“Strike two, Knox,” Ornella Roth said, crossing her thin arms over her chest and leaning back in the chair behind her desk. “There’s always something going on in Tall Pines to report on. When it seems like there’s no news, you dig deeper. Thane’s working under the same conditions you are, and his story about the boat thief down at the Marina made the front page.”
“This is a good story.” Madigan jabbed her finger into the article on the desk. “I stand behind it one-hundred percent. Lower-income families can’t afford the cost of school lunches and the students of Tall Pines Elementary shouldn’t have to feel ashamed of the fact they can’t be served a hot lunch. There has to be some sort of subsidizing. This story needs to be told, Ornella, and it needs to be seen.”
“I told you, I need front page news,” Ornella said. “If you want to keep writing these human-interest stories, I’ll put you back in the entertainment section.”
Madigan clenched her jaw and stared down at her boss.
I need to keep my job. I need to keep my job, Madigan reminded herself.
Ornella pushed the article further away from her.
“Your writing could use some improvement as well, mind you. You need to keep your personal voice out of it. The media needs to be unbiased. How many times do I need to remind you of that? I can’t have another article of yours where allegations are made and only one side of the story is considered—like that one about Tall Pines Nursing Home. You didn’t even contact them for a comment.”
Madigan’s cheeks flushed, knowing Ornella had a point about her writing. The sting of criticism hit her hard, bringing back memories of the critiques on her last article. She had barely graduated from her Journalism program at the local college, and if Ornella had bothered to check her marks, she might not have gotten the job at all.
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and avoided eye contact.
The media is biased. Everyone is.
Don’t say it. Don’t say it.
“You show me front page news and I’ll give you another chance,” Ornella sighed, “but for now, you’re back to the local entertainment section. Help Thane out when he asks. Got it?”
She didn’t want to believe she’d been demoted purely based on her writing skills, or lack thereof. She found it easier to be angry at the politics of the Tall Pines Gazette and more specifically, Ornella Roth. She played to the politicians of Amherst, the neighbouring city, and ruffled the least amount of feathers while pushing their agenda.
“Fine.” Madigan frowned. “But I’m taking my story to Cindy, right?”
Madigan had already promised her contact at Tall Pines Elementary she would bring the issue to light. The look on the lunch woman’s face had almost brought tears to her eyes.
When she’d lived in her first foster home during the worst years of her life, she’d often gone to school hungry. At the age of seven, she’d been more embarrassed than hungry and pretended her foster mom had forgotten to pack her a lunch, opting to hide in the washroom, which kept her under the radar of both students and teachers more often than not.
“Ornella.” Madigan said. “Please?”
“Why bother?” Ornella said, wiggling her mouse. The white glare of the computer screen illuminated her face revealing the shadows of fine lines across her cheeks. “It’s hardly news at all. It’s a throw-away.”
Ornella slid the papers Madigan had printed over the side of the desk, letting them fall into her trash can.
Madigan clenched her fists into balls, her heart pounding faster by the second while Ornella kept her eyes on the computer screen.
Those kids need help.
You need this job. You need this job.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Madigan shook her head and walked backwards toward the door. “So much for bringing attention to what’s actually important in this town. We wouldn’t want to change anything, now, would we?”
“I sell papers people will actually read,” Ornella said. “Not sad stories for the sake of depressing people or embarrassing the mayor.”
An embarrassment. That’s what she thinks it is. Like I’m airing dirty laundry.
“This isn’t an embarrassment,” Madigan said. “This is bringing some hard facts to light. This is a story the parents of Tall Pines will want to hear. I promised the lunch staff I would report on this.”
“You know not to make promises when you haven’t run something past me first. This whole story came out of left field. You were told to get me front page news.”
There it was. She’s upset it was something she had no control over. No guiding voice before the story had been written.
I shouldn’t have made a promise.
But I did.
“What do I have to do?” Madigan asked.
Find the flaw, Madigan.
Her first foster father’s words echoed in her mind through all the years after she and her sister had been taken from their house and split into different ones.
Find their weakness and use it to your advantage—one of the first things he’d taught them about manipulating people into doing whatever you wanted. He took advantage of their naivety and made it into a game at first, but when he brought them into their first cons, he expected them to use the tricks he had taught them.
It wasn’t until her last year in the house that she realized he had done the same to them, and since, with each weakness she found, almost without trying, she’d note a strength, too.
“What do I have to do to make sure the story’s included in Monday’s issue?” Madigan asked. “It’s important to those kids. No child should have to hide in the bathroom because they don’t have a lunch.”
Her cheeks burned and she folded her arms in front of her.
Maybe that’ll tug on her heart strings as a mother.
Madigan had found motherhood to be Ornella’s strength and weakness as soon as she found out she had a son.
“Get me something good.” Her manicured nails clicked away at the keyboard. “Something that will keep our readers turning the pages. You’ve got until Sunday at midnight.”
“I can do that.”
What will make Ornella sit up and take notice?
A crime, maybe?
Something big. It has to be big.
“Go on, then,” Ornella said.
“Thank you, Ornella.”
“Make it good, Knox. This is your last chance.”
“I will.” Madigan walked backwards out the door.
“And fix the attitude,” Ornella called, not bothering to look away from her computer screen. “And for Pete’s sake, close the door behind you.”
Madigan closed the door and marched down the hall as Cindy poked her head up from her cubicle.
“I think it’s a good story,” Cindy said in her mousy voice.
Madigan stopped in front of her. “You heard all that?”
Cindy shook her head, but Madigan raised her eyebrow with a smile, cocking her head to the side, and Cindy nodded, glancing in the direction of Ornella’s office.
“Don’t be afraid of her, Cin.”
“I’m not,” Cindy whispered.
“Those kids deserve better,” Madigan said. “I made a promise. I’m going to do whatever it takes. Do you know of anything going on this weekend?”
Cindy shook her head. “I bet if Thane handed in that same story, it’d already be on my desk for edits for the front page.”
