A Taste of… Cold highway
Twelve years ago…
Charity Parker’s fork scraped against the ceramic plate as she chased the last bite of her omelet, the metal making a screeching sound that was painful to her ears.
She didn’t care.
She didn’t have time or energy to care. She was weary to her very soul.
Even though her stomach was so full it was almost painful, she savored the last morsel as it hit her tongue, closing her eyes as she chewed. The omelet, which had taken up the entire plate, was the most she’d eaten in days.
She sent up a mental thank you to the owner of the diner, who’d allowed her to work a few hours for food in her belly and a bit of cash in her pocket. It wasn’t much, but she was grateful for however long it lasted.
Nothing ever lasted.
Raising her face to the cool breeze blowing from the vent in the ceiling directly above the table, she sighed at the brief reprieve from the California desert heat. The diner’s air-conditioning ran full blast day and night to chase off the sweltering air that flowed through the open doors with every trucker that visited the Ocotillo Truck Stop Diner. Compared to the oppressive heat that stuck around even long after the sun had gone down, the dining room was almost chilly.
Satisfied, and feeling more confident now that she wasn’t destitute, Charity slid the plate to the edge of the table a moment before her waitress rushed by. Without missing a beat, Margie picked up the empty plate, adding it to the stack she carried as she headed toward the kitchen. Charity gave her a shy smile, but Margie was focused on her next task. It was late, but there was always plenty to do in a twenty-four-hour diner.
Leaning back on the padded booth seat, she mentally commanded her muscles to relax, though the reddish-brown pleather of the seat wasn’t that comfortable. But Charity was used to making the most of a harsh environment.
She turned to gaze out the window at the silent stillness of the night. Despite two pairs of streetlamps in the parking lot, the world beyond was so dark that Charity couldn’t make out the highway, even though it was less than a football field away. Just east of California’s Coyote Mountains, this section of Interstate 8 featured hairpin turns, steep downgrades, and narrow lanes ripe with drivers who had no regard for the lives of those they shared the road with.
The runaway truck ramps every two miles were a sure sign of the danger of the stretch of interstate known as the Kumeyaay Highway. The diner’s sign, advertising its convenience store and showers, was a welcome sight, and it was no surprise that the lone business stayed busy.
In the parking lot, bats dipped and darted in the yellow glow, snapping up moths and any other insect that was drawn in. Outside the reach of the light, three semis idled with their parking lights on as drivers slept in their bunks. Her father used to jokingly call a semi bunk a “sissy rig,” but Charity knew better. Having a place to sleep for a long haul trucker was as important as having fuel. Exhaustion could take hold of a driver, and on some of these desolate highways, there wasn’t a hotel for miles.
Charity frowned at the memory of her father and the quirky little things he used to say out of the blue at dinner. What had they been talking about when he’d brought up the sleeping cabs? Why had he even mentioned it?
She didn’t realize she was scowling into her coffee until a hand landed on her shoulder. “Can I get you a refill?”
Charity blinked at the waitress standing by her table, steaming pot of coffee in hand and a smile on her face. Glancing down at the half full mug she held in her slender hands, she shook her head. “I’m done, Margie. Thanks.”
Margie nodded, setting the pot down before slipping into the booth across from Charity. “The boss said you can work a couple more days if you like, maybe earn enough to get a room for the night and take a rest?” She kept her voice low, having taken a liking to Charity and somehow sensing her circumstances. “The customers liked you, and you wash dishes better than anyone we’ve ever hired. If you’re sticking around for a while, he’ll keep it cash only.”
Biting her lip, Charity lowered her head, thinking about the dream she’d been having lately of herself in college, an apartment of her own. Making something of herself. A daughter for her parents to be proud of.
Like that would ever happen. But maybe…just maybe she could try.
Pushing the fantasy away, she gave her head a shake, tossing her black curls over bare shoulders. “I can’t stay.”
Margie’s face sagged with disappointment. “That’s what I told him, but Virgil insisted I ask. He’s always trying to help out a girl in need.”
“Thanks.” She doubted that, but Margie had been too kind to her for Charity to argue. She wrapped her fingers around the plain white coffee mug, relishing the warmth seeping into her skin before lifting the cup to her lips.
Margie frowned and popped out her bottom lip, blowing her bangs out of her eyes.
Charity waited for the woman to press the issue, but after a long silence, Margie simply nodded and stood. “Take care of yourself, honey.”
After Margie left Charity alone at the table, she closed her eyes as she often did, wanting to block out the view. She normally only used the technique when she was “working,” as the other girls called it. Her customers had a far more vulgar term for it. But that act was where she had learned to take herself away to any place she wanted to be.
This time when she closed her eyes, she wasn’t that reluctant to whip up some place else in her imagination. She liked the diner. The place was welcoming and offered travelers—and her—a quiet place to calm frayed nerves and enjoy a home-cooked meal. Then they were on their way, headed for Arizona and beyond, through empty deserts dotted with majestic Saguaro cacti and windswept dunes.
Unlike those who stopped in for a quick meal, she didn’t know where she was going next. Charity had enjoyed her freedom when she’d left home at sixteen, gloried in it at first, but now she was tired and missed home, of all things.
Her eyes wandered back to the window as she turned inward, remembering the way she’d shouted at her dad the last time she’d seen him. She’d wanted a car, was tired of riding the school bus, and all her friends had their licenses and freedom. Her dad had made her wait past the state-mandated time span to get her driver’s license, saying she would be a safer driver, and she’d been stuck with a permit and a parent in the car at all times.
Memories had been weighing her down recently. The teenage angst that had driven her to run away at sixteen was starting to fade now that she was nineteen. Almost nineteen, she amended, checking the large clock hanging above the door. Only one more hour until midnight. Then it would officially be her nineteenth birthday.
It’s already tomorrow in South Carolina.
The thought came out of nowhere, a punch to the gut when she was already struggling with so much guilt. Would her mother still bake her a cake, even though she’d been gone for three years?
Did they miss her as much as she missed them?
