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PRESENT DAYWitnesses say the phone call occurred around seven p.m. and the exchange was heated. While the man seated at the truck stop diner was calm and his voice low, the woman's voice on the other end was not. Though unseen, she was screaming loudly, and stuff could be heard breaking in the background. Seven of the nine people in the diner, including the waitress, say Jake Gibson made several attempts to reason with her, but she cut him off at every turn. He would listen, nod, adjust his oiled ball cap, and try to get a word in edgewise.
"Allie ... Baby, I know, but ... If you'll just let me ... I'm sorry, but ... I've been driving for forty-two hours ... I'm ..." He rubbed his face and eyes. "Dead on my feet." A minute or two passed while he hunkered over the phone, trying to muffle the sound of her incoherent babbling. "I know it's a big deal and you've put a lot of work into ..." Another pause. More nodding. Another rub of his eyes. "Invitations ... decorations ... lights. Yes, I remember how much you paid for the band. But ..." At this point, he took off his hat and rubbed his bald head. "I got rerouted at Flagstaff and it just plain took the starch out of me." He closed his eyes. "Baby, I just can't get there. Not tonight. I'll cook you some eggs in the morn —"
It was more of the same. Nothing had changed.
Allie Gibson wasn't listening anyway. She was screaming. At the top of her lungs. With their marriage on the rocks, they'd taken a "break." Six months. He moved out, living in the cab of his truck. Crisscrossing the country. But the time and distance had been good for them. She'd softened. Lost weight. Pilates. Bought new lingerie. To remind him. This was to be both his birthday and welcome home party. Along with a little let's-start-over thrown in.
The diner was small, and Jake grew more embarrassed. He held the phone away from his ear, waiting for her to finish. Allie was his first marriage. Ten years in and counting. He was her second. Her neighbors had tried to warn him. They spoke in hushed tones. "The other guy left for a reason." The inflection of their voice emphasized the word reason.
Jake didn't get to tell her good-bye. She spewed one last volley of venom and slammed the phone into the cradle. When the phone fell quiet, he sat awkwardly waiting. Wondering if she would pick back up. She did not. The waitress appeared with a pot of coffee and a hungry eye. He wasn't bad looking. Not really a tall drink of water, but she'd seen worse. Far worse. The kindness in his face was inviting, and judging by the appearance of his boots and hands, he didn't mind hard work. She'd take Allie's place in a heartbeat.
"More coffee, baby?" She said coffee like caw-fee. Before he could speak, the obnoxious beeping sounded from the phone's earpiece, telling him Allie had hung up a while ago. Furthering his embarrassment. He whispered to anyone who would listen, "I'm sorry," then stood, reached over the counter, hung up the phone, and quietly thanked the waitress.
Leaving his steak uneaten, he refilled his coffee thermos, left a twenty on the table to pay his seven-dollar bill, and slipped out quietly, tipping his hat to an older couple who'd just walked in. He walked out accompanied by the signature tap of his walking cane on concrete — a shrapnel wound that had never healed.
He gassed up his truck and paid for his diesel at the register, along with four packs of NoDoz, then went into the restroom and splashed cold water on his face. The police, watching the diner video surveillance some forty-eight hours later, would watch in silence as Jake did twenty jumping jacks and just as many push-ups before he climbed up into his cab. In the last two and a half days, he had driven from Arizona to Texas and finally to Mississippi, where he'd picked up a tanker of fuel en route to Miami. He had tried to make it home for his sixtieth birthday party, but his body just gave out. Each eyelid weighed a thousand pounds. With little more than a hundred miles to go, he'd called to tell Allie that he'd already fallen asleep twice and he was sorry he couldn't push through.
She had not taken the news well.
He eyed the motel but her echo was still ringing. He knew his absence would sting her.
So amiable Jake Gibson climbed up and put the hammer down. It would be his last time.
Jake made his way south to Highway 98. Hugged the coastline, eventually passing through Mexico Beach en route to Apalachicola.
At Highway 30E he turned west. Seven miles to the cradle of Allie's arms. He wound up the eighteen-wheeler and shifted through each of the ten gears. Though he'd driven the road hundreds of times, no one really knows why he was going so fast or why he ignored the flashing yellow lights and seven sets of speed ripples across the narrow road. Anyone with his experience knew that a rig going that fast with that much mass and inertia could never make the turn. State highway patrol estimated the tanker was traveling in excess of a hundred and ten when 30E made its hard right heading north. It is here, at the narrowest point of the peninsula, where the road comes closest to the ocean. To separate the two, highway crews had amassed mounds of Volkswagen-sized granite rocks just to the left of the highway. Hundreds of boulders, each weighing several tons, stacked at jagged angles, one on top of another, stood thirty feet wide and some twenty feet high. An impenetrable wall to prevent the Gulf from encroaching on the road and those on the road from venturing into the ocean. "The rocks" was a favorite locale for lovers sipping wine. Hand in hand they'd scale the boulders and perch with the pelicans while the sun dropped off the side of the earth and bled crimson into the Gulf.
