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The late-afternoon sun beat down like a curse. A hundred and two in the shade. Not that there was any shade. "Go to hell, Ms. Cluny," reclusive philanthropist Charles Cunningham Nash had said the last time Regan had pestered him for an interview. And here she freaking was.
A clever woman would have realized fate was conspiring against her when mechanical difficulties delayed her flight from JFK to Reno. A clever woman would have taken the hint when her favorite Louis Vuitton bag vanished into luggage limbo. A clever woman would have said, "Screw this," when her rental car's air conditioner gasped its last shortly after she crossed the California border.
But Regan had persevered.
The only thing playing on the radio now was static, the gas gauge was flirting with empty, and Juniper Basin was nowhere to be seen, even though according to the MapQuest directions she'd taped to the Corolla's dash, she should have been there already. She must have made a wrong turn somewhere.
Right. Like the second she'd decided to pursue this story so doggedly. After all, those tabloid photos had been obvious fakes. Alien cities buried deep beneath the Modoc Plateau? No way. But her instincts had told her to follow her nose, and damn it, Nash's lame-assed explanation of what he and his team of archaeologists were really doing out here in the middle of nowhere stank to high heaven. After all, why would anyone invest millions to excavate a nondescript Paleo-Indian village unlikely to yield anything more exciting than Clovis points and grinding stones?
Still, was tracking down the truth worth a detour through hell?
The molten sun was riding the rimrocks by the time Regan reached the next outpost of civilization, a blink-your-eyes-and-miss-it town named Chisel Rock.
She pulled up to the pumps in front of the Oasis Truck Stop, where neon palm trees decorated one windowless side wall of the cinder-block building housing the restaurant and minimart. A shabby twelve-unit motel edged the back of the property, and to the west stood a row of Lombardy poplar skeletons, their elongated shadows stretching across the parking lot like bony fingers. Two dusty pickup trucks, a PT Cruiser, and half a dozen cherried-out Harleys huddled in the meager shade.
Wasn't exactly the Big Apple, but Regan figured someone inside could tell her how to find the dig at Juniper Basin. She unbuckled her seat belt and stepped out of the car.
A bowlegged mutt with a scruffy patchwork coat suddenly bounced out from between two big rigs parked along the shoulder on the opposite side of the highway. The dog crossed the road at a trot, then made a wide detour around her before pausing to christen both rear tires of the Corolla.
"Amen, buddy." Smiling in grim amusement, Regan filled her tank, then headed inside to pay.
The Oasis's interior reeked of stale grease. An old-fashioned jukebox blared eighties tunes at a deafening decibel level. Worse yet, the moment Regan crossed the threshold, six badass biker types glanced up from the pool table in the corner to focus their X-ray vision on the front of her cami. None of which carried any weight when balanced against the blessing of air-conditioning.
"Pump two." She handed a twenty to the middle-aged brunette at the cash register. "What's the best way to get to Juniper Basin?"
The cashier rang up the gas and counted back the change. "Never heard of the place, but then, I'm from Reno. Haven't lived here long. Josh!" she called to a lanky teenager who was busing tables on the far side of the room.
"Yeah?" The kid stuffed a tip in the pocket of his Wranglers.
"Lady here's looking for directions to Juniper Basin."
The kid ambled across the dining room to Regan's side. "You looking for Mr. Nash, too?"
"Too?" she said.
"His dig site's become a regular tourist attraction since it got all that media attention." He shot her a puzzled look, probably thinking she didn't fit the profile. Most tourists weren't stupid enough to set off across the desert in silk suits and stilettos.
"Charles Cunningham Nash and I have business to discuss," she said. "He gave me directions to Juniper Basin" -- which was a lie of the big fat you're-going-to-hell variety -- "but I got turned around. Could you help me, Josh? I'd really appreciate it." She gave him her best pleading, doe-eyed look.
He turned three shades of pink and shot her a shy smile. "Yes, ma'am," he said.
Ma'am? Since when did thirty-three qualify a woman for ma'amhood?
"Take the first gravel road to the left just past the church and follow it to hell and gone," he said, "until you come to Calliope Rock, a formation that looks like a big pipe organ. Little dirt track there cuts off to the right along the riverbank. The dig's about a mile in. Can't miss it. Just look for all the tents lined up along the edge of the basin."
Lightbulb moment. Juniper Basin wasn't a town. It was an actual basin.
So much for MapQuest.
