Authors: Janet Evanovich
Jamie Swift paced the parking lot of Hank's Pump-n-Pay as she tried to decide her next move. She was mad enough to chew a barbed-wire fence, and her anger had a name to it: Max Holt.
Jamie needed help. She needed someone to talk to, and she needed a ride.
She spied the phone booth and hurried toward it. Who to call? It was after midnight. People with any kind of sense were usually home in bed at this hour. She had to calm down. She sucked in three deep breaths and was immediately hit with a wave of dizziness. She grasped the metal counter beneath the telephone. It would be her luck to hyperventilate right here in the parking lot, fall on her face, and be scarred for life. Yeesh.
Jamie spied the sticker on the pay telephone that read:
DESPERATE FOR HELP?
She leaned closer and read the small print:
We're Here for You Twenty-four Hours a Day.
the advertisement read. That was her, all right. Desperate with a capital
Plus, she was losing her mind. Or what was left of it after two weeks of dodging bullets from a drive-by shooting, almost getting blown to smithereens by a car bomb, and falling into a river and into the path of a hungry alligator. Hell's bells, she was lucky to be alive.
Jamie plunked two quarters into the pay phone. Her hand trembled. The fact it had started raining didn't even faze her. After what she'd been through, that was small potatoes.
Big potatoes was being stranded in a Podunk town she'd never heard of in the middle of the night, with her best friend more than two hours away. Big potatoes was being ogled by a gas station attendant whose oil-stained T-shirt stretched tight across a belly that had obviously sucked down a record number of Budweisers. She glanced his way. Even from a distance he looked dumb as cow dung. Probably had a tat-too on his butt that read
This Side Down
just in case he forgot. He looked at her like he hadn't seen a woman since inside plumbing. Like the kind of man people wouldn't let near their barnyard animals.
She dialed the number.
"Lend-a-Hand Hotline, this is Tanisha."
"Oh, thank God," Jamie said, glad to hear another voice. "I'm, uh
Jamie's excitement about going to Tennessee was short-lived. How the heck was she going to get there without a car? Her vintage Mustang was in the shop back in Beaumont, South Carolina: dented, banged up, with a couple of bullet holes.
She needed a plan.
She needed wheels.
The rain started to fall once more. What she really needed at the moment was either a really big umbrella or a place to stay for the night.
Jamie glanced at the sign on the road that read:
Whittville: 2 Miles.
That didn't tell her much; she'd never heard of the town.
She watched a tow truck turn in to the gas station and pull up beside one of the gas pumps. A big man in navy overalls climbed out and began pumping gas. He glanced at her, politely tipped his cap, and nodded, as though it were an everyday occurrence to find a woman pacing the parking lot of a run-down gas station at this hour.
Hmm. Maybe he could give her a ride.
Jamie approached him. He looked harmless enough. He was middle-aged and wore a wedding ring. His overalls were snug; he looked well fed. Probably had a wife at home who spent a lot of time in the kitchen. They probably ate their dinner on those cute little folding tray tables in front of the TV set while sitting in matching recliners. Their relationship was probably simple and uncomplicated.
The man caught her staring. "Good evening, ma'am."
The name Buford Noll had been stitched on a little patch sewn to his overalls. Yep, he looked respectable enough.
"Good evening to you, Mr. Noll," Jamie said, trying to sound upbeat. "I was wondering if you could give me a lift into town. I'll pay you."
"Well, sure. Any place in particular?"
"I need to find a nice, inexpensive motel for the night."
"Oh, well." He rubbed his jaw. "The one in Whittville is pretty run-down. Probably have to go all the way into Jessup."
"How far is that?"
" 'Bout twelve miles."
"Like I said, I'll pay you."
"Oh, you don't have to do that. I'm headed that way, but I got to make a quick stop first."
Jamie was relieved. "Thank you."
"You can go ahead and climb on in, Miss ..."
"Just call me Jamie." She hurried around to the passenger's side. Things were definitely beginning to look up.
* * * * *
Parked in the shadows across the street, Max Holt watched Jamie climb into the tow truck. She had not seen him return; she had been talking on the telephone.
"What's she doing now?" a voice asked from the dashboard.
"Looks like she just found a ride home."
"Man, you really screwed up big-time."
Max stared at the blinking lights on the front of the dash. A former NASA scientist had designed his car, a Porsche look-alike, only bigger, with a virtually indestructible titanium exterior. The car held state-of-the-art equipment, which ranged from a global positioning satellite system to a full videoconferencing suite and a high-powered computer that ran it all. Max had personally created artificial intelligence with voice recognition technology that would not be available for years to come.
His invention, which he called Muffin, had a Marilyn Monroe voice and "she" could literally think for herself. Muffin was stubborn and mouthy and, as ludicrous as it sounded, capable of emotion. She was constantly taking in data, but unlike other computers, she formed opinions and made judgment calls. And thanks to his sister, Deedee, who was in the throes of menopause and had complained to Muffin of her symptoms, Muffin had processed the information and was now suffering the same malady.
