Sergeant Detective Jane Perry rolled to an abrupt stop in front of the gas pumps and checked the time. 7:17. It had been exactly seventeen minutes since she left her house on Milwaukee Street in Denver and headed south on I-25 but it felt like hours. Lately, reality had revolved in a surreal sphere, and Jane was looking forward to jumping off the mind-bending roller coaster and getting some heartfelt perspective on her life. But all that would have to wait now.
If Jane were still a smoker, she would have extinguished four cigarettes since she left her house. Even though it had been over eleven days since she was sucker punched by the news, the rawness of that first moment when she saw the truth in black and white was still fresh and stung like venom, hot and unforgiving. Nicotine would soften the edges but she'd made a promise to herself to quit, so she'd have to figure out how to steer through this oozing emotional wound without the comfortable dulling of pain.
That was proving more difficult as the days progressed. In one moment, Jane's world not only blew apart, but her entire identity split with it. She'd spent the past days dredging up her turbulent young life yet again—propelling her heart back into the chaos—searching for clues in the multitude of unspoken words and wondering how she missed the torturous secret her mother chose to keep. Unfortunately, her memories had been fogged by time and over twenty years of abusing the bottle. If there was any sign of what was hidden long ago, it was now buried in layers of regret and omission.
Jane rolled down her window and adjusted the side mirror on her '66 ice blue Mustang. She took in a deep breath, hoping it would abate her temptation for tobacco. The cool, mid-April breeze belied the promise of spring, even though March and April were known in Colorado as the wettest and snowiest months of the year. As Jane canvassed the flattened landscape so common for this section of the state, there was still no sign of the Isis of rebirth—no lush green panoramas to sink her teeth into and inhale the beauty. All that lay in eyesight were varying shades of taupe, edged by the blacktop of the frontage road. How was it possible for anything verdant to emerge from this lifeless topography? The sheer energy it took for Colorado to rise from the frozen ashes of winter never ceased to amaze and confound Jane. While the rains had abated over the last twenty-four hours, an uncommon moisture still clung in the normally dry morning atmosphere that lent a dampened spirit to her journey.
Jane leaned outside and caught her reflection in the side mirror. No, it couldn't be, she thought. Moving closer to the mirror, she parted her shoulder length brown hair and found a cluster of grey. When did this happen? Had she been so preoccupied with the events of her last case that she failed to notice the preamble to death painted on her crown? She studied her brown eyes in the mirror and noted the bags underneath—badges of a hard fought life where sacrifice trumped freedom. Crinkling her nose, Jane forced the lines around the corner of her eyes to deepen. She could chalk it up to too much smiling but anyone who knew her would disagree since Jane Perry's personality was not synonymous with grinning. She let out a hard sigh of resignation. How in the hell did she get so goddamned old in just thirty-seven years?
She leaned over and locked her Glock in the glove compartment on top of her badge. Even though her anticipated seven-day trip was purely personal, she never traveled without her service weapon. It was an anchor and a steel security blanket. Swiping her credit card, she selected the highest-grade gasoline for her cherished classic ride and filled the tank. A gust of wind blew across the service station, forcing Jane to button the collar of her leather jacket. She turned and surveyed the smattering of vehicles filling up at this early hour. Jane had always been a student of observation; always keenly taking in the minute details in front of her. That ability ran on autopilot and served her well as a cop when she had to recreate a homicide scene.
But lately, she'd taken to counting objects that were grouped together. It had almost become an obsession; something to indulge her addictive mind. At that moment, there were three cars, including hers, at the islands. There were seven islands, each with three options for fuel. But four of those fuel pumps were covered with yellow tape, marking them out of order. So, readjusting it, there were seventeen fuel handles available. Ironic, she mused. When she rolled into the gas station and looked at the clock, it was 7:17, which was seventeen minutes after she left her house. Odd.
She'd come to know these as syncs, clusters of seemingly disparate words, digital times on a clock, names, symbols or numbers that kept cropping up in such a way to herald a hidden message. While some of the syncs had been easy to decipher, most proved mystifying, leaving Jane to feel she either wasn't smart enough to understand the significance or that the message itself wasn't ready to be heard. This concept may have occupied illogical territory, but even the most logical human being has been guilty of latching onto a sign from above or below in an attempt to give meaning to an experience.
As much as Jane Perry primarily used her logic, these last few years had introduced her to phenomena that defied rational sense. The more she fought it, the more the strangeness attacked like a serpent, demanding to be acknowledged. More than anything, she couldn't escape the weird coincidences and syncs that plagued her daily life and infested nearly every homicide she worked. The constant dovetailing of events was so common now that she no longer questioned the mystical belief of entanglement with other humans, both dead and alive.
