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Authors: Simone St. James

Murder Road (19 page)

BOOK: Murder Road
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CHAPTER THIRTY

There was silence in the room after the detectives left. I had a splitting pain in my chest, as if someone had run a blade down my sternum. It was shame and heartbreak and crippling fear, and it was so strong that for a moment I couldn’t move or speak.

I turned to Rose. “I’m sorry,” I said to her, my voice cracking. I was saying it to Eddie, too, but I couldn’t look at him. Not yet. “I’m sorry that you ended up tangled in this. I’m sorry that there was so much that you didn’t know. If you want us to leave your house, we will.”

I expected her to kick us out, using the tone that said everyone she spoke to was clearly an idiot, but instead she frowned. Emotions crossed her face—anger and bitterness, mixed with exhaustion that seemed similar to the kind I felt, exhaustion with everything in life. When she spoke, her voice was uncharacteristically rough.

“I hate that man,” she said. “He ruins people.”

Quentin. She meant Quentin. For the first time, I saw Rose as a woman who had been married and widowed, who had been through gut-wrenching pain. “What did he do?” I asked, my voice low. “To Robbie? What did he do?”

“Not just him. All of them.” Rose blinked, her expression becoming hard. “The way they treated him, the grunt work they gave him, the low pay. The entire department just loved to gang up on Robbie. The names they’d call him—to his face, if they could get away with it. If they got in trouble for that, then they’d say the names behind his back, as if he didn’t know.” Her hands twisted the cotton of her thin cardigan, her small wedding ring gleaming in the dim light. “But it wasn’t just that. Robbie was good—really good. He could have done so much, solved so many cases, helped so many people. He had a perfect record. He applied for every promotion, every raise, and it was like he was throwing his energy away. Nothing Robbie did mattered—not to them. It didn’t make a difference how hard he worked, how smart he was, how kind, how he followed the rules, that he was a model cop, the kind that any force would beg for. It never mattered at all.”

I screwed up my courage and glanced at Eddie. He was still leaning against the doorframe, his arms crossed. His gaze was on Rose, listening. He wasn’t looking at me. His expression was so perfectly blank, I couldn’t read it.

“I believed in him,” Rose said. “I believed in Robbie. I knew how good he was. I was a spinster before he came along, and we were mismatched. People made fun of us behind our backs, but we didn’t care. I married a good man.” She swallowed, her eyes cold. “And then one day, we decided we’d plant cucumbers in the
garden. We’d put up a trellis. Why not? Cucumbers would be nice. So we went to the backyard, and I started to dig—you know, a hole so that Robbie could put the trellis in. And he said, ‘Rose, I have a headache.’ And that was all. That was the end of everything. Those were the last words he ever said to me.” She blinked. “It turned out that one of the neighbors saw it from his upstairs window, me digging while Robbie was on the ground. So the rumor got out that I’d killed Robbie and just dumped him there while I dug his grave in the garden. Like what happened wasn’t cruel enough. Like I hadn’t had to call an ambulance and sit with him until they came. Like I didn’t wish every day that I’d lain down next to him and gone where he went.”

My God. I felt cold, my fingers numb. “Rose,” I said.

“They made it a joke,” she continued, ignoring me. “The department. After Robbie was gone, after they’d treated him like that all those years, they made a joke of how he died. And Detective Quentin, the great genius? He doesn’t care. He does nothing to stop it. He knows I didn’t kill Robbie. Everyone knows. It’s been years, and he’s never said a word. Quentin is cold. He sucks people dry, like a vampire. Robbie was a piece of dirt under his shoe—he still is. So as far as I’m concerned, he can get out of my house. Nothing he has to say is of any worth to me. If your mother killed your father, she probably had her reasons.” She looked at Eddie. “And you? You’re no serial killer. I don’t care where you went for a weekend in 1993. So, no, you don’t have to leave. I’ll leave this house in a pine box before I let Detective Quentin, or any of them, manipulate me.”

“You don’t deserve this,” I told her. “You didn’t ask for it.”

“I’m not afraid,” Rose replied. “The only thing I was ever scared of was Robbie dying, and that already happened. Nothing you bring could be worse than that.”

My stomach twisted. Rose had lost her husband in the space of a few minutes. If that happened to Eddie and me, it would end me.

The door to our bedroom closed. Eddie had gone inside without a word.

He had lied to me. Or had he? He had told me about the visions, about the nightmares, about the medication he’d been given. He hadn’t told me about the incidents that led to his discharge, and he certainly hadn’t told me about owning a gun. But had he lied? Had I?

