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Incandescent (by Madeline Sloane ~ Excerpt)

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Anna Johnson is tormented with guilt after her best friend is injured in a house fire the night of her birthday party. Then her father’s car catches fire at a traffic light.
Were the blazes accidental or, as Anna believes, were they set on purpose? Is there an arsonist loose in the quiet town of Eaton? State Fire Inspector Aaron Tahir, an arrogant and overbearing man with a dark past, wants answers. That is, until he discovers he wants something more tangible ~ Anna.
Sparks fly from their first meeting and it isn’t long before they’re afire.

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Incandescent (by Madeline Sloane ~ Excerpt)

  1. 1. Incandescent! (Excerpt) ! Book Two in Secrets of Eaton ! ! ! By MADELINE SLOANE !
  2. 2. Copyright © 2014 by Madeline Sloane All rights reserved http://www.MadelineSloane.com ! This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. ! This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. Prepared for publication by The Omnibus Publishing. !
  3. 3. ALSO BY MADELINE SLOANE The Women of Eaton Series ! Distracted East of Eaton West Wind ! The Secrets of Eaton Series ! Consequence Incandescent
 Dead Line ! ! ! ! To Ivan !
  4. 4. ! ! ! ! VISIT MADELINE SLOANE'S WEBSITE TO 
 PURCHASE THIS BOOK AND CONTINUE READING On the Web at: http://www.MadelineSloane.com

  5. 5. ! Chapter One ! Anna leaned forward and blew out the twenty-seven candles on her birthday cake. “Did you make a wish? What was it?” Anna smiled at Gretchen and Lacey. “I wished our friendship would last forever. I love you guys.” “Tell me when you’re sober,” Gretchen said. Lacey raised her apple martini for a toast. “To us.” After three celebratory drinks, Anna couldn’t swallow another drop. Instead, she touched her glass to the others and held it aloft until the toast was over. “Wuss!” Gretchen taunted. “Leave her alone, Gretchen. She’s not a lush like you,” Lacey said. “Hey, you’re the lush.” Gretchen gave Lacey a friendly shove, and the two giggling women sloshed apple schnapps onto the tabletop. “Alright, ladies, I’m going to have to cut you off,” said their waiter, hovering near the table and ogling their long, tanned legs. Gretchen pouted. “Look, Mark, that’s no way to get my phone number.” She stood quickly, years of drinking with older brothers desensitized her against the effects of the liquor, and grabbed the waiter’s tie. She tugged until they were eye-to-eye, and licked her lips. As his eyes widened, she winked. Her lips brushed his cheek before stopping at his ear, making him shiver. She whispered seven digits, released his tie and the young man stumbled backwards. “Excuse me, ladies. I have to pee,” she said. Lacey and Anna snickered as the goggle-eyed waiter watched Gretchen’s swaying hips retreat to the back of the restaurant. “You’d better call her. She’s temporarily single,” Lacey advised. The waiter smiled and winked before heading back to the bar. “Gretchen is crazy,” Anna said with a giggle. “She could get away with murder.”
  6. 6. “Yeah, she’s fearless,” Lacey said, fishing in her handbag for car keys and humming a Taylor Swift tune. She burst into song: “Feaaarrrrrlessssssss!” She panicked. “Hey, where are my keys?” Anna pulled them from her skirt pocket. “Huh, little buddy. You’re not driving home drunk.” “Well, how am I supposed to get home?” “Walk. It’s only three blocks to the house.” “How am I supposed to get my car tomorrow?” “Walk. It’s only three blocks back.” Weaving in between tables, pausing twice to speak with friends and flirt with strangers, Gretchen returned. Catching the frustrated look on Lacey’s face and the smirk on Anna’s, she asked, “What’s up?” “Anna won’t give me my car keys. She says we have to walk home.” “I’ll give them to you if you promise to walk, not drive,” Anna said. Gretchen shrugged. “Hey, no big deal. We’re close. Anyway, the party’s not over. Let’s go somewhere else.” Anna shook her head. “Sorry. I promised Dad I would spend the weekend with him. I’m calling a taxi in a couple of minutes. Before I go, though, I need to know you two aren’t going to drive home.” Again, Gretchen shrugged. “Not a problem, but first, you have to open your presents.” Anna beamed at her two closest friends and reached for the small, gaily wrapped gift Gretchen took out of her handbag. She tugged at the colorful, thin ribbons and said, “I hate to unwrap your presents. The package is always so nice.” “That’s what happens when you run a gift shop.” Gretchen arched her eyebrows suggestively and added, “Wait ‘til you see what’s inside. I didn’t get it from work this time.” Anna slid a careful finger under the tape, lifted the foil, and spied a box bearing the name of a popular intimate apparel store. Opening the box, she knew her friends expected her to display the present. She held the sexy negligee by its thin straps and let the red, silky fabric unfold. Anna pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at Gretchen. “And when am I supposed to use this?”
  7. 7. Gretchen scrunched her nose. “It’s an incentive,” she said. “You’ve been single long enough. It’s time you get back in the game.” “I didn’t know I was out of the game,” Anna said. Gretchen lifted Anna’s unfinished cocktail glass to her lips and swigged the remainder. “What about the hot, new reporter at the newspaper? What’s going on there?” “Jack DeSoto? No, I’m not interested in him. I mean, he’s gorgeous and all, but he’s not my type. Besides, he’s been flirting with the new bookstore owner,” Anna said, rolling her eyes. “You mean the woman who runs East of Eaton?” Lacey asked. “Her shop is in the building across the street from my folks’ place. She’s done a great job renovating it. If you think she’s into Jack DeSoto, think again. She’s dating a history professor from Marshall College.” Gretchen raised a triumphant fist in the air. “Yesss! He’s available, Miss Priss; now go after him.” Anna shook her head. “No, I told you, he’s not my type. He’s nice and funny, but I don’t want to go out with him.” She tucked the negligee back into the box. “I’ll save it for a rainy day. Besides, who says I need to wear it for some guy? I’ll wear it for myself.” Gretchen lifted Lacey’s unfinished drink and sipped, mumbling to herself. “Seems like a waste if you ask me.” Lacey jostled Gretchen’s arm. “Hey, that’s mine. If you want another, order one.” She hefted a large black plastic case wrapped with a bungee cord and handed it across the table to Anna. “Here, now open mine.” Anna snickered at the gift, knowing full well Lacey’s present would be the opposite of Gretchen’s. Since her family owned a camping and outfitters’ store, Lacey tended to give gifts from their catalog, often items she wanted for herself. Anna was used to her friend’s unique possessions. They shared a house together. The place was cluttered with expensive camping and hiking gear, as well as emergency supplies. Lacey managed the shop after her parents retired, so she was in charge of the company’s inventory and tested every piece of equipment the business sold. If it didn’t pass Lacey’s stringent demands, it didn’t go on the shelf. Lacey worked hard to keep the company competitive with major retailers. She detested “big-box stores” because they threatened her livelihood.
  8. 8. Anna lifted the black case, surprised at its light weight. She unwound the bungee cord and looked askance at Lacey. “It’s a reusable ribbon,” Gretchen quipped. “How like you, Lacey.” The girls laughed at the remark, since recycling was Lacey’s fanatical quest. Lacey lifted her chin in superiority. “Yes, it won’t go straight into a landfill,” she said, “unlike your wrapping paper and ribbon. Do you know how long the plastic coating on those items takes to break down?” “Ye Gods,” Gretchen groaned. “Let it go.” Anna opened the box and studied its contents with curiosity, lifted a small, hand-written note tucked inside and read: “Someday this could save your life. Don’t leave it at home.” Anna sifted through the assorted items, a smile tugging at her lips. “I’m not sure what to say. Thank you, Lacey.” “It’s an emergency kit for your car,” Lacey said. “I have one like it. They’re pretty cool. It has all the normal equipment, you know. Like a flashlight and batteries, jumper cables, thermal blankets, caution tape and such. There’s also pocket rocket flares from the shop. You know, the ones I showed you last summer.” “Ten bucks says she’ll use my present first,” Gretchen said, rising from her chair. “C’mon, Lacey. Let’s go to your place and watch a movie. I have a present from the cute little waiter.” She pulled a small flask of vodka from the waistband of her skirt. “Got any schnapps?” Anna closed the emergency kit and wrapped the bungee cord around it. “I have to be going also. I’ll talk to you guys tomorrow,” she told her friends, then used her cell phone to call for a taxi. The two women waved goodbye, laughing as they supported each other to the door. Anna shook her head as they stumbled towards the sidewalk, giggling and swaying. Mark, the waiter, came to the table with the bill, watching through the window as Gretchen and Lacey sidled down the street. Anna’s smile faded. “Great. They’ve left me with the bill. Some birthday party, huh?” “You want me to wrap the rest of your cake?” he asked.
  9. 9. “No thanks. Can you take it into the kitchen and see if anybody else wants a slice? I’m not going home and I’m afraid it won’t keep.” She slipped several twenty-dollar bills into the leather binder before handing it to him. “Here, it’s good to go.” Mark put the binder into his apron pocket, balancing the cake on his shoulder. “Thank you. And happy birthday.” “Thank you. I’ll wait outside for my taxi.” Anna slid the small gift from Gretchen into her handbag, tucked the bulky black case under her arm, and left the posh brewery. The street was quiet, the night cool for late August. She shivered and pulled the collar of her blouse closed, hunching her shoulders. At least the air was fresh, not filled with grease smoke like the bar. Within minutes, a car pulled along the curb and the driver leaned out the car window. “Did you call for a taxi?” Anna stepped off the curb. “Yes, thanks.” ! The intruder lifted the window, and when it squeaked, he pulled out a small can of lubricant, spraying it along the tracks. The bathroom window slid up and down without a sound. Next, he spread a washcloth on the side of the sink, and from his jacket pocket, withdrew a yellow paper packet, secured with a rubber band. He placed it on the cloth and rolled it into a tube, taking care that the edge of the packet stuck out. His nostrils flared at the faint aroma of tobacco. He stuffed the roll into sill, propping the window open. He surveyed the tableau, double-checking the bathtub, the candles on the floor next to the wall, and the towels draped over the bar. All was ready. Alerted by the laughter outside, he retreated to the back of the house and slipped out the kitchen door. Seconds later, the women approached the old Victorian home. He leaned against the side of the house and removed his thin black gloves, listening to hushed voices as someone fumbled a house key into the lock. After the front door shut, he crept along the side of the house watching through the gauze-curtained windows as shadows moved first into the foyer, then to the living room, switching lights on along the way.
