This is the first chapter from my book Dead Moon Rising, originally writing as Macy Largo. It’s a perfectly spooky Halloween kind of read. The characters also make a guest appearance in Love Slave for Two: Reunions (book 3).
Dead Moon Rising (mmf, suspense, mystery/horror, law enforcement)
The sun had long since set in the distance behind her on I-90, painting the rolling South Dakota plains landscape with deep reds and oranges before it disappeared, setting Sarah’s teeth on edge. Not because it wasn’t pretty, but because her intuition screamed at her as darkness descended.
Bad, baaaad juju.
Destination: Miami, Florida. There, Sarah Aston’s uncle, Eddie, had promised her she could live with him, get a new start on her life, and put her ex-boyfriend behind her.
Unfortunately, her cranky fifteen year-old Subaru didn’t seem up to the trip.
The moonless night was dimly lit by countless stars in a crystal-clear sky. Despite the warm June evening, she shivered.
An exit sign appeared in her anemic headlights, which seemed to lose strength over the past hour or so. She suspected a cranky alternator staging a last stand of General Custer proportions. Unfortunately, probably with the same result.
Swinging off the highway onto the exit, she soon found an unmanned gas station with lights and pumps on for those who could pay via plastic. Fortunately, she still had three hundred dollars left on the pre-paid MasterCard she’d bought before rolling out of Seattle, and almost five hundred more in cash stashed in a plastic zip-top bag shoved inside a wad of dirty underwear in her overnight bag.
Taking a risk to leave it running, she shut the headlights off and anxiously looked around while she gassed up. She resisted the urge to nervously dance from foot to foot as she muttered at the pump to hurry up.
This is bad. Really, really baaaad. Of epic proportions, major horror movie creepies, zombies crawling out of the woodwork baaaad.
When ten, she’d fractured her skull falling out of a tree in their Seattle backyard. In the sixteen years since then, she’d had the intuitions. She refused to call them psychic flashes. They were warnings of a sort, but always accurate. She didn’t want to believe any supernatural explanations. She just knew that something about the accident had put her more in tune with her body’s natural warning signs. Unfortunately, most of her friends and family decided it creeped them out enough that they didn’t want to spend much time around her. Especially when she accurately predicted the deaths of her parents and three friends over the past several years.
The latest prediction before tonight’s creepfest, fortunately, didn’t forewarn of anything nearly as dire, only that her boyfriend had been cheating on her.
True, of course.
Uncle Eddie didn’t care about her “special talent” and had welcomed her with open arms when he found out she wanted a new start after her ex-boyfriend royally screwed her and left her pretty much out on the street. After she’d confronted the louse, he gave her one hour to get her stuff packed and get out. She’d managed to snag the ATM card and empty their joint bank account, most of the money of which was hers to begin with.
Despite the fact that she paid most of the bills, the lease and utilities were in his name, so she couldn’t fight him.
She’d tried not to think about her anger and pain over his betrayal, instead wanting to focus on the new life ahead of her in Miami. But ever since sunset, a deep, dark feeling blossomed inside her, the antithesis of joy and longing. She had two options, both extremely restricted by her car’s iffy performance and limited funds—press on and pray she drove out of whatever the feeling was, or stop right here, lock the doors, and hope someone showed up for work sooner rather than later.
As she finished fueling, a dark sedan heading toward I-90 rolled by, doing slower than the posted speed limit.
The nearly overwhelming dark cloud suddenly engulfing her made her mind up for her. She impatiently waited for the pump to spit out her receipt as her fingers trembled while trying to screw the gas cap on. The sedan had totally disappeared from sight by the time she turned to jump into her car.
A little relief settled. Whoever—whatever—had been in that car had been the cause of her unease.
Or maybe I’m just a nervous woman travelling alone cross-country for the first time and pissing my pants at the sight of the first car I’ve seen in over an hour.
She turned the headlights on, one of her dash indicator lights blipping briefly at her before shutting off again. The voltage light.
Reflected in the dark windows of the gas station’s store, she could tell the headlights definitely looked weaker than they should be.
Maybe staying, now that she felt a little more settled, would be safer.
That won’t get me to Florida.
A check of her cheap-ass pre-paid cell phone showed no service in the area. A brief look around, and the only pay phone holder was missing its phone. Damn.
With a tight grip on the steering wheel, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
What to do?
Finally, she shifted the car into drive and headed back to I-90. At last check, she was less than an hour west of Mitchell. If she could make it there, she could find someplace safe to pull in and wait until morning, get her car looked at, and maybe get a cell signal. She kept the radio and air conditioning off to preserve her battery like her uncle had warned her at her last call and drove on through the lonely darkness.
* * * *
Captain Plato Delaney of the South Dakota Highway Patrol sat in his cruiser on the westbound shoulder of I-90, five miles east of Mitchell, and filled out paperwork. Nerves on edge, he prayed his intuition proved wrong this time.