Vision blurry with sudden tears, she stood abruptly, bumping the coffee cup hard enough that what was left of the warm brew sloshed against the sides, dripping over the edge. Charity caught the brown liquid with a napkin before it could hit the table. She might be in a hurry, but she wasn’t going to leave an extra mess for Margie to clean up.
After lifting a goodbye hand to the waitress, she headed toward the door. Before she got there, she spotted a rack with a bunch of postcards along with some writing paper and envelopes.
Before she could stop herself, she grabbed what she needed and paid at the desk, asking for a single stamp from the clerk, who charged her fifty cents. A total rip off, but she had no room to argue at this time of night.
After scrawling out a message, she addressed the envelope and sealed it tight before adding the stamp. A wall of dry heat hit her in the face as the automatic doors slid apart to let her pass on her way to the parking lot. She kissed the envelope before sliding it into the mailbox, then turned around in a circle, trying to search out a place to sleep for the night. She tightened her jaw, her stomach tying up in knots as wave after wave of happy memories assaulted her.
Her mother, a freshly washed halo of dark hair surrounding her round face as she woke Charity, piling a stack of presents at the foot of the bed.
The homemade strawberry cake with whipped icing waiting on the kitchen table, the same kind every year, because strawberry was Charity’s favorite.
Her father’s deep, off-key voice singing “Happy Birthday” over her sister and mom. Tweaking her on the nose on her first try at blowing the candles out, claiming he was stealing her wish.
Her little sister, Hope, her four years younger twin, rushing forward at the last minute to help blow out the candles.
The sound of her own sob startled Charity. She hadn’t expected for her feelings to sneak up on her. It had been almost three years since she’d left home with big dreams and no regret. Why was she crying now? Hurrying down the sidewalk, she tried to force her breathing to slow as she swiped at the wave of hot tears flowing down her cheeks.
Her phone was heavy in her back pocket, but it was prepaid and out of minutes, and she didn’t have enough money to reload them. Her gaze flicked to the idling semis. She probably could before morning. But she wasn’t in the mood and just wanted to be alone.
Frowning, she stopped and closed her eyes, trying to push the images of her family out of her mind.
But they wouldn’t go. Now that the memory of her mother’s from-scratch strawberry cake was fresh on her mind, there was a sweetness on the wind that teased her nostrils and set her mouth to watering. Sugared strawberries, buttermilk fried chicken, and gravy made from the drippings poured over rice. A wistful smile spread over her lips. She hated potatoes, so her mother had always made her rice when they had fried chicken and gravy. One of the many things Faith Parker had done for Charity without a second thought.
Her mother had been the epitome of the virtues her father had made a habit to tease them about when he called out their names. She could hear him now. “Faith! Hope! Charity! All three, my greatest virtues.”
Except she wasn’t a virtue. She hadn’t had a charitable bone in her body at the age of sixteen. She’d been so selfish, only able to see what she wanted. What she didn’t have. And never what she’d been given.
Charity’s hands went to her mouth to silence the wail that rose from deep inside her chest. Why had she taken her family for granted? For this.
She looked down at her frayed jeans and black tank top, smudges of desert on her arms. Look at me. Dirty and desperate. How had she fallen this far? Hooking for rides and meals. Working under the table at truck stop diners until the wind blew her to another town.
Trembling despite the desert heat, her gaze darted over the parking lot, cataloguing each feature, each a sign of how far she’d fallen from an honor roll student sure to snag a free ride to college.
Her foot stuck to the sidewalk. She pulled up her worn tennis shoe, discarded gum stretching from the concrete. She sniffed as she scraped her foot on the edge of the curb, her nose filling with the rotten smell of the dumpster filled with food that baked under the sun each day.
For comfort, Charity sang low to herself, her own rendition of the birthday song. Starting over and humming it this time, another hum joined in. The constant, low buzz of diesel engines as tired truckers recharged in air-conditioned bunks just big enough for two.
Tears dripping from her face as she took it all in, she spun in a circle as she gave into hysterics. A harsh sob ripping out of her own throat sobered her, and a glint of light off metal caught her eye. A pay phone.
She blinked away the tears as she rushed forward. Grabbing the black receiver, her mouth dropped open when the dial tone sounded in her ear. A working pay phone? She couldn’t believe it.
Who would need a pay phone in the twenty-first century?
Certain it must be a fluke, she flicked the button that cut the connection, but when she lifted her finger, the sound buzzed on—a new hum. Constant. Steady. A sign that there was still hope.
It was the sign she’d been needing to do exactly what she wanted to do.
She hugged the receiver to her chest as she dug in her pocket and pulled out a handful of quarters. They’d been left as a tip by an older couple, and at the time, Charity had smiled to hide her annoyance as she scraped each coin across the table and into her cupped palm. But now, she had exactly what she needed, a pocket full of coins and a phone to call home.
“Thank you,” she murmured to the old folks she’d also taken for granted.
Her fingers shook as she dialed the familiar number that had remained the same since she’d memorized it at the tender age of three. Scratch that, she amended. The area code had changed when Charity was ten. But even as cell phones had become more prevalent, her parents still kept the cordless phone in the kitchen. “Just in case,” her mother always said.
Now, as she held her breath waiting for the first ring, she hoped they hadn’t gotten rid of the phone. It was so late for them. Maybe they were all asleep and wouldn’t hear it from the bedroom.
Charity’s heart sunk lower with each ring. Maybe she’d been wrong to get her hopes up.
A rustling sound as someone lifted the phone from its cradle.
Every emotion in the world gripped her like a fist and every muscle went taut, words flying from her mouth before the person on the other end could say a word. “Please don’t hang up. It’s me.”
“Charity?” Her mother only spoke that one word, three syllables filled with so much hope and fear, but it was laced with every emotion in between.
“Mom.” Charity’s voice broke, a sob bursting past her lips. “Mom, is that you?”
“Oh my god, Charity, honey. Are you okay?” Faith Parker broke down for a moment, openly crying into the phone. “I can’t believe you finally called.”
