“You can’t cover us all, hen!”
That was Rob Cameron, shouting from the Poultney’s truck. She didn’t bother replying but ran to get in range of the house, and the drawing room window dissolved in a shower of glass.
Sweat was running down her sides, tickling. She broke the gun and thumbed two more shells into place. She felt as though she were moving in slow motion—but the rest of the world was moving slower. With no sense of hurry, she walked to Ernie’s truck and put her back against the door behind which Jem and Mandy were sheltering. A strong waft of fish and malt vinegar floated out as the window cranked down a few inches.
“Bloody hell, Brianna! What’s going on?”
“A bunch of nutters are trying to kill me and take my kids, Ernie,” she said, raising her voice over Mandy’s wailing. “What does it look like? How about you start the engine, hmm?”
The other truck was out of effective shotgun range from here, and she could see only one side of it. She heard its door open on the other side and saw a flicker of movement inside the shattered window of the house.
“Now would be a good time, Ernie.” She wasn’t forgetting that one of the bastards had her rifle. She could only hope they didn’t know how to use it.
Ernie was frantically turning the key and stomping the gas. She could hear him praying under his breath, but he’d flooded the engine; the starter whirred uselessly. Lower lip tucked under her teeth, she strode round the front of the truck in time to catch one of the people from the FINE GAME truck—to her surprise, this one was a woman, a short, dumpy shape in a balaclava and an old Barbour. She raised the shotgun to her shoulder, and the woman tried to run backward, tripped, and fell on her backside with an audible “Oof!”
She wanted to laugh but then saw Cameron climbing out of the truck, her rifle in hand, and the urge left her.
“Drop it!” She strode toward him, gun at her shoulder. He didn’t know how to use the rifle; he glanced wildly from her to the gun, as though hoping it would aim itself, then changed his mind and dropped it.
The front door of the house slammed open, and she heard running feet coming fast. She whirled on her heel and ran, too, reaching Ernie’s truck barely in time to hold off the two men from the house. One immediately began to sidle round, clearly meaning to circle the other truck and collect his idiot comrades. Rob Cameron was now advancing on her slowly, hands held up to show his non-offensive—ha—intent.
“Look, Brianna, we don’t mean ye any harm,” he said.
She racked a fresh shell in answer to that, and he took a step back.
“I mean it,” he said, an edge in his voice. “We want to talk to you, is all.”
“Aye, pull the other one,” she said, “it’s got bells on. Ernie?”
“Don’t you dare open that door until I say so, Jemmy!”
“Get down on the floor, Jem, right now! Take Mandy!” One of the men from the house and the dumpy woman were moving again; she could hear them. And the second man from the house had disappeared into the dark outside the circle of light. “ERNIE!”
“But, Mam, somebody’s coming!”
Everyone froze for an instant, and the sound of an engine advancing down the farm track came clearly through the night. She turned and grabbed the door handle, jerking it open just as Ernie’s engine finally coughed into full-throated life. She hurled herself into the seat, her feet narrowly missing Jem’s head as he peered up from the footwell, eyes huge in the dim light.
“Let’s go, Ernie,” she said, very calmly under the circumstance. “Kids, you stay down there.”
A rifle butt struck the window near Ernie’s head, starring the glass, and he yelped but didn’t, God bless him, flood the engine again. Another blow and the glass broke in a cascade of glittering fragments. Brianna dropped her own gun and lunged across Ernie, reaching for the rifle. She got a hand on it, but the man holding it wrenched it free. Grabbing wildly, she scrabbled at the balaclava’d shape, and the woolly helmet came off in her hand, leaving the man beneath openmouthed with shock.
The spotlight went off, plunging the yard into darkness, and bright spots danced in front of her eyes. It popped back on again as the new vehicle roared into the yard, horn blaring. Brianna lifted herself out of Ernie’s lap, trying to see out through the windshield, then flung herself toward the other side of the truck.
It was an ordinary car, a dark-blue Fiat, looking like a toy as it circled the yard, horn blatting like a sow in heat.
“Friend, d’ye think?” Ernie asked, his voice strained but not panicked. “Or foe?”
