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Authors: Simone St. James

Murder Road (9 page)

BOOK: Murder Road
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Dollar Mart was a yellow-and-red box in a vast square of parking lot, baking in the July sun. An outdated sign with removable letters, placed at the road next to the entrance, said
closed july 4. sparkler
, as though someone had removed the final “S.” There were barely half a dozen cars in the huge lot.

I got out of Robbie’s car and looked around. From Hunter Beach, this place would be about a half-hour walk—worth it, maybe, if you could pick up a ride from one of the locals in the parking lot. Eddie and I hadn’t passed a single car on the way here, so this would be a better bet than standing on the road.

Rhonda Jean hadn’t gotten her final ride here, but it sounded like the kids from Hunter Beach came here. Eddie and I crossed the parking lot to the store, my flip-flops slapping against the hot pavement.

I shivered again as we stepped inside, the bell over the door ringing above our heads. The air-conditioning in here wasn’t strong, but I still had chills. Eddie was right; there was something off about this whole place. Coldlake Falls, Hunter Beach—all of it. How had we ended up here? I didn’t exactly remember Eddie taking that wrong turn. Had I been sleeping? Why couldn’t I remember it?

Eddie and I walked through the store, past aisles of canned goods, an aisle of plastic cutlery and folded paper tablecloths. Elevator music tinkled out of the sound system. We glimpsed a few lonely people in the aisles, and that was all. The entire place seemed half-asleep, wilting in the summer sun.

A girl with greasy hair stood behind the counter. Eddie approached. “Hi,” he said to her. “Is it okay if I ask you a question?”

Her eyes darted to me, then somewhere over her shoulder, then back to Eddie. “What?”

Eddie slid the photograph of the Hunter Beach kids over the counter. “Do you know any of these people? Have you seen them in here?”

The girl looked at the photo, then shrugged. “Maybe. I guess.”

Eddie’s voice was patient. “Take another look.”

He could have been a cop, I thought. I watched the calm expression on his face, the way his gaze held hers, firm but not intimidating. The girl was staring at the photo, biting her lip, unaware that she was instantly doing as he asked. I knew I was good, but I also knew that my husband of two days just might be smarter than me.

“They’ve been here,” the girl said. “They’re Hunter Beach kids. They were with a few others. The owner doesn’t like the Hunter
Beach kids to come in here, because sometimes they hang around outside and ask for rides. But he wasn’t here that day, so I let them stay. They bought cigarettes and food. I don’t think they stole anything.”

“When was this?” Eddie asked.

“Two, three days ago?” the girl asked no one. “Um, three.”

The bell above the front door jangled, and I peered around the nearest shelf to look. I didn’t see anyone. The door wasn’t moving.

I shifted to look back at Eddie, who was still talking to the girl. “What do you remember?” he asked her. “What were they doing? Did they say anything you recall?”

“They were talking about a beach party that night.” There was definitely a note of envy in the girl’s voice. She was around the same age as the Hunter Beach kids. “Um, they only had twenty dollars in cash. And her.” She pointed to Rhonda Jean. “I remember her.”

The bell over the door jangled again. Again I looked and saw nothing. Was it possible for a bell to malfunction? That didn’t make any sense.

“Why do you remember her?” Eddie asked.

“Because she was crying.”

A waft of cold air touched my back, like a fingertip.

The bell over the door jangled a third time, and this time I stepped all the way around the shelf and looked at the glass door, peering up at it. It wasn’t moving. There was no one outside who had just left. No one had just come in. I looked out at the parking lot. There was no one out there, either, except—

“Oh my God,” I murmured. Then I said, loudly: “Eddie.”

“Excuse me,” Eddie said to the girl. He must have noticed the
tone in my voice, because in a second he was at my shoulder, the photo in his hand.

“Look,” I said.

His body tensed next to mine.

In the parking lot was a large, black pickup truck, its engine running. It crouched near the lot’s entrance to the street, unmoving, the sun glinting off it. Exhaust furled behind it, and I could hear the faint rumble of its engine. It seemed to be waiting. I couldn’t see the driver through the sun reflecting from the window.

Eddie strode forward, pushing open the door. The bell jangled overhead yet again, the sound slicing through the store. I followed, trying to keep up with his long strides.

The heat hit me again as we stepped outside. Eddie kept walking, fast, making a beeline for the truck, his gaze fixed on the driver’s window. The truck still idled, unmoving.

“Hey!” Eddie shouted.

The driver of the truck gave no response.

This was, I realized, a moment that could go either way. We could stop and watch, waiting for the truck to do whatever it was going to do. We could wonder if we were right, if this was the truck we’d seen last night, if we would ever know the truth or if it would always be a mystery. We could let it go.

But that wasn’t Eddie. And that wasn’t me.

You weren’t scared
, Eddie had said to me last night.
You weren’t even shocked. You knew exactly what to do.

