Authorities find five-year-old Gabriella LeBlanc walking on the ice of Lake Superior six months after an unspeakable crime. Michigan police discover a dead man in a wilderness cabin, but the child has no memory of her abduction or captivity.
Thirty years later, Gabriella disappears from her home after calling 911, and Toronto PI Samantha McNamara and ex-OPP Inspector Reece Hash must unravel the shocking truth behind the woman’s haunted life before a jury convicts her husband of a brutal murder.
But the web of lies Sam is weaving around her past begins to disintegrate when their investigation reveals hidden ties her father had to the murdered woman’s childhood. As Reece’s suspicions mount, Sam struggles to guard her secrets and uncover Gabriella’s disturbing history before time runs out.
A dark thriller with twists that keep readers turning the pages.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Highlander myths have always fascinated me, as do the stories we hear about mothers and their psychic links to their kids. Me? I always know when something’s wrong with one of my sons. I have this strange yet compelling urge to talk to them.
As parents, child abduction is a fear we share. But how often have we imagined what life would look like after we recovered our child. How would our family deal with the crisis? What would our child be like if tragedy followed her into adulthood? Maybe a lot like Gabriella LeBlanc-Martina.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Sam McNamara owes her existence to a conversation I had with my paternal grandmother shortly before her death. We were discussing how I wanted to be a writer, and she told me the qualities she’d like in a female protagonist. I was fourteen and glimpsed hidden depths to my grandmother. Sam is not identical to her vision, but she’s close. Years later, when my son talked about schoolyard games, I had the idea for the Perdition Games mystery-thriller series. Children’s games can be downright traumatizing. So can the games that adults play.
PART 1: Vacation from Hell
July 1980: Batchawana Bay, Ontario
AFTER NINA AND Gabriella had hiked through the forest for half an hour, the woods grew dark and ominous. It was tough to tell if the weather was turning nasty or if a single cloud hid the sun, because the branches of the towering trees created a canopy that hid the sky. Nina knew she should turn back but wanted to go a bit farther. She picked her way across jagged rocks and exposed roots along a narrow path winding through dense shrubs and large evergreens. Without a care in the world, her five-year-old daughter, Gabriella, skipped along beside her. She was dropping pinecones, wildflowers, and pretty stones into a small wicker basket.
Thunder rumbled in the distance and Nina stopped. Raindrops hit her face when she gazed up at the sky. She hoped it was a brief summer shower, but within moments, it was pouring rain. Gabriella cringed by her side with her face hidden in Nina’s skirt. Torrents of water soaked them, and the sound of the wind whipping through the trees mimicked children screaming.
There was a fork in the road, and she didn’t know which way to go. Confused, she turned around in circles. They were lost. How could she have gotten lost? Her daughter was crying, and Nina took her hand. She tried to speak but heard her grandmother’s voice. “Life is a path with forks and corners. You don’t know what’s around the corner, or down either path. Life is blind faith.”
Gabriella tried to pull her hand free. Tears stained her pale cheeks, and her eyes widened with fear. “Mama?”
“Someday you’ll find the path that leads home.”
Nina let go of her daughter’s hand and ran away, leaving her child lost in the forest and abandoned in the storm.
WITH A YELP, Nina jerked awake. Her child’s screams of terror were ringing in her ears.
“No! I’d never do that.” Crying, Nina fumbled in the pockets of her shorts for a tissue.
“Hush now, you were dreaming.” Quentin patted her leg. “I hope you didn’t wake Gabriella.”
She twisted in her seat to glance into the backseat at her daughter. Gabriella’s wet thumb pressed against her chin, and she clutched a stuffed puppy to her chest with her other hand.
“She’s sleeping,” Nina told her husband.
“Was it the same dream?”
“Do you remember anything?”
For just a moment, the time it takes to exhale, she remembered a white dog. Just as fast as it materialized, the image disappeared and her mind fogged over. “It’s the same as always. All I remember is abandoning Gabriella alone in the woods in a storm.”
