The ocean was singing in the hushed, undulating tones of low tide on this still, damp night. Nature’s beguiling lullaby swelled and ebbed in Kira Tanner’s body, transfixing her as powerfully as the mist-furred brilliance of the sickle moon hanging in a starless sky. Its cool light frosted the water and spread a spangled path to the horizon, beckoning her imagination to walk it. What was beyond that bedazzled point? Someplace magical, she decided. Even more magical than this.
Santa Barbara was very different from LA—mellower, happier, and absent of the menacing, jagged edge of a huge city—that’s why she loved it here. It was cold on the empty autumn beach, and the wet sand numbed her feet, but the discomfort was offset by the ethereal world that enveloped her, along with the warming, delicious embrace of local wine and good weed.
She selected a spot by a vaulting outcrop of rock, laid her poncho on the sand, and settled into lotus position. Her eyes never veered from that wobbling, moonlit passageway, and she would stay here as long as she could tolerate the seeping chill—it was much too beautiful and peaceful to go back inside just yet.
She was a million miles away from the squalid, broken-down tract house in dusty Oklahoma, where her lowlife father sat on his fat, drunk ass all day. For all she knew, he was in jail again, or maybe even dead, but she didn’t care. Kira Tanner was meant for much bigger things, and she would do whatever it took to get there.
When her teeth finally began to chatter, she reluctantly plodded to the sloping path that led up to the house. Trudging slowly over wet sand—old song lyrics from a time before she’d been born popped into her mind and made her giggle for some reason. As she climbed through the beachside garden, she wistfully trailed her fingers along the oleander, rosemary, and delicate tendrils of jasmine. Everything was so perfect, so serene. She never wanted to leave, but of course she had to. She didn’t belong here as much as this place didn’t belong to her. But she still had the rest of the night to pretend it did. And one day, a dreamscape like this might be hers. That’s why she was here. With a smile, she patted the pocket of her jeans, comforted by the tiny bulge of extra insurance there. You always had to have a plan B.
As Kira approached the steps that led to the broad deck, she heard the faint, droning rhythm of the house music she’d selected, muted by stone and timber. And above that, other sounds that were sharper; sounds that were wrong: the crack and hiss of shattering glass, the shriek of wood, a muted pop. Then urgent footsteps, getting closer.
Life had taught her to shirk at strange, erratic noises, so instinct propelled her into the shelter of fragrant greenery. She trembled there with a forgotten prayer on her lips as she listened to her frenzied heart trying to escape the captivity of her chest. The footsteps eventually receded, silence reclaimed the night, and time passed—she had no idea how much—and she finally emerged from her coward’s nest. The music was still pulsing into the night, but that was all she heard. Her legs felt like concrete pillars as she mounted the stairs, her ears and eyes straining for more sounds and any movement that didn’t belong. She tentatively pulled open the big glass door and stepped into the house, pausing breathlessly in the violet shadows of the living room. If you hold your breath, the monsters can’t find you . . .
Everything was just as she’d left it—there were no signs that anything had happened here. Maybe nothing had happened here, she was just paranoid from the last bowl she’d smoked. Hearing things, imagining things. Her highs could sometimes go in that direction. But it would be stupid to ignore the chilling, warning tingle that seized her spine, so she crept down the hall to the bedroom, where she’d left her tote bag. Inside it was a gun.
She saw the shards of a wineglass first, glittering on the floor; then the upended lamp and the looted drawers, hanging from their tracks. Clothing spilled from them like mocking, colorful tongues. And finally, the naked man, facedown on the bed. She didn’t need to check his pulse to know he was dead. The blood and the two holes in the back of his skull told the story.
Acid and a scream rose up her throat in unison, but she swallowed them before either could break free from her mouth. Horror and terror vied for dominance—until now, she hadn’t realized there was a difference between the two—then self-preservation usurped them both. Choking on sobs, she dropped to the floor and groped for her Louis Vuitton knockoff. She’d left it next to the bed, but it was gone now.
She wasn’t supposed to be here. She couldn’t be here, not with a dead man. But now someone knew she had been. Beseeching the murderous invader and thief to take what he wanted from her tote and dump the rest in a place it would never be found, she ran for her life, leaving her ruined dreams and the ruined body behind. There was nothing she could do for him now. And nothing he could do for her.
Kira hadn’t expected the malevolent shadow waiting outside the front door, hadn’t expected the blow to her head or her violent descent into blackness. She couldn’t see, but she could hear ragged breathing; feel cold steel pressed against her lips. In her last moments, her mind retreated to the beach and found peace in the gentle tug of the tide and the enchanted, sparkling path the moon had laid for her on dark water. She was going to find out what was on the other side of the horizon after all.
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