Susan X Meagher
Where was global warming when you really needed it? Everybody in Florida worried about a few measly degrees, but you didn’t hear people in North Dakota complaining. The truth was, a few degrees in Bismarck, even in October, wouldn’t make you a darned bit warmer.
Lisa Daniels squinted as she tried to safely command her small car along the curvy, pitch-black country road. It had been gorgeous just two hours ago, who could have predicted that the trip back to the city would be so treacherous? Her mother had, of course. It was like she was a roving weather station, just bursting with bad news. But she was always trying to trick Lisa into staying overnight, so she had admittedly brushed off the warnings this time. I shouldn’t have.
It was raining just enough to make the windshield wipers blur. Everybody loved that. But the temperature dial on the dashboard was dropping a degree every 50 feet. Excellent! With any luck this will turn to snow. Then mom will be 100% right.
It had been so nice that afternoon, but that warmth had just made the fields heat up enough that now a heavy layer of fog was crawling up onto the roadway. It was the kind of fog that seemed to ooze along the ground and slowly gain enough altitude to make driving impossible. But for the moment it was just foreboding. And creepy.
Being out in the middle of nowhere was always a little scary, but in a low fog like this it was actually a blessing. Not many other people would go out unless they absolutely...
She screamed, a bloodcurdling cry that echoed back to her ears as she swerved roughly, barely avoiding the wraith-like figure that emerged from the gloom.
Lisa’s heart raced as though it would burst from her chest. There was no car anywhere to be seen, but she had almost hit a woman. She sat there, shaking, until someone slammed a fist into the driver’s window. “You almost killed me!”
Her heart was now galloping and she was barely able to use the toggle switch to lower her window a few inches. “Where did you come from? Were you walking?”
The woman backed up a couple of feet and held her leg up in the air. “How many people go walking along a deserted road in North Dakota in a dress and high heels?”
This woman was a lunatic. She wore only a stylish black dress that was a little too tight in all the right places and a thin black wrap around her mostly bare shoulders. No sane person dressed like that when driving on a rural road. “Where’s your car?”
“I spun out on this stupid road and wound up in the field over there. I think my axle’s broken. Thank God it’s a rental.”
I have to let a complete stranger into my car. If there was one thing that had been drilled into her from the day she was born it was that you had to help other people when they had car trouble. If it got much colder the woman could freeze to death. The second thing that’d been drummed into her was to never, ever, under any circumstances, pick up a hitchhiker. It really sucked when the top two things on your list canceled each other out. “Where do you need to go?”
“Civilization. Anywhere but here. Cabo San Lucas.”
The woman started to walk around the car. She’s definitely a lunatic. I’m willfully inviting a crazy person into my car.
When the stranger slid into the seat Lisa availed herself of the interior lights to get a better look. She didn’t look crazy at all. In fact, she was really attractive. Not that crazy people couldn’t be attractive, but she was both attractive and well put together. Dark brown hair, part of it held back in an attractive clip, even darker eyes, the sexy black dress and the nice shoes that were now probably ruined from the mud. “I’m heading to Bismarck, but we can stop as soon as we see a gas station if that’s what you want.”
The woman pulled the visor down and fussed with her hair as she looked in the mirror. “I don’t much care. I’m finally free as a bird. It’s okay with me if you want to drive to the ocean.”
Lunatic. Definitely a lunatic. “I’m Lisa, by the way.”
The woman turned and smiled, her attractiveness climbing up the scale another few notches. “Chloe. I wish I had a cool last name like yours. How do you spell ‘Bytheway’?”
Was it best to humor people in a precarious mental state, or did that just make them angry? A diversion was probably the best idea. “Are you from around here?”
“Not anymore.” That seemed more like a statement than an answer to her question. There was a lot of force behind it.
“That’s a very nice dress to go for a ride in the country.”
Chloe showed a smile that was disarmingly attractive. “Thank you. I had to go to a funeral.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Were you…close?”
“No, not at all. It was just my mother.”
Lisa almost drove off the road, but after waiting a beat Chloe said, “Gotcha!” And then she laughed. Demonically.
That wasn’t funny. If you were joking with an old friend who knew you really well that still wasn’t funny. To say that to a stranger who just picked you up by the side of the road made it something that a...yes, lunatic would say.
They were only able to go at a snail’s pace. Chloe might have been able to make better time in her heels. The fog was getting worse by the minute, but there was nowhere to pull off the two-lane highway. The land around them was mostly flat, but there were steep grades in some places, and with the fog you couldn’t tell where those spots were.
After her strange joke Chloe got a little ruminative, and didn’t say a whole lot. Maybe she felt bad about saying something so insensitive about her mother, but that was doubtful. She didn’t seem like the type of woman to regret making harsh comments.
Lisa leaned over and turned on the radio just to have something to distract her from worrying about driving. She had to hit the scan button and watch it dance all the way up and around the dial three times before it settled on a popping and cracking AM station. The announcer said that the Highway Patrol strongly urged people to stay off the roads in Burleigh and McLean Counties. The rain was expected to turn into snow or freezing rain.
“I can’t tell you how much I’m not going to miss it around here,” Chloe said.
