Enjoy a free teaser (The Prologue and Chapter 1 to be specific) of Shadows in the Water, supernatural thriller called "lethal retribution" by Kirkus Reviews.
Without further adieu:
No, no, no.” Her daughter’s hand shot out and seized Courtney’s slacks. “Don’t leave me.”
“Jesus Christ.” She tugged her pants from Louie’s dripping grip and shoved her back into the tub by her shoulders. “What is it with you and water? It isn’t going to kill you. You won’t drown! And I have to finish dinner before your father gets home.”
Louie’s chest collapsed with sobs. “Please. Please don’t go.”
“Stop crying. You’re too old to be crying like this.”
Louie recoiled like a kicked dog, her body hunching into a C-curve.
God almighty, Courtney thought as shame flooded her. What am I supposed to do with her?
The illogical nature of your daughter’s fear doesn’t negate the fact her fear is very real, the therapist had said. Dr. Loveless must have repeated this a hundred times, but it didn’t make these episodes any easier. The fat-knuckled know-it-all had never been present for bath time.
Most ten-year-old girls could bathe on their own. No handholding. No hysterics. No goddamn therapy sessions once a week. And somehow this was supposed to be her fault? Why exactly? Because she’d gotten pregnant at eighteen?
No. She did everything right. She married Jack, despite her reservations. He was too young, uneducated, and a dreamer. Triple threat, her Republican father called it.
She read all the pregnancy books. She quit her managerial position at the insurance company and stayed home with Louie, practically giving the girl her undivided attention for the first five years of her life. If she was guilty of anything, it was over-attentiveness.
But Courtney didn’t believe for a second this was her fault.
It was Jack’s.
Jack was the one who insisted on renovating the upstairs bath and then insisted his friend do the renovations. Three years. Three years it sat unfinished and oh no they couldn’t go to another builder because Jack promised Gary the job. Jack and his misplaced loyalties. What did it get them? Bum friends who always borrowed money and three years with only the clawfoot bathtub to share between them.
Things worth having are worth waiting for, Jack had said.
This philosophy worked for a DEA agent like Jack, someone who had to track criminals for months or years, but Courtney had never been good at waiting. She preferred what her alcoholic father had called immediate gratification.
Within a week of switching from the shower to the clawfoot tub, Louie’s episodes began. After three long years, Courtney felt she’d had more than enough. God, it would be wonderful to shove a valium down the girl’s throat and be done with this. She wanted to. God almighty, she wanted to. But Jack had been firm about pills. Courtney loved Jack, but goddamn his self-righteous “drugs are drugs” bullshit. Any half-wit knew the difference between valium and heroin.
You will have to be patient with her, Mrs. Thorne, if you want her to get through this without any lasting psychological damage.
Apparently, the therapist didn’t know a damn thing. The damage had already begun to show. Louie not only feared water now but dirt also. The child who used to come in at night covered head to toe in grass stains and palms powdered with pastel sidewalk chalk, now crept around as if playing a constant game of The Floor is Hot Lava. This morning, Louie had burst into tears when Courtney asked her to pull weeds from the hosta bed. Even after putting her in coveralls and peony pink garden gloves, the girl had whimpered through the task, ridiculous tears streaming down her cheeks.
Now, hands on hips, Courtney stared down at her hunched, shaking daughter. She could count the vertebrae protruding through her skin. She’d grown so thin lately.
It could be worse, she told herself. She could have a child with quadriplegic cerebral palsy like her book club buddy Beth Rankin. Would she rather have a kid who screamed in the bathtub three or four times a week, or a man-child who had to be pushed in a stroller everywhere and his shitty diapers changed and drooling chin wiped?
Courtney forced a slow exhale through flared nostrils and pried apart her clenched teeth.
“Okay,” she said in a soft, practiced tone. “Okay, I’m here. I’m right here.”
She knelt beside the tub and grabbed a slick blue bottle of shampoo off a shelf above the toilet. As she squeezed the gel into her palm, Louie still cowered like a beaten dog, head and eyes down.
“I’m sorry,” Courtney said, her cheeks flushing hotly. “But it’s hard for me to understand this fear of yours.”
