The Inn at Holiday Bay: Boxes in the Basement

 

Book one in my new Holiday Bay series publishes on November 20th. Here is a preview for those of you interested in a sneak peek.

Preorder Today: https://amzn.to/2Dr3BSZ

 

Chapter 1

Maybe it had been insanity that caused me to sell my condo, pack my belongings, and buy a huge old house I had never even seen. Maybe it had been my unwillingness to face the grief I would not deal with and could not escape, that caused me to move to a town I knew nothing about and had never even visited. Or maybe, just maybe, when I’d seen the ad for the rundown old house perched on a bluff overlooking the sea, I hadn’t been running at all. Maybe, I tried desperately to convince myself, I’d simply seen the opportunity to do something fun. Creative. Different.

No, I admitted as I gingerly placed a foot on the first of three rotted steps leading to the decayed front porch. It hadn’t been insanity, an unwillingness to deal, or a longing for fun that caused me to give up my life in California to move to a tiny town in coastal Maine where no one knew who I was or what I had been through. What it had been, I decided, was preservation.

I sighed in relief when I made it to the front door without falling through the rotted wood. I took out the brand-new key I’d been given by the Realtor after he’d had the locks changed prior to my arrival, opened the door, and then stepped into the entry. The floor was damaged and would need to be replaced, and the wallpaper was peeling and would need to be stripped, but the rooms were totally empty, and empty rooms, I knew, even those in disrepair, were preferable to rooms filled with well-meaning friends who were unable to deal with your grief and wanted to help but felt helpless to do so.

The entrance to the home was large and airy and opened up to twin staircases spiraling toward the second story. I’d been told the house had three stories of living space, ten bedrooms, eight baths, and a large living area consisting of several rooms including a parlor and a library, on the first floor. I was also promised the property included a separate guesthouse that could be used as a mother-in-law unit. Apparently, the English gentleman who built the house back in 1895 had grand plans to marry his one true love and fill those ten bedrooms with chubby-cheeked children, but his dream, like mine, had never come to fruition, and so like me, he’d moved away. I knew there had been several owners between Chamberlain Westminster and Bodine Devine, the man from whom I’d bought the house. I wasn’t certain of the entire history, but I supposed it didn’t really matter.

While my move to the small town of Holiday Bay might not have been well-thought-out, the challenge to gently nudge the old girl back to her former glory had come at the perfect time. The house, I decided, would occupy my energy and my mind. Rehabilitating it would give me focus and provide a safe harbor from which I could fight my demons and finally begin to heal.

My long brown hair blew across my face as the front door blew open behind me. I whirled around, prepared to defend my territory, but all I found was empty space. I put a hand to my chest as my heart pounded. There was no one there; it was just the wind. I had to admit this huge, empty house had me on edge. It was almost as if I was half-expecting someone or something to jump out at me from around every corner. I took a deep breath, crossed the room, and reached for the door, preparing to remedy the situation, when a huge orange cat that had to be half mountain lion given its enormous size, darted between my legs and into the entry. “Shoo,” I said as I waved my arms toward it. The cat looked at me with eyes as green as my own, took a few steps, turned, then trotted up the stairs. “Hey,” I called after the feline. “You don’t live here. You really can’t stay.” The cat reached the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs, turned to glare at me once again, and then continued down the hallway.

“Damn cat,” I muttered under my breath. Life, I decided, was a cruel jokester. As if I didn’t have enough to deal with, I now seemed to have a stowaway. Suffice it to say, Abby Sullivan was not now, nor had she ever been, a cat person, or any kind of animal person for that matter. I considered going after the cat but decided that perhaps it would find its way out on its own.

Returning my attention to the house, I walked into what, I assumed, was the main living area. The room was empty, but the hand-carved mantel, which framed the old stone fireplace, truly was a work of art. I ran my hand over the intricately carved surface and imagined the craftsman who had taken the time to get every detail just right. Hand carvings like this were rare these days, and I knew in my heart that the mantel, at least, would need to be preserved.

I turned back toward the room and considered the intricately carved crown molding along the ceiling. There were sections that would need to be replaced, but I supposed the damaged sections could be replicated. It would be a shame to tear down the original material if there was any way it could be saved.

I knew I’d taken on a project when I bought the place, but until I’d arrived and had a chance to look around, I’d had no idea how truly large a project it would be. There were a lot of rooms in need of attention, and so far it looked as if each room was the size of my entire condo back in San Francisco.

No need to panic, I assured myself, as I walked into the room I assumed had been previously used as a formal dining area. The house was going to be a lot of work, but I was up for the task. I’d just need to get organized, consider the entire project, and come up with a plan. From my experience, almost any project was possible as long as I broke it down into small steps I could handle so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work in its entirety.

I walked through the dining area to the back of the house, where I imagined I’d find the kitchen. The room was charming in an old-fashioned way. It was a large room with a lot of potential, although the appliances were ancient, the wallpaper peeling, and the cabinets dated. I supposed a total gut job would be required for this particular room, which meant that a hotplate and microwave might be good items to purchase, along with cleaning supplies, mousetraps, and maybe something that would provide the mountain lion, who I was certain was still prowling around upstairs, motivation to leave. What I needed, I realized, was a list. I took out my phone and opened an app. Taking action, any action, seemed like a move in a positive direction, which provided my slightly overwhelmed psyche with the illusion of control.

“Number one,” I said aloud, “go to the store and buy food to last several days, and maybe an ice chest to store the food until the status of the refrigerator can be determined.”

I walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. I grimaced at the mess I found and then took a step back. Determining status didn’t seem to be the issue so much as replacing the old unit with something less disgusting.

“Number two,” I continued, as I walked around the room, opening and closing cupboards, “find a place to set up a home base while renovations are underway.” I had brought an air mattress, sleeping bag, pillow, and jug of water with me, so once I’d figured out where to set up, I’d bring it all in and build a little nest. I had a stack of books, several bottles of wine, music on my phone, and even a propane light that would come in handy until I could deal with the electricity.

“Number three,” I said into my phone, “have gas, water, and electricity turned on.” I paused and looked around at the shabby interior. It really had been a while since the house had been lived in. “Number four,” I added, “find a plumber and an electrician to check everything out before using the gas, water, and electricity.”

There was a door leading off the kitchen that I assumed led to the basement that had been part of the listing. I turned the handle and opened the door to find wooden stairs descending into a dark space. Closing the door, I decided to leave a tour of the basement for another time and continued toward the rear of the house. The laundry area was large, but the windows had been boarded up, and the place was nothing more than a tangle of cobwebs. Taking a deep breath, I continued to the back door, which led out onto a huge deck that actually appeared to be in good repair. Climbing down from the deck, I headed in the direction of an adorable little cottage the Realtor had referred to as the guesthouse. From its location on the edge of the sea, I bet the view from this little place would probably be even more spectacular than the one from the house. Climbing the steps to the wraparound porch, I took out the second set of keys I’d been given and opened the door. I wasn’t expecting much, given the state of disrepair of the main house, so when I opened the door and stepped inside, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The cozy space was dusty, but it looked as if it had been recently renovated and appeared move-in ready. I smiled as I noticed the large stone fireplace on one wall of the main living area. I could imagine how cozy it would be to curl up in front of the fire during a winter storm. The fireplace had a gas insert that looked as if it had been recently installed, but I supposed I should have it checked before I used it. I picked up my phone and added fireplace guy to my list.

The living room, which featured hardwood floors and pale gray walls, opened up to a small but newly updated kitchen, which, thankfully, appeared to have working appliances. The space was charming and modern, with granite countertops and updated cabinets. I knew the cottage had two bedrooms, one in the front that looked out over the now-overgrown garden, and one at the back, overlooking the sea.

I poked my head into one of the two bathrooms. The dark gray granite countertops, like those in the kitchen, looked new, which thrilled me, but the cabinets, while updated, had been painted a dark green. Not really my color, but I could always repaint, and the room looked as if it would be adequate once I had the water turned on. Things were definitely looking up, I decided as I headed to the larger of the two bedrooms. The room had a door at the rear that I assumed opened out to a private deck.
“Wow,” I said as I took in the view. It was simply amazing.

The dark gray of the winter bay in the distance was bordered by a lush green forest covered with a layer of snow producing an absolutely stunning contrast. The entire shoreline looked to be uninhabited, with the exception of a single dwelling in the distance, perched on the edge of the sea. A feeling of peace rose as the serenity of the landscape wrapped itself around me like a warm hug. I’d always found the sea to have a calming effect on my nerves, even during the worst of times.

Here, I decided, as I took in a deep breath of fresh sea air, was where I’d build my nest. Here in this little guesthouse, where I could both wake up and fall asleep to this spectacular view. I’d need a bed, and possibly a dresser, but for now I’d blow up my air mattress and set it next to the huge glass doors, which I planned to wash as soon as I got my supplies. It would be from this perfect spot, in this little house, that I’d read, dream, refurbish, and heal. I knew the journey to making the main house habitable would be a long one. I knew the road to healing would be even longer. But for the first time since I’d packed my SUV and merged onto Hwy 80 east, I actually believed both might be possible.
Heading back to my SUV, I grabbed my laptop and travel bag. I went back to the cottage, making the first of many trips. Once I had the vehicle unloaded, I sat down at the kitchen counter on one of the stools left behind. I took out my laptop and opened my mail app. I used my phone to take a photo of the fantastic view, then attached it to an email.

I stared at the blank page for several minutes as I worked up the courage to continue. I had done a lot of difficult things in the past year, but for some reason, writing this email seemed harder than most.

Dear Annie,

Greetings from Maine. I’ve attached a photo of the view from the little cottage where I plan to begin rebuilding my life. Isn’t it fabulous? I know you’re concerned that I’ve descended into madness and am no longer in control of my mental faculties, and I understand your trepidation at the choices I’ve made since the accident, but I needed to do this despite your fears. It would mean so much if you could find it in your heart to understand and support my choice.

Love,
Abby

I read the email through, then let my finger linger over the Send button. Part of me wondered why I bothered, but another part realized that making things right with the only family I had left was a necessary step if I really wanted to rebuild my life.

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A Whisker in Time

 

A Whisker in Time, book 16 in the Whales and Tails series, publishes on Tuesday September 25th. It includes the bonus short story The Cat of New Orleans for those you of who have not as of yet read it. According to the Madrona Island timeline, The Cat of New Orleans would fall between Farewell to Felines and A Whisker in Time, so if you haven’t read it you might want to hop to the back of the book and read it first. https://amzn.to/2D2RZqX

The Catsgiving Feast follows A Whisker in Time on November 6. https://amzn.to/2D30nXd

 

Preview from A Whisker in Time

 