“He’s picking your sister up from a slumber party that was getting a bit too rowdy. He just left the house. Oh, Charity, he’s going to be so happy to know you’re all right.” Her mother paused, her breath hitching with sobs. “You are all right, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mom. I’m okay.” Her breath shuddered, but she forced herself to inhale and exhale slowly as fear bubbled up and out of her pores. There was more she needed to say, and she was terrified of what her mother’s answer might be. What if she wasn’t welcome? Her heart raced in her chest, her throat constricting. Shaking her head, she straightened her spine, tossing the fear back. The worst Faith Parker could say was no, right? “Mom, can I come home, I—”
“Yes!” The word burst over the line, followed by additional sobs that seemed to be mixed with joyous laughter from what Charity could tell. “Of course you can come home. I’ve waited for this moment since the day you left. And on your birthday!”
Tears flowed unchecked down Charity’s face. The tension drained from her muscles, and she was suddenly exhausted as relief wove through every cell.
Her family didn’t hate her.
The realization brought fresh tears. “Thank you.” The soft-spoken words were all she could manage.
“Where are you? We’ll come get you.”
Charity blinked, turning to the back parking lot and the low chain-link fence that was only there to keep the desert critters out. Overcome with shame, her stomach twisted. She couldn’t let her parents see how she’d been living. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll find my way home.”
Faith sucked in a breath. “Charity, it doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing. The important thing is that we get you home. I’ll buy a plane ticket if you need one. Or a bus ticket. Whatever you need. Or we can come get you. I promise, it’s not a big deal. I’m just so happy you called.”
“Thank you, Mom, but I don’t want Hope to see this place. Things have been,” she paused and searched for a gentle explanation, “difficult.”
“You’ll get no judgment from us.” Her mother’s voice was firm. “You did what you had to do, and none of that matters now, all right?”
She nodded, laughing when she realized her mother couldn’t see her. “Yes.”
“Let us help you, please.”
“Um, okay.” Charity bit her lip, unsure of her next move, or how much time she had left on the pay phone. How much did she want her mother to know about the life she’d been living? “There’s a Greyhound bus station in El Centro, California. I can be there by tomorrow morning.”
“California? You’re all the way out there by yourself?” Her mother’s voice wobbled before steadying. “Are you sure we can’t come get you?”
“No, Mom.” She forced a smile, trying to sound upbeat instead of ashamed. “By the time you drive here, I could be home already, right? I just want to get home as quick as possible, and the bus station is close. I’ll call you when I get there.”
“How will I get the ticket to you?”
Charity giggled. Her mom had turned forty while Charity was away, and while Faith Parker probably still looked young, she had never been the best at technology. “Things have changed,” she explained, lips spreading in a wide smile. “You can book my ticket online, and I can check in with my ID at the station.”
“There’s usually a confirmation number for something like that, right? How will I get it to you?”
“I’ll call you from the station if they need it, but my driver’s license should work.” Charity dug in her pocket and pulled out her wallet, relieved that she still had her license and it hadn’t expired.
An operator’s voice came on the line and announced that the time the quarters had bought her was about to run out.
“All right, sweetie. I’m just so happy you called. I can’t wait until you’re home.”
“Neither can I.” Charity swallowed past the lump in her throat, sniffing quietly so her mother wouldn’t know she was crying. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, Charity. I’ll see you soon.”
Charity held on to the receiver long after she placed it in the cradle. She didn’t want to break the connection to her mother, even though Faith was probably already on the second floor of their four-bedroom house, taking stock of what she needed to do to get Charity’s room ready to welcome her home.
“Did I hear you need a ride to El Centro?”
Jumping, Charity gasped when the man spoke from behind her. She turned, ready to fight—she’d had to hold her own more than once before—but her frown quickly turned into a smile when she saw who it was. “Lucky. You about scared the life out of me.”
He grinned and winked, tipping a ball cap featuring a four-leaf clover in greeting. Laugh lines crinkled around his eyes, but other than that sign, it was hard to tell how old he was. The girls all loved him. Not only was he cute, he was super nice. “Sorry to intrude, but I couldn’t help but overhear.”
“I thought you were sleeping.” She waved a hand toward the trucks.
Lucky smiled and removed his hat, running his fingers through thick chestnut hair. His eyes locked on some distant point, as if he was watching the highway for occasional headlights. When he caught her watching him, he placed his hat back on his head and stuck his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans.
“I don’t sleep much these days. I’ve got more work than I can handle.” He nodded at his truck sitting at the diesel pumps. “I’m about to leave if you want a ride.”
She stared at him, then quickly looked away. “It’s kind of late. I don’t want to sit in the bus station lobby all night.”
Why was she even hesitating? She didn’t know. Maybe it felt too good to be true to have a nice guy offer her a ride, just as she needed. Unlike Lucky, Charity didn’t have that kind of luck.
“You can get on the next bus, if it’s not full, long as you have a ticket.” He checked his watch, turning his arm so she could glimpse the clockface. “The last bus usually runs around one in the morning. That’d give us almost two hours to get there, and it’s only a thirty-minute drive.”
She worried a rock with the toe of her shoe. “I don’t have a lot of money.”
“You don’t have to pay me anything.” He shrugged one shoulder, giving her a one-sided grin. “Truth is, it broke my heart to hear you crying like that, and I’d move heaven and earth to see my mama again. May she rest in peace.”
Charity’s heart about dropped out on the concrete, and her eyes began tearing up again. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks.” He turned his gaze back to the darkness, his jaw tensing. “You never know how long you have with the people you love.” He faced her again, his hazel eyes shimmering with memories of his loved ones. “I’m already heading that way, and it would be an honor to play a small part in getting you home to your family.”
She hesitated, her gaze going to the truck with the four-leaf clover on the door. Normally, she would have jumped at the offer, but her friend had her spooked. Savannah, the girl she’d shared rides with for a couple years now, had called her parents to take her home after some girls had disappeared. Still, there was no actual way to know whether these women had disappeared or had simply moved on to another location, or changed their lives for the better. And Lucky was so friendly, so good-looking, how could he be responsible for anything so sinister?
Lucky grinned. “Come on. It’s a cold highway out there. You’ll be company for me for a bit. We can talk about our mamas. Okay, and our sisters. You got a sister?”
Charity searched his eyes—clear hazel, like a lake’s reflection. It was the mention of her sister, Hope, that finally had her nodding. She was suddenly desperate to get home to Hope and wrap her arms around her.