Yes, oh, yes, I had lied. Every time I mentioned my dead, dearly departed mother, I had lied to him. That night when he cooked me spaghetti and meatballs, I’d told him that my mother and I had fled my abusive father, my mother driving as fast as she could into the night. I’d never said that before we got in the car, my mother had smashed my father’s head in while he was sleeping, then set his dead body on fire.

As recently as our wedding, when Eddie’s mother had told me how unfortunate it was that my mother couldn’t be there to see me married, I’d agreed with her. She was a nice woman with a nice family. None of them needed to know about Mom, locked up in prison in California, buried under the weight of her many crimes.

My mother had done what she had to in order to survive, sure. But then she’d done other things. She’d scammed and stolen because she liked it. And I’d kept every one of her secrets, until today.

Rose stood from her chair. The sour look was back on her face,
every trace of grief or sympathy gone. “You need to make that right,” she said to me, gesturing toward the closed bedroom door. “That’s on you. I’m going to watch TV in my bedroom.” She turned and left, and I was alone.

She was right. I had to make it right with Eddie, and I would. I would make all of it right. I wouldn’t run or hide. If I wanted this life, life as April Carter, no one was going to give it to me. I had to make it myself, and I had to hold on to it so it couldn’t be taken away.

I looked at the closed bedroom door, my mind spinning. Back, back to that first night, when we’d taken a wrong turn off the interstate. Back through everything that had happened since.

The Lost Girl was keeping us here. First, she’d physically kept us from leaving town, and then she’d kept us here in other ways, by drawing us into her secrets. We were tangled up with her now in ways I couldn’t understand, and even if we left Coldlake Falls right now—if we got in our car and started driving—we wouldn’t fully escape. The Lost Girl was too powerful, and sooner or later, we’d come back.

I’d made a promise to the Lost Girl, whoever she was. I’d also told her she owed me. It was time to settle up.

I couldn’t fix everything with Eddie and build the life I wanted so badly. Not until I fixed what was happening on Atticus Line.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Dusk was falling when I parked Robbie’s Accord on the side of the road, under an overhang of trees. The sky was purplish gray, and mosquitoes flitted past my face as I got out. The sound of the driver’s door closing was loud in the silent air.

I had left a near-empty house. Eddie, still silent, had gone for a nighttime run an hour ago and hadn’t come back. Rose was in her bedroom, watching TV. Quentin’s visit had left a crater, as if he’d dropped a bomb among the three of us.

I didn’t know what Eddie was thinking. Was he angry with me? With himself? Was he rethinking everything that had happened since we left the interstate? Was he rethinking everything that had happened since the moment we met?

I zipped up my navy blue windbreaker and put my hands in the pockets. I was wearing jeans and sneakers, the clothes I’d brought in case it rained on my honeymoon. I had tied my hair
back in a ponytail, and though I sweated into the tee I was wearing under my jacket, I kept the windbreaker zipped up. It made me feel less exposed and it kept the mosquitoes away.

Atticus Line was dim and silent, stretching away in both directions. There was no sign of a car. My feet crunched on the gravel as I walked away from Robbie’s Accord. I had parked just off the interstate, near where I had seen the strange light in the trees that first night. The first time I’d had an idea that something was wrong with this place.

I was in no hurry, so I walked slowly. The light faded moment by moment, and I touched the small flashlight I kept in the pocket of the windbreaker. I’d found it in the toolbox in Rose’s garage—I assumed it had been Robbie’s. So, too, was the folded pocketknife I carried in my back pocket. A girl couldn’t be too careful, alone on a deserted road at night.

When my mother had roused me from sleep that night all those years ago, she’d taught me one of her important lessons—that helplessness gets you nowhere. She may have taken it to a demented extreme, but that night, my mother had taken charge of her life instead of waiting for someone else to run it for her.

Now, though the situation was different, I was facing the same kind of decision. With Eddie withdrawn from me and my future as April Carter in the balance, I could either wait around for something to happen, or I could go and get answers. You can’t run from your demons forever—sometimes you have to walk into them head-on.

Despite everything—the insanity of my situation and the crashing hopelessness of my life—I settled into a rhythm, my sneakers making a beat on the gravel. A breeze blew, drying the
sweat on my neck. I heard a single bird in a tree high overhead, and then nothing.

There was something very, very wrong with this road.

