Outside Manhattan, Kansas
Off Interstate 70
Monday, March 18
He was still alive.
That was all he needed to think about. That, and to keep on running.
Noah could smell his own sweat, pungent and sour . . . and urine. He still couldn’t believe he’d pissed himself.
Stop thinking. Just run. Run!
And vomit. He’d thrown up, splattering the front of his shirt. He had the taste in his mouth. His stomach threatened more but he couldn’t afford to slow down. How could he slow down with Ethan’s screams echoing inside his head?
Stop screaming. Please stop.
“I won’t tell. I promise I won’t tell.”
Noah’s lips were moving even as he ran. Without realizing it, he was chanting the words in rhythm with the pounding of his feet.
“Won’t tell, won’t tell. I promise.”
Pathetic. So very pathetic.
How could he just run away and leave his friend? He was such a coward. But that admission didn’t slow him down. Nor did it make him glimpse over his shoulder. Right this minute he was too scared to care how pathetic he was.
Suddenly his forehead slammed into a branch. A whop and thump.
Noah staggered but stayed on his feet. His vision blurred. His head pulsed with pain.
Don’t fall down, damn it! Keep moving. Run, just run.
His feet obeyed despite the dizzy spiral swimming inside his head threatening to throw him off balance. It was so dark, too dark to see anything other than shades of gray and black. Moonlight flickered patches of light. It only contributed to the feeling of vertigo. This time he ran with his hands and arms thrashing in front of him, trying to clear the path. He used them as battering rams, making sure he didn’t slam into another low-hanging branch.
Twigs continued to whip and slash at him. Noah felt new trickles down his face and elbows and knew it was blood. It mixed with sweat and stung his eyes. His tongue could taste it on his lips. And his stomach lurched again because he knew some of the blood was not his own.
Oh God, oh God. Ethan, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.
Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Can’t help Ethan. It’s too late. Just run.
But still, his mind replayed the events in short choppy fragments. They should never have rolled down the car window. Too much beer. Too cocky.
Too frickin’ stupid!
They’d spent the first weekend of spring break partying before they went home. They hadn’t been on the road long and Ethan had to take a piss. Now Ethan was dead. If he wasn’t dead, he’d soon be wishing he was.
Noah’s lungs burned. His legs ached. He had no clue what direction he was running. Nothing mattered except to run away as far and as fast as he could. But the woods were thick with knee-high brush. The canopy above swallowed the sky, except for those rare streaks of moonlight showing him glimpses of the rocky ground beneath his feet, jagged mounds that threatened to make him stumble.
And then he did trip.
Can’t fall, can’t fall. Please don’t let me fall.
He tried to catch himself, arms flailing like an out of control windmill. He went down hard. His knees thudded against a rock. Elbows were next. Skin scraping. Pain shot through his limbs and still his mind was screaming at him to get up. But his legs wouldn’t obey this time. And suddenly he heard a snap and rustle, soft and subtle.
No, it wasn’t possible. It was just his imagination.
Now footsteps. Someone coming behind him. The crunch of leaves. More twigs and branches snapped and crackled.
No. Not possible.
He had told Noah that if he didn’t tell, he’d let him go. Noah had promised. And so had the madman.
Footsteps. Close now. Too close to be his imagination.
Why isn’t he letting me go? He promised.
And why in the world did he ever believe a madman?
But he seemed so ordinary when he knocked on their car window.
Somehow Noah picked himself up. Wobbled and ignored the pain. Demanded his legs move. He limped at first. Then started to jog. Pushed harder. A chuff-chuff exploded from his mouth. His lungs were on fire.
Tears streaked down his face. A high-pitched whine pierced his ears. It echoed through the trees. A wounded animal or one ready to attack? It didn’t matter. Nothing could hurt him as much as the animal chasing him.
Should never have rolled down the car window. Damn it, Ethan!
“Who’s going first?” the madman had asked with a smile that looked almost gentle and insane at the same time. So calm but with eyes of a wolf.
Oh God, and then he cut Ethan. So much blood.
“I promise I won’t tell.”
“Run. Go on now. Run.” The man had made it sound so natural, almost soothing.
“Go on now,” he’d repeated when Noah stared like a paralyzed deer caught in the headlights.
