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Authors: C.E. Grundler

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BOOK: Last Exit in New Jersey
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Pierce grinned. “Well, well. Look who we have here, all by her lonesome.”

Hazel’s stomach sank. Over the years, she learned if she couldn’t avoid him, the best way to deal with Pierce was not to acknowledge him. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much the mere sight of him disgusted her or how his presence still triggered a rush of fear she’d never completely overcome. Now he had her cornered, and she couldn’t ignore him or her building panic. Instinctively her hand dropped to her pocket and the razor-sharp knife clipped there.

“Don’t.” Pierce lifted his shirt enough to reveal a handgun he’d tucked into his jeans, right beside the scar she’d given him. “Yeah,” he said, seeing the alarm in her eyes. His hand lingered by the undone top button of his fly. “You know you want it.”

Rheingold gave him a look. “Cut the crap. That’s not why we’re here.”

Since he seemed to be calling the shots, she asked Pierce’s companion, “Why are you?”

“We’re looking for Micah.”

Of course they were, along with every other lowlife this side of Jersey. What had Micah gotten himself into?

Pierce said, “Yeah, little girl. Where’s the blue-haired freak?”

Two of them, one of her. Her father and safety were just outside and across the lot, but she was trapped. She couldn’t run, and even if she could find the breath to scream, no one would hear her over the Travelift.

“I don’t know.” Her voice sounded like someone else’s. Someone scared.

“That so?” Pierce lifted the shark’s tooth, fingers brushing along her breast, lingering, snickering when she flinched. “I think you know exactly where he is.”

She reached to push him away, and his other hand dropped to the gun. Rheingold stepped between them, shoving Pierce back. “I said cut the crap.” He gave Hazel a smile meant to be reassuring. “We just want to talk to Micah.”

“I don’t know where he is.” And even if she did, she’d never tell them.

Rheingold’s smile evaporated. “We were checking out your car before. I thought we took out a tire, but wasn’t sure, the way you kept going. I’ll give you, that was some damn impressive driving you did.”

Rheingold continued, “I think Pierce is right. You know where Micah is. You let Micah know Kessler wants what he took, and he better return it fast if he doesn’t want anything bad happening to you. And I’m sure you don’t want anything bad happening to your dad because you’re protecting Micah. Understand?”

Hazel looked from Pierce to Rheingold, her throat tight, her mind numb.

Rheingold nodded, satisfied. “She understands.” They turned to leave.

“Wait.”

Both men turned and Hazel swallowed. “My dad doesn’t know where he is. But yeah, I do.”

“Is that so?” Rheingold said. “Where?”

“I’ll show you.” She paused, her mind scrambling. She was running out of options, and once she left with Stevenson’s boat, there was no telling what would happen to her father. She had to do something to protect him. She considered the axe soaking in the parts bath, but that would only create a bigger mess than she was already in. What would Travis do? She had one idea, risky as hell, but desperate times called for desperate measures. She’d never seen Rheingold around; it was likely he knew little about the local waters, and Pierce couldn’t read a chart to save his life. That might just give her the upper hand. “Wait at the docks. It’s easier if you follow by boat.”

“See?” Rheingold smiled pleasantly as he left. “Was that so hard?”

Outside, the familiar sound of the Travelift clattered, hauling Stevenson’s boat over the trailer. Life as normal. But it wasn’t normal, it only looked that way on the surface. Everything was unraveling. She moved to the window, watching as Pierce and Rheingold strolled past the lift. Rheingold turned back toward the office, nodding to Hazel. She backed away from the window and bumped into Stevenson.

He smiled grimly. “We keep running into each other.”

When did he come in? She’d never heard the door. Had he been there the whole time? His expression offered no clue, only that unsettling, detached scrutiny. Hazel took a deep breath, gathering herself. “What now?”

“Your father sent me. He needs the truck keys.”

“Tell him I’ll be right out.”

Stevenson leaned against the wall, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. “I was told not to return without you.”

Hazel watched the smoke curl toward the ceiling, and she tried to think. She’d hoped to quietly slip from sight, but clearly that wasn’t happening. If this was going to work, the first order of business was a diversion.

“Just a minute.” She stepped into the dark shop, re-emerging with a closed cardboard box in her arms. She handed Stevenson
RoadKill’s
keys. “Give these to my dad.”

He eyed the box suspiciously. “What’s that?”

“It’s a box full of mind your own business.”