The landscape didn’t change as I walked, moving slowly past the trees. I wondered how many hitchhikers had come before me over the years on this same road. I wondered how many sets of sneakers had made this noise in the silence. Had the others felt the same disquiet that I did? Had Katharine O’Connor or Carter Friesen felt fear as they walked, not hearing any sound in the trees? Had they hoped a car would come along to take them off this road?

Maybe this was a fool’s errand. But as a waft of icy cold air hit my spine, crawling under the hem of my windbreaker, I knew it wasn’t. The Lost Girl hadn’t shown herself yet, but she knew I was here. She knew every time someone walked this road, and she certainly knew me.

If you see her, you’ll be the next one found at the side of the road
.

Well, I’d seen her already, more than once, and so far I was still alive. I started to whistle, the sound carrying through the dead air.

The sky grew darker, and then I saw it—the light in the trees. It started dim, then flared up, like a lantern. I was cold now, my neck prickled with gooseflesh. I stopped whistling but I kept my pace, one foot in front of the other.

Far overhead, lightning flickered in the sky between the clouds, a midsummer storm. The air was expectant, and I wondered if I would see her from the corner of my eye. I wondered if I would turn my head to see her walking next to me. I thought I heard the sound of leaves swirling to my left, but before I could
turn to look, I heard the far-off sound of a car, coming down the road.

I turned and started to walk backward. When I could see headlights, I put out my thumb. Was this part of the game? The Lost Girl liked to kill hitchhikers, right? Fine, then. She could try and kill me.

Or I would try and end her, any way I could.

The car slowed as the driver obviously caught sight of me in the headlights. Because of the light shining in my eyes, I couldn’t see the driver. I kept my thumb out. I kept my chin up.

The car slowed more, pulling up beside me. “Come and get me,” I whispered into the darkness. Crystal Cross. April Delray. April Carter. She could come and get all of us.

I stopped walking, lowering my thumb. The passenger window rolled down. “Are you out here all alone?” It was a woman’s voice.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Another unnatural storm? A girl screaming and running in the road? A different ghostly trick? I paused for a beat too long, wondering how the Lost Girl was trying to trap me, before I spoke.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m headed to Hunter Beach.”

“That’s another hour’s drive up the road.”

“Do you think you could take me at least part of the way? However far you’re going? It would help me out a lot, and I’d appreciate it.”

There was a pause as the woman in the car thought it over. I still couldn’t see her clearly in the dark, just a shadowy shape. She was alone.

“I suppose I could do that,” she said. “But I can’t take you all the way.”

“I understand.”

“All right, then. Get in.”

I opened the passenger door and got in the car. The woman driving was wearing jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt. She was around forty, Asian, her black hair worn down. She gave me a smile that was polite and a little worried.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said, “but I couldn’t just leave a woman alone on the road. My name is Trish.”

I turned to glance in the back seat, which had no one in it. Then I looked at the road ahead, which was also empty.

“I’m April,” I said.

“You’re going to Hunter Beach? You don’t have a backpack.” Trish’s voice was curious, even kind. Her eyebrows were drawn down in a bemused frown. She wore a wedding ring on her left hand.

“I’m staying there. I took a day trip today, and now I’m going back.”

Trish hesitated, and just like I had done to her, she glanced down at my left hand, where my wedding ring was. I didn’t seem much like a Hunter Beach kid with a ring on my finger. Too late, I realized I should have taken it off.

“My husband is there, at Hunter Beach,” I explained. “We got married only a few days ago, and then we decided to travel for a little while. We wanted to get away from real life, I guess.”

“Congratulations,” Trish said, though she still looked wary. She hadn’t put the car in gear.

“Thanks.” A heavy feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach,
telling me something bad was about to happen. And despite the fact that I’d come here specifically to find the Lost Girl, and this seemed to be part of it, I said, “It’s fine if you don’t want to give me a ride. I understand. I can just get out of the car and walk. No hard feelings.”

“No.” The word was sharp and immediate. Trish shook her head, as if pushing a thought away. “It’s fine. I’m not leaving you in the dark.” She put the car in gear and stepped on the gas, jerking us onto the road in an uncoordinated movement. I braced myself by putting a hand on the passenger door.

“Thanks,” I said again. I turned and looked in the back seat once more, noticing this time that there were kids’ toys back there but no car seat. One of the toys was in the shape of a tooth, plush and white, with a cartoonish smiling face on it. It bore the logo of a mouthwash brand and the words
Dentists keep you smiling!
Trish accelerated in silence.

“Have you seen anything strange on this road?” I asked her.