“Babe, it’s nothing to worry about. Lots of pregnant women have vivid dreams.”
“But Quentin it’s always the same. Grandma would call it An Da Shealladh, the ‘two sights’.”
He pushed away the hair in his eyes. “I loved your grandma, but she was wacky. Remember your sixteenth birthday party when she told everyone you’d inherited the ‘Scot Highlander’s prophetic vision’?” He shook his head and chuckled. “You’re the one who insisted it was impossible because you aren’t a Highlander.”
She gazed at the book on her lap. “Grandma was a Highlander and said An Da Shealladh stays in the blood, passing from mother to daughter.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’d never abandon Gabriella. You’re the best mom in the world.”
She rummaged in the bag from the gift store where she’d bought the book and took out a small pair of moccasins, turning them over in her hand to admire the beadwork. “The storm, the woods, Gabriella crying — it must mean something.”
“It’s just a bad dream. Come on, babe. I’ve looked forward to this vacation for months. Shake it off and enjoy the fantastic scenery.”
Outside the car window, the view was spectacular, but Nina didn’t care. She wasn’t feeling well, and the flashes of sunlight peeking from between the boughs of the evergreens made her head ache.
Quentin was coaxing the Volkswagen Rabbit along a dirt road lined with towering pines. As he concentrated on navigating the twisting turns, the tip of his tongue poked out from the corner of his lips, a gesture she loved. At over six feet tall, he hunched over the steering wheel, although he had sufficient headroom to sit upright. They hadn’t seen another car in over an hour, yet his dark eyes roamed across the mirrors. Another cute habit. His long black hair hung across one eye and stubble shadowed his square jaw. Sexy.
“I can feel you staring at me,” he said.
She put the book into the empty bag and jammed it into the narrow space beside her seat. It slithered down and disappeared into the dark wedge between the gearshift and the bottom of the passenger seat. “Have you ever had the same dream over and over again?”
“No, but I don’t dream.”
Tears welled up in her eyes again. “Why would a mother dream about abandoning her child?”
He sighed. “I get you’re upset, and I’m sorry. Babe, it’s a dream. We saved all year for this vacation, and I want you to have a good time.”
She put the moccasins in her purse and stared out the window. “I have to pee. Are we nearly there?”
Quentin hated to stop, driving from point A to point B, period. She was surprised he hadn’t made her pee in a cup.
“Yeah, around the next bend.”
She tried to arch her back in the uncomfortable seat and the seatbelt strangled her belly. Her panties felt wet. She hoped she wasn’t bleeding again. The spotting had started ten weeks ago, along with a pulsing abdomen pain.
This pregnancy wasn’t the same as last time. She was seven and a half months and felt awful. Her doctor told her she was fine, but she didn’t feel well. She worried about something happening to the baby all the time.
A year ago, their neighbours’ baby had died of sudden infant death syndrome. Nina didn’t know how Grace McNamara was coping. The marriage wasn’t doing well, even though Grace was pregnant again. Everyone in the neighbourhood suspected Detective McNamara was sleeping with Megan Shannon. Nina would die if Quentin cheated. She wouldn’t want to live if he left her.
“We’d have cut time driving through Michigan instead of taking the Trans-Canada Highway. Will you consider going home that way, worrywart?” Quentin grinned.
She shrugged, feeling a little foolish but refusing to commit. What if they drove through the States and she went into early labour or Gabriella had an accident? There wasn’t any government health care in the US. How were they supposed to pay? Did hospitals take credit cards?
“Well, look at that,” Quentin said.
Tucked into a clearing was a cute brown cabin with dark green shutters and white gingerbread trim. Dense evergreens shielded the back and sides, and the scent of pine perfumed the air. It was pretty but Nina couldn’t see any other buildings. The cabin was sitting alone in the woods.
“It’s isolated,” she said.