"Be careful if you're headed out that way, though. Road's full of ruts and potholes. Easy to get high-centered. You don't want to end up buzzard bait." A faint frown drove a line between his eyebrows. "In fact, if I were you, I'd stay overnight here in Chisel Rock and head for the dig site in the morning."
"Don't tell me. Your parents own the motel."
"Well, yeah, but -- "
"How long a drive are we talking about?" she asked.
"Half an hour. Forty-five minutes tops, only -- "
"Thanks. You've been a big help." She treated him to fluttery eyelashes and a sultry smile. Ma'am that, cowboy.
Regan moved her car around the side of the building, parking under the neon palm trees. Then she headed inside again where she lingered over a Coke, reluctant to go back out into the heat. Twenty minutes ticked by. Finally, grabbing a six-pack of bottled water -- buzzard bait was so not a good look on her -- she settled her bill.
She emerged from the air-conditioned interior to find that the sun had dropped behind the mountains, leaving the town swathed in gray twilight. She'd assumed she had a couple hours of daylight left to find Nash's camp, but she hadn't factored in the brevity of the desert dusk.
She brushed past the bikers, who, having abandoned the pool table, now loitered under the awning that shaded the front of the building. Ignoring their lewd suggestions and mocking laughter, she hurried to her car. The directions, which had sounded relatively straightforward in daylight, now seemed a lot trickier. Would she be able to find her way in the dark? Maybe Josh's suggestion about staying the night here in Chisel Rock wasn't such a bad one after all.
Juggling her water and purse in one hand, she fumbled for the car keys.
A breeze stirred the rapidly cooling air, carrying with it a musky male scent.
Regan spun around to find that one of the bikers had followed her. He crowded close, backing her against the Toyota. Taller than average and muscular, with dark eyes, dark hair, heavy beard stubble, and an all-too- lifelike snake tattoo coiled around one arm, he was dressed in fatigues and a grubby wifebeater. "Need some help, blondie?"
"No, thanks," she said, feigning a calm she was far from feeling. "I'm fine."
He grinned. "Yeah. Yeah, you are." He grabbed her chin and tilted her face up to his. Their gazes locked. His grin faded, and the color leached from his face. "Katie?"
He released her chin. His hand was trembling. "How?" he demanded, his voice husky with emotion. "I don't understand."
Neither did Regan. "Look, I -- "
Despite the heat, gooseflesh rose along her arms. "I'm not dead, and my name's not Katie. You must be confusing me with someone else."
"I know you blame me for what happened, but if it hadn't been for Nash..." His shell-shocked expression vanished, replaced by suspicion. "He's behind this, isn't he?" No mistaking the menace in his voice.
Okay. Not just a scary tattooed biker. A scary tattooed psycho biker. Regan's heart threatened to jackhammer its way past her rib cage, but she kept her voice calm and steady. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I don't know how he managed it, but he brought you back, didn't he? What's the plan? What's he up to?"
"I really don't have any answers." Regan spoke evenly, willing him to believe her. "I'm -- "
"The hair threw me at first, but hair color's easy enough to change. Only..." He scowled. "Your eyes are wrong."
"My -- "
"You aren't Katie."
"I never said I was. You're the one -- "
He narrowed his eyes to black slits. "What the hell is going on?"
Good question. "Look, I don't know what your problem is, but I don't have time for -- "
He clamped one big hand around her upper arm and pulled her close. "You're playing dumb, but I heard you ask for directions to Juniper Basin." He spoke just above a whisper. "Tell me, if you're not in cahoots with Nash, then why the hell are you headed out to his dig site?"
"I don't see how that's any of your concern."
"Don't you now?" His mouth smiled, but his eyes didn't as he leaned closer, trailing his fingertips down her cheek, brushing a thumb across her lower lip.
Her panic bubbled over, escaping as a scream.
He laughed. "Yell all you want, blondie. Jukebox is amped up so loud they can't hear you inside, and my boys are the only ones out here. Sad to say, they're not much for rescuing damsels in distress."
"Harper!" one of the other bikers called. "You need help?"
"I'm good," he said.
"So you claim." The gang's raucous laughter ebbed away as they moved from the entrance.
Somewhere beyond Regan's line of sight, the Harleys rumbled to life, reminding her of the obligatory chick-dismemberment scene from every cheesy biker film she'd ever seen. Please, God, don't let me die a Hollywood cliché.
Harper grinned, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, as if her fear fueled his pleasure.
