Deep Down Dead(10)

By: Steph Broadribb


I glanced at Dakota. ‘In the back now, honey.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘But I hate it in the cage, the seats are too hard. Why can’t I just stay up front with—’

‘No. You promised you’d do whatever I said.’ I knew she’d hardly slept on the journey, and tiredness made her cranky. ‘I need you to do this for me. Please.’

‘Can I play Goldrush Galaxy on your cell then?’

I didn’t want her to be bored. An unhappy child was in no way helpful for my focus, and without a signal the cell was of little use to me. I unplugged my smartphone from the charger and handed it to her. ‘Sure. But volume off, okay?’

As she climbed into the back, I reached into the stowaway box beneath the passenger seat for my carryall. Taking my rig from the bag, I removed my jacket and fastened the straps in place. I made the usual checks: plasticuffs, taser, pepper spray. Left the gun in the bag. Satisfied, I pulled my jacket back on and turned to secure the Plexiglas screen between Dakota and me.

With the divider in place it felt like I drove the final miles in solitary. Me and the radio was all. Mountainside FM: Classic Country. Those whiney lyrics, guitars and shit seemed fitting companionship. Besides, I couldn’t get a clear signal for any other station, not smothered under the heavy blanket of the trees. So I drove those miles listening to the sounds of The Grand Ole Opry, winding my way up the crumbling blacktop, the temperature falling the higher I went. Whether it was the gloom, or the lonesomeness of the tune on the radio, or the melancholy that came over me when I allowed myself to dwell on the fact that I was about to pick up the man who’d been my mentor, I don’t rightly know. Still, in that moment I’d gotten the strongest feeling that this job was going to be trouble.

The road had hugged tight to the route of a broad mountain stream for a good while before the navigator told me I’d reached my destination. To my left the ground fell sharp away from the raggedy edge of the asphalt, a clear twenty-foot drop to the water below. The stream, wide and shallow, had more power than a casual glance might give it credit. But I knew from the way that white foam kicked high over the stones in the riverbed that it took no prisoners. I shuddered. No doubt that feral beauty had lured many folks to their death.

On my right, the ranch looked like your average mountain homestead, but then appearances don’t always tell the whole story. The feeling was stronger, sitting at the base of my throat, an invisible hold tightening its grip notch by notch to somewhere between fear and excitement. It should be easy, I told myself, a straight collection and return. It should be, yet part of me was wondering why JT had come out here, so far from his native Georgia, and if he’d meant for himself to be found.

I braked to a halt and grabbed the file from the dashboard. Inside the cover lay a ripped-off sheet of yellow legal paper with the address scrawled across it: Yellow Rock Ranch, Yellow Spring. The handwriting was Quinn’s, not mine, the letters neat, tight, economical. Merv’s aunt’s place, he’d said. This was where Merv had JT held. After a long moment I turned the truck on to the driveway. It was time to get this done.

The wooden gate had once been painted white but in the glare of my headlamps I could see it was past its best. It stood rotten on its hinges, propped forever open by a boulder. I continued on, bumping along the dirt road flanked by more of the same ageing, whitewashed railings. I reckoned the road would at one time have been stone, but after years of dirt and weather it was now camouflaged by earth. As I drove, I noted the land, the way the hillside swelled up to the front and the left of the driveway, and fell away a few hundred yards to my right.

I came to a ranch house.

Two vehicles stood parked outside: a Ford with the licence plate MERV and a black SUV. Could mean up to eight people inside, could mean jack. I’d seen wooden horse barns as I’d come up the hill. There’d be plenty of room there to hide a vehicle, or as many as you pleased.

The energy of the place felt ambiguous, hard to read. Unusual.

I parked a little ways from the house, killed the lights and climbed out of the truck.

Silence.

I heard no bug chorus like back home, no sounds from cattle or ponies or whatever animals this ranch was supposed to work, and nothing from the house. Didn’t seem natural. The tension in the base of my throat tightened yet another notch.

Tucking my purse under the driver’s seat, I kept my eyes down and whispered to Dakota, ‘Stay out of sight.’

I locked the Silverado and put the key in my pocket. Reaching inside my jacket, I double-checked the paperwork from Quinn was secure; I needed to have it on me to make my entry into this property and JT’s surrender to me lawful. It was where it was supposed to be.