Saltwater Graves: A totally gripping crime thriller
"I felt like I was on a rollercoaster when reading this… twists and turns throughout… a unique storyline with plenty of unexpected events… really hits full throttle… filled with suspense, action and tension."BookWorm86
Plunging under the cold ocean surface, her long blonde hair drags in the current and she frantically kicks towards the light. With her arms and legs tied she is helpless. As water fills her lungs, she has just one regret. She never told anyone about her date.
On a lonely stretch of coast at daybreak in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Detective Casey White is shocked to find the drowned body of a much-loved local woman, Ann Choplin, her beautiful face covered with specks of sand. The green and white rope binding her wrists reveals the terrifying truth that this innocent mother’s death was no accident.
With the incoming tide flooding the scene and swallowing all evidence, Casey’s team has nowhere to turn… but it’s Casey who realizes this beach will be devastatingly familiar to her partner, ex-sheriff Jericho Flynn. His wife was found murdered here years ago, thrown into the ocean alive just like Ann. But the twisted and jealous woman guilty of that crime has been in prison for years.
Days later, another woman is found drowned on the same beach, her wrists tied. Casey fears a copycat killer is on the loose, playing a deadly game with Jericho by digging up the horrors of his past.
Certain that finding a link between these women will crack the case, Casey works through the night digging into their lives and finds an old photo of the two victims at school together, smiling in their cheerleader uniforms. But cold betrayal floods Casey as she sees Jericho in the background. She’d thought it was safe to let him into her life, but he never once mentioned he knew the victims. What other secrets is he hiding?
When a coil of green and white rope is found in his garage, Casey’s whole team is convinced that the mounting evidence is stacked against Jericho. But with Casey’s instincts screaming that Jericho could never hurt anyone, it will mean risking her own career—and her life—to clear his name. If she’s wrong, she is placing her trust in a killer... but if she’s right, more innocent women are in terrible danger.
An absolutely unputdownable crime thriller, with twists and turns that will leave you breathless. Fans of Robert Dugoni, Kendra Elliot and Rachel Caine will be addicted.
Release date: December 14, 2020
Print pages: 288
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Saltwater Graves: A totally gripping crime thriller
Ann sucked in a deep breath, welcoming the front, inviting the breeze, thinking any change in weather could provide a respite from the unusual heat. The storm filled her nose and touched her tongue with the smell and taste of rain as she jogged in place with short dance steps, trying to keep to the beat of the music in her ears. Her watch at quarter past six in the evening showed the outside temperature was still in the nineties. She didn’t need an app on her watch to tell her the air was hot and sticky, making a poor combination when trying to finish a three-mile goal. She’d only jogged her first, and thought to go home, to give in to the change in weather.
Change begins with you, her trainer had said. She’d heard the same from her therapist too.
“Fine,” she mouthed, deciding to finish the miles. Maybe a jog in the rain would do her some good. Who was she to argue with professionals? The year since the bankruptcy and her separation had proved challenging. Like the weather steeped in heat, her life had been an onslaught of marital woes and financial tragedies. Any change had to be good. It wasn’t just recommended, it was needed.
First, though, a drink. In the thick humidity, her water bottle was coated in sweat and slipped through her fingers, the bottom of it striking the footpath and bouncing with a thud, toppling end over end until it disappeared into a bushy thicket.
“Let me.” A voice came from behind. Ann spun around, yanking out the cords to her earbuds. A man jumped into action, chasing her water bottle and disappearing behind the thicket. Branches broke and the bushes shook. There was quiet then, a moment growing long and leaving her to wonder where he’d gone.
“Are you okay in there?”
No answer. The shrubbery trembled with the man’s laughter, his hand appearing in the open, the water bottle in his clutched fingers. “I found it!”
“That was very nice of you,” she said as he reappeared and then dropped to one knee, tightening the cap and cleaning the sides, the sweat having collected dirt from its tumble.
“Here ya go,” he said, handing it to her, his head lowered, his hat and sunglasses hiding his face.
“Thank you,” she said, annoyed that she’d been clumsy, appreciating the gentlemanly gesture. A lightning strike turned the sky white, a sharp crack making her jump. “Whoa! That was a real close one.”
