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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: Murder Road
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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Detective Beam was smoking a cigarette. I’d watched him pat his pockets, then set the pack of cigarettes on the table between us. I’d watched him produce a plastic lighter from a different pocket. Finally, I’d watched him light the cigarette and smoke it.

They’d split us up this time. Detective Quentin had taken Eddie, while Detective Beam took me. He had thinning brown hair and a belly that mildly strained the front of his shirt. He was decent enough, and he was probably a good detective, but he didn’t interest me. The cigarettes interested me.

He’d left the lid of the pack flipped open, so I could see the ends of the cigarettes. I could see the edge of the ripped foil. I stared at that foil, knowing exactly how it would feel against my fingers, the way it crumpled so easily and softly that it was a little creepy. There was nothing else in the world, I realized, that felt quite like cigarette pack foil.

“Mrs. Carter, are you listening to me?” Detective Beam asked.

I shook my head. My mother had smoked cigarettes nonstop on that first long drive out of California, that frantic escape. She’d lit one after another. The stench had made my eyes water, but I’d sat in the passenger seat in silence, trying not to cry as the car’s air-conditioning blew an imprecise and unpredictable stream of air somewhere near my face. I’d had my first cigarette at thirteen.

Eddie didn’t smoke, and I’d quit long before I met him. I both loved and hated cigarettes in equal measure. I loved them because of the primitive hit they gave my brain. I hated them because they made me just like my mother.

A headache was pounding softly, almost lovingly, behind my eyes.

“Let’s go over it again,” Beam said.

My mouth was dry as I said, “We saw a truck we recognized from last night. We followed the truck. There was a backpack in the back of the truck. A man attacked Eddie and Eddie fought him off.”

Beam ground his cigarette out in the ashtray next to his elbow. How long had we been here? There were no windows. It must be night by now. There had been waiting—so much waiting. For the paramedics to check Eddie out. For the police to bring us here. For the questioning to start. And now, more waiting. My eyes felt like they had been rubbed with sandpaper, and my stomach folded in on itself with hunger.

“Neither of you mentioned a truck in your original statement,” Detective Beam said.

I was silent.

He waited for a minute, and then he said, “Okay. So you didn’t
mention a truck to us, which would have been important information. But you saw the truck today, and you followed it.”

“Yes,” I said, my gaze dropping to the cigarettes again.

“Do you want a cigarette?” he asked, following my gaze.

“No, but thank you for asking.”

“Okay, then. So there was a backpack. And a man attacked your husband. And that’s the end of the story.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

“We’re not being recorded in here, Mrs. Carter. No one can hear what you tell me.”

I decoded that. It meant
no one will know what you say, but no one will know what I say, either.
I braced myself.

“You know what I think?” Detective Beam asked.

I didn’t answer. Hungry or not, did he think I couldn’t sit here all day? I had nowhere else to be.

“I think that between you and your husband, he’s the nice one.”

I snapped my gaze up to his.

He had my attention now, and he leaned back in his chair, making it creak softly. “It’s possible that what you say is true,” he said. “It’s also possible that after attacking Rhonda Jean Breckwith, the two of you stashed her backpack somewhere along Atticus Line. You went back today to pick it up so you could dispose of it. You saw Max Shandler’s truck, maybe, and you followed him home. Or maybe you just picked his driveway at random. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you planted the backpack in his truck bed, but he caught you, and he and your husband got in a scuffle. It didn’t go quite as you planned.” He leaned forward again, his eyes on mine. “It didn’t go quite as
you
planned.”

I kept my expression blank as I revised my opinion of
Detective Beam. Quentin was the star detective, the one that everyone was terrified of, while Beam was middle-aged, a little puffy, the workmanlike second fiddle. But Beam was better at this than he let on.

He was wrong. But he was so, so close. Closer than he knew. Because if it meant my own survival, or mine and Eddie’s, I
would
plant a backpack of evidence in someone’s truck. And Eddie would rather die than do that.

