weight. He grinned in the darkness, believing he could grab his medication from the bathroom and go without them ever knowing.

Then he’d knock on neighbor’s doors until one was home, and convince them to call the authorities. Not Knotts. The state police.

“Oh, yeah? And where did you intend to go?” Wesley challenged her. “Do you have any money to rent a hotel? To pay for a ride there? To get back home?”

Bobby snickered at their bickering. This was almost going to be too easy.

Misty breezed past the bedroom door.

Bobby tensed up like a rabbit ready to bolt after spotting a predator. She didn’t seem to notice him as she glided toward the stairs. He promised himself he’d been shrouded in the darkness of the room as she’d passed by. His assurances did nothing to slow down his racing heart.

“Everything okay down there?” Misty called down the stairs.

He poked his head out the bedroom door. Misty was leaning over the top of the stairs. Instead of joining them downstairs, or even descending a step or two, she craned her neck at an awkward angle to get a look under the balcony at them.

“We’re fine,” Decker said, in that calming tone of his. “Kerry just saw—”

“Rats!” Kerry started up again. “I don’t know what your boyfriend was thinking, choosing this place.”

Bobby willed Misty to head downstairs to join her friends. Misty didn’t move. She just strained her neck even farther when Kerry spoke, presumably to see who was talking.

Misty giggled. “He’s not my—”

“I didn’t want this place!” Wesley shouted, cutting her off.

Bobby crept out into the hall. Misty wasn’t budging from the top of the stairs. His odds were better going for the pills now while she was distracted with all the shouting, than continuing to wait for her to join her comrades downstairs. In all likelihood, one of the intruders would accompany her upstairs before she returned to them below.

“Besides, it’s fine up here,” Wesley continued. “It’s only the basement that has rats, and there’s nothing worth going in the basement for.”

Bobby snuck down the hallway with ease. His years of growing up in this house had taught him all the cabin’s secrets, including which floorboards moaned when he put weight on them. Even in darkness, his selection of where to tiptoe was flawless.

The light in the bathroom was left on, and Bobby assumed this was where Misty had come from. Her back was still to him as he stepped into the only part of the hallway that was lit. He ducked into the room quickly before she had a chance to turn around and spot him.

Now you just need the same luck getting out of here as you did getting in.

First things first.

Bobby couldn’t remember if the medicine cabinet whined when it opened. Taking no chances, he cradled it with both hands and slowly pried it open.

His face dropped. The cabinet was lined with prescriptions, both new and expired, but there was one gap among the ranks. He immediately knew it was the one bottle he’d come for.

Before he could growl that one of them had taken it, the determined thuds of footsteps advanced toward the bathroom.

13

They trapped me!

You trapped yourself.

His escape was cut off. The moment he stepped into the hallway, the bathroom light would become a spotlight centered on him. He couldn’t turn the light off now without arousing suspicion. Even if Misty was too scared to investigate a light suddenly going out by herself, if she called for help, he still had no way of getting out. There was no tree outside the bathroom window to climb down.

There was the possibility that she was heading to Pop’s room, which did nothing to comfort him. She might have walked by him when he was in the guestroom, but he’d been standing in the dark. He’d be pressing his luck trying to exit the bathroom without her hearing the door open or seeing him coming out.

His eyes scrambled for a hiding spot. The only option they could see was to hide in his bathtub. The curtains around it had been half drawn. As long as she didn’t stay in there with him too long, he felt he stood a chance.

She still hasn’t taken that shower.

Lucky you. You finally get to bathe with a woman.

He turned for the tub and stopped short. The medicine cabinet was still open. Bobby eased it shut and jumped behind the curtain as the steps in the hallway reached the door.

The bathroom floorboards moaned under Misty’s soft footsteps. Bobby pressed himself up against the tiled wall, holding both hands over his mouth to keep himself from making a peep.

“Misty, everything all right up there?” Decker called up the stairs.

Bobby’s heart hammered at the inside of his chest. The last thing he wanted was for Decker to be close by if Misty found him. His mind played out every possible escape route he could take if he had to run.

None of them ended well.

“I’m fine,” she insisted a little too forcefully. “All the yelling’s exacerbated my headache. I’m looking for something to take for it.”

Bobby waited with Misty for a response. All they could hear was the continued arguing below. They both panicked at the sound of Decker advancing up the stairs.

“I’ll join you guys if you can just give all the shouting a rest!” Misty snapped.