  10. 10. Adrenaline surged through his body. It thrilled him to stand on one side of a wall while his pretty prey stood on the other. A figure stood in front of the television, turned it on and changed channels before settling on a music video station. Like a metronome, the dull thump of the bass kept time with the pulse in his forehead. He crossed the street, opened the door of dark, nondescript car, and settled behind the wheel to wait.

  11. 11. Chapter Two Using her key, Anna let herself into the silent, dark house. Without turning on the lights, she locked the front door’s deadbolt. After climbing the stairs, she paused at the top and listened to her father’s soft snores. She went into her old bedroom and put her handbag on the dresser. She decided to take a quick shower, not wanting to smell of smoke and deep-fryer grease longer than necessary. She pulled a pair of sweatpants and a small T-shirt out of the dresser drawer before entering her personal bathroom. In the shower, steam enveloped her. The small room filled with the scent of citrus shampoo as she lathered and rinsed her long hair. She squeezed shampoo onto a cloth and washed her body. After toweling dry, she slipped into the clean clothes. She found an ancient jar of moisturizer and slathered it on her face and elbows. Without a dryer, her hair morphed into curly waves instead of her preferred straight style. As she brushed her teeth with her finger and a bit of paste, she made a mental note to buy soap and new toiletries. Smirking at her reflection in the clouded mirror, she recalled her friend’s sweet, yet half-assed, attempt to celebrate her birthday. To top it off, they stuck her with the bill. She opened her bedroom door and stumbled over Fred, the family’s aging Golden Retriever. The lazy sentinel recognized her upon entry and was content to doze outside the door until she opened it. “Hey, big boy! Did you miss me?” She crouched and fluffed his fur, scratching his belly when he rolled over. “Yes, you did, didn’t you, Freddie boy.” The dog’s large tail thumped against the carpeted floor, and he stretched and groaned in appreciation. Anna stroked his soft ears before heading for her father’s bedroom door. Although it was midnight, Anna knew she could knock, and he would be alert, although he slept like a rock through normal noises such as doors opening and closing, showers turning on and off, and toilets flushing. “Papa.” Anna called softly. “What … Anna, is that you?” She opened the door a few inches waiting for his invitation.
  12. 12. “Come on in, sweetheart. Happy birthday,” he said, struggling into a sitting position, before he leaned against the headboard. James Braddock Johnson patted the covers. “Have a seat.” Anna sat in her usual spot at the foot of the bed. It was a large, lonely bed since her mother had died. With a grunt, Fred bounced onto the mattress, stretching out next to her. She crossed her legs and raked the dog’s long, furry tail. Fred groaned his content. “How’s work? Are you getting many assignments?” James asked. “Yes. I’m not crazy about working for a newspaper, but it’s part-time. There’s not a lot of creativity in it, you know what I mean?” “Are you getting many side jobs?” “Well, I’ve done a couple of weddings this month, and I did a brochure for the new bookstore, East of Eaton. I have a steady gig with Jack Frey at Peachys. He’s soliciting new businesses for the mall he wants to build, so each time someone signs up, I add them to the Internet site. I have a couple of Web design jobs and Riverview Advertising has asked for a logo. I guess it’s coming along.” “Your mother would have been so proud of you.” “I’m not sure about that, Dad. My income hasn’t improved and if I weren’t able to live with Lacey, I’d have to move back home.” “You know the door is always open. And your mother didn’t judge success by money.” “No? Are you sure about that?” Anna’s voice betrayed her bitterness. “Anna, you have to cut yourself some slack. She never measured you by her own standard.” “She left a giant shadow, Dad.” “I know.” He reached for her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you sad,” she said. “You didn’t. It’s been five years. I’m content with my life, and I know she’s at peace.” Anna patted her father’s foot. “Well, I’m going to bed. I’m a bit tired. Do you want to go out for brunch tomorrow?” “I plan to cook breakfast. I’ve bought bagels and orange juice for mimosas.” “Great, Dad. We can watch cartoons, like in the old days.”
  13. 13. She gave her father a quick hug. “Do you want the hall light off?” “No, leave it on. Fred can’t see well anymore, so I keep the light on for him.” “OK. Goodnight.” “Goodnight, baby.” ! In a cabin along the Juniata River near Harrisburg, Aaron Tahir slept fitfully, kicking the covers off his long, muscled legs. Since childhood, the same dream tormented him. Fire consumed the decrepit woodshed behind the abandoned house. He ran, frightened and guilty, from the scene. Memories of flames, loud voices, sirens and angry men in uniforms flashed through his nightmare. They found him and dragged him from his hiding place, shouting at him while tears streamed down his cheeks. He was seven years old and had started his first fire. Aaron woke in a sweat, his heart racing. He flung aside the covers as the night terror tore his soul. He paced the room, rubbing his eyes before running his hands through his short, black hair. Still shaking, he went into the bathroom, flipped the light switch and turned the handle of the faucet. He filled a glass with ice-cold well water and gulped it. He raised deep-set green eyes to the mirror, searching for traces of the frightened little boy. Instead, he saw winged, black eyebrows, a large, blade-like nose and a small goatee. Some people said he looked Satanic. He didn’t mind. It helped when intimidating people, which he did every day. He splashed cold water on his face and dried it with an old T-shirt. He left his bedroom and, after a detour to the kitchen for a beer, went into his office and turned on his computer. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, so he decided to work. He clicked an icon and the homepage for the State Fire Marshal’s office opened. After logging in, he searched the national arson bureau’s database trying to find a profile that fit the firebug burning his way through central Pennsylvania.

  14. 14. Chapter Three ! Cartoons flashed on the small television screen mounted under the kitchen cabinet while Anna, sitting cross- legged on a stool, sipped an orange juice-and-champagne mimosa. Her father scrambled eggs at the stove, turning off the gas flame before sprinkling the eggs with Parmesan cheese. The toaster popped and Anna pulled out two bagels, and dropped them onto her plate. She blew on her fingers. “Dang, that’s hot.” James slid a platter of steaming eggs, crowned with fresh-ground black pepper, sea salt and sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, onto the counter. He opened the microwave and pulled out a plate of hissing bacon. “This pre-cooked turkey bacon is great,” he said. “It’s ready in two minutes and has much less grease.” After a diagnosis of high cholesterol two years before, James launched a health regime, which included more fiber in his diet. He also walked on a treadmill each morning while watching the news. “All things in moderation,” he said gravely, slathering a multi-grain bagel with light cream cheese. Anna grinned at her father. “I’m sure the pulp counts as roughage in your mimosa,” she teased. Weight wasn’t the problem. James Braddock Johnson towered a good four inches over six feet and weighed less than two hundred pounds. He was lean and fit for a man nearing sixty. The problem was stress combined with high blood pressure, a deadly mix to which his wife had succumbed. He met and married his wife while they studied law at the University of Virginia. While her interests took her into corporate law, James became a trial attorney and then a judge, winning every election for the past twenty-two years. The rigors of the job, however, had taken their toll on Angela Johnson, and she died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty-three. James turned to Anna, for comfort. A sophomore at Cornell University, Anna moved back home and transferred to Marshall College to complete her degree in fine arts. When she graduated, magna cum laude, it was a hollow victory. She commuted to Penn State University for her master’s degree, graduating at the age of 24. For two years, she taught high school art and served as adviser of the yearbook. She enjoyed working with young people; however, she became weary of the constraints, the disciplinary role of teaching, and the
  15. 15. demanding schedule of rising at dawn and not getting home until time for dinner. When the school board cut back on teacher’s salaries, the art department was the first to feel its effects. She lost her job. She regretted the students’ loss, yet appreciated the liberty to start anew. She freelanced, specializing in graphic arts and photography. When Lacey invited her to share the old Victorian house she’d inherited from her grandmother, Anna left home. She was twenty-six. She knew her father would cope fine. He had a housekeeper, he had his weekly golf outings, he had his judicial work at the courthouse, and he’d started dating. Still handsome, his dark hair beginning to silver, the tall, lean judge was a popular escort. He and his numerous “lady friends” attended the symphony, watched plays at the local community theater and often dined out. ! A knock on the front door brought a deep, rumbling growl from Fred. The dog seldom barked. Whoever was at the door was unwelcome, a stranger or both. Anna stood aside while James opened the door. An Eaton City police officer perched on the steps. He turned towards his patrol car and spoke low into a hand-held radio. “Hello Rand,” James said, recognizing the officer from previous appearances in court. “Good morning Judge Johnson. I’m looking for your daughter. Do you know where Anna is?” “Certainly,” James replied, opening the door all the way, allowing Rand to see her standing behind him. “She’s right here. Would you like to come in?” Anna whooped and ran up the stairs heading for her room. “Oh, sorry. She probably doesn’t want you to see her in pajamas,” James said. She heard his candid remark. “Dad! Excuse me, I’ll be right there.” Anna knew Randall Murphy from high school. She had a crush on him when she was in the ninth grade and he was a popular senior on the football team. Now passing acquaintances, the last thing she wanted was for him to catch her in a pair of baggy sweatpants and a skimpy T-shirt. Frantic, she pulled open her empty closet. She realized the alternative was to drag on the mini skirt and blouse from last night, which still smelled of cigarette smoke and vodka. She went into her father’s bedroom
  16. 16. and opened his closet, chose an old hooded sweat jacket and pulled it on. She walked down the stairs, her fists plunged into the jacket pockets, trying to act normal. She followed the voices until she found her father and Rand in the den. Her father was sitting in his recliner, Fred leaning against his knee. Rand stood next to the fireplace, a notebook in one hand. He looked from his notes with an expression of sorrow. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Anna, your father says you spent the night here last night. Is that right?” “Of course it is. Now tell me what’s wrong.” “This morning, before dawn, Mr. Bernard was walking his dog on Short Street and he saw smoke coming from your place. He knocked on the front door but no one answered. He ran home and called 911. By the time the fire department responded, fire had engulfed the first floor.” “Oh my God! What about Lacey? Is she okay? Where is she?” Rand replied stoically, “An emergency medical team life flighted her to the hospital in Harrisburg.” “Is she … I mean, how is she?” “According to the paramedics, she wasn’t responding at the scene. I don’t know how she is now.” Tears coursing down her cheeks, Anna grabbed her father’s hands and pulled him out of the chair. “Dad, we have to get to the hospital right away.” “Rand, is there anything else?” James asked. “We need to ask Anna a few questions. We’re not sure how the fire started and we’re still sorting through the rubble to make sure there wasn’t anyone else in the house.” “Gretchen Engel! Oh no, Gretchen and Lacey went home last night to watch a movie after my birthday party. What if she’s still there?” Anna ran to the telephone and punched in Gretchen’s cell phone number. After four rings, the phone switched to voice mail. Anna disconnected and dialed the number again. Again, she heard the automatic voice mail message. The third time, Gretchen answered, growling “What the hell?” “Gretchen! Thank God, you’re alright. Where are you?” “Anna? Hold on. Wait a minute.”
