Zebra, Genre: Suspense (April 2009)
ISBN-10: 1420103407 ISBN-13: 978-1420103403
Read an Excerpt
A yellow moon rose over the line of fir trees, so close and huge that it seemed like an artist’s distorted vision, not the real thing.He watched it climb slowly upward through dispassionate eyes.It sent an uneven strip of light across the field behind his one-room home and glimmered in the pond that was ruffled by a light wind.
As if in response to the moon’s appearance, a light switched on in the main house across the field.Equally yellow.An evil color.A witch’s color.He was glad the house was so far away, wished it even further.
For a moment he saw her standing in the field, dark, near-black hair flowing around her shoulders.She wore her witch’s garb and she stared back at him, her eyes black pits, her mouth curved.
“C’mere, boy,” she said, and he wanted to go, but she wasn’t beckoning him.She’d never asked for him.
Still, she stripped off her clothes and melted into the pond.A moment of shadowy reflection and then just moonlight.
She was a witch.She had to die.And he was the hunter.
He gazed hard at the moon, now glowing a ghostly blue-white, shed of its earthly restraints, higher in the sky, smaller, more intense.He closed his eyes and saw its afterimage on the inside of his eyelids.
Witches had to die.He’d already sent two back to the hell they’d sprung from.But there were more.And some of them were filled with an evil so intense it was like they burned from the inside out.
He’d found the one who’d stolen from him.He’d been on a search for her, but she’d eluded him until last night.In a moment of pure coincidence, he’d seen her walking across the street.Wearing her witch’s garb, hair flying behind her and tangling in the wind that swooped down, bitterly cold for such a mild autumn.
He’d followed her and it had been a mistake for she’d entered a shop and for a moment he’d gotten too close.She’d sensed him.She turned to look at him and he turned sharply away, afraid she’d recognize him.
But now he knew where she haunted.Now he knew where to find her.Soon, he would strip her bare, crush her naked body with his, thrust himself into her again and again as she howled and scratched and screamed.
Then he would throw back his head and roar because he was the hunter.A wolf. Hunting his prey.
Jaw tense, he threw another look at the moon, now a white, hard dot in a black sky.The native’s called it a hunter moon.The full moon seen in the month of October.
October. . .
The witch’s month.
He was the wolf.And it was time to hunt the witch.
She wished him dead.
She knew about him.Witnessed the way his gaze ran lustfully over some preteen girl.Saw how his eyes glued to their athletic limbs and small breasts and his lips parted and his cock grew hard.
But wishing wasn’t enough.It almost was, but it wasn’t quite.Sometimes wishing needed a little push.So, she waited for him to go to an unlucky place, the kind of place where bad things happened.Deaths.Accidents.Poisonous secrets.She knew about those places better than anyone because bad things had happened to her at an unlucky place a long time ago and she’d spent many formative years getting payback for those bad things.
She waited with her jaw set.She was good at action, not patience.But today it had all come together, his unlucky place had materialized: a soccer field, with lots of ‘tweens’, their limbs flashing in nylon shorts and jerseys.She herself was very lucky and when people asked her name, which wasn’t often because she avoided encounters with strangers as a rule, she told them, “Lucky,” and they generally oohed and aahed and said what a great name it was.
People were stupid, as a rule.
The soccer fields were full of young bodies.A Jamboree was taking place: kids of varying ages playing half hour games and then moving onto another field to challenge another team.The boys were playing on the north side fields, over by the water tower.The girls were closer in, on the hard-packed dirt of the south side fields – fields thatlooked as if they’d been forgotten by the park’s department.Fields good enough for girls, not for boys.
Her lip curled.Figures, she thought.She wasn’t a man-hater, but she had definite thoughts about certain members of the male sex.She was responsible for the deaths of three of their gender and didn’t regret any of them.
She waited in her stolen car.Well, not stolen exactly.Appropriated for a specific purpose.She’d learned a few things during the twenty-seven years she’d been on the planet.She knew how to take care of herself.She could accurately fire a gun up to twenty yards.Well, fairly accurately.And she could break into and steal older model vehicles – the only kind she would drive because she distrusted air bags.Those things could kill you.She knew a guy who would dismantle them for her, which was a good thing, because it was getting harder and harder to find vintage available cars for her purposes, although she currently had a ready supply from Carl’s Automotive and Car Rental.Hunk O’Junks.That’s how they were advertised by the amateurish spray-painted sign posted off Highway 26, about fifteen miles east of Seaside, Oregon.Hunk O’Junks.Yessirree.They could be rented for $19.99 a day, but Lucky didn’t bother with that.A sorry line of tired-looking vehicles they were, too, but they served the purpose.No one noticed when they were gone.No one commented when they were returned.
