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   PLAYING DEAD IN DIXIE
    .............................................Excerpt

She never lost consciousness.

It might have been better if she had.  Then she could have awakened later in a clean white hospital with kind-faced nurses reassuring her she'd made it safely through the bus crash and everything would be all right.

Instead, Carly lay in stunned silence, staring up at a black, weeping sky.  Around her, cries and moans mingled with the hiss of the bus's dying engine.  The bus had broken apart, either in the crash or during the tumble down the ravine where she lay, her body half-swallowed by tall grass.  It must have come apart, or she'd still be inside, right?

It had to be Manning.  He'd done something, somehow.  Tampered with the bus's brakes or maybe the brakes of the big rig that had slammed into them on the highway—

No.  That didn't make sense.

"Help me.  Please, somebody help me."

A woman's voice, full of fear and pain and age, came from somewhere nearby.  Carly closed her eyes and willed herself unconscious.

The voice remained, weak and scared.  "Please, help me!"

Carly sat up, testing for pain.  She hurt all over, but it wasn't a mortal hurt. She couldn't see much blood, except a small gash on her left elbow.  All her limbs moved as they were supposed to, though she could feel sore patches on her knees, probably scraped through her trousers when she hit the ground.

Looking around, she spotted the source of the pain-filled voice, a small, gray-haired woman lying a few feet away, barely visible in the dim glow of light coming from the highway above.

Carly crawled through the tall grass to the woman's side.  The old woman gazed up at her, gray eyes fluttering as if trying to focus on Carly's face.  "I'm right here," Carly assured her.

She searched her fuzzy brain for what to do next.  A deep gash in the woman's forehead bled freely, streaking her face with blood.  Carly tore a piece of the woman's blouse and made a compress, pressing it against the bloody wound.  "How are your arms, hon?  Can you move them?"

The woman lifted her right arm without problem but cried out when she tried to move the left.

"Okay, hold that arm still.  Hold this cloth to your forehead, right here, hard as you can."  Carly helped the woman press her good hand against the compress, then quickly checked for other injuries, trying to remember everything she'd ever learned from those medical shows on TV.  But she couldn't remember much more than a warning to mind the airway.

The woman was breathing okay, but so much could be wrong—a head injury, internal bleeding—

Help.  She needed help.  Had anyone called 911?

She needed her cell phone.  She looked around, glad the rain-washed gloom hid most of the scene from her, the blood and the dead, the twisted metal and twisted limbs.  She concentrated on looking for her purse, a bright pink faux-alligator bag she'd bought to match her favorite strappy sandals.

Was that just three days ago?  It felt like forever.

She spotted something pink a few yards down the embankment.  Praying it was her purse and not something her mind and stomach couldn't handle, she murmured a soothing word to the injured woman and pushed to her feet.  Her aching knees balked against the sudden movement, but she kept her feet and picked her way downhill toward the pink splash of color.

A couple of feet away from the purse, she heard someone call her name. She knew the voice—Steve Strickland, the man who'd sat next to her on the bus.  His friendly chatter had kept her mind off her problems during the trip from Atlantic City.

Please be okay.  

She turned toward his voice and found him lying a few feet away, looking at her.

He didn't look good.

Her heart caught for a second before resuming a painful, rapid cadence against her ribcage.  She raced to his side, blinking away the tears stinging her eyes.  Crying only made her weak.  There was no room for weakness in the belly of hell.

"I'm here, Steve."  She crouched beside him, ignoring the blood shining black in the grass beneath him.  Both of his legs lay twisted half under him.  He must be in excruciating pain.  But bones could heal.  The frothy blood bubbling on his lips, visible even in the gloom, was a worse harbinger of his fate.

"I'm dying."  His voice was thick with blood.

She shook her head.  "Don't say that."

He clutched her hand.  "In my pocket."  He waved his other hand toward the pocket of his gray blazer.

Carly reached into the blazer pocket, her finger brushing something that felt like paper.  She grasped it and pulled, withdrawing a large paper envelope filled with something thick and heavy.  Carly tried to place the envelope in Steve's hand.

