Overview: Penny Doyle needs to get far away—and fast.
If only she could remember why.
Occasional flashes of déjà vu do nothing to help fill the elusive memory gaps of Penny’s New Year’s Eve date with football star, Brock Harper. Something happened that night, though. Her bruises prove it. When investigators seek to question her about the disappearance of a fellow college coed who also attended the party, she realizes her urge to return home may not stem from mere homesickness, but rather, something far more desperate.
In the face of rising accusations, will her dad be able to help?
Maybe … if she can get home before it’s too late.

 

Point Blank by Diane M. Campbell Book Chapter One

 

A gust of wind nipped my ears, and its chill crept down my spine. Turning my collar up, I shifted position on the cold metal bench. From the moment I’d stepped down from the comfort of the Mountain Motorways Bus, I’d been resisting an eerie sense of familiarity with this desolate highway junction. As if I’d been here before. But that initial sensation had since waned, swallowed up by two hours of sitting in the dark outdoors on an uncomfortable seat.

In every direction the road lay empty and silent. I’d expected the bus stop to be in the middle of town, not out on its lonely edge. The only sign of life was an old gas station across the street with a dingy convenience store, and next to that, a rustic café where I had managed to get a cup of hot cocoa just before they locked up for the night.

I checked my watch—9:36. My connection was twenty minutes late. Apparently Mountain Motorways didn’t worry about being as reliable as the big national bus companies. If my phone’s battery hadn’t died, I could have called someone to ask about the delay.

I’d gone into the gas station’s convenience store an hour ago to use the restroom and shrug off the chill, but I had no intention of going back. Not after the creepy feeling I got from the greasy-looking fellow on duty. I’d found him kneeling in one of the aisles restocking candy bars when I entered. He nodded in the general direction of the lavatory in answer to my question, then rose to his feet as I slipped to the back of the store. His gaze followed me while he worked at a wad of tobacco filling his lower lip.

I expected to buy a snack before leaving as a token for use of the facilities, but the idea faded as I walked out of the bathroom and found him behind the cash register eyeing me as I walked up the aisle.

He ran a hand through his oily hair and looked me over before asking, “Anything else I can do for ya?” His puckered lip stretched with an insinuating smile that made my skin crawl.

That’s when I left with neither a word nor a morsel. Only the lingering effect of his gaze that kept me edgy all the way back to the bench.

The same bench where I’d sat waiting ever since. Waiting in the middle of nowhere for a ride to a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be.

My heart skipped at a sudden movement in the periphery of my vision. A moment later, a large black cat sprang up beside me on the bench. He studied my surprise with striking blue eyes.

“Hello.” I scooted to give him more room. “You startled me.”

The cat continued to stare as if attempting telepathy.

“My name’s Penny. And you are—?”

He stepped onto my lap and nestled down with a soft mew.

“Oh, I see. I’m just a warm place to rest. You live around here?”

He closed his eyes to my questions.

I stroked his head, detecting the soft vibration of a purr. “Shouldn’t you be at home?”

Home. I was far from my own, and I wondered what Dad would say when I arrived on his doorstep unannounced. At the moment, this whole trip seemed like a dumb idea. We’d rarely spoken in the past year, our relationship strained to the point of near non-existence. Since Mom’s death our shared grief had been the only common ground—a terrain of loose, barren soil, slowly eroding until only an empty chasm remained between us.

College provided a diversion I had gladly run to, but now, halfway through my sophomore year, I found my heart aching for comfort. A sense of security … of roots … of home.

Would I be able to find it again with Dad, or was I better off elsewhere? That remained to be seen.

The lights at the gas station flickered briefly and went out, leaving only one street light as evidence this wide spot on the highway even existed. Soon after, a jangle of keys carried across the street in the icy stillness. The station attendant had come outside and was locking the door. Soft footsteps on pavement forced me to chance a furtive glance in his direction. He was coming my way with a large bag of trash in hand.

My heart raced. A harsh metallic creak made me look again. He’d lifted the lid of a bin near the curb on his side of the street to toss the garbage in. He dropped the lid with a creaking crash that jolted my nerves, then paused to stare straight at me, forcing my gaze aside. Please stay away. Just leave me alone.

An eternity passed before I heard his footsteps recede. A last glance caught him disappearing down a dark alley between the station and café.

Relieved, I exhaled a long-held breath that hung visible in the frosty air.

The cat stared at me.

“I guess it’s just you and me now.” I checked my watch again—9:47. Still no traffic on the dim stretch of highway. “Looks like the bus isn’t coming. What do you think I should do?”

