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Dangerous Lies, Page 2

Becca Fitzpatrick

  As we climbed out of the car, a woman rose from the porch swing and descended the steps, the heels of her red cowboy boots coming down hard on the weathered wood.

  "You found the place," she called out. She wore jeans tucked into the boots, and a denim shirt with a few buttons open at the top. Her platinum white hair hit just above the shoulders, and she studied us with snapping blue eyes. "Just enjoying a glass of lemonade and listening to the cicadas. Can I offer you a drink?"

  "Now, that's an offer I can't refuse," Price said. "Stella?"

  I glanced between them. They watched me with careful, braced smiles. Feeling my head begin to spin, I blinked a few times, trying to right the world. The woman's red boots began to swirl like a kaleidoscope, and I knew I'd lost the fight. Suddenly I was back in Philadelphia, a man bleeding out on the floor of our library, human tissue splattered on the wall behind him. I felt the weight of my mom's head cradled in my lap, strange, hysterical sobs breaking from my throat. I heard police sirens wailing up the street and my own pulse roaring in my ears.

  "Perhaps you'd like me to show you to your room, Stella?" the woman said, jerking me out of the flashback.

  I felt myself sway, and Price caught me by the elbow. "Let's get her inside. Long day of travel. A full night's rest will do a world of good."

  Regaining some of my senses, I ripped out of his hold. "Don't."


  I whirled on him. "What do you want from me? Do you want me to drink lemonade and act like any of this is normal? I don't want to be here. I didn't ask for this. Everything I know is gone. I'll--I'll never forgive her for this!" The words came choking out before I realized it. My whole body felt tight and slippery. I swiped at my eyes, refusing to cry. Not until I was alone and could risk falling apart. I pressed my fingernails deep into my palm to draw the pain out of my heart and focus it somewhere manageable.

  Before I dragged my luggage up to the house, I saw the woman's--Carmina's--mouth pinch at the edges, and Price flashed her an apologetic grimace as if to say there was no accounting for teenage behavior. I didn't care what they thought. If they believed I was selfish and difficult, they were probably right. And if I made this summer a living hell for Carmina, maybe she'd let me move out early and live on my own. It wasn't the worst idea I'd ever had.

  Price trotted up the porch steps to hold the screen door for me, and Carmina said, "Maybe we'll put off a tour of the house until tomorrow. Bed might be just the thing."

  "I can't be the only one who's dog-tired," Price readily agreed.

  I wasn't tired, but I wanted to close myself behind a door just as badly as they did, so I didn't argue. I didn't care if it made me look compliant. Carmina would find out soon enough that even though the Justice Department had given me a cover story and a new life, I wasn't going to pretend like anything about this was okay with me.

  Inside, the house smelled like rosewater. Dainty flower-printed wallpaper peeled away from the walls, and I caught a glimpse of the sofas in the living room--battered blue corduroy. There was an antlered head of some species of deer mounted above the fireplace. I'd never seen anything so backwoods or tacky.

  Carmina led the way up the worn staircase. Nail holes pitted the wall going up, but the portraits had been taken down, and for the first time, I wondered briefly about Carmina. Who she was. Why she lived alone. If she'd had a family, and what had happened to them. Instantly, I shut off the questions. This woman meant nothing to me. She was a government-issued stand-in for my mom until I turned eighteen at the end of August and could legally live on my own.

  At the top of the stairs, Carmina pushed open a door. "This is where you'll sleep. Fresh towels on the dresser, basic toiletries in the bathroom next door down. Tomorrow we can swing by the store and pick up anything I missed. Breakfast's at seven sharp. Any dietary restrictions I need to know about? Not allergic to peanuts, are you?"


  She gave a satisfied nod. "See you in the morning, then. Sleep tight."

  Carmina closed the door and I lowered myself onto the edge of the twin bed. The springs squeaked an off-key note. The window was open, letting in a warm, muggy breeze, and I wondered why Carmina wasn't running the AC. She wasn't going to leave the house windows open all night, was she? Was that safe?

