THE OCEAN WAS SINGING IN THE hushed, undulating tones of low tide on this still, damp night. Nature’s beguiling lullaby swelled and ebbed in Kira Tanner’s body, transfixing her as powerfully as the mist-furred brilliance of the sickle moon hanging in a starless sky. Its cool light frosted the water and spread a spangled path to the horizon, beckoning her imagination to walk it. What was beyond that bedazzled point? Someplace magical, she decided. Even more magical than this.
Santa Barbara was very different from LA—mellower, happier, and absent of the menacing, jagged edge of a huge city—that’s why she loved it here. It was cold on the empty autumn beach, and the wet sand numbed her feet, but the discomfort was offset by the ethereal world that enveloped her, along with the warming, delicious embrace of local wine and good weed.
She selected a spot by a vaulting outcrop of rock, laid her poncho on the sand, and settled into lotus position. Her eyes never veered from that wobbling, moonlit passageway, and she would stay here as long as she could tolerate the seeping chill—it was much too beautiful and peaceful to go back inside just yet.
She was a million miles away from the squalid, broken-down tract house in dusty Oklahoma, where her lowlife father sat on his fat, drunk ass all day. For all she knew, he was in jail again, or maybe even dead, but she didn’t care. Kira Tanner was meant for much bigger things, and she would do whatever it took to get there.
When her teeth finally began to chatter, she reluctantly plodded to the sloping path that led up to the house. Trudging slowly over wet sand—old song lyrics from a time before she’d been born popped into her mind and made her giggle for some reason. As she climbed through the beachside garden, she wistfully trailed her fingers along the oleander, rosemary, and delicate tendrils of jasmine. Everything was so perfect, so serene. She never wanted to leave, but of course she had to. She didn’t belong here as much as this place didn’t belong to her. But she still had the rest of the night to pretend it did. And one day, a dreamscape like this might be hers. That’s why she was here. With a smile, she patted the pocket of her jeans, comforted by the tiny bulge of extra insurance there. You always had to have a plan B.
As Kira approached the steps that led to the broad deck, she heard the faint, droning rhythm of the house music she’d selected, muted by stone and timber. And above that, other sounds that were sharper; sounds that were wrong: the crack and hiss of shattering glass, the shriek of wood, a muted pop. Then urgent footsteps, getting closer.
Life had taught her to shirk at strange, erratic noises, so instinct propelled her into the shelter of fragrant greenery. She trembled there with a forgotten prayer on her lips as she listened to her frenzied heart trying to escape the captivity of her chest.
The footsteps eventually receded, silence reclaimed the night, and time passed—she had no idea how much—and she finally emerged from her coward’s nest. The music was still pulsing into the night, but that was all she heard. Her legs felt like concrete pillars as she mounted the stairs, her ears and eyes straining for more sounds and any movement that didn’t belong. She tentatively pulled open the big glass door and stepped into the house, pausing breathlessly in the violet shadows of the living room. If you hold your breath, the monsters can’t find you …
Everything was just as she’d left it—there were no signs that anything had happened here. Maybe nothing had happened here, she was just paranoid from the last bowl she’d smoked. Hearing things, imagining things. Her highs could sometimes go in that direction. But it would be stupid to ignore the chilling, warning tingle that seized her spine, so she crept down the hall to the bedroom, where she’d left her tote bag. Inside it was a gun.
She saw the shards of a wineglass first, glittering on the floor; then the upended lamp and the looted drawers, hanging from their tracks. Clothing spilled from them like mocking, colorful tongues. And finally, the naked man, facedown on the bed. She didn’t need to check his pulse to know he was dead. The blood and the two holes in the back of his skull told the story.
Acid and a scream rose up her throat in unison, but she swallowed them before either could break free from her mouth. Horror and terror vied for dominance—until now, she hadn’t realized there was a difference between the two—then self-preservation usurped them both. Choking on sobs, she dropped to the floor and groped for her Louis Vuitton knockoff. She’d left it next to the bed, but it was gone now.
