about chris mysteries thrillers stories events photos media contact
chris grabenstein
thrillers

SLAY RIDE
Prologue


Slay Ride Christopher Miller is running.

He cradles the child in his arms and feels the sting of a bullet biting into the back of his thigh.

He is sweating. The field of waist-high weeds whips against his hips as he plows forward. Dust swirls in the haze surrounding the sun.

Now the sweat blinds him. He can no longer see where he is running. He only knows he must charge ahead, keep his legs churning

Another sting. His thigh burns with pain.

The child in his arms shrieks. She is terrified.

So is he. If he drops the girl she will surely die.

So Miller keeps running. When his left leg collapses, he doesn't fall. He grimaces, strains forward, leaves his feet. He flies across the field. His wounded thigh is on fire but he is soaring like a hawk headed for the treetops. He looks down at the girl.

She is gone. Did he drop her? Did she slip away? It no longer matters: she is forever lost in the whirlpool of weeds swirling below.


###

Christopher Miller sat up, breathing hard. Trying not to wake his wife.

He knew this wasn't how it went down.

He had saved that girl.

He knew the truth, the facts. But that never altered the dream's last scene: he always lost the girl, always let her slip away. Lately the dream had been feeling less like a nightmare, more like a premonition.

Christopher Miller feared there was another run still to come.


Chapter One

It was 7:01 a.m. and Scott Wilkinson wondered if the limo driver was purposely trying to ruin his life.

He had specifically instructed the car service that he needed to be picked up at seven or he'd miss his flight out of Newark. And if he missed his flight out of Newark he would also miss the presentation in Dallas. And if he missed the presentation in Dallas, six months and three hundred thousand dollars worth of advertising research would be wasted.

He had made this clear when he set up his reservation last night. He had made it even clearer when he called at 6:30 a.m. to double-triple confirm his pick-up time and car number. He knew it would take at least half an hour for even the best driver from 777-CARS to find the Wilkinson home in Northridge, New Jersey. Scott had previously clocked the car service's vehicles in similar situations. Thirty minutes was the norm.

7:02 a.m.

He stood in his driveway and jabbed numbers into his cell phone with his thumb: 7-7-7, C-A-R-S. He never liked spelling out words on a keypad, found it inefficient, found it difficult to locate the appropriate letters since they were clustered together in sequential clumps of threes and four.

"Lucky Seven. Please hold..."

"No, sorry. I cannot hold. My car is late. I specifically requested a 7 a.m. pickup."

"It's just seven now, sir."

"It's 7:03."

"Do you have a car number, sir?"

"Yes. Seven, One, Six." Scott could hear the operator clacking computer keys. She was definitely a hunt-and-pecker. Another thirty seconds might be wasted while she attempted to enter his number.

"Mr. Wilkinson?"

"Yes."

"44 Canterbury Lane?"

"That is correct. Can you please advise me as to the current status of my car?"

"He should be there."

"I agree. He should be here, should being the operative word...."

"Car number 716. A black Lincoln town car...."

"Actually, he should've been here at 7 a.m. since that was what I requested when I made my reservation...."

"Yes, sir. He should be there."

"You keep saying that."

"Just give him another minute, okay?"

"Actually, it's not okay." Scott had his M.B.A. Gross inefficiency annoyed him. He always planned his travel itinerary with detailed precision. With a flight scheduled to depart at 9:30 a.m., the airline wanted him there no later than 8. It was a thirty-minute drive from his house. Theoretically, he could leave as late as 7:30 but that would entail giving up his thirty-minute buffer, the one he always counted on having to cover unforeseen contingencies: traffic, accidents, weather, acts-of-God. Without it, he was subject to the capricious whims of the universe. "May I please speak to your supervisor?"

"Sir, she'll just tell you what I'm telling you."

"Let me talk to your supervisor."

"Please hold."

Scott pressed the cell phone closer to his ear, as if burrowing the plastic earpiece into his auditory canal might speed things up. He tapped his toe, drumming in time to a hummingbird's heartbeat. The morning was chilly but his ear was red hot, a furnace fueled by anger, which only intensified as he listened to a professionally soothing recorded voice telling him how much his business meant to Lucky Seven Limousines and how much they appreciated his patience while he continued to hold.

"Honey?" His wife came out on the front porch. She wore a red flannel bathrobe. "Is everything okay?"

"The car's late. Again."

"Would you like coffee? I just brewed some."

Melissa Wilkinson's robe was decorated with jolly snowmen—their faces as cute and perky as hers. She was also sporting something of a snowman's belly: the Wilkinsons were expecting their first child in less than a month.

"Missy, you should go back inside," Scott said. "It's freezing out here."

