Authors: David Baldacci
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #FIC031000
She moved quickly up the steps and listened for sounds from within before venturing farther. When she didn’t hear anything, she decided finally to brave it. She had kicked his butt the last time, she could do it again.
“Duane?” She slammed the door loudly. “Duane, what the hell did you do? Is that thing out there yours?” There was still no answer. LuAnn put an agitated Lisa down in her baby carrier and moved through the trailer. “Duane, are you here? Come on, answer me, will you, please. I don’t have time to play around.”
She went into the bedroom, but he wasn’t there. Her eyes were riveted by her clock on the wall. It took her an instant to stuff it in her bag. She wasn’t going to leave it with Duane. She exited the bedroom and moved down the hallway, passing Lisa as she did so. She stopped to calm the little girl down and placed her bag next to the baby carrier.
She finally saw Duane, lying on the raggedy couch. The TV was on, but no sound came from the battered box. A grease-stained bucket of chicken wings was on the coffee table next to what LuAnn assumed was an empty can of beer. A mess of fries and an overturned bottle of ketchup were next to the bucket of wings. Whether this was breakfast or the remnants of dinner from last night, she didn’t know.
“Hey, Duane, didn’t you hear me?”
She saw him turn his head, very, very slowly, toward her. She scowled. Still drunk. “Duane, ain’t you never going to grow up?” She started forward. “We got to talk. And you ain’t going to like it, but that’s too bad becau—” She got no further as the big hand clamped over her mouth, cutting off her scream. A thick arm encircled her waist, pinning her arms to her sides. As her panicked eyes swept the room, she noted for the first time that the front of Duane’s shirt was a mass of splotchy crimson. As she watched in horror, he fell off the couch with a small groan and then didn’t move again.
The hand shot up to her throat and pushed her chin up so hard she thought her neck was going to snap under the pressure. She sucked in a huge breath as she saw the other hand holding the blade that descended toward her neck.
“Sorry, lady, wrong time, wrong place.” LuAnn didn’t recognize the voice. The breath was a mixture of cheap beer and spicy chicken wings. The foul odor pressed against her cheek as fiercely as the hand against her mouth. He had made a mistake, though. With one hand bracing her chin and the other holding the knife, he had left her arms free. Perhaps he thought she would be paralyzed with fear. She was far from it. Her foot crunched backward against his knee at the same moment her bony elbow sunk deep into his flabby gut, hitting right at the diaphragm.
The force of her blow caused his hand to jerk suddenly and the knife slashed her chin. She tasted blood. The man dropped to the floor, spitting and coughing. The hunting knife clattered to the bare carpet next to him. LuAnn hurtled toward the front door, but her attacker managed to snag a leg as she passed by and she tumbled to the floor a few feet from him. Despite being doubled over, he clamped thick fingers around her ankle and dragged her back toward him. Finally, she got a good look at him as she turned over on her back, kicking at him with all her might: sunburned skin, thick, caterpillar eyebrows, sweaty, matted black hair, and full, cracked lips that were at the moment grimacing in pain. She couldn’t see his eyes, which were half-closed as his body shrugged off her blows. LuAnn took in those features in an instant. What was even more evident was that he was twice her size. In the grip that tightened around her leg, she knew she had no chance against him, strength-wise. However, she wasn’t about to leave Lisa to face him alone; not without a lot more fight than she had already given him.
Instead of resisting further, she threw herself toward him, screaming as loudly as she could. The scream and her sudden leap startled him. Off-balance, he let go of her leg. Now she could see his eyes; they were deep brown, the color of old pennies. In another second they were shut tightly again as she planted her index fingers in both of them. Howling again, the man fell backward against the wall but then he ricocheted off like a bounced ball and slammed blindly into her. They both pitched over the couch. LuAnn’s flailing hand seized an object on the way down. She couldn’t see exactly what it was, but it was solid and hard and that’s all she cared about as she swung with all her might and smashed it against his head right before she hit the floor, barely missing Duane’s limp body, and then she slammed headfirst into the wall.
