Chapter One – Nocturne

ALYSON WINGATE TWISTED THE WIPER SWITCH ON HER STEERING COLUMN and the metronome-like click of the wipers quickened. Driving in the rain always made her nervous, but doing it in the middle of the night, when the darkness of the Appalachian forest drowned what little moonlight did peek through, was moving to the top of her list of things to avoid. She flicked off the radio and leaned toward the windshield, squinting.

As she rounded the bend, a blue streak of lightning cracked to her left and jerked her attention away from the road. When she looked back, she saw something stretched across her lane, just yards ahead. She shrieked and slammed her foot down on the brake, gripping the steering wheel hard as the car slid a little to the left on the rain-slick road. She eased up on the pedal instinctively and then pressed again, trying not to over-steer. When the car came to a stop, Aly leaned over the wheel, pushing back the hair that had fallen forward into her face with shaking hands, to peer through the gloom at the road ahead. Her heart pounded almost painfully in her chest.

Just a few feet from her front bumper, illuminated by the car’s headlights through the driving rain, lay the shape of a person—a woman with long slender legs and bare feet. She wore a thin, light-colored dress that clung to her body in the rain. Her skin was pale, and dark hair stuck to her face. She looked like she’d passed out on the road except for the blood that decorated the cloth on her upper body and ran off in rain-diluted streaks.

Aly couldn’t see movement. Her stomach flipped as she grabbed her cell. With a deep breath to steady her courage, she opened the door and stepped out into the rain. The pink silk button up she’d worn to the meeting would be ruined, but dead bodies trumped style any day.

She glanced behind her to search for headlights. She was on a blind curve, and trees spread their branches over the narrow road. A car coming around at full speed wouldn’t see her, much less be able to stop in time to avoid another catastrophe. Aly leaned in and flicked on the hazard blinkers, then slammed the door shut.

“Hey!” she yelled. “Hey, are you okay?”

The loud static of raindrops pounding leaves was interrupted only by the sound of distant thunder.

She jogged over to the body, careful not to slip on the wet pavement, and knelt down to examine it. She teetered on her toes and caught herself, careful not to get water and blood all over her pants.

The chest didn’t move, but only a pulse would tell for sure. She pushed up her sleeve, grateful for the experience she’d gained with her job at the paper. She didn’t have the calm that seasoned cops and paramedics had, but she wasn’t panicking either. Panic made things go wrong and people look foolish. Aly was no fool.

She leaned over, placing two fingers on the woman’s neck. Her eyes widened, and she jerked her hand back. Even allowing for the cool fall rain, the skin was startlingly cold.

Aly swallowed hard and reached out, brushing the woman’s hair back to reveal a face twisted in horror. The movement jostled the body, and the flesh of the woman’s neck gaped open to show meat and bone.

Aly stumbled backward onto her feet, her heels clanking against the wet pavement. She turned and hurried to the car and, once safely inside, thumbed 9-1-1 on her cell.

She propped the phone on her shoulder and rubbed her hands together. The sensation of bugs crawling over her skin would fade, she knew, but it didn’t stop her from making an exaggerated shake to try to stop it.

She breathed in deeply through her nose while the phone rang. She was a reporter. She’d heard hundreds of dispatch recordings and there was no way she was going to sound like some panicked citizen reporting a cat in the tree. She did, after all, have a reputation to maintain.

After two rings, a female voice with a southern twang answered, “911, what’s your emergency?”

“Hi. This is Alyson Wingate with the Hayden Chronicle. I’m on Oak Mountain Road, just west of the state park entrance, and there’s a woman’s body in the road.”

“Hey, Aly, this is Danielle Smith. Did you say a body? Do you need an ambulance?”

“I’m pretty sure she’s dead.”

“And it’s in the road?”

“Yes. Lying in the westbound lane. It’s in a curve.”

“Hold on while I dispatch this.”

Aly rubbed briskly at her soaked arms. Even her insides were shaking.