“Your husband is an open book,” Beam said. “We know everything about him—his parents, his military record, everything. But you?” He shook his head. “You, April Carter, formerly April Delray, are something of a mystery. There isn’t much paperwork on you at all. We can’t even find a birth record. Where were you born?”

“California.” When telling lies, stay as close to the truth as you can so they’re easier to remember. I was better at this part than he was.

“Where are your parents?”

“Dead.”

“What were their names?”

“None of your business.”

“How did they die?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Not to me.”

He sighed and rubbed a hand over his jaw. I heard the familiar rasp of a man who needed to shave. “You got your first driver’s license when you were twenty.”

That was true, and it wasn’t. My first driver’s license had been
under a different name, because I’d needed to be older than I was. But I’d decided to make April Delray permanent—at least I hoped to—so I’d had to get one in that name as well. It was a lot of work. “Not everyone can afford a car,” I told the detective.

“Something isn’t right about you,” Beam said. “You look like a pretty, unassuming newlywed, but it doesn’t quite fit. Everything about you is murky. I think that the best case is that you’re scamming your husband somehow.”

That made me mad. “I am
not
scamming Eddie.”

“No? Does he know your parents’ names and how they died? Should I ask him?”

I didn’t answer. They could ask Eddie all they wanted. I’d told him enough, and he would keep my secrets. The ones he knew, anyway.

“The worst case,” Beam went on, “is that you killed Rhonda Jean Breckwith and made your husband, who is smitten with you, help cover it up.”

I shook my head. “I don’t know how else to get it through to you. You’re looking at the wrong people. We ended up here because we took a wrong turn. It was just bad luck.”

“I’ve seen bad luck, and this isn’t it,” he replied. “Something brought you here. Why don’t you tell me what it was?”

I was about to say something—I didn’t know what—when the door opened. Detective Quentin stepped in. His shark’s eyes looked at me for a minute, speculating. Then he turned to Beam. “Detective, can I speak to you outside for a moment?”

Beam complied, but I caught the surprise and frustration in his expression before he covered it up. This wasn’t a bit of police
theater; Quentin was truly interrupting him. Without a word, he pushed his chair back and stood, following Quentin from the room.

They were gone for a long time. I was so hungry all I could think about was hot dogs. I had a craving for one. I wondered where to get a hot dog in Coldlake Falls. And an ice-cold Pepsi.

The door opened again. Quentin stood outside, and he didn’t come into the room. “Mrs. Carter, you’re free to go,” he said in that dead voice of his. “We’re sorry to have taken up so much of your time.”

I stood and walked past him into the corridor. I turned the corner to the front room of the Coldlake police station, where there were a few police milling about or talking on telephones. Eddie was already there, waiting for me. He looked sweaty and tired and handsome. He still had dirt smeared on his shirt and his face. He took one of my hands in his. “Are you all right?” he asked me.

“I’m fine,” I said, confused. “I’m hungry.”

“Same here. Apparently, we’re free to leave.”

And go where? How? They had driven us here in police cars. Robbie’s car was still parked next to the black truck, I assumed. We were stranded yet again.

The front door of the station opened and Rose walked in. “There you are,” she said to us. “I came to get you. Let’s go.”

I glanced around. A minute ago, I’d been a murder suspect. None of this made any sense. But I didn’t want to question it. I just wanted out.

“Nice to see you, Rose,” Detective Beam said, his tone sarcastic.

Her glance at him was dismissive. “You shush, Beam. I want Robbie’s car back in my driveway in an hour.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t
yes, ma’am
me like I don’t know disrespect when I hear it. That car is my property. I know my rights.”

Quentin gave her one of his laser looks. “We have to discuss the fact that you lent the car to two murder suspects, Rose. I’ll be in touch.”

“You don’t scare me, Quentin. Robbie told me plenty about you. About all of you. And they aren’t murder suspects, are they? I could have told you that.” She looked at Eddie and me. “Let’s go.”

