It was a dark and stormy night.
The small island was off the coast of Massachusetts, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The storm had started around five in the afternoon, though the sky had been getting dark for a couple of hours before that.
The inhabitants who had jobs on the mainland had hurried home after work and shut themselves in for the night. The waves sometimes lapped clear over the causeway during storms, making it very dangerous to cross, and high tide was going to come at seven-forty-two.
There were about twenty houses on the island. Half of them were summer cottages, unused and locked up at this time of year.
Terry Nelson opened her eyes. She lay silently, motionless, wondering where she was. She could hear the wind outside, and the rain coming down hard on the roof. A tree branch rubbed against the window. So, not in the city. Not anywhere she knew.
She raised her head and looked around. A pleasant, rustic room, as far as she could tell in the dark. She was on a big bed with a mattress that was much too soft.
And it was unoccupied, except for her.
She sighed and smiled. No matter what else happened (and she had no idea where she was, so she had no idea what would be happening), this would be the best news of the day. She hated to wake up with company.
She stretched, her back aching, and she wondered if this place, whatever it was, had any firmer mattresses. If not, she might have to sleep on the floor. If she was going to stay. She tried the bedside lamp, but it didn't work. The power was probably out. She was tempted to go back to sleep, but she really wanted to find out where she was.
There was a sudden glare of lightning as she climbed out of bed and she began counting the seconds by reflex, though she no longer remembered exactly what that meant.
The light had enabled her to see the candle on top of the dresser, along with a matchbook. The candle was stuck into the top of an empty Chianti bottle. She lit it and looked at the matchbook, hoping it might be from some local business, but it was just an ad for a brand of cigarettes.
There was a brief crack of thunder as she carried the candle over to the closet.
The nightgown and robe she found were ridiculously frilly and sheer, and all in white, but she put them on and slipped into a pair of yellowed slippers that seemed to have been left on the closet floor ages ago. She glanced at herself in the mirror on the closet door as there was another flash of lightning. and she found to her dismay that the outfit was really too revealing – almost obscene. She rooted around in the dresser, but the underwear she found would not have been much help. She finally found a trenchcoat in the back of the closet. She put it on and belted it closed, aware of how ridiculous she was going to look with the frilly nightgown hanging out at the bottom.
She opened the door and stepped into the hall. It seemed to be a very pleasant house, as far as she could tell in the gloom, all stained wood and white trim, with several bedrooms upstairs. She moved to the staircase and made her way down to the first floor.
After it was dark on the island except for the occasional flash of lightning, two figures appeared walking slowly up a steep hill toward a bluff that overlooked the ocean, about forty feet above the roiling water.
They climbed slowly, occasionally grabbing tree branches or bushes to keep from losing their footing on the rain-slick grass and ground under their feet. They each carried a flashlight.
The first figure to reach the bluff was the larger one. It was a man, wearing a rain poncho, jeans, and boots. The smaller figure came up behind him. They were both looking around, using their flashlights to try to see through the darkness and driving rain.
Then there was a flash of lightning, revealing that the smaller figure was a girl. She was dressed all in black, in a snug top with a vest over it. Even her head was completely covered, by some sort of black mask, including goggles. Everything she wore was black, except for big yellow rain boots. Her pants seemed to have holsters for some sort of sticks.
"I don't see anything," the girl said.
The man laughed. "My employer is perfectly capable of sending me out here in the rain for no good reason, but I don't think she'd do that to you. I–"
"There," she said, pointing. "Down there." He came to stand beside her at the edge of the bluff. There was a shape down at the bottom, half in and half out of the water.
"Well," he said, "I don't know about you, but I'm not going to clamber down the face of this thing. I'm going to go back around–"
"Race you down!" she said. "You take the other side!"
She darted over to one side of the bluff and vanished over the edge. The man chuckled and went to the other side, climbing back down the way they had come. He watched his footing carefully – the ground was getting more and more muddy.
Downstairs, another sudden glare of lightning illuminated the living room and the front hall. Terry didn't see anybody around. Then, as it got dark again, she saw that there was a faint light from the back of the house.