“Okay, I’ve got people on the way out there, honey.”

She cringed at “honey” but didn’t argue. Instead, she glanced in the rear view mirror, hoping a car wouldn’t come around the curve. “Thanks, Danielle. Oh, and tell them to hurry. I’m sitting in a blind curve, trying to make sure no one runs over her.”

“All right. Do you need me to stay on the line?”

“No, that’s all right. I need to call Kayla and tell her I’m not going to make it for dinner.”

“Aww. Well tell her I said hello. Okay?”

“I will. Good night.” Aly fought the urge to laugh. She’d tell Kayla, but she was sure that her sister would roll her eyes. She thought Danielle was fake.

“Night,” Danielle said.

Aly dialed her sister’s number. She had already canceled three of their after work, midnight dinner dates in a row, but surely, Kayla could forgive her this. It wasn’t as if bodies dropped in front of your car every day. Unless you were aiming at pedestrians.

“Hey, sis.” Kayla’s voice was chipper. “Are you almost here?”

“No. Actually, I’m stuck in my car on Oak Mountain waiting for cops to get here.”

“Why? Did you wreck?”

“No. They’ve got to get a body out of the road.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“Should I ask?”

“It wasn’t my fault! I just found her lying here.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. Some woman. Looks like a murder. It’s pretty bad.”

“Are you there alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Lock your doors, Aly.”

“Why?”

“Are you kidding me? The killer could still be there. Maybe he’s watching you.”

“You’ve been watching too many movies.” Aly flipped the locks and glanced out the windows at the trees that lined the road on both sides.

“Aly, you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m—” She’d planned to say she was thinking, but she caught movement out of the corner of her right eye as someone banged on her passenger side window. She screamed and jumped, banging her elbow against the console.
Wil Clark laughed so loud that she could hear it though the closed windows as he leaned over to look in. His gold curls were starting to wilt in the rain. “It’s just me.”

She pressed a hand to her chest, trying to hold in the heart that was fighting to escape. “Don’t do that to me.”
Kayla’s voice hit a high note on the other end of the phone. “Aly? Aly, what’s happening?”

“Open the door,” Wil said, giving the handle a tug. “It’s raining.”

She unlocked the doors, refusing to smile at him. “It’s just Wil,” she said into the phone. “He scared me.”
His green eyes held that twinkle of mischief that little boys get “Just Wil? You want me to leave?”

“No. I just meant you’re not an ax murderer.”

“How do you know?” He smiled again, and Aly groaned, whacking him in the stomach with the back of her hand.

“Kayla, I’ve gotta run. I’ll call you later and tell you what’s going on.”

“All right. Be careful.”

“I will. Good night.”

“Talk to ya later.”

She flipped the phone shut and turned toward Wil. His hair had grown longer and his tan was darker than it had been the last time she’d seen him. “What are you doing here?”

He turned his body toward her as much as the small seat would allow. “I heard the dispatch and your name. Since I was right down the road, I thought I’d come to your rescue.”

Some things never changed. The earth turned, seasons came and went, and Wil thought she couldn’t do anything without him jumping in to take care of her. “I don’t need rescuing.”

He rolled his eyes toward the side window and let out a loud breath that meant he thought she was being unreasonable. “All right. I came to keep you company then.”

She folded her arms across her chest.

“Come on, Aly. I didn’t think you’d want to sit on this stretch of road by yourself. It’s late and there’s a dead body in front of you.” He turned and grabbed the door handle. “But if you don’t want me here, I’ll go.”
He did have a point. She didn’t want to sit here alone, not after what Kayla had said. She grabbed his elbow. “No, wait. I don’t want you to go.”

He let go of the door and relaxed against the seat. “So, do you know who she is?”

Wil always did have a way of dropping the subject when he knew he’d won. At least talking about the body was better than arguing.

“Not a clue. She was just lying there when I drove up.”

