Authors: Debra Webb,Regan Black
The eerie silence that followed swallowed him up, surrounding him and Mrs. Wilks. He peered out at the shore and spotted the grisly debris of what had surely been the sniper.
“Where is Abby?” Mrs. Wilks cried. “Is she all right?”
Riley twisted around to check the place he’d last heard her, smiling when she stood tall, leaning into the slope, her gun down and just behind her leg. “I’m right here, Mrs. Wilks,” she called out. Her chest heaved as she gulped in air. “Don’t worry about me.”
Riley moved a bit so the older woman could see her friend and neighbor.
“Oh, thank heaven. Thank heaven for both of you.” She clasped her hands over her heart, then let Riley help her to her feet. He kept her turned from the mess closer to the shore as Abby stepped forward to wrap her in a warm hug. “Help will be here shortly. You don’t have to walk.”
“I will walk out of here. Lord only knows how they got me into this predicament to start.”
Abby shot a look at Riley. “They?”
“Yes. I made the coffee and started up to bed and there they were, right in my living room.”
“You saw their faces?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. The gesture threw her off balance, but Riley steadied her. “They had black ski masks on.”
“We saw the mess in your house,” Abby said. “You put up quite a fight.”
“I clocked one of them in the knee with that hickory stick I keep in the umbrella stand.”
Riley made a mental note to watch for someone with a fresh limp. He could tell by the way Abby’s eyebrows arched that she was thinking the same thing and would pass that detail on to every shift and the extra patrols.
The radios he and Abby were wearing crackled as verification came from other teams that the other bombs were neutralized without any casualties. No sign of additional hostages. That was something anyway. Even without a bomb squad on-site they’d managed to clear the area and ensure that the explosions intended to kill and maim had harmed no one.
As the paramedics met them, Riley caught Abby’s hand. “Thanks for the cover fire.”
“Least I could do,” she said.
“What do you carry?” She showed him the .40 caliber gun. “Nice,” he said with a smile.
Abby shrugged, her attention darting all around.
“He blew himself up, I think,” she said quietly. She clamped her lips together, breathing deep through her nose. “I fired at his feet. A warning shot. But he...”
Riley didn’t want her thinking about that gruesome blood smear on the rocks. “Did you recognize him? Was he limping?”
“No.” She shook her head. “His face was painted with camouflage and he wore green patterned gear. I didn’t recognize anything about him. As for the limp, who could tell on this terrain?”
True. “The feds will be all over this.”
“I know.” Her shoulders hitched and she rubbed at her arms. “I never thought I’d be grateful for their help. This is one crime scene I’m happy to turn over.”
“It’s over.” Hopefully for good, but at least for the moment.
She nodded. “We’ll have to give statements. I have all kinds of paperwork.” She swore. “And a press conference.”
“Then we’d best get at it.” He gestured for her to lead the way to the docks.
“I’m a mess,” she complained, picking a twig from her sleeve. “This sweater isn’t worth giving away.”
He reached out and pulled a leaf from her hair. “You’re beautiful.” He wanted to kiss her, to reassure himself she was safe and in one piece.
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“I’m saying it because it’s the truth.” He waited, cradling her hands in his until she finally looked at him. Her eyes went wide, then she smiled and looked away. “Your department, hell, the whole town, should throw you a parade. You’re a hero, Abby.”
“You did the hard part,” she argued.
“Don’t dodge the compliment.”
“Fine.” She took a big breath and looked out over the water one last time. “But I’m a hero with a ton of paperwork to do.”
He was damn happy that they were all alive to do that paperwork. Today had been too close.
* * *
BBY TURNED FROM
the podium and the crush of questions, letting Mayor Scott finish things up. During this press conference, she’d been more careful with her words without compromising her determination. She would not allow this nonsense to continue in her town. Having Mrs. Wilks home safe had done just the opposite of what her enemies wanted. The rescue boosted her popularity. Even if he’d wanted to, the mayor wouldn’t be able to oust her now.