Muffin, too, was going through menopause. She had hot flashes, mood swings, and she threatened to shut down her own hard drive permanently each time Max crossed her. Currently she was having an on-again-off-again on-line romance with a laptop computer at MIT. She was almost more than Max could handle. To say that he had created a monster was an understatement.
"What are you going to do now, big shot?" Muffin asked. "Mr. Love-'em-and-leave-'em?" she added, never one to mince words.
"That's not the way it was between Jamie and me."
"Yeah, and that's what really has you pissed. I mean, who would have thought it? There's actually a woman out there who doesn't think you're the best thing since online trading."
Max tightened his grip on the steering wheel as he watched the tow truck pull away from the parking lot.
"I was trying to protect her. This job is going to be dangerous. The good Reverend Harlan Rawlins and his mob pals are probably looking for me as we speak."
"But that's not what you told her, was it? You told her she would only get in your way."
"That's how you deal with a woman like Jamie. If I had told her I was afraid for her she wouldn't have listened."
"So you decided to hurt her feelings instead. Great idea, Max. You shouldn't have agreed to let her come in the first place."
"You're the one who insisted I bring her."
"You never listen to me. Besides, I wouldn't have advised you to do it had I known you would dump her halfway to Tennessee."
"It's better this way," Max said. "I need to think clearly, and I can't do it if Jamie's around."
"Look, I don't have time to take on your personal problems, OK? My job is to keep you out of trouble and make you look good by providing you with any and all information you might need."
"You still screwed up."
Max shook his head as he started his engine and put the car into gear. It shot off, leaving a dust cloud in its wake.
* * * * *
Ten minutes after Jamie had climbed into the tow truck, she found herself on a dirt road in a remote area. The truck's headlights provided the only light. "How much farther?" she asked.
"We should be coming up on it soon," Buford said. "We're looking for a pink-and-white house trailer with a brand-new SUV parked in front of it."
The shabby-looking mobile home appeared right after the next bend. A white Ford Explorer was parked out front. "Nice wheels," she said. "Looks like it just rolled off the show-room floor. Don't tell me the owner is already having mechanical problems."
Buford grunted. "The new owner is having problems making payments. That's where I come in." He turned into the driveway.
"What do you mean?"
"It's being repossessed. I'm here to pick it up. Thank goodness there are no lights on, that means he's asleep. Makes my job a whole lot easier." He put the truck into reverse and backed toward the SUV.
Jamie gaped. "You're taking this person's car?"
"He hasn't made a payment in three months. I'm just doing my job." He put the truck into neutral, set the emergency brake, left the motor running. "Better lock your door. Some people don't cotton to having their vehicles towed off like this."
"Wait a minute," Jamie said. "You said you had to make a quick stop. To me a quick stop is hitting a McDonald's drive-through window or maybe grabbing a cup of coffee to go at the Waffle House. You never mentioned repo'ing somebody's vehicle."
"Won't take me long," Buford said, climbing from the truck.
"Oh, no." Jamie twisted around in her seat and watched Buford unwind a cable and attach a massive hook to the underside of the SUV. He hit a switch, and a motor churned to life. The vehicle climbed upward.
Suddenly a light flashed on inside the trailer. Jamie scrambled across the seat and leaned out the driver's window. "Someone's up," she said.
Buford glanced toward the mobile home. "Oh, shit."
Suddenly the trailer door was flung open and Jamie caught the silhouette of a man holding a shotgun. He fired into the air. Jamie ducked. Buford dived beneath the truck.
"Get away from my car!" the man shouted.
"You done missed three payments, mister!" Buford called out loudly. "I've been hired to tow it in! You cause trouble and I'm calling the cops!"
The man fired again. A bullet pinged off the side of Buford's truck. "Holy hell!" Jamie cried, and hit the floor.
"Stay down!" Buford told her. "They're always upset at first."
Jamie closed her eyes. It was happening all over again. For some reason that she couldn't fathom, people insisted on shooting at her.
"What are we supposed to do in the meantime?" she replied loudly.
Buford didn't hesitate. "I reckon we wait."
* * * * *
The smell of freshly cut lumber greeted Max as he stepped inside the cabin with his bag. No surprise there; the cabin had been renovated and redecorated for his use. Even so, the construction crew had kept the antique heart pine floors intact, knowing that Max, who was personally doing renovations to his home in Virginia, would appreciate them. The furniture was simple; probably much of it had already been in place. Max was grateful for that as well. The fact that he could afford to build a brand-new cabin with all new furniture and appliances did not mean he preferred it. Simplicity and comfort was more his style.
As usual, his staff had taken care of everything from securing the place to providing groceries. Max looked inside the refrigerator and cabinets and nodded his approval. His people knew his likes and dislikes, right down to the brand of beer and cold cuts he preferred. He checked out the two bedrooms and decided on the loft area. He spent an hour on his cell phone, finalizing his plans. He and Muffin had worked tirelessly once they'd gotten back on the road, but Max was a man who left nothing to chance. He knew what he was facing, knew the dangers.