LIAM MARSHALL hadn’t had a destination in mind when he left the city. He’d just been driving. He headed north because—well, because he hadn’t wanted to deal with bridges, maybe, and he could go a long way north without hitting water.
He hadn’t consciously known where he was going until he was driving through the park on the way to the Bear Mountain Bridge. Because that was, obviously, a bridge, so if his navigation was based on avoiding bridges, he was doing a shitty job of it. Pretty clueless if he couldn’t avoid a river as big as the Hudson. And he really didn’t think he was that bad at navigating.
At other things, though— But he cut that thought off before it got too far. He was driving to clear his mind, not to wallow.
Except…. “We’re all so excited to be working with a fresh new name! Please join me in congratulating Allison Sutcliffe, the lead architect for the Taybec Briggs Foundation! Allison, come on up here and share your vision for this project.”
And Liam had been standing at the front of the room, unable to escape. So sure he was going to be the one chosen—because of course he’d be the one chosen, he always was, and always would be—so he’d found a spot right beside Tristan McTighe, the visionary behind the firm where Liam had been working for the past decade. Liam had been at Tristan’s right hand, where he damn well belonged. And then Tristan had said her name. Allison Sutcliffe.
That’s what Liam had thought. She was so damn young, too young to be in charge of such a prestigious, significant project.
But she was twenty-nine, only eight years younger than he was, and older than he’d been when he’d gotten his first lead job.
But that had been different. That had been him….
He pushed down on the accelerator, went into the huge traffic circle way too fast, and pulled out of it even faster. It wasn’t cheap, keeping a car in New York City, and he hardly ever had a reason to drive anywhere. But this? This freedom, this power—it justified the expense, absolutely.
He saw the flashing lights behind him and took his foot off the gas. He wouldn’t actually hit the brakes, wouldn’t stop the car, wouldn’t acknowledge that this had anything to do with him. Not until he absolutely had to.
Yeah, keep fooling yourself. Keep pretending you’re something special. Go ahead.
He kept driving, pulled over only when the cop car drove up beside him and the driver started waving in a threatening manner, and then, shockingly, Liam found himself close to tears.
The cruiser parked in front of him and the cop swaggered back. Yeah, swaggered. He’d pulled over a Mercedes sports car; he was going to swagger a little.
But he’s not going to shoot you, asshole, so maybe you can ease off on the poor-little-victim routine.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” the officer demanded. Then he bent down. “Holy shit. Liam? Is that you?”
“Oh. Are you—you’re going back for the funeral. Damn, man, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you guys were that close.”
And there was a moment of near panic. Someone was dead. Someone Liam had known, possibly? Someone he might even have been close to. It couldn’t be—no. He wasn’t really in contact with anyone in North Falls, but he wasn’t hard to find, and someone would have tracked him down for that. Whoever was dead, it wasn’t—who he’d first thought of.
Then came a brief moment of wondering if he could play this. Of course he could. The grief had been too much for him, he’d been feeling desperate, but he’d absolutely be more careful in the future. Thank you for the warning, Officer; it’s so wonderful to see power tempered with compassion.
But he still had a bit of pride, at least. Enough to keep him from using some poor schmuck’s death as a way to get out of a stupid traffic ticket that would cost less than he’d spend on an average dinner. “Sorry, no. I’m not going to a funeral. I was just driving too fast.”
And suddenly it was too much. Liam was tired of sitting around waiting for someone else to judge him, tired of being a pawn, a powerless decidee instead of a decider. “I was driving too fast,” he repeated, louder this time. “I should get a ticket. You should write me a ticket.”
“Well…,” the cop said. “Was there—are you in a hurry? Are you heading somewhere important?”
The cop was from North Falls. Liam still had no idea who the guy was, but the reluctance to write the ticket, the hope to find an excuse for Liam’s misbehavior? That was North Falls, all the way through. Keep things pleasant, don’t stir up trouble, and always, always believe the best about Liam Marshall, no matter how much evidence there was to persuade you otherwise.
“No hurry,” Liam said. “Nothing important.” He felt the old fascination, the almost hypnotic curiosity to see just how far he could push things before someone finally shut him down. “I was just being an asshole. Reckless. Someone could have gotten hurt. I should get a ticket, absolutely. I’ll just pay it—won’t contest it or anything.”
“Well… I don’t think I’d call it ‘reckless,’ really, but—”
“Have you got kids?” Of course the guy would have kids. He was Liam’s age, give or take a couple years, and lived in North Falls. He’d have kids. Probably two, maybe three. “What if they’d been in one of those other cars? What if I’d lost control, swerved into them, driven them off the road?”