Cars were a simple matter to hotwire.And she was adept at using a flat bar to slide down the inside of the window and pop the lock.It was then child’s play to dig under the dash, yank the wires, spark the ignition and drive away.
But the Hunk O’Junks were perfect in one more aspect: Carl left the keys under the mat.In the early hours of this morning she’d simply helped herself to the one furthest from the flickering vapor light at the corner of the automotive garage and driven away.The horny mechanic and sometime car thief who’d shown her the ropes and introduced her to Carl’s Automotive had been as unfaithful as a rutting bull.She’d used him as a means to an end and they’d almost parted friends.But he’d pushed it, had actually attempted to rape her.Lucky had been down that road before and nobody was going to try that again and live.She’d grabbed one of the nearby table lamp’s electricalcords and wrapped it around his neck.He’d been bullish enough to scarcely notice, so involved was he in spreading her thighs and jamming himself into her.She’d pulled the cord taut with all her strength, with all the rage of injustice she’d nursed from years of abuse.He passed out and she held on.It hadn’t been his face she was envisioning; it was someone else’s.Someone faint in her memory, yet dark and looming.Twenty minutes later she’d surfaced slowly, as if awakening from a long illness, her fingers numb, her mind clearing.She didn’t have much faith that anyone would believe her about the attempted rape, so she gathered up the lamp and its cord from the dirty and sparse living room he called home, wiped down everything she’d touched, and left someone else to find his body.She’d made the mistake of entering his home after their last car thieving lesson because she’d begun to think they were friends.
She hadn’t made that mistake since.
Now, she slouched behind the wheel of her current Hunk O’Junk, her gaze centered on a light brown van parked near the Jamboree lot exit.This maybe wasn’t the best venue for what she’d planned, but it could be worse.And it was where he trolled.And it had that unlucky feel she could almost taste.Edward Letton wasn’t aware that he was being followed.Didn’t know she’d found him out, that she’d tailed his van through parks and malls and schools, the environs of little girls.
Lucky had originally picked up on Letton by a means she didn’t fully understand herself.They’d crossed paths in a small clothing store in Seaside, a place that specialized in beach togs and gear.She’d brushed past him and read his desire as if he’d suddenly whispered his intentions in her ear, making her skin crawl.Glancing back, she saw the way his gaze centered on a young girl who was trying hard to display her breast-buds as the real deal, the tiny buttons pushed-up by an underwire bra, the girl thrusting them forward, her back arched like a bow.She was around eleven.Gawky.Unformed and unsure.She both hung by her mother for protection, and stepped away from her scornfully, as if she couldn’t bear the idea that Mom was so old and completely uncool.
Letton stared and stared.He was so hungry Lucky felt his lust like a living thing.It filled her senses as if he were secreting pheromones.Made her ill.So, she started following him.That day she tailed him a good fifty miles, all the way back to Hillsboro and the untidy green-gray house with his adoring, mentally-suspect wife.Not the brightest jewel on the necklace, her.Letton was some kind of middle-grade manager at a machine-parts company.Lucky had watched him from the parking lot of his workplace and followed him at lunch to an all-you-can eat restaurant where she seated herself in the booth in front of him, her back to his.Even though he was with a co-worker, he unerringly watched the girl serving soup in the T-shirt whose chest was so flat she could have been a child.
He didn’t drive the van to work.It was parked in his garage and Lucky didn’t know about it at first.Neither did his dimwit wife.His garage was his domain.He drove a Honda Accord to work, new enough to be reliable, old enough to be forgettable.
She knew those kind of cars well.
And then she realized he used the van when he went trolling.Nobody had to tell her what he was planning.She knew that hunger.That build-up.That need.She’d been on the receiving end of it and it hadn’t been pretty.
He almost grabbed a girl at the mall, but she was with friends and hard to snatch.Lucky watched him, her gloved hands tensing on the wheel of her appropriated car,but he passed up the chance though he climbed from his van and paced around it, watching with distress as his victim and friends meandered across the parking lot, ponytails flouncing, out of his reach.
