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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: Murder Road
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Eddie squeezed my hand briefly—a signal. I looked out the window and saw the stand of trees where we’d seen the light last night.

“It was somewhere up here,” Eddie said. “Right, April?”

My voice was rough from being silent so long. “Yes, I think so. Right along here.”

Beam slowed the car. “Was she on the right shoulder or the left?”

“Right,” Eddie said.

“Did she have her thumb out?”

“No. She was just walking, real slow and not very steady. We thought she might be drunk. We also thought she was a boy at first.”

Beam pulled over, and we all got out of the car. The cruiser pulled up behind us, and Officer Syed and his partner got out. “Were there any landmarks that you recall?” Quentin asked.

My sneakers crunched on the gravel of the shoulder as I turned in place, looking around. “It was so dark,” I said, answering Quentin.

They asked more questions—did we get out of the car? What exactly did Rhonda Jean say?—as we walked along the shoulder of the road. Quentin made a brief gesture to the uniformed cops, and they spread out ahead of us, scanning the ground for blood or any other clues.

The emptiness on Atticus Line was so complete it was like a deafening noise. I’d never seen a road like this—so empty of people, so empty of anything, that it felt like a void. What was this place? Where had Rhonda Jean come from, standing here in the middle of the night in the silence? How far had she walked? Where had she been going?

Who was she? Where was home?

And who had been out on this road last night, trying to run us down?

CHAPTER SEVEN

Beam, sweating in his suit, spread his map on the hood of the Cutlass again, making marks with a ballpoint pen. The young, blond, uniformed cop crossed to the other side of Atticus Line, scanning the other shoulder. Eddie stood with his hands in his jeans pockets, staring down the empty road, lost in thought. I kept picturing Rhonda Jean in that oversize coat, holding it closed over the blood covering her body. I left the road and started walking into the trees.

“Mrs. Carter,” I heard Quentin call behind me. Then I heard footsteps jogging through the grass, and Officer Syed was walking next to me.

“Best not to piss him off,” he said in a low voice, though we were too far away for Quentin to hear.

“I don’t know if this is the right place,” I said, frustrated. “There are no landmarks on this stupid road, no lights. It was
dark. There’s no sign Rhonda Jean was even here. How does a girl get stabbed and start walking and not leave any trace behind?”

“There isn’t much traffic on this road,” Syed said. “To be honest, most people avoid it.”

“No kidding. Why?”

He shrugged. He must be hot in that uniform, but except for a small trickle of sweat on one temple, he showed no sign of it. “Rumors.”

I stopped walking. We were in the trees now, the heat breathing the smell of pine on us, mosquitoes flitting in the shadows. The others were out of sight and earshot, Quentin trusting that Syed would bring me back. “Not rumors,” I said, facing Syed. “Other murders. Am I right?”

He scratched the back of his neck, looking behind him before answering. “We get hitchhikers on this road.”

“Right. And why does this part of Michigan get so many hitchhikers?”

“Up that way, past the turnoff to town, is Hunter Beach,” Syed said, pointing down the road in the direction we’d gone last night. “It’s over an hour down the road, but it’s there.”

“What’s Hunter Beach?”

He mopped the sweat beading on his forehead beneath his cap. “It’s a place where the kids go. It’s kind of a known spot, where they can camp on the beach, stay as long as they like. There’s an old house that’s used as a hostel, places to pitch tents. It draws hitchhikers and backpackers, that sort of crowd.”

“You let them camp on the beach?” I asked.

“It’s private property. The man who owns it doesn’t live there, and he lets anyone use it. He’s owned it since the sixties, and he
owns a good section of the beach, so no one can really complain. We’ve talked to him a dozen times over the years, but he always says that he believes the kids should be free to use the beach however they want. You can see why they like to go there.”

I started walking again, looking for something—I didn’t know what. “So Rhonda Jean was trying to get to Hunter Beach.”

“Probably. She wasn’t a local girl. Her ID was from Baltimore.”

“How old was she?”

“Eighteen.”

I pressed my fingertips to my eye sockets behind my sunglasses. Eighteen. “How many others have died around here? That’s why we’re suspects, right?”

Officer Syed seemed to remember where we were, who we were. “Mrs. Carter, I’m supposed to ask you the questions, not the other way around.”

“Sure,” I said. I slapped a mosquito from my arm and changed direction to come out of the trees and onto the road.

“Mrs. Carter,” Officer Syed said as he followed me, “I have to be honest. Even though this is a murder, you seem to be pretty casual about it.”

I could see the two detectives on Atticus Line, as well as the blond policeman. Eddie was talking to Detective Beam, pointing in one direction, then the other. As I watched, Quentin lowered to a crouch on the shoulder of the road, looking at something on the ground.

“I’m the opposite of casual,” I told Officer Syed. “Very much the opposite. What should I do, according to you? Scream and cry?”

“Maybe.” He didn’t seem very convinced.

