Death Angel (Chapter Sixteen)

THE TRUCK WAS GAINING ON HER. DREA HADN'T LOOKED in the mirror for several minutes as she paid attention to the road, which was developing some twists and turns at the same time the elevation was rising and falling. Right now they were climbing a low ridge, with the land falling away to the right; not an extremely steep drop nor a long one, but throw in the occasional sharp curve and her driving skills were being tested. She was out of practice, despite the past week, and most of her driving had been done on flat land anyway.

It had been awhile since she'd seen a road sign that gave her the highway number, and she began to worry that she might have missed a crucial turn, because they hadn't met another car for at least five minutes and the road was noticeably narrower. Was she still on her chosen route to Denver? She couldn't exactly pull over and look at her map; there was no shoulder to the road, not to mention there was a killer on her ass.

Then she dared a glance in the mirror and saw the truck was no more than fifty yards behind her, and closing the remaining gap at a frightening pace.

Her heart leaped into her throat, and her hands tightened on the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. He'd evidently decided now was the time, that the road was deserted enough and he didn't have to wait any longer. She'd hoped for night to catch them, hoped…

She didn't know what she'd hoped. That he'd wait until she had the best chance of giving him the slip? Yeah, like that was going to happen. She should have expected this.

He'd tightened the gap by another twenty yards and was close enough now that she could make him out in the truck cab, see the dark sunglasses he was wearing.

How much was Rafael paying him? Maybe she could pay him more. Maybe-Why was she letting herself get distracted with this crap, as if she'd be able to negotiate with him? He wouldn't mess around and talk about the situation, he'd kill her and leave-thirty seconds, tops.

Damn it! Drea was suddenly furious with herself, with him, with Rafael, with every damn thing. It couldn't end like this, she refused to let it end like this. Rafael was not going to be the death of her, not when the bastard owed her for two years of putting up with his bullshit, for smiling when she wanted to slap him, for giving him blow jobs and acting as if it made her happy. What kind of stupid-ass fool thought giving a blow job was satisfying? He owed her for giving her to another man, for treating her like a whore and making her feel like a whore.

And damn that other man for being him, for not treating her like a whore, for being gentle and giving her such incredible pleasure before walking out without a single backward look, throwing at her the careless words, "Once was enough." Was he her punishment for all the men she'd played, all the men she'd used? How damn ironic was it that the one time she thought-Never mind what she'd thought, forget that she'd begged him to take her with him, because regardless of what she'd thought, their minds certainly hadn't been running in the same direction.

She went around a curve too fast and the back end of the car slid a little; the landscape, so clear in the hot, mellow light of the setting sun, was suddenly blurry. Her eyes stung with tears that she refused to let fall. She had cried enough over him already. She had learned never to look back, never to give fate a second chance to kick her in the teeth.

"Screw you," she said to the reflection in the rearview mirror, to the expressionless man behind the dark sunglasses.

The road corkscrewed on her, an S curve so sharp she was in it before she realized how extreme the angle was. She hit the brakes as she felt the back tires skidding once more, pulling her to the right, toward where the pavement fell away to nothing.

"SLOW DOWN," HE said sharply, knowing she couldn't hear him, as he watched the rear end of the car skid around. He took his foot off the gas, letting the truck slow itself as he entered the series of curves behind her. Maybe if he backed off a little she wouldn't push the curves so hard; the truck didn't corner as well as a car did, anyway.

Her back tires slid off the pavement, throwing up a spray of gravel. He watched in futile anger, knowing there wasn't a damn thing he could do.

DREA'S HEARTBEAT STUTTERED wildly as the car slid toward the edge, a debilitating sense of helplessness filling her because the laws of physics had her in their grip and there was nothing she could do to get loose.

She was in the most acute part of the curve, with empty air in front of her and to the right. Time froze for an instant, then clicked forward to the next frame, then the next, like watching a slide show with someone else controlling the clicker. In each frame she knew exactly what was happening, her thoughts flying much faster than the frames were advancing.

First frame: in that instant she knew that if she steered into the skid, she would drive straight off the road, down into the tree-studded bowl contained between the two halves of the S-curve. Even if she survived, any wreck at all would be the death of her, because he was right behind her and he'd be able to take his shot anytime he wanted.

