Authors: Lucia Sinn
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thriller & Suspense, #Romance, #Romantic Suspense, #Suspense, #Mystery & Suspense
TAKE THE MONEY
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, businesses and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, are coincidental. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means including scanning, photocopying, or otherwise without prior written permission of the copyright holder.
Copyright © 2014 Lucia Sinn
All rights reserved.
Cover by Suzie Hunt.
When the antique clock chimed eight, Julie Lawson wished it were midnight. It was that melancholy week between the holidays, but the Kensington House was still bedecked with Christmas splendor. Red poinsettias spilled from tall white urns, and holly wreaths adorned the damask covered walls and high molded ceilings.
“Why, Julie Lawson, of all people. What are you doing, waitressing here?”
Julie gripped her short pencil, hoping no one would notice the slight tremor in her hands. At the table sat a group of her former classmates from Lewiston South, class of 2005.
“Trying to decide whether to apply for med school,” Julie said. She tried to force a small laugh, but her mouth was dry, and it stuck in her throat.
“Why, how very, um, interesting.” Stephanie Talbot pushed a long strand of silky blonde hair away from her tanned face and tucked it behind a diamond-studded ear.
“You were always so...bright.” She was looking not at Julie but at the sneering faces of the handsome young men and women seated around the table. The collective skills of orthodontists, dermatologists, and cosmetic surgeons had been employed to spare all of them the usual discomforts of protruding teeth, acne and crooked noses. The problem was, they hadn’t been satisfied with mere popularity. They’d wanted all the honors. Stephanie had never forgiven Julie for being selected as class valedictorian, while she--the class beauty--had won only second place as the salutatorian. It all seemed pointless and long ago, but Julie supposed it was satisfying to see your old rival in the brains department waiting to take your dinner order.
Julie took their drink requests--white wine for the women, vodka tonics and beer for the men--and quickly fled to the bar, trying not to listen as their loud whispers trailed after her.
“Can’t believe it, what a comedown. Didn’t she have a scholarship to Princeton?”
Julie’s boss, Kevin, shot her a penetrating look as she escaped into the kitchen to regroup. Her white uniform blouse--too short for her long waist--wouldn’t stay inside her black miniskirt, and stray wisps of her long brown hair straggled out of the clasp at the nape of her neck. She couldn’t get the knack of looking like a seasoned waitress.
“Something’s wrong, Babe.” Kevin moved closer and lifted her chin, his deep-set blue eyes full of concern. He was six-two to her five-nine--a difference that Julie found comforting as he towered over her protectively. He had powerful shoulders, and his large muscles tightened as she ran her hands down the arm of his starched white shirt that smelled faintly of laundry soap.
“Why? Do I look upset?” Julie moved away, hoping he wouldn’t see her pulse beating in her neck.
But Kevin wasn’t giving up. “You saw someone out there you didn’t want to see, right?”
“I don’t even know why I care,” Julie told him. “It just brings back some bad memories, things you wouldn’t understand.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because you were never a nerd like me.”
“How do you know?”
Julie couldn’t help but smile. Kevin had a shock of black hair, neatly parted, and a rugged face with angular features and soft full lips. He’d been a basketball star at the country high school he’d attended. Definitely not a nerd. Why he was attracted to her, she wasn’t sure, but they had been lovers since Thanksgiving. Just being next to him was restoring some of her shaken self-confidence. “I’ve got to get back out there,” she told him. “Can’t keep people waiting.”
Kevin untied his apron and took her arm. “You’re not going back,” he said. “We’re about out of steaks and you’re going with me to pick up another pack.”
“What do you mean, who’s going to take care of my customers? Edna has too many tables already.”
“Worried about missing some tips?” Kevin teased.
“Of course not,” Julie said. “In fact, Edna needs the money more than I do, her husband was laid off last week.”
“Look, it’s slow tonight, I’m the boss, and I say you’re coming with me.”