“I don’t have time for that.” The heat hit me as I walked onto
the baking road. A few far-off birds called, but other than that, Atticus Line was silent. “I haven’t seen a single car since we came here.”

“I told you, there isn’t much traffic. Mrs. Carter—”

“Do you think she came all the way from Baltimore just to go to Hunter Beach?” I stared down the road in the pulsing heat, thinking about Rhonda Jean in her oversize coat, the freckles on the bridge of her nose.

“Who knows?” Officer Syed sounded exasperated. “Hunter Beach has been around for decades. It’s one of the places these kids today, these backpackers, would know about.”

Eddie and Detective Beam were having an animated discussion. Beam held the map, folded into a half-manageable shape, and Eddie was pointing as he talked. Beam shook his head.

Detective Quentin stood a few feet away from them, not taking part in the discussion. He was standing still, seemingly unbothered by the heat beating down on him. His gaze was fixed on me.

Officer Syed followed my gaze. “We should go join them, or I’ll be in trouble,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.
It’s so hot out
, I thought.
Why was Rhonda Jean wearing that jacket? And why didn’t she have any luggage?

And suddenly, I was cold. The summer heat evaporated and a chill blasted through me, so real and so heavy I let out a surprised breath. It felt like a bubble of icy air had ripped straight through my body, freezing my throat. As the July sun beat mercilessly above me, I shivered hard.

Officer Syed didn’t seem to notice. He was walking away, wiping his forehead again.

The cold dissipated, and then I was dizzy. My stomach roiled and my head ached as if I had the flu. I blinked and bent, putting my hands on my knees and trying not to throw up as the feeling passed.

Sweat popped on my skin, coating my face and making my sunglasses slide down my nose. I could feel Detective Quentin still looking at me. Maybe they were all looking at me now.

Before I straightened, my gaze caught on something next to my feet. A corner of faded pink visible from under the dirt and dead leaves on the side of the road. Getting myself together, I leaned down and tugged at it.

It was a cloth flower. It was old and weathered, the cheap silk faded and dirty. The plastic stem was snapped, as if the flower had been part of a bouquet at some point. The rest of the bouquet was long gone.

Attached to the flower was a small card with faded writing on it, the letters inked in calligraphy. Through the dirt, I could still read the words.

In memory of Katharine O’Connor. March 2, 1993.

CHAPTER EIGHT

The police kept us until noon. When we finished pointing out what we remembered on Atticus Line, they brought us to the Coldlake Falls police station to take a formal statement.

They questioned us separately. My interview took an hour and a half, during which I was asked over and over to repeat my version of last night’s events. I left out the truck and the girl Eddie thought he’d seen in the truck bed. I left out the flower I’d seen by the side of the road. And, of course, I left out everything about both Eddie’s past and mine. Other than that, I was honest.

It was as good as they were going to get from me.

When they finished with us, they drove us in another squad car back to Rose’s. The sun was at its merciless zenith, pulsing high in the cloudless sky. The window air conditioners at the B and B were humming loudly and the lights were off, the living room lit by bright sunlight coming through the lacy curtains. Rose
was nowhere to be seen, but there were two tuna sandwiches in plastic wrap on the kitchen table with a handwritten note:
Eat it if you want it.

We ate the sandwiches in silence. Exhaustion was creeping up on me, mixing with the heat and lack of sleep and pulsing behind my eyes. Eddie was restless, deep in thought. When we adjourned to our bedroom, he changed into his shorts and sneakers.

“I’m going for a run,” he said.

I knew better than to point out how hot it was outside. Eddie was used to it, and he didn’t care. He was a dedicated runner. “Wear sunscreen,” I said, pushing my sneakers off and getting on the bed. “Drink water.”

He grinned at me, the first smile I’d seen from him all day, and I remembered it yet again: We were married. Actually married. For a second I ached for the honeymoon we could have had, lazily swimming and then making love. Despite everything, I had the urge to pull him into bed with me right now, but this room was creepy, and Rose could listen outside the door at any minute. I sighed. It was going to have to wait.

“I’m bad luck,” I told him.

“It’s me who’s bad luck,” he replied. “It’s followed me all my life.”

“That’s not true. Your parents are nice. You had a nice childhood.”

“I had a nice childhood after my parents adopted me,” he corrected me.

He’d been six when his mother gave him up, old enough to have memories of her. Old enough to be aware that she didn’t want him anymore.

But he’d been adopted almost immediately, and his adopted parents were good, kind people. His adopted family had aunts and uncles and cousins in Ann Arbor. I’d met some of them, and their kindness was alien to me, their commitment to chatting about chili recipes and watching football games almost unnerving. These were people who had led decent, stable lives, and if they were a little boring, it was a small price to pay. I had started to wonder if I could let myself have a life like that.

It had almost seemed possible until Eddie and I ended up in Coldlake Falls, covered in blood.

“Maybe both of us are bad luck,” I said. I leaned over the bed and scrutinized the shelf under the bedside table. “What are the odds that Rose has a subscription to
Glamour
so I have something to read?”

