I dare you – dare you, I say – to read this first installment and not want to read the rest.
(unused cover art concept by Marc Sasso)
WHITE HOT PISTOL
Nash remembered the first time he escaped this town. Six years ago he drove the same stretch of highway, only then he didn’t have his little sister asleep in the passenger seat. Back then Jacy was only eleven.
She needed to escape for many of the same reasons. This town, a speck on a map, a town full of nothing but dead ends, it bled you dry. And then there was Brian.
Technically Jacy was Nash’s stepsister, and neither was Brian’s blood child. He was Mom’s third attempt at happily ever after, and the third time was decidedly not the charm.
Nash never had to deal with what Jacy did from Brian, though. Nobody should have to deal with what she did.
The dashboard clock was in single digits of the morning. He’d waited for hours outside the house, waiting for her to make her escape. He fought to stay awake, and now he was jealous of her snoring in the seat next to him. She’d gone to sleep so fast, so easy. Probably the unwinding of the noose around her neck as they cleared town limits. They could feel the rope loosen, even though Noirville is so gnat-shit small there’s no sign telling you you’ve left. It’s such an unremarkable feat, why waste the paint?
He couldn’t be too mad at her deep slumber. He knew the feeling of freeing himself from the bonds of this town, these people. Still, his head nodded, searching for sleep, and the steady rhythm of the highway made it worse.
Nash reached into Jacy’s purse for a smoke. He’d quit years ago, but after breaking his stepsister free from the gates of hell, he felt he’d earned it. Plus, the buzz would keep him awake.
He kept his eyes on the road as his hand swam inside the bag. Everything felt the same, like rooting through a garbage can, until he settled on the gun.
Nash lifted it out of the purse to confirm he was right. A small, snub-nosed .38.
Yeah, he thought, not a bad idea. He couldn’t be angry at Jacy, not after what she told him. A gun seemed like a damn good idea.
But no cigarettes. He saw a sign for a rest area ahead. They hadn’t cleared very many miles, but a short stop for a Coke out of the machine wouldn’t be a risk. Unless something unusual happened, Brian wouldn’t know Jacy was gone until morning and by then they’d be in another state, tracing Nash’s old escape route to safety.
Nash folded the top flap of her purse over to close it enough so the gun wouldn’t slide out. He felt grateful he hadn’t come up with a glass pipe out of her purse. Crystal meth seemed to be the number one high school sport in town lately. A far cry from the occasional pot and stolen beers of his own youth.
He knew she’d tried it, but didn’t know how truthful she’d been about how many times. Not that a little bump of crank wouldn’t get him across state lines in record time. He’d settle for a caffeine jolt instead.
The rest area showed up as a glow on the horizon a half mile away. With no other lights around and a flat midwestern landscape, the tall light posts had nowhere to hide. There were no secrets on the great plains. Not outdoors anyway.
Nash still couldn’t believe he’d come back. He turned around and never looked back the day he left. He thought of Jacy now and then, but it wasn’t like they were all that close growing up. He was already ten when she was born. When she turned seven her father was out and Brian was in. By eighteen Nash was gone and her nightmare was about to begin.
When she told him the timeline of when it all began with Brian, Nash couldn’t help feeling a little responsible. With him out of the house, the green light was lit for Brian to begin his late night visits to her bedroom. To her bed.
She begged Nash to come home, to help her get out the way he had done. He couldn’t say no.
Escape was the best option. Calling the cops, reporting the abuse were options too, but not good ones. Hard to call the cops on your stepdad when your stepdad is the sheriff.
Nash eased his Honda, all one hundred and fifty-three thousand miles of it, onto the exit ramp, moving like a mesmerized insect to the three mercury vapor lamps high on their stanchions over the single octagonal building. A men’s and women’s restroom, a map on the wall, a few brochures for what passed as tourist attractions around these parts, and a row of vending machines beside a broken drinking fountain. It all seemed like an oasis to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on this lonely stretch of highway, especially at night. To Nash it was only the last gasp of his stupid home town. Small, inadequate, useful only for pissing and shitting and then moving on down the road.
