“This here’s my daughter Katie. She’s thirteen and lives for marching band. Plays the flute. You wouldn’t believe the way they work them kids. She’s in better shape than I ever been.” Evan the trucker laughed and patted his sizable gut, which almost touched the steering wheel of the semi.
Death gave out a snort, chin to chest, mouth open. The trucker’s conversation obviously wasn’t interesting enough to keep the Grim Reaper awake, and the lack of traffic on the sleepy highway gave no relief from the steady clicking of the tires on the pavement, or the view of flat Iowa and Kansas farmland. Casey wasn’t having trouble staying awake, having slept the first seven hours of her escape from Clymer, Ohio, despite the throbbing in her arm from the injury in a knife fight only hours before. Her wrist hurt, she was bleeding from the gash in her shoulder, and so many terrible things had happened she should have, by all rights, been kept awake by mere horror. Instead, her body had shut down into a sleep so deep the trucker’s pit stops hadn’t even awakened her. Evan had finally poked her, saying he wanted to make sure she wasn’t dead.
Death had gotten a real kick out of that.
“And this one?” Now, Casey pointed at the other girl in the photo hanging from the dashboard.
“Susanna. Just turned seven. First grade.” He shook his head. “Can you believe how they got them little kids reading? Books and math and every other thing. It’s crazy. All I remember from first grade is going up against Willie Yonkers to see which one of us could spit the farthest.” He grinned, revealing two missing teeth. “He always won. And wouldn’t you know, he’s the one made it big today.”
Casey’s eyebrows rose. “Willie Yonkers spits for a living?” Evan barked a laugh. “Wouldn’t that be a good one. No,
Willie’s a businessman. Owns his own place. He’s the boy in town who made it. It’s a good job.”
“Don’t you have a good job?”
“Oh, sure, I love it. Wouldn’t want to do nothin’ else, most of the time, anyway.” He gave a ghost of a smile, then patted the steering wheel. “These reefers are fun to drive.” Refrigerated trucks, he meant. “But Willie…” He leaned over a bit toward Casey, stopping when a brush with Death’s arm made him shiver. “Willie’s got the whole shebang. Brand new house. New car every summer. Wads of cash he don’t know what to do with. All for ordering other people around, sitting behind his desk in his fancy clothes. Lots of folks would kill for a job like that. Heck, they’d kill for any job at all.” He sighed, leaning the other direction to set his elbow on the door. His sudden silence left space for the rain to fill as it pounded on the windshield and cab. The wipers worked overtime, back and forth, back and forth…
Casey glanced once more at the photograph where Evan’s arm draped over the shoulders of a plump, pretty woman with frosted hair. Virginia, he’d called her. Ginny. His older daughter stood behind him, a hand on his shoulder, and the younger sat on his lap. “But,” Casey said, “does Willie have a family?”
Evan laughed. “Sure does. A son in college who hates him, a wife that left him, and a daughter who’s not exactly the kind I want my Katie hanging around, if you know what I mean.”
She knew. “So you’ve actually got it much better than Willie, don’t you, Evan?”
He grinned again. “I do, I know it. My girls are waiting for me about forty miles down the road. And this time? I’m staying for a good long while. I’ve been working my tail off and I need a break. You’ll have to catch another ride from there, darlin’.”
He sighed. “Still, it’d be nice to have the cash sometimes, to set my family up the way I’d like. I drive by Willie’s house sometimes, just wishing…”
Death groaned, tilting toward Casey, and she scooted over, not wanting to feel the chill that always accompanied an acci- dental touch.
She looked out her window at the water that ran in sporadic rivulets down the glass. Cash wasn’t just a luxury. You couldn’t live without it. So shouldn’t that, in turn, mean that if you had a lot of it you’d live well and long? With all her money, stashed away in the bank, she should live forever. She just wouldn’t have the family to spend it on. Not since they’d been—
“Oh, shit.” Evan stomped on the gas and spun the steering wheel to the right. Casey clutched the dashboard, panic rising in her throat. Two construction vehicles sat across the road in front of them. The cab of the semi skidded sideways on the wet pavement as the trailer pushed forward, not ready to stop on such sudden demand. Evan spun the steering wheel the other way, trying to reverse the skid, but there was no going back.
The semi hit the dump truck with a force that sent Casey hurtling against her seatbelt, breath knocked from her lungs, neck snapping sideways, head cracking against the window. Metal screamed as it tore, tires squealed, and blood splattered across Casey’s arms and face.
