Gerritsen / THE LAST TO DIE
We called him Icarus.
It was not his real name, of course. My childhood on the farm taught me that you must never give a name to an animal marked for slaughter. Instead you referred to it as Pig Number One or Pig Number Two, and you always avoided looking it in the eye, to shield yourself from any glimpse of self-awareness or personality or affection. When a beast trusts you, it takes far more resolve to slit its throat.
We had no such issue with Icarus, who neither trusted us nor had any inkling of who we were. But we knew a great deal about him. We knew that he lived behind high walls in a hilltop villa on the outskirts of Rome. That he and his wife, Lucia, had two sons, ages eight and ten. That despite his immense wealth, he had simple tastes in food, and a favorite local restaurant, La Nonna, at which he dined almost every Thursday.
And that he was a monster. Which was the reason we came to be in Italy that summer.
The hunting of monsters is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for those who feel bound by such trivial doctrines as law or national borders. Monsters, after all, do not play by the rules, so neither can we. Not if we hope to defeat them.
But when you abandon civilized standards of conduct, you run the risk of becoming a monster yourself. And that is what happened that summer in Rome. I did not recognize it at the time; none of us did.
Until it was too late.
On the night that thirteen-year-old Claire Ward should have died, she stood on the window ledge of her third-floor Ithaca bedroom, trying to decide whether to jump. Twenty feet below were scraggly forsythia bushes, long past their spring bloom. They would cushion her fall, but most likely there’d be broken bones involved. She glanced across at the maple tree, eyeing the sturdy branch that arched only a few feet away. She’d never attempted this leap before, because she’d never been forced to. Until tonight she’d managed to sneak out the front door without being noticed. But those nights of easy escapes were over, because Boring Bob was on to her. From now on young lady, you are staying home! No more running around town after dark like a wildcat.
If I break my neck on this jump, she thought, it’s all Bob’s fault.
Yes, that maple branch was definitely within reach. She had places to go, people to see, and she couldn’t hang around here forever, weighing her chances.
She crouched, tensing for the leap, but suddenly froze as an approaching car’s headlights angled around the corner. The SUV glided like a black shark beneath her window and continued slowly up the quiet street, as if searching for a particular house. Not ours, she thought; no one interesting ever turned up at the residence of her foster parents Boring Bob and Equally Boring Barbara Buckley. Even their names were boring, not to mention their dinner conversations. How was your day, dear? And yours? The weather’s turning nice, isn’t it? Can you pass me the potatoes?
In their tweedy, bookish world, Claire was the alien, the wild child they’d never understand, although they tried. They really did. She should be living instead with artists or actors or musicians, people who stayed up all night and knew how to have fun. Her kind of people.
The black SUV had vanished. It was now or never.
She took a breath and sprang. Felt the night air whoosh in her long hair as she soared through the darkness. She landed, graceful as a cat, and the branch shuddered under her weight. Piece of cake. She scrambled down to a lower branch and was about to jump off when that black SUV returned. Again it glided past, engine purring. She watched it until it vanished around the corner; then she dropped down onto the wet grass.
Glancing back at the house, she expected Bob to come storming out the front door, yelling at her: Get back inside now, young lady! But the porch remained dark.
Now the night could begin.
She zipped up her hoodie and headed toward the town common, where the action was—if you could call it that. At this late hour, the street was quiet, most of the windows dark. It was a neighborhood of picture-perfect houses with gingerbread trim, a street populated by college professors and gluten-free vegan moms who all belonged to book groups. Ten square miles surrounded by reality was how Bob affectionately described the town, but he and Barbara belonged here.
Claire did not know where she belonged.
She strode across the street, scattering dead leaves with her scuffed boots. A block ahead, a trio of teens, two boys and a girl, stood smoking cigarettes beneath the pool of light cast by a streetlamp.
“Hey,” she called out to them.
The taller boy waved. “Hey, Claire Bear. I heard you were grounded again.”
“For about thirty seconds.” She took the lit cigarette he offered her, drew in a lungful of smoke, and exhaled with a happy sigh. “So what’s our plan tonight? What’re we doing?”
“I hear there’s a party over at the falls. But we need to find a ride.”
“What about your sister? She could take us.”
“Naw, Dad took her car keys. Let’s just hang around here and see who else shows up.” The boy paused, frowning past Claire’s shoulder. “Uh-oh. Look who just did.”
She turned and groaned as a dark blue Saab pulled up at the curb beside her. The passenger window rolled down and Barbara Buckley said, “Claire, get in the car.”
“I’m just hanging out with my friends.”
“It’s nearly midnight and tomorrow’s a school day.”
“It’s not like I’m doing anything illegal.”
From the driver’s seat, Bob Buckley ordered, “Get in the car now, young lady!”
