Darkness spread across the highway. Oncoming headlights blinked on, signaling impending nightfall. Jess rubbed her raw, tired eyes and lowered her window to allow the cool air to flow across her face. God, she was tired. The last sign she’d read indicated she was nearing Buffalo, or was that an hour ago?
Time was slipping by so fast she couldn’t keep track. It didn’t matter where she was really, just that she was on the move. Forty-eight hours had passed since she left Sioux City and more since she’d slept. Her body was weary and her brain sluggish. Simple tasks such as turning on her headlights had become monumental.
She reached into the passenger seat and rummaged through the empty candy bar wrappers, potato chip and cookie bags, feeling for something left to give her a sugar boost. To her dismay, nothing edible remained. As a cruel reminder of how long it had been since she ate something filling and nutritious, her stomach grumbled and cramped. She stopped only when she needed gas. To kill two birds with one stone, she grabbed whatever junk food the small stores carried and ate while she drove.
The bleak gray concrete stretching out in front of her wavered, dimmed and then returned to normal. She wasn’t foolish. She knew it wasn’t safe to drive for two days straight without sleep or proper meals. But in the grand scheme of things she had no choice but to keep moving around.
A blue sign touted a small diner at the next exit, along with a motel. Jess’ stomach growled again. She decided it was time to fill her belly and rest her brain. A few hours of sleep, a hot shower and she would be good to go and back on the road early in the morning. That was if she could sleep through the night without horrible images chasing her.
The demanding and frightened voice echoed inside her head. Sweat beaded on her forehead while her heart hammered. She knew that voice, would never forget it. The voice saved her life. Officer Storm, the twenty-eight-year old-policewoman assigned to protect and keep her alive. Her friend.
"We’ll keep you safe Jessica, I promise. We’ll put you somewhere he’ll never find you."
Jess fought back a sob. Tears stung her eyes and began streaming down her cheeks. The car barreled down the road with Jessica’s hands clamped tight around the steering wheel, missing the exit that led her to food and rest.
"Get a hold of yourself." Jess rubbed the tears from her eyes. "You can’t help them now. You have to look out for yourself."
Miles passed. "Where the hell is that exit? I was sure it was only a mile up the road." Desperation was beginning to set in, a side effect of sleep deprivation and hunger. When she saw an exit ramp ahead, she breathed a sigh of relief and flipped on her turn signal.
A blood-curling scream ripped through her head. Jess jumped and screamed aloud as her car veered off the highway and onto the ramp. Blood roared through her ears, deafening her. She slammed on the brake at the bottom of the ramp before pulling out in front of an oncoming car.
Nerves fried, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel and waged a war with herself. She wanted to cry—needed to cry—for her three friends but refused to fall apart now. There would be plenty of time for that once she checked into a motel room.
Steeling herself, she lifted her head and scrubbed her damp face. Her gaze darted up and down the road in front of her. There were no signs indicating which way to civilization. Another car whizzed by so she decided to follow the traffic. Her hands shook as she turned the steering wheel right and eased off the brake.
Darkness fell fast and hard. All she could see was what her headlights illuminated. Trees. There was nothing but trees and road. No houses, no diners and no warm cozy motel. Her body leaned toward the steering wheel and tensed. Maybe she had taken the wrong turn. After thirty minutes of driving, she saw a dirt road disappearing into the thick trees on her left.
Jess steered her small import into the driveway, intending to turn around and head back the other way. As she stared out the windshield, Officer Storm’s young face shimmered in the glass.
Shivers ran down Jess’ spine.
Jessica he can find you.
The beautiful, flawless face framed by wavy black hair morphed into a grotesque, bloody mass. A bullet hole oozed thick red blood from her forehead.
Jess closed her eyes and willed the vision away. When she opened them again, there was nothing but darkness. Pain seized her stomach as it cramped and growled like a dying animal.
The car crept down the dirt road slowly. Five minutes passed as Jess stared blankly ahead, steering the car like a robot while her body shook from hunger. Why was this happening? Wasn’t there some sort of karma law that kept this kind of evil from those that did good?
