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Dark shadows drifted across the tiny office window. Even the lights strung along the ferryboat across the way could not chase away Donna Gallagher's tickle of unease as she gazed out at San Diego Bay. Rain beaded on the glass, a winter storm. The vessel was already crowded in spite of the weather. In the upcoming three weeks, the number of visitors would swell as eager Christmas shoppers came over from the mainland and overnight guests arrived for the Hotel del Coronado's holiday festival. Twinkling white lights, ice-skating, fireworks and hot cocoa. The perfect Christmas in the beautiful island town of Coronado.
Every year since she could remember, her father, Bruce, had accompanied Donna, her three sisters and their mother to the festival. Every year, until now.
The pain in her chest started up again and tears pricked her eyelids. In the corner of the office stood a small pine tree, decorated with handmade ornaments. Each daughter had taken great pains to craft the perfect ornament for their father's office tree, except two years ago when Donna hadn't made one. The unfairness of it burned in her. This year, she was fully recovered and ready to make up for lost time. It was the holiday that would finally erase her disastrous rebellion, bury it firmly under a pile of happy memories.
The Gallaghers were all healthy, Candace finally on her feet after her husband's death in Afghanistan five years prior and Donna recovered from the crash, physically, anyway.
She had not yet put the finishing touches on her wooden cable car, a remembrance of their trip to San Francisco, where she'd turned back to God and decided to start living again, thanks to her father. But now it was too late. Christmas held no joy for Donna this year, and she wondered if it ever would again.
Besides the grief, something dark and frightening poked at her instincts. Bruce, her father, her hero, had been murdered, she was certain of it. All around her, on every inch of floor and the sleek wooden tabletop, lay stacks of files that she'd extracted from the cabinet. The answer to his death lay inside, she was positive. Wind rattled the office windows. She jumped.
She could not shake the sensation that someone was watching her, waiting to make sure she didn't find her answers. Paranoia? Exhaustion? Her sisters would probably say both. They thought she was in denial, her imagination exacerbated by grief and stress. And guilt, her heart added. There was no murder, they insisted, just an accident.
And her impulse to sift through her father's cases and play the part of a private investigator, as he had been?
A ludicrous attempt to take control of her grief. She was a veterinarian, after all, not a detective. But ever since she'd started looking through Bruce Gallagher's paperwork, there had been hints of danger.
Nerves, she told herself. The vehicle that appeared in her rearview mirror too often, the repeated hang-up phone calls on the office line. She looked out onto the darkened street. A truck drove slowly along, pulling to the curb outside. Was it the same truck she'd imagined was following her? Heart thudding, she stood behind the screen of the curtain, watching. A soft glow from inside, the flicker from a cigarette. Who would stop for a smoke here? Stomach tight, she watched.
One long minute and the vehicle drove away. The breath whooshed out of her. Paranoid, Donna.
She picked up her father's most recent file from the "active" tray on his desk. The neat label, Mitchell, P., rang a bell deep down in her memory. Mitchell, P. Her memory supplied the full name. Pauline Mitchell.
It was not Pauline's face that sprang into her mind but the face of Radar, her German shepherd. Something ticked up deep in Donna's stomach. She'd treated Radar a month earlier, and when she'd called to check on the dog's improvement a few days later, there had been no answer and no return of her messages.
Inside the file there was only one sheet of paper, adorned with her father's nearly microscopic handwriting.
Her eyes wandered to the small picture on the desk Bruce, in his marine dress uniform, arm slung rakishly around his wife, JeanBeth. What had her father's interest been in Pauline Mitchell? She must have been a client, but as far as Donna had known, they'd never met.
The office phone rang, shattering the silence and jolting her nerves. Too late for a business call. She blinked hard and went to switch off the ringer.
But what if it was the hospital calling about Sarah? Her youngest sister was stable now, the doctors assured her. Safe after being pried from behind the wheel in the crash that had killed their father.
She reached to pick it up, stopping in uncertainty until the message kicked in. "Pacific Coast Investigations. Please leave a number and I'll return your call." Her father's voice on the recording nearly took the knees from under her. There was the obligatory beep and then a long pause. Could she hear breathing on the other end of the line? She was not certain. The caller ID was unfamiliar. Wrong number?
She picked it up. "Hello? Who is this?"
Silence. There was someone on the line, she was sure. The same person who'd called and hung up a dozen times. "I said, who is this?"
A creak from the hallway brought her to her feet.
"Calm down, already," she chided herself.
