The handcuff started to chafe. Rick rolled his wrist, stretching the chain linking him to Susan. She tugged back and gripped the pistol in her right hand.
“Don’t even think about it.”
“I won’t run, detective.” Staring beyond the station wagon’s front bumper, at the garage door sealing them inside, Rick fought against another shift in his crouch. “I’m staying right here until we set things right.”
“So you say.”
Despite her jab, Susan stilled her drumming thumb against the handle of her gun, allowing the quiet of dust and boxed memories to wrap around them. Rain peppered the roof, each drop thumping into Rick’s head although no leaks let the storm wet his overdue-for-a-cut curls.
Things like haircuts had become irrelevant once the breadcrumbs leading him to a would-be murderer’s garage had started falling. He shivered even though their stake out had warmed the air and begun fogging the station wagon’s windows.
Susan resumed her grating stroke on her gun, and thoughts of other weaponry hidden beneath her canvas jacket and tucked in her black jeans, added to Rick’s chill. Hunching around his knees, he stewed in the embrace of a late summer storm and Susan’s growing impatience.
Dashell will come. He has to.
Minutes passed with the rain’s ceaseless pounding but the weather, Rick knew, would break. When it did, the garage door would open and the last act would begin. He could only hope Rebecca would be breathing when it did.
Susan holstered her gun. “This is ridiculous.”
“It’s not. You’ll see.”
She frowned at him, her forehead’s three furrows beneath a sway of bangs deeper then at his arrest, then during his explanation, then when they had left the station through a back door.
Rick consoled himself with the fact each crime thriller began with the police suspecting the wrong guy. They targeted the protagonist, the one character some attribute, quirky phrase, or mundane characteristic enabled a quick connection with the reader. With the police on his bad side, they find the poor guy innocent but accused, and another lasso’s flung around the readers’ hearts. They turn the page to see if he goes free, if he’s redeemed, if he escapes whatever fall the real culprit has in mind.
He wondered if this whole ordeal had a reader somewhere, entertained by a plot he’d thought limited to the pages rolled through a battered typewriter.
“All I see,” said Susan, “is a rusted station wagon.”
“It’s his stepfathers.”
“I know that.” Her whisper sharpened with disapproval. “I checked the title. I found the address. I discovered the—”
She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t have to. Rick closed his eyes and saw the first dead body anyway.
Blood splattered the kitchen floor, the counter, the cabinets. Knife wounds gaped at his barrel chest, ragged holes in a tee shirt soaked with a blackheart’s never-ending gush. The picture in his head had seemed real enough when Rick had first plunked at the keys, when he’d sketched the kitchen’s layout and determined the sink and stove needed to be opposite from one another so the elder Dashell could grab the oven’s handle as he fell. Fingerprints and four streaks of blood raked the appliance’s face, fulfilling another detail he’d imagined off the list and proving his conclusions were far from ridiculous.
With his free hand, Rick rubbed his eyes, willing the vision away. “I’m sorry I didn’t figure this out faster.”
“I’m not sure you have.”
He felt Susan’s glare, sensed the conflict in those blue eyes, the ones exceeding the blue in his dream, the one inspiring his heroine’s features. She leveled those sapphires at him as she had her pistol.
“You really believe you’re right, don’t you?”
“I do.” Meeting her eyes, Rick didn’t flinch from their cutting edge. “I must have convinced you of something too.”
“I follow leads.”
“And bring suspects along?”
“I’m not stupid.” She rattled her arm, the handcuffs’ links clinking.
“No, you’re not,” said Rick, “but these are a bad idea.”
“So was breaking into Dashell’s house. So is wasting our time sitting here.”
Bowing his head, Rick brushed garage-grime off his fingers. “He’ll come. He has to.”
“Because you wrote it that way?”
“Magical typewriters and stories coming to life.” Susan shook her head, her ponytail an inky brush against the shadows. “No matter what happens, my sanity’s going to be legitimately questioned.”
“They’ll believe you.”
Her gaze swiveled and a lump cut off Rick’s next breath.
Chapter 37 sprang to mind, the tumbling of his protagonist and heroine stoking him from the inside out in a way it never did when he’d put words on the page.
Susan inched closer, her eyes darting around the station wagon. “What is it? What do you see?”
A brief wonder if the Sea Coast Motel had room 402 free crossed his mind as Rick cleared his throat. Thinking of what scenes lay between that rendezvous: the race down I-5, the loss of a trail at exit 74, the drag of Rebecca, the innocent sister, into the woods, the stumble of the nearly retired park ranger onto Dashell’s quest for a mother’s love.
Imagined blood coated Rick’s skin like grease, and guilt stifled any thoughts other than ceasing this bizarre, self-created roller coaster of pain and suffering.
“It’s nothing,” he whispered.
“I’m…tired.” The answer felt lame even as it left his lips, but Rick clutched the sliver of truth. “This is all so strange. Weird. Wrong.”
