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Devon Reese stopped dead in her tracks. She balanced the laundry basket on her hip and tilted her head, listening for a second thump from downstairs. Either Mrs. Del Vecchio had just knocked something over or the eighty-year-old widow had taken up aerobics.
Hearing only street noises from her North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco wafting through the open window, Devon hitched up the basket and pushed the bathroom door wide. She plucked her towel from the rack and swept up Michael's towel from the floor. She tossed a few washcloths into the basket and then gripped the handles.
She tiptoed past the closed door of Michael's room where he was napping, and padded into the kitchen on bare feet. Crouching down, she grabbed a bottle of detergent from under the sink and then dumped some quarters into her palm. Devon dreaded laundry day, especially since she had to haul down to the ground floor for the laundry room.
She snagged her keys from the hook by the door. Once in the hallway, she turned to lock the deadbolt. Even as a single mom, she felt safe in their building with the security door in the front. But she never left Michael alone in an unlocked apartment, even for the five minutes it took to load the laundry in the washing machine.
Jogging down the stairs, Devon clutched the basket of towels to her chest and peered over the top. She hit the bottom step and crossed the hall in front of Mrs. Del Vecchio's door. Maybe she should check up on the old gal. That thump could've meant a bad fall. She owed her that since Mrs. Del Vecchio had taken a particular interest in Michael, baking him cookies and telling him interesting, if unusual, stories about cops and robbers and pirates.
Devon peeked in at the silent machines in the laundry room and grinned. "It's my lucky day."
Sad but true that a couple of empty washing machines ranked up there as one of the highlights of her day off from the hospital. Since she'd lost her fiance and given birth to their son alone, she'd learned to find joy in the smallest pleasures of life.
As she loaded her towels, the door to the laundry room slammed shut. She jumped and spun around with her heart pounding. Lunging for the door, she swung it open and peered into the hallway just in time to see the security door to the building click shut.
Probably that annoying kid in the corner apartment upstairs. Last week he kept practicing skateboard jumps off the front steps of the apartment house.
Devon kicked down the door stopper and returned to the washing machine. She dumped her detergent into the receptacle and punched the buttons for a warm-water wash.
As she left the laundry room, she nearly bumped into Sharon Mosely, mother of the obnoxious teen. "Oops, excuse me, Sharon. Hey, did your son just come this way?"
Sharon squeezed past Devon with her own basket. "No. He's at the skate park. Sorry for the incident on the steps last week. Just wait until your little one is a teenager. Enjoy him while he's young and sweet."
Devon rolled her eyes. "I plan to."
She passed Mrs. Del Vecchio's door and then backtracked. Pressing her ear against the panel, she tapped lightly. "Mrs. Del Vecchio?"
Devon knocked louder. "Mrs. Del Vecchio, are you in there? Are you okay?"
Holding her breath, Devon grasped the door handle and knocked again. It was a huge ordeal for Mrs. Del Vecchio to venture outside, so she had to be home. Besides, hadn't Devon just heard a big thump from her apartment?
She twisted the door handle and let out a breath when it turned in her hand. Bumping the door with her hip, Devon called, "Mrs. Del Vecchio?"
The sound of running water filled the small apartment along with the overpowering scent of lemon. Drawing her brows over her nose, Devon crept farther into the room.
A couple of sofa pillows lay scattered on the floor. A desk drawer gaped open, its contents littering the carpet. Books tilted helter-skelter on a built-in shelf.
Devon folded her arms, her fingers pinching into her biceps. A chill inched its way up her spine with each step into the disordered apartment. "Mrs. Del Vecchio?"
Devon followed the sound of the water coming from the kitchen. She reached the kitchen entryway and grabbed on to the doorjamb for support as she gasped and swayed forward.
Mrs. Del Vecchio's body lay in a crumpled heap on the tiled floor. Water flowed over the lip of the sink and streamed down the cabinets, creating a pool of bubbles where the lemon-scented dishwashing liquid dripped.