Desperate now, she used the hand still buried in the depths of her bag to search unobtrusively for a weapon. Lip gloss? No. Hairbrush? Maybe. Keys? Another maybe. Or...She jammed the handle of the brush against the soft leather of her purse. "Take your hand off me," she warned.
The biker laughed. "Or what?"
"Or I'll blow a hole through your chest." She pointed her fake gun at his breastbone.
Maybe it was just the light reflecting off the neon palm trees or maybe the biker really did turn a little green around the gills. Regan wasn't positive. All she knew for sure was that he released her arm.
"Now back off."
He studied her, his face expressionless.
"What?" she said.
"I had this figured all wrong. Nash doesn't know you're coming, does he? If he did, you wouldn't have had to ask for directions to the dig."
She didn't say anything.
"So what's your angle, blondie?"
"I don't have an angle."
"Bullshit. Everyone's got an angle."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You don't know Nash, either. If you did, you wouldn't try to scam him. You have no idea who you're dealing with, what he's capable of. He's not who you think he is."
"Thanks for the warning, but Mr. Nash isn't my problem at the moment. You are. So move."
He raised his eyebrows. "Or you'll shoot me? Go ahead. Have at it."
He was calling her bluff, and she had nothing. Worse, he knew it. A feral glint sparked in his dark eyes. "Bzzz. Sorry. You lose."
This wasn't a game, damn it. Anger triggered a spurt of adrenaline. She dropped her purse and, wielding the six-pack with both hands, swung at his face.
But he was too fast for her. Capturing her wrists, he twisted them up over her head. She lost her grip on the bottled water. It bounced off the hood, then hit the pavement with a crack. She jerked and kicked, desperate to free herself, but he slammed her hard against the car, immobilizing her with his hips.
"Let me go!" Her breath sawed in and out.
"I don't think so." He grinned again. Then slowly, deliberately, he ran one finger down her throat, lingering on her racing pulse.
Oh, God. She shuddered.
He ducked his head, licking along the path his fingertip had taken. "Spicy," he murmured, making it sound obscene.
A door banged open to her left. Two of the kitchen staff, one male, one female, emerged from a service entrance. Their voices rose and fell in a good-natured squabble over whose turn it was to clean the effing grease trap.
"Hel -- "
The biker clapped a hand across her mouth, smothering her cry. A major miscalculation on his part.
She bit down hard enough to draw blood and elicit a yelp of pain.
"Shit!" He snatched his hand away and stumbled back a step, just far enough for her to deliver a knee to the groin. He doubled up with a moan.
"Is there a problem?" the woman called.
"Get an ambulance," Regan said. "This poor man's bleeding."
"You're making a mistake," the biker warned.
"Won't be the first time."
Doubled over, hands braced on his thighs, Harper raised his head to watch the blonde's taillights disappear. She thought she'd escaped. She hadn't. He'd let her go. There was a difference.
"Are you all right, mister?" the female restaurant worker called a little hesitantly. Probably confused about what had just gone down, not sure whether he was the villain or the victim.
"You need us to call 911?" Her male counterpart took a cautious step forward.
"No, thanks," Harper said. "I'm fine. Little difference of opinion's all it was."
"She said you were bleeding," the man said.
"Just my hand. Nothing serious." Shoving himself upright, Harper sucked at the cut, then turned his back on the pair by the door and headed around the building. His boys were all lined up, ready to go, at the far end of the parking lot.
Sarge, his second in command, shot Harper a challenging look. "So what the hell is going on? You tell us, 'Wait here. I'll handle it,' then you let her get away?"
"Didn't exactly let her do anything. Bitch bit my hand, then kneed me in the balls."
"Want one of the boys to follow her?" Sarge asked.
"No need?" Sarge scowled. "First decent prey we've spotted in days, and you let her go."
Harper nodded languid agreement. "Yeah."
Sarge, a former Army Ranger, glared at him. "The hell you say!"
"Chill, amigo." Chupi, the shortest of the gang members and the only illegal in the group, often understood Harper's motivations better than the others even though he spoke only limited English. "Boss got plan, sí?" He grinned eagerly, revealing a mouthful of teeth he'd filed to sharp points.
"Oh, yeah," Harper agreed.
The Branson twins, Billy and Bobby, straddled their bikes. Their shiny ebony heads gleamed under the security light. Identical wolfish grins lit their faces.
Butcher -- nobody knew his real name, not even Harper -- spat out a wad of Copenhagen, cleared his throat, and spat again. "This plan of yours involve any slicing and dicing?"