The garage door shuddered, a command from outside starting a slow and grinding rise.
“You can say that again.” Retrieving her pistol, Susan held the gun low, her body still, a lioness catching the scent of prey. When she brought her second hand to her gun’s handle, Rick let his wrist be dragged along.
After a glance at his limp fingers, Susan fetched the keys from her jacket. While the garage door began rolling, she dangled the ring, the keys tempting him with freedom.
Rick reached for them, then stopped, wary of final condemnation.
With a whisper of “ridiculous,” under her breath, Susan forced the keys into his hand and shifted her focus to the feet appearing on the driveway.
Smacks of gutter runoff on asphalt muffled the snap of the handcuff from around Rick’s wrist. The metal rings swayed from their hang at Susan’s forearm but she didn’t seem to notice.
Gathering a nearby crowbar, Rick hefted the heavy iron, the cold metal frosting the description of the same act he’d labored over writing.
A gust brought in the smell of the storm, and the accompanying hint of flowers checked another detail off the page.
Rose perfume, remembered Rick, like mom used to wear.
He didn’t recall making his protagonist sweat, at least not in anticipation of a fight, but his palms grew damp. Susan didn’t seem effected and he took some solace in having similarly described his heroine.
Tough, beautiful, and struggling to prove herself worth the badge in a chauvinistic department while overcoming a past with strings attached. She’d listened intently when he’d explained how this scene, the one he’d written, unfolded and, unlike his heroine, she held her ground. Rick did the same, although he grew less confident of their plan with each grind of the door.
Heavy boots approached the station wagon in squelching strides. Keys jangled, then one found the lock to the hatch. A grunt had back door swinging up and open.
Susan padded along the passenger side.
A thump inside the car and a moan drew Rick’s from the now vacant concrete beside him.
After gasp, a woman’s voice croaked, “Please, don’t do this Dash.”
“I have to,” said Dashell, his gruff tenor edged with a faint New Yorker’s twang.
Rick tightened his hands around the crowbar. Dashell’s voice, the one he’d heard at the grocery store two days before, the one giving him the first clue to this unfolding tragedy, circled between his temples as if he debated dialogue. Without thinking, he slunk along the station wagon’s driver’s side, crowbar out, arms tensed. He’d offered to make the first blow and, although Susan had argued, the decision seemed the least he could do as he heard Rebecca whimper.
“Don’t worry, sis.” Dashell’s placation dried the sweat on Rick’s hands, calmed the breath in his lungs, and eased a heart on the verge of bashing through his ribs. “The ride won’t take long and then this will end.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Rebecca.
Calloused hands gripped the hatch. “This is how the story goes.”
“No it’s not,” said Rick.
Bolting up, he swung the bar like a bat. The blow against muscular thighs sent a tremble up his arms and into his chest.
“Who the hell—” Dashell turned and the features Rick had described in his opening chapter: the athletic frame of a once long-distance runner, the scar from the first cut of an abusive stepfather, faced him like a mirror. Eyes of muddy brown grew wide. “It can’t be you.”
“Believe it.” Rick brought the iron around for a second strike across the face he knew too well, at the mind he’d shaped with his own past.
He’d forgotten the strength and speed he’d granted Dashell however, his character’s grasp around his wrist tighter than Susan’s cuffs. Dashell caught his throat next, long arms holding Rick at a distance. Strength of purpose, of rage, of childhood angst, flooded through the fingers clasped at Rick’s neck and a twist at his wrist had the crowbar clattering to the concrete.
The first bang of metal chimed in Rick’s ears, as piercing as a bell rung too close. A second bang echoed even louder and started a fiery blaze in his shoulder.
He met Dashell’s eyes as the brown gave way to white. Releasing his wrist, Dashell dabbed his chest, his fingers slick with blood. He raised his hand, palm up. The drips of rain made the dark crimson streak to the cuff of his slicker.
“This wasn’t what you wrote, Rick. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.”
Rick gulped for air. “I know.”
He grabbed Dashell’s arm, but the bloodied man’s knees succumbed before his grip. Dragged to the concrete, Rick skittered back before Dashell blanketed him in blood and responsibility. When he put his weight on his right arm, a bolt of agony blinded him and Rick smothered the ache at his shoulder.
“Oh my God,” whispered Susan.
Curved around his wound, Rick spoke between clamped teeth. “Is she alright?”
Renewed rain streaked down the back of his neck and seeped through his jeans. Lifting his head, Rick squinted through mist and across the plot where the ranch house he’d thought up years earlier had once been. The chill in his bones returned when he found the empty patch of concrete where the station wagon had sat, the open air where walls had stood, the spot where Dashell had laid, where weeds now pushed up between cracks.
Nothing else remained of the characters he’d created with naïve glee at his typewriter. The cul-de-sac around him void except for a drenched detective.
Rick pressed the gash at his shoulder. “The story’s over.”