“Probably.” Madigan tapped her fingers along the cubicle divider. “I’ll make sure she runs this story and then I’m back to covering craft fairs and store openings. It’s just as well. Nothing ever happens around here anyway.”
“Don’t give up—on the kids or the front page. It might take some time, but she’ll come around. You’ve got a great eye for detail and you bring heart to this paper.”
Madigan’s cheeks flushed and the compliments made her even less comfortable than the criticism of her writing she’d just received. It would take days, maybe weeks, to put Ornella’s words out of her mind.
Another writing class might do the trick.
“Okay, enough with the flattery,” Madigan said. “It’s tough to get to the story first when Thane’s got the scoop.”
“He has connections,” Cindy said.
So will I, she thought, wondering how her sister’s first day on the job was going.
Grace just needs to gain her confidence back.
“By the way, you actually picked a winner.” Cindy smiled. “Roy was a gentleman, just like you said. A little rough around the edges, what with the cursing and all, but I’m letting him take me on a second date.”
“I knew you’d like him.”
“Thanks for setting us up,” Cindy said, sliding her glasses on. “You were right, I just needed to get back out there.”
“Ladies,” Thane said in his deep voice as he strode past them toward Ornella’s office. “Beat you for the cover again, Knox. Man, you make it too easy.”
A tall black man, always dressed in one of three suits, Thane had ruled the front page for two decades. Probably longer.
“Some real hard-hitting journalism with that boat scandal,” Madigan said, smirking.
Thane straightened his tie and ran his fingers over his smooth chin. “And yet it’s good enough to beat whatever story you conjured up last minute.”
He strode past them into Ornella’s office and shut the door behind him.
If it had been a last-minute story, she wouldn’t have felt so offended, but it had been her only focus that week.
“He’s so smug.” Cindy shook her head. “Ignore him. You’ll get the front page, Madigan, and when you do, we’ll have to stick it to him.”
Madigan nodded and sauntered down the short hall toward her cubicle.
Does she really believe that?
“Hey, tell Roy he owes me some drinks for finding him a catch, alright?” Madigan said over her shoulder.
As she plopped down in her chair, she stared at her cell phone on the desk.
I’m dying to know how it’s going, but she won’t be able to respond anyway.
She grabbed her phone and hit Grace’s name, running her left finger along the chain of her necklace that matched Grace’s.
Meet me at our spot when you’re off she typed, and sent the text.
Despite the short distance between them for more than a year when Grace went undercover in the city of Amherst, they had only spoken twice. Grace had told her the minimal contact was necessary, but Madigan always wondered if it had been her choice.
If she couldn’t keep her personal and professional life separated without going all the way dark.
Madigan hoped Grace’s new home and position would give her a fresh start in Tall Pines and a chance for them to reconnect.
For things to be like they used to.
After what Grace had been through, she worried it wouldn’t be possible, but she would try just the same.
Grace took her first sip of coffee, flipping through the binder to the page that always made her heart skip a beat.
The report her sergeant had completed on her.
As she skimmed the lines by the first light of morning, a shadowy crevice near the spine of the binder hid the first few words of each sentence.
It made no difference.
She could almost recite the report by heart.
She pushed her pillows behind her head, leaning back in bed.
Order for Detective Inspector Grace Sheppard to come back in disobeyed.
Special Detective Grace Sheppard accompanied Leah Culper to her apartment building on Bishop Street at ten twenty p.m. while Conrad Burke and his men were awaiting their large shipment.
Conrad Burke had exacted the order to kill his girlfriend, Leah Culper.
Special Detective Grace Sheppard dropped her off at St. Michael’s hospital, stayed with her during her exam, and brought her back to her apartment to gather select belongings with the intention of bringing her into protective custody or getting her to a safe place that had not been authorized.
Nick Hill and Alex Parish attacked Leah Culper, chasing her toward Special Detective Grace Sheppard’s vehicle. Three shots were fired by Hill before Sheppard left the vehicle and Parish aimed his gun at Leah Culper again.
The memory flashed before Grace’s eyes. She set her coffee mug down on her nightstand before continuing.
Special Detective Grace Sheppard opened fire on Parish, killing him. Hill proceeded to fire one round, killing Leah Culper before Sheppard subdued Hill until authorities arrived.
Nick Hill later died in hospital.
Acting supervisor and lead investigator, Sgt. Bruno Colette, was not called by Special Detective Grace Sheppard and his orders to come in were ignored. Sheppard knowingly ignored orders from her superior and endangered the case.
It is recommended that Special Detective Grace Sheppard be put on a mandatory, unpaid leave of absence for a period of no less than three months. During this period, she is ordered to attend therapy until written consent to return to work is granted by her therapist, whereby she be demoted to Deerhorn County upon her return.
Grace closed the binder and sighed before pushing herself off the bed. She crouched beside it and tucked the worn binder back under her spare throw blanket.
The report had been fairly accurate and variations or excerpts had been passed on to any member of the law willing to listen—eager to know what happened the night they arrested Conrad Burke on more charges than she could remember—but the report didn’t include everything that had happened.
Grace had lost so much of what she worked for all her life.
A well-respected position on the force in the city and a reputation for being an intelligent and reliable detective.
She’d work as hard as she needed to gain it all back, and she’d play by the book no matter what.
But nothing will bring Leah back, Grace thought.
Reading the report reminded her that regardless of the effort she put forth, the most heartbreaking loss could never be reversed or changed.
As she entered the small police department of Tall Pines, an officer at the front desk escorted her to the chief’s office.
“Detective Sheppard, pleased to have you with us,” he extended his meaty hand to her. “Police Chief Paul Banning. You can call me Chief or Banning, like most do around here.”
Grace shook his hand, appreciating his firm grip, and he gestured for her to take a seat. She sat down and he sat behind his desk after her.
She’d never once seen her first foster father, the one she shared with Madigan, shake a man’s hand, or woman’s for that matter. Her second and final foster parents had taught her the importance of a good one.
“How are you liking Tall Pines?” he asked. “You moved back about a month ago, right?”
