Under the cloak of night, the sound of Vanessa Fleischer’s hurried steps was her only companion, punctuated by anxious glances over her shoulder. Each breath was a silent wish to turn back time, to whisper desperate warnings into the ear of her younger self. She yearned to confront her naive inner child with the hard-earned wisdom of her father’s words about curfews and her mother’s warnings against the allure of strangers.
But as she darted through the shadows, she found herself fleeing from the consequences of ignoring those very lessons.
I’m such a fool.
Was it all her fault, though? Neither parent had bothered enforcing the rules, so their warnings didn’t carry much weight, if she was being honest with herself.
As lame as it was for someone her age—eighteen and a recent high school graduate—she wanted to hear her dad’s voice, or even her mom’s. But they were at her dad’s part-time place in Florida.
She’d never missed them this much. Or needed them.
To have someone wrap their arms around her and tell her that everything was going to be okay. Someone to say that running away from her problems in the middle of the night was not the brightest idea. That was what she needed.
That voice will never come. Even when they were around more, I was still alone.
Though that was the truth, she’d never felt more isolated than she did in this moment. The empty neighborhood street, lined with parked cars, seemed to stretch on forever, her only companion the beat of her own footsteps on the cold, dark road.
Tonight’s solitude was a far cry from the yacht parties, filled with loud music and groping men. Her parents had turned a blind eye to those adventures. For the last couple of years, she’d felt a sense of belonging, hanging out with rich men who thought she was wonderful. Taking trips up and down the coast had been a great way to get out of town and not feel so alone.
But the last few weeks had been unsettling. The playful slaps on the ass had become real ones across the face. Something had soured the mood on the boats. The party atmosphere wasn’t there anymore. Three days ago, one of the Yacht Club members had punched her in the gut when she’d gone looking for a toilet and had accidentally wandered into a meeting with some of the older guys.
She’d peed herself a little, both from the blow and from fear.
That was when she knew it was time to leave.
To hell with her parents and her sugar daddies. There was nothing left for her in this town.
Nothing safe or sane, at least.
This was finally her chance to make a real life for herself.
But there was no sign of her rescuer, and she was right on schedule.
“Where the hell are you?”
She’d reached out to the one friend she did have, who got her in touch with a third person who’d agreed to help her. But there were conditions.
The trinkets she’d spent the last two years acquiring—jewelry, the latest smartphone, piles of name-brand bags and shoes—had to be left behind. She had the clothes on her back and the single bag her rescuers instructed her to bring. It wasn’t as hard as she’d anticipated, letting go of the material items she’d thought made her special, made her feel wanted.
Because the truth was, she wasn’t special. Not in the way they’d told her she could be.
In the dark of night, alone, Vanessa’s thoughts were doing a fine job of extinguishing what little spirit she had left.
Escaping the Yacht Club was something girls like her did not do.
The people getting her out had drilled it into her head—how dangerous leaving would be. She couldn’t tell anyone, couldn’t take anything, couldn’t stand out. She had to do her best to blend in one more night before her ride picked her up.
Despite the warnings, escaping hadn’t seemed that scary until she was walking alone in the night, away from the life she knew, into the unknown. There wasn’t even a moon in the sky to give any light. Just a tiny sliver that mocked her with its lack of illumination.
A black form darted out from the unlit yard beside her, intruding into her safe space within the circle of light from the streetlamp.
Nearly jumping out of her skin, she opened her mouth to scream, but then she saw it was just a black cat. It appeared as startled as she was, hissing and jetting into the night.
Vanessa laughed at herself, pressing her fingers against her lips. Taking a deep breath, she whispered to herself. “Keep calm.”
If she screamed like a baby every time something moved, she’d get caught for sure. She slipped off her backpack. Her pickup point was just ahead, and she wanted to be able to hop into the car and go.
Her thoughts returned to the girls like her who hadn’t been at the parties lately. Had they left and started new lives? Or had they been caught and—
Don’t think that way!
Each scuff of her shoes on the cracked concrete and every rustle of leaves across the road sent her nerves spiraling tighter and faster. Vanessa’s steps seemed to mimic her escalating anxiety, reverberating off the pavement as if she were playing a beat on a drum.
Lifting her feet more softly, she set them down with the same care. She was close now. Close to her new life. Close to escaping the pain. All she had to do was stay quiet and calm.
The stern talk with herself worked. Until a noise from behind startled her.
Spinning around, she thought she spotted a figure disappearing between two bushes. She slapped a hand over her mouth to prevent the scream that wanted to burst forth. Her heart thudded within her chest, and she turned back around and picked up the pace. There was a car parked next to another row of bushes. But it wasn’t lit by a streetlamp, so she couldn’t even make out the color.
Is that my ride?
She couldn’t hear the engine running, so she wasn’t sure. Still, it was the only one on the street. A coincidence? She hated that she couldn’t even trust her own instincts.
That trust must have been tormented out of her.
The plant hedge served as a living privacy fence and was so tall that it blocked her view of the house behind it. That would be a good place for her to hide so she could check her surroundings, and especially check out the lone car again before moving on. Trying not to run, she scampered forward. She was already ducking down to hide when a click of metal on metal echoed in her ear, like a catch being released.