The fuel pump clicked but Jane kept squeezing the handle in an attempt to force every last drop of gas into her tank. She noted the signage on the pump warning against "topping off" your tank and some reference to "creating a cleaner, greener planet." Fuck that shit, she thought. She had a long drive in front of her and her hungry Mustang needed to be fed as much liquid "grass" as possible. When she finally filled it to overflowing, Jane removed the nozzle and hooked it back on the pump. Just as she did, she sensed the presence of the attendant behind her, ready to make a smartass comment. She turned, ready to verbally tackle him with her well-worn bravado. Yet to her astonishment, there was no one there. Jane spun around and scanned the immediate area, looking for any sign of an attendant in the vicinity but she came up empty. She chalked it up to a lack of sufficient caffeine, even though she'd already knocked back three cups of coffee in the last two hours. While gas station java swill wasn't her first choice, it would have to do.
Inside the small Quik Mart convenience store, Jane found four aisles stuffed to the gills with every known junk food. Besides the corpulent woman behind the cash register who crunched on a greasy pork rind, the only other occupants were a beefy biker and a scrawny teenage boy who was loading up on enough "crack in a can" energy drinks to keep him awake until he stroked out. A small television, located above the cash register, was turned on with the sound muted. Jane briefly glanced up as a booking photograph of a heavyset man filled the screen. His wavy brown, scraggly hair matched his unkempt beard and mustache. His name flashed underneath the photo: Harlan Kipple, age forty-two.
Jane knew all about Kipple, although she'd never met him. For almost fourteen days, he had been enjoying "three hots and a cot," courtesy of the Denver penal system. She would have caught the case but Kipple committed his crime southeast of Denver in Limon, Colorado and was only kicked to Denver because of his heinous, high profile crime and to insure he was secured prior to trial.
Kipple, an Interstate truck driver with only one past infraction of transporting illegal prescription drugs in his rig for his brother-in-law, had been accused of the macabre butchering of an unidentified black prostitute. It was your classic open and shut case since Kipple had been found in a dingy Limon motel, passed out in bed with the working girl, clutching a bloody hunting knife and covered in her blood. To make the case even more depraved, the poor girl had been gutted like a deer and her head cracked open, leaving her brain draped outside of her skull. As expected, drugs were involved and that part of the murder made Harlan Kipple nefariously notorious. Lab reports showed he injected the girl with ketamine hydrochloride—a PCP analogue used as an anesthetic in veterinary medicine but gaining popularity on the street as a date rape drug. Known on the club scene as "Special K," "Super K," "KO" and "Make Her Mine", ketamine was distinguished from other date rape drugs in that it produced a dissociative anesthesia, rendering the victim detached from all bodily sensations but often aware of what was being done to them and yet paralyzed and unable to respond. Picture being encased in a glass ball, while watching the unthinkable happen to you and having no way to fight back. It was the ultimate torture because if the victim survived the attack, they usually suffered from amnesia but were prone to subsequent, suddenly triggered vivid hallucinations that replayed the rape or attack, forcing the victim to question their reality. To Jane, ketamine was the epitome of a true mind-fucking drug that left its twisted mark on survivors for many years. As for the unsuspecting prostitute that Kipple mutilated, her last minutes were likely spent watching herself being raped and then filleted open until the grace of God separated her body from her soul.
But the incongruity of Kipple's case didn't end there. About two years prior to the grisly murder, he had been given a life-saving heart transplant—a surgery that nearly insured him another healthy two decades of life. The fact that those years would now be spent confined to a cell and probably end in execution was God's little irony, Jane deduced. What a waste of a good heart, she recalled thinking when the story broke.
Kipple's face lingered on the television inside the Quik Mart. The press named him "Kipple, the Heartless Killer." Nothing works like an obvious alliteration when you're selling freaks to the public. Jane stared at his photo, searching out the darkness that always lingered behind the eyes of all psychos. But Kipple was a tough nut to crack. Instead of the penetrating evil, there was a strange softness and quiet sweetness that projected from his photo. Good God, was she losing her touch?
"Can I help you?"
Jane turned away from the screen to find the cashier staring at her, a speck of pork rind dotting her upper lip. "I need strong coffee."
The woman pointed her fat finger toward the back of the store, in the corner next to the bank of refrigerated shelves. Jane glanced outside to her Mustang and then quickly walked to the rear of the store. She selected the strongest brew available and the largest cup, filling it to the rim. Searching for the sugar, she tipped over the plastic bowl that held the packets. She counted them as she put them back in the bowl. Seventeen. She snapped the lid on the cup and carried it around the corner of the aisle, staring momentarily at the array of artery-clogging snack foods that lined the shelves. She looked up briefly to glance at her waiting Mustang before searching the selections for anything remotely healthy. It was another promise Jane made to herself after recently escaping what she assumed was a death sentence. She found herself drawn to the pine nuts, even though she never would have made that choice a few weeks ago. She squinted to read what was written across the front of the bag in green lettering: Enjoy These Nuggets of Nature From The Pinecone! The price was right for the small bag, a buck seventy.
