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Vanished: A Private Justice Novel

What a lousy night to get lost.

Moira Harrison peered through the April rain slashing across her windshield. Even at full speed, the wipers were no match for the torrential onslaught. The faint line bisecting the narrow strip of pavement—the only thing keeping her on the road and out of the ditch filled with churning runoff immediately to her right—faded in and out with alarming frequency.

Tightening her grip on the wheel with one hand, she cranked up the defroster with the other. Fogged-up windows were the last thing she needed. As it was, the high-intensity xenon headlights of her trusty Camry were barely denting the dense darkness of the woods-rimmed rural Missouri road. Nor were they penetrating the shrouding downpour.

So much for the premium she’d paid to upgrade from standard halogen.

She spared a quick look left and right. No light from house or farm broke the desolate blackness. Nor were there any road signs to indicate her location. Maybe a St. Louis–area native would be better able to wend his or her way back to civilization than a newcomer like her. But she doubted it. Dark, winding rural routes were confusing. Period. Especially in the rain.

With a sigh, Moira refocused on the road. If she’d known Highway 94 was prone to flooding and subject to sudden closure, she’d never have lingered for dinner in Augusta after she finished her interview and risked subjecting herself to this poorly marked detour.

Instead, she’d have headed straight back to the rented condo she now called home and spent her Friday evening safe and warm, cuddled up with a mug of soothing peppermint tea, organizing her notes. She might even have started on a first draft of the feature article. It wouldn’t hurt to impress her new boss with an early turn-in.

A bolt of lightning sliced through the sky, and she cringed as a bone-jarring boom of thunder rolled through the car.

That had been close.

Too close.

She had to get away from all these trees.

Increasing her pressure on the gas pedal, she kept her attention fixed on the road as she groped on the passenger seat for her purse. Maybe her distance glasses were crammed into a corner and she’d missed them the first time she’d checked.

Five seconds later, hopes dashed, she gave up the search. The glasses must still be in the purse she’d taken to the movie theater last weekend. That was about the only time she ever used them—except behind the wheel on rainy nights.

It figured.

The zipper on her purse snagged as she tried to close it, and Moira snuck a quick glance at the passenger seat. Too dark to see. She’d have to deal with it later.

Releasing the purse, she lifted her gaze—and sucked in a sharp breath.

Front and center, caught in the beam of her headlights, was a frantically waving person.
Directly in the path of the car.

Less than fifty feet away.

Lungs locking, Moira squeezed the wheel and jammed the brake to the floor.

Screeching in protest, the car fishtailed as it slid toward the figure with no noticeable reduction in speed.

Stop! Please stop!

Moira screamed the silent plea in her head as she yanked the wheel hard to the left.

Instead of changing direction, however, the car began to skid sideways on the slick pavement.

But in the instant before the beams of the headlights swung away from the road—and away from the figure standing in her path—one image seared itself across her brain.

Glazed, terror-filled eyes.

Then the person was gone, vanished in the darkness, as the vehicle spun out of control.

Moira braced herself.

And prayed.

But when she felt a solid thump against the side of the car, she knew her prayers hadn’t been answered.

She’d hit the terrified person who’d been trying to flag her down.

The bottom fell out of her stomach as the car continued to careen across the road. Onto the shoulder. Into the woods. One bone-jarring bounce after another.

It didn’t stop until the side smashed into a tree, slamming her temple against the window of the door to the accompaniment of crumpling metal.

Then everything went silent.

For a full half a minute, Moira remained motionless, hands locked on the wheel, every muscle taut, heart hammering. Her head pounded in rhythm to the beat of rain against the metal roof, and she drew a shuddering breath. Blinked. The car had stopped spinning, but the world around her hadn’t.

She closed her eyes. Continued to breathe. In. Out. In. Out. When she at last risked another peek, the scene had steadied.


Peeling her fingers off the wheel, she took a quick inventory. Her arms and legs moved, and nothing except her head hurt. As far as she could tell, she hadn’t sustained any serious injuries.

But she knew the person she’d hit hadn’t been as lucky—a person who might very well be lying in the middle of the road right now.

In the path of an oncoming car.

Her pulse stuttered, and she fought against a crescendo of panic as she tried to kick-start her brain. To think through the fuzziness.

Okay. First priority—call 911. After that, she’d see what she could do to help the person she’d hit while she waited for the pros to arrive.

Plan in place, she groped for her purse. But the seat beside her was empty. Hadn’t her purse been there moments before?

With a herculean effort, she coerced the left side of her brain to engage.

The floor.

Her purse must have fallen to the floor while the car was spinning.

Hands shaking, she fumbled with the clasp on her seat belt. It took three jabs at the button before it released. Once free of the constraint, she leaned sideways and reached toward the floor—just as the car door creaked open behind her.

With a gasp, she jerked upright. A black-shrouded figure stood in the shadows, out of range of her dome light.

Her heart began to bang against her rib cage again as a cold mist seeped into the car.

“I saw the accident. Are you all right, miss?”

The voice was deep. Male. And the only clue to his gender. The monk-like hood of his slicker kept most of his features in shadows.

But she didn’t care who he was. Help had arrived.

Thank you, God!

“Yes. I . . . I think so. I banged my head against the window, and I’m a little dizzy. But . . . I hit someone on the road. I need to call 911. And I need to help the other person.”

The man leaned a bit closer, and she glimpsed the outline of a square jaw. “You’ve got a nasty bump on your temple. Moving around isn’t a good idea until the paramedics check you out. I’ll help the person you hit.” He shifted sideways and looked across her. “Is that blood on the passenger seat?”

As Moira shifted sideways to look, she felt a jab in her thigh. “Ow!”

“Watch the glass. Lean a little to the right.” The man restrained her with one hand on her upper arm as she complied. “Hold on a second while I brush off the seat.”

He was silent for a moment, and she shivered as the wind shifted and the rain began to pummel her through the open door, soaking through her sweater.

“Okay. I think I got most of it.”

He released her, and she collapsed back against the seat. As he retracted his hand, she caught a quick glimpse of his gold Claddagh wedding ring. The same kind her dad wore.

Somehow that comforted her.

“Stay put.” He melted back into the shadows, beyond the range of the dome light. “I’ll call 911 and check on the other person. Give me a few minutes.”

With that, he closed the door.

Alone again in the dark car, Moira tried to keep him in sight. But within seconds he disappeared into the rain.

As the minutes ticked by and the full impact of what had happened began to register, her shivering intensified and her stomach churned.

She could have been killed.

And she may have killed or seriously injured someone else.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Moira closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness swept over her.
At least help had arrived.

With that thought to sustain her, she let the darkness close in.

Vanished: A Private Justice Novel
by by Irene Hannon