  I shut and locked the window and yanked the blue cotton curtains shut, but right away the hot, stuffy air felt suffocating. I lifted my hair to fan the back of my neck. Then I peeled out of my clothes and flopped back on the bed.

  The room was small, barely wide enough to hold the bed and an oak dresser. The pitched roof made the walls seem to squeeze even tighter around me. My eyes traced the patchwork of blue rectangles on the faded ceiling where posters, now gone, had preserved the original paint color. Blue paint, blue curtains, blue sheets. And a dusty baseball glove on the top shelf of the open closet. A boy must have lived here. I wondered where he'd gone.

  Somewhere far away, surely. As soon as I turned eighteen, I was going far away from this place too.

  Reaching into the front pouch of my suitcase, I pulled out a small bundle of letters. Contraband. I wasn't supposed to bring anything from my old life, any proof that I had come from Philadelphia, and I felt a thrill at this small rebellion--accidental as it was. Call me sentimental, but lately I'd been carrying Reed's letters with me everywhere. The more unstable my home life had become, the more comforting I'd found them. When I felt alone, they reminded me that I had Reed. He cared about me. He had my back. Up until three nights ago, I'd stored the letters in my purse. I'd moved them to my suitcase to keep them from being discovered. Some of the letters were recent, but others were from as long ago as two years, when Reed and I first started dating. Vowing to ration them, I took one from the top and returned the others to their hiding place.


  Don't know if you've ever had someone leave a note under your windshield wiper, but it seemed like the kind of thing you'd find romantic. Remember that night on the train, when we first met? I never told you, but I took a candid picture of you. It was before you left your phone on your seat and I chased you down to give it back (hero that I am). Anyway, I was pretending to text so you wouldn't know I took your picture. I still have it on my phone.

  I love you. Now do me a favor and destroy this so I can keep my dignity intact.


  I pressed the letter to my chest, feeling my breathing slow. Please let me see him again soon, I silently begged. I didn't know how long the letters would tide me over. But tonight's letter had done its job; the loneliness drained from my body, leaving a deep physical exhaustion.

  I rolled onto my side, expecting sleep to come quickly. Instead, I grew more aware of the quiet stillness. It was an empty sound, waiting to be filled. My imagination wasted no time inventing explanations for the soft creak of the walls, shrinking as the day's heat wore off, or the occasional thud on the floorboards. I couldn't shake the picture of Danny Balando's dark eyes as I slipped into restless sleep.


  THE RUMBLE OF A LAWN MOWER CARRIED THROUGH the bedroom window, which I'd opened in the middle of the night after waking dizzy with heat and bathed in sweat. The whine of the engine grew nearer, passing right under the window, then droned to the far edge of the lawn. I cracked one bleary eye and found the clock on the nightstand.

  Annoyance and outrage shot through me. Kicking free of the sheets, I stuck my head out the window and shouted, "Hey! Check the time!"

  The guy pushing the mower didn't hear me. I slammed the rickety window shut. It muffled the noise fractionally.

  I flipped the guy off. He didn't see it. The first rays of dawn were behind him, illuminating thousands of flecks of pollen and gnats buzzing around his head like a halo as he pushed the mower across Carmina's yard. The toes of his boots were stained green from the grass, and he wore a tan cowboy hat low over his eyes. He had earbuds in, and I watched his lips move to the lyrics of a song.

  I dropped a nightshirt over my head and
stepped into the hall. "Carmina?" I padded to the end of the hall and knocked on her bedroom door.

  The door cracked. "What is it? What's the matter?"

  It was so dark in her room, I couldn't make out her face. But I heard the anxiety in her voice and could hear her fumbling for something, clothes most likely, on the floor.

  "Someone's mowing your yard."

  She dropped the clothes and straightened. "And?"

  "It's only five."

  "You woke me up to tell me the time?"

  "I can't sleep. It's too loud."

  Her mattress springs creaked as she settled back into bed. She let out a sigh of exasperation. "Chet Falconer. Lives down the road. Wants to finish work before it's too hot--good for him. Don't you have one of those little music gadgets? Turn on a song and you won't hear a thing."

  "I wasn't allowed to bring my iPhone."

