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Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Nineteen)

My life didn't flash before my eyes. I was too busy fighting the steering wheel and screaming "Shit!" to pause for any navel-gazing.

I wasted a precious few seconds desperately pumping the brake pedal, praying it would suddenly, miraculously work. It didn't. Just before I went past the stop sign, as a last-ditch effort I stomped on the emergency brake pedal, and the car went into a hard spin, tires screaming and smoking, as I shot into the intersection. My seat belt snapped tight, jerking me back against my seat. I tried to get control of the spin, but an oncoming car, its own tires screaming as it tried to stop, clipped my right rear bumper and added to the momentum. It was like riding a very fast merry-go-round. In the split second I was facing traffic, I had a lightning flash of a red pickup coming right at me; then there was a hard jolt as my car hit the concrete bumper of the median and jumped it, backward, before slewing sideways across the grass and into the other two lanes of traffic. Terror-stricken, I glanced to the right and, through the passenger window, saw a woman's face frozen in horror, and time itself seemed to freeze, too, in the instant before the impact. An enormous shock wave hit me like a body blow, and the world went black.

The blackness lasted for only a few seconds. I opened my eyes and blinked, both aware and surprised that I was still alive, but I couldn't seem to move and even if I'd been able to, I would have been too afraid to check out what damage I'd sustained. I couldn't hear anything; it was as if I was alone in the world. My vision was misty, and my face felt numb, but at the same time it hurt. "Ouch," I said aloud into the strange silence, and with that sound everything popped back into focus.

The good news was: the air bag worked. The bad news was: it needed to. I looked around me at my car and almost moaned aloud. My beautiful little car looked like a twisted pile of scrap metal. I was alive, but my car wasn't.

Oh, my God, Wyatt. He'd been right behind me; he'd seen everything. He had to think I was dead. I fumbled with my right hand for the seat belt and unclipped it, but when I tried to open my door, it wouldn't budge and I couldn't throw my weight against it because my hurt arm was on that side. Then I noticed the windshield had been popped out, so I laboriously hauled myself out from behind the steering wheel-it was like playing Twister-and gingerly crawled through the space where the windshield had been, careful of the broken glass, and out onto the hood, just as Wyatt reached me.

"Blair," he said hoarsely, reaching for me, but he froze with his hands outstretched as if he was afraid to touch me. His face was paper white. "Are you all right? Is anything broken?"

"I don't think so." My voice was thin and shaky, and my nose was running. Embarrassed, I swiped at it, then saw the bright smear of red on my hand and the additional red dripping from my nose. "Oh. I'm bleeding. Again."

"I know." He gently lifted me off the hood and carried me to the grassy median, picking his way through a tangle of cars. Traffic in both directions had come to a complete halt. Steam rose from the crumpled hood of the car that had hit me, and other motorists were helping the woman inside. On the other side of the four-lane, two or three cars rested at weird angles in the road, but the damage there seemed to be mostly in the fender-bender range.

Wyatt set me down on the grass and pressed a handkerchief into my hand. "If you're all right, I'll go see about the other driver." I nodded and waved a hand, indicating he should see what he could do. "Are you certain?" he asked, and I nodded again. He briefly touched my arm, then strode off, talking into his cell phone, and I lay back on the grass with the handkerchief pressed to my nose to stop the bleeding. I remembered being hit in the face really hard; that must have been the air bag deploying. My life was well worth a bloody nose.

A man in a suit came over and squatted down beside me, positioning himself so he blocked the sun out of my face. "Are you all right?" he asked kindly.

"I dink so," I said nasally, holding my nose pinched together.

"You lie right there and don't try to get up, just in case you're hurt worse than you realize and don't feel it yet. Is your nose broken?"

"I don't dink so." It hurt; my whole face hurt. But my nose didn't hurt worse than anything else, and all in all, I thought it was just a bloody nose.

Good Samaritans came out of the woodwork, offering aid in a variety of means: bottles of water and baby wipes, even a few alcohol wipes from someone's first aid kit, to help clean up the cuts and wipe away blood so you could tell how bad a cut actually was; emergency ice packs; Band-Aids and gauze; cell phones and sympathy. There were seven walking-wounded with minor injuries, including me, but the driver of the car that had T-boned me was injured severely enough that they hadn't taken her out of the car. I could hear Wyatt talking, his voice calm and authoritative, but I couldn't hear what he was saying.

