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Excerpt © Vera Bell 2023. All rights reserved.

Through the Veneer of Time


The FBI Case and the Mural Project

May 2, 2009, Washington, D.C.

My heart raced from the adrenaline surge as I lay in Ryan’s arms after he woke me from my dream. I hated this dream: the invisible vortex pulling me into unknown depths, the quick thrill shifting into dread, my inexplicable urge to get to the bottom. A beckoning light and a menacing shadow—only a spin away. Yet always elusive.

Ryan awakened me every time, the lightness of his words clashing with the distress in his eyes. But what roused me before I met him? I frowned, tracing his Ouroboros tattoo. Nothing. This dream started after our meeting.

He pulled me close, his warm hands traveling the length of my body, deep voice reverberating in my every corner. “You smell so damn good, Siena…”

I inhaled the intoxicating bouquet of his deodorant and my perfume, ran my fingers down the hard plane of his back—

His phone chimed.

“Damn, hang on.” He released my backside and reached for the nightstand, too ready for the horrors of his job.

The screen lit up with a message, and he angled it away, eyes hardening and jaw tightening.

“What’s wrong?” I touched his arm.

He put the phone on the nightstand. “I’m back on that case, the one from four months ago.” His voice faltered. “That girl found s—uh—” He rubbed his forehead. “You know, dead—last week in NoMa. Anyway, there are some similarities between this and the Ghost.”

I swallowed. As if the Washington D.C. neighborhood murder wasn’t disturbing enough, there was something menacing about it. Something he’d almost let slip.

“Shit.” He winced.

But I only needed to read the news to learn about the Ghost, a working name for his recent case. This I wouldn’t do. Two young women had been murdered in cold blood with no witnesses, fingerprints, or evidence of any kind. The Ghost was only too fitting—whoever had done it had vanished into thin air. But there was more. In all the time I’ve known Ryan, he managed to leave his work at our condo’s door. It was different with the Ghost. Grim and silent, he worked day and night, yet always came up short. Still, his gloominess was understandable. Until the Ghost, his success rate was a close one hundred percent.

Our situation as a couple was ironic. Here I was, married to an FBI agent who dealt in criminal homicide, armed robberies, and violent kidnappings, yet I had no stomach for these things. Especially for one thing, which aggravated my unfounded, incomprehensible phobia.


The word was like an arrow, loosed into some vulnerable, hidden place inside me. I dug my fingernails into my palms and squeezed my eyes shut. But my heart only thudded louder, and breath came faster in my chest, choking me—

Stop. Nothing is happening.

Stop. Nothing has ever happened.

Stop. Nothing will ever happen.

I stopped hyperventilating, dizzy with the effort. This was the reason I quit reading the headlines last week. A woman turning up dead in the nation’s capital, where I lived—no, thank you. Hard pass.

A small groove formed between Ryan’s eyebrows. “You okay, love?”

I shook my head and turned away. He came with his job. I knew this from day one.

“C’mon.” He pulled me in tight, arm rigid as a rock. “I got this. You know it’s only a matter of time—” He grabbed his phone again. “Real quick, let me call a meeting with my VCMO guys.”

I stared in front of me as he tapped on his screen. As time passes, acronyms obscure the meaning of the words they comprise. Not this one. When taken apart, each word in VCMO is a crash of a falling ax: Violent. Crime. Major. Offenders.

“Hey.” Ryan gathered me into his arms again. “All three murders happened in deserted places—” He ran a hand through his hair. “Don’t go anywhere by yourself. For now.”

Holy. Crap. This from the elite FBI unit commander was the equivalent of a flight attendant rushing to buckle up.

A deafening silence filled our bedroom.

“Last night—holy shit, Sie.” Ryan switched the subject, sealing it with a warm, lingering kiss.

Resigned, I peered into his narrowed eyes. When did I grow so accustomed to this insane verbal juggling?

“So goddamn hot.” He smoothed a strand from my cheek, his firm touch extinguishing his case, my fears, and the world outside. “And that lingerie—" His lopsided grin made him appear younger than thirty-two. "You sure know what gets me.”

Darkness dispelled by the shining light on his face, I beamed back and gave myself a mental high-five. Last night was our third wedding anniversary, and I wore some risqué undergarments bought on a hunch for the occasion. The effect was nothing short of sensational.

“I expect more of those small lacy things.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Now that you’ve upped the ante.”

I’ve upped the ante?” I examined my wrists—no marks.

“Either way—” Ryan got up. “It’s been upped.”

As his tall, athletic form disappeared into the bathroom, I forced myself to focus on the day ahead. I had no right to complain. How many starving artists could boast a commission at the National Gallery of Art? A full-scale mural for a special collection exhibition was an outstanding project to add to my portfolio, so I should have been excited. And was, until my excitement had turned to anxiety. First sketch review around the corner, I’d hit the bane of every artist’s existence—the dreaded creative block.

The culprit must have been the mural’s subject matter. I just couldn’t find inspiration for something as dreary as medieval weaponry. In truth, it filled me with gloom.

An hour later, I sat at my computer as Ryan’s German shepherd, Guinness, settled at my feet. Punitive raids, bloody sieges, pitched battles. But I’d already googled the veritable hell out of medieval warfare. Unless—I stared at the useless search results—I’d overlooked some crucial search word.

Biting the inside of my lip, I typed in the first thing that came to mind: medieval life.

Feudal system, noble lords, dainty ladies. But I’d already seen all this in history books. Cursing under my breath, I almost swiped onto the next page when I noticed an oddball link: past life regression.

This had nothing to do with my commission, so why did my fingers itch to click on it?

Annoyed, I stared at the predictable dreamy images and a prominent title inquiring: Have You Lived Before?

Who reads this stuff? Still, I continued, finding an implausible four-step guide to a past life self-hypnosis. Apparently, all a person needed to do was breathe in and out some, abandon all thought, count from ten to zero, then open their mind to past life experiences, and voilà! I rolled my eyes and closed the page. Evidently, I read this stuff.

After contemplating this nonsense for a few unproductive minutes, I doodled an Irish triquetra. Then, I put down the sketchpad and clicked on the DNA site link—to see if anything changed in the last few weeks. It hadn’t. My entire reason for taking the DNA test loomed as pointless as ever: Irish: 0.0%.

I couldn’t explain, couldn’t rationalize this lifelong, undying affinity for Ireland. A pull powerful enough to convince myself of having some Irish DNA. The test was to confirm this, but it confirmed nothing. Lucky for me, Ryan viewed my idée fixe as an amusing sign we were meant to be together. His heritage traceable without any tests, the man was as Irish as a pint of Guinness. Speaking of which, it was time to walk the dog.

Leash in hand, I stopped by Guinness’ favorite patch of grass and looked up. It was hard to imagine something sinister lurking on this sunlit day. Gentle and warm, the sunrays breathed across the glittering sky, brushed against the blooming trees, and caressed their blushing branches. No wonder the ancient Celts welcomed May with their fiery Beltane ceremonies, and the Irish observed it well into the nineteenth century. The beginning of summer, both nature and humans replete with fertility and its passionate rituals.

How perfect that Ryan and I met on Beltane.

A strange, wing-shaped cloud eclipsed the sun, but I kept on walking. Anything beat staring at the untouched sheet of white. Besides, being alone in a public place was perfectly safe.

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