Chief Hasselback shifted her position in her chair so that she could look into Mrs. Baird’s eyes.
“How do you know this, Mrs. Baird?” she asked. “How did you know they went to Iraq? When I called Saturday, and all the times we talked before that, you thought Collin had gone to Mexico. We all did.”
There was another creak from the staircase.
“What is that noise?” Nina said. She stood and moved toward it.
“Where did this information come from, Mrs. Baird?” Hasselback asked.
“Nina, wait,” I said.
Nina cocked her head in an effort to see around the corner at the top of the staircase.
I stood, letting the photograph of the man who had assaulted Anne Rehmann, the man who had raped and murdered Mrs. Rogers, slip from my fingers. It bounced against a book on the coffee table and rattled to the floor.
That’s when I saw him.
On the staircase.
I reached for the Beretta. My hand closed around the butt and I yanked it from the holster.
Collin Baird gripped the banister with his left hand and leapt over it.
Nina gasped and brought her hand to her mouth the way someone might when startled during a horror movie.
Baird had an automatic in his right hand. As he jumped, he swung the gun in a high arc. It crashed against Nina’s temple just as his feet hit the floor.
The force of the blow spun her body. Nina caromed off the wall and slid to the floor.
Baird pressed his free hand against his ribs and grimaced as if the jump had hurt him, and I wondered if that was where he had been hit during our shootout.
He waved his gun at us.
I brought the Beretta up.
“Not again,” Mrs. Baird said.
She shoved at me.
“Police,” Hasselback shouted. “Don’t move.”
Collin Baird threw a wild shot in our direction and ran for the door.
I shoved Mrs. Baird away and took off after him.
I paused for a beat when I reached Nina’s side. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was twisted in an ugly grin. She had brought her hand up and was covering the wound on her head. Blood seeped between her fingers.
“Nuts,” she said.
I left her there.
I hit the screen door with my shoulder. It flew open and I dove across the lawn, landed on my shoulder, and rolled into a crouch. I brought the Beretta up with both hands and swept the muzzle over the front yard and street and surrounding houses. Collin Baird was not there.
I thought I heard running behind me and turned toward the noise. I moved quickly to Mrs. Baird’s house and began to move cautiously around it. The two sides of my brain were shouting at each other. “He’s getting away,” said one. “Go slow,” said the other.
The back yard opened up onto a wooded area. I took cover at the corner of the house. I waited. I listened. I saw and heard nothing.
I dashed across the yard into the woods and paused again.
Training and experience had quieted the shouting. I told myself, this was his ground. He grew up here. Following him into the woods would be a fatal mistake.
Rule Number One, my inner voice said.
I slowly backed out.
I listened to the sound of sirens approaching, sirens that almost always came too late. I didn’t want to be the one standing there with a gun in my hand when the cops arrived, so I holstered the Beretta and made my way back into the house. I found Nina sitting in a chair near the door. She was pressing a folded handkerchief to her temple. A trickle of blood ran down her hand and wrist and spotted her blue shirt and black skirt. Her eyes were wet with tears, yet she made no sound. I knelt before her.
“Let me see,” I said.
She shook her head and gestured toward the sitting area. Chief Hasselback was kneeling next to Mrs. Baird. She had doubled up her hands and was applying pressure to an area just above the woman’s breasts—standard procedure for treating a sucking chest wound. Her hands and wrists and shirt were soaked with blood.
“Stay with me, Mrs. Baird,” the chief said. “It’ll be all right. Help is on the way. Help will be here soon. Stay with me.”
I moved to the chief’s side and looked over her shoulder. Mrs. Baird’s eyes were closed, and if she was breathing, I didn’t notice.
“Stay with me,” the chief said. “Just for a few more minutes. Help is coming.”
The front door opened and paramedics filled the room. They relieved the chief. She stood and watched them work. Blood dripped off of her hands onto the floor. She didn’t seem to notice the blood until the paramedics confirmed what we already knew.
I felt like a kite baffled by the changing winds. At any moment I could come crashing down. I tried not to let Nina know it, though.