Julie grabbed her navy pea coat and followed Kevin down the long hallway toward the front door. On the way out, she glanced in the mirror and was dismayed to see how gaunt her face appeared in the old-fashioned gaslight. Since she’d come home and lost ten pounds, her hazel eyes seemed almost too large above her aquiline nose, emphasizing the hollowness of her cheeks. She loosened her thick hair from its clasp to soften her appearance while Kevin impatiently pulled her out into the night.
It was unseasonably warm and there’d been no snow for Christmas. A half moon was barely visible behind a veil of drifting clouds, and a northwest wind had swept into the valley, bringing a fine cool ran that left a silvery sheen on bare trees silhouetted against the sky.
Kevin took a few steps ahead and opened the door of a white car that glistened in the haze next to the streetlight. Julie sucked in her breath, then stepped back to get a better look. “This is a Porsche, isn’t it?”
Julie hesitated. She hated flashy cars, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “Of course. Whose is it?”
“Guess?” He took a sip of whiskey from a crystal bar glass, his eyes engaging her with raised eyebrows and a smug grin.
Julie leaned against the door for support. “Don’t tell me it’s yours. How could you afford it right now?”
“Not to worry, beautiful, it’s paid for.” He held out the glass. “Want a taste?”
“I think I need one.” Julie took a sip, waiting for the warmth to spread through her body. She wasn’t much of a drinker, but the scene in the restaurant had rattled her and Kevin’s new car was a shock. She’d only known him a few months, long enough to know that the restaurant’s nightly take barely covered salaries and expenses.
They lowered themselves into the soft leather seats and Kevin revved the motor as the car shot across the intersection. “Where are we headed?” Julie asked.
“Over to West Lewiston.”
“That far just to pick up steaks? Can’t we stop at Krogers’?”
“Nah, my buddy over at the Saddle Club will lend me a box of choice filets. We trade back and forth all the time.”
“May I have another sip?” Julie didn’t want another drink; she just thought Kevin shouldn’t finish what was left. He handled his liquor well, but a white Porsche was going to attract attention from any squad car cruising the streets.
“Sure.” Kevin handed her the glass as they sped toward the edge of town. Soon they were crossing the bridge that spanned the Wabash River made famous by the songwriter Paul Dresser.
When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash, how I long for my Indiana home.
No candlelight gleaming through the Sycamore trees tonight, only yellow spots of electricity beaming out from the dirty shacks lining the muddy shores on the ugly side of the river. But at least they were out of Lewiston. Julie leaned back, grateful to be rescued from an awkward scene. How could she still be bothered by an ignorant little snip like Stephanie?
They crossed the bridge and turned out toward the countryside, winding their way across the two-lane highway that snaked through farmland. Suddenly a light shone in the rearview mirror as a pickup truck behind them drew close.
“Damn tailgater,” Kevin said, pressing his foot harder against the accelerator.
But the truck kept coming. Without warning, it pulled alongside them, and Julie got a glimpse of a heavy-set man with a white crew cut. “Who is it?” she called out. “What does he want?”
Kevin ducked his head and gripped the steering wheel. His eyes were wide with alarm, and his lips were pale. “He wants me,” he said.
“Then stop, for God’s sake. He’s about to run us down.”
“Can’t do it, Babe.” The indicator on the speedometer shot forward. Julie grabbed the armrest and prayed, something she hadn’t done in years. Surely the pickup wouldn’t make it to 100 mph. On the dark road, another car came toward them but quickly faded in the distance as they threaded their way through the narrow roads, then started climbing. Streaks of lightening zigzagged across the sky, followed by a crack of thunder and a burst of heavy rain. Rivulets of moisture streamed across the windshield, making it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Then the dashboard was awash with a spectral light. An earsplitting, body-wrenching jolt hit the car, and Julie heard a scream coming from her own throat as the car pitched forward into the dark ravine below. Their headlights sent beams of light spinning across the sky while the car twisted and tumbled through the air.
