I spent a lovely afternoon at the lake with Gage Donovan. He’s a homicide detective with the Ridgewood Regional Police Department.
Together we’re going to solve the murders of three young people, friends since high school. They were strangled, their bodies dumped on the edge of a farmer’s field, where the forest meets the corn.
That is all fiction, of course, except the sitting by the lake. It was just too perfect a day to not be outside, so I took my tea and my notebook and worked on my current book.
The title “Where the Forest Meets the Corn” comes from something my son said while out hunting. He thought it sounded like a book title, and I agreed. It was the inspiration for this book’
Here’s the first chapter, murder number one, if you’re interested. First draft, of course.
Marla Johnson gave the flat tire a swift kick and grimaced with the resulting pain in her toe. Why tonight of all nights, she wondered, looking around the snow covered and deserted parking lot. It was just her luck, and all bad luck, she thought, her mood shifting quickly from irritated to irate.
She didn’t like it when she didn’t get her own way. Not only had she not been able to leave early, she’d been left alone in the store with the responsibility for the nightly closing.
The snow that had fallen throughout the day and into the evening had kept most people at home, but she’d had to stay until regular closing time as long as there were shoppers in the mall. “It’s not my damn job to close,” she muttered.
Angry that she’d had to stay late, Marla had begun closing up before nine, pulling the clothing racks in the store and starting the night deposit. Now, leaving even later than usual because she couldn’t get the damn count right, the flat tire was the icing on the cake of a really frustrating day.
It was cold, colder yet with the wind chill and she wasn’t dressed for standing out in the blowing snow. The parking lot had been plowed once by the look of it, and would need it again soon. The few inches of fresh snow covered the shoes she’d worn in lieu of boots and soaked her socks and pant legs, causing her to shiver with the chill.
There was no help to be found in the parking lot and it was too cold to stand outside and call for help. Marla left her car where it was and headed back to the lights and warmth of the mall, exasperated that she would have to call her dad. It was a nasty night, but she didn’t have a clue how to change a tire and couldn’t afford the service charge to have someone come and take care of it.
Her dad would just have to pick her up, and she’d leave the car where it was for the night. The plowman wouldn’t be happy, forced to go around her car, but too bad, she thought, join the club. Her dad wasn’t going to be happy either. Marla knew she would get the inevitable lecture on car maintenance or more specifically her lack of car maintenance. She felt her defences rise, how did regular oil changes prevent a flat tire, she wanted to know?
Annoyed with the inconvenience after a long day on her feet, she was also concerned about the potential cost of unexpected repairs. Only weeks since Christmas, she had a moment of regret for the shopping spree that had maxed out her credit card with the post holiday sales.
She hadn’t given any thought to being the last to leave the mall until she saw a truck slowly approach and looked around, suddenly aware of how alone she was in the deserted parking lot. With an eye on the exit door, she was prepared to run, hesitating when she heard someone call her name, just catching it over the sound of the wind.
The truck pulled up beside her, the driver’s side window down, and she saw a face smiling out at her from the dark interior.
“Marla? Have you got car trouble?” he asked.
Cautiously, she stepped up to the sidewalk leading to the employee entrance where there was a bell she could push to summon the night watchman. She couldn’t get a good look at the driver’s face but was somewhat relieved; he seemed to know her and knew her name.
“I hope you have Road Side Assistance, or are you going to call Ernie out on a foul night like this?”
She could see him better now in the soft glow of the street light, had seen him before though she couldn’t put a name to the face. He must be a local, she thought, if he knew her, and knew her dad.
“It’s really coming down, isn’t it?” she said, stepping side to side to keep the circulation moving in her feet and legs.
“What’s the problem? You need a boost?”
“No, I never even tried to start it. I have a flat.”
“You call Ernie yet? He’ll tell you to leave it for the night. It’s too cold and dark to try changing it, and it’s not a night to go driving around on a donut.”
She laughed. “I haven’t called him yet, was going to do it inside, but that’s just what he would say.”
“I’m heading out your way, no sense dragging him out on a night like this. Hop in. I’ll give you a ride home.”
Chilled to the bone, her feet wet and numb from the cold and snow, she looked at the somewhat familiar face and shook off any caution about taking rides from strangers. He knew her dad, and, all things considered, how dangerous could he be.
“Thanks. That would be great.” She ran around to the passenger side and reached for the handle, opened the door and climbed in. Her teeth were chattering and she fumbled with awkward fingers to secure the seat belt. The heater was turned on high and she could feel the burst of warm air from the vents.
“You must be frozen,” he said. “You should be wearing boots in this weather.”
“I know, but I was late leaving for work and rushed out, thinking I only had to walk from the car to the store and back. Isn’t that how it works, trouble strikes when you’re least prepared?”
“I think I’ve heard that before,” he laughed.
She looked at him in question when he pulled into the drive thru of the coffee shop at the far end of the Ridgewood Mall parking lot.
“I could do with a hot drink, figured you could too. My treat, what would you like?”
“A hot chocolate would be great. Thanks.” She gave him another glance, thinking he was a good looking guy, still unable to place where she’d met him before.
