Chapter 1

“The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

  No one got a second chance. Not really. There were no reconstructed moments, no opportunities to
make a different decision, because all the time between could not be erased. The consequences of choice
remained. All one could hope for was a chance to start again.

      Maris finished packing her bag. She zipped it shut, clutching the zipper tag between thumb and
forefinger so tightly the raised letters on metal imprinted themselves into her flesh.

      Time to go.

      To her right, white curtains fluttered with a song’s rhythm, rising in a pale, curling billow and falling
back again, the delicate rasp of lace against the window screen like sand settling over paper. Cold, the air—
colder than it had been for more than a week. Too early. September was the month for embedding one’s
fingernails into the last of summer, unwilling to let it go. Instead, the temperature felt like winter’s onset,
as if the season was rushing toward bone-chill and long nights. When she’d first climbed into bed, the air
had been refreshing. Now she hastened to shut and lock the casement before adding her wool coat to the
items on the bed.

      Maris glanced at the clock. Midnight. Yes. Time to go.

      It would be hard driving on two hours sleep, but the weighted urgency would carry her through, keep
her eyes wide and her thoughts alert. She hadn’t dreamed in a very long time. Not of that place. Not of the
woman who waited for her there.

      Reaching for the switch on the bedside lamp, Maris paused in contemplation of the brown plastic
bottle she’d told herself to leave behind. The sleeping pills kept the dreams at bay, held the haunting down
to a minimum. She didn’t take them every night. Last night she hadn’t, and the past had broken through.
Perhaps it would all be too much. Perhaps…yes, perhaps she should bring the pills with her.

      She grabbed the medicine bottle—and the diary, too—shoving both items into her purse. Before
turning off the light, Maris gave herself a final look in the mirror, finger-fluffing her short, dark hair as she
stared into the eyes looking back at her. Black-lashed, gray as smoke. Her eyes.

      Outside, she stowed the canvas satchel, her laptop, and an insulated lunch bag on the passenger side
floor. She tossed her coat over the seat with her purse and went back around to the driver’s side where
she spent a moment studying the sky. Earlier clouds had been ushered to the sidelines by the cold front.
Stars shone in velvety blackness, barely dimmed by the lights of the strip mall in the distance. Before the
intervention of modern technology, sailors navigated by the stars. She supposed many still did. The last
sailor she’d known had died nine years past. She hadn’t let his stories die with him, though. In those final
days, she’d written down by hand into a notebook every word her father had spoken, then transferred the
narratives to her laptop. One day she would see those marvelous tales of the sea published. That was her
plan. But like many other plans, there were no assurances.

      One hundred miles into her drive and the pavement of the interstate awash in the glow of her
headlights, a pair of blue eyes flashed into her mind’s eye with such clarity her gut wrenched. She had no
idea whose they were, but a name had come with them. A first name only. No one she knew. Maris pulled
her car off onto the shoulder of the highway and stopped. Gripping the wheel with tightly curled fingers,
she leaned toward the glow of the dashboard lights, bile churning in her stomach.

      I’m sorry, my dear. So very sorry…

      No one got a second chance.

                                                                 *  *  *

      Dan slapped across the surface of the nightstand in search of the buzzing cell phone, head pounding
with each vibration of his palm against wood. Locating the instrument, he snatched it up to his ear,
smacking himself in the temple. Ow.

      “Dan Stauffer here.” Dan cleared his throat before speaking again. “What’s up?” He glanced at the
clock. “At three forty-five in the damned morning.”

      His head hurt. Sometimes one more beer could be the one that caused the damage. He hadn’t been
drunk, but for some reason he felt like he had one hell of a hangover. Maybe it was a cold coming on. This
damned, indecisive weather didn’t help. “Hello?”

      “We’ve got a body.”

      “Where?” Groaning, Dan swung his legs over the side of the bed. He leaned forward, squinting at the
bright rays of the streetlight burning through the slats of the blinds. He crossed the floor, and with an
aching stretch of his arm, he reached up and shut them, dimming the room to near-darkness. What the
heck had he been doing? Sure, he’d spent some time at the gym before heading out with the guys, but
being hit by a truck hadn’t been in his exercise regimen.

      “Alva Mabry’s.”

      Rubbing his eyes, Dan scanned the floor through his fingers for the clothes he’d discarded earlier.
Paler than the dark rug beneath them, they lay in a shadowed, crumpled heap. “Is it Alva herself?”

      “Looks to be.”

