When a young widow witnesses a fatal car accident outside a Jersey Shore motel, she's suddenly thrust into a nightmare of gang violence, guns, and money that she can't outrun in this action-packed novel by "one of the best writers in crime fiction" (Alison Gaylin). Joette Harper's life brings new meaning to the phrase "paycheck to paycheck." Struggling to afford her mother's sky-high medical bills and also keep the lights on in her trailer home, Joette needs a break. So, when she spies a bag full of money amongst the wreckage of a fiery car accident, she knows she can't just let it be. Inside is a bounty better than she could have dreamed—just shy of $300,000 in neatly stacked hundreds and fifties. Enough to pay off her debts, give her mother the care she deserves, and maybe even help out a few of her friends. But, of course, the missing briefcase didn't go unnoticed by its original owner, Travis Clay—a ruthless dealer who'll stop at nothing to get back what's his. Joette is way out of her depth, but can't seem to stop herself from participating in this cat-and-mouse chase. But can she beat Travis at his own game?
Release date: April 6, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 352
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Heaven's a Lie
Watching through the office window, Joette knows the BMW won’t make the curve.
Just past the motel, the highway hooks left across Taylor Creek. The car’s going too fast. A squeal of brakes, a brief screaming skid, and it hits the bridge’s right-side abutment head-on. Momentum spins the car around, pieces of it flying away across the blacktop. It comes to rest sideways in the road, pointing at the motel, steam hissing from under the buckled hood. The office window rattles a final time.
Later, it will occur to her that if she’d called 911 then—her cell phone right there on the desk—everything that happened after would have been different.
Instead, she’s out the door without thinking. The hood is pushed back almost to the windshield, the glass cracked and sagging. The driver is slumped over the deflated airbag. The rear window’s been blown out, and the trunk’s open. Cubes of safety glass litter the ground.
She pulls at the driver’s door latch. The door’s wedged tight, bent in its frame. The driver raises his head, looks at her blankly through the window, eyes unfocused. He’s wearing an army field jacket, has a shaved head and a full beard, gothic lettering across his throat.
She hears the fire before she sees it. An ominous pop and hiss, then a crackle of flame in the engine compartment. Fuel line rupture, she thinks, gasoline hitting hot metal.
Black smoke starts to pour from the engine. More flame. It won’t take long for the fire to spread back through the car, reach the gas tank.
The driver is fumbling weakly with his shoulder harness. She pulls harder on the latch, and the door opens suddenly, sends her falling back onto the blacktop. Flames leap from the engine.
Get away, she thinks. This whole thing’s going up any second.
The car begins to fill with noxious smoke. He makes an animal sound, and she sees the first flames come through the dashboard vents.
You can’t leave him there.
She scrambles to her feet, leans into the open door. He grabs at her and she elbows his hands away, untwists the shoulder harness and pushes the red release button. The belt pops loose, retracts fast, and his weight falls against her. She hooks her arms under his, tries to pull him out, but can’t get leverage.
You’re both gonna burn.
Flames curl from under the dashboard, snap at the sleeve of her flannel shirt. The material begins to blacken and char. She slaps at it, feels the sting. Holding her breath against the smoke, she bear-hugs him from behind, throws her weight backward. He groans, seems to resist, then falls sideways out of the seat and onto the ground. She drags him away.
Sudden pain in her lower back. She ignores it, grips the collar of his jacket with both hands. Smoke hides most of the car now, lashing flame at the center of it. The seats are on fire. She pulls him into the lot, almost up to the office door, before finally letting go.
Something sails across her line of vision, glowing faintly. It flutters down and lands at her feet. When she picks it up, she sees it’s a hundred-dollar bill, half of Benjamin Franklin’s face burned away.
The driver coughs, and the blood on his lips is almost black. He lifts a weak hand, points to the car, mumbles something she can’t understand.
Is there someone else in there?
She doesn’t want to go back, get any closer to the fire, the heat.
You have to see.
She drops the bill, approaches the car, arm raised in front of her face, the heat keeping her back. Smoke pours through the rear window, but she can tell the backseat is empty.
She sees it then, inside the open trunk. A gray canvas gear bag lying on its side, packs of cash and a few loose bills spilling out.
The heat is a wall in front of her, shimmering the air. She knows the gas tank is just below the trunk. The fire will set it off any minute.
She leans into the heat, sweeps the packs and bills into the bag, grips its handles and backs away fast.
The tank goes up just as she reaches the lot. No explosion, just a loud whump, and heat coming at her like a wave. Fire sweeps through the car in a final rush, heat distorting the air, black smoke billowing higher into the blue winter sky. The tires pop like gunshots, one after the other. She stumbles back, trips and sits down hard.
The driver coughs again, more blood. His left hand is under the jacket, pressed against his stomach through his T-shirt. Blood pulses through his fingers. His jeans are dark with it, down to his knees.