He pushed her hand away.  "Make sure my folks get that."  He grimaced and a fresh spurt of foamy blood spilled from his mouth.  "Floyd and Bonnie . . . Strickland.  I told you all about them, remember?"  His eyes began to roll back in his head.

Carly dropped the envelope on the grass beside her and grabbed Steve's hand.  "Don't you dare leave me alone here," she growled, pressing her fingers against the vein in his wrist.  He had a pulse, barely, the beat weak and unsteady.

Sirens wailed in the distance, the first hopeful sound she'd heard in what felt like days.

"Hear that?  Hang on, Steve.  Please!"  Beneath her fingers, the thready pulse slowed.  The tears she'd held back slid down her cheeks, hot and bitter.  "Come on, don't you want to take this to Bonnie and Floyd yourself?  You know you want to see them again.  It's been such a long time."

His heartbeat slowed to nothing.  She dropped his hand and tried to pull back the lapels of his blazer to expose his chest. The fabric resisted, snagged on something.  She looked down and for the first time saw a twisted shard of metal, at least eight inches long, sticking out of his side a few inches below his left shoulder.

Her heart plummeted, but she ripped at the jacket, pulling it away from his chest.  She tore open the buttons of his bloodstained shirt, sobbing aloud.  "Come on, Steve, don't leave me now!"

She should be doing CPR.  But she didn't know how.

Stupid, not to know how!

Strong hands curled over her shoulders, making her jerk.  She twisted her head around and found a gray-haired man crouched next to her, a black bag sitting on the ground beside him.

"Let me take a look," he said.  "I'm a doctor."

Carly let go of Steve's clothes and rocked back on her heels, making room for the doctor.  As he started a quick assessment of Steve's condition, Carly picked up the envelope Steve had given her.  She untucked her blouse, sliding the envelope into the waistband of her trousers and covering it with her blouse.  She didn't know what she'd find inside, but from the shape of the contents, she had a pretty good idea that it was money.  Steve had just come from a trip to the casinos. Maybe he'd been luckier than most.  She wasn't going to leave the man's money there to be pocketed by one of the lookie-loos beginning to mingle with the injured, dead and dying.

The thought of money reminded her of her missing purse.  Spotting it again, she scrambled toward the purse, slipping on the wet grass and landing hard on her bottom.  She slid the rest of the way on her backside, coming to a stop beside the bag.

She flipped the purse open and checked inside.  Her phone remained, along with her billfold.  She checked the cash pouch and reassured herself that the four hundred dollars was still there.  Clutching her purse to her belly, she tucked her knees up against her chest, wiping her wet face on her forearm and trying to close her ears to the moans and cries around her.

Think.

Paramedics had arrived, moving through the tall grass around her, searching for survivors.  Soon they'd come to check on her. Try to put her in an ambulance and take her to a hospital, where she'd have to show some identification.

That couldn't happen.  It would get back to Dominick.

She couldn't let him find her.

She pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the shivery weakness in her knees.  She forced herself to stand straight, checking her clothes one more time for blood.  Her elbow was a mess, but she'd worn a burgundy blouse to work that morning by some stroke of good fortune.  In the dark, at least, the stain might be mistaken for water.

She was drenched to the bone as it was, already shivering.  But she couldn't give into weakness.  She started moving slowly among the bodies scattered down the hillside, trying to pass as a bystander trying to help instead of one of the victims.

She forced herself to look around, to take in the full scale of the accident she'd been lucky to escape alive.  The bus had rolled at least two or three times and split open in the middle, spilling people onto the steep incline of the ravine.  Part of the bus lay on its side about halfway down, not far from where she'd ended up herself.  The front section of the bus had slid a few dozen yards further to land half-submerged in the swollen river at the bottom of the ravine.

Black water roiled around the bus's carcass, weaving through the broken hull and pouring through the shattered windows.  Carly's heart clutched as she saw the current suck something through the window.

Something that looked a lot like a body.

