Ciara Liung was not, habitually, the kind of girl who leapt buck naked into the dunk tank at the Atlantic City pier at two o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, in full view of horrified mommies, pubescent acne-covered ring-toss attendants and one very pissed-off federal agent.
But there was a first time for everything.
Ciara ducked behind the Plexiglas tank to whip her dress off over her head--no sense giving the teenage carnies any more of a thrill than absolutely necessary. Giving Junior his first public stiffy was not high on her list of priorities. She hunched down behind the dubious shield of the transparent tank and slipped out of her underwear, shivering a little even though it was in the mid-eighties and humid as hell.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. And public indecency.
She clambered up onto the platform above the dunk tank and bent at the waist with her arms wrapped around her chest in an attempt to keep the show PG-13.
By the time the tourists in the arcade--and Special Agent Nathan Smith of the Federal Bureau of Investigating Assholes--realized Ciara was about to have her own private skinny-dipping session, it was too late to stop her.
The water beneath her had a slightly brown, used-dishwater look to it. Not exactly sanitary, but beggars couldn't be choosers. It was water. That was good enough.
Just before she took the plunge, Ciara glanced up. Her gaze locked on Nate Smith's angry brown eyes.
The combination of blond hair and melty-chocolate brown eyes on a man had always made Ciara's insteps turn to mush, but Nate's eyes didn't look like melty chocolate at the moment. More like he was channeling Satan's henchmen.
He was tall enough to see over the crowd as he shouldered his way through, but he couldn't move very quickly. He seemed so capable, such a big strong take-charge man, that Ciara had often forgotten over the last few days why he moved so deliberately. The limp and the cane were actually pretty damn sexy, in a House, M.D. kind of way. And Nate had the House trademark take-no-shit-from-anybody assholeness down pat.
If Dr. House were a fallen-angel-gorgeous federal agent with a chip on his shoulder the size of Quantico, he'd look just like Nate Smith.
He really didn't have any right to look so pissed off. He'd practically told her to do this. She wouldn't even be in Atlantic City if not for him.
Nate plowed across the distance between them as fast as his limp would allow him. "Ciara, don't you da--"
She dropped into the water. As soon as it closed over her head, the entire world washed away. Nate's anger, the arcade, everything vanished into insignificance in that peaceful cocoon, the static of her daily life muted.
Her hair swirled loose in the water around her. Ciara closed her eyes and pictured the necklace. The water did what it always did, acting as a catalyst and engaging her gift. In a flickering montage behind her eyelids, she saw the sparkling glass high-rise of the Borgata Hotel & Casino, a plush living room with cream-colored sofas, a woman in a bright pink bustier and hot pants with silver eyelashes and a long pink ponytail, a small silver safe sitting on the floor of a closet...
Then Nate's hand closed over her arm and the vision incinerated. From one second to the next, the water turned from cool aqua-perfection into molten lava. His hand felt like liquid nitrogen, the touch of it cold enough to burn through her skin instantly. Ciara tried to block out the pain, tried to focus on the necklace, but the contact seared through her senses. She screamed against the burn, and water rushed into her mouth.
Beneath the smothering blanket of pain, a small piece of her consciousness tried to command her legs to kick her toward the surface, to push off the walls of the tank, to do something, but her body refused to do anything other than contort and writhe in the lava bath.
She was going to drown in four feet of brackish water inside a Plexiglas box.
Naked. In public. With crowds of gaping tourists gathering around. If she hadn't been snorting dishwater up her nose, she would have gone all Gladiator and asked them if they were not entertained.
The spectacle was a bizarrely fitting end. Death at a carnival. Like the sideshow freak she was.
Her vision began to go fuzzy, blurring around the edges, and an eerie calm settled over her thoughts.
The lost girl, finder of all things lost, went out into the world looking for life and found death. There was an odd sort of poetry in that. Macabre as all hell, but poignant in its own way.
The freezer-burn hand on her arm gave a sharp jerk.
Poor Agent Smith. He got shot, yanked off his dream assignment, and now she died on his watch. The poor guy just couldn't catch a break.
Of course, if the idiotic man had only listened to her in the first place, none of this would have happened. It was a sad state of affairs when a girl had to drown herself to prove her innocence.
Yep, her death was his fault. The bastard. He clearly owed her an apology and she fully intended to collect.
Just as soon as she grew gills.