Friday, October 26

The dark hardwood floors shone brightly as the first patrons entered the newly remodeled bar my brothers, Aiden and Danny Hart, had sunk all their money as well as all their time into. While O’Malley’s had been the local watering hole for quite some time, after years under the same ownership it had begun to feel tired and somewhat dated. When the O’Malley family came to the decision to move to Boston, Aiden and Danny had decided to buy the bar, refurbish it, and make it their own.
And what a facelift they’d given the place! The scuffed and faded wood floors had been sanded and stained in a dark walnut to match the original bar, which now had to be considered an antique by anyone’s standards. The old rickety tables and wobbly chairs had been replaced with new furnishings in a much lighter shade. The natural wood walls, which had previously been dark and dingy, also had been sanded and stained, this time with a rich pine finish. The most dramatic change, however, was to the old back wall, which had featured a black metal door leading out to the back deck. My sister Siobhan had suggested that the brothers replace the metal door with large glass sliders, which would bring in more natural light and a new element if placed on either side of a floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace. The doors, along with the additional accent windows that had been placed along the entire wall, brought in the feel of the outdoors, while a low-maintenance gas fireplace provided a warm, cozy feel during the colder winter months.
The place, in a word, was fabulous.
“It looks like the whole town came out for the grand opening,” my best friend, Tara O’Brian, said to me. Tara and I, along with my sisters, Siobhan Finnegan and Cassidy Hart, my fiancé, Cody West, and my brother-in-law, Ryan Finnegan, had volunteered to help out during this important event.
“I knew people were excited about seeing what the guys had been up to, but even I have to admit the turnout is better than I could have hoped.”
“I guess the real test will be whether the guys can retain the steady local business O’Malley always was able to depend on,” Tara commented as we loaded pints of beer on a tray for delivery to the tables to which we’d been assigned.
“Danny and Aiden have been customers at the bar for years. They know all the regulars. I think they’re going to do fine.”
I looked around the crowded room. As I’d predicted, many of the bar’s regular customers had shown up and were holding court at their usual tables. Chappy Longwood was an old and weathered fishing captain who’d worked the waters surrounding Madrona Island since before my brothers were born. He was retired from commercial fishing now, but it wasn’t unheard of to find him out on the water, reeling in his own dinner for the evening. Chappy was in many ways considered to be a fixture at O’Malley’s. He liked to sit at the bar and chat with whoever was tending bar on any particular day.
Edwin Brown, a retired history teacher who’d worked at the high school when I was a teenager but had since retired, liked to set up camp in the corner by the window. He was currently running for island council and used the bar as a place to meet with voters and campaign for the seat. He usually showed up early with a book. He liked to read the classics while he waited for his fellow islanders to arrive, but once he had an audience, he worked the room so effectively, you’d assume he’d been in politics his entire life.
And then there was Pops McNab. Pops had lived on the island since before my father was born. I had no idea how old he was, but I was certain he must have passed his eightieth birthday years ago. Pops liked to talk about the Madrona Island of his past, and most of the regulars who spent time at the bar enjoyed listening to his often-far-fetched stories.
Yes, I decided as Tara and I picked up our trays and walked through the crowded room, the regulars had shown up in an offer of support. Both Aiden and Danny were behind the bar, filling orders and chatting with everyone who came in. Cody and Siobhan were helping Cassie in the kitchen, while Finn stood near the front door, ready to take on the role of bouncer if necessary. Tonight truly was a family affair, but after this, Danny and Aiden would have to make do with the staff they’d hired, including two new waitresses, Stacy Barnwell and Libby Baldwin. They were both running a mile a minute, so I’d pitched in to help deliver drinks. I’d just emptied my tray when someone bumped into me from behind, almost knocking me onto my backside. I turned around only to come face-to-face with the last person I wanted to see.
“Monica,” I said with the sweetest smile I could muster. Monica Caldron had gone to school with Cody and Danny. She’d been, and still was, a beautiful woman who’d dated both my brother and my fiancé before leaving the island a decade ago. When I heard she was back, I was cautious. When she told me right to my face that she planned to seduce Cody away from me and would offer proof that she had, I was furious.
“Well, if it isn’t the soon-to-be-dumped Caitlin Hart,” Monica purred.
I was pretty sure I snarled at her.
“Where is that handsome fiancé of yours anyway?”
“In the kitchen helping out, but I’m afraid that’s off-limits to everyone other than staff and tonight’s volunteers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” I turned and headed back to the bar, summoning every ounce of willpower I had not to deck the witch I’d been itching to punch it out with ever since she’d shown up on the island two weeks ago.
“What’s she doing here?” Tara asked as I began refilling my tray with the next load of drinks.
“She’s looking for Cody.”
“Ask Finn to kick her out,” Tara suggested. “You know she’s only here to cause trouble.”
I watched as the woman made her way around the bar, distributing her own sickeningly sweet brand of sensuality to every male, whether they were with a date or not. She stopped to smile at Chappy, kissed Pops on the cheek, then sat down across from Edwin, leaning in close, as if to have a serious conversation. I had to admit she knew how to use her God-given gifts.
I looked away from the woman who seemed to be working hard to piss me off and turned my attention to Tara. “Other than bumping into me, which I’m sure was intentional, she hasn’t done anything to warrant removal from the premises. This is a public grand reopening and the whole community was invited. If I insist on her being bounced, I’ll be the one who looks petty.”
“She’s on the island to steal your fiancé,” Tara reminded me. “I don’t think anyone would consider you petty for defending what’s yours.”
“I know why she’s here and you know why she’s here, but no one else other than family knows she’s been threatening to seduce Cody away from me. Even Cody defended her in a roundabout way when I made it clear to him Monica was on the island for one reason and one reason only.”
Tara frowned. “He defended her?”
“Sort of. First, he assured me that even if she was here to win him back, she had absolutely zero chance of success because I was the only one he’d ever loved or ever would love, but then he ruined his vow of devotion by adding that Monica had been drunk when Siobhan and I ran into her while dining at Antonio’s, and he was sure she’d spoken out of turn when she made it clear she was on the island to rekindle things with him after all this time. He even hinted that perhaps I’d misunderstood what she said.”
Tara picked up her tray. “Men are so clueless. They see a pretty face and a perfect body and their minds freeze up, preventing them from seeing the demon beneath the beauty.” She added napkins. “I’ve no doubt Monica is here to do exactly what she threatened to do, but Cody loves you. I doubt he’ll even notice if she comes on to him.”
I hoped Tara was right, but I had my doubts. I remembered how Danny had followed Monica around like an obedient little puppy when they were dating, and he wasn’t the type to trail any girl around. He was much more the love-’em-and-leave-’em sort, so the fact that she seemed to have mesmerized both Danny and Cody when she lived here before terrified me. I trusted Cody. I really did. It was Witch Monica I didn’t trust.
“The group at table seven wants another round,” Stacy informed me. She was a single mom with two-year-old twins who had recently moved to the island, a hard worker who seemed like a genuinely nice person. It was my opinion she would fit in to the O’Malley’s family quite nicely.
“I’m on my way,” I answered with a smile. “I think we’re all going to be exhausted by the end of the evening, but I’m loving this turnout.”
Stacy smiled back. “Yeah. I think the guys are pretty happy too.” She picked up her own tray. “By the way, I saw what happened. I have your back if you need some help with the she-devil.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the offer, but I can handle Monica if need be.”
The next two hours were so crazy busy, I had little time to worry about, or keep track of, Monica. Finn was called away from his post by the door after an accident was reported on the highway. Of course this was Madrona Island, so a bouncer was probably unnecessary anyway.
By the time ten o’clock rolled around, the bar was so crowded it was almost impossible to walk through. I wasn’t sure how Danny and Aiden were keeping up with the drink orders until I noticed Siobhan had joined them behind the bar. “Who’s helping Cassie in the kitchen?” I asked my older sister.
“The brothers decided to close the kitchen and focus all their energy on the bar until closing. Aiden ordered a bunch of pizzas from the place down the street and Cassie went to pick them up. She’s going to cut them into small pieces and we’ll serve them as complimentary appetizers.”
“That’s a good idea.” I looked around the room but didn’t see Cody. “Did Cody go with her?”
Siobhan shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m not sure where he went. He was talking to Alex Turner, who showed up with Willow earlier, but I think they left to pick up the baby from his grandpa’s.”
Alex Turner and Willow Wood were friends who were co-parenting Willow’s son, Barrington Wood Turner. Alex had adopted baby Barrington, who was named for his biological father, which made him legally responsible for him along with his mother, despite the fact that he and Willow weren’t married or even dating. At least, they weren’t dating in the traditional sense of the word. They were living together and raising a child, but so far their personal relationship seemed to have remained platonic.
By the time I’d delivered another round of drinks, things were beginning to clear out. Aiden and Danny planned to stay open until midnight if the bar was still hopping, but I was exhausted and hoped the party would break up earlier so I could head home and fall into what I was sure would be a dreamless sleep. Siobhan had left shortly after we spoke to pick up baby Connor from our mother’s place. Connor was born to Finn and Siobhan just four months ago, but already it seemed most family events revolved around the totally adorable baby boy who looked just like his mama with the exception of his eyes, which were Finn all the way.
I’d set down my tray and was about to go outside to look for Cody when someone shoved me from behind, sending me into a table that tipped over, landing on top of me as my butt hit the floor. “What the—?” I was about to finish the sentence with a very unladylike four-letter word when I saw Monica smiling smugly at me. I’m not really sure what happened next; I guess my pent-up frustration with her finally got to me, because the next thing I knew, I was on my feet, and Monica was on her knees with her right arm pinned firmly behind her back.
“You witch,” Monica screamed at the top of her lungs. “Are you insane? Let me go!”
I hesitated.
“Let her go, Cait.” Danny walked up next to me.
“She started it.”
“I didn’t start anything, you raving lunatic. Now let me go or I’ll have you arrested for assault.”
Danny put his hand on mine. “It’s okay. I saw what happened. I’ll take care of it.”
I released my grip and took a step back. Monica slapped me and called me a pathetic loser, which resulted in Danny grabbing her by the arm and dragging her away.
“Are you okay?” Aiden asked after Danny and Monica headed toward the back hallway.
I rubbed my cheek. “I’m okay. I just need some air. I’ll be outside for a few minutes.”
I left through the new side door onto the patio, where outdoor fire pits had been set up to provide warmth on cool evenings, and sat down on an empty bench. I wanted to cry, or yell, or even slap Monica back, but all I could manage was a few deep breaths to get myself under control. I hoped Danny would have shown Monica the door by the time I went back inside. The thin thread of patience I’d been clinging to since she’d returned to the island had definitely snapped when she’d thrown me into the table. Damn, that and the slap had hurt.
After a few minutes, Cody came out and sat down beside me. “Are you okay? I heard what happened.”
“I’m okay. I just needed to get away. Where were you?”
“Out in the parking lot, talking to a couple of the guys from the softball team. I wasn’t gone long. I needed some air after spending the entire evening in the kitchen.” Cody put his arm around me and pulled me close. “Maybe I should take you home.”
“No, I’m fine. I want to help with the cleanup, and the last thing I want to do is give Monica a reason to think she ran me off. That woman needs to go.”
“I don’t disagree, but I can’t make her leave the island. I’ve told her that I’m not interested in what she’s offering and I’m doing my best to avoid her, but I’m not sure what more I can do.”
“People turn up missing all the time. No one knows why.”
Cody raised a brow. “Really? You want me to dump her in the ocean?”
I shrugged. “I’ve had worse ideas.”
Cody chuckled. “You’re right. You have had worse ideas. But in this case, I think we might want to come up with a different strategy.”
I huffed out a breath in frustration. “What strategy?”
“We could get married.”
Now it was my turn to raise a brow. “Really? You want us to throw together a quickie wedding so your ex will leave us alone?”
“We’ve been engaged for a year,” Cody pointed out in what seemed to be a much more serious tone than the one he’d used when we were discussing the option of a cement-boots burial.
I paused and then answered. “I know. And I want to marry you. But I’m not going to hurry things along just to get rid of Monica. We’ll get married when we’re ready to and not a minute before.”
Cody put his hand to my cheek and turned me to look at him. “Just so you know, I’m ready.”
I let out a long breath. “I know. But we have that one pesky problem I can’t seem to find an answer for. And no, I’m not referring to Monica. I’m referring to your mother.”
Cody’s mother was insisting that he and I get married in Florida, which was where she and several other West family members had moved after leaving Madrona Island. I wanted to get married on the island where I’d lived my entire life, with my family and friends. I wanted to get married in the church I’d attended since birth and I wanted to have the reception on the peninsula where I lived, down the beach from the house Cody would someday inherit and where we would raise our family.
“I told you, we can get married wherever you want,” Cody countered.
“I know, but I don’t want to start my married life with my mother-in-law hating me. I need another option.”
“If I can work it out so my mom is happy and we’re able to get married on Madrona Island, would you be willing to set a date?”
I nodded. “In a heartbeat.”
Cody leaned in and kissed me lightly on the lips. “Okay. Let me see what I can work out with her. She can be stubborn, but in the end, she wants me to be happy.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you can work it out, we’ll set a date.” I leaned forward and kissed Cody slightly harder than he’d kissed me. “In the meantime, I think it’s important we continue to practice for the honeymoon. Let’s go in and start cleaning up. I have a bottle of wine and two glasses waiting for us back at the cabin.”
Cody took my hand and pulled me to my feet. When we arrived inside, there were only a few partygoers still mingling around. One of Cody’s friends had consumed way too much alcohol to be driving, so Cody ran him home, while Cassie, Tara, and I began cleaning up. By the time we’d cleared the empty glasses from the front and headed to the kitchen to start the cleanup in there, everyone had left with the exception of the two full-time waitresses and the family who’d stayed behind to help.
“I don’t suppose anyone knows what happened to the mop?” I asked the rest of the cleaning crew.
“I think it might be in the storage room,” Tara answered.
“Okay, I’ll get it.” I figured if we hurried with the cleanup, I could leave without feeling guilty once Cody returned. It had been a long night and I was beyond tired. Still, I was happy the evening had been a success. Other than the intrusion of Monica, it otherwise had been close to perfect. It seemed everyone on the island had come out to wish the brothers well, which I hoped indicated their venture would turn out to be even more successful than they’d hoped.
I stepped into the back hallway, which provided access to the back door and emergency access outside the building but was locked to prevent anyone sneaking inside. In addition, the hallway led to the business office, the men’s and women’s bathrooms, and the storage room. The office was supposed to be locked when Aiden, who handled the business end of things, wasn’t working. While the brothers didn’t have a lot of expensive equipment, the office did house a fairly new computer plus the safe, where change for the cash drawer was kept.
I walked past the bathrooms and opened the door to the storage room. It was dark, so I turned on the overhead light. A quick scan of the room revealed the mop, leaning against the back wall. The bucket was nearby, as was a broom and dustpan. I took several steps forward and was about to step over a tarp that had been tossed over something when I realized the object that was sticking out just a bit from the bottom of it was a human foot.

