ONE LAST BREATH (with Lisa Jackson)

Available April 24, 2018!

Zebra, Genre: Suspense
ISBN-10: 1420142895 ISBN-13: 978-1420142891


Read an Excerpt

The woman on the beach slowly came to consciousness, the frigid water sliding up and over her, then receding. Sand beneath her fingers. She curled her nails into it, trying to focus, trying to wake up. She needed to remember something.

Get up or you’ll die.

Apart from her fingers, she couldn’t move. Everything was weighted down. She couldn’t even open her eyes . . . but . . . yes . . . one sand-crusted lid lifted. It was dark out. She was on a beach. And there was something just there . . . beside her on the beach . . . hunched.

She worked to open both eyes and looked right into –

The wide open blue eyes of a dead man.

She shrieked, but it came out as a whimper, and then the next wave hit and it was bigger, lifting her up, slamming her into the dead man, his arm tussling with hers until they tumbled back into the surf.

I can’t . . . she thought.

And then the world faded to black.

                                                                             #

Sam Ford rattled his truck along the jetty, scanning the western horizon. The ocean was gray today, restless under a low July sun. A line of smoke could still be seen, drifting above the water the same color as the sand. A boat had caught fire and sank. Was it his brother’s boat? Was she on it? Sam was still waiting to hear.

 

The back of his throat was gritty and raw, as if he’d been in the way of the smoke and yet it was a mile from shore. He threw the truck into park and climbed out, grabbing his binoculars. The coast guard helicopter was hovering near the boat on a northwest trajectory from where Sam stood.

The text from Joe ran across his mind, like it had a thousand times since he’d received it: Meet me at my dock at noon.

Sam had been surprised by the message. He and Joe . . . the rift between them had grown over the years. They didn’t speak any longer, much. Their father had gone to his grave angry that his two sons couldn’t reconcile; their mother resided in an apartment in Seaside with a man who would soon be their stepfather. She’d asked that both Joe and Sam come to the wedding and Sam had declined. He didn’t like the man his mother was marrying, Frank Tamaway, but that was only part of the reason he’d turned down the invitation.

Meet me at my dock at noon. . .

Sam gazed up at the sun. It had started its descent to the horizon hours ago, though it was long after Sam had texted his brother back and told him he couldn’t make it, even though he could. He came up with a dozen excuses, but Joe never sent another text, which kinda pissed Sam off at the time. Joe ordering him around? Playing passive-aggressive? Nope. That wasn’t the nature of their relationship.

 

But Joe texting him at all was unusual. His brother pretty much left him alone, and vice versa. Was he imagining the imperative note to the message? At first it had just seemed autocratic; his older brother making demands on him just because he could. But that wasn’t Joe’s way. If anything, he tended to leave Sam alone and that was just fine with Sam. But then the text had wormed its way into Sam’s brain, circling around, and he started thinking it was something more. A desperate plea? Why had his brother sent the message?

He’d tried to call Joe to ask him. He wasn’t going to go racing down the mountains from his parent’s old cabin to the beach without a good reason. Of course Joe had no way of knowing he wasn’t at his own condo, or for that matter that he could be at work. Sam hadn’t told Joe that he’d quit the Seaside PD in favor of a job in Portland that, in the end, hadn’t materialized. The job had been a step up to detective and Sam had been more than ready for it, but then there were supposed shifts within the department – a lot of double-talk from everyone involved – and the upshot was someone with political ties was slotted into the open position and Sam was out. He could’ve gone back to Seaside, but instead he took time off to think things over. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go backwards, and returning to his job as a general cop – Seaside wasn’t big enough for departments – felt like that’s what it would be. Also, his relationship with Dannella had fallen apart because he couldn’t commit, or so she said, although it hadn’t taken her long to find someone else and the last he’d heard she was pregnant and heading for the altar. He’d felt a twinge of regret over that, but like his job, he’d decided to just wait and let things happen. There was nothing to do about it anyway, and really, Dannella moving on was a good thing.

 

Joe hadn’t answered, and he’d never responded to Sam’s further texts. The morning had slipped by and finally Sam had just thought, screw it, and had driven the hour from the cabin to his brother’s house on the Nehalem River. He’d braced himself for a run-in with Joe’s wife, but the house had been deserted when he got there. He’d rung the bell and peered in the front windows, through the living room toward the back deck and across the narrow inlet to the house on the opposite side. The neighbor’s boat sat outside their dock, which made Sam realize Joe’s was gone. To make certain, Sam had tramped around the side of the house and sure enough, there was no boat tied to the silver cleats gleaming in the sun against the weathered boards of the dock.

