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By JOHN LUTZ
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 John Lutz
All rights reserved.
Medford County, Kansas, 1984
Abbey Taylor trusted to God and Ford to get her into Medford so she could buy some groceries. She was driving the family's old pickup truck. It was harder and harder for her to get around, much less into town, so she figured she should take advantage of feeling good on a nice sunny day and load up on whatever she could afford.
Billy had stayed home from work again today and was sleeping off another night out with his buddies. That involved plenty of meth, which was why he was in no condition to go in to work as an auto mechanic in Medford. All he wanted was to lie on the old vinyl couch and listen to some natter-head on the radio railing about how crooked the government was. Hell, everybody knew that already.
So Abbey, in her ninth month of pregnancy, left Billy to his anarchist dreams and waddled out to the old truck parked in the shade.
The truck was black, so it soaked up the sun, and as soon as she managed to climb inside, Abbey cranked down the windows. That let a nice breeze in, scented by the nearby stand of pine trees.
She turned the ignition key one bump, and needles moved on the gauges. The gas gauge, which was usually accurate, indicated over a quarter of a tank. Abbey knew from experience that would carry her into town and back.
The engine stuttered once and then turned over and ran smoothly enough, though it did clatter some. She released the emergency brake, shoved the gear-shift lever into first. The truck bucked some when she turned onto the dirt road, but she got it going smoothly in second and kept it in that gear so she could navigate around the worst of the ruts and holes. One particular bump was so jarring that she feared for the baby.
Soon she was on blacktop, and she put the truck in gear and drove smoothly along. The ride into town was pretty, the road lined with conifers and old sycamore trees and cottonwoods. The warm breeze coming through the open windows whisked away most of the oil and gas odor seeping up through the floorboards.
About halfway to town, on a slight hill, the motor began to run rough and seemed to lose power.
Abbey stomped down on the clutch and jammed the truck into a lower gear. That got her more power, but only briefly.
Then the engine chattered and died, and she steered the truck to the slanted road shoulder.
Abbey cursed herself for trusting the old truck. And she was worried about how Billy was going to react when he found out she'd run out of gas on the little traveled county road to Medford.
She heard a hissing sound and saw steam rising from beneath the hood. A closer look at the gauges showed that she hadn't run out of gas at all. The truck had simply overheated. She thought of Billy at home on the couch.
Where's a mechanic when you need one?
At least it had happened where she'd been able to steer the balky vehicle into the shade.
Abbey tried to judge just where she was stranded. It was almost the halfway point, and a far walk for anyone, much less a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy.
What if ...
But Abbey didn't want to think about that. She opened the door and kicked it wide with her left foot, then wrestled herself sideways out from behind the steering wheel. It was less trouble than it might have been because the truck was on a slant to the left, and her real problem was to catch herself when her feet contacted the ground and keep her balance so she wouldn't go rolling down the grade. Despite her problems, thinking of what that might look like made her almost smile.
Abbey stood with her hand against the sun-heated metal of the front fender for a moment, gaining her balance, then waddled around to the front of the truck.
Steam was still rolling out from underneath, but the hissing had stopped. She knew then that she'd screwed up. She wanted to see what the problem might be, but she'd forgotten to release the hood latch in the truck's cab. Keeping both hands on the truck to help keep her balance, she made her way back to the open door on the driver's side.
She was halfway there when she heard the sound of a motor.
So there was another vehicle on the county road!
Abbey felt like singing with relief.
Then she realized she might have a problem. There was no guarantee the driver of whatever was coming would notice the truck pulled well off the shoulder like it was.
She tried to make her way back to the road side of the truck, all the while listening to the approaching car or truck motor getting louder.
Damn! It went past her. A dusty white van with tinted windows, rocking along faster than was lawful. Its radio or cassette player had been on. Abbey had heard a snatch of music as it passed.
Wait! She heard music now. A rock band. Sounded like the Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
Abbey thought, Ain't that the truth?
Then she heard the motor, growing louder.
She had been seen! The van was backing up.
She glimpsed it between the trees, then it rolled backward around the shallow bend and slowed.
It parked only a few feet from the truck. Mick Jagger shouted, "I cain't get no—I cain't get no—" as the van's door opened and a heavyset, smiling woman awkwardly got down from behind the steering wheel and slammed the door shut behind her.
She was tall as well as bulky, and stood with her thick arms crossed, looking at Abbey, then the truck and the puddle beneath its front bumper, then back at Abbey. Her smile widened, showing bad teeth with wide spaces between them. Though badly in need of dental work, it was a kind smile and Abbey was glad to return it.
"Hell," the woman said, "you got yourself a problem, sweetheart. But it ain't hopeless." Her voice was highly pitched but authoritative, each word abrupt.
