Debbie Bradley wondered if her faith in her smartphone's map had been misplaced. The streets were nearly deserted. The homes boarded up. Overgrown grass, knee-high weeds, and sun-bleached trash scattered across abandoned lots. The factories that once churned out shoes, Howitzer shells, and even Corvettes were shuttered. Towering churches now had dark, empty holes instead of ornate stained-glass windows.
The only sound, other than her phone's voice assistant, was the wail of an occasional siren from an unseen emergency vehicle.
She'd grown up in St. Louis and had always been warned that there were places where she shouldn't venture alone--even in the light of day. But she'd been away from home for over ten years, save for the obligatory Thanksgiving and Christmas visits, and she wasn't sure how much of the old advice was still relevant.
Then again, Debbie took advice like she took sugar in her coffee: She shunned it.
She'd always been a contrarian, probably because her parents, Cary Bradley and Beth Hughes, were lawyers. Cary and Beth met in law school, fell in love, and built a law firm representing people who'd been discriminated against at work or preyed upon by big corporations. After her dad died of a heart attack while Debbie was in high school, her mom kept the firm going, and it continued to thrive. There was even a small conference room waiting to be converted into Debbie's office.
Only Debbie didn't want it.
Instead, she yearned to help people in a different way. She believed that as a reporter, she could make a difference by exposing corruption and shining a light on injustice. She loved telling the stories of people and places that her readers might never know. She liked getting away from her desk. She liked digging for the truth. She took pleasure in crafting the sentences that would appear in print or on a screen.
And she was addicted to the buzz she felt each time she saw her byline.
Now, suddenly, she was back home. A place that was both familiar and foreign. Well, physically, she was home. Her heart, however, was still in Washington, D.C. Her mind replayed in a continuous loop those last moments in the nation's capital, loading two hand-me-down roller suitcases into her battered Honda Civic as her fiancé, Christian Garza, pleaded one last time for her to reconsider her decision to take a new job and move back to St. Louis.
He didn't understand all the reasons that made her go.
At some point during their seemingly never-ending engagement, they'd gone from soulmates to roommates. Each time Debbie would suggest a wedding date, Christian found a reason to reject it: too close to the presidential election, too soon after the presidential election, too close to midterms. He'd become obsessed with winning journalism awards. The Pulitzer was the prize he most coveted. Christian was wedded to his job, not her.
When Debbie learned her mother had breast cancer, it was the sign she needed to take the job she hadn't been looking for. In fact, it was a position she initially had turned down.
When Sam Hitchens, her college mentor, became the new editor at River City, he reached out to her to see if she was ready to return to her roots. Sam was a traditional newspaper guy but staying afloat at a print paper was getting harder and harder. River City magazine had a stable base of advertisers and the wealthy pockets of a native St. Louisan who'd made his money in tech and wanted to dabble in the media. Sam had been tasked with beefing up the magazine, adding real journalism that could be served alongside puff pieces about plastic surgery, expensive private schools, and the latest trendy couch pillow. The tech mogul envisioned a publication that could serve as the social conscience for the city's aristocrats and aging debutantes as well as the professionals and executives of the city who were in a position to make changes to help those around them.
Sam had gotten to know Debbie when he spent a semester teaching as an adjunct at Mizzou, part of a leave of absence he was given while working as the investigative team's editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before he stepped foot on campus, he'd already been impressed with the legal work of Debbie's parents. Once in the classroom, he saw promise in the daughter of the legal duo. Even after he went back to his regular job at the paper, they'd stayed in touch. She'd send him an occasional clip. He'd give her detailed feedback and suggestions for improvement.
Debbie noticed that her phone had gone quiet. Either she was going in the right direction or her app had crashed. Again. She took one hand off the steering wheel and adjusted her glasses as she peered at the small screen. She put the phone back down and tucked a strand of her thick, wavy hair the color of a roasted chestnut shell back into her tight ponytail. Maybe it's time to turn back, she thought. But a retreat wouldn't get her to the Teen Alliance interview.
She needed to focus on the assignment. It was easy enough--interviewing the executive director of a nonprofit. Teen Alliance was an organization trying to give kids from families with little means healthy ways to spend their free time. It would be a puff piece, and although light, fluffy, positive stories weren't really her strength, Sam thought it would be a way for Debbie to get into the groove of magazine reporting, as well as help her grow her contact list of local movers and shakers.
The repeated blare of a car horn shook Debbie out of her reverie.
She turned her head toward the sound that pierced the eerie quiet. It was coming from a blue, rust-pocked pickup truck driven by a silver-haired man. The truck was headed toward her, traveling in its lane, and yet the driver was pointing at Debbie and then pointing at his rearview mirror.
Instinctively, Debbie looked into her own rearview. That's when she spotted a red Audi convertible weaving wildly in and out of her lane--and the truck's lane--and was not slowing down.
Debbie lurched her steering wheel abruptly to the right. The oncoming truck veered in the opposite direction, leaving as much room as possible for the erratic luxury car barreling down the roadway and any driver unfortunate enough to be sharing the space.
The out-of-control Audi swerved toward the truck, then sharply careened the opposite way, its front aimed at Debbie's car. Debbie's heart lurched into her throat. The Audi's tires squealed. The nose of the Audi turned sharply once again and clipped the back end of the truck before jumping the curb.
Screams rang out. A crowd of teens who had been gathered outside a tiny market--the sort that sells junk food, liquor, and lottery tickets in places where chain grocery stores refuse to operate--was in the path of the Audi that was no longer being guided by its driver.
Those on the edges of the group scattered like birds after the loud boom of a gunshot, darting out of the car's path. Those who were in the center, the unlucky ones, flew into the air when the car connected with human flesh.
Debbie slammed on her brakes, threw her car into park, and grabbed her phone to dial 911.
The Audi finally came to a stop after the front end and hood smashed through the display window of the market. Customers still clutching red plastic baskets and a worker wearing a green apron stumbled out the front door, dazed and confused.
Debbie jumped out of her car. There were people broken and bleeding on the ground. Some wailed. One teen who had been tossed in the air and then left crumpled in a heap on the earth looked at Debbie with a vacant gaze, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.
As Debbie ran toward the Audi, rage filled her chest.
She flung open the car's door with all the strength that anger fuels. The driver, slumped over a deployed airbag, moaned. His feet barely reached the pedals, and his tear-streaked cheeks were round with the baby fat he hadn't lost.
He was just a child.