In the past, when she’d worked in the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office, Maria Sanchez had been in the courtroom with any number of criminals, some of whom had been charged with the kinds of violent crimes that kept her awake at night. She’d had nightmares about various cases and had been threatened by a sociopath, but the simple fact was that she’d never been quite as frightened back then as she felt right now on this deserted stretch as that car, driven by that guy, suddenly pulled to the side of the road.
It didn’t matter that she was twenty-eight, or that she’d graduated summa cum laude from UNC Chapel Hill, or that she’d gone to law school at Duke. It didn’t matter that she’d been a rising star in the district attorney’s office before finding other work at one of the best legal firms in Wilmington, or that until that moment, she’d always had a pretty good handle on her emotions. As soon as he stepped out of the car, all those truths went out the window and the only thing she could think was that she was a young woman all alone in the middle of nowhere. When he began to walk toward her, panic flooded through her. I’m going to die out here, she suddenly realized, and no one’s ever going to find my body.
Moments earlier, when his car had slowly drifted past hers, she’d seen him staring at her—almost leering, like he was sizing her up—and her first thought was that he’d been wearing a mask, which was terrifying enough, but way less scary than the sudden realization that she’d actually seen his face. It was bruised on both sides; one eye was swollen shut, the other one bright red and bloody. She was pretty sure that even more blood was dripping down his forehead, and it had been all she could do not to start screaming. But for whatever reason, not a sound escaped her. For the love of God, she remembered thinking as soon as he’d passed, please keep going. Whatever you do, please don’t stop.
But obviously God hadn’t been listening. Why would God intervene to keep her from ending up dead in a ditch out in the middle of nowhere? He wouldn’t. Instead, He’d decided to have the guy pull over, and now a man with a mangled face was gliding toward her like something out of a low-budget horror film. Or prison, from which he’d just escaped, because the guy was positively ripped, and wasn’t that what prisoners did? Lift weights all the time? His haircut was severe, almost military style—the signature of one of the gangs in prison she’d heard about? The ratty black concert T shirt didn’t help, nor did the torn up jeans, and the way he was holding his jacket freaked her out. In this storm, why wasn’t he wearing it? Maybe he was using it to hide . . .
Or, God forbid, a gun . . .
A squeak escaped her throat and her mind began racing through options as she tried to figure out what to do. Toss the tire at him? She couldn’t even get the thing out of the trunk. Scream for help? There was no one nearby, not a single car had passed in the last ten minutes, and she’d left her cell phone God knows where or she wouldn’t have been trying to change the tire in the first place. Run? Maybe, but the liquid ease with which he moved suggested he’d easily catch her. The only thing she could do was get back into the car and lock the doors, but he was already right there, and there was no way to get past him . . .
“Need a hand?”
It was the sound of his voice that jolted her out of her trance. Letting go of the tire, she began backing away, focusing only on creating distance between the two of them. Lightning flashed again and she noticed a blankness in his expression, almost like something elemental was missing in his personality, the piece that signaled that it wasn’t okay to rape and kill women.
“What do you want with me?” she finally choked out.
“I don’t want anything,” he answered.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I thought you might need some help changing your tire.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I can handle it myself.”
He looked from her to the flat tire, then back to her again.
“Okay. Good night,” he said. Wheeling around, he started back toward his car, his figure suddenly receding. His reaction was so unexpected that for a second she felt paralyzed. He was leaving? Why was he leaving? She was glad about that—actually, she was thrilled about that—and yet, and yet . . .
“I’m having trouble getting the tire out of the trunk!” she said, hearing the panic in her own voice.
He turned on his heel as he reached his car. “Seems like it.”
He reached for his door and pulled it open, ready to climb in—
“Wait!” she suddenly cried.
He squinted at her through the downpour. “Why?” he called back.
Why? She wasn’t sure she’d heard him right. But then again, she’d told him she didn’t need any help. And she didn’t, except that she did, but it wasn’t as though she could call anyone, and with her thoughts racing and jumbled, the next words spilled out involuntarily.
“Do you have a phone?” she shouted.
He closed some of the gap between, stopping when he could be heard without shouting, but not getting too close. Thank God. “Yes,” he answered.
She shifted from one foot to the other, thinking Now what? “I lost my phone,” she said. “I mean, I didn’t lose lose it.” She knew she was rambling, but the way he kept staring at her made the words impossible to stop. “It’s either at the office or I left it at my parents’, but I won’t know for sure until I get to my MacBook.”
“Okay.” He added nothing else; instead, he stood unmoving, his eyes steady on hers.