“Okay.” She cleared her throat, smiling shyly. “I mean, thank you.”
Lucky touched the brim of his hat, bowing slightly like a gentleman and holding a hand out toward his truck. “After you.”
Charity picked her way over the uneven asphalt, going around to the passenger side of the truck and waiting for him to unlock the door. She nodded her thanks when he held it open for her, climbed up into the seat and buckled herself in.
Lucky swung into the truck with ease, but before he sat down, he leaned around his seat to the space behind hers. Charity braced herself, ready to jump out of the truck if he tried anything, but he straightened and held out a bottle of water.
“Thank you.” She took the bottle, which was ice cold, and opened it, taking a quick drink to hide her chagrin. How had she missed the cooler bungeed against the passenger seat?
Lucky took a swig of his own water, easing the truck into gear and out of the diner’s lot.
Charity sat back and took a long pull of water, shifting against the soft leather seat until she found a comfortable spot. “This is a nice rig.”
“I drive across the country every week.” She nodded, closing her eyes and leaning back with a sigh. He glanced over at her. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I think I’m just hot. I’m sweating from that phone call.” She tried to laugh, but nerves rattled under her skin. Should she have accepted the ride? She knew Lucky, but she didn’t really know him at all.
Cold air-conditioning blasted her in the face as he turned a vent in her direction. “Is that better?”
“A little.” She yawned, her eyes suddenly heavy. She was here, and there was nothing she could do about it now. “Do you mind if I close my eyes for a few minutes? I guess my day is catching up with me.”
She let her eyelids flutter shut, listening to the hum of the road under the big rig’s tires until she sank into darkness.
* * *
The stillness woke her.
Blinking, Charity groaned as she turned her head toward the truck cab’s window. They were parked, but the exterior was black with endless night. What little she could make out through blurry eyes was obviously not a bus station.
It was hard to tell, she was so lightheaded, her thoughts scattered. What was wrong with her? The truck’s headlights weren’t on, the yellow parking lights doing little to illuminate the pitch-black. She frowned over at the figure in the driver’s seat. It was Lucky, just like her fuzzy mind remembered.
If they were parked at the edge of the bus station lot, maybe she just couldn’t see the building. But wouldn’t it be lit up, despite the late hour?
Charity sat up and rubbed her eyes, trying to break free of the drowsiness that lingered. “Are we there yet? Why is it so dark? Are they closed?”
“No!” he snapped then blew out a long breath. “No.” His voice was calmer now, quieter, but his body seemed to pulse with a strange vibration she didn’t understand. “We’re not at the bus station yet. Sorry. I gotta take a leak. The next service station is almost forty miles, and I can’t wait that long.” He flashed her a smile and winked, but the gestures seemed stiff, almost forced. “I’ll be right back.”
Slipping out the driver’s side door, he disappeared into the night.
Charity rolled her shoulders and stretched, peering out the window, but they were too far away from the highway for her to get her bearings. It was so dark she couldn’t even see the highway. She tried to brush off the nerves that awoke in her stomach. Pitch-black wasn’t out of the ordinary in the desert. There were stretches of road so remote the radio couldn’t pick up a single station.
Her eyes darted to the clock as tightness built in her own bladder. Daunted by the drive ahead and regretting drinking so much coffee and then half a bottle of water, she grabbed the handle and shoved the heavy door open. She couldn’t see a thing.
Powering on her little prepaid cellphone, she used the screen to light the way. She might be out of minutes, but the device still had one use. She kept her eyes peeled for scorpions and headed in the opposite direction Lucky had gone. At least she hoped it was the opposite direction. That would be embarrassing.
A centipede the size of her index finger skittered out of her path, weaving between rocks that stabbed the thin soles of her shoes with every step. She was about to turn around when she spotted a waist-high scrub brush that was perfect. It was right in the middle of a wide ditch.
She jumped as lightning flashed across the sky, quickly followed by a crack of thunder. That wasn’t good. Peering into the sky, she realized exactly why it was so dark. The moon and stars were covered with a thick band of clouds.
Blowing out an exasperated sigh, she tilted her phone until the screen illuminated the area around the bush. She needed to hurry, but the bush was much taller than she’d initially thought, growing in the lowest part of a dry wash.
Hastened by the discomfort of a full bladder, she leaned her weight back and took every step with care, trying not to slip going down the short incline. The bush was the only place she was going to find with any sort of cover, and she couldn’t hold it much longer. Besides, there was a semi between her and Lucky, and if she turned her phone off, the desert was so dark he wouldn’t be able to see her standing ten feet away.
Lightning flashed again, and she scowled. Well, he might see her for a second.
It’s fine.Lucky is a gentleman.
At the bottom of the gully, she awkwardly fumbled with her belt as she held her phone in one hand. Pushing her pants down her thighs, she froze at the sound of a stick breaking. Then another. And one more.
The sky lit up, revealing the silhouette of a man. Fear shot through her as quickly as the lightning shot through the sky.
Pain so bright it was like a camera flash exploded behind her eyes, and before she even realized she was falling, she was on her hands and knees. Sharp rocks cut into the flesh of her palms and through her thin jeans as she hit the ground.
Had she been struck by lightning?
Had an animal attacked her from behind?
As the night flashed into day for another moment, the animal raised the rock again. “Too dirty,” he growled, and she remembered the werewolf movies she used to watch when she was younger.
Pain ricocheted through her again, and her phone slipped from her hand, the screen creating a small rectangle of light that held her focus.
It was better that way.
Better not to see whatever came next. She wished she had the ability not to feel.
The werewolf held a large rock over his head as it roared, “Too late to go back now.”
Charity didn’t understand the words fully, but she fully understood the horrific pain stabbing through her neck, coupled with the thud of the rock connecting with her body, over and over.
Pain. Violent. Punishing.
Then strangely painless.
Her eyes rolled toward the dark sky, her only thought of her family, who had welcomed her return after everything she’d done. Her mother would be devastated.
“Hate you!” the werewolf growled, his voice rising with the words. The rock came down one last time before the beast tossed it to the side.