The Great Wall of Cape San Blas had survived many a hurricane and hundreds of thousands of tourists walking its beach.
No one really knows when Jake Gibson fell asleep. Only that he did. Just before ten p.m. the Peterbilt T-boned the wall, pile-driving the nose of the rig into the rocks with all the steam and energy of the Titanic. When the rocks ripped open the tanker just a few feet behind Jake, the explosion was heard and felt thirty miles away in Apalachicola, and the flash was seen as far away as Tallahassee — a hundred miles distant. Alarms sounded and fire crews and law enforcement personnel were dispatched, but given the heat they were relegated to shutting down the highway from eight football fields away. No one in or out. All they could do was watch it burn.
Allie was sitting on the floor of a bathroom stall hunkered over a fifth of Jack. Tearstained and tear-strained. From three miles away she saw the flash off the white subway tile wall. When she saw the fireball, she knew.
The several-thousand-degree heat was so intense that Allie — along with all the partygoers — were forced to stand outside the half-mile barrier and helplessly inhale the smell of burning rubber. They did this throughout the night. By early morning the fire had spent its fury, allowing the water trucks to move in. By then not much was left. A few steel beams. One wheel had been blown off and rolled a quarter mile into the marsh. The back end of the tank looked like a soda can ripped in two. At the blast site, the only thing that remained was a scorched spot on the highway.
Closed-circuit television cameras positioned on the flashing light poles a mile before the curve recorded Jake at the wheel. Facial recognition software, as well as Allie's own viewing of the recording, proved that faithful Jake Gibson with his characteristic oiled ball cap was driving the truck and shifting gears as it ventured north on 30E.
No part of Jake Gibson was ever found.
Not a belt buckle. Not a heel of his boot. Not his titanium watch. Not his platinum wedding ring. Not his teeth. Not the bronzed head of his walking cane. Like much of the truck, Jake had been vaporized. The horrific nature of his death led to a lot of speculating. Theories abounded. The most commonly believed was that Jake fell asleep long before the turn, slumping forward, thereby pressing his bad leg and portly weight forward. This is their only justification for the unjustifiable speed. Second is the suggestion that four days of caffeine overdosing exploded Jake's heart and he was dead long before the turn — also causing him to slump forward. The least whispered but still quite possible was the notion that Jake had an aneurysm, thereby producing the same result. No one really knows. All they knew with certainty was that he went out with a bang so violent that it registered on military satellites, bringing in the Department of Defense and Homeland Security, who both raised eyebrows at the enormity of the blast area. "Shame."
With the site surrounded in yellow tape and flashing lights, it was still too hot to approach. Firemen said it'd take a week to cool off the core and allow anyone near the blast site. Onlookers shook their heads, thought of Allie, and muttered in their best backstabbing whisper, "That woman is cursed. Everything she touches dies."
Rescue and coast guard crews searched the ocean and the shoreline throughout the night. They thought maybe if Jake had been thrown through the windshield at that speed, his body would have shot out across the rocks and into the ocean on the other side, where there's a known rip tide. If so, he'd have been sucked out to sea.
Like everything else, the search turned up nothing. And like everything else, each failed search reinforced the excruciating notion that Jake died a horrible, painful death.
The weight of this on Allie was crushing. Jake, the affable husband who simply worked hard enough to put food on the table and laughter in his wife's heart, was not coming back. Ever. The last year or two or even three had not been easy. He had worked more than he'd been at home, staying gone weeks at a time, months even. Allie knew what people thought ... that she was just tough to live with.
She was left to plan the funeral and decide what to put in the box. But every time she tried to tell his memory that she was sorry, she was met with the haunting and deafening echo that the final three words she spoke to Jake were not "I love you." Instead, her last words to him had been spoken in a spit-filled tirade of anger.
And for those words, there was no remedy.
CHAPTER 2Five hundred sixty-five miles northeast of Cape San Blas on the shoulders of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina, Juan Pedro Perez lit a cigarette. His knuckles were scarred, as was his forehead, and beneath his shirt were twenty more. He had long prized his ability with a knife, but his education came at a cost. Born in Juarez, he'd first walked across the border when he was six, and most of that distance he'd carried his sister. Now thirty, he'd lost count of his crossings. Raised in the fields, and tired of endless hours in the sun and countless unmet expectations, he'd robbed a border farmer, taken his gun, and learned to use it. Soon, he was hiring it out. A drug runner with a guerrilla fighter's pedigree. Such talent and disregard got him noticed. Those atop the food chain took him under their wing, making him well connected. While hunted, he was also protected. Pretty soon he brokered his own power.
