While we’re counting down the days until July 17th, and the release of Breaking News, I decided to give you a sneak peek and a giveway.
Lawrence County, Southwest Missouri
A gunshot woke Paula. She sat up in bed, horror ringing through her head. For a moment, she was paralyzed. The future she had feared was happening.
I’ve got to move. Now.
Throwing back her blankets, she pulled on the jeans that were lying ready by her bed, tugged off her nightshirt, and yanked a turtleneck over her head. As she put on her coat, she tried to soothe Petey, her toy Yorkie, “It’s all right, boy. I smell the smoke too. We’re out of here.”
She slung her go backpack over her shoulders. A rope ladder lay coiled in readiness on the floor beneath the window, secured to two wall studs. Paula threw open the window, tossed the ladder into the night, and grabbed Petey.
She heard the flames crackle as she dropped quickly down the outside of her house. Fear licked at her heels as though the fire were already upon her. Her family home was one hundred years old, tinder dry. Though the night was usually dead black out here in the country, the fire on the other side of the house was beginning to light up the sky. She could see no one.
Petey quivered under her arm. “It’s all right,” she repeated as she stepped on the ground. “We made it.”
Paula heard a truck start and froze until she made out the tires spinning in the gravel. The hired killer planned for her to burn with the house. And there was that shot. That horrible shot.
As the sounds of the speeding truck began to fade, she ran to the front of the house, wrenched open the door, and was met with a wall of flame. Was her father dead like all the others?
She screamed, “Dad! Dad! Are you in there?”
There was no answer. She ran to the back window of her father’s bedroom. It wouldn’t open to her frantic attempts to lift it. Screening her eyes with both of her hands, she tried to see inside. The scene was backlit by the fire, and she could make out the profile of a body lying in the bed.
Fueled by rage, Paula swung the metal frame of her backpack repeatedly against the window until it shattered. She unlocked it and threw it open, burning her fingers.
“Hang tough, Petey. I’ll be right back.”
As she climbed into the room, she covered her face with her jacket, smelling her hair begin to singe. The fire was roaring furiously through the doorway and into the room. She ran to her father’s bed. Tears from smoke poured down her face.
He had been shot in the head. Paula expected grief but felt nothing but futility. Searching for a pulse, she could find none. And the fire was searing through the door, the rug beginning to burn. She dove out the open window, landing on the frosty grass next to her trembling little dog.
The fire would soon draw a crowd, and she preferred for everyone to think her dead, so she hoisted her backpack with one arm and Petey with the other and ran around the house to her car. Her car keys were ready in her pocket, along with her phone. Time to leave. Tossing her phone back into the burning house, she put Petey on the passenger seat and threw her backpack in the rear. “Here we go, boy. Hold on tight.”
She made for Highway 44 as fast as her little Civic could carry her. In case of this very situation, she always kept her car at least half-full of gas. Soon her house would be nothing but a smoking ruin, and her poor, hapless father buried in burned ashes. A tear leaked out of her eye, and she brushed it away. The time for grieving would have to be later. She was on the run. But Paula didn’t have any control over the rush of guilt that washed over her.
If only she could have persuaded her father to tell her what he knew, to leave, to move far away from all of this as soon as her mother had died. But he was crippled by grief and sat day after day just staring into space like he wanted to cease existing. Her fear and desperation had grown as she made all the preparations for both of them to leave in a hurry, if necessary. It was her duty to save him. She had already failed to save her mother.
He had been a big man. As much as she had wanted to, she couldn’t have strong-armed him to the car when he refused to leave. Besides, he just didn’t care. He had compromised every principle to save his wife, but she had died in spite of his sacrifice. He just couldn’t accept the loss. He was an empty husk.
* * *
By daybreak, she was in St. Louis, after changing her license plates in Rolla while it was still dark. She had foraged Oklahoma plates from a junkyard only days before. Her eyes felt gritty from smoke and lack of sleep, and the sight of the Cardinals’ stadium and the graceful arch built next to the Mississippi put an ache in her heart.
Dad. Poor, poor Dad. You won’t be watching any more baseball.
Paula drove at a more sedate speed to the upscale suburb of Chesterfield. On some kind of autopilot, she stopped at an Einstein Bagels for breakfast and to let Petey do his business. Carrying a sack with one toasted cinnamon bagel with cream cheese and a cup of latte, she climbed back into her little car and set about looking for a large drugstore.
A twenty-four-hour Walgreens. Perfect. She and Petey sat in the parking lot, where she ate and listened to news radio. She doubted whether her father’s murder would make the news this soon since it had happened five hours downstate. She shuddered and felt queasy at the thought that his body had surely burned. Tossing the rest of her bagel in the sack, she wondered if her father’s death might even look like an accident. It would take longer for an autopsy to reveal the bullet hole in his skull. But the chipper female commentator spoke only of local St. Louis news and sports.