Another vision wavered through Jessica’s mind. The last body she and Detective Max Dawson stood over.
He’s getting more brutal, Jess. We need to end this now.
She saw herself squat next to the body. She shivered while she relived the horrors the woman suffered. When she stood, she heard herself speak to Max.
He’s not getting the thrill he used to. It’s taking more violence to get him off.
Don’t let him get you, darlin’.
Jess startled, another face appeared in the windshield. She recognized it immediately. Officer Davis, the kind, soft-spoken man who would sit in the safe house and tell her his plans for retirement. He’d been on the force for thirty years and was eager to travel the country with his wife.
His gentle features twisted into half a face with bone and flesh hanging to his shoulder. Bits of gray matter dangled where his eye had once been. Run, the ruined half of his mouth said.
Jess slammed her eyelids closed and screamed. "No!" As before, when she opened them the image was gone.
Her head jolted back when she saw herself sitting in Max’s office, pale and frightened. Max held a piece of paper in his hand and read aloud.
My beautiful Jessica. What fun we’ll have together. I can’t wait to show you what plans I have for your petite body. You will be my final masterpiece before I move on to new hunting ground. Keep your pale, freckled skin supple for me, will you dear?
"That damn reporter will answer for this," Max bellowed. "If it weren’t for him this bastard would never have found you."
Jess remembered the day the newspaper article came out. Her blood had run cold as she’d read. There, in black and white for every sicko to see, were the facts. The headline read in bold black letters, "Psychic helping track down Sioux City killer", followed by her full name.
I won’t get to see my baby.
Jess squinted through her tears. Officer Fenton stared back at her with his own tears falling down his cheeks. The thirty-three-year-old man was a new father. She remembered him bragging about the chubby little bald bundle while they played cards in the small, dingy kitchen and sipped coffee.
"I’m so sorry," she sobbed. Because of her, the child would grow up without a father.
Kill him, Jess, for me.
His face distorted and when it cleared, an axe was embedded in the middle of his forehead.
Jess’ stomach muscles clenched hard. Her head spun as if she were on a roller coaster looping around. "Make it stop," she sobbed.
Her foot pressed hard against the accelerator, propelling the car down the dirt road. Gravel and dust kicked up behind the iron machine, rocks pelted the trunk as it fell back to earth.
"Why is this happening?" Fear and anger consumed her body. Her muscles tensed into tight knots. Bile rose into her throat, gagging her.
Her foot slipped off the accelerator, slowing the car. All three faces of her friends swam in the windshield. Their voices rambled and mixed inside her head, demanding
justice for their brutal murders. Their pleas stabbed at her heart like the knife the killer used to inflict torture.
The sound of a car horn blaring jerked Jess’ attention back to the road. She looked ahead into bright headlights that were bearing down on her. She snatched the wheel hard to the right. Her car hopped the bank and took a nosedive down a steep hill. Tree branches scraped and groaned against the car. Thinking she was standing on the brake, she pressed her foot to the floor. To her horror, the car sped through thick brush, plowing over shrubs that grew in the way.
Her body bounced in the seat, kept from flying around the inside of the car by her seatbelt. The wheel yanked hard out of her hands, wrenching pain shot through her fingers and wrists. Hard loud thumps echoed inside the car over the racing motor.
Instinct demanded she scream, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out but a soft gasp. She saw the thick, gray tree trunk before the front of her car smashed into it. Jess’ head snapped forward and smacked into the steering wheel on impact.
The revving engine gave one last cough before shutting down in a cloud of steam. The soft hissing sound from the radiator filled the air. Jess’ head rested against the wheel. Warm, sticky blood trickled down her face and neck. For an instant, she hoped this would be the end of her nightmare. No more running, no more fear. Nothing but peace.
Like the end of an old black and white cartoon, her vision narrowed and funneled until there was nothing left but a pinhead speck of light. Just before all went black, a bright flash of light filled her sight.
This is it
, she thought, it’s all over. She spiraled into a welcome darkness.
