Cold Springs Page 49


The good news seemed to kindle some light in her eyes, but she still looked shaken, more than ever like a kid who'd gone through Cold Springs—as if she'd been forced to reevaluate everything, deconstruct her life, put the pieces back together according to someone else's outline.

“Thank God you found her,” she said. “But where . . . ?” Her eyes scanned the gate area.

“She's back in the program. She wanted to go straight to the school.”

“I want to see her.”

“That's not possible now.”

Ann unlaced her hand from his. “She's my daughter. You brought me all this way . . .”

“She's on Survival Week. Out in the woods.”

“Are you insane?”

“They have her under surveillance. Most of the staff will be out patrolling the perimeter all night. She'll be safe.”

“After what happened, you can promise me that?”

“Asa Hunter is on this personally. I've never known him to fail a kid.”

Ann's cheeks colored.

Chadwick realized he'd sounded as if he were drawing some kind of comparison.

“So what am I supposed to do,” she said. “Get back on the plane? I haven't taken a hotel room yet . . .”

She let the statement hang in the air.

Chadwick was suddenly ashamed of the plan he'd made—a reservation for her at the Hill Country Sheraton. Hunter had an account there, held admissions events in the ballroom, sometimes put his more important visitors up in the suites. Chadwick had booked a night for one, in Ann's name, figuring it was the least Cold Springs could do to compensate her.

He told himself he would not go up to the room with her. He would take no chance that his intentions would be misconstrued. But his right hand knew damn well what his left hand was doing. He had told Kindra about the hotel room, suggested that in case of an emergency, that's where Mrs. Zedman might be found. Implying that he might be there.

Kindra had said, “You scare me, Chad.” But she'd agreed to keep the information to herself, and to pick up Mallory personally when the girl emerged from the woods.

“Let's find a place to talk,” he told Ann.

“No. I want to see Cold Springs.”

“Ann—”

“I don't mean Mallory. Just the school. I want to see where you live. Isn't that allowed?”

Chadwick wanted to tell her there was nothing to see of him at Cold Springs. He'd spent his new career here in this airport, stepping on and off planes, flying from crisis to crisis, leaving as little mark as the changeable placards at the gates.

But instead he nodded, and made silent plans to cancel the Sheraton reservation later.

On the road to Fredericksburg, he tried to talk to her about John's disappearance, the missing school money, the Montrose murder investigation. He asked her what was happening in San Francisco. He told her about his conversation with Mallory and Pérez. But Ann participated in the dialogue the way a yarn-holder participates in knitting a sweater—giving material when asked, keeping her end of the line from going slack, but her mind nowhere near the task, paying no attention to the patterns he was struggling to create out of threads. She kept her eyes on the line of iron clouds rolling in from the north, sealing off the winter sun.

By late afternoon, the flatlands around San Antonio had rippled and swelled into the Hill Country, the highway shearing through fifty-foot ravines, curving under the shadows of granite peaks dotted with live oaks. In the valleys, cattle huddled for warmth, and swarms of blue dragonflies hovered over the watering holes. Mesquite smoke curled up from every ranch house chimney.

As they got into Fredericksburg, they passed the truck stop where Chadwick had assaulted the rednecks, the convenience store where Pérez had almost killed him. Chadwick pointed out the historic homesteads instead. The wildflower gardens, now dormant.

Another five miles, and they drove through the gates of Cold Springs.

“The property goes back over the tops of those hills,” he told her. “Mallory can walk all day and just get to the middle.”

But he saw what Ann was noticing—the surveillance cameras on the front gate, the wire fence cut free from brush and floodlit, just like a minimum security prison.

Inside the grounds, the only people visible were a group of gray levels, fixing a barn door down by the horse pasture, trying to get their work done before nightfall. Chadwick didn't need a forecast to tell him it would be freezing rain tonight. Possibly even snow.

Flurries weren't unheard of in the Hill Country, but they were rare enough to be talked about for weeks whenever they happened. The last time had been seven years ago. Chadwick remembered the lodge's aboveground water tank cracking wide open like a hatched egg in the cold.

He thought of Mallory out in the woods tonight. He decided not to discuss the weather with Ann.

The Big Lodge was deserted. Hunter would be out in his jeep, overseeing the solo treks, tracking the GPS coordinates of the black levels, keeping in touch via walkie-talkie with each counselor, who would be trailing his or her charge through the woods at a distance of half a mile, just in case. The black levels would feel alone—they would be alone. But the safety net would be there, invisible, in case something went very wrong.

Nobody was at the main desk, so Chadwick turned the logbook around and signed out a room for Ann in the staff dormitory, a few doors down from his. It wasn't much of a liberty. Parents stayed here from time to time, though usually not until the end of White Level, when the kids were getting ready to transition back into the outside world.

Tonight, with no other visitors and most of the staff working, they would have the dorm wing almost to themselves.