And finally, the cop was writing. “You sound like you understand how serious it was,” he said, his pen working as he spoke, “so I’m going to bump it down a little. But you do need to slow down, Liam. I’m sure you’re a good driver, and it’s a really nice car, but this ain’t the Autobahn.”
“Right,” Liam agreed. “I’ll slow down.” And then, almost absently, he said, “Whose funeral did you think I was going to?”
“Oh, sorry. I guess you might not know him, really. Terry Franks, the guy who owned the antique store? Passed away on Saturday—heart attack. Died at work, with all that stuff he loved so much, so—that’s good, right? If he had to go, that’s where he’d have wanted to do it.”
Terry Franks. Dead. No, he and Liam hadn’t been close, but—damn it.
“Liam?” the cop prompted, and he waved the ticket in the air between them. “Sorry about this. But, you know, it’s my job….”
The cop checked his watch. “Funeral at two thirty and you’ve still got an hour of driving. So, no, you’d be too late. But I think they’re burying him right after, so you could make it to the graveside, probably.”
It made no sense. Terry hadn’t really been a friend, and the graveside part of the funeral was generally much more intimate than the church service. Liam had no business even thinking about attending.
But—he’d been heading for North Falls anyway, or at least in that general direction. So he waited for the cop to pull away, then rejoined traffic himself and kept driving.
Terry Franks. He’d had such a small life, as far as Liam knew. No grand adventures, no remarkable achievements. The local paper would carry his obituary, but that would be all. No larger notice would be taken of his passing, just as no larger notice had been taken of his life.
But Liam kept driving, and when he finally made it to the North Falls town sign, instead of turning right and looping back to New York City like he usually did, he continued straight on and then turned left toward the cemetery.
Tall trees just beginning to leaf out. Row upon row of gravestones, all shapes and sizes. And over in the corner, too far away for faces to be distinguishable, a small group in dark clothes, standing next to a hearse.
Liam had the sense, the decency, to keep his ass in the car where it belonged. He wasn’t going to push into other people’s grief, not when the most he felt was a vague sense of regret, of dismay at wasted potential. Terry could have done so much more with his life, but he hadn’t. He’d hidden himself away in North Falls, curated relics from a bygone age rather than creating anything himself, and left any talents he might have to molder, unknown and unappreciated.
No, Liam wasn’t really there for Terry. And the one he was there for? More than fifteen years ago, he’d told Liam to fuck off and leave him alone. He’d said he never wanted to see Liam again, and Liam had done his best to oblige. It was maybe the one decent thing he’d ever managed to do for Ben, and he wasn’t going screw it up now by making a cameo at an acquaintance’s funeral.
So he stayed in the car, and he watched as the group stood, clustered, and eventually broke apart. He could recognize Ben even without seeing his face, just in the easy movements, the slight stoop to his shoulders as he spoke to the other mourners, all of whom were at least half a head shorter.
Liam stayed and watched as the crowd wandered back to their cars. Some visited other graves, and a couple glanced over toward the Mercedes. But Liam wasn’t interested in any of them, and Ben was walking away, beside an older man—his uncle Calvin, probably, who’d always been close to Terry.
Liam waited until Ben and Calvin were folded into the limo and driving away, taking the back way into town, the way that didn’t send them past Liam’s parked car.
He’d gotten away with his little excursion, and that was his indulgence for the day. For the week or even the month, really. He needed to get back to the city, back to his life—he needed to stop running away and figure out what the hell he was going to do about work, about the humiliation that had just been heaped on him. He needed to fix things.
Yeah, that was the plan. But when he pushed the ignition button, nothing happened. What the hell? He ran over it all again: foot on brake, car in Park, hit the button. Nothing. Goddammit, what was the point of having fancy technology if it didn’t work?
He pried the cover off the ignition and inserted the stubby little key, turned it, and—nothing. No deep, powerful rumble, just the cheerful birdsong coming from outside his open window.
Another try… and another failure. Nothing was happening.
He got a little desperate, tried all the tricks he could think of, swore quite a bit, and finally slumped back into his seat, defeated. A few deep breaths, and then he pulled out his phone. He was fine. He had this covered. It was a nuisance, not a damn tragedy.
And that was the attitude he needed to have toward the issues at work, he reflected as he leaned against the hood of the car and waited for AAA to show up. Sneaky little Allison Sutcliffe, slipping in and stealing his project? Whatever. Not a big deal. He didn’t give a shit, really. She was a blip, a tiny, insignificant bump in the smooth road of his career. He had the record, the contacts, the reputation, and she was just— McTighe had thrown her a bone, that was all. The old man was all about continuity and building talent from within the firm, and of course he’d need to start encouraging new people, because there needed to be strong people below Liam when he took his final, inevitable step to the next level.