The trunk of the car parked by the bushes sprang up.
Before she had time to react to this new development, a searing pain lanced through her back.
Her jaw clenched at the unexpected skewer of cold that seemed to enter her guts from behind.
Was I just stabbed?
The world around her swirled while her knees went weak, and she fell forward. Her brain grappled with the signals her body was sending. Everything was a jumble of pain and weakness. She was told to scream if she was in danger, since the sheriff lived nearby and would come to her rescue.
But she never had a chance to scream.
As she was choking on the stabbing pain radiating up from her back and through her chest cavity, a bony hand pressed over her mouth. Panic flooded Vanessa as she sensed her blood running out of her back, like an ocean tide rapidly receding. Her limbs grew weaker and heavier.
No! Not when I’m so close to freedom.
With heavy thuds, her heart slowed. A face slid up next to hers. A voice, rank with the stench of stale coffee, offered a throaty parting. “Go with grace.”
Her attacker grabbed her from behind, hoisted her up, and shoved her forward, releasing their hold on her. The pain in her back exploded again as she found herself free-falling into an open trunk.
Then there was only darkness. Struggling with everything she had left, Vanessa managed, “I’m sorry, Daddy,” but there was no one there to hear her last words.
“The easy ones just aren’t our style, Sheriff.”
Had truer words ever been spoken? Sheriff Rebecca West didn’t think so. But still, she hoped with all her heart that the scene she and Senior Deputy Hoyt Frost were being called to would defy the thought, be a simple prank or have an easy explanation.
Would she ever get that lucky?
“A possible assault or abduction?” Rebecca asked as she and Hoyt stepped out of the small sheriff’s department and into the warm morning air. The sky was a perfect blue dome overhead, sprinkled with high cumulus clouds. A slight breeze wafted in from the ocean like a mist, tracing its fingers along her skin. “Who called it in?”
“Connie Johnson.” Hoyt handed over the report he’d received only moments before. “A local fisher. And it happened last night right before she left for work. She’s certain she recognized Vanessa Fleischer, an eighteen-year-old local. At the time, she didn’t think a crime had been committed, but when Mrs. Johnson returned home this morning, she found some blood.”
Rebecca took the report from him, scanning it quickly. “This makes the third young woman missing in two weeks, right? What the hell is going on?”
Rosalía Aragón Menchaca had been brought to Rebecca’s attention when her parents came into the sheriff’s office because of parking tickets on their daughter’s car. The Menchacas had been upset at both the number of tickets and the fact that they couldn’t clearly define when they’d last seen or heard from their daughter. They stated she occasionally took off without warning, but this time felt different. How did she leave without her car?
With little specific information to go on, the sheriff’s office hadn’t been able to do much except review her social media feed, take the report, and follow up via phone every few days.
Then Cornelia Powłowska’s parents had made a similar report five days ago.
Now Vanessa Fleischer seemed to be in trouble.
“I guess it’s too much to hope the blood Connie Johnson saw is from an animal.” She and Hoyt set off down the sidewalk toward where they parked the cruisers along the side of the building. The on-again, off-again headache she’d gotten from the paint fumes during the recent remodel started to fade for good.
But she’d put up with a little headache for what they were getting in return. She was most excited about the new security system. Cameras had been installed, and ID badges and passcodes would be used by all the staff. All the old carpet had been torn out, and industrial strength linoleum tiles had been installed in the lobby.
The old lounge would be the home to two new holding cells, with a secure metal door separating the cells from the hallway by the interrogation room. Furniture from the lounge had been shoved into a small room at the opposite end of the hall from the holding cells. No one would be able to use the room, though, as they’d have to climb on furniture just to get in.
Sorting that situation out was low on Rebecca’s priority list.
A copy of Vanessa’s driver’s license had been added to the report, along with her address and the registration card of her vehicle, a red Honda CR-V. Rebecca handed the report back to her deputy as they walked into the gravel lot.
The lot was unofficially split with personal vehicles in the back, cruisers in the middle, and visitor parking near the front. When they reached the sheriff’s SUV, Rebecca opened the door and slid behind the steering wheel. Hoyt didn’t say a word as he got into the passenger seat.
As she drove through the idyllic little town that she’d grown to love, a random thought flitted through Rebecca’s mind. She startled her senior deputy when she spoke it out loud. “I might have to postpone my campaign meeting tonight to handle this.”
Next to her, Hoyt harrumphed. “I hope not. I don’t know much about the politics involved, but this island needs you, Boss.”
“It’s kind of odd, don’t you think? I mean, elections are just popularity contests these days. And that’s no way to elect a law enforcement official.”
“Yeah, I’d never given it much thought. Wallace always ran unopposed, so this is a whole new ball game for the people of this community. But I think this island might be a bit different than the rest of the country. Folks here are serious about competent people holding important jobs. That’s why I think you and Meg will win in a landslide.”
That brought a smile to her face. “You just don’t want to work for Burke.”