“Sure, that’s the point. There are two other cabins, but they’re not renting them out this summer. The owners are getting ready to sell. It’s busy during the day. Local fishermen rent dock space.” He undid his seatbelt and scrambled from the driver’s seat. “Hey, look who’s awake.”
Nina looked into the backseat. “How long have you been awake, sweetie?”
“You woke me up. You screamed. You were being mean to Papa, too.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Nina said. “You should have said something so we knew you were awake.” She hoped her daughter hadn’t overheard them talking. It would be horrible to find out your mother was dreaming of leaving you.
Gabriella studied her solemnly and Nina smiled. Her daughter’s eyes were the colour of violets. Shiny, dark ringlets stuck to her pale, chubby cheeks and she was the most beautiful child in the world. Nina couldn’t believe she was lucky enough to be the mother of such a gorgeous little girl.
Quentin opened the back door to the car. “Get out here and explore with your papa.” When he was too slow in undoing the seatbelt, Gabriella’s forehead wrinkled and her lip lowered to a pout.
“I want out,” her daughter whined in the pre-tantrum tone Nina dreaded.
Quentin unlatched the belt. “As my princess requests.” He stepped back to bow before scooping Gabriella into his arms.
“I want to see the water,” was the next demand.
Quentin complied, as usual, leaving Nina alone to waddle after them. “Quentin, wait,” she said. “Where’s the key to the cabin? I have to go to the bathroom.”
They were running toward the water, and Gabriella’s squeals of delight drowned out Nina’s words. She trotted around the car and shaded her eyes. Gabriella was on Quentin’s shoulders, and he was leaping in and out of tiny waves hitting the shore. In the late afternoon sun, the dark blue lake was still and smooth. The lapping water made her desperate for a bathroom. Frustrated, she scurried to the trees.
While squatting in the bushes, she looked to her right at the ridge circling the lake and saw a buck poised on the top of the escarpment. His head was high with large antlers reaching to the sky. He was all alone in a clearing of land jutting thirty metres above the lake. Nina pulled up her shorts and stood to see the animal from a better angle. The stag was so still that the scene reminded her of a Robert Bateman painting. He was staring at her.
She walked to the beach, and the buck’s head shifted to follow. As a child, her Gaelic grandmother had told stories about how a stag — damh in Gaelic — was a protector. Raised with Scot Highlander superstitions, Nina often needed to remind herself not to place too much stock in the old myths. It wasn’t working today. She was experiencing a creepy premonition that the animal was warning her to stay away from the beach.
“What are you looking at?” Quentin asked.
“Nothing.” She turned to him. “For a minute, I thought…” She glanced at the ridge, but the buck was gone. “Never mind, I had to pee in the bushes. You have the key.”
“Where’s Gabriella?” she asked.
He gestured over his shoulder. “She’s fine. Stop being such a worrywart. She’s old enough to play on the beach with us a couple of metres away. Speaking of which, how do you like it here?”
She scanned the ridge. No buck. Get a hold of yourself, she thought. Wrapping her arm around Quentin’s waist, she snuggled her cheek against his chest, breathing in the familiar scent of his cologne. “It’s wonderful.”
“My God, look at how beautiful she is,” Quentin said.
The beach was empty and Gabriella was skipping across the sand toward the long dock. Her arms swung at her sides with a touching lack of inhibition.
“Did you talk to her about going into the water?” Nina asked.
“Yes, she knows to have one of us with her.” Quentin tugged her around. “How do you like the cabin?”
“You checked to make sure there’s a phone?”
“Yes, babe, stop worrying. It’s a twenty-minute drive to town for groceries and less than an hour to Sault Ste. Marie.”
Nina swatted at a horsefly. “Sorry. It’s a great location.” A sudden muscle spasm gripped her hamstring, and the ache in her stomach turned to a stabbing pain. “Let’s go in, I need to sit down.”
Gabriella was at the end of the dock, balancing on the tips of her toes while bending over to peer into the water. She leaned a little too far forward. Her arms rotated while she struggled to keep her balance. Nina sucked in her breath, tightening her grip on her husband’s arm.