  17. 17. Anna heard Gretchen mumble, and a man’s sleepy reply. Seconds later, Gretchen was back on the line. “Sorry about that. I, um, met Mark last night when he got off work.” “There’s been a fire. Lacey is in the hospital,” Anna said, sniffling. “We have to get to Harrisburg.” “What? Is this some kind of joke?” “No. The police are here right now,” Anna said, looking sideways at Rand. “They want to ask me some questions but we have to get to Lacey. I need you to pull yourself together and get over here now.” “I’m on my way. Oh, wait. Damn, I don’t have my car. Mark, can you give me a ride? Thanks, handsome. Anna, I’ll be right there. Wait for me. Where are you?” “I’m at Dad’s house.” Rand interjected. “Anna, when can you come to headquarters? We need to take care of this quickly. We need to talk to Gretchen, too.” She raised a hand, halting him. “First we need to go to the hospital. Then we’ll come to the police station.” She turned her attention back to the telephone. “Gretchen, Rand says he needs to see you, too.” “Later. Right now we need to get to Lacey.” ! !
  18. 18. Chapter Four The hospital elevator crawled to the sixth floor. Anna’s heart thumped. She dreaded what she’d find. The last time she had been to Fairfax Hospital was five years earlier, arriving too late to say goodbye to her mother. Angela Johnson died with her husband at her side, never waking. The doctors called it a “terminal event.” Gretchen clutched Anna’s arm. “Do you think they’ll let us see her?” “No one’s going to stop me.” Gretchen nodded, knowing from experience that Anna could be stubborn and resourceful. The nurse at the intensive care station raised her eyes from her computer screen. “May I help you?” “Yes. Our sister, Lacey Martin, is here. Our parents are on their way from Florida,” she lied, waving her hand to include Gretchen. “We’d like to see her now.” The nurse studied them carefully, not fooled by Anna’s blustering remark. She perused a clipboard. “Lacey Martin…yes, she’s in 605. Only two family members are allowed in the room at a time and I’m afraid her parents are already here. They flew in early this morning. You’ll have to wait. You can have a seat over there,” she said, using her clipboard to point towards a small grouping of sofas and chairs. “I’ll speak with the Martins and let them know you’ve arrived. What are your names?” “Anna and Gretchen. Thank you.” Anna walked to the sofa and sank into the cushions, shoving her hands into the pockets of her hooded sweatshirt. She was warm, but she still wore the sweatpants and old T-shirt and didn’t want to take off the jacket. A cloud of dust particles floated before her eyes. She focused on them until they disappeared beyond her tears. Against the far wall, Gretchen wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Her back shook from stifled sobs. Several minutes passed before the woman returned. “Come with me, please,” she said, gesturing for them to follow. With an arm around each other, Anna and Gretchen entered Lacey’s hospital room. Monitors beeped, a respirator whooshed, and IVs hung from poles and snaked underneath the white sheets. Lacey, pale and comatose, rested on the bed. Her mother sat by her side, stroking her daughter’s cheek.
  19. 19. Anna realized she had been holding her breath and her chest hurt from the effort. Lacey’s mother, Mildred Martin, looked at the visitors with red-rimmed eyes as Anna whimpered. She reached for Anna’s hand and squeezed it gently. Lacey’s father, Buck Martin stood at the window, staring at the green mountainside. “How is she?” Anna asked. Buck Martin bowed his head, his craggy, lined face wet with tears. “The doctor just left. Lacey …,” his voice broke. “She ... she won’t wake up. There’s brain-stem injury,” he whispered. “She may never wake up.” Anna reeled, leaning against the wall. Her knees gave way and she slid, boneless, to the floor. ! !
  20. 20. Chapter Five ! The police officer’s eyes flicked from his notes to Gretchen. “Is there anything else you can recall? The smallest details may be important.” “I wish I could help. Like I said, she was asleep upstairs when I left. There were no candles burning, nothing cooking in the kitchen,” she said. “I was crashed on the couch watching television until I met my friend, Mark, around two o’clock and we went back to his place.” Rand turned to Anna. “And you never went back home?” She shook her head. “No, I caught a cab and went straight to my father’s house. It was my birthday and we had plans the next morning. I mean, today.” Anna peeked at the clock on the wall at the Eaton City Police Department. It was nearing midnight, and she was exhausted. She and Gretchen spent most of the afternoon and evening at the hospital, comforting Lacey’s parents. The doctor addressed the situation to them as a group. Mrs. Martin refused to let go of Anna. His eyes pinned on Mr. Martin, the physician explained Lacey’s injury in detail. “The brain requires a constant flow of oxygen or it experiences a hypoxic-anoxic injury,” he said. “HAI occurs when the flow is interrupted, starving the brain. Hypoxic is a partial lack of oxygen. Anoxic is a total lack. We don’t know yet how long Lacey’s brain experienced oxygen deprivation from carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition, she suffered cardiac arrest in transit. Although we were able to revive her, she’s in a persistent vegetative state. All we can do is keep her on life support and monitor her brain wave activity.” Gretchen and Anna exchanged confused looks. Mrs. Martin’s body shook with sobs. Mr. Martin rubbed his temples. “Will she recover?” he asked. “Are you saying there’s nothing you can do for her?” The neurologist fiddled with the lapel on his white coat. “When the brain’s oxygen supply is diminished, it can result in impairments in cognitive skills and physical functions,” he said. “I won’t lie to you, Mr. Martin. Recovery is possible, but is it probable? We can’t predict anything yet. It depends on which part of Lacey’s
  21. 21. brain was affected. I can tell you, if we don’t detect brain wave activity, you’ll have to make a choice about life support.” Mrs. Martin wailed and clutched at Anna. “My baby! Oh, my baby.” It had been a heart-wrenching sight, watching the grieving parents as they coped with the news. The doctor offered Mrs. Martin a mild sedation and Mr. Martin returned to Lacey’s bedside. A nurse escorted Anna and Gretchen to a small chapel to give the family privacy. ! Hours had passed yet it seemed like days. She couldn’t prevent the yawn, and Rand noticed. “Just a little while longer, okay? The fire marshal is asking to see you.” Gretchen stopped texting from her cell phone and rolled her eyes. “C’mon, you’ve had us here for hours and we spoke to the jerk already. There’s nothing else to say.” She stood and slung her bag over her shoulder. “It’s been a long day and I’ve had it.” “No, not Fire Chief Thatcher. This is the state fire marshal. Just a few more minutes ...” he said, fumbling papers back into the folder. “Not a minute more. I’m leaving. When you have something new, call me,” Gretchen said. “Quit pointing fingers and find out what really happened.” Rand and Anna exchanged glances, both flinching as Gretchen slammed the door on her way out. “Is she your ride?” he asked nervously. “No, I have my own car. I’m going back to Dad’s house,” Anna said. “Can you please stay? He’ll be here soon. He’s coming from Harrisburg.” Too exhausted to care, Anna nodded. “Wake me when he gets here,” she said, crossing her arms on the table, and resting her head. ! !
  22. 22. Groggy, Anna raised her head when the door opened again and gazed into penetrating green eyes. The stranger was dark, with thick ebony hair and bronze skin. Black stubble concealed a chiseled chin. Heat radiated from him as he walked into the room. The man smoldered. The man was afire. “Anna Johnson?” “Yes,” she answered, breathlessly. “Miss Johnson, my name is Aaron Tahir. I’m the state fire marshal investigating the incident at your place last night and the near fatality. A Miss…” he glanced at a notebook in his hand, “Miss Lacey Martin.” Anna continued to stare, and said nothing. “Miss Johnson, may I speak with you?” Aaron frowned, wondering if Anna Johnson was lucid. She continued to stare at him, biting her lip. “Are you alright, ma’am?” Anna dropped her eyes, gathering her wits. “Yes. I am. It’s just the ‘near fatality’ you speak of was my best friend. She was like a sister, so you’ll have to excuse me since I haven’t adjusted to the fact she’s in a coma.” Aaron waited for an onslaught. In his experience, when people vented, their sadness twisted into anger. He’d been on the receiving end of many such scenes. While Anna’s eyes filled with tears and her breath hitched, Aaron studied her. Displays of raw emotion often revealed a person’s guilt. Or their innocence. Anna stopped herself, looking at the clock on the wall while she banked her passion. It was after one o’clock. “What do you want to know, Mr. …? I’m sorry; I didn’t catch your name.” He pulled out a chair and sat, dropping a folder on the table between them. “Aaron Tahir, ma’am. I’m from the state fire marshal’s office. When there’s a fire-related fatality, I’m called to investigate.” Anna arched a brow. “But Lacey is alive and she’s not going to die. What are you investigating?” “Ma’am, until we have a definite cause for the fire, we have to assume it’s suspicious. I’m here to gather information about Miss Martin, about you, about the residence where the fire occurred. I’m obligated to sift through the evidence and determine if there’s been any malfeasance. The commission of an unlawful act, ma’am.”
  23. 23. “I know what malfeasance is,” Anna snapped. How could he be so detached? “I apologize, Miss Johnson. I’m not here to offend you. I need to ask you a few questions.” She sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I know you’re trying to do your job.” “Thank you. I understand this is difficult, and from what I’ve learned, there is not much hope for Miss Martin’s recovery. If so, this may be a homicide,” he added. Frustrated, frightened, and sad, Anna passed her hand over her face, willing away the threatening tears. Aaron waited. Keep your perspective, he warned himself. You’ve seen hundreds of women cry. Yet his hands itched to hold this young woman, to pull her against his chest and stroke her while she wept. Instead, he opened the folder of police and fire reports Rand assembled earlier, bending over the pages, pretending to read while he gave Anna time to compose herself. She stood abruptly, the plastic chair screeching as it slid across the tiled floor. “Excuse me.” He nodded, assuming she needed a bathroom break, and kept reading as she walked from the room. After waiting several minutes, Aaron leaned back in the chair and withdrew a mobile phone. He thumbed through the different menus, checking for missed calls, reading urgent texts and emails. Fifteen minutes passed before he stood and opened the door. He peered down the empty hall, and then strode to the window at the entrance. “Where is Miss Johnson?” he barked at the duty officer. The older policewoman looked at him with disdain at his abrupt tone. “She left in tears, and I see why.” ! !