With her heart racing, Devon peeled her hands from the doorjamb and stumbled toward Mrs. Del Vecchio. She must have slipped and fallen, but how did her entire head get wet?
And why was her apartment a mess?
Devon's training as a nurse kicked in, and she willed her legs to stop trembling. She knelt in the soapy water and brushed away the damp gray strands of hair clinging to Mrs. Del Vecchio's neck to check her pulse.
"Mrs. Del Vecchio!" She didn't figure her neighbor was conscious, but she had to make sure.
Mrs. Del Vecchio's head lolled to the side and Devon gritted her teeth. The old woman's eyes were wide open and her skin had a bluish tinge. She hadn't fallen and hit her head.
Devon's gaze darted to the sink overflowing with water and back to Mrs. Del Vecchio's neck, where red welts were beginning to turn purple. She slid Mrs. Del Vecchio onto her back, tilted her chin up, and pumped her chest. She paused, pressing her ear against her neighbor's heart.
A woman screamed behind her, and Devon's head shot up. Sharon sagged in the doorway to the kitchen, a white-knuckled fist pressed against her mouth.
"Sharon, call 911. I don't know if there's anything I can do for her."
Even though Devon was an obstetrics nurse, she knew death when she saw it. But what kind of death? Strangulation? Drowning? Both?
However Mrs. Del Vecchio died, it was no accident.
Squeezing her son's clammy hand, Devon glanced over her right shoulder at the white van that had rolled into the coastal lookout area and parked next to her car. Her heart lurched painfully as she bent toward Michael's dark head.
"It's okay now, sweetie. We're home. Bad things don't happen in Coral Cove."
Devon sealed her lie with a kiss on Michael's sundrenched hair. Even though her hometown of Coral Cove had endured its share of tragedies, it had always seemed like a safe refugeuntil those murders last month. But the killer had died, the tourists were back for a summer of sun and surf, and it sure beat the heck out of San Francisco in the safety department.
Her son responded by gripping her hand even tighter and nestling his body against her side. Devon sighed and ruffled Michael's curls. The instant she'd discovered Mrs. Del Vecchio's dead body two weeks ago, Devon had known it would hit her son hard. Mrs. Del Vecchio had been like a grandmother to Michael, a wacky grandmother, but a grandmother nonetheless.
But Devon didn't realize the murder would devastate him, altering his personality from outgoing little boy to this nervous, withdrawn stranger.
She swung her silent son's hand and skipped, hoping to inject a little enthusiasm into his demeanor. "I'm taking you to one of my favorite places in Coral Cove."
When her statement failed to elicit a question from Michael, she continued, forcing a cheery note into her voice. "It's the oldest house in Coral Cove and it even has a name. Columbella House."
Devon pointed to the cliff around the next bend. "The house overlooks the ocean, and there's a path to the beach just before we reach the house. Do you want to go down to the beach?"
Michael nodded and Devon released a breath. The family therapist they'd seen in San Francisco had told Devon to give Michael time to recover from the shock. Devon figured he'd have a better chance of doing that away from their apartment in San Francisco where he'd woken up from his nap just in time to see Mrs. Del Vecchio's body wheeled out beneath a white sheet.
Devon led Michael along the familiar curve of the road, their sneakers scuffing against the sand and gravel on the shoulder. She didn't dare tell Michael that most of the residents of Coral Cove thought Columbella House was haunted. A month ago her son's eyes would've widened at that pronouncement and he would've begged to explore. Nowher gaze shifted to Michael's stiff, little face as she swallowed hardhe'd freak out.
"There's Columbella House. Nobody lives there now, so I don't think anyone will mind if we use the private access to the beach."
She glanced back at the lookout. A silver sedan had joined her car and the van. Maybe they were waiting for the sunset.