The movement stopped almost as suddenly as it started, and Casey lay against the door, heart pounding, hands shaking. She blinked. “Reuben?” She struggled into an upright position. “Omar?” She wrenched her head around, neck already stiffening.
No, it was not her family. Not the accident she dreamed of every night—and sometimes during the day.
It was Evan Tague, the trucker.
Evan lay scrunched between sheets of metal. They used to be his door. Now they were sharp knives, cutting through him, shearing him almost in two as he gasped for breath, eyes wide.
“Evan!” Casey struggled out of her seatbelt, clambering over the seat to grab Evan’s hand, which still clutched the steering wheel. Evan’s mouth opened and shut with raspy, bubbling breaths. Rain pattered on the cab, dripping down onto Casey and Evan’s bloodied face.
Wide awake now, Death hunched over Evan, intensely interested.
“Get away!” Casey hissed. “Get out!”
Death smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, love, but of all the times to be shooing me away, this isn’t the best. He needs me.”
“He doesn’t need you. He doesn’t want you. Evan! Evan, I’m here!” She clutched the trucker’s hand and leaned toward the opening where his window used to be, past Death’s form. “Help!” she screamed. “We need help!”
“It’s too late,” Death said. “No one can help him now.” “Virginia?” Evan whispered the name.
“No, Evan, it’s…it’s Casey.”
“Ginny?” He reached up, as if he saw his wife’s face instead of the specter of Death hovering above him.
Casey yanked the photo from the dashboard, wiping blood from its surface, and held it out, blocking Death’s face. Evan didn’t see it, focusing on Casey instead. His eyes went wide. Panicky. He took a quick, wet breath. “Back…trim. Insu…lation. Don’t let…” He gasped. Swallowed. “Don’t let them get…” He gurgled, and blood streamed out of his mouth.
“Help!” Casey screamed again. She pulled a padded jacket from a hook behind the seat and held it over Evan’s abdomen, around a deadly piece of metal.
“Casey,” Death said. “You have to let me take him.” “No! He has a family…”
Footsteps sounded behind her, and the cab sank as a man climbed in. He grabbed Casey and shoved her backward, toward the passenger door, where another man caught her and pulled her from the seat.
“Evan!” the first man said. “Goddammit, Evan, don’t you dare die on me.”
“Stop!” Casey said. “Wait! Evan!”
“We got it,” the second man said, and dumped her on the wet ground at the feet of two more large men. She scrambled up, and one of them grabbed her around the waist. “Nothing you can do, anymore, sweetheart. We’ll take care of him.”
She shook herself from his grasp and stepped toward the truck. The man reached for her again, grabbing her elbow. “So where is it?” The rain made trails through his dirty blond hair and snaked down his face. His eyes were a startling green.
“Where is what?”
He pulled her closer. “You have it on you now? Is that the way it is?”
The other man stood still, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched Casey’s face.
With his free hand the man holding Casey felt the back of her pants, moving to the front. When he went for her chest, Casey grabbed his wrist and twisted it inward, pushing his palm toward his arm and pointing his fingers to the sky. She rolled his arm forward, her hand on his elbow, and bent him toward the ground. Digging her finger into a pressure point on the back of his arm, she spoke into his ear. “I said, ‘where is what?’”
“I called 911! They’re coming!” A woman in a bright red suit ran toward Casey, tottering on high heels, holding an umbrella and waving a cell phone. She stopped at the sight of Casey with the man in an armlock. “It’ll just be minutes,” she finished weakly. “They’re coming.”
“Good.” Casey pushed the man’s wrist toward his arm, shoving him into the other guy, who caught him and let him go so sud- denly he almost fell. Blondie regained his balance and glared at Casey, one side of his lip raised as he cradled his arm protectively.
The woman stepped between Casey and the men. “Come on, honey, you need to sit down.”
“Come on.” She led Casey to the shoulder of the road and eased her onto a grassy patch, holding the umbrella over both of them. “You all right?” She bent her head to look at Casey’s face. “You’re not going into shock, are you?”
“I’m fine.” Why were those men gathered at the door of the truck, looking around as if they were afraid of getting caught? And how did they know Evan’s name?
Casey locked eyes with the frisker. He stared at her from under his mess of wet hair, as if trying to read something in her eyes. Or figure out a way to kill her.
“Who are they?” Casey said to herself.