"I know, but..."

"Uh, uh, uh," Scott said playfully. "You better not pout. I'll tell Santa."

It was December 14th. Sugary snow dusted the resin sculptures standing in the Wilkinsons' front lawn. A six-foot Santa conducting a choir of roly-poly snowmen.

"Really, honey. Go back inside. You'll catch a cold."

"You want me to call the car company?" she asked.

Scott wiggle-waggled the phone next to his ear.

"Oh. Is that them?"

"Yes."

Melissa didn't have her MBA. In fact, Scott liked to joke that, at college, Melissa "majored in Greek — she was president of her sorority." She was twenty-six, her husband thirty. She was sweet and beautiful and blonde and cuddly and the main reason Scott Wilkinson worked so hard. Soon, the baby would come and he'd have to work even harder. Eighteen years from now, college would cost a fortune. Scott had already run the numbers.

"Here it comes!" Melissa bounced up on her toes and pointed. "Over there."

Scott saw a black Lincoln Town Car crawling up the street.

"Looks like it."

"Have a good one, hon!" She threw her arms around Scott's neck and kissed him. "I really only came out so I could do that again."

"Well, I'm glad you did," he said, squeezing her tight. He flicked his wrist and read his watch over her shoulder. "I better scoot. We're five minutes behind schedule."

"Fly safe, sweetie. Hurry home."

"Will do."

Scott grabbed his rolling suitcase and hoisted it off the ground so he'd be ready to fling it into the trunk as soon as the driver popped open the lid. He figured he might pick up a few seconds that way.

7:06 a.m.

Everything was back under control. He still had a 24-minute buffer.


Chapter Two

Christopher Miller tore another chunk out of the coconut pastry.

It was homemade and tasted even better than the caramel-covered custard and fried Johnny Cakes Mrs. Melo had already insisted he eat. Miller knew this wasn't what his neighbor had for breakfast every morning, that these were special Dominican treats, normally served for dessert. He also knew if he ate many breakfasts like this one he'd be hauling around more than his typical two hundred pounds on his six-foot frame. It wouldn't be solid muscle anymore, either.

He was stuffed.

"That was good," Miller said. "Delicious. Everything."

"Would you like more?"

Miller sensed Mrs. Melo wasn't yet ready to talk so he took another chomp to give her some time. "Coconut, right?"

"Si."

"I thought so. Thought I tasted it."

Her kitchen looked like his across the street. Small. Cozy. Linoleum table about three feet away from the stove so the oven could warm you on the outside while the food kept you comfy on the inside.

The two-story houses up and down the block were what they called "working class homes" and that was fine with Miller. He didn't mind working hard and liked living around folks who felt the same way. Besides, his mother used to say, "the smallest houses hold the most love."

True. But, a second bathroom upstairs might be nice, too.

Miller's Jersey City neighbors were new immigrants mixed with long-time residents. Dominicans like Mrs. Melo. Filippinos. Indians. Black folk like Miller. You could count on them, and knowing this made him feel lucky. Whenever a blizzard hit, for example, every able-bodied resident on the block would trudge out to the sidewalks, snow shovels and ice picks in hand, ready to dig out anyone needing assistance. Miller usually led the shovel brigade. He liked attacking the snow, liked battling the mountainous snowbanks left behind to block the driveways after the city's plows cleared the street.

Miller liked restoring order to chaos.

Besides, the exercise helped him stay fit — even though most of the old ladies he dug out usually rewarded him with big loaves of banana bread.

Miller pushed back from the table.

"Have more. Please."

"No, thank you, Mrs. Melo. I'm good."

The old woman's eyes were rimmed red. Miller could tell she'd been crying, probably for weeks, probably since it had happened. He wiped his hands on the cloth napkin his hostess set out whenever distinguished guests like her neighbor, FBI Special Agent Christopher Miller, came over at 7 a.m. for the breakfast buffet.

"This is Victor." Mrs. Melo pulled a fading photograph out of a folded envelope. Miller could see smudges and stains on the glossy surface. Tear drops. Worn edges from where the old woman had rubbed and rubbed and tried to touch her grandson one last time, tried to hug him with her hands.

"Handsome."

"He was going to be a doctor. The taxi job? That was only to help me. To buy heating oil and food...."

"He was a good man..."

"Yes. Very good." Mrs. Melo used her own napkin to dab her eyes. "Please forgive me."

Her grandson's story and picture had been in all the papers back in late November. "Pre-Med Student Shot By 'Man In The Moon' Killer." Not a very happy Thanksgiving for anybody on the block. Hard to be grateful for everything you had when you knew the woman across the street had just lost everything that made her life worth living.

