Cold Springs Page 57


Chadwick had a different theory. Jones wanted pain. She wanted Olsen's death to be as slow as possible, so she could return when she was done with her bloody work in the cornfields and sit next to the dying counselor, memorize Olsen's voice, add it to the chorus raging inside her head.

Chadwick skipped the staff Christmas party. He stayed in his apartment that night, listening to Nat King Cole drifting up from downstairs. He lay on his bed and held Katherine's picture in his hands—the little girl in the morning glories.

In a few weeks, Mallory Zedman would turn sixteen, Katherine's age. But her eyes, as she turned to him in the cornfield, her face speckled with blood, told him Mallory had grown older than Katherine ever was.

His sheets still smelled faintly of Ann. He thought of the afternoon he'd told her goodbye, Ann struggling for comprehension as Dr. Hunter broke the news that her daughter—who'd just killed a woman in self-defense, had also splinted Chadwick's broken leg and stopped the bleeding in Olsen's thigh, all with the numb, mechanical efficiency of a sleepwalker—couldn't face the idea of seeing her mother.

Ann could've raised hell, could've insisted. It would've been the only bright point in Sheriff Kreech's day to help her battle the school, after he'd been deprived the pleasure of arresting anyone. Even Chadwick's assault on the officer had been explained away as accidental, thanks to Damarodas, and after the media got involved, making Chadwick into a hero on horseback, Kreech arresting him over a little thing like flattening a deputy would've looked downright trivial. But Ann hadn't asked for Kreech's help. She had complied with Mallory's wishes, hiding her hurt behind resentful silence, and one of the instructors, a stranger, had driven her to the airport.

Chadwick set Katherine's picture on the nightstand, tracing the arc of blue flowers around her head. He drifted to sleep, thinking about Mallory's hard new eyes, the sound of “Adeste Fidelis” coming from the Christmas party below.

Christmas Day dawned no different than any other. White levels assembled on the deck to work on their SATs. Tan levels cleaned the lodge fireplace and swept the floors. From the cafeteria, Chadwick could hear trainers' whistles and yelling down at Clearing One—a new team of black levels being broken in, drilled into the program.

After breakfast, he met Hunter and Olsen outside, and together they walked down the long dirt road toward the stables. Chadwick's broken calf-bone ached, despite the boot cast and enough Tylenol coursing through his system to kill a warthog. He didn't complain though, because Olsen didn't complain. She would grab his shoulder every few feet to steady herself, her other hand clamped on Hunter's forearm. She wore her old escort clothes—the denim jacket concealing the bulky bandages on her side. Her forehead was beaded with sweat. She walked with the slow determination of a nursing home patient.

“Probably look like those patriot guys,” she managed. “Marching all banged up. Need a fife and drum.”

“I ain't wearing no damn sash on my head,” Hunter said.

“We can stop,” Chadwick offered. “Bring her to the lodge.”

“No,” Olsen said. “She's been pulled around enough. The least I can do is go to her.”

Hunter's mouth tightened with concern, but he winked at Chadwick, a little flare of pride in his eyes, gratification for Olsen's toughness.

Hunter seemed changed in recent days—more paternal toward the staff, especially toward Olsen. Chadwick knew Kindra's treachery had cut him deeply, made him angrier than he'd been in a long time. But rather than throw a knife into a tree, or chuck Special Agent Laramie off the top of a ropes course platform, Hunter had chosen to channel all his anger into making sure his people were okay. He spent more time at the staff parties, worked less in his darkened office, staring at the security monitors. He'd started dressing in gray fatigues, as if he were the one who had advanced a level. He even attended his first-ever county Chamber of Commerce luncheon, trying to make amends with the community.

They followed the road past the cattle workers, where the newest recruit, Mallory's old team member Bridges, was staring with apprehension at the school's training herd, ten head of Charolais. One of the ranch hands was giving him his first lesson in bovine logic—the nature of cow paths. “They always walk in a straight line, Bridges. They follow the leader. Take a lesson from that.”

The girl Morrison had chosen carpentry. She was out in the field with the veteran gray levels, raising an A-frame for a new barn.

A hundred yards farther down, Mallory Zedman stood inside the split-rail fence of the pasture. She stroked her bristle brush over the bay mare's coat the way Joey Allbritton showed her, careful to avoid the gunshot wound in the withers that had felled the animal seven days ago in the cornfield.

Hunter motioned for Joey to come over.

Hunter told Chadwick, “I'll leave you all to it. Joey and I need to talk some horse-trading.”

Hunter circled an arm around Joey's shoulders and led him out of earshot, down toward the granite cliffs overlooking the river.

Chadwick and Olsen approached Mallory, who had stopped her work and was standing at attention. She had that determined, dogged look that characterized Gray Level—the look of a small child tying a shoe, or a grown-up putting together an “easy-to-assemble” bookshelf. Gray Level was all about motion, working with one's hands. They didn't like standing at attention. Their byword was competence, and they quickly learned that everything was a skill to be remastered—not just their new ranch work, but eating, talking, thinking. Gray levels were constantly busy, sorting through the pieces of their old frustrations and failures, learning how to reassemble them, putting tab A into slot B.

