Authors: Carol Hutchens
FLAMES OF DECEIT
by Carol Hutchens
Copyright: Carol Hutchens, November, 2011
Published by: Carol Hutchens
Cover Art: The Killion Group
Dedicated to Larry for believing in me,
to Aaron, Brandy and Stan for
technical assistance and scouting locations.
and to our first grandchild with great joy.
Special thanks to Ramseur Fire Chief Jay Ledwell
and his wife, Firefighter Emily Ledwell for answering questions.
Any mistakes in the details are entirely mine.
The Chatham County Courthouse caught fire. Emotions from watching hours of news coverage of the destruction of the beautiful old building gave the ideas for this story.
All details, characters, and events in this book are fiction.
: a reporter, wants to find evidence to save her brother, but Jake Stone might prevent her from finding evidence and turn her over to police, and end her career.
: Judge and volunteer firefighter, lives by his own code and tries to protect others. When his courthouse goes up in flames, he is determined to catch the person responsible. Rescuing Mia Clark throws him off balance, helping her puts his career at risk.
Leigh Anne Saddler
: a former model, tells reporters Mia’s brother, a senator, paid her to end a pregnancy. But who really got her pregnant? And why is she framing the senator?
: Mia’s brother, a senator up for re-election, claims the model is lying. Is he telling the truth about his relationship with the ex-model or trying to evade facts to protect his family and his political career?
: proud mother of the politician, wants her daughter Mia to find the truth, but she doesn’t realize the risk to her daughter’s life.
A powerful blow landed in the middle of Mia Clark’s back, sending her face first into the cramped storage closet.
The door slammed, smashing her body against the shelves, and trapping Mia in musty darkness filled with dust and who knew what else. Tension curled her insides. Memories flashed in her head.
Time whirled backward. She was four years old. Trapped in the dark.
Mia fought the memories as panic sucked air from her lungs. Fear and desperation spurred her to action. Using all the strength she could muster, Mia shoved against the wood door.
Noise sounded from the other side of the door.
Hope flared in her chest. Had someone heard her efforts to escape and come to help? She opened her mouth to call out, but the pain in her back made her pause. What if the noise she heard had come from the same person who shoved her in this closet?
Who would do that? Why?
Fighting new panic, she pushed against the door, again and again.
She hadn’t told anyone she was coming to the courthouse. In the interview, Leigh Anne Saddler hadn’t given any clue to her hiding place. Mia was on her own. What were the chances the person on the other side of the door had come up with the same idea? That meant someone had followed her.
Another thump rattled the other side of the door. Louder this time.
Mia tried to think.
How long would it take someone to search for her? Did she have enough air? Hands behind her back, she clawed at the wood door until her fingers hurt. Finally, sanity returned. There were gaps under doors in old buildings. The Courtney County Courthouse was over a hundred and thirty years old. She should have air.
Struggling for calm, she inhaled a deep breath and froze. Her nostrils prickled from the odor of smoke. Moisture filled her eyes. She could taste the acrid hint of burning. Alarm zinged through her, renewing her panic.
She was breathing smoke.
New fears raced through her mind.
Old nightmares filled her head. Fear of being trapped alive in a coffin robbed her of reason. In the ink black closet, she could almost feel the motion of the coffin as it moved closer, closer to the flames and her death. Colored images played in her mind. Perspiration popped on her upper lip.
Anger. Regret. Frustration. And hundreds of other emotions stole the air from her lungs.
She couldn’t die like this. She hadn’t had a chance to prove herself, or buy a pair of red-soled shoes. She hadn’t met her own Prince Charming
She had to get out of this building alive.
But the odor of smoke was stronger. Mia shoved at the door again. Determination added energy as she slammed her weight against the door repeatedly.
On the verge of passing out from fear and exertion, she put everything she had left in her in one last shove. By some miracle, the door moved. A sliver of light appeared along the opening. Renewed hope giving her another surge of energy, she pushed on the door until she could squeeze her body out the opening.
Hands braced on her knees as she sucked in air, Mia noticed the pile of thick bound property maps stacked in front of the door.
Who wanted her dead? Why
Staring through thick smoke, she became aware of the footsteps trampling overhead and realized the blaze was coming from the roof. Shouts and sirens joined the roar of the fire and added to her need to escape. Feeling her way to the hall, she dropped to her knees and crawled toward the stairs.
Smoke wrapped around her, stealing air from her lungs. New danger threatened her safety. If firefighters found her in the building, they would think she had set the blaze.
She wanted to clear her brother and the family name, not make matters worse.
Filled with a renewed desperation, she pushed forward. Suddenly as a voice shouted from the floor above, “All clear, on this floor.”
No. Please. I’m still in the building
. The words screamed in her head, but fear of discovery kept her lips clamped shut. How could she explain her presence?
My mother made me do it?
Keep focused. Keep alert. Or you will die
Did this fire prove the model had hidden evidence in the building? Who, other than the ex-model, wanted to ruin her brother? Staring ahead, trying to see through the wall of smoke, she crawled forward and struggled to remain calm. But the presence of the unseen pursuer hung over her like a dark shadow. The person who shoved her in the closet could be two feet away and she wouldn’t see a thing.
And they wanted her dead
Out of the haze slowing her brain, she recalled the dead animal on her doorstep Saturday morning, and finding all four tires on her car flat at the same time. Angered by what those events and the locked closet door implied, she was determined to reach the stairs and get out of this building. She needed her contacts in the newsroom to find answers.