"Ever since my husband die, Victor help me. He help his abuela."

Victor Melo had been found slumped inside his idling taxicab near the corner of Boyd and Oxford in Jersey City with a fatal bullet wound to the back of his head. He had started his shift after classes at UMDNJ, about 5 p.m., and reported picking up his last fare at New Jersey Transit's Journal Square train station at 1:45 a.m. Detectives found one casing from a 25-mm semiautomatic handgun in the back seat of the cab but no gun.

It had been the same with The Man In The Moon's first two victims. Both were cabbies and both had been shot in the back of the head with a 25-mm handgun. Ballistic tests showed the same weapon had been fired in all three killings. When the cops did the math, checked their calendars, they realized Victor had been killed exactly twenty-eight days after the cabbie killed in October who had been murdered exactly twenty-eight days after the gypsy cab driver slain in September.

The newspapers crunched the same numbers and tagged the killer "The Man In The Moon" because his twenty-eight day pattern followed that of the typical lunar cycle.

Victor Melo's pockets had been picked clean, so the official conclusion was that the motive was robbery, the way it was most times in such cases. Cabbies were a junkie's favorite ATM. Conveniently located. Always open.

"He was afraid to drive the cab at night," Mrs. Melo said, "but he did it for me."

"Don't go blaming yourself."

"He was going to be married. Next summer."

"I know."

"Why don't the police catch this Man In The Moon?"

"They're working on it."

"Why doesn't the FBI help?"

Miller rubbed his beefy hand around his mouth and cheeks. He could tell Mrs. Melo about jurisdictional boundaries and the Bureau's current focus on anti-terrorist initiatives. He could try to tell this grieving grandmother why the United States Justice Department's main investigatory agency couldn't really get involved in what, for the time being, was considered a matter for the local authorities.

He could've given any number of officially approved responses.

Instead he said, "We're going to look into it."

Mrs. Melo put both hands over her heart.

"We're gonna look into it starting tonight."

She dried her eyes.

"Usted es una bendicion al dios!" she said, fighting back the tears. Miller understood enough Spanish to know what she was saying. "You are a blessing to God."

Miller only hoped his bosses at the Bureau would think the same thing when they found out he was running an unauthorized, after-hours investigation.

He also hoped God was listening to Mrs. Melo's kind words this morning.

It was December 14th.

Exactly twenty-eight days since her grandson had been killed. Miller knew: The Man In The Moon would be coming out again that night.


Chapter Three

"I hit traffic on the Turnpike," the driver said.

"My plane leaves at nine thirty-two."

"No problem."

"I need to be at the airport ninety minutes before my flight. Eight-oh-two."

"No problem."

The big car, a Lincoln Executive L, rumbled down Canterbury Lane, headed, Scott Wilkinson assumed, for downtown Northridge and the Turnpike entrance ramp. That's the route he would take, the route he always took.

Scott was back on track. They'd make up the lost time unless, of course, there were more unexpected delays. He noticed the digital radio was set to 1010 WINS — the all-news station most drivers listened to because the station updated traffic conditions every ten minutes "on the ones."

The car seemed brand new. The pillowy leather seat cushions crinkled when Scott shifted his weight. There were adjustable reading lamps and a silver Kleenex box. The tissue box was full. Lucky Seven Limousine might have been late but at least they sent clean cars with copies of Business Week neatly tucked into the webbed seat pouches. Everything was as it should be.

Until he smelled cigarettes.

"Has somebody been smoking in here?"

The driver glanced up into the rearview mirror.

"I specifically requested a non-smoking vehicle."

"My last passenger? He smoke." The driver had an accent. Scott figured Russian or Israeli, maybe Greek. Probably a nuclear physicist or brain surgeon in the old country, reduced in his new life to driving a cab to make ends meet. "I tell him not to, but some people no listen. They smoke anyhow."

"Yes. I suppose they do."

They reached Main Street. The driver adjusted what looked like a thick wick soaking inside a jewel-cut perfume jar glued to his dashboard.

"Air freshener make better."

The sickly-sweet scent of artificial pine trees filled the car.

"That's okay," Scott said. "I'm fine. Thanks."

"Okay."

"Careful!"

An old woman teetered on the curb. She'd almost stepped into the crosswalk because she had the green light and the Lincoln did not.

"Stupid woman," the driver muttered.

"She had the light."

"No. Light was yellow." The driver jiggled the air freshener wick.

"The light was red. Just watch where you're going, okay?"

The driver said nothing.

Scott shook his head and opened his briefcase. He needed to make some phone calls, mark up memos, make certain he had the Contact Report from the last meeting in Dallas and the Advertising Strategy and....

"We take 22 to 9," the driver said. "Better than Turnpike."

