“This isn’t happening to me.” Even as Rai uttered the words, the grim reality hit her in the face as she drove like a maniac down State Route 113, in rural Lorain County, Ohio. It was happening. She had packed as much as she could into her SUV and fled both her office and her apartment, after learning a Mob boss named Vito Cinquepalmi had ordered a hit on her.
Tears streamed down her face, and as she’d done earlier, she impatiently brushed them away. There was no time for that. She had to figure out where to go and quickly. If she holed up in a motel she was too exposed because she couldn’t hide her car.
“No…” she whispered as fat raindrops landed on her windshield. “No, please don’t rain. Not now.” She’d been down this road exactly two times in her life, and neither of those times had been in the dark, or in the rain. Her GPS was on, but since she had no fucking clue where she was headed, she could hardly tell it where to navigate.
Jennifer Wise-Minnick’s voice still rang in Rai’s ears. The CEO of Comfort First, one of Rai’s largest clients, had been on a phone call in one of the smaller conference rooms. Rai was supposed to be out of the building in meetings all day. Those meetings had been cancelled, but no one knew about it. Rai hadn’t even yet told Tiffany Washington, her administrative assistant.
“I just spoke with Vito this morning.”
Rai had no clue who Jennifer had been speaking to, but it hardly mattered. She had paused after hearing the name of the Mob boss who, three weeks earlier, had tried to coerce Rai into becoming his partner.
“Rai has a price on her head. I doubt she’ll be back here at all. Everything is in place for Vito to take over the company once she’s out of the way.”
After turning on her windshield wipers, Rai spotted a gas station. There were plenty of other cars at the pumps, and parked in front of the convenience store.
You mean plenty of witnesses. Yes. Exactly. It would be safe to stop for a moment and figure out what to do. Surely Vito Cinquepalmi’s men weren’t stupid enough to try anything with others around.
“You sure about that?” she whispered. Her voice sounded hollow, like that of a frightened child. This wasn’t productive. It was time to get her shit together and make a plan. A real one. She couldn’t go back, and she’d be damned if she’d let those fucking thugs take her out. As for her company, she now had no choice but to let the FBI deal with it.
Rai pulled into the gas station and parked directly in the glare of an overhead light. That way, anyone glancing toward her SUV would see her features. And be able to identify them to the police.
A shudder ran through her. Stop that. Focus. She had plenty of cash on her because she’d emptied one of her smaller bank accounts this afternoon. Would they have that information? If she used a credit card, would they be able to track that online, or was that only the cops and the FBI who could do such things?
There had been no time to think through everything. She’d fled her office, taking everything she had about the company in paper form, plus her laptop. Not that it would matter now. How the hell can someone simply take over a company? Had they forged her signature?
She still had a team of attorneys. She hadn’t yet fired them like Vito told her to. Should she have called them as well as the FBI this afternoon? It’s not like there’s an instruction manual out there, detailing what to do when you discover someone has a contract out on you.
After she’d gone back to her apartment, she’d tossed clothes and personal items into every bag she could find, along with her personal laptop. No one had followed her out of the city and onto this road. If they had, she’d have known it by now. Maybe she was safer than she thought?
Maybe unicorns will fly out of your ass?
A noise outside startled her, sending hot, white fear racing through her body for a second or two. Yeah. Right. You’re perfectly safe. A deep ache in her stomach reminded her she hadn’t eaten since early this morning. Dare she go into that gas station and stock up on egg salad sandwiches and corn chips?
You have to eat something. Can’t drive very far if you pass out from hunger.
For a moment, Rai watched the people coming and going. No one paid attention to her. Just ordinary people out on a Friday night in August, filling up their gas tanks, and stocking up on really bad food, t-shirts, and crappy toys for their kids. God bless America. She was dressed in shorts, a tank top, and athletic shoes. If she could wipe the terror and paranoia off her face, she’d blend right in.