Unfortunately for him, it usually didn’t.
In the past year, there had been four “new moon murders,” all unsolved, on this lonely stretch of road between Sioux Falls and Rapid City. No one wanted to believe him when he said he suspected they were connected by the lunar cycle. It wasn’t unheard of for stranded motorists to fall victim to foul play in such desolate settings. There were enough differences in the cases, and too few leads, that his superiors didn’t want to put out extra manpower on new moon nights, especially not with the huge Sturgis motorcycle festival less than two months away. While no one had outright said as much, they made it clear to him that such bad publicity right before their biggest tourist season wasn’t welcomed.
In the past hour, only three vehicles had passed him, two of them semis heading east in the other lane toward Sioux Falls. He jumped when his personal cell phone rang.
“You scared the crap out of me, John.”
The caller chuckled. “Sorry, babe. How goes the stake out?”
Only Del’s lover, John Riley, believed and agreed with his theory. A retired trooper himself, he’d looked at the evidence and nodded. “I think you’re on to something, Del, but good luck convincing the brass of that before Sturgis.” And of course John, seven years older than his own thirty-nine, had been right about that, even though Del had thought maybe he could make their superiors listen to his hunch despite a lack of evidence.
Del prayed no one else died before Sturgis ended. Maybe then he could convince someone to take another look at the cases.
“All quiet in my little stretch of hell. I’ve got about ten more minutes on this report, and then I’m heading west again past Mitchell before I loop around.”
“I’m going to bed, but I’ll keep the phone close. I know you hate the overnights, but if it means anything, I think you’re right.”
Del resisted the urge to close his eyes and rest. He normally worked day shifts. He’d volunteered to cover for another trooper out with the birth of his first child when Del realized it would overlap a new moon period. “Thanks. Try to get some sleep.”
“Not easy in this big ole bed without you here. I’ll have the kettle brewing when you get home. Love you, and stay safe.”
“Love you, too.” Del hung up and stared at the phone. John hated his early forced retirement four years prior due to an accident that shattered his legs and hips. Now he worked as a freelance computer consultant and software designer from their shared home in Mitchell. Del knew John missed the job, could see the wistful longing in his face every time he sent him off on a shift and heard the eagerness in his voice when Del discussed cases with him.
His intuition buzzed. It’d been two uneventful new moons since the last killing. This was the third. If the pattern held, there would be a murder tonight. Maybe not on his stretch of highway, but somewhere in the lonely blackness between the lights of the two gateway cities that stood sentry to this ribbon of asphalt.
Finally finishing his report, he shut off the cabin lights and headed west, alone on the interstate.
* * * *
Sarah prayed her luck held. She clicked the headlights off, leaving just her running lights on for safety. Checking her mirrors frequently, she spotted no one coming up behind her on the interstate. She had just enough light to make out the road ahead of her if she took it easy. After fifteen minutes, the dark feeling swelled within her again.
In the distance up ahead, she spotted two vehicles pulled over on the right shoulder. The one in front, a dual-axle Ford truck with a crew cab, hauling a fifth-wheel camper, had its flashers on and a flat on the trailer.
Behind it on the shoulder, headlights dark but his parking lights on, was parked the dark sedan that had passed her earlier.
Sliding over to the left lane, she hunched down and prayed her car didn’t break down. Her stomach rebelled, threatening to upend. As she drew closer, she spotted an older man talking to another one. The older man, she assumed the owner of the rig, held a flashlight pointed down at the ground, although the light illuminated both of them.
The other man leaned against the front left fender of the sedan as they talked. With a dark baseball cap pulled low, and the light from the flashlight below, she swore she spotted dark holes where his eyes should be as he looked up and seemingly right at her.
She gunned it, nerves screaming bloody murder for her to get the hell out of there.
Bad, baaaad juju!
Heart racing, she finally flipped on her headlights two miles down the road and realized she was doing eighty. Thankfully the road was mostly straight. Unfortunately, the headlights barely made more of a dent in the dark than her running lights.
Slowing a little, she pried one hand at a time off the steering wheel and flexed her nearly numb fingers.
Over the next fifteen miles, her headlights dwindled to faint glows. Then, without fanfare, the car simply shut off.
“No! Oh, fuck no, pleasepleaseplease!” Tears rolled down her face as she coasted onto the right shoulder, tires hauntingly crunching in the gravel as she steered to a stop safely off the highway. When she tried the key again, nothing but an ominous click met her efforts.
She dropped her forehead to the steering wheel and cried. The worst of the dark feeling had faded with every mile she put between her and the dark sedan, but it still lingered. Someone in that car was bad news, and the only weapon she had was her scathing sarcasm.
She assumed that wouldn’t be helpful against a psycho with a knife or gun.
