Half-dressed and on all fours, Knox scrambled up to Levinthia’s seat and leaned over her, catching a scent of her hair, a troubling blend of the ocean and cantaloupe. His brief, appreciative tilt toward her scalp turned into an awkward swoop of shoulder into shoulder when he saw the empty space where his truck should have been parked. He leaned further across Levinthia, poking his head out her window, panic pressing against his lungs more urgently than the van’s steering wheel pressing against his right rib cage and Levinthia pressing against his left rib cage.
“We can see better if we get out of the van.” Levinthia swung open her door and slid out from under Knox, leaving him suspended by his elbows, draping across the seat.
Outside the van, still adjusting his clothes, Knox could smell the smoke that had kept him company last night, but it no longer crept visibly over the ground. Although the odor still had overtones of plastic, it had settled with stronger conviction around the more logical scent of wood. But this wood scent carried a heavy dampness, like a fire that had been extinguished by force. It was a smell he would always associate with his parents’ house burning down eighteen years ago. Now, the odor wrapped itself around another kind of loss. Being robbed.
Levinthia had disappeared around the back of her van. Knox followed. “I don’t understand how it could have been stolen without me or you hearing it.” Not too surprisingly, the parking lot behind the van was just as empty as it was on the driver’s side of the van. Knox wondered what Levinthia hoped to find circumnavigating her unstolen vehicle.
Before he could catch up with Levinthia, she about-faced and grabbed his arm to guide him back around to the side of the van where they’d begun their search. “Are you sure it was locked?”
“Levinthia, I’ve been living in an apartment complex outside of Atlanta for the last three years. I’m borderline obsessive about making sure I lock up everything I own.” Knox felt a husband’s old resentment flare up. Back when they’d been married, he was always having to check the doors and windows. When he had been on the road, he habitually ended his phone conversations with a warning to Levinthia to check the locks and lights.
As if detecting his resentment in the bicep she was squeezing, Levinthia rubbed Knox’s shoulder. “Did I just nag you? I didn’t mean to. That’s just the first question I’d ask myself. And I’m pretty sure it’ll be the first question the police will ask us when we go report your stolen truck.”
Caught off guard by the tenderness in Levinthia’s voice, Knox leaned his back against her van and pulled her to him. “What really pisses me off about getting robbed is the fact that they did it after I’ve spent the night with you.”
For a moment, Levinthia studied his face. Then she slid her palms to his chest and rested her forehead on the backs of her hands. “Well, that truck’ll be about as hard to spot as a white elephant.”
Knox laughed. “Yeah, and even if they’ve got a two-hour head start, they still won’t be out of the county yet. The most important skill they’ll need to drive that truck is patience.”
“Slow or not, we need to report the thieves and get the wheels of Hibriten justice turning.” Levinthia pulled herself out of Knox’s arms and climbed into her van. “You want to wait here and see if they bring it back?”
Knox realized he had been watching too closely as Levinthia ascended then slid into her leather seat. He jogged around to the passenger side. Now it was Levinthia’s turn to watch him. But he couldn’t tell if she was serious or ironic. “Sorry about being so sluggish. I’m not used to this kind of excitement.”
As she cranked the van, Levinthia nodded. “Oh, you’ll get used to it. This is Hibriten. You’ve just forgotten how strange it can get for the right people.”
Barely out of the Scarlet Sow parking lot, Knox had to raise himself up out of his seat again to retrieve his wallet, phone, and keys. He checked his phone, suspecting that as a victim of a crime, he’d have to be readily available to law enforcement inquiries. Of more immediate concern was Knox’s curiosity about how low his battery was. It was going on thirty-six hours without a charge. He expected low, but not an entirely blank screen dead. The phone felt unusually stiff in his hand.
“I think rigor mortis has set in.” Knox tapped his phone against his thigh.
“Are you expecting the thieves to call you?” Levinthia glanced at Knox. “Are you thinking we should report a kidnapping instead of a robbery?”
“Well, I did have some pretty interesting art stored back there. Some very unusual touched up reproductions.” Knox gave his phone a vigorous shake. “Is art theft a problem in Hibriten?”
Before answering, Levinthia had to maneuver around one of the prolonged curves that intensified this sharply descending section of the road, known locally as Dead Man’s Hill, into downtown Hibriten. “That’s a more complicated question than you realize.” As she took the next curve, the van’s tires emitted a distinct squeal of lost traction.
