A Taste of... Shadow's force
Rain covered the town like gray gauze, making everything blurry and muted.
It was a dark and stormy night…
He scoffed at the idea of such an overused line being used in connection with him. Nothing in his entire damn life had ever been dramatic enough to be part of some epic story. Sure, his had always been good…safe. Stable job, nice house, and a woman who loved him. The ideal for ’most anyone. Most people would think he’d had it all.
Emphasis on had.
He rushed to unlock the door of the Maserati he’d been so proud of, not caring that his blood-soaked hands would mar its pristine finish. Slippery fingers struggling to grip the key fob, he glanced over his shoulder toward the house.
He looked away.
With the car finally unlocked, he ducked into its protective shell to escape the swirling winds and sheets of pounding rain. He struggled against the powerful gusts to pull the driver’s door closed. Peering through the downpour, the outline of her home was barely visible. Heart threatening to break his ribs, he flipped on the windshield wipers and backed out of the driveway.
Cranked to the highest setting, the wipers struggled to fight back the storm’s assault. The Italian luxury car’s powerful LED headlights strained against the onslaught to illuminate the road. Worried about the rapidly deteriorating conditions, he attempted to switch on the lane assist feature the salesman had spent more than fifteen minutes touting. It wouldn’t activate.
Right. Low visibility rendered it inoperable. What the hell was it even good for, then?
Against common sense, he pressed the accelerator, his gut screaming to get away. He had to tell someone what he’d seen.
What I’ve done.
The car dinged, angry that he hadn’t yet buckled his seat belt. As he rounded the bend at the end of the road, he reached for the strap. The car drifted. Panic surged as he gripped the steering wheel again, his crimson hands slipping over the leather as he desperately attempted to correct the spin.
Steer into the slide.
The words from his driver’s education class so many years ago whispered through his mind. His slick hands knew what to do, rapidly switching places, until the fishtail straightened out.
Relief washed over him, and he craned his head in a small circle, unknotting the muscles in his shoulders and neck.
What have I done? How am I going to explain?
There would be time for those thoughts later. First, he had to—
A downed tree appeared through the haze, sprawled across the road, and his candy-apple red car slammed into the thick trunk before he could react or even blink.
The airbag exploded, punching him harder than Mike Tyson’s fist as it stopped his unbuckled body from its forward pursuit. His head snapped back and…
Minutes or hours later, he blinked awake and immediately wished he hadn’t. Pain was everywhere. His neck, his ribs, his arms. Even his face pulsed with every heartbeat.
Where am I? And how did I get here?
His knees screamed as he moved his legs away from the collapsed dash. He’d been in a crash, that much was clear. And was that gas he smelled?
I need to get out of here.
Swatting the nylon of the airbag out of his way, his hand came down on a different type of material. Plastic. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was a poncho left in the car for times such as these. Based on the sound of rain pounding the roof of the vehicle, he’d need it.
Groaning against the movements of his arms, he pulled the poncho over his head before attempting to open the door. It was stuck. When he muscled it with a forceful nudge of his shoulder, it finally opened, and he spilled out onto the street, his knees coming down into a lake of water.
Using the door for leverage, he hauled himself to his feet and began to walk toward a halo of red-and-white light about a football field away.
Must find help.
The thought slowed his pace. Sure, he was in pain, but for some reason, he didn’t think the help he needed was for him.
For who, then?
Pressing his hands into the sides of his throbbing head, he tried to think. Where was he? Why was he here? Where had he been going? And who needed help?
I’m supposed to find something…but what? Why can’t I remember?
A gust of wind tore at the plastic poncho, exposing his face to the pelting rain, and he pulled its hood farther down to protect his skin. A fast, turbulent flow raced for the street grate below him, where fresh green leaves choked the torrent.
Why was he out in this storm?
Try as he might, he couldn’t remember.
Nothing looked familiar.
His foot slipped in the running water, shooting out from underneath him. He nearly went to his knees again but managed to stay upright. Barely.
“Where did all this water come from?”
There was no answer to his question. The roads were abandoned. In fact, it seemed the entire world had been abandoned. There was no sign of life anywhere.
He tried to shake his head like a Labrador fresh out of a pond, desperate to stop the rain from its relentless attack. Pain rocked his head at the movement, and he held out both hands for balance as the world spun around him.
When the world stopped turning, he focused on the red-and-white blinking lights again. Only half a football field away now, if his depth perception was intact.
