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Face of Death

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Блейк Пирс
Face of Death

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Blake Pierce

Blake Pierce is the USA Today bestselling author of the RILEY PAGE mystery series, which includes sixteen books (and counting). Blake Pierce is also the author of the MACKENZIE WHITE mystery series, comprising thirteen books (and counting); of the AVERY BLACK mystery series, comprising six books; of the KERI LOCKE mystery series, comprising five books; of the MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE mystery series, comprising five books (and counting); of the KATE WISE mystery series, comprising six books (and counting); of the CHLOE FINE psychological suspense mystery, comprising five books (and counting); of the JESSE HUNT psychological suspense thriller series, comprising five books (and counting); of the AU PAIR psychological suspense thriller series, comprising two books (and counting); and of the ZOE PRIME mystery series, comprising two books (and counting).

An avid reader and lifelong fan of the mystery and thriller genres, Blake loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.blakepierceauthor.com to learn more and stay in touch.


Copyright © 2019 by Blake Pierce. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright Fred Mantel, used under license from Shutterstock.com.

BOOKS BY BLAKE PIERCE

THE AU PAIR SERIES

ALMOST GONE (Book#1)

ALMOST LOST (Book #2)

ALMOST DEAD (Book #3)


ZOE PRIME MYSTERY SERIES

FACE OF DEATH (Book#1)

FACE OF MURDER (Book #2)

FACE OF FEAR (Book #3)


A JESSIE HUNT PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE SERIES

THE PERFECT WIFE (Book #1)

THE PERFECT BLOCK (Book #2)

THE PERFECT HOUSE (Book #3)

THE PERFECT SMILE (Book #4)

THE PERFECT LIE (Book #5)

THE PERFECT LOOK (Book #6)


CHLOE FINE PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE SERIES

NEXT DOOR (Book #1)

A NEIGHBOR’S LIE (Book #2)

CUL DE SAC (Book #3)

SILENT NEIGHBOR (Book #4)

HOMECOMING (Book #5)

TINTED WINDOWS (Book #6)


KATE WISE MYSTERY SERIES

IF SHE KNEW (Book #1)

IF SHE SAW (Book #2)

IF SHE RAN (Book #3)

IF SHE HID (Book #4)

IF SHE FLED (Book #5)

IF SHE FEARED (Book #6)

IF SHE HEARD (Book #7)


THE MAKING OF RILEY PAIGE SERIES

WATCHING (Book #1)

WAITING (Book #2)

LURING (Book #3)

TAKING (Book #4)

STALKING (Book #5)


RILEY PAIGE MYSTERY SERIES

ONCE GONE (Book #1)

ONCE TAKEN (Book #2)

ONCE CRAVED (Book #3)

ONCE LURED (Book #4)

ONCE HUNTED (Book #5)

ONCE PINED (Book #6)

ONCE FORSAKEN (Book #7)

ONCE COLD (Book #8)

ONCE STALKED (Book #9)

ONCE LOST (Book #10)

ONCE BURIED (Book #11)

ONCE BOUND (Book #12)

ONCE TRAPPED (Book #13)

ONCE DORMANT (Book #14)

ONCE SHUNNED (Book #15)

ONCE MISSED (Book #16)

ONCE CHOSEN (Book #17)


MACKENZIE WHITE MYSTERY SERIES

BEFORE HE KILLS (Book #1)

BEFORE HE SEES (Book #2)

BEFORE HE COVETS (Book #3)

BEFORE HE TAKES (Book #4)

BEFORE HE NEEDS (Book #5)

BEFORE HE FEELS (Book #6)

BEFORE HE SINS (Book #7)

BEFORE HE HUNTS (Book #8)

BEFORE HE PREYS (Book #9)

BEFORE HE LONGS (Book #10)

BEFORE HE LAPSES (Book #11)

BEFORE HE ENVIES (Book #12)

BEFORE HE STALKS (Book #13)

BEFORE HE HARMS (Book #14)


AVERY BLACK MYSTERY SERIES

CAUSE TO KILL (Book #1)

CAUSE TO RUN (Book #2)

CAUSE TO HIDE (Book #3)

CAUSE TO FEAR (Book #4)

CAUSE TO SAVE (Book #5)

CAUSE TO DREAD (Book #6)


