Authors: Iris Johansen
he couldn't breathe!
“I'm here, baby.” Kerry was being gathered in her mother's arms. “I'm going to put this cloth over your nose. Don't fight me.”
Mama was coughing and Kerry could barely hear her through the crackling.
Fire! Flames were climbing up the curtains at the window.
“It's okay, Kerry. We'll be out of here in just a few minutes.” Mama was moving toward the bedroom door. “Just try not to breathe too deep.”
“He's not here, remember? But we can make it. We're a team.” She opened the door and then took an involuntary step back as black smoke blasted into the room. “Oh, God.” She braced herself and then ran into the hall.
Fire everywhere. Crawling up the walls, licking hungrily at the banister going down the steps.
Her mother was crying. Tears running down her soot-stained cheeks as she hurried down the stairs.
Don't cry. Don't cry, Mama.
Her mother had reached the landing when she suddenly lurched and pitched forward.
Falling. Tumbling. Hurting.
Where was Mama?
She couldn't see her in the smoke-filled darkness.
“Go on, Kerry. The door should be only a few feet away from you. Go outside and find someone to help us.”
“No, I won't go.” She was sobbing, whimpering. “Where are you?”
“Right behind you. I've hurt my leg a little. But you have to mind me. Run!”
Her voice was so commanding that Kerry instinctively jumped to her feet and ran toward the door.
Fresh cold air.
Find someone. Find someone to help Mama.
She slipped on the icy steps and fell to the sidewalk.
There was a man across the street, standing beneath the streetlight.
She picked herself up and ran toward him. “Help. The fire. Mama . . .”
He was turning and walking away. He must not have heard her.
She ran after him. “Please. Mama said I had to—” He turned and she stared up into his shadowy face only dimly lit by the flickering flames.
“Shh, be quiet. There's nothing you can do.” He raised his hand and she saw something glittering, metallic in his grasp. A gun? He brought it down on her head.
The night exploded.
his isn't the end of it, Brad.” Cameron Devers's lips tightened with irritation. “I've no intention of standing by and watching you waste your potential working with those damn nutcases. You're one of the most brilliant men I know and I have a job for you here.”
“Where you can keep an eye on me?” Brad grinned as he leaned lazily back in the chair and stretched his legs out before him. “It wouldn't do you any good. I'm a lost cause.”
“Only because you want to be. And it's not good for you. You're burning yourself out. Look at you. You've lost weight since I saw you last.”
“A little. I've had a rough four months.”
“Then give it up and come to me.”
“And do what? If I were anywhere close to you, the media would eventually ferret out our connection. Besides, you can't trust me. I'd get mad and open my mouth at the wrong time and blow your political career.” His smile faded. “I've done a hell of a lot of harm to you in these last years, but I won't do that.”
“I'd chance it. I've been in the Senate for twelve years and if my reputation can be damaged by just having you around, then maybe it's time I stepped down.”
“No!” Brad paused and then tempered his tone. “Look, Cam, don't be an ass. Everything's going fine. We don't need to change anything.” He stood up and glanced around the elegant, book-lined library that breathed wealth and solidity. “This isn't my world. You can't squeeze me into your mold because you want me to share the good life.” He smiled. “Besides, what would Charlotte say?”
“She'd come around. She just has some weird ideas about you.”
Brad looked at him inquiringly.
Cam made a face. “She says you make her uneasy. She thinks you're . . . sinister.”
“She used that word? I didn't think anyone could make your wife uneasy. Maybe I'm more intimidating than I thought.”
“She doesn't understand you. Like I said, she'll come around.”
“There's no reason to force her to make the effort. Things are fine as they are.”
Cam was silent a moment. “Did it ever occur to you that I'm being selfish? I've missed you, Brad.”
He meant it. Cam was always honest. “Oh, shit. Don't do this to me.” Brad shook his head. “I've missed you too. Maybe we can arrange to get together more often.”
“That's not good enough. I've been looking at my life since that horror on September eleventh, and when it all comes down to the bottom line, it's friends and family that count. I won't let you walk away again.”
“Cam.” Charlotte Devers was standing in the doorway, sleek and sophisticated in a black gown. “I didn't want to disturb you, but we're going to be late for the embassy dinner.” She smiled at Brad. “You and Cam can talk when we get back.”
He shook his head. “I'm just leaving, anyway.”
“No, you're not,” Cameron said firmly. “I'll only be gone a few hours and I want you here when I get back.”
“Perhaps tomorrow?” Charlotte suggested. “I've had a room prepared for you, Brad.”
As usual, Charlotte was trying to control the situation with gentle skill, Brad thought. She wanted Cam to leave and she didn't want him to talk to Brad until she could find a discreet way to ease Brad out on his ass. Well, he couldn't blame her. She valued Cam's career more than his brother did and was always on guard to protect it.