******

“Okay, walk me though everything that happened after I left to respond to the accident,” Ryan Finnegan, the island resident deputy as well as my brother-in-law, asked after I’d called him to return to the bar.
I took a deep breath and thought about Danny before I answered. The first thing Finn had done after arriving was to separate everyone left on the premises. He was interviewing us each separately, and I knew I had to tell the truth, but no matter how I spun this, it wasn’t going to look good for my younger brother. “Monica and I got into a fight,” I began. “She started it and I guess she ended it too, but I did manage to bring her to her knees at one point.”
“So it was a physical altercation?”
I nodded. “She bumped into me and knocked me to the floor. Once I managed to push the table that had fallen on top of me to the side, I jumped up and pulled her arm behind her back. I learned that in my self-defense class, and it brought her to her knees. She started screaming like I was killing her or something. Danny came over and told me to let her go, which I did grudgingly. I released her and she stood up and slapped me, and Danny grabbed her arm and pulled her toward the hallway.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see her again. I assume Danny gave her a stern talking-to, then sent her out the back door to avoid another scene.”
“That’s exactly what Danny said happened,” Finn confirmed. “Did the two of you discuss your response?”
I glared at Finn. “Really? Do you actually think this was some sort of an elaborate cover-up to get Monica out of my hair permanently?”
Finn lowered his notepad. “I don’t think Danny killed Monica. And I don’t think the two of you were part of some plot. But a woman is dead and you just admitted that Danny pulled her into the hallway, which was the last you saw of her.”
“I know how it looks, but you have to believe Danny is telling you the truth. If he said he showed Monica to the back door, he did.”
“So how did she get back in? The back door automatically locks when it’s closed, which allows one-way access out of the building but not inside. I haven’t had a chance to interview everyone who was here, but I called Tripp, who offered to keep an eye on the front door after I was called away, and he didn’t remember Monica coming back in through the front door after Danny hauled her away.” Tripp Brimmer had been the deputy for Madrona Island prior to his retirement.
I leaned back in my chair and let out a groan. “I know how it looks,” I repeated, “but the bathrooms are down that hallway. A lot of people used them during the evening. The back door opens from the inside because it’s a fire exit. Even if Monica didn’t come back in through the front door, anyone could have opened the back door and let her back in once Danny tossed her out. All she had to do was text someone inside to help her.”
“I suppose that’s true, but so far, no one I’ve spoken to remembers seeing her after Danny hauled her away. If she came back in, why didn’t she return to the party?”
“Maybe whoever let her in is the one who killed her. We both know she was a loose cannon. I’m sure she made a lot of enemies, years ago and since she’s been back. I’m sure we’re going to come up with a long list of people who had motive to want her out of their lives, including me, and no, I didn’t do it.”
“I agree she made a lot of enemies. And I agree we’ll eventually come up with a long list of possible suspects who could have let her back in and then killed her. However, given the fact that Danny is the prime suspect at this point, and he’s my brother-in-law, the sheriff is sending someone over from San Juan Island. Mitch Bronson will take over the investigation into Monica’s death.”
“Mitch? Mitch hates Danny.”
“He has reason to dislike him after Danny had an affair with Mitch’s ex, but he’s convinced the sheriff he’s over his ex and the entire incident with Danny is in the past. He convinced the sheriff he’s able to be impartial, and apparently, the sheriff believed him. Given that Mitch used to live on Madrona Island, the sheriff realizes he has relationships with the individuals who’ll serve as witnesses. I’m not saying I agree, but the sheriff has decided Mitch is a good person to take over. There wasn’t a thing I could say to change his mind.”

 

 

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Finding Courage

Finding Courage – Book 3 in the Rescue Alaska Series – publishes September 11. Here is a preview.

 

 

Chapter 1
Saturday, October 13

His pulse quickened as they approached. He’d waited so long. Too long. He closed his eyes and reveled in the memory, which didn’t come as a gentle wave but as a surge of agony from the depths of his personal hell. He’d craved the searing pain, the deeply felt anguish. It was only during these moments, when he was sure he would drown in a river of longing, that he felt truly alive.

On the surface, the rescue seemed fairly routine. Two teenage boys had gone hiking earlier that morning. They were only supposed to be gone a couple of hours but had failed to return by the time they’d agreed to meet with the families for lunch. The father of one of the boys had gone looking for them, and when he was unable to find them after a couple of hours, he’d called the Rescue Alaska Search and Rescue Team, of which I, Harmony Carson, am a member. It was fall in Alaska, which meant the days were becoming shorter toward the endless night of winter. Although the daytime temperatures were mild for this time of the year, the overnight low promised to dip well below freezing. Normally, we like to interview the person making the call, but the man said he was heading toward Devil’s Gulch, where he was certain the boys had been planning to hike, and the reception there was sketchy, so the information we had to go on was limited. By the time the call came through, the sun had begun its descent toward the jagged peak of the distant mountain, so we knew there was no time to lose.

Jake Cartwright, my close friend and brother-in-law, had taken the call. I was already at Neverland, the bar Jake owned and where I worked as a waitress, as was S&R team member Wyatt Forrester, who worked part time there as a bartender. Jake had made a quick decision to employ the team members present to look for the boys, so he and his S&R dog, Sitka, me and my S&R dog, Yukon, Wyatt, and team member Austin Brown, who happened to be in the bar having a drink, set off with a feeling of urgency, given the sharp drop in temperature and impending darkness.

“Jake to Harmony,” Jake said over the two-way radio we all carried as we traveled toward our destination.

“Go for Harmony,” I answered. We’d spread out to cover more ground in the event the boys had either doubled back or taken another route. We knew if we didn’t find them before then, once we reached the narrow entrance to the gulch, we’d all converge into a single unit.

“Have you managed to pick up anything?” Jake referred to my ability to psychically connect to those victims I was meant to help rescue. My ability, which I oftentimes considered a curse, had come to me during the lowest point in my life. My sister Val, who had become my guardian after our parents were killed in an accident, had gone out on a rescue. She’d become lost in a storm, and although the team tried to find her, they came up with nothing but dead ends. She was the first person I connected to, and the one I most wanted to save. I couldn’t save Val, but since then, I’ve used my gift to locate and rescue dozens of people. I couldn’t save them all, but today, I was determined that our search would lead us to the missing boys.

“No,” I answered, frustration evident in my voice. “Which is odd. Even if the boys are uninjured, they must be scared. The temperature has dropped and the sun is beginning to set. The fact that I’m not getting anything at all is concerning me.”

There are really only three reasons I can think of when I don’t pick up something, even a small whisper, during a rescue. The most common is that the person who’s been reported missing isn’t really missing at all. They might not have checked in with the person who reported them missing, but they were perfectly safe, not in physical pain or mental duress. I hoped that would turn out to be the case with these two boys.

The second commonest reason I’m unable to pick up a psychic connection is because the person I’m trying to reach is either unconscious or already dead. That’s the reason I least hope to confirm, but at times, the person we’re trying to find has already taken his final breath before we even begin our search.

And the third reason I’m occasionally unable to make a connection is because the person in need of rescue senses me but is blocking me. This rarely occurs, but it’s possible.

“Is Sitka picking up anything?” I asked. Even if I was unable to connect, I’d think Sitka would pick up something. We didn’t have anything with the boys’ scent to help direct the dogs today, so they’d been instructed to find anyone who might be in the area. Having a specific scent to track worked a lot better, but at this time of the year, when there weren’t many people out hiking, if anyone was around, the dogs should be able to locate them.

“No. Nothing specific at least, but he does seem to sense someone,” Jake answered. “If the boys came this way, as the father seemed to think they had, he’ll find them. If they veered off in another direction, though, we might have a real problem. Given the anticipated overnight temps, it’s important to find them as quickly as possible. We’re going to go on, but I’d like you to take a short break and really try to connect. If you sense something, let us know.”

“Okay.” I stopped walking and looked around. “I don’t have a lot to go on, but I’ll try.”

“The man I spoke to said the boys’ names are Mark and Andrew. They’re both fourteen and have dark hair and dark eyes. That’s all I got from him before he cut out.”

I signed off, then sat down on a large rock. I instructed Yukon to sit and stay next to me, then I closed my eyes. I relaxed my mind and focused on the information I had. Mark and Andrew. Scared, most likely. Possibly injured. Dark hair, dark eyes.

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I tried again. I allowed whatever images that came to me to pass through my mind. I hoped if they were out there, their psyches would somehow find mine.

Still nothing.

I had an intuition that the man who’d called Jake to report the missing teens had been less than honest. If I had to guess, this whole thing was a hoax. It happened from time to time, although I had no idea why anyone would do such a thing. Still, if the boys actually were in the area and were in some sort of trouble, it was likely I’d pick up an echo of fear if nothing else. I was about to give up my quest to make a connection and had stood up to move on when a feeling of sorrow pierced my heart with such intensity it left me gasping for air.

Oh God. My hand clenched my chest.

My instinct was to break the connection, but I knew if I wanted to locate the source of the pain I needed to maintain it, so I took a deep breath and opened my heart to the anguish. I allowed the pain to envelop me as I tried to figure out who it was I’d connected to. I could sense the distress was emotional rather than physical. Someone was dealing with intense grief. No, not grief, longing. The suffering was deep and real, but there was something else as well. I frowned. In the midst of the sorrow was anticipation.

I focused harder. I knew I hadn’t connected to the boys but someone else. Someone older. I could sense a darkness. An emptiness. As if the soul of the person I’d connected with had been drained of all life. I felt the individual try to pull back. He knew I’d made a connection and was trying to push me away, but I resisted. I tried to go deeper, but then I saw it. My eyes flew open.
My hand flew to my mouth. I was sure I was going to be sick, but I thrust the nausea aside. “Harmony to Jake.”

“Go for Jake.”

“It’s a trap. Pull back. Pull back now.”

In that instant, there was a loud crash as the mountain above the narrow opening to the gulch exploded, sending tons of dirt and rock to the path below. I turned and ran as fast as I could. Tears streamed down my face, but I didn’t really notice. I felt fear, and pain, and death.

Oh God.

I ran faster still. Yukon was running in front of me. He must have sensed where to go because he never wavered. When I arrived at the place where the dirt and rock had settled, I found Sitka standing over Jake, who appeared to be unconscious.

“Jake.” I ran to where he was lying on the hard ground and felt for a pulse. I let out a breath of relief when I saw he had one. He had a bump on his head but appeared to be otherwise uninjured. I grabbed my radio and called Sarge, who was holding down the fort at the base. “Harmony to Sarge.”

“Go for Sarge.”

“There’s been an accident. A landslide. Find Jordan. Have her meet Dani at the helipad. We’re going to need an air evacuation. And Sarge, tell them to hurry.”

With that, I stood up and slowly looked around. I wasn’t sure where Austin and Wyatt were. Had they been with Jake? In front of him? On another trail altogether?

I heard Jake groan. I turned to find both Sitka and Yukon licking his face. I knelt down next to him. “Are you okay?”

Jake put his hand to his head. “What happened?”

“Landslide. You were hit in the head with something. You blacked out but appear to be otherwise okay. Where were Wyatt and Austin before the mountain came down?”

Jake sat up. His face paled. “In front of me.”

I looked down at Sitka and Yukon. “Find Wyatt. Find Austin.”

The dogs ran on ahead, and I knew I needed to follow, but the dizziness and nausea I’d kept at bay had returned. I was fine, I reminded myself. I’d seen something I’d need to process, but the most important thing was to find my friends. I stood up and looked at the spot in front of me, where the trail had once been. This was bad. Really bad.

It didn’t take the dogs long to find Wyatt. He’d managed to find a place next to the wall of the canyon to crouch down, avoiding most of the debris from above. After a bit of back and forth, we determined he was trapped and hurt. Jake managed to get up despite his head injury to help me dig him out. It was a long, arduous process because each rock needed to be lifted and set aside. I don’t know how we found the strength to do it, but when I saw Wyatt’s face, bruised but alert, I wanted to cry in relief.

His leg was broken and his shoulder dislocated but he didn’t appear to have any life-threatening injuries. By the time Jake and I had freed him, the sun had set, but we could hear Dani’s chopper in the distance. I wasn’t sure I had any strength left, but we weren’t done. “Find Austin,” I said to the dogs, even though I suspected he was gone. I’d been able to sense Wyatt as the dogs looked for him, but when I focused on Austin, all I found was silence. Of course, if he was unconscious I might not be able to make a connection, so there was that hope for me to cling to. I tried to keep up as the dogs scrambled over the rubble. Wyatt hadn’t been all that far in front of Jake and so hadn’t been in the area of largest destruction, but the farther toward the center of the landslide the dogs traveled, the more certain I was Austin was gone. By the time Dani had landed the chopper, Sitka alerted. He’d found Austin.

Sometimes all you can do is what you have to do. Dani had brought Jordan and Sarge with her, so they helped load Wyatt into the chopper, where Jordan went to work on his injuries. Once Wyatt was in Jordan’s hands, Dani and Sarge helped us retrieve Austin’s body. When we’d freed him from the rubble, it was completely dark and the temperature had dropped at least thirty degrees. Jake was still dizzy from his head injury, and we couldn’t all fit in the chopper at the same time, so Jordan went with Dani, who flew Wyatt and Jake to the hospital, while Sarge waited with the dogs and me. Austin’s body would be airlifted down as well, but it was more important to see to the injured.

“It wasn’t an accident,” I said to Sarge after we’d built a fire for warmth, then settled in to wait for Dani to come back for us.

“What do you mean, it wasn’t an accident?”

I tilted up my head so I could more clearly see the northern lights overhead. I wanted to embrace the breathtaking beauty that could be found in the Alaskan wilderness, but all I could feel was grief. “In the brief moment before the mountain exploded, I connected with someone in so much pain it was almost unbearable. I felt the rawness of exposed emotion as grief was channeled into rage.” I lowered my head and looked at Sarge. “Someone lured us up here. Someone set off explosives and intentionally caused the landslide. I have no doubt the intention was to bury us all, but I’d stopped to try to make a connection, so I was well behind the others. When I realized what was happening, I was able to warn Jake, which gave him maybe a second to retreat.” I swallowed as a lump of emotion clogged my throat. “Jake told me that he’d called to the others, but the mountain was already coming down and they were too far ahead.”

Sarge was silent for a moment. I imagined he needed that time to try to process what I’d just said. To lose a member of the team to a random landslide was bad enough; to lose him to a madman was another thing entirely. “So you’re saying Austin was murdered.”

I nodded. “Yes. That’s what I’m saying.” I took a deep breath as my entire body began to shake.

“Are you okay?” Sarge looked me in the eye. He put his hands on my shoulders and gave me a little shake.

“I’m okay. It’s just that…” I couldn’t continue. I tried to speak, but at that moment I couldn’t even breathe. I felt my heart pounding in my chest as a flash of memory seared through my mind.

“Just that what?” Sarge said persuasively. “You didn’t finish what you were saying.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t want to remember.

“You know you can trust me.”

I nodded. Sitka and Yukon were sitting so close to me, they were practically in my lap. I could sense their distress. I needed to pull myself together, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that.
“I want to help you, but you need to finish your thought,” Sarge insisted.