It should give her comfort, but instead she worried over how things could get worse. Who might end up a victim next? She couldn’t afford to think about that here, where the cameras might capture the worry on her face. Most of the reporters were still asking questions about the man who’d driven Mrs. Wilks’s car into the bay.
They weren’t alone. She had more than a few questions for Riley O’Brien, too. Though she would be forever grateful for what he’d done, how had a construction worker turned Christmas-decorating guru known how to disarm a bomb?
The mayor deflected the hard questions and tailored his answers to suit his purposes. He’d dubbed Riley the hero of Belclare, telling everyone Riley had gone to the hospital simply as a precaution, and the mayor would be stopping there next. Yes, of course the mayor and town council would be looking into honoring Belclare’s newest hero in the coming days.
It went on and on. Abby listened enough to applaud or nod stoically in the right places. The most she would get out of this was a lesson in managing the press. At last they were done and she retreated into the station while the mayor’s team cleaned up the podium.
“Nicely done, Jensen.” Mayor Scott shook her hand, adding a pat on her shoulder.
Despite having taken a shower and changed into a clean suit, she felt weary and frustrated. The last thing she needed was a political shadow. “It was a group effort,” she replied. Right now, she wanted that group scouring security footage. Two men had attacked Mrs. Wilks, but only one was dead. She needed to find the other man to help her break up what she now felt confident was a local terrorist cell.
When the mayor was done shaking hands, she and her officers were able to get busy. Abby settled behind a spare desk, her gaze drifting over the plastic sheeting that blocked off the burned side of the building. The cleaning crew claimed they would finish today, but fresh paint and new equipment was only the first part. The emotional impact would stay with her and the department for weeks, if not longer. In her gut, she knew that was the real motivation behind the fire.
She slipped the flash drive into her computer and started another search through Filmore’s life. Who—local or otherwise—could have compelled him to set that fire?
Her gaze skimmed from her laptop screen and out across the bullpen. It took a concerted effort to resist the tug of paranoia and go back to the facts in front of her.
“Chief!” She looked up again as Gadsden waved her over. “I’ve got the wallet getting tossed at the warehouse Dumpster.”
With a fresh surge of energy, she hurried over to Gadsden. “Praise God for detail-oriented people.”
Gadsden pointed out the wallet sailing through the air.
“Great. Now we back it up. There has to be something that shows us a bit more,” she said, praying it was true.
“This gives us a timeline,” he replied, pointing at the date and time in the corner of the video. “The car and Mrs. Wilks had to have been staged before this point.”
Abby nodded. As leads went, she’d seen stronger, but it was a starting point. “And that looks like a blatant attempt to implicate Ri—Mr. O’Brien or one of his coworkers.”
“Yeah,” Gadsden agreed. “Good bet the scarf was planted rather than an accident. Who would’ve guessed you’d be his alibi.”
She pointedly ignored that comment. “See if there are other views or angles around the docks in this time frame.” She wanted the second assailant. Her hands fisted at her sides. “I want faces. No one should feel that comfortable causing havoc in this town.”
“You know, it’s possible Mr. O’Brien knew what to do with those bombs because he
“Show me more evidence and we’ll follow it,” she said. Just because Gadsden was right didn’t mean she had to like it. During the crisis, she’d led by example as they’d followed and eliminated the evidence already planted against Riley. She would continue to do her job, no matter how sticky or uncomfortable things got.
Gadsden was right, however. Riley had shown awareness and expertise that only came from training and experience. He owed her answers. Now she just had to smother her feelings and find the objectivity and courage to ask the right questions.
The calm professionalism that had earned her this post was crumbling to pieces inside her, though she refused to let it show. She wanted to slam doors. Throw things. Shoot something. Declare a police emergency and conduct a door-to-door search. She nearly laughed, thinking about how the mayor would spin that.
Their best lead had blown himself up, a fanatic so dedicated he preferred suicide over capture. It wasn’t a good sign of things to come. And yet, to the best of her knowledge no one in Belclare was missing.
