Death Angel (Chapter Twenty-three)

"YOU'RE RUNNING FROM SOMEONE, AREN'T YOU?" CASSIE asked as they reached the Explorer. "You know who this guy is?"

"God, I hope not," Andie muttered, unlocking and opening the door. The interior light came on and they both checked the backseat as well as the luggage compartment in back. Both were empty. "I thought I'd lost him."

"In this day and age, honey, it's tough to shake someone who's hell-bent on finding you. If he's got your Social Security number, he can find you anywhere."

"He doesn't," Andie said, certain of that. He might have her old Social Security number, but there was no way he could have the new one. Besides, Glenn didn't report her earnings to the IRS, so even if she had been using the old number nothing would be reported on it. She began walking around the Explorer, looking for footprints in the snow that would tell her if anyone had been around or under her vehicle.

"Don't forget about phone records," Cassie continued. "When you call home, he can access your folks' phone records and track you that way."

"I don't have any family. I haven't called any old friends." Not that she had any, unless she reached way back to middle school. Once she'd lost the baby, she'd turned her back on every emotional connection she'd ever had, not wanting to feel anything ever again. All she'd wanted to do was forget, to walk away and never look back, because to look back was to remember the crippling pain. She couldn't go through that again, not ever.

She finished her circuit of the Ford-the snow was undisturbed. As she got behind the steering wheel, Cassie tromped around to climb into the passenger seat. "So maybe you have an admirer," she said to Andie. "Has anyone been flirting with you?"

"Who has time to notice? We're run off our feet in there. Unless someone pinches me, or pats my ass, I don't even look at their faces."

"Yeah, I've seen you 'look at their faces' a time or two. I thought one asshole was going to faint. What did you say to him?"

She knew exactly the incident Cassie was referring to, because her eyes and voice must have telegraphed her absolute sincerity to the driver, and he'd turned dead white. "I told him if he touched me again I'd stick a fork through his nuts."

The old Andie-Drea-Andrea…hell, she didn't know who she was anymore…would have pretended not to notice the pinch or the pat. She'd have been sweet and slightly vacant, not causing any problems, but inside she'd have been sick with anger and contemptuous that no one realized she was faking everything. Being dead had changed her in more ways than one, because she couldn't act sweet and vacant now. She had buried her temper years ago, but in the past few months it had clawed its way to the surface and seemed determined to stay there.

Cassie threw back her head and laughed in appreciation. "I'm surprised he didn't tell Glenn."

"He did. Glenn told him to keep his fucking hands off the waitresses if he didn't want his balls ventilated." Andie smiled in memory. That was what she liked best about Glenn. Some guys would have been jerks and told the waitresses to put up with it, that he didn't want to lose any customers, but not Glenn. One of his daughters had helped pay her way through college by working in a restaurant, so he had a different view of what waitresses sometimes endured.

As Andie carefully steered the Ford through the long lines of rumbling trucks toward Cassie's rig, Cassie cleared her throat, then said hesitantly, "That thing you said about better decisions, what did you mean?"

"Little things. Like, maybe, instead of buying a flashy bracelet you like, you put that money in an interest-bearing savings account or a CD." Cassie liked jewelry. None of it was expensive-probably the most she'd paid for anything was a couple of hundred dollars-but she liked a lot of jewelry.

"I don't spend that much…" Cassie began.

Andie reached the rig and put the car in park. "It adds up." She ran an expert eye over what jewelry she could see: earrings, several cocktail rings, four or five bracelets. "What you have on cost you roughly three thousand dollars, total. That's three thousand dollars that could be in a bank. What you should be doing is saving up enough to invest in a good mutual fund."

Cassie wrinkled her nose. "God, that sounds so boring."

"Yeah, it does," Andie agreed. "Boring and hard are usually good signs that's what you should be doing."

"I'll be okay. I make good money."

Cassie was shrugging off what Andie had told her. Normally Andie would have done her own shrugging and let it be, but Cassie had gone out of her way tonight to help her so that favor got turned around.

"One wreck will wipe you out," she said, her voice going kind of distant the way it sometimes did. "You'll be hurt, out of commission for about six months. You have insurance on your rig, but you won't be able to work and you'll lose your house. It's all downhill after that. I wasn't kidding about the cat food."

