Read an Excerpt
Part One 1
The Present, July 11, 2:30 a.m.
Galveston Island, Texas
Alex rarely slept well these days, and when the phone rang she was only dozing, halfway between asleep and awake. Her mind floated in a thin mist, thinking of the soft sands beside the Gulf of Mexico, a few hundred yards away; of the rolling Oklahoma prairie she'd left behind; and thinking that if she'd really embezzled all those hundreds of thousands of dollars, she wouldn't have stayed in this budget motel, but in one of the big beachside condominiums.
The first thing she did when the phone rang was to reach beside her in the bed, instinctively feeling for what wasn't there. When her hand touched only the cool sheets, she slowly balled it into a fist. Gary was gone. Her husband wasn't coming back. It was almost as if he'd left her twice -- the first time, the day after she found out about the baby, waking up to his note taped to her guitar case, filled with phrases like too needful and dependent and can't envision having a child with you. The second time, a month later, it was the strange voice on the telephone: "Detective Ford from the St. Louis Police Department...shooting in the Central West End...he was dead at the scene...involved in drugs...very sorry..."
She was alone. Of course, she'd felt alone for most of her life, but somehow her brief time with Gary had churned up her expectations, like a handful of pebbles tossed into a pond. She'd had to reacquaint herself with the aloneness.
She unclenched her fist and rolled toward the phone beside the bed. "Alex Bridge?" said a man's voice. "Don't answer me. Don't speak at all. This is Wells."
"I said don't speak! After I hang up, stay where you are for fifteen minutes, then come and meet me. I'm on the beach across the street, just off Thirty-ninth. I'll be under the last beach umbrella before the rock jetty at Thirty-ninth. I've found something that will help you clear your name."
Alex sat perfectly still.
"I'm hanging up now. Fifteen minutes, Ms. Bridge."
She lay back in bed, breathing quietly. She ran a hand down across her stomach, felt the swelling. She did it these days without even noticing that she was doing it.
She let herself think of Gary's note, scribbled on a piece of yellow legal paper, and then the other note, this one on official company stationery from Cross Current Media:
TO: Alex Bridge, Traffic and Billing Dept.
FR: Edward Mullaney, Vice President for Administration & Human Resources
You are being placed on immediate administrative leave from your position, pending the outcome of the investigation into the $498,207.33 missing from corporate accounts as of today's date. Officers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation will be contacting you. You are to cooperate fully. In keeping with company policy, this leave will be without pay.
She thought of the first call from Wells, three days ago. "Galveston, Texas. Find a hotel along the Seawall. That's where the final truth is. Meet me there...."
"I've found something that will help you clear your name," Wells had said just now.
She watched the clock, the red digital numbers floating beside the hotel bed. Ten minutes slipped by. She got out of bed and stood beside it, barefoot, her long maternity nightshirt falling past her knees.
This is crazy, she thought. FBI agents don't ask for late-night meetings on secluded beaches.
"I've found something that will help you clear your name."
She stumbled into the bathroom and squinted at herself in the harsh light above the mirror. Twenty-nine weeks along, people liked to tell her about the pregnancy "glow" she had. It was absurdly true: she often had high color in her cheeks these days, contrasting deeply with her dark skin. She fussed a little with her hair, dark brown with blond streaks, in a short, simple shag. She raised her arms, frowned at the stretch marks, ran a hand across the tattoo on her upper arm, a crown of thorns intertwined with roses and crosses. Just above her ankle was another tattoo, an intricate Celtic knot. She pulled on a plain white T-shirt and blue denim maternity shorts, then found her sandals. This is crazy, she thought again.
Alex ran a washcloth over her face, feeling the four holes in her left earlobe, three in the right. She felt naked without at least two pairs of earrings, but this was no time to accessorize. She ran her thumb across her ring finger. She'd barely gotten used to wearing the simple silver wedding band before Gary left, and now she hadn't been able to bring herself to take it off.
She silently moved toward the door, catching the outline of two of her instrument cases -- just the flute and violin this trip. Sometimes the music was all that could center her. Before Gary had come into her life, it was all she had.
She left her room, turned into the hall, walked through the hotel lobby, and emerged silently into the night. She inhaled the thick air, so different from that of the plains. Across Seawall Boulevard was Galveston's famous seawall itself, the wall that gave way in the famous flood of 1900. Alex hummed a few bars of "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm" and started across the road.
The street was deserted. Unlike some resort towns, and unlike its own notorious past, Galveston actually slept sometimes. A single car sat across the street, at the row of parking meters by the sidewalk that ran along the top of the seawall. Wells's car? she wondered. She looked at it as she passed. Texas plates, a rental sticker on the window. Her pulse quickened.
She crossed to the stairway that led to the beach, held the rail, and started down. The steps themselves were fairly steep, and she didn't much like going either up or down steps lately. She could hear the surf, the waves rolling into the shore. They never stopped: that had been her biggest surprise, when she stood beside the Gulf for the first time a few hours ago. The waves were never silent. They continued their assault on the shore, relentless in their pursuit.
The only good light here came from the street above, casting the beach into deep shadow against the surf. She stepped onto the sand and started down toward the row of nicely spaced beach umbrellas and folding wooden chairs that stayed on the beach year-round.