* * * * *
Reed yawned as he drove down the long gravel and dirt road. He smiled when he saw a doe peek out of the tree line and take a step out. This is what he loved about living out of town. He slowed the truck to make sure he wouldn’t hit her if she darted out in front of him. Chicken seemed to be a game embedded in their DNA. When he passed her safely, he glanced in his rear view mirror. The big, beautiful creature strutted out into the road, followed by a smaller version speckled with white dots.
He watched until both animals disappeared into the thick trees on the other side. "Safe journey, mama," he whispered.
Reed focused his attention back in front of him and eased around the upcoming turn. As the truck exited, a pair of headlights came straight for him.
"What the…" He slammed his hand on the horn and jammed his foot on the brake.
The truck slid to a stop. Reed watched through a cloud of dust as the headlights from the other car veered off to the left and disappeared down over the bank. He sat stunned for a few moments as his mind scrambled to catch up with the events that just taken place. His sluggish brain came to an abrupt halt as realization finally hit home.
"Shit." Reed bailed from his truck and ran to the side of the road in time to see the car collide with a large oak tree.
Fear and panic rocketed through him from his toes to his head. The impact was so hard it echoed through the woods. Reed rushed back to his truck and grabbed a flashlight from his glove box. His legs moved with a mind of their own, pumping like pistons, thrusting him through the thick brush and over stumps of seedlings sheared off by the car. Low hanging branches smacked at his face and arms, stinging his flesh.
Damn, this place was supposed to be his solitude, his safe haven away from the people in town. He wasn’t a people person, never had been, and only a few people knew his cabin in the deepest recess of these woods existed. Why was this person here and for what reason?
As he got closer, he could see steam billowing from the front of the car, hissing like a deadly snake. The beam of his flashlight bounced across the driver’s window, giving him a glimpse of the face behind the wheel.
Just a kid
, he thought, a damn kid.
He dropped to his knees and shone the light into the face of a young female. Thick, dark red blood ran from a gash in her forehead. He positioned his index finger under her nose to feel for breath. Relief rushed through him when he felt the slight warm breeze on his skin.
"Hey, can you hear me?" His answer was a faint moan. "Can you open your eyes?"
He saw her eyelashes flutter then still. "Come on, you can do it. Open your eyes." Reed fought the urge to reach out and shake her back to consciousness. There was no telling how many injuries this waif of a girl had sustained in the impact.
Her lids made one last attempt to open, then stilled again. This wasn’t good. She probably had a severe concussion and needed professional help. "I need to call an ambulance. I’ll be right back."
Before he could rise from his knees, her eyes flew open. He startled, losing his breath. Her mouth moved slightly.
"What?" he leaned closer inside the car.
"No help." Her voice was a mere whisper.
She’s so out of it. She doesn’t know what’s happened
Reed watched her gaze settle and focus on his face. Her brilliant blue eyes looked into his soul, giving him an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. When she pulled her head away from the steering wheel, more blood gushed forward.
"No? Are you crazy? You’re bleeding all over the place. You need help." He saw her hands start feeling around the door and then yank at the handle. Back off, Baker, he told himself, she’s confused.
"He can’t find me."
"He’ll find you once we get you to a hospital. Don’t worry." Instead of calming her, his words seemed to make her frantic. Her eyes went from half lidded and dreamy to wide open. She gave up on the door handle and tried to climb out the window, her seat belt holding her in place.
Reed rubbed his jaw and watched her clamber around until she realized what held her in place. After releasing the seat belt, she lifted her body and angled it through the window.
"What the hell are you doing?" He reached inside and shoved her back in the seat.
"I have to leave, can’t let him find me." She fought his hands, slapping and pushing them away.
"You don’t want to be found?" She was running away from someone, not to them. "It can’t be that bad. Besides, the police will keep you safe." To his horror, she became more crazed as she scratched and clawed at the roof, trying to tear her way out.
"They can’t. They can’t help. They already tried," she whimpered. Her legs kicked and thumped against the inside of the car, trying to kick her way out now. "Dead, they’re all dead."
Reed could feel all her emotions washing over him like an ocean wave. Her frenzied actions made his heart race as if he were the one running for his life. If he didn’t stop her she’d harm herself further and if he didn’t get hold of himself he wasn’t going to be able to help her.