Jane grabbed all eight bags on the shelf as she felt the burly biker walk behind her. For some strange reason, he hovered awfully close. She allowed the intrusion to continue for another few seconds before spinning around. But there was no one standing there. The biker was, in fact, on the opposite side of the store. Jane stood still, sensing a muscular thickness around her; a phantasm imprint that lacked clarity. A few years ago, she would have ignored this curious feeling but she'd learned the hard way that the more she pretended it away or chalked it up to booze, flashbacks, PTSD or lack of sleep, the more dynamic it became.
Jane waited, looking into nothingness yet still clearly aware of the unassailable presence around her. She started to turn right but was drawn to the left. Moving around the aisle, Jane stood at the long magazine rack that framed the front windows. Cradling the eight bags of pine nuts, she made her way toward the cashier when she heard the soft brush of a magazine fall to the vinyl floor behind her. Jane turned to find a copy of "The Q"—a glossy, men's sports and outdoor magazine—splayed open, cover side up. She leaned down, picked up the magazine and replaced it on the shelf. Turning toward the cashier, Jane took a step and heard the magazine fall behind her again. She stopped. The phantasmal stickiness gripped her like a defiant child demanding her attention. Jane carefully turned toward the magazine, finding it sprawled in the same position as before. She leaned down, turned it over and stared at the advertising found on page seventeen. Against an indigo background lay a mountainous landscape with snowcapped peaks. Featured in the foreground was a woman's modest wristwatch placed upon what looked like a red satin cloth that stretched from one side of the page to the other. The hands on the watch pointed to 11:17. In the bottom left hand corner, there was an illustration of the "great and powerful" Oz from The Wizard of Oz peeking out from his purple curtained area. In bold, red block letters next to the image, it read:
IT'S TIME FOR A CHANGE, DOROTHY.
Jane searched on the page for the product or service being advertised and came up empty. She figured "time" related to the woman's wristwatch and Dorothy correlated to The Wizard of Oz but the rest of the ad was nonsensical. There were no website links or phone numbers that related to whatever they were selling. Avant-garde garbage. That's what Jane deduced as she inexplicably tucked the magazine under her arm and walked to the cashier. Suddenly, the presence that had hung so closely to her disappeared.
"That all?" the chunky woman asked.
"That'll do it."
The woman tapped her greasy finger on a greeting card stand to the left of the checkout. "We got Easter cards on closeout."
Jane regarded the woman with an incredulous stare. Did she actually believe Jane looked like a woman who would send someone an Easter card? Jane glanced at the nearly empty card stand and saw a glittery greeting with the Archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet. Who in the hell sends Easter cards? Jane peered around the card stand and saw liters of spring water. She grabbed four bottles and added them to her pile. "Okay. That'll do it."
"Thirty-three even." Jane handed the woman a fifty. The woman opened the register and handed Jane's change back to her. "Seventeen's your change."
"What in the fuck is going on?" Jane muttered.
"Excuse me?" the woman asked, offended.
"Not you." Jane's mind was elsewhere.
The woman dumped the purchases into a plastic bag. "Uh-huh," she replied, still affronted. "Hey…" Jane was still lost in thought as she tucked the seventeen dollars into her wallet. "Hey," the woman stressed, leaning forward.
Jane awoke from her slumber. "What?"
The woman pointed out the front window. "Isn't that your car driving away?"
Jane turned around just in time to see the back wheels of her ice blue Mustang squeal out of the parking lot. She raced outside, instinctively grabbing for her Glock and coming up empty. The only detail she could make out was the back of a man's head and his thick neck.
"Un-fucking-believable!" Jane screamed as she stood on the edge of the gas station, watching the rear tires of her Mustang blow mud into the air.
She didn't lock the car door. She always locked the goddamned car door. Always.
Her mind raced, first taking into account all the items in her vehicle. There was the Glock and her badge, locked in the glove compartment. She figured the perp chose her older ride because it was easy to hotwire. Whether he could also jimmy the lock on the glove compartment and gain access to her shield and service weapon was another thing entirely. In the trunk was her luggage and laptop, which held hundreds of sensitive case files from past and open homicides. The more Jane quickly itemized everything in her Mustang, the more the weight of the world pressed down. The potential fallout from this was enormous. It was one helluva start to an already anxious road trip.
