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Authors: Simone St. James

Murder Road (7 page)

BOOK: Murder Road
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The entrance to Hunter Beach was marked by a hand-painted sign posted next to a set of steps leading down to the beach. There was only one other car here, a white van that looked like it had been driven through a bank of mud and had been in at least one accident. There was nothing else in this gravel clearing except the sound of gulls over the lake and the wind in the trees behind us.

I walked to the top of the steps and looked down. They were homemade steps, built into the slope with rough stones and old pieces of wood. At the bottom was the beach itself, the sand dark and rocky, the waves of Lake Huron cold and lively in the wind. The sun baked down hot here, but the wind lifted the hair from my neck and blew the mosquitoes down the shore.

I glanced at Eddie, who shrugged. Then he started down the steps. As I descended after him, I could see past the last of the
trees farther down the beach. There was a cabin there, made of dark wood. Laundry flapped from long clotheslines behind it. Surrounding it were tents pitched in the sand, dark blue and brown and Army green. Closer to the water was a firepit lined with stones and surrounded by folding chairs. There was no fire in the pit, but I could see three people in the folding chairs, sitting and maybe talking. One of them turned my way as I came to the bottom of the stairs, and the other two followed suit.

I kept pace at Eddie’s shoulder as we walked toward the people at the firepit. I put my sunglasses on.

The people around the firepit were young—teenagers, or early twenties at most. There was a girl with long, straight brown hair, and another with a sandy brown braid. The third was a boy with long, dark blond hair in a tangle of natural curls past his shoulders. He was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of worn cargo pants. As we got closer, I saw the T-shirt had a graphic of Che Guevara’s face on the front.

“Hi,” the boy said as we approached. He was very relaxed in his old lawn chair, his knees sprawled open. The two girls didn’t speak. “Do you guys need directions or something?”

Eddie’s tone was polite. “Does one of you own this place?”

The three of them exchanged glances, and then they all laughed.

Beside me, Eddie didn’t stiffen. His body stayed completely relaxed. The stupid question had been intentional so that he wouldn’t seem like a threat.

Everyone underestimated my husband. Everyone but me.

“Do we look like we own this place, man?” the boy said. He held his arms out from his sides. “Okay, sure, this is my domain.”

“Honey,” I said in a soft voice, touching Eddie’s wrist. Playing the square right alongside him. I turned back to the three kids—kids who weren’t much younger than me. “Um, hi. We’re looking for some information? We’re not really sure where to start.”

“What do you want to know?” This was the girl with brown hair. She was wearing a spaghetti strap lace camisole under a pair of denim overalls. Her feet were bare.

I adjusted my sunglasses. My sandals were digging into the warm sand. “Do any of you know a girl named Rhonda Jean? I think she was on her way here a few nights ago.”

The three of them went quiet and exchanged another look, their laughter gone. Finally, the boy spoke again. “What do you know about Rhonda Jean?”

“We’re just looking for some information,” I said, shrugging. “Like, where she’s from or where she lives. Anything you might know.”

“Is she okay?” This was the girl with the braid, who was wearing cutoff jean shorts and a red-and-black flannel shirt. The sleeves of the shirt were rolled down and it was fully buttoned, as if it wasn’t ninety degrees out. Her expression was alarmed. “How do you know Rhonda? What happened to her?”

“She’s a friend of yours?” Eddie asked the girl. “You’re expecting her?”

The girl looked back and forth between Eddie and me. “You’re not police?” Her tone phrased it as a question.

“Do we look like police?” I asked her, mirroring what the boy had said a few minutes ago.

“Does one of you know Rhonda Jean?” Eddie asked again.

The girl with the braid looked at the other girl. “Kay, did something happen to Rhonda Jean?”

“How would I know?” Kay asked.

I glanced at Eddie. “Let’s go in the house,” Eddie said to me.

I nodded and followed him.

This was a simple power play. The three kids at the firepit wanted information from us, so by walking away we made them follow. Besides, I really wanted to know what was inside that house.

