“Did he drive?” Nell knew she sounded ragged.
“Yes. My husband teaches the kids who are old enough, but we do so on empty roads. None of them can afford the risk of applying for permits or licenses until they turn eighteen and family courts no longer hold sway over them.”
Yes. That was why Beck couldn’t teach me.
“We always have several mountain bikes here available for the kids to use. Some ride them into town. If they make friends, we discourage them from bringing those friends back here.”
“Yes. But he did.”
“It happens. We try to stay casual, as if the kids here are in conventional foster care. I don’t think we met, or I’d have remembered you when I saw your face in the news.”
“I...wish I knew.”
Paula touched her hand lightly. Nell sensed that her compassion came naturally. “You can take the file if that would help. I only hope...”
“I won’t tell Captain McAllister where this place is.”
The worry in her eyes remained, but she nodded.
“Thank you.” Nell pushed herself to her feet. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
Paula held her gaze. “Don’t make me sorry.”
“I won’t. I’ll try not to. It’s going to be hard,” she admitted, “with this a murder investigation.”
“I understand. If it’s true one of our kids was murdered, we have to support an investigation.”
Aware her welcome had expired, Nell thanked Paula again and went out to her car. The two boys had vanished. In fact, the place might have been deserted but for her and Paula, who stood on the porch.
After setting the file on the passenger seat by her purse, Nell started the car. The drive circled so she didn’t have to back up or maneuver. She had reached the tree line and was taking a last look in her rearview mirror, wondering how many people besides Paula were watching her go, when she heard a crack. Simultaneously, something stung her cheek.
Branch... But she saw the tiny hole in her window and dived sideways to the sharp sound of another gunshot.
COLIN ANSWERED NELL’S call on the first ring.
“Colin?” Her voice was very small. “Somebody shot at me.”
“What?” He shot to his feet, his desk chair rolling back and spinning.
“I don’t think I’m hurt,” she said, sounding as if she weren’t sure.
He left the office at a run, ignoring his assistant who called after him, bounding down stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. “Where are you?” he demanded.
A different woman’s voice came on the line and gave an address out in the boonies. “We’ve already called 911,” she said. “Maddie is inside and safe. We’re locked down. My husband has his rifle and is standing by the front window.”
Lights and siren cleared the road in front of him. In the grip of fear, Colin drove with reckless speed. Goddamn it, he should have asked more questions. Who were these people and why was Nell at their home? But he wasn’t sure he’d have taken it in if Nell or the strange woman had told him. His brain had stuttered and stopped on the unendurable realization that she could be dead.
He passed her father’s resort without slowing. The turn onto 253rd took him out of his jurisdiction and into Butte County. He’d driven out here at some point in the past, but didn’t remember why. County park on the right—yeah, he’d known that was there.
The black mailbox at the head of an overgrown driveway had the right street number hand-painted on it. Colin turned off the siren and slowed to navigate the narrow track. Within moments he emerged into a clearing and saw that he was the first responder. Nell’s car had been left at an angle next to a battered pickup truck with the hood propped open. Her driver’s side door stood open. To avoid contaminating a possible crime scene, he parked a distance away, then, hand resting on his weapon, got out and started toward the main building. His gaze swept the surroundings ceaselessly. Forest in three directions, too many buildings. He felt incredibly exposed, uneasy with the isolation and silence so complete it seemed unnatural. He saw no movement whatsoever.
His fear and fury soared when he saw two perfectly round, splintered holes in the driver’s side window of Nell’s car, two more, he saw, bending over, on the passenger side. Entry and exit. Two holes in the windshield, too. A tear and hole punched in the headrest. The rear window was intact. They’d be able to recover at least one of the bullets.
How had she escaped alive?