He regarded the keys with immense satisfaction, closing his hand around them as though they were some sacred treasure. “My own business.” He laughed as he followed her back to
RoadKill.

Not slowing, Hazel continued past, to the far end of the lot. She checked that no one was watching, then slipped behind the Dumpster and hastily opened the box. She uncapped the two-liter bottle of gasoline she’d lifted from the shop, shoved a bottle-rocket in nose-first, and lit the extended fuse. She dropped the box into the open Dumpster then returned to
RoadKill
, climbed into the cab, and waited.

Roughly two minutes later, the first screeching whistle cut through the humid air, stopping everyone in their tracks. The gasoline ignited with a deep
FHWHOOM
, sending a flaming mushroom cloud upwards, and then the show really started rocking.

“Hazel?” Her father looked around anxiously as white sparks spewed from the Dumpster like a volcano.

“Right here,” she called innocently from the truck, admiring the chaos. Contained by the Dumpster, colors frothed from the top in an impressive chain reaction, and a dense cloud of sulfur smoke spread across the lot. It was a shame Micah wasn’t there. He would have appreciated the mayhem.

“Stay back!” Her father grabbed
RoadKill’s
extinguisher and charged toward the pyrotechnics.

“Okay,” Hazel agreed, climbing down from the cab. He didn’t define how far back. The docks were back. He should have been more specific, not that it mattered. By the time the confusion sorted itself out, she’d be gone.

Kindling’s
outboard started with reassuring smoothness. From the boat she watched her father shouting to Joe. The Saturn rockets reached ignition, shrieking as they launched in machine-gun rapid-fire, and everyone jumped back a respectful distance. Hazel spotted Pierce’s boat, still docked and puffing blue smoke as she cast off lines; by the looks of it, he was having engine trouble. She could do this, she told herself as she guided
Kindling
into the channel. She had to. Once her father was safe, she’d gladly take whatever grief he’d surely give her. Over the racket from the Dumpster, she could barely hear the rumble of her old two-stroke outboard as she pushed the throttle forward.

Out on the open water with
Kindling
on plane, skimming over the smooth swells, Hazel felt better. Shore was falling away, disappearing into the afternoon haze. Hot wind whipped through her hair, and the shaking in her hands began to settle. She was back in her element, back in control. Kindling’s hull was solid and her ancient Mercury 175 hummed at peak performance. Pierce’s boat, on the other hand, was forever breaking down, and Hazel knew water had rotted much of the cored hull. Beneath a shiny fiberglass exterior laid a disaster waiting to sink. She figured she’d keep just ahead of them, leading them out toward deeper water, then swing around and ram them with
Kindling
’s reinforced bow, shattering their hull like a rotten egg. Then it would be her turn to ask questions while she circled just out of reach. She didn’t want to consider the prospect of being shot at, but it was a risk she had to take. And if they did start shooting, she’d keep the bow up, duck low, and hope they couldn’t swim and shoot straight.

The next time she looked back, she saw the one thing she hadn’t counted on:
Rust
, Joe’s old patrol boat, coming up fast. Way faster than
Kindling’s
top speed.
Rust
meant Joe, Joe meant her father—and she knew what that meant. She pulled the throttle back, dropping to neutral and awaiting the worst. The boat settled in the water, and the stern wave caught up, lifting
Kindling
as it passed beneath.

She’d plead insanity, she decided; after the last few days, that seemed plausible and far better than explaining she’d been using herself as bait. Rather than watch their approach, she turned to the depth finder, as though it might indicate the trouble she was in. That’s what she needed, a deep-shit-o-meter. Or GPS that displayed how far up Shit’s Creek she presently was, less the necessary paddle.

As
Rust
drew closer, Hazel looked over, braced for her father’s fury, and it took her a moment to process the unthinkable: Pierce was at the helm.

Frantically she pegged the throttle, and
Kindling
leapt forward. It was pointless; there was no outrunning
Rust
, and no ramming her, either: the steel hull would make kindling of
Kindling.
They closed in and Hazel spun the wheel. Pierce overshot and swung around.
Kindling
could turn tighter, but
Rust
could cover more water. Pierce quickly closed the gap between them, and Hazel knew there was only so long she could keep dodging. The radio barked her name: her father’s voice, more terrified than angry, calling for her. She felt a stab of guilt but was too busy to answer.
Rust
came back for another pass, sheets of water slicing away from the bow as it carved through the waves, Pierce grinning like a lunatic. She swung the wheel starboard, but the steer-age had been sticking lately and it hung up a second too long.
Rust’s
heavy steel bow struck
Kindling
with a ghastly, splintering sound, spinning the small boat around, throwing Hazel from the helm. She scrambled to stand, stumbling on scattered fishing tackle. Cold seawater soaked her sneakers and rose around her ankles as it rushed between the crushed planks.