He sat in the front seat of an old flatbed Ford, left hand loosely cupped over his mouth, cheeks drawn, eyes dark and cold. Cigarette smoke exited his nose and trailed up and out the car window. He spun the brass Zippo lighter on his right thigh. With every spin he'd flip it open, flick it lit, then slam it shut. Spin it again, repeat. The woman next to him in the front seat didn't watch the lighter so much as the hand that held it.
Catalina was twenty-eight — or so she thought. The two had met, oddly enough, at church. She was attending her husband's funeral while Juan Pedro was running a load and using the church as both a cover and a safe haven. She had no idea. Diego, her husband of five years, had been a good man and she had loved him. They married when she was eighteen and he twenty-eight. He was a dentist, and given his honesty, underinflated prices, and twenty-four-hour house calls, he had a lot of patients but little money.
Juan Pedro stared at her long dress and beautiful black eyes, then at the simple wooden box that held her husband. He pointed north, toward the border. "America?"
She looked at her two children, who were looking blankly at the box. Then she looked at the hell spread around her and figured it couldn't get any worse.
She had been way bad wrong.
Five years later, she had America, an oil-leaking, mufflerless truck for a home, and Juan Pedro's pistol for a pillow. His process was consistent — he would drive her and the kids to a community ripe for harvest, drop them at a shack, and disappear for weeks or months while a couple of his lieutenants kept an eye on them until he reappeared without warning, flush with cash and half a bottle of tequila. Thus far she'd lived in Texas, New Mexico, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, South and North Carolina. She'd seen him in two dozen angry and bloody knife fights. He liked to stand over the other men as they quivered and bled out. A sly smile. His blade dripping. His weapon of choice was a Dexter-Russell six-inch skinning knife. A butcher's knife. He'd first learned to use it at the meat-packing houses. Curved blade. Wooden handle. Carbon steel. Razor sharp. If his pistol was close, that blade was closer.
The first two times she'd tried to escape had not gone well. It took her nearly a month to be able to take a deep breath. The third time he almost killed her while the two children watched. Had it been just her, she'd have closed her eyes and let Diego welcome her home, but the terror in her children's eyes proved too much. So she pulled herself off the floor and yielded. Even now her left eye was still blurry from the impact.
Juan Pedro didn't like her children. He didn't like any children. As long as they weren't much trouble or expense he would let her keep them around, but Catalina knew time was running short. In his world, evil people bought children, and she suspected that Juan Pedro had already collected the deposit.
Diego was ten. Cropped jet-black hair. Black-rimmed glasses with lenses on the thick side. Square jaw. The gentleness in his eyes favored his father. He sat cross-legged in the back seat, a coverless Louis L'Amour paperback in his hand, silently biting his bottom lip, about to pee in his pants. In public he called Juan Pedro Papa. In private, he didn't call him at all.
Gabriela was eight. Long black hair hanging in matted knots below her shoulders. Her skin was dirty; it'd been three weeks since she'd had a bath, and she had a rash she didn't want to talk about. She sat on her heels, silently biting her top lip and about to scratch her skin off.
In addition to the shiny pistol just below his belly button, Juan Pedro kept a revolver at the base of his back. A third handgun was taped below the front seat, a fourth wedged up behind the dash. Two shotguns lay across the floorboard of the back seat, and three automatic weapons were stashed beneath the kids' seat. Behind them, the bed of the truck had been built with a false floor containing several thousand rounds of ammunition and cash. While Juan Pedro was hated and wanted by many, he was not stupid, and if he was going out, it would be in a blaze of glory.
The temperature hovered in the thirties. Catalina stared out the window as the freezing rain stuck to the windshield. They had driven through the night. And the night before. There would be no harvest in this weather, but she dared not state the obvious. Juan Pedro had been sent either to pick up or drop off. Their life had become a series of aimless destinations.
She placed her hand gently on his forearm and whispered, "Juan, the kids no have clothes for this." He looked at her out of the corner of his eye, then at the back seat, where Gabriela had started to shiver. He cranked the engine, flicked his cigarette butt out the window, and dropped the stick into drive. Catalina whispered again. "Diego has to go."
Juan Pedro glanced in the rearview in disapproval. He believed the boy to be soft, so he was toughening him up a bit. He eased into Spruce Pine and pulled over at the Blue Ridge Thrift Store. He slid a roll of hundreds from his front pocket and thumbed through the wad until he found a twenty. He handed it to Catalina and nodded toward the door. When she motioned for the kids to follow, he extended his arm and shook his head once. The kids didn't move.
Catalina quickly found two matching used men's down jackets and two pairs of ladies' fleece sweat pants. They were too big and too long, but the kids could roll them up. She laid the bundle quietly on the counter, and the clerk, whose name tag identified her as Myrtle, rang up the order.
"Twenty-nine dollars and ninety-six cents."
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