“I think it’s broken.” Death studied Casey’s wrist.
Casey didn’t have to think about it. Her right arm might have been numb, but the angle at which it lay on the hard, tiled floor of the general store gave it away. Her head spun as the blackness subsided. She had no idea how much time had passed.
“What’s lying on my legs?” She couldn’t twist far enough to see, and the nighttime security lights provided minimal visibility.
“Expired baked beans, mostly. Still in the cans. Although I see some creamed corn, too. And tomato soup. Plus, of course, the shelving.”
No wonder she couldn’t move. Casey closed her eyes and listened. Was her attacker still in the store?
Something thumped. Casey started, her heart racing. Death glanced up, then swooped away.
Casey scooted forward inch by inch, bearing her weight on her elbows and good hand. Her right ankle sent sharp pains all the way up her spine to her head, and she took a slow, deep breath. It couldn’t be broken, too. Please, God.
Death returned, accompanied by a rush of cold air. “Still in the store. In the bread aisle.”
“Coming this way?”
“Staring at the ceiling.”
“I’m still here, aren’t I? But badly injured. Not moving. Lots of blood. The scissors you used did a thorough job.”
Not what she had wanted, but… “Did you see the gun?”
Death made another quick fly-around. “Several feet from the body, by the day-old donuts.”
Casey clenched her teeth and pulled herself further from the shelving wreckage. She wrenched herself into a sitting position and rolled cans off her legs. Once free, her ankle still hurt, but she could move it. Not broken. Thank goodness.
She gasped, remembering. “Where’s Nell?” She tried to get up, but her head went fuzzy and she dropped back down, hard.
“Do not stand up,” Death said. “You know I can’t catch you.”
“Where is she?”
“In the freezer, I suppose. That’s where I put her at the start of all this.”
“How long has it been?” Casey lurched to her knees and waited for the room to stop turning.
“Not long enough for her to freeze. Again, here I am. With you. Not carrying nine-year-olds to the Other Side.”
Casey took a deep breath and rose to her feet, leaning on fallen cans and boxes of Kleenex, incongruously placed together in a catch-all row. She stumbled to the end of the aisle and glanced toward the freezer, then the opposite way, in the direction of the bread and donuts and possible dead person. First, the gun. No point in letting Nell out of the freezer just to have her get shot.
Casey limped forward, watching for movement. She arrived at the end of the “carb aisle,” as the townies called it, and peered around the shelves. Too dark for her, a mere human, to see something as slender and dark as a gun.
She stretched her left arm toward her back right pocket and used her index and middle finger to slide out her phone. The flashlight app sent a ray of bright light down the aisle.
There was the gun, half hidden under the shelves of flour, which had exploded in clouds of powder during the destruction.
Casey crouched and peered through the stack of packaged cookies at chest level. Death was right about the body. Lots of blood, seeping into the tile, sprayed all over the bagged bread. She must have hit an artery. With that amount of blood loss, at least Casey didn’t anticipate being attacked again. No matter how much she regretted the violence.
She scooted to the gun, scooped it up with her good hand, and disappeared back behind the Oreos. She needed to call an ambulance to attend to the body on the floor. But not until Nell was safe.
It was probably too late for the paramedics, anyway.
Another thump sounded, and Casey realized it was coming from the freezer. She hobbled to the door and yanked the handle. The large panel swept open, releasing a cloud of frigid air almost as cold as Death.
“Casey!” A whirlwind of a girl dove out of the freezer and slammed into Casey, wrapping her arms around her waist. Casey grunted with pain, but encircled the girl with her left arm. Nell shivered and ground her face into Casey’s chest.
“Come on.” Casey moved forward. “Let’s get you away from the cold.”
Without letting go of each other they lurched their way to the storefront. The door was unlocked from when Casey and Nell—and their attacker—entered earlier. The security light over the front door spilled into the tiny parking lot. No vehicles in sight except the rusty gold Chevy that had been for sale since Casey came to town.