“That sounds permanent. Are you moving away?”
“I’m already gone. I declared my independence at,” she looked at her watch. “6 PM. You get the honor of driving me out of North Dakota for the last time.”
“Maybe you’ll come back for a visit.”
No longer smiling, Chloe fixed her with a hot gaze. “There’s nothing here for me but bad feelings, enemies and cemeteries.”
Since Lisa was wearing tennis shoes it crossed her mind to get out and run rather than stay inside the car. Chloe was freaking her out in every way possible and she was almost ready to just give her the car, weather be damned.
The announcer broke into a song saying in a very agitated voice, “The state police have issued an all points bulletin seeking a woman who murdered several members of her family earlier this evening. The police are not releasing details of the crimes until they have more information, but the woman has been described as an attractive woman in her early 30s, with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen stealing a late-model white Toyota not far from a town near Painted Woods Lake. It is believed she used a handgun, a cleaver and a steak knife in the attacks and she’s considered armed and a very seriously danger.”
Chloe reached over and shut off the radio. “That’s some depressing shit, huh?” She sat back in her seat, looking completely unconcerned. “She must have had a good reason.” The little chuckle she let out made Lisa almost wet her pants. That was exactly the kind of thing that sociopaths did. The people who couldn’t feel empathy for other people. The types of people who joked about going to their mothers’ funerals. Lisa tried to make her brain work faster and smarter, but the only plan she could come up with was trying to surreptitiously call the police. She had to lean way over on her left hip to pull the phone from her jacket and that let Chloe see everything. She barely had the phone in her hand when Chloe snatched it from her. She gazed at the phone for a second, then said, “Magic Eight Ball says ‘Outlook not so good’.”
Okay, things are starting to escalate. The most important thing to do is to keep calm. Chloe hadn’t killed her yet, and there was a chance she only killed people she was related to.
The car started to shake, and Lisa had to wrestle with the steering wheel to control it. “Holy shit,” she said, her voice shaking.
“Calm down. It’s probably just a flat.”
Get out of the car. The farther away you are, the harder you are to kill. “You’re right. I’ll go check.”
Lisa jumped out of the car and walked around the back making sure not to give Chloe the opportunity to put the car in drive and run her down. The right front tire was indeed flat. Thinking fast, she decided the best escape route was to change the tire and run like the dickens after she put the spare back inside. She’d have the trunk lid up, and Chloe wouldn’t know exactly how long it would take to get everything settled. There was a town on the other side of the woods. It was probably three miles away, but she was sure she could outrun Chloe in her heels. Yes, she probably had a gun, but it was awfully hard to hit a fleeing target in pitch blackness. Lisa had been target shooting all her life, and it wasn’t a snap hitting things in full daylight. With any luck, Chloe had used a gun just because it was available, not because it was something she was intimately familiar with. No matter what, Lisa wasn’t going to go to a steakhouse with her. Everyone knew how to stick a knife into your ribs.
Lisa stood in front of the trunk and pushed aside her emergency bag, the bag from the orchard and a couple of blankets to get to the jack and her spare. She’d only been outside for two minutes but her hands were freezing even through her gloves. It was remarkably dark and almost impossible to get the jack set properly. She was concentrating so hard on both fixing the tire and her escape plan that she didn’t hear Chloe silently emerge from the car. When Lisa’s hand bumped a leg she screamed, looking up in terror as Chloe menacingly held a weapon over her head.
“What the fuck?” Chloe flicked the huge flashlight on. “I found this in the glove box. I thought you might need a little help, but I’m freezing my balls off here, so make it snappy.”
“Sorry. I’m really sorry.” Don’t make her mad. “I’m just really cold.”
“You scream like a little girl when you’re cold?” She stood there, shivering until Lisa got the jack set and started to lift the car. “I’m gonna get in on the driver’s side so I don’t screw you up.” She started to walk away. “Stop screaming, okay? You’re making me twitchy.”
A twitchy mad woman didn’t sound like a good thing, so Lisa concentrated hard on at least looking calm. She got the tire changed pretty quickly, then placed the bad tire in the trunk, trying to do it very delicately so Chloe wasn’t sure she was almost finished. Then she took off like a spark, running as fast as she could for a grand total of five feet before her right foot hit a patch of ice and she went down hard. Luckily, she didn’t hit her head, but when she collected herself and got on her hands and knees Chloe was right there, hovering over her.
“Let me help you.”
There was nothing to do but submit. Gun, knife, cleaver, even a nail file could wound her from this distance. Chloe put one arm around her waist and as Lisa was almost on her feet another arm went around her neck and squeezed until nothing but darkness remained.
The good news was that she wasn’t dead. The bad news was that she was in the trunk and her hands and feet were bound together behind her. If she lived to buy another car, she was going to get a van. The only thing she could do was scream, so scream she did. She yelled for all she was worth, then thrust her feet behind her, kicking anything they could land on. She kept it up until she was lightheaded, but she came right back down to earth when the car stopped. Her last prayers were interrupted by a furious looking Chloe. “I will strangle you if you don’t shut up.”
