“I would not wish any companion in the world but you” –William Shakespeare
Penny Matheson climbed out onto the wing of the small plane that had carried her away from Anchorage. Away from the scene of a murder—an execution—that she shouldn’t have ever seen.
But she had.
Now she had to deal with it.
Her breath clouded in front of her. The February sky was clear and blue, with no clouds in sight, and the snow on the surrounding hilly landscape was crisp and clean. Worry prickled at the back of her neck like needles from an acupuncture session. She knew she was safe for the moment, but she couldn’t help but watch…as if at any moment another plane would appear.
She wouldn’t put it past Jake Vicenti to send someone after her…or come himself. But she’d worked hard to disappear. Mystery was barely a dot on the map. No ticket needed for a small plane. No credit card or a cell phone for her boss to track.
Penny stepped from the wing to the razor-narrow metal ledge, avoiding the flap of the wing on her way down to the tarmac. The tall burly pilot came around from the other side and smiled at her the way she imagined a dad would. He had short salt and pepper hair and lines around his mouth that spoke to years of smiles. It was why she’d approached him in Anchorage.
“You’re not going to tell anyone you brought me here, right?” She shoved her bare hands into her pockets and breathed slowly. The air was like ice in her lungs. In her hurry to escape she’d forgotten gloves and a hat. Stupid.
“Brought who?” His mouth turned down, like he wanted to ask a question but was second guessing himself. “I just deliver groceries and hardware to the Jenkins.”
“Where’s your ride?”
“It’s not that far, is it?” Normally she would’ve researched everything before making a single move, but she’d just run. There hadn’t been time for more. She certainly didn’t have a ride.
“You can’t walk to town. It’s damn near twenty below out here. You’d be dead before you made it the first mile. You’re already as blue as a sheet of ice on the bay.”
“Is it that far?” She hated being a burden, even if Carl didn’t seem to mind.
“Yep, too far. Come on.” He gestured toward a parked white box truck. “I’ll drive you in.”
She looked at the road. The wind this far north of the ocean bit way worse here than it did in Anchorage. He was right. She had no business walking and shouldn’t have even considered it an option.
The familiar smell of salt in the air had been replaced by the scent of spruce, because instead of an ocean, there was just a sea of snow and trees. It wasn’t unpleasant…just different. The same familiar mountains lay in the distance, except now she was on the north side of the Denali National Park instead of looking up from the south.
“You comin’?” He called out from ahead of her a few yards.
“Yes, thank you.” She forced her feet to move forward. Only hours ago, her life had been normal. She’d had a great job at Vicenti Inc, as one of the lead weapons research developers in the world. She’d had a great boss. Jake had been all smile and charm.
Except it’d been a lie.
Today she’d seen Jake, suave debonair professional businessman, kill people. She shuddered a little, remembering the bloody scene that had made her flee Anchorage during her lunch break. Her heart did a little flip-flop and her stomach threatened to vacate its contents.
Vicenti used their guns. She’d been developing weapons for criminals.
She took a calming breath and swallowed down her nerves. Jake was barely realizing she’d left by now, and he couldn’t possibly have followed her. She’d watched carefully for tails. Watched for anyone.
Her teeth chattered as she climbed into the cab of Carl’s delivery truck. He finished loading the boxes from the plane into the back and then climbed into the cab next to her.
“Dammit, girl. You’re already freezing aren’t you?” he asked, peeling off his gloves and hat.
“You put those on for right now. I know you don’t want to talk to me about what’s really going on or what you’re hiding from, but if you freeze to death it’ll all be for nothing and I won’t be able to live with myself, especially since it was me that brought you to this tiny slip of a town.”
Her chest tightened, and her eyes welled with unshed tears. “Friends call me Penny.” She pulled on his gloves and tugged the Sherpa-lined hat onto her head. Everything smelled like peppermint and gunpowder. The latter might not have comforted a typical person, but the scent of gunpowder made Penny feel safe. That burning bite in her nostrils after firing a gun on the range made her pulse race and adrenaline spread through her system like someone had injected her with superpowers. “Thank you.”
“You’re right welcome, Penny. You got enough money for a place to stay? Food?”
She nodded. “Yes, I do. I’ll be okay. Thank you.”
He leaned over a bit and pulled something from his pocket. Penny’s eyes widened at the sight of the wad of cash she’d paid him for her seat on his plane. “You take this back. I was coming to Mystery anyway and having company on the plane was a treat.”
“I didn’t really talk to you.” She didn’t take the money. Which was dumb. She needed every dollar she had. There wouldn’t be any more, not for a long time. Growing up as a foster kid, though, she’d learned people usually want things in return for doing nice things, especially when related to money.
He shoved it at her chest instead and chuckled. “No, but you were a good listener.”
“That’s it.” His voice was light and warm and jovial, reminded her of getting a hug from Santa that one year at the mall when she was nine.
Her fingers curled around the precious bills. Having it back would make getting started in town a lot easier. “Thank you.” Tears pooled in her eyes again. She sniffed and wiped the corners before they could trail down her cheeks.
Carl nodded, keeping an eye on the road. He pointed to her right as they passed a building with a few cars in the parking lot. “That’s the community center. They’ve got meals every night just in case you find yourself strapped for cash.”
Which was very likely. She made a mental note of where the building was.
They went a bit further down the road. Rolling hills covered with trees and snow. More turn offs, and more houses were scattered closer together now. “That’s one of the B&B’s in town. There’s a place with some cabins up the road a bit further, owned by a local, he’s also got a few close to town and a few more on the other side of the river. Douglas Curtis is a good guy. He’ll give you a fair price and not the tourist price if you tell him I sent you.”
The truck continued past a small red building that said groceries and liquor. “Better store is the Jenkins place around the corner. They run the hardware and grocer where most of the town shops plus, those in-town cabins of Doug’s I was talking about, are a quick walk across the street.”
“I don’t know how to thank you.” Penny’s voice caught in her throat as all her emotions swirled like snowflakes in the wind. She always tried to plan everything in advance. She hadn’t been able to and it’d been eating away at her during the whole ride. Control was something she’d fought for her entire life. She’d finally gotten some in college and then with her job…and now it was like being back in the system. Everything was a mess. Everything was uncontrollable.
The older man cursed under his breath. “I’m going to talk to Doug myself.” He turned the truck into a small parking lot. The sign on the building said Jenkins Grocery & Hardware. “Why don’t you go grab a couple things to help get you started?” He tipped his head across the street and she followed his gaze to a red building with a sign over it that said Red Bird Cabins for Rent. “I’m only in town for today, but I want to make sure you’re set up good, okay.”
She nodded. “Thank you. Really.”