Double checking that all four doors were locked, she pulled out her cell phone again and tried to get a signal. Nothing.
There were probably worse places to be stuck in a broken down car in the middle of the night with no cell phone reception and a really bad something out there giving her the heebie-jeebies, but off the top of her head, she couldn’t think of one.
* * * *
Del headed west along I-90 at an easy pace, not even doing the speed limit. As he passed the Mitchell exit, he fought the urge to veer off, head home, and kiss John goodnight. Only four more days, then he would switch back to his normal daytime patrol schedule. Perk of seniority and rank, he didn’t have to pull night shifts on a regular basis unless there was a special event going on or they needed someone to fill in.
Several miles later in the darkness, he spotted a car pulled off on the eastbound shoulder and fought back a grim suspicion. He found a turnaround and doubled-back to the car, flipping on his spotlight and jackpots as he pulled in behind it. Washington state tag. He called in his status and grabbed his flashlight. The white Subaru looked a little on the worn side, but not too beat up. Some road dust on it but otherwise okay.
He could see someone behind the wheel, but they didn’t move. His heart hammered in his chest as he unsnapped his holster and rested his right hand on the butt of his service revolver. He used his left to play the flashlight through the rear window as he approached on the driver’s side. A woman, he assumed from her long, dark hair, sat slumped over the steering wheel.
His dash cam would record everything if something happened.
He prayed nothing happened.
When he reached the driver’s door, he lightly tapped on the window with his flashlight. The woman startled, making him jump back as she screamed in terror.
“Ma’am? Would you mind stepping out of the car?”
She looked frightened out of her wits, and he snapped his holster closed. Whatever her problem, he suspected she wasn’t drunk.
She definitely wasn’t dead.
He stepped back as she fumbled for the door lock and climbed out. “Oh, thank god!” she sobbed.
His instincts screamed again as he stared at her. Straight black hair just past her shoulders, hazel eyes rimmed with red, as if she’d fallen asleep crying. Probably really pretty when she wasn’t scared half to death.
“What’s wrong, ma’am?”
“I broke down.” She shook her head. “I know, you must think I’m crazy, but you have no idea how scared I felt!” Before he could stop her, she threw her arms around him and hugged him. “Thank you so much for saving me!”
Relief flooded him. One less potential victim for the killer, at least. After gently peeling her off him, he said, “I’d like to see your license and registration anyway.” He waited for her to dig them out of her car. When she returned with them, he asked, “What’s it doing? Did you run out of gas?”
“No, my uncle told me earlier today when I called him that he thinks my alternator’s going bad.” She snorted with frightened, nervous laughter. “Gone bad. The lights started going dim, then it just died.”
“I’ll call you a tow truck. Wait here.” He returned to his cruiser, ran her info on his computer, and found out she was clean. Then he called for a tow, and that’s where the bad news started.
* * * *
The darkness had totally faded from her system. Yes, he’d scared the crap out of her at first, so badly she might have piddled her pants just a little, but the hunky brown-haired trooper’s blue eyes and friendly smile set her at ease once her heart slowed. He meant safety.
He would get her off this road so whoever was in that dark sedan wouldn’t stumble across her.
He returned, a frown on his handsome face. “The guy on rotation tonight is having problems with his truck, and there’s no one else available. I can get you back to Mitchell before he even gets on the road.” He glanced through her back window again and apparently noticed her stuff crammed inside. “Moving?”
She nodded, and that’s when she broke down in tears again. “I’m almost broke. I won’t have enough for a hotel room and to get it fixed and a new alternator. I’m moving to Florida to live with my uncle.” She felt pitiful enough, no pride left, might as well admit it. “I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“Just calm down, Miss Aston,” he soothed as he returned her license and registration. “You were pretty upset when I found you. What’s going on?”
“You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“I’m a trooper who works a stretch of road that sees crazy in a big way every year during Sturgis. Trust me, I’ve probably seen it all.”
She smoothed her hands over her arms to sooth the creeping gooseflesh as she recounted the dark sedan.
“Where did you see the sedan exactly?” he asked. “When you stopped for gas?”
She dug her credit card receipt out of her center console. The gas station’s address was printed on the slip. “There’s the exit. He was also heading east. I saw him pulled up behind an RV rig a few miles back when I went by. Looked like they had a flat tire. Truck and trailer.” She tried to laugh it off. “You know, it’s probably just my nerves and an overactive imagination.”
She didn’t like how he frowned. “Why don’t you gather what you need and any valuables from your car, lock it, and come with me? I know a place you can stay tonight. We’ll get your keys to Tom, the wrecker driver.”
She sniffled. “I only have like eight hundred total. I can’t afford a motel. I was just going to drive straight through to Florida and sleep in my car at rest areas.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just get your things.” She didn’t like how he suddenly scanned the area, as if on high alert.
That did worry her. “What’s wrong?”