Second frame: in the split second that the back tires skidded ever closer to the edge, the car began tilting backward and the bottom dropped out of her stomach, as if she were on a roller-coaster ride. Through the rearview mirror she caught a glimpse of the big pickup truck behind her and the man inside, and a surge of pain hit her so hard that her skittering heartbeat faltered under the impact. He hadn't wanted her. If only he had. If only he'd held out his hand to her when she begged "Take me with you." But he hadn't, and he never would.

Third frame: the back tires suddenly found traction, digging into the crumbling edge and sending great fans of dirt and gravel arcing outward. The steering wheel wrenched to the side, turning with a life of its own and tearing out of her white-knuckled grip. The car shot forward, and took her over the edge. Maybe she screamed; she might have screamed the whole time, but she was aware only of an all-encompassing silence.

Fourth frame: the car seemed to hang in midair for long, agonizing seconds. She looked across the gap to where the road curved in the second half of the S, thinking inanely that if this were a movie the car would make that jump and land on the pavement on the other side, jouncing wildly and maybe losing a bumper but otherwise miraculously unscathed. But this wasn't a movie and the moment ended. The weight of the engine pulled the front end down, and she saw the trees below rushing up at her like spears from a missile launcher.

Just split seconds, slices of time, yet her vision was crystal clear, her thoughts ordered and full. This was the end, then. She had thought about death; unlike most young people, she had met death when her placenta separated during her twenty-second week of pregnancy. She had almost died; her baby had died, died while still inside her body, then cut from her body still warm and motionless, taking all of her dreams and agonizingly intense love with him. He'd been so tiny, so frail and limp and turning blue even as she sobbed and begged God or whoever to let him live, to take her instead because he was innocent and she wasn't, because he had all the possibilities of the world lying before him while she was worthless, but that must not have seemed like a good trade because her baby hadn't lived.

She had, in a way. She'd gone through the motions. She'd survived, because at the core of things she was a survivor even though there would never be another baby for her. And she had never loved again, never felt anything for anyone until a little over a week ago, when he, the nameless he, had broken through her shell and touched her.

And now he'd killed her.

The first impact popped the windshield out like a false fingernail. If the car had had an air bag when it was new, it no longer did, because no big white pillow blew up to smack her in the face even though the force of impact was like a huge body blow that shut down all her senses except for a very small sense of awareness that lingered and held on because holding on was such a part of her.

Not having an air bag didn't matter, though, because it wasn't the first impact that killed her. It was the second.

"SHIT!" SIMON SAID violently as he slammed on the brakes and fought the truck to a tire-smoking halt, shoving the gearshift into the park position and leaping out while the truck was still rocking. "Fuck!"

He paused briefly on the crumbling road edge, judging the best path to take, then went sideways down the sharp slope at a breakneck pace, half kneeling here, grabbing a bush there, digging his heels in when he could. "Drea!" he yelled, though he didn't expect an answer. He paused briefly to listen, and heard nothing other than what was almost a vibration in the air, a sensation rather than a noise, as if the violence of the impact still reverberated.

The drop was too long, and there were too many trees. When a car took on a tree, the tree usually won. Still, maybe she wasn't dead; maybe she was unconscious. People survived car wrecks every day, even those that looked unsurvivable, while one that seemed not much worse than a fender bender would pop someone's spine and that was that. It was position, it was timing; hell, it was luck.

He couldn't explain why his heart was pounding and his stomach felt as if it were filled with ice. He'd seen death many times, up close and personal. And most of the time he was the cause. The transition was fast, the blink of an eye, the flight of a bullet, and that was it: lights out. No big deal.

But this didn't feel like no big deal. This felt like-God, he didn't know what this felt like. Panic, maybe. Or pain, though why he'd feel either of those was beyond him.

He pushed through scrub brush, lost his footing, and slid the last twenty feet on his ass. The car was to his right, half-hidden in broken tree limbs and bushes, a heap of tangled metal from which dust still floated. Broken glass from the headlights and taillights was everywhere, shards in red and white and amber, glittering in the sun. One wheel had come completely off, the tire exploded by the force of the impact. Other pieces of twisted, sheared metal lay here and there.

He reached the rear end of the car first. He could see the top of her head, just above the headrest; she was still in the seat. The driver's door was completely gone, and he could see her left arm dangling limply, blood slowly dripping from her fingertips.

"Drea," he said, more softly.

