Authors: CeeCee James
, Cassie shivered as she walked into her hotel room. J
eez, how high do they have the blasted air cranked up anyway?
After dropping her stuff on the bed, she hurried over to the radiator.
The heater was as ancient as the bed, and the numbers had long worn off, leaving a faint red line that bled into blue. Cassie spun the dial as far into the red as she could and, with a clunk and a clatter, the radiator wheezed into life. Tepid air blew from the dusty vents, smelling stale, like powdery grandma perfume. She wrinkled her nose.
Crossing back into the bathroom, Cassie washed her hands, still feeling sticky after Allison’s apartment. Next to the sink sat a tray littered with sugar packets along with a chipped coffee mug. She filled the mug with tap water and carried it to the microwave. After rifling through her purse for a mint tea bag, she stuck it in the cup, and pressed the smeared number pad for a minute. As the timer ran down, she grabbed her laptop from its bag and opened it on the bed.
She typed in the search box:
Luke Stanzione, fire, Milwalk, Oregon.
The address of the burned house popped up. After scrolling down past the white pages she found a news article.
SHOCKING POSSIBLE MURDER RETALIATION
Local police officer loses girlfriend in three alarm fire.
Cassie shivered and reached for her hoodie, quickly zipping it up. She plumped up the pillows behind her and hunkered back into them. With the laptop balanced on her knees, she read some more.
There was a picture. Flames billowed out of the house she’d just been at yesterday. Firefighters in full gear aimed firehoses at the base of the flames.
A local police officer’s house was torched to the ground early Sunday afternoon. The house belonged to Luke Stanzione, a police officer with the Freymere police department. He was not on the premises at the time. Officer Stanzione had recently been commended by his superiors for a mob bust late last month.
Police were alerted to the blaze at 2:30 pm. Firefighters came from both Callam and Freymere to attend the scene. Engulfed in quick-spreading flames, the house was consumed in record time. An unprecedented three water trucks were called in as the firefighters worked to subdue the blaze, preventing a forest fire.
There was one victim, Jennifer Harley, twenty-five years old, from Tacoma, Washington. Medical Examiner Tom Reynolds has stated the cause of the woman’s death was smoke inhalation.
Callam Fire Inspector suggested faulty wiring was the most likely cause of Sunday’s blaze. While the investigation is still ongoing, there are no suspects at this time.
Local townspeople appear shocked. “I’m certain this was a hit,” a neighbor, who wishes not to be identified, told our reporters.
Authorities are searching for any information that would lead them to a possible conviction.
With a thoughtful look, Cassie closed the page. “Leif, it sounds like your cousin’s been having a real bad time.”
Her fingers mindlessly logged into her different email accounts. No new emails. She logged into her Facebook account and flicked through her pictures. Leif, about a year into his deployment, smiling into the camera. He held up three fingers, their code for “I love you.” Cassie remembered the day she’d gotten it. She’d just finished a long email, telling him that she thought maybe they should take a break from each other. After receiving the picture, she’d quietly deleted the message and sent back simply “333.”
She clicked the arrow to the next picture. This one had arrived about three months later. Smiling ear to ear, Leif wore his desert camo with a rifle slung over his arm. Another shot showed him sitting by a soldier. They were both looking off into the distance. His eyes were hidden by sunglasses. She frowned.
What were you thinking about, Leif?
Even then, she could see that he had been changing into someone she didn’t know. His dreams had changed. She never wanted to admit it, but her dreams had changed too.
We were so young when we fell in love.
Her thumb rested against the screen.
We didn’t know how young we were, or how much we would grow.
Sighing, she buffed out the thumb mark.
Cassie tucked a blonde chunk of hair behind her ear. The microwave had chimed long ago. Her tea cold again.
She thought about Luke tipping back his beer and choking on tears.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we fall in love? Loving someone… it just means you lose them one way or another. You grow apart… or they die.
Cassie opened another window on her browser. Scrolling quickly, she brought up the article for her post at Celebrity Blog. She was lucky she could do this job anywhere. A sour taste of irony filled her mouth as she scanned the article. Patricia had given her the topic of falling in love, along with the following note. “I want this one to be full of pithy, sweet comments and cute notes. I mean it, Cassie.”
Instead Cassie had filled it with questions, including a poll.
Do you believe true love is real?
Do you believe you’ve found it?
How did you know?
Is love worth it?
Can you live without love?
The last question bothered her a little.
I really need to make this less dark.
Her finger hovered over the delete key. Instead, she hit a couple of smiley faces and interspersed them with hearts. She rolled her eyes and clicked Send, with a quick thought to Patricia,
Please be patient just a little while longer.