Reaction seized me and I began trembling. I slowly sat up and looked around at the chaos, at the bloody people sitting on the median with me, and I wanted to cry. I had done this? It was an accident, I knew it was, but still… I was the cause. My car. Me. Guilt ate at me. I kept my car in good running condition, but had I overlooked some key maintenance? Not paid attention to a warning sign that my brakes were about to fail?

Sirens were shrieking in the distance and I realized only a few minutes had passed. Time was crawling so slowly it felt as if I'd been lying there on the grass for at least half an hour. I closed my eyes and prayed hard that the woman who had hit me would be okay. Because I felt weak and a little dizzy, I lay back down and stared up at the blue sky.

Suddenly I had a weird sense of deja vu, and I realized how similar this scene was to the one Sunday afternoon, only then I'd been lying on the warm parking lot instead of fragrant green grass. But sirens had been shrieking and cops swarming, just the way they were now. Maybe more time had passed than I thought; when had the cops got here?

A medic went down on one knee beside me. I didn't know him. I wanted Keisha, who gave me cookies. "Let's see what we have here," he said, but he was reaching for my left arm. He must have thought the bandage was covering a new cut.

"I'm okay," I said. "That's stitches from minor surgery."

"Where's all this blood from?" He was taking my pulse, then flicking a tiny penlight from eye to eye.

"My nose. The air bag gave me a bloody nose."

"Considering what could have happened, God bless air bags," he said. "Were you wearing your seat belt?"

I nodded, so then he checked me for seat-belt injuries, and wrapped a cuff around my right arm to check my blood pressure. Guess what? It was elevated. Since I was structurally all right, he moved on to someone else.

While other medics were working with the woman in the car, stabilizing her, Wyatt came back and squatted beside me. "What happened?" he asked quietly. "I was right behind you, and I didn't see anything unusual, but all of a sudden you started spinning." He still looked pale and grim, but the sun was in my eyes again and I couldn't be sure.

"I put on my brakes for the stop sign, and the pedal went all the way to floor. There was nothing. So I put on the emergency brake, and that's when I started to spin."

He glanced over at my car where it rested in the far lane, the two front wheels up on the curb. I followed his gaze, stared a moment at the wreckage, and shuddered. I'd been hit so hard the frame had wrapped in a U shape, and the passenger side was nonexistent. No wonder the windshield had popped out. If it hadn't been for my seat belt, I probably would have popped out, too.

"Have you had trouble with your brakes lately?"

I shook my head. "Nothing. And I have it serviced regularly."

"The patrolman who drove it to your place didn't report any problems with it. You go on to the hospital and get checked out-"

"I'm okay. Honest. My vitals are steady, and other than getting popped in the face by the air bag, I don't think anything else is wrong."

He rubbed his thumb over my cheekbone, the touch light. "All right. Should I call your mother to come get you? I'd rather you not be alone for the next few hours, at least."

"After the cars are moved. I don't want her to see my car; it'll give her nightmares. I know you need my insurance card and registration," I said woefully, still staring at the tangle of sheet metal. "They're in the glove compartment, if you can find the glove compartment. And my bag is in there, too."

Briefly he touched my shoulder, then stood and walked across the two lanes to my car. He looked in the window, walked around the car to the other side and back, then did something odd: he got down on the pavement, on his back, and slid his head and shoulders under the car just behind the front wheels. I winced, thinking of all the glass that must be on the pavement and hoping he wouldn't get cut. What was he looking for?

He slid out from beneath the car, but didn't come back over to me. Instead he went to one of the uniformed officers and said something to him, and the officer went over to my car and he, too, slid underneath it, just the way Wyatt had. I saw Wyatt talking on his cell phone again.

A small convoy of wreckers began arriving, to tow the damaged vehicles away. An ambulance arrived, and the medics began the process of gently removing the woman from her car. One of them held an IV bag over her. Her face was drenched in blood, and they'd fitted a cervical collar on her. I whispered another prayer.

Sawhorse barricades were put on the street, and officers in both directions were directing traffic in a detour. The wreckers sat there idling, but none of the cars were moved. More police cars arrived, driving down the median to reach the accident scene. These were unmarked cars, and to my surprise I saw my pals MacInnes and Forester. What were detectives doing working an accident scene?

They talked to Wyatt and the officer who had been under my car. MacInnes got down on his back and slid under my car himself. What was up with that? Why was everyone looking under my car? He slid out, said something to Wyatt; Wyatt said something to an officer; and before I knew it, the officer came over and helped me to my feet, then led me to a patrol car.