“Friend,” she said, breathless, as the Fiat charged three of the intruders who were standing together: the unmasked rifle-wielder, the woman in the Barbour jacket, and whoever the guy who wasn’t Rob Cameron was. They scattered like cockroaches into the grass, and Ernie slammed a fist on the dash in exultation.
“That’ll show the buggers!”
Bree would have liked to stay and watch the rest of the show, but wherever Cameron was, he was undoubtedly too close.
He went, with a terrible crunching and screeching of metal. The van lurched badly; the back axle must be damaged. She could only hope a wheel didn’t come off.
The blue Fiat was prowling the dooryard; it honked and flashed its lights at Ernie’s truck, and a hand waved from the driver’s window. Brianna stuck her head out cautiously and returned the wave, then dropped back into her seat, panting. Black spots were swimming in her field of vision and her hair stuck to her face, lank with sweat.
They limped down the lane in first gear, with a horrible grinding noise; from the sound of it, the back wheel well had caved in.
“Mam.” Jemmy stuck his head up over the edge of the seat like a prairie dog. “Can I come up now?”
“Sure.” She took a deep breath and helped Mandy scramble up after him. The little girl plastered herself at once to Brianna’s chest, whimpering.
“It’s okay, baby,” she whispered into Mandy’s hair, clinging to the solid small body as much as Mandy clung to her. “Everything will be fine.” She glanced down at Jem, riding between Ernie and herself. He was hunched into himself and shivering visibly in his checked wool jacket, even though it was warm in the cab. She reached out a hand and took him by the back of the neck, shaking him gently. “Okay there, pal?”
He nodded, but without saying anything. She folded her hand over his, clenched into a small fist on his knee, and held it tight—both in reassurance and to stop her own hand shaking.
Ernie cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry, Brianna,” he said gruffly. “I didna ken that—I mean, I thought it would be okay to bring the bairns back, and after yon Cameron came to the house and hit Fiona, I—” A trickle of sweat gleamed as it ran down behind his ear.
“He what?” After the events of the last hour, this news registered only as a blip on her personal seismograph, obscured by the bigger shock waves that were only now dying down. But she asked questions, and Jem began to come out of his own shell shock, telling about his part, gradually becoming indignant about Mrs. Kelleher and the police dispatcher. She felt a quiver in the pit of her stomach that wasn’t quite laughter but close enough.
“Don’t worry about it, Ernie.” She brushed off his renewed attempts at apology. Her voice rasped, her throat sore from shouting. “I’d have done the same, I expect. And we’d never have got away without you.” They’d never have been there without him in the first place, but he knew that as well as she did; no point in rubbing it in.
“Aye, mmphm.” He drove in silence for a moment, then remarked conversationally, looking in the rearview mirror, “Yon wee blue motor’s following us, ken.” His throat moved as he swallowed.
Brianna rubbed a hand over her face, then looked. Sure enough, the Fiat was trundling after them at a discreet distance.
Ernie coughed. “Ehm . . . where d’ye want to go, Bree? Only, I’m none sae sure we’ll make it all the way into the town. But there’s a petrol station with a garridge bay on the main road—if I was to stop there, they’d have a phone. Ye could call the polis while I deal wi’ the van.”
“Don’t call the polis, Mam,” Jemmy said, his nostrils flaring with disgust. “They’re no help.”
“Mmphm,” she said noncommittally, and raised an eyebrow at Ernie, who nodded and set his jaw.
She was inclined against calling the police herself—but out of concern lest they be too inquisitively helpful. She’d managed to deflect them from the touchy question of just where her husband was last night, telling them he was in London to visit the British Museum Reading Room and that she’d call him as soon as they got home. If the police found out about the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, there was going to be a lot more scrutiny of her private affairs. And it took no stretch of imagination at all to conclude that the police might really suspect her of having something to do with Roger’s disappearance, since she couldn’t produce him and couldn’t tell them where he was. Might never be able to. She swallowed, hard.
The only recourse would be to claim that they’d had a fight and he’d walked out on her—but that would sound pretty flimsy, in light of recent events. And she wouldn’t say something like that in front of the kids, regardless.
