Authors: Jeremy Bates
Tags: #Thriller, #Adult
Copyright Â© 2012 by Jeremy Bates
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form
or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage
and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher,
except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses,
organizations, places, and incidents either are the products of the
author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual events, businesses, locales, or persons, living or dead,
is entirely coincidental.
ISBN: 978-1-60809-043-3 (cl.)
ISBN: 978-1-60809-048-8 (pa.)
Published in the United States of America by Oceanview Publishing
Longboat Key, Florida
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
RINTED IN THE
For my mother and father
First and foremost special thanks to my incredible editor Patricia Gussin for her excellent insight and for keeping the entire process upbeat and fun. Hats off to all the other amazing people at Ocean-view Publishing, including Bob Gussin, Frank Troncale, David Ivester, Susan Hayes, and George Foster. On a personal note, cheers to my wonderful and loving parents, Gerry and Linda, and my ever-supportive fiancÃ©e, Alison. If I haven't mentioned anyone I should have, I apologize. I had to save room for my siblings, Nicholas and Sophy, who took no part in the production of this novel whatsoever.
A lie never lives to be old.
The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.
The storm began when she was driving north on U.S. Highway 2, almost four thousand feet above sea level. The low-lying clouds, black and bloated, abruptly split open, as if slit by a surgeon's scalpel, letting loose a torrent of slanting rain. Flashes of white lightning and rumbles of thunder quickly followed.
, Katrina Burton thought, feeling as though a peeved-off God had just turned the hose on her. The road was already dangerous enough with all of its zigs and zags. Adding rain was about as helpful as polishing the ice on a slippery slope. She flicked the wipers on high, shooing away the water sloshing down the windshield. She turned up the radio so she could hear the song playing above the tat-tat-tat-tat on the roof. “Bad Moon Rising” by CCR. She liked classic rock, especially late sixties, early seventies stuff, so she got into it, singing the words she knew while humming the ones she didn't. Eventually she lost her mojo and gave it up altogether. There was only so long you could act the fool, even when you were by yourself, in a car, with not another soul around for miles.
She rubbed her eyes. They were getting sore from staring at the road for the past two hours, which continued to unfurl ahead of her like a long black carpet with no end. It was a tiny two-lane thing, winding up through the forested slopes of the Cascade Mountain Range in northern Washington. The pot of gold at the end was the town of Leavenworth, where she'd been offered a job teaching high school English. She didn't know yet whether she was more excited or nervous about starting this new chapter of her life. Probably right in the middle, which was about where she should be.
Her buddy sitting on the passenger seat beside her burpedâ at least she thought it was a burp. He made some strange noises sometimes. She glanced at the boxer: six years old, fawn coat, white socks on his feet, black rings around his eyes, like a rock star who'd gone a little nuts with the eyeliner. He was snoring softly, the sound muffled because his snout was tucked beneath his forepaws. He was adorableâa big, fat adorable piece of caramel. He let her sing, she let him snore. A match made in heaven. “Not nice weather, hey Bandit?” she said in that silly singsong way people do when speaking with animals, children, and anyone who's topped the big eight-oh. He cracked open an eye and gave her a half-baked look.
You talkin'to me, sister
? it seemed to say. She scratched him between the cropped ears. “It was a rhetorical question, bud. Go back to sleep.” He yawned and did just that. No snoring this time. Not yet, at least.
The Honda's high beams flashed on a reflective yellow road sign that indicated an upcoming sharp turn. Katrina eased her foot off the accelerator. The last thing she wanted or needed right then was to slip off the slick road. She was in the middle of nowhere, God's country, and God was apparently not in the best of moods. He might decide to toss a lightning bolt her way for kicks. Moreover, her cell phone's battery was dead. She'd known that before leaving Seattle, but she'd had enough things on her mind and hadn't bothered charging it. Lazy, yes, but she couldn't do anything about it now. So if she did go slip sliding and found herself grill over trunk in a ditch, AAA would not be an option. She would have to stay put until another car came along, which might not be for a considerable amount of time. She'd seen only two vehicles pass her in the opposite direction during the past half hour. A small sedan and a tractor trailer loaded with what she'd thought was raw lumber.
The bend appeared. Banking left, Katrina tapped the brakes, slowing to less than ten miles an hour. Halfway around it, she was surprised to see the dark smudge of a person shuffling along the narrow shoulder. The person's back was to her, but judging by the
height and build, it appeared to be a man. Her approach was masked by the storm because he seemed oblivious to the fact she was creeping up behind him until the headlights threw his elongated shadow ahead of him, as if it had been spooked out of his body. He spun around. His arms were folded across his chest, to ward off the chill of the rain. He stuck a thumb in the air, using his other hand to shield his eyes from the rain and light. His red T-shirt and jeans were drenched. His dark hair was plastered to his skull, framing a boyish face.
Katrina drove past without slowing. Cruel? Maybe. Smart? Absolutely. No way was she picking up a stranger. She was a single white female, and it was a dark and stormy night. She'd seen the movies. But as her eyes lifted to the rearview mirror, and she caught the manâboy?âstaring after her, something inside her crumpled. She began to reconsider. What was he doing way out here at this time of night in the midst of a thunderstorm? Surely not soliciting a potential victim. So was he lost then? Or worse, had he been in an accident?