  24. 24. Chapter Six The Martins transferred Lacey to a brain injury rehabilitation center in Florida, near their retirement home. There, they could spend most of their time at her side. Although she was stable, she remained in a state of “wakeful unresponsiveness.” Her brain stem injury improved and she was breathing on her own, but she wasn’t responsive to external stimuli. Lying on the hospital bed, she could have been an enchanted sleeping princess. Saying goodbye to the Martins and Lacey had been a sad, dismal affair with rain beginning Monday morning and continuing all day. The dog days of August were giving way to fall, which always came early in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Anna stood in the rain, an umbrella shielding her from the deluge, watching the ambulance, followed by the Martin’s rental car, as it left the hospital parking lot. Now, on their way home to Eaton, Anna stared out the passenger window while James drove the winding road with care, splashing through puddles. A couple of times the Lexus hydroplaned, but he handled the wheel with expertise. “You can move back here, honey.” “I know, Dad. Thanks, but Gretchen doesn’t want to be alone right now.” The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Back at his north side home, he used the remote to open the garage. After parking, they walked through the side door and into the kitchen. While James hung their trench coats in the hall closet, Anna filled the coffee maker with fresh beans. “I’m making a pot. Do you want a cup?” James returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. “Yes. I have apple pie.” “I don’t want any,” Anna said, forlornly. “Maybe not now. You will when you smell it.” He put the pie into the oven and turned it on to 350 degrees. The gas pilot thumped and flames licked their way around the coils. “Dad, why did this happen?”
  25. 25. “Anna, we’ve gone over this. You know what Chief Thatcher said. Lacey must have left candles burning and fell asleep.” “If I had been there, Dad, this wouldn’t have happened.” “You can’t blame yourself, honey. It was an accident. Chances are you would have been hurt, too. Or killed.” “No. I always lock the house. I would have made sure Lacey didn’t leave candles burning. I should have been there.” “You are feeling sad and guilty, Anna, but you’re not to blame. You can’t always protect the ones you love. I can’t protect you and that would drive me crazy, if I let it. It was an accident. No one is responsible.” Anna leaned into her father, resting her cheek on his shoulder. James put one arm around his daughter and kissed the top of her head. “Smell the Apple pie? Do you want some vanilla ice cream with it?” he asked. She sniffed back her tears, forcing a tremulous smile. ! After a lengthy phone call to police headquarters and Eaton’s Fire Chief, Ellis Thatcher, Anna received permission to return to the house she’d shared with Lacey. She parked along the street since an Eaton City Police car sat in the driveway, and in front of it, a large red pickup truck with black-tinted windows. Across the street, two elderly women gawked at and gossiped about the fire-damaged house, with it soot- stained walls and broken windows. The grass and bushes had been trampled into muddy mire. Anna slipped under the yellow caution tape, ignoring the warning “Police Line – Do Not Cross.” Tuesday’s blue sky and warm temperatures chased the chill of Monday’s rain, but couldn’t penetrate into the gloom of the burned house. The wooden front door hung open, clinging to the sill with one hinge. The fire fighters used a battering ram to force their way in when repeated knocks failed to rouse the occupants. She walked through the doorway and covered her nose and mouth, trying to block the oppressive stench of burned plastic and wood. Rand stood in the corner of what used to be the living room, listening to someone as he wrote notes on a clipboard.
  26. 26. He did a double-take when he spotted Anna and spoke again, his voice too low for her to hear. Anna moved towards him and caught sight of the state fire marshal crouched behind the sagging sofa, poking debris with a telescoping rod. He stood and raised a hand, halting her in her tracks. Aaron’s eyes narrowed. “We’re in the middle of an investigation, Miss Johnson. You need to wait outside.” The guilt Anna experienced from skipping out on their first meeting vanished, replaced instead with a flash of annoyance. Hands on hips, she took a deep breath. “I have permission to be here. I need to get my clothes,” she said. “And my computer.” He murmured a few words to Rand, who then approached Anna, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder as he passed. He left through the gaping doorway, leaving Anna alone with the marshal. She hadn’t noticed much about him at the police department late Saturday except for his intensity. She recalled him wearing a white shirt with official insignia. Today, he wore a tight, dark blue T-shirt and a pair of black combat pants, tucked into boots. His formal uniform must have been long-sleeved. She would have remembered the thick biceps and forearms, covered with black hair. “Look, I don’t want to interrupt, but I need my things,” she said. “Chief Thatcher said I could come by and get them.” She glanced toward the blackened staircase wondering if the steps to her bedroom were safe to use. Her eyes darted back to Aaron in askance. “Can I go up?” When he didn’t respond, she added impatiently, “Are you going to stand there all day brooding? You don’t intimidate me.” She flinched when he started towards her, giving lie to her brave words. Her eyes riveted on his chest as he approached. Within moments, he towered over her. “Okay, maybe a little,” she admitted, tilting her chin bravely. She watched with fascination as his upper lip curled into a smile. “This is the second time you’ve interfered with my investigation,” he said. “What are you talking about? I haven’t interfered with a thing,” she said, trying not to feel guilty about running away from their first interview. “And you call this an investigation? The chief has already blamed the fire on Lacey. He said she left candles burning.”
  27. 27. “How do you know that, ma’am?” “Would you quit calling me ma’am?” He studied her flushed cheeks. “I’ve told you, until we know the cause, we assume all fires are suspicious. Especially a fire with a near-fatality.” She hissed. “And I told you, her name is Lacey Martin. She’s not a notation in your report. She’s my best friend.” Aaron was the first to break the standoff lifting a large, callused finger to her cheek and catching the lone tear. Anna reeled back and stumbled against the broken door, her wide eyes fastened on his. He took a deep breath. “Yes, her name is Lacey Martin. I’m sorry.” Anna bit her trembling bottom lip as she blinked back tears. She didn’t want to cry in front of him. One tiny gesture, one small act of kindness didn’t make him a friend. “If you follow me carefully, I’ll take you upstairs,” he said. “The fire was pretty much contained to the first level. There’s no telling how much structural damage there is without opening the walls and floor.” She traced his cautious steps until they reached the landing. “That room,” she pointed to the first door on the left. He walked through the opening and surveyed the room. The carpet squished beneath his boots as he entered. Although flames hadn’t reached the second floor, thick black soot coated most of the surfaces. Fire fighters had broken windows to prevent back draft and used high-powered water hoses to subdue all sparks. Between fire, smoke and water, the house was destroyed. Aaron opened the closet door and shoved aside clothes on hangers. Next, he opened dresser drawers and rummaged through some of the contents. “What are you doing?” Anna asked, aghast as he searched through her underwear drawer. “Making sure there are no hot spots,” he said over his shoulder. “You don’t want to pack a burning ember and take it with you. It could start another fire.” “Oh,” her voice sounded weak. She tiptoed toward her desk and surveyed the equipment. Although her laptop was closed, the top of it was wet. She wiped some of the moisture off with her shirtsleeve, then did the same for her scanner. She hesitated before unplugging it.
  28. 28. “It’s okay. All the electricity has been turned off,” Aaron said. “I hope these work,” she mumbled as she looped the cords on top. “Take the battery out of the laptop. Put the whole thing in a box and fill it with rice. It should help draw out any moisture. Let it dry for a day or two,” he said. He turned back to the closet and lifted her suitcases from the top shelf. “Use these to pack your clothes. Take what you need. They smell of smoke, but you can use them for the time being.” Anna thanked him and opened the suitcases. She placed her laptop and scanner in one, using handfuls of clothing from the dresser drawer to pad it. She filled the second case with clothes from the closet. “Can I get my toiletries?” Aaron escorted her along the blackened hallway to the bathroom. Beyond it was Lacey’s bedroom. Anna stumbled, recalling her best friend lying silent and still in the hospital bed. Aaron caught her elbow. “Are you alright?” She flinched at his touch, jerking her arm from his grasp. “Yes,” she snapped. She went into the bathroom and pulled a plastic shopping bag from under the cabinet. She scooped bottles of shampoo and conditioner, her toothbrush and other toiletries, dropping them into the bag. She tied a single knot in the handle, before plucking her nightgown and robe from the back of the bathroom door. In the hall, she knelt by a suitcase, unzipping an outer pocket and stowing her nightwear. “I think I have what I need,” she murmured. Aaron gripped the two suitcase handles and walked to the staircase. “Be careful,” he cautioned. “Follow my footsteps.” He kept walking through the front door. Anna blinked as she followed him into the sunshine. Her nose tingled at the absence of smoke. The muscles in Aaron’s bicep stood in relief as he lifted and pointed a suitcase at the car parked at the curb next to recycling bins. “Is this yours?” Anna hurried in front of him. She pulled a set of keys from her jeans pocket and unlocked the trunk. It popped open and she leaned in, shuffling aside camera bags and a tripod. She turned and reached for a suitcase. “Thank you,” she said. “I can take it from here.”
  29. 29. Aaron ignored her and placed the case in the trunk. He waited as she wedged it further into the trunk before he placed the second case in the cavity. She dropped the grocery bag of toiletries into the recess and slammed the lid. She crossed her arms and turned back to Aaron. “When can I come back? Most of the furniture is Lacey’s, but there are some things I’d like to keep. Some photographs and knick knacks ....” she faltered, realizing how petty it sounded to ask for insignificant items when the Martins were fighting to save their daughter. He frowned. “Perhaps a couple of days. We’ll see.” “Never mind,” she said hastily. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t want anything,” she added, looking over his shoulder at the flame-scarred house. She lurched at her car, tears welling in her eyes, blinding her. She stumbled against the curb, and again Aaron caught her elbow. This time she didn’t withdraw. Instead, she turned toward the warm blue wall, laying her cheek on his chest. His hand left her elbow and stretched across her back, cupping her shoulder. He stood impassive as she leaned into him, crying silently. He stared at the old women on the other side of the street until, discomfited, they moved on. Anna inhaled his scent, a blend of wood smoke and spice. She lifted her lids and saw the faded, red silk- screened fire marshal insignia. His T-shirt was soft beneath her cheek, his arm warm around her body. He was a well-padded mountain, strong and unyielding. She laid her palm on the muscles of his abdomen. She felt his quick intake of breath at her touch and for a moment, she forgot why she stood there. When she remembered, she moved away, out of his awkward embrace. “Thank you again,” she said as she opened her car door and slid in. Aaron’s cheek twitched as he watched her drive away. ! !
