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The Last Dead Girl

The Last Dead Girl, December 2013
by Harry Dolan

Putnam
Featuring: Jana Fletcher; David Logan
416 pages
ISBN: 0399157964
EAN: 9780399157967
Kindle: B00DGZL33Y
Hardcover / e-Book
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"Fasten your seatbelts for one of the most mindblowing literary rides you've ever had!"

Fresh Fiction Review

The Last Dead Girl
Harry Dolan

Reviewed by Lynn Cunningham
Posted June 24, 2014

Thriller Crime

David Malone and Jana Fletcher meet totally by chance on a dark, rainy night because of a deer. First, the deer tries to race David on the side of the road and then it leaps up onto Jana's car, which is going in the opposite direction. Being a gentleman, David helps Jana sort out the towing of her car and then drives her to her home. There is definitely something between these two that takes off in an instant. They begin a heated affair that very same night. It is an affair that lasts for ten days. On the tenth day, Jana is brutally murdered in her little duplex. That's only the beginning of this twisted tale.

Prior to Jana's murder, she tells David that she feels as if someone is watching her. However, there is no proof of this and no one is ever spotted. Neither one of them seems to take it very seriously. The problem is that Jana is right. Someone is watching her and waiting for just the right moment to kill her.

When the police don't seem to be doing enough to find Jana's killer, David takes it upon himself to start investigating her death on his own. What he discovers along the way as well as what the reader is privy to will make your jaw just keep dropping. I seriously cannot count the number of times that I said "Oh my god!" while reading THE LAST DEAD GIRL.

I can say with definite certainty that THE LAST DEAD GIRL is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. Harry Dolan has a way of giving away just enough but never too much so that the story remains a compelling mystery from the first page to the last. He also writes in a fashion that holds the reader enthralled. I simply had to know what was going to happen next, which kept me moving quickly from chapter to chapter.

THE LAST DEAD GIRL is not a happy book, but it is very satisfying and will stay with you long after that last page is read. It is a book that I wanted to keep going and, even now, I miss that I don't have another chapter to read in it. David Malone is a character that you cheer for and encourage along the way because you want him to get justice for Jana as well as unravel the other mysteries that surround her.

In short, I loved THE LAST DEAD GIRL! It is much more than just a book. It is an experience for all of your senses.

Learn more about The Last Dead Girl

SUMMARY

On a rainy night in April, a chance encounter on a lonely road draws David into a romance with Jana Fletcher, a beautiful young law student. Jana is an enigma: living in a run-down apartment and sporting a bruise on her cheek that she refuses to explain. David would like to know her secrets, but he lets them lie—until it’s too late.

When Jana is brutally murdered, the police consider David a prime suspect. But as he sets out to uncover the truth about Jana, he begins to realize he’s treading a very dangerous path—and that her killer is watching every move he makes.

Excerpt

Rome, New York

The last night of April, 1998

They put me in a room with white tile on the walls and a pair of long fluorescent lights glaring down from the ceiling. The lights let out a slow, crackling hiss. I had a cut on my temple. It had stopped bleeding, but now it itched. I tried to ignore it.

They left me there alone. Nothing in the room but a wooden table and two chairs with metal frames and padded seats. I sat in a chair, held my hands above the surface of the table. The right one trembled—faintly, but you could see it. I thought about what could be causing it: more than one thing, but I knew part of it was anger. I made a fist and the trembling stopped.

An hour passed. There was no clock, but they had let me keep my watch. They’d taken everything else—Swiss Army knife, keys, everything I had in my pockets.

I got up and circled the table under the hiss of the fluorescent lights. Reached for the cut on my temple. Dried blood. I crossed to the door and tried the knob. Locked.

I returned to my chair and picked it up. Thought about smashing something. Maybe the lights: they were glass, they would break. Then I could be angry in the dark.

Childish.

I walked another circuit of the room, dragging the chair behind me this time. Slightly less childish. The metal legs made a satisfying screech against the floor.

The door opened and a uniformed cop looked in at me and frowned. I put the chair back where it belonged and sat. The door closed. A few minutes later it opened again and a different cop came in, one I hadn’t seen before. Dressed in a gray suit, with a detective’s gold shield on a lanyard around his neck. He sat down across from me.

“Why’d you kill the girl?” he said.

