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By Lyn Cote
Steeple HillCopyright © 2007 Lyn Cote
All right reserved.
Driving down the two-lane highway into Winfield, Sheriff Keir Harding yawned in the bright early-morning light. Friday was the first day of the Memorial Day weekend and the kickoff of the summer tourist season. Each challenging summer Winfield's population swelled at least ten times. And this was his first summer as sheriff. That must explain why he'd awakened this morning both tired and keyed upas if toeing the starting line at a race, yet groggy. Coffee, I just need coffee to wake up.
At this thought, the attractive image of a tall, slender blonde pouring fragrant coffee into a mug came to mind. But fortunately, a familiar red-and-white sign, shaped like a lighthouse, caught his eye. The unique sign marked Ollie's, the local gas station convenience store. Now it almost flagged him down like a NASCAR pit crew. That's right. I need gas, too. And I really don't need her fancy coffee.
"Yes, but her fancy coffee is so good," a persuasive voice whispered inside him.
Resolutely, he pulled into Ollie's and up to a gas pump. The place looked deserted. Many tourists were still sleeping in after the long Thursday-night drive or flight north. Even more would be traveling north tonight. He got out of his Winfield County Sheriff Jeep. The air smelled fresh and its chill was invigorating. He reached forthe gas pump, when suddenly he heard a loud boom.
Jerking back, he looked around the gas pumps. From the rear of the store, flames leaped high. He bounded inside the convenience store, past the empty counter and toward the rear. There, he found Beau, Ollie's teenage grandson, incoherently shouting while unlocking a fire extinguisher cap. The back door stood open and he could see bright orange flames outside. Heat rolled inside.
"Are you okay?, Keir demanded. "Anyone else here?"
"Nobody else!" The kid began advancing toward the doorway, competently spraying white foam at the flames.
"Shut that door when you can!" Keir reversed himself, ran out and around to the back. When he got there, the kid had moved outside and was spraying foam onto wooden pallets stacked around the door. The contents of the nearby dark green Dumpster were ablaze, too. But the fire had nowhere else to spread in the asphalt alley. Black smoke roiled skyward.
Heat buffeted Keir. Ash and sparks danced overhead. Rather than waste time waiting for the volunteer fire company, Keir located the outside faucet and hose. Picking up the spray-nozzle of the hose, he turned the water on full force. He sprayed the pallets and while ad-Lyn Cote 9
vancing, sprayed inside the Dumpster. When he got close enough, he slammed down its blasted, twisted and warped plastic lid. From the side, he funneled more water inside the Dumpster. Within minutes, he and the kid had the fire out. The soggy, still-warm remains hissed with steam.
"Wow," Beau said, lowering the now-empty, red fire extinguisher. "Am I ever glad Gramps replaced the old extinguisher last week!"
"What happened?, Keir kept wetting down the smoldering remains of the charred pallets, adrenaline still pumping through his veins. "How did this start?"
"It was really weird. I just opened the back door and bang-whoosh!" The kid turned back toward the door. "I gotta call my grandpa. He's going to be really ticked."
"Don't give him another heart attack," Keir ordered. "Tell him the fire's out. And that I'm here already investigating."
Cold water still splashing his shoes, Keir kept the hose in his hand as he edged around the scorched area. He eyed the paint-blistered metal rear door. After twisting the hose nozzle off, he squatted down to examine something lying on the ground below the door's threshold. A very thin wirea trip wire. Someone had strung a length of wire across the back entrance.
Keir's stomach tightened. He rose and followed the wire, picking his way through the blackened debris. With the hose nozzle, he nudged back the damaged plastic lid of the Dumpster. On the inside were the remains of what looked like an incendiary pack. The flames had hidden it from view. Keir nudged the remains of the explosive, which seemed composed of soggy duct tape and the rim of an exploded quart jar.
He wrinkled his nose. He hated the acrid smell of smoke and he detected the odor of gasoline. The pallets must have been soaked with gasoline to ignite and flame up that quickly and completely.
The presence of an accelerant and a trip wire made it certain. This fire had been no accident. Someone had designed and executed a simple but very effective booby trap. Who? Why?
Chad Keski as a suspect instantly popped into his mind. Over a year ago, Chad had been removed from his abusive father's custody and gone to live with Shirley Johnson as a foster son. Before that, he'd been known for setting fires. But why would Chad start up again and why at Ollie's? He flipped open his cell phone and notified the fire chief about the fire.
Beau appeared. "Grandpa is on his way. You think Chad did this?"
Keir's empty stomach constricted a notch tighter. He faced the kid. If both of them had immediately suspected Chad, wouldn't most of Winfield? "I wouldn't jump to conclusions. Just because in the past Chad set other fires doesn't mean he set this one. When was the last time you went out that door before the explosion?"
Beau took a moment before replying, his face screwed up with concentration. "I stocked shelves around three in the morning, and I tossed some cardboard boxes out here."
Keir frowned. "That was the last time before the explosion?"
"Did you smell gasoline or kerosene then?"
"Yeah, this is a gas station. I always smell gasoline."
"Is there any bad blood between you and Chad?"
"No." The kid stuck his hands in his back jean pockets.
