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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: Murder Road
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At the same time, a pair of headlights appeared out the back window, a car on the road a mile behind us, light pinpoints in the dark.

I looked from the back window to Rhonda Jean’s face. Her eyes were open, focused now, and she was staring at me.

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “He’s coming.”

CHAPTER TWO

For a second, I just looked at Rhonda Jean’s pale face, seeing the pain and exhaustion etched there. Maybe I should have felt surprised. I didn’t know. I only knew that I bypassed surprise and felt things I didn’t know existed click in my brain at those words.

I’m sorry.

He’s coming.

“April?” This was Eddie in the driver’s seat. His voice sounded stern, army stern. He knew something was wrong.

“Rhonda Jean is injured,” I told him, still turned around in my seat and looking at the girl. “Really bad. Under her coat. She’s bleeding everywhere.”

Eddie swore, just the one harsh word, and the car sped up. “She said there’s a hospital up ahead in Coldlake Falls.”

My gaze moved past Rhonda Jean to the back window again.
The headlights were still there. They were getting bigger, as if the car behind us had accelerated. “Eddie, go faster.”

“The car behind us?”

“Yes.”

We sped up even more, Eddie fast and careful in the pitch dark, looking for the signs for Coldlake Falls. The blood on Rhonda’s chest and stomach was moving, soaking thickly into the fabric of her shirt and downward. I could see it staining her jeans.

None of this was real. It shouldn’t be real. But I knew it was.

I’d been in the passenger seat of a car once before, begging the driver to go faster.
Please, faster.
A long, long time ago.

“Who is he?” I asked Rhonda Jean.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice a rasp.

“How did you get to the side of the road?”

“I walked.”

“From where?”

She seemed to fade out a little, then back in again before she answered. “I don’t know.”

“He found you somewhere?” I asked her. I gestured to her body. “And he did this?”

Rhonda Jean shook her head, but I wasn’t sure if that was a response to my question. “It doesn’t even hurt,” she said. “Is that weird?”

The headlights behind us had receded, then come forward again. As if the car had seen us accelerate and had accelerated to match us. We were already speeding through the black, empty night, but Eddie must have seen what I saw in the rearview mirror, because I heard the Pontiac’s engine open more as we went faster.

I reached back and grasped Rhonda Jean’s hand. It was ice-cold, slick with blood. “We’re taking you to the hospital,” I said.

Her expression didn’t flicker. “Sure, okay.”

“But tell me what happened to you. Stay awake and tell me.”

Her hand moved faintly in mine, but I gripped harder and didn’t let her go. “He’s following us,” she whispered, as if someone could overhear. “He knows I’m in this car.”

“Who? Who is he?”

“Coldlake Falls,” Eddie said from the front seat as a sign flashed past our speeding car. “Five minutes, tops.”

Rhonda Jean’s hand twitched in mine again, and her chest moved up and down. Breath gasped from her throat, and I realized she was starting to panic. “Calm down, baby,” I said to her, the term of endearment springing from my lips out of nowhere. “Just be calm. We’re ahead of him. We’re getting to the hospital. We’re going to win.”

She didn’t believe me. Part of her wanted to, but she didn’t. “I’m not going to make it,” she said, gasping.

“You are. It’s just a little blood. They’ll sew you up, good as new. Hold on and tell me what happened.”

But she shook her head. There was something inside her mind, something immense that cast a giant shadow over everything, like a monster in a horror movie.

“Is this real?” she asked.

“It’s real, baby,” I said. “It’s real, and we’re going to get through it. Just hold on.”

Incredibly, the headlights behind us were gaining on us, their brightness beginning to flood the car. “Jesus, this guy is fast,” Eddie said.

The headlights got brighter, brighter. I squinted into them, trying to see the vehicle or the man behind the wheel. All I saw was light and part of a grille—he was in a truck of some kind, high off the ground.

“Eddie,” I said.

“I know. The turnoff’s up ahead.”

Another sign flashed past us—
coldlake falls
—and without dropping speed Eddie took the turn, flying us off the two-lane road. He glanced back at the truck and swore before turning back to the road again. For the first time, he looked shaken, pale. I’d never seen him look like that before.

Still gripping Rhonda Jean’s hand, I turned and watched through the back window as the truck—it was some kind of large, dark thing, gleaming like a beetle—sped past the turnoff and into the night. Then it was gone.

Seconds later we were bathed in light again, this time from the streetlights of Coldlake Falls.

He was avoiding the light
, I thought.
He let us go because he didn’t want to be seen in the light. What did Eddie see?

I gripped the cold, bloody hand in mine. “We’re almost at the hospital, Rhonda Jean. Hang on.”

