We're counting down to the inaugural Dead In Dun Laoghaire event, a one-day festival celebrating the best in crime fiction, with a guest list that includes the cream of modern crime authors, taking place at Dun Laoghaire's Pavillion Theatre this weekend (Sat 22 July).
Today, we present the an extract from Here and Gone, the new novel from author (and Dead In Dun Laoghaire guest) Haylen Beck.
The road swayed left then right, the rhythm of it making Audra Kinney’s eyelids grow heavier as each mile marker passed. She had given up counting them; it only made the journey slower. Her knuckles complained as she flexed her fingers on the wheel, palms greasy with sweat.
Thank God she’d had the eight- year- old station wagon’s AC serviced earlier in the year. new York summers might be hot, but not like this. not like Arizona- hot. It’s a dry heat, people said. Yeah, dry like the face of the sun, she thought. even at five- thirty in the evening, even as the vents blew air cold enough to make goose pimples on her forearms, if she put her fingers to the window, her hand would recoil as if from a boiling kettle.
‘Mom, I’m hungry,’ Sean said from the backseat. That mewling voice that said he was tired and grumpy and liable to get difficult. Louise dozed beside him in her booster chair, her mouth open, blonde sweat- damp hair stuck to her forehead. She held Gogo in her lap, the ragged remains of the stuffed bunny she’d had since she was a baby.
Sean was a good boy. everyone who knew him said so. But it had never been so clear as these last few days. So much had been asked of him, and he had endured. She looked at him in the mirror. His father’s sharp features and fair hair, but his mother’s long limbs. They had lengthened in recent months, reminding her that her son, now almost eleven, was approaching puberty. He had complained little since they left new York, considering, and he had been a help with his little sister. If not for him, Audra might have lost her sanity out here.
Lost her sanity? There was nothing sane about this. ‘There’s a town a few miles up ahead,’ Audra said. ‘We can get something to eat. Maybe they’ll have a place we can stay.’
‘I hope they do,’ Sean said. ‘I don’t want to sleep in the car again.’ ‘Me neither.’ as if on cue, that pain between her shoulder blades, like the muscles back there coming unstitched. Like she was coming apart, and the stuffing would soon billow out of her seams.
‘How you doing for water back there?’ she asked, looking at him in the rearview mirror. She saw him glance down, heard water slosh in a plastic bottle.
‘I got a little left. Louise drank hers already.’ ‘all right. We’ll get some more when we stop.’ Sean returned his attention to the world passing his window. rocky hills covered in scrub sloping away from the road, cacti standing sentry, arms reaching skyward like surrendering soldiers. above them, a sheet of deep blue, faint smears of white, a yellowing as the sun travelled west to the horizon. Beautiful country, in its way. Audra would have drunk it in, savored the landscape, had things been different.
If she hadn’t had to run. But she didn’t really have to run, not truly. She could have waited to let events take their course, but the waiting had been torture, the seconds upon minutes upon hours of just not knowing. So she had packed everything and run. Like a coward, Patrick would say. He’d always said she was weak. even if he said he loved her with his next breath.
Audra remembered a moment, in their bed, her husband’s chest against her back, his hand cupping her breast. Patrick saying he loved her. In spite of everything, he loved her. as if she didn’t deserve his love, not a woman like her. His tongue always the gentle blade with which to stab at her, so gentle she wouldn’t know she’d been cut until long after, when she would lie awake with his words still rolling in her mind. rolling like stones in a glass jar, rattling like—
‘Mom!’ Her head jerked up and she saw the truck coming at them, lights flashing. She pulled the wheel to the right, back onto her own side of the road, and the truck passed, the driver giving her a dirty look. Audra shook her head, blinked away the grimy dryness from her eyes, breathed in hard through her nose.
not that close. But still too close. She cursed under her breath. ‘You all right?’ she asked. ‘Yeah,’ Sean said, his voice coming from deep in his throat, the way it did when he didn’t want her to know he was scared. ‘Maybe we should pull over soon.’
