If I Run, page 20
But then he curses and throws open the basement door. “What are you doing?” he yells down.
He’s not talking to me. I hear him thump down the stairs, curses flying. I don’t hear anything from Laura, but now I’m sure she’s here. I tiptoe across the floor again, knowing it will creak beneath my feet, but maybe he’ll think it’s Arelle. If Laura’s there, I need to know how to get to her. I peer through the basement door and see him going to a shelf, shoving it out of the way. Nothing but cinderblocks there, but then I see a rectangle opening up. It’s an optical illusion, wood painted to look like cement blocks. I should have seen it! I realize it’s the old coal chute. Of course! It must be closed in at the top, and that’s where that broken patio is.
“You’re a slow learner!” he bellows in. What are you doing to the ceiling? It woke me up!”
A baby’s cry rises in startled terror, and my gut hitches.
“I didn’t do anything!” I hear a girl saying in a dry, brittle voice. Laura! “We were sleeping. You woke her up! Please. We didn’t do anything. You said yourself you can’t hear us through all the padding. I can’t even reach the ceiling. I don’t have anything to stand on.”
A shiver goes through me. If he’s angry or drunk enough, my carelessness—the very sound of my footsteps—might get her killed. I shrink back into the kitchen. The storm outside gets angrier, and rain pounds against the roof, the windows. Thunder cracks as if God himself is reacting to this evil. Somehow, that gives me courage. I head back up the hall to the guest room, praying that if Dotson hears my steps he’ll think it’s his wife. I wait behind the door, shaking.
I think of escaping through the window while I still can, going straight back to the police, turning myself in but demanding that they search again for the coal chute where Laura is hidden. But their main focus will be the murderer hiding out in Shady Grove, rather than the rescue of the missing girl. They won’t listen to me. Why should they?
My courage wanes, and paralysis freezes me. No, I can’t freeze. I have to act.
My brave girl.
Tears come to my eyes again, and I wipe them on my sleeve. No time to cry. I have to move.
I hear him striking her, things crashing, her abbreviated yelps. I wait as the door to the coal chute crashes shut—silencing the baby’s cries completely—as Dotson comes up from the basement, slams the door, and pounds his way back to bed.
I wait longer this time, certain that he’s snoring rhythmically before I venture out. The storm is loud now, a symphony of percussion against the house, lightning flashing and thunder cracking quick behind it. Is that answered prayer, meant to disguise my steps? Can I assume God is really helping me? Maybe Miss Lucy is praying too.
Tears wet my face again, and I wipe them away, force myself to draw in a cleansing breath. I take huge steps to make fewer creaks, and I make it to the basement door. I don’t open it wide, because I can’t risk another squeak. I slip through the gap, turn on the light, and quietly steal down the stairs.
He’s pushed the shelf unit back to the wall, but I know which one it is. I move it as quietly as I can, an inch at a time, constantly checking the top of the stairs. I’m running on pure adrenaline now, desperate to get to that little door.
Finally, I make enough room behind the shelves to open the door. I twist the deadbolt up and pull the camouflaged door open.
The room is tiny, damp and cold, and smells of diapers. It’s dark and only a few feet wide. There’s an extension cord going under the door, lighting a small yellow lamp. I should have noticed that cord before. The baby is sleeping on a mattress on the floor, wearing a dingy pink onesie. Laura’s in a fetal position on the concrete next to the mattress. She looks dead.
“Laura?” I whisper loudly.
She startles awake, sucks in a breath, and looks at me. “Who are you?”
Her eye is black and bloody, her nose looks broken. She has a busted lower lip, and when she sits up, I can see that her knee is purple and swollen. He has beaten her up because of me.
I hold out a shaky hand to quiet her. “I’m Grace. I’ve come to get you out of here.”
Her lower lip trembles. “Are . . . are they here?”
“Yes. They’re sleeping. The storm is loud. We have to hurry, though. We can go out the cellar door. I broke the lock on the outside . . . and I have bolt cutters for the inside lock.”