We climbed the wooden steps to the porch. The front door was a few inches ajar. Eddie knocked on it politely. “Hello?” he called. “Anyone home?”

There was no answer, so we pushed the door open and walked in.

It was a cottage with a large main room. The shades on most of the windows were down, and several fans ran in the corners, so the place was dark and almost cool. There was a basic kitchen along one wall, the sink filled with used frying pans and plates. There was a small, spare dining table with two wooden chairs. The rest of the room was taken up with sofas and soft chairs arranged around a large TV that wasn’t on. The furniture was strewn with articles of clothing and battered pillows. Pinned to the walls, their edges curling, were posters:
, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam’s
with the silhouette of raised arms. And most prominently, right above the TV and also on the kitchen wall, Kurt Cobain.

Officer Syed had told me that the man who owned this place let the backpackers and hitchhikers use it however they wanted, and I could see that here. How many places had I been to that
looked just like this? How many hostels, how many apartments shared by the roommates of the guy I was on a date with? That exact poster of Kurt Cobain in
, wearing his secondhand cardigan, had hung in the house I’d lived in the day I met Eddie.

Tension crawled up my shoulders to my neck as I pushed my sunglasses to the top of my head. I’d never been to this place, but I still knew it. The hostel in Phoenix. The apartment I’d shared for two months in South Carolina. I’d sat on those sofas and listened to whatever guys were hanging around talk about whether Soundgarden was better than Nirvana, pretending to care. Pretending I was just like the rest of them, while feeling like I was no one at all.

“April?” Eddie’s voice was soft.

I swallowed. “There’s no one here.” I pushed the tense words out.

“Just give it a second. They’ll come to us.”

He sounded so sure, and he was right. Behind us, the door opened, letting in some of the summer sunlight. The three kids from the firepit came in, along with another boy, this one closer to a man, dark-haired, with a beard and a ratty jean jacket.

“Hey,” the long-haired kid said. “This is Todd. I guess he’s the closest to being the one in charge around here.”

Todd didn’t offer to shake our hands. He put his fingers into his jeans pockets and gave us a narrow-eyed look. “What can I help you with?”

Eddie said, “We’re looking for information on a young woman named Rhonda Jean. We think she was headed here. Do you know her?”

Todd looked between us again. “Is something wrong?”

It clicked in my mind, the reason none of these people knew
what we were talking about. I looked at Eddie. “The police haven’t been here.”

His eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise as he realized it, too. A young woman hitchhiking, presumably headed for Hunter Beach, had been murdered, and Detective Quentin hadn’t come here yet to ask these kids what they knew. What did that mean?

“The police?” Kay asked. “Why would the police come?”

We had to tell them; we’d come too far now. If they weren’t going to hear it from the police, then they would have to hear it from us.

Eddie took a step forward. “We’re not from here,” he said. “We were passing through town. We picked up a girl named Rhonda Jean, who maybe was hitchhiking. She’d been stabbed.”

“Stabbed?” The braid girl’s voice was a high near-shriek, slicing through the empty room. Todd went pale. The long-haired kid looked like he wanted to turn and run.

Eddie nodded. “She died. We feel bad about what happened. We’d like to know more about her. We don’t even know if the police told her family.”

A high-pitched keening came from the girl with the braid, and Kay took her arm. “Gretchen,” she said softly. “Sit down.”

The girls moved to one of the sofas, and the rest of us followed. I took a seat on an old La-Z-Boy, kicking aside an empty chip bag. Gretchen was still making the keening sound, as if she was trying not to cry. Kay patted her back a little awkwardly, as if the two girls didn’t know each other very well. I caught the long-haired kid looking at my legs and gave him a glare that would melt ice. He looked away.

“We didn’t know Rhonda Jean all that well,” Todd said,
running a hand through his messy, dark hair. He’d sat on another sofa, with Eddie on the other end. “She was here, what? Two weeks? Maybe three?”

We’d had it wrong. Rhonda Jean wasn’t heading for Hunter Beach when she was killed; she was leaving. “Where did she stay?” Eddie asked.