She tried her cell phone but there was no coverage. "Shit!" Jane exclaimed as she felt the walls cave in. There was no sure way to determine which direction the perp drove after he exited the frontage road, but Jane figured he was most likely headed southbound since that was the easiest entrance to speed onto from the gas station. She never considered heading back to Denver and aborting her trip. Jane had a small window of opportunity over the next seven days to lay eyes on the one person she never knew existed until eleven days ago. To turn back now because some asshole boosted her '66 ride was not an option. The only person she could have phoned for help was her younger brother, Mike. But he and his new wife were incommunicado, knee deep in the Amazon jungle for two weeks on a shamanic tour hosted by a guy named Bruno. The only other possible person she could call was Sergeant Weyler but Jane wasn't used to asking for personal favors, even though she knew Weyler would drop everything and come to her aid.
A thought briefly crossed her mind as she headed back to the Quik Mart. Hank Ross. That consideration actually made Jane stop in her tracks. They'd met less than one month before when she worked the Van Gorden abduction case in Midas, Colorado. But the connection they made—both sexually and emotionally—was still new and uncertain for Jane. But there had to be something there because Hank was the only one who knew where she was headed and why she had to go there. For the first time in forever, she actually trusted someone and allowed that unseen grain of vulnerability to exist and be laid bare. Yes, even though he was more than ninety minutes north of where she stood at that moment, she knew if she called him, he would show up.
But, no. She couldn't bring herself to do it. Like every other circumstance in Jane's thirty-seven years, she would figure it out alone. It wasn't so much pride with Jane Perry; it was a conviction that one is responsible for his or her own destiny and to depend too strongly on others often complicated one's fate. She got into this problem and dammit, she'd get herself out of it.
"I need to see the outside security video," Jane announced to the cashier as she blew back into the Quik Mart. Off-the-beaten-path joints like this one copy over their security video every twenty-four hours or fewer and Jane needed to examine the tape right away before human error took away that opportunity. The woman regarded Jane with a lazy drop of her mouth and said nothing. Jane leaned forward, irritation building. "I'm a cop," she stressed.
"Yeah?" the woman replied, in a stupor from inhaling too many pork rinds. "Where's your badge?"
"In the glove compartment of my car that's heading south right now."
She sat back, not seeming to understand the necessity for speedy action. "How did he steal your car?"
Oh, fuck me, Jane thought. "I didn't lock it."
"You didn't lock your car?" Disdain covered the woman's fat face. "If you're really a cop, wouldn't you know better than that?" The woman actually thought she was clever.
Jane reached her boiling point. She leaned forward, prepared to grab the woman's flabby arm. "I'm a homicide cop with Denver PD. I'm the one who shows up at 'Shop 'n' Robs' like this one when your cold, dead ass is lying in rigor on the concrete and your grieving family is standing just outside the yellow tape bawling like babies. So let's recap. Some son-of-a-bitch jacked my car in your fucking parking lot!—"
"You don't have to get huffy!"
"Yes. Actually, I do! I have important business to take care of. So, if you don't show me the goddamn security video and let me use your phone to call this in, I'll hold you personally responsible for grand theft auto. And believe me, lady, you do not want to get on my bad side."
Jane knew there was absolutely no way she could make the broad responsible for her bad luck, but Jane had always been able to toss out a threat with such authority that even domestic animals and house plants acquiesced. Fortunately, this dimwitted woman submitted. In a cramped backroom, Jane reviewed the security video, which was blurry with badly positioned cameras and jumped from one pump to another, leaving ten second gaps in the real time action on each fueling island.
"Jesus!" Jane exclaimed, frustration filling every pore.
"They told us they were gonna update the security system last year," the woman offered in a slow cadence.
"Is that right? I'll make a point to tell every perp to 'Google' this location." The video finally came to rest on Jane's Mustang. Unfortunately, the thief was already seated in the car and his face was obscured by the poor angle of the camera and the driver's front visor. Jane paused the video in an attempt to decipher any useable, identifying qualities about the male subject but it was useless. The only other video of her car showed it screeching away from the fueling station and out of the shot.
"Shit!" Jane muttered, standing up. "I gotta use your phone."
Jane valiantly tried to talk one-on-one with a local cop to try and gain some leverage but because the Quik Mart was located between jurisdictions, it started to get complicated and the clock was ticking. She then attempted to reach a couple cops she knew in Colorado Springs, located fifty miles south, but they weren't at their desks and Jane didn't feel it made sense to leave a scattered message on their voicemail. It became patently obvious to her that it was pointless to waste her time at the scene of the crime waiting for the cops to show up. Jotting down her name and the make and year of her ice blue Mustang along with the license plate, she handed it to the cashier with instructions to report the carjacking and deal with the cops when they got off their donut break and showed up.
Checking her wallet, Jane counted one thousand and seventeen dollars. Jane had allotted herself one hundred and fifty bucks a day for her seven-day trip. It was looking like that day's stipend would be spent on a bus ticket to Colorado Springs. The plan was to reach out to the two cops she knew there, file the grand theft charges and get them to put their eyes on the highway as quickly as possible.