It was Marco, no doubt, her father's business partner and a longtime family friend. He had a key and came and went as he pleased. She heaved out a sigh. Now nearly forty, Marco was a former Navy boxing world champion, and she did not have to worry about her safety while he was around. Marco loved her and her three sisters as if they were his own kin, even if her relationship with Marco had been downright prickly at times. He was grieving the loss of Bruce Gallagher, too.
She picked up the file again and the paper slipped out and fell to the floor. She bent over to retrieve it. A shadow flitted through her peripheral vision.
Her paranoia again?
Or was someone else there in the empty office? It was her imagination, she decided, until she heard the creak of a floorboard.
Brent Mitchell finally felt his muscles loosen. The run had eased the nervous energy that cascaded through him. Even though the coast guard doctor had firmly cautioned him to take things slow during his recovery, Brent figured the four-mile jog fit the bill, since he'd normally run six. The rain didn't slow him down. Instead, it washed the Southern California air so clean it almost hurt to breathe it.
Another ten to twelve days of leave from his job to rest from a concussion might as well have been an eternity, and a short run seemed like a better option than going slowly insane. Besides, he could not lose a twist in his gut, that same sensation that he'd gotten just before the last time he'd dropped from a helicopter into a heaving ocean. Something wasn't quite right. He checked his phone again. No messages.
There were plenty of reasons why his sister, Pauline, might have split town for a while, leaving calls unanswered. She could be mad at him, which he richly deserved. He was probably in the running for the "worst brother of the year" award. Still, he felt a niggle in his gut. Pauline had a temper, but she was also quick to forgive and this period of radio silence had lasted longer than usual. He'd even gone so far as to let himself into her house, but found nothing out of place. Still, the uneasiness continued, so he'd snatched up an address tacked to her bulletin board and followed it to the front walkway of a neatly tended little building on Coronado Island at eleven thirty on a crisp December night.
His cell phone vibrated. "Brent Mitchell."
No answer at first. "Where where is she?"
He stiffened. "Who are you looking for?"
The breath on the other end was short, panicky. Click. Disconnect.
Brent stared at the phone. Wrong number? Or someone who was also looking for his sister? He pushed Redial and waited. Endless ringing. No answer.
Focus on the now, he told himself, though his nerves were firing like a rifle volley. Follow up on that call later.
Of course the business he'd sought out was closed, dark, except for dim light that shone through the shutters upstairs. Nothing out of the ordinary, except maybe for the beat-up truck parked in front. Not a neighborhood for trashy vehicles.
He headed up the walkway to read the lettering on the front window just as a big man with a crew cut stepped out from the shadows.
His arms were muscled, damp with sweat, as if he, too, had been out for a run. He kept his hands loose, slightly away from his body, alert. Coronado Island was home to North Island Naval Air Station and across the water from Brent's own coast guard base. The area was thick with military types. This guy could be anyone from a navy SEAL to a petty officer. Brent figured the guy was too old to be petty officer, and, since it was just plain stupid to antagonize a navy SEAL, he tried for a friendly tone. Brent could be a smart-mouth, but he didn't have a death wish. "Just out for a run."
"In the rain?"
"That's the best time to run. The tourists are all inside." He shot a look at the darkened building. "What kind of business is this?"
"Why do you want to know?"
Brent raised an eyebrow. "Why shouldn't I?"
"You're trespassing." The man eased forward a little.
Brent tensed but did not back down. If it was going to come down to something physical, he wouldn't run from it. "Public place."
The obstinate mule inside him kicked to life. "You don't own this sidewalk and it's an innocent enough question. Don't see why you've got your back up about it."
The guy looked him up and down. "You're persistent.
A slight derogatory smile. "Puddle jumper, huh?" Brent answered through gritted teeth. "Rescue swimmer."
He humphed, but there was a slight relaxing in the posture. "Knew a coastie swimmer."
"Got my buddy out of a jam after Katrina hit. You work that mess?"
"Fifteen saves in one night." Including a three-day-old infant whose panicked father had shoved the baby into Brent's arms while they were in a rescue basket at 150 feet in the air and Brent was struggling to operate the hoist. His fingers tensed automatically with the memory. That fragile life in his hands. All on him whether the child lived or died.
They stayed silent a moment.
Brent jutted his chin. "You military?"
No smile this time.
"I worked Katrina, too. Helped out building Camp Lucky. Know it?"
Brent nodded. It was the makeshift facility built by the military to collect the animals rescued from the hurricane. "We pulled out a golden retriever who ended up there. There were plenty we couldn't get." Plenty of helpless lives all around him then. They'd lost people and animals alike. It stuck in his craw.