Louise spoke now, her words thick with sleep. ‘What happened?’ ‘nothing,’ Sean said. ‘Go back to sleep.’ ‘But I’m not sleepy,’ she said. Then she gave a cough, a rattle beneath it. She’d been doing that since early this morning, the cough becoming more persistent through the day.
Audra watched her daughter in the mirror. Louise getting sick was the last thing she needed. She’d always been more prone to illness than her brother, was small for her age, and skinny. She hugged Gogo, her head rocked back, and her eyes closed again.
The car rose onto an expanse of flat land, desert stretching out all around, mountains to the north. Were they the San Francisco Peaks? or the Superstitions? Audra didn’t know, she’d have to check a map to remind herself of the geography. It didn’t matter. all that mattered right this second was the small general store off the road up ahead.
‘Mom, look.’ ‘Yeah, I see it.’ ‘Can we pull in?’ ‘Yeah.’ Maybe they’d have coffee. one good strong cup would get her through the next few miles. Audra turned the blinker on to signal a right turn, eased onto the side road, then left across a cattle grid and onto the sandy expanse of forecourt. The sign above the store read GROCERIES AND ENGRAVING, red block lettering on a white board. The low building was constructed of wood, a porch with benches running along its length, the windows dark, points of artificial light barely visible beyond the dusty glass.
Too late, she realized the only car parked in front was a police cruiser. State highway patrol or county sheriff, she couldn’t tell from here.
‘Shit,’ she said. ‘You said a curse, Mom.’ ‘I know. Sorry.’ Audra slowed the station wagon, its tires crunching grit and stones. Should she turn around, get back on the road? no. The sheriff or patrolman or whoever sat in that car, he’d have noticed her by now. Turning around would arouse suspicion. The cop would start paying attention.
She pulled the car up in front of the store, as far away from the cruiser as she could manage without looking like she was keeping her distance. The engine rattled as it died, and she pressed the key to her lips as she thought. Get out, get what you need. nothing wrong with that. I’m just someone who needed a coffee, maybe a couple of sodas, some potato chips.
For the last few days Audra had been aware of every law- enforcement vehicle she saw. Would they be looking for her? Common sense told her no, they almost certainly weren’t.
It wasn’t like she was a fugitive, was it? But still, that small and terrified part of her brain wouldn’t let go of the fear, wouldn’t quit telling her they were watching, searching for her. Hunting her, even.
But if they were looking for anyone, it’d be the kids. ‘Wait here with Louise,’ she said. ‘But I want to come too,’ Sean said. ‘I need you to look after your sister. don’t argue.’ ‘aw, man.’ ‘Good boy.’ She lifted her purse from the passenger seat, her sunglasses from the cup holder. Heat screamed in as she opened the driver’s door. She climbed out as quickly as she could, closed the door to keep the cool air in, the hot air out. Her cheeks and forearms took the force of the sun, her pale freckled skin unaccustomed to the sheer ferocity of it. She had used the little sunscreen she had for the kids; she would take the burn and save the money.
Audra allowed herself a brief study of the cruiser as she slipped on her shades: one person in the driver’s seat, male or female, she couldn’t tell. The insignia read: ELDER COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT. She turned in a circle, stretched her limbs as she did so, saw the hills that climbed above and behind the store, the quiet road, the tumbling rolls of desert scrub on the other side. as she completed the circle, she took one more look at the sheriff’s car. The driver took a drink of something, appeared to be paying her no attention.
She stepped onto the concrete porch, walked toward the door, felt the wash of cool air as she opened it. despite the chill, stale odors rode the current out into the heat. Inside, the dimness forced her to lift her shades onto her forehead, though she would rather have kept them on. Better to risk being remembered for buying water than for tripping over boxes, she thought.
An elderly lady with dyed black hair sat behind the counter at the far end of the store, a pen in one hand, a puzzle book in the other.
She did not look up from it to acknowledge the customer’s presence, which suited Audra well enough.
A cooler full of water and soda hummed against the wall. Audra took three bottles of water and a Coke.