Decker’s pace paused at the top of the stairs. Misty was on the verge of hyperventilating. Bobby felt she was more terrified than he was.

Finally, the wooden stairs shifted under Decker’s weight as he called out, “Guys, why don’t we start negotiating a truce?” before descending back down the stairs.

Misty let out a deep sigh. Bobby allowed himself to breathe. He forced himself to keep the exhalation below a whisper. Bobby wasn’t sure how she didn’t hear the jackhammering of his heart, but he wasn’t about to test how loud he could get without her noticing.

Regina scoffed from the kitchen when Decker told them Misty was searching for something for her headache. “If anyone knows their way around medication, its Misty,” she sniped.

“Bitch,” Misty muttered.

They’re constantly at each other’s throats.

Bobby gulped and rubbed at his own neck to make sure it was still safe. It snapped toward a familiar rattle.

She’s got my pills!

“Don’t act like you’re a stranger to pharmaceuticals,” Wesley shouted at Regina.

Misty popped the cap off and poured a couple tablets onto the sink. Bobby found it curious why she didn’t dispense them into her hand.

“What’d you say, little man?” Regina barked. Bobby swore he heard Wesley yelp, and imagined he’d found something to cower behind.

He wished they’d stop yelling downstairs so he could focus on what Misty was up to. Putting the capsules on the sink was odd enough, but she also wasn’t running any water to wash them down.

On the other side of the curtain, porcelain scraped against itself. Misty grunted, and Bobby pieced together that she’d removed the lid of the toilet’s tank. A moment later, he heard the crunch of the pills being ground to dust as Misty crushed them up with the lid.

“Let’s all take it easy,” Decker said, playing the peacemaker.

Misty restored the lid to its proper place. She pawed at it long enough for Bobby to figure out she was clearing off any debris from the capsules, making sure she left no trace. She sucked on her fingers once she was done, not wanting to leave a single crumb.

With the pills converted into powder, Misty began snorting her concoction. She made short work of it, inhaling it faster than a vacuum.

“I’m calm,” Kerry insisted. “So long as nobody tries to stop me.”

Bobby was appalled at how quickly Misty had gotten high. His imagination ran wild as he tried to envision how many tablets had spilled out onto the sink. He took one pill every twelve hours. She had definitely poured out more than that.

Two? Three?

Count yourself lucky if it was no more than five.

“You’re going to be the one to tell Brady then!” Wesley screamed. “Don’t leave it to the rest of us to deal with his temper when he finds out.”

Bobby had just refilled the prescription this past week. Even as poor as his math was, he knew he’d still have plenty left over after Misty’s fix.

If this was the only time she got high. The comments the other intruders had made suggested Misty had built up a tolerance.

“I can’t call him. The battery died on my phone straining to get a reception,” Kerry replied. The rest of them muttered their phones had met similar fates. “He’d promised he wasn’t going to leave me alone with a bunch of people I didn’t know. Why should I be concerned about his feelings when he never cares about mine?”

Mr. Manning will understand if I come to him looking for a refill so soon. He’ll understand when I tell him about the intruders.

Ha! Every time you walk in there for a refill, Mr. Manning sees the same five-year-old who stole from a basket of penny candies and got snared in his own lie.

Amid the sniffling Misty was doing, the medicine cabinet didn’t open. Bobby feared Misty wasn’t done with his meds.

“Brady’s not back yet?” Decker noted. His observation was quickly swallowed by the continued quarreling.

“How do you expect to leave, then?” Wesley demanded.

“The phone’s right there,” Kerry pointed out. “There’s bound to be a phone book somewhere. I’ll book a place for myself, and call a cab. Hopefully my credit card doesn’t get declined. What’s another couple hundred dollars added to my mountain of loans?”

The bottle of pills rattled again, this time sounding muffled. Bobby envisioned Misty stuffing his prescription into her pocket. He heard a few more sniffs while she patted her hair.

She’s trying to make herself look presentable so the rest don’t get wise to her dirty little secret.

“Kerry,” Regina jumped in, “I don’t like this place either, but . . . maybe Wesley’s right.” The way she finished the thought, Bobby could tell she would’ve preferred swallowing acid over agreeing with the prick.

Misty went still for a moment, and Bobby tensed up, fearing she’d noticed she wasn’t alone. She then began to giggle giddily.