  30. 30. Chapter Seven “Bullshit!” Gretchen stalked back and forth, dressed in a cropped T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. “Lacey didn’t light any candles. I should know; I was there. We made popcorn and watched a movie, then she went to bed. I know she was asleep. I went upstairs to tell her goodbye, but she was out like a light. I put a blanket on her before I left.” Anna shook her head. “Maybe she woke after you left.” She shook her head. “No way. They’re full of crap. They can’t figure out how the fire started so they’re blaming Lacey.” “You’re probably right,” Anna admitted. “You know,” Gretchen continued, “maybe someone else started the fire.” “What? That’s crazy.” “Well, maybe someone did. When I left there I was spooked. Like someone was outside. My cell phone rang near the end of the movie. It was Mark, the waiter from the brewery. He wanted to get together.” Gretchen walked into her bedroom and grabbed a pair of jeans. She slid them up her long legs, wiggling them over her slim hips before snapping them shut. “So, I figured, ‘why not?’ Lacey was asleep, you were at your dad’s and I had the next day off. When I left the house, I had the creepiest feeling. You know? Like when someone is following you. I started walking faster. The brewery is three blocks away and Mark was waiting outside for me.” Anna shuddered. “Did you see anyone?” “No. As soon as I reached Mark, we got into his car and drove away.” “Well, it was probably nothing.” “Maybe. Maybe not,” Gretchen said. “I have to go to work. You have your key?” “Yes. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere. I need to sort through this mess,” Anna said, waving a hand at her suitcases. “I have no idea if my computer is ruined or not. The fire didn’t reach my room, but the heat did and the water from the fire hoses soaked everything.” “Poor kid. Did you lose everything?”
  31. 31. “Well, I have a lot of my clothes. I hope my laptop works. The scanner cost me 2,000 bucks. Most of my cameras and equipment are at the newspaper or in my car. I did lose my Nikon. It was in the downstairs hall closet.” “Hmmm. I bought some extra detergent and you already know where the washer and dryer are. At least you can get rid of some of the stink,” Gretchen suggested, wrinkling her nose at the smell of scorched plastic and wet ash. “Thanks. I appreciate this.” “I’m the one who’s lucky. You could have gone back to your dad’s, but you didn’t. At least I don’t have to look for another roommate.” “What happened to Tim?” “Eh, what always happens? Someone else comes along, looks better and laughs at his idiot jokes. Can’t compete with that, can I? Honestly, I was getting tired of cleaning after the lazy bum. The man could mess up the entire kitchen while making a sandwich. And talk about stink! Funny how they all take baths when you first meet and slap on aftershave. Soon as they hook you, they forget what a toothbrush is, much less the shower.” Gretchen gave Anna a quick hug, grabbed her purse and opened the front door. “Remember what I said,” she warned. “I had a creepy feeling. You stay inside, keep this door locked and don’t let anyone else in.” “Yes, Mom.” ! Anna spent the afternoon laundering clothes and although they smelled of smoke, they didn’t reek. She arranged her meager belongings in the spare bedroom, hanging shirts and pants and dresses in the tiny closet, and storing the rest of her clothes in stacking crates. She planned to visit Peachys and browse the used furniture store. For now, the plastic bins served her needs. She puttered around the apartment, tiny in comparison to the house she shared with Lacey. It was the first floor of an old, three-story house that had been converted into apartments.
  32. 32. It wasn’t a grand Victorian with oak hardwood paneling like Lacey’s home, but it had its charm. The front room served as the living room, and two small bedrooms, a closet and a bathroom flanked the short hallway, which led into the small, eat-in kitchen. Although the house was a century old, the renovation was recent and the kitchen contained modern units purchased from a popular Danish furniture manufacturer. Gretchen’s bedroom and the living room also contained the stylish modern furniture, beloved by the masses thanks to its simplicity and cheapness. Anna’s room contained the ancient double bed and nightstand Gretchen used as a teen, and hot-pink plastic crates for storage. The room was too small, however, for it to be sparse. She sat on the sagging bed and pulled out her cell phone. Flipping through her contacts, she searched for the Martin’s phone number. After six rings, an automated answering service picked up. “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, this is Anna,” she said. “I just wanted to check on you two and see how Lacey’s doing today. If there’s been any change....” She hesitated. “Please give me a call when you can and let me know if there’s anything you need me to do. Like, water the plants, pick up the mail. Whatever you need, just let me know. I’m happy to ….” The recording ended, cutting her off in mid-sentence. She stared at her cell phone, then opened her messenger application. She flipped through old messages, pausing to read any from Lacey. On a whim, she composed a new message to her friend. “Miss u. Hurry up & wake up & get better & get home. Luv u.” The rest of the day, she cleaned the house. She found a small table and a spare chair on the back porch, and brought them into her room to set up a small office area. She pulled her laptop and scanner from a large cardboard box, brushing away stray grains of rice. She snapped the battery back into the laptop, plugged it into an outlet, and flipped the on switch. Seconds passed with no electrical shortages, no worrisome wisps rising from the casing, before the computer screen brightened. The operating system started and all of the software icons loaded. “Looks good so far,” she said aloud.
  33. 33. She did the same with the scanner, and after connecting it to her laptop, put a magazine on the glass and depressed the scan button. It hummed into action. Within a minute, she viewed the digital image file. It worked. With a sigh of relief, she leaned back in the chair. “Now to hook up the Internet,” she mumbled. She’d been using her cell phone to keep up on her personal email and text messages, but she’d ignored her professional account since Gretchen didn’t have an Internet connection. Anna unplugged the dusty telephone cord from the living room extension and snaked it into her room, and into the back of her computer. As a freelancer for the Eaton Daily News, she occasionally used the newspaper’s remote Internet connection software on her laptop to login. She smirked as she heard the telephone dial-up “beep-boop-squawk” through the laptop’s tiny speaker. Compared to high-speed Internet access, dialing into an Internet system was archaic. She opened a web browser and logged into her work website. She scrutinized the inbox, ignoring the junk mail and spam. One sender caught her eye: Phoebe Allen of Marshall College. Dear Ms. Johnson, Renalda Ortiz, instructor of graphic art at Marshall, requires unplanned surgery and two months of bed rest. She recommended I contact you regarding her Wednesday evening class. If you are interested in an adjunct position for the upcoming semester, beginning August 28 and concluding December 14, please contact me as soon as possible. Best wishes, Dr. Phoebe Allen, Communications Department Marshall College
  34. 34. The e-mail was dated Friday, August 18. Her birthday. The night of the fire. Frantically, Anna went into the living room and opened the telephone book, her fingers shaking as she flipped through the pages, looking for the Marshall College information desk number. Back in her room, she dialed the number and waited several seconds before she realized the telephone wasn’t working. Confused, she stared at the handset until she remembered that the phone line was in the back of her computer. She pulled her cell phone from her handbag and used it instead. “Dr. Phoebe Allen’s office, please,” she spoke when the Marshall College switchboard operator answered. Moments later a musical voice came on the line. “Phoebe Allen. May I help you?” “Dr. Allen? My name is Anna Johnson. You contacted me last week regarding a teaching position at Marshall.” “Ms. Johnson? Ah, yes, Renalda’s class. Well, when I didn’t hear from you I assumed you weren’t interested. I may have someone else lined up.” “I’m so sorry. My place caught fire and I was unable to access my e-mail until now,” Anna replied anxiously. “Oh. I hope everything is alright.” “My best friend was critically injured. She’s still in a coma.” Silence. Anna waited breathlessly. “I’m sorry. I heard about the fire and your friend. I didn’t know you lived there also. Are you sure you’re up to this?” Anna closed her eyes, her lips moving in a soundless prayer. “Yes, Dr. Allen. This may be exactly what I need.” “Alright; I have Renalda’s syllabus on my desk. Can you stop by tomorrow? Renalda assures me you’re capable of handling this class. She says you could teach it as well as she does. Is this true?” “Dr. Allen, I have a master’s degree in fine arts, as well as teaching experience at the high school level. For the past year, I’ve been an independent consultant, freelancing for newspapers and ad companies. I’m proficient with most graphic art programs, as well as web publishing software. I’m sure I can do the job.” “You sound confident. As long as you don’t think your recent misfortune will get in the way ….”
  35. 35. Anna interrupted her. “It won’t. I promise. I’m already established at a new place, and I’ve salvaged all of my equipment. I’m ready to work.” “Fine,” Dr. Allen said, as if making her mind, “come by my office in the communications building tomorrow at 10 a.m. It’s 301, across the hall from the elevator.” “Thank you, Dr. Allen. I’ll be there.” As she hung up the telephone, Anna jumped onto Gretchen’s bed and bounced, flinging her arms out. “Whoo hoo!” She kicked out her feet, landing on her rear and bounced one last time before rolling off, the satin comforter sliding with her and cushioning the fall. ! ! !
  36. 36. Chapter Eight The next morning, Anna decided to take a walk and burn off some of her nervous energy. Gretchen, exhausted from another late-night date with Mark, was sound asleep. Anna couldn’t wait to tell her friend the good news. She’d catch up with her friend after the meeting with Dr. Allen. She pulled on her baggy sweat pants and borrowed one of Gretchen’s tank tops. The gray top had a built-in bra that was too small for Anna. She decided to appreciate her newfound cleavage. She tugged on a pair of sneakers and tied her house key in her shoelace. After pulling her wavy brown hair into a ponytail, she stopped at the refrigerator for a bottle of water. She let herself out the front door, making sure it locked behind her. She paused on the porch to stretch. From his vantage point parked down the street, Aaron Tahir watched as Anna bent at the waist and stretched her hamstrings. He admired her lean, tall silhouette as she worked through a series of stretches. He kept vigil the night before, noting what time Gretchen arrived and when she left later with her boyfriend. Anna had stayed home, alone. He’d watched the solitary figure through the windows as she moved through the house, locking doors and switching off lights. She retired to her bedroom around 10 o’clock and turned off her lights at 11. After waiting an hour, Aaron returned to his motel room. ! Back on watch by 7 o’clock in the morning, he watched as Anna pulled her cell phone out of her sweatpants pocket, fiddled with the screen, and inserted ear buds. She slipped the phone back into her pocket, and hummed to the music as she started her brisk morning walk. Aaron started his motor and made a U-turn, leaving a distance of several car lengths between them. Anna didn’t hear the engine or notice the truck keeping pace behind her. She raised a hand in greeting as she passed an elderly woman waiting while her shaggy dog lifted its leg on a hydrangea bush. The small poodle
  37. 37. turned its rheumy eyes on Anna, its stumpy tail wagging. Anna stopped to let it sniff her hand before she scratched its ears. “Good morning,” she said, nodding to the woman. Aaron kept the car idling, his foot on the brake as he waited for Anna to continue walking, but instead she ducked into a coffee shop. He pulled into a parking space, then strolled through the cafe entrance. Already at the counter, Anna plucked the buds from her ears, letting them dangle from her waistband. Aaron could hear the tinny, faraway sounds of a Bob Marley reggae tune. Anna bent over and pulled off one of her sneakers. “Could I have white chocolate mocha, please? And a lemon poppy seed muffin.” Balancing on one foot, she pulled a ten-dollar bill from inside her sock to pay the clerk, beaming at him all the while. The young man, too busy staring at her cleavage as she bent over, didn’t notice the damp, crumpled bill. “Keep the change,” she said, smiling. On top of the world, Anna wondered if she were betraying her best friend by enjoying the morning and looking forward to a job interview. She flinched when she recognized the deep voice behind her say, “I’ll have the tall Caffé Americano.” She turned to glare at the fire chief. Tall and muscular, he towered over her in the coffee shop. He grinned at Anna, his lips crooking to one side. Anna stared into the green depths of his eyes. “Morning Miss Johnson,” he said. Anna lifted her chin defiantly. “Following me, Marshal?” Aaron didn’t respond. He paid the clerk, stood aside, and read the morning edition of the Eaton Daily News. He was just another customer. Seconds later, he picked up the steaming cup of coffee the clerk placed on the counter, then headed outside, the newspaper tucked under his arm. He sat at a bistro table and once again pretended to read. Minutes later, Anna came outside and sat at a nearby table. Over the top of his newspaper, Aaron watched her lick the whipped cream off the beverage, fascinated as her tongue danced along her upper lip. Anna sensed Aaron’s eyes caressing her and for several heartbeats tried to ignore it. When her eyes darted to his, he averted his gaze to read the newspaper.
