Gallows Hill, West Virginia
Memories have a way of sneaking up and biting you in the ass when you least expect it.
Zeke Gregson tapped his breaks to slow his Jeep on the dark, icy road heading into Dead Man’s Bend. When he was sixteen, he’d taken this curve too fast and wrecked his first car. He hadn’t served eight years as a military police officer to end his life on a lonely road outside his hometown.
Bing Crosby belted out “White Christmas” on the radio. Not his favorite, but he wasn’t releasing his tight grip on the steering wheel under these road conditions to change the channel. He vowed he’d never miss another Christmas with this family.
Sweat slicked his palms, making his hand slip along the wheel’s vinyl surface. His whole body tensed, heart stuttering in his chest. Pumped the breaks. Swallowed the lump lodged tight in his throat and eased into the turn. His fingers tingled as adrenaline slowed, Dead Man’s Turn now in his review mirror. He rolled his shoulders.
A semi-truck cab, without a trailer in tow, swerved into the lane ahead of him coming off the unpaved road to Sunrise Pond.
Zeke’s headlights lit the truck’s rear bumper. No license plate. Not his jurisdiction. Not his issue. He was another schmo on the road, even if it irked him that the truck wasn’t compliant with West Virginia law.
Why would anyone be on a snow-covered gravel road in this weather? Nobody went to Sunrise Pond this time of year. It was a local favorite fishing hole in the summer, but downright dangerous to try to reach in the snow without a snowmobile.
Why would the cab be on a gravel road? Dumping oil? Cutting down a tree? Nothing had been strapped to the rear.
That familiar inkling—the one that tingled the back of his neck and spiked his curiosity—screamed something wasn’t right. Ignore it. A semi-truck’s cab in the middle of nowhere didn’t mean anything.
Yet, he couldn’t shake the nagging voice in his head that he should check it out. None of your business.
He could call Josiah Dickens, one of his neighbors and the lone detective in the county. All he had to do was pass along his observation. If Josiah was home. Most folks were heading out to meet up with family to celebrate the holiday.
This wasn’t his job. Hell, he didn’t have a job. What would it hurt to take a peek?
Ahead, the semi’s lights disappeared around the bend as Zeke pumped the breaks again, half-sliding to a stop. He was a civilian now. Nothing was down that abandoned road he needed to see.
It didn’t add up. He could use the semi-cab’s wide-tire path forged in the snow without getting himself stuck. He shifted into a lower gear, thankful his dad had put snow tires on before he’d gotten home. He lurched onto the road, chugging up the small hill, flipping on his high beams, and scanned the snow for anything that didn’t look like it belonged.
Was Barney’s Garage still open? Would he have cell reception if he needed a tow? He was headed toward the desolate area known as the National Radio Quiet Zone, the NRQZ. No cell phones. No Wi-Fi. No one for miles.
The semi’s tracks came to an abrupt end at the crest of a hill. Easing onto the plateau, he slipped into park, and turned off the diesel engine. He fished around in the glove compartment for a flashlight, turning it on to make sure it worked. He was glad he’d invested in the powerful military-grade LED equipment. Its batteries worked, despite the fierce cold.
Frigid wind whipped his ears as he stepped from the vehicle. He tugged his stocking cap lower. Pine boughs smacked against each other. An occasional crack sounded in the distance. Naked tree limbs, long divested of their lush summer leaves, waved like skeleton bones. Moonlight disappeared behind low-hanging gray clouds, making his flashlight’s beam and headlights his allies in the dark.
He trained the beam on the ground. One set of boot prints led him toward the front of his Jeep. Zeke compared his boot to the impression left behind. A little smaller than his, so the truck driver was shorter than Zeke’s six-two. When he reached the passenger-side door, another set of prints had jumped from the cab, making deep indentions into the snow. Heavier dude? An uneasiness built in his gut.
Snow glistened as he scanned the flashlight’s beam across the idyllic landscape. Clouds formed from his exhaled breaths.
Why would a semi-truck come out to a desolate road on Christmas Eve?
This was a stupid idea. He should be home, wrapping the laptop he’d bought his parents for Christmas. Mom would have made the dough for cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls by now. Nothing smelled better than freshly baked bread. His stomach growled and his mouth watered. If he was lucky, she’d have made his favorite sugar cookies, too.
A lump wrenched tight in his throat. He’d missed too many Christmases, birthdays, and family milestones.
What the hell was he doing? There wasn’t anything here but cold and snow.
He shook his head and tried to step away. His boot caught on something, throwing him a little off balance. He tried to wrench his foot free, but it was good and hooked. He twisted, focusing the flashlight onto his shoe.
A white hand with red fingers gripped his boot.
Adrenaline shot through his veins. Zeke gasped. “What the—?” He yanked his foot away.
He bent over and grabbed the hand. The reddened fingers squeezed in return.
Whoever it was, they were still alive and curled under a pile of snow. He scanned the surrounding area.
He pulled on the hand, noticing the wide band of purple, green, and yellow mottled flesh circling the wrist.
His gut churned. Who’d do this to another human being?
The arm was covered in a white, gauze-thin shirt. He turned the half-frozen person onto their back. He flicked the beam over a woman’s swollen and bruised face. One eye slit open, focusing on him, the other was swollen shut. Slushy snow matted her long, dark hair. He knelt beside her, brushing clumps of snow away from a face so swollen, he’d bet her own family wouldn’t recognize her.