The girl’s teeth chattered, but she said nothing. Only one of her eyes was visible from the slate of black hair slicked against her head.
Courtney massaged the soap into her hair. Thick white bubbles foamed between her knotty fingers, her skin turning red from the pressure and steam. Her gentle massaging did nothing to relax the girl.
“Isn’t this nice?” Courtney asked. “I’d love it if someone washed my hair.”
Louie said nothing, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees.
“You have to lean back now.” She trailed her fingers through the gray water. “So we can rinse.”
Louie seized her mother’s arms.
“I know.” Courtney tried to add a sweet lilt to her voice, but only managed indifference. Better than angry at least. “I’m right here. Come on, lie back, baby.”
She thought baby was a nice touch. Wasn’t it?
But Louie’s chest started to heave again as her head tipped back toward the soapy gray water.
“Breathe, baby. The sooner we do this, the sooner you can get out of the tub.” Courtney hoped the girl wouldn’t hyperventilate. That would be the fucking icing on the cake. Dragging her wet body out of the tub would be hell on her back, and she’d already had her valium for the night. She’d risk taking another, but she knew Jack counted them.
As the back of Louie’s hair dipped into the water, her golden eyes widened. Her fingers raked down Courtney’s arms as she clung tighter. All right. It only stung a little, and it would be something to show Jack later when she complained about his lateness.
It was your turn for bath night and look what happened. She might even get away with a second glass of wine at dinner sans lecturing if the marks were red enough.
This made her smile.
With one arm completely submerged under Louie’s back, buoying the girl, she could use her free hand to rinse Louie’s hair. Thick clumps of soap melted into the water with each swipe of her fingers.
Louie’s muscles went soft, her nails retracting.
“Not so bad, is it?” Courtney cooed with genuine affection now. “I love baths. I find them very relaxing.”
Louie even managed a small smile.
Then the oven dinged.
“My ham!” Courtney clambered to her feet.
“No, no, no!” Louie frantically wiped water from her eyes and tried to pull herself into an upright position. “Don’t! Please!”
And just like that, the hysterics were in full swing again. Fucking Jack. I’m going to kill you. “Breathe, baby.”
Shaking suds off her arms, Courtney jogged toward her glazed ham and caramelized Brussels sprouts three rooms away. The sweet, roasted smell met her halfway. “The door is open, baby. Keep talking so I can hear you.”
“Mom!” Louie screamed. “Mommy! It’s happening!”
“I’m right here.” She slipped a quilted oven mitt over each hand. “Talk to me. I’m listening.”
The girl’s escalating hysteria cut off mid-scream. For a moment, there was only a buzzing silence.
Courtney’s heart skipped a beat. Her body froze instinctually. Her reptilian brain registering danger entered a mimicked catatonia. For several heartbeats, she could only stand there before her electric range, in her gloved hands, the oven mitts spaced equidistantly as if still holding the casserole dish between them.
Her eyes were fixed on a spaghetti sauce splatter to the right of the stove, above a ceramic canister holding rice. She stared without seeing.
Then a chill shuddered up the woman’s spine, reactivating her systems. As her muscles cramped, she thought, fear trumps valium. She yanked off the oven mitts, throwing them down beside the casserole dish steaming on the stovetop. She jogged back to the bathroom, the silence growing palpable.
The tub was empty. No shadows beneath the soapy gray water.
In a ridiculous impulse, she looked behind the bathroom door and then inside the small cabinet beneath the sink, knowing full well Louie couldn’t fit into either space.
The bathroom was empty. “Louie?”
She ran to the girl’s bedroom.
It was empty too. And the wood floor tracing the entire length of the house was bone dry. Louie’s soft Mickey Mouse towel, the one they bought on their trip to Disney World two years ago, still hung from the hook by the tub.
She searched every inch of their house, and when she couldn’t find her, she called Jack. When he didn’t answer, she called again and left a frantic message.
He arrived twenty minutes later.
They searched again. They called everyone. They spoke to every neighbor and the police. If Courtney thought Dr. Loveless was a ruthless interrogator with his second chin and swollen knuckles, she found the authorities much worse.
