Joe Stanton is in agony. Out of his mind over the death of his young daughter. Unable to contain his grief, Joe loses control in public, screaming his daughter’s name and causing a huge scene at a hotel on San Juan Island in Washington State.
Thing is, Joe Stanton doesn’t have a daughter. Never did. And when the authorities arrive they blame the 28-year-old’s outburst on drugs.
What they don’t yet know is that others up and down the Pacific coast—from the Bering Sea to the Puget Sound—are suffering identical, always fatal mental breakdowns.
With the help of his girlfriend, Joe struggles to unravel the meaning of the hallucination destroying his mind. As the couple begins to perceive its significance—and Joe’s role in a looming global calamity—they must also outwit a billionaire weapons contractor bent on exploiting Joe’s newfound understanding of the cosmos, and outlast the time bomb ticking in Joe’s brain.
FIRST FIVE CHAPTERS
“God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”
Joe Stanton opened his eyes and whispered his daughter’s name. “Lorna Gwin.”
“Sweetie? You awake?”
Joe yawned and stared at the popcorn-tiled ceiling, stained here and there with sprawling amoeba-shaped rings, souvenirs of long-ago rainstorms.
He stretched. Shifted position in the bed.
Early morning sunshine stabbed through a crack in the blackout curtains, illuminating the spartan motel room like a searchlight in an abandoned mine. Ella slept quietly beside him, her dark-red hair spilling across two pillows.
“Lorna Gwin?” Joe whispered, louder now. He sat up and swung his feet to the carpet. The adjacent double bed was empty. Rumpled and ruffled, but empty. “Lorna G?”
Must be in the bathroom.
Joe got to his feet. Too fast. “Darlin’?” he croaked, head spinning, hands trembling.
No sound from the bathroom. Nothing.
He crossed the room in three strides, stepping through the bright slash of daylight.
I overslept. Something’s happened.
The bathroom door stood open, revealing an empty tub, shower curtain swept to one side. No sign of the little girl.
“Lorna Gwin,” Joe called, turning and scanning the main room in earnest now.
“Lorna?” Joe stepped to the window and shoved the heavy drapes apart, trying to keep his voice steady. “You hidin’, sweetheart? Come on out now.”
Ella rested on her elbows and tracked his movements with startled, sleep-filled eyes. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“Lorna Gwin’s missing.”
Joe threw on a wrinkled T-shirt. Stepped into a pair of cargo shorts.
“Lorna Gwin,” Joe replied, exasperated.
He jammed his feet into a pair of Keens and tugged the laces tight. “Probably went down to the lobby to get a soda. I told her not to leave without telling us.”
The door slammed, and Joe stomped toward the stairs. It was 5:32 a.m.
The bells above the motel office door clanged and clattered.
“Lorna Gwin?” Joe whispered, stepping inside.
The lobby of the Breakwater had a homey 1950s-era motor-lodge feel to it. Glowing fir floors. Framed needlepoint art on the walls. Joe scanned the room, took it all in. Registration desk. Seating area. Fireplace.
A newspaper lay rolled and banded on the rug, where it had fallen through the mail slot. The Sunday edition of the San Juan Islander.
“Sweetie? You in here?”
Silver-haired motel owner Walter Spinell stepped through the private door behind the registration desk.
“Mornin’,” he said warmly. “Gimme one minute and I’ll have the coffee on. We don’t normally get moving quite so early on Sunday, but—”
“I’m looking for my daughter,” said Joe. “Have you seen her?”
“Your daughter?” Spinell made his way around the desk.
“Little girl, five years old. Did she wander down here by any chance?”
“No,” said Spinell, noting the concern in Joe’s voice. “Don’t think so. You’re the first one in this morning. Those bells are pretty loud. My wife and I usually hear—”
“I need to find her. I think something’s”—Joe hesitated and his face, just for a moment, went completely blank—“I think maybe something’s wrong.”
“Wrong? How do you mean?”
Spinell remembered Joe from check-in: Scruffy beard. Earring. Tattoos on one arm. He also remembered Joe’s wife. She was a knockout. He’d given them Room 22, the last available unit. He couldn’t recall a kid.
“When did you see your daughter last?”
“Last night.” Joe stared out the window, raked his fingers through his thick, unruly hair, and nodded, as if confirming his own memory. “Last night. When we all went to bed.”
“Okay,” said Spinell. “I’m sure she’s right around here someplace. Where’s your wife looking?”
Joe stared, face blank once more, and Spinell felt a thin wire of fear begin to coil in his gut.
“Could she have gone to your car? Did you check the lot? Where’s your wife?”
Joe’s eyes glinted like wet obsidian, and his mouth worked, but no sound came out. Spinell’s concern ticked up a notch. The guest from 22 had the look of a shock victim. A meth head.
The guest’s eyes cleared at last, but it was not a reassuring development.
“I know where my little girl is,” said Joe. “I’ve seen her. She’s dead.”
Spinell’s first impulse was to jump for the phone and call 911, but the guest from 22 was marching for the front door. The old man shouted toward the back of the lobby. “Doris! I need you out here. Now!”
