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Zebra, Genre: Suspense (June 2010)
ISBN-10: 1420103415 ISBN-13: 978-1420103410


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PROLOGUE

A blast of wind slammed against the old pickup and nearly wrenched the wheel from Rafe's hands. He muttered under his breath and with an effort he kept the vehicle bouncing hard down the road. Night was thick and black and the keening wail of the wind kept his senses on high alert.

He glanced down at the crown of the blond angel snuggled up next to him. She was older than he was by six months, but she was so fragile that he felt manly and protective around her. He wanted to put an arm over her shoulders but needed both hands to wrangle this miserable old Dodge down the highway.

They were running away. Running away together. It scared him and thrilled him at the same time.

He saw her slide a hand over her protruding belly and it made him feel warm inside. His baby. Their baby. He wanted to crow with delight.

They'd gotten away!

But there was still danger.

She was silent as they continued to rattle and shake down the road. He hoped to hell the rough ride didn't hurt the baby. They were going for a new start, a new life.

Damn! It felt good!

Rafe gazed through the inky blackness and saw tree limbs bend toward the vehicle as he passed, as if they were trying to stop them. Nothing could stop them. He wouldn't let it.

A dozen more miles passed beneath the tires and he mused into the silence, "You know they found that woman's body. The whore that called herself a witch? She'd been dead awhile. Nothing but bones, really."

Rafe was better at being a dope in love than a conversationalist; he just didn't know it. The woman beside him listened quietly, neither encouraging nor discouraging him.

"I told you about the Blackburns, right?," he went on. "I do some work for them sometimes? That old couple who hide behind their curtains and spy on the other houses? They saw the fire across their field a few year's back and thought the witch died then. Maybe she did. But the cops and stuff dug all around and didn't find her. Guess he hid her. But they found her now. Just a bag of bones."

They drove on for a while. The crying wind rose to a shriek as they passed through the mountains. The Coast Range. Rafe was taking them away from the beach and toward Portland though he didn't have the foggiest idea what they would do when they reached the city. But Tasha had told him where to go.

They passed a rest stop, one lonely light shining through the cold night air. Rafe had been feeling his bladder and with a grimace, stepped on the brakes and swung the Dodge back around.

"What are you doing?" she demanded sharply.

"Gotta drain the lizard, hon. I'm quick. You know how quick I am."

"They're coming."

"I know." He dared to touch her silken hair, comforting her. But she was tense and her blue eyes were shadowed and haunted as they looked up at him.

Rafe drove into the rest stop and parked in the handicap spot closest to the restrooms. The men's and women's signs were visible under the yellow light by the doors.

He started to get out and Tasha scrambled after him. Lovingly looking down at her awkward form, he asked, "What are you doing outta the truck?"

"I have to go, too," she said.

"You're peeing for two." He grinned in the darkness, his dark hair flying around his face. "Pretty soon that little bugger's gonna be here."

He helped her toward the door and made sure the women's room was unlocked, then whistled as he strode toward the men's room . He couldn't believe his good fortune. She loved him. Loved. Him. They'd only made love a couple of times, of course, all under the cover of secrecy because she would be in deep, deep shit if anyone at the house found out. The first time they'd actually gone out to the graveyard and it had been a warm September night. They'd made love right on top of one of her dead relatives. It had really made him feel weird, but she'd been so beautiful. White skin, blond hair, a kind of smile that made him want to throw her down and screw the hell out of her. Brand her as his. And he had, too. God, it had been something. She'd had to clap her hand over his mouth 'cause he'd wanted to howl and scream that he'd claimed her.

They made love the next night, too. This time just under her bedroom window. It had been a little chillier, and they'd had to be quicker. The danger was heightening. He'd come so fast he'd been a little embarrassed but she'd said it was okay. Had to be that way. Only way they could be together.

And then the people in the house had started to guess what was going on. They'd gotten stricter on her. He'd had trouble seeing her alone. But she loved him. She told him she loved him over and over again. And he loved her just as much.

They'd had a heck of a time seeing each other. Stolen moments here and there. And then they'd learned she was pregnant. She'd whispered it in his ear. He'd been scared shitless and thrilled. He'd begged her to run away with him and she'd said yes.

So, here they were, months later, fulfilling their dream. Their destiny.

Zipping up, Rafe strolled out of the bathroom. She wasn't out yet. Women never were. He glanced at a small field surrounded by the waving firs and decided to walk over and have a smoke. 

Tasha leaned against the side of the stall, feeling cumbersome and fat. Her eyes were closed and she was mumbling encouragement to herself. She had set them on this path and now it was just a matter of timing.

Her head throbbed. Nothing new. She'd had the same trouble since she could remember. Migraines, or something like them. Pregnancy sure hadn't helped.