“I’ve found it peaceful,” she said, lying. “Big difference from Amherst.”
The town had always seemed idyllic to her since childhood, but the mature trees, beautiful coast, and smaller population had yet to bring her their promising sense of calm.
Banning released a hearty chuckle and nodded. “If that’s a nice way of saying you’re in the boonies, you don’t have to be polite here. You’ll find all the surrounding towns in Deerhorn just the same if you haven’t already. It’s a slower pace out here but that can be a good thing.”
For someone like me, right?
“I look forward to learning the ropes.”
“You’ll catch on quickly, I have no doubt. Now I don’t want to pretend there isn’t an elephant in the room, because there is, but once we address it, I’m happy to move on.”
Here we go.
She clenched her jaw and nodded, giving him the permission he didn’t need to air her shame.
“I’ve been filled in on the details of your last case,” Banning said, clearing his throat. “I’ve been told the whole take down wouldn’t have been possible without you, but I understand there was an issue with procedure at the end of your time undercover. I need to know you’ll follow procedure here working with the Tall Pines department in co-ordination with the others in the county.”
“Of course,” Grace nodded.
I’ll never make the same mistake.
“I have a good feeling about you, but I run a tight ship here. It’s nothing fancy like what you’re used to, but we do things by the book, and we don’t have any issues. Can I count on you to follow my orders, Sheppard?”
Maybe he’s willing to give me a clean slate.
“Good,” he said. “Well, you’ve been cleared for duty and I’d like you to start right away by meeting my right-hand man, Officer Adam MacIntyre. He’ll let you know about the current ongoing investigation he’s working on and fill you in on anything else you’ll need to know about the Tall Pines PD. He must be running late. Traffic.”
In Tall Pines? Doubt it.
Grace nodded and folded her hands in her lap, keeping perfect posture, as Banning leaned back in his chair.
“So,” Banning started, and Grace tried not to wince.
Not small talk…
“You live up on Rosebank Drive. Right by the ocean there?”
“Yes, sir,” she smiled, lifting her chin. “My property backs onto the coast.”
That particular spot had held special meaning since she was a child living in Amherst and dreaming with her sister of living across the bay in the quiet town of Tall Pines.
“And you live alone, then?”
Why was he asking when he already knew?
“Well, it’s a great spot.” Banning nodded and shifted in his seat as an uncomfortable silence grew between them. “You should help yourself to a cup of coffee.”
A knock on the door gave them reprieve, and without waiting for a reply, it wooshed open. A man with warm brown hair and a wrinkled uniform stopped just inside the doorway.
“Ah, shit. Right,” he muttered, his gruff voice filling the room as he glanced from Grace to Banning.
“This is Officer Adam MacIntyre.” Banning stood and Grace followed. “This is DI Grace Sheppard.”
“Right.” He nodded, switching his Styrofoam coffee cup to his left hand and extending his right. “Just call me Mac.”
His warm hand barely held hers. She went in with a firm grip and shook his once before he let go.
Not a good sign.
“I heard from Brooks,” Banning said. “That’s the Chief up in Torrance. He says we’ve got her ‘til they need her. I’ve told Sheppard you’ll fill her in on your current investigation and answer any questions she has.”
“Sure thing, Chief.” He smiled and took a sip of his coffee. “Hey, are you up for a round this Sunday?”
“You know it,” Banning said, before returning to his seat. “Seven good for you, Mac?”
“See you there.” He pointed to him and strutted out of the office without giving Grace a second look.
She followed Mac out into the hallway.
“Rhonda,” he called to the officer at the front desk, “I’ll be back for lunch. Could you get a fresh pot on before then?”
“Put your own on, Mac,” Rhonda called to him as he passed her on his way to the door. “Get me a cup while you’re at it.”
As Grace caught up, she nodded to Rhonda, who smiled watching Mac leave.
“He’s a handful,” Rhonda laughed. “Good luck.”
I should introduce myself, but I don’t have time.
I have to keep up.
Grace jogged to the front door before it swung shut, and took long strides to catch up to him.
“So you have an investigation in the works?” Grace asked, as he unlocked his patrol car.
“Two low-lifes going door to door posing as firemen,” he said, before getting in.
She strode to the passenger side and joined him.
“They’re casing homes, using the guise of inspecting folks fire detectors.” He started the car. “Two white males, aged twenty-five to thirty-five.”
“So we’re going to possible routes they may be taking? I assume you’ve spoken to the people who called in the suspicious behavior?”
He pulled out of his spot and waved to an officer walking toward the station. Grace waited for an answer as he turned left and drove out of the parking lot.
“Where are we headed?” she asked.
“I’m taking you to interview a witness,” he said, turning up his radio.
Not a talker. Got it.
He turned onto the main strip of town and not long after, they turned into the small parking lot of a diner.
The Big Spoon.
He’s getting breakfast.
Jerking me around.
He parked and opened his door, but she stayed in her seat.
“Not joining me on the investigation?” he asked.
Don’t fall for it.
“I already ate,” she said, without looking at him.
Play it cool.
“Suit yourself, Sheppard.”
He slammed the door shut and jogged to the diner door.
He’d left the foam coffee cup in his holder between them. A cup with a spoon logo that matched the diner’s.
He’s been here already this morning. What’s he up to?
Don’t get on his bad side. Get in there.
She spotted him through the large glass window, sitting at the counter, speaking with the man behind it. After yanking open the heavy front door, the greasy smell from the grill and fryers filled her nose. Saliva formed in her mouth and she took smaller breaths.
As a vegetarian, she found meat disgusting, but the old familiar smells still made her mouth water.
“Who’s this?” the man behind the counter asked as she took a seat beside Mac.
Mac shrugged and shook his head, chuckling. “No, I’m just fooling with you. Terry, this is Detective Grace Sheppard.”
“Oooh,” the man laughed. “Detective.”
“I’m his new partner,” Grace smiled. “Cup of tea, please?”
“Terry knows I work alone,” Mac said, tapping the counter with his palm.
“Bagels.” Terry slid a brown bag toward Mac. “Her favourite. I got one in there for you too.”