And I’d replied:
You weren’t scared, either.

“Hey!” Eddie shouted again, not slowing his pace. It was a big parking lot, shimmering in the heat, and the truck was still idling
at the entrance. It was going to drive off. I suddenly knew it as surely as if a voice had said so in my ear.

I opened my mouth, but before I could say anything Eddie pulled the keys to Robbie’s car from his pocket, turned in one swift motion, and tossed them to me. “Get the car.”

I caught the keys in midair and turned to run to the car, my flip-flops making noise on the pavement. Eddie kept walking.

“Get out, coward!” I heard Eddie say. My heart jumped into my throat—he was going to get himself killed—but my head stayed cool. I unlocked the Accord, jumped into its oven-hot interior, and started the car.

My gaze went to the truck again, and I froze.

Behind the cab of the truck, a hand appeared. It was white, thin, a woman’s hand. The fingers curled over the side of the truck bed, as if the woman had been lying down and was pulling herself up. A second hand joined it. I stared in shock as cold waves pulsed through me in the hot car.

As I watched, the girl in the truck bed pulled herself up. Her head appeared over the side now, her face pale in the bright sun. Her hair was ditchwater brown, long and straight, parted in the middle. Nothing about her was worldly—not her skin, not her hands, not her eyes. She was staring at us.

For the first time, Eddie’s step faltered. He stopped and stared, his face going ashen as he looked at the girl’s unearthly face.

She stared back, unmoving. The truck idled.

Then the truck’s engine roared, and the truck moved. It reversed on a wild trajectory that would have thrown anyone out of the bed. But the girl simply stayed where she was, her hands on
the side of the bed, not even swaying. Her hair didn’t lift in the wind.

The truck’s engine gunned again, and it made a turn toward the exit. I put the Accord into gear and hit the accelerator, heading for Eddie. I braked next to him just long enough for him to get into the passenger seat. Then, as he slammed the door, I took off after the truck with the girl in it, heading for Atticus Line.


Tell me you saw that,” my husband said.

The truck had made the turn off the side road toward Atticus Line, and I tried to keep it in my sights as I chased it. “I saw it.”

“Say it.” He sounded shaken, the only time I’d ever heard him sound like that. “I need to hear it.”

“A girl in the truck bed,” I said, hitting Atticus Line and accelerating. “Brown hair. Hands on the side of the truck bed. Staring at us.”

I’d seen a lot of bad things in my life—maybe more than my share. But I had never seen anything as terrible as that girl, as her face, as her undead hands. She was a dark, cold hole in the fabric of reality, punched through with a naked fist. The word that came to mind was
, though I had never been religious a day in
my life. I had never imagined something could be as vibrantly, furiously dead as she was, and I never wanted to see her again. And yet I was chasing her down Atticus Line.

Eddie’s hand gripped the door handle next to him, his knuckles white. Over the sound of the engine, I heard him breathing. He’d thought he was seeing things, that his problem had come back. He was trying to understand that the girl in the truck bed wasn’t a hallucination.

And if she wasn’t a hallucination, she hadn’t been last night, either.

“Which is worse?” I asked him, my eyes still on the road and the truck in front of us. “That she isn’t real, or that she is?”

“I don’t know.” His voice was torn. He took a breath and gathered himself. “He’s making a turn up here.”

In a wink of sunlight off chrome, the truck disappeared from the road ahead. There must be either a driveway or a side road up there. I couldn’t go too fast, or I’d miss it and waste valuable seconds having to reverse. I couldn’t go too slow, or I’d lose the truck.

“Steady,” Eddie coached me as I approached where the truck had vanished. “Here. On the right.”

There was a narrow dirt road leaving Atticus Line. Was it a road or a driveway? I couldn’t tell. I swerved onto it, hearing the Accord’s tires grind in the dirt and gravel as we headed into the relative dimness of the trees. Unless someone had a driveway several miles long, this was a road. There was no truck in sight.

Eddie cursed. “There has to be a driveway ahead,” he said. “It can’t be far. Keep an eye out.”

I couldn’t speed too fast on the dirt road, not without spinning
my wheels in the gravel. I had to ease off the gas to keep control. The truck would be better on this road, surer and faster.

We cruised down the dirt road, farther and farther away from Atticus Line, the harsh light dappling through the trees overhead. Where the hell had the truck gone? It was too big to easily hide.

“There.” Eddie pointed to a dirt driveway that branched from the road. An old mailbox at the foot of the driveway had a hand-carved sign:

I turned onto the driveway, and we bumped along its rough surface. The trees opened up and we could see we were on a piece of farmland. There was a farmhouse, its white paint dusty and peeling, and a barn behind it. A lone horse was in the field beyond, drowsing and twitching its tail in the shade of an old tree.

The black truck was parked in front of the farmhouse, its front tires on the worn-out grass. The engine ticked in the silence. There was no movement.

