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Renee Esterhaus peered out of room fourteen of the Flamingo Motor Lodge at the intersection of Highway 37 and the middle of nowhere, shivering a little in the crisp October air. She cast a nervous glance left and right down the sidewalk in front of the other rooms, then turned her gaze to the gravel parking lot and the dense pine forest beyond it. Everything seemed quiet. No suspicious-looking people. No cars she hadn’t seen before. No helicopters circling overhead, ready to drop a SWAT team.
Nothing but the evening breeze rustling through the trees.
She slid out the door, leaving it ajar, then scurried to the snack machine in the breezeway between her room and the motel office, telling herself to calm down, that no matter what she’d done, the SWAT team thing was pretty unlikely.
She plugged two quarters into the machine and was getting ready to insert the third when the skin prickled on the back of her neck. She froze, the quarter poised at the slot, then swallowed hard and glanced over her shoulder.
She let out the breath she’d been holding. Her imagination was getting the better of her.
If only her old Toyota hadn’t chosen the worst possible moment of her life to fall apart, she wouldn’t be stuck overnight in this ratty little motel swearing that someone was looking over her shoulder. She prayed that the mechanic at the Mobil station down the street would keep his promise and have a new fuel pump installed first thing in the morning. Then she’d be back on the road again, one step closer to New Orleans, Louisiana, and one step farther away from Tolosa, Texas.
New Orleans. She didn’t know why she’d chosen that city, except that it had a lot of restaurants so she could easily get a job, and the dark mystery that surrounded it meant she could probably lose one identity and pick up another. Of course, she had no idea how a person went about becoming someone else, but she couldn’t think about that now. She’d get her car, get on the road, and figure out the rest later.
She shoved the quarter in, pushed a button, and her dinner fell to the bottom of the machine—a package of peanut butter crackers. She leaned over and plucked it out of the slot. As she stood up again, an arm snaked around her waist and something cold and hard jabbed against the underside of her jaw.
“Missed your court date, sweet thing.”
In a blinding rush, she felt herself being spun around and slammed against the snack machine. That cold, hard thing—a gun—now rested against her throat. And right in her face was the biggest, ugliest, most menacing-looking man she’d ever seen. He had to be pushing fifty, but not an ounce of muscle had gone to fat. His clean-shaven head, death-theme tattoos, and single gold earring gave him a sinister look that bordered on the psychotic.
“Wh-who are you?” she stammered.
A cunning smile curled his lips. “Max Leandro. Bond enforcement officer. And your luck just ran out.”
It took a moment for Renee to comprehend his words, and when she did, a huge rush of panic swept through her. She’d been watching out for cops, who she assumed would announce their presence with bullhorns and bloodhounds. The last thing she expected was to be nabbed by a two-ton bounty hunter who looked as if he could bench-press a Buick.
He shoved his gun into the waistband of his jeans, yanked her wrists together in front of her, and snapped on a pair of handcuffs. He half led, half dragged her around the corner to his old Jeep Cherokee parked on the west side of the motel.
“No!” Renee said, trying to pull her arm away. “Please don’t do this! Please!”
“Oh, but I’ve got to. See, they’re holding a party at the county jail, and your name is at the top of the guest list.”
“Wait a minute!” She looked back over her shoulder. “What about my stuff? You can’t just leave—”
“Sure I can.”
He shoved her into the passenger seat and slammed the door. He slid into the driver’s seat, lit a Camel, and hit a button on the console. Heavy metal poured out the speakers, the volume so loud that little green men could have heard it on Mars. Then he peeled out of the motel parking lot.
Renee stared at the dashboard, feeling shock and disbelief and a whole lot of anxiety. In less than two hours she’d be back in the hands of the Tolosa police, and they wouldn’t be letting her out on bail again.
She glared at Leandro. “How did you find me?”
“By being the best, sweet thing.”
Damn. Why couldn’t she have been chased by a bounty hunter who’d graduated at the bottom of his class?
She tested the handcuffs with a furtive jerk or two, found them unyielding, then took stock of her surroundings. The door handle had been removed from the passenger side of the front seat. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see the back doors had gotten the same treatment. It appeared that plan A—leaping out of a moving vehicle—was not going to be an option.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” she told him, putting plan B into action. “I’m innocent. You don’t want to take an innocent person to jail, do you?”
He made a scoffing noise. “Innocent, my ass. You got caught with the loot and the weapon.”
“The old lady who was robbed said the perp was a blonde woman.”
“There are thousands of blondes—”
“She picked you out of a lineup.”
“I don’t know how—”
“Then there’s your record.”
Renee sat up suddenly. “How did you know about that?”
Leandro gave her a smug look. “I have ways.”
“I was a juvenile. Those records are supposed to be sealed!”