There was no answer. The girl in the back seat had passed out.


The hospital was small, a four-story brown brick building lit with fluorescents beneath a concrete overhang. I ran inside and begged the person at the emergency desk to send someone out as Eddie pulled Rhonda Jean’s unconscious body from the car. He picked her up beneath the shoulders and the knees, like Rhett
Butler in
Gone with the Wind
. When the EMTs took Rhonda Jean from him and put her on a stretcher, the front of his T-shirt was smeared with gore.

I was bloody, too. The hand that had gripped Rhonda Jean’s was covered in blood, and in my haste I’d smeared it on my olive green shorts and my white tee. The bloody handprints looked like I’d wrestled someone to the ground. I had blood darkening and drying under my fingernails. My flip-flops were still on the floor of the front passenger seat somewhere, and my feet were bare.

Through the glass doors we could see a nurse behind the emergency desk, staring at us. She picked up the large brown handset of her desk phone and started to dial, her gaze never leaving us.

That was when I realized: Eddie and I looked like murderers.

“Shit,” Eddie said, looking down at himself. He glanced at the car, which was still running, then looked at me. “April, should we run?”

“What?” The shock must have shown on my face. Not because of what he’d said, but because I was thinking the same thing.

We could get into the Pontiac and drive away as fast as we could. We could floor it. Who would come after us, and how long would it take before they started? How far away could we be by then?

“Forget it,” Eddie said, misreading my expression. “Forget I said anything.”

“It’s fine,” I said, but my mind was ticking over. We could drive farther up the peninsula, then double back down to Ann Arbor. We could be home by the time the sun was up. No one here
knew our names. We’d have to clean the car, or better yet, get rid of it altogether.

That would be wrong
, I told myself. Because someone had killed that girl, Rhonda Jean. The person in the truck had killed her. I was sure of it.

But all my panicked body knew was that the killer wasn’t me.

I looked at Eddie again. He was watching me, his gaze intent, and I had no idea what he was thinking. I opened my mouth, but I didn’t know what I was going to say.

It didn’t matter, because it was already too late. The police were pulling in.

CHAPTER THREE

I never thought I’d get married. My childhood was a 1970s nightmare, filled with dark, garish colors and deep shadows, like
Rosemary’s Baby
. Once I got out of that childhood, I never looked back. By twelve, I was basically an adult, looking out for my mother and me. At fifteen I learned to wear the same hairstyles and the same makeup that all the other girls wore. I blended in, except for the fact that I knew how to pack everything I owned in a single bag within forty-five minutes, knew how to get to the bus station in the middle of the night if I had to, knew how to introduce myself under a new name.

At eighteen, I was alone.

Even without Mom, I still moved around, never staying long enough in one place to be too noticeable. South Carolina, Illinois, Michigan. I got jobs waiting tables and answering phones. Restaurant managers had no problem putting me at the hostess stand,
because I had the kind of face that was perfect for it. Pretty, pleasant, mostly forgettable. I dated—a pretty girl my age was expected to date or she would attract attention—but I never let anyone get too close. I wasn’t the clingy girlfriend, asking whether we were serious, asking whether he wanted me to move in. There were a million of me in America. I doubted even the boys I dated remembered me after a while.

All I wanted was to survive. I certainly never dreamed of finding a husband or children, of settling down in a house somewhere. I wanted to be left alone, expected it.

In Ann Arbor, I got a job at a bowling alley, serving half-cold hamburgers and stale chips at the snack bar. I moved in with roommates I found in the classifieds, in an old house that was renting for next to nothing. The place smelled like pot smoke, Doritos, and beer, and the local pizza place knew our order by heart. Roommates rotated through, accompanied by various boyfriends, girlfriends, and other hangers-on. The TV was almost always on, with someone sitting in front of it. Late-night movies,
Sesame Street
, reruns of
The Rockford Files
, reruns of
Knight Rider
,
Baywatch
,
The X-Files
, and more recently, the O. J. Simpson trial in all of its endless droning—whatever was on, someone was watching, half paying attention. The house had a dissociated lack of caring, a complete ennui, that suited me perfectly. No one ever asked me questions or wanted to hang out.

One Saturday in February, my roommates were gone and I had the house to myself. Dressing in my bedroom, I realized I’d left my favorite T-shirt in the dryer, two stories down in the basement. Wearing only jeans and a navy blue lace bra, I walked out of my bedroom into the hallway.

There was a man standing there—young, muscled, fit enough to tackle me. I was too startled to notice that instead of attacking he stood frozen, staring as I came out in my bra, horrified. I screamed. The strange man cried out: “Sorry!” and ran down the stairs.

