Her first impulse was to call.
To punch the necessary digits into her phone, press it her face, and plead for help to arrive. To come and save her, just as it had in the past.
Remembering the number was simple, a sequence that had been seared into her brain more than two years earlier, her fingers punching it in out of pure muscle memory.
Not until the digits were on the screen and staring at her did the full enormity of the situation she was in truly hit her, bringing with it the realization that she couldn’t actually hit Send.
Could not make a single sound that might alert anybody where she was.
Feeling dread ripple upward through her core, she smashed her thumb down repeatedly on the touch screen of her phone, watching the numbers disappear one at a time. Once the sequence was gone from sight, her home page back up before her, she jerked her head upright, peering into the darkness, hoping that she had managed to evade them.
That she still had a few minutes to disappear, or even better, that it was only her own paranoia rising up again and had nothing to do with the incident so many months before.
The taste of sweat touched her lips, fat droplets running through the creases on either side of her mouth, the heavy parentheses formed from the omnipresent smile that seemed to grace her face.
The smile that had disappeared earlier in the day, replaced by a look nothing short of abject terror.
Pressing her body tight against the wall behind her, she could feel the cool of the brick building passing through the back of her clothes. With it came the momentary burst of clarity that she needed to control herself, to assess.
Drawing in three deep breaths, she willed her nerves to settle, her heart rate to return to a normal level.
There was no way of knowing if the face she saw was the one that visited her so many nights as she tried to sleep, but the semblance was too close to write off as mere coincidence.
Too many people had done too many things to protect her to succumb to such wanton foolishness.
Again, she returned her attention to the phone, the device tucked away beneath the long tail of her shawl, the light virtually extinguished from view.
As much as she wanted to, she still couldn’t make a call. Not right now, not with the risk of being overhead so great.
But she couldn’t risk doing nothing either, at least needing to send up a flare, to give people some heading in the event they needed it in the coming days.
Jerking her head back down to the device in hand, she scrolled the sparse collection of applications available on her screen.
Still getting used to the idea of even owning a phone – let alone using it – she stabbed at the screen a few times with the pad of her thumb, heavy smudges visible beneath each contact.
Hearing her own breath heavy in her ears, she moved into her email program, entering the first saved entry from her address book into the heading.
From there, it was as simple as tapping out the words that she had been coached to use, the message as much a part of her as the phone number she nearly dialed a moment before.
With her head down low, her body blocking the faint illumination of the phone, she stayed tucked away in the shadows, every bit of her hidden from view, until the automated icon of the program let her know that the message had been sent.
Help was on the way.
The break was as close to perfect as existed, the kind of wave that Sydney Rye had been waiting on all afternoon. Starting with a simple swell far off the coast, it rolled in as one single surge, gaining momentum with each passing second, promising the kind of power that only Mother Nature herself could possess.
“It is about damn time,” Rye muttered, pausing just long enough to make sure it wasn’t going to peter out too soon – something she had been plagued with all afternoon, and in her last couple of relationships as well, if she really wanted to admit it – she waited until the faint white tips of a curl appeared on the far edges.
Once they did, she jerked the front tip of her board back toward the beckoning shore. Paddling like hell, she could feel her breath drawing tight in her chest, her deltoids burning with lactic acid.
In the water beside her, never allowing more than a few to separate them, her part-Great Dane, part-wolf, part-Cerberus himself mutt Blue joined in, sensing the urgency rolling off her. With his mighty head bobbing along the top of the water, making it clear he was working every bit as hard as she, he fought to keep pace beside her.
Beneath them, the force of the wave could be felt approaching fast, raising them into the air, a mighty breath of water shoving them hard toward the white sand ahead.
“Come on now, stay with me,” Rye spat out, the words an open challenge to the beast beside her.
All day long he had insisted on being along for every ride she attempted.
And on every single one she had hoped for a colossal wipeout she could gloat about forever.
Thus far, any gloating to be had rested with the dog.
Tucked away on the virtually hidden beach at Waialua on the North Shore of Oahu, the impromptu trip had been exactly what the duo both needed. Marked by days just like this one, spent with toes buried in the sand or trying her hand at whatever water sport was available. Punctuated by evenings working the cabana bars up the coast, nights with nameless local boys that were always gone by morning.