Lisa opened her mouth to plead for her life but Chloe was ready for her and she popped a small apple between her teeth. Then the trunk slammed shut. Lisa could have taken a bite and spit the apple way, but having it in her mouth reminded her to stay quiet. There were a lot of ways to be killed, but strangling sounded really bad.
They drove for a long while, with Lisa coming up with a dozen different ways to get away. All of them had a flaw or two, but she kept going over them, considering their strengths and weaknesses. Chloe held most of the cards, but she wasn’t going to go down easily.
Finally, the car stopped, and Chloe’s heels clicked on the pavement. The trunk opened once again and Chloe cut the duct tape that linked her bound hands and her feet. It felt so good to be able to stick her legs out in front of her that Lisa meekly followed Chloe’s lead and directions to climb out of the trunk, finding herself standing with her hands still tied behind her back.
They were in the parking lot of a brightly lit building, and there was a police car near the entrance. Damn! It was empty. But maybe she could run over and kick it or hit it and try to break a window. A police car had to have some sort of alarm on it, didn’t it?
Chloe was practically frog marching her up to the front stairs where a sign clearly stated “North Dakota Sheriff's Department”.
They stumbled into the building, Chloe holding her by the scruff of her jacket. “I’ve captured the woman who killed her family,” she proudly declared.
Lisa spit the apple out of her mouth. “She’s the killer! She told me she went to her mother’s funeral today. In that dress!” Maybe that wasn’t making the best case for fingering a mass murderer, but no one should wear a sexy dress to her mother’s funeral.
“Me? The description the radio gave fit you so well it might as well have been television. Pretty young woman, dark hair, dark eyes, driving a white Toyota. And you had a bag of apples from the town where you were last seen!”
“You’re the pretty young woman, you killer!”
The officer at the desk watched the scene unfold, then motioned to a colleague and they both snuck behind the women and slapped cuffs on them. They both shouted, “She’s the killer!”
Since their hands were bound, each gestured with her head--a pair of brown haired, brown eyed women almost conking their skulls together.
A woman with more stripes on her shirt walked out of an office. “What’s going on here?”
“Both of these women claim the other one killed their family over near Painted Woods Lake, Sarge.”
“Each,” Chloe mumbled. “Each woman claims the other killed her family.”
“You’re arguing about grammar?” Lisa said. “You can worry about that when you’re in the state pen.”
“I’m an editor,” Chloe sniffed. “Grammar matters.”
The sergeant shook her head and walked back into her office, emerging a minute later with her laptop. Holding it out so both women could see, she said, “This is the woman. They picked her up in McClusky an hour ago.”
“She’s not pretty!” Lisa said.
“Not young either,” Chloe agreed. “And only her roots are brown.”
“You can let them go,” the sergeant said. Addressing the women, she added, “Call the police the next time you suspect someone is a killer. We’re a little better trained.”
They walked out of the station, neither one speaking. Chloe walked right up to the passenger door, as though it were a given they were going to finish their trip together.
Lisa got in and turned on the car. She sat there with the warm air from the heater taking the chill off. “Okay. What was the crack about your mother’s funeral? That was an awful thing to say.”
“It was actually my mothers wedding.” She sighed, sounding sad. “But it felt like a funeral. She had a few too many and she started in on me in front of the entire extended family. Not one of those bastards came to my defense. Apparently her new husband helped her find Jesus…probably in a bar.” She slapped her hands together briskly. “I’m done. She was intolerable when she was a heathen.”
“What was she harassing you about?”
“I’m a lesbian. Apparently that means I’m going straight to hell. And that’s fine with me if she’s going to be in heaven.”
“If that’s true, I’ll be in hell with you. It won’t be so bad.”
Chloe’s gaze started at my head and worked its way down, then her eyes slid back up to meet mine. “That won’t be bad at all. Hey, want to go somewhere and make an apple pie?”
I hesitated for a good long time. Yes, she was a damn nice looking woman. But even if she hadn’t killed anyone, she was clearly a lunatic.
Chloe started laughing, once again sounding a little nutty. “Did you buy my acting?”
“What do you mean, ‘acting’?”
She threw her head back and laughed. “My high school drama teacher can suck it!”
“Spill it!” I wasn’t usually short tempered, but she was jumping on my last nerve.
“Okay, okay. Don’t stroke out on me. I heard the report about the killer while I was sitting in my car waiting for someone to come by. I’ve lived in North Dakota long enough to know you can’t afford to be stuck out in the country alone, so I was going to get in the next car no matter who was driving it.”
“You were going to get into a stranger’s car? Knowing that a mass murderer was out there?”
“I hate to be cold,” she said blithely. “When I saw your white Toyota and saw that you had all of the other attributes I thought I’d better act like a nutcase. It wasn’t a great plan, but I figured anybody who killed her family was probably crazy and she might feel less threatened by a fellow lunatic. Did I really fool you?”
“I’m still not sure you’re not a lunatic.”
“Well, I’m a little crazy, but only in good ways. Let’s go have a drink and you can find out for yourself.”
I thought of my mother’s instructions about always being careful and decided to throw them out the window. “Screw it. I’d rather have a piece of homemade pie.”