  38. 38. She pulled out her cell phone and checked her text messages, furtively glancing at Aaron. This morning, he wore a black T-shirt and blue jeans. Black sunglasses were tucked in the top pocket of his T-shirt. Aaron glanced over the newspaper and caught Anna studying him. He smirked, noting the blush that flooded her fair skin. Embarrassed, she stood and put the lid on her chocolate. She tossed it and the uneaten muffin into the trash. “For the record, I’m going home,” she said. “You can stop following me now.” She walked away, tucking the headphones into her ears and adjusting the volume. Her shoulders sagged as she headed down the sidewalk back towards Gretchen’s house. ! ! !
  39. 39. Chapter Nine Paper swamped Phoebe Allen’s desk. Anna navigated the canyons made by towering stacks of books as she entered the small room. She transferred magazines and manuscripts from a nearby chair to the top of a squat bookcase before sitting. “I’m afraid I’ve let things pile up,” Phoebe said, not apologizing. “Don’t worry, I have the syllabus you need right here.” She foraged on her desktop, brushing aside folders and papers until she found the one she needed. “Ah, here we go. Your class is held once a week, Thursdays from six to nine p.m. You have twelve students and the adjunct salary is twenty-five hundred for the semester. You say you’re already familiar with the software used in the class and you have experience teaching. Renalda has faith in you. I suppose all I need to know is if you’ll accept. If so, I have a simple contract here you’ll need to sign.” Anna’s head was swimming. “Don’t you need some kind of resume?” “No. I’m familiar with your work, Ms. Johnson, as well as your academic record. You graduated from here so it was easy to look at your transcripts. I’ve also communicated through e-mail with the superintendent of the school district where you taught. The Internet is a wonderful tool, isn’t it?” Phoebe relaxed in her leather chair and watched Anna, her gaze gentle and kind. “I’ll admit that your tale of woe got me. Honestly, we had already planned to offer you the job before I e-mailed you. You see, we’re in a bind and we think you can help us. What do you say?” “What do I say? Yes, yes. Thank you so much, Dr. Allen. I won’t let you down.” “Great. Now, why don’t you tell me about yourself? What’s happening in your life?” Maybe it was her sympathetic shoulder, maybe it was her kind eyes, but Anna felt at ease with Phoebe Allen and before she knew it, she confided in the older woman. She spoke about Lacey, about her mother, about her father and Fred, the dog. She described her kooky, funny friend Gretchen. The one person she didn’t mention was Marshal Aaron Tahir. “It is noon,” Phoebe said, looking at her watch.
  40. 40. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been yakking all morning. I’m sure you have things to do. I’d better go now,” Anna said, standing and grabbing her purse. In her rush, she bumped into one of the book stalagmites and it tumbled to the floor. Aghast, she sank to her knees to straighten the mess. “Don’t worry about it,” Phoebe said, tugging on Anna’s elbow. “I do it all the time. See?” She backed into a stack of books, bumping it with her large rump until it swayed and toppled. “Housekeeping cleans them up all the time. That’s why they’re in these tall piles. You think I’d do something this whacky? Why, they’re dangerous. An accident waiting to happen. Why don’t we call it a morning, though, and head over to the cafeteria? We’ll get some lunch, before going to security and getting your campus I.D. and a parking pass. You’ll have to go to the bookstore and get some supplies. It’s Wednesday and your first class is tomorrow night.” “Yes, of course,” Anna gushed. “Thank you, again, for the opportunity.” ! !
  41. 41. Chapter Ten Anna returned to Gretchen’s apartment after five o’clock, arms loaded with textbooks and an academic calendar. Gretchen sat on the couch playing with her new Xbox. Mark, the waiter from the brewery, held a remote in his hand and they were pushing buttons, shoving each other with their shoulders. “Hi guys,” Anna called out. “What are you playing?” “Grand Theft Auto. Ow, Mark! Not fair!” Gretchen tossed her remote onto the living room table and wrapped her arms around Mark’s waist. She shoved him onto the couch and tickled his ribs. “Let’s see how you like it, buster.” She sank her sharp, white teeth into Mark’s shoulder and growled. Meanwhile her fingers roamed lower, tugging on the waistband of his jeans. Mark howled with laughter. “You brat. Get your mitts off the family jewels!” “That’s not what you said last night,” Gretchen purred. “Okay, you two. Settle down. I have an announcement to make. I have a job!” “Oh, is that all?” Gretchen returned to tickling Mark. “You have three or four jobs already, Anna.” “Now I have a job as a college instructor at Marshall.” “Huh?” “I’ve been hired to teach graphic arts this semester. Who knows, if they like me maybe they’ll ask me back next semester. And maybe the one after that. This could be the break I’ve been waiting for.” “Awesome, Anna. Can you pull her off of me?” Mark pleaded. Gretchen whispered in Mark’s ear and stood up, pulling him to his feet. “Yeah, that’s great, Anna. I’m so proud of you. Um, Mark, can you help me change a light bulb in my room?” The couple stumbled over each other, giggling and kissing, into Gretchen’s room, closing the door and locking it behind them. Anna rolled her eyes and dropped her new books on the living room table. “Fine!” she yelled. “Don’t listen to me. Nobody ever listens to me. See if I care.”
  42. 42. She stomped into the kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator door. She sniffed a carton of milk. “Yuck,” she said, dropping it in the trashcan. She heaved a couple of plastic containers around as she foraged. She wasn’t hungry. She was anxious to fill the void created when Gretchen and Mark disappeared. At least her father had been gracious enough to listen when she called him after leaving Marshall. The doorbell rang, its insistent buzz startling her. She dropped the butter dish, butter side down. “Of course,” she said, looking at the yellow blob on the floor. The buzzer rang again. This time two sharp jabs. “Okay, I’m coming,” she called, scowling at the butter dish. When she opened the door, Aaron Tahir stood on the porch. “What are you doing here?” Her voice sounded sharp, accusing. “We’re not finished. I need to speak with you about ... Lacey,” he said, making sure he spoke the victim’s name this time. She looked over his shoulder and saw several children playing road hockey in the middle of the street. “Come inside,” she said, opening the door. “We can talk in here.” Anna walked to the television and Xbox and turned the system off. Without the deafening sound of the video game’s revved engines and gunshots, Aaron could hear giggles and a rhythmic thumping coming from one of the adjacent rooms. Recognizing the sound of a boisterous round of sex, he raised a quizzical brow. “Do you have company, Miss Johnson?” “Ah,” she stammered. “That’s my new roommate. I’ve been staying here since the fire.” Aaron reviewed his notebook. “According to my records, you’ve been staying with your father, James Johnson. I stopped by there first.” “Only for a day or so. I haven’t lived at home for awhile, Mr. Tahir.” They sat in silence. Anna squirmed uncomfortably as the laughter and moaning escalated. “Care to continue this somewhere else?” Aaron asked, lifting an eyebrow. “Yes. Let’s get out of here,” Anna replied, grabbing her handbag and sprinting out the front door. She depressed the button on the latch so the door would lock behind her. “Shall we go to the coffee shop again?” she suggested.
  43. 43. “How about some place else?” Aaron asked. “I’ve been working all day and I’m starved.” He headed for his red truck. It was ominous with tinted windows, looming against the curb. He opened the passenger door and waited for Anna. She looked at the bench seat, at least four feet off the ground. There was no running board. “How am I supposed to get in there?” Aaron laced his fingers together. Anna placed one foot in his hand, grabbed a handful of his shirt and bounced into the cab. She forgot to release his shirt, clutching at him and drawing him to her. “You in?” His green eyes raked her. “You find this amusing, don’t you?” She shoved his arm away and sat straight. He pointed at the house across the street. “Well, they’re having fun. Why not us?” “I don’t expect that’s part of your job, Marshal.” “Sure it is, ma’am. I’m a public servant. Your taxes pay my salary, so here I am, literally at your feet and ready to serve.” Since she didn’t have a snappy reply, Anna ignored him. He closed the door and moved to the driver’s side, swinging into the truck cab. She jumped when he reached across her and pulled the seatbelt out of its case. “Serve and protect, remember?” He smiled at her nervousness, then clicked the belt into place. He slid his thumb under the shoulder harness, adjusting it. Anna stared at his hands as if they were burning coals. Aaron started the big truck’s engine and slipped it into gear. After checking the rear-view and side mirrors for oncoming cars, he headed east towards downtown Eaton. “What’s good around here?” “Depends. What do you like?” “I don’t suppose you have many ethnic restaurants in this town, do you?” “Well, we’ve got lots of Italian restaurants. Otherwise, no. Eaton has a Perkins, two McDonalds, a Burger King, a Wendy’s, a Taco Bell and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Oh, wait, that’s not politically correct, is it? I mean, KFC. We’ve got lots of sub shops and pizza parlors.” Aaron’s head was swimming. He ran his hand through his black hair, raking the dark, coarse curls from his forehead. “Just pick a place, OK? A quiet one.”