“I didn’t kill her!” she said for the thousandth time. “Jack, do something! These are your friends!”
For three nights, they had no peace. Courtney doubled the wine and valium, but it wasn’t enough currency to buy sleep.
In the early morning hours, she would find herself wandering their house, wearing down a path between the clawfoot tub and Louie’s empty bed. Sitting on the firm twin mattress, she would pull back the Ninja Turtle comforter hoping to find her underneath.
In her mind, she apologized for every frustration, every cruel thought. I’ll do anything—anything. Bring her home.
The call came on the fourth day.
Sixty miles east of the Thorne’s home in St. Louis, Jacob Foxton was interviewed many times by the police, but his story never changed.
His nieces were coming down from Minnesota for the Memorial Day weekend, and he and his wife were very excited to see them. They’d changed the sheets on the spare bed and stocked the fridge with root beer and Klondike bars. The pool was uncovered and cleaned, and the heater turned on. All that was left to do before their arrival was mow the yard.
I was cutting my grass, and she…appeared.
As the police tried to pin the abduction on the man, the lack of evidence made it impossible. Foxton had no priors, and a neighbor confirmed Foxton’s rendition.
Billie Hodges had been washing her Chevy Tahoe with a clear view of the Foxton family pool. Like Foxton, Hodges swore the girl simply appeared.
As if from thin air.
After thirty-six fruitless hours, the Perry County Sheriff’s Department was forced to believe Jacob Foxton had merely cut a left around his rudbeckia bushes with his squat red push mower and found Louie Thorne standing there, on the top step of his pool.
Naked. Soaking wet. Her dark hair stuck to her pale back like an oil slick. Foxton released the lawnmower’s safety bar, killing the engine.
“Hey! Hey you!” He rushed toward her, clumps of fresh cut grass clinging to his bare ankles.
The girl turned toward the sound of his voice, and his scolding lecture died on his lips. It wasn’t only her fear that stopped him.
It was the blood.
So much that a cloud of pink swirled toward the drain in his pool.
The girl’s body was covered in lacerations, the kind he got on his arms and legs as a kid, hiking through the woods. A great many of them stretched across her stomach and legs and a particularly nasty one across her cheek.
She must have run through the forests of hell, he thought.
But it wasn’t the scratches that frightened him.
A ring of punctures encircled the girl’s right shoulder. A ragged halo from neck to bicep. Like some hungry beast larger than the girl had grabbed ahold of her with its teeth. Long rivulets of blood streamed down her pale limbs, beading on her skin.
“Honey.” Jacob pulled off his T-shirt and yanked it down over the child’s head. If she cared about the sweaty condition of the shirt, the grass stains, or Jacob’s hairy belly, she didn’t show it. “Are you all right?”
“Is it still on me?” she whispered. She turned her face toward Jacob, but her eyes didn’t focus. His mother called that a thousand-yard stare.
“Who did this to you, honey?” Jacob asked. He took her hands in his. The hairs on his arms rose at the sight of blood pooled beneath her nails.
“Jacob?” Called Billie from across the stretch of lawn between their two yards. “Is everything all right?”
“Call an ambulance,” Jacob yelled. He saw the girl’s mouth move. “What was that, honey?”
“Is it still on me?” she whispered again. “Is it?”
And that was the last thing she said before collapsing into his arms.
Fourteen years later
Lou unfolded the tourist map and eyed a man over the rim of the creased paper. A boxy man with a crooked nose and a single bushy brow stood on the harbor dock, smoking a cigarette. He draped an arm around a woman’s shoulder while he joked with another guy twice his size, a hairy bear as wide as he was tall. The woman was a little more than a caricature to Lou. Big hair and a big mouth, made bigger by the annoying smack of bubblegum between her magenta lips. Her clothes were too tight in some places and nonexistent in others. A Jersey girl, Aunt Lucy would’ve called her.
Lou scowled at the tourist map, pretending to read about the seaport’s attractions, and wondered if the girl under Angelo Martinelli’s arm would feel half as cozy if she knew what a monster he was.