She wasn’t supposed to be here. She couldn’t be here, not with a dead man. But now someone knew she had been. Beseeching the murderous invader and thief to take what he wanted from her tote and dump the rest in a place it would never be found, she ran for her life, leaving her ruined dreams and the ruined body behind. There was nothing she could do for him now. And nothing he could do for her.
Kira hadn’t expected the malevolent shadow waiting outside the front door, hadn’t expected the blow to her head or her violent descent into blackness. She couldn’t see, but she could hear ragged breathing; feel cold steel pressed against her lips. In her last moments, her mind retreated to the beach and found peace in the gentle tug of the tide and the enchanted, sparkling path the moon had laid for her on dark water. She was going to find out what was on the other side of the horizon after all.
January 10, 1864
I write again with news of your nephew Peter, as I know you have always had the greatest affection for him and are deeply concerned for his welfare. He has recovered well from the amputation and other physical injuries sustained, which is undeniably God’s miracle. However, it aggrieves me to report that the disturbing episodes I have described in my earlier correspondence have persisted, if not escalated. Brother, when I look into my dear boy’s eyes, I do not see him. I see only terror and pain—that of a trapped and badly wounded animal.
It is with profound regret that I tell you it has recently become necessary to tether him to prevent harm to himself or the younger children. He is currently in confinement in the attic room in accordance with Doctor Herman Groezinger’s recommendation. I know you have never been overly impressed with Herman since our childhood, but he has been devoted to Peter’s care since his return from Gettysburg.
It is the doctor’s opinion that the violence experienced in battle has bedeviled his mind and very soul. I believe this is a progressive philosophy, and Doctor Groezinger has been employing the latest treatments and elixirs, including hypodermic injections of a soporific, which has a blessed, calming effect.
We are all praying that God will heal him and bring him back to us. I ask that you keep him in your prayers as well. Our regards to Livinia and the children.
Henry Harold Easton, Esq.
Sam Easton couldn’t take his eyes off the beautiful, florid script a distant relation had painstakingly transcribed over a hundred and fifty years ago. His contemporary mind perceived it as a work of art. Elegant handwriting, like critical thinking, manners, and so many other civilities, had virtually disappeared since this had been written. The only thing that hadn’t disappeared was war, which made him wonder if brutality wasn’t the sole, immutable characteristic of the human race.
He finally placed the letter on the dining room table beside his snifter of after-dinner brandy and glanced up at his mother. There was a melancholy in her lovely, dark eyes he hadn’t seen in a long time. “PTSD. Before there was a name for it.”
Vivian Easton nodded. “They called it soldier’s fatigue back then. Perhaps the greatest understatement in the history of the English language.”
“I’m assuming the soporific was morphine.”
“The Civil War spawned the first opioid crisis. It’s painful to read, I know.”
Sam’s gaze traveled the impressive Pasadena home where he’d spent most of his life before the Army. Before marrying Yuki. It was stuffed with generations’ worth of priceless heirlooms from his mother’s side. He’d never guessed it held treasure of a darker kind, from another branch of his family tree. “Where did you find this, Mom?”
“I finally started going through your father’s desk and found a musty box of family military ephemera. I assume from your grandpa Dean after he passed.”
There was poignancy in that simple statement. Jack Easton’s damaged heart had left her a widow years ago, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to touch his desk in all that time. “This is extraordinary. Why didn’t he share?”
“He would have, if he’d known about it.”
Sam frowned. “That sounds mysterious.”
Her eyes danced, warm and wistful. “Not at all. Your father kept a list of all the things he was going to do when he retired. I imagine going through this file was one of them. It would have driven him mad with distraction, and I’m sure he was aware of that.”
Sam chuckled sadly at the truth of what she’d just said. Jack Easton had been a man of sharp and singular focus and had always known the limitations of his attention. He wished his father had realized there was no guarantee you’d be around for gratifications delayed, things left undone. “Are there any other letters about Peter?”