After another labored conversation with the uncooperative cashier about where the closest bus station was located, Jane began a three-mile trek northbound on the frontage road. The day wasn't getting any warmer as the spring winds stung her face. She flashed on the warm, down coat sitting on the front seat of her Mustang and felt another wave of anger wash over her. By the time she reached the unmarked bus depot, she was told she could only travel twenty-five miles south before having to transfer to another bus that would take her to Colorado Springs. Jane paid the fare and boarded the bus. By the time they crossed the Castle Rock city line, Jane had devoured one bag of pine nuts followed by a half liter of water to cut the excessively salty taste in her mouth. She tried her cell phone several times, but coverage was spotty. A half hour later, the bus finally came to a stop on a flat, lonely frontage road. Awaiting her was the next bus, a small depot and a convenience store. She quickly exited, hoping her next ride wouldn't smell like bare feet and diesel fumes.
As Jane walked to the new coach—a polished, black luxury ride that featured a large luggage compartment—she noted the name on the side: Anubus with the number 121 below it. She recognized the name as a slight misspelling of the Egyptian God Anubis. Rising above the "n" was an illustration of what looked like the head of an Egyptian dog or jackal. Lovely, Jane mused. Jackals are known to scavenge dead bodies. She once looked up the symbology of Anubis after an intellectual killer she helped convict screamed the name out at his murder trial. The Egyptians believed Anubis guided souls to the underworld. Once there, assisted by the god Thot, Anubis supervised the weighing of the heart of the deceased. Jane wondered what the marketing mastermind was snorting when he chose such a loaded, ancient, death-driven moniker for the bus line. For anyone who studied Egyptian symbology, it didn't exactly suggest, "safe travels."
Jane boarded the crowded bus and surveyed available seating. If a warm body didn't take up a seat, it was being used to hold additional luggage that wouldn't fit in the lower compartment. Jane meandered down the narrow center aisle, dragging the bag full of water, pine nuts and that strange Q magazine. A series of small televisions were located in the center of each row of seats, all tuned to a local Denver news program. Underneath each television was the bus number "121." Jane stopped, smelling something familiar but not connecting with the odor. Whatever it was, it had a rotting tang that made her gut queasy. The further Jane walked down the aisle, the more noxious the aroma became. Looking at the faces on the bus, she noted a strange pallor that inhabited each of them. Were they all being affected, she wondered, by this cadaverous scent?
Three rows ahead, she spotted an empty aisle seat. A Caucasian girl who looked about twenty years old occupied the window seat. She was wiry, dressed in a pair of black pants, a blue turtleneck and a grey hoodie. Her eyes nervously skirted the area outside her window. The kid was a textbook druggie and probably a hooker, although she didn't own the toughness required for the latter. Jane glanced up at the seat number. "Shit. That figures," she mumbled.
The girl quickly looked at Jane, her black eyes lined with thick kohl that emphasized the whites underneath the pupils. "What?" the girl anxiously said.
"Row seventeen," Jane replied, pointing to the aisle seat. "This seat taken?"
She stared at Jane for a little too long before responding. "No…" Fear edged the word.
Jane slid into the seat, securing her plastic bag between her feet. She could feel the girl's eyes study her and did her best to ignore it until it became irritating. "Look, I'd sit in another seat if there was one available."
The girl apprehensively looked down at Jane's bag. "What…what's in the bag?"
"Water," Jane said, scanning the rows in front of her in case she missed another empty seat.
"Is that all?" There was an obvious catch in her throat.
Jane turned to the girl. Sweat beads formed across her upper lip, which quivered slightly. "No. I got pine nuts and a magazine. You want any of that?"
The girl looked deep into Jane's eyes, searching…desperately searching. "No…No, I don't. My stomach is already too queasy."
Jane nodded. "It's that smell," she concluded. "Why do buses always smell like warmed over shit?"
"What smell?" the girl asked.
"You can't smell that? It's like rotting…something."
The girl sniffed in the air. "I don't smell anything."
Oh, great. Jane had experienced this odd phenomenon before and it always had a surreal conclusion. First the strangeness she felt in the Quik Mart and now this. And it wasn't even close to noon.
The girl turned back to Jane, hesitated briefly and then spoke. "Did…did they send you?"
Fuck, Jane thought. Why do the wingnuts of the world always choose bus transportation? "They?"
A small fountainhead of courage briefly emerged from the girl. "I just need to know. Okay?" Desperation clouded every whispered word. "Like you'd even tell me, right? It's just that you kinda resemble my mom and I thought maybe they'd send someone who looked like her just to fuck with my head."
Jane had been told she resembled a dyke, a slut and an angry young woman but she'd never been told that she looked like somebody's mother. Since there was nowhere to escape, she figured she'd come as clean as possible. "My name's Jane. My car got ripped off back at the 'Shop 'n' Rob.' I'm heading to Colorado Springs to file a report. That's my story. I don't know who 'they' are and I don't give a shit. So, let's just let it rest. Deal?"
