Jewel jerked her arm free. She sprinted toward the blacktop, but days in the shed with little food left her weak. A whimper left her mouth as footsteps pounded the pavement behind her. A hand grabbed her hair. She skidded to a stop, her scalp screaming. Or maybe that was her voice.
Tears streamed down her face as the man led her back to the truck by the hair. The second man was rolling the rear door up.
The driver said something in Spanish. Jewel didn’t understand the words, but the shove to the middle of her back got the message across. Resigned, she turned to the open back of the truck, reached for the bumper, and hauled herself up. The cargo area was dark, but moonlight slanted inside. Jewel squinted. Figures lined the sides of the truck. She counted four thin, dirty, and shivering girls.
The driver climbed up beside her. He gripped her arm and led her to the side of the truck. He handcuffed her to a metal pole affixed to the floor of the truck. Horror slid over her like a layer of greasy sweat. Jewel put her back to the wall and slid to the floor. The metal was cold against her bare skin. Dressed in only a tank top and short shorts, she shivered. She hugged her knees. Sobs bubbled into her throat.
The interior was dark, but whenever they passed under a light, a small amount of light filtered through vents high on the truck’s walls. She swallowed and hitched her breath. She turned to the girl next to her. Black eyes, hopeless and sunken, stared out of a gaunt face. The girl was about the same age as Jewel. Dark hair fell in a tangled mess to her chin.
“Do you know where we’re going?” Jewel asked.
The girl shook her head and lifted a bony shoulder. “Does it matter?”
Jewel thought that it did, but she kept her mouth shut. The truck lurched over a bump and made a turn. Jewel braced herself by grabbing the pipe behind her. The vehicle sped up. The ride smoothed out, and she guessed they had hit the interstate.
The girl next to her stared at the floor. In her eyes, Jewel saw no trace of the terror that filled her own body to the point of bursting. She scanned the rest of the girls. They slumped, bodies limp. Two slept, awkwardly hunched against their neighbors. No fight left in any of them. No will to live. Nothing. They were empty. The girl across from her stroked a very pregnant belly and hummed softly.
This will be me if I don’t get away.
But with every mile of highway that passed under the wheels of the truck, her chances at freedom ebbed away. For the first time Jewel thought that maybe it would have been better if Mick had killed her. Dying of thirst in the shed might have been a better end than what awaited her at the end of this journey. She thought of all the things she’d been forced to do over the last six months. Could she do this for years and years? Or was she better off dead?
Moving in, Brody caught the punch early, wrapped both hands around the thick wrist, and twisted the biker’s hand into a wristlock. Applying pressure, he forced Mr. Big onto his knees. Then Brody angled his body to keep the biker’s two friends in his line of sight.
“Help me out, assholes,” Mr. Big called. His buddies lunged toward Brody.
He swung around to use Big’s body as a barrier. The friends split up, circling around to attack Brody from either flank. Shit. Shit. Shit. The one on the left reached into his back pocket. The overhead light gleamed off a knife blade.
Brody dropped Big’s wrist and backed up to gain distance. He reached for his gun. Before the barrel cleared the holster, something moved in Brody’s peripheral vision. A cue stick arced through the air. Crack! The end struck the biker’s knife hand. The weapon hit the floor and slid across the wide planks.
Hannah stepped out of the shadow. She held the cue stick in a wide grip with both hands. The biker lunged at her. Twisting the staff, she caught him across the temple with the tip. His knees buckled, and he face-planted on the floor. Man number two moved toward her.
No! Brody’s vision tunneled.
“Watch out!” Brody cleared his gun from the holster, but the only man he had a clear line on was Mr. Big, who was climbing to his feet. The huge biker stood between Brody and the man threatening Hannah. “Freeze! Police!”
Mr. Big raised both hands in the air. Not helping.
“Get on the floor!” Brody circled around. Fear gripped his insides. Why didn’t she stay outside? She was going to get hurt.
Her gaze was focused as she spun to face the new threat. She turned the stick ninety degrees to vertical and whipped the butt end upward right between the second man’s legs. Shock saucered his eyes. He dropped to his knees, clutching his groin with both hands, and went over like a pine tree.
Stunned, Mr. Big froze halfway to the floor. “That was hot.”