She grabs up her sleeping baby. She looks like she’s Emma’s age. The child keeps sleeping as Laura clutches her to her chest.
“I can’t walk . . . my knee . . .”
“Do the best you can,” I say, going in and putting her arm around my shoulders. “I’ll help you. Come on. They seem drunk and they’re sleeping hard.”
She hobbles out with me, and I feel her ribs under my fingertips. She’s skeletal, as if every ounce of fat has wasted out of her. I wonder how often he feeds her. She shifts the baby to the side with the strong leg, and I get under her other arm and help her walk. Each step makes her grind her teeth in pain. We get to the concrete steps leading up to the cellar hatch. I go up first. There’s a two-by-four bolted across the double-bulkhead door. One end of the two-by-four is fastened with an old hinge, and on the other, there’s another lock with a padlock slipped through. I slip off my backpack and take out my bolt cutters.
“I’ve got this,” I tell Laura, who has dragged herself up three of the dozen or so stairs and waits with her baby just below me.
I try with all my might to cut the padlock, but at this angle, reaching above my head, I’m not strong enough. I can hear the rain pounding through the wood, and some of it leaks through, wetting the concrete stairs. We’re so close . . .
Then the baby starts to cry.
I sit in Casey’s apartment parking lot for another hour, watching through my wet windshield for her white Kia to pull in, but it never does. Where could she be? Lucy and Sandra said she doesn’t have hangouts, that she’s basically been obsessed with finding Laura.
Maybe she’s watching the Dotson house again. It’s worth a look. I’m pulling out of the parking lot when my phone rings. I glance at it, see Keegan’s name.
I click it on. “Hello?”
He sounds excited. “Why didn’t you call me, Dylan? I heard from the Shady Grove, Georgia, PD that you found Casey Cox.”
My chest tightens. “I haven’t found her. They say she’s here, but I don’t have eyes on her yet.”
“But you have her alias and address and car model, right? Put out a BOLO and let the force locate her car.”
“I’m trying to keep from tipping her off,” I say as I drive. “For all I know, she’s listening to the scanner. I’m close. Just let me finish doing my job.”
“Listen, I’m getting on a plane right now.”
I pull off the road into a Zaxby’s parking lot to keep from wrecking. “To come here?”
“Yeah. Buddy of mine has a Cessna. I’ll be there in a few hours and take it over.”
My stomach tightens. “Look, that might be premature. I don’t know if she’s even still here. Besides, the weather’s horrible. I don’t know if you can land here.”
“My buddy’s a pro. He can handle it.”
I clear my throat and try again. “She could have left town. I’ve been waiting at her apartment for hours and she hasn’t come home. I’d hate for you to come all the way here, risking this weather, if it’s just a dead end.”
Keegan is quiet for a minute. “Dylan, you’re scaring me, man. First I hear about this from the Shady Grove department instead of you, now you’re downplaying this huge development? You know this find makes you a shoo-in for a spot on the force, right? I will personally recommend you for the Major Crimes Unit. We have a detective retiring next month. But if you drop the ball on this—”
“Drop the ball? I’m not dropping the ball. I’m looking for her as we speak. All I’m saying is, hold off coming here until I have her in custody. I’ll call the local cops when
“No can do. I’m too pumped about this, my man. Besides, I love night flying. It’s a blast. I’m coming. Rollins doesn’t like to fly, so he’s driving once I tell him we have her. Man’s a wimp.” His laugh cuts through my blood.
I know from Brent’s files that the plane belongs to Keegan. He’s flying himself, and when he gets here and takes over, I’ll have no control. I doubt seriously he would put Casey on that plane and fly her back alone. Does he plan to take her back at all?
The job prospect sounds real. I want it so badly, my heart thuds at the thought. But if Keegan “takes over” with Casey, she might wind up dead before she’s extradited.
