Now why would Edna pull me away from my trip to Greenland and send me to this small town? Patricia wondered as she stepped out of a yellow cab and searched a long, narrow street surrounded by miles of open, rugged land. First, she insisted I go to Greenland like the world was ending or something, then she calls me from the airport right before I’m about to board my flight and pulls me away to Arizona…the woman is a fruitcake.
With weary eyes, Patricia searched the street and sighed. A middle-aged woman holding a cigarette in her mouth stuck her head out the driver’s side window. “You gonna pay me or what? I ain’t got all day,” she barked at Patricia.
Patricia gulped as her eyes soaked in a deserted town. The street she was standing on, though paved, was ripped and torn like a piece of paper some deranged cat had attacked. There wasn’t a vehicle or person in sight. Also, no power lines; Patricia feared a functioning bathroom was probably a failed dream. All that stood before the depressed woman was a town lined with worn-down buildings.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” she asked the cab driver.
“Wounded Willows…this is the place,” the woman assured Patricia in a gruff voice stained by years of cigarette smoking. “Now, pay up. I’ve got a two-hour drive back to Flagstaff ahead of me.”
“Uh…maybe you can stick around until Mrs. Owens arrives? That’s the lady I’m meeting here.” Patricia didn’t care for the cigarette-smoking cabbie, but she didn’t want to be left alone in this empty little town. What if Amy Owens didn’t show up? How would she get back to Flagstaff? “There’s nothing between here and Flagstaff except a few little dots in the road that are nothing more than gas station stops. The last gas station we passed was…about forty-five minutes ago.”
“Look, I’ve got to get back to Flagstaff,” the woman snapped. LuAnn Nettleson was a woman who had lived a hard life. She didn’t have time to sit in her cab, freezing her buns off, and listen to some spoiled, fancy little writer whine. “Pay up. I’ve got to get moving.”
“Oh,” Patricia moaned under her breath. She opened her green purse, pulled out some cash, and asked how much she owed. LuAnn barked an amount. “Okay, sure…here you go.”
LuAnn grabbed the money, counted it, and then, without saying a word, sped away, dodging one ripped piece of road after another and bouncing away like a miserable ping-pong ball.
Patricia stood still and watched the cab race away and finally vanish. “Well…all alone,” she whispered as a cold gust of desert wind began howling down the street.
A shiver snatched at Patricia’s heart. She cradled her arms together and walked her eyes up and down the street. The old buildings greeted her eyes like terrifying outlaws preparing to draw their guns and start firing on her. “Hotel…general store…” Patricia whispered as she read old wooden signs attached to each building, either hanging loose or barely hanging on at all, creaking in the cold desert wind like crying children. Note to self. Punch Edna in the nose.
A powerful gust of wind tore at her red hair. Heavy desert sand danced in the wind, striking Patricia’s soft face like hard bullets and causing her to let out a little cry of pain. “Oh my,” she cried and dashed up the general store’s rotted, wooden walkway and turned her back to the wind. Goodness, what a miserable place this is.
After the wind passed and the sand settled, she wiped at her hair and face and turned to view the town center once more. As she did, a pair of eyes appeared in the dusty window attached to the right wall of the general store. The eyes studied Patricia and then vanished without being seen. Unaware that someone was hiding in the shadows of the sand-torn general store, Patricia studied the spooky town again and then eased back to the middle of the street.
“Why in the world would Edna send me here?” she asked, speaking just to hear a voice instead of the howling desert winds. “Mrs. Owens obviously knows, but that woman is being so tight-lipped an elephant could go across her mouth riding a bike.”
The sound of an approaching vehicle from the west caught Patricia’s attention. She spun around and threw her hands over her blue eyes and searched the deserted street. To her relief, a dismal SUV appeared in the distance, sputtering and chugging forward, carefully dodging the pieces of torn road.
“I don’t think that’s Mrs. Owens,” Patricia said to herself, standing still with her hands covering her eyes. “Whoever is arriving is having engine trouble.”
Patricia eased back toward the general store and waited for the gray 2012 Kia Sorento to reach her. The first thing she noticed was a huge amount of luggage stuffed into the back of the Kia. Were the people traveling in the SUV vacationers? Most likely.
