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Authors: Simone St. James

Murder Road (6 page)

BOOK: Murder Road
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CHAPTER NINE

I’ve lived here all my life,” Rose said as she walked ahead of me into the kitchen. “I know everyone here. Robbie, he was from Grosse Pointe. He moved here in ’79. He was police down there, so he was experienced by the time he came to Coldlake Falls. His parents still live down in Detroit. Both of my parents are dead—my mother died five years ago, my father the year after that. Throat cancer, both of them. You ever heard of two married people dying of throat cancer?”

Now that I had her talking, it seemed like she wasn’t planning to stop. She reached into a cupboard and pulled out a bag of chips, then a bowl. She opened the chips and poured them into the bowl, then took a container of creamy onion dip out of the fridge. Still talking, she grabbed a chip and dipped it.

“People in this town hate me,” she said. “You want some chips and dip?”

I pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat down, rubbing the last of the grogginess from my face. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“You’re too pretty for this place.” Rose ate another chip as she imparted this information. “That isn’t a compliment. You have nice hair and a nice face, that body. People aren’t going to like you. You should get ready to deal with that up front.”

I frowned. I was still wearing the cutoff jean shorts and navy-and-white striped shirt I’d put on this morning, and I had no makeup on. “This is just how I look.”

“Too bad for you, then.” Rose sounded like she was sorry for me. “People think pretty girls get the best of everything, but in my opinion they get the worst of it.” She motioned to the large picture of Princess Diana on the living room wall, the portrait of her standing next to her husband. “People think Princess Diana has it easy because she’s beautiful, but she doesn’t. She doesn’t. She has it harder than anyone.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I honestly was nothing like Princess Diana. Still, Rose was looking so reverently at the photo that I gave her a moment of silence, like you do when someone is praying. “You really are a big fan of hers,” I said at last, when Rose was quiet for too long.

Rose blinked at me. “She’s the greatest person in the world,” she said sincerely. “Robbie never liked that photo because he doesn’t like Charles—he says Charles is a stuck-up prig. But he let me put it up because he knew it’s important to me. I’m not stupid. I know I’m not like Diana, that I’m not beautiful like her. Like you. At least no one really notices me. You have a job back home?”

I looked away from the photo on the wall. “I work at a bowling alley.”

“Huh.” Rose thought this over as she ate more chips, the gooey white dip dripping off the edges as she lifted them to her mouth. “That’s not too bad, I guess. At least you’re not a ball-busting career woman.”

I laughed at that, thinking about the desultory way I’d crisscrossed the country since I was twelve, how I’d ended up in Ann Arbor with nowhere else to go. “I am definitely not a career woman.”

“People wouldn’t like it, that’s all. I’m a career woman myself, of sorts, running this place. But like I said, people already don’t like me. If you were a lawyer or something, Quentin would hate you even more than he does already.”

If I were a lawyer, Eddie and I would be home by now. Which only made what Rose said more true. I didn’t want to talk about Quentin, his cold eyes, or his warm-up suit. “Did you know a girl named Katharine O’Connor?” I asked.

Rose’s jaw paused in her chewing, then started again. “What do you know about Katharine O’Connor?”

“I saw part of a silk flower with her name on it. An old one. By the side of the road on Atticus Line when the police took us there this morning.”

Rose nodded. “She wasn’t from around here. The cops think she got picked up hitchhiking. She was strangled and left at the side of the road. That was a few years ago, when Robbie was still alive. They never found who killed her.”

“Someone picked her up, then strangled her, and never got caught?”

“Yes.” Rose swirled a chip into the onion dip. “It happens on that road. Maybe you heard. Hitchhikers aren’t safe there. The
kids at Hunter Beach know that, but sometimes one of them comes along who doesn’t know, maybe, or thinks the danger doesn’t apply to them.”

“If Katharine wasn’t from around here, then who left the flowers?” I asked.

“The Hunter Beach kids, probably. She was one of them. Now, tell me what happened last night.”

