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Like the other great tragedy in her life, Anna Collins never saw this one coming.
Just minutes before midnight, a deer bounded out of the rain and darkness onto the isolated two-lane highway directly into her path.
She'd been driving too fast, terrified and already out of control in her panicked state. So when she saw the deer, all she'd been able to do was react instinctively.
She slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel. Through the driving rain and slap of the wipers the doe's huge eyes caught for an instant in the headlights, then it bolted, disappearing in the pines lining the road as the car skidded across the wet blacktop.
Anna turned the wheel hard, overcorrecting, sending up a shower of puddled rainwater. She caught the blur of pines and the steep face of a rocky cliff an instant before the large, heavy car left the pavement on the opposite side of the road, and plunged down the mountainside.
Mute with terror, she didn't have time to scream even if she could have made a sound. Nor would that scream have been heard over the crash of the car as it plummeted downward. Branches snapped off, the sound like gunshots, as leaves and bark pelted the windshield, the car gaining momentum.
A limb slapped the windshield an instant after she saw something dark and deep beyond the glow of her headlights.
The lake came into view a heartbeat before the car went airborne. The tires crashed down hard, the undercarriage shrieking in a scream of metal on rock before the vehicle hit the rain-dimpled black surface of the water.
At some point the air bag had exploded in her face. Before that, her head had slammed hard against the side window. Now everything glittered before going black, then gray as the front of the car pitched forward, inky liquid lapping up over the hood.
Dazed, Anna lifted her head and touched her temple, her fingers coming away sticky with blood. She stared in confusion. Icy water lapped over her feet, quickly filling the floor-board as the car nosed forward at a steep angle, her seat belt cutting into her breasts.
She could hear static coming from the in-car emergency system just before it shorted out in a flash of orange as the car began to sink. Water gushed over the hood to lap against the windshield.
She tried to open the door but it wouldn't budge against the water already up to the side mirror.
She could hear the motor gurgling and realized it was still running. Would the electric windows still work? Frantically she hit the button as she fumbled with tremulous fingers to unlatch her seat belt.
Her side window hummed down. Ice cold water rushed in. She gasped as the water cascaded over her, filling her lap. The car pitched farther forward, the seat belt tightening painfully as the weight of her body pressed into it.
Hurriedly, she hit the window button. The glass began to whir back up, but a few inches from the top, it stopped. She pushed harder on the button as water cascaded over the top of the window, but the water had shorted out the rest of the electrical system.
Frantic, she grappled again to unlatch the seat belt as the breath-stealing cold water rose higher. The belt wouldn't unlatch. She tried again and again but it was useless. The seat belt was jammed. The weight of her body seemingly binding it.
The freezing water splashed over her chest to her neck as the car steadily sank. She was going to drown. She gasped, now panicked and choking on the foul-smelling water that flooded her mouth and nose.
She fought to keep her head above water, but it was impossible. The car was sinking too quickly. The interior was almost completely full now, the water only inches from the headliner.
She closed her eyes and sucked in one last breath as the car completed its slow somersault to land on its top with a jarring thud on the bottom of the lake.
For a second, nothing moved. Anna hung upside down, suspended in the icy water by the seat belt, all sense of direction lost. She opened her eyes, still holding the last breath she'd taken. Her gaze followed the eerie dim path the headlights cut through the murky water.
Lungs bursting, mind starting to drift like her hair now floating around her face, she tried the seat belt release one more time even though she knew it was futile.
Her body cried out for oxygen. She had to take a breath. She couldn't hold out any longer.
A tap at the side window.
Startled, she turned her head as if in slow motion and let out a cry, her last breath rushing from her lips at what she saw pressed against the glass.
Gene Brubaker bolted upright in bed. His chest heaved as he gasped for breath and frantically searched the room for whatever had awakened him.
The room was black except for the sliver of moonlight that knifed across the end of his bed through a crack in the drapes. He drew back from the light as fearful of it as the darkness.
He was sweating, his heart pounding too hard, his mouth dry. Another nightmare. The same nightmare. He was left with a cloying sense of dread that clung to his skin.
Lying back, he closed his eyes, opened them again, fearful of sleep. The clock on the bedside table read 11:57 p.m.
Throwing back the covers, he swung his legs over the side of the bed, but had to take a moment before he could stand. He cursed the body that was letting him down. He didn't feel his age, could hardly remember it, but he recalled looking in the mirror one day and being shocked to see a deeply wrinkled gray-haired man squinting back at him.
Stiffly, he finally rose. The floor felt cold on his bare feet as he padded over to the window. He still felt shaken, his legs weaker than usual, as he drew back the drapes. The rain had stopped. He could see the lake through the trees. The water shimmered in the moonlight, the surface burnished silver.
He lifted the window with some effort and took a deep breath of the cold spring night air, letting it fill his lungs. As if anything could chase away the nightmare. He let the breath out slowly as he looked past the trees along the shore of the lake to the expanse of open water beyond.
The night air chilled his clammy skin. He slammed the window and had started to pull the drapes closed again when he noticed a light up the block.
Although nearing midnight, it appeared someone was still up at the church.
He stared at the light, surprised by the sudden ache of need that overcame him. He'd avoided church since Gladys's funeral and truthfully only attended before that to please his wife.
He glanced back at the huge bed, the crumpled sheets on only the one side. The ache of emptiness wasn't new. Nor was the loneliness-or the guilt. He reached for his pants.
Gene Brubaker wasn't a man who believed in omens. In fact, he wasn't sure what if anything he believed in anymore. That's why he didn't stop to consider what he was doing as he left the house and walked the block down the street to the Holy Rosary Catholic Church.
