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Her throat burned, the acidic sensation ripping Monique Harris from a sound sleep. Disoriented, she swallowed against a stinging throat. The pungent smell of smoke accosted her. She held her throbbing head and sat up, fighting to clear the sleep from her mind. She glanced around the room, heart thudding. This wasn't her bedroom.
Reality washed over her. This was hers. Her new house in Lagniappe, Louisiana, where she'd celebrated the New Year by settling in. The place she'd run to when she needed to start over. She sucked in air.
Breathing was nearly impossible. The air hung thick heavy hot.
Recognition and realization slammed her gut. Fire!
Bolting out of bed, she ran, tripping over the tangle of bedcovers as she pushed from her bedroom into the hallway. Dense smoke swirled in the air, forming a wall. Monique covered her nose and mouth with her hand and stumbled along the hall. Her knee connected with boxes piled in the walkway, knocking her down. Pulling herself up, she fought to focus. She had to get her bearings, had to keep her wits about her.
Deep orange flames sizzled everywhereheat overwhelmed her. How long had the fire been burning while she slept?
An underlying stench invaded her nostrils. A surge of raw fear pulsated inside her, tingling down into her limbs. She moved to lean against the wall, but heat seared her back. She jumped away, staggering.
Off in the distance, sirens wailed their approach. Someone must've called 9-1-1. Help would reach her soon, but she had to get out of the house. Now. No time to wait.
Monique stumbled toward the front door. Flames shot out from the living room and stopped her in her tracks. Her bareheels burned against the hardwood floor. She backed away and stumbled blindly toward the kitchen.
The only other door out of the house.
Heat scorched the soles of her feet as she ran through the thick smoke. She coughed and gagged, eyes burning and tears spilling down her cheeks. She wasn't going to make it. Not on her own. It'd been a long time since she asked for help, especially from God. A long time since she'd gotten angry with Him. She still wasn't ready to let go of her anger, but she cried out now.
God, please don't let me die. Not like this.
Sheetrock fell from the ceiling. She screamed and crouched, covering her head with her arms. Wallpaper peeled into crumbling piles of embers. Fear spurred her onward.
She dropped to all fours, the hot floor digging into her knees and hands, burning. Her vision blurred against the smoke. Get to the back door. Get out of the house.
The muscles in her arms and legs cramped as she struggled toward the kitchen. Sheer determination propelled her forward.
Please, God. Help me.
Coughing, she finally reached the kitchen. She stood to reach the doorknob and spied her purse lying on the kitchen counter. Kent's Bible was inside it. In one fluid motion, she snared the bag and tossed the strap over her shoulder. Covering the doorknob with her flannel pajama top, she flung open the kitchen door.
January night air cooled her lungs and throat. Monique paused to gulp in the freshness. Then sweat beads settled on her upper lip and brow as heat streaked across her face, like sitting too close to an open campfire. The only problem was the campfire was her house. Smoke billowed from the open door, suffusing the bayou in a gray haze. She pushed herself to keep moving.
Sirens screeched louder, closer. Her nerves knotted, and she wanted to throw up but knew she had to keep moving. Had to get away from the burning house.
She tripped down the four wooden steps and landed on the ground with a resounding thud. Coughing and sputtering, Monique felt like her lungs were going to come up. Nausea swept over her in waves. Still she pressed on, crawling toward her vehicle, ignoring the gravel digging into her bare, stinging palms.
A fire truck, lights strobing and siren wailing, whipped into the driveway and screeched to a halt. Gravel dust mixed with the smoke pouring from the open kitchen door, filling the air with a dense cloud. An EMT unit followed. In record time, the paramedics had her in the back of their wagon with an oxygen mask over her face. The medic held it tight, and she inhaled several times before removing the mask.
A fireman touched her shoulder. "Is there anyone else in the house?"
His words sounded muffled against the hum of the fire and the bustle of activity around her. "What?"
"In the house. Is there anyone still inside?"
"No. I live alone." Ever since Kent had been murdered, she had no one. Loneliness hit her anew. Would the mourning ever end?
The blood pressure cuff squeezed her arm as the paramedic measured her blood pressure. Monique blinked several times, washing out the burning feeling along with solution they'd placed into her eyes. The cuff came off with a rip of Velcro.
