Walking home on a foggy night in rural New York, Marly Shaw stops in the glare of approaching headlights. Two men step out of a pickup truck. A sudden, desperate chase erupts in gunshots. And a terrified girl is on the run—for the rest of her life …
Thirteen years later, human bones discovered in California are linked to two missing people from Central New York. Sheriff’s Detective Vanessa Alba and her partner dive into an investigation that lures them deep into the Finger Lakes region. There they find a community in the brutal grip of a powerful family—and a trail of dark secrets leading to the one family member who thought she got away …
“Held me captive from the first page to the last.”
“I couldn't have closed the cover if my life depended on it.”
“Disturbing, tough … fun to read.”
“Chilling, and original.”
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A Short Time to Die
By Susan Alice Bickford
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Susan Alice Bickford
All rights reserved.
October 27, 2000
Marly Shaw peered into the night fog that crept in and settled around the Rock. She could see no sign of her stepfather's truck in the parking lot.
Charon Springs might be a tiny town, but as the only drinking establishment within ten or more miles in any direction, the Rock easily qualified as its most thriving business. Pickled from the inside out by beer, booze, and nicotine, the sagging two-story structure oozed a sour stench that permeated the car, even with the windows closed.
"What do you want to do?" Claire asked.
Marly studied the mist outside, tinged alternating shades of red and blue by the blinking neon lights.
"I should drop you home," Claire said with a sheepish glance at her passenger. "But we're already late. I'm supposed to be home by ten thirty and it's after eleven already. Straight to the dance, straight home."
And no detours into Harris territory. In this town, nice people like Claire's family avoided Marly's family as much as possible.
"Not to worry," Marly said. "Let me out down the road. It's Friday night, so the bar is packed. He might have parked in the woods. If he's not there, I can walk home. It's not cold. Hard to believe it's the end of October. Maybe global warming is a good thing for Central New York."
"Yeah. A couple of times I had to trick-or-treat in a parka."
"Kids these days have it easy," Marly said. They both chuckled.
Marly rummaged in her large bag and pulled out a small flashlight and her tattered running shoes. She always came prepared to tramp across fields and down dirt roads, day or night.
"Great dance tonight," Claire said. "I can't believe we'll never go to another Halloween Gala. Next year we'll be in college."
"Some of us will be."
"You're a really good student and everyone says you'll do great. You might even get into one of the good New York State schools. That's what my mom says."
"Sure. Well, I hope so." There was no way Marly was going to reveal her deepest longings to a blabbermouth like Claire. Feigned indifference was the best spell for warding off jinxes. Her stepfather had taught her that lesson.
"Did you go to Laurie's funeral?" Claire asked.
"Yes." Marly drew out her response into a prolonged hiss.
"Do you think her mother and the bitches killed Laurie in a beatdown?"
"I wasn't there. But they are not nice people."
"It doesn't make much sense. She was their family."
Marly squirmed. She knew the rules — no talking to outsiders about her family. What is Claire fishing for? Titillation? Gossip? Just making conversation?
"I don't know anything, Claire. Trust me." She studied the shrouded parking lot again. "Still no sign of Del. But I can't see anything very clearly. I should get out and look."
"Hard to miss a guy like him," said Claire. "You have to admit, he's easy on the eyes. And even my mom says he's smart."
Marly had one rule of her own. She never talked about her stepfather.
"I promised my mom I'd meet him here for a ride. She says it's not safe to walk home on these roads at night. And he'll be totally pissed off if he waited here for nothing. Thanks for the ride up to the dance, Claire. I'll see you on Monday on the school bus."
"If you walk, watch out. You're wearing all black. You're hard to see."
"I have a flashlight. And my sneakers are white. Don't worry."
Marly watched Claire's Civic fade into the fog before she walked to the back door of the Rock.
She slipped through the kitchen and gazed around the crowded bar, pool table area, and tables from the doorway. No Del.
"Hey, Red!" From behind the bar, Harry brushed his hand in her direction as if to push her away. "No underage kids allowed. Scram."
Marly forced herself not to wince. She hated that nickname, but she knew better than to let Harry know it. She vowed that once she left Charon Springs, she would never let anyone call her a name she didn't like. "I'm looking for Del," Marly said. "He's my ride home."
Harry crossed his arms, unmoved. "He left over an hour ago. Good and drunk, too. I'm sorry, Red, but trust me — you're better off on your own. Now you need to go. I can't risk my license."
She should have known Harry wouldn't buy any hard-luck stories. Marly retreated to the parking lot and considered her options.
If she walked the long way along the twisting roads, she could cover the distance in about forty minutes. Or she could take a shortcut through the woods and over the hill. She would have to pick her way in the dark over rough terrain, but she would be home in less than twenty minutes. She opted for the woods.
She took one last look for Del's truck and sniffed. The earth was moist and fragrant from the spicy tang of freshly fallen leaves. She shouldered her bag and set out.
She left the Rock behind, plodded up a slight incline, and passed the Willey's General Store. Nothing "general" about Willey's, she thought, with the stock so limited and often dated, devoted to beer and snacks.