He’s clicked off the call, so I pull back out into the trickle of traffic and head to the Dotsons’ street. My thoughts race. What if I find her and take her in, then get Brent’s files to key people in the department—the chief seems untarnished, and there are bound to be others. I could give it to several cops at the same time.
I turn onto Dotson’s street, drive by his house. The lights are off, a car in the carport. I’ve driven past a few more houses when I see her car—a white Kia—parked on the curb.
She isn’t in it. Where has she gone?
A chill shivers down my spine.
Casey may be in that house.
At the sound of the baby crying, I spin back toward Laura, palm down, as if that will silence the baby.
Laura tries to muffle the baby’s face against her chest. “Hurry!” she whispers.
I can’t make the heavy bolt cutters work. Instead, I try to push the bolt up, hoping the wood is rotten or that the hinge or lock is loose, but nothing budges.
I look back toward the stairs up into the house. If they’re still sleeping, if the noise of the storm keeps masking our sounds, maybe we could go through the kitchen. No, that would never work with the baby crying. This is our only way. I try the bolt again.
The door from the kitchen suddenly flies open, and Laura screams. Dotson’s silhouette at the top of the stairs is stark in the kitchen light. He yells, then flies down the stairs, crosses the basement in three steps to the concrete steps we’re scaling, grabs Laura and backhands her, knocking her off her feet. I grab the baby out of her arms as she falls. It screams two octaves higher. Laura cries out in pain as she hits the cement floor, her head thudding. Clutching the writhing child with one arm, I heft up the bolt cutters and swing them at Dotson as he comes after me. His eyes are bloodshot and murderous, and he gropes for the child. I swing again, but my movement is awkward, and he snatches the tool away. How will I get us out now? I climb back to the double doors over my head and bang with all my might, screaming for help.
I should have called the police. They might have come, if only to apprehend me.
The baby is terrorized, leaning her weight toward her mom as Laura gets up and lunges at Dotson, struggling to block the bolt cutters with her skinny arms.
I bang harder with one hand on the doors over me, feel them give slightly. Rain seeps in through the edges. If the wood is rotten, maybe it will splinter open with enough force, in spite of the lock.
Dotson grabs my foot, and I cushion the baby’s head as I hit one step, then get dragged to the next.
I flip to a sitting position, holding the baby too tight. Her screams pierce my ears.
I yell for help, hoping the neighbor will hear me or Laura. I get back up as Dotson lunges up toward me. I kick and thrash at him, desperate not to drop the baby. I get one good kick into his jaw, then aim lower. I hit home, and he doubles over, grunting. I scramble to my feet, grab the bolt cutters back.
“Run!” Laura screams. “Take her and get out!”
Even if I could open the door, I can’t leave Laura there. Dotson rises again, his teeth bared as he comes at me. I kick at him, then lift up and bang again on the doors with the bolt cutters. I lose my footing and slip down one step, but I cushion the baby. My shin is bruised and bloody, but I swing the tool at him again.
Below us, Laura grabs a steel pipe lying against the wall. She comes back and swings at him, hitting his knee and knocking his foot out from under him. He falls and catches himself a few steps down.
I pray to God that the neighbor will hear our screams, that she’ll call the police again. But the storm is too loud. What helped me moments earlier is now my greatest obstacle.
Then I see Arelle staggering down the basement stairs. “Stop it!” she yells.
“Help me!” Dotson cries. “Arelle, get the gun!”
She freezes for a moment as Laura swings again, this time hitting the back of Dotson’s skull. Laura backs up as he falls, his legs going limp as he tumbles to the concrete floor.
Arelle runs back up the stairs, and I reach toward Laura with the bolt cutters. She grabs them and I pull her up until she’s just below me.
Arelle stands at the top of the stairs with a shotgun. “Stop!” she shouts again.
Dotson lifts himself to all fours, gets his feet under him.
I get up the steps to the hatch, but I can’t hold the baby and work the bolt cutter, so I bang on it with the tool again, and more rain pours in. I scream louder for help, but Arelle will kill us all before I get it open. I hear her chamber a round, sense her aiming.