She stared at her home going up in flames. What a way to start the New Year. What caused it? Faulty wiring? No, the inspector had checked that. She hadn't even turned on the oven or stove. Smoke swirled as flaming beams crashed.
The fire burned hot. And fast. Wait a minute
She bolted from the back of the EMT wagon, horror settling over her. "No!"
A firefighter grabbed her arm and jerked her away from the popping flames. "Ma'am, you can't go in there."
She froze, hot tears burning her scorched face.
The pieces quickly fell into place. The out-of-control fire. The smell. And the phone call she'd received just the other day. It hadn't been a prank after all. She'd been warned. This wasn't an accident. This had been planned, set. This was arson.
Someone didn't want her in Lagniappe.
"Deputy, we got a 9-1-1 call reporting a burning house." Missy, the dispatcher, stood in the sheriff's doorway, her platinum-blond hair looking as frazzled as she sounded.
Deputy Gary Anderson, the acting sheriff, let out a long sigh. Only January 2, and already a call? So much for a quiet two weeks catching up on paperwork and getting the office organized. "Is it bad?"
"According to the neighbor, the place was engulfed in flames before they even noticed."
Gary shoved to his feet, reaching for his radio. "Is it too much to hope the place was vacant?"
"Sorry, Deputy. It's the house out on Bridges Lane that young woman moved into just last week."
"Well, I'll be." He snatched his keys off the desk. "The old Pittman place?"
"That's the one."
"I'm on my way." He made quick strides out the front door and across the lot to the cruiser parked in the sheriff's space.
Anticipation soared in his chest, despite the potential tragedy looming over the bayou. Sheriff Bubba Theriot was on vacation and as acting sheriff, Gary had all the responsibilities that went along with the title. He'd better write a report, get it filed, then have cleanup ordered before the sheriff returned. This could be his chance to make an impression. A good one.
Two weeksthat's all Gary had to prove himself. The sheriff had taken his wife, Tara, to New Orleans to visit her sister and the new baby. Bubba was a good man, Gary would never say otherwise, but he didn't seem to put much stock in Gary's abilities to handle matters on his own. This was Gary's opportunity, maybe his only one. And he'd prove himself worthy.
With siren screaming and lights blazing, he raced down the roads through his beloved town. He'd grown up just outside the city limits of Lagniappe, the only child of a widowed mother. She'd worked a multitude of small jobscleaning other people's houses, doing ironing from their little two-bedroom rental, waitressing at the small dinerall to support herself and her son. College had never been an option for Gary, but his determination to make something of himself wouldn't allow that to stop him. He'd applied himself, completed correspondence courses on criminal justice and had been hired on as a deputy. But he still hadn't earned the respect he needed.
Not yet. But maybe now
With the increased population of Lagniappe over the past year, the parish had decided the sheriff's office could justify appointing a chief deputy and hiring a regular deputy for replacement. Gary had the experience and seniority for the position over Deputy Tim Marsh. Sheriff Theriot had already hired another deputyMike Fontenot, previous bartender at the jazz club and a former MP with the Marinesbut he hadn't made the decision about who would be chief deputy. Now Gary pressed the accelerator harder in his anticipation.
He arrived on the scene amid chaos. Red and white flashed over the bayou from the lights atop the fire trucks. Water shot from hoses at odd angles and filled the air with steam. Firefighters rushed about, barking orders and moving equipment. But the focal point of activity was the home engulfed in flames. Gary's eyes burned from the smoke.
Lord, please don't let anyone have been inside.
He parked and headed toward the EMT wagon, weaving out of the way of the firefighters. Rounding the corner of the vehicle, he met a paramedic moving toward the burning house. Gary touched the man's arm and kept his voice strong and full of authority. "Was anyone in the house?"
"Only her." The EMT nodded at a woman standing nearby with hair as vibrant as the flames devouring the house. Another uniformed paramedic held one of her arms, while a firefighter stood in front of her, obviously blocking her path.
Gary rushed to the woman. "Ma'am? I'm Gary Anderson, acting sheriff. Will you come with me?"
Her green eyes flashed amid tears. "My house my home."
He took her free elbow. "I understand, ma'am. Let's get your statement." He tugged gently, but she remained firm.
He nodded at the paramedic and together they turned her from the fire. "I really need to get your statement."
