MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Holding a police scanner in one hand, Harper McClain stepped out onto the porch of the wood-framed bungalow.
It was unseasonably warm for late February, but the winds were picking up—a storm was moving in. Clouds swept across the moon, sending shifting shadows across the landscape.
The low, steady rumble of ocean waves hitting the shore three blocks away sounded like wind through a forest. Even after months of living out on Tybee Island, she wasn’t used to it. It was loud enough to disguise other sounds. A car approaching. Footsteps on the dirt drive.
The sounds she’d hear if someone was coming to kill her.
Muttering under her breath, she held the scanner above her head. Through the crackle and fuzz, she could make out fragments of voices but not enough to understand what was happening. “Two … Street … Three … Sig…”
Swearing, she pulled her phone from her pocket and scrolled to a familiar number. It rang twice.
“You’ve only been home an hour.” Photographer Miles Jackson’s tone was accusing.
“I can hear something on my scanner but I can’t make it out,” she told him. “What’s going on?”
“A whole lot of nothing’s going on. Come on, Harper. You know I’d call you if anything important happened. There’s no need for you to keep calling me.”
“Something’s happening,” she insisted, stubbornly. “It’s on Broad Street, I think. I couldn’t make it out.”
“It’s a fender bender. Driver appears to be intoxicated. Nothing to get out of bed for.” Miles drew a breath, summoning patience. “Harper, I have promised and I will promise again to call you if anything breaks when you are out of signal range. Now, you can call me every ten minutes or you can trust me. It’s up to you.”
In the background, jazz smoldered from the speakers in his Savannah apartment. She could hear the crackle of his scanner, working just fine.
She was so envious of his normal life it hurt.
Sinking onto the whitewashed wooden armchair next to the door, she gave a small sigh. “I’m sorry. I just hate not knowing what’s happening.”
“I know.” His voice softened. “I get why you’re anxious. I would be too, if I were you.” He paused. “There’s nothing new on that, is there?”
Miles was one of only a handful of people in the world who knew exactly why she’d been forced to move out of Savannah.
Nearly six months ago, she’d decided to leave the city after a single phone call from a man who knew far too much about her mother’s murder, sixteen years ago. In that brief conversation, he’d told her someone wanted her dead. Someone who could get the job done. And he’d told her to run.
Since then she’d lived a stranger’s life in a house she didn’t like, miles from the city that would always be home. Isolated and cut off.
And her damn scanner didn’t work.
“There’s nothing new,” she told Miles, her tone glum.
“I guess that’s good news.”
Was it, though? She lived like this because of one phone call. One warning. A man she’d never even met telling her that her mother’s murderer was coming for her. And she’d had to take it seriously. But after months of silence, she’d started to doubt.
“Miles,” she said, voicing a thought she rarely let herself consider, “what if all this was for nothing? What if he lied?”
“But that’s the dream, Harper,” he reminded her. “If the worst thing that happens is you spend one winter living by the ocean, pretending to be someone else, that sure beats the hell out of dying.”
She knew he was trying to help. But there was a cost he didn’t know about. She imagined telling him what it was like to live in constant fear. Of explaining that she drove with her eyes fixed on the rearview mirror. That every sudden noise made her twitch. Or how she’d spent every night lying awake, waiting for a killer, for months.
Still, it wasn’t his fault. He’d done so much to try it make it easier for her.
“You’re good people, Miles,” she said, instead. “You know that?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She could hear his smile. “Get some sleep.”
John Coltrane disappeared as he hung up, and she was left with only the sound of the ocean for company.
Picking up the scanner, she turned the dial on top, switching it from the channel used by the Savannah police to the one used by the local police department. It was silent, too. Not because of distance. Because nothing ever happened out here.
Tybee Island is a dot on the map eighteen miles east of Savannah. There isn’t much to it—a handful of surf shops, a couple of bars, three stoplights, and you’re done. But the miles of soft, golden sand fringing the sleepy little town brings tourists flocking in droves. That was why Harper chose it when she needed a place to hide. Nobody here noticed one stranger with so many of them around.
The little community was affluent, small, and quiet. There was so little crime, the local cops spent their days hassling teenagers and handing out speeding tickets. Harper rarely saw a patrol car on the streets after six.
Tonight was no different. Nothing moved. No cars had driven by while she was out here. The only sound was the sea.
Harper dropped her head back against the chair letting her eyes drift shut. She was so tired. If she could just stop worrying for a few hours and rest, she’d feel so much better.
Ten minutes later, she was still sitting there when the scanner burst to life.
“All units, be aware we have a report of shots fired on Cedarwood Drive.”
Harper’s eyes flew open. She stared at the device as if it had barked.
A male voice crackled from the handset. “This is unit Bravo Alpha nine. Dispatch, can you repeat that?”
He sounded as surprised as Harper felt.