His tone was mild, bored, bureaucratic. I studied his face. He had dark hair cut short, a heavy brow, a long, fleshy nose. His skin was olive and he had gone too long without a shave. He must have been around fifty years old. His eyes looked tired.

“Seriously?” I said.

“Yes. Seriously.”

“Does that ever work for you?”

He tipped his head to the side. “Sometimes.”

“A cold open like that—‘Why’d you kill the girl?’—and then they just confess?”

“You’d be surprised what works.”

He turned his chair so he could rest an elbow on the table. Drew a thumb over the stubble along his jaw.

He said, “Why don’t you tell me how you think this should go.”

I gestured at the tiled walls. “You could leave me waiting here for another hour.”

“You’re not going to get all wounded on me, are you?” he said, his lip curling in a ghost of a smile. “I don’t think you’re that delicate. And I’ve been a little busy.”

“You could give me your name.”

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s fair,” he said. “I’m Frank Moretti. You’re Darrell Malone, but you go by your middle name, David. The girl was Jana Fletcher. Somebody strangled her. She was twenty-five, a law student at Bellamy University. How long did you know her?”

“Ten days.”

“That’s precise.”

I shrugged. “That’s how long it was.”

“Ten days,” he repeated. “That’s fast.”

“What are you trying to say?”

“Nothing, really. Just that you got close to her in a short time.”

“Is that a question?”

“It’s an observation. How did you meet her?”

“It was an accident.”

He gave me the lip curl again. “Isn’t that the way it goes. Sometimes I think life is just one long string of accidents.”

“She was in a car accident,” I said. “A minor one. I came along and helped her. Gave her a ride home.”

“And that was the beginning of your relationship?”

“Yes.”

“When did you start sleeping with her?”

The question made me frown. “I’m not sure I want to tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s none of your business.”

“Actually, it is,” Frank Moretti said. “You could say my business is finding out things that are none of my business. Shall I tell you what I found out tonight before I came in here?”

I leaned back in my chair. “Go ahead.”

“I found out that you started sleeping with Jana Fletcher ten nights ago. That’s an intimate bit of knowledge, but the walls of Jana’s apartment are very thin, and her landlady, who lives next door, is very observant.”

“Meaning she likes to spy on people.”

“She told me you’ve been there every night since, and you have your own key. That’s a minor detail, but it interests me.”

“It made things easier,” I said. “Jana tended to leave early in the morning. I tend to sleep late. She wanted me to be able to lock up when I left.”

Moretti nodded. “I also learned, from a different source, that you’re engaged to be married—but not to Jana Fletcher.”

“What source told you that?”

“I know a reporter at the Sentinel. He looked you up in the archives. They ran the announcement in the local section. Quite a write-up. A lot of fanfare. It got me thinking about the name Malone. There’s a library on the campus of the university with the name Austin Malone on it. Also a science lab, and a hospital wing. A relative of yours?”

“My great-grandfather.”

“How did he make enough money to get his name on so many things?”

“Exploiting the masses. What does this have to do with Jana?”

“I wonder about the contrast,” Moretti said. “I was in her apartment tonight. It’s nothing much. Nobody in her family ever got their name on anything.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is, she was from the wrong side of the tracks.”

I heard myself laugh. A grim little thing, more like a cough.

“‘The wrong side of the tracks’? Do people even say that anymore?”

“My point is, maybe that was part of the attraction,” said Moretti. “Here’s a girl you can impress with your money. She’s not like the women you’re used to. Maybe she’s willing to do things your fiancée won’t do. Maybe she likes it rough. Did she ask you to choke her?”

I felt the skin flush along my arms and on the back of my neck. Something sour twisted in the pit of my stomach.

“You’re way off.”

“Maybe I am,” Moretti said, and then went quiet. His tired eyes stared at me. I returned the stare. The fluorescent lights crackled above us. The fingers of my left hand found the cut on my temple and traced it gently.

“You want me to get someone in here?” Moretti said.

His voice was tired like his eyes, and bland. I didn’t answer him.

“Someone to look at that cut,” he said. “A team of surgeons maybe? You don’t want a scar. It might ruin your looks.”

I brought my hand down to the table. “You’re wasting your time.”

He let out a long breath. “I’m trying to understand your relationship with Jana Fletcher. I don’t think that’s a waste of time.”