Only one other vehicle, a cube truck with a big storage area in back sat parked under the lights. Smaller than a semi, it reminded Nash of the U-Haul he rented when he moved apartments last fall. Finally he owned things. Not like when he left town with nothing more than a half-filled suitcase and a broken guitar.
Nash brought the car to a rolling stop, making sure not to jerk to a halt so as not to wake up Jacy. She stayed asleep as he turned the key and let the motor rest. He watched her for a few seconds, the deep calm settling over her as she took relaxing breaths for the first time in years, finally free from the fear her bedroom door might open and Brian might slip inside.
Nash pushed gently on the door until it clicked shut. He headed for the small building thinking he would get one can of Coke and down it quick, here, then get another for the road. He opened his wallet and dug out a few singles to feed the machine. He hoped like hell some ex-con state worker had remembered to restock the soda cans, or that the damn thing wasn’t waiting inside to mock him with an Out Of Order sign.
As he stepped onto the curb he could see the front end of the cube truck. Both doors were open and he saw a dark shape half in and half out of the passenger side. He stopped and listened. The truck’s engine was off, he heard no other traffic from the highway, no voices in the night. He figured the driver must be in the toilet. With no one around and virtually no traffic, it must have seemed safe to leave the doors open while he took a piss.
Then Nash looked closer at the shape. The body was upside-down, which is why he didn’t recognize it as a person at first. Feet clad in worn Timberland boots pointed up into the truck’s cab while the slumped figure of a man rested on his head against the asphalt of the parking lot. The open door cast a shadow over the body so Nash couldn’t tell if it was a young man or an old man, black or white, alive or dead. He could at least make an educated guess on the last one.
He folded the dollar bills in his hand and pushed them into his front pocket as he began walking toward the truck.
“Hello?” he said. No one answered.
As he got closer he saw the man’s head was turned away, staring at the underside of the truck like he had engine trouble and he stumbled out of the cab going to check it. But the body didn’t move.
Nash stepped closer, smelled something he didn’t recognize, and bent low.
“Hello?” he said again. He felt foolish doing it.
He knew for sure he was looking at a dead body, but he wanted to check before he called someone. An ambulance or the police, the choice would be decided by a quick check for a pulse.
Nash slid two fingers around the back of the man’s neck and walked his middle and pointer fingers forward to hunt for the artery on his neck facing the underside of the truck.
Nash felt something wet.
He jerked his hand away and it came back stained red. As he tore his arm back from the body, he bumped the corpse and it slid the rest of the way down from the cab until it lay on the flat pavement of the parking lot, half the body sprawled over into a handicapped spot.
Nash could see the wide opening on his neck. Without thinking he wiped his hand on his jeans, smearing the fresh blood across his thigh. And it was fresh, he thought. Still warm, in fact. This man hadn’t been dead for long.
Falling with the man from the cab of the truck had been a metallic sound and a glint of silver. Nash looked more closely and saw a knife a few inches away from the man’s shoulder, as if he had it tucked under his chin when he fell. The blade was long and blood stained, the ebony handle Nash expected to be inlaid with the words Murder Weapon.
He knew he should call the cops, but when the local jurisdiction involved a late-night wake up call to the man he least wanted to see in the world, the one whose stepdaughter was currently being kidnapped in Nash’s front seat, he decided a phone call could wait. The man from the truck wasn’t going to get any deader. Nash could drive on a ways and call the state troopers from a gas station or diner. Some place where he could use a pay phone and his cell wouldn’t get traced.
It was the first time he thought of what he was doing for Jacy could be reasoned a kidnapping. Nash always considered it more of a prison break. As far as Brian would be concerned, though, damn right it’s a kidnapping.
A minor, stolen away from her home under cover of night without prior knowledge of her two legal guardians. Yep, that about fit the textbook definition.
Nash asked Jacy if Mom know of her plans, back when he first got the phone call for help. She said no. He agreed it would be too risky. She might tell Brian. After all, she married him. Neither Nash nor Jacy knew where their mother’s loyalties rested anymore.
Nash squinted at the dead man’s pockets. No wallet that he could see. He didn’t want to touch a corpse, so the dead man’s identity would have to wait to be revealed until the professionals got there. Nash went to the driver’s side of the truck. No second body there. Whoever had been driving was long gone by then, hopefully with less blood on him than Nash.