Pierce idled alongside, using
Rust’s
hull to further slow
Kindling
even as the outboard continued to push the damaged boat in circles. “Nice try, Hazel. I knew you were being a bit too agreeable.”

Water swirled up to her knees, rising by the second. Hazel scanned the horizon.
Rust
may have been up there in years, but nothing else in the yard could move as fast as the retired patrol boat, and they both knew it.

“Plan on going down with the ship? How ’bout you be a good girl and come with us, we all go see Micah.”

Hazel scrambled for the flare gun mounted beside the helm.
Kindling
sank lower, listing to the starboard.

“Get back!” She loaded the orange pistol, debating which way to fire. Despite what she’d seen in movies, signal flares didn’t pack much punch. Still, Pierce might not know that, and it would probably hurt like hell. Then again, it could just as likely bounce off the target. She was better off signaling her father.

“Told you she wouldn’t cooperate,” Pierce said over the revving outboard. “Shoot her before she gets a signal up.”

The horror of his words sank in as Rheingold raised a pistol. There was a quiet sound, and stinging burned through Hazel’s shoulder. She pulled out a red-tailed plastic dart, staring at the hypodermic needle. An animal tranquilizer, likely stolen from some veterinary clinic.

“How long’s it take to kick in?” asked Rheingold.

Pierce secured lines to
Kindling’s
cleats, tethering the still-moving boat as it spun them in a slow circle even as it sank lower. “How should I know? Just grab the damned flare gun, we don’t need the Coast Guard showing up. And shut that damned motor.”

Rheingold jumped aboard the listing
Kindling
. Hazel was cornered, sickening numbness spread through her, but she still had the flare gun. She struggled to fire upward as Rheingold grabbed her hand to wrestle the gun away, and a fireball of brilliant light erupted, blinding and searing hot, striking Rheingold in the face. He flailed backwards, roaring and swatting at his burning face and clothing, then jumped overboard, extinguishing the flames. He paddled next to the sinking boat, cursing and sputtering, scrambling to pull himself aboard. Hazel’s legs gave way beneath her. Rheingold was halfway over the gunwale, his singed face contorted in fury, when his grip slid and he fell backwards as the boat continued to turn. The outboard, still revving full throttle, made an awful grating sound as the prop fouled.

Pierce bellowed as he charged aboard and leaned over the transom, but by his expression it was too late. An unnatural heaviness pulled at her, and Hazel tried to stand, but her body wouldn’t respond. Her father called again from the VHF, shouting for her over background noise, his voice cut off as rising water shorted
Kindling’s
battery and the engine quit. Hazel’s brain raced in terror, but her body was paralyzed.

“Fucking bitch,” Pierce snarled.

She saw the kick coming; she couldn’t even close her eyes, but felt nothing.
Kindling
sank lower and she lay there, unable to hold her breath as water rose and covered her eyes, filling her open mouth. Her vision narrowed into a tunnel of dim light, washing over her in a wave of red.

I’VE GOT TO WATCH WHAT I SAY
 
 

With the old freezer out, Gary, Hammon, and crew lowered its replacement into place. At six feet by two by two, it was intended to transport game fish, or, in Hammon’s case, enough frozen burritos, White Castle Sliders, waffles, and Popsicles to go long stretches between grocery runs. While he transferred his thawing provisions to the new freezer with space to spare, he silently agonized over the coming week. The car issues were bad enough, but nothing compared to informing Annabel he’d be gone three days. He fished out a frozen Strawberry Shortcake bar, peeling back the wrapper, and offered Gary one.

“Do you eat anything besides junk?”

Hammon contemplated the bar. “It’s dairy and fruit.”

“Barely. You can’t live on Popsicles.”

“That’s what Annabel—” Hammon coughed, ice cream turning to lead in his stomach. “—used to say.” It almost sounded convincing, if not for the hiccup.

Gary’s eyes narrowed. “I’m warning you. I hear you’re so much as talking to her, I’m calling Stevenson. You might not believe me, but it’s for your own good.”

BOOK: Last Exit in New Jersey
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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