Before I followed her, I looked at Detective Beam. He looked back, straight into my eyes.

He was right. I wasn’t the nice one.

Eddie squeezed my hand, and we headed for the door.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Rose didn’t have many answers, and she didn’t seem to need them. “They thought it was you,” was her explanation as she drove us back to her B and B in her Volvo. “Then they found out it wasn’t you. That’s all you need to know. If you were in real trouble, they would have arrested you back there.”

“Is it a trap?” Eddie asked. “Like they’re pretending not to suspect us, but they think we’ll slip up?”

Rose snorted. “That’s an idea just dumb enough for them to try, but no. Quentin doesn’t work that way. He narrows in on his suspect, then goes in for the kill. That’s how Robbie always put it. Everyone in the Coldlake Falls PD has heard stories about Quentin. The Coldlake PD is too small to handle the bigger cases, so anything bigger than drunk kids or a domestic dispute got handed to the state police.” She shook her head. “Robbie was stuck writing traffic tickets and finding wandering grandmas for his
whole career, but when the bigger cases came along, he’d pitch in by knocking on doors. They all did. But it was always the detectives’ show.”

“How long has Quentin been a detective?” I asked.

“Ten years or so.” Rose was in a talkative mood, probably because the topic orbited around Robbie. “He didn’t come up in uniform, at least not around here. He just showed up one day as the new detective at state. Came from nowhere, like a spook, Robbie said. No one knows much about his personal life, and he never goes to the Fourth of July barbecue. Robbie said he closed cases, even though he treated Robbie like trash. If he really believed you killed that girl, you’d still be at the police station, and you’d be calling a lawyer while they booked you.”

I turned to Eddie. “What did Quentin say to you?”

He rubbed a hand over his face. He looked as exhausted and hungry as I felt. There was still gravel in his hair. “I met plenty of bullies in the army. He’s a little like that, but he’s smarter. He kept asking me about the trip to Atticus Line this morning. He made me go over again how I took the turnoff last night. What made me decide. Whether I had ever been here before.” He was quiet for a moment, and I studied his face. He looked stricken. “I kept telling him it was a mistake, but after a while I wasn’t sure I believed myself. Then the door opened and someone told him he had a phone call. And that was it.”

We pulled into Rose’s driveway. I thought I saw a silhouette in a dark upstairs window, but then the wind blew branches of a nearby tree across my line of sight and the silhouette was gone. “It has to be the backpack,” I said, staring at the window for another second before getting out of the car. “There’s something in there
that points to the guy who attacked you. Or to someone else. Something that leads away from us.”

“Whatever it is, it isn’t our problem,” Eddie said as we followed Rose to the door. It was dark, and the air was heavy, the breeze sporadic and soft. Crickets chirped at a fever pitch. A beautiful July night on my honeymoon.

“I guess not,” I said.

“I cooked those burgers,” Rose said as she snapped the overhead light on and walked to the kitchen. “They’re cold now, but I got buns and ketchup and mustard.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Jones,” Eddie said. I realized I didn’t know Rose’s last name, but Eddie did. Rose pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, flustered.

“So that’s it?” I asked as I pulled out a kitchen chair and sat. “That guy, Max Shandler, picked up Rhonda Jean at random, stabbed her, and left her? Then he waited, saw us pick her up, and followed us? It was just something he decided to do?”

Eddie put his burger patty on a bun and picked up the ketchup. The burgers weren’t hot, but we were starving. “Mrs. Jones, what do you know about Max Shandler? He’s a local.”

Rose looked briefly flustered at the use of her last name again, and then she said, “I don’t know the Shandlers too well. They’ve owned that farm for generations. I don’t remember Max being in any particular kind of trouble. They keep to themselves.” She sat down in the chair across from me. “Maybe he just snapped.”