And now he realized the high-pitched scream was coming from his own throat. He could feel it more than hear it. It came from somewhere deep and vibrated along his ribs before escaping up and out his mouth.
He had to shut up. He’d hear him. Know exactly where he was.
Mud sucked at his bare feet. Shirt, jeans, shoes, and socks—all a cheap exchange for freedom. He knew his bruised and battered soles were cut open and bleeding, scraped raw by the sharp rocks. He blinked hot tears.
Don’t think about the pain. This is nothing compared to what’s happened to Ethan.
He needed to concentrate on running, not the pain. Not his skin that was slashed and bruised.
How far did these woods go?
There had to be a clearing. He had run away from the interstate, away from the rest area, but there had to be something more than trees. Maybe a farmhouse? Another road?
He didn’t hear the footfalls behind him anymore. No branches cracking or leaves crunching. His chest heaved and his heart jackhammered. He slowed just a fraction and held his breath.
Just a breeze. Even the birds had quieted. Had the madman turned back? Given up? Decided to honor his promise?
Maybe one was enough for him tonight?
Noah chanced a look back over his shoulder. That’s when his foot caught on a fallen log and sent him sprawling. His elbows slammed into the rock and mud. The impact rattled his teeth. White stars flashed as his skin ripped on the palms of his hands.
He tried to stand. Fell back to his knees. The foot that had caused the fall burned with pain. He looked back at it and grimaced. His ankle was twisted and his left foot was at an unnatural angle. But it wasn’t the pain that sent panic throughout his body. It was the fact that he couldn’t move it.
He stopped himself. Held his breath again as best he could. Waited. Listened.
No sounds of traffic. No birds. No rustle of leaves. Even the breeze had been frightened to silence.
He was alone.
Relief swept over him. The madman hadn’t followed after all. The last wave of adrenaline slipped away and he dropped back onto the ground. He sat up with his legs outstretched, too weak to even touch his swelling ankle. In the moonlight he didn’t recognize his own foot. It was already ballooning, the bruised skin split open. His breathing still came in gasps, but his heartbeat had slowed to a steady drum.
He wiped a hand over his face before he realized he was only smearing blood with more blood. He brought down his hand in front of his eyes and saw that the skin on his palm had been peeled away.
Don’t think about it. It’s a small price to pay for freedom. Don’t even look at it.
He glanced around. Maybe he could find a branch. A long one. He’d use it under his arm like a crutch. Take the weight off his battered foot. He could do this. He just needed to concentrate. Forget the pain. Focus.
Pain was better than dead, right?
A twig snapped.
Noah jerked in the direction of the sound.
Without warning the man stepped out from behind a tree and into the moonlight. Calm and steady like he had been standing there all night. No sign of being out of breath. No hint that he had traveled through the same thick and dark woods that Noah had just run through.
The madman didn’t even bother to raise the knife in his hand. Instead he kept it at his side, still smeared with Ethan’s blood.
He grinned and said, “It’s your turn, Noah.”
Tuesday, March 19
Outside Sioux City, Iowa
Just off Interstate 29
So far the mud had surrendered one skull from within the dug out crater. FBI agent Maggie O’Dell had a feeling there were more. Washed clean by the morning downpour, it gleamed a brilliant white as it rested on top of the black loamy soil. Besides the skull, three long bones and a scattered assortment of smaller ones had also been uprooted. Maggie had enough medical background to identify the long bones as femurs, though she prefaced her claim to Sheriff Uniss by saying, “I’m not an anthropologist.”
The sheriff blinked at the news as if she had thrown water in his face. He took a step back, wanting to distance himself, either from Maggie or from what she had just told him.
“If you’re correct,” and he paused while his Adam’s apple danced up and down. He seemed to be having some difficulty swallowing this news. Finally he continued, “That would mean we’ve got two bodies here. Not one.”
“Again, it’s just an educated guess.”
“I heard your partner say you’ve got like a premed background or something like that.”
“Premed doesn’t make me a bone expert, Sheriff. We’ll know soon enough when the real experts get here.”
Maggie stopped herself from telling the county sheriff that there could be even more bodies buried on this old farmstead.