"The engine just stopped on me," Abbey said. "Overheated."
"I'll say. I'm familiar with these things." She strode over to the truck, the soles of her faded gray tennis shoes crunching on the gravel. "You know where the hood latch is?"
The woman went around to the driver's-side door and opened it, reached inside and did something. The hood jumped upward a few inches. She slammed the truck door shut then walked around and raised the hood all the way, exposing the engine and the steaming radiator.
"Don't s'pose you carry any water," she said.
Abbey shook her head no. "Maybe we oughta take the cap off the radiator. It might make it cool down faster."
"Burn your hand, sweetheart. Maybe your whole damn arm. Gotta let these things run their course." She propped her fists on her hips and glanced up and down the road. "Ain't what you'd call heavily traveled."
"And you, in your delicate condition, oughta be someplace outta the sun."
"Couldn't argue that."
"My name's Mildred," the woman said.
"Abigail Taylor. Or just Abbey."
"You was headed for Medford?"
"I'm goin' that direction, Just Abbey. How about I drive you there, you do whatever it is you gotta do, then we can come back this way with a jug or two of water. That might be all you need to get back home. You got a husband?"
Abbey was taken slightly aback by the question. "Sure do. He's home sleepin' now. Had hisself a rough night."
"Men!" Mildred said. "Still tryin' to get at you, I bet."
"Uh, no," Abbey said. "It's close enough now, that's stopped till after the baby."
"Baby good an' healthy?"
Abbey had to smile. "Doctor says so."
Mildred held her arm to balance her as they walked over to the van; then she helped Abbey up onto the passenger seat, next to the driver's.
Abbey settled into the seat while Mildred climbed up behind the steering wheel and got the van started. It rode kind of bumpy, but Abbey was glad to be moving.
"Gotta stop by my place and pick up somethin' on the way into town," Mildred said. "You mind?"
"Not at all," Abbey said.
Mildred turned the air conditioner on high and aimed one of the dashboard vents directly at Abbey.
"Just right," Abbey said.
The day wasn't turning out to be such a disaster, after all. And she'd made a new friend.
She couldn't have been more wrong.
New York City, the present
Some people thought it would never rain again in New York. It had been almost a month since a drop of moisture had made it to the ground. The sky remained almost cloudless. The brick and stone buildings, the concrete streets and sidewalks, were heating up like the walls and floor of a kiln that didn't cool all the way down at night.
Quinn was fully dressed except for his shoes. He was asleep on the sofa in the brownstone on West Seventy-fifth Street, lying on his back with an arm flung across his eyes to keep out the sunbeam that seemed to be tracking him no matter which way he turned.
The sun had sent a beam in beneath a crookedly closed drape, and an elongated rectangle of sunlight lay with geometric precision in the middle of the carpet. The brownstone didn't have central air, and the powerful window units were running almost constantly, barely holding the summer heat at bay.
Quinn was a big man, and solid. He took up most of the sofa. Ordinarily he'd be working this afternoon, but business was slow at Quinn and Associates Investigative Agency.
Quinn knew Pearl was holding down the office. Fedderman was talking to a man in Queens whose car kept being stolen again and again. Sal Vitali and Harold Mishkin were down in New Jersey, keeping close watch on a wayward wife, whose husband had hired Q&A to see if she was cheating on him, and was himself cheating on her. Quinn knew the parties were, most likely, more in need of a marriage counselor than a detective agency.
He'd seen this before. Harold Mishkin would probably wind up consoling and counseling. He was a friend and mediator to all humankind, and probably should never have been a cop. The NYPD, the violent streets of New York, hadn't seemed to coarsen him or wise him up over the years. It was a good thing his partner, Sal Vitali, looked out for him.
Maybe because of the heat and drought, crime seemed to be taking a break in New York City. Legal chicanery was no doubt still going strong, but only a small percentage of the illegal was finding its way to Q&A. The cheating married couple, the guy with the stolen and stolen car. That was about it for now.
Quinn stirred. He knew someone had entered the living room. Jody Jason, Pearl's daughter, and Quinn's ersatz daughter, who lived upstairs. He didn't move his arm or open his eyes. " 'Lo, Jody."
"How'd you know it was me?"
"I'm not wearing any."
"The distinctive sound of your shoes on the stairs."
"I'm in my stocking feet."
"Okay," Quinn said, opening his eyes and scooting up to a sitting position. "You and I are the only ones in the house, so it had to be you."
"Not exactly a Sherlock moment," she said.
Jody, skinny, large-breasted like her mother, with springy red hair unlike her mother's raven black hair, grinned at him. Pearl was in the grin, all right. "Occam's razor," she said. She was kind of a smart-ass.
