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The familiar scent of wet ash invaded Randi's nostrils. Even though the flames had been extinguished and no visible smoke drifted into the bright blue sky, the acrid smell clung to the air, refusing to relinquish its grip. Her stomach twisted. It wasn't the first time fire had blazed in her hometown, but thankfully no one was hurt this time.
From the spot on Sea Oat Road where she now stood, she'd once only been able to see blue-green waves, sugar-white sand and a line of beach homes painted cotton-candy pink, daffodil-yellow and robin's-egg blue. Now she stared at the charred remains of a high-rise condo complex, the soot, crumbling timbers and twisted metal more out of place here in this idyllic spot than at any fire scene she'd ever been sent to investigate.
She glanced toward a side parking lot and spotted a familiar shock of white hair. Smiling, she headed in that direction. When she got within earshot, she called out. "Hey, old man."
Jack Young looked up from where he was stowing equipment in the Number 1 engine. His eyes brightened when he saw her. "Well, I'll be. I haven't seen you in ages." The man she'd always called Uncle Jack came toward her and wrapped her in a bear hug that remained strong for a man closing in on seventy.
"What are you doing still working fires? You should be taking it easy." She phrased her words as teasing, but part of her did worry about him still undertaking the hard labor of firefighting.
"Hon, I've been working so long I don't know how to relax. Besides, this department would fall apart without me." He gestured to a couple of young firefighters at the front of the engine. "These nimwits wouldn't know one end of the hose from theother."
The younger guys snorted.
"So, Steve sent you home to handle this one, huh?" Jack asked as he wiped sweat from his forehead.
Randi ignored the reference to "home." She couldn't think of Horizon Beach like that anymore. It hurt too much. "Yeah. Looks like you had your hands full with this one."
"You can say that again. This baby burned like burning was going out of style. It was amazing to see."
That was saying a lot coming from a guy who'd seen every kind of fire known to maneverything from a lightning-sparked brush fire to a frightening oil-tanker blaze in the Gulf.
She glanced at Jack's profile, saw how he looked into the distance with the familiar expression he got after taking on a big fire. Like he'd stared into the eyes of the beast but lived to tell about it. Jack, more than anyone else she'd ever met, knew fire wasn't just a thing. It was a living, breathing soul bent on destruction. He gave fire the respect it deserved. She just wanted to send it all back to hell.
"So, what's the story?" she asked.
Jack scratched his gray stubble. "Better talk to Will. He was first on the scene. I was bringing up the rear on this one."
"Okay." She'd rather eat sawdust than talk to her brother. "I'll catch you later." Randi walked toward the engine closer to the burned building.
She stepped off the sidewalk where several current Horizon Beach residents and visitors stood speculating about the midnight blaze that had consumed the building.
"Come on, Thor." Her giant black Labrador retrieverone part fire dog, one part best friendfell into step beside her as she headed for the burned-out shell of the once nearly completed Horizon Vista Resort.
A young fireman stepped out from where he'd been talking to a man in street clothes. "Ma'am, you can't come in here."
She slipped her ID from her pocket. "I'm Randi Cooke with the state fire marshal's office."
He examined the identification card. "You must be"
"Yeah. Sister to half your department." And daughter of the former chief, and granddaughter to the chief before that.
"Eric and Will are still here." He pointed toward a fire engine, and she saw Will retrieving a tangle of hoses.
She inhaled deeply, but instead of fortifying her for a meeting with her oldest brother, it only filled her nostrils with the scent of ashes. She exhaled through her nose, trying to banish the heavy, choking smell. "Thank you."
Randi headed for the engine. Her nerves jangled, and the muscles in her shoulders tightened despite her internal monologue to stay calm and professional, as she always was at a fire scene. Will looked her way.
Though he should have been expecting her, the widening of his eyes indicated he was surprised to see her.
He'd shucked most of his turnout gear, but the boots, flame-retardant bunker pants and suspenders remained. His blond hair poked out in half a dozen directions from sweat and his helmet.
"Randi. When did you get here?"
She tried to ignore the coolness in his voice, but knowing the reason behind it made that task impossible. "A few minutes ago. Looks like you had a busy night."
"Yeah. Had to call in help from Fort Walton. Place was fully engulfed when we arrived. Went up like it was made of paper." His words came out mechanically, as if he were writing a reportor talking to a stranger.
"Any clue what happened?"
"No. Wouldn't be surprised if it's arson."
"What makes you say that?"
He pointed toward the rubble. "The only people happy about this place were the tourism bureau, the tax assessor and the builder."
"Jack didn't mention arson."
Will glanced toward the older man. "Hell, the old coot probably slept through half the fire. He wasn't on duty, so the guys from Fort Walton got here before he did."
"He should retire."
Will sighed. Obviously this topic had been broached many times. "Too stubborn, even though he's not as fast or strong as he used to be."
She hoped Jack would change his mind about retirement before he or someone else got hurt. But that thought brought back memories she'd rather not explore.
"So, who's the owner?"
He exhaled. "Guy named Bud Oldham from Tampa." Will frowned, and his fair complexion grew pinker than when he'd spotted her.
They'd already spoken more this morning than they had in the past two years combined. Of course, not all of that was Will's fault. Still, her job required digging for information. "Oldham around during the fire?"
"Hell, I don't know." He pitched his gloves into the truck. "I was too busy to canvass the crowd." He stalked alongside the engine and slammed two equipment doors.
Randi's jaw clenched, but she forced her muscles to relax. Forced herself to remember that she'd driven this wedge herself and she had to live with it. "I'm just doing my job, Will."