He twirled a finger up at the sky, “You might want to take cover from this.” He tipped his hat and removed his glasses to show his face briefly, his blue-green eyes and dimpled chin snagging a memory.
“Hey,” she said, flipping her hair. The earlier unease disappeared. “I didn’t know it was you.”
“It’s nice to see you, Ann,” he replied, staring at her, sparking another memory. A silent flash of light, and they crouched as a boom sounded and rolled over them. He hung his thumb over his shoulder. “I’m parked in the nearest lot if you want to wait this out, maybe catch up?”
“That’s very sweet of you, but I’m braving the rain today.” She gripped the bottle, trying to remove the cap, cursing as she realized the threads were crossed. “Stuck.”
“Here, let me,” he offered, and took hold, his arms muscled and toned, his shoulders chiseled, his face handsome. He’d clearly had an ugly-duckling transformation since she’d last seen him at school.
“You look really different,” she said, surprising herself with her boldness. Her face warming bashfully, she added, “I mean that in a good way.”
“Thank you,” he answered, the corner of his mouth turned with a smile. He handed her the bottle again, and made a tipping motion, encouraging her to drink. She did, gulping deeply, her body sweating. He mimed a weightlifter’s stance, saying, “I’ve been taking care of myself.”
Ann pegged her toe into the pavement, looking him up and down, and offered a flirty smile. Change is good, she heard in her head, liking what she saw, and surprising herself with her next question. “Maybe we could run together sometime?”
“Sure thing,” he answered, his sunglasses back in place, his hat tipped down. “I’m sure I have your number.”
“Don’t be a stranger,” she said, capping her water bottle, her skin turning cold, her workout interrupted. “I better get moving; don’t want to lose the momentum and risk a muscle cramp.”
He offered a comical thumbs-up. “That’s good advice.”
It was in the last half of the third mile when it hit her, her feet slapping clumsily against the pavement, the music in her ears turning garbled, and her skin aflame with a ferocious heat. She was sick but had no idea what it was. She stopped on the jogging trail, wispy steam rising from the blacktop, the storm heading east into the ocean, her car parked a hundred yards away. It was hard to breathe, her lungs dying, too weak to draw in air and exhale it.
“You drank the water,” she heard, and realized he was standing next to her, his hands on his hips, hat and glasses still on as he glanced around to see if they were alone.
“Mouth is so dry,” she managed to say, opening her bottle, her tongue swollen and as arid as the desert. “Can’t get enough.”
“Yeah, that’s one of the side effects.”
“Wha—” she began, fear striking in slow motion as she fell on her side, paralysis taking over, her arms and legs turning rigid.
“And there she goes,” he said with confidence as he knelt and looked around cautiously. When he was sure they were alone, he hoisted her in the air, carrying her into the woods, branches swiping her arms and face, wet leaves brushing against her skin, rainwater dripping from her face and acting as surrogate tears for the ones she wanted to shed but couldn’t.
“Wh—” she tried again, a groan escaping her lips.
“This is for someone else,” he answered, stopping when they reached a car. The back of the wagon was open, a white sheet spread out, a bundle of rope with three sections cut and a roll of tape already prepared. The real tears came then, as she thought back, remembering him jumping into the shrubs and chasing her bottle. He’d drugged her.
When he finished tying her wrists, ankles and knees, he showed her an empty syringe. “That break in the weather made this easy for me,” he said.
She groaned again as he layered tape over her mouth, his blue-green eyes sharp in the sunlight breaking through the clouds. What had happened to him that would make him do this? Why her?
His hands gloved, he brushed his fingers across her cheek. “I always thought you were beautiful. It’ll be over soon.”
She moaned as the car door slammed shut, trying to muster a scream that wouldn’t come, her eyelids growing heavy. As the car started, she tried with all her might to stay awake, watching the storm overhead, a gale wind pushing the tops of the trees, listening as the road beneath changed from gravel to pavement. But it was when the sound of the ocean waves came that the drug finished its bidding, putting her to sleep, leaving her to wonder if it would hide how death would come. Distantly, in her trailing consciousness, she thought maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.