Down in the next misty dip, she passed the last streetlight. The pavement was rougher and rutted now. The shoulder disappeared. She straightened her back and switched to navigation by flashlight and familiarity.
Marly was making good time, her thoughts full of school and the dance, when she noticed a glow above the slight rise in the road ahead, the light amplified by the fog. A car. No, a truck. A truck with a distinctive ping from the engine. Del's truck.
Marly despised Del, and as much as she tried to hide this, they both knew it. For the sake of peace at home, she had to pretend to get along with her stepfather. Harry had said Del was drunk, and that would make him unpredictable.
Perhaps the talk with Claire about Laurie had poisoned her mood. Or perhaps the sense of foreboding that had dogged her since summer had cracked through her firm emotional barricade. Deciding she didn't want a ride from Del, she stepped back off the road onto the narrow shoulder.
Del's truck spat up clouds of dust and pebbles and sped by, but Marly's relief evaporated when the truck screeched to a stop.
A slurred epithet floated out the driver's-side window. "Shit! Marly. I see you, girl. You get over here."
He made a U-turn, and Marly could see the outline of the distinctive broad-brimmed leather hat and bulk of the man in the passenger seat. Zeke — Del's father.
Marly cursed her white running shoes. She should go back to the truck. What was the worst thing? She would get a couple of dope slaps or maybe a punch to her ribs.
Or maybe something worse.
Propelled by the chill in her gut, Marly turned and sprinted the opposite way along the edge of the road.
This is crazy, she thought. My mother lives with Del. He won't hurt me. He's just drunk. This will only make things worse. I need to stop.
She heard an odd pop, and the ground in front of her exploded. She stopped to process what she had seen — Zeke or Del had fired a gun.
Marly hovered on the shoulder of the road, unable to move as she strained to push through a fog of panic.
She knew both Del and Zeke were dangerous people, relatives or not, and she had lived a life of meticulous caution around them. Had she somehow committed a mysterious capital offense, or were Del and Zeke in the grip of some alcohol-fueled phantom fury?
"Dad, what the fuck are you doing? Now she'll run for sure!"
Del's curse broke the paralytic spell. Marly's route back to the Rock was blocked. She turned her back on the truck and ran down the last stretch of semi-paved road.
With the truck close on her heels, Marly realized her old white running shoes with the peeling florescent stripes made her easy prey. She jumped to the right onto a narrow path, one of her favorite shortcuts, to a rutted road leading home. If he wanted to follow her, Del would have to drive farther on the main road before he could turn.
The path was slippery, with deep ruts where frequent washouts created an ever-shifting obstacle course of treacherous rocks and holes. The lopsided new moon had moved behind a dense layer of clouds. Marly flicked on her flashlight to scan for any changes in the familiar route before she continued to thread her way in the dark. She couldn't risk a fall.
The rocky path came to an end at a slight embankment. Marly dropped to all fours and clawed her way up onto the dirt track. She turned right and resumed running toward the deep woods hidden in the black night, several hundred yards away. This time the route was well lit — Del's truck had turned onto the dirt road and was headed her way, headlights blazing and closing fast.
The shots from Zeke's gun zipped by. She realized she made a clear target, leaping back and forth in the lights from the truck. Zeke was a terrible shot, but she needed to get off the road before her luck ran out. Rounding a slight bend, she jumped into the sumac bushes on her left, and forced her way through a narrow break of maple saplings.
The leafless branches reached out to snag her and yanked the bag off her shoulder. For a fraction of a second she struggled to pick up the bag, but the sound of Del and Zeke slamming shut the truck doors ran through her like a bolt of electricity and jolted her through the tree line into the open on a hillside potato field.
After the harvest and a week of rain, the potato field mud had turned the consistency of black snot that sucked at her feet. There were firm paths here and there, but those were invisible in the faint, hazy glow from the bashful moon. Marly hissed and sobbed. She traced a random zigzag up the hill in the deep mud and prayed she would stumble across solid footing to carry her to the safety of the woods.
The two men must have been as handicapped by the dark and the muck as Marly, but they were close behind and seemed to be gaining. At five foot nine, Marly was taller than most of the girls in her class, but Zeke and Del were both over six foot three. Each stride brought them closer to their prey.
She found the path she wanted, but not before she lost her right shoe in the mud. Thanks to the path, she could now move easier. She bent over to make herself a smaller target as she scrabbled her way up the slope.
Behind her, hidden in the dark, yelling had given way to wheezing from Zeke. She thought he might be a bit down the hill to her right. Marly could hear Del's breathing as he churned up the slope behind her, but she could not make her legs move any faster.
Shots coming from her right splatted into the mud. She prayed Zeke would run out of bullets and pause to reload, but those prayers were sucked up into the black night. The bullets kept coming. She wondered if Zeke had cat's eyes, because she could barely make out the ground in front of her. What is he aiming at?
The darkness was so opaque she hadn't realized she had reached the woods until she noticed the texture of the mud underfoot had changed from slippery and smooth to rough and spongy. The bright scent of rotting leaves washed over her.