They proceeded through the line, got their orders and Marla was reassured when she saw him take the road leading to Glen’s Corners, a small neighbourhood on the outer edge of town. She held on tight to the cup, used it to warm her frozen fingers, and watched as he set his cup in the single cup holder, never even tasting the drink he’d said he wanted.
She was sitting in a truck, with a virtual stranger, surrounded by the night and falling snow. With the reduced number of cars on the road, Marla was beginning to feel isolated and uneasy.
She assumed he knew where she lived, as he had seemed to know her father, so she let him drive, and issued no directions. When he turned left instead of right at
her internal warning bells went off.
“You turned the wrong way,” she said, twisting in her seat to look at her companion. “I live the other way.”
“I thought we’d stop and finish our drinks, talk a minute before I take you home.”
“It’s really been a crappy day and I’d rather go home. Maybe some other time.”
“Maybe some other time,” he repeated. “You said that to me once before, but I bet you don’t remember. Just like you don’t remember me, do you?”
Marla was alarmed by the tone in his voice and looked at his face, trying to remember where she might have seen him before, why he looked familiar. “Do I know you?”
She kept her eyes on him, at the same time she watched out the window, trying to see through the blowing snow to where he was driving. He stared straight ahead, giving her no attention, and no answer to her question. She could feel a weird sensation across the back of her neck, caused by fear. One hand held tight to her cup of hot chocolate, the other braced on the door.
He was heading west, further out of town where the farms were broken up here and there with country estates. If she could get out of the truck there might be some help to be found, even though the houses were few and far between.
“I want to go home. If you won’t take me, let me out and I’ll find my own way.”
She laid her hand on the door handle, ready to make her escape if he stopped, but knew
went on for miles without a stop. The truck slowed, and at first she thought he
was pulling over to let her out, but saw immediately she was wrong when he
turned off the concession road to a lesser used side road.
“Stop, I want to get out,” Marla shouted. She could feel her heart racing, her body trembling with the cold, and the fear that she was in serious trouble. She knew this road, and it only led deeper into the countryside. She would be alone and helpless if they went any further. Panic was setting in, she had to get away.
She jerked on the door handle, afraid enough to risk the jump from a moving vehicle rather than face what might be ahead at the hands of this stranger. The door didn’t move. The latch wouldn’t release.
She heard his voice, colder now, not friendly like before. “I’m afraid that door only opens from the outside. I always meant to have it fixed, just never got around to it.”
They passed the farmhouse on the corner, the lights barely discernable through the blowing snow. She could just see the barn on the right, the shadow of fields to her left. Her companion looked forward, his attention on the road, giving her distress no heed.
There was only darkness ahead, no other houses, and no other cars coming her way. She could feel the truck slow as he drove past a section of forest, bush that could not be farmed and served only to separate the worked fields. He drove through a gap in the fence, bumping along a dirt path that ran parallel to the trees and the side of the cornfield. She was cold, afraid and startled that her mind recognized that the field was full of standing corn.
She looked at the cup in her hand, and gave a rueful laugh that she was still holding on to it, when she could have, should have, thrown it in his face. But even then, how would she get out? Her door was securely locked, and she would have to climb over him to make her escape.
The truck and her breathing seemed to stop simultaneously. She held her breath, every muscle in her body tense, alert, and waiting for his next move.
He slowly put the truck in park, and turned off the engine. Casually, as if they were two old friends getting together, he turned toward her, and reached for his cup, flipped the lid open and took a sip of his coffee. He sat in silence, one arm resting across the back of the bench seat, the other, still holding his coffee, dangled over the top of the steering wheel.
She released her breath, some relief that they’d stopped, and a sense of panic at the same time because they had stopped. What was his purpose in bringing her here, for there had been purpose in his actions.
“Do you remember me yet, Marla? Because I remember you, and I remember that night you and your friends ruined my life.”
“I don’t know you. And I don’t know what you’re talking about. Take me home right now and we’ll forget all about tonight.” Her bravado was all for show, for she knew she did know him, didn’t remember who or where, but she knew there was something to remember.
“Senior year. I’ve changed my appearance some since then, lost the pudge, had the nose fixed, contacts instead of glasses. Quite the change, don’t you think? Who’d have thought I could look this good. Am I worthy of your attention now, Marla?”
She stared at his face, trying to see the boy in the man’s features. It was the eyes that told their tale, the eyes hadn’t changed. It was the absence of the glasses that had thrown her off. Suddenly all the memories of that night came flooding back, and with them the shame and horror of what she’d done.
“Do you remember the last words you ever said to me? I do.”
Marla looked at him, shaking her head, unsure what he wanted her to do, to say.
“You said, and I quote, “I’d die before I ever let you touch me”. Do you remember?”
He took another drink from the cup, his eyes never leaving hers.
She felt the blast of cold air, heard the whir as he opened the window, watched as he poured the remainder of his coffee out on the ground and saw him toss the empty cup in the back of the truck, behind the seat.
Without saying another word, he took the paper cup from her hand and repeated the same actions, tossing her cup with his. She sat there, unable to think, unable to move.
“I decided to take you up on your offer.” His words were spoken with an eerie calm.
Her past had come back to haunt her, for retribution, revenge, or retaliation? She knew; when she looked in his eyes that he was the past and he had come back for all of that and more.
She knew when she looked in his eyes she was staring at death.