BY FIVE THIRTY, DEREK Morrison would be a murderer, but for now he was eating a tuna sandwich.
He sat in silence at a truck stop just off I-20 in Oxford, Alabama. His eyes were heavy, and his head hurt from a lack of sleep, but he couldn’t afford to stop now to rest. He promised himself a good nap when he reached Birmingham in less than an hour. He had been driving since one that morning to make up for the time he’d lost when his Atlanta load was delayed in Oklahoma. Then he’d agreed to take one more load from Atlanta to Birmingham before resting.
Derek was paid by the mile, not by the hour. He couldn’t afford to waste time. The radio over the counter played another country ballad as he crammed the last of the sandwich into his mouth. He turned up his glass of tea to help wash down the stale bread and walked to the cash register.
The pretty blonde behind the counter began to ring up the order.
“Did you have the usual, Derek?”
He reached for his wallet. “Yeah. How about you fixing me a fresh sandwich next time I come through?”
The woman smiled and held out her hand. “How do you think we can afford to sell it so cheap? The bread’s a day away from green when we get it. That’s three dollars, and that doesn’t include my tip.”
He held out a five. “Debbie, if you can take this with a clear conscience, then go ahead.”
She snatched the money from his hand and grinned. “Gorgeous, you think I could work in a place like this if I had a conscience?”
Stuffing the money into the register, she looked at him. “Seriously though, you don’t look good. How long have you been on the road?”
“About fifteen hours. But I haven’t slept five hours together since Tuesday. Gotta keep going so I can be in Birmingham by six. I’ll crash then.”
Debbie shook her head. “I’m telling you, handsome, you need to stop now. I’ve seen those eyes on other truckers, and you’re gonna crash long before Birmingham.”
“Stop trying to seduce me, you evil woman. I know you just want to get me alone and helpless in the back of my rig.”
She let out a short laugh. “I’d love to get you alone, but you’d better have a lot more rest before you invite me into your cab.”
He winked and walked out as a Clint Black song about another lost woman he’d never see again started playing. Unlike most truckers, Derek hated country music. He stopped here because he was lonely.
When a guy spends hours on the road alone, he needs to be with people who know him. The CB allowed him to talk to others, but a disembodied voice wasn’t the same as another human being.
One day he might be tempted to take Debbie up on her offer. He glanced at the ring on his left hand and knew he couldn’t—not again. He might not have a perfect marriage, but he wouldn’t end it yet.
He walked to a nearby pay phone and dialed his home. After three rings, a boy answered. “Morrison residence.”
Derek smiled, hearing the voice. “Hey, buddy. How’re you doing?”
“That you, Dad? Boy, is Mom ticked at you. You were supposed to be home this morning, and she was waiting for you. Where’re you at?”
“Right outside of Anniston, about ninety minutes from Birmingham. I’ve got to drop a load off, and then I’ll be home. Is your mom around?”
“Yeah, hang on a sec.” Derek heard the receiver being laid down, and then the boy’s voice screaming at the top of his lungs for his mother. He dreaded what he knew was coming, but he had to call.
“Hi, Rachel. I’m sorry I haven’t called sooner, but—”
“I don’t care anymore, Derek. I thought things were going to be different. I guess I was wrong. Who was she this time?”
His stomach tightened as he anticipated what would come next. “It’s not like that. Listen, Rachel, I’ve been on the road all this time. I just stopped to get something to eat. I’ll be home as soon as I drop off this load, then we can talk.”
The beautiful voice on the other end of the line turned cold.
“Derek, I don’t know what’s left for us to say. It’s over, and we should both just face it.”
Derek fought to keep his voice under control as he spoke. He wanted to shout until he was hoarse, but he knew that wouldn’t do any good. He knew exactly where this conversation was heading, and there was nothing he could do about it. The past was too much for either of them to forget. But he still had to try.
“Rachel, don’t talk like that. I’ve got to make money for us to live, baby. I’ve got to be able to put food on the table for you and Scott. I’ll be home soon, I promise. We can talk it over then. I don’t want to lose you.”
There was a moment of silence on the line. “You lost me a long time ago. You just weren’t man enough to face it.”
He started to reply, but the dial tone in his ear told him it was useless. She had hung up after getting the last word, just as she always seemed to do. He clutched the receiver so tightly his knuckles turned white. He wanted to slam the phone down and knock it off the wall; instead, he gently replaced the receiver and closed his eyes. He desperately needed some aspirin, but he didn’t have the time. He needed to hurry with the load and get home. Maybe he could still talk to her.
Robert Whitney had ten seconds to live.
He glared at the computer monitor before him. On-screen, a digital rendition of a short beaver with a gigantic tail stood there mocking him. Water rushed all around it as a timer in the top corner of the screen counted down the seconds. It was now down to five.
When an ugly brown log suddenly rose to the surface of the water, Robert pressed a button on the joystick.
And nothing happened.
“No!” he shouted and exploded from his chair. “No! Jump, you filthy rat! Move! Why won’t that stupid beaver do what it’s supposed to?” He turned back to the screen just as the huge tail disappeared into the virtual river around it. “Good riddance, you stupid rodent!”
Robert looked at the monitor and shook his head. It was hard to believe, but this digital animal had been a constant source of frustration and anxiety during the past seven months of programming. He leaned forward on his desk and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Well, what do you think?”
Robert turned to the source of the voice behind him. Charlie Bolton was in his early twenties and had the kind of baby face that made people wonder if he was old enough for a driver’s license. As always, he was dressed in blue jeans and a black T-shirt with some obscure rock band on it. Robert had never officially had a “casual day” at the office, yet Charlie was never anything but casual.
“I have no idea, Charlie. We’ve been working on this stupid game for months now, and we’re so close to finishing I can taste it. What are we missing? Haven’t we gone over this stupid code a hundred times already?”