He bent at the waist into the wind, keeping his head down so he could see. Rain came down so hard it assaulted him from every direction, above and below, as it splashed back up into his face. Everything was black, white, or gray except for the flashing lights, which blended into an pinkish blur, painting the world in a dizzying spiral.
The swirling lights brought fresh pain, and he shielded his eyes from the invasion.
Hunched over against the rain, he moved toward the flashing lights with his hand raised like a blinder. Thick crimson lined his fingernails despite the rain washing over them. He recognized it now. Blood.
He didn’t know.
A deep male voice shouted words he couldn’t make out. Shapes of people ran in and out of a building. Like a moth to a flame, he was drawn to the strobing lights causing his brain such distress.
Bile rose in his throat and he choked it back down.
He stumbled forward, buffeted by the wind shrieking around him like the souls of the damned. Hot liquid ran down his face, and, with shaking hands, he reached up to touch his cheeks. Tears. Why was he crying?
It didn’t matter. All that mattered was reaching those lights. The cry that came from his mouth scared him. It was so weak and sad he didn’t recognize it as his own. Keep moving. Help was close now. And he needed that desperately.
A sob jumped up from his chest. “Help!”
No one could hear him.
Maybe the shrieking he’d heard was that of his own wretched soul. Or death reaching out to take him too.
Should he give in to the death that felt like it had been chasing him? Was that what called him to the building? His legs moved him closer to his destiny.
The statue of a woman with a fish tail illuminated in flashes of red and white. A mermaid. He recoiled at her presence.
How? How was she here?
She stood between him and his destination. It was a sign. The mermaid pointed at a nearby door, as if she wanted him to follow.
Did salvation wait on the other side?
It didn’t matter. He had to go through. That much he knew.
After fighting the door, he shuffled into a room bustling with people. Blue uniforms raced around gray ones. Raincoats lined an entire wall as people walked through the lobby.
He started to shrug off his poncho, but his arms were too tired to bother. Staggering forward, he rested his hands on the counter. A puddle with pink ribbons formed around each of them.
Little ponds of blood. Revulsion filled him, and he tried to yank his arms back, but he couldn’t move.
Am I dying?
On the other side of the desk, a Black woman was talking into a microphone attached over her ear, her head lowered as she scribbled notes. “I’ll have someone right over. Just sit tight and try to stay calm.” She pressed a button and lifted her head. “Can I help—” Her dark eyes widened in horror.
That same horror was taking over his insides.
“Help.” The word barely escaped his throat.
She jumped to her feet. “Sir? Are you all right? What happened?” Her voice was so kind, so concerned. She seemed so caring.
He reached out to her but stopped. Blood dripped down his fingers, dropping onto her desk.
He looked down at his chest. Through the clear poncho, he could see his blood-soaked shirt. Had he been stabbed? Was that why he’d been in the rain to begin with?
His mind beat at his skull as if trying to break free. But it couldn’t. Pain stabbed him like a knife being driven into each eyeball. There was something he had to do. It was why he had come here. He knew that now.
“Darian! Greg! Get up here!”
The screaming woman frightened him, and he took half a step back. His shoe squished, and he stared down at the drenched and worn carpet. There was blood in thick, overlapping circles on his pants. Would he ever be clean again?
“I…help. I… Some…I think.”
Screams echoed in his head.
The woman’s lips were pursed together. It wasn’t her screaming. Slowly surveying the room, he found every eye on him. No one was screaming. The screams were in his head.
Screams and hammers.
Tears welled up and rained down his cheeks, mixing with the blood at his feet.
“I think I hurt someone.”
Just yesterday, Interim Sheriff Rebecca West had been sitting in a cozy little café eating a juicy hamburger and enjoying a few moments of respite. Now, at the ungodly hour of three thirty in the morning, here she was, soaked to the bone and flinging sandbags.
With a grunt, Rebecca heaved the next burlap bag of sand. Her senior deputy, Hoyt Frost, was much better at getting the damp sand into the bags, so she was on stacking duty. Which was not something she had thought would be in her job description as sheriff.
Interim Sheriff, she reminded herself.
“It’s weird, though. Of course, the tourists would have you believe it only rains when they’re here.”
All up and down the line, voices called out from the haze of salty fog. Rebecca wasn’t even sure if this was true fog or spray from the ocean reaching their location.
Someone scoffed. “True! Do you remember three years ago when that tropical storm was supposed to die out before it hit us? Totally ruined my midweek plans.”