“Lorna Gwin!” Joe screamed, blasting through the door and stumbling toward the parking lot.
Spinell sprang after him. “Son. Please. It’s five thirty in the morning. Keep your voice down. The other guests—“
“Lorna Gwin,” Joe howled. “God in heaven!”
It was late June—the start of the summer season—and the place was completely full.
“I want my little girl back!” Joe roared, voice full of pain.
“Son!” cried Spinell. “For Christ’s sake!”
Doors thumped open. Frightened guests peered around curtains and from behind safety chains.
“They’ve taken my girl,” Joe wailed. “The bastards took my baby.”
“Fella,” said Spinell, setting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Calm down!”
Spinell saw a wild-haired guest raise an iPhone and begin filming the spectacle through his window.
“Stop shouting!” Spinell yelled, almost as loud as Joe.
Doris Spinell burst from the motel office clad in a bathrobe, a look of shock on her face.
“Call 911!” Walter Spinell cried.
“Lorna G,” Joe growled, low and anguished. Then, full-throated: “Lorna Gwin!”
Doris Spinell stared, frozen.
“Call the damn police,” her husband commanded. “Now!”
Doris turned and ran.
“Mister,” Spinell said, angry now, reaching for Joe. “I’m asking you—”
“They murdered my little girl!” Joe twisted away, bumping into cars, staggering like a drunk.
Spinell—red-faced, breathing hard, looking like he might have a coronary at any second—addressed his terrified guests. “Not sure what we’ve got here, folks. Police are on their way. It’ll all be sorted out real soon.”
Joe slumped against a cherry-red Corvette, triggering the car’s alarm. Lights flashed. The horn wailed.
More doors thumped open.
Spinell saw Joe’s wife at the railing on the second-floor walkway. Her hair was wet, as if she’d just stepped from the shower. She looked confused, then alarmed.
“Where’s his little girl?” one of the downstairs guests yelled from behind her safety chain.
“That’s what the police are gonna help us figure out,” Spinell replied. “Everybody just needs to relax.”
“Little difficult when somebody’s screaming their kid’s been murdered!”
The Corvette’s owner silenced his car’s alarm, and Spinell heard sirens, vehicles approaching fast.
“Please,” he cried, “just go on back to bed.”
Joe stumbled toward the far stairwell, clutching his head like a madman, muttering his daughter’s name. Spinell saw Joe’s wife moving for the stairs, tracking Joe as he crumpled against a cinderblock wall.
“Joe?” she called. “What happened? What’s going on?”
Spinell thought he saw tears in her eyes.
“We’re not married,” said Ella Tollefson.
They were sitting in the Breakwater lobby: two San Juan County sheriff’s deputies and Detective Vince Palmer in folding chairs, Ella and Joe on a bench against the wall. The Spinells puttered behind the registration desk, eavesdropping on every word.
“We’ve been dating,” said Ella, eyes cloudy from crying. “Getting pretty serious. But we’re not married.”
Joe leaned forward on the bench, head down. Ella held his hand.
“What about the child?” Detective Palmer asked.
“There is no child,” Ella said softly. “I already explained that to your colleagues.”
Palmer typed notes on a tablet PC. Looked at Joe. “Sir?”
Joe lifted his head slowly. Eyes glassy, vacant.
“Can you tell me about the little girl?” Palmer asked.
A radio crackled, and one of the deputies headed for the door. Palmer kept his eyes on Joe. “Can you tell me about this morning? About what happened here?”
A group of curiosity seekers sauntered past the entrance, the latest in a stream of looky-loos.
“Christ on a bike,” Spinell muttered as Doris hurried out to talk to them.
Joe stared at Palmer. Stared hard, like he wanted to speak. His jaw quivered.
“Who is Lorna Gwin?” Palmer asked.
Joe Stanton was a tall, athletic twenty-eight-year-old. Outdoorsy. Strong. Graceful. At the moment, though, he looked wasted. Weak and washed-out. More like a patient emerging from anesthesia than a vital twentysomething.
“Can you tell me what’s going on here?” Palmer asked.
Joe said nothing, and after a few seconds Palmer turned back to Ella. The woman was stunning. Even with bloodshot eyes and no makeup, she was gorgeous. Reminded Palmer of the models in his wife’s running-gear catalogs. Fit. Healthy. Looked like she could jog around the island and go dancing afterward.
Palmer said, “What’s up with your friend?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, squeezing Joe’s hand. “I want to get him to the doctor.”
Palmer nodded. “Couple more questions first.” He adjusted his glasses. Glanced at his tablet.
“Got a wallet on him? I’d like to see some ID.”
“Joe,” Ella said gently. “Sweetie? Your wallet?” She put her hand on his shoulder.
Joe turned to her, eyes big, like wet marbles. Jaw slack.
“Your wallet?” Ella repeated. She turned to the detective. “I’d like to get him to a hospital. Now.”
Joe finally seemed to process what she’d asked, fished his wallet out of his pocket, and passed it to her absently. She found his license and handed it to Palmer.
