The thunder sounded like an angry god cracking his whip, and although Madison O’Riley had done nothing to provoke the wrath of any higher beings, it felt personal.
Despite the blast of the storm, she hastened up the ladder onto the roof, intent on fixing the leak, refusing to surrender to a little rain. Okay, a lot of rain, she thought as the sprinkling turned to torrents.
The old clapboard house perched on a hill at the outskirts of town, and from this height, she could see the entire valley pulsing as silver lightning blossomed in the spiteful, pewter sky. Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself onto the roof one-handed, the fingers of her free hand like a sprung trap around the caulking gun.
Her feet slipped on the slick shingles but she maintained her footing, walk-crawling up the pitched roof, proud of her stick-to-itiveness. Half-blinded by the rain and nearly deafened by the overhead holocaust, she scrambled and scurried, searching for the fissure. Between two shingles a few feet from the brick chimney was a small crack. It didn’t seem big enough to account for the amount of rain that now pooled in her living room. “Seriously?”
The sky, as if letting her know that, yes, it was quite serious, flashed and pealed out another crash. It was closer than she’d thought. This probably wasn’t a very good idea. But she’d just had her oak floor re-finished and couldn’t afford the thousands of dollars of damage the rain would do. It needed to be fixed now.
She eyed the tube of roofing tar, recalling the instructions the clerk had given her. She placed the nozzle near the fissure and squeezed the caulking gun’s trigger. A blob of black goop oozed out and she covered the crack. “Perfect.” Her dignity intact, she stood.
Madison hadn’t prepared to be a homeowner. It had been thrust upon her when her mother signed over the house and business to Madison and left for Las Vegas to spread the word of God. Homeowner duties had been learn-as-you-go and she was pleased that patching the roof wasn’t beyond her abilities. Much easier than installing the koi pond. She’d gotten in over her head with that one - but she’d triumphed. She glanced down, saw the pond was nearly flooded and was glad she’d taken the time to lay a stone edge around it as Bart Aberdeen from the pet shop had suggested. All she needed now was koi.
A tine of lightning ripped across the sky. Thunder boomed, crashed loud enough that she felt its echo in her teeth - then trailed off, growling like a starved dog protecting its bone.
The seal looked to be holding and, under the advisement of the skies, Madison headed for the ladder. Stepping down the sloped roof, her shoes lost traction and her feet shot out from under her. The caulking gun flew as she windmilled for balance. The gravelly asphalt raked her elbows as she came down hard on her tailbone. A sickening thunk! resounded and a flash of white blinded her as the back of her head smacked the brick chimney. Pain bit her, crippled her, and she rolled down the slope, a tattered rag doll. Though barely conscious, she felt the roof disappear beneath her. Then she was freefalling.
Help me! she thought, unable to scream, to speak.
In the dream-like instant of her descent, the sky flashed - not lightning, but a shooting star streaking toward earth.
She plummeted into the koi pond below.
Icicle-cold, the water stole her breath. She panicked, tried fighting, but body and mind had parted company. She sank, paralyzed as blurred ribbons of blood rose and eddied around her. Like a failing bulb, her vision flickered and went out.
She was not aware of any time having passed. As if waking suddenly from a nightmare, she shot from the water, gurgling and choking, her lungs starved of oxygen. Splashing, writhing, her nails bit into bare shoulders and with the sound of rusty brakes, she sucked in a deep lungful of air. The black world resolved, and she glimpsed the face of a man, a stranger - no, not a stranger, not exactly. I know you, don’t I?
She gagged, clawed for purchase. Water gushed from her nose and mouth in explosive bursts as her lungs purged themselves. She locked onto the stranger, her fingers like anchors in his bare arms. Seconds later, she was on the sodden earth, on her back. She coughed, vomiting water. Hands clutched her head, turned it to the side, and water spilled from her mouth and nose like unspooling ribbons. More gurgling, more body-wracking gasps. Her vision came, dissolved, settled midway between blindness and sight.
A mouth covered hers, blew, and Madison’s lungs expanded with borrowed breath. As if the man were blowing on dying coals, warmth glowed inside her, spreading and swelling through her solar plexus, expanding, reaching her limbs, bringing heat to her skin and clarity to her mind. She could breathe, she could see, and what she saw was the stranger’s face.
Handsome. Full lips, strong cheekbones, eyes she couldn’t yet fathom. Close-cropped, golden hair backlit by a near-blinding halo of light. Yes, she knew him from somewhere - but where?
