WARDEN MCINTOSH STORMED INTO THE CHILDREN'S CENTER. All the kids had gone home. A lone inmate was clearing away the last of the toys.
"You alone here?"
"Yes, sir. I'm waiting for Sister Agnes to come back and lock up."
"There was a pickup scheduled for four P.M. today. Did that happen?"
"I think so, sir. Cora Budds was in the storeroom."
"What about Grace Brookstein? Have you seen her in here this afternoon?"
"No, sir. Cora tol' me she's in lockdown."
Warden McIntosh relaxed. Lisa Halliday had gotten it wrong. Grapevine information was often unreliable at Bedford. Still, protocols had to be followed. He picked up the phone on Sister Agnes's desk.
I'M GOING TO DIE!
Grace was already hyperventilating. As she felt the truck stop, her hopes soared. They must be at the checkpoint. She tried to scream.
"Help! Somebody help me!"
For weeks, she had dreaded this moment, terrified that the guards would discover her. Now she was terrified that they wouldn't. Without air, she would die in this box long before the truck reached the depot.
"Help!" She was yelling as loudly as she could, but her lungs didn't seem to be working properly. The words came out soft and breathy, muffled by the crates above and to the side of her. The guards heard nothing.
"What's this lot, then?"
The driver handed over his paperwork. "Modeling clay. About two tons of the stuff."
"All right. Let's take a look."
The two guards began opening the first row of boxes.
Please! I'm here!
Grace knew in that moment that she didn't want to die. Not yet. Not like this.
I have to find Lenny's murderer first. I have to make them pay.
She started to feel dizzy. Aware she was beginning to lose consciousness, she called out again.
One of the guards stopped. "Did you hear anything?"
His companion shook his head. "Only my teeth chattering. It's friggin' cold out here, man. Come on, man, let's get this over with." Pulling forward another crate, he dumped it on the ground, opened it and checked inside. He did the same with another. Then another. As he was opening the fourth, the driver pleaded, "Come on, you guys, give me a break, wouldya? You know how long this shit took to load? I got a six-hour drive ahead a me and I'm freezing my ass off."
The guards looked at each other. They could hear the distant ringing of a telephone, back inside their warm, comfortable surveillance tower.
"Okay. You're good to go." They signed the driver's papers and handed them back to him. "Drive safe."
Sixty seconds later, the truck was cruising out through the prison gates.
Grace Brookstein was still inside.
GRACE AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF the engine gaining speed. Relief overwhelmed her.
I can breathe! I'm alive.
One of the guards must have loosened the lid of her crate! Why didn't they find me? It's a miracle. Someone up there must be looking out for me. Maybe it's Lenny, come back as my guardian angel?
For a few seconds she felt euphoric. I made it out of Bedford. I did it! But reality soon reasserted itself. She was a long way from being home free. Uncurling herself slowly and painfully like an arthritic jack-in-the-box, Grace pushed up the lid and climbed out of her cramped hiding place. The rear of the truck was freezing and pitch-dark. It took a minute for the circulation to return to her legs. As soon as she felt strong enough, she began to stumble forward, hands stretched out in front of her like a zombie, feeling for the truck's rear door. After what felt like an eternity, her fingers stumbled upon a handle. It was stiff. She couldn't move it. Just as she was wondering whether the driver had double-locked the doors from the outside so she wouldn't be able to open them, the handle suddenly shifted.
It all happened in an instant. The rear door flew open with such force Grace was pulled along with it. Suddenly she was outside, clinging on for dear life, her shins banging agonizingly against the bumper as she dangled one-handed above the ground. They were on an empty, unlit road, moving at incredible speed. How fast? Fifty miles an hour? Sixty? Grace tried to calculate her chances of survival if she fell. Before she came up with an answer, the road forked into a hairpin turn. The driver swung a sharp left. Grace felt the door handle slip from her grasp, as if someone had dipped it in butter. Next thing she knew, she was flying through the air like a rag doll, hurtling toward the trees. The last thing she heard was the thud of her own skull hitting the ground.
WARDEN MCINTOSH YELLED AT HANNAH DENZEL.