KERI LOCKE MYSTERY SERIES

A TRACE OF DEATH (Book #1)

A TRACE OF MURDER (Book #2)

A TRACE OF VICE (Book #3)

A TRACE OF CRIME (Book #4)

A TRACE OF HOPE (Book #5)

AUTHOR NOTE:

You may have noticed that this book was first published with the author name “Stella Gold.” Occasionally I like to experiment and try new genres, and when doing so, I might use a pen name to keep it separate and prevent confusion for my fans. I initially published this book with the Stella Gold pen name. Soon after publishing it, I was happily surprised by the reception and reader feedback, and I realized that this book and series would indeed be a good fit for all Blake Pierce fans. So I’ve changed the author name back to Blake Pierce. If this is your first time reading one of my books, welcome to the Blake Pierce universe! Feel free to discover my other series. I have made the first books—and audiobooks-in most of my series free to enjoy!

FACE:

--The front part of the head that in humans extends from the forehead to the chin and includes the mouth, nose, cheeks, and eyes.


--In math, the shape that is bounded by the edges of a 3 dimensional object.


--One of the polygonal surfaces of a polyhedron.

PROLOGUE

Linda settled back in her chair, trying to get comfortable on the old, worn-out cushions. The seat, which had supported the weight of innumerable gas station attendants over the past fifteen or twenty years, was in about as good repair as the rest of the place.

At least she had a chair. And the TV, even if it was tiny and so out of date that she could only just make out faces through the noise on the screen.

Linda sighed and tapped the side of the TV a few times, trying to get a clearer picture. She was waiting for her favorite show to come on, and she wanted to at least be able to make out which character was which.

At least she wasn’t likely to be disturbed. This corner of western Missouri was not exactly well frequented, and she could go hours between customers. No one lived for miles around, and the road had been supplanted by a new highway that took people to their destinations on a more direct route. It was probably only a matter of time before the place shut down, so Linda was enjoying her rest while she could get it.

The theme tune of her show came on, reassuringly familiar despite the tinny quality to the sound. Linda wriggled against the backrest again, trying to get as comfortable as possible, and helped herself to a bag of chips from the display behind her.

“Oh, Loretta,” the character on the screen said. “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know we’re—”

The dialogue was drowned out by the bell above the door jingling. Linda shot to her feet, almost tripping over herself in an attempt to look as though she had been paying attention. Guiltily, she stuffed the open packet of chips on a shelf under the counter.

“Hi there,” the customer said, smiling. He looked amused, but friendly, as if they were both sharing a private joke. “Uh, could I please use your restroom?”

He was pleasant enough. A skinny, boyish kind of man. He couldn’t be thirty if he was a day. Linda liked him instantly. She had this kind of a sixth sense about customers. She could tell right away whether they were going to cause her any trouble.

“Sorry, hon,” she said. “It’s for paying customers only.”

“Oh,” he said, casting around him. There was a display of cheap candy by the side of the counter, designed to lure in kids who would tug at their parents’ sleeves. “I’ll take these.”

He grabbed a bag of hard-shelled candy and tossed it gently onto the counter, right in front of her. He dug in his pocket for a handful of coins, and the correct change followed the bag.

“Here you are, sir,” Linda said, sliding one of the bathroom keys across to him. “It’s right at the back of the building. Just head outside and around the corner.”

“Oh, thanks,” the man said, taking it and tapping it against one thumb as he looked out to the parking lot. “But, uh. Would you mind showing me where it is?”

Linda hesitated. Her show was on, and she had missed so much of it already. And despite her feeling that this guy was perfectly good and normal—even handsome, if she was ten or fifteen years younger—she had a little niggling doubt in the back of her mind. Should she really abandon the counter to show him to the restroom? Go alone, in the dark, with a stranger, out of sight of the road?

Oh, Linda, she thought to herself. You’re just trying to sneak some more time with your show. Now, you go on and get yourself up out of that chair and do your job.

“Sure,” she said, though still somewhat reluctant. “Follow me.”

The sun had gone down maybe half an hour ago, so it was really no wonder that he wanted a hand finding the bathroom. An unfamiliar place in the dark wasn’t easy to navigate. Linda began to lead him in the right direction, stepping over the weeds growing out of the concrete.

 

“This place sure is deserted, huh?” he said.