“Uh…hello,” Patricia called out and waved her hand toward the driver’s side window as the car came to a stop.
A man wearing a very distraught face stuck his head out the window and looked at Patricia with worried eyes. “I assumed this town had a gas station,” he said in a confused voice.
“Uh, no gas station,” Patricia quickly said. “The whole town appears abandoned. I took a cab from Flagstaff. I’m here to meet a woman who has an interest in this place.” Patricia cautiously looked past the confused man and spotted what appeared to be a very upset woman sitting in the passenger seat. “My name is Patricia McKay. I’m a travel writer,” she carefully introduced herself.
“A travel writer?” the man repeated and then, with a heavy sigh, he turned off the sputtering SUV.
“That’s right.” Patricia nodded. “May I ask who you are?”
“We’re lost, hungry, and angry,” the woman sitting in the passenger seat announced in a loud, ill-humored voice. “And to make matters worse…I’ve got to pee!”
The man let out another heavy sigh. “This is my wife,” he told Patricia. “My name is Brent Gordon. My wife’s name is Rhonda.”
“Hey, what about me?” a pouty voice yelled.
“That would be our twelve-year-old son,” Brent continued. “His name is Samuel. We call him Sam.”
A curious face with bright red hair popped out of the back passenger window and looked at Patricia. “Hey, you’re cute…a real babe!”
“Samuel!” Brent snapped.
Patricia grinned a little. Samuel was a feisty little guy. “Thank you for the compliment, but I think you’re a little too young for me.”
“Ugh, I’m always too young,” Samuel pouted. “Dad won’t even let me drive this heap of junk we’re in.”
“Sit back and hush,” Rhonda snapped at her son and then ordered her husband to bring the SUV back to life. “You and your bright ideas. There’s not a gas station in sight…now get us out of here!”
“The map—” Brent defended himself.
“The map lied!” Rhonda snapped at her husband with angry eyes. “Now get us back to civilization.”
Patricia eased her eyes past Brent and saw an angry-faced woman with short black hair that didn’t match a face that had lost its beauty to far too many crash diets. “Uh…last gas station I saw was west of here…about forty-five minutes down the road.”
“The SUV started giving me trouble about twenty minutes ago,” Brent explained.
Patricia focused her eyes on Brent. He appeared to be a city guy—a suit who worked in a bank, maybe. The poor guy looked to be about forty-five but already had gray hair that was thinning pretty rapidly. “I’m not a mechanic, but from the sound the SUV was making when you arrived, I’m not so sure I would risk the drive. Maybe you should wait until my friend arrives? I’m sure Mrs. Owens will be happy to drive you to the nearest gas station. You could arrange for a tow truck from there.”
Brent considered Patricia’s suggestion. “That seems like a practical approach,” he agreed.
“When is this friend of yours supposed to be arriving?” Rhonda demanded.
“Yeah, I’m hungry,” Samuel piped up.
Patricia grinned, snatched open her purse, and dug out a candy bar. “I have a Fifth Avenue candy bar…if it’s all right…your son can have—” Before Patricia could finish her sentence, two hungry hands exploded out of the back window, grabbed the candy bar, and vanished. “Oh…well, I guess you really are hungry.”
“Manners, Sam,” Brent complained. He looked at Patricia with weary eyes. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Patricia assured Brent, grateful that she had company and was no longer standing alone in the spooky town. “From what I understand,” she said, deciding to give a brief history lesson, “the state of Arizona was planning to tear down this town and run a new emergency route. The state got as far as paving a new road, but then, for whatever reason, canceled the project. This road,” Patricia nodded at the torn road running through the town like an unhealthy vein, “connects to the main road—”
“The main road?” Rhonda said and then let out a sarcastic laugh. “The main road we were on was nothing but a miserable two-lane desert road surrounded by endless miles of miserable desert land!”
“It is pretty remote out here,” Patricia agreed, keeping her cool instead of becoming annoyed. “The main road connects back to the highway…but, as you said, the main road stretches for miles and miles before it reaches the highway. The gas station I mentioned sits just off the main road right as you leave the highway. There’s nothing between the gas station and this deserted town except desert.”