Charity tried to speak, but what escaped her lips was little more than a gurgle. Coughing, she choked on her own blood as the hot liquid bubbled into her throat. Turned on her side, the blood spilled onto the sand, which was strangely cold against her cheek.
A roll of thunder rumbled so deep it vibrated through the ground and into her skull. She couldn’t feel her fingers. She couldn’t move. Oh god.
Mommy! Come get me.
The werewolf swore, then disappeared from her line of vision as the raindrop plopped onto her forehead. She blinked as fist-sized rocks tumbled down the incline in his wake, bouncing off her head.
A high-pitched keening noise rose from deep in her chest. He’s leaving me! The last thing she wanted was for the monster to return, but if he didn’t, that meant she had no hope. She would die here, alone.
Raindrops fell from the sky, pelting her like icy pokers. She blinked as they splattered against her cheeks, mingling with the hot flow of tears and snot streaming down her face.
In the distance, the diesel engine roared to life and was shifted into gear. Lucky. She tried to say his name, but blood made the sound only a gurgle. As Lucky drove off, the drops of rain turned into a downpour.
Ice-cold water pooled in the ditch beneath her, so cold it turned her blood to ice.
Now I lay me down to sleep…
The water was rising so fast, it was up to her cheek before she could finish the first line of the prayer her mama taught her as a child.
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
In a matter of minutes, her left eye was submerged first, stinging as debris scraped over her cornea.
If I should die before I wake…
Whimpering, she willed her body to move, but even her mouth wouldn’t obey her commands. Unable to close her lips, water seeped into her mouth, choking her. She coughed reflexively, but the water rose.
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
Lightning split the sky, the rumble of thunder muffled as her head slipped beneath the surface. She tried to hold her breath. Tried one more time to pull herself out of the ditch.
But she could do neither.
If I should live for other days…
An eerie calm swept over her, an acceptance that there was nothing she could do to save herself.
I pray thee, Lord, to guide my ways.
Resigned to her fate, fully submerged underwater, Charity took her last breath, unable to stop her lungs from filling with water. Glad she wouldn’t be alive to witness her mother’s pain.
Lucky upshifted his semi, glancing in the sideview mirror at the broken-down red Nissan Altima as it grew smaller and finally disappeared. Hood and trunk up in the universal sign of a motorist in need of assistance, if he hadn’t been as lucky as his name, it would have been only a matter of time before someone else had stopped to help the beautiful brunette with the deep blue eyes.
“Where are you going?” she had asked after hopping into his rig.
“Richmond, Virginia, then on to Louisville, Kentucky.”
“That’s where I’m going.” Giving his arm a squeeze, she lowered her eyelids, pleading, “Can you take me with you?”
And just like that, the beautiful Katarina sat beside him, and he’d been so immediately taken with her that he’d given her his real name.
“Well, Matt Loomis,” she said breathlessly. “I’m so grateful you were here to save me.”
Little did she know that she’d be saving him too.
The winding stretch of Highway 41 north of Charleston wasn’t very populated during the week, though she could’ve walked to Huger for assistance if she’d been desperate. Even with the early May heat, the dense forest lining either side of the highway provided ample shade.
But women like Katarina didn’t seek out help. They let help come to them. Now, she sat in his passenger seat, and had been chatting for the last five minutes or so as if they were old friends. She talked about the business she was in, and though she didn’t outright say it, there was no question that she was a hooker.
Probably an escort. High priced escort, by the looks of her. He imagined she was paid a pretty penny to spread those sexy legs.
Would she expect payment from him? He smiled at the thought. He’d pay her well. He’d release her from this vile world. She’d been fortunate that it was him who’d stopped by her broken down vehicle.
Lucky didn’t usually play Good Samaritan to these types of things. A disabled car left on the side of the road alerted authorities. They left clues. Lucky didn’t like clues. But he liked this beauty and hadn’t been able to resist her.
It would be okay, he knew. He would be careful. Very careful. Besides, he had no intention of dumping his guest in the Carolinas, where she could be easily connected to the abandoned car.
Though Katarina had only been in his truck a short while, he already had a spot in mind for her. A spot where she’d never be found.
Gorgeous as she was, she was more fit for a resting place in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains than his typical dumping ground. A woman as fine as Katarina deserved to be surrounded by beauty as her body withered away until only bones picked clean by scavengers were left to mark her passing.
He snuck a peek at the woman, admiring her from head to toe. She’d slipped her shoes off, nails on her perfect feet painted to match her red lipstick. Anticipation of what was to come had his heart racing, but Katarina appeared to be oblivious, completely relaxed in the seat beside him. With no idea what the day held in store for her.
“What about you, Matt.”
Her sudden interest in talking about him instead of herself startled Lucky out of his revelry. “What about me?”
“Is driving a truck your endgame?”
He shifted in his seat to relieve some of the pressure in his pants, flashing her a grin. “I get great benefits and I can afford to spoil myself, so yeah, this is a sweet gig. I’m my own boss, I set my own hours, and own my truck. No one to answer to, and no one to tell me how I can spend my money. It’s worked for me for over a decade.”
His mother’s face rose up in front of him, and he mentally blinked it away. She was dead, and he’d never listened to the bitch anyway. Not when she’d wanted him to wear the choking tie to school, not when she’d told him to let his sister watch what she wanted on TV. She’d tried to rule the roost, both of the females in his life had, but that was a man’s place.
“Doesn’t that get lonely?” She dragged her fingers over his zipper, a dreamy look on her face. “A man has certain needs, Matt.”
At the mention of his needs, his thoughts turned back to his plans. Once he found a secluded place to pull over, he would tie her up and gag her, then stuff her in the sleeper cab of his rig and lock the door. He never worried about interruptions, since passing motorists were used to truckers pulled off the road to rest.
He’d learned long ago that no one bothered him as long as he moved on within a few hours. They drove past without slowing, giving him ample time to stretch the torture out, savoring every moment to the fullest. With Katarina, he would leave no inch untouched, starting with her beautiful feet.
He reminded himself to answer her question, winking to cover his long silence, hoping it hadn’t made her uneasy. “I do have needs.”
