TEN YEARS LATER
KICK LANNIGAN AIMED THE sights of her Glock, lined up the shot, and squeezed the trigger. The paper target shuddered. Kick inhaled the satisfying smell of gunpowder and concrete and squeezed the trigger again. And again. She emptied the magazine. The gun barely moved in her hand. She had learned to shoot with a .22, but she’d been firing a .45 since she turned fourteen and first started coming to the shooting range. Even at fourteen, she’d known she wanted something that could bring down a bigger target.
She laid the gun on the counter, pressed the button to reel in the target, and watched it flutter toward her. Half the targets they sold at the range now were zombies—everyone loved shooting zombies—but Kick preferred the old-fashioned black-and-white image of a square-jawed guy in a black watch cap. The target arrived and she inspected her handiwork. Bullet holes collected at the heart, groin, and center of the forehead.
A blush of pleasure burned her cheeks.
For the last seven years she had only been allowed to fire range rental weapons. Now, finally, she was firing her own gun. Some people went out and got drunk when they came of age; Kick had picked out a Glock with a ten-round magazine and applied for a concealed-weapons permit.
The Glock 37 had all the performance of a .45 ACP, but with a
shorter grip. It was a big gun sized for small hands. The beveled slide and sleek black finish, the finger grooves and thumb rests—Kick loved every millimeter of that pistol. Her knuckles were raw and the blue polish on her fingernails was chipped, but that Glock still looked beautiful in her hand.
She glanced up from the gun and listened.
The range was too quiet.
The skin on Kick’s arms prickled. She set the Glock back on the counter and tilted her head, straining to hear through her noise-reduction headphones.
The muffled crack of gunshots had been steady around her. There were only three people using the range that morning, and Kick had taken note of them all. Her martial arts sensei called it being mindful. Kick called it being vigilant. Now she listened to the muted shots around her and tried to pinpoint what had changed.
The woman a lane over from Kick had stopped firing. Kick had seen the woman’s weapon when she crossed behind her, a pretty Beretta Stampede with a nickel finish and a revolving six-bullet chamber. The Stampede was a replica of an Old West gunslinger’s weapon, a big gun. Fire it at a car, and the bullet would pierce the body panel and crack the engine block. It was too much gun for that woman. Which was why Kick had noted it.
The woman had fired all six rounds, reloaded, and then fired just three.
Kick could feel her heartbeat instantly quicken. Her muscles tensed. Her calves itched. Fight or flight. That’s how the shrinks explained it. For a few years after she’d first come home, the feeling would overcome her and she’d just take off, pell-mell, on foot. Once her mother found her nearly five miles away in a Safeway parking lot. Her mother and sister had to force her into the car, screaming.
Biofeedback. Meditation. Talk therapy. Drug therapy. Scream therapy. Sensory deprivation tanks. Yoga. Tai chi. Chinese herbs. Equine therapy. None of it had helped.
It had been Frank who suggested letting her take kung fu when she was eleven. The FBI had transferred him to Portland to help get her ready to testify, and he told her mother that martial arts would give Kick confidence, help her get through the trial. But he probably knew she just needed to hit something. There was no getting her into the sensory deprivation tank after that. She started martial arts, boxing, target shooting, archery, and even knife throwing. Her parents thought she did it all to feel safe, and in a way they were right. She wanted to make sure that no one—not even her mother—would ever be able to force her into a car again. After her father left, she took on more: rock climbing, mountaineering, flying lessons—anything to keep her busy and out of the house.
Kick scanned the floor for spent shell casings. Now when she felt the itch in her calves, she didn’t think about running; she thought about how to thrust her right arm forward so that the meaty part of her hand between her thumb and index finger connected with her opponent’s throat. She eyed a casing on the concrete and gave it a nudge with the steel toe of her boot and watched the brass cartridge rattle out of her shooting stall. Then she followed it. The woman from the next lane over was leaning up against a back wall, texting someone. Kick had her sweatshirt hood up, covering her hair, headphones on top of the hood; she was wearing protective goggles, black jeans, boots, and a sweatshirt zipped up to her neck. She could have robbed a bank and gotten away unidentified. But this woman? She recognized Kick. She wasn’t even subtle about it; she inhaled so sharply, she almost dropped her phone. Kick instinctively turned her head to hide her face, reached for the shell casing on the floor, and stepped quickly back into her stall.
