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Mallory Myers loosened her death grip on the steering wheel. Taking in another deep, calming breath, she peered down the pitch-black road ahead. Even though her intellect told her that it was unlikely she was being followed, her instincts disagreed. In her mind's eye she could see Brock Dennison in his silver BMW, speeding down the highway, trying to catch her.
And yet, she knew this was preposterous. For one thing, Brock would barely be finished anchoring the eleven o'clock news by now, and she was two hours away from Portland. For another, he was Brock Dennison, the golden boy of the Channel Six News. Just the same, she checked her rearview mirror one last time as she slowed down to turn into her parents' darkened driveway. The headlights that had been tailing her were nowhere in sight now. Home safe.
Her parents' lodge-style home was nestled in the ponderosa woods, bordering the National Forest. Remote, yes, but a great place to lie low for a while. The perfect place to get her bearings and hopefully some sleep. Having a dad in law enforcement, with a well-stocked gun cabinet, added to her growing sense of security. Home safe.
She glanced over her shoulder as she hurried to the front door. Naturally, she could see nothing out thereand the tall ponderosa pines made the moonless summer night even blacker. The house was dark, too, but that wasn't unusual since her parents always went to bed with the chickenseven after they'd given up the henhouse. She turned her key in the front-door lock and quietly slipped inside, bracing herself for the familiar sounds of Barney's startled yips. Her parents' chocolate Lab was better than a security system. Nothing sneaked past him.
To her surprise the house remained silent when she entered, and she quickly discovered it was vacant. As she turned on the overhead light in her parents' bedroom, staring at the neatly made king-size bed, she remembered the message Mom had left earlier this week. Back before Mal-lory's life had fallen completely apart. Her parents were driving cross-country for a family reunion and wouldn't be home for two weeks.
Dadher protectorwas probably halfway across the country by now. That explained why he hadn't returned her call. Not wanting to upset her mother with her tearful voice, she'd left her disturbing message on Dad's work phone instead of on the landline's voice mail that her mother might listen to. But her parents were long gone and oblivious. And Mallory was more alone than ever.
Keeping the houselights low, she checked the doors and windows, making certain everything was locked tight. It was far more secure than her studio apartment back in Portlanda place she never wanted to go back to.
Her chest tightened at the memory of that horrifying scene in her bathroom last night. Mallory had made the gruesome discovery herself, yet still found it hard to believe. Her best friend, Kestra, had been murdered. Her throat slit, she was lifelessly sprawled across the checkerboard floor in a pool of shiny red blood. Mallory shuddered, feeling sick to her stomach as that macabre picture assaulted her again. Would she ever be free of that image?
It did no good to keep replaying it. It didn't help Mallory, and it was too late to help Kestra. Poor Kestra!
Still shaking from the chilling memory, Mallory hurried upstairs. First she went to her younger brother's old room, scavenging some of Austin's worn flannel pajama bottoms and a Blazers T-shirt, before hurrying across the hall to her childhood bedroom. But with no lock on the door, what was once a comforting space no longer felt completely safe. Nothing felt safe. Mallory scooted the heavy oak bureau in front of her door and reminded herself that no one knew her whereabouts. No one would come looking. Not yet, anyway. She needed to calm down. Just breathe breathe.
After removing her rumpled work clothesthe same outfit she'd been wearing for two long daysshe pulled on Austin's soft, worn clothes and climbed into bed. Then, with the silence of a dark mountain night enveloping her, she willed herself to let go, to surrender to some much needed sleep. But at 3:00 a.m., she was still wide-awake. Her heart was racing, her hands were still tremblingand her mind would not shut down. Despite the fact she hadn't slept the previous night, even after her friend Virginia forced her to take sleeping pills with warm milk, Mallory felt certain she would never sleep again. Insomnia had become her new best friend. And this stuffy bedroom wasn't helping.