Mind wandering back to the daydream she’d interrupted, he kept going back to her bare feet. Lucky didn’t have a foot fetish, but like the rest of her body, Katarina’s feet were exquisite. His chest tightened at the thought of breaking each delicate toe, one at a time.
With his spacious bunk hidden by a sliding door behind the seats, he could keep her tied up for days. Driving from one delivery to the next, he would stop to fulfill his need when it came, inflicting pain until he’d had enough of her sweetness. Then, he would find a quiet place to finish the job.
Her moans would be muffled behind a gag, so no one would hear her scream, but the pain on her face would be loud and clear. Every breath she took would be agony, until her final exhalation. Then, there would be nothing but the relief of death.
It was the ultimate gift.
Sitting beside her, he would hold her hand until the light faded from her eyes. He wanted to be the last thing she saw, to let her know he appreciate the gift she was giving him and letting her know how her essence would make him even greater. After, he would remove the gag, the ropes, and walk away more powerful than before.
Only once had he ever abandoned the final show while a woman still held a spark of light in her eyes, and he’d regretted that terrible mistake for twelve long years. She’d been a pretty little thing, and he’d noticed her before. That was the key. Get them to trust you first. Then, their surprise only made the end result even sweeter.
But that night so long ago, little Charity had seemed ripe for the taking. When he’d overheard her phone call with her mother, it was as if the stars had aligned. She’d seemed so perfect. So…right.
What he hadn’t expected was the assault of memories to overtake him. He hadn’t even considered that her conversation with her mother would make him think about conversations with his.
But it had.
As he’d driven one mile after the next, thoughts of home had been like punches to the gut. He’d gone overboard, which he’d had always been very careful not to do. It ruined the finale.
It had been so perfect, and little Charity had fallen asleep with only a few sips of the drug he’d planted in her water. It had given him enough time to get deep in the desert, far enough from anyone else that he should have had hours of hours of exquisite pleasure.
Instead, his mother’s voice had nagged through his mind and thoughts of home and the past had interfered with his present. It wasn’t even his fault. He’d simply reacted. He’d picked up a rock, then he was hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting…
It was the loud bark of thunder that had saved him. If it hadn’t been for Mother Nature’s warning, he would have stayed in that gully, hitting instead of enjoying his kill. He would have been washed away by the sudden deluge of rain that had appeared like a ghost.
The universe had protected him. As always. Once he’d been out of immediate danger, he stood as close to the edge of the ditch as he dared, gaze fixed on his prey until the strong current dragged her downstream.
Watching the raven-haired, green-eyed beauty choking on the water before being swept away by the sudden flood had been glorious but unfulfilling. Had he known the storm was coming and that his quarry had wandered into a deep dry wash to relieve herself, he would’ve waited to kill her.
She’d been unaware of the sedative in the bottled water he’d given her, so disoriented that she hadn’t even noticed they’d passed through El Centro, crossed into Arizona, and stopped somewhere between Gila Bend and Phoenix. Groggy and confused, she’d never managed to put two and two together.
He’d let thoughts of his mother and a past that were long dead get the better of him, and they had cheated him of the joy of watching little Charity die.
“You’re such a handsome man. You shouldn’t be alone.”
Lucky blinked, forcing himself back to the present. He chuckled, full to bursting with happiness that he could daydream about one beauty while another sat unsuspecting in the passenger’s seat. He would make up for Charity with this one.
“Not to burst your bubble, but I don’t spend a lot of time alone. You’re not the only one doing what you do.”
He’d expected her to pout. In fact, he’d chosen his words carefully in the hopes of getting a rise out of her.
But she was unfazed. “I bet you can afford to have a lot of things men want. A woman to warm your bed. Women to keep you satisfied at night. The world is yours for the taking, right?”
Women. If only Katarina knew how close to the truth she was.
Women were the source of his power.
But before their power could become his, he had to transfer their life force into himself.
With each kill, Lucky adapted, adjusting his methods like the skilled hunter he was. None had been perfect, but he’d persisted, certain every woman the universe sent to slake his need was proof he was on the right path. They made him smarter and stronger, despite being complete failures in their own lives.
He cherished every one of them, for even a dirty whore had something to give the world. Each woman was Lucky’s gift from the universe, and once he’d felt the power bleed into the depths of his very soul, he was hooked.
But this woman was more than just a whore. There was an air about her that commanded respect and oozed class. She was nothing like his typical prey, and he intended to savor her. Truck stop bunnies weren’t worth a dime a dozen. Yes, they’d served their purpose over the years, but the universe had spoken. His latest find was the start of a new phase.
After this, Lucky wouldn’t waste his life’s blood on anything less than he deserved. He’d set his standards higher, and in return, he’d be elevated to something greater than a mere mortal. Katarina’s appearance proved that. Even the sound of her name held untold power. Katarina.
“What a powerful feeling.” Katarina spoke the words with conviction, as if she’d plucked his thoughts from the air and breathed life into them.
They were connected, destined for each other. Picking her up had been the right thing to do.
“It is.” He swallowed hard as her hand settled over the growing bulge in his pants. At this rate, he wouldn’t make it to the North Carolina state line. “A woman needs money to build her empire. I can give you that money, for certain services. Is that something you would like?”
All but purring her agreement, she slid closer to him, lust in her eyes. “You’re right, I do need money, and there’s not much I wouldn’t do to get what I want.”
Every word she spoke just confirmed for Lucky that she was another gift from the universe, a little nod in his direction. Despite his risky hobby, he’d never been caught, and when the urge to kill grew within him again, another perfect specimen always appeared as if created exclusively for him.
There was no tortuous wait like he’d suffered before his first kill. The universe was ready and waiting, handing over exactly what he needed without question. Proof that he embodied the nickname inscribed on the side of his truck inside a four-leaf clover.
“Like I said, you’re smart.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, Matt. In fact, I think you’ll be my first product.”
“Product?” He laughed. “Don’t you mean client?”
Her giggle was like rain on a hot summer day washing over him. The joy on her face was pure light, and every breath she took pushed him closer to the edge of reason. He wanted her now, but she was like fine wine—not to be gulped down all at once. No, he needed her completely at ease. The game he played was always more fun when the first blow blindsided.
