Miracle in a Dry Season    Dangerous Passage

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On the Run
by Lorena McCourtney


Super senior sleuth Ivy Malone has curiosity that just won't quit. That inquisitiveness has gotten her into plenty of trouble, including murder, mayhem, and a place on a mini-Mafia hit list.

Hiding out from some thugs who want revenge, she hops in a motor home and heads across the country. But with Ivy behind the wheel, trouble is bound to be in the passenger's seat--and a murder mystery can't be far away. So when she stumbles across two very dead bodies, Ivy is determined to solve the crime, even if it kills her.

 


CHAPTER ONE


The pickup had been tailing me for at least the last thirty miles. I slowed. It slowed. I speeded up. It speeded up. We were as synchronized as the wiper blades swishing back and forth on my windshield.

Not good.

In the same jittery brain wave, I scoffed at my reaction. No reason to think this was a malevolent Braxton honing in on me like a heat-seeking missile programmed to the temperature of a little old lady in polyester slacks. Probably just a cautious driver who didn’t want to take chances passing on a curvy, rain-slicked highway.

“No need to get all sweaty-handed and jelly-kneed, right?”

Koop, who never gets sweaty-handed or jelly kneed, opened his one good eye and regarded me with mild interest. Koop is a stubby-tailed, one-eyed Manx with orange fur and a laid-back disposition. Except for an aversion to cigarette smokers, in whose presence he turns into Psycho Cat. We’d adopted each other at a rest area in Georgia.

Now he surprised me by suddenly jerking alert. He hopped down from his usual spot on the passenger’s seat and prowled the length of the motor home, even jumping up on the sofa and peering out the window, stub of tail twitching. Did cats get vibes, like my old friend Magnolia from back home claimed she did? Maybe hostile vibes from that pickup back there behind us?

I peered into the motor home’s oversized mirror trying to get a better look at the vehicle. It was a light-colored pickup, not new, not ancient, nothing threatening about it. But wasn’t that exactly the generic type vehicle the Braxtons would choose if they were closing in on me? I couldn’t tell if the driver was man or woman, or even how many people were in the pickup. Neither could I make out the license plate.

“Okay, we’ll give them an invitation to pass, one they can’t refuse,” I told Koop.

Ahead was a straight, tree-lined stretch of highway with a nice dotted line down the center. No other vehicles were in sight. I slowed to a crawl. An arthritic centipede could have passed us. But the pickup didn’t. It stayed behind, maintaining what was beginning to look like a calculated distance.

My hands turned sweaty on the steering wheel. What did the driver have in mind? Forcing the motor home into a fatal crash on a hill or curve? Picking just the right spot for putting a bullet through a tire or window?

Oh, c’mon. Wasn’t that a bit melodramatic? How could the Braxtons have found me? I hadn’t stayed more than a few days in any one place in the last couple of months. I’d contacted my niece DeeAnn and my friend Magnolia only by pre-paid phone card. I never told anyone where I was heading next.

I glanced at Koop again. Next thing I’d be suspecting he was wired for espionage, sending Cat-o-grams to the Braxtons with a high-tech tracking system implanted behind that scruffy orange ear.

No matter how I tried to pooh-pooh my way out of my fears, however, the hard fact was that the Braxtons were out to get me. I’d been instrumental in convicting one of the brothers for murder. Drake Braxton, the leader of the clan, had vowed to turn me into roadkill. They’d already tried to burn my house back in Missouri, with me in it. When I hid out at my niece’s place in Arkansas, they’d tracked me down and planted dynamite in my old Thunderbird. Which was when I’d decided hitting the road would be a prudent plan, both for my safety and the safety of my niece and her family. Surely, I’d thought, they couldn’t find me if I kept on the move. A rolling motor home gathers no Braxtons.

And I’d rolled steadily during the last couple of months. From Arkansas to Florida, up the eastern coast, now back inland to this wooded valley somewhere in Tennessee. I’d met wonderful people. I’d met strange people. I’d visited an eclectic variety of churches. I’d been encouraged by the love of the Lord I’d found in most of them. I’d been discouraged by internal squabbles in others. In some congregations I’d been no more visible than an organ note hanging in the air; in others I’d been welcomed like a wonderful new friend. From other travelers I’d accumulated invitations to visit people all over the country. Never had I encountered anyone I even remotely suspected was stalking me.