Charlie slid into the empty chair in front of the monitor and began typing. Within seconds, lines of computer code began to scroll along the screen. “One more time … I just need to look through this one more time.” After reading several lines, he started making corrections here and there, stubbornly refusing to give up.
Robert sighed. “Young man, one day you’re going to realize what a genius you are. When that happens, you’ll probably want to strike out on your own and start your own software company. Unfortunately, before I let you get away, I’ll have to kill you.”
Charlie nodded. “You’ll miss me when I’m rich and famous.”
Robert laughed. “Yes, I think I will. Did you call CyberCross?”
“I just got off the phone with them. I told them we’re tweaking the game to their specs. If they call again, we’re very happy with the results we have so far and are going to deliver a better game than we’d originally promised. They love that kind of talk.”
Robert stared at the ceiling. “What are we going to do? If we don’t get this program to them on time, we’re in trouble. We need their business, and I don’t even want to think about what they could tell other potential customers. The bottom line is that either we get this to them on time and working right, or we’re through. If they pull the plug and go elsewhere—”
“Hey, chief, stop being so negative. I’m on the case. We haven’t had a failure yet. A couple of close calls, yes, but no failures.”
Robert looked at the office around them. It seemed that the walls had grown closer since morning. “Listen, I’ve fought this thing all I can for today. I thought I might call Tara and tell her I’ll be home early, so would you mind …?”
Charlie raised his hands. “I know. You want me to hold down the fort so you can go gallivanting around with that supermodel you married. No problem. Just remember this when I finally decide to settle down.”
Robert shut down his computer and stood. His shoulders were aching from the tension he had been feeling for the past several days. The good news was that he knew an excellent masseuse, and she would be waiting at home for him with their daughter.
“If you ever decide to settle down, then you can officially have a vacation.” Robert turned off his computer and began to straighten his desk. As he bent down, his eyes caught a glimpse of the picture sitting in the corner. Tara and Emily were on each side of him, their arms wrapped around his neck and their cheeks pressed tightly next to his. The expression on his face said it all: He was in love with these two beauties. The picture had been taken last year during a picnic at the zoo. It had been Emily’s first trip to the zoo, and he’d kept the camera constantly poised, trying to catch her every expression as she saw the animals. At least a part of his life was good.
As he walked to the door, he turned one last time and saw Charlie bent over his keyboard, intently working on the faulty program.
Robert smiled and left, quietly closing the door behind him.
Tara Whitney carefully checked the grocery list she had prepared, trying to think of anything that she might have overlooked. Her eyes darted around the kitchen, momentarily locking on each cabinet door and taking a mental inventory of what was behind it.
She glanced at the clock on the wall and smiled. In less than an hour she would be picking up her daughter at school, and then they would be off to the store. Emily was always thrilled at the prospect of grocery shopping. She would stand in the cart as her mother wheeled through each aisle, silent but missing nothing. Tara couldn’t remember the last time she had gotten to the checkout line without something in her cart that Emily had managed to sneak in. For a five-year-old, she was pretty slick.
As Tara finally finished her rounds through the house, the phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hey, beautiful, has anyone ever told you what a sexy voice you have?” The voice on the other end of the line was deep and masculine.
Even after all this time, it still made her heart leap.
“Only my husband. Of course, he’s not home right now. Actually, he never gets here before seven, so if you want to come over …” She bit her lower lip and grinned.
“Well, guess what? Your husband’s going to surprise you this evening by coming home early. As a matter of fact, he’ll be home by the time you get back there with your daughter.”
Tara raised her eyebrows. “Well, this is a surprise. To what do I owe this honor?”
“My dear, I just need some good company.” The troubled tone of his voice made Tara pull the phone closer.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Just been a long day, and I need to get out of the office.”
“The game’s still not working?”
Robert chuckled. “You know me too well, don’t you? No, Barney the Battlin’ Beaver still refuses to cooperate. I’m seriously considering a second game involving logging trucks and chainsaws, but that’s a whole other story.”
“Well, you come on home then. We’ll see about making it a casual evening for you.”
After several moments of silence, Robert said, “I love you, beautiful woman.” He sounded so tired and deflated that it made her heart ache.
“I love you, too. You’ll make that game work, baby. I have confidence in you.”
She spoke her farewells and gently replaced the receiver. She would have to cut the grocery trip short. She would grab a few things for a special dinner, a little wine for a special dessert, and then they would be out of there. Tara raced to the bathroom and began to do her hair and touch up her makeup. She wanted everything to be perfect for Robert.
Derek walked over to his rig and circled it. It was a habit of his to check everything on his load before driving off. He checked the lock on his trailer and then looked over his tires. He glanced over four of them before finally giving up and getting in. His eyes were killing him. He looked in one of the truck’s side mirrors at his reflection.
Three days of beard stubble covered his face. His disheveled brown hair looked like it hadn’t seen a decent cut in weeks. And his eyes … the dark circles under them weren’t good. Debbie had been right; he’d seen eyes like his before too.
But he couldn’t afford to stop yet. He slid behind the wheel and cranked the engine. He loved the sound of the truck’s motor starting up and the way the cab would shake as he set off on another road trip. Even through his tired haze, he appreciated his machine. He slowly started up the entrance ramp onto I-20, all the while promising his body rest when he reached his destination. As he was pulling onto the highway, a small white car whizzed by him. Derek jerked the wheel to the side to avoid hitting the vehicle, cursing all the while.
“One day,” he screamed, “I’m gonna have all I can take from you idiots, and I’m gonna just take one of you out! You wait and see.”
He cursed some more and pulled onto the highway. He turned the radio up and let the music fuel his anger.
“One day …” he muttered under his breath.