“You’re chasing down the wrong trail. I’m not the one who killed her.”

Moretti nodded once to acknowledge my denial.

“Did you ever hit her?”

The thing in my stomach twisted again. “Why would you ask me that?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“I never hit her.”

“But someone did.”

No trace of doubt in his tone. He was stating a fact.

“How do you know about that?” I said. But then it came to me: the landlady.

Moretti didn’t bother to answer me. “Someone hit Jana Fletcher ten days ago,” he said. “Left a mark on her cheek. Ten days. Does that sound familiar?”

“She had that mark the night I met her. I didn’t give it to her.”

“Who did? Did you ask her?”

“She wouldn’t tell me.”

“That’s convenient.”

“It’s the truth.”

I watched Moretti drum his fingers on the table.

“Here’s what I think,” he said. “The two of you met and something clicked right away. You fell into bed together. It got a little crazy that first night. You hit her. Maybe you were just playing around, but you hit her harder than you meant to. Hard enough to leave a mark. A woman can forgive something like that, if it happens in the heat of the moment. Or as I said, maybe she liked it rough.”

The drumming stopped. “Then tonight, you got carried away,” he said. “You put your hands on her throat. You thought she’d like it. Some women do. But you’re a strong guy, you went too far. Too much pressure. I’m not saying you did it on purpose. If you tell me it was an accident—”

I felt the muscles of my shoulders tense. Found myself shaking my head.

“I didn’t do it. Stop playing games.”

“Have I been playing games?”

“You know it wasn’t an accident,” I said. “I found her. I called 911. I saw what she looked like. No one did that by accident.” The memory made me shudder. “You don’t really believe I killed her.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Whoever killed her broke the door in. Why would I do that? I have a key.”

“Sometimes people stage crime scenes,” Moretti said with a shrug. “They go in with a key. They do something they shouldn’t. Then they go back out, lock up, kick the door in. They pretend they found it that way.”

The sour thing in my stomach threatened to rise up into my throat. I tried to relax, tried to settle it back down. The room seemed suddenly warm, the white walls sickly.

“No,” I said. “I can understand why you’d think that, but you’re wrong. You’re wasting your time.”

“You said that before,” he said mildly. “So tell me, how should I be spending my time?”

I closed my eyes, tried to think. I did my best to block everything out, make it all fade away, even the hiss of the lights.

“Someone hit her,” I said eventually. “That’s the place to start. You need to find him. And there’s something else.”

“What else?”

I opened my eyes. “You’re going to think I’m making it up. But I’m not. If I were making it up, I’d have a better story.”

Something passed over his face. A flicker of amusement.

“Why don’t you tell me the story you’ve got.”

“There may have been someone watching her,” I said. “A week ago. That’s what she thought anyway. We never saw anyone. I didn’t take it seriously. Not seriously enough.”

Moretti drew away from me, skeptical. “So I should be looking for someone you never saw? Someone who may not exist?”

“I think he exists. Probably he’s the same one who hit her. You said you went to her apartment tonight.”

“Yes.”

“In back of the house, there are woods. He might have been watching her from there. I think he might have left something behind.”

“What?”

“I went looking,” I said. “In the woods. I found it near a fallen tree. But I left it there. Because how could I know if it was his? And what would I have done with it anyway?” My voice was speeding up. I made an effort to slow it down. “But you could look for it. It’s bound to be there still. Maybe it would tell you something.”

“What are we talking about?” Moretti asked.

“It’s a long shot, but maybe it was his and maybe there’s something on it. A fingerprint or DNA—”

“What did you find?”

“A stick.”

“A stick? You’re telling me you found a stick in the woods?”

“A popsicle stick.”

Chapter 2

One week earlier

Jana Fletcher had the dream again, the one where she was trapped in a dark place underground. There were noises in the dream—small animals scurrying—and a damp smell. And there was a door she could never quite reach. A plain door with a knob made of black metal, vaguely old-fashioned. A door you wouldn’t want to turn your back on, because you couldn’t trust it, because it didn’t belong underground. If you turned your back on it, it might open.

She woke in the night and sat up. Heard the sound of her own breathing and the bedsprings squeaking with her movement. David stirred beside her. She felt his hand on the small of her back.

“What’s the matter?” Sleepy voice.

“Nothing,” she said.