A woman came out from the house across the river and waved at him. Sam reluctantly waved back, aware she probably thought he was Joe, even though his brother was eight years older than he was.

She called over to him. “Who’s got the boat?”

“I’m not Joe. I’m his brother,” he yelled back.

“Oh!”

She was clearly taken aback, and Sam suspected Joe had never mentioned him to her. No surprise there.

“You didn’t see him leave?” Sam asked.

She shook her head and motioned behind her. “I just got home,” she yelled.

Sam nodded and waved a goodbye as he headed back around the house to his truck. He walked up to the garage and cupped his hands over his eyes, looking through the narrow garage window. Two vehicles were inside. A black Explorer and a light blue Subaru Outback. He surmised Joe’s was the Explorer, a Ford. His brother probably didn’t hear the same grief as he did about driving something other than a Ford when your last name was Ford. His Chevy pickup had been a good deal, period.

He’d asked himself: Are Joe and the missus together on the boat?  Maybe on their way back now?

 

He’d checked his cell phone. 11:50. If his brother was returning by boat, he was pushing it pretty hard to make noon. There were houses on both sides of the narrow waterway that led into Nehalem Bay and further to the ocean that blocked his view of the river, but Sam could tell by sound alone that no boat was approaching.

Could there be a third car?

He’d waited until twelve forty-five, then he climbed back into the cab of his truck and reversed out of the drive. He punched the accelerator and headed toward the bay. When he approached, he saw a crowd of onlookers outside of their cars in the marina’s lot. They were all staring at a line of smoke and the faint flashes of orange light at the edge of the horizon.

“Boat’s on fire,” a gravel-voiced man in a baseball cap bearing the name of a local hardware store had stated.

Sam’s heart clutched. There was no reason other than timing to think it was Joe’s boat, but still . . .

A young woman in shorty shorts that were completely covered by an oversized sweatshirt said, “Coast guard should be there.”

“Don’t hear the whirly-bird,” gravel-voice pointed out, frowning.

At the moment the whup-whup-whup of the approaching helicopter reached their ears. Gravel-voice gave a quick nod and said, “Thar it is.”

Sam had reached for his cell phone. He tried Joe one more time, then sent another text: Where r u? On the boat? Call me

He’d waited another five minutes, but no answer. With growing alarm he jumped back into the truck. He put in a call to his ex-partner, Griff.

“Hey, man,” Griff answered lazily. “I’m off today. Want to get a beer later?”

 

“Griff, you hear about a boat accident? Looks like one’s on fire, out on the horizon.”

“Coast guard chopper’s out there,” he answered after a minute.

“I know.” Sam had debated on mentioning his brother, but Griff wasn’t known for keeping things to himself. “Let me get back to you on that beer. Got a few things to do.”

“You know where to find me.”

Griff spent a lot of time down at a decrepit pub overlooking the Necanicum River in Seaside, another of the feeders to the Pacific on this stretch of coastline but thirty miles north of the Nehalem. Sam had lifted more than a few pints with his partner during their five years together on the force. Griff had been against Sam’s decision to quit and was hopeful Sam would return. Maybe he would and maybe he wouldn’t. He’d been offered a job with the Tillamook County Sheriff’s Department, further south down the coast, as well. He had friends there, too. He just wasn’t certain what he wanted yet.

He’d then driven north to a section of sharp cliffs that reached into the ocean, creating an isolated beach that was only approachable at low tide around the sheer stone arms that clawed into the Pacific. He parked and half-walked, half-ran down the sharp, small rocks that tumbled off the massive stone walls. It wasn’t a popular place to come. The beach was too narrow, the view north blocked by the cliff, the beach south disintegrating into larger rocks that were arduous to cross. If you were a thrill-seeker, then you might attempt a swim around the rock arm to the sheltered beach, but the frigid water, even in the dead of summer, might give you pause.

 

Now, Sam’s gaze moved across the horizon. He liked this stretch for its inherent loneliness. What that said about him he was pretty sure he didn’t want to know, but Joe had once known how Sam was drawn to the place, so maybe . . . ? The beach itself was deserted except for an enterprising seagull who eyed him with a baleful eye. If it came to a turf war, Sam thought he might win, but the gull let him get within a foot before he hopped a few steps away and flapped his wings.

He pulled his gaze from the haze of smoke and that’s when he saw the shoe bobbing amongst the waves. A woman’s tan, slip-on sneaker. His heart clutched again, and he could almost feel the blood pumping through his veins.

Without serious conscious thought he dropped his cell phone and wallet on the sand and ran toward the surf, meeting a wave as it was coming in. He dove into water cold enough to stop his breath, and he battled the waves and turned northward as soon as he could round the cliff of rock.