I put my arms around the dogs and took comfort in their warmth. I let them lick the tears from my face, and then I answered. Softly at first, but as my voice found its footing, I went on with more intensity. “In that moment, when I connected to whoever set off the dynamite that caused the landslide, I saw something else. A memory. Not my memory, his memory.”

Sarge frowned. “Okay. What was it?”

“It was Val.” I felt my body begin to shake again. “He was with her. The man who killed Austin was with Val when she died.”

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Finding Answers

 

Finding Answers, book 2 in my new Rescue Alaska Paranormal Mystery series, will launch on May 29th. A preview of chapter 1 is included below.

About the book:

Rescue Alaska is the eighth series by USA Today Bestselling Author Kathi Daley. It is a fast moving mystery series with a paranormal twist.

Rescue Alaska is a small town in northern Alaska where visitors come to hike and ski. Harmony Carson is a lifelong resident who volunteers as a member of the local search and rescue team. Harmony has a unique gift which she often considers a curse. She is able to ‘see’ the individuals she is meant to help rescue, and more often than not she can feel their fear and their pain as well. When she isn’t aiding in a rescue, Harmony works at Neverland – the bar owned by her brother in law Jake, and volunteers at the local animal shelter. Harmony lives in a rustic cabin with six dogs, four cats, six kittens, eight rabbits, and a blind mule named Homer.

In the second book in the series, Jake and Harmony are in the process of training a new search and rescue dog when they get a call that a four year old boy has gone missing from the cabin his family rented while on vacation. They join the search and rescue team, along with the local police, in the hope of finding the child before it is too late. Along the way they discover the freshly dumped body of an important member of the community. The police are stumped as to why this popular town resident would have been murdered, until a second community member goes missing and a disturbing pattern begins to emerge.

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Preview: 

Chapter 1
Monday, June 18

He watched the boy skipping rocks across the clear, still water. From the cover of dense forest, he listened to the childish squeals of delight as the flat, hard surface of the stone met the firm, unyielding force of the lake. Each hop resulted in an ever-widening web of rings, each ring larger yet less intense than the one that came before. Life, he mused, was like those rings. The farther you traveled from the point of origin, the wider your reach, but the less intense the effect. He’d spent a lifetime struggling to affect change in the larger rings, but now, he’d decided, it was time to avenge the iniquities of his past, to claim the inner ring as his own.

Vinnie Truman had been missing for just over an hour. The four-year-old with the sandy blond hair, big green eyes, and a smattering of freckles had been playing with his eight-year-old brother, Kip, and six-year-old sister, Cammie, in the yard of the cabin his parents, Jim and Joan, had rented for their summer vacation. No one saw Vinnie wander away. No one could explain why he would have.

Both Jim and Joan swore they’d been keeping an eye on their children as they grilled burgers on the deck just off the kitchen. When we walked in, Joan had been telling Officer Houston that she’d only looked away for a minute and had no idea how Vinnie could simply have disappeared.

“She’s lying,” I whispered to my partner, Jake Cartwright, the Rescue, Alaska Search and Rescue captain.

“Why do you say that?” Jake asked, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the room, seemingly taking in the climate around us.

I looked toward the short blond woman who was wringing her hands in distress as she clung to the sturdy arm of the uniformed officer she was speaking to. “Her blouse is buttoned wrong, her feet are bare, and her hair is mussed. There may have been grilling going on, but it wasn’t in the kitchen, and they weren’t focused on their children.”

Jake snorted, I was sure, to suppress a chuckle. “Play nice,” he whispered as he stepped forward to greet the officer in charge.

“You got here fast,” Hank Houston, a tall, broad-shouldered man with chiseled features, dark hair, dark eyes, and a serious way about him, commented as he reached out to Jake.

“We were in the area,” Jake responded as he shook the man’s hand.

“This is Jim and Joan Truman,” Houston introduced the obviously distressed couple. “And this is Jake Cartwright from Rescue, Alaska.”

“Don’t worry. We’re going to do everything we can to find your boy,” Jake said, his voice gentle. He turned and gestured to me and the two dogs with us. “This is my teammate, Harmony Carson, and our canine helpers, Sitka and Yukon.”

“Officer Houston said he called for the search-and-rescue team,” Joan said through her tears. “There are only two of you.” I could see the woman was on the verge of hysteria, which could only serve to make the situation worse. “He’s just a little boy. He could be injured and is probably scared. Two just won’t do.”

“There are a half dozen police officers looking for your boy,” Houston assured her. “The search-and-rescue squad is well trained and familiar with the area. They can cover a lot of ground with just a few people and are here to lend a hand. I can assure you, ma’am, we’re doing everything we can to find Vinnie.”

Jake turned and looked at Joan. I watched the hard lines of his face soften as he took her hand in his. He’d been doing this a long time. He knew what to do: offer hope but get what you needed. “Harmony and I were running training exercises in the area when the call came in, so we came straight over, but we have four other highly trained members of our team in transit. We’ll do everything in our power to find your boy.”

Joan’s face softened slightly as I imagined her clinging to that promise. I watched as she smiled slightly at Jake and then looked doubtfully toward the dogs. “Can they find him? That one looks so young.”

Jake’s hand visibly tightened on Joan’s. “Yukon is still a puppy, but he’s been doing very well with his training, and Sitka is a veteran search-and-rescue dog. He has dozens of rescues under his belt. He’s one of the best at what he does, and I know he’ll do his very best to find your boy. We’re going to need your help, however. The most important thing you can do now is to stay strong. Can you do that?”

The woman nodded.

“Okay, good.” Jake shot her a look of approval. That seemed to calm her somewhat. “First, I’ll need a recent photo of Vinnie.”

The man Houston had introduced as Vinnie’s father handed Jake a photo he’d been holding since we’d arrived. Jake looked at it, then handed it to me. I tried to ignore the noise in the room and focus on the curious eyes and crooked grin of the boy we’d been tasked to find.

“I’ll need a couple of pieces of clothing Vinnie’s worn,” Jake added. “The more recently they were worn, the better. Perhaps his pajamas.”

“I’ll get them,” Vinnie’s dad said, seeming grateful for something to do.

Jake nodded at him, then turned his attention back to Vinnie’s mother. “How long have you been staying at this cabin?”

“Almost a week.” She ran a hand over her face.

“And I understand Vinnie has been missing about an hour?” Jake continued.

Vinnie’s mother nodded. “Yes. We tried looking for him ourselves for a while before we called the police.”

Jake continued. “Is there anywhere you’ve walked in the past week that seemed to fascinate Vinnie? Anywhere he might want to return to?”

Vinnie’s mother shook her head. “No. He was supposed to stay in the yard. I only looked away for a minute.”

Jake looked at me. “Are you picking up anything?”

I shook my head. “Not yet.” Jake didn’t bother to explain to Jim and Joan that I was often able to connect with people I was destined to help rescue. It certainly wasn’t an exact science, and I wasn’t always able to do it, but I felt as emotionally connected to the child in the photo as I felt irritated by the woman who’d been canoodling with her husband rather than watching her children.

“Where was the last place you saw your son, ma’am?” I asked as I tried to get a visual image that could help me to get a read on the boy.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. It happened so suddenly.” The woman was gesturing wildly with her hands, as if to make me, to make us all, understand. “One minute he was there and the next he was gone.” A fresh stream of tears started down the woman’s face. “I only looked away for a minute.”

“So you’ve said,” I responded as I glanced down at the photo once again. I know it isn’t my job to judge the actions of the people we’re tasked to help, and I didn’t have children, so I wasn’t an expert when it came to the supervision of the under-ten crowd, but what I did know was that if I ever did have a child, which was highly unlikely, I wouldn’t leave him or her unattended in the Alaskan wilderness.

“You’ll find my boy?” Vinnie’s mother pleaded after I glanced up from the photo.

“We’ll try,” I answered. The team I belonged to was one of the best anywhere, our survival record unmatched. Still, I’d learned at an early age that when you’re battling Mother Nature, even the best teams occasionally came out on the losing end. I looked at Jake. “I’m going to head outside with the dogs. I might have better luck in a quiet environment.”

After leaving the house, I sat down on a bench and instructed both dogs to sit at my feet. Sitka was an old pro at this sort of thing and waited patiently for the hunt to begin, while Yukon, sensing that something important was up, danced around on the end of his lead. I scratched him behind the ears before instructing him, again, to sit and wait. Thankfully, he did. Yukon had so much raw talent, I was certain he was going to be as good a search-and-rescue dog as Sitka eventually, but he was less than a year old and, at times, still easily distracted.

Once Yukon settled into the wait position next to Sitka, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I’m not sure why I’m able to connect psychically with those I’m meant to rescue. It isn’t that I can feel the pain of everyone who’s suffering; it seems to be only those we’re meant to help that find their way onto my radar. I’m not entirely sure where the ability comes from, but I know when I acquired it. When I was seventeen, my sister Val, who was also my legal guardian after our parents’ death in a car accident, went out on a rescue. She got lost in a storm, and although the team tried to find her, they came up with nothing but dead ends. I remember sitting at the command post, praying harder than I ever had. I wanted so much to have the chance to tell Val how much I loved her and, suddenly, there she was, in my head. I could feel her pain, but I also felt the prayer in her heart. I knew she was dying, but I could feel her love for me as her life slipped away. I’d tried to tell the others I knew where she was, but they’d thought my ramblings were those of an emotionally distraught teenager dealing with the fallout of shock and despair. When the team eventually found Val’s body exactly where and how I’d told them they would, they began to believe I’d made a connection with the only family I’d had left in the world.
Since then, I’ve used my gift to locate and rescue dozens of people. I couldn’t save them all, but today, I was determined that our search for Vinnie would result in a check in the Save column. I tried to focus on the image of the child with the mischievous grin. I sensed water and was picking up the feeling of curiosity rather than fear. That was good. Chances are, as I suspected, the boy had wandered off chasing a rabbit or some other small creature and hadn’t even realized he was lost yet. It was a warm day, and Vinnie’s mother had assured us that he wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a hooded sweatshirt, so at least we didn’t have the elements to worry about, as we did with so many of the winter rescues on which we were called out.

I heard Yukon begin to whine. I opened my eyes and saw team members Wyatt Forrester, Dani Matthews, Landon Stanford, and Austin Brown walking toward us. Yukon stood up, preparing to greet some of his favorite people.

“Sit and wait,” I reminded the pup.

He plopped his butt on the ground but continued to wag his tail. Beside him, Sitka thumped his tail without having moved an inch.

The group stopped several feet short of the dogs. The animals were working, so playful scratches and enthusiastic kisses would have to wait.

“Any news?” Dani asked.

“Jake is inside, talking to the parents. I’m sure he’ll be out soon. I haven’t been able to establish a clear connection to the boy, but I sense water near his current location. I don’t think he realizes he’s lost. I sense curiosity but not fear.”

Wyatt was about to say something when Jake walked out of the house with two plastic bags, each containing a piece of clothing Vinnie had worn.

“Anything?” Jake asked me.

I told him what I’d just told the others.

“There are two bodies of water nearby,” Jake said. “Eagle Lake is about a half mile up the mountain and Glacier Lake is about a half mile down the mountain from here.” Jake looked around, as if sizing up the situation. “The family has hiked in both directions within the past twenty-four hours. It’s likely the dogs will pick up the boy’s scent in either direction, at least initially. We’ll divide into two groups. I’ll take Sitka, Dani, and Austin and head up the mountain. Harmony and Yukon can work with Wyatt and Landon and head toward the lower lake.” Jake looked at me. “If Yukon picks up a strong scent, radio and we can discuss a strategy. If you make a stronger connection to Vinnie, or are able to pick up anything more specific, let us know.”

Jake, as Sitka’s handler, and me, as Yukon’s, each took a plastic bag. Once we’d cleared the yard, we let our dogs sniff the piece of clothing, telling them repeatedly, “This is Vinnie; find Vinnie.” When the dogs seemed to understand what it was we were asking, we took them off their leads, then followed. I trailed directly behind Yukon, while Wyatt walked parallel to my route to the right and Landon paralleled to the left.

Once Sitka had a scent, he was usually very focused on the task at hand, so the odds of Jake and his team finding Vinnie if he had traveled up the mountain were great. Yukon, on the other hand, was pretty green. He had been abandoned on my doorstep five months earlier, and I, as I always did, had taken him in. Over the course of the next month, I’d worked to teach him the house rules. During his training, I’d noticed what I felt was an innate ability to find whatever it was I sent him to look for. I spoke to Jake, and he agreed to help me train him for search and rescue. We’d discussed needing a second dog. Yukon caught on to the training like a fish to water, and although he’d only been training for a few months, he’d already been successful in locating the victim in five different simulations. Of course, a real rescue was a lot more intense than a simulation for both dog and handler, and this was the first time he’d participated in a real rescue without Sitka by his side to show him how it was done.

Yukon headed into the dense foliage of the nearby forest and I followed. I glanced at Wyatt, who was perhaps fifty yards to my right, and then Landon, who was fifty yards to my left. They nodded, letting me know they were able to follow despite the rough terrain. I glanced at Yukon, who sniffed the air and headed deeper into the forest. While we searched, I kept an eye on him, but basically let him do his thing. After several minutes, he alerted, showing interest where a fallen tree blocked the path. “Did you find something?” Yukon sniffed the log and wagged his tail. “Good boy.” I looked around and called Vinnie’s name. Nothing. I stood perfectly still and closed my eyes. I waited for a vision to appear. I could sense the boy, and, as before, he didn’t seem frightened. But there was something. Something dark. Something menacing. I tried to hone in on it, but I couldn’t get a clear reading, so I tied a flag to a tree branch to mark the spot, then took the pajama top out of the bag. I once again held it under Yukon’s nose. “This is Vinnie. Find Vinnie.” Yukon set off down the trail. I went after him.