“Yeah,” Linda said. Bit of an odd thing to bring up in the dark, wasn’t it? Maybe he was feeling a little spooked himself, wanted some reassurance. Not that she enjoyed the isolation any more than he did. “We don’t get a whole lot of traffic out here these days.”

“I always think you can tell a whole lot about a place from its gas stations. There are these little signs, you know. Patterns you can pick up on. Like how rich a community is, or what kind of food is popular.”

“I guess I never really thought of that.” Privately, Linda could not care less about his explanation of the intricacies of gas stations across the country. She wanted to get out to the bathroom and get back inside as quickly as possible, with no weird stuff. But she didn’t want to be rude and tell him that.

“Oh, yeah. I like visiting different ones. Some of them are huge, you know. Then some are little, beaten-up, out of the way places, like this one. And you can learn a lot about the people who work there, too.”

That sent a prickle down Linda’s spine. He was talking about her. She didn’t want to ask what he could learn about her, or what he knew already. She didn’t think she would like it.

“It’s a strange job, out here in the middle of nowhere,” he continued. “You must spend a lot of time alone. If you need help, well, it must be hard to get it. There’s a certain type of person takes this kind of job. From there you can predict all kinds of things about behavior based on the patterns. Like how far you would be willing to go to serve a customer.”

Linda quickened her steps across the dark ground, feeling the need to get away from him now. The reminder that she was vulnerable was not one she wanted to hear at that moment. It sent another shiver down her spine, even as she told herself she was being stupid. She felt the hard metal of the front door key in her pocket, and slipped it between two of her fingers, where it could be a weapon.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to trigger him into saying something else—or doing something. Though she couldn’t say what she expected him to do, whatever it was, she was certain she didn’t want it. They walked through the empty parking lot—the customer’s car must have been parked around front at the pumps.

“There’s your bathroom, over there,” Linda said, pointing. She didn’t particularly want to go any further. If he went on alone, she could get back to her counter, where there was a phone to call for help and doors she could lock.

The customer didn’t say anything, but he pulled out his packet of candy and opened it up. He wasn’t even looking at her, but seemed carefully concentrated on his task as he upended the packet and poured it all out.

The colorful balls of candy scattered and skipped across the concrete. Linda yelped and took a step back in spite of herself. Whoever heard of throwing candy all over the ground like that? Just to spook her, or what? Linda’s hand flew to her chest, trying to calm her racing heartbeat.

“Look at that!” The customer laughed, pointing down at the candy. “It’s always the same, you know? There’s no such thing as randomness. You get the same patterns and fractals, and there’s always something there. Even if you try not to see it, your head grabs onto a pattern, just like that.”

Linda had heard enough. This guy was some kind of nutcase. She was alone out here, in the dark, as he had taken pains to point out. She had to get away from him, get back to the counter. Get back where it was safe.

Linda took the fastest route to that she could think of. She quickly marched the last few steps to the bathroom and unlocked it for him, the light above the door flickering on automatically.

“Oh!” the young man said. “There, look. On your hand. Another pattern.”

Linda froze and looked down at her freckles, now visible in the pale orange light. His attention on her skin was like an insect, something she wanted instinctively to shake off.

“I have to get back in the store,” Linda blurted out. “Just in case there are any more customers. Just leave the key when you’re done.”

She started hurrying back toward the front of the gas station, to the door and the safety of the counter. There was something off about this young man, something very odd indeed, and she did not want to spend another second in his company—even if it meant coming back for the key on her own later. All the hairs on the back of her neck were standing up, and her heart would not calm down.

Maybe she should call someone. She thought about her ex-husband, sitting miles away in his home, probably with his feet up in front of the TV. Or her boss, who for all she knew might have been in Canada for as often as she saw him. Would they even answer? And if they did, what could they do to help?

The police, maybe? No—surely that was an overreaction.

Linda almost tripped on a loose piece of candy that had skittered further than the rest, and tried to place her feet more carefully, checking the ground ahead. Her heart was racing, and she could hear her own footsteps crunching far too loudly as she rushed toward the corner of the building. She wished she could make less noise, go faster, just get back to the doors.

She was almost running, her breath catching in her chest. She turned the corner, feeling a sense of relief at seeing the familiar doors ahead.

But something was pulling her back—something tightening around her neck.

