Authors: Sandra Balzo
Tags: #light mystery, #Women Sleuths, #cozy mystery, #amateur sleuth, #small town mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #women's fiction, #Fiction, #north carolina
'Back off, Jack,' AnnaLise muttered, putting the window back up. 'Or whatever your name is.'
'If the tailgating bothers you so much,' her mother said in a reasonable tone, 'take the road up here on the left.’
AnnaLise slowed to make the turn, the other vehicle nearly clipping her as he roared past.
‘Asshole,’ Daisy called after him.
‘Daisy Griggs, and you're scolding me for my – ’ She interrupted herself. ‘Did that sign say DEAD END?’
‘It did, but you've lived up here long enough to realize that some ends are deader than others. We can get through, you just have to know how.’
AnnaLise glanced at her mother as they passed one lone round house that probably backed up to the ski hill, but from this side resembled one of those Sweet Tart lollipops that looks like a space ship on a stick. Except wooden and rustic, of course. ‘Are you sure this connects? Preferably to where we want to go?’ Which, increasingly for the younger woman, was down.
‘At least where
want to go,’ Daisy said. ‘Here, slow up so you can make this right.’
‘Onto what?’ AnnaLise asked, following orders. The little convertible's tires crunched. ‘Oh, goody. A gravel road, and this high on the mountain.’
‘More like a trail. We used to take this all the time when I was a girl. Just keep the car centered and we'll be fine.’
The tailgating SUV was looking better and better by comparison. AnnaLise ducked instinctively when a low-hanging branch came into view, despite having left the car's canvas top up against the autumn chill in the air. Which brought to mind another problem.
‘With the convertible roof closed the sightlines in this car are obstructed enough, without having to trail-blaze our way through,’ AnnaLise griped. She'd slunk down so the top of her head was about level with the apex of the steering wheel. ‘Not to mention that the Spyder rides so low, we're going to get hung up. This car isn't made for off-roading.’ Nor was AnnaLise.
‘Honestly,’ Daisy said, ‘stop being such an old lady. We won't get stuck – the turn-off is right up here.’
was calling her an old lady.
AnnaLise tried to buck up, carefully keeping the car centered and moving forward. Finally, a break in the trees. Hallelujah – an end was in sight. ‘I turn here?’ she asked, edging over toward the enticingly level clearing.
‘No!’ Daisy practically shouted.
AnnaLise jerked the little car back onto the road. ‘My God, Daisy, why – Holy shit! Was that a gunshot?’
‘More than likely.’ Daisy was calmer now. ‘There's a new range at the base of the mountain.’
It had sounded a lot closer than that to AnnaLise. She flexed her hands on the steering wheel, trying to loosen up. ‘Firing range?’
‘The county put it in. Mostly for law enforcement, though your police chief friend Chuck let me squeeze off a few rounds when it opened.’
Reassuring to know her friends were taking such good care of her mother, even to deadly force practice. What would they expose her to next, mixed martial arts? Cage fighting?
‘Here!’ her mother said, pointing. ‘
break in the trees.’
AnnaLise sat up a bit so she could see that there was indeed solid ground where Daisy wanted her to turn. She nosed the Spyder between two stands of sugar maples, already turning a vibrant red-orange. ‘This will get us back on the road?’
‘Yes'm,’ Daisy said, self-satisfied. ‘Now that wasn't so bad, was it? Now goose the gas over this little embankment and we'll be on the road just south of the bridge.’
?’ AnnaLise slammed on her brakes, but the car, having surged forward on Daisy's directions, went up and over the rise, landing crossways to block the road. ‘Why would you make me – ’
As AnnaLise spoke, she was stepping on the gas but getting nothing. The Mitsubishi had died.
Hands shaking, AnnaLise turned the key in the ignition, willing it to catch. Nothing. More turning, the same: not a sputter, not a grinding, not even a pathetic tick/tick.
The road they now blocked led onto the curving bridge, the north end of the ‘c’ in view across the gorge. Sutherton Bridge was never a welcome sight to AnnaLise, but even she preferred the bridge's low concrete wall and rail to the stretch of road they were now stuck on – as high above the ground as the bridge itself, but with only a gravel shoulder.
‘Relax, AnnaLise, there's no one coming.’ Despite the reassuring words, Daisy was craning her neck, trying to watch for cars that might be speeding down the mountain via the curved bridge. ‘If you panic, it'll just – ’
‘'Park.' The car has to be in park.’ AnnaLise stepped on the brake and moved the gear shift from D to P, then turned the key again. Now the engine caught.