Holy shit. He unzipped and removed his coat, and helped her sit up before wrapping it around her shoulders. “What’s your name? Who did this to you?” He opened his passenger door.
Six inches to the right and he would have driven over her.
He lifted her, placing her on the seat. Her bloodied and bruised lips moved, but no sound erupted from her throat. One glance at the red discoloration on her neck told him she’d probably been strangled. Had her attackers left her to die, or did they think she was already dead?
He pressed the lever to lean the seat back a bit and buckled her in. “Hang in there. You’re safe now. I’ll get you to the hospital.”
Was she whimpering from relief or fear? He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Zeke tucked her shoeless feet and the edges of her nightgown inside the car before closing the door. He popped the back hatch and pulled out a thermal blanket from his emergency road kit. Once behind the wheel, he tucked the blanket around her, enveloping her feet. The engine protested a moment before turning over. He cranked the heat on high.
“Here, have a drink of soda.” The watered-down, flat cola was all he had to offer, left over from a fast-food restaurant in Franklin.
He held the straw to her swollen, cracked, and bleeding lips. She tried to open her mouth. She moaned. Was her jaw broken?
“I’m so sorry. I wish I had a thermos of hot coffee.”
He used his finger to hold the liquid inside the straw. When he pulled the straw free, plastic against plastic made a dull squeak, making her jump. “Easy.” He poured the sweet liquid into the corner of her mouth. She coughed and sputtered, splattering fluid across his face.
“Don’t you dare die on me.”
He swiped a hand over his face. Blood. Too much blood. Memories assaulted his senses. Another’s blood and brain matter stuck to his face. Rusty stench. Sticky membranes. He gagged.
Not here. Not now. He shook his head, shoving the memory to the back of his mind. He shifted into reverse. What should have been a three-point turn, became a six-point turn terrified he’d careen over the ridge. He headed toward the main road as fast as he dared. It wouldn’t do them any good if he wound up in a ditch.
“Moan something. Tell me your name. Tell me anything. Please.”
Zeke had to keep his eye on the treacherous road. He tapped the brakes and glanced at her. She was still. Too still.
His hand shook as he checked for a pulse. It was weak, but it was still there.
Her one good eye focused on him. Could he blame her? What was she thinking? Was she afraid he’d hurt her, too? Even after seeing the horrors of war, he’d never imagined he’d see this kind of carnage near his hometown. Not like this.
“We’ll be there in a few minutes.” He wasn’t sure if the lie was to give her hope to hang on or to reassure himself she could live that long. It’d take at least thirty or more to reach the hospital in Franklin. “Just keep breathing. You’re strong. You can do this. If you live for anything, live for revenge.”
Zeke bounced his knee, watching some nature show about plants adapting to survive in the hospital’s waiting room. The same show repeated on a continual loop driving him insane, third time around.
He didn’t dare bug Mrs. Callum again, asking about the woman’s status. She’d promised once Doc was able, he’d hear. Until then, he was to keep his ass in a seat in the waiting room.
Detective Josiah Dickens, Pendleton County’s lone detective, and his old neighbor, entered through the automatic doors.
This can’t be good.
Josiah had been Zeke’s mentor and a friend of his dad’s. He was a short man, maybe five-six, with a rotund belly, bald head, and a smile that could warm any lost soul. He had no smile tonight.
“Hey, Josiah.” Zeke stood and shook his hand. “What brings you out here?”
“Heard you found a woman half frozen to death.”
“Yeah. I’m waiting for Doc Marrows to tell me how she’s doing.”
“Sit.” Josiah nodded to the blue chair he’d just emptied. “Well, see, I got a call a little bit ago.” He glanced over his shoulder, before occupying the chair next to him. “The young woman you brought in didn’t make it. Now I need to determine if it was a homicide.”
“She sure as hell didn’t beat herself to a bloody pulp and then dump her own body in a snowdrift.”
Josiah’s eyes had dulled over the years, but his mind remained sharp. “Why did you go up that hill?”
Zeke shifted his jaw. He’d never mentioned a hill. How did Josiah know? Maybe it was an assumption. There were plenty of hills in the area. All he’d told Doc Morrows when he’d arrived at the emergency room entrance was that he’d found the girl on the side of the road. Had someone seen him pull onto the highway? Did he know who the woman was? How would Josiah know details only he knew? “I don’t know. Gut instinct, I suppose.”
“Your dad told me you were looking for a job.”
He nodded. What? He wasn’t a suspect?
“Have you considered being a detective?”
Never. He looked at the double-doors leading to the emergency room.
“You want to find out who killed her?”
She’d died in his car while on his watch, and he didn’t even know her name. Did he want to know what happened? Did he want justice served for the asshole who did this? Hell, yeah.
Anyone who could destroy another human, discard them like trash, deserved to have the book thrown at them. They deserved nothing less than the death penalty. Too bad West Virginia abolished that law.
But Pendleton County didn’t need two detectives; there weren’t that many people to justify two salaries. “You looking to retire?”
“Yes, I am.” Josiah stared at the reception desk. “I need someone I can trust.” He clamped a hand on Zeke’s shoulder, shifting his gaze to look him in the eye. “I think you’re the right person to fill my shoes.”