“But be reasonable about this,” Regina continued. “Brady told us about how much you’ve been juggling graduating and working as much as you could to take care of your mom’s bills. He was adamant that this weekend was for you.”

The bathroom door opened. Misty did her best to stifle her chuckling, but that only put her in another titter. Her footsteps receded into the hallway.

I’ve got to get my pills from her.

Bobby emerged from the tub, but stopped himself from leaving the bathroom when he saw Misty just standing in the middle of the hall, giggling uncontrollably. He was worried she might spot his shadow as he closed in on her until he saw it was a struggle for her to keep her balance.

“Maybe it’d be best not to set yourself back even further,” Regina suggested.

Misty bumped into the doorframe as she wandered aimlessly into Pop’s room. She didn’t even seem fazed; she just continued into the bedroom and swung her arm at the wall until she flipped on the light switch.

Bobby closed the bathroom door behind him silently. He wasn’t worried about the intruders below hearing it. They’d assume it was Misty. Misty was most likely too strung out to even notice him before he got to her, but now that he was this close, he didn’t want to risk tipping her off.

As he followed her into Pop’s room, Misty nearly stumbled into the antlers of Pop’s prized buck. Pop had always preached against the vice of pride, yet the low placement of the deer head suggested that even the old man had succumbed to vanity. Bobby had caught Pop, more than once, admiring himself in the dresser mirror, pretending to stroke the antlers that were hanging on the wall behind him, like they were a crown. She came up short, smirked at the display, and playfully poked one of the tips.

Bobby was sure she wasn’t aware of his presence. The thought was confirmed when she fumbled to pull her shirt over her head. His first thought was how milky smooth her skin looked. His second was that she wasn’t wearing a bra.

Maybe she’ll turn around and you’ll get a great view before she shrieks at the sight of you. How quick do you think the rest of them can bolt up—

Bobby covered up her mouth with his palm while his other hand fished through her pocket for his drugs. He felt her grow alert in his grasp.

He took his eyes off her to measure the distance to Pop’s door. There was no doubt she’d call for help as soon as he let her go, and he wanted to gage how far he could get before they came after him. He thought he could make it out the window before they got up the stairs, though he didn’t like his chances of scrambling down the tree before they got outside.

They won’t stop chasing you. You’ve seen too much.

Bobby had been contemplating dragging her with him until he reached the guest bedroom. He’d have to let her go once he climbed out the window, and she would shout to the others where to head him off. He wouldn’t get much more of a head start, but even a few fractions of a second were worth it.

None of it mattered. Whether she had picked up that he wasn’t giving her his full attention, or she panicked that a stranger had grabbed her from behind and was now sliding his hand to her pocket, her instinct to fight kicked in.

She wrenched her right arm free from her sleeve and flung it wildly behind her. Bobby grunted as she connected with his ribs, still tender from his encounter with Brady.

“I don’t think I should’ve come here in the first place,” Kerry’s voice carried from downstairs. They were all still oblivious to what was going on above.

Bobby’s grip slipped from her mouth. Seizing her freedom, Misty charged from her captor. One of the points of the antlers stabbed through her shirt just above her shoulder. Bobby cringed. Had she charged into it slightly to the right she would have collided with the antlers neck first.

“Did Brady tell any of you that it took a month before he finally wore me down to do this?” Kerry asked the rest of the gang.

Misty staggered back from the display, favoring her shoulder. Bobby could see the tip of the point that had pierced her shirt had dampened. His eyes were immediately drawn away as she turned around.

Hypnotic rubies!

She still wrestled beneath the shirt to get it off her head, and Bobby could see her loading up a scream. His hand shot to cover her mouth.

“Brady framed this whole trip like it would be doing you a lot of good,” Decker answered Kerry.

Misty bit down through her shirt, nipping Bobby’s fingers. He pulled his hand away, knowing she’d keep snapping until her teeth clamped down on his digits. She started to load up another scream, which he cut off when he grabbed her by the throat.

Her left arm was still raised above her head, trapped in the sleeve she was trying to wrestle out of. She used her free hand to swing at his head, connecting twice before he could fend her off.

The shirt she was ensnared in slipped down the right side of her face, low enough to expose her eye. Bobby saw she was terrified.

And determined.

Kerry laughed below. “Of course! He’s never the bad guy.”

Still striking him with her right hand, she opened wide to screech. Bobby realized his grip had loosened and squeezed her neck to cut off the scream in her throat, surprising himself with how tightly he could choke her.

