10 months later
Battle Ridge, Wyoming, didn’t look like much. Carlin Reed pulled her faded red Subaru into a parking space in front of an empty store and looked around. There probably wouldn’t be any jobs here, but she’d ask around anyway. She’d found work in some of the damnedest places, doing things that she’d never before have considered. Work was work, money was money, and she’d learned not to be picky. She wasn’t above doing yard work, washing dishes, or just about anything else as long as it didn’t involve prostituting herself. Her first attempt at mowing a lawn on a riding mower had been something worthy of a clip on YouTube, but she’d learned.
From what she could see, Battle Ridge had fallen on hard times. Her atlas gave the population as 2,387, but the atlas was six years old, and from what she had seen driving in, she doubted Battle Ridge supported that many residents now. She’d passed empty houses, some with “For Sale” signs that had been up so long they’d become dingy and weather-beaten, and empty stores with “For Sale or Lease” notices in the windows. Here in the West it would still be considered a fair-sized town, especially in a state the size of Wyoming with a grand total population of half a million people. Nevertheless, the reality was that half the buildings around her were standing empty, which meant she’d likely be moving on.
Not right this minute, though. Right now, she was hungry.
Not surprisingly, traffic was light. Hungry or not, Carlin sat in the dusty four-wheel-drive SUV and through her dark sunglasses carefully studied everything around her, every vehicle, every person. Caution had become second nature to her. She hated losing the unconscious freedom and spontaneity she’d once known, but looking back she could only marvel at how unaware she’d been, how vulnerable.
The level of her vulnerability might change depending on circumstances, but she was damned if she’d add in the factor of not being aware. She’d already noted that the license plates of the cars and trucks parked on each side of the street were all from Wyoming. There was little chance her movements could have been anticipated, since she hadn’t known she’d be stopping here, but she still checked.
Two buildings down on the right was a café, The Pie Hole; three pickups were parked in front even though two o’clock in the afternoon wasn’t exactly a prime mealtime. The name of the café amused her, and she wondered about the person who had come up with it, whether a quirky sense of humor or a don’t-give-a-damn attitude was behind the choice. Her amusement was momentary, though, and she returned to studying her surroundings.
Directly behind her was a hardware store, another small cluster of vehicles was parked in front of it. To the left was a general store, a Laundromat, and a feed store. A block back she’d passed a small bank, and beside it had been a post office. Down the street she could see a gas station sign. There would probably be a school, and maybe people from fifty miles around drove their kids here. Was the town big enough to support a doctor or a dentist? To her, it seemed like a good deal: a thousand or more patients, and no competition. A person could do worse.
After she’d watched for a few minutes, she settled back and watched some more, waiting for that inner sense to tell her when she’d been patient long enough. She’d learned to listen to her own instincts.
The normalcy seeped into her bones. There was nothing frightening here, nothing unusual going on. She got her baseball cap from the passenger seat, pulled it on, and grabbed her road atlas and hooded TEC jacket before getting out of the Subaru. Though it was summer, the air was cool. The TEC was very lightweight, just a couple layers of nylon, but it had so many pockets that it had actually taken her days to locate all of them. If she had to run, everything she needed was in those pockets: ID, money, a throwaway cellphone—with the battery removed and stored in yet another pouch, a pocket knife, a small LED flashlight, even a couple of ibuprofen and some protein bars. Just in case. Seemed as if these days she surrounded herself with “just in case” items and scenarios; she was aware and prepared.
She hit the lock button on the remote, and slipped the key and remote into her right front jean pocket, then headed toward the little café; her leggy stride covered the distance at a fast clip, just one more detail about her that had changed during the past year. Once, she’d never gone anywhere in a hurry; now her instinct was to move, to get from A to B, get her business accomplished, then move on. While it was true that a rolling stone gathered no moss, she wasn’t worried about getting mossy; more to the point, a moving target was harder to hit.
Still, when she reached the café door, her own reflection startled her. Baseball cap, long blond hair in a ponytail, sunglasses—when had she acquired the whole Sarah Connor–Terminator vibe? When had she become someone she barely recognized?
The answer to that was easy: the moment she’d realized Brad was trying to kill her.
She opened the door of The Pie Hole; a bell over the door sang as she walked in. Stepping to the side, she took a moment to do a fast assessment, looking for another exit—just in case—evaluating the three men currently riding the stools at the bar counter, their legs spread and boot heels hooked on the railings as if they were on horseback—again, just in case. There was no clearly marked rear door she could see from her vantage point, though there was one door with a plain “Keep Out” sign. Could be a storage closet, or an exit. She could also assume there was a back door off the kitchen, though, and maybe a window in the bathroom. Not that she’d need either, during this short stop.
The three men at the counter evaluated her right back, and she found herself tensing. She didn’t like attracting notice. The more she stayed under the radar, the less likely it was that Brad would be able to track her. It was reassuring that there was nothing remotely familiar about any of the men, and that their clothing proclaimed them local. She’d gotten good at judging what was local—wherever “local” happened to be—and what wasn’t. These men fit right in, from their creased hats down to the worn heels of their boots.
She shouldn’t have come in here. Too late she realized that any stranger would stand out in a place this small, where the locals might not all personally know one another, but they’d certainly recognize who belonged and who didn’t. She didn’t.
She thought about leaving, but that would attract even more attention. Besides, she was hungry. The best thing to do was the normal thing: sit down and order. She’d eat, pay the bill, then move on down the road.
The café itself was a smallish, pleasant-looking place, gray linoleum floor, white walls, an honest-to-God jukebox against the back wall, red booths along the street-front windows, and a smattering of small round tables in the center of the place. The counter, complete with a couple of clear pie cases and an old-fashioned cash register, ran the length of the right side of the room. A pretty brunette in a pink waitress uniform stood behind the counter, talking to the three men with the ease of long acquaintance; like the men, she’d glanced up at Carlin’s entrance, and even through her sunglasses Carlin caught the brilliant glint of strikingly pale eyes, making her alter her grade of the waitress’s looks from pretty to something more. Maybe those eyes were why the three cowboys were camping on those stools, rather than the lure of food. Good. If they were flirting with the waitress, they were less likely to pay a lot of attention to anyone else.
The last booth was positioned against a solid wall; Carlin chose that one and instinctively slid in so she was facing the doorway . . . just in case. The plastic menu was inserted between the napkin holder and the salt and pepper shakers; she removed her cap and sunglasses and grabbed the menu, more from curiosity than anything else, because all she wanted was coffee and pie. She’d get something to eat, and use the break to study her map of Wyoming, figure out exactly where this little country road went, and pick a place to stop for a while.
She’d been so sure Brad wouldn’t bother to follow her to Dallas. She’d been wrong, disastrously wrong. Now when she stopped she took extra precautions. No one got her social security number. There could be no bank account, no W-2, damn it; somehow she had to fall off the radar, something that was increasingly hard to do with everything computerized. He’d bragged about his computer skills and she’d hoped that was all it was—bragging—but evidently not. She didn’t know how he’d found her in Dallas, but he had, and she’d barely made it out alive. Jina hadn’t.
If she let herself think about what had happened her stomach would knot in panic, and she’d feel as if she were strangling on her own breath, so she’d pushed the memory away and focused on simply moving, doing what was necessary to stay alive. He’d try again, but she was damned if she’d make it easy for him. Somehow she’d figure out what to do, a way to outsmart him, set a trap—something. She couldn’t live like this forever.
But for now, she couldn’t stay in any one place too long. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough cash to just keep driving around the country on a permanent road trip, so she&rs...