“This is the only one I found. The rest of the correspondence is from more modern wars; all equally heartbreaking. Is there ever truly victory in war?”
It was a complicated question, and fortunately, a rhetorical one. You could dissect the history of warfare and never come up with an incontrovertible answer. “Did Dad ever try to find any relatives out east?”
“He wasn’t interested in genealogy. But maybe you are.” She slid a thick file across the polished walnut. “This is yours. It’s a part of you.”
Sam took a last look at the letter that belonged in an archive or a museum—one day, he would make sure it got there—then slipped it back in the file. Five minutes ago, Peter Easton hadn’t existed; now he flowed through Sam’s veins. The connection had been immediate and powerful, and transcended time and space.
He knew him. He was him. He also knew that things probably hadn’t ended well for Peter. For the first time in a long while, he felt truly lucky because he wasn’t tied up in an attic. A hundred and fifty years ago, he would have been.
DETECTIVE MARGARET NOLAN DETESTED GOLF. UNDER the duress of psychotherapy or torture—a fine line between the two, in her opinion—she may have been inveigled into blaming her father. He’d forced lessons on her as a child and spent too much of his free time playing a silly game when he could have been having high tea with her dolls. But the real truth was, she sucked, and being pathologically competitive, she was also a pathologically poor loser.
Golf was a head game, and her head space was currently very negative. So far, her performance today had been cringe-worthy, and would haunt her for the rest of her life. On her deathbed, she would think about how badly she’d screwed up at Braemar Country Club’s first annual father-daughter charity tournament, humiliated herself and her family in front of hundreds of people. It didn’t matter that the atmosphere was as boisterous as an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day—she would remember the burning shame of failure, even if nobody else did.
In the spirit of Thermopylae, she approached the sixth tee like a mortal enemy, determined to compensate for her deficiencies with sheer mettle. Everybody liked a good fight, especially when the underdog went out in a blaze of hopeless, deranged glory.
Daddy—Colonel York Nolan, U.S. Army retired—spoke to her quietly as she brandished her weapon for battle. Presumably to be encouraging. There was no cutting discord or secreted agonies out here on the emerald greens of Braemar, or anywhere else in the family cloisters. Not anymore. Those had been buried months ago in the most dangerous, convoluted way imaginable.
“You’re choking the club to death, Margaret. Relax, and loosen your stance. You’re not throwing a hand grenade.”
Apparently, some fellow club members in the gallery heard him, because there were lots of laughs. Military humor, ha-ha. While they were distracted by their jollity, she wound up, let it rip, and watched the irrelevant white ball sail into the morning sky. It briefly became a tiny cotton ball cloud in a clear field of azure before descending like a meteorite. Her fate was in the golf gods’ hands now, and those sadistic hands would probably deposit that dimpled little bastard in a sand trap or a water hazard. Then she would pull out her gun and blast the damn thing all the way to the hole …
The cheers from down-green dumbfounded her. Her father gave her an approving pat on the shoulder; her reticent mother let out a startlingly resonant, “You can do it, Margaret!” and Sam Easton—formerly a murder suspect and more recently an accidental LAPD asset, family friend, and eleventh-hour coach—gave her an encouraging smile and thumbs-up. Maybe she would be able to finish twenty over par instead of thirty.
She and Daddy didn’t get the trophy, but they did achieve a respectable third-place showing and made some money for Mattel Children’s Hospital. Even Nolan’s brutally exacting standards allowed for subdued celebration in the form of fried food and a dirty martini in the club’s lounge. After celebratory toasts and woolly exposition on the highs and lows of play, courtesy of the colonel, her mother offered salvation by dragging him away to glad-hand friends.
Which left her alone at the table with Sam—potentially a shrewdly considered maneuver. From Emily and York Nolan’s perspective, the match was perfect, it just had to be nurtured. Naïve wishes of well-meaning parents who had selected a future son-in-law to suit their needs instead of a mate who would suit hers. Or his. She and Sam had a lot in common, as killers who’d almost died together twice, and that was a bond that couldn’t be broken. But violence had nothing to do with romantic love for either of them. And hopefully nobody else, although that was a sadly optimistic outlook.
