Soulless The Girl in the Box - By Robert J. Crane

Chapter 1

Someone Else

I wondered how many cops were within a hundred miles of me as I slammed the convenience store clerk’s head into the counter. It made a satisfying thump and rebounded as he spiraled to the ground, his head hitting the shelf behind him before it made contact with the tile floor. He didn’t move, which was fortunate more for his sake than mine, as I took the bills out of the register and stuffed them in a plastic bag. I fiddled around behind the counter for a minute, tidying up loose ends, then broke his cell phone and the landline, smashing the plastic into pieces. It’d be a long walk to the next one.

The smell of day-old hot dogs wafted around me as I walked past trinkets and tourist shirts that proclaimed See South Dakota! The slow hum of the air conditioner working overtime to keep the building cool in the prairie summer heat thrummed around me. I ripped open a candy bar and took a bite, savoring the sweet taste of the caramel and chocolate mingled with the salt from the peanuts. It was the first thing I’d eaten since I made a stop outside Gillette, Wyoming a few hours after sundown. I wondered if the clerk at that store had woken up yet. Probably. He wouldn’t remember anything. Just like this one.

I walked to the back of the store and paused when I opened the cooler to grab a drink. The bitter chill of the freezer air overpowered the air conditioning, sending goosebumps up and down my arms. I threw three bottles of soda on top of the piddling amount of money I’d taken from the till; I’d thought it would be more. I considered trying to wake up the attendant to get him to open the safe but decided he’d had enough excitement for one night.

I stepped up to the door that led to the space behind the freezers. Locked. I rolled my eyes and kicked, sending it off its hinges and into the room. It wedged in the back wall, sticking out as though it was a tombstone buried in the brick. The symbolism was obvious, at least to me. I reached over and ejected the DVD that was recording from the camera feeds all over the station, put it into my plastic bag and pondered the safe in the corner. Wasn’t worth the time. I only needed petty cash for this trip and it was better to remain as off the radar as I could. Not that robbing convenience stores was going to keep me off the radar, but let’s face it: it was a means to an end, not an end itself.

And the end was ahead. Far, far ahead.

Everything on the shelves looked good as I wandered back out into the store, but I didn’t need much. I threw a couple packages of chips into the bag and three boxes of white powdered donuts. Way better than the chocolate ones. I took one last look around and decided to try one of the hot dogs. Sure, they looked old, but I’d been eating food that came in a plastic wrapper since I left Casper, Wyoming yesterday. And before that, other canned and plasticized food. Laying low wasn’t pleasant, but living off gas station food wasn’t much better.

After I finished fixing my hot dog, I took a bite and stepped outside, the flavor of the ketchup and mustard masking the chewy, rubbery consistency of the meat. The convenience store was right off Interstate 90. The nearest town, Draper, South Dakota, was a few miles away and probably deader than a prairie dog on the freeway by this time of night.

I felt the hot summer air of the planes, my little bag in one hand, and a half eaten hotdog in the other, as I walked back to my car, an older model Honda. I’d stolen it before I left Casper, but I acquired some new license plates in Rapid City so I wasn’t real worried about the cops taking an interest in me. By the time the sun came up tomorrow I’d be in southern Minnesota. I could melt away onto the back roads, pick up some new tags, maybe even a new car. This one smelled like the previous owner had a problem with Mary Jane. Actually, not so much a problem as a deeply troubling relationship.

I watched another car pull into the parking space just down from me. I caught sight of