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When the rain isn't so much falling--be it in bucket loads or like cats and dogs--but rather slamming into the car like an avalanche of stone, you know it's time to pull over.
When you can't see much more than the slaphappy wipers splashing through rivers on the windshield, when you're suddenly not sure if you're on the road any longer, and your radio emits nothing but static, and you haven't seen another car since the sky turned black, and your fingers are tense on the wheel in an attempt to steady the old Accord in the face of terrifying wind gusts, you know it's so totally time to pull over.
Wendy leaned over the steering wheel, searching for the yellow lines that separated the two-lane highway. No real shoulder that she could see. What was to keep another car from rear-ending her if she pulled over here?
She'd seen the black clouds pillaring on the horizon as she headed across the Nevada desert. Heard the tornado warnings on the radio before it had inexplicably fried. The fact that this wasn't tornado territory had the announcers in a bit of a frenzy.
Wendy had ignored the warnings and pressed on into evening. She'd given herself two days for the long haul between San Diego and western Utah. The call from her mother asking her to come had frozen Wendy for a good ten seconds, phone in hand. Had to be Thursday, this week, her mother had insisted. It was now Tuesday night. Wendy wondered if she'd see the rest of the Brotherhood cult or just her mother. The thought of either was enough to keep her awake at night.
The tribe, as its leader Bronson called it, was a somewhat nomadic group of twenty or so members, going where God led them. God had evidently led them to the remote Utah-Nevada border now.
Wendy had been born into the cult and had managed to escape eight years earlier, on her eighteenth birthday, the day she was to wed Torrey Bronson as his third wife. Twice she'd hired private investigators to locate the tribe and report on her mother's condition. Twice the report had come back favorable. But the investigators had never actually talked to her mother--speaking to anyone from the outside world was strictly prohibited. Even making eye contact was good for a day in isolation. Physical contact, heaven forbid, was grounds for severe punishment.
Inside the cult there was plenty of touching and hugging and kissing, but no physical contact with strangers ever, period. That was the Brotherhood way.
Wendy had fallen in an Oklahoma ditch when she was seven years old and broken her leg. A farmer had heard her cries and taken her to the others who were searching. Before setting the bone, "Father" Bronson had beaten her severely for allowing unclean hands to touch her. The lashing hurt more than the broken leg. It was the last time Wendy had touched or been touched by anyone outside the tribe before escaping.
And when Father Bronson had taken it upon himself to break her two thumbs and two forefingers as punishment for kissing Tony, another thirteen-year-old in the tribe at the time, he'd made it excruciatingly clear that he'd claimed her for himself alone.
She'd fled the cult, but not the wounding of such a perverse childhood. Few knew the extent of the damage; she hid it well behind soft eyes and a light smile. But to this day even the thought of physical contact with men unnerved her.
No issue in Wendy's tumultuous life consumed her as much as this failing. Touch was her personal demon. A beast that prevented her from expressing the deep caring she'd felt in any relationship with a man, isolating her from love, romantic or otherwise.
Now, driving through nature's fury, she felt oddly isolated again. It was suddenly clear that her decision to continue into the dark clouds had been a mistake.
As if hearing and understanding that it had played unfairly with her, the storm suddenly eased. She could see the road again.
See, now that wasn't so bad . . . Time to retreat to the nearest overcrowded motel to wait out the storm with the rest of the traveling public.
She could even see the signs now, and the green one she passed said that the turnoff to Summerville was in five miles. Exit 354. A hundred yards farther, a blue sign indicated that there were no services at this exit.
Freak storm. Flash floods. Truth be told, it was all a bit exciting. As long as the storm didn't delay her, she kind of liked the idea of--
Her headlights hit a vehicle in the road ahead. Like a wraith, the cockeyed beast glared at her through the rainy night, unmoving, dead on the road. A pickup truck.
She slammed her foot on the brake.
The Accord's rear wheels lost traction on the wet pavement and slid around to her left. She gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white. Her headlights flashed past the scrub oak lining the road.
For an instant Wendy thought the car might roll. But the wet asphalt kept the Accord's wheels from catching and throwing her over.
Unfortunately, the slick surface also prevented the tires from stopping her car before it crashed into the pickup.
Wendy jerked forward, allowing her forearms to absorb most of the impact.
Steam hissed from under her hood. Rain splattered. But Wendy was unhurt, apart from maybe a bruise or two. She sat still, collecting herself.