The big man shook his head and Brent saw that he, too, understood about rescues gone bad. Losses that neither one of them would admit to.
"Wanted to take all those animals home with me."
Something squeezed tight inside Brent. Pauline had said the same thing after the Loma Prieta quake when she'd helped with rescue efforts and come home with Radar. He straightened. "Brent Mitchell."
"You always this hostile to passersby?"
"We've had some trouble."
Marco remained silent, no doubt weighing how much to confide. The sensation in Brent's gut kicked up a notch. Trouble seemed to be going around.
Where is she? The desperate voice stuck in his mind. "That your ride there?" Marco gestured to the truck parked at the curb.
"Nope. Came on foot."
"Got to go check something out." Marco turned, stopping to throw a comment over his shoulder. "We're a private investigation business. Now get lost, Coastie." He took off at a brisk walk toward the building.
Private investigation? Why had Pauline been interested in such a service?
Where is she?
He mulled it over for a minute. Good sense would dictate that a guy with a concussion, confronted by a burly navy type, should turn around and go home. Then again, normal men with common sense would not dive into the heart of a raging ocean in high winds to snatch up a victim moments away from death. Pauline always said he had a decided lack of good sense.
Semper Paratus was the coast guard motto.
"Ready or not," he said under his breath as he followed.
Donna whirled around so fast she upset the empty water pitcher she'd left on the table. It clattered to the floor but did not break. She ignored it, still tingling with fear over what she'd thought she'd seen out of the corner of her eye behind the bank of file cabinets. The creak of the floor had not repeated itself. Her eyes were playing tricks. Must be.
The cell phone shook in her hands as her finger hovered on the buttons to call 911. Breath in her throat, she tiptoed toward the cabinets. She crept slowly until she got within a step of the cabinet's edge, then quickly poked her head around, ready to summon help.
No one. She heaved out a breath. There was no one there in the office, save one silly, frightened, grief-stricken twenty-seven-year-old woman.
Her sisters were right. Her mountain of sorrow and regret was causing her to imagine things. She retrieved the pitcher and walked it back to the conference room, the file folder tucked under her arm. She settled into a chair at the side. The head of the table would always be her father's spot. Her throat thickened. Had it really been only two weeks since he was sitting there, strong and solid, thumbing through files and drinking the ultra-strong coffee he enjoyed? Only two weeks of anguish and grief so strong she'd had to take a leave from her veterinary practice? The Gallagher family had spent endless hours listening to the detailed police findings. It was an accident that took their father's Lexus over the guardrail and down a rocky slope along Highway 1. Days had been spent wondering whether Sarah would recover and watching their mother remain at Sarah's bedside, deep in prayer.
Suppose they were right and it had been an accident. Sarah, the driver, had been rear ended, causing the Gallagher's car to plunge over the side. The other driver had not stopped. Maybe Sarah would regain her memory of the accident and confirm that it had been nothing more than a horrible, tragic mistake.
But something did not feel rightshe had the feeling she got sometimes when a dog's symptoms told one story but her gut supplied another. Odd that the driver had not stopped to call for help.
Before his death, her normally cheerful father had been preoccupied, working late hours, investigating some case that he had not wanted to discuss.
Or, she thought with a pang of guilt, had they all been too busy to listen? She had her own career, her sister Sarah had a busy life as a surgical nurse, and Candace was grieving over the loss of her marine husband with a child to raise. Most worrying of all was Navy Chaplain Angela, struggling to recover from a devastating tour in Afghanistan.
They'd all been happy that Bruce Gallagher had started up his private investigation service. It gave him purpose, and he'd enjoyed solving cases only for people with military connections. It filled that part of his soul that had never stopped being a marine. Semper Fidelis was not just a motto to her father. He had been faithful to his family and the corps until the last moment of his life. He'd always done the right thing, the difficult thing, even when she'd openly despised him for it.
She opened the file again. She'd removed the folders from the cabinet methodically and this was the only one from the drawer labeled Current that she had not gone through thoroughly. Pauline Mitchell's file. Inside, there was only a list of names.
The others were crammed full of statements, detailed bank information and even photographs, but this one had nothing except a list of names.
3. Darius Fields 2. Jeff Kinsey 1. Brent Mitchell The shadow caught her eye. Her head jerked toward the door. Again, nothing. Only the pounding of her heart, the rasping of her own breath. Then she thought she caught the sound of someone moving along the front walkway. Clutching the file in her hand, she shot to her feet. She'd lock the door to put her mind at ease.
As she pushed the chair out, a man's hand reached from under the table and wrapped around her ankle, the fingers slick with sweat.