Excerpt from Detour
Thursday, January 13
Thirteen had always been a lucky number for me. And today it didn't let me down. I spotted my elusive target the second I walked into the old warehouse housing the Black Bridge Gym in Nashua's downtown hospital district. There, Finnegan Murdock, aka The Hammer, taught a Wrestling Federation-style class at night.
Finn stood in the middle of the ring, grunting as he simulated pounding his opponent's face to a bloody pulp. The slap of his foot against the mat made a wet thwack mimicking the sound of fist-on-flesh that echoed in the cavernous room. I aimed the hidden camera in my parka lapel square at him.
"Push off," Finn instructed the apprentice wrestler at his side, then hefted the man's body over his head. He spun the apprentice around and launched into a series of instructions on the art of mock anger and crowd rousing at the eleven brawny male wrestler-wannabes peering up at him from the ring's edge.
The place stank of testosterone-soaked sweat. Red punching bags hung from black ceiling beams on black chains. Chrome weight machines lined two walls. And a mirrored wall reflected the black-roped boxing ring built on a red platform. I stuck out like a rose in the woods. I'd have to be quick.
Finn, all 285 pounds of him, stood as erect as a Colossus in his skimpy black Spandex leggings and silver tear-away muscle shirt, sweat gleaming off his bulging pecs and delts under the stark fluorescent lights. The sharp angles of his bald head, beady steel-gray eyes and hooked nose probably accounted for his stage name. So did the hammerhead-shark tattoo on his steroid-enhanced chest.
As he twirled his student over his head, he caught sight of me in the shadows of the ring. Uh-oh. Not good.
"Who the hell are you?" His gravelly voice rocked through the air.
Tapping my chest innocently with a hand, I stood up. I took in thirteen pairs of slitted eyes staring at me and realized I was way outnumbered. Mind spinning through options, I said, "Me? I'm Jennifer Jones."
"Who let you in here? How'd you get past the guard?" He glowered as he dropped the man he was holding to the mat and stepped to the ropes. He shook a finger at me. "Wait a minute, I know you. You're the broad who wanted help changing a flat tire yesterday afternoon."
I gulped, then pasted on my best bubblehead smile and batted my eyelashes at him. "What can I say? I'm a fan. Can I have your autograph?"
Suspicion dawned in his beady eyes. "Someone get her!"
I didn't hang around to argue. I booked out of the joint, knowing he'd come after me and, this time, the bloody pulp face would be real. He couldn't afford to let me show the images I'd caught on tape to his insurance company.
Sierra Martindale, private investigator, was once again on the run and loving it.
Finnegan Murdock was a part-time wrestling instructor and a full-time mechanic for an oil-change company in Hudson on the other side of the Merrimack River. Nothing wrong with multitasking. I was rather good at it myself. The problem was that Finn was supposed to be in so much pain from his on-the-job shoulder injury that he couldn't possibly heft the poundage required by his work.
My job was to get him on tape to prove insurance fraud. A bone my brother, Van, a lawyer, had thrown my way, knowing things were a little tight for me at the moment what with my boyfriend, Leonardo's, betrayal last Thanksgiving. That made Finn's and my goals mutually exclusive. Someone was going to lose, and it wasn't going to be me.
So here I was, lean and fast, hauling ass through the back black door of the corrugated metal building into the slap of frigid January night air, where my hot breath steamed like exhaust. The offices of Martindale & Martindale were about six blocks away on Pearl Street and, on these cold days, I couldn't trust my van, Betsy, to start, so I'd walked. With the spur of adrenaline giving me wings, I was getting a lead on the musclebound thug pounding the pavement after me, not to mention the posse of would-be wrestlers charging after him.
Unfortunately, they shot out the front door, forcing me away from my family's law office. I ran down Harbor Avenue, hoping to get back on course on East Hollis Street. I hadn't counted on my pursuers splitting into two packs and cutting me off. I ended up racing down Hudson Street, boots slipping on snow, down the ramp near the train tracks and onto Temple Street where I had two choices: take the bridge across the Nashua River to Canal Street—which would put me way off course—or take the walking path, with the river on one side and a steep embankment on the other, that would get me to the library and Pearson Avenue and back to Main Street, almost home.
I chose the path, tripping over discarded beer bottles and nearly colliding with a bum on the narrow snowbound path. The cold air burned my lungs and I tasted blood in my throat. Sweat drenched my shirt and I unzipped my parka. But I kept running.
Then I just couldn't.
And that wasn't normal, because I was in top shape. I mean, way better than average. I did every sport I could from the minute I could. My mother had called me Fidget from day one. My brother accused me of living life with pedal jammed to the metal and not paying attention to any of the roadside signs. A gross overexaggeration, by the way. On top of that, I also ran to get rid of the toxic buildup of frustrations.
I know. Hard to believe that someone like me would need that coping mechanism. After all, I came from a reasonably well-to-do family. I got a top-notch education at local private schools. I could have stepped right into the family business if I'd wanted. And once I turned twenty-five next year, I'd come into a sizable inheritance.
But trust me, I was a snarl of frustrations. Guy troubles. Job troubles. Family troubles. They all wove together like a tightly knit scarf. And the mismatch of life patterns, expectations and needs tended to knot tension and choke. So I ran. And running had never failed me.
As if cement that had suddenly turned to concrete, my legs refused to move, my lungs refused to fill, and my heart refused to settle. It pounded like a mad drummer out of step with the rest of the band. I'd probably pushed myself too far too fast after the bug that had flattened me for most of last week. All I needed was to catch my breath and I'd be okay.
Using the last of my strength, I hiked down an alley thick with shadows and scrambled over a wooden privacy fence to a small office building. Then gravity took over, pulling me down on the other side, just as the posse of wrestlers tromped by with all the finesse of stampeding cattle. Lucky for me a pile of garbage bags cushioned my fall.
With thick fingers, I managed to extract my cell phone from my parka pocket and press Speed Dial 1.
"This better be important, Sierra," my brother, Van, barked at me.
"I'm in trouble," I managed to puff out, hand splayed over my hammering heart to keep it from flying out of my chest.
Immediately Van's voice deepened with concern. I had to give him credit. Even with all the grief I'd caused him over the years, he never gave up on me and was always there for me when it counted. "Where are you?"
"I, uh, I'm not sure." I forced myself to look around. Like teeth on an old skeleton, the fence seemed to fall away, spinning and blackening the world around me. My heart beat all out of synch. And my breath was as thin as smoke. "Near the library. Office building. Parking lot."
"Van. I don't. Feel so good."
He swore, and Van rarely swore. "Hang on, Sierra. I'm coming."
I tried to answer, but my suddenly thick mouth wouldn't cooperate.
They told me I died that night. But I don't remember any bright light calling me home or my life flashing in front of me. Just everything kind of fading away and the scary out-of-whack rhythm of my fibrillating heart pulsing in my head.
I didn't know it then, but I'd just hit the mother of all speed bumps.