No response. He shoved through the brush and wreckage until he reached her side, then momentarily froze.

God. A pine sapling had come through the windshield-or rather, where the windshield used to be-and impaled her chest. She was sitting upright only because she was pinned to the seat, which was already soaked black with her blood. He reached out his hand, then let it fall. There was nothing he could do.

A breeze fluttered the trees around them, and a few birds sang their evening songs. The heat of the setting sun burned his back and shoulders, and bathed everything in a clear golden light. Details were crystal clear, but oddly detached. Time was moving on around them, but he felt as if they were enclosed in a bubble where everything stood still. He had to make certain, for himself. He leaned half into the car, reaching out to feel for the pulse in her neck.

In the strange way things happen, her pretty face had only a few small cuts. Her pure blue eyes were open, her head turned toward him as if she was looking at him.

Her chest rose in a slow, shallow breath, and with a jolt that ran all the way to his feet he realized that she was looking at him. She was going, and going fast, but for this moment she saw him, she recognized him.

"God, sweetheart," he whispered, abruptly remembering exactly how she tasted, how soft and silky her breasts were, the sweet scent of a woman underlying the expensive perfume she wore. He remembered how she'd felt in his arms, how hungry for affection she'd been, the tight slick heat of her body as he slid into her, and the lost look in those blue eyes when he left her. He remembered how her laugh sounded as musical as bells, and the realization that he'd never hear it again was a punch in the chest that left him winded.

He didn't think she heard him. Her expression was as calm and serene as if she'd already gone, her face porcelain white. Yet her gaze remained locked on his face and slowly her expression changed as it softened and filled with wonder. Her lips moved, shaped a single word…and then she was gone. The blue eyes set, began to dull. Automatically her body took one more breath, still fighting for a life that was already gone, then it, too, stopped.

The breeze flirted with a tendril of her hair, blowing it against her pale cheek. Gently, Simon reached out one finger and touched the tendril, dark and straight now, but still as silky as it had been when it was blond and curly. He smoothed it back, tucking it behind her ear, then he stroked her cheek. There were things he needed to do, but for the moment he could do nothing except stay exactly where he was, looking at her and touching her, feeling as if the ground had dropped from beneath him. He watched her, waiting, hoping for another breath, but she was gone and he knew it. There was nothing.

He drew several deep, ragged breaths, then forced himself to straighten from the car. Sentiment had no place in his life; he couldn't allow anyone or anything to matter, to get inside his emotional and mental shields.

Moving briskly, he did what had to be done. He looked around until he found her purse, lying several yards away. Swiftly he removed her cell phone and the driver's license from her wallet, slipping both into his pocket. She didn't have any credit cards, no other identification, so he returned the wallet to her purse and tossed it onto the front floorboard. Her laptop was easier to find, because it was in the backseat, though getting to it was far more difficult. Finally he reached it and dragged it out.

One thing more: the bill of sale for the car. He worked his way around to the other side of the car and used his pocketknife to pry open the crushed glove box. Removing the bill of sale, he paused a moment to think if there was anything else that could give away her identity. No, he had it all.

The last thing he did was use his cell phone to take a picture of her. It was ghoulish, but necessary.

Carrying the laptop, he climbed back up to the road. No more than five minutes had passed since the accident, if that long. No other vehicles had come by, but then this wasn't exactly an interstate highway. Opening the door of the still-running truck, he put the laptop on the passenger seat, then took Drea's cell phone out of his pocket and checked to see if there was any cell service out here. There was, but not much; maybe he could make himself understood. He punched in 911, and when the operator answered he said, "I want to report a car accident, with a fatality, on highway…"

He gave the pertinent information, then, when the operator began asking questions, he flipped the phone closed and ended the call.

He'd wait until he heard the sirens. He'd stand watch over her body, guarding her and keeping her company, until he knew someone was coming to take care of her.

Standing with one boot on the running board and one arm resting on top of the truck, he watched the sun set behind the far mountains, watched the purple twilight begin its rapid progression. Finally a faint wail reached him, carried by the clear dry air, and several miles away he could see the flash of red lights.

He got in the truck and sat for a moment, his arms crossed on top of the steering wheel, remembering the way she had looked at him and the way her expression had softened, then she had said one word: "Angel-"

And died.

He cursed, and banged his fist once on the steering wheel. Then he put the truck in gear and drove away.