“I appreciate your sense of urgency, Levinthia, but you can slow down a little.” Knox felt a slight tug at the lower half of his body. Apparently, Levinthia was actually taking his advice and favoring the brake now over the accelerator.
“Do you remember how horrifying this stretch of road was when we were taking driver’s training?” Levinthia sat up a little straighter.
“What were those driver’s ed. teachers thinking when they decided to make sixteen-year-olds negotiate this descent?” Briefly, Knox’s memory of his first drive down Dead Man’s Hill completely eclipsed his concern for his stolen truck. He had insurance. Good insurance. He’d spent the night with his gorgeous ex-wife in the back of her van.
“I’m pretty sure that most of those driving teachers had self-destructive urges.”
“I thought only artists had self-destructive urges.” Knox kept his eyes on the deep ditch that bordered his side of the curvy road. He thought Levinthia stayed too close to it. But he didn’t want to suggest she slide a little closer to the middle line. He tapped his keys against his leg. Last night, he hadn’t been able to find them. He was certain he had checked the front seat during his search. “Did you see my keys in this seat when you got up this morning?”
“No, I saw them in the seat last night when I got up to go look for a bathroom.” Levinthia turned her eyes toward Knox but then flicked them back to the road. “I don’t know how felons behave in Atlanta, but leaving a set of keys out in plain view is just asking someone to break a window to get at them.”
“So they did start out in this seat?”
“With your wallet and your phone. Out of a deep desire to protect you and your belongings, I put them in the pull-out compartment under the front passenger’s seat.” Levinthia nodded in the direction of Knox’s seat. “It’s not exactly a secret compartment, but obscure enough to safely store valuables during sexual romps.”
Knox reached down between his legs and felt the compartment’s latch. Judging by the width of that front panel, Levinthia could easily store a couple changes of clothes in there. “That’s a nice place for extra storage.”
“This van has eight other compartments—all of them lined with carpet.”
“I would never have guessed. It’s like your two glove compartments had babies.” As he took another appraising look at the van’s interior, Knox rattled his keys, and the sound echoed a vague doubt that had been jangling in his brain since he’d climbed inside the van. “Levinthia, why do you think the thieves would take my clunker of a truck when parked right beside it was this sleek machine of yours?”
“Most likely, they knew we were in it.”
“As dark as it was in the back?” Knox cocked his head at a doubting angle. “I doubt if they could have seen us even if they’d pressed their thieving little faces up against the windows.”
“For all we know, they might have followed us from Robbins Loop. Or they might have seen us when we pulled into the Scarlet Sow. Maybe watched you park your truck and come over to my van. Or they could have noticed the van rocking.” Levinthia reached the bottom of Dead Man’s Hill and pulled up to the traffic light. “Or it could be the robbers needed a big truck for some big heist. I’m no thief. I don’t know what guides their choices.”
She retrieved her phone from the miniature holder attached to her door. After punching a single button, she put the phone to her ear. “Hello, Hibriten Police. We’re on our way to the station to report a stolen truck. It was probably about two hours ago. Parked at the Scarlet Sow. A big white elephant-sized thing.” She turned to Knox. “How would you describe the truck?”
Knox held out his hand for the phone. Levinthia shook her head.
“Just tell me. I’ll relay it. I’ve already established a rapport with Sergeant Laxton.” Levinthia leaned away from Knox.
“It’s a two-ton 1995 International. License number CSX 85192—Georgia plates.”
After repeating Knox’s information, Levinthia smiled into the phone. “We should get to the station in about ten minutes. We’re just passing through the traffic light at the Dead Man’s Hill and Morganton Boulevard intersection.”
“You should have asked Sergeant Laxton to have some coffee ready.”
“First things first.” Levinthia reached over and squeezed Knox’s wrist. “Stop rattling your keys. That’s going to look suspicious if you keep doing it while we file the report. But we need to get our stories straight. Do we want to tell the police the simple truth , or do we want to cover up the fact that we were engaging in some possibly illegal loitering sex in the Scarlet Sow parking lot?”
“Do you know that Sergeant Laxton?” Although Knox took Levinthia’s advice and put his keys in his pocket, a vague uneasiness continued to jangle in his more suspicious membranes. “And unless I’m mistaken, you have the police number on speed dial.”