Cassie froze with her hand on the door handle. In the glow of the dash lights, her face suddenly showed her age, and more; it showed fear. "You see something. You really do see something, don't you?"

Andie wasn't about to get into whether or not she "saw" things, so she waved the question away. What she'd just said was common sense. "Another thing: you should start respecting yourself more and stop hooking up with losers. One of them's going to give you an STD." She turned to face the woman. "You're smart, you're successful. You should act like it, because doing stupid things will stop you from being more successful. Trust me, I'm an expert on doing stupid things."

"One of them being this guy you're running from?"

"He's at the top of the list." Proof of her stupidity, Andie thought, was that even though he was a hired killer and no doubt would have shot her if she hadn't saved him the trouble by having a wreck, in unguarded moments she'd have flashbacks to that afternoon with him and the pain would almost bring her to her knees. She was stupid enough that she really would have gone anywhere with him, if he'd only said the word. She was stupid enough that, even now, her terror of him was mixed with a longing that cut at her heart.

What she wasn't stupid enough for was to believe that, if he'd found her, she'd still be alive right now. She laughed in relief at the realization. "It wasn't him," she said. "Watching me, I mean."

Cassie raised her eyebrows. "Yeah? How do you know?"

"I'm still alive." She smiled wryly at her own fear. If he had found her, she wouldn't have survived the walk across the parking lot, whether Cassie was with her or not.

"Holy shit! You mean he's trying to kill you?" Cassie's eyes went round, and her voice rose.

"That's what he does, and he's very good at it. I pissed off some bad guys," she said by way of explanation.

"Holy shit!" Cassie said again. "I guess so, if they're trying to kill you! And you think I make stupid decisions?"

"I told you I'm an expert at it." She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, feeling a sudden urge to confide in Cassie, in someone. She'd been alone since she was fifteen, not physically alone but mentally and emotionally isolated, and other than Dr. Meecham no one knew about her death experience. On the other hand, she couldn't talk openly about it; that would be like stripping naked in public, and she didn't want what had happened to her to become common knowledge. She settled for something short of full disclosure.

"I had a near-death experience a while back," she said. "Let's just say I saw the light, in more ways than one."

"Near-death? You mean that business with the tunnel, and your dead friends and family greeting you, that kind of near-death?" Cassie's tone was eager, curious, the way she turned to Andie somehow full of hope.

Most people hungered for that, she realized, the knowledge or proof that they didn't end with death, that they somehow carried on. They wanted to believe their loved ones were still alive, somewhere, healthy and happy. They might not believe, they might reject anything they couldn't hear and touch and see, but they would be very happy to be proved wrong. She couldn't prove anything; she could tell what she'd experienced, what she'd seen, but prove it? Impossible.

"I didn't see a tunnel." Cassie's face fell, and Andie had to smile. "But there was light, the most beautiful light you can imagine. I can't describe it. And there was…an angel. I think it was an angel. Then I was in the most beautiful place I've ever seen. The light was clear and soft and sort of glowed, and the colors were so deep and rich they made you want to just lie down in the grass and soak everything in." Her dreamy voice trailed off as for a moment she drifted, remembering; then she shook herself, both mentally and physically.

"I want to go back there," she said firmly, "and I realized I had to change if I was going to have a shot at it."

"But you were already there," Cassie pointed out, bewildered. "Why would you have to change?"

"Because I wasn't supposed to be there. It was temporary, so I could have a sort of…review, I guess. Then they voted to let me have another chance, but if I screw this one up, that's it, no more chances."

"Wow. Wow. That's deep shit." Cassie thought it over for a moment, maybe even thinking about her own life and some changes she could make. She put her hand on the door handle. "I guess that would make you rethink some things, wouldn't it?" She hesitated another moment, then shook her head and shoved the door open. "I could talk your head off, asking questions, but I need to get home. You be careful. Whether or not this guy I saw is the one after you, you should still be careful, because he was watching you. I know that for a fact. It was kind of creepy."

"I'll be extra careful," Andie promised, and she would. Getting killed, again, wasn't the only bad thing that could happen to her. She might even have a little bit of a death wish now, if she could be certain she'd changed enough or earned enough points, or whatever. But she didn't want to get raped, she didn't want to get mugged, or a whole bunch of other stuff, so she would definitely be careful.