"Why the hell did you send her back to the center? Who gave you the authority?"
Denny bristled. If Grace Brookstein really had escaped, she was damned if she was going to take the blame. This was the warden's problem. "I have the authority, sir. Work details on A Wing are my responsibility. The delegation had left, and Grace had unfinished work. Who gave the Sisters authority to have A-Wing inmates supervise pickups?"
The two guards from the North Gate checkpoint were also in the warden's office. Warden McIntosh quizzed them. "You're certain Grace Brookstein wasn't on that truck? You checked every crate?"
From the look on McIntosh's face, the guards figured honesty was probably not the best policy. "Every crate. The truck was clean."
Warden McIntosh's head was throbbing. Then where the hell is she? He turned back to Hannah Denzel. "I want Cora Budds and Karen Willis in here right now. In the meantime, alert all police units. I want that truck found, stopped and searched." He looked at the two guards ominously. "If you guys have fucked up, I'll have both your heads on a plate."
"Yes, sir." But everyone in the room knew that the first head to roll would be the warden's.
GRACE OPENED HER EYES SLOWLY. BENEATH her was a blanket of deep undergrowth. Springy and prickly like an old straw mattress, it must have broken her fall. Her head was filled with a loud whirring.
No. It's not in my head. It's overhead. Choppers.
They're looking for me.
She had no idea how long she'd been unconscious. Minutes? Hours? What she did know was that she was freezing cold, so cold that it was hard to move. She also knew that she was in grave danger. In the short time she'd been inside the truck, they could not have gotten more than a few miles away from Bedford Hills. She had to put some distance between herself and the prison.
Gingerly, Grace got to her feet. By some miracle, nothing seemed to be broken. Gradually her eyes acclimated to the darkness and she could make out the shadows around her. She was standing in woodland just a few feet from a quiet country road. Not quiet. Silent. A single twig cracking beneath her feet sounded as loud as a thunderclap.
I have to get out of here.
Her left side was bruised and stiff, but she found she could walk without too much trouble. To her right, the tree line jutted up into a steep escarpment. From the top of the hill, Grace heard the dim rumble of traffic.
The police will be patrolling the main road. If I go up there, I triple my chances of being caught.
If I don't go up there, I won't get a ride out of here.
She started to climb.
AT THE TOP OF THE HILL someone had planted a row of poplar trees, presumably as a sound barrier. Grace squatted low behind them, trying to get her breath. The climb had exhausted her. The road was busy, almost as if it was rush hour. Grace wondered again how late it was, but there was no time to dwell on that now. Brushing the icy leaves off her skirt, she stepped out onto the side of the road and stuck out her thumb, the way she'd seen people do on TV.
I wonder how long it'll take for someone to stop. If I don't get inside soon, I could die of hypothermia.
A squad car screamed out of the darkness, blue lights flashing, sirens blaring. Instinctively Grace leaped back for the cover of the trees, twisting her ankle on the icy hard ground. It was agony but she didn't dare cry out, holding her breath in the darkness, waiting for the police car to slow or pull over. It didn't. After a few seconds the dying wail of the sirens faded to nothing. Grace crawled back out to the roadside.
Standing there, thumb out, stamping her feet against the subzero temperature, Grace started to sway. She'd barely eaten all day, and the fall from the truck had left her weak and dizzy. Lights from the cars' headlamps began to merge into one solid orange glow. In Grace's frozen, confused state, it looked warm and welcoming. Half conscious, she staggered toward it. The deafening blare of a truck horn brought her back to her senses.
"Are you outta your mind, lady?"
A man had stopped. Pulled over onto the hard shoulder, he was talking to Grace out of the driver's-side window. Middle-aged, with a thick black mustache and dark eyes that sat flat on his face, he looked like he might be part Asian, but it was tough to be sure in the darkness. He was driving a light blue van with TOMMY'S YARD SERVICES written on the side in bold black lettering.
"Don't you have a coat?"
Grace shook her head. Pretty soon her whole body was shaking, racked with cold and exhaustion. The man reached over and opened the passenger door.