But here he was, a scant week and a half later.Saturday morning.Cruising past soccer fields was one of his favorite past-times.She’d parked today’s Hunk O’Junk, an early 80's model, a half a block down from his house, dozing a bit as she’d risen before dawn.When he backed the van out of the drive, she let it disappear around a corner before she started to follow.He didn’t try any tricky moves on the way to the fields.He drove straight to the Jamboree.Once there, he circled around, parking at the end spot near the girls’ fields, nose out.It was early, so Lucky parked her sedan across from him, a couple of slots down, and let him see her as she locked the vehicle and strolled across the road toward a strip mall with a coffee shop just opening in the cool morning air.She wanted him to think she was just another soccer mom, biding time before the games with a latte or mocha.
As soon as she was across the street, she circled the east building of the strip mall and settled behind a row of arborvitae directly across from the Jamboree parking lot.Hidden behind them, she put a pair of binoculars to her eyes, watching Letton through the foliage.
More cars arrived.Teams of boys and girls.Letton watched and waited as the girls banded into teams, running in their uniforms, blurs of red, green, yellow and blue, young legs flashing in heavy shin guards and cleated shoes.
She had never played soccer herself.That had not been the kind of childhood she’d experienced.Mostly she’d plotted and dreamed of escape.Sometimes she hadthought of murder.
Now she waited until another crush of people arrived – more vans spilling kids and equipment onto the pavement – then hurried back, blending in with the other moms, sliding into her silver car.Letton was too enthralled by the bounty of adolescent flesh to even notice her.She was pretty sure he was jacking-off in the driver’s seat.
The teams began to gather in groups, readying for play.Every group was a tight, wiggling pack, like a hive of bees.
And then a young girl, ponytail bobbing, broke free, running across the fields toward the parking lot, her gait stuttering a bit as her cleats hit the pavement.What worked on grass didn’t offer the same kind of purchase on asphalt.She was clomping toward the portable bathrooms, passing directly in front of Edward Letton’s van.He called to her.Lucky had rolled her own window down and now she turned the engine and slipped the car into gear, foot light on the brake.
“Hey, you’re with the Hornets, right?”Letton called to the girl, climbing from his seat.He was obviously quoting from the back of their jerseys which displayed their teams’ names in block letters.He left the door ajar for a quick getaway.She could hear the thrum of excitement in his voice as he headed toward the side door of the van, sliding it open.His pants were still unzipped.
“Yeah?” the girl said warily.
“I’ve got those extra balls your coach wanted.Let me get ‘em.Maybe you could take some back.”
“I’m going to the bathroom.”
But Letton was already reaching into the van.The girl hesitated.A soccer ball rolled out and started heading toward her.She automatically went after it, the movement drawing her closer to the van.She picked it up and said, “I can’t take it now.I’ll come back for it,” reaching toward him, intending to hand it to him.He didn’t make a move to meet her, just waited for her to approach.
Don’t go, Lucky thought, foot off the brake.Stay back.
The girl hesitated.Lucky could practically feel when she made the decision that Letton was “with” their team.
Before the girl could take another step forward Lucky smashed her foot down on the accelerator and jammed the horn with her fist.The car leapt forward like a runner at the gate.The girl jumped back, startled.Edward Letton forgot himself and lurched for the girl, but she’d automatically moved out of range of the silver car shooting down on them, running for the safety of the soccer fields.Letton glanced up darkly, his plan foiled, glaring murderously at Lucky.His mouth open to. . . what?Berate her for unsafe driving?He looked mad enough to kill.
She slammed into him at thirty and climbing.Threw him skyward.Threw herself forward.The steering wheel jumped from her hands.The sedan’s grill grazed the back bumper of the van.Someone screamed.She grabbed the wheel hard, turning, both arms straining, sensing calamity.Then she spun past the van, tires squealing.Letton’s flying body thunked off the roof of her car and bounced onto the asphalt, an acrobat without a net.He lay still.
In her rearview mirror Lucky stared hard at Letton’s body.She drove away with controlled speed, slowingthrough a tangle of neighborhoods, weaving her way, heart slamming hot and fast in her chest, zigzagging toward Highway 26.She had to get this car out of the area and fast.