“Yup, we didn’t even bother getting extra gas for the generator that time.”
“Got caught with my sump pump down too!”
“That sounds like a personal problem there.” Rebecca directed her response to the line in general, unsure of who had said that last bit.
She wanted to ask why a sump pump on this tiny island was even needed but knew she’d get laughed at for tossing out the question. She’d only heard of sump pumps being used in homes with basements. Surely there were no basements on this tiny island. They were only a few feet above sea level, after all.
Instead of forming the question, she listened to the peals of laughter, echoing strangely in the thick, cold air. It was amazing that these people could chat and joke while preparing for a hurricane to wreak havoc on their community.
Like apparitions, they stepped out of the mist, materializing just a few feet away from her. Until they were right on top of her, she couldn’t make out any features as the lights around them swirled.
And Hoyt said this isn’t even as bad as it’s going to get. Why can’t we just evacuate like sane people?
Since hearing the ominous forecast over lunch yesterday, Rebecca had spent most of her time poring through the emergency preparedness manual. There was a ton of information to absorb, with details about evacuation procedures, distribution of backup radios, issuing alerts, and on and on. She hated that there hadn’t been enough time to soak in all the policies within the massive binder. Hopefully, her crew would help fill in the gaps.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket, and she assumed it was another one of the hundreds of alerts she’d received over the past few hours. Viviane or one of the guys would radio if they needed her. If desperate, they would use her pager. Her phone would have to wait.
Sunrise was still hours away—not that she thought they’d be able to see by then. For now, no more than the palest of gray light waxed and waned with the gusts off the ocean.
Monday morning was supposed to bring a very different type of storm into Rebecca’s life in the form of a nine o’clock meeting that would determine her fate as the island’s sheriff. Viviane Darby, her friend and the department’s dispatcher, had filled her in on Shadow Island’s unique charter.
Unsurprisingly, Richmond Vale, an asshat of royal order, had managed to add a clause giving the Select Board—his name for what normal towns called their county commission—the freedom to control the hiring and firing of the sheriff between formal elections. Rebecca had learned all about that after Albert Gilroy, an equally royal asshat, had threatened her job during her last case.
As chairman of that board, Vale wielded vast control over Shadow Island. What he didn’t wield control over? The weather.
With a hurricane barreling toward them, that meeting had been postponed. Her interim label would have to endure a bit longer.
Not that she was worried. Once Albert Gilroy—an influential islander whose son was killed not long ago—pulled his secret candidate, no one else had stepped up for consideration. The only person on the island with enough experience to fill the role was Deputy Frost, and he’d made it clear to everyone not to dare ask. That left Rebecca as the only choice.
If she even wanted the job.
This career path wasn’t one Rebecca had envisioned when she arrived on Shadow Island for some much-needed R&R a few weeks ago. After confronting the people behind her parents’ murders and taking a bullet for her trouble, she’d just wanted to spend a few months on the same island where she’d vacationed with her parents when she was a child.
She could clear her head, shake loose some demons, and plot her future.
Fate had other plans. Before she’d barely unpacked her first box, Sheriff Alden Wallace had approached her, asking for help. Short-staffed, he’d needed her assistance when a teenage girl went missing. When Wallace had been killed in an ambush, Rebecca had been forced into the interim role. She’d tried to walk away from the job and its responsibilities more than once, only to be pulled back in each time.
And now, here she stood, shoulder to shoulder with the people of the island, of her island, trying to stave off disaster as a Category 2 hurricane turned their way. When Mother Nature decided to change plans, all a person could do was scramble and hope to keep up with her.
Inhaling deeply, Rebecca regretted the need for air when she was assaulted by a new wave of seaweed, rotting wood, and something else she couldn’t name. The scents of a heavy storm over the sea shrouded the island with a warning of imminent doom.
Or maybe it was the vaguely surreal atmosphere of everything.
Colors were muted or wholly wiped away. The shrieks of the wind kept messing with her hearing. Her nose was stuffed with the salted moldering of tidewrack that had washed ashore. Thanks to the shifting grayness, she had no sense of time. The squalls pressed her raincoat against her, making it difficult to move even as the blasts of water trickled in under her hood and down her back and chest.