Okay. That was all fine. He’d overreacted a little, but he’d done it in private, so it was no big deal. And the car was no big deal. Maybe for someone else, someone without his financial stability and resources, this would be an issue. But for him? Just a little blip.
And half an hour later the tow truck showed up, coming down the road from the direction of the highway. Hopefully the driver could take a quick look and do some… some mechanic trick, or something and fix it right then and there. If not, he could tow the vehicle to town, Liam would arrange a rental, and everything would go back to normal.
“What the fuck?” the man demanded.
“Seth.” Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “You’re driving a tow truck? I thought—” Well, no, that probably wasn’t a conversation they needed to be having. “You weren’t at the funeral?” Probably another unnecessary question, but just what the hell was he supposed to be saying?
“I was there,” Seth growled. “Had to get changed at the garage and come out here to help some poor stranded motorist. And it turns out to be you? You’ve got some fucking nerve showing your face around here! And today is not the fucking day for any of your shit. You need to get back in that car—”
“I’d be happy to,” Liam said quickly. “But it won’t start. Seriously, I didn’t come up to cause trouble. I just—well, that doesn’t matter. The point is, I want to get out of here, and you want me out of here, so if you can just give me a hand with this, we can both get what we want.”
“I should leave you out here to rot.”
Okay, that was taking it a bit far. Yeah, Liam had screwed up, but it had been a decade and a half ago. Seth needed to get over it. “Well, obviously I wouldn’t just sit down and wait for decomposition to begin. I’d walk into town, probably, and have to hang around for a bit waiting for someone else to come deal with the car. I assume you’d agree it would be a good thing if I didn’t walk into town and didn’t hang around?”
“What are you doing up here anyway?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I’d like to get home as soon as possible. If you could just take a quick peek at the ignition?”
Seth still looked murderous, but at least he took the last few steps to get to the car. He lifted the key fob out of Liam’s hand, careful not to touch any skin, and then slid behind the wheel. A few clicks, a few grunts, and then, “It’s broken.”
Seth extracted himself awkwardly from the car. “I can’t fix it, not out here. I need to plug it into the computer, run diagnostics—a good old-fashioned car, I could fix on the spot. But this? This car is too fancy for that. And the garage is closed until morning.”
“So—” Damn, it was a miserable thought, but what were the options? “You can tow me back to the city, right?” Two and a half hours trapped in the cab of a tow truck with the angriest man in the state. Excellent.
“So, somebody else from the garage can do it. Whoever’s on the night shift.”
“We have one tow truck for the whole town. The whole area. Rissa isn’t going to send it off to the city, taking it out of commission for, what, five or six hours, round-trip? And we don’t have a damn night shift, we just have whatever poor sucker has to haul his ass out of bed to go help people if they get in trouble in the middle of the night. Which he wouldn’t be able to do if someone else fucked off to the city with our only tow truck.”
“A rental, then. You’ll tow the car to town, I’ll pick up a rental….” He stopped talking when he saw the expression on Seth’s face. And, okay, sure, fifteen years ago there hadn’t been anyone renting cars in North Falls, but surely in the intervening years… no. Apparently no one had set up business. He forced himself to smile. “You’ll tow me to the closest town that has a car rental company. You can leave me and the car there, and I’ll take care of things after that.”
“There’s a 24/7 Hertz outlet in Monticello,” Seth admitted almost reluctantly. “I could take you down there.” He frowned. “But we’re not towing this car. You need a flatbed for this—you should have told the dispatcher to send a flatbed, not a tow truck.”
“Do you have a flatbed? And why do we need one?”
“Towing’s bad for cars. If you have a shitty car, it doesn’t matter. But this one? You need a flatbed. And, yeah, we’ve got one.” He shrugged. “It’s got Marv Archart’s stock car on it, though. In pieces.”
“Okay,” Liam said, and he raised his hands. Not in surrender, just in dismissal. He could feel the tears threatening again, just as bewildering and foreign as they’d been earlier, and he would absolutely not break down crying in front of Seth Gilbert. “Thanks for your time. I’ll call for a car to come pick me up, I’ll have my garage arrange a flatbed, and everything will be solved. It won’t hurt me to spend a few hours in the car waiting. I promise not to walk into town.”
Seth’s scowl made it clear he wasn’t pleased with the plan, but also that he had no better option in mind. “You need to—” he started, but he was distracted by something over Liam’s shoulder. “Shit. Shit, shit—”
It was Ben himself, only fifty or sixty feet away, and closing fast.