“You remembered to let her know I’m bringing her breakfast, right?”
Terry nodded. “Those buggers practically pushed right by her, Mac. Went into every room and she followed them helplessly.”
“We’ll get ‘em. I need you to make that call about the alarm system, alright?”
“Used to be we could leave our doors unlocked.” Terry shook his head and grabbed a foam cup from the stack behind the counter.
“I know. But this is for Martha, alright?”
“Thanks for lookin’ out, Mac,” Terry said, tossing a tea bag into the foam cup. “She’ll feel better after talking to you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Mac said, standing. “See you tomorrow.”
He strode away and Grace stood from her seat.
“You coming?” Mac called, just before the door swung shut.
“I’ll take a rain check on that tea,” Grace said.
Terry chuckled and shook his head.
She dashed out the door and got in the car as Mac turned the key in the ignition.
“We’re not partners,” Mac said, before pulling out of the spot.
“For now, we’re working together.”
“I know what happened in Amherst.”
Throw it in my face.
You can’t say anything I haven’t heard.
Grace shook her head. “You don’t know everything.”
“I know enough not to trust you,” he said.
Maybe you shouldn’t.
She sat in silence, running her tongue along the inside of her bottom teeth.
Rebutting only made it worse in Amherst. There would be no difference here.
“I’ve never been to a shrink,” he said, “but I bet they tried to make you feel like it wasn’t your fault.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I mean, your contact was killed right in front of you. You disregarded orders,” he said. “It was almost over and you couldn’t stay out of the way.”
Grace felt her cellphone vibrate in her pocket and checked it, pretending not to listen to him.
Meet me at our spot when you’re off.
Grace sighed and started to type an excuse.
She had been able to keep Madigan at a safe distance during her therapy in Amherst, but since moving to Tall Pines, her sister had been more insistent on getting together.
On figuring out what happened while Grace was away.
Looks like it’ll be a long one, she typed.
“I’m taking you along here as a favor, but tomorrow you’re on your own. Do some paperwork or something,” Mac said. “Don’t know why Banning agreed to bring you in. Guess he didn’t have a choice.”
Grace kept her head down, wanting to tell him off. To tell him he didn’t know jack about her assignment, but making enemies right away wasn’t smart.
A little voice of doubt always found a way to creep inside her thoughts.
Give up on the fresh start. It’s impossible.
Do the best with what you have.
So far, from what she’d gathered, Mac’s weakness was that he saw things in black and white. Right and wrong. Not to mention his cocky demeanor.
See you at eight. Bring alcohol, she typed and sent the text to Madigan.
Mac was quiet for the rest of the drive.
Just for you, Madigan, I’ll come up with a strength, too. Mac’s strength is that he knows how to shut up.
She tried not to look at him and stared out her window.
Be professional. Focus on the job. Show him he can’t break you.
After her shift, she’d need a drink with the only person in the world who still thought she was a good person.
She grabbed the pendant of her necklace that matched Madigan’s, and twisted it back and forth.
That’s because she doesn’t know.
And Grace would keep it that way.
She couldn’t lose Madigan.
Madigan squeezed the folded lawn chairs under her arm, dragging her small cooler through the sand toward the large rock nestled into the face of a short cliff.
They had claimed the spot as their own the year they met, both seven.
The year they became sisters—not by blood—but by the bond they shared as misfits.
Two innocent children, forced into a new life filled with manipulation, abuse, and desperation.
So desperate that on Grace’s eighth birthday, Madigan hatched a plan to run away together.
Their foster mom, Evette, promised Grace they would take the ferry across the bay into the small town of Tall Pines and spend the night riding all the rides and eating all the treats they wanted at the summer fair.
The plan almost fell through after they’d disappointed Eli, their foster father, by failing one of his “missions”, but after he left for the night, no doubt on one of his benders, Evette kept her promise and brought them to the fair.
Without a destination in mind, only knowing they wanted to get as far away from home as possible, they slipped away from Evette, through the metal gate. Following the long row of tall pines toward the coast, the hum of the crowds faded as they reached the water’s edge and settled on the rocky shore that summer night.
It had been their first time seeing the ocean up close, and Madigan often compared the crashing waves and bubbling water along the shoreline to her own feelings about that night.
They were lost and scared.
Madigan dragged the cooler closer to the flat rock, squinting to focus on the port for the ferry in the far-off distance across Bones Bay. Little lights sparkled further up the coast along the shore line. Tiny houses they’d seen from their bedroom window in Amherst, looking out across Bones Bay, while dreaming of living in Tall Pines with a family who loved them, or at least didn’t hurt them.
Dreaming of living the lives of the other little girls at the fair who sat on their father’s shoulders, or tugged at their mom’s leg, pointing to what they wanted next.
The little girls from Tall Pines had everything they wanted.
When Grace told Madigan she’d been relocated to Deerhorn County, Madigan had been thrilled to learn they would be living in the same place again. To have her close. To have the ability to see each other anytime they wanted, but there had been a sadness in Grace’s voice that day and ever since, so it still came as a beautiful surprise when Grace announced she’d purchased a place on Rosebank Drive, less than half a kilometer away from their spot.
She had chosen a small white beach house on the corner of the street with a beautiful rose garden along the L-shaped walkway leading to a blue front door. With a backyard that overlooked the ocean, a short walk away from their special spot, she’d made their dream come true in her own way.
Madigan wanted to make it a special kind of homecoming.
She spun around in a circle, finding the exact spot they’d taken refuge that summer night, and unfolded the two chairs beside it. She pushed the small cooler in front of them, opened it up, and plunked an icy beer bottle down into each of the chair arm’s drink holders.
A shadowy figure stumbled down the short rocky footpath from Rosebank Drive toward her.
Grace’s long strides would have given her away had Madigan not expected her. Her long raven-black hair blew in the breeze across her face, and as she kicked sand up behind her with each step, she tucked her hands in her dress pant pockets.
“I knew you’d do something like this.” Grace smiled as Madigan dropped into her chair and cracked open a beer.