Good God, I was being arrested.

But he put me in the front seat; the motor was running and the air-conditioning was on, and I turned a vent to blow right on my face. I didn't adjust the rearview mirror to see how I looked. My whole face might be black-and-blue, but I didn't want to know.

At first the blowing air felt good, but within a minute chill bumps were popping out on my skin. I closed the vent, but that didn't help much. I hugged my arms.

I don't know how long I sat there, freezing to death. Normally I would have adjusted the air-conditioning controls, but somehow I didn't have the initiative needed to mess with a cop's car. If it had been Wyatt's car, yeah, but not a patrol officer's. Or maybe I was just too dazed to take action.

After a while Wyatt came over and opened the door. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Except for a growing stiffness, and a general feeling of having been bludgeoned. "I'm cold, though."

He pulled off his jacket and leaned in, tucking the garment around me. The fabric was warm from his body and felt blissful to my cold skin. I hugged the jacket to me, and stared wide-eyed at him. "Am I under arrest?"

"Of course not," he said, cupping my face and running his thumb over my lips. He kept touching me, as if reassuring himself that I was all in one piece. He hunkered in the V of the open door. "Do you feel up to going to the station, giving us a statement?"

"Are you sure I'm not under arrest?" I said in alarm.

"Positive."

"Then why do I have to go to the station? Is that woman dead? Will I be charged with vehicular homicide?" Growing horror consumed me, and I felt my lips tremble.

"No, honey, calm down. The woman will be all right. She was conscious, and talking sensibly to the medics. There's a possibility of a neck injury, so they were being very careful moving her."

"It's all my fault," I said miserably, fighting tears.

He shook his head. "Not unless you cut your own brake line, it isn't," he said in a hard tone.

Dwayne Bailey had posted bond, but he was hauled in again and questioned. I wasn't allowed to be in on the questioning, which is probably a good thing because by then I'd worked myself into a state. My brake line had been cut. My car had been deliberately sabotaged. I could have been killed; others who had nothing to do with witnessing Nicole's murder could have been killed. I was furious. Wyatt wouldn't let me anywhere near Dwayne Bailey.

Now I knew why Wyatt had the patrol officer put me in his car: to protect me. I'd been totally exposed, sitting there on the grassy median, in case someone-namely Dwayne Bailey-wanted to take another shot at me. I couldn't think why he would, or why he would sabotage my car, since he'd already confessed and there was no need to kill me-not that there ever had been, but he didn't know that. Well, maybe now he did, though I doubted the cops would have told him that I couldn't have identified him anyway.

I washed off in the ladies' restroom, using paper towels to scrub the dried blood off my face and out of my hair as best I could. I have no idea how blood from a nosebleed got in my hair, but it was there. I had blood in my ears, behind my ears, on my neck, my arms-and another bra was ruined, damn it! I even had blood on my feet.

There was a small cut across the bridge of my nose, and both cheekbones were red and swollen. I suspected I would have two black eyes in the morning. I also suspected I would have so many other aches and pains that I wouldn't care about a black eye, or eyes.

Wyatt hadn't found my bag, so I didn't have my cell phone. The bag had to be in the car… somewhere… and the car was in the police lot, secured behind a locked fence. The forensics team had gone over the car there at the scene, at least the exterior, so the wrecker could haul it in without destroying any evidence. They would do their best to check out the interior, too, and Wyatt said they'd find my bag then. I could do without everything that was in it, except my wallet and checkbook. Having to replace all my credit cards, my driver's license, insurance cards and all the others, would be a pain, so I hoped they found it.

I hadn't called Mom yet, because telling her someone had tried to kill me-again-was infinitely worse than telling her I'd been in an accident.

The cops kept bringing me stuff to drink and eat. I guess, having heard tales of the cookie situation on Sunday, they thought I needed sustenance. One woman, who looked stern and businesslike in her blue uniform and with her hair tightly braided, brought me a bag of microwave popcorn and apologized because she didn't have anything sweet to offer. I drank coffee. I drank Diet Coke. I was offered chewing gum, and cheese crackers. Potato chips. Peanuts. I ate the peanuts and the popcorn, and refused everything else or I'd have been bloated. They did not, however, offer me the one thing I was waiting for. Excuse me, but just where were the doughnuts??? This was a cop station, for crying out loud. Everyone knows cops eat doughnuts. Of course, considering it was now lunchtime, probably the doughnuts were long gone.

