It was raining. It was a hard rain. It was not a drizzle or a mist, so often the case on the Oregon coast, but a loud, powerful, torrential downpour—rattling the windows that circled the little room, crackling on the aluminum roof a few feet above their heads, rising and falling with the moaning of the wind but never subsiding for long. This was a rain full of rage and single-minded purpose, so awful and awe-inspiring that the only sensible thing to do was to pretend it didn’t exist.
They were in the turret, just the two of them, arguing about politics or sports or something else equally inane, having to raise their voices obscenely to be heard over the racket. The actual conversation didn’t matter. It was a distraction. There were a couple of times when Gage, glass of bourbon in one hand, his finger raised to make a point with the other, realized the absurdity of sitting in this bubble of glass and sticks, four stories up on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean while a ferocious storm raged outside, but he didn’t let himself linger on the thought for long.
If he let himself think about the storm, he invariably thought about Zoe out in it. If he let himself think about Zoe, his thoughts turned to the ear-ringing argument they’d had that morning. If he relived the argument, he was forced to reckon once again with the simple fact that she was leaving in a little over a week—and not at all where he had hoped she would go.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Alex said.
Gage turned to him, his rumpled old companion with the big bags under his eyes and the pocket full of ballpoint pens. The single beaded lamp on the end table between their two leather chairs created an intimate sphere of light, as if they were huddling over a campfire. All of Alex’s many books, filling the shelves between each of the dark windows in the hexagonal room, were invisible to them except for the smell: leather and old paper. A former FBI agent, proprietor of Books and Oddities, and co-owner of the Turret House Bed and Breakfast, Alex Cortez had been Gage’s friend since Gage dropped out of the FBI academy more than twenty years earlier—an outcome in which Alex, one of his instructors at the time, had played a significant role.
Gage was sometimes still surprised how their friendship had endured, especially with the twenty-year age difference. He didn’t make friends easily. In fact, he didn’t make friends.
“Who’s fine?” he asked.
Alex considered Gage the way he might have considered a lewd joke book that had been misfiled in his bookstore in the children’s section—with skeptical bewilderment. The lamplight gleamed on his mostly bald head. What Alex lacked in scalp hair he made up for with his thick gray mustache.
“I wasn’t thinking about her,” Gage said.
“Then what were we talking about?”
“What’s that? I can’t hear you. It’s raining outside, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I noticed! I asked you what we were talking about.”
“Hmm. It was something about the last election.”
“Actually,” Alex said, “you were talking about the last election. Ten minutes ago I changed the subject to whether we’ll ever get a pro football team in Portland. Your response was to talk about campaign-finance reform.”
“It could be relevant,” Gage said.
“Maybe we should talk about the elephant in the room.”
“Do we have to? I mean, I already know you live a double life as a cross-dressing cocktail waitress at the casino, Alex. Your secret is safe with me.”
“The other elephant in the room. The recently turned eighteen-year-old girl who’s just about to leave for college.”
“Woman,” Gage said.
“Woman! She’d kill you if she knew you called her a girl.”
“Woman, fine. The woman who decided to attend our local community college this fall against your wishes.”
“It wasn’t against my wishes,” Gage said.
“Didn’t you tell her you’d pay her way, but only if she went to OSU or Willamette University or some other reputable four-year school?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Didn’t you also tell her that if she enrolled at Barnacle Bluffs Community College, she was going to have to find another place to stay?”
“You heard me!”
“Geez, you don’t have to shout. It may be raining, but I’m not deaf.”
“Janet used to say the same thing,” Gage said.
This got Alex to shut his trap in a hurry. Gage knew it was a bum move, bringing up Gage’s own murdered wife as a conversation stopper, but he wasn’t in the mood to play the part of the patient to Alex’s psychiatrist. His friend’s wry grin waned, eyes softening, and for a moment Gage thought he might have made things worse by inviting a stroll down those dark alleys of his past, but Alex merely nodded. He took a sip from his wine then, staring at what was left of the merlot, quickly drained the glass. He stood, slightly wobbly, the lamplight catching every crease and ridge in Alex’s face, his skin like a newspaper someone had crinkled into a ball then tried to straighten the best they could.
“I think I’ll get another glass,” he said. “Want a refresher on that bourbon?”
“Tempting,” Gage said, “but I better get going. Zoe might be back by now.”
“You know, if you had a phone like the rest of the civilized world, you could call her and find out.”
“I heard cell phones cause cancer.”
“You don’t even have a landline.”
“I heard landlines cause cancer.”
“All right, all right. There’s no winning with you. Come on, I’ll see you out. If Eve knew I was up here in hurricane-force winds, I’d be sleeping on the couch for a week.”
Gage started to rise, but then he heard an odd pop from out in the storm—a distinctive bang, a sound nearly engulfed by the roar of the wind. Both he and Alex stopped, turning to the dark windows.
“Did you—?” Alex began.
“Yeah,” Gage said.
“It sounded like—”
What followed was a mad rush down the turret’s winding metal staircase, the two of them stumbling through the parlor to the sliding glass door that led to the patch of yard behind the building. Gage lurched through the rain on the pea-gravel path, his right knee throbbing, before he realized he’d left his cane by the chair upstairs.
Too late. He did his best sprint-lurch toward the edge of the bluff, where the ivy clung to the stone wall like writhing vipers. The glow lanterns that lined the path blinked in and out of the black swirl of night. Rain whipped about him from all directions, running into his eyes, soaking his hair, ice cold dribbling down his back. No jacket, no hat, just polo shirt, jeans, and leather boots—he was already drenched.