Cassie closed the laptop and reached for the old photograph from the nightstand. Leif’s front teeth were huge in his smiling mouth. She gave a soft smile.
I hope you got to do what you wanted in your life, Leif. I hope you accomplished some of your dreams. Maybe I was a part of that.
And then there was Luke, so somber, his hair hanging into his eyes. A wrinkle formed between her brows.
But what about your dreams?
You’re still alive. You could still have a chance to do whatever you want.
The image of Luke drunk on his couch flickered through her mind.
The best cop in the city, huh? Until life wrecked you.
Her lip turned up sarcastically.
Not that I’m one to talk.
Gently, she tucked the photo back into a pocket of her purse. Absentmindedly, she rifled through the purse contents for her Life Savers, and peeled the package open.
The first color was white. Her favorite.
It’s a good sign.
She stuck it in her mouth and straightened her shoulders, remembering the stubborn lines on Luke’s face when he shut the door. “Time to leave, sweetheart,” he’d said so dismissively. He had no plans to let her intrude in his life.
But he needed help. He was drowning but didn’t want a lifeline.
He needs a friend. Somehow, I know I can make him see life is worth living. He might be as stubborn as Leif was.
She rolled the candy in her mouth.
Well, he ain’t met stubborn yet.
She set the laptop on the nightstand and lay back on the pillows. Tucking her hands behind her head, she stared up at the popcorn ceiling.
What was he doing at the house anyway? What was he looking for?
Can I find it?
he room was
pitch black when her cell rang. Cassie jerked awake, blinking in the dark. Her heart thumped wildly as she tried to remember where she was.
The phone rang again. She rolled to the edge of the bed and blindly reached for it.
“Hello?” Her voice sounded scratchy and foreign in her ears.
She froze for a moment, then scrambled upright into a sitting position. “Luke?”
A heavy sigh. “I’m sorry. It’s too early. But I had to call.”
“What time is it? What’s going on?” She frowned suspiciously. “And how did you get my number?” She rubbed her eyes. It had been two days since she’d last seen him.
Luke chuckled softly. “One of the perks of having friends on the police force. I searched your license plate. You left without introducing yourself.”
“Hello? I was thrown out. I suppose now you know my name.”
“Cassie.” He said it low, his voice sober and sorrowful.
She licked her bottom lip. Waited.
“I just called to tell you I’m sorry. And I wanted to thank you. The bible, it really does mean a lot to me. I’ve been thinking about you since that day. Been having a hard time sleeping, actually.”
She resisted his soft tone. “How did you know my license plate number?”
Another soft laugh. “I memorized it at the house. Old habits die hard.”
“Why were you there that day? I mean, do you go there a lot?”
He exhaled deeply. “I go to the end of the driveway. I’ve never been further.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“You know what happened there?”
“Jennifer. Yes. I have plans later today, but meet with me tonight. I’d like to continue our conversation. And I promise, I’ll behave better this time.”
“Okay….” Her eyes widened at the sudden rush of butterflies.
“I’ll pick you up. I’m afraid I searched out where you are staying too. I’ve been a rather busy investigator myself.”
Cassie leaned back into the pillows. “What time?”
“Eight o’clock. Wear something warm, okay?”
“Not taking me out into Bigfoot country, are you? I don’t do night hikes.”
She could hear his smile in his voice. “We’re going to the park. I’ll see you tonight.”
to visit the house again to fill in the time before meeting up with Luke. The house looked as dreary and awful as the last time she’d seen it.
He’s never been back up to the house. How could he not come back even to say goodbye?
Cassie’s car rolled to a stop at the end of the grassy driveway. She jerked the emergency brake into place. Scanning the woodsy area, she reached for her package of Life Savers, and peeled back the wrapper. Red this time. Still good. She popped it into her mouth and slowly climbed out of the car.
Mist from the early morning softened the tops of the trees that stood near the house like black skeletons guarding a tomb. The air smelled wet and mulchy, still with a hint of smoke. Behind the house, Cassie caught a fog-softened glimpse of an old barn.
From across the woods, the dog rattled on its chain. She could see it through the underbrush as it pulled its leash tight and stood watching her.
“Nice doggy,” she whispered, igniting the animal into an eruption of barks and growls. “Whoops.”
Ignoring the dog, Cassie walked to the edge of the house. She tried to see what the fire inspector had seen. The investigation into the fire had died without a whimper. She scooped her hair back into a ponytail as she surveyed the rest of the property.