“Well, the map I have said there was a gas station,” Brent insisted. “See!” Brent grabbed a wadded-up gas station map and stuffed it out of the driver’s side window. “Look for yourself.”
Patricia humored Brent. She carefully took the map, unfolded it, and searched out the deserted town she was currently trapped in. “Uh…Mr. Gordon, where exactly were you looking on the map?”
“Right here,” Brent said and pointed to a spot on the map.
Patricia winced. “Mr. Gordon, I think you’re a little…off,” she explained. “The town you’re pointing at is near the border. Uh…were you by chance holding the map upside down?”
“Oh, you idiot,” Rhonda complained. “You can’t even read a map right.”
Patricia saw Brent’s cheeks turn red. She winced again, handing back the map and waiting for a fierce marital argument to begin. “I asked you to read the map for me, Rhonda, remember?” Brent exploded. “But no, you flat-out refused! I had to read the map while trying to drive…so forgive me if I made a mistake!”
“Don’t you raise your tone to me!” Rhonda fired back.
Samuel scooted out of the SUV and looked up at Patricia. “That’s all they do…yell and scream,” he said as he polished off the last of his candy bar. “I’m used to it, but boy,” Samuel rubbed his left ear, “can a guy go deaf.”
“Samuel, get back in the car!” Brent roared.
“Oh, Dad, can’t I get some fresh air, huh?” Samuel complained. “I’ve been listening to you and Mom screaming and hollering for hours. This is supposed to be a vacation…kinda…at least for me.” Samuel rolled his eyes and wiped his hands on his green-and-white-striped shirt and then shoved them down into a couple of front pockets attached to a pair of worn jeans. “We drove all the way from Ohio. My parents even took me out of school for two entire weeks…but so far, the trip has been a real bummer.”
“My sister lives in California and became ill,” Brent explained. “I was…planning to move my family to the Los Angeles area—”
“Without telling me first,” Rhonda snapped at her husband. “You were planning to destroy our lives and you know that’s true!” Rhonda leaned forward and glared at Patricia. “Jane wasn’t nearly as sick as my husband made out. He was just using her illness to move us to Los Angeles. As it turns out, my sister-in-law has a very mild case of—”
“Don’t mention Jane to me…ever again!” Brent cut his wife off in a stern voice. “I’ve had it up to here with the both of you!” Brent grabbed the steering wheel. “All I wanted to do was accept a better job and get Samuel out of Toledo. Was that such a terrible crime, Rhonda? But no—”
“Our lives are in Toledo. My family is in Toledo. Samuel’s friends are in Toledo,” Rhonda fired back. “Jane was right to take my side.”
“Jane is an idiot!”
“Here we go,” Samuel said with a dramatic roll of his eyes. “Mom mentions Aunt Jane’s name and Dad goes off the deep end.” Samuel kicked at the street and then looked around. “Hey, can I go explore while you two yell and scream?”
Brent threw his eyes at his son. “What?”
“Can I go walk around a little bit…please?” Samuel pleaded.
“Let our son get some fresh air,” Rhonda ordered Brent. “He’s been stuffed up in this car with us for hours. He’s probably going crazy!”
Brent let out a heavy sigh. “Sure, Sam, you can walk around a little…but stay on the front road and stay close,” he ordered.
Samuel let out a radiant smile and took off running up the torn street. Patricia watched the kid take off like a bolt of lightning and then looked at Brent. Brent shook his head and went back to fussing with his wife.
“What a day this is turning out to be,” Patricia whispered in a miserable voice as she waited for Mrs. Owens to show up.
* * *
Samuel spotted a wooden building that had a wooden sign hanging from a rotting wooden balcony that read “Wound Willows Hotel.” “Cool,” he whispered, enjoying the cold desert winds rushing past his face. Being trapped in an SUV all day with two bickering parents was a real bummer. The icy winds and open desert made Samuel feel free—and adventurous. The little guy carefully glanced over his right shoulder, spotted his “babe” standing next to a crippled SUV listening to his parents argue, and grinned. “Time to have some fun.”