It was only when she was safely away, heading west, keeping up with fast-moving traffic, that she saw the blood on her steering wheel.
A glance in the rearview.Her face was covered with blood.The impact had smacked her face into the steering wheel.Her left eye was closing.She hadn’t even noticed.
There was Windex in the back.Rags.Bleach.She would wipe up the evidence, clean herself and the car.All she had to do now was keep the growing pain and swelling under control.Her vision blurred.
She had to get to an off-road near Carl’s Automotive, one of the myriads of turn-outs on this winding highway through the Cascade Mountains.Later tonight she would sneak the car back onto the weed-choked gravel lot and hope that the front grill, lights and body weren’t too damaged.The vehicle needed to stay undiscovered at the Hunk O’Junk lot for a long time.
She swiped at the blood running down her forehead, blinding her.
Not good.Not good at all.
But she was lucky.She would get away with it.She would. . .
She just hoped to hell she’d killed him.
* * *
Surfacing from a yawning pit of blackness, her eyes adjusted to an unfamiliar room: cream vertical blinds, cream walls, television on a shelf bolted high on the wall, blankets covering what must be her feet, wood veneer footboard.
A hospital room.
Automatically, her hand flew up and touched the bandage wrapped around her head.One eye was covered.She didn’t know why, but it wasn’t the first time she’d blacked out.Far from it.But this time she’d hurt herself, maybe badly.What had happened?
She had a moment of not knowing who she was.
Her heart clutched.
Then she remembered.
I’m lucky, she thought, memory slipping back to her, amorphous, hard to grasp, but at least it was there.At least some of it was there.
And she was angry.Hot fury sang through her veins though she couldn’t immediately identify the source of her rage.But someone had to pay.She knew that.
A nurse was adjusting a monitor that was spitting out paper in a long, running stream.Red squiggles wove over the paper’s lined grid.Her heartbeat.Respiration, maybe?She closed her eye and pretended to be sleeping.She wasn’t ready for the inquisition, yet.Wasn’t ready to find out the whys and wherefores of how she’d come to be at this hospital.
She heard the squeak of the nurse’s crepe soles head toward the door.A soft whoosh of air, barely discernible, said the silent door had been opened.Not hearing it close, she carefully lifted her eyelid.As suspected the wheelchair-wide door was ajar.Anyone could push inside and stare at her which consumed her with worry.She had to stay awake.
The last vestiges of what seemed to be a dream tugged at her consciousness and she fought to hang onto the remnants but they were slippery and insubstantial, spider threads.She was left merely with the sensation that she was heading for a showdown, some distant and unwelcome Armageddon that was going to shatter and rearrange her world.Maybe not for the better.
But then she always felt that.Always awoke with that lowgrade dread which followed the gaps in her memory.Maybe someday she would wake up and not know who she was at all.Maybe her memory would be gone for good.
What would happen then?
The door swung in noiselessly and a man in a light tan uniform entered the room.He was with the county sheriff’s department and seeing her looking at him, he said, “Hello, ma’am.I’m Detective Will Tanninger with the Winslow County Sheriff’s Department.”
She nodded, eyeing him carefully.He was in his mid-thirties with dark brown hair and serious eyes, but she could see the striations at their edge from squinting them in either laughter or against the sun.“Where am I?”
“Laurelton General Hospital.You’ve been admitted as a Jane Doe.Could you tell us your name?”
He was steely polite.Alarm bells rang.What had she done?It took her a long moment to come up with her name.“Gemma LaPorte.”She hesitated, almost afraid to ask.“Are you here to see me?”
“We don’t know how you got here, Ms. LaPorte.You walked into Emergency and collapsed.”
Her hand fluttered to her head once again.“Oh. . .?”
“Did someone bring you?Did you drive yourself?”
Gemma moved her head slowly from side to side.“I don’t remember.”
Will paused, regarding her with dark, liquid eyes.Everything about him seemed forced and still.“You don’t remember the circumstances that brought you here.”
“What’s your last memory?”
Gemma thought about it a minute.“I was making myself breakfast at home.Oatmeal and cinnamon.I was looking out the window and thinking we were drowning in rain.It was a downpour.The dirt was like concrete and the water was pouring over it in sheets.”
The deputy was silent for so long that Gemma felt her anxiety rise.She sensed that he was deliberating on an answer.
“What?” she asked.
“It hasn’t rained for three days.”