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The blaring jangle of the phone awakened Tempe Crabtree from a sound sleep. She squinted at her clock radio, 2:36 a.m. Only two hours ago her shift as resident deputy sheriff had officially ended but, as happened often on weekends, she'd been kept busy until one. The only deputy assigned to the Bear Creek area, a small town in the southern end of the Sierra mountain range that ran the length of eastern California, she was accustomed to being awakened by the phone.
She picked up the receiver on the second ring. Her husband, Hutch, lying beside her, stirred. Speaking softly, she said, "Deputy Crabtree here."
The voice at the other end was female and hysterical. "Please, I need to talk to Pastor Hutchinson."
Surprised, Tempe said, "Of course." Tempe covered the mouthpiece. With her other hand she gently shook Hutch's bare shoulder. "Sweetheart, wake up. A phone call for you."
Reaching for the receiver, Hutch pushed himself to a sitting position. "Who is it?" he whispered.
Tempe shrugged. Though mildly curious, she snuggled under the covers hoping to fall back to sleep, but she could hear the woman's shrill voice coming from the receiver as it rose and fell.
Hutch asked, "Please, who is calling?" He was quiet for a moment. "Try to be calm. Tell me again, slowly."After listening for a few moments more, he asked, "Have you called 911? Do that as soon as you hang up. Don't worry, Felicity, I'll come right away." He reached over Tempe and replaced the receiver.
Now wide awake, Tempe asked, "What's going on?"
"Felicity Pence. Arthur has had some kind of attack." Hutch swung his legs out of bed and began dressing.
Tempethrew back the covers. "I'll go with you."
"That's not necessary, honey." His shirt still unbuttoned, Hutch headed for the bathroom.
"I'd like to come."
Felicity was a faithful member of the volunteer sheriff patrol. Recently organized, the patrol served as extra eyes and ears in the community. So far it had proved helpful and time-saving to Tempe, as the trained citizens performed simple but necessary duties.
Since she wouldn't be on official business, Tempe decided not to wear her uniform. Instead, she donned jeans and a sweatshirt, slipping her feet into tennis shoes. Joining Hutch in the bathroom, she splashed her face with cold water. To save time, she brushed out her single braid and fastened her straight black hair at the back of her neck with a silver barrette. The heritage of her Native American grandmother was apparent in her golden skin, pronounced cheek bones, and the almond shape of her blue eyes.
"What's wrong with Arthur?" Tempe asked Hutch's reflection in the mirror beside her own. He ran a damp comb through his thick auburn hair as she put on lipstick.
"Between you and me, I'd guess cancer, but I don't think it's been diagnosed. He's been complaining of stomach problems for a long time. Are you ready?"
As they started down the hall, Tempe wasn't surprised to see the light on in her son's room. The eighteen-year-old senior was a volunteer fireman. After graduation, Blair planned to go to the university at San Luis Obispo and major in fire science. Through a mother-son agreement, he wasn't supposed to respond to emergency calls on school nights, though he rarely turned off his scanner.
By the time they reached the kitchen, Blair was behind them already wearing his turn-out gear, settling his helmet on his tousled corn-silk hair. "Who is it?" he asked. "Heard the call on my scanner but don't recognize the address."
"Felicity Pence, one of my church members," Hutch said opening the back door. "She thinks her husband has had an attack of some kind."
Tempe stepped out into the cool predawn. Hutch waited for Blair before following them both.
"I'll take my Bug." Blair headed for his yellow Volkswagen.
"Let's go in the Blazer," Tempe said.
Surprisingly, Hutch agreed. When Tempe wasn't on duty, he usually preferred driving his old blue-and-white Ford truck. "Yes, it'll be faster. Felicity was frantic. The sooner we get there the better."
Felicity Pence and her husband, Arthur, were fairly new to the mountain community. Because property in Bear Creek was far less expensive than in Southern California, it had become a popular choice of retirees. In her forties, Felicity was at least twenty years younger than her spouse. Because of Felicity's membership in the volunteer patrol, Tempe was better acquainted with her. Both the Spences attended Bear Creek Chapel regularly. Next to the fashionable and flamboyant Felicity, Arthur seemed colorless and dull.
A curving lane lined with slender evergreens led to a Spanish-style home, white stucco and red tile roof, nestled against the hillside. Lights blazed from the uncurtained windows.
Tempe parked the Blazer. As she and Hutch stepped out of her official vehicle, Blair pulled in behind it. Red lights flashing, the fire department's emergency truck lumbered in, parking at the end of the drive.
Felicity met them on the flagstone walkway, her platinum hair flying around her unusually pale face. A red and orange kimono gathered around her body gaped at the neck, revealing generous cleavage. "Pastor Hutch. Thank God you're here."
"Where's the victim, ma'am?" Blair asked.
Felicity frowned. Tempe wasn't sure if it was because of Blair's choice of words or because she'd recognized him and wondered why Tempe's teenaged son had answered her call for help.
Felicity blinked her eyes. "He's in the bedroom. At the end of the hall." She led the way into an open, marble-floored entry filled with greenery. Through an archway, Tempe could see an expansive high-ceilinged room with dark, exposed beams, large cream-colored leather furniture, with accents of teal and cobalt blue.
With a long, crimson fingernail, Felicity pointed out a smaller archway which Blair trotted through. Two more firemen came in the front door, one carried a large box of medical equipment. Both acknowledged Tempe, Felicity and Hutch with quick nods before following after Blair.
Tempe gestured for Felicity to go along too. "They may have some questions for you."
Felicity blinked again. "What kind of questions?"
"The nature of his illness, his doctor, things like that."