Moonlight in her window. She waited for David to fall back asleep, then slipped out of bed and found his button-down shirt. She put it on and walked barefoot to the bathroom. The dream had faded from her mind. It used to make her heart race, make the air rasp through her lungs; sometimes she’d need an hour to come down from it. But now the details drifted away from her like wisps of fog.

She lit a candle on the bathroom sink, looked at her face in the mirror. Her skin was neither dark nor white—coffee with cream, her mother used to say. Good, clear skin. It made the bruise on her cheek stand out all the more. Jana appraised it in the candlelight: a rough crescent around her left eye. Deep purple, the color of plums.

A tough thing to explain, because it looked like the kind of bruise you’d get if someone punched you in the face.

She left the candle burning and walked to the kitchen, buttoning David’s shirt as she went. She turned the lock of the back door, opened it, and slipped out, letting the screen door close behind her with a soft clap.

She stood on her little brick patio and turned her face up to the night sky—the moon high and half full behind thin clouds. Cool air, maybe sixty degrees. She liked the feel of it on her skin beneath the shirt. No rain for now, but there’d been plenty in the last few days. She knew there would be more.

The clouds drifted past the moon. One of them was shaped like a crescent. Like her bruise.

She’d spent three days with it, and she was finding ways to explain. Because people asked. They were tentative, apologetic—but they asked. A woman in her constitutional law class had asked her what happened, and Jana had blamed it on a fall. Jogging in the park, a shoelace comes untied, and the next thing you know you’re sprawling face-first on the ground. Not very plausible, but the woman believed her. Because that was the other thing. People wanted to believe. They wanted a nice, reassuring explanation.

There’d been others. Like the guy behind the counter at the shop where she bought coffee. For him she made up a story about the child of a friend. A toddler. Toddlers play with blocks—clunky wooden ones. They have tantrums, they throw things. The tale told itself.

You should have ducked, the guy said. Jana laughed. Next time she would.

Then there was the manager at the restaurant where she waited tables: a motherly woman, though she wasn’t very many years older than Jana. She asked the question with a bit more concern than the others, and Jana answered her more carefully. She invented a softball league, very informal, one game a week. Jana played second base. Someone hit a grounder and it took a bad hop and she didn’t get her glove up in time. A softball’s not so soft, not really, not when it hits you in the cheek.

A respectable lie, Jana thought. Her favorite part was the bad hop. She had played on the softball team in high school and the coach always warned her to watch out, to stay alert, because sometimes the ball took a bad hop.

The restaurant manager listened with a grave expression. Doubtful.

“Is that the way you want to leave it?” she asked when Jana finished.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

The manager looked sad. “I mean you can trust me, hon. You can say what really happened. You don’t have to tell me stories.”

And Jana nearly wavered, because of the kindness in the woman’s voice. But in the end she said, “It’s not a story, it’s what happened.” She smiled. “I don’t have any stories.”

The manager sighed and suggested that Jana take some time off, that she come back later in the week, after the swelling went down all the way. Then she could cover the mark with makeup, for the sake of the customers. Bruises are bad for business. It shouldn’t be hard to cover up; the manager could show Jana how; she knew some tricks.

And now, in the moonlight, Jana remembered their conversation. She hadn’t gone back to the restaurant since, and she wasn’t sure if she would. But she didn’t regret the lies she’d told. Not the one about the bad hop, or the one about not having any stories.

Because that was a lie too. She had stories.

There was David, for instance. She had met him three nights ago. In the rain, as it happened. She had brought him home to her apartment, half a duplex on a dead-end street. And she had slept with him that first night, something she never did, but he was tall and she liked the shape of his jaw and he had a voice that was just a bit husky, as if he were getting over a cold.

He had strong hands too, but he was smart enough to let her take control. He let her undress him the first time and laid back, his heels hanging off the foot of her bed. His body was lean; she explored it with her hands and her mouth. He got hard, fast, and stayed hard, but he didn’t rush her. Finally she kissed his chest and wrapped a hand around him, straddled him, took him inside her, just the tip. Still he waited, let her lead, and she sank herself onto him, all the way, and then she felt those strong hands on her hips, helping her move. And then the bedsprings and his voice saying her name, and she came so hard she moaned, which never happened either.

