Home > Dark Highway

Dark Highway
Author: Lisa Gray

 

PROLOGUE

There were four of them in the car. Five if you counted the dead woman in the trunk.

Nick sat in the back seat, way too close to her for his liking. He pinched his nose and breathed in heavily through his mouth. He was convinced he could smell her even though he knew that was unlikely. He didn’t think she’d even be cold yet. But what the hell did he know about this stuff? There hadn’t been much blood at least. Something to be thankful for.

The car bounced beneath him as it hit a rough spot on the blacktop and the nausea that had been churning away in his gut leaped right up his throat. Nick tasted vomit in his mouth and swallowed hard. Sucked in a big lungful of air. Next to him, Junior didn’t look too good either.

Dusty turned around and glared at Nick from the front passenger seat. The crusty dried blood around his nostrils appeared black in the gloom. His eyes had a wild look about them. Coke and liquor and . . . something else.

Something bad.

Nick could see that now.

“Would you quit with the panting?” Dusty snapped. “You sound like a mangy old dog begging for a treat. Get a fucking grip of yourself.”

Nick turned away and looked out of the window. The moon was as perfectly round and white as a dinner plate. It cast an eerie glow over the flat desert landscape, the mountains far off in the distance nothing more than shadowy purple outlines. They passed a bar that had long been shut up for the night and a motel with a single light burning. Along the roadside, a dozen or so mismatched mailboxes were jammed into the dirt like a row of metal flowers. The homes they belonged to were set back off the highway and shrouded in darkness. Nick envied the inhabitants of those houses, no doubt fast asleep in their beds. He wondered if he’d ever sleep soundly again.

He thought about the woman. Christ, he couldn’t even remember her name. That would be the booze and the shock, no doubt. But he figured he’d be hearing it plenty soon enough. How long before she’d be missed? How long before they’d start looking for her? He knew she had family. She’d said as much when she’d begged Dusty not to hurt her.

Her pleas had been ignored.

As for Nick and Junior and Zee, they’d stood back and let it happen. Frozen by their fear of Dusty and what he was doing, and what he wanted them to do, and what he did to her in the end.

They were every bit as bad.

Every bit as guilty.

Afterward, they’d wrapped her body in trash bags, like she was a piece of garbage, and carried her out to Zee’s car like they were told to by Dusty. Of course, they didn’t use his wheels to get rid of the body. There was no chance of Dusty messing up his brand-new Miata for a dead girl. In any case, the old Cutlass that Zee had inherited from his daddy had way more space in back and no way was Zee going to argue once the decision had been made.

Cade was the only one who’d had the balls to stand up to Dusty. He was the reason she’d been there tonight, the one who’d persuaded her it’d be a good idea to come along. Nick could tell straight away that Cade was real sweet on the woman. The goofy grin on his face when he’d first introduced her. The way his eyes had followed her all evening. Her smile suggested she was sweet on Cade too.

Then Dusty had shown up and everything had gone to shit.

Later, when Cade had refused to get in the car, Dusty had given him a look that said he’d be next to find himself stuffed in the trunk. But the guilt and grief and anger written all over Cade’s face had clearly been stronger than any hold Dusty ever had over him. He’d walked off into the night, shoulders hunched, hands plunged deep into his jeans pockets. Didn’t look back.

Nick wished he’d had the balls to stand up to Dusty too.

They drove on. The terrain was sparser now. Only the occasional lonely property or rusted trailer to break up the empty desert chaparral. They passed a road sign warning: “Next Services 100 Miles.” The four young men traveled in silence. No conversation, no music on the radio. The only sound was the gentle thrum of the Oldsmobile’s engine. The car smelled of windscreen washer and old Camel cigarettes and fresh body odor. The sweat on Nick’s back stuck to the velour upholstery through his t-shirt.

“Pull over here,” Dusty said after a while.

Zee eased the car onto the shoulder. Cut the engine and headlights. Only that big, fat moon illuminated the otherwise dark highway now. Dusty opened the glove compartment and removed two flashlights. Handed one to Zee and then got out of the car. The others followed him. Dusty turned on the flashlight and popped the lid of the trunk. Nick didn’t want to look—already knew what he’d see inside—but he couldn’t help himself. A shovel had been tossed carelessly on top of the dead woman. Its blade glinted under the flashlight’s pale beam. Nick heard one of the others retch, followed by a wet sound as vomit hit blacktop.

Nick’s eyes met Dusty’s cold, hard stare. “What?” Nick asked. His voice was raw, barely a whisper.

Dusty nodded toward the open trunk. “Grab the shovel,” he said. “Then start digging.”

 

 

1

JESSICA

Jessica Shaw plucked a photograph at random from the pile scattered across the table and turned it over in her hands.

It was a great shot. Real and unfiltered and natural. Taken with a proper camera, rather than the latest model cell phone. There was a developer’s stamp on the back for one of those one-hour photo places she was always surprised to discover still existed.

These days, it was usually all filters and pre-sets and social media apps adding bunny ears and lolling dog tongues to selfies. Why anyone would want to make themselves look like a human sex doll or cartoon character was beyond Jessica. As a private investigator who specialized in missing persons cases, sometimes it was a bigger challenge sourcing a recent image that actually looked like the person who’d disappeared than it was tracking them down.

Thankfully, there would be no such problem this time. The woman was in her early twenties, with beachy blonde hair hanging in messy waves past lightly tanned shoulders, accentuated by a black dress with spaghetti straps. She had pale blue eyes and a generous scattering of freckles across a snub nose that looked like they’d been drawn on with a pencil. The kind of girl who’d be described as “cute” and who didn’t need makeup to look good.

The scene had been captured at a restaurant, probably Mexican, and a half empty margarita glass and a chocolate fudge cake sat in front of her. The cake drooped slightly to one side as though drunk and two lit candles—a two and a three—had been planted into the thick frosting on top. Jessica thought the woman’s smile, reflected in the candlelight, carried a hint of embarrassment and she guessed the waiter had probably led the rest of the patrons in an enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday” moments before the shot had been taken.

The name of the woman in the photograph was Laurie Simmonds and she had been missing for two months.

“That was taken exactly a year ago. Today is Laurie’s twenty-fourth birthday.”

Jessica looked up. It was Laurie’s mom who had spoken. Renee Simmonds was as dark as her daughter was fair. Yoga-toned and glossy-haired, she would have been a walking advertisement for healthy California living were it not for the faint waft of cigarettes not quite disguised by her expensive perfume. A brunette in her fifties, she was dressed simply in slim-fit blue jeans and a black silk blouse, but the rock on the ring finger of her left hand, which could probably be seen from outer space along with the Grand Canyon, betrayed her wealth.

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