“Couldn’t have been here too long. This road’s pretty busy until about eleven.”

“Well, it’s twenty after twelve. Have you looked at her?”

“No. I didn’t want to get soaked.”

“Where’s your car? I didn’t see you come up.”

He cut his eyes toward her and grinned. He’d enjoyed scaring her. He always had. “It’s back a bit. I saw your lights through the trees and stopped far enough back that people didn’t get stuck trying to turn around here. There’s a side road there that should give them plenty of room.”

She glanced back toward the body. “It’s bad. Her throat is ripped out, and her face looks like someone scared her to death.”

He didn’t speak, and after a few moments of silence, she looked at him. He gave her a hard stare, and then turned to look out the windshield again.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, following his glance.

“Nothing.” His lips were tense. “Was there anything else?”

“No, that was it as far as I could tell.”

He looked out each side window, into the woods.
A flash of electric heat passed through the car and over her skin. Aly rubbed her arms to make the prickling sensation ease. “What is that?”

Wil looked at her, his brows high and eyes wide. “What?”

“That. That feeling. Like static shock. Don’t you feel it?”

He shook his head as the feeling faded. “Nope. Not a thing.”

“Why is it that you’ve never felt the same things I do? You never have and it makes me feel like a freak.”

“I don’t know. I just don’t.”

“Couldn’t you at least pretend?”

His eyes narrowed. “Would that have made a difference? If I pretended to feel what you felt, would you have married me?”

She dropped her gaze and looked at the phone in her hands. She flipped it open and began to fumble with the buttons. Wil placed a warm palm on her upper arm and her heart fluttered. Sure, they’d broken up months ago, but she still had feelings for him.

“I know it wouldn’t have, Aly. But if you’d just give me one more chance, I think you’d see that I’m not what you think I am.”

“You cheated on me.”

“Aly, listen to me. Once-and-for-all, I never cheated on you.”

“But I saw you.”

“No, you saw me helping a friend who needed a shoulder to cry on.”

“Is that what you call it?” She let out a sharp sound that resembled a laugh. “What exactly had her so upset that she had to wrap her arms around your neck and bury her face in your chest?”

“I really want to tell you. I just can’t.” He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He swallowed hard and trudged on. “Why can’t you just trust me?”

“There it is.” She pointed her finger at him. “Who am I going to tell, Wil? Nobody, that’s who. But, here you are, wanting me to trust you, when you don’t trust me.”

He didn’t answer.

It would never work. It never had. They were just too different, and the more he stayed around, the angrier she would get. Why hadn’t she just let him leave when he’d tried?

Flashing blue lights illuminated the car, and when she glanced behind them, she could see a police cruiser rounding the curve.

She turned, watching the cruiser pull up beside her. “We’re friends, Wil. We always will be.”

“I love you, Alyson.”

She glanced out at the approaching officer and mashed the button to roll down her window. The rain had almost stopped.

“I know.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Evenin’, Miss Wyngate.” It was Samuel Parrish. “You sure picked a good night to find a body.”

She smiled. Sam was nice, even if he was a little hokie. “Hi, Sam.”

“Detective Nichols will be here in a few minutes. You just sit tight and we’ll let ya go after you two have a chance to talk.” He bent a little, trying to see in the cab. “Is that Wil? Hey, man.”

“Hey.” Wil tried to look friendly.

“Man, I thought you broke up. Glad to see you’re still gettin’ along.”

Wil elbowed her, and Aly let out a short laugh. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Sam glanced behind them. “Here he is now.”

The unmarked car, single blue light flashing, pulled up behind the cruiser.

* * * *

Wil wrapped his arm around Aly’s shoulder to block the wind coming down the mountain and she snuggled in gratefully, despite the distraction. Aly tried to listen to the Detective’s gravelly voice, but Wil’s arm and the chills that ran over her body made it difficult. The rain had mercifully stopped, but she was still soaked and cold.

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