That was how I met Eddie Carter.

When I had recovered and put on a sweatshirt, I found him in the kitchen, looking miserable. He was a friend of one of my roommates—Greg, or maybe Gary. Eddie had just come back from Iraq, and Greg or Gary told him to come over, to just walk in, because Greg or Gary would be home. Instead, there was no one home but me in my bra, and Eddie was really, really sorry about it.

We talked for half an hour, standing there in the kitchen. When it was clear he wasn’t a creep, he asked me out. I said yes, but I thought:
He’s way too nice. There’s no way I’ll sleep with him.

That was February. Now it was July, and we were married.

I looked at my husband’s face in the lights of the solo police car that pulled into the parking lot, the red and blue flickering over Eddie’s features. By Eddie’s own admission, he’d never had much luck with women, which amazed me. He had a nice jaw and great cheekbones and gray-blue eyes with dark lashes. His hair was brown and usually tousled, he had to shave every morning or get scruff on his cheeks, and the army had given him a body I never, ever got tired of. He didn’t talk much, an attribute I came to realize was because he was painfully shy. The longer I’d dated him, the more I’d realized that Eddie was the world’s best-kept secret, manwise. I never had to fight anyone for him. It was inexplicable, refreshing, and terrifying.

His expression had gone carefully blank as a uniformed
policeman got out of the car. Eddie glanced down at his T-shirt, then at me.

“April,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “What can we do?”

Eddie’s gaze moved to the approaching policeman. I couldn’t quite read what was behind his eyes—I was still learning all of Eddie’s expressions—but he seemed to be turning thoughts in his head. Then he looked at me again, and something seemed to register. “Your feet.”

Before I could say anything about my bare feet, he reached past the open passenger door, looking for my flip-flops.

“Hey,” came the policeman’s voice, alarmed.

“Eddie, be careful,” I said.

The muscles of Eddie’s back tensed, and then he unfolded himself back out of the car, a flip-flop in each hand. He dropped them on the pavement next to my feet with a slap. He held my hand to help me keep balanced as I slid my feet into them.

“Don’t tell him about the truck,” he said, his voice low so that only I could hear.

“Why not?” I whispered.

“Just don’t.”

What did that mean? I hid my confusion by looking down as I scrunched the thong of each flip-flop between my toes. Then I looked up.

The policeman was alone. He was about thirty, with light brown skin and dark brown eyes. Tall and lean, with a gold wedding ring on his left hand. The night shift patrol guy, summoned by the ER nurse.

“Hi there,” he said, pausing a few feet from us. His feet were
spread slightly, and one hand was on his belt, a pose that was anything but casual. “I hear you brought a young lady to the hospital.”

“Yes, we did,” I said.

The policeman looked at me with my bloodstains, then Eddie with his bloodstains and army bulk. He looked at our car, parked haphazardly behind us, the engine running, the back door still gaping open where Eddie had dragged out Rhonda Jean. There was blood smeared on the inside of the door.

There was a second in which the policeman obviously didn’t know what to do. This close to the lake and all of the vacationers, I imagined his training had mostly to do with drunk kids, summer break-ins, and loud parties that ran too late. It was doubtful he’d come across a stabbed girl and her two bloody rescuers before. Still, the uncertainty lasted only briefly before he said in a calm voice, “You’ll excuse me if I take a simple precaution.”

He walked to the driver’s side of the car, leaned in, and turned off the car, taking the keys and pocketing them. Then he came back around the car to us.

He pulled a notebook from his pocket and flipped it open, taking out a pen. “What are your names?” he asked, still keeping his distance.

“Eddie Carter,” Eddie said. “This is my wife, April.”

“Delray,” I said as the policeman wrote in his notepad. “My name is actually April Delray. I haven’t had time to change it yet.”

The policeman looked at my wedding ring, then up at me, questioning.

“We’re just married,” I said into the silence.

“We were on our way to the Five Pines Resort for our honeymoon,” Eddie added.

“Your honeymoon, huh?” the policeman said. He made another note, writing carefully. “You said it’s called Five Pines?”

“Yes,” Eddie said.

The policeman wrote that down. “Okay. My name is Officer Syed. Maybe we can talk inside?” He gestured behind him to the hospital.

He was still nervous. He was hiding it well, but his stance was tense, and the notebook was gripped too hard in his hand. He was a lone patrolman with no partner, faced with two people who might be murderers, and one of those people was very big and strong.

Assert your authority
, I wanted to tell him.
Act like you are already in control. That’s how you dominate someone bigger than you.

Instead, I smiled at him and said, “Sure, Officer. Lead the way.”