“You said bring alcohol.” Madigan held the beer up high before pressing it to her lips and taking a sip.
“I know, but we could have just sat on the rock like we always do.”
Grace sat beside her and pulled her bottle from the holder. As she leaned back, her hair blew across her face and she pulled it away, sighing.
“Rough first day?” Madigan asked.
“Nothing I didn’t expect.” Grace cracked open the beer and took a sip, sighing afterwards. “It’s beautiful.”
“Everything,” Grace said, and her eyes glazed over.
“Grace? You okay?”
Graced nodded and took another sip.
Madigan wanted to prod further, but in the weeks since Grace had moved back, she’d learned not to pry. It only made her withdraw into herself more.
She’d managed to figure out the relocation had been a demotion, and that whatever had happened to Grace while she was undercover in Amherst rivaled the trauma they’d faced together as children.
Or maybe it was worse.
Shivers crept up Madigan’s spine, sending chills across her arms. Waves rocked up the shore and rolled back toward the ocean again several times before Grace spoke.
“It reminds me of you,” she said.
“The ocean?” Madigan asked, pulling her sweater on, zipping it up.
“It reminds me of you, too.” Madigan took another sip. “I was remembering the night we found this place.”
“I was crazy to let you drag me out here,” Grace laughed, the sound drowned out by the crashing waves.
Even without makeup, Madigan thought Grace was one of the most beautiful women she had ever known. Naturally beautiful—something Madigan had never felt.
As much as she had also never felt like she fit in, Grace’s appearance—part aboriginal and part Caucasian, both of unknown lineage—set her apart before anyone could even get to know her. Teachers in school would ask Grace questions like what are you, or why did you leave the reserve?
At least I can blend in. Go unnoticed.
“You didn’t even know where we were going.”
Madigan shrugged. “It was a good night. The perfect night.”
“It was my favourite birthday,” Grace said, staring out at the waves.
Madigan turned to her with a grin, ready to make a joke about how mushy she’d been but decided to let the moment linger.
She looks peaceful.
“Cheers to being back,” Madigan said.
They clinked their bottles together and drank.
“I was remembering how we fell asleep,” Grace said. “You remember when we woke up, and heard them calling, we thought we were going to jail?”
Madigan nodded. “Eli always warned us if we didn’t do as he said, we’d go to jail. That’s terrifying for a kid.”
“The police came right down there,” Grace pointed to the rocky pathway she’d walked down.
“And Evette was waiting up there for us with open arms, you remember?” Madigan pointed to the ledge they’d both came from, by Rosebank Drive.
“She was crying. She was faking it.” Grace leaned back in her chair.
“I don’t think she was.”
Grace shrugged. “I think she knew if she didn’t find us, Eli would know she took us out against his wishes. She wasn’t even mad at us when we returned home. Do you remember that?”
“I remember she told us never to leave her again.” Madigan clenched her jaw remembering the beating they’d each gotten the night before. They’d been given a mission to collect money from one of the richest neighbourhoods in Amherst for their supposed girl scout troupe or some organization young girls collected money for. Eli changed the charity each time.
They’d both gotten tired and Madigan pitched a fit in front of one of the houses.
When they returned back to the house, they each received their first bad beating from Eli, because they hadn’t followed through or hadn’t collected enough money. They were too young to remember, but whatever the reason, they both had trouble sitting for the week after and Madigan had tried to fight him off, ending up with an extra beating too.
“She knew if she was caught bringing us the to fair, she’d get a beating worse than ours,” Madigan said.
“Eli knew the police wouldn’t follow up with us,” Grace sighed. “No matter how many marks or bruises, they really bought the whole kids-will-be-kids line.”
“When he beat us the night before the fair—“
“Can we talk about something else?” Grace said, putting her feet up on the cooler, knocking sand from the bottom of her shoes onto the top of it. “Damn.”
“How was your day?” Grace asked. “Anything exciting going on in this town I don’t know about?”
“Business as usual. Unless you know of anything?”
Grace shook her head.
She’d been careful not to burden Grace with any of her own problem’s since she came back, and after the rough day she guessed Grace had, she wanted to lighten the mood.
“I set up our chief editor, Cindy, with the owner of Roy’s Tavern.”
“Right, and looks like I might have a talent for matchmaking.”
“Oh yeah?” Grace asked. “And speaking of, how’s your match?”
After Grace came back from her undercover job, she’d seemed shocked to hear Madigan not only had a boyfriend, but that they’d moved in together. After hearing about him, she’d ran his name through whatever system they had at the department, disappointed to report back that he was clean. According to her, that had meant trouble—until she met Will soon after she moved in. He could win over even the toughest critics.
“He’s good,” Madigan nodded. “At the hospital a lot.”
“I know what it’s like to work crazy hours.” Grace set her beer back into her chair. “Do you two see each other a lot?”
Madigan nodded. “It’s nice. He does his whole trauma surgery thing, and I have time to do my investigative reporting. Then, when we’re together we get to relax a bit or do something fun.”
“Like English horseback riding?” Grace asked and stifled a chuckle.
Madigan shot her a look. “It’s good to try new things and it was Will’s turn to pick.”
“I know. You’re more of a western girl though. I’m surprised he didn’t choose that style.”
“His parents are members of the country club and they get free lessons. Plus, Will doesn’t know me as well as you do. We’ve only been together… six months. Or is it eight?”
“Okay, okay. Any progress on getting closer to that front page?” Grace asked.
In other words, why haven’t I made the front page yet?
Change the subject.
“Oh, actually, about Will. He texted to tell me he has some good news for me, so we’ll see what that is. I bet he got a promotion.”
“Everyone at the hospital loves him,” Madigan said. “I bet they’re trying to hold on to a good thing.”
“And how about you?” Grace asked, turning to her. “Are you finally doing the same?”
Madigan sighed and took a swig from her bottle.
She wondered if Grace had been alluding to the fact she’d never been with any guy for long, or any job for too long.