A splash. The water was cold. She sank like a stone, a wave crashing over her head. She reared and kicked and thrust her hips, trying to swim, but the currents were already on her, swirling and squeezing her body like an inescapable blanket. The sky was dark. In a boat nearby, the shadowy figure of her killer stood at the bow. Her shoes, her phone and her earbuds dangled lifelessly from between his fingers.
“It was good to see you again,” he shouted. The boat idled in the middle of nowhere, twin motors puffing smoke. His voice had changed, becoming low and menacing. “You can live. That is, if you can swim.”
And she could swim. Or at one time she’d been able to, on the swim team at school. But could she swim with her arms and legs bound? The current spun her around as the ropes cut and bit her wrists and ankles, her skin opening with vicious stings. Her head dipped beneath the surface, ears filling until clogged, her muscles weak from the drug.
With the little motion she had, she swam upward, finding a place on her back, floating a moment, breath rasping, the moon emerging between the clouds, a beam of moonlight falling on the boat, on him. The motors let out a choppy low growl as he steered the boat closer to her, his face empty.
Then the motors really came alive, roaring and spitting water, showering her with a pummeling force that drove her under. It was too strong, her mouth and lungs sucking in the sea, her momentary reprieve becoming her last. She kicked like a dying fish, but it only made her descent more violent, delaying the inevitable. With her lungs filling, the ocean became eerily calm, the pressure on her ears pushing until she thought they’d burst. Above, the boat sped away.
Late summer in the Outer Banks brought crowds to our beaches. It brought red-shouldered and freckled masses to our boardwalks. And it brought droves of traffic funneling onto the island with every seat filled, bodies pinched and squeezed, voices tangled with songs on the radio, luggage strapped to the rooftops, pillows and beach towels shoved against the side windows, bundled folding chairs heaped in the rear atop coolers stuffed with food and drink swimming in melted ice. From the windswept beach grasses in Carova to the spiraling lighthouse steps in Ocracoke, every inch of the islands would be visited before the end of the season.
But the only destination I had in mind was home. Never had I wanted to be back in my apartment as much as today. I dropped my things on the kitchen counter and secured my gun in its safety locker, officially relieving myself of the day and the responsibilities and the tools that came with being a cop. We were always cops, always on duty—twenty-four hours and three hundred and sixty-five days a year. But there were also moments of being who we’d been before, and who we were without a badge. This was one of those moments.
I was home early today because I was late. A cold sweat returned, carrying fright and nerves this time, the number forty on my lips. I swore that the count couldn’t be right. I was late. It had been almost six weeks. To be sure, I checked the calendar on my phone, confirming just how late I actually was.
Peeing on a stick is easier said than done. I considered a gallon of water, or a cold glass of juice, but didn’t know if that would cause a misread. On my way home, I’d stopped at a drug store pharmacy and stood in front of a wall of pregnancy tests. There were too many choices. Never had I seen such a wall dedicated to selling one thing. There were more than a hundred boxes, all with similar claims, all saying the same thing but wording it differently. There were even digital tests, and one offering an app I could download onto my phone. I snuffed a laugh, a tear pinching my eye. I’d share it with Jericho later, knowing he’d get a laugh about there being an app for pregnancy tests.
Concentrate, I thought, clenching, my leg shaking, the sole of my shoe tapping the bathroom’s tiled floor. My mind raced like bees buzzing about a hive, thoughts zinging haphazardly. I was restless, and yet I was also strangely excited by the idea. A baby. Mine and Jericho’s. I cupped my mouth, swiping at an errant tear, and willed the pee to come.
Hoping the cold would help, I stripped off my shoes and socks, putting my bare feet on the bathroom floor, a chill rising into my legs, followed by a shiver that helped me to wet the stick. And now I had to wait.