Without wasting a second, Samuel hurried up onto a worn veranda that felt unstable and dangerous. But the old boards lining the veranda were plenty strong enough to hold a twelve-year-old kid. Sam rushed to the front door of the hotel, paused, glanced back at the SUV one more time, and then excitedly opened a creaky door that was barely standing on its hinges. He peeked into a dark, dusty, cold room and grinned. “Cool.” Feeling brave rather than nervous, Samuel stepped into the room pretending to be a brave soldier. After all, he was twelve and far too old to fear the dark. Besides, his Uncle Ralph had served in the Army and taught Samuel to always be brave.
Samuel stood still for a few seconds and allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness controlling the dusty room. He felt—rather than saw—that the front was over to his right and that a staircase leading up to the second floor was hanging over to his left. “I’ll go explore all the rooms upstairs and—”
Samuel suddenly stopped talking. Something…shadowy…was in the far corner of the room. Samuel felt every hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Uh…hello?” he called out, determined to sound brave instead of running away like a scared kid. Truth was, Samuel was standing close enough to the front door to make a clean escape before the shadowy figure lurking in the far corner could get him. He felt proud of himself for standing his ground.
No response entered the dark air.
Squinting, Samuel tried to see through the darkness. “Is anyone over there?” he called out. When there was no response, he eased back toward the front door. His eyes struggled to make out what appeared to be a man or woman—or maybe just a pile of clothes or blankets—slumped down in the far corner. “Hey…is anyone over there?”
Samuel was about to leave the building, but then he remembered that there was a pen light in his front pocket that his Uncle Howard had given him. “Yeah,” Samuel nodded, quickly grabbed the black pen light, and snapped it on. “Hey…anyone over there?” he called out and threw a bright but thin beam of light onto the far corner. The light traveled through the dark like a man walking through wet concrete. Samuel followed the beam of light with careful eyes…and then shrieked.
Hearing Samuel scream, Patricia threw her head toward the direction the scream originated from. “Your son!” she yelled at Brent. “I think he’s inside the hotel!”
Brent bolted out of the SUV and charged toward the hotel. Patricia quickly followed. “Sam!” Brent hollered. “Where are—” Before Brent could finish his sentence, Samuel came bursting out of the hotel, spotted his dad, and took off running toward him.
“Dad…Dad…” Samuel screamed at the top of his lungs, captured by absolute panic and fear. “Dad…I saw…there’s a dead man in the hotel!” Samuel ran to Brent and nearly jumped into the man’s arms. “I saw him, Dad…slumped down in the corner!”
“A dead man?” Brent asked, holding Samuel by his shoulders.
Samuel gasped for air as panic squeezed his heart. “We gotta get out of here, Dad!”
Patricia looked at the hotel, spotted the front door standing open, and then focused her eyes on Samuel. The kid was scared half to death. “What did you see, honey?” she asked in an urgent but calming tone. “Calm down, take a few breaths, and tell us what you saw, okay?”
Brent squatted down and looked his son directly in the eyes. Samuel was scared stiff. “Son, what did you see?”
“A…dead man,” Samuel confessed and began shaking all over. “Dad, we gotta get out of here!” Brent glanced back toward the SUV, saw his wife standing beside the front passenger door, and then asked Samuel where the dead man was. “In the corner of the front room…he’s kinda hunched over…I…saw…”
“What did you see?” Patricia asked as fear gripped her own heart.
“A…knife was in his…back,” Samuel blurted out and then grabbed his dad’s hand and tried to pull him toward the SUV. “We gotta get out of here, Dad. Let’s go…please.”
Seeing her son captured in a full-blown panic broke Rhonda’s paralysis. She ran to Samuel and pulled her son into her arms. “Brent, get us out of here right now!” she demanded. “This place is not safe.”
Brent eyed the hotel. He felt something sinister peering through the dark windows of the hotel. Was there a killer inside? He wasn’t about to go find out. “Yeah, we need to leave. You better come with us,” he told Patricia in a quick voice that sounded scared and uneasy. He began moving his family back toward the SUV on uncertain legs. “Rhonda, get Samuel into the SUV…hurry now.”
Rhonda didn’t argue—for once. She ran Samuel to the SUV and shoved him into the back seat. “Let’s go, Brent!”