He saw the woman’s body immediately. It was being teased by the incoming tide. Soon it would be sucked back out to the sea.

Julia.

He swam with the waves toward her, then battled the receding waters, staggering up the beach, falling down to his knees and stumbling up again. He grabbed her as she tumbled back toward the waiting ocean, clamped onto her arms and pulled her up the sand. The waves rushed back and he lost his balance and his grip on her. Her brown hair was a mermaid’s floating crown around her head.

“Shit. . .” he whispered.

 

He grabbed her again and this time he hauled her as far up the beach as he could. He rolled her onto her back. She wasn’t breathing. Immediately he started CPR, rhythmically pushing on her chest while his head jerked around from side to side. Where was the Coast Guard? Where was Joe? God, was it his boat?

She wasn’t responding. Even though it was no longer protocol he leaned over her, opened her mouth, blew air into her lungs, then pushed on her chest some more.

“Come on, Julia, come on,” he gritted through his teeth. “Where’s Joe? Come on, come on. Breathe . . . breathe . . . where’s Joe?”

It seemed like forever before she hawked up a rush of fluid from her lungs. Sam immediately turned her onto her side to help her.

Her lips were blue but her eyelids fluttered.

“Where’s Joe?” he asked, unable to help himself. “God, Julia. What happened? Where’s Joe?”

“Joe?” she warbled, shivering.

“Were you on the boat? Did it catch fire? Was he with you? Julia . . . was he with you?”

Her gray eyes regarded him dully. She was shivering all over and he gathered her close, aware how cold she was.

“I’m going to give you my shirt,” he said. “I’ve got to call 911. Let them know where you are. My phone’s on the other side of the rock.”

“What . . .” she whispered.

“Stay warm. I’ll just be a minute. You’re safe here.” For now, he thought. But with the tide coming in, maybe not for long. This whole area would be underwater soon.

He left her, racing back into the water, calculating how much time he had. If worse came to worst, he would swim with her in the water around the rock, but it would be harrowing. For now he just needed the chopper or a rescue boat.

 

He worked his way around the cliff face, pushed against it by a sudden, powerful wave, and banged the side of his head. His vision spun for a moment, then he was around and letting the waves shove him up the beach on the other side. He got to his feet with an effort and staggered to where he’d left his phone. He dialed 911 and spoke to the dispatcher calmly, telling them exactly where they were.

Then he left the phone again and took his wallet. It would be soaked, but he wanted the identification, just in case.

Just in case.

His trip back around the rock seemed to take forever. Every movement felt sluggish, every stroke felt as if he were losing ground. He was hurt, he realized. A concussion, possibly. Well, hell. He’d had a few in his time. Football . . . Maybe he shoulda stayed away from that game . . .

She was lying on her side, still out of reach of the waves. He ran toward her, at least he thought he did. More like lurching, he dimly realized.

“Wake up, Jules,” he ordered sternly, seeing her eyes were again closed.

He leaned down to her, alarmed. She was breathing raggedly. A sneaker wave suddenly jumped up the beach and grabbed at her. He held onto her with his waning strength until it reluctantly receded. The water felt arctic cold.

She’ll die of hypothermia . . .

He lay down atop her, warming her, making sure his weight didn’t interfere with her breathing. He had to find Joe . . . had to . . .  But Julia beneath him . . .?  All he could think about was her dove gray eyes, the ironic smile, the feel of silky skin . . .

Just like old times, he thought.

 

In a strange twilight consciousness, he remembered making love to her. Being in love with her. Thinking of making a life with her, before everything happened. He’d been an asshole, he knew. But she’d proved her faithlessness in the end, just like he’d feared. She’d married Joe, for God’s sake, and then--

Joe.

Where was Joe?

He awoke as if startled, coming to full consciousness. God, where was the ambulance? The EMTs? He was shaking violently. Another wave raced up the beach climbing up his pant legs. 

The woman beneath him stirred. Opened her eyes. He looked down into dull gray depths which stared back at him blankly. Then her eyes widened and she screamed with fear, though she could barely muster more than a whimper.

“Julia . . . Julia . . .” Sam said helplessly.

“What . . . what happened . . .?” she choked out.

“I’ve called 911. They’re coming.”

“Oh . . . oh . . .”

Sam struggled to keep his wits about him. “Julia, where’s Joe?”

“Joe . . .?”

“Yes, Joe. My brother. Your husband,” he struggled. He was filled with nebulous alarm. “Where is he?”

“You’re dead,” she said, her eyes rolling back in her head.