“The records are sealed. But cops’ lips aren’t. When you got dragged down to the station on the armed robbery rap, that headful of blonde hair of yours spurred a few memories.” Leandro grinned. “Shouldn’t pour beer on a cop’s shoes, Renee. They don’t tend to forget that.”
Oh, God. Renee buried her head in her hands as that nasty little memory came flooding back. She was a bit fuzzy on the details of that night, except that she’d gotten very irate when a certain cop suggested that perhaps she and her friends shouldn’t be wandering around downtown at one o’clock in the morning, underage and dead drunk. She’d told him what she thought of his assessment of the situation by upending her Bud Light all over his spit-polished shoes. That had bought her a ticket to the county jail. Again.
“How could he remember that?” Renee said. “It was over eight years ago!”
“I guess you’re unforgettable, sweet thing. Particularly when you add in the rest of your record. Shoplifting, vandalism, joyriding—”
“I’ve been clean since then!”
“Once a criminal, always a criminal.”
She wished she had a nickel for every time she’d heard that, even though she knew it wasn’t true.
When she was seventeen, and had gotten caught riding with her boyfriend in a stolen car, the judge finally decided he’d had enough and tossed her into a juvenile detention center. Her mother had sobered up just long enough to attend the hearing, then went home, pulled out her bottle of Jim Beam, and toasted the judge for finally making somebody else responsible for the daughter she’d barely bothered to raise.
After she’d spent about three months in detention, the pain of incarceration became clear to Renee. But even though she’d seriously started to question the wisdom of a life of crime, she was still way too cool to let them see her sweat. With her attitude still in question, she’d been invited to spend the day at a “scared-straight” program, complete with twelve cussing, hard-core, screaming female convicts whose job it was to convince her and half a dozen other wayward teenage girls that prison was the last place they wanted to be. It had been a lesson Renee had never forgotten, and when they finally released her from the detention center, she promised herself she’d walk through hell if that was what it took to keep from having to go through that experience again.
It had been a long trip up from rock bottom, but she’d managed to make the climb, even when the first step had been a waitress job at Denny’s. Her juvenile record was history—or at least, it had been, until some cop with a savant-like memory decided to open his big mouth.
“There’s no way I could have committed that robbery,” she told Leandro. “I can’t stand the sight of guns. How could I possibly—”
“You’re wasting your breath. I don’t give a damn whether you’re guilty or not. I get paid either way.”
Renee gave a little snort of disgust. “Yeah. Charming profession you’ve got there.”
“It beats robbing convenience stores.”
“I told you I didn’t do it!”
He made a scoffing noise. “That’s what they all say.”
Renee wanted to beat her head against the dashboard. This guy wouldn’t know innocence if it bit him on the nose. She turned and stared out the passenger window, watching the miles between her and incarceration slip away like sand through her fingers.
On the day the robbery happened, she’d been offered the assistant manager’s job at Renaissance, a four-star Italian restaurant with upscale clientele and an honest-to-God wine cellar. About to burst with excitement, she’d called her best friend Paula Merani to celebrate, only to remember that she was away on one of those weekend-for-two packages at a local hotel with her no-good boyfriend, Tom Garroway. So Renee ordered dinner from China Garden and ate it while she flipped around on the tube and thought about all the things she was going to do as assistant manager to help Renaissance get that elusive fifth star.
Then she decided her wonderful new job entitled her to splurge in the finest way possible—with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia—so she grabbed her purse and headed to the twenty-four-hour Kroger. A cop pulled her over because her taillight was out, and she couldn’t believe it when he extracted twelve hundred dollars and a semiautomatic pistol from the back seat of her car. To her utter amazement and subsequent horror, those items pointed to a convenience store robbery in the area only hours before. She didn’t have a clue how they’d gotten there. The arresting officer had been unmoved by her profession of innocence, and before she knew it, she’d landed in jail.
She met with the best defense attorney her savings could buy, a munchkin of a man who wore a tie wider than his chest and had a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shaving cut on his neck. When his message seemed to be, “We both know you’re guilty but I have to defend you anyway,” Renee had a flashback to the walk she’d taken down a long row of prison cells with those convicts leering and jeering at her. That eight-hour descent into hell was a big part of the reason she’d built a respectable life and, ironically, it was the reason she was running now. Unfortunately, a big, bad bounty hunter with a heart the size of a pea had tracked her down and, innocent or not, she was going back to jail.
Renee glanced around the Jeep. Being driven to jail in this vehicle was like riding to hell in a New York subway car. A dozen cigarette butts littered the floor of the front seat, mingling with a handful of Milky Way wrappers and a copy of Muscle magazine. In the back, file folders stuffed to overflowing were scattered on the seat, interspersed with piles of crumpled fast-food sacks. It smelled like a dumpster.
“This car is a pigsty,” she muttered, hating Leandro’s vehicle, hating his music, hating his choice of occupation. Hating him.