If Bubblegum Barbie was observant, she might have noticed Martinelli’s penchant for leather, Dunhill cigarettes, and pointy shoes. Maybe Barbie even suspected the Martinelli family was responsible for fueling the heroin problem in Baltimore. Hell, she probably tolerated this aftershave-soaked prick for the heroin.
Whatever Barbie thought she knew of the Italian draped over her, Lou knew a hell of a lot more.
She should. She’d been hunting Angelo since she was fourteen.
Lou looked away as if to read the street sign, her heart fluttering with anticipation. A steady pulse throbbed in the side of her neck and in her hands. She was thankful her dark shades and windblown hair hid her excitement. And grateful that Martinelli was too nearsighted to see the map tremble in her sweaty grip.
Her mind kept turning toward the future, when he’d receive a shipment at Pier C and insist on counting everything himself. Better yet, because he’d want to be discreet as to how much dope he imported, his security detail would be thinner. He’d invite enough muscle to get the job done. No more.
Lou wouldn’t get him entirely alone. A man like Angelo was never alone. He didn’t even fuck without an audience. She knew this because she’d considered the possibility of going O-Ren Ishii on his ass. Before fully exploring this option, Lou realized she’d forsake her vow of revenge and blow her own brains out long before trying to seduce a Martinelli.
Tonight there would be guns, of course. And the ones chosen for this evening’s mission would be fighters. Perhaps a few even better than Lou herself.
And there was the water to consider. The harbor sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Looking at it made Lou’s skin itch.
Angelo ran a thick hand through his oiled hair and tossed his Dunhill butt on the ground. He smashed it out with a twist of his boot and hooked an arm around Barbie’s waist.
Tonight, she thought, as a swarm of tourists swelled on the pier. I’m going to kill you and love every minute of it.
Her sunglasses hitched higher on her face as she grinned.
Before Angelo could turn toward her and spot a familiar ghost in the crowd, Lou did what she did best.
She disappeared, not returning until well after dark.
By 2:00 A.M., all the tourists were in bed with dreams of the next day.
Lou, on the other hand, wasn’t sure she had another day in her. That was okay. She didn’t need to see another sunrise as long as Angelo Martinelli didn’t either.
Lying on top of one of the shipping containers, Lou had a great view of the docks below. Her forearms and body were covered in leather and Kevlar, but her palms were bare. The metal container serving as her lookout was warm under her palms, sun-soaked from the day. She was small enough to fit into the grooves in the top of the container, making her invisible to those below. Unless of course, Angelo arrived by helicopter.
Her body squirmed. Despite the pleasant breeze rolling off the deep harbor, sweat was starting to pool at the back of her neck beneath her hairline. Her feet twitched with excitement.
Death by waiting, she thought.
She was desperate to swing at something. She imagined certain animals felt this way during the full moon. Hungry, unsettled, itching all over.
Do it already, her mind begged. Slip. A heartbeat later she’d be standing behind Angelo. So close she could run her hands through his greased hair.
Not motherfucker, she thought. Mother killer.
True, Courtney Thorne was hard to love. Her compulsive and domineering behavior, her impatience. Her tendency to chide and scorn rather than praise. Her face a perpetual pout rather than a smile.
But Louie also remembered how hard her mother had hugged her the day after she was found in Ohio. Louie had sat in the sheriff’s office for hours, wrapped in a scratchy wool blanket consuming all the soda and peanut butter cups she could stomach until her parents arrived.
Louie! Her mother had cried the moment she stepped through the station’s glass doors. Louie had only managed to put down her soda can and slide out of the chair before her mother fell on her, seizing and squeezing her half to death. She smelled like makeup powder and rose water. Like the old woman she would never become.
Courtney wasn’t her favorite parent, but she didn’t deserve to die either.
Louie’s fists clenched at her side.
Angelo’s men stirred on the pier. To anyone else, it seemed as if an innocuous few stood around, smoking, and talking. Apart from the hour, nothing suspicious there. But Lou glimpsed blades catching moonlight and saw the bulging outlines of guns under jackets.
Jackets in this heat were clue enough.
Cops stop patrolling the harbor at midnight. Lou wondered if that could be blamed on budget cuts, ignorance, or money from Angelo’s own pockets. A little of each, she thought.