"Don’t let him find me."
Her words were desperate pleas, accented by her hysterical movements to free herself from him and the car. Reed’s mind raced. He needed to calm her down and get her help. But how? Whomever she was running from had her scared to death.
Suddenly she stilled, looking at him with imploring eyes. "Please, I have to keep moving," she panted.
Reed froze, mesmerized by the blue topaz of her eyes. His gut clenched and then released. It was more than the color of her eyes. It was something deep within them that convinced him he needed to believe and trust her. Something that filled a deep empty space inside and made him feel whole for the first time in his life.
He shook off the unwelcome sensation. "I must be out of my mind," he muttered. Trusting a woman he’d never seen before five minutes ago. "Okay, I won’t call an ambulance."
She relaxed back in the seat and closed her eyes. "Thank you."
"What the hell am I supposed to do with you?" She was bleeding like a stuck pig, more than likely had a concussion and was on the run from someone. His head screamed to take her to the authorities but something inside his chest refused to allow it.
She weakly opened her eyes. "Take me to a hotel."
Reed grunted and ran his bloodstained hands through his hair. He couldn’t just drop her off at a hotel and wave goodbye. What if she went into a coma, or worse, died? There was only one option. He would take her back to the cabin.
"I can’t believe I’m doing this." he stood and looked over the mangled car door and then pulled on it. It was no surprise when it didn’t budge. The only other way to get her out was to pull her through the window.
"Okay, listen, the only way to get you out is to pull you through the window. If I hurt you, let me know and we’ll stop." She nodded her head and slid toward the door.
He reached inside, hooked his hands under her arms and pulled. It was like pulling a heavy quilt. There was weight, but not much. She was half way out when a painful moan rolled from her mouth.
"I’m sorry," Reed stopped moving her and stood perfectly still. "Where does it hurt?"
"I’m okay. My head is just pounding," she reassured him. "Don’t stop, keep going."
"This is asinine," he snapped. "You should be in an ambulance. I could be doing more damage."
"It’s just my head. I don’t really hurt anywhere else. Please, keep going."
He knew she was lying, he could hear the pain in her voice. No one took a hit like that and walked away without some kind of pain or serious injury. He decided he would finish the job, put her in the truck and drive her to the hospital himself. She would have proper care and he could continue home and go on with his life.
"All right, one last pull and you’ll be out. I’ll be as gentle as I can be." The words no sooner left his mouth than he gave a quick tug. In one smooth motion, he dropped his left hand from under her arm, cradled her back in his right and scooped her legs up with his left.
He waited for sounds of her misery and braced himself with his eyes closed. When none came, he opened his eyes and looked down into the bloody face staring at him with bright eyes. A small, brief smile worked its way across her mouth and then faded.
He jostled her slightly to get a better grip and started trekking up the bank toward his truck. He couldn’t believe how light she was. He had carried sacks of shelled corn heavier than she was. Each step he took was slow and deliberate, careful not to stumble over brush and fall on top of her.
Half way up the embankment, she rested her head on his chest and snuggled closer to his body. Her right hand reached up and grasped his shirt, holding on for dear life. Reed felt waves of warmth pass through his body and involuntarily he pulled her closer to him. For the first time in his life, he felt the need to protect someone—a need he’d never experienced before.
When he stepped onto the road, he took long strides toward his truck and opened the passenger door. As gently as possible, he settled her on the seat. He took a quick glance at her forehead and breathed a sigh of relief. It had finally stopped bleeding. Not wanting her to flop over, he leaned across her body and pulled the seat belt across. Her warm breath flowed across his ear, sending shivers of electricity down his spine.
Reed hesitated briefly and then continued latching her in. Before he could pull his hand away, she reached out and grasped it.
He met her eyes. "No thanks needed." He tried to keep his voice stern and curt but it came out soft and gentle.
"Yes, it is. You’ve saved my life in more ways than one."
"Are you really in danger?"
She didn’t hesitate. "Yes."
Reed held her gaze for a few seconds and then looked away. "I’ll be right back." He slammed the truck door and stormed off behind the truck.