      Dan massaged the back of his neck, turning his head from side to side. “You don’t know for sure?”

      “Whitley’s here. He says it’s her. I’ve never met the woman.”

      “Never had the hankering to get your fortune told?” His joke met by silence, Dan straightened. “Signs
of foul play?”

      Dan heard a voice in the background—presumably Whitley—speaking in an undertone. Officer Green
spoke once the other officer had finished.

      “Not really,” he said without inflection.

      Dan paused as he reached for his pants. “Not really or no? You need to be more specific when I’m
asking questions.”

      Green inhaled and then hesitated before speaking. “Then the answer would be no.”

      “Alva has to be more than ninety years old. I’m willing to lay odds on natural causes.”

      “I don’t want to make that call, Detective. That would…that would be your job.”

      Dan didn’t need the reminder. He didn’t like the reminder. Since his advancement to detective several
months ago, he’d noted some of the younger officers were miffed. He didn’t understand why. He had
seniority over them all, and the position was based on experience. He’d worked hard for it. The promotion
certainly hadn’t been handed to him as matter of favoritism. Far from it.

      “All right,” Dan said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

      “Look, Detective Stauffer, I apologize if it seems I’m out of line. It’s just…well, there’s something
off about her. The dead lady.”

      Jonathan Green was fairly young. Maybe this was his first dead body and his reaction one of nerves.
“Okay,” Dan said in an attempt at reassurance, “I’ll be heading out in a sec.”

      “You need the address?”

      “Nope. I know the place.”

      Dan hung up and pulled on his pants. His button-down shirt had been slung crookedly over the back
of the desk chair, and he pulled it free. He held the fabric to his face to breathe in the scent of perfume
clinging to the soft folds. Nice. Trouble was he couldn’t even remember the woman’s name. He hadn’t
had that much to drink tonight. His inability to recall the identity of the perfume owner had nothing to do
with inebriation, only lack of interest.

      God, was he that much of a bastard? He didn’t want to be. As he slipped his arms into his
shirtsleeves, he gave brief consideration to his defunct marriage. Funny, everyone figured he’d caused the
demise of that relationship. He had a reputation. Not a particularly good one. Not unfounded. But for the
time he’d been married, he’d been an honest husband. It had been his wife who’d strayed, who eventually
left him for some guy she hooked up with in the grocery store after discussing the cost of chicken with
him. Dan had spent the years since making sure he didn’t get hurt again. Maybe he’d gotten too good at it.

      Shoving his feet into his shoes, he snorted. Hell, the issues between him and his ex had begun long
before she found a lover in the packaged meat aisle. And that was something for which they both were to

      Dan dropped his cell phone into his pants pocket, grabbed his keys, ID, and wallet, and jogged down
the stairs, body protesting. He snagged his jacket from the banister as he passed. As he put on the
garment, he noticed lipstick on the lapel. The marking appeared deliberately placed to form a full set of lips.
Dan pulled a tissue out of the box by the door and scrubbed the oily substance off. “Sorry, Miss
Nameless, but I don’t need the guys seeing that.”

      Not at an investigation. Not in front of men who resented him enough already.

      As he backed out of the garage, he glanced in the rearview mirror and stopped short, the force of the
brakes jerking him in the seat. A feminine silhouette blocked the driveway behind his car, a shawl on her
shoulders blowing like a flag in the breeze. He started to get out, then paused. He could see through her to
the post of the streetlight across the road. Tightening his fingers on the inside handle, he pulled the door

      “Not tonight. I don’t need this type of shit tonight.”

      The figure didn’t move. Dan held a silent debate with himself regarding the difference between reality
and the effects of sleep deprivation. “Get away from me. I mean it.”

      Good God, if anyone at the station could hear him now he’d be up for a psych evaluation. He couldn’t
deny, though, that he’d seen his share of strange, but he had hoped to go the rest of his lifetime without a
repeat. He opted to wait, keeping the figure in sight in his rearview. After a moment, the apparition turned
and vanished like smoke in the wind.

      With a great deal of profanity, Dan backed the car from the driveway and sped down the street in the
direction of Alva Mabry’s house, pushing the hair at his nape down with an open palm. A few years back,
he’d learned rather horrifically that more existed in this world than logic could explain. But what did a
person do with that type of knowledge? It wasn’t something a man imparted to others as the wisdom of
experience. No, it was the kind of a man kept to himself, mouth shut, teeth clenched against the yell that
always wanted to escape at the memory.

Available November 2016