The look he gave me was wary and surprised at the same time. “After you,” he said.

Eddie and I walked into the hospital, where Officer Syed directed us down a hallway, away from the ER. We saw no one except the duty nurse and one orderly, both of whom stared at us without bothering to hide it. This was a small hospital in a small town at three in the morning, and except for Rhonda Jean, we were the only ones here.

Officer Syed led us to a room with a sofa, a TV, and two chairs—a staff break room. He directed us to the sofa and sat in one of the chairs.

“Do you have some ID?” he asked politely, pulling out his notebook again.

We handed our driver’s licenses over, and then I sat with my hands in my lap. I tried not to look down too often, so I wouldn’t keep staring at the blood.

“Ann Arbor,” the officer said when he had taken our address down. “That’s a ways from here.”

“Yes,” Eddie said. “I told you, we’re on our honeymoon.”

“Have you ever been to Coldlake Falls before?”

“No.”

“Never picked up hitchhikers around here?”

I snapped my gaze to the officer, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at Eddie.

“Hitchhikers?” Eddie asked, bemused. “No, we don’t pick up hitchhikers.”

“Never?” the officer asked.

“Never.”

“If you haven’t been to Coldlake Falls before, what brings you here for your honeymoon? As opposed to, say, anywhere else?”

Eddie glanced at me. Officer Syed followed his gaze, as if remembering I was in the room.

“There was an ad in the local paper,” I said as both men stared at me. “In the travel section. For the Five Pines Resort. We thought it looked nice.”

“Was that girl a hitchhiker?” Eddie asked Officer Syed.

The officer frowned at him. “What?”

“That girl. Rhonda Jean.”

“Is that her name?”

“So she said.”

Now Officer Syed was staring at Eddie again as if he’d said something wrong. “I don’t know if she was a hitchhiker. Was she hitchhiking when you found her?”

“I don’t know. She was standing by the side of the road.”

“What road?”

“I don’t know the name of it. The two-lane road that leads off the interstate.”

Officer Syed blinked at Eddie calmly. “She was standing there in the middle of the night as you drove down the road.”

“Yes,” Eddie said.

“On your way to the Five Pines Resort.”

“Yes.”

There was a heavy silence as Officer Syed rubbed the side of his nose and looked down at his notebook again. He was not in charge of this situation. It felt like something bad was about to happen. Like something bad was already happening. Which, of course, it was.

“Okay,” Officer Syed said at last, picking up his pen. “I think we should start from the beginning.”

There was a brief knock on the break room door, and then it opened. Two men came in. One was wearing a brown suit that was grievously rumpled. The other, oddly, was wearing a navy blue warm-up suit with white stripes down the sides. It zipped up to his chin.

The warm-up suit man was obviously in charge, because he spoke first. “Officer Syed, we appreciate your help,” he said. “We’ll take it from here.”

Officer Syed looked startled, but he stayed in his chair. “Excuse me?”

“State police,” the one in the rumpled suit said to Eddie and me. He pulled a badge from his pocket and showed it to us, then turned to the officer. “We’ve been called in to take this over. You’re no longer needed.”

“I’ll have to talk to my supervisor,” Officer Syed said, still planted in his seat. “I’m not authorized to leave this scene.”

They argued back and forth, but the man in the warm-up suit ignored them. He looked at Eddie as the other two talked past his shoulder. And then he looked at me.

He was fiftyish, maybe. It was hard to tell. His face was unlined but his hair was salt and pepper, cut short to his scalp. His eyes were dark blue. His gaze fixed on me, taking in my bloody clothes, my flip-flops, my messy blond hair. His stare wasn’t sexual, but I felt exposed anyway, and my gut gave a familiar squeeze as I felt spiky sweat on the back of my neck.

Fight or flight, they called it. An old, dark human instinct. Mine was particularly honed.

Beware of this one. Get away if you can.

Officer Syed had risen from his chair and was reluctantly moving toward the door. His presence hadn’t been particularly comforting, but compared to these two men, I realized he’d been relatively harmless. I risked a glance at Eddie and saw that he was staring at the man in the warm-up suit while the man stared at me. Eddie’s eyes were hard.

Finally, Officer Syed was gone, the door closing behind him. The room went quiet. I wondered if I should take Eddie’s hand, next to me on the sofa. I wondered if that would be a good move or a bad one.

Neither man had yet given us his name, I realized.

“Is there a problem?” Eddie finally asked, his voice calm.

“Sure, there’s a problem,” the man in the warm-up suit said. “That girl in the ER just died. She had stab wounds on her chest and stomach. As of now, we have a murder case.”

BOOK: Murder Road
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