I told her. I’d already told the police the same thing, over and over. I told her about Rhonda Jean, the blood, the stab wounds. I paused, thinking about the truck. Eddie wouldn’t want me to talk about the truck and the girl he’d seen in the back.

But I must have given something away in my expression, because Rose peered at me from behind her huge glasses. “There’s something you’re not telling the police,” she said.

I shook my head. I was tempted to grab a chip and dip it, just to keep myself from talking, but the sight of the gooey dip, now with crumbs in it, turned my stomach.

“Robbie said that no one ever tells the police the truth,” Rose said. “Even innocent people. You could have Mother Teresa, or even Princess Diana, and you put a cop in front of her and she’ll tell a lie. Robbie said that the key to police work was making people tell you all of the things they don’t want you to know.”

I licked my dry lips—talking to Rose was a lot like being questioned by the police, but weirder—and hedged. The truck bothered me. The girl Eddie had seen bothered me. I’d been keeping it in for too long. “We think someone may have been following us, that’s all.”

“On the road?”

“We aren’t sure, so we didn’t say anything.” It was just enough
of a lie. I couldn’t tell on Eddie, that he wasn’t sure what he’d seen. That he saw things sometimes. Rose kept staring at me, probably waiting for me to say more, but I stayed quiet.

Still, Rose waited. The clock ticked on the wall over the mantel in the living room. Charles and Diana gazed down on both of us, unseeing.

The front door opened and Eddie walked in. He was soaked in sweat from his run, his hair wet and his shirt sticking to his chest and back. He closed the door behind him and paused, looking from me to Rose and back again.

“What’s going on?” he said into the silence.

Rose turned and put an elbow on the kitchen table, looking at him. “You two have a problem,” she said. “I’ll help you, I suppose.”

“A problem?” I said as Eddie came toward us across the living room.

Rose gave me a look like I was stupid. “Well, let’s see. You got Rhonda Jean dead in your car, Detective Quentin thinks you’re a murderer, and whoever killed that girl knows you picked her up. I’d call that a problem, wouldn’t you?” She leaned back in her chair. “I seem to remember the police took your car away. Right?”

Eddie was standing next to my chair now. He put his hand on the back of it.
You told her
, that gesture said.

“Yeah,” he said to Rose. “They took our car.”

“I thought so. You need to figure your way out of this.” She picked up the bowl and held it out to Eddie. “Want a chip? I’m going to lend you Robbie’s car.”

CHAPTER TEN

When he was alive, Robbie drove a gray Honda Accord, boring and boxy. The interior smelled like old cigarette smoke and something that resembled musty cardboard. The car was kept in the garage beside the breezeway, where the heat tried to penetrate curls of chilled damp air and almost succeeded.

Eddie had showered and changed, and now he wore his jeans and a faded Tigers T-shirt. As usual with any vehicle, when he got into Robbie’s car he had to push the seat all the way back to fit his legs in.

“I guess it’s because you’re a military guy,” Rose said in surprise as she watched Eddie try to get comfortable. “I thought Robbie was tall. Looks like I was wrong.”

“This sure is nice of you, Rose,” Eddie said as we buckled ourselves in. Eddie had rolled down the driver’s side window, and he leaned an elbow on it and gave her a smile where she stood by the
rack of dusty gardening tools. It was a sincere smile, the only kind Eddie had, and it made Rose visibly melt a little. “April and I appreciate it.”

“They won’t know you’re gone,” Rose said. “The Coldlake PD doesn’t have enough manpower to follow you around all day and night. They’ll probably do a drive-by to make sure you’re still here, but I’ll just say you two are sleeping. You have a few hours at least.”

“What happens in a few hours?” I asked her.

Rose shrugged. “More questions, maybe. They won’t want to leave you alone too long. Until you’re cleared, they want to keep you on your toes. That’s what Robbie would do.” She pointed. “When you leave the driveway, go left, then left again at the stop sign. A mile down you’ll see the signs for Atticus Line and Hunter Beach. I’d start there if I were you. Rhonda Jean was probably headed there when she was killed. Someone there might know her.”

