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Nothing hinted that a man would die that night.
Haley Martin arrived at the truck stop for her shift at eight in the evening. The place was open round the clock, and was busy enough at any hour because this was the only big truck stop for nearly a hundred miles in any direction.
Big enough for rigs to park and idle while drivers slept. Big enough to have hot showers and other amenities. And the restaurant itself was famous for good down-home cooking.
That night the lot was almost empty, but she knew this would change. Traffic always seemed to come in waves, maybe because the truckers liked to travel close together so they could keep in touch by radio and chat.
On her way in, she noticed two trucks parked back-to-back. That was unusual. They usually parked side by side. One of the trucks was smaller, a box truck, not a trailer rig like the other. It didn't seem important, though, and she quickened her step so she wouldn't be late. She'd taken a small role in a college play and the rehearsal had run over.
She liked the job. It was tiring, being on her feet for hours, but she liked it anyway. As a college student, it fit her perfectly, and when it got quiet the boss didn't mind if she studied.
She was only taking one class this summer, and working full-time, but the class had more than an average amount of reading and homework, so a quiet night would be welcome.
She breezed inside, waving to the other waitress, Claire, an attractive thirtysomething redhead, and the skinny shortorder cook and owner, Hasty. He tossed her a grin as she passed by on the way to her locker, then returned to his cooking.
After getting her purse and books stowed, she tied on her apron, starched and white, over her pink uniform, checked that her blond hair hadn't escaped its bun, then punched the time clock and headed out to work.
"Coffee's fresh," Claire said as she returned to the restaurant. "It's been slow since I got here at four."
"That'll change," Hasty remarked as he slipped burgers onto buns and scooped them onto plates with fries. He turned and put them on the counter for Claire.
"Might as well study, Haley," he said. "You'll know when to hop."
Yes, that was part of why she liked this job. Hasty seemed to care as much about her education as she did. But she also liked the truckers who came in here. Most of them were nice enough, and some even told great stories about the places they'd been.
There was one driver in particular, she thought as she went back to get her books and a cup of coffee. One guy who seemed to stand out, although she wasn't exactly sure why. It wasn't just that he was awfully good-looking, or that he seemed to have a body honed to hardness, unlike many other drivers who had been softened by the endless hours at the wheel.
No, it was something else, she thought as she took a seat by the window. Something about his manner. Quieter and more respectful than the others, not that many gave her a hard time. He was the only one who didn't address her by name, even though it was plainly written on a badge above her breast. No, he always called her ma'am. And he tipped generously.
But that wasn't it, either, she decided as she opened her book. It was his eyes. Dark, dark eyes that seemed to hint at danger while reflecting a good helping of sorrow.
Almost without fail, he was here three nights a week, and unless she was mistaken, tonight was his night. For some reason, she had begun to look forward to seeing him.
She chided herself. She'd already made up her mind that she wouldn't let anything get between her and completing school, and there was nothing like a relationship to do that. She'd seen enough people drop out to get married. Besides, what did she know about him except that seeing him made her heart skip a beat? That he wasn't married and drove a truck, and his last name, embroidered on his gray shirt, was Devlin. Not a whole lot, even for a fantasy.
Shaking her head at herself, she burrowed into her text. She was discovering very little real interest in diet and nutrition, maybe because she had had to juggle so many diets during her mother's illness.
Interested or not, she still had fifty pages to read before class tomorrow, and there would probably be a pop quiz, plus the final loomed on Friday morning, so she dove in.
A noise from the lot caught her attention and she looked out through the plate-glass window. The brightly lit restaurant didn't help her view any, nearly turning the glass into a mirror, and those two trucks she had noticed were parked at the far end of the lot in near darkness. But she heard a clang, and then squinted. Were those two trucks transferring something?
She stared for a minute, thinking that she saw a crate or two passing between them along a metal ramp, but unable to make out any real details.
What did it matter? Maybe something was scheduled to be off-loaded here. Just because she'd never seen it happen before didn't mean it was unusual.