She’d almost succumbed to drumming her fingers on the shipping container when a car pulled into view.
The black sedan was like so many others Angelo had rented in cities where he’d done business before: Chicago. San Francisco, New York, Atlanta and now Baltimore.
As soon as she saw the car, she started to slip. Bleeding through this side of the world. No. Not yet, she scolded herself. Don’t fuck this up.
She’d only have one good shot. One chance to catch him off guard.
Tonight she would finish what her father started so many years ago.
Someone opened the back door, and Angelo stepped out. He adjusted the lapels of his leather jacket. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Again. Because the sight of him was enough to make her heart hammer.
Angelo called out to someone in Italian, then pointed at the boat. “Ho due cagne in calore che mi aspettano ed un grammo di neve con il mio nome scritto sopra.”
Louie only understood a little Italian and caught the words two whores and waiting. Enough to get the gist of his harsh tone and thrusting hips, and comprehend why the men leered. One whistled through his teeth.
Angelo cupped his hands around a fresh Dunhill. A flame sparked, illuminating his face. With a wave, Angelo led his entourage to the pier where the boat sat tied to the dock. The boat rocked in the waves, straining against its rope, like a tied horse ready to run.
As soon as Angelo placed one foot on the boat, then dipping his head to enter the cabin, Lou let go.
She bled through. One moment she lay on top of the shipping container, the next, she stood in the shadows beneath the cabin’s stairs. Her eyes leveled with Angelo’s heels. It was hot in the unventilated room.
Angelo Martinelli descended the stairs with a man in front and one behind him. Lou smelled the leather of his boots and the smoke from his cigarette. I can grab him now, she thought. Reach between the steps and seize his ankle like in a horror movie.
Someone turned on the overhead light, and the interior of the boat burned yellow in the glow of the 40-watt bulb. Lou jumped back into the corner without thinking. An honest reaction to the sudden influx of light.
But her shoulder blades connected with a solid wall.
Heads snapped up at the sound of Lou searching for an exit that had been there only a moment before but was now gone.
She had only a second to decide.
She drew her gun, one fluid and practiced movement, and shot the overhead light. The 40-watt bulb burst, exploding in a shower of sparks. It was enough to throw them back into darkness and provide Lou with her exit. She slipped behind the stairs, then emerged from a narrow pathway between two shipping containers. Gunfire erupted inside the boat behind her. The ship strained against its rope again, and the wooden docks creaked.
More men came running, guns drawn.
She cursed and slammed her fist into the shipping container. So much for the surprise.
The chance to grab Martinelli and slip away undetected was gone. As her target emerged from the boat, gun at the ready, the weight of her mistake intensified.
He was spooked. Now he looked like the horse ready to run.
He inhaled sharp breaths of salty air as he hurried toward his car in short, quick strides. Fifty steps. Thirty-five. Twenty and he’ll be gone.
It was now or never.
The thick tint of Angelo’s car might work to her advantage, but her timing had to be perfect. Her blood whistled in her ears as she counted his last steps.
She stepped from the edge of the shipping container into the backseat of Angelo’s car. The leather seat rushed up to greet her, bending her legs into place.
But it was her hands that mattered. And she had plenty of time to position them.
Angelo turned away from her, pulling the car door shut. She pressed her gun to his temple the second the door clicked into place.
The driver began to turn, pulling his weapon up from his lap but he was too slow. Louie lifted a second pistol from her hip and shoved it to the back of his neck, to the smooth nape. His neck tensed under the barrel, shifting the gun metal against her fingers.
“Don’t,” she said. Her eyes were fixed on Angelo. “I have a better idea.”
“You were not in the car when I opened the door,” Angelo said. His tobacco breath stung her nose. “I’m certain of this.”
“Imagine how quick I am with a gun.” It was a bold bluff given her predicament. His men were abandoning the boat. Some were moving the heroin. Others were lumbering toward other vehicles. If even one of them got into this car, she was screwed.
She could produce a third gun, sure. But not a third hand to hold it.
“You were also on the boat.” Angelo’s eyes shined in the dark, reflecting light like the black sea in front of them. “Or one like you.”
“That would put me in two places at once,” she said. She arched an eyebrow. “Impossible.”
