“Sixty-three bottles of beer on the wall, sixty-three bottles of beeeeer…”
Casey pushed her hands over her ears. “I can’t take it. I can’t. Not one more minute. I swear, I’m going to kill him. Or kill myself.”
Death sighed. “More work for me. No one ever considers how these things are going to affect me.”
“Sixty-two bottles of beer on the wall…”
Casey groaned. “Take me, L’Ankou. I’m begging you.” “Quite an offer. Better than the one he’s giving me. Can’t say anyone would want to pass a bottle around with him.”
The man in question was drunk, obviously, and hadn’t had a shower in days, if not weeks. His clothes were a conglomeration of things he’d scavenged, and his beard was a filthy rat’s nest of graying hair and dried grass and who knew what else. The odor of alcohol, stale smoke, and B.O. filled the boxcar, where Casey had taken refuge during the night. It was getting on toward noon of the following day, and the sun had heated the car to an almost unbearable temperature. Casey didn’t know where the train had traveled during the last several hours, but she didn’t care. When it stopped, she was getting off.
Death peered out through a crack in the car. “Where do you think we are?”
“Yeah, me neither. Hang on a minute.” Death was suddenly gone.
Casey rolled onto her side, turning her back to the drunk. The floor of the empty boxcar was so hard, she felt like she was one big bruise. At least the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks was steady—better than a bumpy ride in the back of a truck.
“You’ll never guess.” Death was back. Casey grunted.
“No guess? How ‘bout if I hummed a little Carrie Underwood?
Or that guy who sings about checking for ticks?” Casey didn’t move.
“Okay, if you give up. We’re almost in Nashville. We should be stopping within minutes.”
So. The heart of country. Casey felt a pang in her own heart. Her late husband Reuben, Mexican immigrant that he was, had somehow formed a love of the genre, and had practically insisted they visit the city on their honeymoon. Thank God she’d been able to talk him out of it. The last thing she’d wanted to do their first week of married life was visit Dollyworld. They’d gone later, of course, but for their honeymoon she’d wanted somewhere quiet, where she didn’t have to wear a cowboy hat or see Reuben modeling an oversized belt buckle.
She sat up, stretching, trying to ease the kinks from her muscles. The bum on the other side of the car had fizzled out somewhere in the fifty bottle range, and lay on his back, snoring loudly. He’d be going farther than Nashville.
The train whistle drifted through the air. So they were arriving in the city, or the suburbs, anyway. Intersections. She made sure she had all of her possessions and hadn’t left any trash behind. Her quick exit from Kansas had been accompanied by gifts from her friend Bailey, a teenager who’d seen Casey at her worst, beaten and battered. She’d helped Casey escape from the hospital, and had offered a duffel bag of necessities: clothes, shampoo, washcloth and towel, even a pre-paid phone. Added to that was the make-up Casey had used a few days earlier. If she could just find a bathroom she might actually be able to make herself presentable. The bruises and cuts on her face could use a good, thick layer of cover-up.
She thought about the final article in the bag—a card signed by all of the kids, all of her new young friends from Kansas, telling her to Get well soon! With lots of hearts and exclamation points. Bailey had told her to wait to open the bag until she was “on the road.” Probably because she was afraid one or both of them would start bawling. Casey was tired enough now she felt tears pricking her eyes, so she concentrated on making them disappear.
The train let out a long whistle blast, and the boxcar shuddered and slowed. Within minutes they came to a complete stop. Casey slid the door open and took a deep breath of fresh air.
“Eww,” Death said. “Nothing like the smell of smoke and oil.”
“Better than what’s in here.” Casey took one last look at her sleeping companion and jumped down from the car, wincing as her sore body jarred against the ground. “Let’s get going before someone sees us. Or we die of B.O. inhalation.”
Wending her way through the train yard, Casey peered around boxcars and engines, wanting to avoid confrontations with anyone who would question her presence. At one point she couldn’t help but pass two men unloading boxes, but they didn’t give her a second glance, so intent were they on finishing their job. Casey kept moving, and soon stood on the sidewalk in front the station. People crowded everywhere, rushing to make a train, carrying packages, headed out into the city.
“We did it,” Death said. “Now, how ‘bout a show? I wouldn’t mind a little twang.”
“Forget the music. How ‘bout a shower?”
Death sniffed. “Yeah, that tramp on the train isn’t the only one who’s smelling a little ripe.”
