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By Susan Peterson
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe explosion's shock waves hit Sheriff Zachary McCoy's lean-to on Sunset Lake around 10:00 p.m. They rocked the uneven plank floor so hard that Zach rolled off the side of his cot and hit the floor with an elbow crunching thud.
By the time he scrambled out of his sleeping bag and stumbled to the edge of the lean-to, the familiar darkness overhanging the small Adirondack lake was lit up like a Fourth of July celebration gone wild.
Birdie, Zach's bluetick hound, nudged him and whined softly. Her wet nose pushed against the palm of his hand, telling him that she didn't like the looks of the yellow flames and black smoke rising up over the lush treetops.
Zach gave Birdie's left ear a reassuring scratch.
No need to guess the location of the explosion. The only other inhabitants of the lake were Zach's reclusive neighbors, a religious group who had bought up almost half the lakefront property nearly two years ago. Calling themselves The Disciples' Temple, the group had set up camp about nine months ago, arriving in a caravan of beat-up old school buses repainted green.
As soon as the camp was built and people started to arrive, Zach had gotten curious. Although he was used to people buying property high in the Adirondack Mountains as a means of "getting away," this particular group's intense need for privacy bordered on the paranoid.
But in spite of all this, Zach considered any neighbor a friend, and he wasn't about to let the group handle this or any crisis alone.
Not to mention the fact that he was the county sheriff and obligated to help.
He grabbed the cell phone out of the pocket of his Carhart jacket and then checked his watch. 10:02 p.m. It would take the trucks from town at least twenty minutes to make it up the winding mountain road leading to the lake. By then, whatever structure had caught fire would probably be gone. He could only hope the fire stayed confined to one building and didn't spread.
He punched in 911.
"Nine-one-one. How may I help you?" the voice on the other end asked.
"This is Sheriff Zachary McCoy. There's been an explosion out at The Disciples' Temple property - Sunset Lake south side. We're going to need trucks and an ambulance."
"This is Ellie Stanton, Sheriff. I got a call from the place about five minutes ago. It was the guy who runs the place - a David or Daniel Mercy. He told me not to send anyone. Said that they had things under control."
"I don't care what Daniel Mercy said. I want the trucks up here pronto, Ellie."
"He told me he wouldn't let anyone on the property, Sheriff."
Zach ran a exasperated hand through his hair. Reverend Mercy had to be off his rocker.
"Look, Ellie, I don't care what this guy said. I want to hear sirens wailing up this mountain in two minutes flat. Make sure the ambulance comes, too." His hand tightened on the cell phone. "I have a feeling this guy doesn't realize how bad things are."
"On their way, Sheriff. I'm dispatching the fire department right now. Should I tell them you'll be there to give them a hand with Reverend Mercy?"
"Yeah, I'm headed over right now. Tell the boys to look for me. Maybe I can convince this paranoid fool to let us help."
Zach tucked his phone back in his jacket pocket and quickly dressed, grabbing his hat before strapping on his gun.
Birdie had already taken off across the rough terrain, headed for Zach's battered '88 Dodge pickup. When she reached the truck, she put her front paws on the running board and waited. She didn't glance in Zach's direction but instead kept her eyes focused on the passenger's side door. Zach knew she was letting him know that there was no way he was getting out of the campsite without her riding shotgun.
Zach glanced in the direction of the lake again. The blaze had settled into a steady crackle of orange flames. It looked as if some type of building stood at the center of the explosion, but it was hard to tell due to the high wooden fence encircling the entire compound.
Zach shook his head. He didn't know too many people who bought waterfront property and then fenced everything off, including their view of the lake. Didn't make a lot of sense to him, but then nothing about the inhabitants of The Disciples' Temple did.
As he ran around the front of the truck, Birdie's tail hit the side with a resounding thud. She was reminding him not to try and get out of the driveway without her.
Zach climbed into the cab and reached across to open the passenger side door. Birdie piled in.
"Okay, girl, you can come along. But plan on staying in the truck once we get there."
Birdie turned her soulful brown eyes on him, her expression seeming to indicate she'd comply. But Zach wasn't fooled. She was only placating him. Birdie liked action, and the crackling flames across the lake fit that description just fine.
* * *
A few short, body-jarring moments later, Zach pulled his pickup outside the gates where the name The Disciples' Temple - New Jerusalem stretched across in large, crudely painted red letters. No Trespassers Allowed took up the bottom portion of the sign.
As always, the front gates to the compound were tightly secured. The fence was made of planks of dark hard pine, the bark still on. Each plank was nudged in so close to the next that nothing could squeeze between them. The only light came from a string of security lamps strung along the top. Zach couldn't help but wonder if the fence had been built to keep the inhabitants in rather than intruders out.
The fence stretched in both directions, completely enclosing the compound. Zach had walked the fence line when it was first installed, before the camp was inhabited by the group. He had a thing for knowing what went on in his county.
The fence itself must have cost a small fortune to build. The wood alone must have set the group back more than a few thousand. The word in town was that the group purchased the wood from the local sawmill. The mill owner, Ted Sterling, had been more than happy to comply with the order, especially since the demand for lumber had been down lately. Like the rest of the country, Bradley, New York, was suffering an economic downturn.
Zach pulled his truck up next to the small guardhouse squatting to the left of the gate opening. He glanced inside. Empty.
A simple wooden bench and countertop were the only things inside. No phone. No intercom system. No amenities. Pretty basic.
A small door, built into one of the main gates was where people got in and out when there wasn't any need to open the huge double gates. But there was no bell or knocker there, either. A pretty good indication that the Temple members weren't interested in guests.
Zach pounded his fist on the gate, the rough wood scraping against his knuckles. If people were in there fighting the fire, there wasn't much of a chance that they'd hear him over the roar of the flames.
Stepping back to his truck, he reached in the front window and laid on the horn. Birdie threw back her head and howled along.
Excerpted from Concealed Weapon by Susan Peterson Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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