The girl stared into Jane's eyes. "I can trust you."
"Look, if you're in trouble, maybe you should—"
"Shit!" the girl whispered, craning her neck and looking outside the window on the opposite side of the bus.
"What?" Jane asked with growing irritation.
The girl slunk down and peered outside the window next to her seat. "Shit, shit, shit!"
"What is it?"
"Shh! I swear I saw the red-haired dude out there wearing a black suit."
As much as Jane did not want to engage the girl or feed her paranoid delusions, she stood partly up in her seat and looked around the exterior of the bus. "I don't see any red haired guy wearing a black suit." She sat back down. "Are you playing me? Because I'm telling you, I've had a fucked up morning—"
"My name's Lilith. And I doubt you'll believe a word of what I know. That's what they always count on. Make it so absurd so if you tell your story, you'll sound insane."
Jane regarded Lilith. "Are you high?"
Lilith turned away, her eyes silently canvassing the outside of the bus from her window. "Fuck off," she murmured.
Jane stared straight ahead. The television above her head flashed on the weather map of Colorado, showing a spring cold front entering the state. The bus driver boarded and faced the passengers. Jane noted that even though he'd been outside the entire time, he had the same sickly, grey pallor just like every other passenger on this black coach.
"Hey, folks!" the driver announced, "it's gonna be a couple more minutes. We gotta problem with one of the luggage compartments." He turned and left.
Lilith became increasingly agitated. "Fuck!" she said under her breath, nervously looking outside.
Jane couldn't take it anymore. She eyed the girl, speaking quietly. "Okay, if I tell you I'm a cop, will that change things?"
Her eyes widened. "For real?"
"But I thought you had your car stolen. How's that possible?"
Jane rolled her eyes. Lilith was the second person that day to question how a cop could be so stupid. "The two are not mutually exclusive. Look, in my job, I've heard some really off-the-wall stories. So, if you want to share whatever's freaking you out, I'll listen with an open mind."
Lilith turned her body toward Jane. It was as if she had found her savior. "I was headed to Denver this morning on another bus," she whispered. "I was goin' there to make a statement to a cop or whoever would listen to me." She swallowed hard, furtively peering around the bus suspiciously. "I was involved in a murder." Jane focused intently on her. "I didn't commit the murder," Lilith quickly added, "but I was used to make it happen."
"One of my friends. Her name was Jaycee. She was a..." Lilith seemed suddenly embarrassed, "hooker."
"Okay," Jane said, nonchalantly.
Lilith chewed the flesh off her thumb. "I'm also a…hooker."
"Hey, I'm not your priest. I don't care what you do for a living."
Lilith slightly relaxed. "Jaycee was new in town. Like less than a week. I never even knew her last name or where she came from. But she seemed real nice so we hung out."
"How did Jaycee die?"
"I…um…had this guy ask me for a date. He was short. Like five six. And old. Like forty."
"Forty? Yeah, that's fuckin' ancient."
"Yeah. He had reddish grey hair. He drove up in a limo and I got in. There were two other guys in the back. Both were tall and thin and wore dark suits, thin black ties and had really red hair. I mean, like, fire red from hell, you know? And they had these piercing blue eyes, like glass almost. The guy on the left side had a weird bright crimson mark that covered most of the top of his right hand. It was like three inches long. It looked like he'd been in some kind of accident."
"Did you get any names?"
"Not from the two guys sitting across from me. But the guy who seemed to be in charge said his name was Mr. Ramos. I've entertained four guys named Ramos and they all had dark hair, so that was kinda different. I told him it was extra for a threesome but he told me he didn't want to do me. He wanted me to hook him up with Jaycee. He said he'd seen me with her. I told him to talk to Jaycee himself but he said he was nervous."
"Nervous?" Jane questioned.
"Yeah. It didn't make a lot of sense to me neither. I mean, trust me, this Ramos dude didn't look like a guy who was scared of anything. But then I figured, maybe he didn't want anyone seein' him with a black girl—"
"Jaycee was black?"
"As black as the darkest night. Seriously, I never seen no one that black. So, he tells me that he'd pay me good money if I bring her to a certain motel outside of the city but to keep it on the down-low with her 'cause he wanted to surprise her. He told me when he wanted to see her, the motel name and the room number. Told me there'd be a key waitin' for me at the desk and to bring her upstairs. Then, I was to go back outside and one of the guys with red hair who was in the limo would give me my money."
"None of this seemed a little freaky to you?"
"Oh, shit. Last week, I had a guy tell me to put on his mother's dress and then he nursed on my tit while he made me sing 'Three Blind Mice.' It's all freaky!"