She moved in that direction and found herself in the kitchen, which was also quite pleasant. It was occupied by a young girl who was sitting at the kitchen table with two textbooks and a pad in front of her, apparently doing homework by the light of a candle. She looked up and demanded, "Who the fuck are you?"
Terry was shocked at the cursing. The girl appeared to be twelve or thirteen, and Terry knew how she would have responded if a child had cursed like this in her classroom, but she didn't think she could be that strict in a situation where she didn't know where she was or why she was here.
"My name is Terry," she said. "I'm a schoolteacher. What's your name?"
"I'm Ron." There was a pause as Ron regarded her, lips pursed, including leaning over to see Terry's bare feet past the edge of the kitchen table.
"When did you get here?" Ron asked finally. "You came in before the rain started. Your feet are clean and dry, and those clothes aren't yours. If you hurt Angel, Stevie One is going to beat the living shit out of you."
Terry felt like she needed to try to control this situation better, so she went to the stove and lit a burner under the glass teapot. "Would you like some tea?" she asked, thinking about what Ron had said. Terry knew who Angel was, but who was Stevie One?
Ron had watched this very carefully, but she just said, "No."
"'No, thank you,'" Terry said quietly, turning to face her.
Ron frowned again and considered this. "No, thank you," she said after a moment.
Terry smiled. "That was pretty sharp, deducing those things. You remind me of Jan Sleet. Do you know her?"
"She's my mother."
Terry looked at Ron more directly, and Ron could tell that this news had upset this strange woman. Terry sat heavily in the chair opposite Ron. "I..." she began. "I have a question to ask. It may... Ron, what year is it?"
Ron was tempted to ask whether this woman was crazy, but it was becoming more and more obvious that she was. Ron told her the year. Terry's shoulders slumped and she looked at the table top, but Ron thought this was relief.
"If you want a drink, it's over there," Ron said, gesturing at a small wooden cabinet next to the refrigerator.
Terry looked up in surprise. "What? I... no, thank you. I don't drink."
It was odd to be offered a drink by a young girl, but then Terry thought she understood. From Ron's point of view, Terry had appeared out of nowhere, probably wandered into the house, put on clothes she found there, and now had no idea where she was or why she was there. Ron's assumption was apparently that Terry was a drunk, subject to blackouts, and might benefit from the hair of the dog.
And Ron was adopted. Terry had panicked when Ron had said that she was Jan Sleet's daughter, because that would have meant that more than a decade had passed, but the girl was obviously adopted. She was small and swarthy, with bushy brown hair, a pug nose, and freckles. She bore no resemblance to either Jan Sleet or her husband.
Terry knew there was nothing to be gained by protesting that she wasn't an alcoholic. That was what alcoholics always did, after all.
The tea kettle started whistling, so she turned off the burner and took a mug from the dish drainer.
"Tea's in there," Ron said, pointing at one of the cabinets over the stove.
Terry was glad for the few moments to collect herself. She was in a house, in a thunderstorm, probably near the sea (by the smell). Ron, Jan Sleet's adopted daughter, was there – which probably meant Jan and Marshall were around also.
She sat down opposite Ron. "Are your parents here?" she asked.
Ron was looking suspicious again. "Yeah," she said slowly. "Why?"
Marshall opened the door, with Stevie One right behind him. She was about to say something as they came in, but he touched her shoulder and shook his head. He pointed down the main hall, where they could see Jan Sleet, in a nightgown and robe, standing near the lighted door of the kitchen, apparently eavesdropping on whatever was happening inside.
She had heard them come in and she turned, holding her finger to her lips. Marshall nodded and motioned for her to come over to him. Stevie sat down and pulled off her huge yellow boots and then she took off her mask revealing a teenage girl with short yellow hair.
Marshall pulled off his poncho and hung it up on a hook. Jan limped up to him and leaned over as he whispered in her ear.
Terry and Ron had stopped talking when they had heard the front door open and close, and a few moments later Jan Sleet and Marshall came into the kitchen. Terry stood up. "I've made tea," she said quickly. "Would you like some?"
"No, thank you, Terry," Jan said. "It's good to see you, by the way. I'm afraid we have bad news, though. There's been a murder."