Her mother’s face flashed before Julie’s eyes. “I love you, Mom,” she whispered, and all was quiet
* * *
Julie realized she was alive because she could move her arms. The headlights were still on, but the car was quiet as a tomb. She extricated herself from the airbag, searched for the interior light switch, and flicked it on, her eyes watering as they adjusted to the sudden glare. Kevin’s head lay on his shoulder like a puppet with its strings pulled too tight. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open, his breath coming in feeble gasps.
“Can you hear me?” she asked, grasping his hand. His icy fingers gripped hers for a moment, then went limp.
“Can you move?”
“No,” he whispered. “Broken.” Blood trickled from his nostrils, and Julie gently wiped it away. He took a gulp of air, struggling to stay conscious.
“Kevin, listen to me. I’ve got to go call an ambulance, get you some help immediately. That is, if my legs will work and I can get out of here.”
His eyelids fluttered, and he looked at her with a glassy stare. “The money,” he whispered. “Take the money and run.”
“In the back seat.”
“I can’t worry about that, I’ve got to get help.”
“No,” he said. “Won’t make it. They’ll get you too. Take it and go. Run.”
There was urgency in his voice. What did he mean, they’d get her too? But of course, she’d seen the face of the man in the truck. He wouldn’t want her around to identify him, would he?
She looked in the back seat and saw a cheap dark green backpack, the kind you buy at a discount store. Surely nothing valuable was in it, but something told her to take it. She leaned over and pressed her cheek against the stubble on Kevin’s cool face and ran her fingers through his hair. His head was still, motionless. “I’m getting help,” she said. “Hang on, don’t lose hope. I’ll be right back.”
He made an agitated attempt to raise his head, but it dropped back and he spoke with effort. “No police. They’re in it.”
Julie reached back for the bag, even though pain shot up her arm and something seemed to be pulling at her back. She eased her way out of the car, hoping everything would work. Fear gave her a strength she didn’t know she possessed, and she forced her long legs to pump hard. The old years of cross-country training kicked in. She was away from the scene and deep into the woods in the seconds before an orange glow flashed across the sky. Fire. Terrified, she grabbed a tree limb to keep from falling, then turned to look back. A booming explosion filled the air, and she sank to her knees as the car burst into flames. She knew it was hopeless now. Kevin couldn’t have survived. She looked up toward the darkened highway, hoping a car would appear, when she heard a loud rumble. In the eerie glow from the fire, a red pickup pulled to a stop.
The door opened and she got a full view of Kevin’s killer as he climbed out and stood at the top of the hill. He had the meaty look of a high school athlete who’d gone to flab. His belly bulged out over too-tight jeans held up by a silver-buckled belt, and his porcine cheeks were florid under bottlebrush hair. Instinctively, Julie drew back into the bushes as he looked down at the fiery car. But when he found out, she knew Kevin was right. He’d try to get her, too.
Julie’s heart raced as she took a few tentative steps forward, but she forced herself to stay motionless even though every nerve in her body was straining to flee. Headlights peeped through the trees at the bottom of the hill. Someone was coming. The man jumped in the pickup and drove away. She was safe; help was on the way. But was it?
What had Kevin said?
Take the money.
In Lewiston, an automobile wreck was front-page news, especially when someone was killed. If she was described as a survivor, the media would waste no time contacting her. Her picture and name splashed across the front page would only make her a moving target for Porky.
How much time did she have? Her lungs, filling with air, seemed on fire and her legs ached as she raced through the woods back toward town. Mud squished underfoot and cold rain pelted her body, but she was driven by a burning fear. Gotta get away. Gotta get away. The words kept repeating themselves in her head like a mantra. But where?
As she crossed the bridge, she came to a streetlight, fished in her pocket for her cell phone and punched in the numbers.
“911,” came the brisk answer in a youthful male voice.
“There’s been an accident out in West Lewiston on highway 140, two miles from 70, on the right. A car exploded, and a man is trapped inside.”
“Is he still alive?”
“I’m sure he’s dead.”