But she’d seen better days at the paper when she’d first started, and ever since Grace had implied there must be something wrong with Will, Madigan had tried to find his imperfections, as she always inevitably did.
“You’re doing good,” Grace said. “I’m proud of you. You really seem like you have it together, you know?”
Madigan had never done a good job of fooling Grace. They had both been trained with the same manipulation techniques, and they knew each other better than anyone.
Or they used to.
Grace hadn’t paid attention to the way Madigan’s smile faltered when she asked how her day was. How Madigan had drank to avoid answering whether or not she was really trying to hang on to the life she’d built since Grace left to go undercover for over a year.
“Better than my usual hot mess, huh?” Madigan smiled.
“Well, I just meant—since Drew, you know?”
The smile slipped from her lips as she nodded, pretending to agree, and losing focus as she glanced out at the ocean.
It’s been ten years. No, eleven. How? How could you be gone for that long?
Tears filled her eyes as the wind swept her hair across her face.
I miss ya, Drew.
“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Grace whispered, and Madigan shook her head, although she was sorry too. “He was a great guy.”
Madigan nodded, pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling.
“Have you heard from your parents?” Grace asked.
Madigan shook her head.
Her adoptive parents, the Knoxes, had bought a summer home in Florida a year after their son—her brother—Drew’s death. They needed to get away from the things that reminded them of him—that was what they told Madigan—but she knew the truth.
They wanted to get away from her.
After she and Grace had been taken from Eli and Evette, and split apart, she felt so lucky to have been sent to the Knox family. To become one of them and feel like she belonged—even if something had always and would always be missing.
The Knoxes weren’t perfect, but she didn’t know a family who was.
Grace’s next foster parents never adopted her or showed her much affection. Nothing like the bond Madigan had developed with her new brother, Drew.
You’re lucky, she would remind herself every day—until the accident.
They had gone on a family camping trip and while out on their kayaks, away from their parents, Drew’s had flipped over. The current had carried him away, drowning him before Madigan could reach him.
“It kind of felt like I had a brother, too,” Grace whispered. “I loved coming to stay with you guys. He’d be proud of you.”
Grace’s phone rang, the bleeping notes faint over the crashing waves.
“I have to take this,” she said, bringing the phone to her ear. “Sheppard.”
Madigan played with the loose material hanging from the arm of her chair as she sniffled back her tears.
How could he be proud of me? If he saw me now and knew what Mom and Dad thought of me…
She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned to her sister. Grace frowned and stared down at the rocks.
“We’ve got a possible homicide down near the subdivision by Thornhill,” Banning said, and Grace pressed the phone against her ear. “I’m sending you the address now. Get down here.”
“Yes, sir,” Grace said. “I’m on my way.”
As she turned to Madigan, her long highlighted hair blowing in the wind across her face, her heart sank a little, wishing they could have sat together a while longer.
“This town’s not as quiet as it seems,” Grace said, standing from her chair.
“What is it?” Madigan asked.
Grace shook her head. “Can’t say. I’m sorry, I have to go.”
Her heart thudded harder. Faster.
I have to go, now. I have to show them I’m reliable.
“I totally understand,” Madigan nodded, her blue eyes staring up at her as she pulled on her faux leather jacket. “We’ll catch up later.”
“Thanks for this,” Grace said, and zipped her jacket up.
“Anytime.” Madigan nodded and stood.
She never wore much colour, and her rocker chic style hadn’t changed much since high school. While she had sometimes swapped out her black combat boots for sexy black ankle boots, rocker t-shirts and black nail polish had remained fashion staples for Madigan.
Grace waved goodbye and jogged back up the beach toward the small rocky pathway.
“It’s not a real first day on the job unless there’s a murder,” Grace muttered to herself as she backed out of her driveway.
It was just as well.
She hadn’t sat beside her sister for more than a minute before the beautiful moment had been filled with guilt.
The guilt she felt that Leah would never get to see the ocean again, or spend time with her own sister, or any of her family.
Why didn’t I leave it alone?
The question seemed simple but the answer proved to be complicated. She had spoken to her therapist about it on multiple occasions, and she must have given the right answer, because she was approved for work again.
Leah Culper had been the contact chosen for Grace by the undercover unit, and they made fast friends right away—not only because Grace had the advantage of knowing an incredible amount of information about her—but because Leah surprised her.
Leah hadn’t just been the Drug King of Amherst’s girlfriend. She was an artist. A friend. A doting daughter. Most of all, a protective sister who’d do anything for her sibling.
The thing that connected them from the beginning had been something Leah never knew they had in common.
Leah’s strength and weakness had been doing everything with all her heart.
The trick Eli had taught Grace at a young age was something she’d later been trained to use as a detective. The most important part of her undercover assignment had been to exploit Leah, but her boyfriend, Conrad Burke, had been doing a better job of it before Grace came along. He’d abused her emotionally in front of everyone and physically behind closed doors. After more than a year of watching them together, Grace knew Leah would never leave him on her own.
And that’s why she’d done what she did.
Leah’s death rested on Grace’s shoulders and although the weight had been almost too difficult to bear at times, she carried it because she needed to carry it.
Simple as that.
Every time something good happened, she reminded herself what a terrible person she was for what she’d done and that she didn’t deserve anything good.
It made it easier to take the painful remarks from her colleagues after she came back in, the intense glares, and finally, the demotion she’d received to move from the city to Tall Pines.
I got what was coming to me.
The only thing left to do was work her way up again.
It was the only way she could think of to atone for her mistake.
As she turned down the short country road with only three houses, an ambulance and two police cars sat in front of the first house on the right.
She knew who the first car belonged to before she could even read the plate.
Chief Banning must have called her after realizing Mac was on the scene and hadn’t followed his orders to fill her in.
As she parked behind Mac’s car, some movement across the street caught her eye. A neighbour peaking through their curtains.
What have you seen tonight?
As she walked up the long driveway, she passed an officer with a roll of yellow caution tape.
“Mac inside?” she asked.
