The three of them watched as the man walked into the kitchen and dumped the shotgun and two handguns onto the kitchen counter. Then he set his own gun down and unloaded Maggie’s weapons.
As Maggie watched him, she tried to assess him, and their situation, a bit better. He’d been in the flower shop and heard them talk about leaving town. If he’d been interested in robbing them, he wouldn’t be here yet. He wanted something from her, or he wanted to do something to her. Maggie’s guess was that he already knew who she was when he’d seen her there that morning, maybe even followed her there. But he seemed disorganized, unprepared, as though coming here today had been an improvisation. Because they were leaving town?
The man finished removing the shells from the Mossberg, dumped them on the counter, then glanced over at her cell phone, which was charging on the counter. He reached over and pulled it off the charger, held it up as he looked over at them.
“Where’s the rest of ‘em?” He looked at Sky. “Where’s your phone?”
Sky glared at him, then cleared her throat. “My back pocket.”
He stalked over to her. “Get up.” Sky struggled to her feet, and he yanked the phone, still hooked up to her earbuds, out of the pocket of her jeans. Then he looked at Kyle. “Where’s yours, boy?”
Kyle stared up at the man, his eyes wide. “Speak, boy!” the man barked, and Maggie wanted him dead.
“It’s in my backpack. Over there,” Kyle said in a small voice, jerking his head back toward the living room.
The man stalked over to the living room and started rifling through Kyle’s backpack on the window seat. He pulled out Kyle’s phone, then went back into the kitchen and dropped the phones on the counter. Then he came back to the dining area and started panning around the room, and looked at Maggie.
“Where’s the keys for those vehicles out there?”
Maggie felt her heart skip a couple of beats at the hope that he was going to steal her Jeep and leave, even though she knew that wasn’t very logical. Nobody kidnapped a cop and two children to steal a ten-year-old Cherokee.
“They’re right there, on the hook,” Maggie said, looking over toward the front door. The keys for both trucks, extra keys for her Daddy’s boats, and a few that had forgotten uses hung in a row on the wall.
He walked over to the set of hooks by the front door, reached up. “Which ones?”
“The Seafood Festival keychain. Those are mine,” Maggie said.
The man yanked them off the peg and looked over his shoulder at her. “What about the pickup?”
“That’s my Dad’s truck!” Sky snapped.
He glared over at her. “I don’t care whose it is, girl. Where’s the keys?”
“The set with the little Rubik’s cube,” Maggie said. Sky looked at Maggie desperately. “It’s okay. Granddad has a spare.”
“But that’s Daddy’s Rubik’s cube,” Sky said.
“Where’s your Daddy at, girl?” the man asked as he yanked down the keys.
“He’s dead,” Sky said defiantly, raising her chin.
“Too bad,” he said, in a tone that indicated it wasn’t. He moved back to the hall closet and yanked out the gym bag that Maggie kept on the floor, carried it into the kitchen. Maggie and the kids watched as he unzipped it, tossed in the revolver and tin of ammo, the Glock, and finally the Mossberg, then zipped everything back up.
Maggie saw the look of hope on both her children’s faces, and she wished that she could hope with them, then pitied them for it.
He picked up the cell phones and keys and looked like he was going to drop them in, too, then he looked around a moment before stalking out the front door. He left the door open and Maggie’s and the kids’ heads followed the sound of his boots as he walked across the front deck to the creek side. A moment later, he came back in empty-handed.
“What’d you do that for?” Sky snapped.
“You don’t need ‘em,” he answered, then looked at Maggie.
“Let’s go,” he said.
They were words that Maggie didn’t really expect, but they didn’t shock her, either. She glanced over at the kids as she stood up. If anything, Kyle looked even more frightened than he already had.
“Mom?” he asked, his voice cracking.
Sky started to get to her feet, and the man swung the .22 in her direction. “Not you. Sit down.”
“Where are you taking her?” Sky demanded, and while Maggie was proud of her bravery, she wanted her to shut up.
“Shut up and sit back down,” the man said, then grabbed Maggie under one arm and jerked her up.
One of the many things she had had drilled into her head in her training, and had since drilled into her children’s heads, was to never allow someone to take her to another location. Wherever someone wanted to take you, it was more private, it was safer for them somehow, and it was the future location of your death.
In this case, though, allowing herself to be taken out of the house meant getting this man away from her children, and that was a game-changer for which she would gladly break the rule.