“Not good,” Eddie said.

I found a paperback novel and picked it up. It was
Flowers in the Attic
. “There is something very wrong with that woman,” I said.

“Shh. She might be listening.” Eddie walked to the door. “I’ll do my best not to get murdered while I’m on my run. I’ll be back in a little while.”

I watched him go, because he was Eddie and I was allowed to appreciate the back of him as he left a room. Then I turned on the fan in the corner to bolster the whiff of cold air coming from the air conditioner, propped myself on pillows on the fussy bed, and started reading
Flowers in the Attic
for the first time since I was fifteen, while Princess Diana watched silently above my head, judging. I fell asleep after the first ten pages.

When I woke up, it was still hazily bright outside. The book
was under my hand. The fan creaked as it oscillated in the corner. And Rose was sitting in the chair next to the bed, staring at me.

I blinked. For a sleepy second I thought she was a ghost, she was sitting so still. Then I realized she was real.

Rose frowned at me, as if annoyed. Her hands were in her lap, her nails painted pink against her light-blue jeans. She seemed in no hurry to say anything.

I was too groggy to feel particularly alarmed. “What are you doing here, Rose?” I asked.

“What did they say?” It was the same grating voice I remembered from this morning.

“This is my room,” I said, scrubbing a hand over my face. “You need to leave.”

“They said I murdered Robbie, didn’t they?”

“What?” The nap had been a powerful one, and the fussy, lacy room was soporific. I couldn’t summon any outrage, just the weird feeling you get when you first leave a dream. “Who?”

“Kyle Petersen.” Rose’s voice was truly angry, though it wasn’t directed at me. She lifted her hostile gaze away from me and aimed it at the opposite wall. “That little turd thinks he can pass judgment on me. On anyone. He’s as useful as an itch in the pants. Robbie said he was one of the worst recruits he’d ever seen.”

I tried to follow. She was talking about the cop, Kyle. The one who had joked about Rose killing her husband, then digging his grave in the garden.

“And Chad Chipwell?” Rose said this slightly unbelievable name with spitting disdain. “When did he ever have a thought of his own in his head? He’s so gullible you could tell him Jimi
Hendrix is still alive and he’d scratch his head and ask when he’s putting a new record out.”

This must be the cop who drove with Kyle. Rose’s rant was creepy and completely inappropriate. I had no idea why I was entertained by it.

“Yeah,” I said, propping my shoulders up on my pillow and running a hand through my sleep-rumpled hair. “Kyle told us you killed your husband and that he haunts this place. The other one, Chad, told us not to listen.”

Rose snorted. “They’re just jealous because Robbie was a good cop. The best one they had in this stupid town. He could have moved to the state police and been a detective, but they wouldn’t promote him because of the color of his skin. So instead of making Robbie detective, we got Quentin.” She rolled her eyes behind her huge glasses. “The almighty Quentin, praise the Lord.”

That made me smile. I sat up straighter in bed.

“And Beam,” Rose went on, not needing any cues from me. “He’s only good at pushing paperwork, if that. Robbie caught him sleeping in his car on a stakeout once. Beam threatened to have him fired. Did you eat the tuna?”

“Um, yes,” I said, wondering for the first time where Eddie was. “It was delicious, thank you.” I glanced at the clock radio on the bedside table, sitting on a lace doily beneath a frilly lavender lamp. It was three o’clock.

“Good. I got frozen hamburger patties for dinner. I fry them up. I got buns, ketchup, mustard. You can have some if you like.”

I cleared my throat. “Sure, that sounds good.” I was fully awake now, and I looked Rose in the eyes. “So, you don’t think my husband and I are murderers?”

Rose looked straight back at me without blinking. Her gaze was flat, but there was something there, flickering in the depths. Intelligence, maybe. Anger, perhaps. Or it could have been the determination of a woman who has survived bad things. Who had maybe done bad things. Like me.

“I don’t know you,” Rose said in her blunt, unpleasant way. “I could see you going either way. But your husband?” She shook her head. “That man has never killed anyone in his life.”

“He served in Iraq,” I told her.

“Sure he did. And why did he come home? He didn’t like it much, did he? If he was the killing type, he’d still be there.”

I stared at her, my lips parted in surprise.

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Rose went on. “Quentin thinks he has you pegged, and he’s not going to take his eyes off you. If you really are a murderer, you can try it on me, but you’ll have a fight on your hands. Robbie taught me plenty while we were married.” She pursed her lips and looked down at her hand, where she picked at the arm of her chair. She was quiet a moment before she said, “What really happened last night? When you picked up that girl? What did you see?”

So Rose wanted something, then. That, I understood. “I’ll tell you,” I said slowly. “But I have questions of my own.”

Rose looked up at me. “You want information? About what?”

“This town.”

She smiled. “If you want gossip, this town has plenty, and I know all of it. Just tell me what you want to know.”

BOOK: Murder Road
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