“At ease,” Chadwick told her. “How's your equine friend doing?”

“The veterinarian says the muscles will mend in a few weeks, sir. She won't be saddle-ready for a while, though.”

The bay filly gave Chadwick a wide yellow eye, maybe remembering what had happened the last time he'd taken her out riding. She snorted—horse language for Get the hell away from me. Mallory took her reins to keep her from shying off.

Then, as if the sun were in her eyes, Mallory took a reluctant glance at Olsen. “How are you?”

“I'll live, kiddo. Thanks to you.”

Mallory blushed. She ran her bristle brush over the horse's glossy hide, which twitched as if anticipating another gunshot.

By Hunter's order, no one was allowed to talk about the incident that made Mallory a hero, no one was allowed to make her feel different than any other gray level, but they all did anyway. Even new black levels had heard about Mallory Zedman, how she had stopped a killer with her hunting knife, saved her counselor's life. Her heroism had impressed the locals, had played briefly on national news at the culmination of what the media liked to call the Laurel Heights Affair. In one of those bizarre twists of fate that had built Hunter's empire, a potential PR nightmare had turned into a huge boon for business. AM radio talk shows touted Mallory as the product of a successful program—from a drug-addicted rebel who attacked her own mother to a self-reliant young woman who defended herself and saved two lives. Admissions calls were up fifteen percent. Offers to Dr. Hunter for television appearances and how-to-parent book contracts were rolling in. Even Chadwick found it rather frightening.

“I came to tell you goodbye,” Olsen told Mallory.

Mallory picked a horse hair out of her brush. “Yeah. I figured.”

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“I'm going back to escorting. It's best you have a counselor who's not . . . involved in what happened. You understand?”

“You got what you needed from me. Now you're moving on.”

“It isn't like that. You're my friend. I'll never move on. It's just . . . we're a little too close to each other, Mallory. You've got to step away from the mirror a little if you want to see anything.”

Olsen held out her hand. Mallory hesitated, then took it.

When she released her grip, Olsen looked at Chadwick, ready to go.

If he was going to say something, now was the time. He had gone over the possibilities for days, rehearsing what he might say. But now, with Mallory in front of him, the words evaporated.

“I hear you're a natural with horses,” he tried. “Star pupil.”

“I'm doing my best, sir.”

“Your father would be proud.”

A shadow crossed over her face. “You blame me for not seeing my mom?”

“No. You have time for that. Your mother does, too.”

Mallory stared at the horse, and Chadwick realized, with uncomfortable certainty, that Mallory didn't need anything else from him. She wanted him to leave. He was complicating matters, making her uncomfortable.

“I'll be going to see her next week,” Chadwick said. “Laurel Heights is having the ground-breaking ceremony. In case you want me to tell her something.”

“Yes, sir. Tell her that gun in Race's locker? It wasn't his. It was mine. He was protecting me. He didn't know a thing about it.”

She wouldn't meet his eyes.

He knew she was lying about the gun. She hadn't put it in that locker. But he also knew why she was doing it—taking the heat for her friend, giving the school someone else to blame.

“You sure you want me to tell your mother that?” he asked.

She nodded. “I'm the one she needed to expel. Not Race. Tell her that.”

“Anything else?”

“No. But, Miss Olsen?”

“Yes?”

“Apples are bad for them.”

“What?”

“Apples. For horses. They like them, but there's too much sugar, traces of cyanide in the seeds. They eat too much, they'll get poisoned. In case you wanted to know, for next time.”

Mallory went back to combing her wounded horse, as if Olsen and Chadwick were spectators who had seen the whole show, and now—surely—they must have reassembly work to get back to, like everybody else.

Chadwick wanted more—closure, closeness, that time he'd never gotten with his daughter. But Mallory was farther away from him now than she'd been a month ago, at the Rockridge café.

Teens defined themselves by separating from adults. Chadwick knew that. But he'd fought the process with Katherine, and the battle had never been resolved. Now Mallory was done with him, the same way she'd accused Olsen of being done with her. He had ridden to her rescue, but he'd failed to save her. And maybe, he realized—that was the whole point. Maybe his failure had given her exactly what she needed.

Hunter shook hands with Joey Allbritton, then came to rejoin them.

They walked back to the lodge in silence, Olsen's hand tight on Chadwick's shoulder, Hunter's bald scalp reflecting the winter sun like candlelight in chocolate.

“You get better fast,” he told them. “We got a lot of business coming in. A lot of pickups.”

“The price of notoriety,” Chadwick said.

When they got to the door, Hunter put his arm out to block Chadwick's entry. “You're gonna take care of this girl, I hope. 'Cause if you lose her again, I'm gonna start assigning you only the jobs that come from New Jersey.”

“I'll consider myself terrified.”

Olsen gave him a wan smile. “Hunter's driving me into Fredericksburg this morning for physical therapy. You want to come along?”

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