Which didn’t mean the Braxtons weren’t stalking me. And had found me. Because, at the moment, this isolated road seemed an ideal spot to commit exactly what they’d threatened: roadkill.

What now, Lord?

An immediate answer. A sign! No, not a lightning bolt from heaven. A road sign. Stanley, Population 42.

“Hang on, Koop,” I muttered. Just beyond the sign I whipped the motor home hard to the right. At which time I was reminded that motor homes, even smaller ones like my 21-footer, do not take kindly to abrupt changes of direction. It tilted like a vehicular Leaning Tower of Pisa and wobbled for a precarious moment before settling back on solid ground.

My attention was elsewhere. I held my breath as I peered out the window. Would the pickup slither in behind me? Two guys with machine guns get out and close in on me? No. Without even slowing down, the pickup zoomed right on by.

Oh, happy day! I let out my breath and wiped my sweaty hands on Koop’s fur when he jumped into my lap.

Okay, I’d imagined hostile intentions where none existed. Making the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. Or perhaps, in these days of computer-speak, making a gigabyte out of a kilobyte would be more correct. But isn’t it better to be on guard than sneaked up on?

Now I had time to inspect Stanley, Tennessee, which appeared to consist of a lone gas-and-grocery and a few shabby houses on the far side of a field. Muddy water puddled the potholes around the gas pumps, a wet flag drooped overhead and a gray mule peered over a nearby wooden fence. Posters advertising chewing tobacco, Campbell’s soups and, incongruously, a cruise to the Bahamas, covered most of the windows on the weatherbeaten building. A man in old black work pants, khaki jacket and a faded red cap ambled out the door.

Given the price of gas and my limited finances, I’d intended to wait until I reached a discount station before gassing up, but the place looked as if it could use some business. I eased the motor home up to the pumps. The man peered up at me through heavy bifocals. Tufts of gray hair stuck out from under the cap that read “Voorhee’s Heavy Equipment – We’ll Dig For You!” I slid the window open.

“Fill ‘er up?”

I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t have to get out and do the fill-up myself. “Yes, please. Regular. I’ll have to unlock the gas cap.” I slipped on a jacket and opened the door. The rain had let up, and the air smelled fresh and woodsy, with just a hint of wet mule. I unlocked the gas cap, and he stuck the nozzle in. The gas gurgled. The motor home guzzles gas like Koop gleefully downing his favorite treat, a half can of tuna.

“Nice rain,” I offered conversationally. I hadn’t talked to anyone except Koop for two days. He’s sweet, but not a big conversationalist.

The man nodded.

“Planning a cruise to the Bahamas?” I motioned toward the poster.

He gave me a what-planet-are-you-from? look, and I felt properly chastised for my frivolousness. When the tank was full, he surprised me by climbing up to clean my bug-speckled windshield, an action I appreciated more than small talk anyway. I told him I’d go inside to pay.

A gray haired woman with a perm tight enough to offer the bonus of an eyebrow lift took my money and rang it up on an old-fashioned cash register.

“You folks travelin’?” she inquired as she peered between the posters at the motor home. Unlike the man outside, she sounded hungry for small talk.

“Just seeing the countryside.” To divert attention from myself, which is what I usually try to do, I asked, “Is your town named for some special Stanley?”

“Zeke Stanley. Story goes he was the slickest thief and card shark in three states. Could steal yer horse out from under you right while you was settin’ on it.”

An impressive, though questionable talent, but possibly one that would interest my friend Mac MacPherson, who wanders the country looking for little-known places and events to write about in his travel articles. I’d been thinking our paths might cross somewhere on the road, but so far that hadn’t happened.

“Course ol’ Zeke eventually got hung for his troubles. Used the same rope he’d just stole from a guy he was playin’ cards with to hang ‘im, they did. Called poker justice, ain’t it?”

I thought she probably meant poetic justice, but perhaps, in Zeke’s case, poker justice was appropriate. The door opened and the man stuck his head inside.