That attitude could help her in her work. She was an associate attorney with a small law firm, Prather and Pierce, that fought the good fight against big business, big government, big anything that had deep pockets. The average age of the attorneys at Prather and Pierce was about twenty-five.
"I didn't know Occam needed a shave."
"Always." She headed for the kitchen. "Want some coffee?"
"No, it might make me vibrate."
"Makes more sense."
He heard her fidget around in the kitchen, then she reappeared with a mug in each hand. "Don't worry," she said. "Yours is orange juice."
If it moves, sue it, was lettered on the mugs. She handed him his orange juice and then settled down across from him in a chair, tucking her jeans-clad legs beneath her slender body. "Business will pick up," she said.
"Not if some guy's car stops getting stolen."
Quinn tilted back his head and downed half his orange juice. It was cold and tasted great. "This case Fedderman's on. Guy's a graffiti artist, uses spray paint, dolled up his car so good it keeps getting stolen."
"He should take some color photos of the car, leave them stuck under a wiper blade. Maybe the thieves will be satisfied with a picture and leave the real thing at the curb."
"I'll suggest that to Fedderman."
"Feds will understand."
Jody looked off to the side and thought for a moment. "No," she said, "like Feds."
"Sometimes," Quinn said, "you are eerily like your mother."
"That a compliment?"
She took a long sip of her coffee. "Business will pick up," she assured Quinn. "In this city, with all the dealing and stealing that has to be set right, Q&A will get its share. Maybe something by way of your friend Renz."
"I'd rather Renz not be involved. He complicates things."
"Still," Jody said, "he's the police commissioner."
"Occam with a beard," Quinn said. "And unshaven scruples."
"Yeah," Jody replied. "That's more like normal life."
"If there is such a thing," Quinn said, finishing off his orange juice. He licked his lips. "Any more of this in the fridge?"
"Nope. Nothing cold except beer and bottled water."
"Let me think," Quinn said.
Medford County, 1984
Umph! That couldn't have been good for the baby. Abbey held onto the armrest and console so she wouldn't bump around so much.
Mildred turned the dusty white van onto a narrow dirt road, then hard left onto a gravel driveway that wound uphill through the trees. Clumps of dirt and stones clunked off the insides of the wheel wells.
The driveway leveled off, and the van jounced over a yard that was mostly weeds and bare earth. Mildred parked in the shade near a ramshackle house with sagging gutters and a plank front porch. It needed paint so badly it was impossible to know what color it had been. Nearby, at the end of a curved walkway set with uneven stepping stones, was a wooden outhouse.
"Don't believe what ya see," Mildred said. "We've had indoor plumbing a good while."
Abbey could only nod.
"I'll leave the motor running and the AC on so you'll be comfortable," Mildred said. She struggled down out of the van and slammed the door behind her.
Abbey saw her go into the house, then emerge a few minutes later with a large cardboard box. The van's rear doors opened. One of them squeaked loudly. Abbey craned her neck to glance back and see what was going on, only to find that the back of the van was sealed off by unpainted plywood, blocking her view. She could hear Mildred moving around back there, loading the box, or whatever it held, into the vehicle.
After about fifteen minutes, gravel and leaves crunched and Mildred appeared outside the door on Abbey's side. She opened the door.
"C'mon down outta there, sweetheart. I wanna show you something."
"Is it important?" Abbey asked, remembering how difficult it had been to climb into the van.
"I would sure say so." Mildred smiled.
Abbey didn't have her seat belt fastened, because of the baby, so she swiveled her body awkwardly and controlled her breathing while Mildred's strong hands helped her to back down out of the van.
When she gained her balance, Mildred held her by the elbow and supported her while they walked to the back of the van. Both doors were hanging wide open.
Mildred turned her so she could see into the back of the van.
Abbey didn't know quite what to think. The rear seats had been removed and there was black plastic covering the van's floor. Clouded white plastic was stuck with duct tape to the sides of the van and to the plywood panel separating the rear of the vehicle from the driver and passenger seats. There was nothing else in the van except for a medium-sized cardboard box up front by the plastic and plywood.
"Get in," Mildred said.
Abbey thought she must have misheard. "I beg your—"
Mildred shoved Abbey forward so her knees were against the edge of the van floor, then placed a hand on the back of her neck and bent her forward so Abbey's palms were on the black plastic.
"Now listen here—"Abbey began. Her words were cut short by a hard blow to the back of her head.
"Crawl on up there!" Mildred said. "And mind you don't harm the baby."
Excerpted from TWIST by JOHN LUTZ. Copyright © 2013 John Lutz. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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