After Cassie got out, Andie waited until she saw her new maybe-friend climb safely into her rig, then she drove home. Hyper-alert, she watched for any car that seemed to be following her, but traffic was light this late on a snowy Friday night and for the most part there was no one behind her.

By the time she got home, the adrenaline rush of fear had faded and she was yawning with exhaustion. The porch light was on, just the way she'd left it, a welcoming pool of yellow light in the icy darkness. There was a streetlight at the corner, but the trees blocked most of the light from her house and she hated coming home in the dark. She always left a small lamp on, too, to make it look as if someone was there.

The duplex didn't have a garage, or even a carport, so she parked by the porch and pulled her coat and scarf more snugly into place before getting out of the Ford. Snow immediately slipped down inside her shoes; it was deeper here than it had been out by the interstate, undisturbed by hundreds of trucks roaring in and out. Sighing as the icy wetness hit her already cold feet, she unlocked her door and slipped inside the warmth of her shabby sanctuary.

SHE WAS SAFELY home. From his parking spot down the street, Simon watched her go inside. He'd been waiting here since that trucker had spotted him watching her. The trucker couldn't have gotten a good look at him, not with the hood of his heavy shearling coat pulled up, but he'd moved on anyway.

He'd kept an eye on Drea-she went by Andie now-since she'd left the hospital. He'd done what he could, paying all of her medical bills, and for a while he'd stayed close by in case she needed help with anything, but only dire circumstances would have forced him to step in. She was too scared of him; he couldn't predict what she'd do if she saw him.

When she left Denver, he'd trailed her. When she made contact with someone to get a new ID, he'd smoothed the way for her-first, because that way he had inside information on her new name and Social Security number, and, second, because he didn't like the looks of the bastard she'd contacted. He made sure she wasn't ripped off and that the guy knew she wasn't without protection.

She had gotten a new cell phone, too, and the one real chance he'd taken, as soon as she was settled, was to break into her duplex apartment and install a GPS locator in the phone. He also had one on the Explorer, but she would probably hang on to the phone even if she traded in the Explorer.

After that, he pretty much left her alone. He checked on her about once a month, just to make sure she was okay, and he kept his ear to the ground to make sure Salinas hadn't somehow gotten word she was still alive, but that was it.

He started the car and pulled away from the curb, not hurrying. If she heard the engine start, enough time had passed that she wouldn't think anyone had been sitting in a car at the curb when she pulled into her driveway.

She looked good, he reflected, much better than she had even a couple of months ago. When she'd first been released from the hospital she'd been so frail he had been tempted to snatch her off the street, just to keep her from driving. She'd been cadaverously thin and ghostly pale. At first she'd been able to drive maybe half an hour before tiring out and being forced to stop at the nearest motel. Sometimes more than a day passed before she ventured out again, which made him afraid she was doing without food all that time.

Several times he'd considered having a pizza delivered to her room, but that would seriously spook her. He'd hung back and watched, hoping she got to where she was going and got settled before her strength gave out completely.

She'd made it to Kansas City; he didn't know if that was her intended destination all along, or if she got that far and decided to rest for a while, then made the decision to stay. When she rented that ratty little duplex, he'd heaved an inner sigh of relief.

The weight she'd put on looked good; she was heavier now than she had been even in New York, but she'd been too thin anyway and all the weight she'd lost after the accident had been a loss she couldn't afford. He'd watched her work, knew the pace was nonstop, but she was getting enough to eat and her arms showed the muscle she'd gained from lifting heavy trays all day long.

She had two million bucks sitting in the bank in Grissom, and she lived in a neighborhood that was just an inch from qualifying as a slum, while she worked as a waitress in a truck stop. The irony was, he didn't wonder why; he knew why she wasn't using the money.

Salinas had contacted him again, so he figured it was time for the next hit in whatever scheme Salinas had going. He hadn't answered the summons. He hadn't taken a job in the past seven months, though sometimes he wondered idly if there wasn't one more hit on the books for him, because it pissed him off that Salinas was still breathing.

He'd have to think about that. In the meantime, everything was okay in Kansas City.