"I'm two years older than him. We don't have friends in common or anything. We've never even had words."
"Then let's not start up any gossip. Okay?"
"Fine by me. But you know how this little burg is. I cough and everyone knows it ten minutes later."
The kid's apt observation forced a dry chuckle from Keir, even though the truth of the statement wasn't funny. "I'll go get my kit and start investigating." He dropped the hose back by the faucet and headed for his Jeep, his mind buzzing.
Where had Chad been in the early hours before dawn today? He dismissed the idea of questioning Chad or Shirley directly. Keir knew from personal experience what it felt like to be the first one everyone suspected when something went wrong. By the time Keir had been fourteen years old, he'd been the first suspect for every misdeed in Winfield and the surrounding county. He wouldn't reinforce Chad's questionable reputation if he could avoid it. But could he?
Who could he ask about Chad's whereabouts without stirring up rumors?
The answer came quickly; the same image from a few minutes ago of a tall, slender blonde flashed through his mindAudra. She might know where Chad had been just before dawn this morning. He suspected she'd been up, probably leaving for work at the critical early-morning hour. Almost family to Shirley, she lived in Shirley's house along with Chad.
He reached his Jeep and dug out a crime scene kit. What could be more natural than for Keir to stop at Audra's Place for morning coffee? No onenot even her unclecould make anything out of it other than what it appeared. Then Keir's conscience demanded to know if questioning her about Chad was his real motive? Or was he just looking for an excuse to talk to her?
But more to the point, this year's tourist season had started with a bang. And if Chad hadn't set the fire, who hadand why?
Just after 7:00 a.m., Audra Blair stepped into the cool clear air. Anticipation and jittery nerves made it hard for her to breathe. Will I make this work, Lord? She placed a tray of brand-new brown china mugs on the counter inside the foyer of her newly renovated Victorian house, turned into a café. She'd positioned the wheeled counter just inside the open front door so she could serve customers, sheltered from wind, rain and hot sun. She gazed out through the white gingerbread and white-pillared front porch to the small green lawn. A glossy dark-green wrought iron fence separated her property from the busy sidewalk.
Small wrought iron café tables and chairs dotted the wraparound porch and front yard. Those two areas plus the foyerwhere she had coffee machines, a beverage steamer and the glass-cased counter for baked goods comprised her alfresco café, simply named Audra's Place. Along Winfield's wharf, which was across the street from her, eager but sweatered tourists were lined up to buy tickets for the Lake Superior lighthouse and island cruises. Soon they'd begin boarding the double-decker boats for the first Apostle Islands cruises of the day. In the crowd, she thought she glimpsed the red hair of her cousin who was working the cruises this year. White gulls screeched overhead. And tethered to the adjoining marina, sailboats and large power crafts danced on the lapping waves.
Under her white cotton Audra's Place apron, she wore a thick Fair Isle sweater and chinos to ward off the chill. But an errant shiver of excitement zipped up her spine. Though she'd been open for a few weeks, this was the true beginning of the year's tourist seasonthis Friday morning launched her bid for security for her and Evie in earnest. Today she'd begin to make it or break it.
Suddenly an errant thought intruded. Would he stop in for coffee today? She gave herself a little shake and forced it out of her mind.
The first tourists of this important day began streaming through her open gate, up the flagstone path to form a line at her counter. They eagerly ordered her coffee and baked goods. Grinning she rang up sale after sale. Her hopes for a busy and profitable day gleamed brighter. Yes.
While Audra counted out change, she watched her hardworking little daughter with her long dark braids spray disinfectant and then scrub one of the small glass-topped tables. Kindergarten was over for the year so this was her daughter's first day at the café. Evie had insisted on helping. So Audra had finally given in and agreed to let her wipe tables. When Evie tired of this, Audra had coloring books and crayons ready for her in the foyer.
Now Audra treasured the sight of Evie's pretty face, twisted with such concentration as she worked.
Behind the counter, Audra started yet another pot of coffee. Then she turned to help the final customer of the first rush and saw Keir Harding striding through her open gate. He was a raven-haired man with the imposing build of a lumberjack.
Audra expected his usual routine with herhurry up to the counter and grab a quick coffee to go. But then he did something unexpected. He paused to talk to her daughter, even squatting down on his heels to look the child right in the eye. But what could he be saying to Evie?
As Audra rang up the remaining customer's sale, she saw Evie beam at Keir, nodding an enthusiastic yes to him. After touching the little girl's shoulder, the sheriff, in his brown and khaki uniform, headed toward the counter and Audra. "Coffee smells good," he said, his face a mask.
Audra glanced up into Keir's hunter green eyes. Her hands rested on the cool glass counter. His long face, all planes and angles, had always come across to her as austere. In this small community, they couldn't help but meet each other outside of work. And Audra had admitted to herself just yesterday that whenever he appeared in the same vicinity as she, her eyes repeatedly strayed to him. He always stood straight and tall. Now, something in his eyes, their intentness perhaps, alerted her. She gazed at him, looking for clues to his thoughts. Did it have something to do with Evie? What did you say to my daughter?
Excerpted from Dangerous Season by Lyn Cote Copyright © 2007 by Lyn Cote. Excerpted by permission.
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