Sam’s angry, disfiguring scars split his face evenly between handsome and the horrors of a roadside bomb, but she no longer registered them any more than she would a mole or birthmark. They were evident, but not defining. As was his PTSD—something he would battle for the rest of his life to one degree or another. She’d come to know him as intelligent, brave, and selfless; a man whose inherent character could supersede the black, daily struggles that were the consequences of war. She was glad he’d made it home from Afghanistan even though her brother, Max, hadn’t. There was gratitude in the mix, too, because he’d brought her grieving father back to life a little.
“You were fairly spectacular out there, Maggie.” He lifted his beer with a gratified smile. “Congratulations.”
She clinked his bottle with her glass. “Congratulations to you, Coach. You did the impossible and spared me lifelong embarrassment as a family punch line. My father is a great golfer, but a horrible instructor. Too used to giving orders.”
“I can’t take any credit. Bagger Vance did the job for me.”
Nolan snickered. “It was a good movie. But I still never saw ‘the field.’”
“Sure you did. You played the game you were born to play, and that’s all any of us can do.” Sam’s smile wilted as he picked at French fries languishing in a greasy, paper-lined basket. “This is a little uncomfortable.”
“Don’t worry about sparing my feelings. I was anticipating that you would dump me, but I’m never playing golf again, so I won’t need a coach anymore.” When Sam didn’t respond to her levity, didn’t even rediscover his smile or meet her eyes, she was bewildered. “What’s wrong?”
He sighed, releasing a ballast of troubled air. “I saw pictures of your father and Max in the Hall of Fame gallery this morning, and they hit me. I don’t want you to think your father is trying to replace him, because he’s not. I don’t want you to think I’m trying to replace him, either.”
Maggie’s life was not heavily populated by forthright people, and Sam’s honesty startled her. Unfortunately, it was founded in guilt, the most senseless and seductive emotion there was. “Don’t be an idiot, Sam. You make Daddy happy. He has a fellow war hero as a golf buddy and you’ve both been to battle together in a way, up in Death Valley. You’re a friend, not a replacement. Don’t ever apologize for making a difference in somebody’s life.”
“He makes me happy, too.”
“I know that. You’ve both lost a lot and you share that. You understand each other.” She huffed with deflective, faux exasperation. “God knows nobody else can. I thought you and your shrink were making inroads with your survivor’s guilt.” It had been a harsh thing to say and she instantly regretted it, but an attenuated version of his smile returned. It seemed more honest and heartfelt than its predecessor.
“We are, but healing takes time. How are you doing, Maggie?”
It was a good question, one that came from a caring place, but it irritated her. First, it acknowledged her vulnerability; second, she didn’t have a definitive answer. If you weren’t a sociopath, you couldn’t just kill without psychological repercussions, even if the killing had been in the line of duty to save your own life and the lives of others. Likewise, you couldn’t dismiss near-death by a weapon of mass destruction or witness a self-immolation without losing pieces of your mind and soul. These were all living, breathing nightmares that slashed deep wounds that might never heal. And she shared every one of them with Sam, who had a million more nightmares of his own just like them, and worse. How was he still walking and talking? How did the world get so fucked up?
It always has been. Nothing new under the sun.
“I’m finding my way.”
He nodded in empathy, then focused on the bar, his favorite feature in any dining establishment. The long bank of mirrors multiplied the bottles there, creating a mirage of infinite booze. “I didn’t look in a mirror for two years after I got back from Afghanistan.”
“What happened when you finally did?”
He shrugged. “Not much, which surprised me. Turned out avoiding my reflection was more terrifying than confronting it. That wasn’t meant to be a metaphor for what you’re going through, by the way. It’s just that mirrors have a Pavlovian effect on me now, and compel me to salivate egocentric non sequiturs.”