The man shoved her toward the front door, and Maggie turned around and looked at her children, who were staring back at her. She felt herself trying to memorize them, even as she tried to look reassuring. Then the man opened the door and shoved her back around.
“Move it,” he said. Maggie walked out onto the deck, as a first crack of thunder rolled through the air in the distance. The sky had grown darker in the short time they’d been inside. How long?
Maggie had just taken a step toward the stairs when two shots rang out behind her. She spun, hoping she would be dead before she looked back inside the house.
The man was standing there in the doorway, the gun pointed at the sky, and he was smiling. “Gotcha, didn’t I?” he said, and Maggie knew that if she had even the smallest opportunity, she would kill him, and badly.
Once they were down the deck stairs, the man directed Maggie to walk up the dirt drive. He followed closely behind her. To the west, the sky seemed to grow a deeper shade of gray every moment. The wind was erratic; it seemed to have slowed a bit, but occasional gusts whipped at Maggie’s T-shirt and the strands of hair that had fallen or been pulled loose from her ponytail.
Maggie couldn’t help feeling like she was being marched out in front of a firing squad, and she was distractedly surprised that thoughts of how, where, and when this man was going to kill her weren’t really uppermost in her mind. Instead, her mind seemed to skip around between thoughts of how Kyle’s hair smelled after his shower, the way Wyatt’s dimples deepened when he gave her one of his silly grins, or the image of Sky rolling her eyes, earbud wires hanging from her ears.
It wasn’t so much that her life was flashing before her eyes, as it was an involuntary inventory of the small things that made her life seem bigger than it was. She sensed, though, that allowing her mind to roam freely among these artifacts would also allow her feelings to overwhelm and weaken her, so she forced herself to focus on the sound of her boots on the dirt road, the smell of cold metal in the storm’s humidity, and the way her wrists were beginning to numb and burn almost simultaneously. When she had cleared her head, she tried to think.
Once they were removed from the kids, her options were going to change. Her chances of survival were going to get smaller, but her willingness to take risks would be much greater. The truth was, her chances of survival were nonexistent. Any move, regardless of its chances of success, would improve her likelihood of making it through whatever this creep had planned.
She hadn’t had much time yet to try to peg this man who had burst into her life and completely changed her reality. Now that she knew for sure that she was his objective, she was pretty sure he’d known she was in the flower shop before he’d walked in. So, this wasn’t a random thing, or an impulse. Maybe the timing was impulsive, but not the targeting.
He seemed self-confident, but the confidence was in himself, not in some plan. She didn’t think he actually had one. He seemed to make moves and decisions as he went. No, he had targeted her at some point, but his decision to come here today, in this way, was an impulsive one.
He hated her. Either that, or just hated in general. Making her think he’d shot her kids was cruel. He liked hurting her, whether that was because he liked hurting people in general, or because he had it in for her, she wasn’t sure. What she was sure of was that she didn’t know him.
She was half expecting someone to be waiting down her road with a running vehicle. But instead, when she rounded a bend, she saw a late 70s model Chevy pickup parked alongside the drainage ditch, facing her house. She stopped and turned around to face the man.
“Go on,” he said roughly, pointing his gun arm in the direction of the truck.
Maggie turned back around, and the man grabbed her under the arm and propelled her the rest of the way to the truck. She heard her weapons tapping against each other in the gym bag on his shoulder, and would have given one of her legs to be pointing one of them, any of them, at the man’s face.
When they were a couple of feet from the truck, he gave her a shove, and she landed against the truck bed. The driver’s side door issued a metallic groan as he pulled it open.
“Get in and get over,” he said, pointing the .22 at her.
Maggie bit the inside of her cheek as she ran through her options at the speed of thought. There weren’t any good ones.
She turned and tried to get up on the running board, but couldn’t do it without grabbing onto something. He made a disgusted noise and grabbed her underarm again and hoisted her.
She fell onto the bench seat and scooted over and up against the passenger door. She watched him toss the gym bag into the truck bed, then he got in, still training the gun on her. He wasn’t aiming anywhere in particular, but he’d have to try pretty hard to miss her.
