Incandescent coveronly orchid 1200 Incandescent
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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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.”

“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?”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

 

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.

“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.”

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.

 

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 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 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.”

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.”

 

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.

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.

 

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 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.

 

 

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.”

“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.”

 

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?”

“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.

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.”

“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.

“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.”

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.

 

 

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