Linda’s hands flew up instinctively, grasping at the thin, sharp wire that sliced at her fingers as she fought to get a purchase on it. Her feet tried aimlessly to move her body forward, the momentum only forcing her head further back. She had to get back to the doors. She had to get inside!

Panic clouded her vision, and the agonizing pressure intensified until there was a rush of release, something wet and hot gushing over her chest and down. There was no time to make sense of it all, only to gasp for air and feel a wet sucking sensation where the wire had been, and to notice the ground beneath her knees, and then her head, and then nothing at all.

CHAPTER ONE

FBI Special Agent Zoe Prime looked at the woman beside her in the passenger’s seat and tried not to feel intimidated.

“How about getting thrown in at the deep end?” Shelley joked.

Zoe knew what she meant. The two of them had only just been partnered up, and here they were speeding toward a crime scene. A big crime scene, actually. One that would make serious headlines.

But that wasn’t what was making Zoe feel uncomfortable. It was the fact that she had been partnered with a new agent who was already making waves at the Bureau. Shelley Rose had an open, kind face and manner, and was rumored to be able to get a confession out of anyone with just a smile. When you had a secret to hide, getting paired up with someone like that was more than enough to send a tickle of paranoia down your spine.

Not to mention the fact that Zoe, not considered the best at anything at the Bureau so far, was harboring a not-so-little amount of envy over the level of respect that her rookie partner already commanded.

Shelley had an almost-symmetrical face, just 1.5 millimeters off from being perfect, a slight variance between her eyes. There was no wonder she elicited automatic trust and amiability from those around her. It was classic psychology. A tiny flaw that made her beauty more human.

Even knowing that, Zoe couldn’t help but find herself liking her new partner, too.

“What do we know so far?” Zoe asked.

Shelley leafed through the pile of papers she held in her hands, tucked inside a folder. “Convict busted out of Tent City, in Phoenix,” she said. Outside the car, Arizona desert flashed by. “Fled on foot. Apparently, that hasn’t slowed him down. Three known homicides so far.”

“Guards?” Zoe asked. Her mind was flashing ahead. Counting the miles a man could get on foot in this heat. Not far, without rest, shelter, and water. Calculate for the sucking surface of the sand, and it reduced even further.

“No, randoms. Two hikers first.” Shelley paused, sucking a breath in through her teeth. “The murders were… vicious, by all indications. Latest vic was a tourist on their way to the Grand Canyon.”

“That is where we are headed now,” Zoe assumed. The map of the area unfolded in her mind, carving out the roadways and paths each victim was likely to have taken in order to cross paths with their man.

“Right. Looks like we should brace ourselves.”

Zoe nodded silently. She had noticed that it was harder for people like Shelley to turn up at a crime scene and see the victim’s body. They felt the pain and suffering that had been inflicted. Zoe always just saw a body—meat. Meat that might hold clues that could help the investigation, and the numbers that circled around it.

That was probably what had allowed her to pass all the entrance exams and become a Special Agent in the first place—staying calm and controlled, analyzing the facts instead of the emotions. But it was her quiet nature and tendency to fall back on a blank facial expression that had left her in need of a new partner. Apparently, her last one had felt Zoe was too quiet and aloof.

She had attempted to remedy this on her first case with Shelley by purchasing two coffees in foam cups and supplying one to her partner when they met, in recognition of a seemingly ancient ritual between co-workers. It had seemed to go down well. Shelley was personable enough for the both of them, which was why Zoe was hopeful that this might actually work out.

It wasn’t difficult to spot the site. Local cops milled around in uniform under the hot sun, a blazing ferocity that bore down heavily on her exposed arms as soon as Zoe stepped out of the air-conditioned car. Skin would burn in forty-five minutes if not protected. She would likely have some bronzing on her cheeks, nose, and hands by the time they got back into the car.

Shelley introduced them, and they both flashed their badges at the officer in charge before heading closer to the scene. Zoe only listened with half an ear, happy to let Shelley take charge. Even though Zoe was the superior officer, she did not begrudge Shelley throwing her weight around. Zoe was already searching, looking for the keys that would unlock everything for her. Shelley gave her a nod, an unspoken agreement that she would deal with the locals while Zoe examined the surroundings.

“I don’t know as you’ll find too much,” the chief was saying. “We’ve been over everything about as closely as you can get.”