I knew once Vinnie realized he was lost, fear would overcome him. That would help me to connect with him, yet I hoped for his sake we’d find him before he became terrified. The forest was thick with evergreens and underbrush. Yukon had left the trail after we’d come across the fallen log, which meant Vinnie most likely had left the trail as well. The area was home to a variety of wildlife, including grizzlies, wolves, and cougars. It was dangerous for anyone to veer off the established trail, but it was especially dangerous for little boys who had no idea that danger lurked in the dark places beyond the clearing.

It wasn’t easy to both follow Yukon and focus on Vinnie. If we didn’t either hear from Jake or find him in the next few minutes, I’d call to the dog to take a break.

As we approached the lake, Yukon alerted again. As before, I stopped and looked around. I called for Vinnie and then listened. I closed my eyes and tried desperately to make a connection. This time, the vision was a bit clearer. Vinnie had stopped what he was doing to look around. He must have realized he was lost and, as predicted, curiosity had been replaced by fear.

“Harmony to Jake,” I said through the radio.

“Go ahead.”

“I have a vision. He’s near Glacier Lake.”

“We’re on our way.”

I closed my eyes and focused again. He was terrified. Fear and panic fueled the boy as he ran through the underbrush. I cringed as I saw him trip over something. Pain. Now the fear was mingled with pain. He got up and tried to run, but the pain was too much. When he fell again, he simply sat on the ground, clutching his ankle and screaming for help. I took a deep breath. There was something else. Darkness. Danger.

I opened my eyes and looked at Yukon. “Find Vinnie. We need to find Vinnie.” I gave him another sniff of the pajama top and waited. He sniffed the air, then took off at a run. I tried unsuccessfully to keep up with him and was about to call him back when I heard three sharp barks.

“Vinnie,” I called as loudly as I could.

“Here. I’m here.”

I headed down the trail as quickly as I could manage. Sprawled on the ground was a terrified little boy with his arms around Yukon, who gently licked the tears from his face.

“Good boy,” I said to Yukon. I knelt next to Vinnie. “Are you hurt?”

“My ankle. I hurt my ankle.”

I radioed Jake to let him know I’d found Vinnie. He would need to be carried back to the cabin, so I waited for Wyatt and Landon to catch up.

“Other than your ankle, do you hurt anywhere?” I asked.

The boy shook his head. He was smiling now that Yukon had settled in next to him. “I was lost. I was on the trail, but then I looked around and nothing looked right. I was so scared. I ran as fast as I could. I wanted to get home, but then I fell.”

I looked back the way Vinnie had traveled. “Did you trip on a log?”

Vinny wiped the tears from his dirt-streaked face. “I don’t know. I didn’t see.”

“Help is on the way. We’ll get you home in no time. You’re safe now.”

“Mama will be mad. I’m not supposed to leave the yard.” The boy began to sob. “I’m going to get a time-out. I hate time-outs.”

I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and used it to wipe away the boy’s tears. “I can’t say for certain, but I think your mom will be so happy to see you that she might forget to be mad. Still, the rule about staying in the yard is a good one. You could have been in real trouble if Yukon hadn’t found you. There are all sorts of things out here that can hurt a little boy.”

“Like bears?”

I nodded. “Yes, like bears. And cougars, and wolves, and all sorts of animals that might be lurking nearby, waiting to attack.”

The boy began to sob hysterically. Yukon began to lick his face frantically to offer comfort. Okay, so maybe I oversold the danger angle. I didn’t mean to traumatize the kid; I just wanted him to understand the potential consequences of his actions.

“What’s wrong?” Wyatt said, arriving in the nick of time as far as I was concerned. He bent down and picked the boy up in his arms. “Are you hurt?”

“No.” The boy began to hiccup from hysteria.

“So why all the tears?”

“I was bad and a bear might have ate me.”

Wyatt looked at me and raised a brow.

I lifted a shoulder. “It’s not like I have experience talking to kids. Dogs are more my thing.”

Wyatt winked at me. “You did good. Yukon too. Let’s get this scared little boy back to his parents.”

“Wait,” I said as Wyatt turned to head back to the cabin. I stood up and slowly scanned the forest as Landon arrived. I could still sense the darkness I’d picked up before. I couldn’t identify what I was feeling, but an iciness settled into my chest. I felt pain and hopelessness and death. “There’s someone else. Someone near death.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated. The image of a man’s face filtered through my mind, but it was blurry and out of focus. It was as if the man was passing in and out of consciousness, letting me in and then pushing me out. “Oh God,” I whispered.

“What is it?” Wyatt asked. “What do you see?”

I glanced at Vinnie, who looked scared to death. I tried to level my voice despite the intense grief that had gripped my body. “Go ahead and take Vinnie back to his parents. Landon, Yukon, and I will try to find the source of my vision.”

Wyatt looked uncertain, but he didn’t argue. He nodded and began walking back toward the cabin. When he was out of sight, I closed my eyes and tried to see the face of the man again. Landon stood quietly next to me, holding Yukon’s lead. He took my hand in his free one and held on tight. He’d been with me long enough to know how draining this was for me.

“Anything?” Landon asked in a voice so soft I barely heard him.

“It isn’t focused. It’s a man. I can’t see his face. He’s hurt. His image is fading in and out. He doesn’t want to let me in.” My breath caught as I connected just in time to experience what I was sure was the man’s last breath. I shook my head, then opened my eyes. “He’s gone.”

“Where?”

I looked through the dense forest. “I don’t know. I wasn’t linked for more than a few seconds. He was resisting, but I managed to connect right at the end, when his only choice was to surrender. Now that he’s dead I can’t sense him.” I looked around at the thick trees. “We’ll need help to find him.” I radioed Jake and informed him of the situation, then Landon, Yukon, and I began to search for the man I had seen in my mind.

Jake’s dog, Sitka, had been trained to find missing people as well as those who had already passed on. Yukon was training to follow a specific scent, as we’d just done with Vinnie, but he had no training as a cadaver dog. Our best bet at finding the man whose death I had just experienced was to force myself to remember everything about that moment. Everything I had seen, heard, smelled, and felt.

“The man was lying on the ground,” I said in a soft voice. “He was cold. Weak. Wet, perhaps. He was partially covered, but the purpose of the cover wasn’t to provide warmth but camouflage.”

“You said wet? Is he near the water?” Landon asked.

“Maybe. It’s dark. The trees in the area are dense.” I opened my eyes and scanned the area. I could remember the pain, the fear, the urge to fight, and then the peace that came with the decision to give in and float away from the world toward whatever came next.

“Are you okay?” Landon asked.

I nodded.

Landon used his thumb to wipe a tear from my cheek. “I know it’s painful.”

“It’s okay. I’m okay,” I assured him. There are times I want to run from the images and feelings that threaten to overwhelm and destroy me, but I know embracing the pain and the fear is my only path to the answers I seek. “In the last moment of his life, there was fear, anger, and pain, but something else as well.” I focused harder.

“Acceptance and,” I tried to remember, “penance. He was sorry for something he did and with his last breath was seeking forgiveness.”

“From whom?” Landon asked.

I opened my eyes. “I don’t know. Maybe God. Maybe himself. Maybe someone he’d wronged.” I continued to scan the forest, looking for something familiar. The only thing I could see in my vision was trees, which didn’t help me a bit because there were trees everywhere.

“Do you remember anything from your vision that will help us know where to look?” Landon asked again. “Anything at all that will help us narrow things down?”

“There were trees and it was dark.” I took a breath and forced my mind to calm and focus. “The ground was gently sloped and covered with wild grass.” I bit my lip as I tried to get a feeling for direction. “There.” I pointed into the distance.

Landon set off in the direction I indicated with Yukon at his side. I followed closely behind. Shortly after we’d entered the densest part of the forest, Yukon began to whine.

“Do you have the scent?”

Yukon barked three times.

“Let him go,” I instructed Landon. “He may not be trained to retrieve those who have passed on, but he’s a dog and better able to pick up scent than either of us.”

It didn’t take long. No longer, really, than it took to take a breath for Yukon to find the body. I felt my knees weaken and my stomach lurch. “It’s Pastor Brown.” I gasped as Landon bent down and took a closer look at the man who was partially covered by the thick underbrush.

“If only we’d been a few minutes sooner,” I said to Landon as he pulled away the vines and ferns that someone seemed to have arranged from the man’s body. He knelt and felt for a pulse, then shook his head. The pastor’s throat had been slit and he had a piece of duct tape across his mouth.

“He couldn’t even scream,” I said, as if that somehow made it worse.

“I wonder how he got here,” Landon said.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Yukon began to growl from deep in his chest as I scanned our surroundings. I didn’t see or hear anything, but my intuition told me that Pastor Brown’s killer was still nearby. “Someone brought him here. Someone who’s still here.”

Landon stood up and looked around. “I don’t see anything. Are you sure you sense a second person?”

“I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I do sense someone. I don’t feel as if he’s a threat to us, though. I’ll call Jake to have him fill Officer Houston in on what we’ve found.”

I made the call, then returned my attention to Landon, who was still standing over the body. We both knew not to touch him because we could destroy evidence, but in that moment not touching was very difficult indeed. I’d felt the man’s life leave his body. There was a voice in my head that demanded I do something better than simply stand there.

“It looks like he’d been swimming,” I said. He was soaking wet, but he was fully dressed, and it was much too cold to have gone swimming in a lake whose source was melting snow, so the idea was probably ridiculous.

“I doubt that, but he is wet,” Landon replied. He nodded to the pastor’s bloody wrists without touching him. “It looks like he was bound at some point, though there are no signs of any ropes here.”

“Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore,” I suggested. “Once he made it to land, the cold-blooded killer who dumped him in the water slit his throat and left him to die.”

“Maybe,” Landon replied. “Someone tried to camouflage the body. I’m guessing he’d passed out before he died. Maybe he was tossed from a boat and swam to shore before he was killed.” Landon paused and turned his head. “It sounds like the others are almost here.”

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The Mother’s Day Mishap

 

The Mother’s Day Mishap publishes on April 24th. Book 3 in the new Tess and Tilly Cozy Mystery Series is filled with doggy fun and some good old fashion sleuthing. Here is a preview of Chapter 1.

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Chapter 1
Thursday, May 3

They arrived in the middle of the night. Two balls of wet and matted fur tied to a porch railing, huddled together for warmth and comfort as the rain slammed into the small town of White Eagle, Montana, from the east. The note said they were inseparable, brothers who’d shared a womb and eventually a life. Neither had spent time without the other, and, the anonymous person who’d dropped them on Brady’s doorstep asked, if at all possible, could they be placed together?

Placing dogs with just the right owner was a task Brady Baker, local veterinarian and shelter owner, and I, Tess Thomas, mail carrier and shelter volunteer, take great pride in doing better than anyone else, but this pair of medium-sized terriers were proving to be quite a challenge. It wasn’t that they weren’t adorable, with their huge brown eyes and long shaggy fur the color of damp sand; it was that they had never been trained or socialized to respond to or even care about anyone or anything other than each other.

And then they met Tilly.

“It looks like you’re making progress.”

Brady smiled in response to my statement as my golden retriever, Tilly, and I walked into the room where he’d been working on a sit/stay with one of the brothers. It appeared as if the training had been going well until Jagger saw Tilly. Ignoring Brady’s command to stay, he’d run forward to greet her with wiggles and waggles from one end of his shaggy body to the other.

I motioned for Tilly to sit, which she did immediately. Jagger, who Brady estimated to be about eight months old, plopped his butt on the ground right next to her. I praised them both and told them to stay. I walked away and spoke to Brady for a minute, keeping an eye on the pair as I did. After a minute, I motioned for the dogs to come and then sit and stay again. I asked both Jagger and Tilly to repeat the behavior several times, praising both dogs when my hand gesture was met with an appropriate response. When a dog was in training, repetition was key. Experience had shown that if a behavior was repeated often enough, even easily distractible dogs such as Jagger would begin to respond to the hand flip even when Tilly wasn’t around to show him what to do.

Once I’d released them to relax, Jagger came over to say hi. I knelt to greet the terrier and was welcomed with wet, sloppy kisses. The fact that Jagger now seemed delighted to see me when he’d all but ignored me in those first days was progress in my book.

“Where’s Bowie?” I asked about the second terrier.

“In his pen,” Brady answered as his blue eyes met my brown. “I’ve decided the only way I’m going to make any progress training the boys is to separate them for individual sessions. Initially, I tried joint sessions, but that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I figure once I have them responding individually, I can bring them together for training for short periods of time.” Brady bent over and greeted Tilly, allowing her to enthusiastically rain doggy kisses on his face.

“Seems like you have a good plan. How can I help?”

“I’m glad you asked. I hoped you and Tilly would have time to work with the brothers and me on Saturday. Between the clinic and the shelter, it’s hard to make time for the specialized training they need. Besides, Tilly is a good influence on Bowie and Jagger. They seem to settle down and pay more attention when she’s with them.”

Brady had a point. Tilly was an old pro at responding to both hand and verbal signals. When she was around, Jagger and Bowie tended to mimic whatever she was doing.

“Tilly and I would be happy to help,” I answered. “Did you have anything specific in mind?” Brady interviewed prospective doggy parents to find out exactly what they were looking for in a dog. He wanted to ensure that the dogs he placed were perfect matches for their new humans. If the shelter housed a dog who seemed to be compatible overall with one of the humans who came looking for a forever friend, more often than not Brady was willing to provide extra training to ensure the dog met the needs of whoever they’d spend their life with.