Alex began to sweat: nerves and pregnancy, she thought. She was warm-natured anyway but, being pregnant, she always seemed to be sweating. What had Wells found? she wondered. Clerical errors, computer problems, or something darker? Someone else embezzling money and trying to blame Alex? A setup?
She shook her head, squeezing a droplet of perspiration away from her eye. She came to the end of the beach and turned right at the edge of the Gulf. She left the soft, fine sand to wade through a few inches of water, letting its coolness wash through the hot summer night.
Everything was still. No horns honked. She heard no birds. The only sound was the surf. It was too still, Alex realized as she approached the last beach umbrella. Beyond it was the rock jetty, one of many that jutted out from the beach at regular intervals.
Alex cleared her throat. "Agent Wells?" she said, ten feet from the umbrella.
Only the surf answered her.
Even as water dripped from her ankles, covering her Celtic tattoo with bits of foamy surf, Alex's heartbeat began racing again. Careful, she thought. Think of the baby.
"It's me," she said. "Alex Bridge." She took a few steps.
A beach chair sat on either side of the spot where the umbrella was staked into the sand. The one nearest Alex was empty.
She ducked under the umbrella.
"Agent Wells, I'm here. Are you -- "
The man was sitting in the other chair, opposite where she stood.
"Hello!" Alex shouted. Anger started to grab her: this was his idea, the least he could do was stay awake. She thumped the beach umbrella stand with her fist.
Wells didn't move.
Alarm bells started to go off behind Alex's eyes. She hunched down and circled behind the two chairs until she was directly behind Wells.
"Hey!" she yelled at the top of her lungs.
She reached over the back of the chair and shook the man's shoulder. His head lolled to one side.
Alex drew back her hand, feeling the warm stickiness on it. She brought it close to her face and sniffed.
She swallowed hard, fighting the urge to scream.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God...now what?
She took a tentative step around the chair.
From what she could tell, Special Agent Paul Wells of the FBI had been in his midthirties, with a slim build, blond hair cut short and a well-groomed mustache. She put a hand against his arm and felt more stickiness.
The blood was everywhere. His light-colored polo shirt was soaked through, the stain spreading out from his chest. Alex realized with dawning horror that some of the blood was dripping onto her foot in its open-toed sandal.
"No," she whispered.
She started to back away.
Thoughts began to tumble out of control: Wells had been killed, Wells had information that could clear her of the embezzlement, Wells had told her to come to Galveston, someone wanted Wells dead, Wells was dead!
Alex stumbled and fell to the ground, bracing with her wrist, automatically angling her body so she wouldn't fall on her stomach. Her breath started to jerk in short gasps. Her fingers clawed the sand.
Her mind churned. She had to get away, away from the blood, away from this beach. She stood unsteadily, backing farther away from Wells, toward the jetty. The waves crashed the shore. The lights of an offshore oil rig blinked. Above and behind her, she heard a car.
Light exploded onto the beach. An amplified voice screamed down at her: "Police! Don't move!"
Alex threw her hands over her face, shielding her eyes from the light, and instinctively spun away, back toward the Gulf.
"Stay where you are!" the voice thundered. "Keep your hands up front! If you still have the gun on you, put it on the beach in front of you!"
Alex gazed toward the light. More cars sounded. A siren. Running feet.
"No, you don't understand," she called.
"Be quiet! Don't move!"
She saw vague shapes moving on the staircase coming down from the street.
"No," she said.
Somehow, she kept her mind focused while she fled across the sand, kicking off her sandals as she splashed through the edge of the surf. Wells had been investigating her for fraud and embezzlement. Wells was dead. She was caught standing over the body, his blood literally on her hands.
Gun? she wondered. They could see she wasn't armed. And how did the police happen to get there at just that moment?
Alex stumbled against an incoming wave. She'd been set up. The whole thing -- the embezzlement investigation, the meeting on the beach, all of it.
But I'm a nobody, she screamed inwardly. Why me? I'm just a data-entry clerk who took the job to pay the bills so I can play music on the weekends! I'm nothing!
The steps quickened behind her, more of them, thundering against the surf. The voices started to lose their shape, melting into one another, screaming at her to stop. They were growing louder.
Alex veered toward the water, and a wave crashed into her. She kept her feet for a moment, struggling against the current, inertia pulling her down. Another wave was hard on the heels of the first one, white foam at its crest. It washed over her and Alex was soaked. She fell, pain exploding in her head.
She coughed water out her nose and mouth, rolling to her side, clutching at her abdomen. They set me up...but why?
For a moment she caught a faint glimmer of memory, a voice speaking quietly, hastily on her cell phone while she sat in a park and ate her lunch. Then more words, weeks later: a message on her computer screen at work. Words she couldn't understand.
Footsteps stopped over her, and she heard a male voice. "Ah, shit, it's a woman -- and, ah, Jesus, she's pregnant." The voice faded slightly, as if the cop had turned away. "Better call a second ambulance!"
Gary...the baby...Wells...They all started to run together. Just as another wave broke behind her, Alex Bridge began to lose consciousness. In a moment of startling clarity, she tried to reach the words, to wonder what they meant and why someone wanted to destroy her. But she couldn't think. It all slid away from her, like a child's ball rolling unchecked into a busy street.
For a moment Alex's entire body felt hot, electrically charged, the world blazing around her. Then she surrendered to the darkness.
Copyright © 2005 by Kent Anderson