I parked, and Eddie and I got out of the car. There was a second in which we both paused, looking at the truck. Now that the engine wasn’t running it had lost some of its menace, but though it wasn’t growling it crouched in silence, as if waiting. The sun beat down on my head and sweat started to bead between my shoulder blades.

Eddie moved first. He strode toward the truck, his gaze fixed on it. He wasn’t shaken anymore.

I followed, my flip-flops shuffling in the dirt and gravel of the drive. I didn’t feel cold, the way I had at the Dollar Mart; instead I felt hot, my chest tight. I made myself go round to the back of the truck. If the woman was still here, I’d be able to see her.

Eddie had gone to the truck’s cab to look in the windows. “No
one here,” he called to me. There was no sound from the driveway behind us or from the house. Whoever had driven the truck had disappeared.

Trying not to flinch, I moved closer to the tailgate and rose onto my toes to look into the bed. There was no woman. But there was something else.

“Eddie,” I said. “Look.”

He came around the side of the truck and looked into the bed. He didn’t have to lift to his toes to do it. “Oh, shit,” he said.

It was a backpack, made of dark blue weather-stained canvas, a pack that had been well used and had traveled a lot of miles. I could see patches sewn onto it, also faded: an American flag, another patch that said
. The backpack was stuffed full and zipped shut, as if whoever had been carrying it had simply dropped it in the truck bed and disappeared.

Whose pack was it? The truck owner’s? The woman’s?

Was it Rhonda Jean’s? Mitchell had seen her with a backpack. She hadn’t had a backpack on her when we picked her up.

“Don’t touch it,” Eddie said.

Inside the farmhouse, a phone rang, loud and shrill. We heard it clearly in the summer air. It rang and rang. Ten times. Twelve. Fifteen. Then it stopped.

I glanced around. The driver of the truck had to be somewhere. The nearest stand of trees was over twenty feet away, on the other side of the driveway. Had he run there? Or was he in the house, ignoring the telephone?

Then I felt the cold. It crawled up my belly and my chest. Inside the house, the phone started to ring again.

I turned back to Eddie and there she was, past his shoulder,
standing outside the barn. The girl with brown hair parted in the middle. She was so still, and something about her was so cold it made me want to scream. I could see the frayed cuffs of her jeans and the crew neck of her T-shirt. She was staring at us with those eyes. Those eyes—

“April?” Eddie said, looking at my face.

I made my mouth move. “She’s behind you,” I whispered, as if the girl could hear.

Eddie didn’t turn. Instead he closed his eyes, as if some kind of sensation moved through him. “I can feel her staring.”

I was frozen, no more words in my throat.

Finally, Eddie turned. “Hey!” he shouted, as if she was a trespasser on his lawn. “Hey there!” He started walking toward her, and I rounded the truck and followed, my head pounding with fear. I didn’t know who the girl was, but I knew that I didn’t want to get any closer to her. My stomach curdled.

“Hey!” Eddie shouted again, but the girl didn’t answer and she didn’t move. She simply stood there. “What do you want?” he called to her.

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

“What’s your name?” Eddie said. “Who are you? Maybe you should—”

A man came from the open barn door, sprinting. He ran past the girl, almost as if he didn’t see her, and straight for Eddie. He hit Eddie in a football tackle at top speed, and both men went down.

Eddie didn’t even shout. He bucked and shoved at the man, forcing himself out from under him. The man scrabbled at Eddie,
trying to land a punch on his face, trying to get his hands around Eddie’s throat. The girl standing by the barn had vanished.

I looked around for a weapon I could use or could hand to Eddie, but there was nothing. I considered running into the barn and finding something there, but it looked like I wouldn’t have to. Eddie was powerfully strong, and it was becoming clear that the man who was attacking him was much weaker. He was thrashing and fighting, but Eddie was beginning to overpower him.

Eddie pinned the man’s wrists into the dirt. “What the hell do you want?” he roared in the man’s face, enraged. Sweat and dust covered his cheekbones.

The man’s chest was heaving and I could hear the rasp of his breath. It was loud and pained in the silent air, as if he was having an asthma attack. Still he fought Eddie, trying to kick him and pull his wrists free.

He wasn’t much older than Eddie and me, with thinning brown hair and a scraggly beard. He was wearing navy blue work pants and a buttoned flannel shirt. He was taller than Eddie, thinner, not as muscled. His labored breathing made him weak, but he was a vicious fighter. Eddie winced as one of the man’s bony knees hit him in the meat of his thigh.

“Answer me!” Eddie shouted at the man.

In response, the man pulled one of his hands free and latched it to Eddie’s throat, squeezing as hard as he could.

One of Eddie’s fists hit the man’s temple hard. The man’s eyes rolled back in his head.

That’s when I raced up the front steps of the farmhouse, pushed open the unlocked door, and ran for the telephone.

BOOK: Murder Road
7.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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