Trish frowned as she drove. “Strange?”

“Yeah, strange. Like lights or anything like that?”

“No, I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”

“I’ve heard stories,” I said, trying to keep up the fiction. “You know, about this road. About hitchhikers here.”

“You’re a hitchhiker,” Trish pointed out.

Oh, great—now I was giving her the creeps. “I guess it’s just spooky, since a girl was murdered here a few days ago.”

“What are you talking about?” Trish sounded bewildered.

I looked more closely at her. Except for her confused expression, she looked like a normal woman, and yet something was wrong. “I assumed you were a Coldlake Falls local,” I said.

Trish said nothing. Her hands had gone tight on the wheel, and there was sweat on her forehead.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m fine.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going home.”

Something was definitely wrong. I shivered as cold crept down my neck, under my jacket. I looked at the knobs on the dashboard that controlled the temperature and saw that the air-conditioning wasn’t on.

“Are you cold?” I asked Trish.

“I’m going home,” Trish said a second time, her tone distracted. She put her foot on the gas and the car sped up.

I was freezing now, the chill numbing my cheeks and my fingers. Outside, lightning flickered high in the clouds again, flashing light into the car. I turned the air-conditioning knob one way and then the other, but nothing changed. I tried to roll down my window, but the roller wouldn’t move.

“You can let me out here,” I said.

Trish didn’t answer.

I tried the window roller again, jerking it, but it wouldn’t turn.

I looked in the rearview mirror and there was the Lost Girl, sitting in the back seat.

I had expected this, possibly even wanted it, but still, when I saw her pale face and long, brown hair, my chest seized with fear. My breath stopped and we locked eyes in the mirror.

She was a girl, but she wasn’t. She was a person, but she was also an empty hole where a person should be, sucking all the air through it and spreading darkness. I could see how thin her arms
were, and I thought I could hear her breathe. But she wasn’t breathing, was she? She’d been dead a long time, and this close I caught the faint scent of rot, earthy and sweet. There was blood trickling from her ear.

Then the Lost Girl smiled.

A sound left my throat that was part gasp, part helpless moan. I knew that smile. It wasn’t the amused kind, or the friendly kind. The Lost Girl’s lips formed a pressed line, a smile that said,
You’re going to suffer, and I’m going to enjoy it.

“No,” I breathed. And it crashed through me, what I had done, how the Lost Girl had tricked me. I’d thought I would be facing her alone. But the Lost Girl didn’t play by my rules, and she’d never intended that at all.

The car slowed down. “I need to pull over,” Trish said.

“Trish, something’s wrong.” I had to try. I had to get through to her.

The car slowed to the shoulder of the road, and when Trish looked at me, her eyes were black, her pupils blown all the way open. Her features were slack.

“I have to get something from the trunk,” she said. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“Don’t,” I said. “I’ll get out, and you keep driving. Please. Just put your foot on the gas and keep going. Drive to Coldlake Falls and don’t stop for anything you see. She’ll give up and leave, and this will all be over. You probably won’t even remember it. Get out of here.
Please.

Trish didn’t seem to hear me. She had turned back to the road as she stopped the car and put it in park, turning the key in the ignition. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said again.

She got out of the car and walked to the back. I heard the thump of the trunk opening. “You bitch,” I said to the Lost Girl, and when I spoke, my breath curled in the air.

She was gone from the back seat. It was empty except for Trish’s children’s toys. I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key, which was still in the ignition, my hand slick on the metal—maybe if I could get away, the Lost Girl would follow me and leave Trish behind. Nothing happened. The motor didn’t turn, and there was no sound.

I tried again, cursing. There was another thump as Trish moved something in the trunk. In my mind’s eye I saw the Lost Girl’s smile, knowing and cruel. She had made Trish leave the key in the ignition on purpose. She wanted me to hope, to think I could end this nightmare. She wanted me to waste my time.

How many people had this happened to before me? A lonely hitchhiker gets a ride. The driver says they need to pull over for a minute. How many knew by this point that something was wrong? All of them? How many tried to get away from whatever was going to happen? How far did they get?

Beaten with something curved, possibly a tire iron. Stabbed with something resembling an ice pick. Beaten on the back of the head with something large and blunt, possibly a branch or rock.
That was how the others had died—killed with whatever was at hand. The killers hadn’t brought a gun, because when they got into their car that day, they hadn’t known they were going to kill someone. How many of them knew what they were doing, even though they couldn’t control it? How many of them remembered?

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