Her new HiVis reflective slicker with Sheriff blazoned across the back trapped her body heat while sweat droplets battled the rain in a contest of which could make her more miserable. Hoyt had gifted her the raincoat, and it even fit. Her senior deputy—or more likely his wife Angie—must have special-ordered it. From experience, she knew nothing in the storeroom was her size. Even the makeshift utility belt her senior deputy’s wife had cobbled together for her was too big for her slender frame.
The jacket may have been too good at keeping her warm but not so good at keeping her dry. The rain was finding every possible path inside its protective outer shell.
I’m humid. And sticky. Wrapped in plastic. At the same time, I’m slowly losing my fingertips with every sand-covered bag.
Rebecca picked up the next bag to sling when a voice from behind distracted her.
“I thought this one was going to blow himself out on Florida and leave us alone.”
“Got too far north before he started turning. Now he’s not even going to touch South Carolina from the looks of things. He’s going to bring it all to us.”
More folks added to the good-natured banter as the islanders took the news in stride. Judging by some of the younger voices mixed in, the volunteers consisted of anyone strong enough to lift a bag or shovel.
“Looks like Boris likes us more.”
“Well, I don’t like Hurricane Boris.” Rebecca dropped her load on the barrier that was already four high and two deep. She shifted to her right to start the next section after rubbing her shoulder. “Dammit! The falling barometric pressure is making me feel twice my age. I thought only my grandma had sore joints when a storm rolled in.”
A man laughed as his shape came into focus.
“Hang in there, ma’am. If you’d like, I can find someone younger to take your place.” Hoyt’s broad smile and tall frame appeared out of the mist. “If you’re up to the task, just keep slinging the bags until you get to the curb on the other side. We have to do our best to keep this road from getting washed out. If we end up needing to evacuate, it’s one of the main throughways.”
That tracked with what the evacuation map indicated. Rebecca had nearly memorized the various routes, which increased her confidence in her ability to keep the people of Shadow Island as safe as possible.
Hoyt hadn’t been to the office yet either, so he was wearing his personal rain gear. The bright reflective tape on her law enforcement gear acted like a lighthouse, cutting through the fog while he got to hide in the shadows.
“You’ve got a few years on me, Deputy. Is that why you’ve chosen to simply supervise tonight? Or, um, this morning?” Her ribbing of the senior deputy brought hearty laughter from the people working closest to Rebecca.
Hoyt laughed and patted her on the back. He held up a plastic-sheathed map of the town in front of her face so she could see it. Blue, red, and purple lines were marked along different roads.
“You mentioned when you got here earlier that you’d reviewed the evacuation map. We keep one in every cruiser, so it’s there in case you need to refer to it later. Same one we use for search parties. The purple line is the main route to the bridge. That’s the line we absolutely have to protect. We’re right here.” He tapped an intersection.
Rebecca shouted her reply as another band of rain swept across the line. “What’s the estimated landfall at this point?”
“Last report we got was about twelve hours.” Hoyt’s booming voice was muted in the raging winds.
“That’s not enough time. I thought we’d be further along with our preparations.”
Hoyt laughed. “That’s Mother Nature for you. Unpredictable and prone to anger. Welcome to hurricane season!”
She’d always thought hurricane season was in the fall, not in June. Then again, she’d learned a great deal since coming to the island.
“How do you guys deal with this kind of shit?” Rebecca threw her hands up, indicating the muted mire encasing them. She tossed another bag onto the growing barrier.
“We don’t.” Someone on the stacking line called out, his voice tinged with that odd quaver from the constantly changing air pressure. “Storms this bad are rare, and most hit farther south and slow down before getting to us. Shadow hasn’t had a direct hit in…uh. Hey, Larry, when was the last time we had a storm hit us first?”
Rebecca did a double take. Was this Larry the Handyman? The man, the myth, the legend? She’d only met him in passing, but she thought it was him.
An older man—his features fuzzy with the fog—responded. “Five years ago, toward the end of the season. Big one. Didn’t use ta get the big ones in the spring. With warming sea temperatures, I ’spect this is going to become more common.”
Rebecca groaned. “Fantastic.”
Lights swept over them as a truck pulled up and stopped on the road.
A spattering of cheers rang out as people could momentarily see what they were doing. The joyous sound doubled as more bodies spilled out of the vehicle and joined them.
“We stacking or filling?”
“Fill!” The response rang out from several voices at once.
People shuffled into new roles, making room for the new arrivals. It seemed like at least half the town was turning out to help. Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do, as if it were a dance they all knew the steps for.