She could hear Del just a few yards away and she had no more strength. She pulled up and stopped in surrender as two shots rang out from Zeke's direction. A burning sensation consumed her left thigh and she uttered an exhausted cry of defeat. The second shot drew a scream from Del, followed by a stream of invective. He was so close, she realized she could have reached out to touch him.
Del stopped in his tracks. Puzzled and winded, Marly backed up and scooted into the woods behind a dense section of sumac, burdock, and fallen tree trunks. Leaning against the trunk of an old maple to catch her breath, she tried to ignore the sharp pains in her right foot, the intense ache in her left thigh, and the buzzing in her head.
Del's curses continued, unabated. "Goddamn son of a fucking bitch, Dad. You winged me!"
Don't breathe. Don't breathe. Don't make a sound.
It was too dark to see her left thigh clearly. She told herself the wound had to be superficial or she wouldn't have been able to keep moving.
Zeke's wheeze grew louder along with the sound of the mud sucking at his feet as he slogged his way up to Del. "Why were you in the way? Why did you stop? I think I got her. Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Del said. "It just grazed my ribs. Hurts a bit."
"So keep going! Get her!"
Zeke's wheeze turned into a squeal.
"Dad! What is it?"
"Pain. My chest. Fucking little bitch. I chase her through this muck and now I feel like I'm having a heart attack."
"Shit. Are you okay?" Marly couldn't tell if Del was alarmed or angry. Their voices seemed close, amplified by the wet earth and the echo from the woods.
"All right. Not so bad, I guess."
"You head back to the truck. I'll settle this and come get you."
"Yeah. Make it quick."
Marly heard Del move closer to her hiding place. Surrender was now off the table and escape had new life. She prepared to run deeper into the woods, but paused at the sound of a strangled cry.
Marly peered through the gloom. Del turned around to run to his father, who slipped and fell on the way back down the field. Del slipped and fell as well.
"Shit, that hurts," Del said, a whine of pain in his voice. "Are you okay?" "It's worse," Zeke said. His groan floated across the field. "This is bad."
"Fucking bitch. This is all her fault. Come on. I'll help you. But I'll never get the truck up here in this mud. You need to get to the road."
"Need to get Marly," Zeke said between wheezes.
"Don't worry. She'll head home. I'll take care of you first and get her later."
"Call nine-one-one," Zeke said.
Marly grunted with satisfaction at the pain and panic she heard in his strangled cry.
"No coverage here. Besides, the phones are in the truck. Just keep going. It's not far."
Marly inched to the edge of the woods. The cloud cover over the moon thinned to reveal the black shapes of the two men, now in retreat in the mud. Zeke fell twice and groaned.
She risked a quick inspection of her left leg with her flashlight. Streaks of blood flowed down to her knee from a long crease, but far less than she had expected. She wrapped her scarf around her thigh and pulled it tight.
On quaking legs, she paralleled the progress of Del and Zeke but kept to the fringe of the woods as she edged back down the hill toward the dirt road. She narrowed her distance to the two men and hoped they wouldn't look back.
At the lower edge of the field, Del slipped and fell to his knees, taking Zeke with him.
"Shit," Del said.
"Help me up, Del."
"I can't breathe." Del spat. "Tastes bad. That's blood!"
Marly could hear an unfamiliar high-pitched quaver in his voice. Fear?
"I've been shot! It went in under my arm. You shot me!"
Zeke's mumbled response was too faint to hear.
Marly peered into the gloom as the two black shapes merged and gave birth to a new, four-legged, misshapen creature. Del must have helped his father to his feet. The unified mass lurched forward again. Their voices had dimmed to growls and grunts now. No more shouting.
She counted to one hundred and counted again. Her mind traced their slow trip back to the truck.
Now they'd be through the trees ... Now they'd be on the road ... Now they'd be at the truck.
Thanks to lack of coverage in these parts, their cell phones would be useless, flashy toys here. They would have to drive to the Rock to call 911. At that point, the cops and EMS trucks would come, and Marly figured she would throw herself at their mercy. Witness protection seemed inevitable. She couldn't see any other way. Sooner or later, Zeke and Del would recover and relay instructions. She'd be dead.
She heard the faint sounds of the truck. Bright flashes filtered through the trees from the headlights signaled Del had turned the truck to start the return trip to the main road.
Marly eased herself through the sapling break, down onto the dirt road. Farther on, she crossed back into the field and retraced her steps up the hill with her flashlight. She was crying so hard she almost missed it, but she found her right running shoe, one yard off the path, halfway up the slope. Her foot still hurt, but at least walking was easier.
With no sign of the truck, she risked using the flashlight in the sumac, but could find no sign of her bag where she had cut through to the field. Her little purse was in there with her money, her driver's license, her school ID. She felt naked.
She sobbed in earnest and headed toward the paved road. Del must have reached the Rock by now. Help would be on the way.
Excerpted from A Short Time to Die by Susan Alice Bickford. Copyright © 2017 Susan Alice Bickford. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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