‘excuse me,’ she called to the elderly woman. Without lifting her head, the woman said, ‘ Mm- hm?’ ‘You got a coffee machine?’ ‘no, ma’am.’ The woman pointed her pen to the west. ‘Silver Water, about five miles that way, they got a diner. Their coffee’s pretty good.’
Audra approached the counter. ‘okay. Just these, then.’ as she placed the four plastic bottles on the counter, Audra noticed the glass cabinet mounted on the wall. a dozen pistols of different shapes and sizes, revolvers, semi- automatics, at least as far as she could tell. She’d lived on the east coast all her life, and even knowing Arizona was gun country, she still found the sight of the weapons startling. a soda and a gun, please, she thought, and the idea almost made her laugh out loud.
The woman rang up the drinks, and Audra dug inside her purse, fearing for a moment that she had run out of cash. There, she found a ten folded inside a drugstore receipt, and handed it over, waited for her change.
‘Thank you,’ she said, lifting the bottles. ‘ Mm- hm.’ The woman had hardly glanced at her through the whole exchange, and Audra was glad of it. Maybe she would remember a tall auburn- haired lady, if anyone asked. Maybe she wouldn’t. Audra went to the door and out into the wall of heat. Sean watched her from the back of the station wagon, Louise still dozing beside him. She turned her head toward the cruiser.
It had gone. a dark stain on the ground where the cop had poured his drink out, the ghosts of tires on the grit. She shaded her eyes with her hand, looked around, saw no sign of the car. The relief that fol- lowed shocked her; she hadn’t realized how nervous the cruiser’s presence had made her.
No matter. Get on the road, get to the town the woman mentioned, find somewhere to rest for the night.
Audra went to the rear car door, Louise’s side, and opened it. She crouched down, handed a bottle of water over to Sean, then gave her daughter a gentle shake. Louise groaned and kicked her legs.
‘Wake up, sweetie.’ Louise rubbed her eyes, blinked at her mother. ‘What?’ Audra unscrewed the cap, held the bottle to Louise’s lips. ‘don’t wanna,’ Louise said, her voice a croaking whine. Audra pressed the bottle to Louise’s mouth. ‘don’t wanna, but you’re gonna.’
She tipped the bottle, and water trickled between Louise’s lips. Louise let go of Gogo, took the bottle from Audra’s hand, and swallowed in a series of gulps.
‘See?’ Audra said. She looked over to Sean. ‘You drink up too.’ Sean did as he was told, and Audra got into the driver’s seat. She reversed away from the store, turned, and drove back to the cattle grid and the road beyond. no traffic, she didn’t have to wait at the intersection. The car’s engine rumbled as the convenience store shrank in the rearview mirror.
The children remained quiet, only the sound of swallowing and satisfied exhalations. Audra held the bottle of Coke between her thighs as she unscrewed the cap, then she took a long swallow, the cold fizz burning her tongue and throat. Sean and Louise guffawed when she burped, and she turned to grin at them.
‘Good one, Mom,’ Sean said. ‘Yeah, that was a good one,’ Louise said. ‘I aims to please,’ Audra said, looking back to the road ahead. no sign yet of the town. Five miles, the woman had said, and Audra had counted two markers, so a while to go still. But not far.
Audra imagined a motel, a nice clean one, with a shower – oh God, a shower – or, even better, a bath. She indulged in a fantasy of a motel room with cable, where she could let the kids watch cartoons while she wallowed in a tub full of warm water and bubbles, letting the grime and the sweat and the weight of it all just wash away.
another mile marker, and she said, ‘not far now, maybe another two miles, all right?’ ‘Good,’ Sean said. Louise’s hands shot up and she let out a quiet, ‘Yay.’ Audra smiled once more, already feeling the water on her skin. Then her gaze passed the mirror, and she saw the sheriff’s cruiser following behind.
Haylen Beck will be speaking at the Dead in Dun Laoghaire crime writing festival on Saturday 22nd July, at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire. Tickets available from www.paviliontheatre.ie