Zoe ignored him and carried on looking. There were things that she could see, things that others couldn’t. Things that might as well have been written in ten-foot-high letters, but were invisible to normal people.

This was her secret; her superpower. She spotted his footprints in the sand and the calculations appeared next to them, telling her everything she needed to know. It was as easy as reading a book.

She crouched slightly, getting a better look at the closest prints and how they stretched away from the victim’s body. The perp was six foot two inches, his stride told her. The depth of his footprints easily indicated a weight around two-ten. He had been running steadily, approaching the victim at three point eight miles per hour to the attack, according to their spacing.

Zoe shifted over, examining the body next. The convict had used a seven-and-a-half-inch shiv, which he stabbed overhand into the body at a forty-nine-degree angle. Flight was in the northwest direction, at a faster jogging pace of five point nine miles per hour.

The blood in the sand told her it happened less than four hours ago. The calculations were easy. Using an average rate of fatigue and allowing for the heat of the day, Zoe looked up and squinted into the distance, picturing exactly how far away they would find him. Her heart quickened as she pictured bringing him in. They would catch him easily. Already fatigued, no water, and no way of knowing they had already discovered his crimes. This would be over soon.

Her attention strayed to the shrubs and small trees that grew across the distance, scattered growths that offered not enough shelter for a human. She saw the distances between them, numbers appearing before her eyes, telling her the story behind the pattern. Scattered far from each other, low natural resources. Clustered together, roots seeking out an underground water source and nutrient-rich ground. Even though they looked random to the unsuspecting eye, the placement of each was design. The design of the natural world.

 

“Anything?” Shelley asked. She had an expectant look, like she was waiting for her more experienced partner to solve everything.

Zoe looked up, starting guiltily. She rose to her feet and quickly shook her head. “Guess he ran that way,” she said, pointing in the obvious direction of his receding footprints. There was an outcrop of rocks in the far distance, a good spot for a rest. The formation told her of wind patterns, of thousands of years of scooping and sculpting. “Maybe he will stop for shade over there. It is a hot day.”

A secret was a secret. There was no way she could admit to what she knew. No way that she could say out loud that she was a freak who understood the world in a way that no one else did. Or admit the rest—that she didn’t get how they saw it, either. But she could give them this much. The kind of hint that a normal person might see.

The chief cleared his throat, interrupting. “We already scouted in that direction and found nothing. The dogs lost the scent. There’s some rockier ground over there which doesn’t take footprints. We figure he would have carried on running straight ahead. Or even been picked up by a vehicle.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes. She knew what she knew. This man was running in desperation, his stride long, body low to the ground as he pitched forward for speed. He wasn’t heading to a rescue, and he wasn’t so far away they wouldn’t be able to find him.

“Humor us,” Zoe suggested. She tapped the FBI sigil on her badge, still held in her hand. There was one great thing about being a special agent: you weren’t always expected to explain yourself. In fact, you played into stereotypes if you didn’t.

Shelley turned back from studying Zoe’s face to liaise with the chief again, an air of determination about her. “Send up the chopper. You have the dogs ready?”

“Sure.” The chief nodded, though he looked none too pleased. “You’re the boss.”

Shelley thanked him. “Let’s drive out,” she suggested to Zoe. “I have the pilot on the radio. He’ll keep us updated when they spot anything.”

Zoe nodded and got back into the car obediently. Shelley had supported her, backed her up. That was a good sign. She was grateful, and had no sense of ego at Shelley being the one to give the orders. It was all the same, so long as lives got saved.

“Whew.” Shelley paused, resting in the passenger’s seat with a map open in her hands. “Doesn’t get any easier, does it? A woman on her own like that, no provocation. She didn’t deserve that.”

Zoe nodded again. “Right,” she said, not sure of what else she could add to the conversation. She started the car and began driving, to fill the space.

“You don’t talk a whole lot, do you?” Shelley asked. She paused before adding, “It’s all right. Just getting to know how you work.”

The murder was undeserved, that was true. Zoe could see and understand that. But what was done, was done. They had a job to do now. Seconds ticked on, beyond the normal limitations of an expected reply. Zoe cast about but could find nothing to say. The time had passed. If she spoke up now, she would only sound stranger still.