“The police will probably already have been there,” Eddie said.

Rose gave a snort that was the purest sound of derision I’d ever heard. “Maybe, maybe not, but if any of those kids told the truth to a cop, I’m my aunt Fanny. You should have better luck than they do.”

Eddie followed her directions, and we drove in silence for a few minutes. It was the first time we had been completely alone, without the possibility of someone listening in, since we’d pulled up at the hospital with Rhonda Jean last night.

Finally, Eddie spoke, his voice soft. “You told her.”

“Not much,” I said. “Just that someone might have been
following us.” I glanced at him, at the tight clench of his jaw as he drove. It wasn’t anger; it was embarrassment. Eddie hated the idea of anyone knowing about his problem with seeing things. “We can’t just ignore it,” I said. “Rose is right. I saw the truck, too. Whoever killed Rhonda Jean knows who we are. We have to do something.”

“I know.” He looked tormented for a moment. “The sight of that girl keeps going around and around in my head. Clinging to the side of the truck bed as it drove. And I don’t know if I even saw her. Just now, on my run, when I was on my way back—” He shook his head.

“Tell me,” I said.

He hesitated, but I was the only person in the world that Eddie told these things to. So he said, “I came around the corner and was jogging up the sidewalk toward Rose’s house. I thought I saw a man go around the side of the house toward the backyard. So I followed him. But when I got to the backyard, there was no one there.”

“Maybe it was a neighbor,” I said.

“If it was a neighbor, I would have seen him in the yard. But I’m telling you, the yard was empty, and there was nowhere to hide. The man was wearing jeans and rubber boots, a gray sweatshirt. I saw all of it as clear as I can see you now. April, I’m going crazy.”

“That’s not true.” I shook my head. “I know you, and you’re not crazy.”

“Then explain what I saw.”

I blew out a breath. “Didn’t those cops say Rose’s house was haunted? Maybe that’s what it was.”

“Haunted by a dead gardener?”

We both laughed at that, the sound of it diffusing the tension. “He was pulling his celestial weeds,” I said.

“Watering his heavenly grass.”

“Telling ghostly kids to get off his lawn.” I looked over at him, and I couldn’t help it. I leaned across the divide between the passenger seat and the driver’s seat and put my arms around his neck, kissing the warm, rough skin of his jaw where the stubble came in.

“April, I’m driving,” he said.

I didn’t answer. I kissed along his jaw and the skin of his cheek, then back toward his ear. I could feel the reassuring muscles of his shoulders under my arms, and I ran my fingers up the back of his neck, where the hair was growing in longer than the military would allow.

“I’ll get pulled over,” he protested, but he didn’t shrug me off.

I kissed beneath his ear and felt a small tremor go through him. The tension in his body, brought on by the conversation, fizzled gently away. His skin smelled like soap and the sweat he’d washed off from his run, like hot sunshine, and I breathed it in. “You have summer skin,” I said.

“Yeah, well, it’s summer.” He sounded resigned, but he liked it. He still hadn’t shrugged me off.

“Let’s pull over somewhere and park.”

“In Robbie’s old car?”

“Why not? He won’t care.”

“I’m not a back seat type of guy.”

I smiled against his skin. “Never?”

“Never.”

That was news to me, but I immediately knew it was true.
Eddie really wasn’t a back seat type of guy. “I guess I have to wait, then.”

He lifted a hand from the wheel and circled my wrist with his fingers, halfway between a protest and a caress. “You do, because Hunter Beach is just up ahead.” He pointed to a sign that went by out the window.

I kissed him once more, feeling that tremor again, and then I reluctantly dropped my arms and slid back into my seat. The paved highway ended and the road turned to gravel, the Accord bumping like an amusement park ride. The trees pressed close to the narrow road, but up ahead I could see a blue stripe of water—the lake. We had arrived.

BOOK: Murder Road
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