The detective studied the license, then passed it to a deputy, who took it to a sherif’s department SUV parked outside.
Palmer typed more notes, then regarded Ella again. “He’s never acted like this before?”
“What’s he on?”
“Prescription meds? Sleeping pills? Ambien? Something like that? Antidepressants?”
“No,” said Ella. “I’m telling you, he hates taking anything. I’m a nurse. I’d know if he was on something. I can’t even get him to take Advil when he’s hurt.” She turned to Joe. “He looks like he’s had a stroke or something.”
“Or too much crack,” Spinell muttered. Ella glared at the old man.
“Please, Walt” said Palmer, as if Spinell was an old family friend. “Go check on your other guests or something, would you?” Spinell grumbled and focused on a pile of papers.
Palmer turned to Ella. “Mind if we take a look in your room?”
“Not at all.” She handed Palmer her room key. “I don’t know why Joe did what he did this morning, but he is not on drugs.”
Palmer passed the key to a deputy. Whispered some instructions.
He looked at Ella again. “How long have you known Mr. Stanton?”
“We’ve been together about ten months. Almost eleven.”
“And how long have you been on the island?”
“Since Thursday. We just came up for a long weekend.”
The deputy who’d run the ID reentered the lobby and handed Palmer a one-page printout.
Palmer studied the page, then said to Ella, “And you were traveling from—”
“Bremerton. That’s where we live.”
“Purpose of your trip?”
Ella shrugged. “Vacation. Fun.” She glanced at Joe. “His new congregation is doing really well. We wanted to celebrate.”
“He’s an Episcopal priest,” Ella said. “A very gifted one.”
Palmer watched for a reaction from Joe. Nothing.
Palmer said, “And again, as far as you know, Mr. Stanton does not have a child?”
“From an earlier marriage?”
“An adopted child?”
Ella shook her head.
“There was no child with you on this trip?”
“I want to press charges,” Spinell cried.
“Damn nutcase, screaming like a lunatic. Scaring the hell out of everybody in my place.”
“Walt, please,” said Palmer. “I’m trying to get to the bottom of it.”
Joe stood abruptly, pivoted, and teetered toward the restroom at the back of the lobby. Ella followed.
The restroom door banged open. A fan came on. Two seconds later Joe was vomiting.
“Christ!” Spinell cried. “Now the freak’s puking up my john.”
“He needs a doctor,” Ella yelled. “Can’t you see that? Call an ambulance!”
“He’ll need a coroner if you don’t get him the hell out of my motel!”
“Bring him out,” Palmer told his deputies. “When he’s done. We’ll finish with the questions outside.”
Doris Spinell burst into the lobby just then, eyes wet with tears. “Walter,” she cried. “There’s a video.”
“Huh? Whatdya mean?”
“I saw it,” Doris managed between sobs. “On one of the guest’s computers. Our motel. That young man screaming. You can see our sign in the background.”
“The Breakwater?” Spinell’s voice sounded fragile. “In a video?”
Joe tottered past the desk just then and Spinell lunged for him, murder in his eyes. “Crackhead creep! Get off my property!”
Joe trundled on, oblivious, Ella at his arm.
Ella let go, just for a second, as they passed through the door. “Joe?” she said. “You okay?”
Joe’s eyes rolled like cue balls, and he corkscrewed to the ground, too fast for Ella to break his fall. His body lurched forward, and his head smacked the curb.
His final, disturbing, fleeting thought before he lost consciousness was of a girl he’d never met. A girl named Lorna Gwin.
Are you out there? Joe wondered as his world went dark.
Not far from the motel, Lorna Gwin’s mother fretted.
The contact with the new man had been solid, but fleeting.
Did the contact last long enough? she wondered. Did I reach him? Did I push hard enough?
She hoped so, because time was short.
There’s something about this man that makes him different from the others. Better.
Lorna Gwin’s mother tried to pin down the difference.
She thought back to when they’d met, yesterday, just for a moment. Mulled it over in her mind.
He’s stronger, she thought. The others were weak. Couldn’t endure the contact. Now they’re dead.
Lorna Gwin’s mother knew this to be true, though she had not seen them die. One minute she had been able to peer into their minds. The next, contact was broken. It could mean only one thing.
The contact killed them.
She felt no remorse for this. None whatsoever. Not after what had happened to her beloved Lorna Gwin.
Molten-red fury filled her mind and quickened her heart. I hate them.
She tried now to conjure this latest man’s name. Focusing on what she’d gleaned during their encounter, she turned the information in her mind. Much of it was unintelligible: images and sounds and patterns she could not comprehend. Did I get his name? she wondered. Would I even recognize it as a name?
Strange sounds ricocheted in her brain.
She focused harder.
Gradually, the sounds took shape.
That was it. That was his name. Stan-ton.
There’s something else different about Stan-ton, she thought, struggling with the realization. Not liking it.
Lorna Gwin’s mother shoved the notion from her mind. Doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Stan-ton is just a tool. Like the others. Nothing more. If he dies, he dies.
But she hoped he wouldn’t die. Not yet. She needed his help. Desperately.