But stopping at the petrol station was the only thing she could see to do at the moment. If the blue Fiat followed them there, at least she might discover an ally. And if it was the police, incognito . . . well, she’d cross that bridge when she came to it. Adrenaline and shock had both left her now; she felt detached, dreamy, and very, very tired. Jemmy’s hand had relaxed in hers, but his fingers were still curled around her thumb.
She leaned back, closing her eyes, and slowly traced the curve of Mandy’s spine with her free hand. Her little girl had relaxed into sleep against her chest, her son with his head on her shoulder, the weight of her children’s trust heavy on her heart.
THE PETROL STATION was next to a Little Chef café. She left Ernie to talk to the garageman while she extracted the kids. She didn’t bother looking over her shoulder; the blue Fiat had fallen back to a respectful distance, not crowding them as they crawled clanking and grinding down the motorway at 20 mph. If the driver didn’t mean to talk to her, he’d have driven off and disappeared. Maybe she’d manage a cup of tea before she had to deal with him.
“Can’t wait,” she muttered. “Get the door, please, Jem?”
Mandy was inert as a bag of cement in her arms but began to stir at the smell of food. Bree gagged at the reek of stale frying oil, burnt chips, and synthetic pancake syrup, but ordered ice cream for Jem and Mandy, with a cup of tea for herself. Surely even this place couldn’t ruin tea?
A cup of barely warm water and a PG Tips tea bag convinced her otherwise. It didn’t matter; her throat was so tight that she doubted she could swallow even water.
The blessed numbness of shock was lifting, much as she would have preferred to keep it wrapped blanket-like around her. The café seemed too bright, with acres of foot-marked white lino; she felt exposed, like a bug on a grimy kitchen floor. Prickles of apprehension sparked unpleasantly over her scalp, and she kept her eyes fixed on the door, wishing she’d been able to bring the shotgun inside.
She didn’t realize that Jem had also been watching the door until he stiffened to attention beside her in the booth.
“Mam! It’s Mr. Menzies!”
For a moment, neither the words nor the sight of the man who had just entered the café made any sense. She blinked several times, but he was still there, striding toward them with an anxious face. Jem’s school principal.
“Mrs. MacKenzie,” he said, and, reaching across the table, shook her hand fervently. “Thank God you’re all right!”
“Er . . . thanks,” she said feebly. “You—was that you? In the blue Fiat?” It was like being keyed up to confront Darth Vader and coming face-to-face with Mickey Mouse.
He actually blushed behind his glasses.
“Ehm . . . well, aye. I—er . . .” He caught Jem’s eye and smiled awkwardly. “You’re taking good care of your mother, then, Jem?”
“Aye, sir.” Jem was quite obviously about to burst with questions. Bree forestalled him with a quelling look and gestured to Lionel Menzies to sit down. He did and took a deep breath, about to say something, but was interrupted by the waitress, a solid, middle-aged woman with thick stockings and a cardigan and an air that indicated that she didn’t care whether they were space aliens or cockroaches, so long as they didn’t complicate her life.
“Don’t order the tea,” Bree said, with a nod toward her cup.
“Aye, thanks. I’ll have . . . a bacon butty and an Irn-Bru?” he asked tentatively, looking up at the waitress. “With tomato sauce?” She scorned to reply but flipped her pad shut and trundled off.
“Right,” Menzies said, squaring his shoulders like one about to face a firing squad. “Tell me the one thing, would you? Was it Rob Cameron there at your house?”
“It was.” Bree spoke tersely, recalling belatedly that Cameron was related to Menzies in some way—a cousin or something? “Why?”
He looked unhappy. A pale-faced man with slightly receding curly brown hair and glasses, he wasn’t remarkable in any way and yet usually had a presence, a friendliness and quiet air of authority about him that drew the eye and made one feel reassured in his company. This was notably lacking tonight.
“I was afraid that it might be. I heard—on the evening news. That Rob was being looked for by the police”—he lowered his voice, though there was no one within earshot—“in connection with . . . well, with”—he nodded discreetly toward Jem—“taking Jeremiah, here.”