David. She didn’t know much about him, except that he was a year older—twenty-six—and he’d grown up here, in Rome, New York. He’d gone to college somewhere else and had a degree in engineering. She thought he came from money, but she wasn’t sure. There was something in the way he spoke, the way he carried himself, a confidence. When he took her out, he paid, no hesitation. On the other hand, his job was inspecting houses for people who wanted to buy them. Not what you’d call a high-powered occupation. He drove a pickup truck—and not a new one, but one that was well broken in. So, mixed signals. She had never seen where he lived.

She didn’t know what he thought of her, living in her cheap apartment. Maybe that she came from money too, and was slumming, trying to prove that she could make it on her own.

And he liked her body, her skin; that was part of it, she thought. His own skin was pale; he would get off on the novelty of sleeping with a black girl. Which was funny, because she never thought of herself as a black girl. She had a black father she had never met, and a white mother who had raised her in Geneva, New York, a little town on the shore of Lake Seneca.

David. He was a good story. Jana didn’t know how long he would stay around, but he’d been back each night since they met. And if they kept at it, she would have to do something about the bedsprings, because her landlady lived in the other half of the duplex—a respectable elderly woman—and whenever Jana saw her now she got a disapproving look.

She wasn’t going to worry about her landlady.

Jana stepped off the bricks of the patio and into the grass. The lawn ran down in a gentle slope until it came to the edge of the woods in the distance. The wet ground yielded beneath her bare feet. The slightest breeze, cool on her body. She had nothing on but David’s shirt, and it was thin. She might as well be naked.

A daring thought. Her fingers worked the buttons of the shirt, one by one. She parted it, drew it down off her shoulders, testing herself. Bold Jana. She felt goose bumps on her stomach, her breasts; felt her nipples stiffen in the air.

David inside. So close. She could wake him and bring him out here and lay him down on the grass. She closed her eyes, let it play out in her mind.

Something shifted and she opened her eyes. She drew the shirt up onto her shoulders and hugged it around her. She had a feeling of being watched, a physical sensation, real as the touch of the air on her skin. She thought of her landlady, who had her own brick patio nearby, on the other side of a woodpile and a forsythia bush, but when she went to check there was no one there. She looked off across the lawn, tried to see if there might be some figure in the woods. But all she could see was dark between the trees.

You’re scaring yourself, she thought. It’s nothing. Too much moonlight and night. Getting a little too daring. Rein it in, Jana.

Nothing.

I rolled onto my side and reached for Jana. Felt only the rumpled sheets. I got up and stood naked in the dim of the room. Looked around for my boxers and slipped them on. Couldn’t find my shirt.

I drifted through the apartment, bare feet on old hardwood floors. I didn’t worry about tripping over things because the apartment was one of the sparest I had ever seen. No clutter, no clothes strewn around. In fact, Jana Fletcher owned fewer clothes than any other woman I knew: her wardrobe fit easily into a tiny closet and a chest of drawers. She owned precisely four pairs of shoes: sneakers, hiking boots, loafers, heels.

Minimal furniture as well: the chest of drawers, her bed, a night table. A desk in the living room; no sofa, no television. No computer either. When she needed to do research or write a paper, she went to one of the computer labs at the university.

Her desk faced a blank wall. Nearby, there was a small wood- burning fireplace with a shelf over it that served as a mantel. On the shelf sat a long piece of two-by-four in which someone had drilled four shallow holes, each one broad enough to hold a tea-light candle.

The candles were burning now.

The only other object on the mantel was a clay bowl that held a single coin: a quarter. The quarter was strange. Imperfect. Part of it had been worn away so that in the upper left quadrant—right around George Washington’s forehead—it came to a point.

No other trinkets. No keepsakes, no vases. Jana had a few books for her classes and a small but eclectic collection of novels, from Alexandre Dumas to Stephen King. She had two houseplants. I could see them now as I stepped through the archway into the kitchen. A cactus and an African violet in twin pots arranged like centerpieces on the kitchen table. A faint glow fell on them from a light above the stove.

The back door of the apartment stood open. I looked through the closed screen door and saw Jana standing outside on the lawn. She wore my shirt, which came down to her knees. I stepped closer to the screen, but I didn’t go out, and as I watched she shrugged off the shirt, baring her shoulders and her back. Her dark hair hung down between her shoulder blades. Her body was a sculpture in the moonlight, a figure of blacks and grays. And even though I had known her for only three days, I thought I might be in love with her.