Kick had not been a good witness in court. The prosecution had called her four times over the three months Mel was on trial. They wanted to know what she remembered about other people who had come to the house, other children, what she’d seen or heard, where they’d traveled. But there was so much that had faded into darkness.
She had spent the last decade training herself to notice details.
Tightening her fist around the still-warm spent cartridge in her hand, Kick conjured a picture in her head. The woman was in her mid-fifties and expensively maintained. She was in full makeup at nine a.m., and her black hair around her hot-pink noise-canceling headphones had been teased perfectly, which had to have required fifteen minutes and a mirror. Kick dropped the spent cartridge into a plastic tub with the rest of her shell casings. But she was at the gun range at nine a.m. on a Tuesday, so she didn’t work banker’s hours. No wedding ring. Some people took them off to shoot, but Kick guessed the woman didn’t know that. Kick glanced across the open lanes but couldn’t see the woman’s target. A middle-aged woman picks up shooting for self-defense, after a violent incident or a change of circumstance, like a divorce. The woman hadn’t been looking for Kick. She’d stumbled upon her. Now she was texting . . . whom? The hair and makeup could mean TV reporter. Kick didn’t recognize her, but then, Kick’s interest in the news was very subject-specific.
Kick ejected the empty magazine of her Glock and reloaded it with ten .45 GAP rounds.
The ten-year anniversary of her rescue was coming up. They always came looking for her before the anniversaries. Where was she now? How was she coping? Her mother was probably already angling for another Good Morning America appearance.
Kick lifted her backpack over her shoulder, stowed her Glock in her sweatshirt pocket, lowered her head, and left her stall. She was not going to run.
Even with her head down, Kick could see that the woman was still there. She had positioned herself in Kick’s path. She said something, but Kick just tapped her headphones and went to step around her. The woman moved in front of her again, but Kick was agile and slid between the woman and the wall. The woman didn’t give up. Kick could feel her behind her, just a foot or two back.
When Kick opened the glass door from the range to the lobby gun shop, the woman caught it before it swung closed.
Kick spun around. “What?” she demanded. She could execute a front kick to the woman’s chin, crushing her larynx, shattering her teeth, and breaking her jaw.
The woman smiled brightly and said something that Kick couldn’t hear.
Kick took her headphones off.
The woman did the same.
Kick’s grip tightened around the Glock in her pocket.
“I just wanted to say . . .” the woman said. She pressed her lips together and her eyes filled with tears. “We were all so happy you made it home.”
Kick took her hand off the gun.
A gold pendant set with four different gems hung around the woman’s neck, and she worried it with a nervous hand. Four gems—the birthstones of each of her children. The woman was Kick’s mother’s age, which meant that she’d probably had kids about Kick’s age when Kick had disappeared.
The woman wasn’t a reporter. She was a mother.
Glass display cases full of weapons lined the gun shop walls below paper targets for sale: Osama bin Laden, a woman with a beret and an AK-47, zombies, a man with a watch cap and a bag full of cash.
“I prayed for you,” the woman said.
Kick saw the ex-cop working behind the counter glance up from the page of Guns & Ammo magazine he was reading and then go back to his article.
A lot of people had told Kick that they’d prayed for her. It was like they wanted credit, to be counted. Kick was never sure how she should respond. I guess God wasn’t listening the first five years? “Thank you,” Kick muttered.
The woman put her hand on Kick’s shoulders, and Kick flinched. People always wanted to touch her, especially the mothers.