The woman glanced up. “Just people who stopped to help, I guess. Like me. Oh, good, I hear sirens.” She took a few steps away, waving frantically as an ambulance pulled to the side of the road. “Over here! Here!” She went a few more paces until one of the paramedics saw her and walked briskly their way, carrying a bag of equipment. He knelt beside Casey, the woman shielding them both from the rain with her umbrella.
“In the truck,” Casey said. “You need to help him.” “We’re on it, miss. We got him. Now, where are you cut?” “I’m not. I’m fine. It’s Evan…”
His face grew grave, and his lips compressed. “I need to check you out, okay? Hold still now.”
Casey complied, except for swiveling her stiffening neck toward the cab of the truck. The men who had pulled her out were being evicted by the paramedics, who climbed up toward Evan, and the blood, and the photograph—
But no, Casey still held the photo, crumpled tightly in her hand. She unclenched her fingers to look down at the little family. Life would never be the same for them, after the phone call they were about to receive.
The group of men clustered by the back of the reefer, heads bent together. The one who’d grabbed Casey leaned back to look at her, and she held his gaze. He finally broke eye contact and she watched the others, trying to read their lips, but she’d really clocked her head on the window, and everything was going in and out of being blurry. She took a deep breath, trying to center herself, and was getting ready to leave the paramedic and move closer to the men when cops invaded the scene, cordoning off the area, telling whoever was listening that “there’s nothing to see here.”
How wrong that sounded.
Cars on the road were stopped now, blocked from forward progress by the accident, and drivers were leaving their vehicles to see what was going on. Some wanted to help, others just wanted to take cell phone pictures of the carnage. Casey turned her head as one man aimed his phone her way.
“You’re pretty beat up,” the paramedic said, “but there’s nothing major at first glance. A few cuts and bruises. You’ll need to go to the ER to get checked out, though. Make sure there’s no internal bleeding.” He lifted her sleeve away from the gash she’d received the night before.
“I’m fine.” Casey pulled away from him. “I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
“Yes, you do. Larry!” The paramedic signaled one of his partners, and together they hauled Casey upright, grabbing under her arms, as the woman in red stepped back with her umbrella.
“I can walk,” Casey said, batting their hands away.
“You going to be all right?” The woman in the red suit frowned. “You’re looking sort of pale…”
Casey’s eyes rolled back, and hands clutched her elbows. “We’ve got her, ma’am,” the paramedic said. “Thank you.” Casey wrenched her eyes open. “Thank you, for…” “You’re welcome, honey. You take care, you hear? Do you need me to call anybody?”
The paramedics were walking away with her. “No one to call. I’m alone. It’s just me.” She and Death, who hovered in the cab of the truck, waiting to whisk Evan away.
A police officer followed Casey into the ambulance and hunched at the rear. “Can I get a statement?”
The paramedic strapped Casey down. “Make it quick.” “Tell me what happened, ma’am?”
Casey closed her eyes, seeing the construction vehicles, Evan’s panicked face, the metal embedded in Evan’s side. “They were just…there. The dump truck and the other one. We came over the hill and the road was so slick and…” She swallowed. “It didn’t take very long.”
“How fast were you going?”
“Speed limit. He wasn’t a leadfoot.” The cop nodded. “Been drinking?” “No!”
The paramedic turned to grab the door handle. “You’ll have to get more later, Officer. At the hospital.”
“Wait!” Casey said. “The truck. Where will it go?”
The cop looked back at the mangled cab. “Won’t be going anywhere for a while, but when it does…I don’t know. Shop, maybe? Closest one’s a few miles down the road. The way it’s looking, though…it’s probably headed for the junk yard.”
“What about those men?” “What men?”
“The ones talking at the back of the truck, when the paramedics got out of the cab.”
The cop pointed his pen at the paramedic. “You know who she’s talking about?”
He nodded. “Couple of guys were in the truck, administering CPR. Don’t know who they were.”
Casey tried to sit up, but was held down by the straps. She strained her neck as far as she could. The men weren’t at the back of the truck anymore. She couldn’t see them anywhere. “You have to find them. They know something.”
“Nothing to know, ma’am. It was an accident.”
“An accident involving vehicles parked across the road. Why were they there?”
He looked at her. “There’s all kind of construction going on—”
“Where are the workers?” He paused. “I don’t know.”
Casey’s head swam, and she dropped it back onto the gurney. “We gotta go,” the paramedic said.
“No!” Casey said. “Wait!”
But the cop stepped back and closed the door. Casey raised her head high enough to see out the back window, just in time to see Death walking in the opposite direction, carrying Evan’s spirit like a baby.