“We have reports of shots fired.” At that point, the dispatcher dropped the pretense of radio formality. “I’ve had three calls so far, two from Cedarwood, and one from the old folks’ home on Rosewood.” She sounded breathless with excitement. “Everybody says they heard gunshots, Tom. Better get yourself down there.”
“Well, all right,” the officer said, after a second. “I’ll head over. It’s probably fireworks, though.”
The scanner fell silent, again.
For a second, Harper sat where she was. Then she jumped to her feet and ran back inside. After grabbing her keys off the cheap little table by the door, she hurried across the room to scoop up a notebook and press pass from where she’d tossed them on the sofa when she’d come home from work earlier that night.
She hurried back out, locked the three high-security deadbolts she’d had installed when she first moved in, then ran down the steps to the gravel driveway, and slid into the low-slung Camaro parked under the sprawling branches of a weather-beaten oak tree. The engine started with a velvety rumble.
Who needed to sleep? Just being inside that car made her feel about fifty percent better.
Finding a story out here in the back end of nowhere would do the rest.
The streets were empty. Harper didn’t pass a single car as she navigated off the wide, ghostly main street onto narrow Cedarwood Drive.
It took only minutes to locate the patrol car, its blue lights flashing steadily on the quiet lane.
She parked a short distance behind it and walked over. The car was empty. The street was just off the beach and the ocean was louder here. The waves sounded angry, hitting the sand so hard she could feel the thud beneath her feet.
The wind whipped her hair into her eyes as she looked around for the driver.
“Can I help you?” The voice came from the shadows behind her.
Harper spun around.
A police officer was walking toward her. He wore the all-black uniform of Tybee Island PD, a silver badge glittering on his chest beneath a name tag that read T. SOUTHBY. He was tall and sturdy, with a thick hipster beard and a quizzical expression.
“Oh, uh … Hi,” she said, caught off guard. “I’m Harper McClain. From the Daily News.”
“Right…” He still seemed baffled. “You lost or somethin’?”
“I heard the shots fired on my scanner,” she explained. “I thought I’d see what was going on.”
He slouched closer to her. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Miss Daily News, but you wasted a trip. There’s nobody shooting anybody around here.” He nodded at the expensive-looking vacation houses behind him, all tall windows and wraparound porches. “As you can see, this isn’t exactly a high-crime area.”
“The dispatcher said there were multiple calls,” she pointed out.
This didn’t seem to impress him. “We just don’t get shootings out here. What we do get is fireworks.” Turning, he gestured at the dark sea at the end of the road, where a scattering of golden lights bobbed on the waves. “I reckon there were fireworks on one of those boats and that’s what people heard.”
“In February?” she asked, doubtfully.
“It’s happened before. It’s a warm night.” He turned back to her. “Either way, there’s no story out here.”
Studying her with interest, he leaned against his squad car.
“Now, you tell me, what’s a reporter from the Daily News doing out on Tybee Island in the middle of the night?”
“I’ve been staying out here for the winter,” she said, unreeling her usual explanation. “Got a good deal on a rental.”
He looked interested. “Really? Which one?”
“Oh, one of Myra Hancock’s places. Now, she’s a character.” He folded his arms, watching her knowingly. “I reckon you’ll find us all kind of eccentric and strange out here.”
“Not at all,” she lied. “It’s a nice place.”
“It is nice,” he agreed. “And I’ll tell you why. Because we don’t have any big-city crime. We haven’t had a homicide out here in more than twenty years.”
Harper was of the opinion that murder could happen anywhere. But if there hadn’t been one here in decades, maybe he had a point. This was his town, not hers.
“No murder is fine with me.” She dug in her jacket pocket, unearthing a business card. “Still, if anything does come from this—or if anything else happens out here, for that matter—I’d be grateful if you’d give me a call. I’m always looking for news.”
He pulled a long-handled Maglite from his pocket. The beam lit up his face as he examined the lettering. He was younger than Harper had first thought; his skin was smooth and unlined.
“Sure thing, Harper McClain.” Turning off the light, he slid the card into the pocket behind his badge. “Might be useful having a reporter out here: about time we had our share of fame.” He gave her an ironic grin. “I’m Tom Southby, by the way. If you want to quote me.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” She smiled.
The police dispatcher’s voice boomed from his radio. “BA nine? Y’all still out at the shots fired?”
Pulling the device from his belt, Southby turned the volume down before replying.
“Dispatch, put it down as a false alarm. All quiet here. Unit Bravo Alpha nine back in service.”
The dispatcher responded, “Copy that, Bravo Alpha nine. You heading back to base?”
“In a few.” He slid the radio back into its holder.
“It was nice to meet you, Harper McClain.” Lifting his flashlight, he shined it on the Camaro. “Nice ride, by the way.”