She heard the rumble of another vehicle pulling into the rest stop, the noise just barely discernible over the keen of the wind. Her heart clutched. She waited and then footsteps headed into the women's room, carefully measured treads.

Tasha's eyes flew open and her lips parted. The saliva dried in her mouth.

The footsteps slapped against the concrete floor, pausing a moment by Tasha's door. She was glad for the dim illumination; the light bulbs barely worked at all. She dug her fingernails into her palms.

Whoever it was didn't bother going into another stall. They just turned around and headed back outside without using the facilities.

Shaking a little, Tasha carefully slipped her lock, peeked out, then tiptoed toward the outside door. She would be seen under the yellow light if she made a break for the pickup. Yet, she had no choice.

Silently cursing her ungainly shape, she drew a long breath then hurried as best she could into the night and to the passenger door. It was open and she clutched it like a lifeline. But there was no Rafe inside. Where was he?

Sidestepping the door, she slipped around the rear of the pickup. The newly arrived vehicle was three spots over, a dark sedan. She gave it a long, hard look. Whoever had driven it here was nowhere to be seen.

She thought she heard voices. A snatch on the wind.

". . . .baby. . . .

". . .wasn't supposed. . . "

". . .get. . .away. . ."

". . . .you can't. . .!"

Tasha moved from the rear of the Dodge, back to the side, keeping the pickup between her and the grassy area where the voices seemed to be coming from. She couldn't discern who was talking. Wasn't sure Rafe was even one of them. But they were talking about a baby. They were talking about her.

Minutes passed. Eternities, it seemed.

She finally dared to leave the security of the pickup, but when her feet hit the muddy field grass she slipped and went down on one knee. She glanced around anxiously but there was no one. Nothing but the shrieking wind and rattling limbs and wet slap of water that flew off the branches.

She opened her mouth. "Rafe?" she called softly, sliding one clenched hand inside her coat pocket. "Rafe?"

No sound. But then. . .something. . .near?

The knife came swiftly. Slicing down on her. Cutting through her coat and piercing the skin at her left shoulder. Tasha screamed. Shocked. The blade was pulled back, then stabbed again. She jerked herself away and stumbled into the field.

"Rafe!" she screamed and heard a low moaning response.

Then her attacker was on her again and she went down, rolling with them in the mud, frantically trying to stop the blade. Rolling and rolling. Fighting.

Then Tasha was on her back, the knifeblade held high above her, glinting in the yellow security light. The figure looming over her looked like the devil himself. 

Long haul trucker Denny Ewell had to take a whiz really bad. Damn, mother-fuckin' coffee. Went through you like you had no pipes. He pulled into the rest stop as the faintest sign of daylight, more like just a lifting of darkness, started moving over the hills.

He pulled his rig into a spot designed for RV's and big semis and leaped from the cab, race walking to the men's room. He was peeing by the time he got the damn zipper down and he let out a huge sigh of relief.

Finished, he looked at his reflection and ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Fuckin' A," he said to his receding hairline. Making a face at his craggy mug, he headed back outside. A little lighter. Little better. He'd be in Astoria in an hour or so, depending on the snowpack in the Coast range.

He was just about back to his rig when he heard something. Something like a groan. He glanced around. There was a beat-up Dodge pickup in the lot and he realized its passenger door was ajar.

"Hey," he called.

No answer.

Squinting at his watch he went to the opened door and pulled it wider. No one there.

The groan was louder. Coming from beyond the pickup. Circling the vehicle, he checked the field opposite. Something there. Movement of sorts.

"Hey," he called again as he walked cautiously toward it. Wouldn't do to run into some kind of wild animal searching for food scraps. He could do without that encounter.

Something on the ground.

Something with clothes on. . .

And then it rose to its feet, a bloodied figure, towering over the prone body still lying on the wet grass.

Denny's heart nearly exploded from his chest.  "Holy shit!"

"The baby," the figure said, clutching its chest.

Denny stepped back; he couldn't help himself, as the figure before him staggered toward him then fell to its knees. A man. Twisting to bend over the limp mound on the ground.

"Hey. Hey, man," Denny said, reaching out a hand.

The mound on the muddy grass turned out to be human. A woman, pregnant, her belly exposed like a white mound with black marks across its crest. Bloody marks. From knife wounds scored across her taut skin.

"Oh, Jesus." Denny pushed the bending man away, not sure what he intended. He fell over without resistance, his eyes staring at the sky, blood dampening his chest.

Horrified, Denny dragged his gaze back to the woman. She was breathing shallowly.  Alive. Barely.

And the baby? Whoever had tried to cut the poor little thing out had not succeeded.

Sending a prayer to the man upstairs, he ran for his truck and cell phone.