Casey grabbed a blanket off the shelf of camping supplies and threw it around Nell’s shoulders. The girl’s teeth chattered, and her skin had taken on a blue hue. Or maybe that was the poor lighting. Casey also grabbed an elastic athletic wrap from the first aid shelf, hoping it might ease the pain in her wrist until she could get taken care of by people who actually knew what they were doing.
Casey tucked the ends of the blanket against her own body so it wouldn’t fall, and led Nell outside. She slid onto the picnic table bench and dialed 911 with her thumb, her arm still around Nell’s shoulders, her broken wrist resting on her thigh.
“Who are you c-calling?” Nell stammered.
“The ambulance.” She had called from the store, but no one had arrived. It felt like forever since she’d spoken to the dispatcher, but most likely it had been a few minutes.
However long it had been, for sure it was too late now. Death was gone.
Casey attempted to wrap the athletic band around her arm, but couldn’t do it by herself. Nell took the end of the fabric and wrapped it around Casey’s wrist and torso, strapping her arm to her side. Casey grimaced and bit her lips so she wouldn’t cry out and scare her young friend.
The 911 operator answered with a professional tone. “What is your emergency?”
“You need to come to Vern’s. In Armstrong. There’s been… an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
Gravel crunched at the far side of the parking lot, feet rather than a car. Casey pushed Nell below the tabletop. “Who’s there?”
A shadow separated from the darkness, a faceless shape in the night.
“Hello?” The 911 operator’s voice sounded tinny coming from the phone.
“Don’t come any closer.” Casey gently lay Nell all the way onto the bench and pressed on her shoulder to tell her to stay down. She eased her leg over the boards and stood, finding her balance. Her wrist throbbed, but at least it was out of the way. Her other arm could strike, and her feet find a mark. “Who’s there?” she asked again.
“No need to worry, Casey,” a smooth voice said. “It’s only me.”
Oh, God, no.
Casey set her phone, still connected to the 911 operator, on the bench where Nell could reach it. Then Casey took a deep breath and stepped away from the table.
The night was about to get worse.
FIVE DAYS EARLIER
The clacking of the train on the tracks was numbing. And exhilarating. Casey Maldonado woke with a start in the early morning hours. After a quick check of the car, which confirmed all other passengers asleep and harmless, she leaned back to watch the scenery as it also awoke from a night’s slumber. The Rocky Mountains loomed dark and beautiful to the east as the train curved north through Utah, past the austere and mysterious terrain surrounding the Great Salt Lake.
“Might I interest you in a hot beverage?” Death stood in the aisle wearing a periwinkle suit with yellow trim, gold buttons, white gloves, and a top hat. “Moist towelette? Something to eat?”
Casey took a long look. “Okay, I’ll bite. What—or who—are you supposed to be?”
“Really?” Death pouted. “You don’t recognize the conductor from Murder on the Orient Express?”
Casey rubbed her eyes. “I just woke up. Not a good time to test my knowledge of obscure movies.”
“Obscure? This is Dame Christie we’re discussing. Anyway, I thought I’d wake you up before they did.” Death indicated a couple sitting across the aisle with an infant. The father leaned against the window, lips parted in sleep, while the mother drooped on his shoulder. The blond baby girl, almost a toddler, squirmed in her father’s arms.
“The kid is going to let loose howling,” Death said, “and I know how you are about crying babies.”
The child opened her eyes and squinted up at her dad. Her dark pink lips pinched and she whimpered, her chest heaving in preparation for what Casey was sure would be a piercing scream. Casey shot out of her seat and through Death, making her shiver.
“Hey.” Death brushed off the tasseled jacket.
“Which way is the dining car? Which way?”
“No need to get snippy. I told you she was going to wake up.”
The mom of the little blond girl blinked up at Casey and pointed her thumb toward the back of the train. “I think the dining car is that way. But I’m not sure if they’re open yet.”
“Oh.” Casey averted her eyes from the baby. “Thank you.” She grabbed her duffel bag from the shelf above her seat and strode down the aisle, banging a woman in the shoulder as she passed. The woman jerked awake, her bright blue eyes scorching Casey from beneath hair so white Casey wondered if it could possibly be natural.