Feet thundered overhead. Crackling and snapping sounds from the fire added to the roar in her head. She coughed as more smoke filled her lungs.
Out of the gray smoke heavy air, one thought filled her head.
This was not a game. If she didn’t get out of this building soon, she would die.
Volunteer firefighter, Judge Jake Stone, tripped over the pile of dark rags at the top of the stairs as he made his way through the smoke filled second floor. The fire in the clock tower on the roof had escalated. The burning sensation in his gut flared just as hot. He wanted to get his hands on the person who started this fire…
The black form at his feet, moved. Jake bent down for a closer look. This wasn’t a pile of rubbish, but woman with soft feminine curves and smut stained cheeks. Awareness went zinging through his brain.
Red-streaked blue eyes stared at him from a soot-smeared face when he shook her shoulder. Her voice sounded gruff from breathing too much smoke. “Am I dead?”
“Not on my watch.” Jake removed his air mask and put it to her face. Firefighters had called ‘
’. Why was she still in the building? He had checked the upper floor judges’ chambers himself.
Suspecting he might have the person responsible for the fire teased his brain, but he thrust the idea aside. Guilty or not, he wouldn’t allow her to come to harm if he could help it. He knew the pain of loss too well after losing Sara.
But facts stared him in the face. Why would a building withstanding attacks from nature for a hundred and thirty years, suddenly go up in flames, unless his suspicions were correct? This blaze was an act of arson.
That idea offended him on a personal level. This courthouse was more than a building. It was his courthouse. A symbol. School kids came to the museum downstairs for class field trips. Area residents took pride in the building standing guard over the county seat for so long.
Now, the roof was on fire. Men doing repairs on the upper floors hadn’t noticed anything before smoke alerted them to the blaze. Had someone deliberately tried to burn the building?
He intended to find out. Many events in his life had occurred on one side of the bench or the other, in this courthouse. Today he was acting as a volunteer firefighter, trying to save the structure, but his professional life as a judge revolved around this building. He took any attempt to destroy the building as personal threat to law and order.
The woman leaning against his arm struggled upright. Jake leaned closer. “Can you hear me?”
Her gaze found him through the curtain of smoke. “Are you real?”
“The roof is on fire. We need to clear the building.”
“No. Don’t turn me in to the police. Please.” She grabbed his turnout jacket in both fists and pulled him close. “I didn’t set the fire, but I know who did.”
Heart pounding, he stared into blue eyes brimming with tears from the smoke. For a second, he forgot they were inside a burning building, forgot it was his fault he’d lost Sara, or that this woman staring so earnestly at him could be an arsonist.
In that instant, something happened to him. Longings he had thought dead for six years twisted his gut.
Normally, he considered himself a good judge of character. His position as a judge demanded he be, but with smoke filling the building that symbolized all he believed in, his reaction to this unknown woman in his arms left him with doubts.
“Why are you here?” Questions raced through his head. Heat simmered inside him, ready to explode like the blaze on the roof.
“Please.” Her eyes searched his face with a plea that would pull a response from any red-blooded man. He forgot he was a judge as he heard her voice rattle like dry paper. “Help me, please. No police.”
His training took control, leaving him no time to wonder why his instincts had steered him off track for the past few seconds. It was his job as a firefighter to get her out of this building alive. “Can you walk?”
She nodded and stumbled to her feet.
Did he dare listen to her pleas
Motioning for her to follow, he started down the stairs. Should he follow his instincts and listen to this woman’s plea for help or allow his duty as a judge to take charge? The answer came from his gut and ripped through him, reminding him of the past.
After having his life ripped apart by the loss of his wife and child,
he lived by his own rules
He could help the woman and get answers to his questions about the fire at the same time. If she was innocent, turning her over to authorities would cause her unnecessary inconvenience and stress.
And if she wasn’t?
He refused to believe his judgment could be that wrong. He lived to protect the innocent, and she claimed she was. Her presence in the burning building didn’t make sense, but he would give her a chance to explain. Getting her out of the building undetected wouldn’t be easy, but he felt compelled to try. Until he found out what she knew, he would stick to her like spray foam on a blaze.
Helping her could endanger his career, but when he looked in her eyes, he felt alive for the first time since the night that changed his life forever.
That night had ended his dreams.
From the second he encountered this woman’s gaze, his heart had filled with hope. He was ready for renewed hope. He wanted to believe in life and love, again.
As a judge, he knew not to believe all claims of innocence. If she was guilty, he intended to find out why a woman looking like a dark haired angel with eyes the color of the sky, would do such a destructive thing.
The best way to get answers to his questions was to keep her close. After he found out what she knew, then he could turn her over to the chief. He glanced back to make sure she was following him and felt a stab of awareness. She was his responsibility. He would keep her safe.
His reasoning made sense. The legal system he served was a tangle of red tape that would delay getting the answers he needed. Then it might be too late. If this woman knew who had started the fire, he needed a name.
When they reached the first floor, smoke wasn’t as thick. Jake checked the structure near the side exit, confirming there wasn’t any immediate risk from the fire on the roof, and turned to her. “Can you breathe okay?”
“Wait here,” he motioned to the floor five feet from the door. “I’ll be back in two minutes.” With one last look, he stepped outside to join his unit. “Hey guys, I’m all right. Just need air.”
“Jake, go get checked out. With all the area departments arriving to assist, we have more men than we can use. The ladder trucks from Moncure and Siler City units are taking over.”
Jake nodded, relieved he wouldn't have to say more. “Okay, Chief. I’m checking out.”