Gear rattling, he climbed into his patrol car and slammed the door, switching off the blue lights.
She lifted her hand as he performed a smooth U-turn on the wide, empty street and drove away, taillights glowing red in the darkness.
* * *
The next day temperatures dropped. A steady drizzle soaked the trees and sent water dripping from the long strands of moss.
Harper was on the porch locking up the little cottage when she heard a gruff female voice calling her name. Turning, she saw Myra, her landlady, walking down the short driveway, a hood pulled up against the weather, utility belt pinching her middle.
“I wanted to catch you before you left,” she said, wiping rain from her face as she stepped onto the porch. “I would have called but I was around the corner anyway, fixing a loose board on the fence. The damn wind keeps trying to tear down everything I put up.”
Myra was no more than five feet tall. She had to be in her sixties, but her straight hair was ink black. She wore a heavy layer of dark pencil around her bright, brown eyes, and Harper had never seen her without a screwdriver.
“What’s up?” she asked.
The landlady squinted at her. “Look. You’ve known this was coming but I’ve got to get this place fixed up, ready for spring break. I hate to ask you to go, given your situation, but I’ve got no choice. You understand.”
Harper’s heart sank. Rents out here would quadruple in the summer. She couldn’t begin to afford that. But she couldn’t argue. They’d agreed at the start she only had the place until spring.
So, she forced a smile. “Sure, no problem. When do you need the place back?”
“Well, you take good care of it, but it’ll need to be painted.” The landlady tapped a finger against the white bannister where the paint had begun to flake. “Salt air. Give it enough time, it’d strip the fur off a dog.” She paused to think. “If you could be out by the fifteenth, that’d be fine.”
The fifteenth of March. That was only three weeks away.
“That’s fine,” Harper said weakly. “I’ll start looking right away.”
Myra gave her a fierce look. “You find yourself somewhere safe,” she told her. “I promise you this—anyone ever comes looking for you, they’ll get nothing out of me.”
Harper had told her nothing about why she didn’t want her real name on the lease or why she wanted three security locks fitted, but the landlady was convinced she was hiding from a bad relationship.
“I know about rough men,” she’d confided when Harper moved in. “He comes after you, let me know. I’ll bring my shotgun.”
Harper had never set her straight. An angry landlady with a shotgun comes in handy.
Now, Myra straightened her hood and looked up at the sky. “I reckon this rain might settle in for a few days. I better go finish that fence.”
Harper followed her as far as the Camaro. Damp from the rain, she slid her scanner in a holder on the dashboard and switched it from the Tybee police channel to the Savannah PD. Turning out onto the main highway, she headed west, windshield wipers thumping steadily, her mind going over the conversation she’d just had.
She didn’t know where she was going to live now. She’d never imagined she’d still be trapped in this limbo for so long. Some days, she almost wanted the killer to find her. At least that would be the end of it. Even with the precautions she’d taken she wasn’t hard to find. Her name was in the paper every week.
And yet, in all these months, there’d been no sign of him.
With effort, she forced herself to focus on the road ahead. Georgia Highway 80 is a silvery strip of civilization running straight through the wild coastal marshes. The drive in from the island has a kind of apocalyptic beauty—nothing but soft gray-brown salt grass stretching as far as you can see in every direction, disappearing into the mist. It was also a communications black hole. Her scanner didn’t work out here. Or her cell phone.
It was only when she neared the city that Harper’s scanner burst back into life with a litany of car wrecks and cops warning each other of flooded streets and fallen branches.
Five minutes later, she hit Savannah traffic. The roads narrowed, speeds slowed. Huge old oaks spread their branches overhead. Grand, antebellum mansions gazed down imperiously on the cars crawling beneath them.
Harper let out an unconscious breath as the city’s familiar beauty wrapped around her like a hug. She’d been born here. Her mother died here. Savannah was in her blood.
The newspaper’s rambling, white office building was on Bay Street, near the river. Harper parked in the crowded lot behind it, and dashed through the rain to the back door. She pushed the button to be let in, waving at the CCTV camera above her head until the lock released and the door swayed open.
The guard at the front desk made a note in his computer as she walked in.
Over the last few months the paper had tightened its security. The editors were taking the threat against her seriously.
“Thanks,” Harper told him, running up the wide staircase to the newsroom, where twelve reporters sat at desks scattered across five rows divided by sturdy, white columns. Tall windows let in watery light.
Managing editor Emma Baxter sat in a glass-walled office at the far end. Her head was bent over an open laptop, and her dark, blunt-cut hair swung forward, hiding her face as Harper tapped her knuckles against the glass and pushed the door open without waiting to be invited.
“There was almost a shooting on Tybee last night,” she announced. “Would have been the story of the year given how little happens out there.”
Baxter glanced up at her. “But?”
“But it was only fireworks, cops think. No body. No blood.”