The whole thing was too surreal for him. It didn’t feel like a crime scene. The quiet calm both emboldened him and lit his curiosity. He wanted to know what the hell happened. He knew truck drivers sometimes kept their license in the cab with them so he checked the glove box, but found nothing. He turned down the visor over the driver’s seat and found a copy of the registration rubber banded in place. He moved it to read the name and address and a small, hard object fell out from behind the paper. A high pitched ting sounded in the cab as a small piece of metal bounced off the turn signal stick and landed in the cup holder beside the gear shift.
Nash looked down. A key, small and silver. Nash looked between the seats to something he’d overlooked before. A strong box. He passed over the metal box pushed down between the big bucket seats thinking it held tools or some other truck driver’s friend like jumper cables.
Staring up at him from the top of the box was a small keyhole. The box would have held a decent amount of wrenches or sockets, enough to repair a faulty engine, he supposed. Or maybe a change of clothes for a long haul night. But no, this wasn’t a semi. A truck this size is for moving things short distances. Small items, small trips.
And besides, it’s not like the guy on the pavement outside would get offended if Nash took a peek inside his secret box.
Nash picked up the key and had a premonition of how stupid he would feel once the key didn’t work in the box. He’d laugh to himself and then move on down the road, the can of Coke unnecessary now that adrenalin raced through his veins, faster and stronger than caffeine.
The key fit. He felt the silence of the night outside. Still no traffic from the road. The lamps high overhead gave off a steady electric hum, but otherwise there were no nature sounds. No birds, no insects in the trees, no barking dogs far away. Nash was as isolated as he’d ever been, and the cab of the truck felt more and more like a coffin.
His curiosity won out over his fear. He lifted the lid on the metal box.
Inside was a worn canvas bag in army green, stuffed in until it coiled fabric over itself in rippling waves like intestines packed tight in a gut. He didn’t lift the bag out, but unzipped it. Inside were stacks of money. Tightly bound stacks in rows also bound together by plastic wrap. Every bill staring at him was a hundred. The row of tiny Ben Franklins seemed to all gasp for air at the same time, free from their dungeon.
Nash knew he’d made a mistake. A dead body, a large sum of cash. And there he was getting his fingerprints all over the inside of a crime scene. He started to think of how many places he was going to have to wipe down. He wondered if they could lift a print from the neck wound of the John Doe outside.
He cursed himself for not thinking of this before. Goddamn highway hypnosis or something. He hadn’t fully come awake until now. But he knew it was stupid, morbid curiosity. Too many hours of watching death and crime scenes on TV made the whole situation unreal.
But stacks of real money? That you don’t see everyday.
“What’s going on?”
Nash jumped so high he hit his head on the roof of the truck’s cab. He turned to see Jacy standing outside the passenger side door, staring down at the body.
“Jesus, Jacy. You scared the shit out of me.”
“How do you think I felt? I woke up and I was alone in the car with no idea where I was.” She turned her attention back to the body. “Is he dead?”
“Yes.” Nash started to climb out of the cab, backing out the driver’s side. Once the shock settled, he found he was glad to have someone there to share in the bizarre situation, and to help with cleanup. “Don’t touch anything.”
“Holy shit,” she said, examining the body through squinted eyes. “He’s really dead.”
“That’s not all,” Nash said. He’d brought the canvas beg out of the cab with him. He knew it was another stupid thing to do, but he had to show her. It was the most insane thing he’d ever seen in his life. How could he ignore it?
“What’s that?” Jacy asked.
He parted his hands, letting the open zipper gape. Neat rows of wide-eyed Benjamins greeted Jacy in the warm night air, their sly grins inviting her into the game.
Her eyes went wide at the small grocery bag-sized stash of loot. “Is that . . .?”
“Yeah,” Nash said, taking his own long look at the money. “I think it is.”
“Holy double shit.”
He noticed a lot more country twang in her voice since he’d left. This damn town was going more hick with each passing year. He didn’t think it was possible.
“What the hell are we gonna do?” Jacy asked.
“Call the cops,” he said. “State cops though. And not from a cell phone. We’ll find a pay phone on down the line.”
The other voice startled them both. “Afraid I can’t let you do that.”http://bookxy.com/