In short, it had been a perfect respite. The kind of thing she had spent the winter in London longing for, staring out from windows speckled with icy shards of sleet, Blue on the ground beside her, alternating between low groans and heavy sighs.
Ignoring the aching in her shoulders, the tightness gripping the length of her spine, Sydney pushed as fast as she could, forcing out a few more strokes as the wave finally caught up to her, propelling her forward.
Abandoning her stroke, she gripped both sides of the dimpled foam board tight, her knuckles showing white beneath the skin.
For the briefest of moments, her body caught the crest of the wave, weight positioned just-so atop it. Her every impulse was to spread her arms wide and feel the incoming wind on her face, to open her mouth and scream with everything she had.
Some real Leonardo-Dicaprio-in-Titanic sort of shit.
As fast as the moment arrived, it disappeared, nothing more than a few fleeting seconds as she spurted across the water.
One moment she was sitting on the front of the curl, letting it take control.
The next, it did just that, unleashing itself in an almighty curl, sending her toppling end-over-end through the water.
With eyes open wide, a flurry of white foam and bubbles blurred past, the briny water stinging as she twirled through the wash. Abandoning the board, she extended her arms out wide, hoping for any amount of purchase, the ocean floor and the bright blue sky both indeterminate points flying by her vision.
For more than five seconds the force of the wave kept her pinned down, her lungs beginning to ache, her body realizing the need for oxygen.
Uninterested in whatever she might need, the sea kept pressing forward, charging ahead, finishing its journey with a final exhalation that slammed her hard to the ground. In an instant, thousands of years of pulverized shell and coral ground into the exposed flesh of her shoulder and lats, pain rippling through her body.
For as fast as the wave had appeared, had seized the reigns and let her know just how insignificant she was, it dissipated back into the sea. Shoving her and the last of its swell up onto the shore, it pushed until the slope of the beach was too much to travel any higher before receding in the opposite direction.
In total, no more than half a minute from start-to-finish, nothing but a sputtering dog and a pissed off woman sprawled in the sand to demarcate its passing.
“Holy hell,” Rye whispered, letting her arms go limp as she flailed them across her body. Dropping flat on her back, she lay in a misshapen crucifix for several moments, feeling the warm sun on her skin, without the slightest interest in even opening her eyes, let alone moving.
Not until she felt the all-too-familiar warm breath of Blue hovering over her did she attempt to move, one hand rising and stabbing in his direction, hoping to push away her unwanted shade.
“Hey, you’re blocking my sun, dammit,” she muttered, his wet fur soft to the touch as she attempted to shove him aside.
Given that he weighed roughly three-quarters of what she did, it came as no surprise when the effort came up short.
“Yeah, yeah,” Rye said, opening her eyes to see him standing over her, peering straight down, a look of equal parts concern and annoyance painting his features.
Letting out a groan of her own, Sydney twisted her body from under him and rose to a seated position. Lifted her right hand to her opposite shoulder, she dabbed at the skin, pulling it back to see just the slightest traces of blood on her fingertips.
“And don’t give me that look, either,” she said. “You’re not the one with a hoo-ha full of sand right now.”
The smell of the first cut grass of the spring was heavy in the air, a mixture that seemed to be at once clean and fresh and loamy. Floating through the air, it intertwined with the scent of beef cooking on the charcoal grill, creating an olfactory crescendo that pulled a smile to Reed Mattox’s face.
Reclined in the wooden Adirondack chair on his back deck, his feet rested on the rail before him. Crossed at the ankles, dried grass clung to the outsides of his jeans, the front of his t-shirt still damp with sweat.
The sort of evening that he had been missing dearly on the tail end of six months and counting of cruel central Ohio winter.
Lifting the plastic water bottle from the deck beside him, he twisted off the top and took a long pull, feeling the cool liquid ease down his throat and into his chest. Keeping his chin tilted toward the darkening sky, he let the feeling linger before returning his head to the chair, lowering the drink to his lap.