“Sheppard?” the officer asked. “He said you’d be late. Young woman in her mid-twenties. Head injury and she bled out. Mac’s waiting for you in the kitchen with the vic’s fiancé. He’s the one who found her.”
“Thanks,” Grace said, and strode along the path toward the front door.
No distinguishable marks along the path, and no visible signs of forced entry at the front window or door.
She stepped inside and a bright red puddle on the taupe living room carpet caught her eye.
Deep voices carried down the hallway, and she pulled on a pair of gloves before taking a step from the hardwood hallway onto the plush carpet in the living room.
Red roses and petals lay scattered around a blonde woman, her hair dyed red by the blood and her body sprawled out like she’d fallen, or been pushed down.
As she crouched, light from the lamp reflected off a piece of glass. The rest of the broken glass vase had rolled under the living room table. Another glint caught her eye. A diamond engagement ring.
The floral perfume of the roses mixed with the metallic smell of blood turned her stomach.
The cycle of abuse. Apologies made. Promises broken.
After Eli beat Evette bad enough to make her bleed, red roses were sure to follow the next day. She’d put them in her painted vase and sit them on the windowsill, admiring them as she did the dishes each night.
She’d cry when he beat her and again when he brought the roses.
Before they could wilt, they’d be at it again.
“Sheppard?” Mac called from down the hall, shaking her out of her daze, and she stood.
No ripped clothing. No blood on the vase.
Where’s the M.E.?
She stepped back into the hallway, her heels clicking against the hardwood, and walked toward a bright light in the kitchen. No picture frames hung on the walls, but a wooden sign hung above the entry to the small country-styled kitchen.
Home is where the heart is.
The clichéd quote had always resonated with her.
She entered the kitchen where a man at least a few years older than herself sat at the small round table. His button-up shirt hung loose over his front and tight around his toned upper arms. His sleeves had been rolled up and tattoos covered his forearms, stopping at his watch. A hint of grey hair through the dark locks at the sides of his head made her reconsider his age.
Mac leaned back against the marble island with his arms crossed over his chest.
“I’m Detective Inspector Sheppard.” She turned to the man.
“John Talbot,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“Mr. Talbot,” Mac said, “please tell us what happened tonight.”
Grace pulled a wooden chair out from the table and sat opposite John, before taking out her phone and hitting record.
“I just—“ John started, resting his hands on the table, and turning to Mac. “Could you please just look into him?”
“I’ll be having a word with everyone who might be able to shed some light on what happened here tonight.”
“I told you, I just got here and she …” Tears slid down John’s tanned cheeks and he shook his head.
“Before then,” Grace said.
“I came home from work tonight at about seven.”
He stared down at his dry hands, small cuts along his forefingers.
He works with those hands.
“John,” she said. “I understand this must be very difficult for you, but if you want to help us find out who did this, we need you to co-operate.”
He frowned, staring at the table. “I brought Lily those flowers. I was late coming home because I stopped to get her flowers. She put them in that vase from her mother. I know that because the vase was supposed to be some kind of peace offering. I watched her. She put them in the vase before we had supper.”
A peace offering?
“So you ate,” Mac said, and glanced over his shoulder toward the sink.
Grace had already noted it was empty. If they’d eaten, their dinner had been cleaned up.
“Yes. Then I went to Amherst.”
“Why?” Mac asked.
“To see a friend,” he said, frowning. “I met a friend I know through work for coffee.”
The front door creaked open and Mac leaned backward to see through the doorway.
“Lockwood,” Mac said, nodding to someone down the hall, and stood up straight again. “You met a friend?”
“Yes, and then I drove back along Bones Bay instead of the highway.”
“And what happened when you came back?” Grace asked.
“I walked in and found her like that. The vase smashed. Flowers…” He shook his head again and pressed his hands over his face. “I—I called the cops as soon as I could—could catch my breath.”
“Where do you work?” Mac asked.
“Thom’s Tackle Shop.” He choked out the words, wiping at his red face and clearing his throat. “Bait and tackle shop on Bones Drive, right at the end by the bay. I work for Thom Hanks.”
Grace frowned at the name.
Like the movie star?
“What friend did you see?” Mac asked. “I need you to write down their name and number.”
Grace tore off a piece of paper from the small pad she carried, and handed it to John with her pen. He wrote it down and slid it back to her.
“His name’s Luke. We’re old friends.” John crossed his arms. “Met at the shop. He fishes. Hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we were catching up. Listen, you’re wasting your time talking to me. You have to go see Mickey Clarke.”
“Why?” Grace asked.
The name sounded familiar.
“Lily had a restraining order on him. No contact. She used to work for him until a month ago, and after she quit, he didn’t get the hint that she wasn’t interested in him. He’d show up at her new job.”
“Where’s that?” Mac asked.
“She worked at his club, Wild Card, as a server and bartender while taking classes to be a realtor. She graduated this summer and she quit as soon as she sold her first home. He’d show up at her office, or follow her and pretend it was a coincidence when they saw each other.”
He spaced out again and looked up at Mac.
“I took her to see you guys at the department—twice—and it took a bruised arm before you granted her the no contact order,” John said through his teeth. “He’s a dangerous prick and he hurt her. He’d do it again. It was him.”
Tears welled up in his red eyes.
“We’ll be checking into Mr. Clarke,” Mac said. “I told you, we’ll follow up on your concerns. For now, you were the person closest to her. We need to hear from you.”
“Why did you bring her flowers?” Grace asked.
“It was just something I did every once in a while,” John sniffled. “She deserved more. I should have given her more.”
“Were you fighting with her?”
He shook his head and pressed his lips together.
Nonverbal. Something’s up with him.
“Mac.” The officer from outside called down the hallway. “Chief’s back.”
Mac left the room without a word. He and Banning spoke in low voices down the hallway, and another female voice joined them.
“When you walked in and found her, John, what was the first thing you thought?” Grace asked.
“He did it,” John said with wide eyes. “He’s finally done it.”
John nodded and covered his mouth with his hand, shaking his head.
He’s going to go into hysterics if I don’t keep him calm.