“What about the others?” I asked. “The other hitchhikers? What about Katharine O’Connor, and the ones before her? The kids at Hunter Beach said the murders go back to the seventies. Is Max Shandler a serial killer?”

“Like Ted Bundy?” Rose looked outraged. “We don’t have lowlifes like that in this town. Except for the idiots, we’re decent people. If Max Shandler killed that girl, he probably knew her. If she was staying at Hunter Beach, they could have met. Maybe he was jealous. Besides, Max can’t have been killing people since the seventies. He’s only in his twenties.”

The man who attacked Eddie hadn’t looked much older than us. Katharine O’Connor had been killed just a few years ago, right in Max Shandler’s territory. He could have killed her. But even if he had, what about the others that went back decades?

I wasn’t going to get answers tonight, and tomorrow—if we got our car back—we were leaving town.

We ate our lukewarm hamburgers, and then Eddie and I took turns in the shower. I was in bed when Eddie came back from the bathroom, wrapped in a large white bathrobe that—of course—had been Robbie’s. I was lying on my back, propped on the pillows in the light of the lamp on the bedside table next to me. I had pulled the frilly coverlet up to my collarbones and was trying not to think about Princess Diana hanging above my head.

Eddie closed the door behind him and looked at me. His hair was damp and I could see a drop of water on his temple, about to roll down into his late-night scruff. He had a red mark on one cheek and scrapes on his forearms from scuffing on the gravel. We were both so incredibly tired, but still our gazes locked and something arced between us.

“April Carter,” my husband said gently, his gaze taking me in.

I sat up, biting my lip. “That door doesn’t lock.”

With perfect gallantry, Eddie slid the delicate, white-painted dresser along the wall and in front of the bedroom door. Then he
rounded to the window and double-checked that the blinds were closed all the way.

He undid the bathrobe, and I turned out the lamp, pulling my nightgown off over my head.

I slid down onto my back, feeling the lick of anticipation in my veins. The bed sagged gently as Eddie’s big body got in next to mine. Princess Diana was about to get a show, but there was nothing that could be done about it.

Eddie’s warm body rolled onto mine, skin to skin, and he pressed his face into my neck. “April Carter,” he said again.

“Eddie Carter,” I said.

His hands moved down my body, over my waist, my hips. Until Eddie, I had always found the sensation of a man’s hands on my skin to be invasive, even when part of me liked it. Too much of a man’s touch was like sandpaper, because I was always waiting for the next thing—the dig of thumbs into my soft flesh, the heartlessness, the letdown. My father had hated me, and the men since had used me. Those two things were what I knew. I didn’t expect better.

My first time with Eddie, six whole weeks into dating, had been surprisingly fumbling on both our parts. We’d touched each other tentatively in the dark like neither of us had done this before, and in a way, neither of us had. Eddie had had girlfriends, but with me he was obviously nervous, as if he was afraid I’d scream and run. I’d been locked in my own head, overwhelmed with feelings that hit me like a freight train, too distracted and unwilling to put on a show and pretend I was in ecstasy. By all measures, it hadn’t been an auspicious beginning.

And yet.

That first time with Eddie, I was someone I’d never been before. I was April Delray, not the woman who was a lie but the one who was real. Eddie—who hadn’t been with anyone since he came home from Iraq, since he’d seen and done whatever he’d seen and done over there—was real, too. And to be honest, it wasn’t all bad. Parts of it were very good.

So we’d practiced. And now, newly married with his hands on me, we were getting good. So good that I stopped caring about dead girls or trucks or cops or the predicament we were in. I pulled Eddie onto me and kissed him, wrapping my legs around his hips in just the way he liked. I felt his scruff on my skin and his breath against me. I let my hands wander over the muscles and planes I had memorized like a map, and I felt my hips rise under his, my back arch from the bed. Everything went away, as if it didn’t matter. Because it didn’t.

We tried to be quiet. But deep down, I didn’t care.

BOOK: Murder Road
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