"Fuck." He snarled, kicking at the gravel with his foot. There went his plan to take her to the hospital himself. What was he supposed to do now? He paced back and forth behind the truck as he ran his fingers through his hair.
He needed time to think. If she was in real danger then he shouldn’t leave anything behind in her car. He gave one last kick at the rocks on the road and then made his way back down the bank to her car.
He leaned in and saw a pile of garbage on the passenger side floor. He grabbed a handful of bags and paper, looked at it and then tossed it aside. He fished around more until he found her purse, pulled it out of the car and dropped it on the ground. Next, he opened the glove compartment, pulled out all the contents and crammed them into her small purse. Then he rummaged around in the back seat but found nothing of importance.
"She must have her suitcase in the trunk." He slid the car key from the ignition and moved to the back of the car. Surprisingly, the lid popped open without any trouble. One small, bright blue duffle bag sat in the center of the small trunk. He removed it and then squatted down in front of the license plate.
Luckily, two wing nuts were the only things holding it on. He made quick work of removing it and then slid it behind his back and into the waistline of his jeans. Once he had her purse and bag in hand he made his way back up to the road.
He dropped the two bags between him and his mystery girl, yanked the license plate from his pants and tossed it on the floor and started the truck. He glanced at her sleeping form before turning the vehicle around to head back to the cabin. She seemed to be sleeping. At least he hoped she was sleeping. She could be in a coma for all he knew.
"Hey, you still with me?" When her eyes fluttered and she gave a little groan, he took it as a good sign. "I’ll drive slowly so you won’t get jostled around. We’ll be at my place in few minutes."
"You don’t need to do that. Just take me to a hotel."
God, she sounded weak. "I should just drop you off at the hospital doors and honk the horn so someone finds you."
His sarcasm was lost on her. Her hands began flailing at the door handle. When it popped open, he leaned across her and pulled it shut.
"What the hell are you doing now?" he barked in irritation.
"I can’t go to a hospital." She panted as she shoved his hands away. "He’ll find me."
"Calm down." He grabbed her wrists to restrain her. "I won’t take you. Just calm down."
Damn it, she was doing it again, looking at him with those desperate, soul-searching eyes. His stomach fluttered like it did when he was an adolescent and a pretty girl smiled at him. Reed silently cursed himself for letting her get to him.
He looked away and mumbled. "I promise."
"Look at me and say it," she demanded.
God help him, he tried not to look at her but he couldn’t stop. She was captivating. He looked her straight in the eyes. "I promise."
She relaxed and reached out her hand, resting it on his thigh. "Thank you."
It was just a brief touch, lasting only a second or two, but it sent shock waves through his body. What the hell’s wrong with you? She’s just a kid. He dropped the truck into drive and headed back to the cabin.
His mystery girl laid her head back on the seat and closed her eyes. He put a death grip on the steering wheel and clenched his jaw. This felt like he was in a bad B-movie and there was no way out.
He reached over and shoved his hand into her purse, searching for her wallet. When he felt something small and rectangular, he pulled it out and flicked on the cab light. With his thumb, he flipped the snap and shook the wallet open. There in the center was her driver’s license.
He squinted in the dim light at the picture. Staring back at him was a cleaner version of the woman next to him. Her hair was a deep red, cropped short to her head. Her remarkable eyes were the same, but the smile was as sexy as sin. Her nose was the same, short and pointed. The only thing he hadn’t seen yet were the freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Reed forced his gaze away from the picture and read her vital statistics. Jessica Crist, Sioux City, Iowa. Five foot tall and, wait, this couldn’t be right. He shoved the wallet up under the light for a better look. Thirty years old? No way was she thirty years old. He looked at the picture once more and then over at her.
Possible, maybe. Suddenly he didn’t feel like such a dirt bag for reacting to her the way he was. She was a grown woman, not some teen running away from home. That helped the situation. At least he couldn’t be arrested for harboring a minor.
Slightly relieved, he dropped the wallet back in her purse. The B-movie just got a little better. There was hope of escaping it after all.