He’d honed his craft over the years, building his victims’ trust before stoking their fear until they were in a frenzy to escape. Careful never to hurt them too much…at first. The game made snuffing the light out of them more exciting, and he lasted longer between kills. Age had made him more patient, and far more cruel.
A few weeks shy of his forty-first birthday, he’d already been killing more than half his life. Over forty beauties had transferred their life force into him. They were all unremarkable, unimportant, and wholly undeserving of the merciful end he’d given them. Clinging to their miserable lives with iron grips, they hadn’t realized the freedom death would bring. Because of Lucky, they’d learned.
They were given to Lucky to be shaped by his hands, but he knew it was he who was the true gift. Few could recognize the hopelessness floating just beneath the surface, and even fewer still had the balls to do something about the despair gripping these wretched creatures who sullied the earth, spreading disease and poverty everywhere they went. They were the monsters.
Lucky was an angel of mercy.
A glint of light hit his sideview mirror, grabbing his attention from the powerful beauty sitting beside him. Light reflected from the windshield of a car that had come up behind them and was moving over the solid double stripe between the lanes so it could pass.
Lucky scanned the horizon to make sure the way was clear ahead. Usually, he toyed with morons who passed in a no-passing zone, but he was already occupied with something more important. There was no way he would waste time dealing with an accident today.
He took his foot off the accelerator, allowing the other driver time to pass before they reached the next blind turn. Traffic was sporadic, but it would only take one surprised motorist heading this way for disaster to strike. He cast a glance at Katarina, but she was fussing with her nails, completely oblivious to the idiot in the other vehicle.
When the car was even with his window, he blinked, surprised to see a cherry red Altima linger for a moment before flying past. The damn thing seemed to be toying with him, the brake lights winking as it sped ahead.
He shot a glance at Katarina, motioning to the car that was quickly pulling away. “Isn’t that your car?”
She didn’t even look up from her nails as she shrugged. “There are so many red cars.”
Lucky scowled, anger replacing some of his excitement. “A red Nissan Altima?”
“No clue.” She twisted a strand of dark hair around her finger, cherry red lips as bright as the car flying down the highway ahead of them now.
Sure she was lying, he decided he didn’t care. It didn’t matter why she was hitchhiking on the long, empty stretch of Highway 41. She was here now, and if she’d had someone drop her off so she could get a fresh start, that was none of his business.
Of course, this all could be a setup. Someone could had hidden in the car with plans to ambush him. If that happened, he would take care of that and go back to his original plan. Maybe even bring the friend along, if it was another woman, though Katarina would remain his primary focus.
The car was so far ahead now, Lucky could barely make it out in the distance. It disappeared around a sharp curve, and he let out the breath that was growing sour in his lungs. He shook any lingering thoughts of the red car out of his mind and focused back on the beautiful woman by his side. He had so many plans.
Katarina shifted in the seat beside him, drawing his attention even more. Keeping one eye on the road, he gazed at her. She was watching him, her lower lip caught between her teeth. So seductive. So certain in the power she thought she wielded over him. Heat grew within him until his jeans were impossibly tight over his groin. There was no way she didn’t realize how sexy she was, but somehow, she managed to exude sensuality and innocence all at once. She was downright intoxicating.
Running her delicate fingers through her hair. Folding her right arm against the window to rest her head on. She pursed her lips, blushing prettily when she caught him staring.
“You’re beautiful,” he told her with his signature slow wink. “But I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot.”
“Not as much as you’d think.” She laughed, pulling her knees up so she sat cross-legged in the generously wide leather seat. Her long brown hair fell in tousled waves over her shoulders, blue eyes sparkling as she teased him. Their easy banter made the miles fly by, and Lucky was happy for her company, even if it wasn’t going to last long.
The name fit her. She was exotic, with model-perfect features that had him glancing in her direction every few minutes. Every time their eyes met, she winked at him and made a soft giggling sound that went straight to his groin.
She was flirting hardcore, copying the way he winked to put women at ease, and Lucky knew the next few hours—between Huger, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia—would fly by. But if she kept flirting that way, he would have to find somewhere to pull over a lot sooner.
“How long have you been a trucker?”
Lucky blinked, dragging his thoughts away from future plans and back into the moment.
At some point while he was lost in thought, she’d turned, back against the door, long legs folded neatly under her with her knees to one side.
Katarina perked up a little, shifting in her seat as she leaned in. “Pretty ambitious for such a young man. Where did you get the money? Aren’t they like, over a hundred grand?”
“My mother had an accident with a hay baler.” An accident, he scoffed inwardly. The raging alcoholic had deserved it, and Lucky had been happy to bury his mother in their family plot. “Not long after, my sister took off. I sold the farm and invested in myself.”
New grass had only just broken through the surface of the dirt piled on his mother’s grave when his little sister went missing. He’d hid her a little too well, and she was listed as a missing person to this day.
Katarina didn’t recoil or offer platitudes. Nodding, she admired the spacious cab with a keen eye. “It looks like your investment paid off. This is a nice rig.”
“Thanks.” He went silent, mulling over their exchange. Telling her about his past hadn’t been part of his plan. She’d asked, and answering wasn’t a big deal. But her cool response excited him. Where others would’ve given condolences or at least offered to take his mind off his nonexistent grief, Katarina only praised Lucky’s smart choices. Such approval was completely unexpected, and for the first time since he’d picked her up, he was having second thoughts about killing her. She was fascinating.
He decided to ask her more about her plans, suddenly interested in where she was from and how she’d come to be in South Carolina in the first place.
“What about you? How did you become a…businesswoman?” She had all but admitted using her body to make money, so he could’ve easily called her a prostitute instead, but she was different in ways he couldn’t put his finger on. Working as a pro truly seemed like a means to an end for her, and he could tell she was whip smart and fiercely driven.
She smiled and let out a low hum of approval. “My parents got me into it, actually.”
Lucky recoiled. “I wasn’t expecting that. I’m sorry.”