Oddly enough, the airbags hadn't deployed. Maybe it was the angle. She'd hit the other vehicle's front bumper in a full slide, so that her left front fender had taken the brunt of the impact before becoming wedged under the grill.
She picked up her cell phone and snapped it open. No Service.
No service for more than half an hour now.
She tried the door. It squealed some, then opened easily before striking the smallish pickup, which she now saw was green. She climbed out, hardly noticing the rain. The pickup was missing its right front wheel and sat on the inner guts of the brake contraption--which explained the tire she now saw in the road. Her eyes returned to the pickup's door. The side window was shattered. The front windshield seemed intact, except for two round holes punched through on the driver's side.
Of course she couldn't be sure they were bullet holes, but it was the first thought to cross her mind, and since it had done so, she could hardly consider that mere debris had punched those two perfect circles through the glass.
Someone had shot at the driver.
Wendy jerked her head around for signs of another car or a shooter. Nothing she could see, but that didn't mean they weren't out there. For a moment she stood glued to the pavement, mind divided between the drenching she was receiving from the rain, and those two bullet holes.
She remembered the pistol in the console compartment between her Accord's front seats. Louise had talked her into buying it long ago, when they'd first met at the shelter. Wendy had never received the training she'd intended to, nor had she ever fired the gun. But there it lay, and if ever there was a time for it . . .
She flung the Accord's door wide and ducked inside. Finding and dislodging the black pistol case from between the seats proved a slippery, knuckle-burning task with wet fingers. Yet she managed to wrench it out. She disengaged the sliding mechanism that opened the case, snatched out the cold steel weapon, and fumbled it, trying to remember what the safety looked like.
Meanwhile, her butt, which was still sticking out in the rain, was taking a bath. The gun slipped from her hands and thudded on the floor mat. She swore and reached for it, found the trigger, and would have blown a hole in the car if the safety had been off.
Thank God for safeties.
Now she found the safety and disengaged it. However unfamiliar she was with guns, Wendy was no idiot. Neither was she anything similar to gutless.
Whoever was in the truck might still be alive, possibly even injured, and out here in this storm. And Wendy was the only one who could help. Sniper lurking or not, she would never abandon anyone in need.
Wendy turned the key in the Accord's ignition. The car purred to life. It was still steaming through the hood, but at least it ran.
She took a calming breath, then slipped back out of the car and hurried around to the truck's passenger door, staying low.
With a last look around the deserted highway, keeping the gun in both hands down low the way she'd often seen such weapons wielded on the big screen, she poked her head up and looked through the passenger window.
She stood up for a better look. The driver's window was smeared with something. Blood. But no body. Someone had been shot. The truck had apparently sideswiped another car and lost its front wheel before coming to a rest.
Wendy scanned the shoulder and ditches for any sign of a fallen body. Nothing.
Still no sign of a shooter, no sign of any danger.
No response to her call.
Louder this time. "Hello? Anybody out there?"
No, nothing but the rain drumming on the vehicles.
She started to shove the gun into the back of her Lucky jeans, which were now drenched right through to her skin, but a quick image of the gun blowing a hole in her butt stopped her short.
It was then, hand still on the pistol at the small of her back, that she heard the cry.
She jerked the gun to her left and listened. There it was again, farther down the road, hidden in the growing dark. An indistinguishable cry for help or of pain.
Or the killer, howling at the moon in victory.
The cry did not come again. Wendy crouched low and ran down the roadside toward the sound, gun extended. She wanted to yell but was torn, knowing that in the very unlikely case the sound had been made by whoever had shot at the truck, she would be exposing herself to danger.
That she was now running away from the safety of her car through the dark rain, toward an unidentified stranger, struck her as absurd. On the other hand, she would gladly spend the rest of her life pulling little girls with broken legs out of the ditches into which they had fallen, regardless of the consequences.
She'd run less than fifty yards when a van loomed through the rain. She pulled up, panting.
The van had apparently swerved off the road and down the shallow embankment on the left, where it now rested in complete darkness. It wasn't the kind of minivan in which moms hauled their children to soccer matches. It was the larger, square kind--the kind killers threw their kidnapped victims into before roaring off to the deep woods.
A streak of fear passed through her. Refusing to be gutless was one thing. Acting foolishly out of some misguided sense of justice was another. This was now feeling like the latter.
|Publication Date||April 3, 2007|