“Dammit,” she said, torn. “What do you think, Bandit? Give him a lift?”
Bandit raised his sleepy head and barked once, loud and sharp. It was either a yes or a plea to let him sleep in peace. She took it as a yes and eased the car to the shoulder of the road. Wet gravel crunched under the tires as she rolled to a stop. She glanced in the rearview mirror again and saw the boy hurrying toward his ride. Her reservation vanished. She was helping someone. She felt the way she did when she tossed a homeless guy a couple bucks: warm and fuzzy inside. Bandit knew something was up. He leapt to his feet, his blunt muzzle jointing wide in what could be interpreted as a doggy smile. Apparently he thought they were getting out to stretch their legs. He loved two things in life more than anything else. Going for a walk around the block, and roadside rest areasâespecially ones populated with unsuspecting children ripe for harassing.
“Not now, buddy,” she told him. “Get in the back.” She patted
the top of one of the suitcases stacked on the backseat. Bandit gave her a pleading say-it-ain't-so look. She was having none of it. “Go on, go.”
He made a snort and a disapproving “woo woo,” the same noise he would make if his Kibbles ân Bits weren't fixed quickly enough. Spoiled dog. She was going to have to start enforcing a little more tough love around the house. Head hanging low, Bandit clambered reluctantly between the seats, turned in a tight circle, and settled down on the suitcase. If dogs could sulk, he'd be sulking. Katrina punched off the radioâjust the DJ doing his spielâand waited. Rain drummed on the roof of the car. The windshield wipers thumped back and forth, back and forth, almost mesmerizing. The passenger door opened, letting in a burst of wet alpine air. The boy climbed in. The green glow from the cluster of dashboard instrument gauges illuminated his features clearly for the first time, and Katrina was surprised and slightly alarmed to discover he appeared older than she'd initially believed, perhaps early twenties. He was also bigger than she'd guessed. Six feet give or take an inch, though thin and bony. His knees touched the glove compartment. She didn't know what that meant exactly, his size, only that it didn't make her feel as confident as she had moments before when she was feeling warm and fuzzy. She was about to tell him he could slide the seat back but decided she didn't want him to get comfortable. She wouldn't be taking him far. Leavenworth was only thirty minutes away, at most.
He closed the door with a bang that seemed to shake the car. Katrina could hear an echo of her mother's voice from years past:
Don't slam the door, Trina!
He ran his hands through his hair, brushing it back from his face.
“What were you doing out there in this storm?” she asked him, trying for nonchalance.
“Car broke down,” he said bluntly. “How the hell do you turn up the heat? I'm goddamn freezing.”
Katrina was slightly taken by the rough language. Still, she pointed to the temperature gauge, which the hitchhiker cranked to the maximum. A roar of warm, stale air blew through the vents.
“What was wrong with your car?” she pressed. She didn't care. She was just trying to break the iceâand ease her nerves a bit.
He tilted his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. Going to sleep? she wondered. A little rude, but fine. He wasn't exactly proving to be the best of company. But had she really expected him to be Prince Charming? A guy trudging down the highway at a little past midnight on a Friday night?
No, she'd expected a polite young man who'd be appreciative she'd picked him up
. Then again, according to him, his car
broken down, and he'd been in the storm long enough to get soaked to the skinâso he had the right to be a little cranky, didn't he? She knew she would be.
She put the car in drive and angled back onto the highway.
The boy-man burped. She frowned. She didn't care that he'd burped. It was a natural bodily reflex. Bandit did it all the timeâ only Bandit's burps didn't smell like Scotch.
Smart, Kat, smart. Pick up a six-foot-something drunk stranger
. She shook her head. She was milking melodrama, and she knew it. The possibility he might be drunk concerned her a little, but it certainly didn't fill her with fear. Everyone got drunk now and then. Hell, she did it a little more than she probably should. So what? It didn't turn you into an axe murderer. Didn't mean you started carrying a hunting knife tucked up your sleeve. Besides, she had Big Bad Bandit with her. He might not be a killer attack dog. Actually, he wasn't even big and badâmore like loyal and loving. But he was still a good sixty pounds, all muscleâhe only
like a fat piece of caramelâ and he could be quite intimidating if he wanted to be.
A number of miles passed. More black and winding road. More rain. More silence. Gradually Katrina's thoughts turned from the hitchhiker to the bungalow she was renting in Leavenworth. She already had the keys. There were three of them attached to a Niagara Falls keychain: front door, side door, and a smaller bronze one, the purpose of which she wasn't sure. Mailbox? Milkbox? Secret cellar laboratory? The real estate agent had given the set to
her two weeks before, when they'd met in a Starbucks to sign the two-year lease. The bungalow was only semifurnished. Fridge, stove, washing machine, not much else. There wasn't even a bed. But the ownersâan old couple who had fled to Sacramento to be close to their children and grandchildrenâhad left behind a futon, which was what Katrina would use her first few nights until the movers brought the rest of her belongings and furniture later this week. Not that she was complaining. Any excuse to do some shopping was a good excuse. She was looking forward to puttering around town this weekend, picking up some plants, pillows, art, and whatever else she saw that would make her home more, well, homey.