She turned her attention back to her book, but discovered her mind wanted to play games. She was acting in a mystery play, and the role had gotten to her enough that she sometimes found herself imagining nefarious things in ordinary activities. Like those two trucks out there.
Almost grinning to herself, she tried to return to nutrition. That was almost enough to put her to sleep.
About ten minutes later, the bell over the door sounded and two men entered. Goodness, was that Ray Liston? She hadn't seen him since high school, after he'd had a run-in with the law. So he was a driver now.
She glanced over and saw Claire was busy with the table in the far corner. "I'll get this, Claire."
Claire waved her thanks, and Haley stood, going to the counter where the two men stood. "Can I get you guys something?"
"Two large coffees to go," said Ray. Then his eyes brightened a bit. "Say, I knew you in high school."
She pretended not to have realized it, though she didn't know why. "Really? Oh! You're Ray."
He grinned. A tall, lanky guy with a thinly growing beard, he had crooked teeth. His family had always been dirt-poor, though, so no orthodontics for him. That poverty hadn't made his school years any easier, and Haley had often felt a twinge of sympathy for him.
She felt Claire slip behind her to get to the coffeepot as she rang up the two coffees and accepted payment. "You're driving now?" she asked.
"Good for you. It's a great job." She couldn't help noticing how the other driver, a short, burly man with a balding head, kept looking the other way, as if he were uncomfortable for some reason. Nervous? Shy? What did it matter? She shrugged it off.
Claire surprised her by reaching around her to put the two coffees on the counter in front of the men.
"Thanks, Claire," she said as she closed the register.
"I was already here," came the response as Claire slipped past her again and headed back to her customers, pot in hand.
"See you around?" Ray said, almost hopefully.
She had no interest in him, but she managed a smile. "Sure, nearly every time you come in here now."
Ray laughed, then he and the other guy went to the condiment bar to add sugar and creamer to their coffees. A few seconds later they were out the door and headed across the lot.
Twenty minutes later, almost as if a signal had been sent, the lot started filling with the big rigs coming from the west, all of which had made a perilous trip over the mountains from the West Coast. She put her books away and went to work, hoping that the driver called Devlin would show up again.
He wasn't in the first wave, and soon she was busy serving everything from burgers to breakfast—large stacks of pancakes, lots of eggs and home fries, and gallons of coffee. She joked and chatted with those who were feeling friendly tonight, and kept the coffee coming. Coffee was essential, and the restaurant had four double-drip coffeemakers working constantly.
Then the place started emptying out. She filled a dozen takeout cups with coffee, and listened as the throbbing engines revved up and began to roar out of the lot.
Sometimes she imagined getting on those rigs and traveling to places she'd never been, from Denver to Chicago to St. Louis. These guys were headed all over the map, and in a small way she envied them. They had to feel free, out there on the road, aside from the need to keep to a schedule. Maybe that was part of the charm.
Just as she and Claire finished wiping the last table clean, readying for the next wave, a police car pulled up out front. Haley didn't immediately pay it much attention. Being the only all-night place operating around Conard City, they saw cops almost as often as they saw truck drivers.
But somehow, the instant Deputy Parish and Deputy Ironheart walked through the door, she knew this was no ordinary visit. They didn't go to the counter. They looked around, then focused on her and Claire.
Both deputies were of Native American descent, with dark eyes and equally dark hair, except for Micah Parish, who was starting to show some gray streaks in his raven hair. She had known both of them nearly her entire life.
"Hi, ladies," Sarah Ironheart said. "Can we talk to you?"
Haley felt her heart skitter. Something bad must have happened, but it hadn't happened here. Her mind started running over anything that might have to do with her, and discarded possibilities as fast as they occurred. She lived in a cheap, run-down apartment and all she owned was a twelve-year-old car and a laptop computer. No, it couldn't be something like that.
She and Claire dropped their cleaning rags in the bin and joined the deputies at one of the tables. Claire looked excited by the change of pace. Haley couldn't help feeling dread.