The telephone had shattered into pieces upon impact with the man’s thick skull. Seemingly unconscious, her attacker lay facedown on the floor. The dark hair was now a mass of red as the blood poured from the head wound. LuAnn lay on the floor for a moment and then sat up. Her arm tingled where she had hit the coffee table, and then it went numb on her. Her buttocks ached where she had slammed into the floor. Her head pounded where it had struck the wall. “Damn,” she said as she struggled to regain her equilibrium. She had to get out of here, she told herself. Grab Lisa and keep running until her legs or lungs gave out. Her vision blurred for an instant and her eyes rolled up into her head. “Oh, Lord,” she moaned as she felt it coming. Her lips parted and she sank back down to the floor, unconscious.
uAnn had no idea how long she had been out. The blood that had poured out of the wound on her chin hadn’t yet hardened against her skin so it couldn’t have been all that long. Her shirt was ripped and bloody; one breast hung loose from her bra. She slowly sat up and rearranged herself with her good arm. She wiped her chin and touched the cut; it was jagged and painful. She slowly lifted herself up. She could not seem to catch her breath as lingering terror and physical trauma battered her from within and without.
The two men lay side by side; the big man was clearly still breathing, the expansions and contractions of his huge gut were easy to see. LuAnn wasn’t sure about Duane. She dropped to her knees and felt for his pulse, but if it was there, she couldn’t find it. His face looked gray, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. She jumped up and flipped on a light, but the illumination was still poor. She knelt down beside him again and touched his chest gingerly. Then she lifted his shirt. She quickly pulled it back down, nauseated at the sight of all the blood there. “Oh, Lord, Duane, what have you gone and done? Duane, can you hear me? Duane!” In the dim light she was able to see that no more blood was flowing from his wounds: a sign that his heart was probably no longer beating. She felt his arm; it was still warm to the touch, but she felt his fingers and they were already beginning to curl and grow cold. She eyed the remnants of the phone. There was no way to call the ambulance now, although it didn’t look like Duane was going to need one. She should probably go fetch the police, though. Find out who the other man was, why he had cut up Duane and tried to kill her.
When LuAnn rose to leave, she noticed the small pile of bags that had been hidden behind the greasy bucket of chicken. They had fallen off the table in the scuffle. LuAnn stooped down and picked one up. It was clear plastic. Inside was a small amount of white powder. Drugs.
Then she heard the whimpering. Oh God, where was Lisa? But there was another sound. LuAnn sucked in her breath as she jerked around and looked down. The big man’s hand was moving, he was starting to rise. He was coming for her! Oh sweet Lord, he was coming for her! She dropped the bag and raced to the hallway. Using her good arm to snatch up Lisa, who started screaming when she saw her mother, LuAnn bolted through the front door, slamming it back against the side of the trailer. She ran past the convertible, stopped, and turned back. The massive wall of flesh she had clocked with the phone didn’t explode through the door. At least not yet. Her eyes shifted slightly to the car; the dangling keys glimmered temptingly in the sunlight. She hesitated for only an instant, then she and Lisa were in the car. LuAnn gunned the motor and fishtailed out of the muck and onto the road. She took a minute to get her nerves under control before she turned onto the main highway into town.
Now Duane’s sudden wealth made a lot of sense. Selling drugs was obviously far more lucrative than stripping cars for a living. Only Duane had apparently gotten greedy and kept a little too much of the drugs or green for himself. The stupid idiot! She had to call the police. Even if Duane was alive, which she doubted, she was probably only saving him for a long spell in jail. But if he was still alive, she couldn’t just leave him to die. The other fellow she didn’t give a damn about. She only wished she had hit him harder. As she sped up, she looked over at Lisa. The little girl sat wide-eyed in her baby carrier, the terror still clearly observable in her quivering lips and cheeks. LuAnn settled her injured arm over her daughter, biting back the pain this simple movement caused her. Her neck felt as though a car had run over it. Then her eyes alighted on the cellular phone. She pulled off the road and snatched it up.