The drugstore carried Petey’s dog kibble. She spent less than a minute choosing a Miss Clairol kit to lighten her midbrown hair to blonde. She also bought makeup. She hadn’t worn it since she left Chicago a year ago. Who would have seen her when she was nursing her poor mother in the middle of the Ozarks? But now no one searching for Paula James would expect to find a glamorous creature. It was sort of a reverse disguise.
Her last purchase was a prepaid burner phone.
* * *
The room at the Fairfield Inn was perfect. No cheap hotel off the interstate on the wrong side of town. If anyone were looking for her, that was just where they would expect to find her. She paid cash from the stash in her backpack and signed in under the name Marijane Phelps. Once he had taken his time around a boxwood hedge, sniffing and pawing the loose mulch, she smuggled Petey inside in her purse. She took one look at the bed, threw off her jacket and backpack, and crashed. Exhaustion pushed every other emotion and concern out of her head. Her adrenaline rush had faded. For a while she trembled uncontrollably. Then finally, she slept, the little Yorkie on the pillow next to her.
Awakening four hours later, she panicked.
Where am I?
Slowly, everything came back, and she jerked upright. The smell of smoke permeated the hotel room. She had slept long enough.
After taking Petey out, she unpacked her box of hair product and proceeded to follow the directions that would make her a blonde, all the while listening to the noon news on TV.
Probably because of the rash of meth lab deaths, her father’s murder was the breaking story, narrated by a voluptuous blonde with too-white teeth.
A neighbor’s call to 911 led firemen to a house and a separate meth lab on fire in the woods outside of Aurora. There they discovered Charles “Chet” James murdered by a single shot to the head.
The lab is just one of three that have burned down in the last three months. The sheriff suspects that all the fires may be linked.
Neighbors a half mile away phoned 911 when their bloodhounds started barking in the middle of the night. They immediately smelled smoke. When authorities arrived, they were able to put out a fire which had already destroyed a house. The use of an accelerant is suspected.
A daughter was known to live there with her father, but no trace of her body was found, and authorities think she may have escaped. The sheriff is anxious to question Paula James as a person of interest in the case.
The state fire marshal has sent investigators to the scene, but local law enforcement is coordinating the investigation at this time.
The Ozarks region of Missouri and Arkansas is known to be the biggest source of domestically produced methamphetamines in the country.
Paula felt a jolt of anxiety. Person of interest. They suspected her of murdering her father? She had been on the run from whoever had killed her father, but now it appeared she was also on the run from the sheriff. Petey whined and climbed into her lap. She petted him absently.
“We’re sad that Daddy died, but things are going to be all right, little one,” she said. “We’re going to make a clean getaway.” She poured out some kibble onto a tray that sat on the table. Filling the bathroom sink with water, she lifted him to the counter so he could lap his fill.
As she showered to rinse the dye out of her hair, thoughts of her mother visited her. She remembered her on her deathbed, her body wasted by cancer. Mom had been so worried about Dad. He had maxed out their credit cards, and she knew he must be doing something illegal to pay for her treatments. They had even traveled abroad to try procedures not legal in the US. But nothing could put off Mom’s inevitable death. She had made Paula promise that she would make her home with her father, looking out for him and trying to wean him away from the bad situation he had fallen into. Paula had kept the knowledge of just how bad the situation was to herself.
She had kept her promise, and her father had finally agreed to leave—to just walk away from the meth lab. Her thoughts raced as she stood under the shower, and the press of things she could not remember threatened to surface. Closing her eyes, she bit her lip hard and kept her mental barrier in place.
Instead, she focused on her father. He was not an evil man. He was desperate to save his wife and succumbed to the lure of the cash he desperately needed. The farm brought in only a subsistence income. They had no health insurance. It was Paula who had to make him see all the lives that were being ruined by the “product” he was cooking in the woods. If only she could have made him see sooner, they could both have gotten away.
Paula, you don’t have time for regrets now. Focus on your plan.
She slammed off the shower, got out, and dried herself. She would have to leave her hair wet. There was no time to dry or cut it at the moment. Once she had combed out the snarls, she put everything she had used back in her backpack, including the packaging for her hair product. Paula left the motel. Stopping at a McDonald’s drive-through for a chicken sandwich she didn’t really want but knew she had to eat, she ate while driving. She headed for Highway 55, knowing the route well from the days she had driven home from school during the holidays. Next stop: Chicago.