The little wooden gate that opened onto the path to the beach squeaked as Devon unhitched it and pulled it toward her, a piece of rotten wood breaking off in her hand. She jerked her head up and narrowed her eyes at the shuttered windows on the second story of the house.
The hair on the back of her neck quivered, but the windows stared back at her blankly. Sweeping her hand across her sweatshirt, she grimaced. Michael's skittishness had infected herthat and the fact that the police suspected Mrs. Del Vecchio's killer was the one who slammed shut the laundry room door on his way out of the building.
No need to feel nervous here. Columbella House had never felt menacing to her. She was probably one of the few people left in Coral Cove who cherished fond memories of the house. One of the few people left alive who cherished fond memories.
Rubbing the back of her hand across her tingling nose, she grabbed Michael's wrist. "The path's not too steep, but be careful. I think Coral Cove had a lot of rain this past spring. It makes the ground spongy."
Michael twisted from her hold and clambered down the path ahead of her. Her son may have lost his desire to speak, but the trauma of Mrs. Del Vecchio's murder hadn't curtailed his agility and natural athletic ability. He'd gotten those attributes from his dad.
Devon picked her way down the rocky trail. The sound of a car's engine caused her to twist her head around, but she could no longer see the road. Not many tourists ventured this way since the Private Property sign discouraged interlopers, and the locals generally steered clear of Columbella House. Still, the lookout point attracted some tourists, like the inhabitants of that white van and the sedan, and the summer season had already drawn its share of people to Coral Cove. Already, the small town boasted a good number of tourists and strangers.
She hoped the cozy atmosphere here would have a healing effect on Michael. She jumped as a rock rolled past her foot. God knows, Coral Cove hadn't done much to soothe her yet. Too many memories.
Michael had scrambled off the last of the boulders that tumbled to the dry sand. Devon called, "Wait right there."
Shading her eyes against the sun low on the horizon, Devon squinted at the glassy waves scurrying onto the shore. The tide remained low, but she remembered how the water could rush in suddenly, soaking beach towels and carrying sand toys out to sea.
She tromped down the remainder of the path, and then perched on a rock next to Michael. "Pretty cool, huh? I bet you don't remember it here."
After her dad had passed away, Devon and her twin brother, Dylan, had come back to Coral Cove for the funeral. Michael had been two then. Dylan was already working as a cop for the San Jose P.D., following in his dad's footsteps. Their father had been the police chief of Coral Cove for years, and their mom couldn't live here anymore without him. Guess Devon had sort of followed in her mom's footsteps since Coral Cove hadn't been as welcoming to her since her fiance had disappeared.
"Do you want to do some exploring before the sun goes down?" Devon pushed up from the rock and extended her hand to Michael.
He nodded but brushed her hand aside as he jumped from the rock, immediately scooping up smaller pebbles from the sand.
Devon shoved her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt, twisting her fingers together. Michael's small show of independence had to be a good sign.
Scuffing along the dry sand, Devon kept an eye on her son as he took a zigzag route toward the sea cave at the end of the beach, his ubiquitous blue backpack bouncing against his back. Surely time would heal his shock over what had happened to Mrs. Del Vecchio.
The SFPD had ruled Mrs. Del Vecchio's death a murder. The autopsy had confirmed death by drowning. The welts on her neck had been where her killer had grabbed her, forcing her head into the kitchen sink filled with water.
Devon crossed her arms, hunching her shoulders. Why would someone murder an eighty-year-old woman like that? As far as the cops could tell, the killer hadn't stolen anything from the apartment even though it had been ransacked. The murder had spooked enough of the residents that several of them had taken extended vacationsincluding Devon. She'd taken a leave of absence from the hospital.
Now she just wanted her son back.
Michael hesitated at the mouth of the cave, twisting his head over his shoulder.
"It's okay. I'll come with you." Devon jogged across the sand and grabbed Michael's hand. This time he returned the pressure and they ducked into the cave together.