The other caches of explosives along the shoreline had blown within a minute of the sniper. That detail alone strongly indicated a supervisor with an impatient trigger finger. Her instincts wouldn’t let her chalk it up to blind luck. It was a miracle no one on the search teams had been seriously injured. Only Riley’s quick work and the note he’d salvaged had saved no telling how many lives.
Was his finding that note part of the plan, too?
She shook off the thought and looked around the station. The men and women who served the Belclare police department were top-notch, but there simply weren’t enough of them to patrol every high-risk area every hour of the day. The docks were a valuable target. Main Street, packed with tourists, would certainly make the news if something bad happened. She forced herself to imagine the worst-case scenario if this cell launched an attack when the park was full of families.
She’d appealed to the community to keep watch and report anything suspicious, praising the dock workers and giving them much of the credit for today’s rescue operation. Without that kind of vigilance and action, she’d said, Mrs. Wilks might have died.
“We’ll track ’em down, Chief.”
Gadsden’s assurance snapped her from her thoughts, but it would be a long time before she relaxed. “Yes,” she agreed. “We will track down every last one of them.”
Returning to her temporary desk, she noticed a new email in-box alert flashing on her screen. Sinking into the chair, anticipating the worst, she clicked on it.
Congratulations, Chief Jensen. You win today’s skirmish but this war isn’t over.
There was an attachment. Against her better judgment, she opened it. A three-panel cartoon strip filled the screen. First a caricature of the bandstand in the park, then that picture overlaid with animated flames. The last panel was a sad little pile of ash topped with an oversize police shield sporting her badge number.
They’d do it. She felt it in her gut. This opening weekend or not, they had the will and resources to make her worst nightmare come true.
“Cowards,” she whispered to herself. “Bring it on.” She sent the file up the line to the federal agencies that were supposedly doing something helpful behind the scenes to break up the sleeper cell they had suspected from the beginning was in Belclare. While she was grateful the federal teams were taking care of all the bomb evidence out by the water, anytime they wanted to step in with some real, boots-on-the-ground help, that would be fine by her.
She leaned back, the springs on the worn-out chair squeaking in protest. Her department was crammed into half of their normal working space. Filmore had protected the building’s facade but wreaked havoc inside. Her officers were tired and more than a little edgy with all of the reacting they’d been doing.
They were stretched too thin with the extra patrols, and asking them to maintain that level indefinitely was unacceptable. She needed a new play, something offensive that would bring this war to a head. For her department, as well as for the community at large.
If the terrorist cell could create chaos using people from petty criminals to snipers to historical society presidents, she could sure as hell plan a resounding victory with the people on her side. Assuming there were people on her side.
That list seemed terribly short. Maybe it was better to use a neutral party.
For the potentially crazy idea that popped into her mind, a neutral party, one well versed in personal defense, was her best option. Her only option. She ran her fingertips along on the edge of the desk. She shouldn’t do it, shouldn’t put any civilians in the line of fire for any reason. Except the terrorists had done that for her and they didn’t show the first inclination of stopping.
The Lewiston family lived outside Belclare town limits and took advantage of the fact at every opportunity. Since becoming the Belclare police chief she’d tossed out more than one citation for an illegal whiskey still. The Lewistons just didn’t buy into the concept of law enforcement on private property. They were all excellent game hunters, blessed with perfect aim, and her officers knew firsthand they were always armed.
But each December the family got their legal act together and assembled the proper permits because the ideal place for their Christmas tree sales lot straddled a narrow smidge of the town line. Their reputation for offering the finest trees in three counties drew record numbers of buyers every year. Alongside the Christmas Village, it had become a symbiotic partnership benefiting both the Lewiston family and Belclare.
She flipped back through her file of threatening emails, finding the one she’d mentioned to Riley about the Christmas tree lot. No, it hadn’t been anything overt or direct, but the threat was phrased by someone who knew the Lewiston reputation for trouble the other eleven months of the year.