“She roomed in Gretchen’s tent,” Todd said.

“She didn’t have a tent.” Gretchen wiped her face with her palms. “She said she came from Baltimore. Her dad was a big businessman or something. But he hit her, and he hit her mother, and Rhonda Jean couldn’t stay anymore. She wanted out.”

The back of my neck went cold. It shouldn’t have; these were old scars, healed over.

“She was backpacking around the country,” Gretchen went on. “Looking for work for cash under the table. She’d heard it was free here, so she came. The bus only stops in Coldlake Falls. If you want to get to Hunter Beach from there, you have to walk or hitch.”

I didn’t ask about taxis, and neither did Eddie. We knew better. A taxi from Coldlake Falls to Hunter Beach might be twenty dollars or more. Twenty dollars was food for three days, longer if you stretched it. There was no one here who would pay that kind of money when walking and hitching were free.

I’d lived that life, and I was still living it now. Eddie and I had enough to get by, and that was all. I didn’t think I’d ever taken a taxi in my life, and if I asked Eddie, he’d probably say the same.

“I let her sleep in my tent,” Gretchen was saying. “She was quiet, friendly, got along with people. She put money into the communal grocery tin. She had a couple of old paperback books she liked to read on the beach. I think she just wanted to be left alone.”

“What was her last name?” Eddie asked softly.

“Breckwith.” Gretchen seemed to be the only one in the group who had known Rhonda Jean. If she’d stayed here for three weeks, then she’d definitely kept to herself. I looked at the two men, trying to read their expressions. Could one of them have done this?

“Did she tell anyone she was leaving?” I asked.

Gretchen shook her head. “She packed her things last night and she was just gone.” She started to keen again.

“She left at night?” Eddie asked. “That seems strange, doesn’t it? Why would she go to the Coldlake bus station at night? Buses don’t leave then.”

Gretchen was crying too hard to answer, so Kay said sullenly, “Who knows? She probably thought she’d walk to the bus station, then sleep there until the first bus left. They start at six.”

Maybe, but it didn’t sit right. Walking hours to a bus station at night wasn’t something I would have done—not unless I had a very pressing reason to leave. Sleeping alone on a bus station bench, waiting for the first bus to leave, wasn’t the action of a girl who was having a good time at Hunter Beach.

“No one saw her leave?” I asked.

“We let people come and go here,” Todd said. “You’re not answerable to anyone. That’s why people come.” His words had an edge to them, and I realized that to him, I represented some kind of establishment type. It would have been funny if it weren’t so sad. I was probably the same age as him, and I’d lived exactly the same kind of wandering life. It was weird, how being married made you seem like a grown-up. Until I landed in Ann Arbor, I hadn’t been a middle-class girl looking for adventure and a place with no rules. Like some of these kids, I’d been traveling to survive.

I glanced up at Kurt Cobain on the wall. The sadness in his eyes had always unsettled me. I was pretty sure he’d despise the fact that his face was up on the wall. As for his music, I was a Guns N’ Roses girl. I’d begged Eddie to let me play “Paradise City” while we walked down the aisle, but he’d had to say no because it would upset his parents.

Two days ago. We were married
two days ago
. I’d worn a pearl-colored satin sheath I bought at a thrift store for seven dollars, and Eddie had borrowed his father’s suit. We’d stood in front of a justice of the peace while his mother sobbed and his father held back manly tears. My secondhand heels had pinched my feet, and I’d done my own hair and makeup. I’d felt like I was finally starting a life.

“Rhonda Jean probably walked,” the long-haired kid was saying. “Cars don’t come this way very often. If you want to get to the bus station, you walk and hope that one of the locals drives by.”

“There are locals around here?”

“Sure,” Todd said. “Up the beach a ways. There are a few houses. They’re set back from the road, so you can’t see them if you took the main road in. Sometimes you’ll have luck hitching at the Dollar Mart parking lot, which is half a mile that way.” He pointed past the kitchen.

BOOK: Murder Road
12.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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