I was alone in my apartment, the single bathroom bright in the indirect light that shone through the rear patio doors. Sunlight entered on a sharp angle, the sun rising above the roofline, nearing its trip overhead before it landed on the other side for the afternoon. I checked the time, seeing it was nearing noon. Jericho’s schedule showed he was working a rally for his mayoral campaign. His every hour, every minute, every breath was occupied by meetings and interviews and speeches. Vote Flynn to Win stickers, buttons and banners were all over his house. How would he take the news? Would he quit the campaign? Would there be any news? My phone’s timer showed I had two more minutes before reading results that might change our lives.
With so many questions, my nerves were getting the better of me. Had I been this nervous with Hannah, my firstborn? This scared? I thought back to my old place in Philly, the apartment on Broad Street, Hannah’s father and me sitting in the bathroom doorway, the two of us half naked and sweating out a mid-August heatwave that had turned the city into a humid oven. Back then, we didn’t have air conditioning. I remember the happy excitement; we were young and wanted more than anything for me to be pregnant. We’d both moved up in our careers and had recently plunked every dime of what we had into a down payment on our first house, with a move date already set. The timing was right.
But that was then. What about now? What about our age? I wondered, aimlessly picking one of a thousand frightening concerns. We weren’t young newlyweds. Heck, we weren’t newlyweds at all. Would Jericho want to get married? Did he still believe in marriage? Did I?
We’re young enough! I decided with a flit of optimism, emotion returning. The optimism waned as my thoughts returned to Hannah. I’d only just gotten her back in my life.
After she was kidnapped as a child, I spent nearly fifteen years with a broken heart, obsessively searching for her. My evenings were filled with nightmares, the memory of Hannah being taken from our front yard, snatched almost right out of my hands. My life and career changed soon after—my marriage ending and my cases shifting to concentrate on kidnappings, some ending in murder, the victims around Hannah’s age. A gut-level fear of one day identifying her remains was ever-present. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still smell the morgue back in Philadelphia, the cold touch on my skin and the unbearable relief of not seeing Hannah’s face when the sheet was pulled back.
I’d arrived at the eastern barrier islands for a respite during the latter part of the previous summer, but I had also come to continue my search for Hannah. I’d been following up on an old lead, the case having a possible connection to her kidnapping. And although I was the detective, it was Hannah who’d found me. It was the sweetest possible relief after years of searching. Now the two of us were navigating what it was to be mother and daughter again, chasing time to make up for the loss of it.
One more minute, according to the timer. My pants were crumpled around my bare feet, and I realized I was still sitting on the toilet for no reason at all. I got up, the empty tub across from me turning on its side, a heady lightness making me shut my eyes and brace against the sink and wall. I had felt like this before, the memory a strong one from the first time I’d been pregnant.
I turned off the timer and put my phone back in my pocket. My hands shook, palms sweaty, a hot stew in my gut urging me to look at the pregnancy test.
“Casey?” I heard Jericho calling. He appeared in the doorway. “What’s wrong?”
“I didn’t hear you come in,” I said, glancing at the test perched on the sink and drying my hands nervously against my legs. “What are you doing here?”
He was clean-shaven and dressed in one of his best suits, a Vote Flynn to Win button neatly pinned to his lapel, his wavy brown hair combed back. A television interview was scheduled for early afternoon. His eyes narrowed, showing more green than blue in my apartment’s light, a deep concern cutting ridges between his eyebrows as he said, “I got a call that you’d left work sick.”
When it came to working at the largest police station in the Outer Banks, there were no secrets. Especially when your boyfriend had been the sheriff for as many years as Jericho had, and was running for office. He knew everyone and everyone knew me.
“Someone called you?” I asked. In the years since I’d become the lead detective, I’d never been ill, had never called in sick or even had a cold. I’d had a feeling that my abruptly leaving in the middle of a team meeting would raise a question or two. “Dr. Swales?”
Jericho gave a nod, catching the annoyance in my voice. Dr. Terri Swales was the town’s medical examiner. She was also one of Jericho’s closest friends. “She was concerned.”
“That’s sweet, but what about your interview?”
He checked his phone, a screen showing a list of messages. “Rescheduled,” he answered, though I could tell he was lying. A part of me was glad he’d lied, that he was here with me, the pregnancy test sitting on the sink waiting to be read.