The officer, Adams, who had been the primary accident-scene investigator, went over the sequence of events at length with me. He had me draw diagrams. He drew diagrams. I got bored and drew smiley faces, too.

They were keeping me occupied, of course. I knew that. It was probably on Wyatt's orders, so I wouldn't be tempted to interfere in Dwayne Bailey's interrogation, as if I would. Hard as it may be to believe, I know when to butt out. Wyatt, however, evidently had doubts.

Around two, Wyatt came to collect me. "I'm taking you to your place to get cleaned up and your clothes changed; then I'm taking you to your mom's for right now. It's a good thing your bags are still packed, because you're going back to my house with me."

"Why?" I asked as I got to my feet. I'd been sitting in his chair, at his desk, making a list of everything I needed to do. Wyatt frowned a little when he saw the list and turned it around so he could read it. His brow cleared when he realized the list wasn't about him.

"Bailey swears he didn't touch your car," he said. "He says he doesn't even know where you live, and that he has an alibi for his time from Thursday night on. MacInnes and Forester are checking things out, but just to be on the safe side, we're going back to Plan A, which is keep you hidden."

"Bailey is here, right? Is he under arrest?"

Wyatt shook his head. "He's in custody, but he isn't under arrest. We can hold him for a little while without officially filing charges against him."

"Well, if he's here, then who am I hiding from?"

He regarded me soberly. "Bailey's the most obvious person-if the sabotage was done before yesterday and he didn't tell us about the car because then we'd figure he was the shooter on Sunday and the car was just another attempt to kill you. On the other hand, if his alibi checks out, then we have to consider that someone else is trying to kill you and used this opportunity while someone else had the motive for doing it. We had this conversation the night Ms. Goodwin was murdered, but we need to have it again-have you been in an argument with anyone?"

"You," I said, pointing out the obvious.

"Other than me."

"No. Believe it or not, I don't get in many arguments. You're the exception."

"Lucky me," he muttered.

"Hey. How many people have you had arguments with in the past month, other than me?" I asked indignantly.

He rubbed his face. "Good point. All right, let's get moving. I'm having your ex-husband interviewed, too, by the way."

"Jason? Why?"

"It struck me as a little odd that he'd call you like that, after five years of no contact at all. I don't believe in coincidence."

"But why would Jason try to kill me? It isn't as if he's the beneficiary of any insurance policy I have, or that I know anything he wouldn't want-" I stopped, because I did know something about Jason that would hurt his political career-and I had the picture to prove it. He didn't know I had the picture, though, and I wasn't the only one who knew he was a cheating scumbag.

Wyatt's eyes had that hard, piercing cop look. "What?" he said. "What do you know?"

"It can't be that I know about him cheating on me," I said. "That doesn't make sense. For one thing, I haven't said anything for five years, so why would he all of a sudden get worried about it? And I'm not the only person who knows, so bumping me off wouldn't accomplish anything."

"Who else knows?"

"Mom. Siana and Jenni. Dad knows Jason cheated; Mom eventually told him that much, but he doesn't know any specifics. The women he cheated with certainly know. Probably his family. And it isn't as if knowledge that he cheated on his first wife, over five years ago and with someone who isn't his current wife, would wreck his political career. Dent it, maybe, but not wreck it." Now, if it were generally known that he'd been caught coming on to my seventeen-year-old sister, that would wreck his career, because that put him in the category of pervert.

"Okay, I'll give you that. Anything else?"

"Not that I can think of." Like I said, Jason didn't know I had copies of those pictures, so I was safe on that count. "Anyway, Jason isn't violent."

"I thought you said he threatened to trash your car. To me, this is definitely in the same ballpark."

"But that was five years ago. And he threatened to trash my car if I went public about him cheating on me. He was running for the state legislature at the time, so that would definitely have hurt him. And to be fair, he only did that when I threatened to go public on him if he didn't give me everything I wanted in the divorce settlement."

Wyatt tilted his head back and surveyed the ceiling. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

"Because you're a smart man," I said, and patted his butt.

"Okay, if you don't think it's your ex-husband-I'm going to check him out anyway-do you have any other ideas?"

I shook my head. "Dwayne Bailey has the only reason I can think of."

"C'mon, Blair. Think."

"I am thinking!" I said in exasperation.

He was getting exasperated, too. He put his hands on his hips and looked down at me. "Then think harder. You're a cheerleader; there must be hundreds of people who'd like to kill you."

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