‘Thank God,’ she said, shifting the car back into drive. ‘Last time I let you talk me into taking a clearly marked dead—’
A black truck came barreling toward them.
AnnaLise Griggs let go of the wheel and screamed.
AnnaLise didn't remember closing her eyes, but later she would remember opening them.
And seeing nothing.
‘Daisy?’ she called out. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I think so,’ came her mother's voice, very nearby. ‘You?’
‘I . . .’ AnnaLise blinked and her eyes still didn't clear. ‘I can't see anything. Is it . . . is it night-time?’ She tried to stifle the panic that was bubbling up. ‘Have we been here for – ’
‘It's just a quarter to six. Or thereabouts. Are you delirious?’
‘But, but . . . Mommy,’ the word that sprang from AnnaLise's lips only in times of crisis or illness, ‘I can't see. I think . . . I think I might be blind.’
AnnaLise could barely make out the wail of a siren in the distance, but would it matter? Was hearing going to substitute for eyesight? Would she ever see another sunset? The man she would marry? The face of her newborn –
‘Oh, for God's sake, AnnaLise, do we really need the scene from
right now? Your frickin' convertible top collapsed on us. I can't see a thing either.’
AnnaLise recognized the voice.
‘Joshua Eames?’ she called.
‘Yes – is that AnnaLise Griggs?’ His voice was close to her left ear now, just on the other side of what AnnaLise realized actually
the Spyder's canvas top.
‘It is. Are
‘I am, but I've lived close by here on the mountain my entire life and I have to say it's not a good idea to stop in the middle of a blind turn like you did, AnnaLise. Specially crosswise.’
‘I'm so sorry,’ AnnaLise said, trying to figure out where the glass from the driver's-side window had gone when the roof collapsed. ‘Thank God you weren't hurt.’
A snap/whirr next to her signaled Daisy's seat belt being undone.
‘No, ma'am,’ Josh's voice said. ‘Though I'm afraid
in a bit of a fix. I can't see if you've got yourself a passenger, but I sure wouldn't get out of that side of the car.’
Both women froze.
‘Joshua Eames,’ Daisy said carefully, the south in her voice more pronounced under stress, ‘are you telling me that this car is hanging out over the edge?’
‘No, ma'am.’ The sound of him moving around the back of the car to look. ‘Just seems like the two wheels on your side are perilously close.’
‘Perilously close’ – under normal circumstances, AnnaLise, a big fan of descriptive language, would delight in the expression. Now, though: ‘Josh, can you call nine-one-one, please?’ Pretty goddamned please.
‘That's good, Josh. Thank you.’ AnnaLise was trying to sound calm and measured, despite feeling neither. ‘We can't see how we're situated here, but can you tell if it's safe for us to slip out my door?’
Assuming she could find the handle. They couldn't very well shimmy through the window opening because the frame of the fallen convertible top was blocking the way.
‘I'm not moving an inch,’ Daisy's voice said, ‘and don't you either, AnnaLise Griggs. You climb out of there and I tip over the mountain like the fat kid on the end of a teeter-totter.’
‘I'm sure we're not that bad off,’ AnnaLise said. ‘Besides, listen. Help is already on its way.’
The siren she'd heard earlier was getting closer, presumably Fire and Rescue from town, though with the road zigzagging up the mountain, the sound waxed and waned as it approached.
‘Are we on the bridge, Josh, or the road leading to it?’
It didn't feel to AnnaLise as if the car was tilted like the wheels on her mother's side had climbed the railing, so she was betting the latter. She didn't know which was worse: the ‘teeter-totter’ her mother was envisioning over the bridge's low wall, or their car clinging to the edge of the road without even a railing between them and a sheer drop.
The only answer was the distant wailing of the siren.
‘Have you given any thought to maybe getting out?’ Chief of Police Chuck Greystone asked, a chuckle burbling just below the tone of his voice.
AnnaLise, who had a blanket over her shoulders, tried not to let her trembling hands slosh coffee out of the Styrofoam cup she held. ‘Unless I'm having an out-of-body experience, I believe I
out. Daisy, too, thankfully.’
AnnaLise gestured toward the ambulance where her mother stood talking with Coy Pitchford, one of the town's uniformed officers. As Chuck turned to look, Daisy put her hands over her eyes, opening her mouth in a mock scream of terror. Coy bent over, laughing uncontrollably.
