WICKED IS THE NIGHT
© 2008 Catherine Mulvany
“Marcello, my friend, you drive like a woman.” Patrick Granger scowled at the taillights of the logging truck they’d been stuck behind for the last three miles. “Lean on the horn and get the hell around that bozo.” Admittedly a challenge that fell into the easier-said-than-done category. The truck’s driver hugged the center line like a long-lost friend and slowed to twenty every time he came to one of the hairpin turns that made this stretch of road between Tahoe and Placerville such a challenge.
“Testa di cazzo,” Marcello muttered.
“Dickhead?” Trick said. “That’s a little harsh. The guy’s not much of a driver, but—”
“I was not referring to the truck driver.”
Trick raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I’m acting like a jerk. I admit it. But there are extenuating circumstances. If I don’t get some aspirin soon, my head’s going to explode. Of course,” he couldn’t resist adding, “I realize you have limited experience driving mountain roads....”
Marcello vented his spleen in a torrent of Italian invective. “I am entirely competent, and you know it. If you must place blame, blame this gutless piece of garbage I am driving.”
In reality, the Jeep Wrangler Trick had bought shortly after they’d arrived in the U.S. a month ago was far from gutless, but then, it wasn’t Italian-built, and from Marcello’s perspective that automatically qualified it as an inferior vehicle.
Marcello hit a pothole dead center.
On purpose, Trick suspected. He groaned as the jolt triggered a fresh burst of pain. “Damn it, watch where you’re going!”
“Stiff suspension,” Marcello said. “In a Lamborghini, one would scarcely—”
“When in Rome, blah-blah-blah, but this isn’t Rome, my friend. Keep your eyes on the road. My head won’t survive another thump like that last one.” Not to mention his queasy stomach.
“If you did not drink so much...”
To which Trick had no snappy comeback. Marcello was right. But if he didn’t muddle his brain with alcohol, he might have to think about what he was going to do with the rest of his life. And that was too damned depressing to contemplate. Not many career choices open to a guy with a limp and an eye patch, pirates being in short demand these days.
Neither man spoke a word for a full two minutes. Then, “Straight stretch dead ahead,” Trick said. “Get ready to punch it. The driver of the BMW behind us just turned on his signal. No way he’s getting around until we do.”
“What is that quaint American saying?” Marcello frowned as if he were scouring his memory. “Ah, yes. ‘Nobody likes a backseat driver.’” But he punched it as instructed.
“I’m not in the backseat, so technically...” Trick let his comment trail off as headlights seemed to materialize out of nowhere, heading straight for them. “Oh, shit! Back off! Back off!”
Marcello hit the brakes and pulled back in behind the truck. Either the driver of the BMW didn’t see the oncoming car or didn’t care. The logging truck’s brake lights lit up as the guy in the BMW blew around both them and the truck.
Swearing under his breath, Marcello hit the Jeep’s brakes again as they nearly kissed the truck’s rear end.
The driver of the oncoming car, an older model Cadillac, laid on his horn. Swerving to miss the Beemer, he swung too wide and slid half off the pavement to churn through the gravel on the shoulder, almost-but-not-quite scraping the guardrail.
The BMW whipped back into its own lane, avoiding disaster by inches before continuing blithely on its way.
Crisis past, the truck ahead began to pick up speed. Marcello didn’t. Too busy tracking the Caddie’s erratic progress in the rearview mirror, Trick suspected.
A girl suddenly catapulted out of passenger side door of the truck’s cab and tumbled down the embankment.
“Stop!” Trick yelled, then grabbed his head to keep his brains from spilling out his ears.
Marcello slammed on the brakes.
Trick’s head whipped forward, then snapped back against the headrest. He swore softly and steadily under his breath as Marcello eased the Jeep off the highway into a small turnout. Still swearing, Trick released his shoulder harness and opened his door.
“What is wrong?” Marcello asked. “Is it your stomach? Do you feel as if you are about to—”
“No! I’m going back to help the girl.”
Marcello frowned in confusion. “What girl?”
“Right after that near collision between the Beemer and the Caddie, a girl either fell or was thrown from the truck ahead of us.”
“I did not see a girl,” Marcello said.
“Because you were focused on the Cadillac.”
“Would the truck driver not have stopped if he had lost his passenger?”
“Not if he dumped her on purpose,” Trick said, thinking maybe the girl had been dead before she’d been tossed from the truck. “Anyway,”—he dragged his cane out of the back end—“I’m going to go check it out.”
“Absurd,” Marcello said. “You stay here. I will go take a look. Perhaps you were mistaken. Perhaps it was only a bag of trash.” He didn’t wait for a response, just jumped out of the Jeep and took off at a lope.
Trick, whose loping days were over for a while, banged his bad leg on the edge of the door as he struggled awkwardly from the vehicle. For a few moments, the throbbing in his knee rivaled the throbbing in his head. He turned the chill mountain air blue with his epithets, but swearing didn’t help any more than drinking did. One clumsy, lame-ass gimp was what he was. Worthless as a flat tire.
Frustrated, he propped himself on his cane, leaned against the Jeep’s door, and tracked Marcello’s progress along the moonlit highway with his one good eye.
Before the Italian had gone twenty yards, a small figure clambered up the embankment and staggered onto the shoulder. A young woman in dark clothing. Slender, fragile-looking with shoulder-length dark hair and pale skin, she limped a little as she accompanied Marcello back to the Jeep.
“Are you all right?” he meant to ask as soon as she drew close enough, but then he got a good look at her face—a perfect oval with huge dark eyes, a straight, narrow nose, a sweet, soft mouth—and the words clogged up in his throat. He knew that face. It belonged to the gypsy girl who’d haunted the Granger mansion since the 1850s.
