Northern California Coast, March 1858

The storm had slammed in from nowhere, howling with the fury of a banshee gone amuck. Lightning cracked across the dark night sky. Thunder echoed like mortar fire through the blackness. Lashed by a screaming wind, waves crashed over the fifteen-foot sailboat, threatening to crush its fragile hull.

Wrestling with the tiller, San Francisco Police detective Flynn O’Rourke swore into the storm. He cursed the wind and the sea and the hell-damned boat. And he cursed himself for thinking he could sail up the coast to Aaron Cragun’s cliff top hideaway and catch the murdering little weasel unaware. As a sailor he was competent enough; but he was no match for a storm like this one. The sails were gone, clawed away by the wind. Worse, in the swirling darkness, with no stars to guide him, he had lost all sense of direction.

A lightning flash illuminated the sapphire signet ring on the middle finger of his left hand. The ring was the one thing Flynn had inherited from his father - the younger son of Irish nobility, who’d died penniless in the New World, leaving his son and daughter to make their own way. Both had managed well enough. Flynn had recently made the rank of lieutenant in San Francisco’s police department. His sister had used her voice and her beauty to become a music hall star.

Now his sister was dead, strangled in a filthy dark alley after a performance. A shabbily dressed man had been seen crouching over her body, pocketing her jewelry. Witnesses had identified him as Aaron Cragun, a human vulture who collected and sold salvage from shipwrecks up the coast.

Cragun was nowhere to be found. But a police informant had drawn Flynn a map of the coast, showing the remote cliffside aerie where the man lived. When the storm struck, Flynn had been on his way there, bent on dragging the bastard to the gallows or gunning him down on the spot.
Now he found himself fighting for his life.

The hull was filling with water. Abandoning the tiller, Flynn grabbed a bucket and began bailing like a madman. But it was no use. Anytime now, if it didn’t capsize first, the sloop would founder and sink.

Flynn was a strong swimmer. If the storm hadn’t carried him too far out, he might have a chance of getting to shore. But in the howling blackness, he had no idea which way to go. He could just as easily swim out to sea and drown. Until he could see land, he’d be better off staying with the boat. But as a precaution, he unbuckled his gun belt from around his hips and stowed the .36 Navy Colt in the bow compartment with his store of powder, caps and balls. If he ended up in the water, the added weight could be enough to drag him down.

Sea spray battered his face, the taste of it as salty as tears. His sister had been young and beautiful, eager to laugh and too quick to love. But he couldn’t allow himself to mourn her until he’d avenged her murder.

A blinding flash interrupted his thoughts. Stunned by the ear-splitting boom of thunder, Flynn could only be half sure of what he’d glimpsed yards ahead. It had looked like a sheer cliff, towering above rocks that jutted out of the water. Now, high in the darkness, he could make out the faintest flicker of light.

That light was the last thing he saw before the boat shattered against a rock, flinging him over the side. Something struck his head, and the world imploded into darkness.

* * * * * * *

“Hurry, Sylvie!” Daniel called. “I see something down there! It looks like a boat!”

“Stop right there, Daniel Cragun! Wait till I catch up!” Sylvie quickened her pace. The trail was narrow, the sheer cliff more than eighty feet high. Beyond the black rocks that jutted at the foot of the cliff, a pale crescent of sand, exposed by the low tide, rimmed the cove. Daniel was never allowed down the trail without supervision, but the boy always seemed to be testing his limits.

“What did I tell you about running ahead?” Sylvie seized his bony little shoulder. “Do that again, and we’ll go right back to the house.”

“But look, Sylvie! There’s a wrecked boat down there with a big hole in the bottom! Maybe it’s pirates!”
Sylvie peered cautiously over the side of the trail. “It’s just a sailboat, not a pirate ship, silly. But stay behind me until we know what else is down there.”

With Sylvie leading, they wound their way down the trail and over the barnacle encrusted rocks to the beach. The overturned boat lay on the wet sand. Its hull was smashed along the starboard side, leaving a jagged hole. Since the boat hadn’t been here yesterday, it must have been cast against the rocks in last night’s storm.

Sylvie couldn’t imagine anyone surviving such a wreck. But there were thieves and smugglers operating along the coast, and caution was never a bad idea. Dropping her basket to pick up a hefty stick of driftwood, she approached warily.

Not so Daniel. Pushing ahead of her, he raced around the boat, then stopped as if he’d run into a wall. For the space of a heartbeat he stood frozen. When he turned back to face her, his eyes were dollar sized in his small face.

“Sylvie, there’s something under the boat!” he whispered. “It’s a man! I can see his legs!”

“Get back here, Daniel! Right now!” Sylvie braced herself for what she was about to find. This wouldn’t be the first body to wash ashore in the cove. But Aaron Cragun had always taken pains to shield his children from the sight of death. He never let them near a wreck until he’d disposed of any remains, either by burial or by rowing out past the point and dumping them where the current would carry them away. Now, with her father absent, Sylvie would be duty-bound to bury this poor drowned soul. But first she wanted to get Daniel away.

“Go up to the garden, find that small shovel and toss it down,” she told her little brother. “Then stay up top and wait for me. Careful on the trail now. No running.”

Daniel’s feet had left prints in the wet sand. Still clutching the driftwood, she followed their trail around the side of the boat. A pair of muscular legs jutted heels up from under the hull. The trousers were sodden and caked with sand, but Sylvie had learned to recognize fine wool. The waterlogged brown boots were likewise of excellent quality and little worn. Her father, she knew, would expect her to salvage them. But she couldn’t bring herself to rob the dead. She would bury the man clothed as the sea had left him.

The hull of the wrecked sloop was heavy, but years of hard physical work had left her strong. Grunting with effort, Sylvie managed to lift it by the edge and drag it to one side, exposing the full length of the prone body.

He was tall – much taller than her father. And he appeared younger, too, not much beyond his twenties.
His shoulders were broad beneath his tattered white shirt, his haunches taut and muscular. His hair was dark, though not as dark as Daniel’s. A few strands fluttered in the sea breeze, catching the sunlight.
He lay with his head turned to one side. Sylvie’s gaze was drawn to his profile – sun-burnished skin against the pale sand, black lashes crusted with salt. He appeared far too young and vital to be dead. But the world was a cruel place. Every piece of wreckage the tide swept into the cove was a testament to that cruelty.

Such a man would be missed, she thought. Somewhere he was bound to have family, friends, maybe a wife or sweetheart. If she could find any information on him, a name, an address, she would write a letter and send it with her father the next time he went to San Francisco.

But the stranger had no coat or vest. Whatever he’d worn against the weather, the sea must’ve torn it away. That left his trouser pockets as the only place to look.

Leaving the driftwood chunk within reach, she crouched next to him and worked her fingers into his sodden hip pocket. As she’d feared, it was empty. Groping deeper to make sure, she gasped and drew back. One hand reached for her makeshift weapon. A corpse would be cold and rigid. But her fingers had sensed living flesh.

Trembling, she worked her hand under his collar to touch the hollow alongside his throat. The faintest throb of a pulse ticked against her fingertip.

Heaven save her, the man was alive!

E-mail Elizabeth

Home Page

Web site design by LadyWebPro.com