“I use that Find My Phone thing. The app, I mean. I can track my phone because it’s synced with the computer.”
“Can I borrow yours for a minute? I want to call my sister.”
“Sure,” he answered. He tucked the phone into the folds of his jacket and as he began to approach, she reflexively took another step backward. He placed the jacket on the hood of her car and gestured at it.
She hesitated. He was definitely odd, but she appreciated the fact that he’d stepped away. She hurried to the bundle and found his iPhone tucked inside, the same model as hers. When she pressed the button, the screen lit up and sure enough, he was getting service. But it wouldn’t do any good unless . . .
“Five-six-eight-one,” he offered.
“You’re giving me your code?”
“You can’t access the phone without it,” he noted.
“Aren’t you worried about giving it to a stranger?”
“Are you going to steal my phone?”
She blinked. “No. Of course not.”
“Then I’m not worried.”
She wasn’t sure what to say to that, but whatever. She typed in the code with trembling fingers and dialed her sister. By the third ring, she knew she’d get Serena’s voice mail. Maria did her best to keep her frustration in check as she left a message, explaining what had happened to the car and asking her sister to come pick her up. She tucked the phone back into the jacket on the hood and then stepped away, watching him.
“No answer?” he asked.
“Okay.” When the lightning flashed again, he motioned toward the rear of her car. “While you’re waiting for her, do you want me to change your tire?”
She opened her mouth to again decline his offer, but who knew when—or if—Serena would get her message? And then there was the fact that she’d never actually changed a tire in her life. Instead of answering, she let out a breath, trying to keep the tremor from her voice. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What . . . what happened to your face?”
“I was in a fight.”
She waited a few beats before finally realizing he wasn’t going to add anything else. That’s it? No further explanation? His demeanor was so utterly foreign, she wasn’t sure what to make of it. As he stood in place, obviously waiting for the answer to his earlier question, she glanced at the trunk, wishing she actually knew how to change a tire.
“Yes,” she finally said. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love some help changing the tire.”
“Okay.” He nodded. She watched as he reached for the bundle on the hood and tucked his phone back into his pocket before slipping his jacket on. “You’re afraid of me,” he said.
“You’re afraid I’m going to hurt you.” When she said nothing, he went on. “I won’t, but whether you believe that is up to you.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because if I’m going to change your tire, I’m going to have to approach the trunk. Which means I’ll be approaching you, too.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” she lied.
“Okay,” he said again, then started toward her. She felt her heart squeeze as he passed within arm’s reach of her, only to feel foolish when he walked right past without slowing. He unscrewed something, then lifted the spare tire out and set it aside before he disappeared behind the trunk again, no doubt to retrieve the jack.
“One of us needs to move your car onto the road,” he said. “It needs to be level before I get the jack going, otherwise the car might slip.”
“But I’ve got a flat tire.”
He peeked around the side, jack in hand. “It won’t hurt the car. Just go slow.”
“But it will block most of the lane.”
“It’s blocking half the lane already.”
He had a point there . . . but . . .
But what if that was all part of his plan? To distract her somehow? To get her to turn her back?
A plan that included letting me use his phone? And removing the tire from the trunk?
Rattled and self-conscious, she got into the car and started the engine, slowly but surely edging it back onto the road and setting the emergency brake. By the time she opened the door, he was rolling the spare toward the rear tire, lug wrench in hand.
“You can stay in the car if you want,” he said. “This shouldn’t take long.”
She debated before closing the door, then spent several minutes watching in the side mirror as he continued to loosen the bolts before sliding the jack into place. A moment later, she could feel the car lifting slightly, bouncing its way slowly upward and then stopping. She watched as he finished unscrewing the bolts before sliding the tire off, just as the storm began to intensify, rain blowing in gusty sheets. The spare went on quickly, along with the bolts, and then all at once, the car was being lowered again. He placed the flat tire back in her trunk along with the jack and the lug wrench, and she felt him gently push the trunk closed. And just like that, it was over. Still, she startled a little when he tapped on her window. She lowered the glass and rain began to spit through the opening. With his face still shadowed, it was almost possible to see past the bruises and the swelling and the bloody eye. Almost, but not entirely.
“You’re good to go,” he shouted over the gale, “but you should probably get the tire fixed or replace it sooner rather than later. Your spare isn’t meant to be used permanently.”
She nodded, but before she could thank him, he had already turned and was jogging toward his car. He jerked his door open and slid behind the wheel. She heard the roar of his engine and then—before she knew it—she was alone on the road again, albeit now in a car that would get her home.