The stars were bouncing across the windshield. Streaks of light that zigzagged through the blackness and plummeted downward before shooting up and out of sight. That was how it seemed, but Lela knew she was the one bouncing in the pickup. Her forehead hit the windshield, her right arm crashed against the door handle. A flash of pain, like a burning coal, gripped her elbow. Someone was screaming — God, she couldn't stop screaming, and her own voice sounded thin and frantic above the pounding beat of Korn and the rushing wind through the opened windows.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lela saw the dark pickup pull alongside them as Tommy stomped on the gas pedal. They roared ahead in a blur of chrome and flickering lights.
"Tommy, look out!" A utility pole rose like a granite tower into the headlights. Lela threw out both hands to brace herself against the dashboard. Tommy was pulling on the steering wheel, throwing his whole body toward the door. They swerved around the pole, which knocked and scraped down Lela's side. There was the screeching sound of metal ripped from metal.
And then they were alone, bouncing through the sagebrush and across the iron-hard ruts, headlights flashing over the empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and the rusted-out parts of old trucks scattered around the bluff. Going slower now, Tommy thumping both fists against the wheel and yelling out his window, roaring to the stars. "We did it! We beat the sonsabitches!"
Lela felt her heart jumping in rhythm with "Clown." She was still holding on to the dashboard, trying to get her breath. The air lodged in her lungs like a cork, the inside of her mouth felt as dry and rough as an old boot. She shifted around until she could see the headlights of the other pickup blinking over the bluff in the distance. Headed toward the river where the party was, and the whiskey and the weed.
She exhaled a long breath, letting out all the air that had been inside her. She felt giddy with relief. She wanted to scream out the window: I'm alive, I'm still alive. She leaned back, letting her eyes take in the man beside her. Sweat glistened on the black tattoo of a raven that seemed to fly over his biceps as he turned the steering wheel. Lines of sweat ran like silver through his black hair, which was smoothed back like a cap over his head and tied into a ponytail. She could sense his excitement, like a fever coming over him. It matched her own. He'd want sex now. That was why he was driving across the bluff, away from the others, to the spot where he'd taken her the first time. She ran her tongue over her lips — cracked and dry and wordless — and laid her head against the backrest. She stared into the night and at the lights glowing among the cottonwoods along the river below.
Tommy leaned toward her and swept one hand under the driver's seat. He lifted a flat, brown bottle, and, balancing it between his thighs, twisted off the top. The smell of whiskey floated toward her, and Lela felt her heart lurch as Tommy took a long drink. The light from the dashboard danced in the brown liquid.
"Lost the mirror," he said, swiping the back of one hand over his mouth. Then he tipped his head back and let the liquid pour into his throat like a fountain before he guided the pickup into the two-track that pitched downward off the bluff and into the grove of cottonwoods. The party was a half mile away, lights flickering like fireflies in the darkness.
"Hot shit." He guided the pickup through the trees, the tires scrunching the underbrush. "It's worth it. Gotta teach those bastards who's boss around here."
Looking straight ahead, Tommy pointed the pickup toward the open area in the cottonwood grove – a campsite close to the river. The headlights streamed over the dirt and clumps of grass, the circle of rocks and charred logs where someone had once built a fire. They lurched to a stop, and Tommy turned off the engine. The stereo went quiet, leaving only the sound of the wind whistling through the trees and the faint echo of the music in the distance. The yellow glow from the headlights hung in the air a moment, before dissolving into the darkness.
"What?" Tommy handed her the bottle, and she took a drink, wincing at the fire that shot down her throat and into her chest. He had looped an arm around her shoulder and was pulling her so tight that the rough edges of his army camouflage shirt, where he'd cut out the sleeves, scratched against her neck. He smelled of perspiration and whiskey and tobacco all at once in some kind of stew that made her feel slightly sick.
"Over there," she managed, her own voice coming back at her like an echo. She pointed into the darkness toward the campsite where, before the headlights had died, she'd glimpsed something small and unusual in the dirt. Something out of place, left behind and forgotten. Something different. Not one of the crushed beer cans or broken bottles that were strewn around the fire pit.
Lela shrugged herself free of Tommy's arm and leaned forward, squinting through the windshield. The object was hard to make out now, a shadow swallowed by other shadows. It could be a small animal, she thought, a puppy or a kitten. Maybe it was dead, but it might be hurt. Maybe a fox had gotten it. There were fox by the river, and coyote.
