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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
* * * * * * *
Sylvie!” Daniel called. “I see something down there! It looks like a
“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
“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
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
Heaven save her, the man was alive!