The wind roared in his ears. Even on a bum leg, he was ahead of Alex, whose gasping breaths fell farther behind. On his way, Gage groped for the Beretta and found he’d left it at home.
Careless. Lately, he’d allowed himself to fall into the comforting stupor of books and bourbon. What if somebody had come for Zoe? It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Down the first staircase to the beach he went, pain knife-flaring in his knee, hard turn on the landing, then bobbling the rest of the way down to the driftwood that collected at the bottom—and there Gage was, staggering across the sand, heartbeat in his ears almost as loud as the wind. He couldn’t even hear the ocean, though the salty smell of it was stronger. He blinked to clear the water from his eyes, but it was no use. All he saw was one big black smear.
Was there somebody out there? He wiped at his eyes with his fingers, squinting into the wind. The ocean was a black ribbon, the beach below it a slightly less black ribbon, the sand littered with the uneven shapes of logs, kelp, and other flotsam.
He was standing there trying to get his bearings when another loud crack penetrated the wall of sound. Then another. And another.
There was no mistaking them for what they were now. Alex, breathing hard, was just catching up, and he had a cell phone to his ear.
“Gunshots!” Alex shouted into the receiver. The iPhone screen rippled blue on his cheek. “That’s what I said. My address is—”
And the rest was lost to the storm, because Gage, thinking he spotted a person sitting on a log not far way, bolted in that direction. Alex called after him, but Gage didn’t stop.
Fifty yards away. Then forty. Definitely a person. A young man, maybe. Definitely a young man, though with the slender physique of a woman. Twenty yards away and the young man, a spindly figure in a black hoodie, turned his pale face Gage’s way—like a blurry white thumbprint on the night.
When the young man turned his face, he also turned his body far enough that Gage saw the gun.
It was a snub-nosed revolver, a .38 Smith & Wesson by the looks of it, and the kid held it in his lap as if only half-aware of it—as if it were merely a pair of sunglasses or binoculars, some harmless object rather than a weapon. There was no sign the kid had even fired it, nor was there anyone else he might have fired at. Now that he’d been seen, Gage slowed and raised his hands. His own heart thudded in his ears.
“You all right, son?” Gage asked.
The kid stared back with his ghostly face, showing no sign of acknowledgment. There was something familiar about him. Gage had seen him somewhere before, he was sure of it. Inching his way forward, arms still raised, Gage kept his gaze fixed on the kid’s gun hand, alert to any sign of movement. He was within ten yards, and though there was a chance he could get there before the kid got off a shot, it was more than likely he’d have to do something along the way to distract him. Kick up sand, maybe? Or throw something. But what did he have on him but his wallet? Here, for once, a cell phone might come in handy purely as an object for throwing.
The kid watched impassively, neither reaching for the revolver nor showing any other sign of hostility. His eyes were sunken and shadowed like the sockets of a skull. He was gaunt and pencil-thin, his water-soaked hoodie and jeans probably weighing more than he did. The dark bangs visible beneath the hood stuck to his forehead like strands of yard.
When Gage was within ten feet, the kid turned to stare at the ocean. Gage crept closer. Water dribbled into his eyes, off his ears, down his neck. His face was already numb. Five feet now. Then three. He circled to the boy’s left side, toward the gun, reaching for it. Almost had it. A few more inches.
“Fucking loser,” the kid said suddenly.
Gage froze, right hand outstretched, fingers nearly to the boy’s gun hand. The kid had said the words just barely loud enough to be heard above the wind, but with so much hatred that it stopped Gage dead in his tracks.
“Gonna do it,” the kid said. “Gonna do it one of these days.”
Slowly but firmly, Gage placed his hand on top of the kid’s gun hand. He expected an attempt to pull away, but the kid didn’t even flinch. Gage knew he had fairly large hands—gorilla hands, Janet had once called them—but even so, the kid’s still seemed small and dainty, soft and pliant like a toddler’s hand.
“Why don’t you give me the revolver, son?”
The kid didn’t respond. The hoodie clung to the hard ridges of his ribs. Sirens, still distant, penetrated the wall of wind. Keeping his right hand firmly pressed on the kid’s hand, Gage used his left to pry the gun free. It was surprisingly easy. As if he were holding an explosive device, Gage moved the gun, at arm’s length, slowly away from the boy.
The kid gazed up him, eggshell skin catching what little light there was, and Gage was sure of it now. He knew this kid. One of Zoe’s classmates. She’d studied with him a few times, calculus or economics, part of a study group. In the darkness, he could not make out the kid’s features clearly, but he remembered effeminate lips, soft eyes, and the kind of stooped gait of somebody shouldering the burden of a lifetime of abuse from his classmates.
The kid might have been crying, but there was so much water on his face, it was impossible to tell.
“You’re Zoe’s dad,” the kid said.
“Something like that,” Gage said.
“Am I going to jail for this?”
“Not if this is the worst you’ve done.”
“Some people deserve to die.”
“Very true. I’ve known some of them. Did you kill somebody, son?”
The kid mumbled something. Gage, leaning closer, asked him to repeat it. The kid shook his head and turned back to the ocean. Gage tried to remember a name, but it didn’t come. The sirens were so close, the police car must have been up near the Turret House. Alex, cell phone still in hand, appeared to their right, and Gage held the revolver out to him. Alex took it and backed away.
“Let’s go inside,” Gage said to boy.
There was no response. Gage placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and it was both sharp and weak like wet cardboard. His hand was only there a second when the boy responded with a convulsive shudder, as if he’d been holding it back and all it took was Gage’s touch to release it.
“I’m a coward,” the kid said.