She tugged gently on Thor's leash, needing to immerse herself in work so she'd forget why the oldest of the Cooke siblings would never forgive her. Why being the baby of the family and a girl had sent her fleeing from her once-loving home. How one mistake could change so many lives.
As she sloshed through the mucky sand caused by the rush of water from the hoses the night before, she spotted Eric headed toward her. Soot darkened his pale skin, and he sported a hairstyle like his older brother's. She remembered that sweaty, itchy feeling and resisted the urge to scratch her scalp. In contrast to Will, the youngest of her four older brothers smiled at her.
"Hey, sis. I wondered if they'd send you to work this one." Eric reached down and rubbed Thor's head between his ears, earning a yip of greeting in response.
"Yeah, Steve's daughter is getting married today."
Her boss had been in a tizzy all week, alternating between telling everyone how beautiful a bride his daughter was going to be and cursing how much the wedding was costing him.
"And you're missing it?"
"I'm never glad for a fire, but I can't say I'm heartbroken to miss La Prima Donna's nuptials."
Eric laughed, but his expression changed when he glanced over her shoulder. "Will looks like he's ready to bite the head off an alligator."
"Yeah, well, some things never change." She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice but wasn't successful.
"You two at it already?"
"No, I walked away."
"It's been nearly three years. Are you guys ever going to talk about what happened?"
Randi sighed. "I tried. Besides, he's right." As much as it made her heart ache to admit it.
"It was an accident. It wasn't"
She stopped Eric with a quick, cutting hand gesture. "Let's focus on figuring out what happened here. Any ideas?"
Randi retreated into her job, quizzing her brother about the fire and the building's owner.
"Eric, come on, we got work to do."Will's voice wasn't that of an older brother, but rather a superior officer.
"Coming." Eric looked back at her. "You'll be around?"
"Yeah." She scanned the rubble. "Looks like this might take a while."
"You staying at Mom and Dad's?" He always asked the question, even though the answer never changed.
"No. I'll get a room." She ignored the sad look in Eric's blue eyes.
"I'll call you on your cell then. We'll grab a bite."
"Eric!" Will sounded more irritated.
"Go on before he really gets his drawers in a wad." She smiled, trying to make light of the situation.
Taking a chance at angering their older brother, Eric leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "I'd hug you but I'm pretty rank at the moment."
"Thanks for keeping your sweat to yourself."
He smiled again, his white teeth standing out against his blackened face. "Catch ya later." He slogged through the mud in his splattered boots, and she remembered when they'd been kids, running through puddles after a fast-moving coastal rain.
"Let's get to it," she said to Thor as she stirred the ash. He began sniffing the remains of the building, searching for accelerant.
When the breeze shifted and replaced the scent of char with the freshness of the ocean, Randi breathed deeply and closed her eyes, remembering how she used to crawl up onto her parents' roof to soak in the sun and watch the waves roll in. When she wrapped this case, she'd take some vacation time to relax. Every firebug in Florida had picked this spring to torch all available combustibles, and the worst drought in a decade wasn't helping. She and Thor were more in demand than ever.
"You going to catch the bastard who did this?"
At the edge of the burned-out area stood a tall man with gray hair and a tan that would rival George Hamilton's. This guy must spend every daylight hour outside without a drop of sunscreen.
Randi raised from her crouched position. "Mr. Oldham?"
Randy carefully picked her way across the building's innards toward its owner. "Any idea what might have started this fire?"
"I have no doubt someone torched the place," he said.
Randi crossed her arms and watched Oldham for the slightest change of expression. She kept her voice even and nonaccusatory as she asked, "What makes you say that?"
"Locals have an aversion to progress."
"So there was opposition to the construction?" She'd once known every piece of gossip in town, but not much Horizon Beach news made it to her present home in Pensacola.
"You could say that."
He gestured inland. "Damn neighbors, a park ranger, some of those freak greenies. Hell, might even be that stupid bar guy," Oldham said. "Don't think I'm his favorite person, either."
She asked about each potential suspect and took thorough notes on them.
"You mentioned a 'bar guy.' Can you be more specific?"
"Parker. Owns a little shack of a bar on the beach."
Her heart beat wildly for a moment at the mention of the name Parker, until her mind caught up and struck the possibility of it being Zac Parker. Zac was a firefighter, not a bartender.
Oldham pointed to the southeast. "I tried to buy him out, wanted to put a pool where he's at, but he wouldn't budge."
Randi cloaked herself in her professional persona instead of memories. "Sounds as though your condos weren't too popular. Why build them here?"
He directed his "watch your smart mouth, girlie" gaze at her, but she didn't look away. She'd interviewed too many people who'd torched their own homes and businesses for the insurance money to let this guy bother her.
"Have you seen the rest of the Florida coast?" he asked. "High-rise condos are a dime a dozen, hard to make them stand out among the hordes. Here, it'd be the only one."
"That's what matters." Oldham looked at the heap that used to be his investment. "You really think you can find out how this happened?"
Thor barked, deep and throaty, the distinctive bark that meant he'd completed a mission. She and Oldham looked to where Thor stood at a spot close to what had been the southwest corner of the building.
Randi nodded toward Thor. "That's a step in the right direction."
Zac Parker cursed under his breath when the breeze shifted, bringing the smoky smell of the burned building into his open-air bar. Once, he'd considered that smell a part of everyday life. Now, it just brought back bad memories.
"Guess he ticked off one too many people, huh?"
Zac looked up from where he was pulling a cold Budweiser from the bottle cooler beneath the bar. Adam Canfield, his friend and regular bar patron, stared at the remains of Bud Oldham's controversial venture into Gulf Coast realty.
"Maybe," Zac said. "Could have been wiring or someone forgot to turn off a torch."