“How old are you, John?”
“Twenty-seven. Her birthday’s coming up. She would have been twenty-seven this year.”
“John, we need to contact Lily’s parents. Do you have their number?”
He shook his head. “She doesn’t talk to her parents much. I don’t have a relationship with them.”
“They’ve just never liked me,” he shrugged. “The age difference, I think. Since we got engaged her dad wasn’t speaking to her anymore.”
The peace offering of the vase from her mom.
“But her mom does?”
“Why don’t they like you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I’m too old? I’m not good enough for their daughter. I never would have been. They’ll blame me.”
“For her death?”
He shook his head no. “For estranging them from their daughter. It’s her father’s fault he didn’t speak to her. He hurt her so bad because of that…”
He stared past her.
“That’s alright,” Grace said. “We’ll get their number. Is there anyone else you can think of who’d want to hurt Lily?”
“No one. Everyone loves her.”
“Anyone else who has keys to your home?”
He shook his head.
Would Lily have let Mickey Clarke in after she’d just been granted a no contact order against him?
Grace stood from her chair, passing him a tissue from the box on the marble island.
“Did you wear a coat when you left?” she asked, staring at the tattoos on his forearms as he took it.
“Yeah,” he said, frowning.
“When did you take it off?” she asked.
When did you have time to think about taking off your coat?
She walked around the marble island and stood on the other side. Banning, Mac, and the officer entered the kitchen.
“Just after he got here,” he nodded to Mac.
“You’re going to have to stay somewhere else for a while,” Mac said. “Do you have anywhere you can stay?”
“I’ll get a hotel room.”
Mac nodded. “Officer Malone will escort you to your room to pack a few things and answer any questions he’s able to. When you know where you’re staying, this is my number. Please contact me and let me know.”
Mac handed him his card, and John stood from the table and took it.
He was tall, and as she stared up at him, she couldn’t believe he was over forty.
With a girlfriend in her twenties.
Officer Malone followed John out of the room and up the staircase just off the hallway.
Banning shook his head. “This is the first body this year. I want you both on this, and use Malone when you can too, alright?”
Mac nodded. “When Lockwood gets back to me with her findings, I’ll let you know.”
“You’ll notify the parents now, then?” Banning asked.
Mac nodded. “There’s someone else I want to question tonight, too.”
“You’ve got a busy night ahead,” Banning said, nodding to Grace.
Banning turned back down the hallway and Mac followed him. A woman in a dark blue coat stood beside a man photographing the scene and nodded to Mac.
Chief M.E. had been stitched in yellow writing on the back of her jacket.
“I need that report ASAP,” Mac said.
The woman nodded.
“I’m Detective Inspector Grace Sheppard.”
“Raven Lockwood,” she nodded. “Chief M.E.”
“Nice to meet you,” Grace said, and followed Mac out the front door.
Still trying to keep up.
“You get the parents’ address?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I asked him but he didn’t have their number so I’ll look—“
“Don’t bother. I already have it.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“You’d better ride with me,” he said, shaking his head as they passed another officer lugging an evidence box up the driveway. “Don’t want you to fall behind.”
Grace rolled her eyes and as they reached to the bottom of the driveway, Banning stood in front of two reporters and a camera-man.
Madigan stood at the front with her phone held out in front of her.
“You coming?” Mac asked.
She caught Madigan’s eye and nodded to her. She’d never thought of her as The Press. Just a writer for the local paper, but more often than not, Grace found the media got in the way of the cases she worked.
Grace turned and jogged to Mac’s car. As soon as she got in, he started to roll away.
“I’m going to need you to pick up the pace,” he said.
I’m not slow.
Am I going too slow?
“I wanted to talk to the neighbour across the way,” she said.
“I’ve got Malone on it.”
He sees things in black and white. He wants facts.
“I’ve heard of Mickey Clarke,” she said.
“He owns Wild Card and he’s one of the owners of Salty Rocks too. He’s a rough guy.”
Once she’d gotten close to her contact, Leah, she’d also caught the eye of her boyfriend Conrad Burke’s best friend, Nick Hill. She’d been instructed to get closer with him and they started dating, hoping the more intimate relationship would get her closer to Burke and any intel on the drugs they’d been moving.
Salty Rocks had been their group’s favourite club, and Grace suspected the owners were involved in other unsavory business too.
“Any priors?” Mac asked.
“Nope. Nothing they could catch him with. John Talbot?”
“He was arrested and sent to juvie as a teen for possession with intent to distribute,” he said. “After that, it’s just parking tickets through his twenties. Couple months ago, he was involved in an altercation on seventh in the city. No charges though.”
“Seventh?” Grace frowned. “That’s where Wild Card is. Who was he fighting with?”
“Guy didn’t leave a name. Didn’t have a record, I guess, but John’s name was on the record.”
“Think it was Mickey?” she asked.
Mac shook his head.
“They’d know who he was, wouldn’t they?”
Of course they would. Why did I ask that?
Mac turned up the radio, and as they merged onto the highway bridge toward Amherst, she wondered if meeting a friend was John’s real reason for going into the city that night.
“We should check the café,” she said, as they got off the bridge and took an exit lane. “See if he was there for as long as he said he was with who he said he was with.”
“Tomorrow,” Mac said. “I want to see her parents and then Clarke tonight. Her parents live just outside Amherst, technically in Deerhorn County. Then we’ll carry on to Wild Card and see if we can find Clarke there. If not, I want to pay him a visit at home.”
Grace nodded. “I think they were fighting.”
“John and Clarke?”
“John and Lily. I mean sure, men buy women flowers just because, but it was more likely they’d been fighting, it was his fault, and he was trying to make it up to her. I asked if they’d been fighting, and he shook his head, but I think he was evading the question.”
“I like to work with facts,” Mac said. “Not theories.”
Add predictable to the list of Mac’s weaknesses.
She would keep her theories to herself until they turned into something more.
If only Mac would keep his snide comments to himself, too, they might have a chance at working together in a cohesive manner to find out what happened to Lily.