“I spoke to Jimmy Early. He came in to adopt one dog, but after we spoke, he said he’d be willing to consider the brothers provided they loved the water, were comfortable on a SUP board, and enjoyed traveling.”

I knew Jimmy. He and his girlfriend, Destiny, operated a paddleboat and stand-up paddleboard concession at the lake during the spring and summer. Once the snow began to fall, they packed up their belongings and took off in their camper for warmer climes. It made sense they’d want to adopt dogs who liked the water and travel. “Have you tried the boys in the water?”

Brady nodded. “They aren’t fans of the wet stuff. Tilly likes to swim. Maybe we can take the boys to the beach on Saturday and Tilly can show them how much fun it is. Once we get them used to the water, we can work on the SUP board. As for traveling, they seem fine riding around in my truck, so I don’t think that will be a problem.”

“Okay. I can do Saturday. Say around ten?”

“Ten would be perfect.”

I paused to put the appointment in my phone calendar. “The reason I’m here now,” I said, once I’d finished the entry, “is because I wanted to pick up some more of that nutrient-dense cat food for the kittens.” I had adopted two rescues of my own, an orange-stripped kitten named Tang and a black kitten with long fur named Tinder. As a shelter volunteer, I was able to purchase quality pet food at Brady’s cost, so it was only the best that my discount, combined with my adequate-but-far-from-generous salary, could buy for my animals.

“I was about to quit for the day,” Brady informed me. “Let me bring Jagger back to his brother and I’ll go to the clinic with you. You can grab the food as well as the flyers I had made up for the adoption event later this month.”

I followed Brady, who was dressed in faded jeans, running shoes, and a dark blue T-shirt. He dressed in slacks, a dress shirt, and a white lab coat when the clinic was open, but when he spent time at the shelter, he dressed down, which was the look I appreciated the most. “Did you decide on a theme for the event?”

Brady’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm. “Speed dating. I’ve arranged to use the football field at the high school. I’m going to section it off into twelve smaller areas using temporary fencing. Each individual pen will have a dog who’s available for adoption. Prospective doggy parents will each be assigned to a pen, where they’ll spend three minutes. When the time’s up, all the people will rotate in a prearranged pattern until everyone has visited all the pens. Once a prospective doggy parent has their visit with each of the twelve dogs, they’ll be able to request up to three dogs to spend additional time with. At the end of the event, prospective parents can fill out an application for the dog of their choice.”

“Are you going to allow for second and third choices just in case everyone wants the same dog?” It seemed that at almost every adoption clinic I’d ever worked, there were interested parties fighting over a few dogs, while others remained homeless.

He nodded. “Some prospective parents don’t do well with this sort of event, and they’re of course welcome to come in during the week to look at the dogs individually, but I’ve done speed-dating events before, and usually, dogs and humans manage to find one another in the time allotted.”

“Sounds like fun. I’ll start putting the flyers up tomorrow while I’m doing my route.”

“If you need more, just ask and I can run some out to you. I want this event to be a success, and I’m hoping we’re starting early enough this time to plaster the entire town.”

“I’ll make sure every bulletin board and store window in White Eagle has a flyer.”

I got the cat food and flyers from Brady’s veterinary clinic, and Tilly and I piled into my Jeep and headed home: a small, rustic cabin outside the town limits of White Eagle. While the plumbing was old and the heater temperamental, the view of the mountains from both my front and back decks was truly spectacular. The cabin was surrounded by national forest and my closest neighbor was far enough away that I couldn’t see any other buildings from any window.

When I pulled into the private drive that led from the highway to the cabin, I spotted my good friend Tony Marconi sitting in his truck in front of the cabin. Tony and I had met in middle school. He was not only the smartest kid in our entire school, but he was also sort of a geek. I’ll admit that when I first met him, I, like the other kids, had made fun of his looks and superior intellect, but after he helped me out with a mystery that resulted in the two of us sharing a pretty huge secret, the tall and gangly genius had grown on me and eventually become one of my very best friends.

Of course, now that he was an adult and had grown into his height, he was not only the smartest man I knew but the sexiest as well. Not that I would ever tell him that. We were, after all, just friends.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as I climbed out of the Jeep and Tony kissed me on the cheek. “Not that I’m not thrilled to see you; I just wasn’t expecting you.”

“I was in town and thought I’d stop by to see if you wanted to have a pizza-and-video-game night. It’s been a while.”

“It has been a while,” I answered as Tilly jumped out of the Jeep and greeted Tony’s dog, Titan, with a wagging tail and tiny leaps of joy. “And I don’t have plans tonight. I wish I’d known what you had in mind. I would have stopped to pick up the food on my way home.”

“No need. I have a pizza warming in your oven and a new microbrew I’ve been wanting to try in your refrigerator.”

After Titan greeted Tilly, he trotted over to say hi to me, while Tilly greeted Tony. “If you had a way into the cabin, why were you waiting out here in your truck?”

“It seemed presumptuous to wait inside. I knew you probably wouldn’t be long, it’s a beautiful evening, and you do have quite the spectacular view here.”

I ruffled Titan behind the ears, then kissed him on the top of the head. “I’m glad you’re here, but you probably should have called. What if I wasn’t free?”

Tony shrugged as Tilly and Titan headed to my front door together. “I would have taken my beer and pizza home. Let me just grab a few things from my truck and I’ll get the game set up.”

“Do you have a new one?”

“I do. It’s called Valley of Atonement. I’ve been asked to test it for a friend. You can help.”

One of the very best things about Tony, second to his good looks, giving nature, kind heart, millions of dollars, and superior brain, was that he knew a lot of people who developed video games and was always being asked to test them and offer advice before they were on the market. Most of the time he asked me and his other friend, Shaggy, to test them out as well.

“I hope you didn’t order pineapple on the pizza,” I said as I walked to the door with Tony trailing behind me.

“I would never get pineapple on any pizza I planned to share with you. There are also no mushrooms, peppers, or tomatoes. All meat, all the way.”

I grinned. “Thanks. I know you love pineapple on your pizza, so I appreciate the sacrifice. Why don’t you set everything up while I change out of my work clothes?” As a mail carrier, I had a uniform I was required to wear every day, but when I was home, it was sweatpants, jeans, or shorts.

I greeted both kittens and headed into my bedroom, where I put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I pulled my long hair into a ponytail, then returned to the main living area of the cabin, where Tony had the pizza on the table, along with plates, forks, and ice-cold beer. It was a beautiful day and I was tempted to move the dinner outdoors onto my deck, but it was still a little chilly in the evenings, although the snow had melted and the meadows were lush with green grass and colorful wildflowers.

“This really is the best pizza in town,” I said as I took my first bite of the thickly layered pie.

“Having Giovani’s Pizza on a regular basis is one of the things I miss about not living closer to town,” Tony said. “I noticed they had a few new specialties, including a buffalo chicken topping that sounds like it might be fun to try.”

“That does sound good. We’ll have to try it next time.” I slipped a second piece of pizza onto my plate.

“Shaggy loves chicken wings, so I’m betting he’d like to try it as well.” Shaggy owned a video game store, and the two spent quite a bit of time together. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring him with you tonight.”

“I thought about inviting him, but I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I set my slice down. “My dad?”

Tony had been trying to help me track down my father, who supposedly died twelve years ago. For some reason, I had a feeling there was more to his death than I’d been told, so I’d asked Tony to look in to it. Not only had he found what seemed like proof that Dad hadn’t died in the fiery accident, as everyone thought, but there was every indication he could still be alive and living an alternate life.

“No, not your dad,” Tony said.

“Okay.” I couldn’t imagine what Tony would want to discuss with me that he wouldn’t want Shaggy to overhear if it wasn’t regarding my father and his not-so-dead state of being. “Then what is it?”

Tony paused and made eye contact before he continued. Okay, he was making me nervous now. It wasn’t like Tony to hesitate. I watched as a myriad of emotions crossed his face. Eventually, he spoke. “Remember you asked me to check out the man who came to White Eagle to visit your mother over Valentine’s Day?”

“I remember. His name is Romero Montenegro. He lives in Italy, where his family owns a winery. You said he checked out. You said he used to work in a museum but now teaches history at a university in Rome, although he’s been on sabbatical. You said he’d never been married or arrested, though he did have one failed engagement seven years ago. You said he seemed like a good guy. Did you find something else?”

Tony hesitated. Oh, I didn’t like the look on his face. Tony was the sort who was always confident and sure. This look of doubt and indecision didn’t suit him at all.

“What is it?” I asked in a much firmer tone.

“Is your mom still seeing him?” Tony asked.

“He went back to Italy, so I guess she isn’t technically seeing him, but they’re still corresponding. She’s even made some noises to Ruthie and me about taking some time off over the summer so she can go to Italy to visit him. I’ve been trying to talk her out of it. I mean, she’s fifty-six and the mother of two adults, and he’s a forty-two-year-old playboy. I don’t see what she sees in the man. They have absolutely nothing in common.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. I knew what he wasn’t saying. Romero was a total babe in a cover-of-a-romance-novel way. Dark and fit, with a polished air and a wonderful accent. Of course my middle-aged mother would find him attractive. She’d have to be dead not to be. But sizzling-hot sex appeal wasn’t everything. Though in Romero’s case, it might be enough.

“Do you think we can move on from this line of thought?” I asked. “The idea of my mother having those types of feelings sort of grosses me out.”

“I guess I can understand that.”

“So, what’s the deal? Why are we even discussing the Casanova who’s caught my mother’s attention?”

Tony splayed his hands on the table, his long fingers open wide. “I’m not sure why I even continued to look into his past after that initial search, but something felt off, so when I had some free time, I poked around a bit more. Remember I told you that Romero hadn’t been married but he’d had a failed engagement seven years ago?”

“Yeah. So?”

“It looks like he didn’t break up with his fiancée, but she didn’t break up with him either.”

I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms over my chest. “Okay, what are you saying? Is the guy my mom has been fooling around with still engaged?”

“No. He’s not engaged. Romero Montenegro didn’t get married because his engagement failed. The reason he didn’t get married was because his fiancée died. She was, in fact, murdered.”

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Homecoming By The Sea

Book 1 in my new Haunting By The Sea Paranormal Mystery Series will debut on Tuesday, April 10th. I am in love with this new series and hope you will be as well. The series is a continuation of the Seacliff High Series although you do not have to of read Seacliff High to enjoy this new series that takes place with the same characters, in the same small town, in the same haunted house, as the original series.

Buy or read for FREE with Kindle Unlimited –  https://amzn.to/2uP21aR

 

Here is a preview:

Chapter 1
Monday, May21

I could hear the whispering long before I arrived. It started as a nagging in the back of my mind that grew to a symphony of voices calling me home. I’d felt the echo of what I’d left behind as I made the long trip from one coast to the other.

It had been ten years since I’d stood on this ground. Ten years since I’d heard the voices, felt the connection, seen the images of those who had come before. When I left Cutter’s Cove a decade ago, I knew I would return. What I didn’t know was how long my return would take.

I stood on the bluff overlooking the angry sea. The sky was dark, with heavy clouds that blocked what was left of the afternoon sun. The rumbling in the distance informed me that a storm was rolling toward shore, but it was the murmurs from the house that caused a chill to run down my spine.

I pulled my sweater tightly around my thin frame as the wind raged from the west. My blond hair blew across my face as I tried to emotionally confront the nightmare that had demanded my return. A good friend had died, brutally murdered in his own home. After six months, his killer still roamed free. This, I’d decided, was something I couldn’t bear.

“I’m here,” I whispered as the air became heavy with the approaching storm. Lightning flashed across the sky and still I waited. The house had once been my sanctuary, but now, after all this time, I was hesitant to find out who waited impatiently for my return.

I closed my eyes and listened as the waves crashed onto the rocky shore beneath me. I could feel a presence and wondered if my ability to see those who had passed on had been restored now that I’d returned to the house. It wasn’t as if I was born with the ability to see ghosts. I hadn’t, in fact, seen my first one until I’d moved from New York to Cutter’s Cove, Oregon, at the age of sixteen. At the time I believed the gift was the result of some sort of personal growth, but when I moved away from the house and away from the sea, the images faded.

My phone rang, and I turned back toward my Mercedes. I’d promised my mother I’d call when I arrived, so I hurried to the car. I opened the passenger side door and grabbed the phone, which had been resting on the charger.

“Are you there?” Mom asked from the other end of the phone line.

“I’m here.”

“How’s the house? Ten years is a long time to go without any type of maintenance.”

I looked toward the large home that Mom and I had bought and fixed up twelve years ago. We’d found the house—or perhaps the house had found us—during one of the most difficult times in our lives. Spending time together renovating the dilapidated old lady had not only been cathartic but life changing as well. “I haven’t been inside, but from the outside she looks just as I remember. She needs a coat of paint, but it seems she’s stood strong while she waited.”

“Are you sure about this?” Mom asked for the hundredth time.

“I’m sure.” I looked out toward the sea. “It’s been six months since Booker’s death. I spoke to Woody Baker,” I said, “and the police are no closer to solving the case than they were on the day his body was found.”

“I understand. I really do. But your life is in New York now. Doesn’t it feel strange to return to the place where everyone knew you as Alyson?”

I paused before I answered. An image of Alyson flashed through my mind. Although we’d shared the same body, in many ways she felt like a totally different person. When I’d lived in Cutter’s Cove a decade ago, I’d used the name Alyson Prescott, a persona I’d been assigned when my mom and I had been placed in the witness protection program. My real name is Amanda Parker, a name I resumed when the men who wanted me dead were murdered themselves. “Yes,” I admitted. “It does feel strange. But I have to do this.”

“You know I’ll support you, whatever you decide.”