“Holy crap,” Todd said from the doorway.
Sirens wailed. The door opened, and two uniforms came in. Brody holstered his gun and circled his finger in the air around the three bikers. “Handcuffs all round.”
Officer Lance Kruger cuffed Mr. Big and took the arrest information from Brody.
“I’ll write up a report in the morning,” Brody said.
“We’ve got this, Brody.” Lance heaved one of the bikers to his feet. “Just take care of Chet.”
“Thanks.” Brody watched the biker limp away.
He turned back to Chet. His friend hadn’t moved. He was staring at Hannah with respect. Clutched in his fingers was the broken base of the tumbler. Light glinted off the shiny points of glass, and blood dripped from Chet’s hand to the floor. Blood pooled in fat drops at Chet’s feet.
“Looks like you cut yourself.” Brody started toward him.
Chet lifted his hand and drew his brows together. “I didn’t even feel that.”
Brody didn’t like the confused cast to Chet’s eyes. “You must have crushed the glass in your hand. Maybe you should lay off the steroids.”
But Chet wasn’t listening. He turned his hand over and stared at the palm.
“You’re bleeding all over the floor. How about you put down that glass before you make a bigger mess?” Brody asked.
Chet took the glass in his uninjured hand and poised the sharp tip over his opposite wrist. “Two inches north and I wouldn’t have to worry about any of this shit anymore.” A wistful look passed over his face.
Brody swallowed. His throat went dry as a sandbox. He’d been sweating from his altercation with the bikers, but his skin went clammy at Chet’s suicidal reference. “Don’t talk like that.”
“It’s her this time. You know that, right?” Chet’s lack of inflection was equally alarming. He was losing it.
Brody shook his head. “No. I won’t know anything until Thursday. I know the waiting feels impossible, but I need you to hold it together just a little longer.”
In truth, Chet could never be whole again. He was already as broken as the glass in his hand. His daughter’s disappearance and wife’s death had shattered him until all that was left was a ruined shell. How much longer could he hang on? How much grief could a person handle?
Chet shook the tumbler at Brody. “I saw her hair. Her clothes. It’s her.”
“So you’re basing the identification of a woman on the fact that she’s brunette and is wearing a New York T-shirt in the state of New York?” There were other similarities as well, but Brody wasn’t going to bring any of them up. Logically, the chance that the body was Teresa was small, but if a doctor says the odds a tumor is cancerous are five percent, no one focuses on the ninety-five. “You know the chances are far greater that it isn’t her. She hasn’t been near Scarlet Falls in years. All we have are a couple of coincidences. If you were working this case, you would never make assumptions on this little information.”
“Cops don’t believe in coincidences.” His craggy face cracked. A tear slid into the wrinkles below one eye as grief drowned his temper.
Brody softened his voice. His heart broke for his friend. In the last few years, Chet had lost everything. “How about you put that glass down?”
“OK, Brody. You win. This time.” Chet sighed, and his chest deflated like a tire with a puncture. He set the tumbler on the pool table. He turned his hand over as if seeing it for the first time. “Wow. That’s a nasty cut.”
“It is. Come on. We’ll get that taken care of.”
Chet frowned. He pressed a fist to the center of his chest and burped. “That’s prolly a good idea.”
“OK, you ready then?”
“Yup.” Chet lurched forward. Brody caught him, looping an arm over his shoulders to steady the older man.
But Chet straightened suddenly. “Hey, blondie.”
Leaning on the wall, Hannah rolled the pool cue between her palms. “I’m Hannah Barrett. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Chet slurred. “She with you, Brody?” He waved his loose hand. Blood droplets flew through the air.
“She is,” Brody said.
“Since when?” Chet’s feet tangled, and his body sagged.
Brody hefted him higher. “Since none of your business.”
With a glance at the glass on the green felt, Hannah set the long stick next to it. She grabbed a cloth napkin from a nearby table and wrapped it around Chet’s bleeding hand.
Brody half carried the older cop through the bar. Hannah opened the rear door. She put a hand on the back of his head to keep him from striking the roof of the car. He half fell into the seat and curled on his side. His emotions had run out of steam. Hannah made a futile effort to buckle the seat belt, but Chet couldn’t stay upright. She gave up.
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