Driving Mr. Dead (Half Moon Hollow #1.5) by Molly Harper
I was lost, hopelessly, irretrievably lost. Amelia Earhart lost. All-that’s-missing-is-the-smoke-monster lost. The kind of lost you only got when you were running seriously late and were this close to being fired. Again.
“I suppose a little visibility would be too much to ask,” I muttered, rubbing my sleeve against the fogged glass of the windshield. I squinted at the faded, peeling road sign that marked the fork off Sedgemoore Road. I was pretty sure the bold block letters were painted sometime during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Did my client live so far away from civilization that the Washington highway department simply forgot his road existed? My cell phone’s navigation app had certainly glossed over it. Smartphone, my ass.
I pulled the pimped-out, late-model Suburban I’d dubbed the “Batmobile” onto the muddy shoulder and checked the map again. Sedgemoore Road had several forks. Then again, I wasn’t sure I was still on Sedgemoore. Pierce County only went so far. In my vehicular meanderings through the forest, had I accidentally broken immigration laws and ventured into Canada? I checked the glowing green lights of the digital clock. I was forty minutes behind schedule. Well, yesterday’s schedule. Either way, I should have had Mr. Sutherland loaded up and halfway to Tacoma by now.
Panic surged through my chest, a hot, acidic burn that humiliated as much as it pained. How did this crap always end up happening to me? I wasn’t stupid, careless, or lazy. I didn’t wake up in the morning and think, You know what? Today’s a good day for massive, humiliating failure.
I didn’t intend to be this late in my first official pickup as a “transport specialist” for Beeline, Half-Moon Hollow’s only daytime vampire concierge service. I didn’t intend for a depressed chicken to leap to its death from a Sunny Farms truck, splintering my windshield and requiring a daylong delay in Kansas City for repairs. I certainly didn’t intend for the Batmobile’s post-cross-country/pre-cross-country tune-up to take an hour longer than promised by that sketchy gas-station mechanic, putting me behind schedule and on the road after dark, where no person with ordinary human vision would be able to see through the rain, much less read Sacagawea’s road signs.
Can an inner monologue hyperventilate?
I squeezed my eyes shut, breathing slowly and deliberately through my nose, just like the therapist told me … before I stopped going … after the second session. I focused on the sound of the rain pounding against the roof of the car. I inhaled the scent of the cheap pine air freshener that the detailers used on the upholstery, which was sort of superfluous considering my evergreen surroundings. The steering wheel was warm and smooth beneath my palms, slightly damp.
I forced myself to open my eyes. I was a Puckett, damn it. And Pucketts didn’t lose our nerve. We schemed, we interjected, we occasionally drank too much and told someone what we really thought of them at a Christmas party, but we never lost our nerve. I’d faced situations far more complicated than this before and emerged un-, well, relatively unscathed—without lasting damage, at least. And I’d laughed most of the way. There was no reason to get wound up now.
The water rippled down the windshield, turning the Washington countryside into a murky, verdant mess. Taking another deep breath, I turned off the shoulder, pulled toward the fork, bore right, and then changed to left at the last minute.
It’s a process, and occasionally, it works.
A few miles later, I saw lights through the trees. It took only three attempts for me to find the shrubbery-shrouded driveway entrance, marked with the smallest fricking address plaque in the world. The house itself was gorgeous, one of those timeless cabins of stone and cedar shake built so it looked like part of the terrain. I wanted to weep with relief as I parked the car in front of the vaultlike pine door, but showing up with big mascara tracks down one’s face seemed unprofessional.
I peered up at the huge windows, inconveniently hung with white sheer curtains, so I couldn’t see inside. A man who lived in the middle of nowhere … who didn’t want anyone looking in his windows. That wasn’t a red flag or anything.
“You can do this, Miranda,” I murmured. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. This is just another adventure, uncharted territory … the kind with abandoned country roads … and a creepy guy who needs curtains to hide his activities from his nonexistent neighbors. And that’s definitely new.”
Angry alt rock blared through the pitter-pattering against my windshield. My eyes flicked toward my cell phone and spotted an unwelcome number on the caller ID. I sighed and pressed “ignore,” then silenced the ringer. It wouldn’t do for Mr. Sutherland to know that my on-again, off-again fiancé’s ringtone was Henry Rollins singing, “I’m a liar!”
