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Authors: C.E. Grundler

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BOOK: Last Exit in New Jersey
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For twenty minutes Hazel waited in the darkness, anxiously following the luminous hands on her watch. Her father had twenty minutes to call and tell her Micah was safe and they were coming for her. That was all she would wait, not a minute longer. Twenty unbearable minutes that passed without a word.

Enough was enough; it was time to move. Heart pounding, she slipped into the hall. Blue light flickered beneath Stevenson’s door, TV voices chattered happily, and a single cricket serenaded, but Hazel heard no human movement. Cautiously she turned the knob, easing the door open the slightest bit and peeking inside. Still dressed, Stevenson lay sprawled across the bed, breathing steady and slow. A cigarette burned down to a smoldering stub in the ashtray on the nightstand while a commercial touted exercise equipment.

“Mr. Stevenson…?” Hazel held her breath, waiting. There was no response.

Guided by slivers of moonlight, she padded down to the kitchen, grabbed a flashlight, all the keys, and cash from Stevenson’s wallet for fuel and emergencies. She made her way to the carriage house and inspected the cars. The Viper was a manual, but too conspicuous. The Mercedes and Chevelle were automatics. The faded Mustang convertible was the odd one out: a bottom-of-the-line six-cylinder base model, but with a manual transmission and the hill, she could roll halfway to town before she’d need to start the engine. She turned the ignition just enough to unlock the steering wheel, lower the roof, and power the gauges, which confirmed a full tank and charged battery. She yanked spark-plug wires from the other three, tossing them into the Mustang. In neutral, she released the brake and pushed the car outward, hopping in as it rolled. She glided into the moonlight with only the sound of the tires crunching over the driveway, building speed as she rounded the house, heading straight toward the iron gates.

The closed iron gates.

She stood on the brakes, skidding to a stop inches from impact.

Stevenson stepped from the shadows. He leaned against the front fender.

“I’m surprised. I figured you’d go for the Viper.”

She eased the transmission into reverse, then turned the key. The starter grabbed, the Mustang jolted five feet backwards, and Stevenson fell between the nose and the gate. She slammed into first, revving the engine, creeping forward. Stevenson scrambled clear.

“Cute.” He dusted himself off.

“I’m leaving. Open the gate, or I’ll open it with this car.”

“Like hell you will.” In three steps he was beside the door. He reached across, shutting the engine, then grabbed her arm, hauling her up and dragging her from the car, pinning her against the fender. Cursing, she struggled while he held her wrists.

“You are determined,” he said coldly, “but not as capable as you want to believe.”

“Let me go! You’re hurting me!”

“Exactly my point.” He released her and she bolted clear of his reach. “You don’t trust me, and I can’t trust you. It’s going to be a long night.”

“Fuck you.”

“Is that an offer? It would pass the time.”

She wanted to hit him, but it would be pointless. She considered running, but that iron fence might enclose the entire property, and she didn’t want to give him an excuse to chase her down. How far could she get on foot anyways? She rubbed her wrists. “Go to hell.”

Stevenson smiled. “I figured as much.”

“What did you say to my father? Why’d he leave me with you? What aren’t you telling me?” she said, her voice breaking in frustration.

“Amazing. You won’t accept that I’m just trying to help.” Stevenson lit a cigarette and leaned on the gate.

“No. I want to know why.”

That seemed to amuse him. “How about this. You tell me. Guess right, you win a prize. Actually, you win a prize, right or wrong.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He turned toward the sky and took a slow drag. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”

Hazel watched him, torn between the desire to pick up a rock and bludgeon him or curl up in a ball and cry. Maybe if she wasn’t so tired, she could think. She had to do something; she couldn’t just stand there in the damp grass all night. Tears slipped down her face, but Hazel didn’t move or make a sound as thick clouds covered the moon and blotted out the silvery light. Nearby, she heard a soft, determined buzzing, like a fly trapped in a spider’s web.

Stevenson flipped his phone open. “Yeah.”

Hazel moved closer, her throat tightening.

Stevenson’s expression remained neutral. “Understood. We’ll proceed as discussed…Sounds good.” He glanced at Hazel. “No, not at all. She’s right here…Just fine. No problem whatsoever…Yeah, sure.” He offered her the phone.

“Dad?” Her hands were shaking.

“Hi, hon,” her father said wearily. “That man’s one helluva liar or he’s watching the wrong kid. We found your pal, safe and sound. I would’ve called sooner but my battery died. We just got back to the boat.”

“We?”

In the background Micah demanded the phone. Relief flooded through Hazel.

“Can I talk to him?”

“Not now. I’ve got a—”

“Are you coming to get me?”

“Not yet.”

Turning her back to Stevenson, she lowered her voice. “Why’d you leave me with this guy? You don’t even know him, but—”

“Are you all right?” he said, clearly unconcerned.

