Baxter couldn’t be sure that he’d been lucky enough to block his erstwhile protege’s progress with his little stunt, but he had to depend on the fact that it worked. Second guessing led to delays. If he was wrong, she’d catch up with him earlier.
He had to get off the road, fast, before a cop coming the other way blew past him, headed for the wreckage he’d left behind. If he made a decision, there was a chance she could guess what he did, so instead of making any conscious move, he just took the first inviting road to the left that he saw, heading uphill, away from the narrow highway.
His headlights caught a few scraps of signage, a paper plate with an arrow stapled to a tree, a neon orange streamer, a piece of paper wrapped in plastic that any markings long since bleached away by the sun. That was when he realized he could see pretty well without the lights. The sun wasn’t up, but the light was coming.
There were no mailboxes, there was probably a rural post office around here somewhere, but he saw numbers painted on log markers at two branches of the road, veering off into rough, unpaved tracks edged with heavy vegetation. He didn’t stop to look, he wanted to get further from the highway. Probably not all the way at the end, that was too obvious, but the road was still pretty good, if a little bumpy, so he kept going.
Now the signs at the rough driveways were well-kept, the driveways clear and graveled. Some of the houses even had names, like “Mirkwood,” or plaques naming the families like, “The Smiths.” This last caused something in his head to go ping, but he didn’t have the time to focus on it.
The road leveled out at a turnaround, with six offshoots. Three had just one house number marking them, two had two, and one had three. The sign was the least-cared for and the road was the roughest. He shifted into low four-wheel drive and went for the scruffy one.
The first house was on the right almost immediately, in a well-maintained clearing, trees cut back to open up a pleasant yard space, but the yard was getting long, and there was no car in the driveway. A summer home. Maybe a good bet for what he had planned.
He kept going and saw the second place was even better, obviously still used, but much less often, it had a thick, gnarly lawn, and dead leaves caught in corners of the porch and windows.
“That’ll do,” he said out loud. The first place was too close to the others, at the second...well people might hear gunfire if it came to that, but he would hope the other houses were just as deserted. There were certainly plenty of other places for her to waste her time. That made him happy. The second house, although the yard was less well-tended, had a much bigger patch of land, which meant better lines of sight for defense. Not that one man could protect a house properly from even one attacker, but you had to take what advantages you could get.
When he saw the third house, he grinned. It was perfect. It was clearly either abandoned or used once a year, there were too branches scratching at the windows, mulch where the doormat should be, and a crack in a window. He muscled the Jeep around the house into what would pass for the back yard, and then inched the car as far into the trees as he could, which wasn’t far. He figured that one way or the other, he wouldn’t be coming back for it. She’d destroy it to rob him of an escape route, or he’d kill her and get her car in the bargain.
Or maybe there was a third option, he reflected, throwing his bag over his shoulder. Something about her was pushing away at a corner of his brain like a word on the tip of his tongue. There was something...
He thought of something else, trying to distance himself from the idea, too encourage it to come out and play. He was thinking about how fucking hungry he was. The gravel crunched intermittently under his feed as he walked down the grassy center of the track. He wondered how hard the place would be to defend, if he could block off some of the windows, he wondered if there was food, he wondered if there would be weapons.
He didn’t even walk up to the front door, he walked around the back, and kicked around in the underbrush, looking for a fake rock. Then he ran his hands around the door frame. Then he climbed up onto the railing of the small back porch (really just a landing with ambition) and looked under the eaves. Bingo. A red fob with a single key hanging on it. He grabbed it, popped the back door, and made himself at home.
It smelled a little musty, but not so bad as to have been standing open for years. The decor was somewhere between hunting cabin (a deer head, of course) and country chic (a potbelly stove, blankets draped over just about everything).
First he checked the doors and windows. There was a dresser he could use to block the back door, but there were two big windows, one from the living room and one from a small bedroom under the stairs, which made trying to stall someone coming in the back a complete waste of time. The front was the same story, the living room taking up one whole half of the downstairs, and a kitchen at the front of the house looking into the driveway. There was a half-bath crammed between the kitchen and bedroom. This place was a sieve, if someone wanted in, they were coming in.
He ran up the stairs, thinking he could get under them and fuck with the studs, make them collapse at the right time. There was a bigger bathroom with a shower and master bedroom upstairs. The bedroom was minimally equipped with a queen-size bed and a plaid comforter, a dresser, a bookshelf with vacation books starting to swell from age and the damp forest air. Windows looked to the front and rear again, but they were smaller, four-panel affairs, and if he could find some plywood sheeting...
Then he could be completely blind while he waited for her to come for him.
He was thinking too hard on an empty stomach. Odds were he had some time. He used the bathroom, raided the kitchen. He could do a better job of scavenging later, but for time’s sake he grabbed a can of Coke and two cans of ravioli that hadn’t expired. He ate them cold over the sink, standing to one side of the window so he was hard to see in the shadows.
As he chewed and swallowed, not tasting the food at all, but feeling his gut rumble appreciatively, he thought of something he’d seen in the bathroom. A squat little cylinder with a yellow top, that stuff you put on your lips, and that tugged at a distant memory and something went click.
