"The kid always makes it. I told you that."
Margaret McDill had not seen the man in her life until yesterday, but he had dominated every second of her existence since their meeting. He had told her to call him Joe, and he claimed it was his real name, but she assumed it was an alias. He was a dark-haired, pale-skinned man of about fifty, with deep-set eyes and a coarse five-o'clock shadow. Margaret could not look into his eyes for long. They were dark, furious pools that sucked the life out of her, drained her will. And now they carried knowledge about her that she could not bear.
"I don't believe you," she said quietly.
Something rippled deep in the dark eyes, like the flick of a fish tail. "Have I lied to you about anything else?"
"No. But you...you let me see your face all night. You won't let me go after that."
"I told you, the kid always makes it."
"You're going to kill me and let my son go."
"You think I'm going to shoot you in broad daylight in front of a freakin' McDonald's?"
"You have a knife in your pocket."
He looked at her with scorn. "Jesus Christ."
Margaret looked down at her hands. She didn't want to look at Joe, and she didn't want to chance seeing herself in one of the mirrors. The one at home had been bad enough. She looked like someone who had just come out of surgery, still groggy with anesthesia. An unhealthy glaze filmed her eyes, and even heavy makeup had failed to hide the bruise along her jaw. Four of her painstakingly maintained nails had broken during the night, and there was a long scratch on her inner forearm from the initial scuffle. She tried to remember exactly when that had happened but couldn't. Her sense of time had abandoned her. She was having trouble keeping her thoughts in order. Even the simplest ones seemed to fall out of sequence by themselves.
She tried to regain control by focusing on her immediate environment. They were sitting in her BMW, in the parking lot of a strip mall, about fifty yards from a McDonald's restaurant. She had often shopped at the mall, at the Barnes & Noble superstore, and also at the pet store, for rare tropical fish. Her husband had recently bought a big-screen television at Circuit City, for patient education at his clinic. He was a cardiovascular surgeon. But all that seemed part of someone else's life now. As remote as the bright side of the moon to someone marooned on the dark half. And her son, Peter...God alone knew where he was. God and the man beside her.
"I don't care what you do with me," she said with conviction. "Just let Peter live. Kill me if you have to, just let my son go. He's only ten years old."
"If you don't shut up, I might take you up on that," Joe said wearily.
He started the BMW's engine and switched the air conditioner to high, then lit a Camel cigarette. The cold air blasted smoke all over the interior of the car. Margaret's eyes stung from hours of crying. She turned her head to avoid the smoke, but it was useless.
"Where's Peter now?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
Joe took a drag off the Camel and said nothing.
"Didn't I tell you to stop talking?"
Margaret glanced at the pistol lying on the console between the seats. It belonged to her husband. Joe had taken it from her yesterday, but not before she had learned how useless a gun was to her. At least while they had Peter. Some primitive part of her brain still urged her to grab it, but she doubted she could reach the pistol before he did. He was probably waiting for her to try just that. Joe was thin but amazingly strong, another thing she'd learned last night. And his hard-lined face held no mercy.
"He's dead, isn't he," Margaret heard herself say. "You're just playing games with me. He's dead and you're going to kill me, too-"
Reprinted from 24 Hours by Greg Iles by permission of Putnam Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Greg Iles. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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