“You were rescued for a reason,” the woman said, and Kick groaned internally. She knew the reason she’d been rescued. Mel’s IP address had turned up in an investigation into online child pornography trading. According to Frank, the entire operation was a series of botched calls and interagency drama. They hadn’t even known she was there. The reason she was rescued was dumb luck. “If you ask me,” the woman continued, “that bastard deserves what’s coming to him. The devil gets his due, one way or another.”
“Excuse me,” Kick said politely. “I have to buy a Taser.” She stepped backward, out of the woman’s reach.
“We all thought you were dead,” the woman called. She was gazing at Kick with a sort of glassy-eyed reverence, like she’d just found the face of Jesus on her toast. On the wall behind her, the bank robber was aiming the barrel of his gun at her back. “It’s like a resurrection,” the woman said, beaming. She pointed upward, at the gun shop’s drop-panel ceiling. “There’s a plan for you,” she said. Her tongue was out a little bit, the tiny pink tip. If Kick connected with her chin, the woman would bite it right off.
The woman took a step toward Kick. “Trust yourself, Kit,” she said.
Kick winced at the sound of her old name. “Kick,” she corrected her.
There was no comprehension in the woman’s face.
“I go by Kick,” Kick said, feeling her center harden. “Not Kit. Not anymore.” She hadn’t been able to get used to her old name after she came home. It made her feel like an impersonator.
“Well,” the woman said, touching the pendant again, “time heals all wounds.”
“Your gun’s too big,” Kick said. “It’s got too much recoil; that’s why you’re not hitting the target. Start with something smaller, like a .22. And aim for the head.”
The woman gave the corner of her mouth a tiny scratch. “Thank you.”
They looked at each other in silence for a moment. Kick felt an urge to run like she had not felt in a long time. “I have to pee,” Kick said, tilting her head toward the restroom sign. The woman let her go. Kick hurried through the bathroom door and locked it behind her. The outline of the Glock was visible in her sweatshirt pocket. She had red lines on her face where her safety goggles had made an impression on her forehead and cheeks. She pulled back her hood and examined her reflection. People knew her from the Missing Child posters. Her first-grade school photograph, bangs and braids, a forced smile. She had been famous in her absence—on billboards, national news, the subject of talk shows and newspaper stories. She’d been on the covers of magazines. The first photo of her, after she was saved, went global. But she wasn’t the girl people remembered—eleven years old, angry-eyed, a tangle of long dark hair down her back. Kick’s mother cut her bangs and braided her hair and the family released another photograph: Kick reunited with her sister, their arms around one another. That one had been on the cover of People. Her mother sold pictures every year after that, on the anniversary, until Kick left home. They owed it to the public, her mother said, to let them see Kick grow up.
Kick turned the cold water on in the sink, pushed up her sleeves, and started washing her hands. Ammo left lead residue on everything. She cupped her hands under the faucet and lowered her face into the water. After she dried herself, she inspected herself in the mirror again.
She undid her ponytail and let her hair fall loose. It came down to her elbows. She didn’t get haircuts. Not anymore.
Her phone buzzed in her pants pocket and she dug it out with cold fingers.
She reread the message three times. It made her stomach hurt.
An Amber Alert had just been issued by Washington State police looking for a five-year-old girl abducted by a stranger and last seen
in a white SUV with Washington State plates, heading down I-5 toward Oregon.
Kick hesitated. She knew how this went.
But she couldn’t stop herself.
Kick opened the police scanner app on her phone, picked her backpack off the bathroom floor, and headed for the door, the loaded Glock still in her sweatshirt. Whenever they had traveled, Mel put her under a blanket on the floor of the backseat and switched the vehicle plates out for fake dealer ones. The dealer plates were harder to read, and produced little information, so patrol cops often didn’t bother running them.
It’s not like she thought she’d find the car. This was something that none of her shrinks ever seemed to understand. Kick knew exactly how futile it was. She knew she’d drive up and down the interstate until she was exhausted, and stay up half the night refreshing her browser, sorting through every detail, hunting for anything familiar. She knew that the kid was probably already dead and that when the police did find the body, it would feel like a part of Kick had died too.
That’s how this went.
How it always went.
Penance wasn’t supposed to be fun.