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AFTER TWO DAYS ON THE road, getting lost, breaking
down and spending her remaining cash at McDonald's to quiet the kids during the final stretch of their trip, was it possible that Lia Pogue's luck could get any worse?
Her empty stomach gnawed as she watched the ambling approach of her second worst nightmare.
"Mom, you're crushing the map." Lia's ten-year-old son, Howie, tugged the gas station freebie out of her grip and refolded it with a pinched look of concentra-tion. He'd been giving directions from the shotgun seat since they'd crossed the Mackinac bridge into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, taking the job too seri-ously, as he did most tasks.
The cop circled Lia's idling car, slowing to study the back end. She didn't suppose he was admiring the vintage rust on the 1980 Impala they called "the Grudge" or the buckety-buck of a motor misfiring on its ancient pistons. Surreptitiously she rubbed her sweaty palms on her knee-length denim shorts, trying to keep the kids from seeing her nervousness. Was the uniform cop writing down her license plate number? What if it had already shown up on some sort of Most Wanted list?
That's not possible. Larry doesn't know we're goneyet.
"Mom?" warbled Sam from the backseat as her eyes followed the police officer's circuit. Because she knew what was at stake, she'd forgotten to act jaded. Her mascara-thickened lashes had widened in alarm.
"Everything's all right." Lia had repeated some va-riation of the phrase for the past few days. Longer, actually, but she didn't want to go there right now. She said it so often that the words came out even when it was clear that everything was wrong.
Everything except the most important fact: they were free.
Maybe not for long.
The cop tapped on her window.
She exhaled. "Don't talk," she told her kids before rolling down the glass. The Grudge had crank windows. For once, she was glad. She had something to do to distract herself from the tight ache wanting to burst out of her chest.
The officer tipped back his cap and peered into the car, taking in the jumble of discarded clothing, children's toys and fast-food trash that had accumu-there?"
"Yes, sir." Don't volunteer information. "Ya, well." He smiled, clearly a small-town cop because he didn't flinch when Lia reached down beside her, toward the seat. He was looking at the map clenched in her son's lap. "Gotchyerselves lost, eh?"
She sucked on the straw of Howie's Coke to wet her dry mouth. "Sort of."
"Whatcha looking for?" The neighborly cop leaned an arm on her car door. "I can give you directions to anyplace in the whole U.P."
He was young, blond and rather goofy-looking with a Barney Fife face that was all nose and Adam's apple with not much chin in between. His accent was even heavier than her old friend Rose Robbin's"ya" for "yeah" and "da" for "the."
Nothing threatening about him, but Lia didn't relax. Fugitives couldn't afford to let down their guard.
"Thanks, but we'll be fine." She didn't want him to know where she was headed. If Alouette was as small as Rose had saidand it certainly appeared to be from their hillside vantage pointhe'd find out soon enough. Lia didn't see any need for currying interest, even friendly interest. Not from any of the locals. After the first curiosity had passed, she hoped to knit her family into the fabric of small-town life so well that no one ever noticed them again.
Howie shoved his glasses up his snub nose. "This map doesn't show Black"
Lia gave him a look so fierce his voice froze mid-stream.
The cop tilted his head. "Sounds to me like you're lost."
The car's engine rattled ominously. Lia hadn't dared shut it down while they'd searched the map. If she didn't put the Grudge into gear soon, it might give out again.
She thrust the soft drink at her son. "We were just taking a breather," she said to the cop in a fake cheery tone, the one she'd used too often with her children the past several years. Kristen Rose, her four-year-old, was the only one who still fell for it. "We'll be on our way now."
The officer tilted his head to the right, checking out the backseat. Lia felt Sam's clogs press into her spine through the car seat. Her teenage daughter's long, skinny legs were doubled over and drawn up to her sulky face. She glared raccoon eyes at the officer over her kneecaps, as if daring him to question her.
Smile, dammit, Lia said silently in the rearview mirror. Just this once.
"I'm Deputy Corcoran." He looked at Lia expec-tantly.
Lia met Sam's accusing eyes in the mirror, then looked away. "Lia Howard," she said almost too loudly. She wasn't lying, not really. She'd been Lia Howard for the first seventeen years of her life. "And these are my kids." She wasn't going to give their names unless she had to.
Officer Corcoran tipped his hat. "Pleased to meetcha."
Lia made a polite sound.
In the rear seat, Kristen stirred. The drive through twenty miles of backcountry forest had been so boring that she'd nodded off with a French fry clutched in her small fist. "Mommy? Are we there yet?"
"Not yet," Lia said before Howie could chime in that, yes, they'd finally reached their destination, even if they couldn't find Blackbear Road on the state map.
"How come we stopped? Is the Grudge broked again?"
"No, honey." Lia's eyes darted toward the officer's face. Kristen didn't completely understand the neces-sity of keeping quiet, especially around strangers. But she was learning. And that had taken another small chip out of Lia's worn-down heart. "We'll be there soon."
"Not with this car," the cop said. "The motor doesn't sound too good."
"I know. That's why we call it the Grudge." At his mystified look, she explained, "It's from a horror movie. My daughter came up with the name. Because of the loud grinding sound the car makes when it revs up."
"I getcha, I guess. I'm darn surprised you made it to town. The 525 might not seem like a steep road, but it's got a long, gradual incline."
"Luckily it's all downhill from here." Lia forced a chuckle as she gave a wave out the front window at the descent into the town proper.
They were perched on a hillside overlooking Alouette. The sight was a pretty one, if Lia had been in any shape to appreciate it. Interspersed among an abundance of summery green trees were the shingle roofs, cream brick and red sandstone of the quaint little town. Beyond, the blue water of Lake Superior stretched as far as the eye could see. A lighthouse perched at the tip of a finger peninsula pointing into the bay. Gulls circled bobbing boats in the small marina.
Officer Corcoran had straightened to take in the view, but he ducked back down to address her. "Didja know you have a busted taillight?"
"Oh." She knew. But a working taillight was less crucial than replacing spark plugs and a fried fan beltthe emergency repair that had kept them stranded overnight in the middle of nowhere in a town called Christmas. "I'll get it fixed as soon as I can," she promised, which was honest enough considering soon was an adaptable word.
For how many years had she planned to leave her husband "soon"? After the divorce had gone through despite Larry's attempts to block it, she'd learned a new definition of the word. Soon he'll stop trying to hurt us. Soon the courts will understand. Soon we'll get away.
"I shouldn't let you go without a ticket, but, " The cop disappeared from her window to wave at a pickup truck that rattled by on the bumpy blacktop road. It shed flecks of rust like a dog shaking fleas. The young officer grinned. "See there? I gotta admit our depart-ment's not a stickler when it comes to ticketing unroad-worthy vehicles." He squared his shoulders. "But it's important to keep your family's safety in mind."
Lia swallowed. He had no idea. "I do, sir. Always." The young officer stepped back. "You be sure to get the vehicle fixed, ma'am. I don't want to see it on the road again in this condition."
"You won't." Lia let herself hope that she'd finally caught a break. "We don't have far to go," she added.
"We'll be there long before dark." Kristen was fussing in the backseat, and Sambless herpassed over her precious iPod to keep her sister occupied.
"All right, then." Officer Corcoran moved away from the car. "Make sure to watch your brakes on this hill. Speed limit's twenty-five in town." He squinted.
"Are you positive you don't want directions?"
"No, thanks." Lia knew where she was going. Anywhere that her ex-husband Larry Pogue was not.