Sheriff Uniss was already too jumpy and now she noticed the blinking had set off a nervous twitch at the corner of his left eye. His entire body seemed twitchy—feet shifting, long arms crossing then dangling until he hitched his thumbs into his belt, an unsuccessful effort to stop the constant motion.
His nervous energy reminded Maggie of the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Gray strawlike hair stuck out from under his ball cap. His clothes, however, portrayed a sense of discipline. He wore blue jeans with creases that looked freshly pressed, a red-and-gray-plaid flannel shirt, and a small notebook and two pens stuck out of his vinyl-protected breast pocket. Despite the mud, his gray and black cowboy boots were shiny and polished.
Earlier Sheriff Uniss had told Maggie and her partner, R. J. Tully, that he had seen “a few mangled bodies” from car accidents. He had said it in a way that might offer the credentials needed to handle a possible murder victim. Instead, it only reinforced in Maggie’s mind that this guy—no matter how organized and well intentioned—would be in way over his head with a murder investigation. Especially if there were more bodies. It was much too early to know, but Maggie had a gut feeling that this might be the site she and Tully had spent the last month searching for.
Maggie glanced at the two young sheriff’s deputies leaning on their mud-caked shovels at the edges of the crater. Unlike their boss, they wore brown uniforms, shirtsleeves rolled up, hats left back in their vehicles. They eyed the chunks of dirt surrounding the bones as though expecting more to pop out from the ground.
Fifty feet behind the deputies, a crew of construction workers waited beside the Bobcat and backhoe loader that had turned up this mess. The men had taken up residence next to one of the remaining outbuildings. Late yesterday afternoon the workers had accidentally dug up what they believed might be an old cemetery. They had already leveled several buildings on the farmstead and had only just begun to dig the foundation for a new wildlife preserve’s information center.
The bones made the crew stop. The accompanying smell made them back clear off. It was Maggie’s understanding that the foreman called the sheriff and the sheriff—in the hopes of finding a simple explanation—called the property’s previous owner, only to discover that she had been dead for almost ten years. Her executor had just sold the land to the federal government after leaving the property vacant for almost a decade. He was, according to the sheriff, now en route, despite being three hundred miles away when he received the sheriff’s call and despite having no explanation for the newly discovered bones. In fact, it was the executor who suggested the federal government be notified. After all, they were now the owners of this mess.
As for Maggie and Agent Tully? It was a fluke that they were here at all.
They had flown into Omaha early that morning on an unrelated matter, an entirely different search. Their flight from D.C. had been a rough one. Maggie’s stomach still roiled just at the thought of the lightning and rain that greeted their aircraft. She hated flying and the roller-coaster ride had left her white-knuckled and nauseated. When they stopped for gas and discovered fresh homemade doughnuts inside the little shop, Maggie bought only a Diet Pepsi. Tully raised an eyebrow. She rarely passed on doughnuts. Thankfully his concern dissipated after his second glazed cruller.
For weeks they had been spending a lot of time together either in cramped offices back at Quantico or on the road. Somehow they managed to remain patient with each other’s habits and quirks. Maggie knew Tully was just as tired as she was of highway motels and rental cars, both of which smelled of someone else’s perfume or aftershave and fast food.
Their search had started about a month ago after discovering a woman’s body. She had been left in an alley next to a District warehouse that had been set on fire. But the victim, Gloria Dobson—a wife, a mother of three, a breast cancer survivor—had no connection to the warehouse fire. In fact, just days earlier, Dobson had traveled from Columbia, Missouri, to attend a sales conference in Baltimore. She never made it to the conference.
Virginia State Patrol recovered her vehicle at a rest area off the interstate. In the woods behind that rest area, Maggie and Tully found Dobson’s traveling companion, a young business colleague named Zach Lester. Maggie had seen her share of gruesome scenes in her ten years as a field agent, but the viciousness of this one surprised both her and Tully. Lester’s body had been left at the base of a tree. He had been decapitated, his body sliced open and his intestines strung up in the lower branches.
It wasn’t just the nature of the murders but also the fact that the killer had taken on both Dobson and Lester—two apparently strong, healthy, and intelligent business travelers—and succeeded.
Excerpted from Stranded by Alex Kava. Copyright © 2014 by Alex Kava. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.