"Turn the headlights back on, okay?" she said.
She felt Tommy's fingers dig into her shoulder and pull her back. "Forget it. Ain't nothing out there I want. You know what I want." His hand worked its way up under the back of her T-shirt and around, then gripped her breast, squeezing hard.
"Stop it, Tommy," she screamed, twisting herself free and grabbing for the door handle. She pushed the door open and plunged out into the hot darkness, which was tinged with moist, dead-fish smells from the river. Just as she started around the pickup, the headlights flashed on. She stopped. Now she could see the object a few feet away, except it wasn't any kind of animal.
It was a hand — fleshy palm, curled fingers — rising out of the ground, clawing at the dirt.
Her legs felt weak beneath her, as if they'd dissolved into liquid and could no longer support her. She stumbled back a couple steps, both hands pressed over her mouth to hold in the scream erupting in her throat, her gaze frozen on the hand. She tried to turn away, but it was as if the hand itself had fastened onto her and wouldn't let go.
The loud thwack of the pickup door was like a slap in the face, bringing her out of some nightmare. Tommy emerged from the shadows beside her. A wave of gratitude swept over her as his arm went around her shoulders. She felt him pulling her backward.
"Come on, Lela," he said, swinging her around, pushing her toward the pickup. "This ain't your business. You ain't seen nothing. "
"What?" Lela tried to turn back, but he pushed her hard and she stumbled against the hood, her legs still jellylike. "We gotta call the police," she managed.
"You crazy?" He gripped both of her shoulders and leaned over her. The smell of whiskey on his breath made her want to retch. "You didn't see nothing, and you ain't calling nobody." His fingers bore into her muscles until she felt the tears pressing against her eyes.
"It's a body, Tommy," she managed. "We got no choice."
He released her, and she wobbled sideways against the pickup, trying to get her balance. In a flash, she saw his hand stretched over her, then felt the hard crash of his palm against her cheek. Her head jerked backward. She crumbled onto the ground, her balance gone now, as if some gyroscope inside her had been turned off. She dug her fingers into the dirt, collapsing into the pain that was spreading through her head.
Tommy was next to her, his black boots a few inches from her face. "Why'd you do that?" she said, feeling like a little girl again, dad standing over her.
"So you get it straight. You keep quiet. It ain't your business."
Lela managed to scrape through the dirt to the hard ground underneath, then push herself upright along the black boots, the baggy camouflage pants, the shirt with the jagged armholes, the sculptured arms. He was looking beyond her toward the party. She turned her head to follow his gaze. Headlight beams crisscrossed one another in the darkness. There was the pounding sound of the stereos, far away and faint as a memory. She could make out the dark blocks of pickups and the shadows flitting about, dancing maybe, getting laid, getting high, like every other Saturday night this summer. Everybody'd be stoned by the time she and Tommy got back. God, why'd they have to come to Double Dives in the first place?
She looked back at Tommy, his face striped with thin slats of shadow and light, and in his expression she saw a fear as raw as meat.
"You know who it is, don't you?"
"Shut up." He leaned toward her, fists dangling at his sides.
"You had something to do with it." Lela pushed on, her voice thick with tears. "You and the so-called rangers." She thrust her head in the direction of the party. "Like any of you was ever in the army. Whatd'ya do? Whack somebody on Captain Jack's orders? What? One of them guys you been hassling at the casino, just cause they went and got themselves jobs. You ever think maybe you oughtta get yourself a real job, 'stead of hanging around doing Captain Jack's dirty work?"
At the edge of her vision, Lela saw the fist come up, but she was already darting alongside the pickup out of range. "Get in." He threw his fist toward her like a club, then started around the hood toward the driver's side. "We're getting outta here," he called over his shoulder.
Lela remained where she was, her head throbbing, Tommy shouting to hurry up. He was already behind the steering wheel, twisting toward the window, his face distorted. He pounded on the horn, sending out impatient blasts of noise that bounced about the cottonwoods and obliterated the sound of his voice. She pivoted around, surprised at the surge of strength within her, and started running, zigzagging and darting through the trees, taking a diagonal path toward the river. She didn't know where she was going, only that she couldn't get into the pickup. She couldn't pretend the hand wasn't there. It was in the dirt, trying to get out.
Excerpted from KILLING RAVEN © Copyright 2003 by Margaret Coel. Reprinted with permission by Berkley Prime Crime, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.