After quickly figuring out how to work it, she started to dial 911. Then she slowly put down the phone. She looked down at her fingers. They were shaking so hard she couldn’t make a fist. They were also covered with blood, and probably not just her own. It was suddenly dawning on her that she could easily be implicated in all of this. Despite his starting to move, the guy could have slumped back down, dead, for all she knew. She would have killed him in self-defense, she knew that, but would anyone else? A drug dealer. She was driving his car.
This thought made her look around suddenly to see if anyone was watching. Some cars were heading toward her. The top! She had to close the ragtop. She jumped into the backseat and gripped the stiff fabric. She pulled upward, and then the big white convertible top descended down upon them like a clam closing up. She hit the ragtop’s clamps, jumped back into the driver’s seat, and tore down the road.
Would the police believe that she knew nothing about Duane’s selling drugs? Somehow Duane had kept the truth from her, but who would accept that as the truth? She didn’t believe it herself. This reality swept over her like a fire raging through a paper house; there seemed to be no escape. But maybe there was. She almost shrieked as she thought of it. For an instant her mother’s face appeared in her thoughts. It was with immense difficulty that she pushed it away. “I’m sorry, Momma. I ain’t got no choices left.” She had to do it: the call to Jackson.
That’s when her gaze came to rest on the dashboard. For several seconds she could not even manage a breath. It was like every ounce of blood had evaporated from her body as her eyes stayed locked on the shiny clock.
It was five minutes
Jackson had said, and she didn’t doubt for an instant he had meant it. She pulled off the road and slumped over the steering wheel in her misery. What would happen to Lisa while she was in prison? Stupid, stupid Duane. Screwed her in life, and now in death.
She slowly raised her head up and looked across the street, wiping her eyes so she could make out the image: a bank branch, squat, solid, all-brick. If she had owned a gun, she would have seriously contemplated robbing it. Even that was not an option, though; it was Sunday and the bank was closed. As her eyes drifted over the front of the bank her heart started to beat rapidly again. The change in her state of mind was so sudden as to feel almost drug-induced.
The bank clock showed four minutes
Bankers were supposed to be steady, reliable folk. She hoped to God their clocks were reliable as well. She snatched up the phone, at the same time digging frantically in her pocket for the slip of paper with the number on it. Her coordination seemed to have totally deserted her. She could barely force her fingers to punch in the numbers. It seemed to take forever for the line to begin ringing. Fortunately for her nerves, it rang only once before being answered.
“I was beginning to wonder about you, LuAnn,” Jackson said. She could envision him checking his watch, probably marveling at how close she had cut it.
She forced herself to breathe normally. “I guess the time just got away from me. I had a lot going on.”
“Your cavalier attitude is refreshing, although, quite frankly, it’s a bit amazing to me.”
“So what now?”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
LuAnn looked puzzled. “What?” Her brain was near serious burnout. A series of pains shot throughout her body.
If all this turned out to be a joke . . .
“I made you an offer, LuAnn. In order to have a legally enforceable arrangement, I need an acceptance from you. A formality, perhaps, but one on which I have to insist.”
“Wonderful. I can tell you with complete assurance that you will never regret that decision.”
LuAnn looked nervously around. Two people walking on the other side of the highway were staring at the car. She put the vehicle in gear and headed down the road. “So now what?” she again asked Jackson.
“Where are you?”
Her tone was wary. “Why?” Then she added quickly, “I’m at home.”
“Fine. You are to go to the nearest outlet selling lottery tickets. You will purchase one.”
“What numbers do I play?”
“That doesn’t matter. As you know, you have two options. Either accept a ticket with numbers automatically dispensed by the machine or pick whatever numbers you want. They’re all fed into the same central computer system with up-to-the-second results and no duplicate combinations are allowed; that ensures only one winner. If you opt for a personalized combination and your first choice has already been taken, simply pick another combination.”
“But I don’t understand. I thought you were gonna tell me what numbers to play. The winning numbers.”
“There is no need for you to understand anything, LuAnn.” Jackson’s voice had risen a notch higher. “You are simply to do what you’re told. Once you have the combination, call me back and tell me what the numbers are. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“So when do I get the money?”