He didn’t get that in the accident. That’s something else.
He looks at her, shudders twice and goes still. His eyes are open.
A wind springs up from nowhere, feeds the fire. The air smells of burning plastic and rubber. She sits there alongside the dead man and the bag full of money, watching the car burn, ash drifting down around them like black snow.
The fire had all but burned itself out before the emergency vehicles arrived. Now she stands at the desk behind the counter, watching them winch the blackened skeleton of the car onto a flatbed. The bare rims scrape the roadway, the winch clanking and whining.
Two state police cars are in the lot, along with three local cruisers from Wall Township, all parked at angles, blocking in her Subaru. The local cops talk among themselves, nothing to do now. She can hear radio chatter from their cruisers.
Chaney, the state trooper, is sitting in one of the plastic chairs by the glass door, writing in a notebook. He looks tired and bored.
“How many?” he says.
“How many what?”
Her left forearm throbs. One of the paramedics had cut away part of the sleeve, put salve on the burn and wrapped it with gauze and tape. She’d turned down his offer to call another ambulance, take her to the hospital, not wanting them to know she had no insurance. He’d seen the old crosswise scars on her wrist, pale against the skin, but hadn’t mentioned them.
“How many occupied?”
“Just one right now,” she says. “Unit four. Januarys are always slow. Was there anyone else in the car?”
“No. Did you think there was?”
“I wasn’t sure.”
She feels a sudden shiver, hugs herself. A small portable heater hums in one corner, but the office is still cold. Her lower back aches. She pulled something dragging the man into the lot.
The flatbed backs and fills, the reverse alarm beeping. Where the car was, the roadway is scorched dark.
“How do you stay in business?” he says. “Renting one out of ten?”
“It’s not my motel. I’m just the day manager. Four days a week.”
The flatbed drives off.
“What time did you come in?”
“That’s a long shift.”
“A few things I need to do, but mostly I end up watching a lot of TV.”
“Any cameras outside? Video?”
“And no other witnesses you know of?”
“I was the only one here.”
“No maid? Maintenance guy?”
“This time of year, I only call them when I need them.”
“So you’re alone most of the time?”
She can still smell smoke and burned rubber, knows it’s on her clothes, her skin.
The door chime sounds, and another trooper comes in. She’s younger than Joette, hair tied up under a blue-and-yellow peaked cap. The silver name tag on her uniform reads LT. BRYCE.
“How long you been working here?” Chaney says.
“A year and a half,” Joette says. “Before that, I was at First Community in Belmar.” Not sure why she felt the need to tell him.
“The bank?” he says. “What did you do there?”
“I was a teller.”
“They got bought. I got downsized.”
“I hear that. You get a pension at least?”
She shakes her head.
“That your car out there?” Bryce says.
Bryce looks around the office, Joette aware of what she must be seeing. Cheap paneling, a rack of sun-faded tourist brochures. The green indoor-outdoor carpet has water stains left over from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Knowing Singh, she assumed he’d put in for FEMA money after the storm, but he never made any repairs.
Bryce nods at the curtained doorway that leads to the back room. “What’s in there?”
“Filing cabinet. Breaker box, supplies. Stock for the vending machines. Fire exit.”
“This some kind of welfare motel?”
“Section Eight placement? Social Services?”
“Usually, when we roll up on a place like this, we’re kicking in doors.”
Joette feels a flash of irritation, says nothing.
“How come you didn’t call 911 right away?” Bryce says. “Why go out there on your own?”
“It seemed like the right thing to do. I didn’t think too much about it.”
“Don’t you know you’re not supposed to move accident victims?”
“The car was on fire,” she says. “If I hadn’t pulled him out, he would have burned to death.”
“Why are you getting agitated?”
“I’m not agitated. You asked me a question. I answered it.”
Chaney gets up, closes his notebook. “Different here in the summer, I imagine, once all the bennies come down.”
“We’re full up Memorial Day to Labor Day. We’re only fifteen minutes from the beach.”
“More like a half hour,” Bryce says. “How much you get for a room?”
“You interested?” Feeling defensive now. Shut up. Let them leave.
“Hardly,” Bryce says.
“Depends on length of stay. Different rates on- and off-season. The rooms are all efficiencies, so mostly we rent weekly or monthly. We get a lot of people stay all summer. Families.”
“If you say so.”
It’s getting dark outside. She’ll have to switch on the roadside sign soon. Doesn’t want to. She just wants to close up and go home.
Another Wall cruiser pulls into the lot, Noah Cooper at the wheel. A familiar face at last. He gets out, looks toward the office, then goes over to talk to the other uniforms.
“You sure you don’t want to go to the ER?” Chaney says. “Get that arm looked at?”
“No. I’ll be fine.”
“You might think different later, when it starts hurting.”
“It hurts now. But thanks.”