I had my reasons.
I took a deep breath before hopping out of the car and dashing to the front door. The rain picked up the moment I was out, the wind sweeping in from both sides, pelting my back with sheets of water. In just a few steps, I was soaked, my feet squishing and squeaking inside my low-heeled black boots.
Before I could knock, the door swung open. Blue eyes. Ice-blue, with only the tiniest hint of darker sapphire around the pupils. And those peepers were not happy. Yelping, I jumped back and would have fallen on my ass in the mud had not a pale hand shot out to grasp my wrist and yank me inside.
The moment I was through the door, he dropped my wrist as if the contact burned. I pulled my hand back, cradling it to my body and shrinking against the door.
Vampires were generally more attractive than the human population. Whatever they were in life, they ended up just a little bit sexier, with a dash of that “dangerous to know” appeal. Well, Mr. Sutherland had obviously started off with a pretty high bar. His ridiculously shiny coffee-colored hair was tousled in that intentionally messy-sexy way that begged for fingers to comb through it. The dark hair accentuated pale skin and aristocratic features, a high forehead, a straight nose, cheekbones so high that they left sharp hollows on either side of his face, and a generous mouth posed in a permanent sneer.
Given our surroundings, I’d foreseen a vampire Grizzly Adams opening the door. But my new client had been turned sometime in his late thirties. He wore a dapper, almost Victorian, gray three-piece suit with a crisp white shirt, no tie. Frankly, I expected him to whip out a Phantom of the Opera cape any moment.
“Mr. Sutherland?” I squeaked. “Are you Collin Sutherland?”
“Late,” he growled.
Mr. Sutherland loomed over me, the scent of amber and bitter orange making my mouth water. The oceanic eyes narrowed as he scanned me from head to toe. His grimace twisted in an expression of disdain. I glanced down and wondered what was wrong. I was wearing what my boss, Iris, assured me was perfectly acceptable driving attire, dark jeans and a white button-up blouse … which was currently transparent, thanks to the rain.
He yanked me out of contemplations of long fingers and dusky, sneering lips by growling again. “Feet.”
I cleared my throat, because the mouselike voice emitting from my mouth was plain embarrassing. “Beg pardon?”
“Feet!” he hissed.
Would we be communicating in one-word sentences for the next four nights?
I looked down to see small puddles forming around my boots, right on his beautifully polished floor. I sidestepped onto an area rug, but Mr. Sutherland couldn’t have glared more fiercely if I’d piddled on his exquisite hardwood.
We were not off to a good start.
Iris had warned me that Mr. Sutherland was a “delicate case,” but she hadn’t elaborated on what that meant beyond his apparently crippling phobia of airplanes and the fact that he hadn’t left his house in “a long, long time.” Could a chronic case of male PMS be considered “delicate”?
“I am really sorry for the day’s delay, Mr. Sutherland,” I said, my voice uncomfortably tinny. “It couldn’t be avoided. There was this chicken. I think he knew his end was at hand, and I guess he didn’t want to be chicken nuggets—”
Mr. Sutherland pivoted on his heel and disappeared into the kitchen. My lips clamped shut, and I frowned.
I was used to far more pleasant interactions with vampires. I’d worked as a waitress at a vampire bar called Bite for six months. The nonbreathing clients were a lot friendlier than those with pulses, and they left better tips. And in the days after I’d accepted the assignment, Iris, an old high-school classmate, had had me do a series of test runs, ferrying local vampires across town like an undead taxi. I used the first two-hour leg of this journey cross-country to drive her friend Jane from Half-Moon Hollow to Nashville for a booksellers convention. Jane had been downright sweet, keeping me entertained on the brief drive through Tennessee with her absurd life story. None of these experiences had prepared me for Mr. Sutherland’s hostile, monosyllabic reception.
