Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
When street musician, Chet Walker, receives a cryptic message from a dying man, he plans to honor his promise then cut his losses and head on to his next gig. But as soon as he reaches the picturesque lakeside town of Lucky Shores, he faces hostility and suspicion from the locals, including the intended recipient of the message.
Owner of the local diner, Josephine Donoghue, wants nothing more than to bury her past and move on with her life. But when a scruffy looking city slicker brings a message from her late father, her past--and his--catches up with her.
After discovering that the message holds the key to the town's biggest mystery and her family's shame, Josie must decide if it's worth opening old wounds, trusting a total stranger, and ultimately worth dying for.
Can the country girl and the city boy work together to uncover the truth and earn their redemption before it's too late?
Previously published as "On Lucky Shores".
Snow-capped peaks, they tower high overhead,
Keep a-moving son, you’re a long time dead.
Stretch out them legs, find a bed for the night,
The sun’s your lead, got to follow the light.
On Lucky Shores, On Lucky Shores,
Been through the wars, On Lucky Shores.
Autumn in the Colorado Rockies
The minute the thunderheads formed over the craggy mountains to the east, Chet Walker knew it was going to be a long afternoon and a longer night. He should have stayed on the highway and would pay for his mistake with a cold, wet night in the open. If he had any sense, he’d turn tail and head back to the valley, but he’d made his decision and no way would he quit. He was too damned stupid.
Walk and hitchhike. Walker’s way of life. At least, it had been for the previous eighteen months, but hitchhiking wasn’t much of an option with no traffic on the road. Not a single car had passed since he’d turned off the highway seven hours earlier.
Where were all the goddamned cars?
The harness of his backpack bit deep into his shoulders. It would be lighter without the guitar case attached to the pack with specially made straps, but dumping Suzy—his handmade, six-string acoustic—wasn’t an option. Suzy was his meal ticket. Without her, he’d have to jump back on the treadmill, and that wasn’t going to happen. He’d made his decision on that front—burned all his bridges.
He tugged up the collar on his denim jacket, jammed his wide-brimmed hat down further, and clomped up the hill toward the jagged-toothed, snow-dusted Rockies.
He kicked a golf-ball-sized rock. It skipped off the cracked and pitted asphalt, threw up a puff of gray dust, and buried itself in a clump of dry grass at the side of the road.
Kicking rocks wouldn’t do any good. The way his luck was running, he’d likely break a toe.
Walker funneled his anger into a faster, foot-stomping march.
The driving beat and fresh air cleared his head. A melody, dark and brooding, formed. The tune’s rhythm matched time with his footfalls. The creation of a song, raw but with potential, improved his mood. Without breaking stride, he took his notepad from his back pocket and jotted down the notes of the refrain to work on later. It wouldn’t be ready for the open mic session, but maybe for the next gig, or the one after that.
On the highway, back down in the valley, the billboard offering Open Mic Sessions at the Lucky Shores Saloon, Every Friday Night had done its job and grabbed his attention. The painting below the words—a small town hugging the shores of an impossibly blue lake—promised much, but the line below was the one that sold him:
Lakeside Resort Only Twenty Minutes Away.
Twenty minutes by car—maybe fifteen miles—should have been no more than a four-hour walk, even uphill. He’d taken the detour and ended up in the middle of nowhere. The longer he walked, the more he grew to hate the memory of that sign. Damned thing should have read:
Only Twenty Minutes Away—by Rocket Ship.
After five hours hard marching, he’d reached foothills and found rougher ground, but no Lucky Shores—not even a sign post. An hour after that? Steeper slopes, rugged terrain, boulders, minor tracks leading off deeper into the forest, and the occasional flat spot overlooking a gorge or two.
Where in the name of God was Lucky Shores?
He paused to take a slug of water from the bottle in a cage strapped to his backpack’s belt and to soak in the view. The higher he climbed, the harder he had to work to pull in enough oxygen. The thin air took its toll, but the view was worth the effort. Almost.
Beautiful, but isolated, empty of humanity. Empty of cars.
Scrub brush on either side of the road, bare of leaves, would provide no shelter. Pine trees, the closest a couple hundred yards away, offered little promise. Further still, the yellow-leaved aspens on the lower mountain slopes added color, but were too far away to provide cover from the approaching storm. And it was coming. The angry clouds foretold that.
He slid the bottle back into its cage and marched on.
The wind picked up, changed from breeze to gale, and whipped dirt and pine needles into eddies at his feet. Pant legs flapped against hiking boots. The sky darkened into an early dusk and the temperature plummeted faster than Walker’s hopes of finding a soft bed for the night.
The wind kept veering. It blew hard into his face one second and slammed into his back the next, and it made keeping his footing difficult. The open road, little more than a broken-down track now, left him exposed and vulnerable.
Dime-sized raindrops hit the ground and turned the roadside dust into pockmarked mud—the weather’s warm-up routine for the main act to come.