“Yeah, but—”

“Then knock off the melodrama. I have my reasons. Just trust me. You’ll be fine. I’ve got things to take care of on this end, and I want you to sit tight. Do me a favor and stay out of trouble for twenty-four hours.”

“In a row?”

I WANT TO, REALLY, BUT…
 
 

Hammon didn’t move. He didn’t want to wake Annabel. She looked so beautiful when she slept, so tranquil and pure. She lay on her side, one bare leg drawn up, covers kicked off. Tangled curls fringed her face and sleeping attire consisted of pink “kitty” print panties and a camisole reading: “Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect.”

It was her moan that woke him, a soft and throaty sound. He switched on the dim light over the bunk to check on her.

She was dreaming.

He slipped on his glasses and watched, transfixed.

Her lips parted and she gasped.

He could only imagine what she was dreaming. By her reactions, something good. She bit her lip, moaning again.

With any luck, she’d talk in her sleep. She did that sometimes.

Her hand came up, rubbing her breast, and she made a small, kitten sound.

It was almost unbearable. He desperately wanted to touch her…

“Yes,” she whispered.

…hold her…

“Oh, God…”

…feel her…

“Otto,” she gasped.

…but he couldn’t. He didn’t dare break the spell.

Her hand dropped down, across her belly, down…

That was it. Quietly he slipped from his bunk to the head, locking the door. Closing himself into the blackness. Closing his eyes. Losing himself in his own unspeakable dream…

…which didn’t include knocking on the door.

“Otto? You in there?”

“N…no…”

She laughed. “Nice try, dear. I heard you get up.”

Up
was the key word. He groaned.

“…minute…door…locked,” he pleaded, invoking the “locked head” rule.

“I know what you’re doing in there,” she sang.

“Can’t…I get…some…privacy?”

“On this boat? Keep dreaming.”

That’s what he was trying to do. “You’re…not…helping…”

She giggled. “I could talk dirty if you want.”

08:23 SUNDAY, JUNE 27
 
41°01’48.76”N/73°55’09.91”W
 
PIERMONT, NY
 
 

Stevenson walked through the back door, cigarette in one hand,
New York Times
and a brown paper bag in the other. He looked drained but smiled as he spotted Hazel standing in the kitchen, freshly showered, long hair still damp, wearing one of his button-down shirts and baggy drawstring shorts.

“You’re up.” He took a slow drag then crushed his cigarette into the sink and placed the bag on the counter. “I figured you needed your rest so I let you sleep. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Like I want to leave.” She regarded the paper bag warily. “What’s that?”

“Breakfast.”

“You went out?”

“Don’t worry, princess. You didn’t miss an opportunity for escape. It was delivered.”

“Anything of concern in the papers?”

He handed her the
Times
. “See for yourself.”

Page by page she scanned the headlines, reading through the synopsis of society’s steady decline, relieved to see yesterday’s events were not yet known or newsworthy. There was no mention of bodies floating to shore or missing persons. She heard a soft electronic chirp and looked up to the flash of a digital camera. Stevenson inspected the shot on the screen.

“Hostage with newspaper,” he explained. “More civilized than the ‘severed finger in the mail’ method. And less messy.”

She wasn’t amused. “Here’s your finger,” she said, offering the appropriate gesture. He snapped another shot, reviewed it with satisfaction, and tucked the camera into his pocket.

“I guess you can take the girl out of the truck stop, but you can’t take the truck stop out of the girl.” He struck a match and lit the massive stove, which appeared to be as old as the house. “That answers one question.”

“What?”

“Whether you had the capacity to be civil. How would you like your eggs?”

“The capacity, yes. The desire, no. And scrambled is fine…thank you very much.” Hazel looked around the kitchen. “Do you have any tea?”

Stevenson started the eggs, then opened a pantry closet and pulled a tin off the shelf. “One day, princess, when all is said and done, you and I will have a long talk about life and irony. That is, if you even talk to me by then.”

“When all of what is said and done?”

“Nothing. Don’t mind me. I get cryptic when I’m overtired.”

It was his own fault. She had heard him through the night, wandering the house. “I said I wouldn’t try to escape again.” It was pointless once he mentioned all the cars had GPS trackers.

“And I believed you. Trust me; if I could’ve slept, I would have.” Stevenson placed a kettle in the sink and turned the faucet. Water shot from the spray nozzle and hit him square in the face. Cursing, he jumped back and shut the water, then inspected the sprayer, removing a broken piece of a Popsicle stick wedged behind the lever. He looked like he wanted to hit something, but then he turned to Hazel and his clenched fist relaxed.

“Is that what it takes?” He wiped his face and filled the kettle. “You almost smiled, for a moment at least. I was starting to wonder if you knew how.” He opened the sugar bowl, dipped his finger in and tasted the contents, winced, and dumped them into the garbage. He took a bag of sugar from the cabinet, tasting it first as well, then refilled the sugar bowl. He sliced a bagel into halves and dropped them into the toaster.