Twisting her lips to the side, she lifted one shoulder. “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. Living with them was hell. My second family was better.” The frown came and went so fast, Lucky almost missed it. “For a little while.”
“What happened then?”
“I got too old, and they didn’t want me anymore, so they sold me.” Her voice was low, the easy laughter that had given every word an effervescent quality suddenly gone. When a single tear spilled down her cheek, she flinched and wiped it away with the back of her hand.
“My first family did too.” She shrugged, her eyes drying quickly despite the horror she was recounting in great detail to a stranger. “I’m not sure where they got me from, but they weren’t my real parents.”
“Katarina, I don’t know what to say.” He’d thought his own family had been a disaster.
“You don’t have to say anything. I’m who I am now because of how I grew up. I survived, and I found a way to use what I knew to make a living.” Her wide smile was genuine. “I like how things turned out, so I’m not mad.”
Her behavior surprised him. She was calm, matter-of-fact, and seemed completely unaffected. He wondered if she’d ever loved any of her parents. He hadn’t, which had earned him hours of intense therapy that only deepened his hatred. But Katarina had been through so much more and remained indifferent.
His heart swelled, the excitement that had waned earlier blooming again. Katarina was the one. He could already feel the power she would transfer to him.
Her hand reached for him, resting on his leg again. Placing his hand over hers, he slid hers upward until her palm rested on his crotch.
She squeezed gently, but not too gently, eyes slightly wide, nostrils flared.
He sucked in a quick breath as she eased his zipper down and slipped her fingers between the fabric of his jeans and his boxers. His heart raced and his mouth went dry. Gaze flicking to the sideview mirror and back to her, a groan rumbled in his throat. “What do you say I pull over at the next rest stop and show you what’s behind that door?”
“A sleeping cab?” She bit her lip, teasing him, her eyebrow arched as she stroked his length.
“A fancy one.”
“I can’t wait.” Enunciating every syllable, she leaned toward him, and he stiffened. She licked her lips, her eyes on his zipper as she lowered her head.
Gripping the wheel in anticipation, he forced his eyes back on the road so he could take the upcoming blind curve safely. After that, the road straightened for a long while, and there was a wide shoulder about a mile away where he could stop. It wasn’t a rest stop, but Lucky knew this route like the back of his hand, and no one would think twice about a trucker parked to get some rest in the peaceful forested area.
When he came around the curve, he noticed the red Altima first. The car was parked on the side of the road, and if he hadn’t been watching it, he would have spotted the black strips on the asphalt much sooner. “Holy shit!”
Katarina jumped back to her seat, even as he slammed on his brakes, but the spike strips were too close for him to avoid. One after another, his tires blew, each letting off a loud pop as the rubber burst and air rushed out. The massive rig shook as shredded tire chunks clunked against the undercarriage, bouncing across the blacktop. Some of the tires remained intact, the combination of flat rubber and bare metal rims jarring, causing the truck to sway dangerously and forcing Lucky to grind to a halt just a few yards from the Altima.
Beside him, Katarina laughed. “That was fun.”
He was ready to backhand her when a large, almost bald man got out of the driver’s seat of the little car. His lips tipped up in a slight grin.
Lucky might not have gone to college, but he was smart enough to connect these dots quickly. The red car was Katarina’s, and he’d been tricked into believing she was nothing more than a helpless woman on the side of the road.
Fully pissed now, Lucky parked the rig right where it stopped, halfway in the roadway, calculating how quickly he could get to the gun he kept in his sleeper cab.
His hands quaking with the rush of adrenaline and fury at being duped, he yanked off his seat belt, the buckle slapping the window with a loud crack.
“What the hell is going on,” he demanded as he turned to his beautiful passenger.
His eyes locked with Katarina’s, and her grin made all the fury in the world race through his veins. He lunged for the door of the sleeper cab, intent on blowing her pretty head clean off with his gun.
Before he could even turn the handle, something cold pressed against his neck.
“No,” he screamed, just before the cold evolved into heat so intense he felt it pulse through his eyeballs and out of his fingers. A distant zap and sizzle sent his body convulsing as pain, exquisite pain, ripped through every cell, every molecule of his body.
He tried to speak. He tried to see. Tried to think. But none of his senses worked correctly. Katarina’s continued laugh was muffled as the driver’s door was ripped open and large hands pulled him out.
He had no control, and the realization created a rage inside him like he’d never known.
The rage was impotent, though, as asphalt dug into Lucky’s back, tugging his jeans down low on his hips. Loose gravel gouged his exposed skin. Trying to fight back, all he could manage was a feral grunt and a flopping roll of his head. A line of drool escaped from his open lips, dripping down his chin unchecked as the man dragged Lucky away from the truck and toward the red Altima.
The bald man regarded Lucky with narrowed eyes, grimacing. “This one’s still awfully alert. Thought you were going to stun him good.”
“I did.” To Lucky’s left, Katarina appeared, hands on hips, hair billowing in the soft breeze as if it had a life of its own. “Hmm. Guess he needs another hit.”
Lucky tried to protest, but his words came out as nothing but a series of slurred, barely recognizable sounds.
To his utter shock, Katarina giggled with glee. “Begging won’t help you now. You’re going to make a fine product.”
Product, Lucky thought, his mind a bit sluggish as he searched his recent memory. You’ll be my first product. Right. She’d said that very thing only a few moments ago. At the time, he’d assumed she meant client and said as much. In that moment, he’d been so sure her use of the word product was a slip of the tongue, nothing more.
“I…had plans…for…us,” he finally managed, unsure why he’d admitted it. He’d had plans. Now they were canceled. When he regained the use of his limbs, he was going to kill her with his bare hands. And her giant too.
But Katarina only rolled her eyes and knelt beside his prone body with an exasperated sigh. Hovering mere inches above his face, she shook her head, scowling at him. “Men like you always think they can talk their way out of any situation. I’ve got news for you, Matt.” She purred his name. “Today isn’t your lucky day, and tomorrow isn’t looking good, either.”
Brandishing the stun gun, she pressed it roughly against his neck, right beneath his jaw.
His back arched as a painful jolt of electricity sliced through his nerves, but even as the scream ripped from his throat, darkness rendered the world silent.
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