"We still need to take you to the hospital so they can check you out, ma'am," the EMT added.
They led her back to the emergency vehicle and helped her onto the stretcher inside. She sat with her gaze locked on the fire. Gary took a seat on the metal bench alongside her. He pulled out his notebook and pen, but didn't speak yet. He needed to observe both the scene and the victim first.
A purse lay on the floor beside the stretcher. He nudged it with his toe, questions flooding his mind. How had she managed to get her handbag out of the burning house, despite everything? Most people didn't think that clearly in a crisis of such magnitude. How had she?
"Did the firefighters pull her from the house?" he whispered to the paramedic.
"No. We found her in the driveway when we arrived." The EMT radioed Lagniappe Hospital.
Gary made a note, then turned his attention back to the woman sitting on the stretcher, her gaze locked onto the house now reduced to nothing more than a semblance of a bonfire.
The woman's copper-colored hair hung in big waves down her back, ending just below her shoulder blades. Soot stained her otherwise fair complexion. Wide eyes blinked from beneath almost invisible eyelashes. The plaid pajamas drooped off her slight frame. Gary took in how the hem hung well below her bare feet. Men's pajamas?
One of the paramedics held an oxygen mask to her face, while the other jumped from the back of the wagon and held the door. "You riding with us?"
Gary took another look at the woman and nodded. The doors slammed shut.
She shoved the mask aside. "Where are we going? I can't leave. My house." She grabbed an overhead rail and pulled herself to standing.
The EMT gently pushed her back down on the stretcher as the vehicle shifted into Drive. "We're taking you to the hospital for them to check you out."
She didn't appear pacified. Actually, irritation covered her delicate features.
"There's nothing you can do." Gary all but whispered the words, but they stopped her movements immediately.
Big tears fell from her eyes, making tracks down her cheeks through the soot.
"I'm sorry." And he truly was. He gripped his pen tighter. He hated this part of the jobhaving to ask questions and probe when people were hurting or grieving. But he'd never prove himself worthy of the chief deputy position if he didn't do what he must. He cleared his throat and took charge. "I need to know your name, ma'am."
"Monique. Monique Harris."
He wrote down her name, jotted his impressions of the scene, then met her stare. "Some of the questions I need to ask will be repeated by the fire chief, but it's just to make sure we cover everything, okay?"
She nodded as the paramedic shoved the oxygen mask back into her hands.
"Ms. Harris, did you leave a fire in the fireplace burning, something on the stove, anything like that?"
"No." She gulped in oxygen.
"Are you sure?"
She removed the mask from her face and glared at him. "I'm positive."
He made notes. "Have you recently had any electrical work done on the house?"
The vehicle hit a bump, jarring them. She swayed. He reached out and steadied her. Something zapped inside him. He jerked his hand back onto his lap. "Can you tell me what happened?"
"I was asleep. I guess the smoke woke me up." She worried her burned hands in her lap, not even realizing she cringed as she did. "I tried to get out the front door, but the fire was there. I went out the back door, the kitchen door. I-I "
He touched her arm. "I understand. You got outside."
Tears streamed down her face. She was so small, so fragile. He had the strangest urge to pull her into his arms and pat her back, tell her everything would be okay. She looked so alone.
"Is there anyone I can call for you?"
She shook her head.
"A friend? Family member, maybe?"
"I have no one."
Poor thing, and now she'd lost her home, as well. Gary pushed down his empathy. Business. He had to do his job. Stay professional. He focused his attention on his notes and pressed on. "Do you have any idea what could have started the fire?"
Lifting her head, she set her chin. "Yes. Someone set this."
"You think this was deliberate? As in arson?" She was confused, obviously. Befuddled and distraught.
"I don't think, sir. I know." Her hands trembled as she ran her fingers through the tangle of hair.
"Ms. Harris, I'm sure you're very upset, but t"
"Yes, I'm upset, but I'm not delusional. This was done deliberately."
He let out a soft sigh. Might as well humor her. "Okay, why would you think such a thing?"
"Because just this week I got a phone call telling me to leave."
She wasn't a pincushion! Monique scowled as the nurse finished taking blood.
The woman in blue scrubs stuck a Band-Aid over the site and patted Monique's shoulder. "The doctor will be with you in just a minute." She swished the curtain around the bed and disappeared.