Before she could alert the rescuers, she saw a half-dozen men and women converge at the river, forming a human chain to safely navigate inside the washed-out hulk of the bus.  As she watched, several more rescuers ran past her to join the group.

From nearby, a voice carried to where Carly stood. "That's the fourth one I've seen washed out of that bus since we got here.  They'll be finding bodies downriver for months."

Carly gazed across the crash site to where Steve lay, still and now alone, beyond anyone's help.  His family would be one of the lucky ones.  They'd have a body to bury.

As she stood there, tears spilling over her rain-damp cheeks, a terrible, perfect idea bloomed and spread in her shell-shocked brain.

She'd thought she didn't want anyone to find her.

But maybe it would be better if someone did.

 


STEVE HAD DIED IN the rain.  Ironic that he was buried on the sunniest day Bangor, Georgia, had seen in a week.

As one of his cousin's pallbearers, Bangor Chief of Police Wes Hollingsworth was glad not to be wading through red clay mud at the mouth of the new-turned grave.  But the sunshine seemed cruel, somehow, beating down on the mourners gathered at the funeral tent.

Under the tent's shade, his aunt and uncle sat in broken silence, gazing at the casket, the glare from the shiny chrome fittings washing their faces with ethereal light.  Steve's sister Beth sat between her husband Ray and her mother, mute grief turning her face to stone.

Steve should never have left Bangor.  Wes understood all the reasons why his cousin had fled the sleepy town as soon as he could, sympathized with the craving for bigger horizons, for excitement and adventure.  Wes had made his own escape from Bangor several years back.

Unlike Steve, he'd lived long enough to regret the choice.

Long enough to come back home where he belonged.

The pastor finished the benediction, and the family rose to say their final goodbyes.  Wes fell into line, glancing across the gravesite to where his father sat, his right hand curled into a claw against his side.  J.B. could have joined the small procession—he wasn't wheelchair bound—but Wes's father was too proud to gimp along in front of his neighbors and family.

He'd wait there in that hard metal chair until most of the crowd had dispersed before he ambled back to Wes's truck.  Then he'd come up with a dozen different excuses to wait until everyone was gone before he'd let Wes help him into the cab.

That's how it always went, those times he'd bother to get out of the house at all.  Nothing had changed, not for ten long years.

Nothing ever changed around Bangor.

Then Wes saw the brunette.

She wore black, a knee-length skirt, elbow-length sleeves and a modest scoop neck, none of which hid the fact that she was a stunner.  Her shimmery black blouse molded over her high, firm breasts and tucked at the waist to emphasize her flat belly and flaring hips.  From the knee down, her shapely calves and slender ankles promised that the thighs hidden beneath the narrow skirt would be just as toned and tempting.  Her dark hair lay twisted in a neat coil that emphasized her long, graceful neck and stunning bone structure.

A low whistle to Wes's left indicated he wasn't the only man in Bangor to have noticed the newcomer.  He glanced at Neely Boyd, one of his deputies, who'd also been one of the pallbearers.  Neely shot Wes a guilty look and plastered a somber expression on his face.

The family procession moved past the casket and into the sunlight, breaking out of the formal line into small clusters as friends and acquaintances moved forward to offer comfort and hugs.  As Wes moved through the crowd toward where his aunt and uncle stood, he saw the brunette heading in the same direction.  Though she moved slowly, reluctance clear in her expression, the mourners made room as she passed, as if the sheer force of her presence sent out a rippling wake, clearing the way.

She reached the Stricklands at the same time Wes did.  She spared him a quick, curious glance before turning to his Aunt Bonnie.  "Mrs. Strickland?"

Definitely a Yankee.  Easterner.  Philly, maybe New Jersey.  South, not north.  He'd developed an ear for accents during his four years in the Marines, collecting drawls, brogues and honks like some guys collected bottle caps or baseball cards.

Aunt Bonnie looked up at the taller woman, her expression wary.  "Yes.  I'm sorry, do we know each other?"

The brunette gave a little half-smile, her cheeks growing pink beneath the older woman's gaze.  "No, we haven't met.  I knew your son Steve."