Patricia stared at the hotel for a few seconds and then followed Brent back to the SUV. “Thank you, I’ll take the ride,” she announced in a quick voice. “I’ll call Mrs. Owens once we get moving.”
“Good, go on and get in back with Sam,” Brent told Patricia as he hurried into the driver’s seat and then locked all four doors with a single button.
“Hurry, Dad,” Samuel begged, completely ignoring the fact that the beautiful woman he’d been admiring was now sitting next to him.
Brent knew his son wasn’t the excitable type. In fact, Brent took pride in Samuel being a reasonable, level-headed kid who knew how to keep his wits about him. If the boy was trapped in panic mode, that meant he had seen something terrible.
“Okay, son, we’re leaving.” Brent hurried to bring the crippled SUV to life, expecting the vehicle to fight a little but eventually crank. “Come on…come on,” he fussed, feeling a little like he was in a horror movie.
Patricia heard the engine putting up a fuss. Instead of squeezing her eyes closed and waiting for the worst, she whipped out her cell phone and tried to call 911. To her dismay, she had no signal. “I’m too far away from a cell tower,” she groaned as the SUV continued to put up a fight. With no other option but to wait and hope, Patricia put her phone away.
Rhonda heard Patricia speaking from the back seat and was about to reply, but then a sudden, terrifying thought struck her mind. What if Patricia was the killer? After all, Patricia had been found standing alone in a deserted town. Who knew if her story about being a travel writer was true or not?
“Brent,” Rhonda hissed so only he could hear, “what if that woman is the killer?”
Brent looked dubiously at his wife, then froze. His eyes struck the rearview mirror. He spotted Patricia sitting close to his son. What if that woman is a killer? his mind screamed. After all, they hadn’t seen a single other person here in this abandoned town.
“I’m not a killer,” Patricia stated before Brent could say a word. She threw a quick hand into her purse, rolling her eyes when Brent and Rhonda gasped in fear. “Relax, it’s not a gun,” she said, yanking out her driver’s license. “Here…look…and take my cell phone. Look through my contacts…my photos,” she demanded and then quickly explained who she worked for. “You can call Edna after we get out of here—if I don’t kill her first.”
“Kill her?” Samuel gulped.
“Just an expression,” Patricia assured the scared kid, although she realized that wasn’t the best thing to say under the circumstances.
Brent hesitated and then took Patricia’s driver’s license and cell phone. He handed the license to Rhonda and then began to quickly scan the cell phone. He saw countless photos of Patricia standing in remote locations around the planet. “Looks real,” he told Rhonda.
Rhonda examined Patricia’s driver’s license with careful eyes. “You’re from Georgia?”
“That’s right,” Patricia said, nodding. “I’m from—” Patricia stopped when she heard an approaching vehicle. “Unlock the doors,” she demanded. “I think Mrs. Owens is arriving.”
Brent heard the vehicle approaching in the distance. “Here,” he said and quickly handed Patricia back her driver’s license and cell phone and then unlocked the doors. Patricia shoved the license and phone back into her purse and jumped out of the SUV just in time to see a fancy blue BMW crawling down the torn street, desperately trying to miss the bad spots. Brent rolled down the driver’s side window, spotted the BMW, and asked, “Is that your friend?”
“Who else could it be?” Patricia replied as her eyes ran over to the spooky hotel and then flashed back to the approaching BMW. “Mr. Gordon, keep trying to get your SUV started,” she said and then began waving an urgent hand at the BMW.
Amy Owens spotted Patricia standing and frantically waving beside a strange SUV. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Amy fussed as she maneuvered around a torn spot in the road. “I know I’m late, but keep your shoes on.” Amy drove up behind the SUV, parked, and then plastered on a fake smile. “Patricia, honey, I’m sorry I’m late,” she called out in a voice that could have made a hungry wolf cringe in disgust. “Traffic was horrible in the city.”
Patricia watched a woman in her early sixties climb out of the fancy BMW and then quickly check her expensive blue dress (a dress designed for a woman of thirty and not sixty) that was supposed to complement short gray hair that had been dyed blonde. Amy Owens looked like a saggy 1980s reject who was still trying to become prom queen. How Edna had come into contact with such a woman was beyond Patricia. However, at the moment, Patricia was glad to see her. Amy had wheels.