Par for the course, Jane figured. "Go on," Jane insisted.
"I needed the cash. So, I agreed. If I'd have known…" Lilith shook her head as her eyes welled up.
Jane put her hand on the girl's arm. "What happened?"
"I did like he asked me to. I told Jaycee that there was this rich guy who wanted a date with only her. She was a little nervous but she liked the idea that someone thought she was special. So we drove down to the motel. And like Mr. Ramos said, the key was waitin' at the front desk. Room 170—"
"170?" Jane repeated, noting that damn seventeen again.
"Yeah. I take her up there and we go into the room. There was a vase on a table filled with dozens of narcissus. They were beautiful. It made the room smell real sweet. But when we looked on the bed, there was a guy passed out but it wasn't Mr. Ramos."
"How do you know he was passed out?"
"'Cause we tried to wake him up but he was wasted. His eyes would open but nobody was home, you know?" Tears fell from Lilith's eyes. "I should have never left her there. But she said she was okay. So, I walked out. I went downstairs and just like Mr. Ramos said, there was one of the red haired guys from the limo…the one with the weird cherry mark on his hand? He handed me a fat envelope and told me to leave. I got in my car and drove home. That's when I counted the money. I couldn't believe it. Seventeen hundred bucks. I was rich."
Jane had to check herself momentarily to make sure she wasn't dreaming.
Lilith reached out to Jane. "But then…the next day, I watch the news and I hear about this dead working girl who they found cut up in a Limon motel…with her head split open…"
Jane was staggered. "Hang on. You're talking about Harlan Kipple?"
"Yeah. When they showed his photo on the TV, I realized he was the guy passed out on the bed." She leaned closer to Jane. "He didn't kill nobody! Guaranteed. He couldn't lift his eyelid, let alone a knife! He didn't even have a knife on him!"
"How do you know?"
"We wanted to check him out. See what his package looked like. We pulled back the covers. He was butt naked and there was no knife anywhere. Hand to God! Somebody set him up, just like I set up Jaycee!"
"How the fuck should I know? Bad shit happens to good people. But it's been eatin' at me ever since he got arrested and charged with murder. I couldn't sleep." She lowered her head. "I've never done nothin' in my life that's moral or good. And I figured maybe I could help him, you know? I didn't tell nobody what I was plannin' on doin'. I was goin' to Denver this morning and I was gonna tell whoever would listen to my story what I did and what I saw. And if they couldn't find who killed Jaycee, at least they could let that Kipple guy go free."
Jane waited. "Okay…so why are you now headed the opposite direction from Denver?"
"Didn't you hear what happened this mornin'?"
"No. I've been occupied."
"It was all over the news. I saw it on the other bus when we were drivin' to Denver. Harlan Kipple's lawyer took him to a hospital to get his heart checked out. And he escaped!"
Jane quickly recalled the muted TV in the Quik Mart and Kipple's face on the screen. "Wait a second. If someone is truly innocent, they don't escape. They talk to their lawyer. They build their case—"
"Hey, I ain't too smart, but this much I know: I don't think he's runnin' from the cops," Lilith said succinctly.
"Who's he running from? Ramos?"
"Maybe. Harlan knows he didn't kill Jaycee. He knows he was set up. Maybe he was threatened. Maybe he was supposed to die in that motel room? I'm sure as drugged up as he was, he doesn't remember anything that happened in that room, but somewhere down deep," she looked off to the side, lost in thought, "somehow he knows…in here?" She pointed to her heart. "Just like I know in that same place. It's a knowing. I should have had a knowing when I took Jaycee up to that room. She'd be alive today."
A million thoughts raced through Jane's head. "This Ramos guy only wanted Jaycee. You said she was new in town so why did he choose her specifically?"
Lilith shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know."
"Why would Ramos want to kill her? And why set up Harlan Kipple for the hit?"
"Hey! Which one of us is the cop here? I don't have a fuckin' clue." She moved closer to Jane. "But I do know one thing. I haven't felt like I've been totally alone since I met Ramos in the back of that limo."
"The red haired guy in the black suit?" Lilith nodded apprehensively. "You think he's following you?"
"I know he is. About a week ago, outside of my place, there was a black sedan and the driver's window was cracked just enough that I could see red hair." Lilith grabbed hard onto Jane's jacket sleeve. "Whoever 'they' are, they gotta get rid of us who know about the murder. They took care of Harlan and got him in prison for it. But now that he's jumped, they're gonna go after him. I'm the only loose string left in this mess." She let go of Jane's arm. "I really did want to go to Denver and talk to a cop and make it right for Harlan. And even though I chickened out, you're a pretty good second choice right now." Lilith turned to the window as if she sensed someone standing outside.
"What is it?"
"It's weird. Even when I can't see him, he's in my head."
"In your head?"