Walker shrugged off the pack and checked the latches on the hard guitar case, making sure it was secure and watertight. He could put up with a little bad weather, but Suzy most definitely could not.
His lightweight raincoat, stored on top of the pack, slipped over his jacket. He pulled the zipper all the way up to his throat, wrangled the pack back into place, and started up the hill again.
Walking had become his life. Heading west, always west. He’d reached the Rockies, but they’d not been part of his plan. He had no plan but to keep running from his old life. No way was he going back. No way in hell. When he reached the Pacific coast, he’d either turn north or south depending on his mood, or the weather.
The niggling twinge in his left calf had worsened during the day and reminded him of the injury. Not that he needed a prompt—the ugly-assed scar and the recurring ache were more than enough.
The words of his college wrestling coach floated into his head. “Pain is your friend, Walker,” he’d say whenever ‘Walker the Stalker’ complained of an injury. “Use the pain to focus your mind.”
His mind was focused, all right—focused on the pain and the rain and the water running down the drain.
Walker repeated the phrase. Its cadence might work for the new song. He ran it through in his head, added the lyrics to the melody, and stored them away in his memory as a distinct possibility. The new song had promise. Despite the evil ending to a long, hard day, things might be on the up. As his mom used to say, “Be positive, Chester. You’ll feel better.”
Mom. An upbeat influence on his life—a saint. Didn’t mean she was always right, though.
After twenty more paces, the clouds cracked and the real storm hit.
Great. You asked for it, Walker.
The jacket offered some protection, but the driving rain sought out every gap at neck, ankle, and cuff. It drummed on his hat and dripped from its brim. It beat on his shoulders and plastered his pants to his legs. His boots splashed in the runoff and before long, the sodden denim rubbed the inside of his thighs raw.
Daylight faded as the storm increased in ferocity. Whatever he’d done to piss off the world, he could take it. He glanced up.
Bring it on, buddy. Throw it at me, why don’t you?
The new song swirled through his head again, darker this time, and with a hint more thumping, grinding blues. The rain on his backpack augmented the rhythm section. He could almost feel Suzy hum. With work, he might turn the new tune into an anthem. An anthem to a stubborn SOB who refused to turn back.
A brushstroke of yellow lit the road from behind, and the deep rattling growl of an engine with a leaky exhaust broke through the next rumble of thunder.
A car! A goddamned car!
It sped toward him. A big old tank of a thing wallowing on soggy springs and throwing up a wave of spray in its wake. Headlights bobbed and dipped, showing bright in the half-light of dusk.
Walker shrugged off the pack, turned the reflective strip to face the car, and stuck out a thumb. He even raised a hopeful smile.
“C’mon buddy. Stop. Please stop.”
The car drew close and flashed past. The driver, a blur of white face and long gray hair, didn’t even slow.
“Asshole!” Walker yelled and ducked his head to avoid a face full of gritty backwash.
His thumb hadn’t worked, so he flipped the guy the finger and then hunkered down, glowering at the fading taillights. Walker’s fault, not the driver’s. It’s what he deserved for stumbling around on the back roads.
No doubt about it, he was a dumbass!
Brake lights flared and a percussive bang added to the dissonant beat of the storm.
The car shuddered. Its rear end fishtailed left, then whipped right. It straightened as the driver fought for control. He over-corrected the steering, and the old car slid sideways. Tires caught the verge. The car flipped, bounced off a roadside boulder back onto the road, and barrel-rolled twice.
Sparks flew as metal scraped on asphalt, screeching, squealing.
The car slewed and shuddered to a grinding, screaming halt in a cloud of spray and mud. It ended up on its roof, rocking.
“Holy shit!” Walker’s voice sounded unreal in his ears.
He crouched, covered his face, and counted to five, expecting an explosion that didn’t arrive.
What you waiting for, man? Move.
Walker placed the backpack and Suzy on a mound of stones at the side of the road and took off, feet and arms pumping. Uphill, but with the wind at his back, he closed the gap quickly, sucking in great gulps of the thin mountain air.
Splashing through puddles, breath ragged and loud, he fought the stabbing fire spreading through his leg.
Sweat dripped from his scalp and stung his eyes.
With a hundred yards to go, sodden clothing sticking to his skin, the wind took his hat. It flew, bounced, and disappeared into the brush.
Thirty yards from the wreck, his calf gave way, and his leg buckled. He pitched toward the asphalt, tucked in his chin, rolled to his feet with barely a break in momentum, and shuffle-hopped the final few paces.
He stopped, breathing hard, and dragged the safety protocol from his memory banks.
Safety first, check the scene.
He wouldn’t be of any use to the driver if he injured himself.
Despite the hammering rain, the whole area reeked of gasoline. The car’s engine had died, as had the headlights, but raindrops hissed on a crinkling hot exhaust pipe.
No fire, but was it safe?
How could he tell?
“Hello?” he yelled. “Can you hear me in there?”
Nothing but the raging storm.
He dropped to his knees by the passenger’s door and pushed through the shattered window. Glass chips fell from the window frame. Elbows crunched on shattered glass, and he bit back the growing, shuddering fear.