It still took her ten minutes to turn off the ignition and open the door. When no shots rang out, no tires screeched on pavement, signaling the advance of a car that had been hiding in the dark, waiting for her to make a move, she grabbed her wallet and slid out of the driver’s side.
With a heroic effort, she glanced around, noting the position of every vehicle on the property, its color, and how many people were hanging around each one. Your MBA in marketing, hard at work. Rai closed her eyes for a second before turning her back on the scene she’d just surveyed, and pushed open the door to walk inside.
The blast of cold air from the AC did nothing to ease the pounding of her heart, or the sickening fear still coursing through her. Every pair of eyes that met hers was suspect. Every shrill voice sent a jolt of terror to her brain, until she identified the noise as benign.
Just get some food and water, pay for it, and leave. You can do this.
She grabbed a canvas basket and walked up and down the aisles, trying to decide between advancing any plaque that was already building in her arteries, or starving to death in the middle of nowhere. The plaque won out.
After she’d stuffed the basket with Wheat Thins, cookies, a few sandwiches that looked relatively fresh, and a large bag of potato chips for good measure, she grabbed a case of bottled water. She’d loved to have added a large bottle of tequila, but didn’t want to have to hand her driver’s license to the kid behind the counter. He’d be less likely to remember her if he didn’t have to verify she was old enough to buy booze.
She used cash to pay for her hoard, and once outside, glanced around again before stuffing her food and drink into the backseat of the SUV. But she still wasn’t sure where to go. Perhaps a larger hotel, where she could hide the car in a parking garage? But that meant heading back to Cleveland, driving all the way west to Toledo, or south to Columbus.
There weren’t many hotels outside of the larger cities that had actual parking garages. If she left the car in a lot, it would be too easy for anyone to cruise it and simply search for her license plate number. Rai wasn’t going to pretend they didn’t already have it.
For that matter, unless the parking garage was accessible only to registered hotel guests, anyone could search for her car in it, too. So much for her perfect plan. Despair washed over her. Where the fuck could she go that they wouldn’t find her?
“Come on,” she whispered. “Use your brain.” They didn’t know where she was right now. If they did, she’d be dead. It was a big state with plenty of roads leading out of Cleveland. They might still be searching for her in town, for all she knew. If she simply drove away and chose a spot, there was no way they could track her, was there?
Her schedule had indicated meetings today in Mentor and Solon. That’s probably where they’d been when she’d been at her bank and her apartment. It would have taken them a while to realize she’d never made the meetings. For all she knew, they were searching her apartment right now. Or, if they hadn’t broken into it, they were parked outside, waiting for her to appear. She had the element of time on her side, but that wouldn’t last forever.
Maybe she could trade this car in for a new one tomorrow? Would it arouse suspicion if she asked for different license plates? When her stomach growled again, she reached into the bag and pulled out one of the sandwiches. As she ate it, she tried to focus her thoughts once more. Driving aimlessly without any plan at all was the surest way to trip herself up.
“Okay.” She tossed the wrapper into the back seat. “Now you have food in your belly. Pick a direction.” West. She might as well keep heading west. Once she crossed the Indiana state line, she’d figure out her next move.
After drinking half a bottle of water, Rai eased back onto State Route 113 and sent up a silent prayer of thanks as the rain subsided. There was a fair amount of traffic now, but it was Friday night, and there were quite a few bars between here and Milan. She kept her attention on the road, and on the vehicles in front of and behind her.
The traffic thinned out as she approached the town of Creek Ridge. Must not be any popular bars there. It took a few seconds for Rai to register that the vehicle coming up behind her, a pick-up truck from the position of the headlights, was traveling way too fast. Hot panic sent her pulse racing. There was no place to get away.
Her breath hitched in her throat, and tears welled up as the vehicle drew closer. If she sped up, it would only chase her, and she might end up rolling the SUV. The pavement was still slick from the earlier rain. “Please…” she whispered. “Please, Lord. I don’t want to die.”