Casey slung her bag over her shoulder and began to walk. As during her earlier visit with Reuben, she was surprised at what she saw in Nashville. Most of her pre-conceptions had been wrong. Sure, there were people wearing shirts with leather fringes, and pointy cowboy boots, and she spied a restaurant called the Wildhorse Saloon, but mostly it was the same as any other city. Chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesday and The Melting Pot you come to expect anywhere, just like the hotels—Drury Inn, Doubletree, and the lot.
“How ‘bout that one?” Death pointed out a Sheraton just down the road. “Looks nice.”
“Too nice for present company,” Casey said. “Can’t see me showing up in the lobby looking like this without the nicely- groomed desk clerk getting a little too curious.”
“Then we keep walking?” “You got it.”
Death let out a sigh and trailed behind her. “You’re never any fun. Walk, hitch a ride, beat up a bad guy…can’t we do anything normal people do?”
“You’re not a person. And you’re certainly not normal.” “Right. I keep forgetting that.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes, and Casey’s headache began to dissipate. Until Death started to whistle. And then hum. And then sing right out loud.
Casey stopped dead on the sidewalk, causing Death to stumble through her. She shivered.
“Don’t you dare blame me for that,” Death said. “You’re the one who changed course.”
“But you’re the one who’s annoying. Can you not shut up for one second?”
“I’m trying to enter into the spirit of the town.” “Well, don’t.”
Casey began walking again, and when she looked around, Death was gone. Thank God.
The hustle of the city’s streets slowed as Casey passed into the outskirts of town. An empty building here. A vacant, weedy lot there. Groups of people huddled on sidewalks, or in front of shady mini-marts. Finally, she spotted a motel that looked about like her own condition. The Rest E-Z. A one-story building, each room with an external door and parking spot. The sign promised cable and an outdoor pool. Too bad the pool was covered with algae, and had ducks swimming in it.
Casey sat on a bench across the street and pulled out the cell phone Bailey had given her. She centered herself, focusing on relaxing her neck and shoulders, then called her lawyer’s private line.
“Don Westbrook.” “Hello, Don.”
He gave a quick intake of breath. “Oh, thank God. You’re all right.”
“This line clean?”
“Of course. Where have you been?” “Around.”
“I know one little town in Ohio where you’ve been spending some time. You do realize you’re wanted by the police?”
Don was silent.
“I didn’t mean to do it, Don.” To kill the slimy mobster who had attacked her a week earlier in Ohio, she meant, but she didn’t want to put it into words, in case the line wasn’t as clean as Don thought. “It was an accident.”
“I’m sure it was. But are you positive your present course of action is the correct one?”
She let out a sharp laugh. “Are you kidding? What in my life has happened the correct way?”
“I need money, Don.”
He exhaled so heavily she could almost feel the breeze. “You know I can’t send you money. I’d be aiding and abetting a fugitive. I could get disbarred.”
Casey rubbed her forehead. “Then what am I supposed to do?”
“Where the police would find me and send me away? I don’t think so.” She sagged against the bench. It had been a mistake to call. “Good-bye, Don. I’m sorry.”
“Wait! Just wait. Listen. I have some things that belong to you.”
“Things you left behind about a week or so ago. They were hidden in a garage, among the rakes and shovels and pink bicycles.”
It hit her so hard she gasped. “My backpack?”
“With everything in it. Your wedding rings, your clothes— not that they’re worth anything—your Dobak—”
“Omar’s hat?” She pressed the receiver against her ear. “You have my baby’s hat?”
“It’s here. Nice young man named Eric showed up at Ricky’s house the other day, claiming to be a friend of yours.”
Eric. Sadness washed over Casey. “He is…was…he’s from Ohio.”
“So he said. Told Ricky all about it. Backs up your story of the mobster, by the way.”
He would. He’d been there when she’d stabbed the thug and watched him bleed to death on the street.
“Ricky brought the bag to me,” Don said. “And made me promise I’d get it to you. He also wants me to tell him where you are when you contact me.”
“Please, Don,” Casey whispered. “Please send me my things.” He was quiet for so long she thought he’d hung up.
“Okay, I’ll arrange it. Where should I send them?”
She almost sobbed with relief. “Do you remember where Reuben wanted to go on our honeymoon? Before I convinced him otherwise?”
He hesitated, then gave a little chuckle. “Yes.”
“There’s a cheap hotel on the edge of town. The Rest E-Z. Send it there under the name of my maid of honor.”
“I don’t…oh, right. The girl with the freckles on her shoulders. She was a cutie. Ricky tried his best with her, didn’t he, poor schmuck? Someday he’ll find the right girl. So are you staying at this hotel?”
“I will be once you call and tell them your wife is coming, who got mugged at the train station and lost her ID and everything else she owns. They’ll need a credit card number or something.”