He showed Ann some of the empty facilities—the computer lab, the library, the gym. In the art therapy room, she picked up a red-clay figure from the table by the window—a limp human form that had been pulverized by a fist, its head caved in.

“I had a student last year,” Ann said, “molested by her stepfather. The therapist did this—had her make an image of her abuser, then tear it apart. To empower the child.”

“Good therapy is good therapy.”

She set it down, pressed her hand over the boy's handprints stained on the butcher paper. “Somehow, I didn't expect Dr. Hunter to know that.”

“Ann, his program works. It's strict, but it doesn't ignore the kid's needs. You did the right thing sending Mallory here.”

She looked at her fingers, now stained with red. “Eighteen years, I fought to keep Laurel Heights alive. I believed kids were good, creative, able to make choices. And my school is dying. Meanwhile this . . . this kind of school is thriving. Should I feel good about that? When my own daughter needs a drill sergeant more than she needs me?”

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Chadwick took the handle of her suitcase. He'd been up thirty-six hours straight now, and his blood was turning to helium. “Let me show you your room. It's not exactly five-star, but it's a place to sleep.”

“Where do you stay? Let me see that first.”

The light was fading outside when Chadwick opened the curtains of his dorm apartment. It seemed impossible to him that this was the same day he'd watched the sunrise in Fredericksburg with Kindra Jones.

As Ann stared at the books on his shelf, Chadwick excused himself. He went into his bathroom and splashed water on his face.

He noticed a streak of mud on his sleeve, a missing button on his shirt collar, a piece of hay from Joey Allbritton's barn stuck in his pocket. He'd gone to pick up Ann looking like this. He probably would've had food in his teeth, too, except he hadn't eaten all day.

He examined his wet face in the bathroom mirror, rubbed at the wrinkles, thinking for the millionth time that his eyes were too close-set, too comically mournful. His heavy jawline was starting to thicken into the slight jowls, making his resemblance to George Washington even more pronounced.

He shook his head.

You're almost fifty, he told himself. You're not an adolescent.

Back in the main room, Ann was sitting at his desk, looking at the picture of Katherine. Chadwick fought down a swell of resentment, as if Ann were trespassing. But of course, she wasn't. She'd taken that picture.

“Hungry?” he asked.

“Did I smell cafeteria meatloaf downstairs?”

“Afraid so.”

“I'll pass.”

His own stomach was knotting up, but he sat down on the bed across from her. Clouds continued to thicken outside, a cold metallic energy seeping through the glass window and the heated air of the lodge.

Ann traced her finger across the old eighth-grade class picture—the kids in colonial costume. Chadwick knew she could name each child, their parents, their siblings. She could list the colleges they had gone to, and what jobs they had now.

“I saw Norma this morning,” she said. “She warned me not to come. Said I was a stupid damned optimist.”

“My ex-wife. Always the diplomat.”

Outside, the dusk dissolved the trees and the sky. An instructor's whistle blew three sharp notes, signaling the end of the tan levels' workday.

“And are you really happy here?” Ann asked. “Is this what you want to do?”

“Been a long time since I thought in those terms.”

Heat kindled in her eyes. “And why is that?”

“This is where I need to be.”

“Because you couldn't send Katherine here, so you had to come yourself?”

“Ann—”

“Katherine's suicide wasn't our fault, Chadwick. It's cost us so much time.”

“You sound like you blame her for dying.”

“I loved her, Chadwick, but not enough to give up our relationship. You shouldn't have left me. You shouldn't have spent the last nine years punishing yourself, punishing me.”

“Was it my idea to put Race Montrose at Laurel Heights?”

“I didn't mean—”

“You called me—begged me to help, because you thought Mallory had been involved in the murder. Was that my idea?”

Ann stood, as if she were about to yell at him.

Voices came from down the hallway—two people talking, a man and a woman. Counselors, Chadwick thought, though he couldn't place names to the voices.

As they reached Chadwick's room, the man said, “I don't think he's here.”

There was a knock on the door.

Chadwick and Ann locked eyes. He shook his head, and she tacitly agreed. Neither of them could stand company at the moment.

The woman's voice said, “Maybe he's on a pickup or—”

“No. Jones is here.”

“Oh, right. We could ask her. Or maybe Hunter . . .”

The rest was muffled as they drifted down the hall.

Ann touched her cheeks with the back of her hand. “God. I haven't felt like this since I was sixteen. The high school broom closet.”

“Who were you in there with?”

“None of your damn business.”

“Rah-Rah Lucas,” Chadwick guessed. “The butt-ugly football player.”

Ann slapped him on the shoulder, and he grabbed her wrist. Their eyes met. He drew her down next to him on the bed, nestled her against his shoulder while she trembled, her tears damp on his shirt.

She pulled his chin down, found his lips. Chadwick felt himself borrowing her sense of direction, letting her guide him, as she'd so often guided him before.

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