Leandro took a long drag off his cigarette and blew out the smoke, adding to the carcinogenic cloud already saturating the car. “My cleaning lady didn’t come this week. You just can’t get good help anymore.”
“That smoke is burning my eyes. Think what it’s doing to your lungs.”
“Turning them black as night, I imagine.”
“Ever think of quitting that nasty habit?”
“Never crossed my mind.”
“Would you mind putting it out?”
“Yes. I’d mind that very much.”
“Secondhand smoke’s a killer, you know. There was a story about it on 20/20 just last week.”
“Gee. Sorry I missed that.”
“There have actually been cases where smokers were taken to court for polluting other people’s air.”
“So sue me.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea. I bet there are at least a dozen nasty lawyers in Tolosa just dying to—”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” He took a huge, sucking drag off the cigarette, then ground it out in the ashtray. He tossed his half-smoked pack of Camels and his blue BIC into the console beside him and slammed the lid. “There. Happy?”
Not particularly. When it got right down to it, what difference did it make whether she died a slow death from lung cancer or threw away half her life in prison?
Then her stomach growled, which reminded her that she’d eaten next to nothing since she’d left Tolosa, which made her think of the only restaurant they were likely to encounter out there in the boondocks. Dairy Queen. She brightened a bit, not because of the food, but because that might be a dandy place to ditch a bounty hunter. Exactly how, she didn’t know. She’d have to figure that out when the time came, assuming she could get him to stop.
“I’m hungry,” she said.
“No problem. I hear the food in the county jail is five-star cuisine.”
Renee winced. She could see it now: a row of wrinkled old ladies wearing hair nets, slopping swill onto plastic trays.
“Would it kill you to pull into a drive-through?” She glanced into the back seat, crinkling her nose. “God knows it wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Sorry, sweet thing. Dousing the cigarette took me right to the limit of my hospitality.”
“What if I have to go to the bathroom?”
“What if you’re trying to get me to stop somewhere because you think it’s your only shot at getting away?”
Renee huffed disgustedly. “You’re a real jerk, you know that?”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling with delight. “I know.”
She glared at Leandro, then stared out the passenger window again, trying to hold on to her feelings of loathing and disgust because they were about the only things keeping her from melting into a sobbing, hysterical, emotionally distraught wreck. She wasn’t going to get out of this. Innocent or not, she was going to prison, where she’d spend the best years of her life pacing a six-by-eight cell, eating unidentifiable food, and trying to convince large, sexually ambiguous women that she did not want to be their girlfriend.
They topped a hill, and Renee saw a railroad crossing ahead. As they approached it, red lights began to flash and the gates started down. Leandro stomped on the gas to run the gates, but the car in front of him—a rusted-out Plymouth with a handicap insignia on its license plate—didn’t. Leandro screeched to a fishtailing halt, practically driving right up the Plymouth’s tailpipe. The gates fell into place, blocking the crossing. Renee looked left and right. No train was coming.
“Weave through the gates!” Leandro shouted, as if the other driver could hear him. He laid on his horn. The old guy looked into his rearview mirror, but his car stayed put. Leandro slammed his car into park and stepped out, leaving the door open and resting his arm against the top of the car to survey the situation. Renee glanced at the steering column, and her heart leaped with hope.
He’d left the key in the ignition. She might not be able to run faster than Leandro, but she was pretty sure she could drive faster. If he decided to go have a word with the guy in the Plymouth, then maybe—
“Move it!” Leandro shouted. “There’s no train!” He reached a hand into the car and laid on the horn again. The Plymouth didn’t budge.
“Shit. Probably got his hearing aid turned off.” Leandro moved away from the car and started to close the door. Renee held her breath, poised for attack. The moment the door clicked shut, she’d leap over the console, punch down the lock—
The door came back open. Leandro reached inside and jerked the keys from the ignition. He shook a finger at Renee. “Stay put. You hear me? I don’t want to have to chase you down.” He slammed the car door and stalked up to the Plymouth.
Renee slumped back in the passenger seat. What was she going to do now? She had only one way out of this car, and that was the driver’s door. But with Leandro looking back at her every few seconds, her window of opportunity was minuscule. If she ran, he’d drop her like a lion would a gazelle. Besides, this was the middle of nowhere, with no place to hide. She saw a little diner about a quarter mile up the road from the railroad tracks, but what good would that do her? Unless she could divert Leandro long enough to get a sizable head start, she didn’t stand a chance.
Then, just like that, it came to her. She sat up suddenly, her breath coming faster, her heart beating double time. Leandro’s bad habits just might be her salvation.
She dug through the console and extracted Leandro’s BIC lighter. She glanced out the windshield and saw him pointing wildly down the track, his mouth moving like crazy. But the old guy was a rock. He just sat there, probably quoting Amtrak disaster statistics, refusing to move an inch.