He went quiet again.
“Please, Don. I know I’m asking a lot, but I need…I need…” She choked up, unable to speak.
“Okay. Okay, Casey. It’s all right. Don’t cry.”
Casey sniffled. “I’m sorry. It’s just, I haven’t slept in a bed for a week. I’m tired, I’m dirty. I’m just so…so tired.”
“I’ll work it out, okay? I’ll make the call and you can be in the motel within minutes. All right?”
She took a deep, shuddering breath. “All right.”
“I’ll overnight your pack to you. You’ll have it by tomorrow.” “Thank you, Don. Thank you so much. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I know. I wish…when you’re ready to come home, I’ll be here. We’ll take care of things. You do realize the longer you wait to show your face, the deeper you’re in trouble with the law? And with this young man Eric you have a witness on your side?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to make things hard for you.” “I know you don’t.”
Didn’t mean she wasn’t doing it, anyway. “Casey, about Pegasus…”
Not them. Pegasus. The car company responsible for her husband and baby’s deaths. Their faulty product had ended Casey’s life as she knew it, in a huge fireball of pain and heartache. “Don, I know they want to find me So, me staying lost is better for everybody.”
“I got a call from them a few days ago.” Casey waited, breathing through her mouth.
“They aren’t looking for you anymore. They’re letting it go.” Not possible. “But that other car accident. The more recent one. Aren’t they worried about that?” While in Ohio, Casey had discovered evidence of a second crash, in which a man lost his life. Another death Pegasus wouldn’t claim as their own.
“They are worried,” Don said. “Petrified. But they won’t be able to get out of it this time. There’s no doubt it was because of the car itself. They’ve got bigger problems than you now, honey.”
A huge weight lifted from Casey’s shoulders. “I don’t have to hide from them anymore? The man with the face and the woman with the hair? Or Dottie Spears?” The CEO, who had made Casey’s life hell for months, at first acting like her friend, and then as her enemy. Casey had hated her like she’d never hated anyone before.
“No more hiding from Pegasus, Casey. You’re free of them.” Free. “Now it’s just the cops, who want me for murder.” “Casey, sweetheart, if you’d just come home, we’d work it out.
We have this Eric guy’s testimony, as well as yours. Please—” “Don.”
“Yes, Casey?” She could hear the resignation in his voice. “Tell Ricky and my mom I love them, okay?”
“I’ll tell them.”
“But don’t tell them where I am. I can’t…I can’t see them yet.” Casey hung up the phone and rested her forehead on her hand. Free of Pegasus. She couldn’t believe it. Now, if only she were free from the law, which technically was a lot more dangerous as far as her real freedom went.
“Come on, hon. Let’s get you over to the hotel.” Death was suddenly so close beside her on the bench Casey felt chilled to the bone.
She shivered. “Don’s calling the motel.”
“Well, come on, then. By the time we get over there they should have talked to him.”
Casey slung Bailey’s bag over her shoulder and trudged toward the Rest E-Z.
Death paused on the sidewalk in front of the door that said, “Office.” “Not the nicest establishment we’ve ever stayed in. I hope there aren’t fleas.”
“It’s a little skanky, I know. But a bed, L’Ankou. I hardly remember what one feels like.”
The lobby was tiny and worn, but mostly clean, with a clerk to match. The little man behind the counter was of an indeterminate age. His wrinkles and missing teeth made Casey’s guess lean toward the older end of the scale, but the twinkle in his eye belied the rest of his body. He wore a checked cotton shirt, and a nametag made with a Labelmaker. Hi! Please call me Claude. “Kimberly Tifton,” Casey said. “My husband was going to call and—”
“Just got off the phone with him,” Claude said. “Sorry to hear about your troubles. You okay? Should I call the police?” He examined her face and its multiple abrasions and swelling, leftovers from her time in Kansas.
“Please don’t. It’s already taken care of, and I’m fine. I just need some sleep.”
“Sure thing. We’ll get you right set up in a room.” With friendly efficiency, Claude checked her in and handed her an electronic key. “Out the front door and to the right, missus. There’s an ice machine at the end of the row, if you want some for…you know.” He gestured at her face.
“Did my husband tell you about my bags?”
“Said they should be delivered tomorrow morning. We’ll give you a buzz as soon as they’re here.”
“Glad to help out. You get some rest now.”
Casey found the room with no problem. Again, small but clean. She set Bailey’s bag on the little table, kicked off her shoes, and fell across the bed.
She was asleep before Death could ask her to turn on the TV.