“As it so happens, I do know the sergeant, and I do have the police on speed dial.” Levinthia turned onto a shady street that passed by the hospital and several large houses converted to medical specialists’ clinics. “About six months after I opened my business down here, I did have a break-in. Turned out to be some wild teenagers. They’d gone on a crime spree. As far as the police could tell, the crooks thought they might find stuff they could sniff in an art store. They did clean out my supply of turpentine. The police urged all of us store owners to call them directly instead of dialing 911 to report robberies.”
“Were any of those teenagers Samoan or Polynesian?”
“Why are you so paranoid about Polynesians being in Lenoir?”
“So there are Polynesians in Lenoir?”
“To hear you tell it, we’re up to our straddles in Polynesians—of both sexes.” Levinthia’s voice cracked and she thumped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand.
Her response called up unpleasant memories for Knox, especially from the last six months of their marriage. Today, he didn’t want to explore these memories. He realized that he had been wrong to push Levinthia to such frustration. Back when they were married, he thought Levinthia’s frustration was a symptom of her need for his guidance. “Okay, I’ll keep my Polynesian sightings to myself, but I’m inclined to think we might as well be honest about what we were doing in your van. Any lie we fabricate will sound completely suspicious.” The old Knox would have added, “Unless you have some special reason to NOT confess our sexual behavior to the good Sergeant Laxton.” However, as much as he wanted to see how Levinthia would respond to his jealousy, Knox refrained from accusing her of being too familiar with the Hibriten police.
For several minutes, Levinthia didn’t respond. Knox could tell that she was reviewing possible explanations that didn’t require intimate details.
Finally, she said, “You’re right. If we tell them we’d just left both vehicles parked there while we were off sharing an innocent evening, then they’ll wonder why the crooks didn’t take both vehicles. And if we confess that we spent the night in my van, then they’ll suspect why we were so preoccupied or exhausted that we didn’t hear the cries of Moby Dick being abducted.”
Knox was surprised by how relieved he felt, hearing that Levinthia didn’t mind telling the sergeant about their activity in the van. “Besides, as soon as we just imply that we were having sex, they’ll appreciate our honesty enough not to ask for details.”
“That makes sense. Those details wouldn’t have anything to do with the case, would they?”
“Nothing at all.” Knox emphasized each word with a tap on Levinthia’s shoulder. He wanted to tell her how much he appreciated the curve of her shoulders, muscular but feminine. It was an inviting strength. He wondered if she might be swimming on a regular basis. But at the moment, he couldn’t figure out how to fit his admiration into this conversation.
“But in case they do ask for details, do you think we should review what we did so we don’t fall into any guilty-sounding contradictions?” Levinthia kept her eyes on the road, but she had to bite her lower lip.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve got the vocabulary to give them the details as we experienced them.” Knox paused to savor a few of those details, but before any could materialize, he again felt the pull against his lower torso that suggested the van was slowing down in a slight but steady pumping rhythm. This early in the morning, the street was empty except for him and Levinthia. And they had green lights as far down the road as Knox could see. When he turned to ask Levinthia why she was slowing down, he caught her staring up the intersecting street to her left. “What’re you doing?”
“I thought I just saw your truck going up that street.” She stopped in the middle of the intersection, backed up, then raced after Knox’s truck.
Except Knox didn’t see the truck. “Where was it?”
“It was going up this way; then it took a right.”
“Are you sure?” Knox leaned over the dashboard and stretched out his neck.
“I’m a painter. I have trained eyes.”
“I always thought they were maybe your most striking feature.” As far back as he could remember, Knox couldn’t look too long at Levinthia’s eyes without feeling thirsty and unworthy. Back when they were married, he’d resented the effect they had on him.
“Well, you might change that opinion once you see me maneuver this van in a high speed chase.” Levinthia made the right turn, tires squealing, she and Knox leaning against the centrifugal force.
Even after Levinthia straightened up the van and got them pretty much contained in their proper lane, Knox found himself keeping his grip tight on the arms of his chair. “If it is my truck you saw, you’re going to find yourself in a very one-sided high speed chase.”
“It’s a good feeling to have the law and velocity on our side.” As Levinthia reached the first of several intersections, she slowed down and inspected the streets branching left and right.