"Hell, yeah," Harper promised. "You can make mincemeat of the bitch if you want once the rest of us have had our fun."
"Don't mind going last." Butcher scowled suddenly. "Just don't knock her out. Won't be no fun if she don't scream."
Harper nodded his understanding of Butcher's problem. The poor bastard couldn't get his rocks off unless foreplay included a certain amount of creative carving, a quirk that had gotten him blacklisted at every whorehouse west of the Rockies and earned him a stint in San Quentin.
"Son of a bitch!" Sarge revved his bike. "Just tell us the fucking plan. While we stand here shooting the breeze, she's getting away."
"No," Harper said, "she's not. I poked a hole in her gas tank. She won't get far. In fact, she might be stranded already, waiting for a posse of kind gentlemen like us to come to her rescue."
A broad smile split Sarge's ugly face. "Hoo-ah!" he shouted.
Harper's gang took up the cry, yipping and howling like a pack of coyotes.
Favoring his still-tender equipment, Harper mounted his bike and started her up. He stared into the darkness. I owe you one, blondie.
And he always, always paid his debts.
Regan wondered how many miles equaled "to hell and gone" and if she'd recognize her turnoff when she came to it. At least, thank God, the heat had begun to diminish the moment the sun had set. In the last half hour, the temperature had dropped a good fifteen degrees.
She tried to ignore the myriad eyes gleaming in the glare of her headlights. On an intellectual level she knew they belonged to nocturnal feeders -- deer and coyotes, skunks and kangaroo rats. But the less rational part of her brain wasn't convinced. It whispered of monsters lurking in the dark....
The real monsters first appeared in her rearview mirror as six bobbing points of light. Six motorcycle headlights, she soon realized. Whooping and hollering, the bikers she'd last seen at the truck stop in Chisel Rock circled her car, cutting in front of her, passing so close that she instinctively stepped on the brake and jerked the steering wheel to the right. As she hit the loose rock at the edge of the road, dust billowed up, obscuring her view out the windshield, choking her. She twisted the wheel back to the left and tromped on the gas pedal, hoping to outrun them.
A vain hope. Something thumped heavily on the roof of the car. A tire iron? A rock? She couldn't tell. Something else slammed into the windshield. She couldn't identify it either. Something heavy enough to ding the glass, though. A spiderweb of cracks appeared around the point of impact.
The side windows, she thought, scrabbling for the buttons that controlled them.
One of the bikers swooped up next to her, keeping pace with the Corolla. He leaned toward her, grinning maniacally. One tattooed arm suddenly snaked in the driver's-side window. The biker made a grab for the steering wheel. She swerved sharply to the right while searching feverishly with her left hand for the button that controlled the automatic windows. After what seemed like endless minutes but couldn't have been more than a second or two, she located the right button.
The biker made another grab for the wheel. In agonizing slow motion, the driver's-side window slid shut, pinning his forearm between the top edge of the glass and the window frame. He shrieked as, held fast, he was pulled from his bike. The riderless Harley struck the Corolla a glancing blow -- struck the biker as well, judging by his shrill curses -- and bounced away.
Regan steered with her right hand and punched buttons blindly with her left, finally locating the window control again. She released the pressure on the biker's arm, and he fell away with an eldritch scream, followed closely by an ominous thump-thump as the rear wheels bumped over his body. She punched the button again, succeeding this time in closing the window all the way.
She drew a shaky breath. Windows closed. Doors locked. As long as she didn't stop...
Another unseen projectile hit the car, this one starring the rear window.
She jammed the gas pedal all the way to the floor. The car shot forward, then without warning gave a hiccupping cough and died. The little Toyota decelerated and rolled to a stop.
Howling in triumph, the five remaining bikers circled the car. They thumped on the roof, leered in the windows, and shouted obscenities.
Panicked, she ground the starter. Please, God, let it start. Had they somehow damaged the engine? Had she? Again and again she turned the key. The starter ground, but the engine refused to catch.
The thumping and caterwauling ratcheted up a notch as the biker called Harper produced a yard-long length of pipe and began a determined assault on the Corolla's windshield. Two blows, three, and the glass shattered. Large chunks fell away.
Regan ducked beneath the dashboard, protecting her face from the falling glass with one hand while punching in Nash's number on her cell phone with the other. She doubted she'd get through. She'd tried -- unsuccessfully -- to make a call to her dad earlier, and chances were she wouldn't find service halfway to hell and gone, either. But damn it, she wasn't going down without a fight.
Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Mulvany