As they stepped inside the room, Blair asked, "Mrs. Pence, is your husband on any medication?"
Pushing a platinum lock away from a red-rimmed eye, Felicity nodded. "Blood pressure medicine. It's there, beside the bed."
Arthur, motionless in the king-size bed, appeared unconscious. His skin and hair were the same shade of ashen gray. Blair applied a blood pressure cuff while other firemen did medical things to Arthur, including giving him oxygen. Though large, the bedroom seemed crowded with double dressers and dark armoires. Heavy, wine-colored draperies covered the windows.
A big fireman, who Tempe knew was the father of four children who had a private landscaping service when he wasn't responding to emergencies, asked, "Ma'am, would you describe his symptoms for us?"
Felicity clutching her kimono, stared off to the right, as if it were too painful for her to look at her husband and what was being done for him. "He always has problems with his stomach. Eats antacids like candy. Yesterday afternoon he complained of cramps. He didn't eat much dinner. What he did eat, he threw up. We both thought he was coming down with the flu."
She turned away. "If we'd even suspected it was something serious, I'd have called the doctor then."
The whine of a siren signaled the approach of the ambulance.
"Did he have a temperature?" Blair asked as he removed the blood pressure cuff.
Her eyes still averted, Felicity said, "His skin felt hot, but I didn't actually take his temperature."
Tempe and Hutch moved out of the way for the ambulance crew that bustled into the room with a gurney and more medical equipment. Hutch touched Felicity's shoulder. "Maybe we should wait in another room."
Shrugging away from him, Felicity hugged herself. "No. I want to stay."
The EMTs rechecked Arthur's vital signs and connected him to an IV. Though she couldn't hear what they said to each other, Tempe knew by the men's grim expressions that Arthur's condition was grave. Deftly, they transferred him to the gurney and whisked him from the room.
Felicity gasped. "Where are they taking him?"
Blair paused, "To the hospital in Dennison, ma'am."
Dennison was in the valley below Bear Creek, the nearest city.
"I want to go." Glancing down at her kimono and bare feet, she murmured. "I'll have to change."
Hutch patted her shoulder. "If you like, I'll stay here and go with you."
Felicity nodded and moved toward one of the closets. Tempe, Hutch and Blair followed the emergency crews out of the bedroom.
A mournful wail followed the ambulance as it wound down the mountain highway heading toward the hospital, twenty miles away.
Tempe stood with Hutch in the foyer. On his way out, Blair said, "I don't think Mr. Pence is going to make it."
"All the more reason for me to go with her," Hutch said. "I'll drive her car. Why don't you go on home and get some sleep?"
"Since there really isn't anything for me to do here, I will. Tell Felicity I'll be hoping for the best," Tempe said.
"Say a prayer." Hutch cupped her cheek in his palm and kissed her. "I'll stay with her as long as she needs me."
Though sorry for Arthur and Felicity, Tempe was grateful the situation didn't require her attention. The drive home was uneventful. A full moon cast a surrealistic glow on the countryside. The trees, dark and unrecognizable, could have been monsters or prehistoric animals. Tempe laughed at what her imagination had conjured.
As she crossed the bridge, the rushing river shimmered with silver light. Though the town of Bear Creek was named after this body of water, the term creek wasn't an apt description at this time of year.
At home Blair's VW was parked in the driveway.
Tempe hurried inside. Moving down the hallway toward the bedroom she shared with Hutch, she smiled as she passed Blair's closed door. His light was already off. Climbing into the mussed bed, Tempe fell asleep quickly.
Sun streamed through the lace curtains when she awakened. The house was silent. She walked down the hall that divided the bedrooms from the living room and led to the kitchen.
A spoon and empty bowl in the sink told her Blair had eaten. A scribbled note, "Gone to the fire station," was propped against the sugar bowl. He spent more time there than he did at home or school, and had since he was sixteen. At first, the fire chief had only given him jobs like washing the fire engines and rolling hoses, but it wasn't long before Blair had been invited along on calls. He couldn't become an official volunteer until he was eighteen, but no one registered a complaint when he'd turned up to offer his services at a fire or accident scene.
Tempe showered and dressed in jeans and sweat-shirt while the coffee perked. As she poured her first cup, she heard a car door slam.
In moments, Hutch entered. His auburn hair was rumpled from his unconcious habit of running his fingers through it, and pale blue smudges underlined the sadness reflected in his gray eyes. The scattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and cheeks accentuated his pallor.
Tempe opened her arms to her husband. "He didn't make it." It was a statement, not a question.
Hutch hugged her tightly. "No, he didn't," he murmured in her ear. "They worked on him for a long time, but he slipped away. As many times as I've seen it, it's never any easier, even when I know the person was a believer and has gone to be with our Father."
"The cause of death?"
"The doctor said it was respiratory arrest, heart and kidney failure."
"What caused it?"
"The doctor didn't mention any particular ailment."
"How's Felicity doing?"
Stepping from Tempe's embrace, Hutch opened a rough-hewn cupboard and took out a mug. "I need some coffee."
Puzzled, Tempe stared at him. "That's a fresh pot."
Hutch went to the stove and filled his cup.
Turning to face her, his brow furrowed, Hutch said, "I'm not sure."
"Hutch, what is it?"
Sighing, Hutch sat down at the round table. He sipped his coffee. "You're going to think I'm crazy, or that your suspicious nature has rubbed off on me."
Tempe took his hand. "What's going on?"
"It's difficult to explain. I just have this odd feeling." Holding the mug with both hands, he stared into the dark liquid.
"It just doesn't seem right."
"What are you trying to say, Hutch?"
"I can't put my finger on it. But there's something about Arthur's death that doesn't make sense to me."