"You knew Stevie?"  Warmth spilled into his aunt's eyes, chasing away the wariness.

Wes's heart sank.  Here we go again.

The brunette placed her slim-fingered hand over Bonnie's.  "I was on the bus with him when it crashed.  He wanted—"

Bonnie's breath hitched.  "Were you with him when . . . ?"

Wes took a step forward, a finger of unease sliding down the back of his neck.  There was something in the brunette's voice when she spoke of Steve, a glimmer of intimacy, as if to suggest, oh-so-subtly, that her friendship with Steve was a little deeper than she let on.

Wes knew better.  He'd talked to Steve a week before his death, and there hadn't been anybody in his life.  Definitely not a brunette with a showgirl's body and sea green eyes.

He placed himself between his aunt and the newcomer, holding out his hand.  "I'm Wes Hollingsworth.  Steve's cousin.  And you are?"

Her green eyes met his gaze.  Her expression was neutral, even guileless, but those eyes were deep and unfathomable.  She took his hand.  "Carly Devlin.  A friend of Steve's."

Her hand was warm, her grip strong.  Heat seeped into his palm where their hands touched.

Her eyes darkened and her hand curled into a fist.  She pressed it against her leg and cleared her throat.  "Steve told me about you."  Though her expression betrayed a flicker of anxiety, her voice still held a hint of intimacy, like she knew something he didn't.

Only he was pretty sure it was the other way around.

"Were you with our boy when he died?" Floyd asked.

Carly looked up at Wes's uncle, moisture pooling in her eyes.  Either she was the best actress this side of Hollywood, or she was fighting with real emotion.  Wes was leaning toward the former, but he had to admit that a less suspicious man would fall for the weepy act without hesitation.

"I wasn't with him at the end," she admitted, her voice quiet.  "He'd lost consciousness and his heart was failing.  A doctor—a guy who saw the crash—was with him.  But Steve never regained consciousness, as far as I know."  She licked her full pink lips, a hint of uneasiness creeping into her expression.  "I know this is a bad time and place to introduce myself—I didn't realize when I arrived that the funeral would be today.  I guess I could have waited at your house until you got back, but there's not really a good time—"

"Don't fret yourself."  Bonnie took Carly's hand in hers.  "You're Steve's friend.  You're welcome here any time.  Why don't you come back to the house with us?  We don't know enough of Steve's friends."

Wes looked at his aunt with alarm, recognizing the telltale signs, the open warmth in the older woman's voice, the fluttering hands itching to be of use.  Bonnie Hollingsworth Strickland was a born nurturer, and if the people around her didn't keep her in check, she'd take in every stray, animal or human, who passed by her door.  The trait was worse under stress, and God knows, losing her only son in an accident qualified as stress.

Wes looked to Floyd, hoping his uncle realized what was happening, but Floyd's face held only a sad, understandable eagerness.  Carly Devlin claimed she'd been with Steve at the last.  No doubt Floyd was thinking maybe Steve had said something, had given Carly some sort of message they could tuck away in their hearts and their memories to comfort them over the hard months to come.

Even Steve's sister Beth, who had more of Wes's native wariness than her parents, looked interested in what Carly Devlin had to say.

"It's just the family," Bonnie was saying, already tucking her arm into the crook of Carly's.  "Did you drive here?"

Carly shook her head, glancing toward Wes.  The look of distress on her face could mean anything, from genuine discomfort at insinuating herself into a private family moment to worry that Wes saw through whatever scheme she was hatching to take advantage of his aunt and uncle.  Her green eyes narrowed as she spoke.  "I rode the bus in from Savannah."  Her face paled, lines marring her smooth brow.  "I don't know why I didn't consider how hard it would be, getting back on a bus.  But I had to come here."

For the first time, Wes believed her without reservation.  She couldn't have faked the haggard look that crossed her face when she spoke of riding the bus to Bangor.  He believed her when she said she'd braved reentering the belly of the diesel beast because she had to come to Bangor.

The question was, why?


Text Copyright 2011 by Paula Graves.