The keys were in the ignition, and after he shut his door, he switched the gun to his left hand and turned the key. Nothing. Not even a click. He did it again, and then a third time, then slammed his palm against the steering wheel hard enough to rock the truck. He cursed, then slammed it again and again until he seemed to have gotten it out of his system, but when he turned to look at her, she could see rage and a little bit of panic on his face. She wondered if he could see the loss of hope on hers.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Shut up!” he yelled. “Shut the hell up!”
Maggie took a breath and waited, watched him as he glared out the windshield for a moment. Then he switched the gun back to his right hand and jerked open his door.
“Let’s go,” he said.
He got out and waited as she looked at him for a moment, wondering if he would just walk back to town if she made him shoot her right there in the truck, but the chances of that were slim. It was almost five miles, and a storm was coming. Her house was just a few hundred yards up the road.
She slid across the seat to the other door, and he pulled her out of the truck. She stumbled a bit before she got her footing, then watched him grab the gym bag out of the back and jerk it back onto his shoulder.
“Go on,” he said.
She heard him slam the door behind her as she started walking slowly back up the road. She felt a lurch in her chest as she realized that she would see her kids again. It was quickly replaced by guilt for thinking it, and a determination that this man might get back into her house, but she wouldn’t be escorting him there.
If she took a chance and blew it, she would be dead and he would be alone with her kids. In all likelihood, he wouldn’t leave them alive a second time. But if she let him parade her back to the house, their chances weren’t much better.
If she could put him out of commission somehow, or at least beat him back to the house, their odds of survival improved just a bit. At least they would have odds. She thought about just taking off into the woods, which she knew like the back of her hand, but he wouldn’t follow. He knew enough to know that all he had to do was return to the house and she would walk right back to him.
As Maggie tried to come up with a viable idea, the wind started rifling through the leaves, sounding like thousands of office workers shuffling their paperwork, and she knew the rain was right behind them. They were probably about to start getting squalls from the northern band of Hurricane Faye.
When they were about a hundred yards from the last bend in the drive, Maggie’s brain sped up its hunt for an idea that wasn’t guaranteed to fail. Once they were past the bend, it was a couple of hundred yards of open clearing all the way to the house. Maggie shuffled through and rejected fractions of ideas, but in the end, it was instinct and opportunity that dictated her move, with no conscious decision to act.
The man shoved her, with a palm between her shoulder blades, and she made more of the stumble than she needed to. She bent forward at the waist like she was about to go down, then slammed her right leg back and upward, straight as a board. She felt it connect with his crotch before she heard his grunt, and she righted herself and spun around.
He hadn’t grabbed at himself, but he was halfway to his knees, and she kicked him again in the chin. With her arms behind her back, she had less leverage and power than she would have liked, but it was enough to throw him to his back. She moved in before he could focus, and kicked the gun out of his hand.
It only skittered a few feet on the rough dirt road, but at least it was out of his hand for a moment. She raised her foot again, intending to kick him in the temple, but he was ready, one arm patting the ground beside him for the gun, the other waiting to grab her or block her kick. Rather than hand him her leg, she turned and ran.
She didn’t hear his footfalls behind her right away, and she wondered if he was aiming the .22 at her back. She could already feel the heat of the bullet at the base of her spine. But then she did hear him giving chase, and wondered why he hadn’t shot her.
She had no plan for once she did reach the house. Reaching it first was her only plan. Having her arms behind her made her stride slower and unbalanced, but if she had just a few seconds in her favor, just enough to get the door open and slam the deadbolt home behind her, it would buy them some time. What she would do with it, she wasn’t sure, but she prayed the answer would present itself.
His gait sounded uneven behind her, but he was getting nearer. It was hard for her to judge how near. She was running too fast, and making too much noise of her own.
As she came into the front yard area, she felt an expanding in her chest that had nothing to do with the exertion of running. The kids were right there. Right up there behind that door.
She managed to push herself just a bit faster, and had just hit the second stair when the butt of the gun slammed down onto the back of her neck. She seemed to go down and up at the same time somehow, landing almost vertical on the stairs. With no way to break her fall, she had to watch the step rush toward her face, and she slammed nose-first into it.
She instinctively rolled to her side a bit to get off of her face, and blinked a few times against the blinding pain. She could hear him wheezing, felt the stairs shake a bit as he leaned against the rail.
A couple of inches in front of her eyes was a bright red pool as big as her palm. As she watched, two fat raindrops splashed down into it. Then she heard him grunt, and his boot slammed into her side.