“Look, no time to talk,” she said in an urgent voice. “There’s a dead man in the hotel. We have to leave here.”
“A…dead…man?” Amy asked in a shocked voice as Brent began trying to bring the SUV back to life. The sound of the engine fighting and spluttering drifted into the cold air like a dying man gasping for breath.
“It’s no good!” Brent yelled. He jumped out of the SUV and hurried to Patricia. “We’ll all have to go in your car,” he said, looking at Amy.
Amy stared at Brent in shock. “Why…who are you?” she demanded.
“My name is Brent Gordon and—”
“Mrs. Owens, we don’t have time to explain,” Patricia interrupted. “We have to get out of here.”
“But…my car only seats two people,” Amy exclaimed and then began to vehemently shake her head. “No…no, absolutely not. No stranger is going to ride in my car.” She cast a suspicious glare at Brent Gordon.
Patricia began to object but stopped when the sound of an approaching truck leaked into her ears. The truck was entering the town from the east instead of the west. Brent swung around and began struggling to spot the vehicle. “Could be the killer,” he warned, feeling helpless to act. “Rhonda, lock the doors!” Rhonda did as ordered.
“Killer! Oh my,” Amy gasped. She eased back to her BMW, climbed behind the steering wheel, and then…tried to speed away.
“Hey!” Patricia yelled in horror as Amy shot the BMW forward, nearly running Patricia down.
Amy ignored Patricia’s cry and put the pedal to the metal. The BMW launched forward like a rocket exploding and began flying down the street. “I’ll call for help!” she yelled even though Patricia couldn’t hear her. Focusing on the torn road, Amy struggled to miss one dangerous spot after another as the BMW barreled toward the approaching truck.
Patricia watched Amy’s BMW thunder down the bumpy road at a dangerous speed. “Mrs. Owens…slow down!” she hollered in a desperate voice. “Mrs. Owens—”
And then it happened. The front tire of the BMW struck a torn spot on the road. Razor-sharp gravel ripped the front right tire open and then began working on the back right tire. The entire side of the BMW went flat. Amy lost control of the BMW and slammed right into the front of a 1987 Chevy Silverado—a truck that was being driven by Roger Lunders, a man who was better known as “Desert Lunders.”
“Oh dear!” Patricia gasped and began running toward the wreck. Brent jumped back into the SUV and tried once again to make the engine come to life.
Roger Lunders hit the old steering wheel of his truck with two desert-stained hands and then plowed out into the chilly winds wearing a face that was harder than stone. “Who taught you how to drive!” he roared at Amy as he stalked to the front of his truck and began examining the damage.
Amy eased out of her BMW, pretending to be so shaken up that she could barely talk. “Oh my…oh…my…”
Roger ignored Amy. Instead, he focused on the front of his truck. “Look at this…hope you have insurance,” he barked.
Patricia saw a man who appeared to be older than Amy grumbling and fussing as she ran up to the two. The man she noticed was wearing a dusty cowboy hat and was dressed like someone who had somehow escaped the year 1850. “Mrs. Owens, are you okay?” she asked.
“I’m…all right. This is all too much. I feel so faint,” Amy told Patricia and then threw her hand up into the air. “Oh, I just may faint.”
Roger rolled his eyes. “Lady, you better not faint until—” Roger’s fussing was interrupted by a single gunshot that sounded like it came from the hotel.
Patricia swung around and threw her eyes at the dilapidated hotel, but only saw the front door swinging in a stiff wind. Before she could say a word, Brent scrambled out of the SUV with his family, and they all ran to Roger’s truck and huddled up together.
“Who are you?” Patricia asked the cowboy.
“Name’s Roger Lunders,” he replied. “I’m—”
“We have to get out of here. Please,” Brent interrupted in an urgent voice. “My son saw a dead man in the hotel, and now someone is shooting in there!”
Roger threw his eyes at the hotel. But before he could say a word, the sound of a second bullet filled the cold air. That one struck the radiator attached to Roger’s truck.
It appeared no one was leaving the town of Wounded Willows any time soon.
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