I smiled. “I know. And I love you for it.” I felt a heavy weight settle in my chest. Deciding that serious conversations could wait for another day, I changed the subject. “How’s Tucker doing? Didn’t he have his checkup today?” Tucker was my German shepherd who stayed with Mom when I went away to college nine years ago. After college I’d secured a high-paying job in a very competitive industry and was rarely home, so Tucker had continued to live with my mother. He was twelve years old now and showing signs of slowing down.

“The vet said he’s doing really well for a dog his age. She gave me supplements as well as some mild pain meds to help with the arthritis.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Good. I was worried about him. Give him a kiss for me and tell him I love him.”

“Always.”

I glanced back toward the house. “I should get inside and try to get the electricity and heat on before the storm arrives. I’m not sure if I’ll have reception once it does, so don’t worry if you can’t get hold of me.”

“Okay. Be careful.”

I smiled as the reality of my mother’s unconditional love warmed my heart. “I will. I love you. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I opened the glove box and grabbed the keys to the house. When Mom and I had first come to Cutter’s Cove and found the house perched on the edge of the sea, we’d known we were home. Sure, it had stood empty since the death of the previous owner, and admittedly, it had been about as dilapidated as a house could be and still be standing, but it had history and character, and as far as we were concerned, it was love at first sight. Hoping the key would work in the old lock, I slipped it into the door. Luckily, it turned without effort and I stepped inside.

Finally, I heard the house whisper.

I’m not sure how to explain what I felt in that moment. A sense of homecoming, for sure, but also a hollowness I couldn’t quite explain. The furniture Mom and I had taken such care to choose was covered with sheets and every other surface was covered with dust. I took a step forward, batting at the tapestry of cobwebs that hung from the ceiling.

I took several more steps into the interior. “Is anyone there?” I said out loud. I hadn’t seen anyone, but the sense that I wasn’t alone was overwhelming.

As I stood silently and listened, memories I thought long buried suddenly consumed me. When Mom and I had first come to Cutter’s Cove I’d been so lost. My best friend had just been murdered and Mom and I had been forced to flee the life we’d always known because the men who’d committed the murder had identified me, the only witness to a gangland shooting. I’d thought leaving Amanda Parker behind would be both painful and confusing, and it was, but I found Alyson’s easygoing approach to life surprisingly refreshing. During the two years I’d lived as Alyson, I rarely thought of Amanda, yet it hadn’t been all that difficult to reclaim my old life when I returned to the place where Amanda’s had been the only identity I’d ever known.

“Is anyone there?” I repeated as I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye.

I paused, but no one answered. I supposed it could just be a trick of the light.

The gas and electrical turnoffs were in the basement, so I headed in that direction. The house was huge and so very different from anything we’d known in New York, with nine fireplaces spread among three floors of living space. There was also a basement and a finished attic. Mom, an artist, had replaced the wall on the ocean side of the attic with windows and had turned the space into a studio. She never spoke of it now that she’d resumed her old life, but I often pictured her there, standing at the window, looking out to sea with a contemplative look on her face.

As I entered the main living area, I glanced at the painting on the wall. Mom had captured me and my two best friends, Mackenzie Reynolds and Trevor Johnson, in an unsuspecting moment and converted the photo to oil. When I’d left Cutter’s Cove ten years ago, I’d promised Mac and Trevor that I’d come back to visit all the time. I promised we’d text and Skype every day, and one day find our way back to one another. And we had texted and Skyped. At first. But as the weeks turned into months, and the months into years, we’d become busy with our own lives and drifted apart.

A rustling overhead caused me to pause and listen. It could be animals who’d found their way into the house, though the last time I’d heard strange noises overhead it hadn’t been animals at all.

“Hello,” I called, louder this time. “Is someone there?”

There was no answer and the rustling stopped, so I continued into the kitchen. I focused on the clickety-clack of my heels hitting the deep blue tile floor as I crossed the room. At the stairs leading down to the basement, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and made my way into the inky darkness of the damp room. When we’d first moved into the house, the space beneath the first floor had been cluttered with remnants from previous residents, as had the attic. Mom and I had cleared out both spaces, and now the basement was mostly empty. My first stop was the electrical box. I’d called the power company a few days before to have the power turned on and hoped all that would be required to bathe the house in light would be a flip of the switch.

“Voilà!” I said as the power came on.

Now all I had to do was turn on the gas and I might be looking at a hot bath that evening. I’d been driving for days, but the journey seemed little more than a blur in my consciousness. Once I’d started the drive west I’d felt the pull of the voices and had thought about little else. After confirming that the gas was working, I went back upstairs to the first floor. It would take me a couple of days of elbow grease before the place was habitable, but for now, I had plumbing and a place to stay. I’d brought an ice chest with a few necessities as well as coffee and wine, so it seemed I could survive the night.

I was about to head upstairs to check out my room when my phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at the caller ID. My first reaction was annoyance that my life in New York had found a way to intrude on my first minutes back in Cutter’s Cove, then realized how irrational that was and answered. “Ethan. I was just going to call you,” I said to my boyfriend of two years, Ethan Wentworth.

“Have you arrived?”

“I have.”

“And how did you find it?”

“I mostly remembered how to get here.”

Ethan didn’t speak for a moment. I knew he was confused by my response, but I couldn’t help but tease him after the way he’d framed his question. Ethan was a wonderful person and a kind and considerate boyfriend, but he was a product of old money and a rigid upbringing that resulted in a precise way of moving and speaking.

“I’m just kidding.” I laughed. “I found the house to be dusty but intact. How did your court case go?”

“Fine. Our case was impenetrable.”

“So you won?”

“Yes. I believe I just said that.”

I smiled. “You did, and I’m proud of you. I knew you would tear the place up with your research.”

Ethan was a junior partner for one of the top law firms in New York, while I worked as a graphic designer for one of the top advertising agencies.

“Have you had a chance to talk to your policeman friend?” Ethan asked.

“No. I’ll track Woody down tomorrow. Right now, I’m exhausted. I just want to settle in, take a hot bath, and maybe have a glass of wine.”

“I ran into Skip and Gina today,” Ethan said without a beat. He obviously hadn’t picked up on my subtle hint that maybe we should sign off now. “They’re planning a party next month to celebrate Skip’s promotion and their purchase of the new yacht. They asked if you’d be back by then. I told them I thought you would.”

I couldn’t help but notice his tone made it a question rather than a statement. “I took a six-week leave from the office, but if I get things wrapped up sooner, I’ll certainly come home sooner. Still, I don’t think I can commit to a party in just a few weeks. I’ll have to let you know.”

“Are you sure about this venture you’ve embarked on? You realize it’s not your responsibility to find this man’s killer.”

“Of course it isn’t. Still, I think I can help.”

“How? I understand he was your friend and his murder has gone unsolved and that makes you sad and angry. But really, Amanda, how can you help?”

I hesitated. Ethan didn’t know about my ability to see ghosts. He’d never understand, and I knew I could never tell him. That part of me belonged to Alyson. Ethan was part of Amanda’s world. “It’s hard to explain. Listen, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Ethan let out a breath that sounded a lot like frustration. “All right. Be careful.”

“I will.” I hung up and held the phone to my chest. Ethan didn’t understand, and I supposed I didn’t blame him. I slipped the phone into my pocket and went toward the stairs. I’d just begun my ascent when a flash of something caught my eye. “Hello,” I called once again. “Is someone there?”

There was still no answer, but I was pretty sure what I was seeing and hearing wasn’t an animal. “Barkley?” I asked. Barkley Cutter had been the previous owner of the house and the first ghost I’d seen after moving to Cutter’s Cove. “Is that you? Are you here?”

There was no answer, but Barkley had never answered in the past. My ability to communicate with ghosts had been limited to seeing them. I’d never been able to speak to them. I was pretty sure Barkley had moved on once my friends and I had solved his murder and found his grandson, so the flash I kept seeing most likely wasn’t him.

I supposed any number of spirits could have moved into the house during the decade I’d been gone. In my experience, if they wanted to make contact they would, so I continued to walk on. When I reached the landing to the second floor, I glanced toward the room that had been my mother’s. It felt odd to be in the house without her, but she was busy with her new life, or maybe I should say the resumption of her old one. I took a moment to remember the way things had been when we’d first purchased the house, then went to my own room. When I opened the door, I expected to see sheets and cobwebs, as elsewhere, but what I found instead was someone lounging on my bed.

“Who are you?” I asked the apparition, who looked exactly like me. A younger version of me, but me nonetheless.

“I’m Alyson. Who are you?”

“Amanda. What are you?” The form really did look like me, although she was translucent, like a ghost. Somehow, I didn’t think she was a ghost. For one thing, I wasn’t dead. For another, I could speak to her and hear her response.

Alyson laid back against the pillow and lifted her legs into the air. She stared at her feet, which were in line with her hips, as if they were the most interesting thing she’d ever seen. “I’m not totally clear on this, but I think I’m the part of you that you left behind.”

I narrowed my gaze. “You’re part of me? Have you been here this whole time?”

Alyson shrugged. “I guess. What has it been, a couple of weeks?”

“Ten years.”

“Damn, girl. I had no idea.” Alyson sat up and crossed her legs. “No wonder I’m so bored. Things have been kinda dead around here since you left.”

I frowned.

“Get it? Dead around here?” Alyson giggled.

I tossed the Michael Kors bag that held my overnight things on the floor and then sat on the edge of the bed. A white sheet still covered the mattress. “You look like me, but you don’t sound like me. I left here when I was seventeen, and even though I was a teenager, I certainly didn’t talk or act the way you do.”

“What can I say? What you see is the new and improved version of Alyson. Alyson 2.0, if you like.”

I frowned. “How is that possible? Even if by some weird chance the part of me that’s somehow connected to this house remained behind when I left, why on earth would it have a completely different personality?”

Alyson shrugged. “I guess Amanda took all the stodgy, boring, elitist stuff with her and what was left behind were all the best parts. Did you bring food?”

“Do you eat?”

Alyson’s smile faded. “Unfortunately, no. But I can remember what it was like when I was you and you were me and we were one. It’s been a while.”

“If I eat, will you be able to enjoy it?”

“I have no idea, but I’d love to try.” Alyson tilted her head. Her long blond hair swept the mattress. I missed my long hair. At some point along the way I’d decided a woman of my age needed to present a more professional appearance, so I’d cut it. Not super short. Around shoulder length.

I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I still wasn’t sure if Alyson was real. For all I knew, I was suffering the effects of driving three thousand miles in four days.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Alyson said. “And I can assure you, I’m real.”

I opened my eyes. “How did you know what I was thinking?”

“Duh.” Alyson rolled her eyes. “I’m you, remember? And no…” Alyson got up and began jumping up and down on the bed. “You aren’t going crazy. And yes, you’ll eventually come to love me.”

Now I was sure I was having a hallucination. I never jumped on beds as Amanda or Alyson. Not even when I was a young child. Jumping on beds was something people like me simply didn’t do. “I’m going out to the car to get the rest of my things. I assume you’ll be gone when I get back.”

Alyson got down off the bed. “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda. How do I make you understand? I’m not going anywhere. I live here. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“I’ve been paying attention, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept what I’m seeing. If you were me, you would act like me. Because you don’t, my only conclusion is that you’re a figment of my imagination.”

Alyson walked over to me. We were exactly the same height, so her blue eyes looked directly into mine. “What happened to you? Don’t you remember being Alyson? Don’t you remember wearing jeans and going barefoot and having fun? Don’t you remember how happy you were once you were able to shed Amanda and her zillions of dollars, private schools, and designer shoes that felt like torture every minute you wore them?”

I glanced down at the pantsuit I was wearing with matching pumps. I really was dying to kick them off and pull on some baggy sweats. Of course, Amanda didn’t own baggy sweats. “I do remember,” I said. “But that wasn’t real. Alyson wasn’t real. It was as if I took a vacation from my life, but somewhere inside I knew Amanda was always there, waiting to come out when it was safe to do so.”

Alyson shrugged. “Suit yourself. If you’re going to empty that fancy car of yours that probably cost more than you paid for this house, you’d better hurry. It’s starting to rain.”

Ghost me was right. It was starting to rain. I paused for just a moment and then hurried down the stairs to get the things I’d left in my trunk. When I returned, she was gone. Perhaps she’d been an illusion after all.

 

Standard

Hippity Hoppity Homicide

It comes down to a few critical seconds as Zoe is forced to either outsmart a genius or watch her husband die.

With Easter only a week away, Zoe is pulled into a dangerous game after Zak is kidnapped, and the person who kidnapped him, challenges Zoe to The Sleuthing Game. Zoe is told that the only way to gain Zak’s freedom is to complete the challenges in the time allotted.

If she fails, Zak will die.

Zoe had promised she would retire from sleuthing now that she had an infant to care for, but the stakes are high, so she leaves the kids with Ellie, while she and Levi set out to beat a madman at their own game.

Buy the book or read for FREE with Kindle Unlimited http://amzn.to/2II1kTS 

I am really excited about this book. It was SO much fun to write. I hope you all will give it a try. If you’d like a preview I’ve included chapter 1.

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Chapter 1
Sunday, March 25

The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was that the bedspread didn’t match the carpet, which was a totally different color from the drapes. Mismatched decor is an odd thing to have float past your consciousness when you’ve just been told that a man whose friendship you value is dead and your husband is missing. On an intellectual level I knew I was in shock and the emotions that any rational person should and would experience were waiting just below the surface, but in that moment I felt nothing.

“Zoe, are you okay?” Sheriff Salinger asked.

I looked away from the drapes and stared at him with what I was sure was a confused expression. I knew something was expected of me, but I had no idea what it was everyone was waiting for.