Should she call 911? Would it do any good? By the time the cops found her, it would only scare away the truck from chasing her any further. It wouldn’t eradicate the hit ordered on her. But if she told the cops about that, would they find a safe place for her?
Why the hell hadn’t she called them earlier? Fuck what the FBI had said. She should have followed her instincts. Then again, what if Vito had the cops in his back pocket, too? It wasn’t unheard of. In the end, it hadn’t mattered who she called or not. Obviously, they had found her.
Tears blurred her vision as she picked up her phone. Her hand shook so badly she nearly dropped it, and then she spotted lights up ahead, on the right. Whatever that place was, she was going to pull into it.
Maybe she’d have enough time to make the 911 call before they blew her brains out. And, if there were people in the parking lot, they could help the police piece together what had happened to her.
As she approached the building, images flashed through her mind, from her childhood up to three weeks ago, when she’d first discovered the depth of infiltration inside her company by Vito Cinquepalmi and his organization.
Bright headlights, directly behind her now, blinded her as she made her way toward the building. She almost missed the driveway, but managed to slow down quickly enough to pull into it, only to let out a howl of frustration as the damn cell phone slipped from her hand.
Rai froze, slamming on her brakes. Did she have time to get the phone? The truck had pulled in directly behind her. She was crying too hard, and couldn’t stop her body from shaking. If she was going to die, please let it be quick.
Loud curse words followed the slamming of a car door behind her. Blinking to clear her vision, she watched a figure approach in the side mirror. Jeans, t-shirt, a leather vest with patches covering it, and dirty boots. Not the suit and dress shoes she’d been expecting. The image of a mobster she’d built up in her mind didn’t fit this tall, ragged stranger, proving once again how TV got it all wrong.
“What the fuck are you doing?” The deep voice bellowed, and at first, Rai didn’t realize the man had addressed her. “You gonna just sit there, blocking the damn drive, or are you gonna pull in?”
What the hell?
She yelped and jerked sideways in her seat as a face came into view, peering at her with angry blue eyes through the open driver’s side window. “Well? Why the fuck are you sitting here, lady? You’re blocking the entrance.”
What the hell had been in that sandwich?
He’s not here to kill me.
Rai glanced from the man’s rugged, but handsome, face toward the building. Scotty’s Place. Neon lights danced around the edges of the sign, illuminating silhouettes of naked women. Holy fuck. It was a strip club. She’d run from the Mob straight into a tittie joint. Only you, Raiyana Parente, could pull this off.
Rai jumped as the man knocked on the side of the car. “Did you hear me?”
She wiped the tears from her face. “I’m sorry. I’ll move.”
“Wait. You all right?” His voice had changed from angry to worried.
“Not really.” Rai swallowed hard. Her stomach heaved, and her chest hurt. Spots danced before her eyes. Oh fuck. That damn sandwich was about to come up.
Rai took her foot off the brake and eased the SUV toward the edge of the driveway, giving the truck enough room to get around her. She thought he’d climb back inside and go on his way, but instead he still stood there, his arms crossed and his expression a cross between annoyance and concern.
She needed fresh air. That was all. Rai put the SUV in park, pushed the button to roll the window up, turned off the ignition, and slid out of the car, holding her keys. She leaned against it, fighting the roiling inside her body. Could this fucking day get any worse? She was mere seconds from puking in the parking lot of a strip club.
Boots crunched on the gravel. No. Go away!
“Are you okay?”
Rai glanced up into the man’s face. He needed a shave, and that dark, thick hair could use some serious conditioner, but his features were really handsome. She’d never seen eyes that color. Like blue ice.
Speech wasn’t possible. She tried, but all that came out was a hitching sound. Right before she bent her head and spewed the undigested egg salad sandwich she’d wolfed down fifteen minutes earlier, all over his dirty, leather boots.
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