Except for Rebecca. At least not completely. Reading a binder wasn’t the same as living through it. And while she hoped this would be her last hurricane, she knew the experience she was currently acquiring would pay dividends in the future.
A vibration tickled her leg, and she jerked, looking down. The manual had warned about downed power lines. When it happened again, she scolded herself for being jumpy. And stupid. It was just her phone. Again.
Rebecca recalled the lengthy chapter on what she’d dubbed “the care and feeding of your emergency radio.” While most of the information was common sense, there had been a section on handing out additional two-way radios to as many emergency personnel as possible. Several more paragraphs were dedicated to the use of non-rechargeable batteries.
Having been called to the sandbag line before she’d finished reviewing all the materials, Rebecca hadn’t had the opportunity to address the emergency communication system. She made a mental note to prioritize getting the radios distributed.
After just one more bag, her phone vibrated again. No. This vibration came from her waist and was accompanied by a shrill, piercing note. Her pager. That was a completely different matter. No one was going to page her unless it was an emergency.
She turned, stepping out of line so she wouldn’t impede progress.
Another body took her place without a word. Muttering, she pulled her arm into her raincoat to tug the pager from her waistband. Still keeping it inside the plastic, she lifted to her face the small, square device that brought her back to the time of the dinosaurs, ducking ’til her chin was nearly on her chest so she could read the tiny screen. Pagers had been invented during the stone age, back before cell phones, but still worked for hospital staff where cell signals couldn’t reach. And for island towns in the direct path of hurricanes.
The pager showed the station number, followed by 911—a little redundant, considering everything.
“What’s going on?” Hoyt yelled over a sudden blast of hot wind.
Uh-oh, that wasn’t good. A hot wind was always a bad omen when it came to tornadoes. Did that hold true for hurricanes? If the wind was blowing hot, did they even have twelve hours before the hurricane was on them?
“There’s an emergency at the station.”
He frowned and shook his head, flinging water that was lost in the heavy rainfall. “The whole island has an emergency, West.”
“Har dee har.”
He sighed dramatically. “I didn’t get paged, so they only want you. Go on. We can handle this while you sit inside in your cushy new chair, sip lattes, and nibble on croissants.”
Despite knowing he was joking, Rebecca felt guilty as she headed to the department-issued Explorer. It took a herculean effort to open the door against the squalls, and her shoulder let her know it was not appreciated. She fell into the driver’s seat and pulled her legs in before the door slammed shut on its own.
Rebecca grabbed the radio, not even bothering with the phone jammed into her damp pants.
“West here. You paged? Over.”
“Sheriff, we’ve got a weird one.” Viviane Darby was the receptionist and daytime dispatcher at the station. She’d become a good friend to Rebecca in the short time they’d known each other. “A man walked in covered in blood but doesn’t know why. It’s caked into his cuticles, and he’s even got some streaked through his hair. He also doesn’t seem to know his name or where he came from. Over.”
Yeah, that definitely sounded weird.
“Copy that. Could he have been in a car wreck? Over.”
“He has some trauma to his face, but I wouldn’t begin to guess how he got it. There wasn’t a visible wound large enough to cause that amount of blood. And he had it all over him. It dripped all over the carpet in the lobby. I thought it was a practical joke at first. He was so slathered in it. He’s in shock and doesn’t know how the blood got there.” There was a pause. “He said he thinks he hurt someone. Over.”
“Hurt? Not killed? Over.” Rebecca considered the implications. If someone was hurt, that was at least a silver lining to the horror of a man coated in blood. Hurt meant they could still be saved.
“Roger that. He said ‘hurt,’ but that’s an awful lot of blood.” Doubt filled every word. “Over.”
Rebecca felt that silver lining tarnishing. “So we have someone out there who has lost a lot of blood and our only witness doesn’t know where or who they are? Over.”
“Yeah, pretty much…oops. Over.”
Rebecca smiled at the dispatcher’s lapse in using the official jargon when on the radio.
“Anything else? Over.”
“Actually, yes. Can you remind me later to congratulate Melody on her excellent vacation-timing skills? Over.”
Rebecca smiled. Their night-shift dispatcher had certainly picked a good time to be off the island. “Will do. Over and out.”
Staring out the windshield, Rebecca could only see the two cars parked adjacent to the SUV. Visibility was nonexistent. And she needed to brave these conditions and attempt to find an injured person, hopefully before they died.
If they hadn’t already.