She reached into the back seat for one of the wadded-up fast-food sacks, the handcuffs straining against her wrists. Judging from the grease stains, Leandro’s favorite meal was a triple cheeseburger and a giant order of fries. Perfect.
She held the sack beneath the dashboard and flicked the lighter beneath it, shifting her gaze to Leandro every few seconds to make sure he was still reaming the old guy out. In moments the sack flamed. She tossed it onto the floor of the back seat, then reached for a couple of other sacks and tossed them on top of the burning one. The flames spread.
Renee put the BIC back in the console. At the same time she spied a key. Praying it unlocked the handcuffs, she plucked it out.
Just then Leandro gave up and started back toward the car. She stuffed the key into her pocket, shut the lid of the console, and stared at the dashboard, trying to look nonchalant. Behind her, another sack caught fire, then another, and another…
Leandro yanked open the door. “Old fart,” he muttered, climbing into the car. “He coulda made it. But no. He had to park his hemorrhoidal ass at the crossing the minute he saw a few red lights, and now the train’s coming. At the rate it’s moving, we’ll be sitting here for a week.”
Renee glanced down the track to see the train finally make an appearance. It chugged along like an overweight asthmatic at about fifteen miles per hour, its cars stretching down the track as far as she could see.
“They ought to jerk his driver’s license,” Leandro fumed. “If he even touches a set of car keys, he ought to be shot. And you can bet your ass I’d volunteer for the job.”
The burning sacks cracked and popped, but Leandro was so consumed with his loudmouthed trashing of anyone over age seventy that he didn’t notice. Renee waited, her heart beating madly. The flames grew. She waited another second, then another, and then…
“Fire!” She let out an ear-piercing squeal and pointed madly to the back seat. “Fire! The car’s on fire!”
Leandro snapped to attention and spun around, his eyes flying open wide. He put a knee in the driver’s seat, leaned over the back of the seat, and slapped at the burning sacks, only to pull away with a painful hiss, shaking his hand.
He leaped out and flung open the back door. While he was whacking away at the flames with a file folder, Renee scrambled over the console and out of the car—no small task with her wrists still handcuffed. The moment her feet hit pavement, she ran.
“Hey! Get back here!”
He took off after her. She was fewer than three strides ahead of him, and he made up the ground in a hurry. Alongside the old man’s car he reached for her arm and missed. Then he dove at her, his arms around her hips, and sent them both crashing to the road. Renee’s knees skidded across the pavement.
Ignoring the pain, she whipped around and smacked Leandro on the side of the head. He recoiled, cursing wildly, then fumbled around and managed to catch her wrists below the cuffs. He hauled her toward him until they were nose-to-nose, his eyes wild with anger and his teeth bared. A little foaming at the mouth and he’d look just like a rabid dog.
Renee smiled sweetly. “How do you like your barbecued Jeep? Well done?”
He spun back around. Smoke was pouring out the back car door. He could hang on to Renee, or he could put out the fire. He couldn’t do both.
With an anguished groan, he let go of Renee and jumped to his feet. He pointed down at her. “Stay there!”
As he hurried back to the burning vehicle he hollered at the old man, who gawked out the window of his car with his jaw hanging down to his chest. “Make sure she doesn’t get away!”
Renee leaped to her feet again, infused with hope. If Leandro had resorted to deputizing senior citizens, he probably wasn’t in complete control of the situation.
The train was less than twenty yards from the crossing. She wove through the gates, and in a single bounding leap, she flew over the tracks and landed on the other side. Seconds later the train filled the railroad crossing. The last thing she saw before it blocked her view was Leandro peeling off his tank top to whack away at the flames. Watching him go nuts over that wreck of a car was a beautiful sight, but she couldn’t hang around to bask in the moment.
She pulled the key out of her pocket, fumbled it into the handcuff lock, and held her breath. She twisted it a little and heard a tiny click. The right cuff fell open. Her luck was holding after all. She unlocked the left one, too, then threw the cuffs as far as she could on one side of the road and the key on the other.
Once the train passed, Leandro would be after her again—in his car if he managed to put out the flames, or on foot if it had completely gone up in smoke. Either way, his nasty attitude had already taken a turn toward the homicidal. If he nabbed her again, by the time he dumped her on the steps of the police station they’d have to use her dental records to identify her body.
Her first thought was to hop the train and let it carry her down the tracks, but while it was moving slowly, as trains went, its speed was still too great for such an arm-wrenching experience. If Leandro thought that was what she’d done, though, it might buy her a little time.
She turned and jogged toward the diner, praying some other means of escape would present itself, and fast. No matter what she had to do, she wasn’t going back to Tolosa.
No matter what she had to do.
End of Excerpt