He put the fork and can down for a second, shook his head. He took a big swallow of too warm, too fizzy soda.
“Damn,” he said to the quiet cabin.
It wasn’t a plan it was...well Jesus, what would you call it? A shot in the dark? A Hail Mary? he shook his head again.
“Probably still a better idea than trying to shoot it out with someone faster, younger, and better equipped than I am. But I’m still smarter than she is, even if it’s only a little bit.” He gulped the last of the sauce, leaving shiny red marinara draped across Chef Boyardee’s face. “Use the advantage you got.”
He shivered a bit and realized that now that he was digesting food and slowing down, it was damn cold up in the hills, out of his car. He went back upstairs and raided the closet. He found a heavy plaid shirt that he liked the look of, he felt it made him look local, or at least local-er. In ever other respect, though, he was shit out of luck. He found a pair of wool socks, but they made him slip and slide on the floor, so they were out. The householder was clearly short and rotund, the pants were too big for him to wear without suspenders, which he couldn’t find, and four inches too short in the leg in the process. And the boots were at least two sizes too small. They’d only help if he cut the soles off and strapped them to his bare feet.
“Well that sucks,” he told the house. Still, he liked the shirt.
He found a notepad in the kitchen junk drawer and a marker. The notes weren’t big, maybe 3x5, but they’d have to do, there wasn’t anything better. He wrote a word in marker across the center of the sheets, long-wise, and taped them into every corner of every window, a clear message, something she couldn’t help but notice.
And if that didn’t work, he’d still need a defense, so he got to it.
He left one Glock upstairs as his holdout, only one clip there. The rest of the clips were uncomfortably stuffed in the pockets of his too-tight jeans. The second Glock was always close at hand, if not in it. He found plenty of knifes, from butcher to paring and hunting, and he left them all over the house. He wasn’t worried about leaving weapons out for her. For one thing, she was never much with a knife, so he’d have an advantage, or even, he rolled his eyes at himself, an edge, if you would.
As he worked he was reminded of those moments when he sat on his deck and thought about how great his life was. How much he’d indulged in the last ten years, and how much he thought he’d appreciated every last spliff and blow job. Well, that probably wasn’t true, he’d grown complacent, but still. Still, if he was so happy, why was he humming? Why was this so much goddamn fun?
He never found a gun, but he did find half a box of shotgun shells, which he left in the kitchen to figure out later. He found a stash of Bell canning jars, and he broke them up and left shards outside both windows on the upstairs (he had to scale the outside of the house, the windows upstairs wouldn’t open and he got all red-faced and puffy again) as well as on the front and back porches. He found a hammer, but no nails to keep doors or windows shut.
He looked at the shotgun shells and thought of a truly awful improvised weapon he’d learned about in Serbia. Had there been a gas tank in the back of the Jeep? Too late now, regardless, but the fact that he couldn’t for certain that there wasn’t, reminded him even more than his sad state of physical fitness how much he had let himself go.
Just to be an asshole, he went out into the yard with another can of Coke and dropped a bunch of Bell jars in the road. He grinned at his handiwork and took another gross swig. He stood and listened and thought how pretty it was here, how little he’d been able to notice, and he remembered Paris, London, Amsterdam. All the places he’d been, but never really seen until he made the effort. He kept his ears open for the sound of movement, aware that if she had been right on his tail he could be right in her sights, but somehow not concerned. He did a full turn, taking in the tall trees, the small patch of land carved out the forest, how much the forest wanted the ground back. He reflected on how quiet it was and how rare that was. The birds were chirping, of course, welcoming the sun as it started to rise above the trees. The sky was a clear, sharp blue, not a cloud in sight, and an automatic part of his brain registered that it looked like today could get warm, but it could get damn cold tonight, too.
Would she wait for tonight? She probably had the tools to make it so that there was no difference to her, but it would be a big advantage. He looked at the house and saw that if she came after dark she wouldn’t be able to read the signs in the windows. Dammit. Well, if she came after dark he’d just sit there with the windows open, hiding behind the couch, shouting the word over and over. Maybe he could rig up a cone to yell into. And if that didn’t work, well, she was welcome to try to kill him. That was clearly the mission, he was just hoping to call it off.
He sighed, smiled at the unexpected beauty all around him, and then went back inside. He found a dusty, but unexpired Meal Ready to Eat in a closet, and took the trouble to heat it up before eating it. The chili con carne satisfied something the ravioli had not, even if it gave him some wicked gas and a surprisingly short-notice sprint to the bathroom.
After that he chugged some more Coke for the caffeine and then sat in the living room, thumbing through Louis L’amour’s The Last of the Breed, which he’d found on a shelf in the living room next to a cribbage board, a pack of playing cards, and an ancient Uno deck.
He put his feet up and tried to relax for the first time in...he looked around for a clock. Oh well. The first time since Lindsay Barnes had tried to shoot him in his sleep.
“Well,” he said aloud, enjoying the sound of his voice against the silence, “Here I am. Your move.”