Knox followed her example. Not catching sight of any sort of vehicle. After they’d driven nearly a mile, Knox started to suggest they give up and go back to the police station.
Slamming on her brakes, Levinthia pointed. “There, see!”
This time, Knox did glimpse a white movement, what could be his truck half a mile up the street, making a left turn. “I think it is my truck.”
“Okay, now we’re closing in.” Levinthia floored the accelerator. “Looks like they might be planning on circling back to the Morganton Boulevard.”
“I would’ve thought they’d make a straight run for the border.” Now that they might be closing in on the stolen truck, Knox’s uneasiness took more definite form.
“The criminal mind is seldom a straight running organ, Knox. If you watched enough Criminal Minds, you’d know not to expect them to attempt a rational flight.”
“I don’t have to watch Criminal Minds at all—although I do—to know that coming into contact with desperate criminals usually doesn’t end well for the untrained man and woman in the van with the expensive paint job.”
“I’m not suggesting that we run them down and drag them out of your truck.” Levinthia had reached another series of intersections, but she didn’t slow down as much.
The first side street Knox inspected revealed that all of the others probably led to the same sort of dead end. On both sides of this street down which they drove, furniture factories loomed. Unless the thieves intended to pick up some damaged furniture, they wouldn’t be tempted to turn on to any of these side streets.
“On the other hand, though, it makes perfect sense for these guys in your truck to stay in town where they can play this cat and mouse.” Levinthia slowed down slightly. “Surely, they’ve been driving the truck long enough to know that even with a head start they can’t outrun any car in Hibriten. Maybe they did think they were going to zip into the next county. Then when they realized they didn’t have the capacity to zip, they decided to use strategy.”
“I see what you’re saying. As long as they can elude us, they don’t have to worry about outrunning us.”
“So maybe they’re logical after all.”
“Does that make them less of a threat if we get them cornered?” Knox now checked the side streets with mild but mounting dread. What would they do if they did start closing in on the thieves?
“How about if we get closer to them. Just close enough to keep constant track of them. Then when we can keep them in full sight all the time, we’ll call the police and let them know where we are.” Levinthia glanced at Knox and gestured with her hand, as if her idea was a perfect little elf, posing on her palm.
“Yes. I like that idea. But could we call the police now? You know, give them some advance warning. Let them get a cruiser dispatched, headed in our direction. Who knows, maybe they could set up a road block and we could drive the law breakers into the jaws of justice.”
Nodding, Levinthia picked up her phone.
“I can do that.” Knox reached for it.
Just as she did earlier, Levinthia leaned away from him, frowning. “I told you that I have rapport. I need you to check out the side streets while I’m talking. And you need to get ready to feed me the street names. And direction of travel. Do you know north and south?”
“Well, that’s east.” Knox pointed at the sun.
“Sergeant Laxton. This is Levinthia again—the stolen truck. On our way to the police station, we saw the truck, and we’ve been trying to follow it. My husband—my ex-husband—is sure that the truck can’t outrun us, but . . . we don’t have them in sight at this moment, but I’m positive we’ll sight it any second now . . . we’re on Coffey Street right now, just coming to the end of Factory Row . . .
Knox saw that the street was leaving the claustrophobic shadows of the furniture factories. As Levinthia approached the first intersecting street that wouldn’t be blocked by the factory fences, she slowed down and motioned emphatically with her chin for Knox to check for his truck disappearing in the distance. And there it was. Still about half a mile away, disappearing around the curve.
Surprising himself, Knox shouted for Levinthia to turn right.
“We’ve seen the truck just now. It’s turned onto . . .” Levinthia took her hand off the wheel to point at the street sign as it slipped past Knox’s window.
“Abingdon Avenue.” Knox felt his dread come into darker focus. He was familiar with Abingdon Avenue. It left town in the direction of Pisgah National Forest, eventually shedding its asphalt and returning to a more primitive gravel road , following for miles the crumbly cliffs that overlooked Wilson’s Creek with all its turbulence and boulders. And every fifty feet they’d pass shadowy side roads that could meander for miles before ending in front of a rocky mountainside where hunters and lovers might come to be alone. If ever a desperate criminal driving a slow truck wanted to elude pursuers, Abingdon Avenue was the road to choose.
“Abingdon Avenue. No, we do not plan to try to capture the thieves. I’ll tell you what—as soon as we make visual contact with your police car, we’ll let you take over and do the dirty work. Yes, we’ll turn around and meet you at the police station. Get all the depositioning done.” Levinthia returned her phone to its holder on her door. “Let’s close the distance now.”
Just outside the city limits, Abingdon Avenue started following the contours of the countryside more closely, becoming more curvy with more dips and rises to challenge any driver wanting to overtake a stolen vehicle. Because it had been several years since Knox had explored the backroads of Hibriten, he’d forgotten how nervous high speeds could make him, despite the scenic attractions. Those chambers of his mind and stomach that housed his survival instincts urged him to lean over and check Levinthia’s speedometer. Unfortunately, the contours of her dashboard wouldn’t allow him access to that information with a casual glance. Whoever designed the van’s interior seemed intent on keeping the operating data strictly for the driver’s eyes.
“Levinthia, I need to tell you how much last night meant to me.” Knox felt his throat constricting. He wasn’t sure if he was choking on fear or on passion. “I have missed you more than I could admit to myself.” For a second, he forgot about how fast they were going. Instead, he watched her face for any sign of regret or relief. “After this high speed chase, this very high speed chase, I want to ask you to spend more time with me. To see if we might consider getting back together.”
Immediately, Levinthia slowed down, coasted for a second, then accelerated again, though not regaining the speed she’d been accumulating since they’d left the city limits. “I’ve missed you too, Knox. Hard as I’ve tried to deny it over the last three years, I think we made a mistake getting married. But we made a bigger mistake getting divorced.” Again, her speed dropped. But as she rounded the curve and came upon a straight stretch of road, she saw the stolen truck just a little more than a quarter mile ahead of them.
Knox felt his head jerk when Levinthia floored the accelerator. Apparently, she knew as well as Knox that in about a mile, Abingdon Avenue would enter the Pisgah National Forest with its maze of side roads and slippery gravel surface. Levinthia would have to slow down if for no other reason than to keep her van from being shaken apart. Knox also wondered if she knew how slippery a gravel road could be. He and his friends used to come up to these gravel roads to practice driving on ice. It was a place where a smaller faster vehicle didn’t perform as well as a larger slower vehicle. Whoever had stolen his truck knew exactly what he was doing. Speed wasn’t going to be a deciding factor in this chase. Not only would the slick gravel slow the van down, but some of the curves were so prolonged that the thieves would have plenty of time to duck onto a half concealed side road. When Knox noticed that it had recently rained, his mouth went dry. Ordinarily, on the gravel road, a large truck would kick up enough dust to be seen ten minutes after it had passed by, but now the ground was still damp enough to give the criminals clear passage.
After the third time that Levinthia found her van skidding toward the cliff along the left side of the road, she slowed down. “These guys know what they’re up to, don’t they?”
“I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing.” Knox relaxed slightly and ran trembling fingers through his hair.
Crunching along the gravel road almost leisurely, Levinthia pointed with her thumb over his shoulder. “See our police backup yet?”
Twisting around as far as he could without removing his seatbelt, Knox inspected the curvy road behind them. “Not a sign of them.”
“What I’m wondering is why they were touring around town in the first place. I mean you’ve made it clear that they would have found out soon enough that they couldn’t outrun anybody. But if their plan was to get away, why didn’t they just head straight out this way to begin with?” Levinthia slowed down a little more.
“Yeah.” Knox reached into his pocket for his keys. He needed something to jangle. Catching Levinthia’s gaze, he scratched his leg instead and scanned a narrow road off to his right. “You know, somebody really familiar with the network of roads in this place could sneak up to Virginia or Tennessee and not even meet another car.”
“Oh shit!” Levinthia braked to a complete stop. “I’m about out of gas.”
Glancing at the wilderness surrounding them, Knox felt once more an old husbandly resentment. This was a terrible place to run out of gas. Fifteen miles back in the direction to town would also be a bad place to run out of gas. This was the kind of situation Levinthia from three years ago would have landed them in. Irresponsible. But Knox kept his mouth shut. After all, they had been in pursuit of his stolen truck.
“Do we have enough to make it back to town?” He tried to keep his voice calm.
Performing a fairly tight three-point turn, Levinthia replied, “Just enough, I hope. I meant to fill up yesterday after I left the Loomis house. But then I saw you standing by their barbed wire fence.”
“Then one thing led to another.” Knox reached over and squeezed her shoulder.
“And that led to your truck getting stolen.”
“But I wouldn’t trade last night with you for a hundred two-ton trucks.” Knox pulled his hand from Levinthia’s shoulder. He needed to keep his mind on the road. “Your van has a locking gas cap, right?”
“Yes. Usually it’s more of a nuisance than anything else.” Levinthia glanced into her rear view mirror. “Why?”
Knox also invested another long look out the van’s back windows. “What if these guys intended all along to get us to follow them out here in the woods? While they were stealing the truck, they might have siphoned most of the gas out of your tank, leaving just enough to get us out here . . .”
Levinthia accelerated, but carefully this time. Once she got back on the paved road, she slowed down and called Sergeant Laxton. “We lost them. In the Pisgah Forest. I realized I was running out of gas. Never saw your boys. Yes, we’ll come to the police station, but I need to get some gas. Then I want to stop by my place.” Levinthia nodded. “We’ll come in. Seems to me that you’re the one guilty of delaying. I need a few minutes to get myself and my ex-husband cleaned up. We had wild sex in the back of my van all night long. But that has nothing to do with the case.”
“Don’t they usually record those calls?”
“Well, at least I’ve taken care of that awkward moment of having to tell them the truth in person.”
“Do you really have a house in town?” Knox felt he could relax as soon as they hit the city limits. “I thought since your new business was in Blowing Rock, you’d already found a house up there.”
Levinthia looked at Knox with open mouthed disbelief. “Are you kidding? Do you know how expensive it is to live up there in that little village?” The property tax for one year could pay for a nice home down here in Hibriten.” She coughed up a rough laugh. “Maybe if my business takes off over the next five years, I could afford to live up there, but I plan to commute. Besides, in the antique business, I don’t have to keep the place open seven days a week. Some of my best customers prefer setting up appointments. And I’m doing my own picking these days, so I’m as likely to be in Wilmington some days of the month as I am to be in Blowing Rock.”
“I still consider myself a painter too.”
“Well, where is your house in Hibriten?” Knox derived a strong pleasure from hearing that Levinthia’s business seemed only slightly less transitory than his own.
“It’s an apartment. I don’t know if you remember the old Carlheim Hotel . . .”
“Yes, we’d sometimes have our Boy Scout Awards ceremonies in their banquet room.”
“They turned it into condominiums about five years ago.”
“Did they keep the art deco architecture?” Knox realized that his own love affair with the 1920s and 1930s probably began with his exposure to the Carlheim’s antique interior design. From the outside, it had been built along the lines of a giant tudor cottage. But the inside looked like it had been stolen from the dreams of the Great Gatsby.
“Sadly, no. It’s pretty generic, but the neighborhood still really reminds me of Hibriten back in the old days.
“Come to think of it, the old ballroom probably inspired me to be a swing trumpet player. I’m sure that’s the place where I first heard Harry James. Maybe in the sixth or seventh grade, our band director took us to hear some visiting brass ensemble play Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey tunes.”
“They turned the ballroom into a spa.” Levinthia pulled into the Carlheim Condos parking lot. “They will occasionally play old disco music for the exercise classes, but I’ve never heard them go back any farther than that. I’m sorry. I still want you to come up and see the place.”
“I’d like that.” Knox noticed that Levinthia’s parking place had a small green sign bearing her name. “That’s pretty ritzy.” He pointed. “Do you have a doorman?”
“Not yet. But the topic has come up at four different condo association meetings. I may move out when they approve the doorman motion.” Levinthia climbed from her van and smoothed her clothes. “Don’t you think we’d feel better, more respectable for our trip to the police station if we took a shower?”
Knox hesitated. Had Levinthia deliberately said a shower instead of showers? “Now that you mention it, our high-speed chase has left me feeling a little grimy.”
“Might as well have a little breakfast while we’re at it.” Levinthia came around to Knox’s side of the van and stretched out her hand. “The day is just getting started.” When Knox took her hand, she pulled him against her side and bumped his shoulder against hers four or five times. “Don’t you worry about your truck. We’re going to get it back. And a whole lot more.”