Two Lethal Lies(8)

By: Annie Solomon

He waited ten minutes, needing to use the facilities himself, and when she didn’t come out, he got out of bed, slid on his jeans, and knocked. “Jules?”

Again, no answer.

“Come on, Junebug. You can’t stay mad at me all day.”

When she persisted in the silent treatment, he’d had enough. “Okay, Julia. That’s it. Stay mad, see what I care. But mad or not, here I come.” He flung open the door and stopped short.

Everything he’d been, everything he’d done, everything he’d left behind, coalesced into a single moment of pure terror.

Julia wasn’t there.

He’d been running away from this moment for eleven years, and now that it had come, he was as unprepared as though it had never occurred to him. His mind blanked; his heart shut down. He froze solid, a rabbit with a hawk circling.

How long it took to get the circulation going he had no idea. Somehow he managed to get his shirt and shoes on. When he came alive again, he found himself running to the alcove with the ice and vending machines, hoping, praying she’d taken some quarters from him and was buying a forbidden Coke.

But it, too, was empty. No one had seen her, either. Not in the motel lobby where he’d signed in and paid cash the night before. Not in the parking lot or the McDonald’s across the way.

The clerk behind the desk at the motel offered to call the police, but even now, with catastrophe staring Mitch in the face, he couldn’t take the chance. What if this was all a horrible misunderstanding, and five minutes from now she came waltzing in, saying she’d gone exploring?

No, he couldn’t risk the police. Not until he knew for certain what had happened. Bad enough he was drawing all this attention to himself. He forced a smile on his face, a shrug into his shoulders.

“Nah, that’s okay. You know kids. I’m sure she’ll turn up. Here”—he dug into his pocket, found a wad of bills, and handed some to the clerk—“for tonight.” He wanted to make sure she had a room to go to if by some miracle she was taking a walk. “And if she does show up, let her into the room, will you? And tell her to stay put.”

“Will do.” The clerk shook his head in sympathy. “Got two kids myself.”

Not knowing what else to do, Mitch got in his truck, inserted the key, and turned on the engine. Of course it would decide on this morning of all mornings not to turn over.

He pumped the gas, tried again, and cursed when the damn thing still wouldn’t start. Truth was, he should have had the truck looked at months ago. But he hadn’t wanted to take the time or be without wheels in case he needed to get out fast. Now he was paying for that caution.

“Come on, you nasty old road hag,” he muttered, and punched the steering wheel when he got no cooperation. If someone had gotten to Julia, where would they have gone? Even if he could get the truck moving, there were miles of country in every direction. Where to start? Nausea swirled in his stomach.

How could anyone have taken her with him in the room? He wasn’t a heavy sleeper. And knowing Jules, she wouldn’t have gone easily.

Then again, she’d been mad at him. Would she have let a stranger abduct her out of spite? Hardly.

But she was a kid. And kids did things.

He thought back to the day before. Wished to God someone else had been there to see Sara Jean go over that bridge. Then he could have avoided the crazy, impulsive rescue, the house, the meal, the “good” people with their gratitude and their handouts, the shell of normalcy Julia thought she wanted.

The shell of normalcy…

He gripped the wheel. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t.

He tried the ignition again. Desperate, he wanted to pound at the gas pedal, but he made himself pump gently. “Come on, baby,” he crooned this time. “You can do it. For Jules, not me. Come on…”

And like the damn thing heard him, the truck came to life.

He yanked the gears into reverse, squealed out of his parking space, and careened out of the motel lot.

Fifteen minutes later, he was hammering on Bitsy and Tommy Blunt’s front door. It took them a while to answer, and when they did, they were in robes and pajamas.

“Oh, my Lord.” Bitsy took one look at him and said, “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

Mitch pushed past her. “Where is she?”

“Where is who?” Tommy asked.

“Who? My kid. Who else?” Mitch was already plowing through the downstairs, his chest tightening with each empty room.

“Julia left last night with you,” Bitsy said.

“She isn’t here,” Tommy said.

Mitch ran up the stairs.

“I assure you, she isn’t—”

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