On the night we met, I’d been out driving on a dark road outside Rome.

When people think of upstate New York, they think of farmland and rolling hills. They think of roads that wind like snakes and little towns that never change from one decade to the next. The speed limit goes down to thirty and there’s a gas station and a general store and a barn where someone’s selling antiques. There’s an old lady rocking on a porch and a roadside vegetable stand, and then the limit goes back up to fifty-five and there’s nothing to see for miles but fields and trees.

Rome isn’t one of those little towns. It’s a city. It has good neighborhoods and bad ones. It has businesses that are growing, and others that are dying. It has a history that dates back to the American Revolution. It was the site of the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal in 1817 and the home of a major Air Force base all through the Cold War.

Rome is gray and sprawling like a city, and at night it lights up like a city. On the night I met Jana, I wanted to get away from it. I left my apartment and drove north with no particular destination in mind. I got onto Route 46 and followed it out past the city’s edge. After a while I took some random turns and wound up heading west on Quaker Hill Road.

Houses gave way to woods. Beyond the reach of the city lights, the night turned purer. The scenery began to look a little unreal, the way it does sometimes when you’re driving through the dark. A light rain began to fall. Not a dangerous rain: just enough to wet the road in front of me, leaving it a sparkling black in the light of my truck’s high beams. As if I were driving on obsidian.

There were oak trees along the roadside and when the light washed over them the leaves glittered like gemstones. I remember that. I remember having the thought that I was traveling through a forest of emeralds.

The deer came out of nowhere.

It came bounding from the woods south of the road and it didn’t try to cross in front of me; it didn’t even come into my lane. I got one clear glimpse of it in the high-beam light and then I overtook it and it was right next to me, leaping along with me like a big friendly dog. It was there beside me shadowy in the dark, and I swear if I had rolled the window down I could have reached out and touched it.

I was driving slow for the rain, but not that slow: maybe forty-five or fifty. I read somewhere once that a deer can run forty miles an hour, but as the seconds ticked by this one kept pace with me.

I never thought of speeding up or slowing down.

We came to a curve and something changed. Maybe the deer had begun to feel the strain or maybe it had decided to let me win. Either way, it slacked off. It was still gamboling along, but it was in my rearview mirror now, a shadow getting smaller until it was gone in the night.

I let out a breath I’d been holding in. The rain fell in thin lines on the windshield and the wipers swept the lines away. A half mile on, I saw headlights approaching. I clicked the high beams down to low and a car rushed by in the eastbound lane. It was nothing to look at, a beat-up subcompact, but the driver was pushing it hard. I watched the taillights receding in the rearview.

I wondered if the deer was still in the road. It probably wasn’t. If it was, the driver would probably see it in time. There was no reason to think something terrible was going to happen, and nothing I could do about it anyway. I didn’t need to touch the brakes. I didn’t need to start looking for a place to turn around.

I found a little side road that led into some farmer’s field. I pulled onto it and backed out again, swinging around so I was heading east. The rain didn’t care; it kept on falling. The view was much the same in this direction; the leaves were the same sharp-edged emeralds.

Just when I thought I’d gone far enough and wasn’t going to find anything, I rounded a bend and saw lights in the distance. The solid red of taillights, and the lazy blink of hazards.

The subcompact was there on the roadside, unmoving. The deer was there too. And Jana Fletcher.

Chapter 3

I pulled onto the shoulder and stepped out into the rain. In the glow of my headlights, Jana Fletcher walked back from her car to the deer. She was dressed in black. There was something dreamlike in the way she moved. I wondered if she was in shock.

The deer—a white-tailed doe—looked smaller than it had before, probably because it was lying on the ground. It was on its side, with its head resting on the road as on a pillow. Its eyes were open and staring.

Jana crouched beside it and touched the fur of its belly with her fingertips. She didn’t look up when I approached.

“Are you all right?”

Her dark hair fell in curls, damp with beads of rain. I was crouching now too, but she still didn’t look at me.

“I didn’t see it coming,” she said.

Her voice sounded soft. I got the sense she was talking to herself.

“I didn’t see it, and then it was right there.”

“You were driving fast,” I said.

Finally she looked up. She had brown eyes. No sign of shock in them; they were clear, intense. “It ran straight at me. It jumped onto the hood of the car. Did you see?”