Her frenzied attacks intensified. She hammered down on his arm repeatedly. He had a huge size advantage over her, yet felt she was doing all the damage, even as her eyes were going blank.

“Please stop fighting,” he cried softly, his voice so low he merely mouthed the words. “I don’t want to kill you. I don’t. I just want my pills.”

She continued to struggle in his grasp. Her face purpled. Bobby wanted to let her go, but feared the voracity of the attacks she’d unleash if he released her.

Knotts didn’t just send thieves. He sent killers.

Her swipes started to slow. He could feel her gulping for air in his palm. She chopped down on his arm. It was her hardest yet. Again, harder still. Again. This time the impact felt weaker.

She’ll pass out first before you choke the life out her.

Misty hacked feebly at him. His arm didn’t even budge on impact. Bobby glanced at Pop’s bed. He’d retrieve his pills and tuck her in for the night. She’d wake up with a sore throat, but she’d be fine.

Until he had her arrested, anyway.

With a last ditch effort, Misty reared back and kicked at Bobby. Her foot struck him squarely in the kneecap, knocking his own leg out from under him.

Bobby lost his balance and fell forward, driving Misty back toward the wall. He wasn’t aware he still had her by the throat until the tip of the antler stabbed his palm, jarring his grip loose.

Misty’s right eye went wide as he shoved her neck through the antler. When Bobby’s hand slipped from her windpipe, she let out the beginning of a death scream that was cut off immediately as she gurgled on her own blood.

Bobby could only gape as the shirt she was tangled in began to darken. The mount couldn’t support her dead weight, and her lifeless body crashed to the ground. He didn’t need to worry about whether the intruders below heard the thump.

Their bickering had stopped at the sound of her scream.

14

A stampede trampled up the stairs, converging on Pop’s room. Bobby had no time to tremble like a cornered rat. He had to get out of there.

The only light in the hallway came from Pop’s room, and from the other side of the closed bathroom door. The rest of the top floor was shrouded in darkness. Bobby scurried into the nearest guestroom and hid in the corner. His only chance of survival depended on them being drawn to the lights.

Images of Misty flashed through his mind. Tears rained from his eyes, but he covered his mouth to keep from sobbing.

Don’t mourn her. She was here to rob you. To kill you.

That doesn’t make what I did right!

The parade of intruders charged down the hall to Pop’s room. He pressed himself tight to the corner as his eyes darted to the open window.

“How long’ve you been carrying that—”

Kerry stopped asking her question as the first footsteps rushed into Pop’s room. Bobby stared at the wall where he expected them to be standing.

“Oh, god,” Regina muttered on the other side of the wall.

Regina was gagging before being joined by one of her cohorts. A third set of steps entered the room. Bobby recognized Kerry’s screams.

You killed that poor girl for nothing. You didn’t even get your meds from her.

Bobby winced at the realization. There was no going back for them now. The only choice he had left was to run and convince someone to call the state police.

And pray people believed him when he said the two deaths had been accidents.

He cradled his battered arm close to his chest, and favored his kicked knee, hobbling silently to the window. One look at the distance to the branch was enough to convince him he couldn’t reach it. Not with his knee already swelling up, limiting the range he could bend it, and the amount of weight he trusted putting on it.

The tree outside his bedroom was the only way out. It would still be a struggle to shimmy down, but the trunk was right outside his window. If this window was open, that one had to be, too.

“What happened?” Wesley called tentatively from the stairs.

Bobby froze in the window. The coward hadn’t run toward the danger like the others.

“It’s . . . Misty,” Regina choked out. “It’s . . . awful!”

Wesley hurried up the stairs. He passed the room Bobby was hiding in without a glance. “Did she OD?” he asked before turning into Pop’s room. “I knew she was using a—”

Bobby lurked toward the door of the guestroom. As far as he could tell, they were all in Pop’s room. If he was right about that, he had a clear path to his bedroom and down the tree.

“Brady’s going to kill someone,” Wesley stated.

That’s where their minds go to first? Bobby wondered. Murder?

With each stride, Bobby wished he’d put carpeting down in the bedrooms. Every step risked a groan from the floorboards, and they only needed to hear one of them. The bedroom door felt a mile away as he slowed his pace even further in an effort not to upset the aging wood.

The intruders showed no concern about making nois