“Easy does it.” He held her hand on his arm, never moving his eyes from their daughter. “Don’t yell for her. Wait a minute until she has her balance.”
Gabriella’s arms propelled wildly. She tipped backwards to gain her balance and took a step behind her. Nina let her breath out in one long sigh.
“Ella!” Quentin hollered. “Come on back, princess.”
She skipped down the long dock and ran into her father’s arms.
“I saw a fishy,” she said. “A big fishy, and I heard a doggy, too. Does a doggy live here? I want a puppy, Papa.”
Quentin rolled his eyes before reaching down to pick up their daughter.
“Let’s go see our castle. How does that sound?” He balanced Gabriella on his hip and rummaged in his pocket for the key. He caught Nina’s eye and frowned. “You okay? You look pasty.”
She took a compact from her pocket and checked her reflection. He was right. Her complexion was white with spots of high colour across her cheekbones that made her face appear gaunt. She’d always been thin, but it was unhealthy for a five-foot-five woman to weigh one hundred twenty-eight pounds this far along in her pregnancy. Her nose was too long and sharp, but her large brown eyes compensated. Quentin called them ‘bedroom eyes’. Today, they were bloodshot and lined with tiny wrinkles, and her shoulder-length black hair was greasy.
“I’m okay, just tired.” She closed the compact and avoided his eyes.
She wasn’t okay but didn’t want to spoil everyone’s fun. The more she studied the dense forest surrounding the cabin, the more anxious she felt. She didn’t want to be here and longed for home so much it was a physical ache.
Quentin flung open the door to the two-bedroom cabin. “Wow, it’s nicer than the pictures.”
Inside was a large space with rooms off the centre. A kitchen and bath ran along the back with bedrooms on either side of the living area, built as additions to the original structure.
The cabin was hot and stuffy and smelled of fresh cut wood, plaster and a hint of paint. The furniture was shabby but clean, and there was a television. Hopefully, colour. There would be complaining if Gabriella had to watch Sesame Street in black and white.
Nina inspected the kitchen while her husband opened the cooler and grabbed a beer. He finished it in four long sips, belched, and opened a second.
Together, they checked out the bedroom Gabriella would use. It was nice and had a small closet, a chest of drawers, and twin beds. The room had a large window facing the forest. Nina’s prickle of dread returned. The window didn’t have any drapes or shades. She felt watched again.
Get a grip, she scolded herself. Was she going to be spooked every time a squirrel peered at her from a tree branch?
Quentin stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her huge stomach, kissing the back of her neck. “I’m sorry. It was too long a drive to do in one day. It was thoughtless.”
“It’s okay,” she repeated, for what felt like the tenth time since they had left the house at four-thirty in the morning.
Leaving Gabriella to organize her stuffed menagerie, they went to find their bedroom.
Standing inside the room, they gaped at the stained glass covering the lake-facing window.
“Wow,” Quentin said, “how did we miss that from outside?”
Dark red, dirty orange, and mucky brown panes of glass painted dismal ribbons of colour on the white bedspread. It looked like streaks of dried blood.
Nina crinkled her nose. “It’s awful.”
“What’s that going to look like during sunset?” Quentin ran his fingertip across the lead outline.
“Gross. Why would someone do that?”
“Maybe the owner’s an amateur artist.” He sat on the bed. “Comfy.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Not too close to Gabriella’s room.”
She laughed and sat beside him. “Do you ever think about anything but that?”
“Sure, lots of things, when you aren’t around.” He kissed her before getting to his feet and stretching. “You stay here and rest. Gabriella and I will unpack the car.”
She kicked off her flip-flops. “Make sure the lasagna goes into the oven at 350 degrees. It’ll need about an hour.”
Nina lay on the bed, feeling stressed and uncomfortable. “Too long a day,” she mumbled. “Everything will be better after a nap.”
She dreamed of a storm, a fork in the road and a white dog.
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