She clutched the sleeve of Jane's leather jacket again. "Please don't think I'm crazy when I say that! It's the only way I can describe it. It's like…he's following me in my head." Lilith tapped the center of her forehead. Her eyes pleaded with Jane. "I'm scared to death. Can you please help me?"
Jane felt for the kid. She believed everything she said. More questions beat around in Jane's brain but her thought process was quickly hijacked by that overwhelming stench she smelled when she first got on the bus. Within seconds, Jane felt her gut seizing and ready to eject every last pine nut she'd ingested. She held her belly, trying to abate the nausea.
"You okay?" Lilith asked, concerned.
"You seriously can't smell that?" Jane asked, as her tongue began to tingle.
"No. I can't. What's goin' on?"
Suddenly, Jane recognized the same muscular thickness press against her that she'd felt back at the Quik Mart. There was urgency in the air; a million pinpoint spikes of electrical energy erupting at once. Jane could swear she felt her ass being pushed out of her seat. A wave of nausea hit hard. She rested a reassuring hand on Lilith's arm. "I'll be right back. I'm gonna be sick," she hurriedly said, grabbing her bag from the Quik Mart and booking it off the bus.
Jane tore into the nearby field with the dried stands of grass and large rocks. Ducking behind a sizeable boulder, she emptied every last ounce of her stomach contents onto the barren ground. As much as she used to get drunk and bear the consequences the next day, Jane never recalled being this sick, this fast. She tried to stand up but her knees gave out instantly. A strange ringing assaulted her ears, soft at first, then loud and unforgiving. For several moments, the world seemed to stop. She felt suspended in an unearthly cloak that protected her. When Jane emerged from that place, her head spun. She tried to stand up again, but she was forced back on her knees. The ground pulsed beneath her.
Still half outside of herself, she turned her head toward the frontage road and watched as the door on the black Anubus coach closed and the bus moved forward. Jane tried to yell and raise her arm but that damned heavy presence subdued her, preventing any sound from exiting her mouth. She watched helplessly as the bus rolled another hundred feet. Suddenly, a crimson flare detonated from the center of the undercarriage. Another ignition quickly burst in the rear followed by the final one in the front. In a millisecond, a cataclysmic, shock-and-awe explosion broke into the morning air as the bus blasted toward the sky. Shrapnel and blazing body parts rained down on the pavement, igniting small fires in the dried brush that skirted the road.
Jane covered her head and tucked her body as tightly as she could against the boulder. The hellish scene came to an uneasy rest within a minute. By then, a cluster of people ran out of the nearby depot and convenience store. The odd ringing in Jane's ears vanished, replaced by the hysterical screams and warnings to "stay back" from the terrified spectators.
Jane smelled the same sickly stench that sent her off the bus and into the field. But this time, she connected to where she'd smelled it before. It was the stink of decomposing bodies that she'd unfortunately grown used to at homicide scenes. Her senses had been so dulled by the sickening odor that when the aroma was outside of its deathly orbit, she couldn't pin it down. But crouching in that field with the burning chunks of debris smoldering against the human sacrifices, Jane realized that for some unknown reason, she sensed the tragedy before it happened. She even saw it in their faces—that ghostly, grey pallor that dwelled over the passengers minutes before their untimely death.
But there was something else. And that something still hovered to the side.
The small crowd of people moved around the debris field, some in shock, others calling on their cell phones for help. Jane grabbed her bag from the Quik Mart and warily stood up. A seat from the bus sat in the brush about twenty feet in front of her, engulfed in flames. Jane stared through the heat waves and spotted a black sedan parked across the highway, away from the wreckage. Leaning against the vehicle, was a tall, thin man in a dark suit with flaming red hair. His eyes, shaded with dark sunglasses, observed the scene with no emotion but appeared to vigilantly scrutinize the onlookers. Even from the distance between them, Jane noted the telltale, glaring, red mark on the guy's right hand that Lilith had recounted. For a moment, Jane could almost feel his thoughts. It was crazy, she said to herself. But just as Lilith confessed to her, it felt as though he was trying to worm his way into Jane's head. The hovering presence near her moved closer, offering an unspoken warning.
Death surrounded her. Reverberations of regret, terror and shock lingered in the blackened air as the discarnate souls struggled to make sense of the void between worlds. Jane snuck a suspicious eye toward the red haired man. Oddly, at that moment, death felt like a safer option.
She withdrew her wallet from her jacket pocket, removing her driver's license. Jane waited until the man turned, got into his black sedan and drove north on the frontage road. As she was programmed to do, she caught and memorized his license plate: AGA 171.
She skirted the burning wreckage until she came to a small spot in the grass that was untouched by the fire. There, she dropped her driver's license, face-up, making sure it would be easily seen. Crossing onto the frontage road, Jane headed south, a dead woman walking into the abyss.