He walked past the church every day, aware that for the past few months he'd moved to the other side of the street.
Now when he neared the church, the street deserted, his jacket pulled around him as he huddled against the cold, he wondered what he was doing. Possibly just taking a walk to clear his head. The rain had left the night air damp and filled with the smell of the wet street, and he was struck with the thought that it was too cold for late April even for a town in the Northern Cascades of Washington.
Fortunately, there was no one around this time of the night. Or this time of the year in the town of Shadow Lake. Still too early for tourists with Memorial Day weeks away.
The town's only stoplight flashed yellow down the street as he climbed the broad stone steps to the front entrance of the church, half-hoping to find the door locked. Not that there was much chance of that. Shadow Lake was so small and isolated from the real world that there was no need for anybody to lock their doors. Especially churches.
The door was heavier than he remembered it. But then again he was getting weaker each day. He had to push hard to get it to swing open and when it did, he hesitated. This was crazy. Wasn't this the last place he should be?
A dim light burned inside. What was it he thought he'd find here? he wondered now. Salvation? Or redemption?
He had started to turn to leave when he heard the rustle of clothing and saw an elderly priest rise awkwardly from one of the pews up front and turn toward him.
Father Tom Bertonelli met his gaze. With the flick of the priest's arthritic fingers, his old friend motioned him inside.
Brubaker let the church door close behind him, the smell of the rain and night quickly replaced by the familiar scents of his thirty-eight-year marriage. It evoked both longing and sadness. A lump formed in his throat and he felt close to tears again. Christ, he needed to get some sleep. These nightmares were killing him. His life was killing him.
He wanted to laugh at the irony of that as he glanced toward the confessionals, the church feeling too large, too vacuous. The priest gave a faint nod. Like a sleepwalker, Gene moved toward the polished wood of the confessional, his footsteps echoing across the marble floor.
He was glad when the confessional door closed behind him and he was sitting on the worn seat in the dark, the seclusion giving him a sense of safety if not peace.
Tom Bertonelli had been his friend for years. They'd fished together, shared meals up at the house, talked politics. But that had been before Gladys died, before Gene Brubaker had lost all faith.
Leaning back in the shadowy darkness, he closed his eyes as he heard the door to the adjacent confessional open, then close softly as the priest arranged his robes.
Brubaker didn't open his eyes. "What troubles you?" Tom asked in a voice dry as parchment. The lump rose in his throat again. He swallowed. "Father, I have sinned."
Just before midnight, Rob Nash parked under the wide branches of a large old pine tree along the quiet street next to a pile of dirty snow. Cutting his headlights and engine, he settled in to wait.
Rain dimpled the mud puddles along the unpaved back street. All the houses were dark except for one. The other houses were mostly summer cabins, boarded up for the winter. The seasonal residents wouldn't be returning until Memorial Day weekend and it was only April.
A drenched cat crept across the muddy street and disappeared into a honeysuckle hedge. Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked.
It was Tuesday, a notoriously slow night of the week in Shadow Lake, Washington, in the Northern Cascades. Not that there was much trouble in the town this time of year, given that few people wintered-in. The number of residents dropped drastically during the cold months.
It was another story in the summer, though. Tourists flocked to the lake to boat and fish and shop for antiques and curios, causing traffic problems and all the disturbances that came with the increase in population.
Nash hated summers. The town got too hectic, too crowded. That was one reason he wasn't looking forward to another busy season and wondered if it wasn't time for him to retire. He had a new bride to think about.
He'd put in thirty-five years and yet he was still young. Relatively. Fifty-five wasn't that old anymore. He could spend more time fishing. Spend more time with Lucinda, something he wished he had done more of lately.
Headlights flashed at the other end of the street as a car turned and headed toward him. Nash slid down a little in his seat and picked up his binoculars to watch through the half circle in the steering wheel and the low-slung branches of the thick pine he'd pulled under.
He felt like a fool. Worse, he felt disloyal. He'd made a point of letting everyone believe he would be in Pilot's Cove for a couple of days. He hated this kind of deception and had always believed he was a better man than that. Right now he wished both were true.
The approaching car's headlights went out just before the vehicle pulled into the driveway of the only house with lights on down the street, a single-level white brick rancher with a two-car attached garage. Nash felt a jolt as he recognized the car-and the driver.
The front door opened and a young, slim woman rushed out of the house. She'd obviously been expecting her visitor because she wore her red raincoat, the one Nash had bought her for her birthday.
Nash saw her face and the driver's for only an instant as she opened the car door, the dome light coming on. Lucinda Nash slid into the passenger seat. The door closed and the dome light shut off.
Son of a bitch. Nash sat up with a jerk, throwing open the patrol-car door as he drew his weapon. And just moments before, he'd felt bad for being suspicious and deceitful. Apparently he'd had every reason. Hadn't he known something was going on with his wife?
His mind racing, he tried to come up with a reason other than the obvious one for why she would have gone out this time of the night-let alone with that particular man.
Nash had witnessed his share of affairs over the years. It's what a man got for spending a good part of his life on dark streets when good people were in bed asleep. He was no stranger to the uglier side of humankind. He'd seen things he hadn't wanted to see, the kind of things that left him with a nasty taste in his mouth and a shitty impression of humanity in general.
Now he tried to catch his breath, to still the trembling in his limbs. His radio squawked. He ignored it. He stumbled out into the muddy street, the rain pounding out a staccato beat on the car's roof as he slammed his door behind him. Fuck retirement. He was going to kill the bastard. Kill them both.