“You’re not my parents!”
“But we are responsible for you. It’s our job to raise you right, and that’s what we’re trying to do. If you don’t come home with us now, there’ll be—there’ll be, well, consequences!”
Yeah, I’m so scared I’m shaking in my boots. She started to laugh, but suddenly noticed that Barbara was wearing a bathrobe and Bob’s hair was standing up on one side of his head. They’d been in such a hurry to chase after her that they hadn’t even gotten dressed. They both looked older and wearier, a rumpled, middle-aged couple who’d been roused from bed and, because of her, would wake up exhausted tomorrow.
Barbara gave a tired sigh. “I know we’re not your parents, Claire. I know you hate living with us, but we’re trying to do our best. So please, get in the car. It’s not safe for you out here.”
Claire shot an exasperated glance at her friends, then climbed into the Saab’s backseat and swung the door shut. “Okay?” she said. “Satisfied?”
Bob turned to look at her. “This isn’t about us. It’s about you. We swore to your parents that you’d always be looked after. If Isabel were alive, it would break her heart to see you now. Out of control, angry all the time. Claire, you were given a second chance, and that’s a gift. Please, don’t throw it away. Now buckle up, okay?”
If he’d been angry, if he’d yelled at her, she could have dealt with it. But the look he gave her was so mournful that she felt guilty. Guilty for being a jerk, for repaying their kindness with rebellion. It was not the Buckleys’ fault that her parents were dead. That her life was screwed up.
As they drove away, she sat hugging herself in the backseat, remorseful but too proud to apologize. Tomorrow, I’ll be nicer to them, she thought. I’ll help Barbara set the table, maybe even wash Bob’s car. Because damn, this car sure does need it.
“Bob,” said Barbara. “What’s that car doing over there?”
An engine roared. Headlights hurtled toward them.
Barbara screamed: “Bob!”
The impact threw Claire against her seat belt as the night exploded with terrible sounds. Shattering glass. Crumpling steel.
And someone crying, whimpering. Opening her eyes, she saw that the world had turned upside down, and she realized that the whimpers were her own. “Barbara?” she whispered.
She heard a muted pop, then another. Smelled gasoline. She was suspended by the seat belt, and the strap cut so deeply into her ribs that she could scarcely breathe. She fumbled for the release. It clicked open and her head thumped down, sending pain shooting up her neck. Somehow she managed to twist around so she was lying flat, the shattered window in view. The smell of gasoline was stronger. She squirmed toward the window, thinking about flames, about searing heat and flesh cooking on her bones. Get out, get out. While there’s still time to save Bob and Barbara! She punched through the last pebbly fragments of glass, sent them clattering onto the pavement.
Two feet moved into view and halted in front of her. She stared up at the man who blocked her escape. She could not see a face, only his silhouette. And his gun.
Tires shrieked as another car roared toward them.
Claire jerked back into the Saab like a tortoise withdrawing into the safety of her shell. Shrinking from the window, she covered her head with her arms and wondered if this time the bullet would hurt. If she would feel it explode in her skull. She was curled so tightly into a ball that all she heard was the sound of her own breathing, the whoosh of her own pulse.
She almost missed the voice calling her name.
“Claire Ward?” It was a woman.
I must be dead. And that’s an angel, speaking to me.
“He’s gone. It’s safe to come out now,” the angel said. “But you must hurry.”
Claire opened her eyes and peered through her fingers at the face staring sideways through the broken window. A slender arm reached toward her, and Claire cowered from it.
“He’ll be back,” the woman said. “So hurry.”
Claire grasped the offered hand, and the woman hauled her out. Broken glass tinkled like hard rain as Claire rolled onto the pavement. Too quickly she sat up, and the night wobbled around her. She caught one dizzying glimpse of the overturned Saab and had to drop her head again.
“Can you stand?”
Slowly, Claire looked up. The woman was dressed all in black. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail, the blond strands bright enough to reflect a faint glimmer from the streetlamp. “Who are you?” Claire whispered.
“My name doesn’t matter.”
“Bob—Barbara—” Claire looked at the overturned Saab. “We have to get them out of the car! Help me.” Claire crawled to the driver’s side and yanked open the door.
Bob Buckley tumbled out onto the pavement, his eyes open and sightless. Claire stared at the bullet hole punched into his temple. “Bob,” she moaned. “Bob!”
“You can’t help him now.”
“Barbara—what about Barbara?”
“It’s too late.” The woman grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a hard shake. “They’re dead, do you understand? They’re both dead.”
Claire shook her head, her gaze still on Bob. On the pool of blood now spreading like a dark halo around his head. “This can’t be happening,” she whispered. “Not again.”
“Come, Claire.” The woman grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Come with me. If you want to live.”