Noah comes in, the door chiming. He nods to the troopers, looks at her. “You all right?”
“You two know each other?” Bryce says.
“Yeah,” Noah says before Joette can answer. “Long time.”
“We’re out of here,” Chaney says. He looks at Bryce. “Unless you got something else.”
Bryce shakes her head. They nod to Noah as they leave. Joette watches Bryce go to her Subaru, bend to look into the passenger-side window. She feels her stomach tighten.
Bryce straightens, says something to Chaney. He shrugs and they get into their cruisers, pull out of the lot. The other cops drift to their cars and drive off, no lights or sirens this time.
“You’re hurt,” Noah says.
“It’s not bad. Little surface burn is all.”
“They told me what happened. You really pull the driver out of that car?”
“I’m as surprised as you are.”
“That’s some superhero stuff.”
“He didn’t make it.”
“I heard. I’m sorry.”
Almost full dark now. In the back room, she opens the breaker box and thumbs switches. When she comes back out, the neon sign is flickering. It buzzes and hums, then finally lights up—CASTAWAYS MOT R LODGE—CABLE TV—BEST RATES—VACANCY. The second O in MOTOR stays dark, as always. The sign throws a red glow on the parking lot, Noah’s cruiser and her Subaru.
She picks grit from her palm from when she fell. All of it settling in on her now. What happened, what she did.
“Anyone else see the accident?” he says.
“Just me, far as I know.”
“What about stripper mom?”
“Don’t call her that.”
“She wasn’t here. Cara either. They’ve been gone all day.”
“That’s good. Not something you’d want a kid to see, an accident like that. Give her nightmares.”
Flecks of snow outside now. She remembers the ash.
“What about you?” he says.
“What about me?”
“Will you have nightmares?”
“I have enough already,” she says. “Any new ones will have to wait in line.”
* * *
After he’s gone, she calls Singh at his house in Edison to tell him about the accident. All he wants to know is if there’s any damage to motel property, if they’ll have any liability for the driver dying there. He doesn’t ask if she wants Baxter, the night man, to come in early.
She’s anxious, knowing what she has to do. She watches the office clock while the TV drones on the wall. A little after seven, the wind picks up, and she knows she can’t wait any longer. She pulls on her hoodie and down vest, gets the heavy black aluminum flashlight from the back room.
Outside, the snow is still light. She sees a lone car coming down the highway, waits for it to pass. Then she crosses to the opposite shoulder, turns on the flashlight. The beam lights bits of safety glass that were swept off the road. The slope leads down to a rain ditch on the edge of the woods.
You have to make sure.
She shines the light in the ditch, picks her way down carefully, playing the beam along the ground, then into the trees. There are shards of black plastic scattered around, pieces of the car’s front end. She walks the ditch toward the creek and bridge, doing grids with the flashlight beam, taking her time. Easier to search in the daylight, but she can’t come back then, take the chance of being seen.
She hears a car engine, shuts off the flashlight. Headlights coming fast. The car flies by above her, makes the metal bridge surface hum. When the taillights are out of sight, she turns on the flashlight again.
The water in the creek is only a few inches deep but slivered with ice. She fans the beam under the bridge and into the culvert. Trash has washed up on the concrete ledge—a sodden red-and-white KFC box, a plastic Diet Coke bottle. Just below the surface, something dark and rectangular is caught on a dead branch.
She steps into the creek, cold water filling her sneakers, tucks the flashlight under her left arm. She pushes up her other sleeve, shines the flashlight into the water. There it is, trailing from the branch. Another bill.
She reaches in, the coldness of the water numbing her hand, frees the bill and shines the light on it. Another hundred, one corner burned off. The loose bills must have been caught in the updraft of heat from the fire, floated clear of the trunk. Are there more?
She tucks the bill in a vest pocket, ducks under the culvert and steps onto the narrow concrete ledge of the creek bank, her sneakers squishing. Walking heel to toe on the ledge, she sweeps the flashlight beam side to side. At the end of the culvert, she steps to the other bank, walks back that way, ducking low again. Slower this time, doing grids again with the flashlight. No more bills.
Back to the ditch, then up to the road, her feet soaked and numb. In the office, she takes off her sneakers and socks, rolls up her jeans cuffs midcalf. She lays the wet socks over the heater grille, sets the sneakers in front of it. The floor is cold beneath her bare feet. She dries them with a towel from the back room linen closet.
She smooths out the wet bill on the desk, the half-burned one beside it. There may be more around, blown down the road or into the woods, but there’s nothing she can do about that now.
She holds the bills up to the light. They’re real as far as she can tell, the blue security ribbons intact. To the left of Franklin are the embedded threads that read USA and 100.
A sudden chill sweeps through her again, goose bumps from the cold. The pain in her back has returned.
At nine, the door locks automatically with a sharp click tha. . .
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