“I'm not going anywhere until you make me a promise.” Cam stared Brad in the eye. “Will you be here?”
Brad glanced at the faint frown between Charlotte's eyes and then smiled slyly. “You couldn't budge me.”
“Great.” Cam slapped him on the shoulder before turning away. “Come on, Charlotte. Let's get this thing over with.” He strode out of the library.
Charlotte hesitated and started to speak.
“Don't say it,” Brad murmured. “We're on the same side.” He added, “If you don't piss me off.” He followed Cam into the foyer and watched George, the butler, help him into his coat. “Very impressive. I haven't worn a tux in fifteen years. Does that tell you anything?”
“It tells me you're damn lucky.” Cam took Charlotte's arm and helped her down the front steps toward the waiting limo. “Make yourself at home, but don't go to bed. You made me a promise.”
“Does that mean I can't get drunk on your excellent brandy?”
“No, I want you stone cold sober.” He smiled at him over his shoulder. “I have an ace in the hole and need to tell you about a job that may intrigue you enough to lure you here. It's right up your alley.”
“Weird and sinister?” he asked, straight-faced.
“I'm going to get my way, Brad.”
“Now, don't nag him, Cam,” Charlotte said gently. “Brad knows what he wants to do.”
“But not what's best for him.”
Brad watched them get into the limousine. He'd planned on going back inside, but he couldn't resist standing here and letting Charlotte see him so at home on her front step. Dressed in tennis shoes, worn jeans, and an old sweatshirt, he couldn't have been more of a blot on her fine landscape. His enjoyment was totally immature, but he didn't give a damn. He usually didn't mind Charlotte's attempts at manipulating Cam. She was a good wife to him and that was all that was important to Brad. Tonight she was trying to manipulate Brad as well, and that he couldn't tolerate.
“Would you like me to serve you coffee in the library, sir?” George asked from behind him.
“Why not?” He grinned at him over his shoulder. “Since I've been forbidden the comfort of—”
“Dear God!” George's eyes were wide with shock.
Brad's head jerked around and followed his gaze to the limo.
“Christ in heaven!”
The interior of the limousine was a sheet of fire. He could see Cam and Charlotte writhing like burning scarecrows in the flames.
“Son of a bitch!”
He flew down the steps toward the car.
SIX MONTHS LATER
erry carefully touched the blackened timber lying across the bathroom sink. It was still slightly warm from the fire that had destroyed the restaurant two days ago. That wasn't unusual. Sometimes, hidden pockets of embers remained burning for days.
Sam, her Lab, whined and pushed nearer to Kerry. He was easily bored and they'd been here at the burned-out ruins for over an hour.
“Be quiet.” She reached beneath the timber and dug. “We'll be out of here soon.”
There it was! With an effort she pushed the timber aside.
“Find anything?” Detective Perry asked from behind her. “Bad wiring?”
“No, gasoline,” Kerry said. “The fire originated here in the bathroom and spread throughout the restaurant.” She nodded at the burned and blackened device she'd found beneath the timber. “And a timing device to set it off.”
“Dumb.” The police detective shook his head. “I thought Chin Li was brighter than that. If he wanted to collect the insurance, why didn't he set the fire in the kitchen? He'd have had a better shot at convincing everyone the fire was accidental. You're sure?”
“Sam's sure.” She reached out and touched the dog's silky black head. “And I usually go along with him. He's not often wrong.”
“Yeah, so I've heard.” Perry awkwardly patted the dog's nose. “I don't understand how these arson dogs do it, but it makes my job a hell of a lot easier. I guess I'll go talk to Chin Li again. Too bad. He seemed like a nice little guy.”
“And not stupid?” Kerry got to her feet and dusted the soot off her palms. “Then maybe someone else set the fire. Someone who didn't have access to the kitchen. Insurance isn't always the right answer. Just the easy one.”
His eyes narrowed on her face. “Are you saying that I'm looking for an out?”
She grinned. “I wouldn't presume. I'm just saying that you should ask Chin Li if he had any enemies. Perhaps rivals in business? Or—this is a high-crime area—are there any protection rackets operating that might have decided to make him an example?”
“Possibly,” he said slowly. “There are a couple teenage gangs that are stepping up to the plate and trying to control the area.”
“Would they know how to set timing devices?”
“Everyone who has Internet has access to practically any information. Want to make an atomic bomb? Go on the Internet.”
She'd done all she could. Time to step out of the picture before he got belligerent. “Well, we'll know more once we finish the investigation. Sam and I are just the advance team.” She smiled. “And we're finished for now. Have a nice day, Detective.”
“Wait.” He said awkwardly, “This is a lousy neighborhood. If you'll wait until I finish with Chin Li, I'll give you an escort back to your office.”
“That's nice of you, but I'm not going back downtown. It's my day off and I'm going to visit a couple friends at the firehouse on Morningside.”