Kitty blinked, stretched to a stand and hopped to the ground.

I immediately missed his warmth. “Are you going to leave me out in the cold?”

He looked back and mewed. Was it an invitation? As he sauntered down the sidewalk, I realized it didn’t matter. I couldn’t sit on that bench any longer. It was late, and I needed to find a place to spend the night. Snatching my suitcase, I extended the handle and wheeled it behind me.

A wide slope of scattered shrubs along the walkway rose high enough to hide what lay beyond. After only about half of a block, the cat turned into it, quickly climbing through the wild grass.

“Wait! You never said anything about off-roading.”

In moments he had disappeared. What was I thinking trying to follow a black cat in the dark? “Kitty, kitty?” I called in vain.

The edge of a rooftop peeked above the slope, partially obscured by foliage and hardly more than a shadow against the indigo sky. Probably the cat’s home. Maybe I could ask to use their phone—explain that Kitty had led me to them.

I looked along the sidewalk for a break to indicate a driveway. Nothing. The bus bench was still visible from where I stood, but I knew better than to go back and sit there all night. After a brief hesitation, I pulled my suitcase through the grass and began dragging it up behind me, weaving through the shrubs and bumping castors over rocks and roots.

As I crested the embankment with panting breaths, the house came into view, a large rough-stone structure with a black mansard roof and foreboding dormers. Tangled ivy climbed its boxy facade, and a chaos of overgrown shrubbery and neglected flower beds encroached either side of a walkway that led to the front entry.

Its imposing framework might have dissolved my courage except for one thing—both the porch light and a lamp behind a curtained window next to it offered a promise of cheering warmth.

Surely, Kitty’s owner would let me make a quick phone call.

I descended the hillcrest, crossed an overgrown lawn of winter-dead grass and an old cobbled drive which divided the wide lawn from the front yard. I reached the sidewalk and three steps that marched me up to the small, pillared porch. A tarnished brass plate under the glow of the light said “Wayfarer’s Inn” engraved in black script. I looked for a bell, but found only an iron knocker in the middle of the tall, dark-paneled door.

Kitty was nowhere to be seen although I expected he would greet me on the porch. Instead, moments after I tapped, a petite, elderly woman appeared, her eyes peering at me over a pair of wire reading glasses.

Before I could speak, she took hold of my arm. “Finally!” She drew me inside and shut the door. “Whatever has kept you out so late?” Her curly white hair waved in worried disarray as her head bobbed.

My shock must have showed because she didn’t wait for an answer.

“Well, at least you’re not lost out there somewhere. I wouldn’t have any idea where to begin looking.”

“For me?” It was all I could think to say.

“Yes indeed, for you. Who else?” She turned and hobbled down the hall toward the back of the house. “I don’t get many guests these days, and I guess it’s just as well.” She turned while I slipped off my muddied shoes. “I have some hot water in the kitchen for tea, if you like. It’ll help take some of the chill off.”

I paused at the strange quirkiness of the old woman, but relief at being indoors had begun to overrule my hesitance. “Thank you, but I only hoped to use your phone.”

“Oh?” Her shoulders drew back. “It’s rather late. Who would you be calling?”

I could have protested it was none of her business, but in fact, I didn’t know who to call. “Well…” I stammered, thinking. “Perhaps a cab or … a hotel.”

“Whatever for? Your room is ready upstairs.”

I recalled the brass placard on the porch. Right. An inn. Perhaps she mistook me for a previous guest. I attempted to replace my confusion with a confident smile. “Thank you. I’m glad you have room for me.”

She spun around on sensible black pumps. “Come along then. The kettle may already be boiling.” With that, she marched through a swinging door at the end of the hall.

I propped my suitcase against an umbrella stand in the corner beside me. A formal parlor was visible through a wide entry to my left. The room overflowed with vintage furniture including the lamp I’d noticed from outside. Timeworn furnishings but tidy. To my right was another wide entrance with its sliding pocket doors drawn shut. Ahead, a dark oak staircase led upstairs on the left side of the passage, its newel post topped with a carved lion’s head. Despite its menacing expression, I couldn’t resist patting it as I walked down the hall.

“You have a lovely house,” I told the woman when I reached the kitchen. Though decades out of date, it was clean and bright. She pointed me toward a vintage dinette at one side of the room and carried a kettle over from the stove.

“That’s what you said earlier.” She poured my cup and another for herself.

“Earlier?”

“When you first arrived, my dear.” She looked at me over her glasses again. “You complimented the house—that is, until you saw the shared bath upstairs. But don’t worry. There are no other guests tonight. You’ll have it all to yourself.”