“Why am I here, really?”

“Questions, questions.” He set plates and coffee cups on the table. “You were in trouble. I couldn’t stand back and do nothing.” He served the eggs then dropped the ham on the hot skillet. “Not when you’re key in my plot for world domination.”

“Forget I asked.”

Hazel stretched across to the counter, picking up a ten-inch chef’s knife. She sat back, spinning the knife around in her hand, tucking the blade flat against the back of her arm, then, with a twist of her wrist, pivoting it around, blade forward and exposed. She repeated the practiced, fluid motion while Stevenson watched, amused.

“Did Joe teach you that?”

“Maybe.”

“He’s a strange one. He has a military background?”

Hazel shrugged. “Dunno.”

“But he served time in prison, right?”

“So I’ve heard.” It was before her time, though from what she understood, he’d still be there if not for some issue over inadmissible evidence. “It’s not something he talks about.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“His past is his own business.”

“Yet you trust him, even though you know there’s things he’s not telling you.”

“He’s earned it.” She swept the knife through the space between them with graceful precision. “What’s your point?”

“Nothing, really. Just an observation. Next question.”

Hazel switched the knife to her left hand, repeating the fluid motion. Her eyes locked on his. “Why me?”

Stevenson tilted the ham onto the plates as the toaster popped. “An excellent question.”

“What’s the answer?”

“I never said I’d answer.”

“Which answers one of my questions. You live alone because you’re a jerk.” A small movement on the floor caught her eye. Placing the knife aside, she lunged under the table, then stood, proudly displaying a cricket, live and unharmed, which she released out the back door. “You’ve got a serious pest problem,” she said, returning to the table.

Stevenson chuckled. “You could say that. Next question.”

She considered for a moment. “Is this house haunted?”

He seemed amused. “What do you mean?”

“The lights, the water, and why’d you paint all the mirrors black? I think there’s a ghost here, and it wants you gone.”

“You have no idea. Do the mirrors upset you?”

“Appearances are overrated.”

Stevenson beamed. “You and Annabel have a lot in common.”

If he expected she’d ask who Annabel was, he had a long wait ahead. “She doesn’t like you either.”

“That’s putting it mildly.” He brought her tea to the table, his eyes pausing on the shadow between her breasts. Hazel glared up, tugging the shirt closed.

“Why do you keep staring at me?”

“A rhetorical question, considering you’ve already jumped to your own conclusion. Actually I was looking at that shark’s tooth you keep touching like some sacred amulet. And despite what you believe, I’ve no intention of getting into those little black panties, even if your father hadn’t threatened me with dismemberment. Don’t get me wrong, you have many delightful qualities. Just not for me.”

“Is that it?” Hazel started eating. “You don’t like girls? That’s cool.”

“No. I prefer women. Trust me, you’re appealing, but temperamental, immature, a little too skinny, and way too young. Next question?”

Heat rose in her face. “Don’t you have someone your own age to play with?”

“My own age?” He chuckled. “How old do you think I am?”

“I don’t know. Older than my dad.”

“Thanks a lot.” He turned back to the stove as the water started to boil. “Try thirty-two.”

“So it’s true. Smoking makes you look older.
Way
older. Don’t you have somewhere else to be, like a job or something?”

“First of all, it’s Sunday. And I set my own hours.”

“Doing what?”

“I’m a developer. Drug running’s just a hobby.”

No wonder she disliked him. He was one of
them
. There was probably a fleet of bulldozers with his name on the sides. And that also explained the neglected house; he didn’t see the beauty beneath the disrepair; he’d likely bought it only to knock it down.

Stevenson grinned the least bit. “I take it you don’t approve of property development.”

“Knocking down perfectly good homes to stack starter mansions on top of each other? Endless beachfront condos and highways lined with bigger, shinier malls? No.”

“You don’t think Bivalve could benefit from a nice condo complex and some strip malls? Look at all that unutilized waterfront.”

Was he serious? “Paving the planet isn’t progress. Bivalve is being utilized just fine, but I guess there’s no profit in that.”

“That’s an inspiring sentiment. Tell me more. I’ll get you a soapbox if you’d like.” He picked up his cigarettes and lighter. “I’d love to hear this.”

“Never mind.” It was pointless. Greed-mongering land speculators like him didn’t care, and no amount of persuasion would change that. “This may be your house, but you light that thing, and one of us is going outside. Personally, I’d prefer it be you.”

“You’re saying I can’t smoke in here?”

“Precisely.”

“Say please.”

She glared at him as she rose, picking up her plate and mug.

“Okay.” He grinned. “Sit down. You win.”

He headed out to the yard, quietly laughing the whole way.

BOOK: Last Exit in New Jersey
13.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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