He frowned. “Let’s just say you aren’t the only one with intuition issues, ma’am.”
* * * *
Del called for someone to check out the broken-down RV rig, but the closest unit was sixty miles away in the opposite direction. He was the only one available, and he didn’t dare risk taking her with him. He got her and her things loaded into the back seat of his cruiser, called John to wake him up, and raced home to Mitchell in record time.
John had left the front light on and stepped outside, using his cane, when he heard the cruiser in the drive.
Del let her out of the back seat and helped her with her things. “Sarah Aston, this is John Riley, South Dakota Highway Patrol, retired.”
She nodded, looking weary. “How do you do? Thank you for opening your home to me like this. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am.”
John smirked. “You didn’t tell her, Del?”
“I’m in a bit of a rush. I need to get back out and check another vehicle.”
“Tell me what?” she asked.
John smiled. “Our home, not mine. Del and I live together.”
After Del got her things out of his car, he handed John the keys to her car. “Tom will come by for them in a little while.”
John frowned at him. “What’s wrong?”
He glanced at Sarah, as she’d insisted he call her, then back to him. “I hope I’m wrong, but it may be a new moon issue,” he softly explained.
John grimly nodded. “Then get back out there and stay safe.”
* * * *
Sarah watched the men interact, feeling embarrassed by the way she almost spied on them as they kissed good-bye, and envious that they were so obviously in love. The way John brushed his fingers down the other man’s arm, briefly, but with more than a hint of subtle longing. The way Del’s eyes lingered on John’s face.
That, and her intuition screamed at her that they were good men and their home was a safe haven.
For once, she welcomed that damn freaky inner voice.
Inside, John offered her a sweet smile. “Can I make you anything to eat?”
She shook her head. “I’m so nervous I’d probably throw it up.”
He helped her schlep her stuff into the guest room. The tidy house felt homey and lived in, warm and inviting, much like John. A handmade quilt in rust and turquoise covered the double bed. “The bathroom’s across the hall there.” He pointed. “There’s fresh towels under the sink. Make yourself at home.”
She nodded, then jumped at the sound of a knock on the front door. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
She felt something swirl through her intuition, but nothing major, and nothing to do with John. She heard the front door open and John greet someone, the muffled sound of a woman’s voice, then the door shut again and a vehicle drove away. He returned.
“That was Tom’s sister, Cindy. He’s the wrecker driver on call tonight. He sent her over to get your keys while he’s trying to get his truck running.” He leaned in the doorway, the picture of ease in a T-shirt and jeans, barefoot. He had short sandy hair, just long enough to run your fingers through, and deep caramel-colored eyes. “You all right?”
She sank to the bed and nodded. “I’m sorry to put you all out like this.”
“It’s no trouble, sweetie. So you’re heading to Florida?”
“Yeah. Miami. That’s where my uncle lives.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Graphic artist. Mostly web design. I work freelance.” She sighed. “I told everyone I’d be out of touch for about a week, but this really messes me up.”
He seemed to perk up at that. “You have a portfolio?”
Weary, she nodded and pulled out one of her laptops to show him.
He smiled as he looked through some of her past projects. “You looking to make some extra money?”
From his tone of voice and expression, she realized this was a good thing. Then a rare wave of positive vibes flowed through her, one of the few times she enjoyed her little gift. “Depends on what you have in mind.”
He crooked his finger at her to follow him and led her down the hallway into another bedroom. This was obviously his home office, and she nearly nerdgasmed at the sight of the three large flat-screen monitors on one desk, along with the server tower in one corner.
“I run a software company and do some web design of my own,” he explained. “I could use an in-house graphic artist.” He smiled again, and part of her heart melted. “After you leave, we could still work together. My entire staff telecommutes. You game?”
She nodded. “Sure.”
He sat at the desk and fired up his computer. “Pull up that chair over there.” She did, and a few minutes later she realized the worst night of her life had turned into the best.
“You’re Riley Development? I love your CMS system! I’ve set it up for clients before.”
He smiled. “I’m flattered. Most people, including Del, their eyes start glazing over long before now. It was always my hobby while I still worked, then I turned it into a full-time living after I retired.”
She shook her head. “No, seriously, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. This…I can’t believe this!”
He extended his hand. “Then let’s let you get some sleep because you start work tomorrow.”
* * * *
John settled in his bedroom with the TV tuned to HBO and the phone on his chest. This could work out really well. Poor kid still acted nervous as hell, but he definitely wouldn’t mind her hanging around for a few days or longer. She seemed really nice.
He tried to focus on the movie and couldn’t. Del had bounced his theory about the New Moon Killer off him in hopes John could punch holes in it.
The problem was he couldn’t. And he had a feeling the girl now trying to sleep in their guest room had barely escaped becoming the next victim.
All he could do was wait for Del’s call.