“Left front tire’s runnin’ low. I knocked on yer door, but I cain’t rouse nobody. Want me to air ‘er up?”

Even the woman looked surprised. Three whole sentences in a row.

“Yes, I’d appreciate that. Thank you.”

The woman inspected me again after the door closed. “You ain’t travelin’ alone, aire you?”

“Well, uh, yes, I am.”

I expected disapproval and dire warnings, but instead she just tilted her permed head curiously. “Don’t you git lonely?”

It was a question I’d heard before, and I answered it as I always did. “No, I’m fine. Traveling alone can be a wonderful adventure.” I thought about adding, as I’d heard another woman traveling alone say, “My cat’s better company than most husbands. Never argues and doesn’t snore.”

However, dearly as I love Koop, I can’t say he’s better company than a husband. I also have to admit that, even though I’m enjoying my traveling adventures, and the Lord is always with me, sometimes I do get a bit lonely.

“You headed anywhere particular?” the woman asked.

“Not really.” The words unexpectedly struck me as more dismal than adventurous.

“What’re you doing in Stanley?”

“Just passing through.”

She nodded sagely. “That’s what most people do in Stanley. Kids, they pick up ‘n’ leave soon as they can figure a way to get outta town.” She paused, and her old blue eyes went dreamy. “That’s what I’d like to do someday. Me ‘n’ Tom, git us a motor home like your’n, put pedal to the metal and just go.”

“It’s the kind of thing you should do while you still have each other,” I advised impulsively. Harley and I had always intended to travel together, but we never got around to it before he was gone.

I put my hand to the back of my neck and rubbed at muscles that were beginning to feel stiff as dried jerky. The incident with the pickup, even if it had turned out to be a non-incident, had left me feeling kind of strung out. I didn’t want to drive any farther today. “Is there an RV park around here somewhere?”

“Old man Feister rents out a few trailer spaces. Mostly permanent locals, but he takes in an RVer now ‘n’ then. You go to the left at the Y down the road. Little farther on, gravel road turns off to the right. Miser Lane.” She giggled, as if name were an inside joke. “But you gotta watch close. It’s easy to miss. Feister’s place ain’t much, but it’s cheap. And there’s a nice creek. Tell ‘im Annie sent you.”

Cheap sounded good. Even with an occasional free night in a rest area or Wal-Mart parking lot, living on the road was costing more than was comfortable on my limited Social Security and CD income. “Okay, Annie, thank you. I’ll do that. Were you born around here?” I asked, curious as always about people I meet.

“No. Come from Iowa. Not much to do ‘round here,” she added, “but we got a nice little church with a potluck every Wednesday night.”

“Sounds great.” It truly did. Old Man Feister’s place, just outside Stanley, Tennessee, was surely the middle-of-nowhere kind of spot the Braxtons would never think to look for me. With a creek and a potluck as a bonus.

“You take care now, hear?” she said as I opened the door.

“You too.” I gave her a thumbs up sign. We little old ladies of the world have to stick together. Maybe we should form an LOLs United.

Outside, Taciturn Tom was running water in a tank for the mule. I waved and got a jerk of his head in response. I started the engine and threaded my way around the potholes. Three miles down the road I took the left fork at the Y. It would be good to stop and relax for a few days.

But a half mile farther on I saw it. My heart shimmied. My toes cramped. My teeth tingled. Bad vibes. Very bad vibes.

It was the pickup, closer now. Dirty white color. A dented fender. Silhouettes of two people in the cab. No coincidence here. They’d hidden and waited to see which fork I took. The orange fur on Koop’s back popped up like porcupine quills.

I started looking frantically for Miser Lane. If I could get off the main road, into the safety of people and trailers.

Too late. I saw the leaning sign for Miser Lane just as the motor home sailed past it.

It wouldn’t have meant safety anyway, I realized regretfully. Because the Braxtons would have my location pinned down, and they’d figure a way to get me.

My only chance was to lose them.

I tightened my hands on the steering wheel, swallowed hard and did what Annie back in Stanley wanted to do. I put pedal to the metal and went.


Used with permission of the author.
All rights reserved. Copyright Lorena McCourtney.
On the Run published by Revell.