His eyes flashed with the bathroom light as he spotted the plastic stick. I didn’t try to hide it and picked it up, covering it in my palm so I couldn’t see the results. “I’m late,” I told him, my voice shaking.
With those two words, Jericho’s expression changed instantly with a recognition I was certain had been shared by every man who had ever heard the same phrase.
“How late?” he asked, brow raised, an odd smile showing.
“Almost two weeks,” I answered with a stir of excitement as I rechecked the math in my head.
“Well?” he asked, a smile inching from ear to ear. I almost burst into tears, his reaction answering one of my biggest concerns. “Aren’t you going to look?”
“I can’t,” I said, hands trembling.
“Together?” Jericho said, emotion breaking in his voice. My knees were weak and my head felt light again. I dropped to sit, and he joined me, no care for wrinkling his suit. Shifting closer to me as I held the test in front of us, he cupped my hand, and said, “On three?”
“Okay,” I answered, barely able to get the word out.
“One,” he began, his voice changing as the excitement grew. “Two.”
“Three,” I blurted, opening my palm flat, the test results revealed.
I held my breath. I had to hear his reaction before I said another word. Jericho studied the results, all emotion gone from his face. Then tears stood in his eyes, and his smile returned. “Question now is, do we have a little girl, or a little boy?”
We’d decided to share the news after breakfast the next day. We were both nervous, having no idea how Jericho’s son Ryan and my daughter Hannah would react. Jericho side-eyed me, biting his lip, ready to reveal the news to all. I gave him a warning glance, the fun of it almost unbearable. Hannah definitely caught on to the shenanigans, but said nothing. No matter what she was thinking, she was definitely going to be surprised, and I hoped it was in a good way.
“This French toast is terrific,” Jericho said. My stomach was surprisingly settled as the smell of our late breakfast filled the kitchen. He stabbed another piece, holding it in the air, looking at Ryan. “When did you learn to make this?”
“Wasn’t me,” Ryan said, giving Hannah a nod. “I only assisted.”
“You did this?” I asked, happily surprised. “I didn’t know you could cook.”
“I’ve got a few tricks,” she said. “You should see what I can do with a can of Spam.”
“Spam?” Ryan asked, and grimaced jokingly, clutching at his throat as though sick. He shook his head, saying, “Hard pass!”
“Hey, I like the stuff,” I warned. “It’s not as Philly as scrapple, but it’s in the top ten.”
“No, not scrapple!” Jericho mocked with a shout, dropping his fork and mirroring Ryan with his hands around his throat.
“I love scrapple,” Hannah said, delight in her eyes. “I should have added that.”
We laughed a long minute, before quieting to finish breakfast. I couldn’t stop smiling, though, the news pressing to come out. I glanced at Jericho to see that he was feeling the same, the two of us like children the night before Christmas.
Hannah took to her phone between bites of food. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her piercings gone, and her neck tattoo covered slightly with makeup. She’d been changing subtly since entering my life again, working a lot of hours while going back to school. I touched my own neck, asking, “Why did you cover it up? It’s so beautiful.”
“Really?” she asked, dimples showing with a faint red warming her cheeks, glancing at Jericho and Ryan to gauge their reactions. She cocked her head bashfully. “I wasn’t sure it fit in.”
“Who cares what fits with what. Just be you,” Ryan said, his mouth full as he flashed her a smile. “Who knows, maybe I’ll get one too.”
“What? What’s that?” Jericho spoke abruptly, then laughed it off, adding, “Let me know when; I might join you.”
“You guys are full of jokes,” Hannah said, sounding more comfortable.
“Seriously, Dad?” Ryan asked. “Can I get one?”
“We’ll talk about it,” Jericho told his son.
Ryan was a mirror image of his parents. I could see resemblances to both Jericho and Jessie from any angle. Approaching nineteen, a freshman in college, he had Jericho’s wavy hair but without the salt-and-pepper grays, and with light brown highlights like his mother’s. He also shared Jericho’s eye color, a rich blue-green, but they were Jessie’s eyes too, the shape of them matching what I’d seen in the framed photographs Jericho kept in the house. He was home for the summer, working long shifts as a lif. . .
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