Suddenly there’s a crash above my head, and the doors fly open. Rain pours in, soaking my face. A man stands there, silhouetted by a streetlight.
“Casey!” he says. “Take my hand.”
I don’t know who he is, but I thrust the baby at him and turn for Laura. She’s still fighting Dotson as Arelle takes aim. I leap down and hurl myself onto Dotson’s back. “Go!” I yell, and Laura limps up the first three stairs, gritting her teeth. She pulls herself up faster than I thought she could.
Dotson wrestles me off his back, pivots, and swings. His fist crashes across my jaw and knocks me to the floor. Falling, I get a glimpse of Laura escaping out into the night. I’m disoriented, dizzy, as I grapple to get to my feet.
Then I see our rescuer coming in from outside, his eyes pale and his hair wet. As Dotson braces to deliver the knockout punch, the man delivers it instead. Dotson is knocked back to the floor, several feet from me.
As I try to get up, the gun goes off, its blast burning into my soul.
The moment the battered girl emerged from the basement into the rain, she lunged for her baby. I handed her over, gave the girl a quick look to make sure she didn’t have life-threatening injuries, then gave her my car keys, pointed to my car, and told her to wait there. I’d already called the police and reported screams from the house, before I got the cellar door open. Now I hear sirens approaching in the distance.
As Casey screams, rage drives me back toward the cellar doors. Dotson is going to kill her. I see him strike her, drawing blood. I fly down the steps, leap toward him, and knock him flat on his face. Casey writhes on the floor. Dotson wrestles and tries to get up.
My heart lurches as the gun fires. Casey!
But it’s not Casey who drops. It’s Dotson. I look up at his wife, bracing for her to correct her mistake, but she doesn’t. She tosses the gun to the bottom of the stairs—it hits with a clatter. Then she sits down.
I grab the gun and check Dotson. He has a bullet through his head, and he has no pulse. Giving the wife a cautious look, I take Casey’s hand, help her up the steps, out into the rain. “Are you all right?” I ask when we’re clear of that place.
“Where’re Laura and the baby?” she asks.
“In my car. I think they’re both all right.”
Lightning illuminates the sky for a second, and our eyes lock. I see how blue hers are. I didn’t realize they were that blue. Rain drizzles into them, washing the blood from her swelling jaw.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” she asks. “Dylan Roberts.”
“Yes.” The sirens
She doesn’t run away, doesn’t look afraid. Then my phone rings. I take it off my belt clip and glance at the caller.
“Keegan,” she says.
Now I see the fear as she stares up at me, her pale skin glistening in the next lightning flash. I put the phone back on its clip. “He’s flying here tonight to take over my case.”
She takes that in, but instead of speaking, she simply turns and walks away, across the muddy grass to the street, toward her Kia that waits a few houses down.
I could grab her, cuff her, easily restrain her.
But I let her go.
Blue lights come from the opposite end of the street, their haze casting an aura over my car where Laura and her baby wait. I glance back toward Casey. Her Kia pulls out into the street and disappears around the corner.
As the first responders get out of their cruisers, I meet them in the street and show them where I have Laura Daly and her baby, and tell them Frank Dotson is dead in the basement. I give them the shotgun and tell them his wife is still in there alive.
They find her wailing on the basement floor next to his body. I may never know if she shot him by mistake in all the confusion or if she meant to kill him.
I go to the police station with Laura and her child and wait with her while her mother is called. Laura makes sure the police know that some girl named Grace is the hero who rescued her. They know it’s Casey Cox, and the search for her begins. I tell them what I saw, leaving out the part about my letting her walk away. I let them believe she got away during the chaos.
Miss Lucy and Sandra show up at the station in minutes, and the reunion brings the room to tears. They embrace Laura, almost crushing her in their joy, then kiss the baby as if they’ve always known her. I know they’ll heal Laura’s outer wounds. But some wounds can’t be seen. I pray that she’ll get the help she needs.
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