Casey held up her hands. “Sorry.”
The woman frowned, but that was life. It wasn’t like Casey hit her on purpose.
Casey stopped off in the minuscule restroom before finding a seat in the dining car. It was empty except for her, since, as the young mother had predicted, breakfast hours had yet to begin. Casey slouched, looking up only when Death took the place across from her.
“No,” she said.
“Oh, was someone sitting here?”
“I meant no to your outfit. What is that?”
Death had changed into a black evening gown, accented by pearl and diamond jewelry, complete with a small tiara. “That’s twice you’ve disappointed me, dear heart, and the day has just begun. This is Audrey Hepburn’s dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Have you no class?”
“You’re the one wearing a dinner gown to breakfast.”
“Darling, the movie was about breakfast.”
Casey shook her head and watched the scenery fly by. The rising sun touched the desert with gold as it rose above the mountains. Before long other passengers straggled into the car and a server, more chipper than necessary, came by with coffee.
Casey waved off the menu the server presented. “I’ll take a bowl of oatmeal and some of that fresh-squeezed orange juice, please.”
“Are you serious?” Death frowned. “They’re bound to have Eggs Benedict. Or crepes with strawberries and whipped cream. Or even a Western omelette. Live a little. And allow me to live vicariously through you.”
“Oatmeal and orange juice,” the server echoed. “Coming right up!”
Casey stared dully at Death, who vanished in a dark cloud of maple syrup-scented disapproval.
Casey pulled out her new iPhone, a gift from Eric VanDiepenbos, her—dare she name it?—boyfriend. Lover. Friend. She was still getting the hang of it—the phone and the man—even after a couple months of trial and error. She mostly used the iPhone for listening to music and texting, which in itself was its own trial. She wasn’t used to someone being able to contact her whenever he wanted. Or look up her location. At least that was something she could control. Eric helped her turn off anything that could physically track her down, and she trusted him, because he was a good person. Plus, he showed her his own phone, which he set so she could always see where he was. Her phone’s settings were the opposite, so she figured that was good.
Her breakfast came and she ate it as the train wound its way across the Utah-Idaho border. The ground turned to farmed fields, even as the mountains kept their watch from a distance, and Casey tried to identify the crops, unlike anything she saw in the Midwest.
She was re-entering the passenger car to sit in her assigned seat when Death stopped her. “You’re not going to like it.”
The woman with the bright blond hair glanced up at her, and Casey forced a smile so the woman wouldn’t think she was crazy. The woman’s eyes widened, and she shifted in her seat to show Casey her back.
Death aimed a long finger toward Casey’s previous seat, now occupied by another young mother with a baby. Only this time it wasn’t a light-haired little girl. This time the child, a boy, bore the dark hair and eyes of Casey’s son, Omar, dead now for over two years. The mother of the blond girl playfully pinched the boy’s fat legs, and his gurgled laugh sent an arrow through Casey’s heart.
“How close are we to the next stop?”
The woman at Casey’s hip glanced over her shoulder. “Are you asking me? Because I don’t know.”
Death sighed. “Alas, I don’t either.”
“Never mind.” Casey pushed through the door to find a conductor.
She had no luck in the next car, or the one after that, and didn’t bother trying to find a different seat because it seemed the children were multiplying. Everywhere she looked, babies, toddlers, children the age Omar would have been in a year, two years, five…
Finally, she came across a conductor who assured her a stop was coming up in less than twenty minutes, if she really wanted to get off. Casey made her way to the caboose, where she clung to a rail and stared at the track as miles clacked away. Death sat on top of the railing, leaning against the caboose with feet propped on the iron, oblivious to the dangers that applied to an actual person. The black evening gown flapped in the wind.
“Why are there so many children on this train?” Casey said. “And so many mothers?”
“I’m sorry, but you know what Tiffany said.”
Casey huffed. “I have no idea what Tiffany said. And I really don’t care.”
“She said,” Death continued, “‘No matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.’”
“Oh, shut up.” Casey shoved her earbuds into her ears.