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When Never Comes
Author: Barbara Davis

PROLOGUE

Monck’s Corner, South Carolina

August 19, 1986

The room is dark but not quite still. A threadbare curtain breathes in and out at the window, shuddering in the sticky Carolina heat. Outside, the hum of night things fills up the quiet, a chorus of moist throats and raspy wings calling through the torn screen.

In the bed beneath the window, a girl in a pink cotton nightgown writhes amid tangled sheets. She is a lovely child, raven-haired and pale, a fringe of sooty lashes lying uneasily against her cheeks. Her whimpers turn to tears, turn to wails, turn to shrieks. She is awake but not awake, flailing one moment, rigid the next, stalked by a terror she can neither see nor name. The dreams have come again, her almost nightly companions. But no one is coming to comfort her tonight. Mama has passed out again on the bathroom floor.

ONE

Clear Harbor, Maine

November 19, 2016

The first ring came with the same throat-thickening panic all 2:00 a.m. phone calls produce. Disorientation. Dread. The certainty that something, somewhere, is terribly wrong.

Christine shot up with a gasp, grabbing for the phone on the bedside table. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Ludlow?”

“Yes.”

“Christine Ludlow?”

“Yes. Who’s calling?”

“Mrs. Ludlow, this is Sergeant Stanley with the Clear Harbor police. I apologize for the call, but we’ve been knocking for some time now. We need to speak with you.”

Police? Her pulse ticked up a notch, the skin on the back of her neck prickling with the old familiar warning. “What’s happened? What’s wrong?”

The voice on the other end of the phone was polite but strained. “We’d prefer to speak in person.”

A moment later, she was pulling back the front door, staring at two uniformed police officers. “What is it? Why are you here?”

“I’m afraid it’s your husband, ma’am. There’s been an accident. His car skidded off a bridge and into Echo Bay.”

Christine’s chest seemed to seize. “Where is he? Is he all right? What hospital have they taken him to?”

“Your husband isn’t in the hospital, Mrs. Ludlow. He . . . didn’t survive the accident. I’m afraid we’re going to need a next of kin to come down and identify his body.”

The silence spooled out as the words penetrated. Stephen’s body. Echo Bay.

“We’d be happy to drive you,” the sergeant continued, his voice full of polite sympathy. It wasn’t his first time knocking on a door in the middle of the night, Christine realized dully. How many wives, mothers, lovers, and friends had gotten the visit she was getting now?

It took a moment for the sergeant’s offer to penetrate. “No,” she replied, feeling strangely detached, as if watching the scene from a long way off. The last thing she wanted at that moment was a ride in the back of a police car. “Thank you. I can drive myself.”

The sergeant nodded. “We’ll wait while you get dressed then, and you can follow us back to the station.”

Christine nodded, trying to wrap her head around what had happened—and the reality of what came next. Bestselling crime novelist Stephen Ludlow was dead, and she needed to go identify his body. But first, she needed to get dressed.

Christine felt the ground tilt as she stepped into the lobby of the Clear Harbor Police Station. The scuffed black-and-white floor tiles, the unforgiving fluorescent glare, the nauseating aroma of burned coffee and stale cigarette smoke, reminded her queasily of another night—another calamity a lifetime ago. She shook it off. Deal with the calamity in front of you. If life had taught her anything, it had taught her that.

Sergeant Stanley stepped away to speak to the officer at the front desk, then turned back with an awkward smile and pointed to a row of blue plastic chairs along the wall. “You can have a seat if you like. We’ve called to have someone escort you down.”

Moments later, the stainless-steel elevator doors opened. Christine was startled to see a familiar figure step into the lobby. Daniel Connelly was—had been—a close friend of Stephen’s, a drinking companion and a regular at his Friday night card games. But he was a homicide detective, and Stephen had died in a car accident. What was he doing here at three in the morning?

“Christine.” He took both her hands in his. They were hot and slightly sticky. “I’m so sorry. When they realized it was Stephen, they called me. They thought it might be easier if I was here to . . . explain things.”

She frowned. Explain things? It was an odd way to put it, a cold, blunt way. She pulled her hands free, trying not to be obvious as she wiped her palms on her jacket. “Thank you, Detective, for coming out at this hour.”

“Please, call me Danny.”

He was thickset and beefy, with full ruddy cheeks and a head of wiry gray hair. They hadn’t met more than a few times, and then only briefly, but she’d never been able to understand Stephen’s fondness for the man, beyond the fact that as a homicide detective he’d been an invaluable research contact, always happy to pass along juicy case details in exchange for a box of Cohiba cigars or a bottle of good single malt.

“I guess we should get on with it,” he said grimly. “Are you ready?”

Christine nodded. There really wasn’t another option when your husband’s body was lying on a gurney somewhere, waiting to be identified. She allowed Connelly to take her elbow and steer her toward the elevators, saying nothing as he pushed the button stamped with a well-worn B. The basement then. Stephen was in the basement.

When the doors opened again, Connelly stepped out and turned left, leading her down a white-tiled hall lined with windowless blue doors. He stopped in front of the last door on the right and reached for the knob. A dull buzz filled Christine’s head as she stared at the engraved metal plate: MORGUE.

Connelly threw her a glance. “You all right?”

The words seemed to come from a long way off, as if they’d been spoken from the bottom of a very deep well. This couldn’t be happening, couldn’t be real. And yet the look on Connelly’s face told her it was very real indeed. Pulling in a lungful of air, she counted to three and nodded. She was aware of Connelly’s hand at the small of her back as her feet began to move and wondered if the light but steady pressure was meant to propel her forward or keep her from keeling over backward. No doubt he’d seen his share of fainters.

She experienced a moment of surprise as she stepped through the door. She’d been bracing for unpleasant odors—blood, decay, formalin—but there was only the faint aroma of bleach in the air. It was a small mercy, but a mercy nonetheless. She was determined to keep her eyes moving as Connelly steered her deeper into the room, absorbing it all in one terrible sweep: a high-ceilinged, sterile-looking space with suspended fluorescents and battleship-gray floors.

She avoided the strategically placed drains built into the floor, unwilling to contemplate their purpose, shifting her gaze instead to the trough-style sinks along the back wall. The wall on her right was lined with numbered doors—square stainless-steel doors in tidy rows, equipped with heavy metal hatches. One of those doors would belong to Stephen soon. She turned away, trying to banish the thought, but everywhere she looked there was a fresh reminder of what she was here to do. And then she saw it, a gurney draped with a plain white sheet. Her breath caught at the sight of it, the air in the room seeming to go cold.

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