“This is too much for her,” my friend, Levi Denton, said. He put his hands on my shoulders, turned my body toward him, and stared into my eyes, a look of concern evident on his face. “She shouldn’t be here. There must be another way.”

“I don’t disagree that it would be best if Zoe didn’t need to be here,” Salinger said, “but the instructions left by the person or persons who have Zak were very specific.”

I averted my eyes from Levi’s concerned gaze and looked around the room. There was blood splatter everywhere. My mind began to feel fuzzy as the room seemed to fade in and out. I felt a wave of nausea as I struggled to accept what I’d witnessed with my own eyes. This couldn’t be real. It didn’t make sense. I put my hand to my face to try to wake myself from this horrible nightmare.

“Zoe?” Levi put a hand on my cheek and gently turned my head so I was looking at him again. He looked so scared. So vulnerable. In that moment I knew this was real and not a dream, as I had hoped. I glanced to the floor and then back to Levi.

“How did he die?” I asked as I tried very hard to look away from the outline of Will’s body, which had been covered with a sheet.

“Shot in the head,” Salinger answered.

I cringed.

“He would have gone quickly, so at least he didn’t suffer,” Salinger added.

“When?” I asked in a voice so soft I wondered if anyone had heard.

“The 911 call reporting the sound of a gunshot came through about thirty minutes ago,” Salinger answered.

I closed my eyes as a single tear slid down my cheek. Thirty minutes ago, I’d been at home feeding my three-month-old daughter, Catherine Donovan Zimmerman, while Scooter Sherwood and Alex Bremmerton, the two children who lived with Zak and me, chatted about the funny thing they’d seen in town that afternoon. Thirty minutes ago, I was making plans for the Easter celebration I planned to host next weekend. Thirty minutes ago I hadn’t known that Will was dead or that Zak had been kidnapped by the monster who had killed him.

Levi put his arms around me and pulled me tightly into his chest. I closed my eyes and took comfort in the sound of his strong, steady heartbeat. I knew that giving in to the despair that threatened to overwhelm me wasn’t an option. I’d lost a friend today and my heart wanted to weep at the injustice of it. But if the note Salinger held was authentic, Zak was still alive, and it was up to me to save him. I glanced at the sheet on the floor and knew I must set the rage in my soul aside.

“I can take you home if you need some time to process what’s happened,” Levi offered as I felt my tears soak into his sweater.

I dug down deep for the strength I needed, squeezed him tightly around the waist, and then took a step back. “I’m fine.” I turned and looked at Salinger. “What do I need to do?”

I knew he’d found our friend and employee, Will Danner, lying in a pool of blood after receiving an anonymous 911 call. Will, a teacher at Zimmerman Academy, the private school Zak and I owned, had been staying in a motel near the Academy while his house was being remodeled. Zak had agreed to meet him that evening regarding a project on which they were collaborating. When Salinger arrived, he’d found a note in Will’s left hand and a burner cell in his right. The note detailed a very specific set of instructions stating that Zoe Donovan Zimmerman, and only Zoe Donovan Zimmerman, was to call the number provided on the piece of paper with the phone that had been left in Will’s hand.

“We need to call the number and find out what they want,” Salinger said. “There isn’t anything we can do to help Will. What we need to focus on is finding Zak.”

I swallowed what felt like a boulder in my throat, “I agree.” I held out my hand for the phone. Salinger handed it to me and I looked at it and frowned. “There’s blood on it. That doesn’t seem right.”

“Yeah, there’s blood everywhere,” Levi said.

“No, Zoe’s right,” Salinger said, looking at both the phone and the note. Salinger pulled back the sheet, causing me to look away as he did. “There’s blood splatter on the phone and the note but not on Will’s hands beneath the phone and the note.”

“And that’s important because…?” Levi asked.

“It’s important because it suggests Will was already holding them before he was shot,” I explained.

Salinger carefully rolled Will’s body to one side and I forced myself to watch. “There isn’t any blood beneath his torso,” Salinger confirmed.

Levi paled. “Are you telling me some wacko made Will lay on his back holding the phone and note and then shot him in the head?”

“It could have occurred that way, but it’s more likely Will was already unconscious when he was shot,” Salinger explained.

“I guess that’s a good thing,” Levi mumbled.

I looked at the phone again. I knew once I started there was no going back. I had no idea where this first phone call would lead, but I had a feeling I was in for a bumpy ride. Nothing else made sense. The setup had been much too elaborate for an easy and painless conclusion to be on the horizon.

I looked at Levi again. He frowned, but I could see he was struggling to be strong for me. “I guess we should do this.”

He nodded.

I looked at Salinger. “Are you ready?”

Salinger nodded. “Hold the phone away from your ear so we can hear what’s being said as well.”

I nodded and pushed the Call button on the phone that had already been programmed. After only one ring a deep voice that sounded unreal came on the line. The message seemed to have been prerecorded using an automated voice system.

“Welcome to The Sleuthing Game. The purpose of the game is to solve the eight puzzles you will be provided before the allotted time for each runs out. If you are successful, your husband will be returned to you unharmed. If you are unsuccessful you will never see the father of your child alive again. The first set of instructions, as well as the first puzzle, has been taped to the bottom of one of the tables at the Classic Cue pool hall. You have until eight p.m. this evening to retrieve and follow the instructions. No cops or Zak dies.”

I glanced at Salinger. “What sort of sicko are we dealing with?”

Salinger frowned. “I don’t know.”

“It makes no sense that anyone would shoot one man and then kidnap a second one simply to make Zoe engage in a ridiculous game of some sort,” Levi stated.

“Do you really think whoever is behind this will kill Zak if I refuse to play?” I asked, fighting the dizziness that threatened to thrust me into a state of unconsciousness. I took a deep breath and fought the urge to slide into the darkness. Focusing on Salinger as he looked around the room, I felt the dizziness dissipate.

“I don’t know,” he repeated. “But given the fact that he or she has already killed once, I think we have to assume they will.”

“Who would do such a thing?” Levi asked a question that had been asked before and I knew would be asked a dozen times more before this was over.

“It’s obviously personal,” I said as I felt my strength begin to return. “Someone wants to make me jump through a bunch of hoops. I’m going to assume we’re dealing with someone I’ve harmed in the past. The fact that they’re referring to their sick ploy as The Sleuthing Game indicates to me that the person behind this is most likely someone I helped put in jail.” I looked at Levi. “I need to do this. I can’t risk Zak’s life by not cooperating. I need you and Ellie to stay with the kids until this is over.”

“You can’t do this alone.”

“I think I have to. I don’t want Ellie and the kids to be alone. I need you to be with them.”

I could see Levi wanted to argue, but then Salinger spoke. “I’m going to call the county office to see if I can get a couple of deputies to watch your house.”

“Thank you. I’ll feel better about things if I know the kids are safe and this psycho can’t grab one of them next, if that’s what they plan.” I glanced at my watch. “I need to get a move on if I’m going to find the next set of instructions before the deadline.”

“I’ll run home and change into plainclothes,” Salinger said. “I’ll borrow my neighbor’s car as well. I’ll follow you from a distance.”

“What if they see you?” I asked.

“They won’t.”

“The voice on the phone specifically said no cops,” Levi stated. “I know you said you were going to change out of your uniform, but the person who’s doing this probably knows what you look like. I think I should be the one to follow Zoe.”

I looked toward Levi and shook my head vigorously. “I don’t want to put you in any danger. This madman wants me and only me. I need to do this alone.”

I couldn’t help but notice the look of resolve that crossed Levi’s face. “I’m not letting you do this alone. That isn’t an option. Someone has to go with you and because the voice on the phone said no cops that someone can’t be Salinger.”

“But…”

Levi grabbed my shoulders. He forced me to face him. I could see he was as determined to help me as I was for him to be safely out of harm’s way. “I’m going with you. I know you don’t think you need me, but you do. I know you think you’ll be putting me in danger, but you won’t. You said yourself this seems to be some sick game between you and whoever is orchestrating it. I doubt they’ll have a bit of interest in me.”

My resolve hardened. “If it’s personal between me and this person why did they kill Will?”

“To get your attention,” Levi answered. “To demonstrate the lengths to which they’ll go if you don’t comply with their instructions. Please.” Levi looked me directly in the eye. “I’m going with you. Don’t fight me on this.”

I glanced at Salinger. “What do you think?”

Salinger shrugged. “I suppose Levi has a good point. You most likely will need help, and as much as I’d like to provide it, maybe he should be the one to go with you. The last thing we want to do is make whoever is behind this angry by ignoring the no-cops dictate. I’ll head over to your house and stay with Ellie and the kids until the guys from the county show up. Levi can call me after you retrieve the next set of instructions. I think right now we need to do what the kidnappers are asking to the best of our ability. Once we know what they’re really after we can work together to come up with a plan.”

“Okay.” I looked at Levi, having come to a decision. “Let’s go.”

The drive between the motel where the attack had occurred and the Classic Cue was accomplished in silence. It took every ounce of strength I could muster not to curl into a fetal position and sob until the sweet peace of unconsciousness overcame me. The thought that Zak was being held by a crazy person filled me with more terror than my mind was able to process and I knew it was only a matter of time before my determination slipped and a feeling of helplessness returned.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to calm my mind so I could focus. I needed to stay strong for Zak. I let my mind wander until eventually it landed on a thought about Catherine and the prebedtime feeding the two of us enjoyed each evening. Catherine knew Ellie and I supposed she would be fine with favorite honorary auntie putting her to bed, but in the three months since she was born I’d never missed a single bedtime feeding.

Given what was going on, it was a good thing I’d been forced to stop breast feeding. I’d felt like a total failure when I learned my body wasn’t producing enough of the nutrients my baby needed, but now that I wouldn’t be able to be with Catherine for however long this sick, sick game took to complete, I was glad she was used to taking a bottle. It would have been a lot harder on both of us if we hadn’t already made the transition.

“We’re almost there,” Levi said, breaking into my daydream.

I sat up and opened my eyes. “When we get to the Classic Cue I’ll go in and find the next set of instructions while you call Ellie. I know Salinger said he was going to head over to the house, but she must be frantic.”

“Yeah, I’m sure she probably is.”

“Tell her that Alex knows where everything she’ll need to take care of Catherine is. And tell her to keep the kids home from school tomorrow. I don’t want them to go out at all until we’re able to track this guy down and put him safely behind bars.”

“Okay. I’ll tell her.” Levi turned onto the street where the pool hall was located. “Maybe we can figure out who he is and where he’s holding Zak. If we can find him we can end this. At some point he’s bound to make a mistake, give something away.”

I glanced out the passenger side window. Familiar buildings passed as we slowly made our way down the street. It was cool this evening, so the sidewalks were sparsely populated; still, it seemed odd that there were people going about their normal lives completely unaware of the fact that Will was dead and Zak was missing. “Yeah,” I whispered as Levi stopped at a crosswalk. “We should keep our ears open. The sooner this is over the better.”

We arrived at the pool hall and I went in alone. Levi and I weren’t certain how the killer would react to his presence, so we decided it was best for him to hang in the background. The pool hall was crowded and the tables were all occupied, which was going to make searching for a note taped beneath one of them difficult. I walked up to the first table, where two men who looked to be in their early twenties were engaged in a game of eight ball. “I’m sorry to interrupt your game, but I need to crawl under your table for just a minute.”

“Did you lose something, sweetheart?” one of the men asked after looking me up and down with a suggestive grin on his face.

“I dropped an earring the last time I was here,” I lied. “I’ll only be a minute.”

The men stepped back and I got down on my hands and knees. I tried to ignore the catcalls as I slipped under the table. Yes, I realized my jeans-covered backside was sticking up in the air in a most unfortunate position, but I had little choice in positioning my body as I tried to move around in the tight space. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the note, so I thanked the men, then went to the next table and repeated the humiliating process. There were sixteen tables in the room, which would mean a lot of time crawling around on the dirty floor with my butt in the air if the note happened to be taped to the last one I checked. Luckily, I found both a note and a cell phone taped to the undercarriage of the eighth table I crawled beneath. I grabbed both and headed out to the car.

The note contained a set of instructions along with a riddle that, when solved, would lead me to a location. The note indicated that the phone would ring at exactly 9:14. I was to answer it on the third ring. If I had solved the puzzle and ended up in the correct place I would have the information I needed to be able to answer the second question. Once I provided the answer I would be given nine additional minutes to provide five additional answers.

“Okay, so what’s the riddle?” Levi asked.

“‛To find the clue you must peel back the letters and find that which remains,’” I read aloud.

“Huh?” Levi asked. “What on earth does that mean?”

“I think it’s suggesting there’s a hidden message contained within the riddle. Or maybe invisible ink was used to write something on the back.” I continued to stare at the piece of paper in my hand. The psycho who had gone to all the trouble of orchestrating the game wanted me to play, so they wouldn’t have started off with a riddle I couldn’t solve.

“Peel back the words,” Levi said as he held out his hand, indicating I should give him the note. “Maybe he wants us to focus on part of what’s provided. I notice there seem to be a lot of pretty specific numbers.”

I thought about the note. The fact that he wanted me to pick up on the third ring and answer the second question was unusual, as was the time of nine-fourteen for the phone call.

“Okay; what numbers are mentioned in order?” I asked. I took out my phone to record them.

“The instructions state that you’ll get a call at 9:14, so that’s 9-1-4. Then you pick up on the third ring and answer the second question, so that gives us 9-1-4-3-2. After that you’ll be given nine minutes to answer five more questions.”

“That’s 9-1-4-3-2-9-5,” I said aloud. ‘I know where we need to go.”

“Where?” Levi asked.

“It’s Zak’s private line at Zimmerman Academy.”

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