Even after all this time, it was obvious where the fire had started. The far back corner was decimated into nothing recognizable, the ash black like poison. Rain had pounded everything into a hard lava-looking surface.
She shivered, rubbing at the goosebumps down her arms, and thought of Jennifer.
Poor girl. Poor, poor girl.
The last article Cassie had been able to find had stated that the theory was that Jennifer had come home early from work not feeling well, and had taken a nap. She’d slept through the start of the fire, succumbing to the eventual smoke inhalation.
Cassie crossed her arms thoughtfully. It was an old house. It was possible there hadn’t been smoke alarms, and the wiring could have been faulty as the fire investigator had said. A mere coincidence that it happened only two weeks after the largest arms bust the county had seen in ten years.
“Possible, my left foot,” she muttered.
She walked back to her car and popped open the trunk. Reaching in, she extracted a pair of rubber gloves and a plaid button-up shirt she’d purchased that morning from the Goodwill. Quickly she yanked on the shirt and buttoned it up. Her nose wrinkled as she pulled on the gloves, grimacing at their powdery insides. Then, she grabbed another prize from the store, a beat-up window screen. Slamming the trunk shut, she walked to the rear passenger door to grab her shovel.
“Time to show me your secrets.” she muttered, igniting the neighbor’s dog again. She rolled her eyes and headed to the ash pile.
Her feet slipped as she trudged back to the edge of the pile. Glancing around, she tried to map out where she thought the safest path through the house would be.
Just find something, anything that might mean something to him.
She blew hard, puffing out her cheeks. It would be easy to feel overwhelmed. With a deep sigh, she waded toward where her best guess said the kitchen would be.
Using her shovel like a walking stick, she picked her way across the unstable debris. Her ankle turned as her foot slid under a board. A sharp stab of pain zipped up her leg, but she managed to stumble forward before her full weight could land on the ankle.
“Gotta be more careful, Cassie,” she murmured. “There’s been enough pain spilled here.”
She caught her balance only to have the board she was standing on collapse beneath her feet.
“Okay, maybe that’s a sign that this is far enough then.” With a little trepidation, she dug her shovel in, coming up with a pile of rain-hardened ash.
Shovel after shovel, still nothing. Sweat ran down her face and trickled along her spine. She pulled off one of the gloves to wipe under her eyes. Her skin felt sticky and her nails were rimmed in black. “So much for protection.” She swiped her face along the side of her shoulder before sliding the glove back on.
As she dug, the stirred-up debris threw a scent in the air like the inside of a tarry old smoker. Wrinkling her nose, she pried at a board with the shovel acting as a lever. After flipping over the chunk of wood, she felt her first jolt of excitement.
The square shape looked to be the remains of a cupboard. She picked and poked it apart with the edge of the shovel. Her blade hit something with a clink. Adrenaline flooded her veins. It sounded like metal.
“Where’s the bucket?” She spun around looking for it. “You did not leave it in the car. Of course you did.” With a groan, she climbed out of the wreckage and stalked over to the car. She snatched the bucket from the back seat, glaring at it like it was its fault for being left behind, before returning to where her shovel stood jabbed into the debris.
“You can do this, Cass,” she cheered herself on. Overhead a crow cawed. It was joined by another bird bouncing along the same branch. The black birds watched her with dead-looking eyes.
“That’s not creepy or anything.” She glanced up at them. “Yeesh.”
Three big scoops were in the bucket when she dropped the shovel to retrieve her screen. Her steps were heavy with weariness, and she braced her hand against her lower back to relieve the strain. She propped the screen up against the cement steps, returning a minute later with the bucket of dirt. With a grunt, she carefully dumped half of its contents onto the screen. Running her gloved hands over the dirt and ash, she sifted it through the metal mesh.
The load yielded nothing. With a wave of discouragement, she grabbed her bucket and returned to her shovel.
Not going to be as easy as it sounded.
Cassie repeated this process over and over again. Load after load of ash was pushed through the screen, creating a pyramid of debris beneath it on the ground.
Her muscles screamed at her to give up.
One more bucket. I’ve got this.
As she cleared the ash, a golden sparkle emerged from the clumps of dirt.
“What in the cat hair?” She stared at it before snatching it up. A grin broke across her face as she swiped at it with her shirt to clear the sticky soot. Slowly, a knotted chain emerged. She rubbed it again, feeling like she was trying to conjure up a genie.
“Come on. Come on!” This time, the pendant became clearer, a crucifix. A grin crossed her face, and she laughed out loud. The noise startled the crows, who flew away, one after the other. She smiled as they left. “Good, all good.”