In his absence, I saw that the house was comfortable and quaint. The open floor plan gave visual access to nearly everything, including the spectacular view afforded by the back windows. Rough-hewn polished pine stairs led to a bedroom loft. Comfy-looking leather chairs the color of melting caramel flanked a river-stone fireplace. Bookshelves stocked with leather-bound editions stretched floor to ceiling on the opposite wall. There was no stuffy furniture, no useless dust catchers beyond a red and gold military insignia framed and displayed on the mantel. A lion devouring a snake.
A thump from above snapped me out of my decor ogling. I focused on the little pile of luggage near the foot of the stairs, and I slung a dark leather designer overnight bag onto my shoulder. When I bent to pick up a sleek silver suitcase, there was a blur of motion, the force of which swept my wet hair over my eyes. I lurched to my feet, pulling the damp strands out of my face, just in time to find Mr. Sutherland snatching the case out of my hands.
“You do not touch this case,” he said sternly, shoving a pristine white towel into my hands. He swept across the room to blot my puddle from the floor with a clean cloth. “I am responsible for transporting this case to Ophelia Lambert at midnight four nights from now—a deadline that your tardiness has put in jeopardy, I might add. Therefore, only I touch the case.”
“Only I touch the case,” he said.
I was starting to suspect that he had unnatural feelings for that case.
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to be handcuffing it to your arm?”
“Very amusing, Miss Puckett,” he said, looking me up and down. “Of course, I’m forced to assume that you are the Miss Puckett described in Miss Scanlon’s correspondence, since you have not, in fact, introduced yourself to me.”
Something about the way his silky voice slid over my skin triggered my “authority figure” complex. And suddenly, I was having some very unwelcome, very naughty images of Mr. Sutherland and his hypothetical handcuffs.
“Oh, right, sorry. Hi, I’m Miranda Puckett. I’m the driver for Beeline.” I reached out my hand to shake, a hand that he pointedly ignored as he swept past me.
Shocked by his rudeness, I merely followed in his wake, muttering to myself. “Nice to meet you, too. Oh, yes, I’m sure we’re going to end up lifelong friends after this road trip. We’re off to such a great start. Feel like I’ve known you my whole life,” I grumbled, toting the bags to the car while he checked and rechecked the locks on his front door. “And I’m talking to myself again. Super.”
I stared at the warm, dry house with longing. A kinder client might have offered me use of the restroom or even coffee. But I was hardly in a position to ask for perks.
To add insult to injury, my tardiness and the weather ruined my plans to introduce Mr. Sutherland to the fabulous features of the Batmobile, which I’d thoroughly rehearsed with a very patient Jane. A decommissioned Council vehicle that Iris had purchased for a song at auction, the Batmobile was built for comfort and safety. While it looked like a mild-mannered SUV from the outside, the Batmobile boasted a light-tight cubby that took up most of the rear compartment’s floorboard, like a compact coffin, allowing the passenger to ride comfortably while I drove us in full sun. Tucked between the front seats sat a cunning little cooler/warmer for blood. It worked a bit like a bottle steamer, using hot water on a timed switch to bring the blood to an even 98.6. The windows were tinted with SPF 500 film so that he would be safe inside the cab if necessary.
I’d become familiar with those features on the three- (OK, four-) day drive to pick up Mr. Sutherland. I’d planned to make him familiar with them before we started the drive back to Half-Moon Hollow so he could deliver a parcel to an official with the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead. But clearly, Mr. Sutherland preferred that we just get on the road. I couldn’t blame him, I supposed. We absolutely, positively had to be back on time, or Mr. Sutherland would not be paid … which meant that Iris would not be paid … which meant that I would not be paid … which would be upsetting.
Using the boatload of upper-body strength it took to close the rear door, I slammed it down. I noticed a pale flash out of the corner of my eye at the last minute. The gate came crashing down on Mr. Sutherland’s fingers with a sickening crunch.
This was a hallucination. I could not be looking at a vampire’s hand caught in a car door, crushed like something out of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. I clapped my hands over my mouth and let out a horrified shriek.
“Open the bloody gate!” he roared.
I scrambled for the key fob and clicked it, popping the door open. Mr. Sutherland groaned and flexed his mangled fingers, bent at bizarre angles, obviously broken in several places. Sure, they would fix themselves rapidly with his vampire healing, but it would hurt like a bitch.