Zoe tried to focus on holding a sad expression while she drove, but it was too difficult to do both at once. She stopped struggling to do it, her face relaxing into her natural blank stare. It wasn’t that she wasn’t thinking, or that there were no emotions at all behind her eyes. It was just difficult to think about how her face looked and consciously control it, while her mind calculated the exact distance between each marker on the road and ensured she stayed at a speed which would prevent the car from flipping if she had to swerve on this type of tarmac.

They took the road, following the smoother surface as it curved around through the flat landscape. Zoe could already see that it would move the right way, allowing them to catch up with him if he ran in a straight line. She put her foot down hard on the pedal, using the advantage of tarmac to speed onward.

A voice crackled over the radio, breaking Zoe out of her inner thoughts.

“We’ve got eyes on the suspect. Over.”

“Roger that,” Shelley replied. She was precise and wasted no time, which Zoe appreciated. “Coordinates?”

The helicopter pilot rattled off his position, and Shelley directed Zoe from her map. They didn’t have to adjust their course—they were right on target. Zoe clenched the wheel tighter, feeling that thrill of validation. She’d been correct with her assumptions.

It was only a few moments more before they sighted the chopper hanging steadily in the air above a local patrol car, whose two occupants had apparently gotten out and tackled the convict to the ground. He lay in the sand, newly disturbed and shifting around him, and swore.

Zoe pulled the car to a stop and Shelley hopped out immediately, relaying information over her handheld radio. A small group of men with dogs were already approaching from the southeast, the dogs barking in excitement at finding the source of the scent they had picked up.

Zoe picked up the map that Shelley had discarded, checking it against the GPS. They were within an eighth of a mile of where she had guessed he would be, on a direct trajectory. He must have run from the outcropping when he heard the dogs.

She allowed herself a victory smile, jumping out of the car to join them with renewed vigor. Out under the burning sun, Shelley flashed her a matching grin, obviously happy to be closing their first case together already.

Later, back in the car, the quiet settled in again. Zoe didn’t know what to say—she never did. Small talk was an absolute mystery to her. What was the correct number of times to mention the weather before it became an obvious cliché? For how many drives could she engage in dry conversation about things that didn’t really matter before the silence became companionable, rather than awkward?

“You didn’t say much out there,” Shelley said, breaking the silence at last.

Zoe paused before answering. “No,” she agreed, trying to make it sound friendly. There wasn’t much more that she could do beyond agreeing.

There was more silence. Zoe calculated the seconds inside her head, realizing it had gone beyond what would be considered a normal break in conversation.

Shelley cleared her throat. “The partners I had in training, we practiced talking through the case,” she said. “Work together to solve it. Not alone.”

Zoe nodded, keeping her eyes fixed ahead on the road. “I understand,” she said, even though she felt a rising sense of panic. She didn’t understand—not fully. On some level she understood the way people felt around her, because they were always telling her. But she didn’t know what she was supposed to do about it. She was already trying, trying as hard as she could.

“Talk to me next time,” Shelley said, settling deeper into her seat as if it was all resolved. “We’re supposed to be partners. I want to really work together.”

This didn’t bode well for the future. Zoe’s last partner had taken at least a few weeks to work himself up to complaining about how quiet and aloof she was.

She had thought she was doing better this time. Hadn’t she bought the coffees? And Shelley had smiled at her before. Was she supposed to buy more drinks, to tip the balance? Was there a certain number she should aim for in order to make their relationship more comfortable?

Zoe watched the road flash in front of the windshield, under a sky that was starting to darken. She felt like she should say something else, though she couldn’t imagine what. This was all her fault, and she knew it.

It always seemed so easy for other people. They talked, and talked, and talked, and became friends overnight. She had observed it happening so many times, but there didn’t seem to be any rules to follow. It wasn’t defined by a set period of time or number of interactions, or the amount of things people needed to have in common.

They were just magically good at getting on with other people, like Shelley was. Or they weren’t. Like Zoe.

Not that she knew what she was doing wrong. People told her to be warmer and more friendly, but what did that mean, exactly? No one had ever given her a manual explaining all of the things she was supposed to know. Zoe gripped the steering wheel tighter, trying not to betray how upset she felt. That was the last thing she needed Shelley to see.

Zoe realized that it was she herself who was the problem. She wasn’t delusional about that. She just didn’t know how to be any way other than what she was, and other people did, and she was embarrassed that she had never learned. To admit that would be, somehow, even worse.


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