"Really? I usually take the Turnpike."

"22 to 9 is faster. Twenty-three minutes."

"Excuse me?"

"We will be at airport in twenty-three minutes. No problem."

Scott glanced at his watch. 7:15.

"Fine," he said and returned to the stack of papers in his lap.

"Which airline?"

"American."

The driver nodded. "Terminal A."

"I think so. We can double-check when...."

"Is Terminal A. This I know."

Scott smiled. He wouldn't argue, he'd just check the signs when they reached the airport. He pulled out his phone and pressed the speed-dial button to access his own voicemail. Once connected, he selected the option for changing his outgoing message.

"Hi. This is Scott Wilkinson. I will be in Dallas on business December fourteenth and fifteenth. At the tone, please leave a message. If it's urgent, press pound nine and you will be connected to my administrative assistant, Kim Hammond. Thank you. Have a good day." He pressed the keys to activate his new personal greeting.

Scott glanced at the glowing green digits in the dashboard: 55 m.p.h. A good speed. He'd be at the airport in plenty of time to wend his way through security, even if they made him slip off his shoes, which they always did. Scott flew so often, he knew to wear loafers and a good pair of socks.

He glanced at his watch again. 7:17 a.m.—an excellent time to leave a voicemail message for his boss, Kent Stafford.

"Hey, Kent. Scott here. It's a little after seven and I'm in the car, on my way to Dallas to show our friends at Taco John what folks really think about their advertising and who they should target in the first quarter. I'll touch base later, let you know how it goes. If you need anything, you can reach me on my cell. Have a good one, Kent—or should I call you Mr. Stafford now that you're officially our new CEO? Hey — I owe you a lunch, buddy. Let's coordinate calendars when I get back."

He snapped the phone shut.

When he looked up, the driver's fist was reaching into the back seat.

"You want candy?"

The driver opened his palm to reveal a small tube of waxy paper.

"Is Russian. Is good. Cherry candy."

"No thanks. Maybe you should keep your eyes on the road?"

"Sure, sure. No problem."

The hand disappeared. Scott looked at the papers in his lap, cross-referenced the call list he had printed out from his BlackBerry, pulled out his pen, clicked and re-clicked the point into place. He heard paper crinkling. He looked up.

The driver had both hands off the steering wheel so he could unwrap his candy. He seemed to be steering with his thighs. The car drifted to the side.

"Sir?" Scott's left hand gripped the edge of his seat cushion. "Could you please concentrate on driving?"

"Sure." The driver popped the little red log into his mouth. It was so intensely cherry that now the whole car reeked of kids' cough syrup.

Scott powered down his window a crack to let in some fresh air. He was familiar with this stretch of Route 22 East. The used car lots with the gigantic American flags out front. The strip malls and dinette showrooms and McDonaldses. The buildings began to blur, to race by at a clip, rolling along like the repeating background in a Saturday morning cartoon. The Lincoln was picking up speed. Scott heard wind whistling through the slit at the top of his window, the blare of a car horn.

"Zalupa!" the driver hissed. "Dickhead!"

Scott turned forward and stared out the windshield.

A BMW was less than twelve inches in front of them. Scott glanced at the speedometer. It read 75 and rising.

The driver yanked his steering wheel hard, slid into the right-hand lane.

"Jesus!" Scott yelped. "Easy."

The driver sped up. The car surged forward until it was blocked by the back end of a bus belching black smoke. Scott began to think the driver might be trying to go under the bus in order to get in front of it.

"Do you really need to tailgate like that?"

"Zalupa!" Another jerk of the wheel and they were back in the left-hand lane — playing bumper cars with the rear end of a rumbling dump truck. Out the driver side window, Scott saw the blur of a concrete barrier, the short wall separating the eastbound lanes of Route 22 from the westbound.

"Whoa! Slow down. I'm not in that big of a hurry."

"The truck cut me off."

"Slow down."

"F**king truck."

"Slow down!"

The driver sped up, narrowed the gap between the nose of his car and the rear wheels of the truck. He inched closer until the chrome Lincoln logo at the tip of his hood looked like a gunner's sight targeting its next victim. The sectional white concrete wall hurtled past — its craggy joints clipping along like a sideways sidewalk. The wall seemed close enough to scrape away the Lincoln's sideview mirror and sand down the door handles.

"Slow down! Please! Now!"

"F**king truck cut me off!"

The driver yanked the wheel and they screeched back into the right-hand lane. Scott heard a horn blast — the car they'd almost sideswiped.

He fumbled in the crack between the cushions searching for a seat belt.

He wanted to be wearing one when they crashed.


© Chris Grabenstein, 2006