- Author: Shelley Nolden
Book online «The Vines Shelley Nolden (best way to read books txt) 📖». Author Shelley Nolden
Copyright © 2021 by Shelley Nolden
Map by Travis Hasenour
First Hardcover Edition
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Published by Freiling Publishing, a division of Freiling Agency, LLC.
P.O. Box 1264,
Warrenton, VA 20188
Library of Congress Control Number: 2020920419
Printed in the United States of America
For my mother, with love,
and all the essential workers and health care heroes who’ve selflessly served throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
Forty-four years since the abandonment of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, north of Hell Gate in New York City’s East River
thick keloid encircled the young woman’s throat like a noose, ready to seize her last breath. Though any one of the other faded wounds gripping her slender, muscular body should have already claimed it. Humming an achingly sad tune, she reached for an elixir bottle beside the cracked porcelain tub in which she stood. As she twisted, a tangled, worm-like network of whip marks on her back met the glow of dawn pervading the forest.
For the past four decades, indigenous and invasive plants had been hell-bent on destroying the remains of Riverside Hospital. Unchallenged by the collapsed outer wall of the first-floor bathroom, a shaft of sunlight irradiated her glistening skin.
Maybe she’s a ghost, Finn Gettler thought from behind a cottonwood as the woman lathered her hair. Thousands had died here, many more had suffered. But not everyone who should have perished had. This, only his family knew. A chill passed across the back of his sweat-slick neck, and he shivered.
Finn didn’t believe in the paranormal world. If ghosts were real, however, this shuttered contagion hospital would have spawned them.
A distant shriek pierced his eardrums. The sound must have come from one of the black-crowned night herons nesting at North Brother Island’s southern end.
The woman tilted back her head and released water from a camp shower bag; it flowed down her long hair to the top of her calves, where the dirt-caked tub shielded the rest of her from view.
During his stint in the Peace Corps in Africa, not once had he seen a body so mutilated. Nor, in his twenty-eight years on this earth, one so graceful. An impossible combination, yet there she stood.
His heart pulsing, Finn pressed himself against a tree trunk strangled by a mulberry vine. There was something “off” about this place he’d been longing to visit his entire life. He could feel it; an aching brittleness, as if he’d already been reduced to the same decaying state as the bird carcass his boot had crunched in the darkness an hour earlier.
As she raised her arms to rinse the suds, he could see the contours of her biceps. More warrior than victim from the looks of it, she likely wouldn’t appreciate his help. Or his gaze. Neither would his girlfriend, but if Lily were here, she’d be just as alarmed by this woman’s appearance.
A mosquito buzzed near his neck, seemingly undeterred by his bug spray. The woman couldn’t possibly hear a slap above the rising noise from the birds, but she might notice the motion, so Finn held still.
She twisted to scrub her back.
Her physique and tank-top tan lines reminded him of the rock climbers he’d encountered during his expeditions thus far in his quest to cross the world’s twenty most dangerous bridges. Her body, however, looked more like it had gone through a blender than fallen from a cliff.
Is she using this island to hide from whoever’s been hurting her? Finn wondered.
With a sudden premonition that they weren’t alone, he eyed the forest.
No one materialized from the whispering green.
Slowing his breathing, he turned to study her for signs of recent abuse.
Her eyes now closed, she continued singing the same melancholy tune. Her voice had a raspy edge; only someone confident in her solitude would croon—and expose herself—like that.
The makeshift shower likely meant she hadn’t kayaked through the predawn East River chop, as he’d done to avoid detection by the NYPD Harbor Unit. She must have camped here overnight.
To avoid an awkward confrontation, Finn thought it best to sneak back to his kayak, hidden in the brambles near the docks. Yet he couldn’t compel himself to move.
The squawking of the herons intensified. Soon, he realized, the blur of early morning would sharpen into clean lines. He had to get going, but his trek through the island’s interior with only a flashlight had disoriented him. And the deteriorating buildings that he’d passed in the dark now looked frustratingly unfamiliar.
He removed his sketchbook from his hiking pack and glanced at the map. A month ago, he’d drawn it after committing the original, annotated in German, to his nearly photographic memory. In the shed at his parents’ Long Island home, he’d found the schematic along with a dozen of his father’s old excursion logs.
During Finn’s childhood, his family’s clandestine research at the abandoned hospital, where his grandfather and great-grandfather had worked, had been a constant source of anxiety. Completely excluded, Finn hadn’t even been allowed in their Upper East Side laboratory.
Frustratingly, mere months after he had completed an undergraduate degree in physics that should have earned him a role in the project, 9/11 happened. Almost instantly, the NYC waterways became flush with patrols. Rollie had claimed it was too risky to continue collecting the environmental samples from which they hoped to pinpoint an elusive immune system boosting chemical reagent.
To both Finn and his brother Kristian, Rollie’s justification for shelving such vital research seemed flimsy and suspect.
So, when Finn came across the cache of records while looking for his camping gear, he’d decided it was time to do a little digging.
Even without the