“I’m sorry!” I cried, rushing forward to help him. He hissed like a cat and turned his back on me. “Shit! I’m so sorry!”
“Language, Miss Puckett,” he growled over his shoulder. “Did you not see that my hand was in the way?” He grunted as his fingers stretched and snapped back into their proper places.
“Not until the last minute,” I said. “Why didn’t you move your hand when you saw I was closing the door?”
“I thought you would stop the door,” he shot back.
“How was I supposed to do that? I don’t have vampire reflexes!”
“From now on, I will keep your limitations in mind,” he seethed, and pivoted on his heel toward the car door.
Mr. Sutherland was already seated in the middle of the backseat when, shaking my wet hair out of my face, I slid into the driver’s seat. He flexed his reformed fingers and glared at me. The case was tucked safely by his feet on the floor boards, as if he was afraid to lose contact with it for even a moment.
What the hell was in the case? I wondered. Huge stacks of cash? Jewels? What if it was nuclear codes or radioactive materials? Iris seemed like a nice lady. I would hope she wouldn’t involve me in international espionage on my first cross-country job. Maybe the second or third but certainly not the first.
“You’re going to sit in the back?” I asked, glancing at him in the rearview.
He looked me over again, that same pinched, confused expression he’d given me before. I couldn’t blame him. I had just destroyed his right hand. And he seemed to spend an awful lot of time alone …
Catching my reflection in the mirror, I cringed. No wonder Mr. Sutherland seemed so … well, unimpressed would be putting it kindly. My heart-shaped face held few charms beyond a pert little nose and a frame of light brown hair that frizzed in humidity and hung limp in every other sort of -idity. I had a weird, top-heavy mouth that made me look as if I’d been thoroughly kissed, which generally wasn’t the case. I’d inherited my dad’s Puckett green eyes, with little flecks of gold around the pupils and a heavy fringe of lashes. Other than that, I was painfully average, which was strange, because I managed to gum up my life in such spectacular ways.
Given my underwhelming attractions, I supposed that at this point, I should have been grateful that Mr. Sutherland wasn’t making me wear one of those little chauffeur caps to hide my face.
It was just as well that he seemed to think I was some sort of disheveled swamp troll. As tempting as Mr. Sutherland was, dreamy insouciance and angular GQ looks were not my thing. Until I’d met Jason, my boyfriends had borne a disturbing resemblance to Criss Angel.
I had just started the engine when my phone buzzed from the console. Speak of the Polo-wearing, microbrew-swilling devil. It was probably another ass-dial. Jason didn’t like to bother with his screen lock on his phone, so he disabled it, which meant that he was sort of notorious for calling people whenever he sat down. Of the dozens of calls he’d made to my phone over the last few days, he was only aware of half of them.
I wasn’t ready to talk to him or his ass cheeks. And I could only be grateful that I’d turned off the Henry Rollins ringtone before Mr. Sutherland could hear it. I reached for the “ignore” button, only to suffer that velvet vampire voice’s further abuse of my goose-bump response.
“Miss Puckett, I faxed a document concerning my transportation requirements to your employer upon the signing of our contract. Did you not read it?”
Sadly, I had read what amounted to a sixteen-page contract rider, which outlined everything from maximum speeds at which I was allowed to change lanes to fragrances I was allowed to wear to which foods I was allowed to eat in his presence. I thought it was a joke. Clearly, I was wrong.
He cleared his throat pointedly and handed me an extra copy, triple-stapled, along with the credit card I was supposed to be using for our travel expenses. “If you read page ten, you’ll see that phone use or texting while driving is strictly prohibited.”
“Oh, no, I wasn’t going to—”
“No excuses, Miss Puckett,” he said in that clipped, vaguely accented voice.
I gritted my teeth, my voice practically whistling through them as I said, “You know, this whole thing might feel a little less awkward if you called me Miranda.”
“I don’t think so.”
“OK, then,” I ground out, “do you have a music preference?”
“Page twelve, Miss Puckett.”
I flipped through the booklet listing tolerable music selections. I sighed and tuned the radio to a classical station. “It’s going to be a long drive.”
MORE ISSUES THAN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC