- Author: Erik Carter
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Also by Erik Carter
It was the perfect place to vanish.
Amber Lund’s mind always turned to that dark notion when she drove this isolated four-lane highway through an endless expanse of marshland.
She could picture a Cadillac packed with mobsters exiting onto one of the few dirt paths that branched off the highway, finding a nice patch of murk, popping the trunk, and depositing a heavy, six-foot, person-shaped bundle into the inky water.
She thought of murder weapons tossed into the primordial tangle, getaway vehicles slowly descending into swamp water, bubbles tracing up the sides, popping on the surface where the roof disappeared from existence.
She imagined corpses and the alligators that would find them. Limbs torn from torsos. Flesh and muscle stripped from bones. Yellowed, reptilian teeth destroying faces and fingerprints and dental records and all other identifying, incriminating elements.
They were dark, dark thoughts, but Amber knew they were nothing but novelties, the active imagination of a person who had read a few too many thrillers and detective stories but didn’t have the anger inside her to honk her horn when she was cut off in traffic. Yes, it was all those damn books she’d read throughout her life, a habit that her uncle engrained in her by reading Nancy Drew and Kara, Kid Detective books to her as a young child.
All the stories she’d devoured through the years were the reason she couldn’t drive State Road 50 in Central Florida without thinking about what a perfect place it was to make things and people vanish. It was an east-west thoroughfare bisecting the state into northern and southern halves, and the section between Orlando and the Atlantic Coast at Titusville was filled with miles of barely touched nature, a flat horizon of grassy marshland stretching in all directions, a plane of grasses and sparkling water peppered with hammocks of cabbage palms. Pelicans and cranes and eagles. Rabbits and raccoons. And alligators.
Yes, the perfect place to disappear.
But the one thing Amber’s active imagination could never have conjured, couldn’t have predicted, was that SR 50 was the place where she would disappear.
As she adjusted her foot on the gas pedal, she felt sand shift between her toes. An hour earlier, she’d been walking on Cocoa Beach, tracing the sparkling moonlight, warm waves lapping over her ankles, a perfect ending to a wonderful weekend.
No, not just wonderful. Life-changing. When her father had suggested that Amber and her brand-new husband, Jonah, pay a visit to renowned local couples therapist Kristen Nogulich, Amber had been more than hesitant.
Heck, on Friday morning Amber had still been dead-set on an annulment.
But Nogulich had been the miracle worker she was touted to be, and Amber had seen that Jonah was the man she’d hoped he was, a man who had overcome his troubles, undone the problems he’d caused. Her man. Not the most perfect man in the world, but certainly the most lovable.
She looked at the passenger seat. There was the VHS tape. On the label, in Jonah’s big, goofy, kid-like print, was her name—AMBER. She smiled, let the warmth of the moment flow over her. Nogulich had them both, in solitude, record “do-over vows,” videotaped messages they gave to each other. They hadn’t watched them yet. Nogulich said that each person had to hold on to the tape they received until the other person gave permission to watch it.
It had been a long weekend, and Amber’s best friend, Kim, the woman who’d been her maid of honor two weeks earlier, extended it even further. After convincing Amber that she should take her father’s advice and visit Dr. Nogulich—for which Amber would be forever grateful—Kim had given Amber a solemn offer. She said she would drive to Cocoa Beach, an hour-long trek from Orlando, to meet Amber after her therapy session and walk the beach with her. Some one-on-one time. Girl time. Best friend time. A chance to unload all the emotions that had surely built up in the therapy sessions. Such a kind offer—how in the world could Amber refuse?
But, damn, was she gonna be tired tomorrow…
A quick glance at the clock on the dash. 2:07 a.m. Another forty-five minutes to Orlando. Her shift started at six. With time to get ready and to drive to the dispatch center, that would give her a couple solid hours of sleep. A few drops of Visine—it really does get the red out, after all—and some cucumbers under the eyes, and she’d be good to go. She could nap in the afternoon.
Nah, things weren’t so bad. She had no reasons to complain at all, not with things improving so much for her—the newfound understanding of her husband and also the recent turnaround in her father. Both of the men in her life, both of the relationships blossoming at once.
Her father had come so very far recently. Just before the wedding, he’d done the right thing. The right things, plural, as a matter of fact.
After all his protestations, after all his insistence that Amber was making a mistake, that she’d chosen a fool, a loser, someone beneath her, he’d finally acquiesced and come to accept Jonah as his future son-in-law. Just in the nick of time.
And her father had also agreed to do the right thing regarding Amber’s research. Confronting