Nolan couldn’t resist a chortle, but there was wisdom in his words, and she wasn’t entirely certain it hadn’t been an oblique outreach. She felt the shadows of the past descend on them both, displacing the air in the room. The lone olive at the bottom of her glass stared at her with a brooding pimento eye, rousing a truly disturbing thought: Sam was a facsimile of her brother, and her parents were trying to pair her with him, something she hadn’t comprehended before. They obviously didn’t see it that way, they only saw commonalities and connections, but there was too much Freudian weirdness circulating in the smothering ether. Time to change the subject.
“Have you given any more consideration to LAPD’s offer?”
Sam twirled his beer bottle, trying to divine existential answers from the sudsy remainders at the bottom. “I’m in the process of considering it. Where I’m at now, it beats electrical engineering. I’m not ready to sit at a desk. But I’m also not a cop. I never will be.”
“You don’t have to be. It’s a consulting position with SWAT, and you wouldn’t be the only veteran there. Keep thinking about it. That’s all I’m going to say.”
“Heard. Who is that elderly coquette hanging on your father’s arm?”
Grateful for the distraction, Nolan’s eyes traveled the lively crowd and landed on May Strohm-Whitney, dressed for the day in a pink-and-green-plaid golf ensemble almost as obnoxious as the diamonds burdening her frail neck, wrists, and pendulous earlobes. Good for her. You can’t take it with you, so enjoy the hell out of it while you’re still breathing.
“She’s a real estate heiress and a five-time widow. Delightful and harmless. Unless you consider the questionable circumstances of her much younger husbands’ deaths.”
“Wow. Who says country clubs are boring?”
“If humans have anything to do with it, it’s never boring.” She watched Sam’s expression transform from bemused to tentative recognition.
“Is that May Strohm-Whitney?”
Nolan couldn’t wait to hear this story. What an excellent detour from things more onerous. “You didn’t date her, did you?”
He grinned. “I was eighteen when I met her, so she didn’t ask.”
“Restraint has never been her strong suit when it comes to younger men.”
His grin expanded. “It would have been an unforgiveable breach of boundaries. My mother used to golf with her when she was living in Pasadena with one of her husbands.”
“Pasadena was husband number three.” Nolan knew this great big world was actually small, and it seemed to be compressing daily, from a juicy steak into a bouillon cube. At least relative to Sam. “Your mother must be quite a golfer. May was an LPGA champion in the sixties and she never played with anybody below that level.”
“Vivian Easton is a golf goddess. If she hadn’t been a devoted military wife, I think she would have turned pro.”
“It’s never too late.”
“She’s enjoying life too much these days to take anything that seriously. If the colonel ever wants to golf Valley Hunt Club, he should look her up.”
“He would love that.”
Sam glanced at her phone, which had suddenly come to life, buzzing and jittering on the table. “You probably need to take that, Detective.”
Nolan glanced at the caller ID and stuffed it in her handbag with contrived urgency, along with a little self-admonishment for her insincerity. She felt craven for quitting a pleasurable situation when there wasn’t a dead body waiting for her, but things were too heavy here, in a lot of ways she wasn’t eager to examine. “I do. I’m sorry, Sam.”
“Don’t be, and good luck.” He finished the dregs of his beer and stood. “I have to scoot myself, before the black widow finally seduces me and kills me. You were fantastic today, Maggie. Congratulations.”
“I had a great coach.”
“If I don’t take that job with LAPD, maybe I can score a position here as a golf pro.”
“You would have my full endorsement, and the colonel’s, too, for whatever that’s worth.”
“It’s worth a lot.”
Nolan watched him walk away, thinking that a day that had started with a dingy haze of anxiety had actually transfigured into something quite fair. And the emotional weather promised to improve before the inexorable slide back into homicide and heartbreak and plaguing thoughts of blood spilled.
Copyright © 2022 by Traci Lambrecht