  44. 44. “Fine. Turn here.” “Which way?” “Turn right. Now park over there. That spot. Hurry, that car is trying to get in first. Darn. You’re too late. You have to use your signal if you’re going to park. You have to let people know your intentions.” Aaron stomped on the brakes, rocking the truck. He angled toward Anna with a smirk, and put a finger against her lips. “Not another word. I know how park this truck.” Anna’s mouth burned at his touch, her eyes widening. Aaron hesitated, watching as she licked her lips. They both jumped when a horn blasted behind them. Seconds later, Aaron slipped into a spot in the back of a vacant public parking lot. After he turned off the truck, he reached behind Anna’s knees and pulled a clipboard from beneath the seat. “Excuse me,” he said, bumping her ankle with the board. He wrote a note, then reached into his waistband and removed a handgun. Anna gasped. “Sorry. Need to stow this away. Lift your feet,” he said as he placed the clipboard under the seat. He withdrew a strong box. Anna planted her feet on the dashboard and swayed toward Aaron, watching with curiosity as he opened the box, dumped the gun, and slid it back in place. “Why did you need a gun at my place, but not on the street?” “Well now, I don’t know you, Miss Johnson. You could have been a lunatic.” “Maybe I am.” “I think I can handle you.” Aaron eyes roved from her mouth to her breasts, to her hips and legs before stopping at her feet, still propped on the truck dash. “Is this how you interrogate your suspects?” she asked with irritation. “Not all. And I never said you were a suspect. I have questions about the case.” “Case! Can’t you say her name? It’s Lacey, damn you.” “Miss Johnson, I am sorry. You’ve already told me you are close to … to Lacey. I understand you’re sad and you miss her. One of the ways you can honor her is by helping me find out how the fire started. I’m not the bad guy. I’m one of the good guys. See?”
  45. 45. Aaron pulled his wallet from his back pocket, flipped it open and showed her a silver badge embossed with a keystone. Anna couldn’t stop the slow, fat teardrop sliding down her nose, splashing onto her trembling upper lip. Aaron reached out and caught the tear, rubbing it away with his thumb. He studied her as if working out a puzzle, examining the sooty lashes fringed with tears, the flushed cheeks, the small, upturned nose and pointed chin punctuated with a small dimple. Mink brown hair framed her oval face and long, graceful neck. Aaron couldn’t shake the aura of sex surrounding them. He’d been stimulated first by the loud and provocative noises of lovemaking at the apartment, and again sitting in the shadowed truck cab with Anna. More than anything, he wanted to wrap his arms around her and kiss those luscious lips. Instead, he leaned against the driver’s door and rubbed his chin. She broke the spell. “Well, what are you waiting for?” His eyes widened. “Hmmm?” “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a nice little restaurant over there,” she said, nodding her head to Dante’s, a local favorite, “serves a nice steak. Or lasagna, if you like.” “Let’s go,” Aaron said. ! !
  46. 46. Chapter Eleven Self conscious and nervous during their dinner, Anna talked too much and too fast. She recounted stories from her childhood and growing up in Eaton. She also told him about her freelance photography career and the offer to teach a college course. “Sounds like you have a good thing going here,” he observed. “I suppose. If you had asked me yesterday morning, I wouldn’t have agreed. Strange how one thing can alter your outlook isn’t it? Wow, this has been a one-sided conversation,” she quipped. “Oh, wait, it isn’t a conversation, is it? This is an interview. Do you think you have enough notes?” Aaron looked into guarded eyes and watched her jaw clench. “No, this isn’t an interview,” he said. “I’m trying a new tactic. It’s called, ‘being nice.’” She caught her breath as he grinned, his teeth flashing brilliant white against dark skin. “Do you think you might call me Anna, now that we’re better acquainted?” she asked. “I might.” “Good. So, tell me about you. About your work. About your childhood.” “I’m not interesting,” he said, intense green eyes raking her. “Where did you go to college?” “Uh huh, quit changing the subject. It’s your turn. What’s your heritage?” “Lebanese,” he said. “Third generation. My family immigrated through Ellis Island in the early 1900s.” “Lebanese?” “Mostly. My mother is American.” “How long have you been a fireman?” “Fire fighter,” he corrected her. “A long time. Seriously, I’m boring. What did you say your dog’s name was?” “Aaron,” Anna pleaded, placing a hand over his. Hungry to touch her, he took her hand into his and stroked her palm and wrist. His warm touch ignited a blaze in her stomach. “Your dog’s name is Aaron, too?” The corner of her mouth twitched. “It’s my father’s dog and his name is Fred. Any more questions?”
  47. 47. “Would you like dessert?” “Thank you, no.” She looked down at her hand still clasped in his. “My God, you’re breathtaking,” he whispered. “I was thinking the same thing about you.” “Let’s get out of here,” he said. He flung several twenties onto the table and stood, pulling her out of the booth. He strode towards the exit, his hand burning Anna’s back. “Keep the change,” he muttered to the waitress. Outside in the twilight, he pulled Anna towards the truck at the back of the parking lot. She stood silent against the cool metal as he unlocked the passenger’s door and opened it. He turned sideways, holding out a hand. Instead of getting into the truck, Anna curled into the crook of his arm. She felt his hot breath on her cheek and turned towards his mouth. She sank her fingers into his hair, grabbed a handful and pulled his head down, her mouth fusing to his. Aaron would have fallen over if the truck door hadn’t been open and supporting him. His hands slid around her waist, pulling her closer, his head exploding as her tongue danced with his, her teeth nipping his bottom lip. He hissed as her mouth seared his cheek, moving to his ear. “You asked for this,” she whispered. “You’ve been coming on to me all evening.” “I, ah, have no excuse.” “Neither do I,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder. “I’m not sure what’s come over me. I guess I’ve been a little lonely.” Aaron grasped her wrists, pulling them from around his neck. He cradled her fingertips, not wanting to lose physical contact. “It’s a good thing you’re not a suspect,” he said. “I’d have to remove myself from this investigation.” “Don’t worry; I’ll behave.” “It’s not me I’m worried about,” he said, “and it’s too late to start behaving.”
  48. 48. He hoisted Anna inside the truck, jumped in after her and slammed the door behind him. His mouth captured hers as he pressed her onto the bench seat, pulling her shirt from the waistband of her jeans. Fevered hands stroked her ribs, cupped her breasts. She moaned into his mouth as he rubbed his thumbs against her bra. Anna tugged at his shirt, frantic to touch his hot skin. He continued to caress her with one deft hand, while the other unbuttoned her shirt. “Yes, touch me,” she whispered. His tongue sizzled as it slid along the edge of the lacy fabric of her bra and Anna moaned, arching her back. He tugged at the straps, his touch burning a river. She whimpered when he sucked a rosy nipple and bucked under him, tormented by the ache he created. Aaron raised his head, adoring her flushed and frantic face. Relishing her kiss, he captured her mouth again. Anna slid cool hands down his back and beneath the waistband of his jeans, pressing him closer. Her hips wiggled against his erection. He groaned at her touch. She squeezed and stroked, encouraged by his response. Aaron fought for control, his forehead pressed against hers as he gritted his teeth. “Stop, stop. Don’t do that.” Embarrassed, Anna flinched, dropping her hands to her side. She turned her head, focusing on the gas pedal. She took a risk, following her instincts, but she’d gone too far. He didn’t want her. He shifted his weight, swinging into a sitting position. He sat silent, staring out the side window while Anna pushed her bra straps back on her shoulders. Scooting against the far side of the truck, she straightened her shirt and buttoned it. She combed her fingers through her hair and licked swollen, dry lips. She stared straight ahead and waited for Aaron to make the next move. “Well, unless you’re going to drive, I guess I need to move over,” he said, his voice strained and husky. Mortified, she struggled for composure as she scrambled into the passenger seat and searched for her shoe. Her hands shook as she buckled the seat belt.
  49. 49. Aaron studied her profile. Her chin was high, a sure sign she was embarrassed and insulted. She thought he rejected her. “Anna, I don’t want to treat you with disrespect. If I had made love to you tonight ...” he said, his breathing still ragged. Anna lifted a hand, a barrier between them. “But, you didn’t,” she interrupted. Aaron started the truck and drove out of the parking lot, heading down Main Street towards Gretchen’s house on First Avenue. He stopped the truck, letting it idle in park. She opened the door and flung herself out. Aaron tried to follow, but it was too late. Anna raced up the porch steps and slipped the key in the lock. Within moments she was inside, the door slammed behind her, the light turned off. Aaron climbed back into his truck and roared off into the night, putting First Avenue and Anna Johnson far behind. ! !
  50. 50. Chapter Twelve After her first successful night as a college instructor, Anna decided to treat herself to a hot chocolate. She’d been too nervous to eat before class and now her stomach rumbled. She slipped her Honda into a parking spot near Beano’s and floated into the shop. “Hi,” she said, smiling at the young woman behind the counter. “I’d like a white chocolate mocha, please. And a plain bagel. Could you toast that lightly? With cream cheese on the side. Thank you.” She knew she was babbling. She couldn’t help herself. She sat at a table, picked up a battered magazine and flipped through the pages while the clerk fixed her order. The bell over the door rang, grabbing her attention. She watched the tall man enter the shop. Officer Rand Murphy approached the counter and placed his order, a decaf mocha with extra cream. Nonchalant, he leaned against the counter as he waited. Seconds passed before he turned and caught her eye. “Well, hello, Anna. May I sit with you? Looks like it’s going to be a few minutes,” he said, inclining his head towards the clerk. Anna put the magazine down and studied Rand’s guileless expression. His elegant brows arched over wide, expressive blue eyes. His nose was straight, his chin dimpled, like her own. “Sure,” Anna said, sliding a chair away from the table with her foot. “It’s my fault. I ordered a fussy drink. Plus, she’s working alone.” Rand noticed the young woman behind the counter, a hint of concern marring his expression. He scanned the coffee shop, assessing the other patrons. “Looking for bad guys?” Anna asked. “Relax. The owner is in the back. What I meant is, she’s working the counter alone.” Rand shrugged. “Comes with the territory. So, what have you been up to? I mean, since the last time we spoke.” He grimaced, recalling the last time they’d been together was at the burned ruins of Lacey’s house. After a moment’s hesitation, Anna told him about her new position as a college instructor and the challenge of getting all of the students to open the proper software at the same time. “Sounds like an interesting job. Are you teaching full time?”