As long as he could see daylight through the cracked windshield, he’d be okay. It wasn’t too dark, not yet. He’d be okay.
This time, he had a way out.
He kept reminding himself that he could breathe, he really could.
The passenger’s compartment—a crush of leather, cloth, and broken glass—did a good job of holding him back.
Coffee, spilled from a crumpled travel mug, swirled in a mound of glass chippings piled on the inverted roof. The front passenger’s seat, torn from its frame, lay across the driver’s seat. No airbags in a car this old. Blood dripped into the puddle, its iron stench mixing with the harsh smell of coffee and gas.
From the displaced driver’s seat, which hung at a forty-five degree angle, a man groaned. His torso was pressed hard against the door frame, his head cranked at an unnatural angle.
“Hang on, buddy. I’m here,” Walker called, sounding more confident than he felt.
He bit back the growing terror and tried to ignore the churning in his guts. As long as the daylight lasted, he’d be fine. No time to worry. No time to think about the crush, the lack of space, the confinement, the restrictions to movement. He’d be fine, if he concentrated on the driver.
That’s it, concentrate on the driver.
Walker edged further in, twisting and forcing his way under the broken passenger seat. He shuffled through the wreckage and squeezed past the obstruction.
Long gray hair hung in the air above the puddle of blood and coffee.
Walker reached up and pressed his index and middle fingers to the side of the man’s neck. He found the pulse, weak, rapid. He slithered forward on his back, until his head cracked against the rear-view mirror. It broke from its mounting and dropped into the puddle below his head.
The mangled steering wheel pushed against the driver’s chest, but the folds of the man’s sweater hid the wound. With great care, Walker stretched out an arm, pulled back the cloth, and took a deep, slow breath.
Not good. Extremely not good.
How had the guy survived?
One of the steering wheel’s spokes had sheared away from the grip and punctured the man’s ribcage close to the sternum. It fixed him to the seat like a butterfly pinned to a display board. Without the seatbelt and the door column taking most of his weight, the spoke would likely have killed him outright.
The driver groaned again and his left hand twitched.
“Don’t move,” Walker said, taking the hand, and trying to keep the rising panic from his voice. “There’s a piece of metal sticking in your chest.”
“Hurts,” the man said, his voice weak, rasping.
“I know.” Walker pushed closer. He tried to ignore the shattered glass digging into his back. Tried to ignore the cramped space. “Don’t move. You’ll make it worse.”
Walker closed his eyes. What could he do in the middle of nowhere, but watch the man die? He couldn’t think straight, his mind a screaming whirl of panic. He was stuck inside a coffin, trapped along with the driver.
A heavy gust rocked the car. The man whimpered and turned his head to stare at Walker through pleading eyes. A neatly trimmed beard framed an agonized grimace. Seconds passed before the sideways-on face relaxed as the spasm subsided. Pale blue eyes tried to focus. He said something, but another whistling gust and a heavier downpour drowned out his words.
“Easy, I’m here. You’re not alone.” Walker surveyed the cab. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a cell?”
“Huh?” The man blinked hard and frowned. Blood stained his lips. Pink froth bubbled from his mouth. His breathing rattled in his throat and chest.
Walker recognized the signs of a punctured lung. “Phone. You got a cell phone?” he repeated.
The man’s blue lips and gray skin told of major blood loss. Didn’t have long to live.
Walker searched. A tan cloth poked out from beneath the rear seat. He reached up and tugged. A jacket flopped free and fell into his face. The reek of cigar smoke, whiskey, and saloon bars overpowered the other smells.
The driver barked a weak cough and groaned. A trail of blood and spittle ran from his mouth into his ear. He scrunched up his face and his eyelids fluttered. Walker wiped the trail clean with the sleeve of the jacket.
“Get me … out.” The driver paused to suck in a shallow, congested breath.
Walker shook his head. “Can’t risk it. Don’t know how far in that spike goes.”
The driver snaked out a hand and grabbed Walker’s wrist. “Please?”
Again, Walker shook his head. “Too dangerous.”
Taking great care, he draped the jacket over the driver’s shoulders and tented it over the steering wheel. Partial protection was better than none. He took the man’s hand. “There’s a phone in my pack. Hold on until I get back. Won’t be but a minute.”
“Don’t go!” the driver pleaded, eyes wide, head twisted as much as he could without moving his shoulders. He squeezed Walker’s hand, the grip surprisingly strong.
The jacket slipped.
Walker readjusted it, then leaned closer. “Listen, if I don’t get my cell, you’re in real trouble. I will be right back.”
Without waiting for a response, Walker slithered backward through the opening as fast as possible without risking moving his patient. Once outside, he struggled to his feet and leaned his back against the wreck, whooping in the air, absorbing the openness. Washing away the constricted space.
Move, for fuck’s sake. Move. What’s wrong with you?
Walker pushed away from the car and headed downhill. Cold wind and rain chilled his face. He expected to return to a corpse.