“No.”

“Like it was trying to run right over the car. At first I thought it did. I thought I’d come back here and it would be gone. Into the woods. Do you think it’s dead?”

I thought it must be, but I didn’t want to say so. I listened to the falling rain and the murmur of my truck’s engine.

She turned her attention back to the deer, running her fingers over the fur.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

She shifted her hand to the deer’s shoulder and the movement put her off-balance. She steadied herself, resting one knee on the ground. As I watched her, I saw things I hadn’t noticed before. She had a red bruise on her cheek. It didn’t look like something you’d get in a car accident. And her blouse was wide open at the collar. I could see there were two buttons missing.

“What’s your name?” I asked her.

She told me, and I told her mine.

“Are you hurt?” I said.

“No.”

“What happened to your face?”

She touched the red mark on her cheek as if she had just remembered it.

“It’s no big deal.”

“Maybe you should go to a hospital.”

She braced her hands on her thighs and stood. “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about the deer. What if it’s not dead?”

I got up too. We faced each other across the body of the doe.

“It’s not moving.”

“It doesn’t look injured,” she said. “There’s no blood.”

“It got hit by a car,” I said gently. “I think it’s hurt in ways we can’t see. Internal injuries—”

Jana Fletcher shook her head stubbornly and rain fell from her hair.

“It didn’t get hit. I told you, it jumped onto the car.”

“I’m sure it seemed that way. Your car rides low to the ground. You hit a deer, the momentum’s going to carry it up over the hood.”

“I know what I saw.”

She looked away from me and stepped around the body of the doe. Bending down, she laid a palm against the creature’s rib cage.

I left her there and walked to the front of her car, a blue Plymouth Sundance. No damage to the grille, the headlights unbroken. But there were dents on the hood, and the windshield was shattered on the passenger side—the kind of damage that might well have been caused by a frightened animal trying to scramble over a moving car. I could see bits of safety glass strewn like diamonds over the dash.

When I returned to Jana I found her down on one knee again, stroking the doe’s back. Her blouse was wet through from the rain. She must have been feeling the chill of the night air. I got an old nylon jacket from the truck and brought it to her. She thanked me for it, slipped her arms through the sleeves.

“Is there someone you can call?” I said.

“My mother lives in Geneva.”

“Maybe someone closer.”

“Could you help me?”

“Sure. I’ll take you wherever you need to go.”

“I meant with the deer,” she said. “Could you help me put it in my car?”

I looked at the Plymouth. “You don’t want to drive that. Not with the windshield broken.”

“In your truck then.”

“Where will we go?”

“I know an animal hospital. It’s open all night.”

She must have read the skepticism in my eyes. She went to her car and came back with a plastic makeup case. Opened it and held the mirror near the nostrils of the doe. A fine mist appeared on the silver glass.

“You see?” she said. “She’s breathing. We have to do something for her.”

Jana tucked the case away and looked to me to see if I would come through for her. I smiled and shook my head, but I was already making plans. The first step would be to move the truck, get it facing in the other direction, back it up close. Then find something to use as a stretcher. I thought I had a tarp that would work. Move the deer onto the tarp, then lift it into the truck bed.

Jana had her own ideas. She slipped her hands beneath the shoulder of the doe, shifted her feet for leverage, tested the weight. “Help me out here,” she said.

“Hold on.”

“She’s not that heavy. You’ll see.”

“Just give me a minute.”

She didn’t wait. She started to lift. I forgot my plans and hurried to help. Dropping to one knee, I worked my hands beneath the animal’s rib cage. Maybe we would have been able to carry the thing that way. Maybe. But just then the doe’s eyes blinked. The hind legs scrambled. I fell back in surprise and toppled into the grass by the roadside. Jana did better. She kept her balance.

The doe got her four legs underneath her and turned a tangled circle, her hooves clipping out a drunken rhythm on the wet black of the road. She skittered toward the broken yellow centerline and lifted her nose up into the rain, then bounded across with her white tail held high.

I watched her disappear into the woods on the other side. Jana took a few steps into the road, as if she wanted to follow. She stood at the yellow line in the rain until I went to bring her back. When I touched her shoulder she spun around. Her eyes bright.

“Beautiful,” she said. “Did you see? Beautiful.”


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