  51. 51. “Oh no. I only have a master’s degree, you see. Colleges and universities require a Ph.D. before they hire professors.” “Only a master’s degree,” Rand mocked. He lightly touched her hand. “Stay here. Our drinks are ready.” He’s still a doll, she thought as he lifted the tray and headed back to her table. Anna relaxed as they chatted. She recalled how she and her friends had spied on Rand during high school. Smart and self-assured, as a senior and running back on the football team, Rand was a well-liked student. She fantasized about him asking her to the prom, her heart racing every time they passed in the halls. Rand hadn’t noticed the shy freshman with braces. He noticed her now, admiring her as she sipped the hot beverage and ate the bagel with gusto. “Hey, can I walk you home? It’s late. I know the crime rate here in Eaton is low, but we don’t let ladies walk home alone.” “That’s sweet of you. I have my car,” Anna said. “I’ll walk you to your car.” He stood and put a hand on the back of her chair. Anna rose, hefting her messenger bag. “Have to get used to dragging one of these around again,” she said. “Ugh, it’s heavy.” “Let me carry it for you,” Rand offered. He slung the pack over one shoulder and with a gentle hand on her back guided Anna outside the coffee shop and toward her parked car. “Where’s your car?” “It’s over there,” he said, nodding his head at the black convertible. “Wow. Police work must be a lucrative business.” Anna paused by her older, dented Honda. “Well, here we are,” she said. “I’ll follow you home,” he said. “No need. It’s close by.” “I would feel better if I knew you were home safe,” Rand said. Anna smiled her consent. He opened the car door, dropped the bag on the passenger’s seat and waited while she adjusted her belt before closing it. Then he disappeared. Seconds later, Anna heard the powerful rumble
  52. 52. of the sports car and watched in her rear-view mirror as it swung into a U-turn and waited, purring like a powerful animal, while she started her car and drove home. Three blocks away, she parked on the street in front of Gretchen’s apartment. The porch light glowed its welcome. Before Anna could react, Rand grasped the handle and opened the car door. Anna placed her hand in his, amused at his chivalry. He reached through the opening and plucked her bag off the seat. “Must get used to carrying this around,” he reminded her. He slung it over his shoulder and walked with her to the front porch. “Do you have your key?” “Yes, it’s in my purse.” “You should have it in your hand when you step out of your car.” “Yes, Dad.” Rand moved closer to Anna, his hands twitching to touch her. “If I were your dad, I …” his voice trailed off. “What?” “I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he replied, touching his lips to her soft cheek. He closed his eyes and inhaled the flowery scent of her perfume. Flinching, Anna leaned against the front door. “I have my key ready now.” She waved it before turning to unlock the door. She paused after opening it, unsure what to say. “Thank you for seeing me home, Rand.” “My pleasure.” He walked away, into the darkness. Half a block away, Aaron watched the car surge down the street, its powerful engine revving in between gear changes. He exited the truck, tucking his handgun in the back of his jeans. ! !
  53. 53. Chapter Thirteen Anna was in the bathroom, splashing cold water on her face when the doorbell buzzed. She jumped in alarm. At night, the horrible sound seemed twice as loud. Rand had returned. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she did not intend to let him in the house. Whatever she felt in high school had been a childish crush. She blotted water from her cheeks and slung the towel on the bathroom knob, before approaching the front door. She could see his outline through the opaque glass. She cracked open the door. “I’m sorry Rand. It’s getting late.” “That’s nice. I’m not Rand.” Anna swung open the door. “What do you want?” “May I come in?” Aaron’s towering silhouette filled the doorway. She glared at him. “What? More questions?” He waited, silent and still for her invitation. Anna waved her right hand in an offhand welcoming gesture. She closed the door when he entered. Her nostrils flared as she caught his familiar scent of smoke and spice. It lingered still on her pillow, transferred the night before from her imprinted skin as she tossed, turned and alternated between hugging and punching it. “Are you alone? Is your roommate home?” he asked, his green eyes scanning the room. “Gretchen’s at her boyfriend’s.” Aaron moved closer. “I wanted to apologize for last night.” Anna stiffened. He humiliated her, rejected her and he thought a flimsy apology sufficed? He glanced at the heavy bag on the floor by the sofa. “Where have you been?” “Where I go and what I do is not your concern.” “Whose concern is it? Officer Murphy’s?” He advanced. “No. Rand is just a friend,” she retorted, her neck and cheeks flushing. “Right. You kiss all your acquaintances or just me and Rand?”
  54. 54. “You’re not my friend, Marshal Tahir,” she said retreating, her back against a door. Her jasmine perfume made him rethink his concept of the afterlife. “You’re right about that.” Aaron zeroed in on Anna’s mouth, capturing it. A whimper bubbled from her lips and he greedily swallowed it. Swamped by the intensity of his kiss, her knees buckled and she clutched at him for support. “I want to hold you all night,” he said. He circled her wrists and lifted her arms around his neck. “Come to my motel.” He swept feverish kisses down her shoulder. God she wanted to, but she wasn’t eager for another rejection. The last thing she wanted was a guy who ran hot and cold. “That’s not a good idea,” she said. “Yes it is,” he argued, his mouth against her cheek. “It’s a great idea.” She ripped her mouth from his, turning her head to the side. “No,” she said, her voice ragged in torment. “This is not going to happen.” Aaron backed away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For last night and now for tonight. It won’t happen again.” The reserved and distant Marshal Tahir was back. She couldn’t bear his penetrating gaze, so she bowed her head trying to control her breathing. She focused on the one thing that dampened the burning in her chest. “What’s going on with the investigation? Have you found the source of the fire?” Aaron crossed his arms, and his face shuttered. “Yes. Candles. I’m afraid your local chief was correct.” Anna pushed away from the door, moving past Aaron into the living room. “That can’t be right,” she said, her voice rising in alarm. “Gretchen’s already told you Lacey was asleep when she left. No candles were burning.” Aaron shook his head. “Lacey must have woken after she left. Or maybe Gretchen lit them and won’t admit it. We found several candles in the downstairs bathroom, arranged around the bathtub. We also found charred remnants of bath towels and the path of the fire as it swept from the bathroom, igniting the carpets first and then the curtains. The bath and hallway are the flash point and the smoke detectors didn’t work. The batteries were dead.”
  55. 55. Anna stared at Aaron as if he had two heads. “You’re wrong. Lacey is the most careful person I’ve ever known. She wouldn’t have lit candles before going to bed. And she had her own bathroom upstairs. Why would she use the downstairs tub? It doesn’t make sense.” “I’ve been investigating fires all my adult life, Anna. I know what I’m doing. It was an accident. There is no indication of foul play,” he said. “If it wasn’t Lacey who lit the candles, it was Gretchen, and she’s too afraid to admit it.” Anna shook her head stubbornly. “I’m telling you, you’re wrong. Gretchen wouldn’t lie about the candles and Lacey wouldn’t have forgotten to change the batteries. You don’t know them like I do. They’re my best friends.” “According to your statement, everyone had been drinking. Perhaps the women were inebriated and made mistakes. It happens more often than you think.” Anna sat on the edge of the sofa. “Gretchen did have a lot to drink,” she said, her voice subdued. “She finished our drinks and when she left the bar, she had a small bottle. She said they were going to keep partying.” Aaron leaned against the wall, his face in the shadows as he listened. Anna wrapped her arms around her stomach and leaned over, a strangled sound in her throat. “You think Gretchen may have done this and now she’s too afraid to tell the truth?” Aaron remained silent, letting Anna recall the night of the fire. Anna shook her head, with determination. “No, you’re wrong. Gretchen isn’t lying. I’d swear on my Mother’s grave, she’s telling the truth. She is as angry and devastated by Lacey’s accident as I am. If she were responsible, I’d know. I’d be able to tell. She isn’t blaming herself. She isn’t hiding anything.” “The evidence says otherwise.” She scowled at Aaron. “You’re going to have to do better, Mr. Fire Marshal,” she said, her voice heated. “Don’t look for a scapegoat. Look for the truth.” Aaron frowned. “The last thing I want to do is blame this on someone innocent,” he said. “I always look for the truth.” She strode to the door and opened it. With a curt nod, she indicated he should leave. “Look harder.”
  56. 56. The door slammed behind Aaron and he stood on the porch, fists clenched at his side. Was there some piece of evidence he’d missed? Was he becoming complacent? He wished it weren’t an open-and-shut case. All the facts indicated the fire started in the bathroom, as he said. He knew how to read the clues. The fire worked its way from the lit candles to the towels on the bar. From there, it spread to the shower curtain and all the clothes piled on the bathroom floor. The flames leapt to the hallway rug. From there, the fire engulfed the living and dining rooms. If Lacey Martin had monitored her fire detectors, chances are she would have walked out of the fire unscathed. He shook his head wearily. Too many people failed to keep fresh batteries in that one small device and it often meant the difference between life and death. ! !
  57. 57. Chapter Fourteen ! The man walked out of the truck stop diner and paused between several parked vehicles to light a cigarette. He cupped the matchstick and sucked, drawing the tobacco through the filter and into his lungs. He tossed the match aside, and pulled a folded yellow paper tube from his pocket. He removed the rubber band, slid the lit cigarette into the tube, then snapped the band back in place. He slid the incendiary device in a small gap between bales of hay on the back of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer truck. He didn’t wait to watch for the smolder. Instead, he walked towards the one-story concrete building next door with its promise of exotic dancers and triple x-rated movies. He stepped into the obscurity of the adult bookstore. He heard music and whistles from the back of the building, partitioned by a black curtain and guarded by a bald man. The bouncer sat in a wooden chair, one blue-jean leg crossed over a knee, his stained and faded T-shirt straining against layers of fat. He raised his eyes from the magazine in his lap, nodded once and went back to studying the photographs. Instead of heading for the lounge where nude women danced, the man walked towards the store and its pornographic movies. He monitored the parking lot through the tinted front windows. He timed his movements carefully, and watched the red-capped driver climb into the cab of the truck. A minute later, the truck ferrying straw bales pulled onto the highway and headed north into the twilight. He squinted and could make out wisps of smoke mingling with exhaust at the back of the trailer. Several minutes later, he paid cash for three DVD movies and exited the shop. He pulled onto the roadway and accelerated into the dark. It took him ten minutes at speeds close to eighty miles per hour, before he caught sight of the flames. The driver had pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and ran from one side of the truck to the other. He slowed his car and made a U-turn, parking on the far side of the highway. He became one of several onlookers who watched, in fascination, as flames licked and leaped from one hay bale to the next, until the entire cargo was afire. The truck driver ran towards the growing crowd calling for a cell phone. “Help! Someone call 911,” he begged. “I can’t get to my radio!”

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