“If it's your day off, why are you here?”
“They needed Sam's nose.”
“Then I'll drive you and Sam's nose to this firehouse.” He frowned. “Why do they let you go to neighborhoods like this alone, anyway? You're just a little bit of a thing.”
She felt a prickle of resentment that she quickly quenched. She was average height, but she knew her slender frame and delicate bones made her appear smaller. He was a nice guy and she was used to having her fragile appearance equated with helplessness. She gave him the answer he was most likely to accept. “I have Sam to protect me.”
He gave the Lab a skeptical glance. “He may have a great nose, but he doesn't look very threatening to me.”
“It's because he has those crossed eyes. He's really a great guard dog.” She waved and carefully picked her way through the rubble toward the door. Sam lunged eagerly forward, almost pulling her from her feet. “Idiot,” she grumbled. “Do you want to break both our necks? I'd think you'd learn.”
Sam burst out into the street and started barking.
“Oh, God.” All she needed was to attract attention in this slum neighborhood. She hurriedly pulled the dog toward her 4Runner. She knew as well as the detective that Sam looked about as dangerous as a cuddly koala. “Why didn't I get a big German shepherd at that pound?”
Because she'd looked at him in that cage and hadn't been able to resist. “Let's go, Sam. And, for Pete's sake,
ull house.” Kerry grinned as she pulled in the pot from the middle of the table. “That should just about take care of my rent for the month. Another hand?”
“No way.” Charlie grimaced as he pushed back his chair. “I'm cleaned out. I'm going to go peel the onions for dinner.” He cast a sly look over his shoulder. “Beef stroganoff. Remember? Firehouse Number Ten specialty of the house.”
“I'm drooling. May I stay?”
“Hell, no. Go back to your snooty office downtown and eat in that fancy cafeteria.”
“Cruel.” She looked at Jimmy Swartz and Paul Corbin. “Another hand, guys?”
“Not me.” Jimmy stood up. “I've got to have enough money to make sure my wife lets me in the house when my shift is over. Come on, Paul. Let's play a game of pool.” He gave Kerry a stern glance. “And, no, you can't play with us. This is for real firemen, not desk jockeys like you.”
“You're just scared I'll beat you.” She got up and followed Charlie to the kitchen. “You're trying to torture me. You know I love your stroganoff. Come on, let me stay.”
“Maybe.” Charlie handed her a bag of onions and a knife. “If you do the onions.”
She beamed. “I'll chop.” She sat down on a stool at the counter. “How's your wife, Charlie?”
“Putting up with me.” He grinned. “That's all you can ask after twenty-five years.” He put dredged pieces of beef in the hot pan. “Edna told me to give you hell about asking her to take care of Sam while you were on vacation. She and the kids are in love with the mutt. Though how she can like a dumb dog like that Lab of yours is beyond me.”
“Everyone loves Sam. Not every dog is an Einstein.” She picked up another onion. “And you like him too. He's very lovable.”
he's Einstein.” Charlie shook his head in amazement as he glanced at Sam snoozing in the corner of the kitchen. “How he can be so smart on a job in the field and so dumb in every other aspect of life boggles the mind.”
“He has a good nose. He has a good heart. You can't expect him to have a good brain too.”
“All I can say is that it's good you're the other half of this arson investigating team or Sam would be chasing butterflies in the ashes.”
She couldn't deny it so she changed the subject. “I'm going to drive down to Macon to visit my brother, Jason, this weekend. Do you suppose Edna would be willing to take Sam again? You know how carsick he gets.”
He nodded. “He threw up all over my new Suburban. And the kids blamed me for yelling at him.” He shrugged. “Sure, drop him over. He's no trouble. All he does is sleep and eat and chew on everything in sight. Including my best pair of golf shoes.”
“I paid for them.” She smiled. “Thanks, Charlie. Jason's wife, Laura, is pregnant, and I really wanted to go down and see her before the baby is born. She won't have time for me then.”
“I imagine she'd make time. You're not too bad to have around.”
“Thanks . . . I think.”
“And I know how boring those last months of pregnancy can be. Edna nearly drove me crazy when she was carrying Kim. Of course, she was over forty and had a right to be a little crabby.”
“Laura's thirty-eight, and she's too happy she finally got pregnant to be bad-tempered. But she's definitely nesting.” She smiled. “Besides, Edna wasn't really crabby. She was . . . temperamental.”
“You didn't have to live with her.” He chuckled. “Believe me, she was crabby. Edna's not used to having to sit around with her feet up.”
“Well, Laura is definitely not sitting around. Jason said she was building a gazebo in the backyard. So it's okay?”
“Of course it's okay.” His smile faded. “You need to get out and see people. What the hell are you doing spending your day off back here at Number Ten playing cards with a bunch of guys?”