  "An iPhone isn't the only thing round here that plays music. Try the bottom drawer of the dresser in your room. Now, go back to bed, Stella."

  She leaned out of bed and pushed the door closed in my face.

  My back went up, and I walked stiffly to my room. I cast an evil eye out the window, watching as Chet Falconer finished another row and swung the mower around. From this angle, I couldn't see his face, but a small patch of sweat soaked through the front of his white T-shirt, and when he paused to wipe his cheek on his sleeve, the hem of his shirt hitched up, revealing a taut stomach. His arms were tan and muscular, and he tapped his thumb against the mower's handlebar to keep time with whatever music he was listening to. He'd obviously started the morning with an entire pot of coffee. Since I couldn't say the same, I just scowled at him. I was tempted to open the window and yell down something obscene, but between the earbuds and the mower, there was no way he'd hear.

  I sprawled facedown on the bed and folded the pillow tightly over my head. No luck. The lawnmower continued to whine through the windowpane like an angry insect. Taking Carmina's advice, I jerked open the bottom drawer of the dresser and nearly choked on my laughter.

  A Sony Walkman, complete with AM/FM radio and cassette player. I blew dust off the surface, thinking I hadn't traveled to Nebraska--I'd traveled into the previous century.

  Sorting through the cassette tapes littering the bottom of the drawer, I read the handwritten labels. Poison, Whitesnake, Van Halen, Metallica.

  Did Carmina have a son? Had this been his bedroom before he'd bolted--wisely--out of Thunder Basin?

  I chose Van Halen, because it was the only tape that didn't need to be rewound. Hitting play, I snuggled under the sheet and turned up the volume until I could no longer hear the rumble of Chet Falconer's lawn mower.

  I wandered down to the kitchen at ten. I followed the smell of bacon and eggs to find my way. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had bacon and eggs. Disneyland, probably, when I was seven, with Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes. The idea of eating a meal at a table set with real dishes, let alone having someone cook for me, was unfathomable. My go-to breakfast was a skinny latte and whole-grain oatmeal from Starbucks. I ate in my car, on the way to school.

  As I entered the kitchen, I found the table cleared and the food gone. Through the screen door leading to the backyard, I could see Carmina on her knees in the vegetable garden, pulling weeds. Judging by the large pile beside her, she'd been out there a while.

  "I think I missed breakfast," I said, crossing the yard to her.

  "Think so," she said without looking up.

  "Did you save any for me?"

  "Last I checked, bacon and eggs don't taste good cold."

  "Okay, I get it. You snooze, you lose," I said with a shrug. If she thought she was going to make a point by starving me, she was pretty inexperienced at parenthood. I could do just fine on a mug of coffee. Wouldn't be the first time. "When's lunch?"

  "After we drive you around to fill out summer job applications."

  "I don't want a job."

  "School's out, so most of the good jobs have been snatched up, but we'll find you something," she went on.

  "I don't want a job," I repeated more firmly. I'd never had a job. My family wasn't old money--we didn't live in a country estate on the Main Line, and I didn't dress effortlessly like Jackie O.--but we weren't living paycheck to paycheck, either. My mom had been a debutante in Knoxville, and while she'd burned through what could be called her dowry, it was important to her to keep up appearances. It just would not do to have me seen in the workforce. My dad was a principal in a venture capital firm, and after he divorced my mom more than two years ago, he left her with enough money that she didn't have to work. Up until a few days ago, I'd lived with my mom in the suburbs, in a beautiful gray fieldstone cottage that sat at the end of a long, tree-lined cul-de-sac. Circumstances as they were, I'd never had the motivation or desire to break a sweat for minimum wage.

  And I definitely wasn't used to taking orders. My mom was more like a roommate than a parent; we were often ships passing in the night. I hadn't had someone tell me what to do in years.

  Carmina sat back on her haunches and looked at me squarely. "What're you gonna do all summer, child? Sit around and feel sorry for yourself? Not under my roof. Time a girl your age learned to look after herself."