The driver remained very still, his hands at the ten and two positions on the wheel. Lou didn’t recognize him, but she doubted that she’d ever forget the thick stench of Old Spice turned sour with sweat. It made her head swim.
If he was new, he was probably uninterested in doing anything that would cost him his life. She’d have to test this theory.
“What do you want?” Angelo asked. He shifted uncomfortably. Lou had found her silence made men nervous. Or maybe it was her gun. Difficult to tell. “Money? The drugs?”
“Driver?” she said.
The driver didn’t turn toward her or even make a small sound of acknowledgment.
“Do you see the pier?” she went on, eyes still on Angelo. One of his greased curls fell across his forehead, and one corner of his lip curled in a partial sneer. His cheek muscles twitched. “Beside the pier is a space between the guardrails. Do you see it?”
The driver remained mute. His shoulders remained hunched, eyes forward. It was as if he’d had guns pressed to his head before and had since learned how to keep even a single muscle from twitching.
Lou saw all this in her perfect peripheral vision, not daring to look away from the man she wanted most.
Angelo Martinelli. This close he was smaller than she’d imagined.
She smiled at him, the taste of victory on her lips. “Drive into the bay.”
When the driver didn’t move, she smacked the gun against his occipital bone. “If you don’t do it, then you’re useless to me, and I think you understand what happens to useless people.”
If he refused to drive, she’d shoot them both. It would be messier. Riskier. But if she couldn’t get Martinelli into the water, she wasn’t going to let this opportunity escape.
Yes. If Lou had to, she’d shoot them both and drive the car into the bay herself.
“Make your choice, Martinelli,” she said. His eyes were pools of ink shining in the lamplight.
The confused pinch of his brow smoothed out. The curling sneer pulled into a tight grin.
“Drive,” he said.
Without hesitation, the driver put the car into motion, and the sedan rolled forward.
“Faster,” Lou said, grinning wider.
“Faster,” Angelo agreed. A small chuckle rumbled in his throat. He slapped the back of the driver’s seat like this was a game. “Faster.”
The driver punched the accelerator, and the car lurched forward. As it blasted past the men on the docks, shouts pinged off the windows. Angelo’s laugh grew more robust, pleasing belly laugh.
He’s high as hell, she realized. High as hell without any idea of what’s happening to him.
They hit a bump when flying past the guardrails and onto the pier. The wooden slats clunked under the car’s tires.
In the wake of Angelo’s mania, Lou couldn’t help but smile herself. She didn’t lower the gun. “You’re crazy.”
This proclamation only made him laugh harder, clutching at his belly. His laugh warped into a wheezing whine.
The thrum of the wooden slats disappeared as the car launched itself off the pier. The sharp stench of fish wafted up to greet them as they floated suspended above the ocean. Her stomach dropped as the nose of the car tipped forward and the windshield filled with black Atlantic water.
There was a moment of weightlessness, of being lifted out of her seat and then the car hit the water’s surface. Her aim faltered on impact, but she’d righted herself before either man could.
Cold water rushed in through the windows, trickling first through the corners, filling the car slowly as they slid deeper into the darkness. It seeped through the laces of her boots.
“Now what?” Angelo asked. He seemed genuinely thrilled. As if this was the most exciting experience of his life.
“We wait,” she said.
“She’s going to shoot us and leave our bodies in the water.” The driver’s voice surprised her, higher and more childish than she imagined. No wonder he’d kept his mouth shut.
The driver could open the door and swim away for all she cared. “I don't—”
The driver couldn’t wait for any reassurance. He whirled, lifting his gun.
Without a thought, she fired two shots into his skull, a quick double tap. His head rocked back as if punched. The brains splattered across the windows like Pollock’s paint thrown onto a canvas.
She was glad she’d decided on the suppressor. Her ears would be bleeding from the noise if she hadn’t. The smell of blood bloomed in the car. Bright and metallic. It was followed by the smell of piss.
Angelo’s humor left him. “Is it my turn now, ragazzina?”
Water gurgled around the windows as the car sank deeper into the dark bay.
“No,” she said, her eyes reflecting the dark water around them. “I have something else for you.”
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