Christmas Eve 1998

Marissa DeSantos splashed into the icy Pacific, her Gucci pumps in hand, a pale moon above.

This was ridiculous, she thought. All she wanted was a breath of fresh air, a break from the Spindrift Cove Christmas party. And now she was up to her ankles in bone-chilling water.

A strong breeze churned small waves that lapped at the legs of her new wool slacks. It was the sparkle on an object riding the swells that had caught her eye enough to take the plunge. Bobbing in the distance, the shine was almost hypnotic, beckoning her to watch.

She squinted as the object drew closer until she could see a shape that looked like a huge narrow box. Intrigued by the prospect of possible treasure, she shoved her pumps into her pants pockets, sucked in her breath and waded deeper into the freezing water.

The shape was teasing her, appearing and disappearing, when a breaker smashed over it and propelled it toward her.

It’s more rounded than a box, she thought. More like a big log. Or maybe a big hunk of driftwood.

Disappointed, she was about to leave, when the breaker carried it within a few feet of her.

Were those ropes around it? Who would tie up a piece of driftwood? This had to be something else. Maybe loot thrown overboard from a passing ship. And the ropes meant someone wanted to keep it intact.

She stepped toward it, splashing her slacks and the sleeves of her jacket. As the form raced past her, she grabbed at the loose end of a rope draped in seaweed and struggled to keep her balance. Repulsed by the feel of slime, she gritted her teeth and hung on.

This was not how she’d intended to spend Christmas Eve.

A calm settled on the water between the oncoming waves and, unwilling to desert the mysterious thing, she tugged on the rope. But with her feet mired in unstable sand, she lacked the strength to pull the object to the beach. Wave after cold wave lapped at her thighs, causing her teeth to chatter. And then the big one came.

She yanked with all her might as the breaker struck the form and knocked her aside, wrenching the rope from her grasp and her cell phone from her jacket pocket. With a struggle to remain erect, she watched the huge wave devour her phone and carry the mysterious object to shore, depositing it on the beach.

Swearing at the loss of her phone, Marissa pulled her feet from the sand and edged her way toward her treasure.

If only she had more than moonlight to help her to see.

As she approached her find, the smell of seaweed filled her nostrils and the details of the object unfolded.

That shine is black plastic, she thought. Thick. The kind used in industrial-strength garbage bags.

She crept forward. Ragged gashes in the plastic revealed several layers wrapped around the object. Three ropes bound it. The one in the middle that she had tugged on and a rope near each end. In all her thirty-five years, she’d never seen anything like it.

Her feet numbed with cold, she stooped for a better view.

Her breath caught in her throat. “Oh, my God. It’s got feet!”

And one of the ropes was tied unmistakably around the neck!

She bolted toward the bluff she’d come down, running as if someone were chasing her. The deep sand hardly slowed her as she plunged through the night air, her sopping slacks clinging to her like heavy wet towels.

Why did she ever come to Spindrift Cove? She should have spent Christmas Eve back home in San Francisco with her boyfriend. Her uncle could tend to her sick aunt at the Cove by himself.

She ran up the bluff, wheezing until her lungs could no longer take the punishment. Stumbling, she fell onto the cold sand.

She was right to leave the body, she thought as she surrendered to the mounds of beach grass. This was a police matter. The corpse could be a murder victim, washed twenty miles down from San Francisco. Gruesome scenes played in her head. She wanted no part of this.

But as she regained her breath, she wondered if the corpse could be a hefty teenager, the size of a linebacker. Maybe his parents were wondering why he didn’t show for Christmas Eve dinner. Or maybe he’d been missing for days.

A shiver ran through her. No family should endure the agony of wondering if one of its own were dead or alive. She had to do something.

She surveyed the deserted beach and looked farther up the bluff. Everyone in Spindrift Cove was still at the town Christmas party. If she left to get help, the tide could pull the body back out and no one would find him. She could at least ensure he’d stay put. She stopped. Why had he suddenly become a “he” instead of an “it?”

Slowly, she turned and retraced her steps, still trembling from the cold.

Maybe the waves had already reclaimed her find.

The walk back down the bluff seemed much longer than the walk up. When the glisten on the plastic shown once more, she knew the corpse was still on the beach and she’d made the right decision.

Her heart pounded as she crept closer and prepared herself for the slippery seaweed-covered rope. She grabbed the loose end secured at the corpse’s middle. Steeling herself, she kept wrapping the rope around her hand until she stood a couple feet from the form.

Could she touch the body to dislodge it from the sand?

She pushed on it with her foot and reeled back at the feel of the corpse’s belt on her toes. No question. This was a real person.

Her stomach lurched and she gulped the sea air. She’d come too far to quit now. If she could just pull him a few feet, he’d be safe from the waves.

Determined, she yanked the rope taut and tugged. She shook her head, thinking she should have more sense than to expect her small frame to pull something so many pounds heavier.

Shaking with cold, she was contemplating her next move when a giant breaker crashed toward her. Quickly, she planted her feet and watched as the wave grew and finally broke at the shore, almost submerging the corpse.

She yanked as hard as she could.

With a jolt, the body dislodged and the swish of the plastic bags brought her an almost pleasurable sigh. Using the momentum, she dragged the corpse through the sand until the pain in her cold hands could take the torture no longer.

She stopped and looked back at the shoreline. She’d come far enough.

Slowly she unwound the slimy rope and rubbed her hands together, feeling the blood return. The body would be safe until the tide changed. What she needed now was a phone.