  I ran my tongue over my teeth, checking my words. If Carmina wanted a fight, I could give her one. But if she, an adult, was baiting me into a fight, it stood to reason that she had an agenda. Maybe she thought if I could just yell and scream and get all my pain out in the open, I'd suddenly become a new person. One who wanted to be in Thunder Basin for the summer. One who wanted to make Carmina's life easy.

  "All right," I said, forcing myself to speak calmly. "What kind of job do you think I can get?"

  Carmina frowned, proving I'd guessed right. She'd expected me to fight back, to let my anger out. She'd hoped I would. I had news for her: The cop had lost her edge in retirement. She couldn't read me. And I couldn't think of a bigger victory.

  "Well," she said thoughtfully at last, "there's food service. I hear the Sundown Diner is hiring carhops. Or you could work in the cornfields; they're always looking for help. But it's hard, hot work with long hours, and the pay isn't anything to smile about."

  "Okay," I said, still cool and collected. "I'll take a shower and get ready."

  By the time I'd climbed the stairs to my room, I'd changed my mind about the job. I'd probably hate it, but it couldn't be worse than sitting around the house all day with Carmina. And since I got the feeling she expected me, a bratty teen with an attitude problem, to fail at manual labor, I was invested in proving her wrong. How hard could a summer job be? Flipping burgers was gross, but hardly rocket science. And if I got the diner job, it would have air conditioning. Surely Nebraska had embraced that modern convenience.

  I found it a touch ironic that I, the proverbial princess from the castle high on the hill, was being forced to take the disguise I least wanted--that of a poor, hardworking servant girl. I wondered if Deputy Price and the rest of his friends at the DOJ had planned this--to give me a heaping spoonful of humble pie. They probably found it amusing. Go ahead, boys. Laugh all you want. When this is over, you'll still be wearing cheap suits and dealing with the scum of the earth. Meanwhile, the government will have to unfreeze my family's accounts, I'll have my money back, and this humiliating summer will be nothing more than a distant memory.

  A half hour later I emerged from the bathroom with damp hair and the cheap smell of Ivory clinging to my skin. I wore cut-offs and a basic white tee. I'd skipped putting on makeup, except for a quick dab of tinted moisturizer and a swipe of lip gloss. Although it was so humid out, I hardly needed either.

  Carmina had moved her weed-pulling to the front yard. She knelt over the flower bed at the bottom of the driveway, tossing weeds into a bucket. When the porch door slammed shut behind me, she looked up from beneath her wide-brimmed straw hat.

  "What kind of job are you hoping for dressed like that?" she asked, rocking back on her heels to ex
amine me.

  "Don't care."

  "You don't care, you're gonna get stuck with the cards at the bottom of the deck."

  "Somebody has to get them."

  "You've sure got the attitude down, don't you? Get in the truck, then."

  An old Ford truck with peeling blue paint was parked in the driveway, and after wrenching the heavy passenger door open, I climbed in. The insides of both doors were rusted over and the seat covers had split open to reveal foam cushioning. The glove box lay open. I tried to shut it, but the securing mechanism must have been broken, because the door flopped open in the same position I'd found it. I rolled my eyes and hoped the next surprise wouldn't be a rat darting across my foot.

  "Really hoping you loan me this clunker," I breathed cynically as Carmina hoisted herself behind the wheel.

  "Buy your own truck. That's what a paycheck's for." She pumped the gas pedal, cranked the ignition, and the engine growled to life. "Bought this truck working my first job. Felt good to be an independent woman. Wouldn't dream of robbing you of the same satisfaction."

  "What year's the truck?"


  I whistled. "You're older than I thought."

  "That what you think?" She laughed long and heartily. "Girl, didn't anybody tell you you're only as old as you feel? Judging by your long, sour face, I'm not the one who's got something to worry about."

  As we drove down the gravel road that led to the paved street that would eventually take us into town, we passed a two-story redbrick house shaded by a grove of cottonwood trees. There were hanging flowerpots on the porch, and the architecture had the charm of, and potential for, a country bed and breakfast.

  At that moment, Chet Falconer rounded the side of the house carrying a rusted toolbox in one hand and a ladder in the other. I still couldn't see his face, but I recognized the low-tipped cowboy hat and white T-shirt.