The warm buzz swam through her. Her fingers and toes tingled. She was losing consciousness again, but she didn’t care; the panic was gone. As the world pulsed in and out, the man leaned over and blinked black-lashed silver eyes at her. Not gray, but silver. Bright and shining, like disks of polished steel. The light behind him swelled and brightened just before the world relapsed into black and nothingness wrapped itself warm around her.
From what little he’d seen so far, there was nothing prominent about the town of Prominence. It had taken former Crimson Cove deputy Nick Grayson six hours to drive from his old home on the coast, to his new one on the slopes of the eastern Sierras.
Midway between Bishop and Bodie, Prominence was mostly high desert, with intermittent spatterings of thick, tall pines and firs. He hadn’t seen much of the town yet but intended to explore it after checking out his new place, which came with his position as Chief of Police. He pulled up to the residence and killed the black Highlander’s engine.
It wasn’t too shabby - an L-shaped, wood-trimmed, stucco ranch house with two tall sycamores out front, complete with a two-car garage, and what might be a decent lawn come spring.
He found the house key beneath the faded welcome mat where the landlord - one Jeffrey Gimple - said it would be waiting for him.
Inside, he was struck by two things: the stale scent of inactivity, and the dusty, lime-green drapes that covered the windows. Those have got to go. The living room was spacious with a blessedly new beige carpet and freshly painted walls. It was furnished - Thank God - with a comfortable-looking tan leather recliner, a slightly ratty love seat, and a rump-sprung sofa. Against the far wall, directly across from the recliner, was a large television that would be great for watching sports.
Stepping to the sliding glass doors that spanned the living and dining rooms, he drew more gecko-colored draperies and stared at the backyard. The earth was still wet from a rare valley downpour, but there was plenty of room on the patio for his barbecue.
Down the hall, he found a cramped bath with a stained sink, a tub, and a questionable-looking toilet. Beyond that were three bedrooms. One had plenty of space for his rock polisher and stone collection, another would serve as his office and music room - a sturdy old desk and chair were already in place - and the last was the master bedroom. My bedroom. It was complete with a queen-sized bed and a much nicer bathroom with a tiled shower behind a clear glass door.
He gazed out the small window, saw the tall redwood fence that surrounded the backyard. Plenty of privacy. He smiled. The half-acre plot was wide and fairly deep, keeping the neighbors at enough distance that he could play his guitar all night without disturbing the peace.
He walked back up the hall, through the living room and dining room, which contained an old oak table and chairs. The kitchen was roomy with simple light wood cabinets, and had all the appliances - there was even a washer and dryer. Leaning against the yellow tile counter, he pulled his phone from his pocket. His former boss, Sheriff Ethan Hunter, picked up on the second ring.
“I’m alive,” said Nick.
Ethan laughed. “Well, how’s Prominence?”
“Not too exciting so far. I’m going to grab some lunch and have a look around this afternoon.”
“And what about the house?”
He cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder as he shook dust off the ugly green drapes. “It’s decent, except for the drapes. Plenty of room for me, myself, and I.”
Ethan chuckled. “Anything’s better than the dinky place you had up here.”
“You got that right.”
The sheriff was silent a moment. “I hope it works out for you. You deserve this.”
“You bet your lily-white ass I do.” Nick cracked a smile.
“Well, we’ll miss you here.”
Nick coughed on dust. “Give my best to Sheila.”
“Will do. Call anytime … Chief. Oh, and Nick?”
“It’s a lot colder there in winter than it is out here on the coast. After you get settled in, text me your mailing address. I’ll send you one of my Aunt Vanessa’s sweaters.”
It was fairly well known throughout Crimson Cove that the sheriff knitted sweaters in his spare time, and to conceal his unmanly hobby, he’d created the fictional Aunt Vanessa in Oregon. Nick wouldn’t dream of bursting Ethan’s bubble and embarrassing him. Besides, though they were loud and unattractive, he was touched to receive one.
“Sure thing, Boss. It gets really cold here this time of year. Tell her thanks for me.” He ended the call, realizing he was going to miss Crimson Cove and its quirky inhabitants. He hoped Prominence would be half as interesting.
Hard rapid footsteps broke his reverie. They came up fast behind him. Nick whirled, drawing his Glock.
But the room was empty, the silence complete.
“Hello?” What the blue fuck?
He did a cautious walk-through in case a transient had made himself at home. Finding nothing, he locked up and took off to see what Prominence had to offer. The footsteps had spooked him and he was
eager to be out of the house.