“Damn right, I don’t. Trooper, and I use that term loosely, Dolph Burke is corrupt. He shot the unarmed bank robber who was surrendering to you. If he wins, I’ll file my retirement papers before he ever steps foot in the station. Angie would be thrilled.”
Rebecca eyed the man by her side. Though Hoyt was only fifty-one, he’d banked enough years to retire. Since she’d known him, his slouch had become more pronounced, and the battle on Little Quell Island had added streaks of gray to his hair. She wouldn’t blame him for retiring. “Angie might be thrilled, but it would be a loss for the department and the island if you hung up your badge.”
Though she could hardly argue, or else be called a hypocrite. She hadn’t been willing to play politics and follow what was expected of her in the FBI. Instead, by doing what she knew was right, she’d cracked open the conspiracy that led to her parents’ deaths. It’d cost her the job she loved and almost destroyed her reputation. Which was what had led to her coming to Shadow Island in the first place.
The sheriff at the time, Alden Wallace, had deputized Rebecca to get her help in finding a missing teen. They found her, all right—her body in the marsh, filthy with grime and starting to bloat.
Hoyt turned away from the view outside his window to regard her with intense eyes. “If the people of this island have any sense, you’ll win. Heck, the very fact that you’re considering skipping a meeting for the election to deal with Connie Johnson’s report speaks to how dedicated you are. And Ange and I have been making sure everyone on this island knows that stuff, since you don’t toot your own horn.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.”
“Okay, so we have two official missing persons reports and a possible violent incident involving a third young woman. The cases may not be related, but let’s see if there are any possible connections. This island is just too small for many coincidences.”
Rebecca gave a sharp nod. Hoyt had lived on the island for most of his live, so he’d know. Plus, as far as Rebecca’s experience in the past handful of months went, very little was coincidence in their back-to-back cases. “Then let’s talk it through from the top. No one’s seen Rosalía Aragón Menchaca for the last week. And Cornelia Powłowska has been gone for five days.”
“Right. Their cars were ticketed because they were blocking the street sweepers. They’d left the vehicles parked on the street in front of their homes. And they’re both legally adults.” Hoyt scratched at the scruff on his cheek. “It’s not really unusual for either of them to take off for stretches of time. Or rack up parking tickets.”
That was true. Initially, they’d speculated that Rosalía and Cornelia might have gone on vacation, together or separately.
What was unusual, and why Rebecca had put out an APB to try to find them, was the similarity of their circumstances and the fact that neither girl was answering her phone. Both just went straight to voicemail. Rebecca’s Spidey-senses were tingling. She’d filed a request for their financial records and was waiting for the banks and credit card companies to send the information over.
As the seagull flew, Connie Johnson’s home was close to Rebecca’s rental. She wondered if Humphrey, her boyfriend’s chocolate lab still staying with her while his owner finished healing, had heard anything last night. The dog had been acting strangely, but then, he’d seemed to be clinging to her more than usual over the past week or so anyway.
Pulling up next to the address on the report, Rebecca parked by the curb. As she turned the ignition off, she saw what appeared to be a dried puddle of reddish-brown blood right there on the sidewalk in front of them.
Hoyt blew out a heavy sigh and opened the door.
Rebecca slapped her door shut as she joined him. “What’re the odds there’s a wounded animal nearby and not a wounded or dead young woman somewhere?”
Her senior deputy shook his head as he moved toward the sidewalk. “Looks like the blood pooled up to and over the edge of the sidewalk. Maybe it was caused by an animal being struck by a vehicle.”
“Well, there’s no smears or bloody prints trailing away from the spot and into the hedges.”
Squatting, Rebecca spread her fingers wide over the evidence, gauging the amount. “The pool of blood has seeped into the concrete. You can see it was larger before it started drying. It evaporated around the edges right here.” Gesturing toward a firm rim of clotted blood, showing a former depth, she judged the pool had coagulated over several hours.
Hoyt raised his gaze to the untrimmed edge of the bush next to the sidewalk. “There aren’t any broken branches, and no sharp edge that might’ve stabbed an unsuspecting pedestrian.” He gestured up the sidewalk. “There’s no blood trail either.”
Whoever this blood belonged to, they hadn’t stumbled off to find help. Connie would’ve seen that, if nothing else. Rebecca’s pulse quickened, a sense of dread coiling in her stomach. The stillness of the scene belied the violence that might have taken place in this very spot.
She exchanged a glance with Hoyt, noting her own alarm mirrored in his eyes. The air around them felt heavy, charged with an ominous silence. Rebecca knew, in that haunting moment of realization, that they were standing at the precipice of something much darker than she’d hoped.
Nothing was ever easy on this island, indeed.
You can run but you can’t hide from death.
When a fisherwoman reports seeing a local young woman potentially assaulted or abducted, Shadow Island Sheriff Rebecca West’s heart constricts. The disappearance of three other girls in the span of a week can’t be a coincidence. But other than being about the same age, everything else about the girls and their mysterious disappearances are inconsistent. Besides, since all are legal adults with no jobs but plenty of nice things, it’s entirely possible they just took off on an impromptu vacation.
Except none of the girls took their car. Read More