“Billie?” he said, opening with little more than a conversational tone. When no response of any sort was visible, he raised his voice, calling a second time, “Billie?!”
This time, his deep baritone rolled out over the open expanse of the yard behind his farmhouse, passing to the line of pine trees that comprised the property line almost fifty yards away.
A split second later, the sound returned to him, an echo rolling back to its origin, accompanied by a black shadow darting between the trees.
From such a distance, it looked to be little more than a smudge, Reed knowing better than to think such a thing, more than aware of both the size and power wrapped in the inky specter.
“Stay close,” Reed said, the decibel of his voice falling somewhere between his previous two. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Standing stone still for several seconds, there was no reaction from the smudge, waiting for further instruction.
When none came, it went straight back to what it had been doing prior, disappearing into the thick boughs comprising the lower parts of the trees.
Which likely meant Reed would soon be greeted with the bloody remains of some poor woodland creature that had ventured too close to the spread.
Feeling one corner of his mouth rise into a smile, Reed shook his head slightly to the side. Raising the bottle of water, he took another drink before lowering his feet to the deck floor. Pressing his palms into either side of the chair, he rose to a standing position, the intensifying smell of caramelized meat pulling him forward.
Grabbing the lid with his left hand, he lifted the dome away, a flush of smoke and steam passing over his face, giving him the only sort of facial he would ever willingly acquiesce to.
A moment later the cloud passed, revealing a t-bone the size of a plate, juices sizzling and popping along the top surface.
Extending a single finger toward the filet side of the steak, Reed pressed down twice on it, checking the firmness, before returning the top to the grill.
“Two more minutes,” he said aloud, the words just barely audible in his own ears as he walked back toward his chair, his mind intent on resuming his post.
Halfway there, such intentions were cut short by the buzz of his cell phone, the sound an unwanted intrusion on an otherwise perfect evening.
In a span of nothing more than a few seconds, no less than a dozen reasons why he should not answer sprang to mind. No matter who might be on the other end or what they wanted, his every goal for the night ahead was to eat meat and watch sports.
An affirmation of every male stereotype in the world for sure, not that he particularly cared.
They did often exist for a reason.
Just as fast, the notion passed. With parents that were now in their sixties and a job as a detective out of the Columbus Police Department’s 8th Precinct, ignoring incoming calls was not exactly a luxury he was often afforded.
“Mattox,” Reed said, snatching the phone up and pressing it to his face.
“Mattox?” a voice repeated back as soon as the word was out. Harsh and gruff, it carried the familiar graveled rasp that Reed had heard nearly every day for the last year and a half, the owner instantly clicking into place.
Even if it was an odd occurrence, the sort of thing that had happened no more than a handful of times in the preceding eighteen months.
And not even a full handful at that.
“Hey, Captain,” Reed said, returning his attention to the grill. Wedging the phone in tight between his shoulder and ear, he again lifted the cover. Setting it aside, he used a pair of Oklahoma Sooners emblazoned tongs to lift the steak, depositing it on a waiting plate nearby.
“What are you doing right now?”
The tone and the word choice both brought an immediate clench to Reed’s stomach, the sort of thing that years of working with CPD had trained his body into doing.
Just one of a great many reactions, memories, and experiences he could probably do without.
“I am making dinner,” Reed said. Leaving the steak where it lay, he raised his attention back to the line of trees, to his partner currently terrorizing whatever might be lurking nearby.
“You’re making dinner?”
“Well, I’m grilling steak on the back deck,” Reed added, realizing how the first statement must have sounded, completely ignoring the insinuation from his captain.
“Ahh,” the man replied, a bit of dawning in his voice. “How fast can you get that eaten and get down here?”
Again, the feeling in Reed’s core reared itself, this time drawing so tight he doubted he would be able to get more than a few bites of the steak down, no matter how much he might want to.
As if on cue, picking the physiological changes in his body from the air, Billie again appeared, abandoning her hunt as she bounded toward the deck.
“We’re not on tonight, Captain,” Reed replied, watching her as she cut the distance between them. “I think it’s the new guy’s turn.”
“I know. That’s why I’m calling you.”