The young woman stared at him, her face completely expressionless.
Not Blanche, he realized belatedly. Not his ghost made flesh. This woman was smaller and paler, her mouth fuller, her cheekbones less prominent. Still, at first glance, the resemblance had been startling. “What’s your name?” he demanded, sounding more abrupt than he’d intended.
“Jane Doe. Or at least it would have been if that truck driver had had his way.”
Trick frowned. “You’re saying the man tried to kill you?”
“I’m saying he shoved me out of a truck going thirty miles an hour.” Her face still betrayed no emotion, but strain had frayed the edges of her voice. “Apparently, that’s the way it plays out when some sicko orders you to give him a blow job and you refuse.”
Marcello frowned. “What is this blow job?”
Trick translated for him and Marcello’s frown deepened. “We must call the police.”
“No!” the woman said quickly. “I mean, nothing actually happened. I’m not hurt. Not seriously. It would be my word against his, and...”
“And?” Trick prompted.
“I’d rather not get involved in any red tape right now.”
“I see,” he said, wondering if he did. She looked so young, so frail, so innocent, and yet her reluctance to involve the authorities seemed to argue that she was—or recently had been—involved in something illegal.
“You may see, Trick, but I do not,” Marcello objected. “Miss, you must try to bring this man to justice. He should not be allowed to—”
“To what?” she said. “Proposition females stupid and/or reckless enough to hitchhike?”
“I’m guessing you’re neither stupid nor reckless,” Trick said.
“No? Then what am I?” She faced him squarely.
“Desperate?” he said softly.
She went very still, and for a brief moment, he caught a glimpse of the vulnerability she was working so hard to hide. Then it was as if shutters slammed down to mask her emotions once again. “Desperate’s a strong word,” she said. “I prefer...cautious.”
Marcello shifted his gaze back and forth from Trick to the girl. “Yes, but the authorities—” he started, then stopped abruptly when he saw Trick’s warning scowl.
Trick stepped toward the girl, extending his hand. “I’m Trick Granger. Patrick Donatelli Granger.”
“The racecar driver,” most people responded, placing the name if not the face, but this woman’s expression remained stuck in neutral. Not the faintest flicker of recognition sparked in her eyes.
She gave his hand a hesitant shake. “Nevada White.”
“Unusual name,” he said.
“Not when your mother’s a hippie-turned-blackjack dealer. I count myself lucky that she didn’t call me Vegas.”
“Or Roulette,” Marcello said.
Both Trick and Nevada turned to him in surprise.
He shrugged. “I once had a cat named Roulette.”
Trick turned back to the woman. “Nevada White, meet former cat owner Marcello Bellini.”
“How do you do?” she said formally.
Marcello nodded. “Very well, thank you.” As if they were in a receiving line, not standing at the edge of a mountain road at four in the morning.
If Trick hadn’t felt so lousy, he’d have laughed. “Well, Nevada White,” he said, “if you don’t mind riding in the backseat, you’re welcome to a lift. Midas is the nearest town. About five miles that way.” He pointed down the road with his cane.
A faint frown rippled across her face, there and gone so fast he might have imagined it. She said nothing.
“We can drop you off at Buzz’s Stop ’N Go. Should be easy enough to hitch another ride there.” He paused. When she didn’t respond, he added, “Or we can take you to the bus station. Your choice.”
She searched his face but still said nothing.
“Do not worry.” Marcello gave her an earnest look. “We are neither rapists nor serial killers.”
“Definitely not,” Trick said.
“Which, considering that there are two of us, would be most unlikely in any case. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all rapists and serial killers work alone,” Marcello pointed out.
“Very reassuring,” Trick said, “that you’d have that statistic on the tip of your tongue.”
Marcello ignored him. “Besides, after all the media coverage that followed Trick’s near-fatal crash at Le Mans, everyone knows who he is.”
Nevada White gave Marcello a blank look. “I don’t.”
“Trick Granger, world-famous racecar driver?”
“Former world-famous racecar driver,” Trick said, not without a twinge of bitterness.
Nevada White shook her head. “I don’t follow sports.”
“But the accident was front-page news,” Marcello protested.
Not to mention, Trick thought, that the Granger curse angle had made it major tabloid fodder.
The woman’s eyes widened, as if they’d accused her of some heinous crime. “I don’t pay much attention to the news,” she said, then added slowly, “but now that you mention it, I guess the name does ring a bell.”
Nevada White didn’t know him from Adam. Which was no big deal. What Trick couldn’t understand was why she was pretending she did. He searched her face, but no hidden motives revealed themselves. Maybe she was just being polite. “So,” he said. “Do you want a ride or not?”
“I—” Nevada White studied him long and hard, then shifted her gaze to Marcello, submitting him to the same intense scrutiny.
“Yes or no?” Trick said.
She turned to search his face once again. “Yes,” she said at length. “I would. Thanks.”
“Then let’s move it. I’d like to reach Midas before my brain goes ballistic.”
She shot him a questioning look as he shifted aside to let her climb into the backseat.
“Headache,” he explained.
Marcello snorted. “Of the self-inflicted variety.”
Trick hoisted himself awkwardly into the passenger seat. “I had a little too much to drink.” Okay, a lot too much. He scowled at Marcello, who grinned back, thoroughly unrepentant. “Sei un rompicazzo, Marcello.”
The Italian slid behind the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition. “Vai all’inferno.” He punched the accelerator, pulling back onto the road with a jerk.
Trick groaned as jolts of pain zigzagged through his head. “Hell? Already there, my friend.”
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