‘Very funny,’ AnnaLise muttered.
‘It is, a little,’ Chuck said, green eyes contrasting with the tanned planes of his face. Chuck was fifty-percent Cherokee, fifty-percent Irish, and a hundred-percent gay. ‘Since you're both safe.’
‘Thanks, I think.’ AnnaLise and Chuck had dated through high school, though the relationship had never gone much beyond the close friendship they still shared. Upon returning to Sutherton the prior week, she'd finally discovered why. ‘So when you said, had I thought about—’
‘Getting out? I meant “of town,” Dodge, whatever.’ He cracked a grin, reminding her again why she'd loved him. And still did, in fact.
‘That's a fine thing to say. I thought you were glad to see me.’
‘I am,’ Chuck said. ‘You're just sort of . . . High-Country high-maintenance.’ He nodded toward the Mitsubishi, now being hoisted by a tow truck's hook like the sole trout on a fisherman's stringer. The vehicle hadn't been quite as close to the edge as she'd imagined, though her imagination – at least when it came to heights – was the stuff recurring nightmares were made of.
As the pathetic-looking Spyder dangled by the bumper, the front right hubcap fell off and rolled. One of the wrecker's crew trotted after, retrieving the cap before it could go over the edge.
‘Nice of him, but I'm not sure it's worth salvaging,’ AnnaLise said, trying not to look at the gravel shoulder where her car's passenger-side tires had been moments ago. If they'd had a little more rain, if the soil was a bit softer, if the slope had been a mite steeper, the bridge a yard nearer . . .
‘The hubcap or the whole car?’
‘The whole . . .?’ AnnaLise glanced guiltily at the little vehicle like it could hear her, ‘The entire thing looks totaled, I'm afraid. And it's fifteen years old so – ’
‘Shit!’ the man who'd caught the hubcap had stopped his momentum at the side of the road. But he was looking down. ‘We got another one.’
‘Please, don't bother – ’ AnnaLise started, ‘whatever fell off doesn't – ’ She stopped when the mechanic turned and she could see the expression on his face and the name patch on his coveralls.
‘Earl?’ Chuck, tensing in the lowering light, left her side and went to join the other man.
Then the chief turned as well. ‘We're going to need some help. There's a car down there.’
Well, I'm very glad you had the officer bring you up here, rather than trying to drive back down the mountain after everything you've been through,’ Ida Mae Babb said.
They were sitting on Ida Mae's new deck, sipping wine. AnnaLise was in a chair backed so close to the sliding glass door into the house that the heating from the interior was keeping her warm.
On the other hand, both Ida Mae and Daisy had afghans tucked around them and sat out as far as they could, the better to see the crazy-quilt of leaves on Grandfather Mountain to the west as the sun sank below its peak.
‘Next time you're going to be so late, though,’ their hostess continued, ‘I'd appreciate a call. I was expecting you closer to noontime.’
AnnaLise glanced toward Daisy. Hadn't her mother said she'd called Ida Mae from the neurologist's waiting room to tell her friend they'd be late?
But Daisy didn't protest her friend's gentle scolding. ‘We do appreciate your hospitality, Ida Mae. Especially given we didn't have a vehicle to drive down the mountain ourselves, and the chief and his officers already had enough on their hands without worrying about ferrying us all the way home.’
‘You were lucky you weren't killed,’ Ida Mae said. ‘But the other car, the one in the gorge. Do they think it flew right off the bridge itself?’
AnnaLise took a sip of red wine. ‘Chuck says there are indications it went off the road on the approach to the bridge, but on the opposite end from where we came to rest.’
‘So likely before the railing.’ Ida Mae, a porcelain-skinned woman of about sixty-five, shook her head. ‘I don't think a day goes by that some yahoo doesn't stand far too close to that edge for my comfort. Pedestrians aren't allowed on the bridge, so they pull over there to look out.’
a view you can't get anywhere else on the mountain,’ Daisy admitted. ‘Breathtaking, really.’
AnnaLise shivered. A mother's ‘breathtaking’ was her daughter's ‘heart-stopping.’
‘Do you know what I'm thinking?’ Ida Mae asked. ‘I'm thinking that other car might have pulled over to look and the earth gave way. I'm sure it's not the first car to slide into that gorge, never to be seen again.’