“Terrific,” Baxter said, dourly. “I’ll hold the front page.”
There were dark shadows under her eyes. Harper dropped into one of the chairs facing her desk. “You look worn out.”
“Thanks.” Baxter closed the laptop. “I’d be fine if one of my reporters would bring me a big story. Actually, I’d accept anything at this point. The newspaper building burning down, for instance. That would work.”
She leaned back in a black leather executive chair that had been hers since Paul Dells, the previous managing editor, had been fired last summer. Baxter, the night editor, had been doing both their jobs since he left, and the strain showed. But she had little choice. MaryAnne Charlton, the paper’s mercurial owner, was demanding more work done by fewer staff. The paper was profitable but there was no such thing as enough for the Charlton family.
“There was that shooting last week,” Harper reminded her. “That should’ve calmed Charlton down for a while.”
Baxter dismissed that. “It was a one-day story. Charlton’s a thorn in my side but she’s right about this—we haven’t broken anything big in weeks.” She picked up that day’s paper with its front-page image of bumper-to-bumper cars. “What gets people subscribing are crooked politicians and crime. All we’ve got is traffic. I need something big before Charlton throws us all out and opens a boutique hotel in my newsroom.”
Standing, she yanked her blazer from the back of her chair and stabbed her hands into the sleeves. “I need a cigarette.”
Harper followed her through the door into the newsroom bustle. The editor didn’t make it far.
“Hey, Baxter. Could you take a look at this?” Ed Lasterson, the court reporter, waved her over. As she turned toward him, Harper headed to her desk.
Education reporter DJ Gonzales spun his chair around as she passed.
“You’re early.” His tone was accusing. “You’re not supposed to be here until four.”
Harper smiled sweetly. “I couldn’t wait to see you … to tell you to mind your own business.” She switched on her computer and logged in with motions so automatic her brain hardly knew it had happened.
Unbothered by her sarcasm, DJ rolled closer to her. “What’s up with Baxter? She looks rough.”
“She’s tired,” Harper told him, quietly. “I don’t know if she can handle the pace much longer.”
DJ grew sober. “If she goes, who the hell will run this place?”
Harper didn’t reply. She didn’t have to. They both knew Baxter was the glue holding the newspaper together. The editor’s joke about Charlton converting it into a hotel was too close to reality to be funny.
“She’ll be fine,” she said, shortly. “All we need is a good story.”
“We’ll get one,” DJ said, without hesitation. “We always do.” He spun his chair back to his computer, somehow ending up with his hands on the keyboard.
He was right. But Harper wasn’t willing to just wait for a story to fall into her lap. Her beat was the one that sold the most papers. There was nothing people liked more with their cornflakes in the morning than a juicy glass of homicide, and the criminals of Savannah had been too quiet lately.
Or maybe she’d missed something.
Yanking open the top right-hand drawer of her desk, she pulled out a handful of reporter’s notebooks and began riffling through them for a crime she could follow up on. Something she’d overlooked.
The slim, wire-bound pages were filled with hasty scribbles that had made sense at the time.
“Nine-millimeter hollow-point shells fired six times. Casings recovered.”
“Three males last seen running west on Broad. One bleeding from the shoulder…”
“Bags tested positive for cocaine…”
When her phone rang, she picked it up absently. “McClain,” she said, not looking up from the notes in front of her.
“Um. Hi.” The voice on the phone was cautious. Gruff. “This is Officer Tom Southby from Tybee. We met last night?”
“Oh, hey,” Harper straightened. “What’s up? Is there news on the shots fired?”
“It’s not that,” he said. “I’m sorry to bother you, this might be nothing, but you did say for me to call if anything happened out here. And, well … Someone on the island’s gone missing.”
In Harper’s experience, most missing people were teenagers running away from home. Generally they came back before the news story was published. Still, it was unusual enough for a street cop like Southby to tip her off, that she pushed the old notebooks out of the way, and dug out a new one.
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Is it a juvenile? How long have they been missing?”
Southby must have been in his car—she could hear the sound of traffic during the brief pause before he spoke. “That’s the reason I’m calling you. The missing man’s kind of famous. A musician. Name of Xavier Rayne.”
Frowning, Harper summoned a vague mental image of a handsome young man with high cheekbones and light brown skin.
“I’ve heard of him. So, he’s gone AWOL?”
“So, it seems,” Southby said. “His friends called this morning. They say he hasn’t been seen since last night.”
Harper was puzzled. Normally the police didn’t consider someone truly missing until they’d been gone twenty-four hours.
“They don’t think he just went to someone’s house and crashed for a while?” she asked.
“Here’s the thing,” Southby said. “Last time his friends saw him, he was walking out to the beach with his guitar in his hand.” He paused. “We found his guitar this morning. But there’s no sign of Xavier Rayne.”
Copyright © 2020 by Christi Daugherty.