Life had taught her to dread. Words from a doctor, words from a cop, they weren't often good news.
Sarah Ironheart started, "We were wondering if either of you know Ray Liston."
"I knew him in school," Haley answered promptly. "Most everyone knew who he was. Is he in trouble?" At least this didn't have to do with her.
At that moment, the deep throbbing of another rig alerted her and she looked out to see a solo truck pulling in. Her heart jumped a little, hoping it was the Devlin guy. Why had she gotten so attached to seeing him?
Sarah's voice called her back. "Did he stop in here tonight?"
Claire looked at Haley for an answer.
Haley nodded. "He and another driver came in to pick up some coffee to go."
"Did you talk to him? Did he seem all right? Alert, not under the influence of something?"
"He seemed fine, actually," Haley said, thinking back. "He recognized me even though we hadn't seen each other since high school. It wasn't much of a conversation. I asked if he was driving now, he said he was, and I said I was glad he had such a good job. Something like that."
"So you didn't notice anything off about him?" Haley shook her head. "No. Why? Did he get into trouble?"
Sarah sighed. "He ran his truck off the road about ten miles east of here."
Haley's hands tightened on the edge of the table. She felt her heart race with shock. At that moment Devlin walked through the door and headed to his usual table. "Customer," she said almost automatically, still trying to absorb the news. Ran his truck off the road?
"He can wait," Micah Parish said. Then he glanced over his shoulder. "Buddy, can you wait a few?"
Devlin nodded. "No problem."
God, he looked good, Haley thought. Better than usual, though she couldn't say what it was about him. But she forced her attention back to the two deputies because another question, one she wasn't sure she wanted answered, hammered at her. "Is he okay? Ray?"
Sarah and Micah exchanged glances. "No," Micah said. "He's dead. That's why we need to know if you noticed anything at all unusual about him."
"He seemed fine," Haley repeated. "Not much different from high school, except maybe thinner. He's dead? He's really dead?"
It fully hit her then. A man she had been talking to a short time ago, a man she had known for her entire childhood, was dead. Tremors started to run through her and a tunnel seemed to grow around her vision.
"Focus," Sarah said gently. "Focus, Haley. We need to know if you noticed anything at all unusual about Ray."
"He seemed fine," she repeated, hearing the flatness of her own voice. Her mind was trying to draw into a cocoon, she realized, just as it had when she first heard her mother's diagnosis.
"So there was nothing off-kilter, nothing unusual?"
The restaurant, which had seemed to be receding, suddenly snapped into sharp focus as she remembered. "Not really. Not when he came in here. But beforehand " She hesitated because it seemed so unimportant to a man's death. An accidental death.
"What?" Micah prompted.
"I'm not sure exactly. When I came to work there were two trucks parked back-to-back. That's unusual. They usually park side by side."
"So he didn't park normally." Sarah scribbled something in a notebook.
"It's probably meaningless," Haley said. "It's unusual, but there weren't any other trucks out there at the time. They could have parked sideways for all it mattered. I thought I caught sight of them moving crates between the trucks. Just briefly, but I can't be sure because it was so far away and with all the light in here, the parking lot isn't easy to see."
"Well, that wouldn't have caused an accident farther down the road," Sarah said and closed her notebook. "Thanks, Haley. If you think of anything else, just let us know, okay?"
The deputies rose, leaving immediately. Haley jumped up, still feeling shaken, but needing to take care of her favorite customer. Her favorite customer? What an odd thought, considering he didn't talk all that much. But he was nice. Then it struck her that he never came in with the rest of the waves. He always came alone.
Move. She needed to move. She felt as if news of Ray's death had tossed her brain like a salad, if only because she had once known him and he seemed so young to end this way. Keeping busy seemed like the only antidote.
Posted March 7, 2013
I've been reading Conard Co. books since Rachel Lee started writing them in the Viet Nam vet era. In fact, I have them all. This story has an interesting plot and I couldn't put it down. Entertaining read!
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Posted April 2, 2013
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