Longing for some fresh pine-scented air, she decided to open the window. And really, her normally sensible mind pointed out, no one had followed her, and even if they had it was unlikely they would scale the wall to get into this room. That was ridiculous. But another part of her argued that she had just cause for serious paranoiaKestra had been murdered. Not only had Mallory been the one to discover her best friend's bodyin Mallory's apartmentbut Mallory had received death threats, as well.
But replaying that scene was like this stale roomtoo thick and heavy and hot for sleeping. Besides, common sense would have to prevail if she wanted to survive the madness that had invaded her life. She pushed open the window and leaned forward, breathing in the cool night air. And for a brief moment she almost felt like her old self again. Almost as if the past thirty-six hours of horror had simply been a nightmare. As if her dear friend had not been brutally murdered and Mallory was not in grave danger right now.
Mallory closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as she attempted to calm herself. She couldn't keep replaying this tragedy over and over. Not if she wanted to maintain some semblance of sanity. She sucked in a deep breath of night air and started to cough. Something was wrong. That sharp, acrid aroma wasn't the cool night-woods scent she'd known since childhood. It was smoke!
She leaned forward and sniffed again. There had to be a fire nearby. It smelled like wood smoke. A campfire, perhaps? Except that she knew there were no campgrounds in these parts. Plus it was mid-Julythe height of forest-fire season. Open fires weren't allowed this time of year. And open burning was prohibited after sunset, no matter what time of year. She tried to think. Could someone be burning something in a fireplace or woodstove? On a hot day like this had been? She sniffed again. No, something was definitely wrong.
She narrowed her eyes, peering out her window into the inky darkness. Her window faced east, but it was too early for sunrise and she could see nothing. But the smell of smoke was getting stronger. Mallory pushed the bureau away from her door and raced downstairs. Running from room to room, she looked out all the windows, searching for the source of the smoke.
Out the kitchen window, she spotted a flickering light through the trees. An orangeish glow that wasn't too far off. A forest fire! Her heart raced as she reached for the old wall phone by the breakfast bar. But the phone was dead. A cold wave of fear washed over her as she imagined a dark figure outside, armed with the knife he'd used to cut the phone line. Perhaps it was the same knife that had been used to murder her best friend.
She silently placed the receiver back in the cradle and bolted up the stairs for her cell phone. Was there a rational reason the phone was down? Was she overreacting? Perhaps it was related to the fire. Trying to calm herself, she knew the only way to survive this ordeal was to keep her wits about her.
She turned on her phone but remembered how the house's metal roof played havoc with her connectivity. She'd have to step outside to make a call. But what if the killer had followed her? What if he was lurking nearby, planning to kill her, just as she was certain he had killed Kestra only yesterday.
"Stop it!" she said aloud as she raced back down the stairs. "Just stop it!"
Despite her fear, she knew she had to make the 911 call. She couldn't allow her parents' home to go up in flames for some irrational fear. Bracing herself, she stepped outside and with trembling fingers pressed the numbers. Crouching down in the porch's shadows, she listened to the ringtone. Fortunately the dispatcher answered promptly, and Mallory blurted out her parents' address and news of the fire.
"It looks like it's about fifty yards west of the housemaybe closer." She peered toward the orange blur behind the ponderosa pine trees. "It's not real big yet, but it's definitely growing."
"Are you in any danger?"
"Uh, I'm not sure " Mallory looked around, wondering if she might really be in dangera different kind of danger. "I, uh, I don't think so."
"Are any structures involved in the fire?"
Mallory peered out toward the separate shop building where Dad kept his old Model A. "Not yet. But if the fire spreads, they will be."
"Can you stay on the line until assistance arrives?"
Mallory thought she heard something out in the woods, perhaps a spooked animal or something more. "My phone's breaking up," she said as she opened the door. "It doesn't connect in the house, but I'm going insideI think it's safer."
"Firefighters are on their way. The first responders should arrive in about ten minutes. Keep your eye on the fire and if you need to flee the house, call 911 again and give us your location. And if you need to"
"Hurry!" Mallory yelled as she closed and locked the door. With trembling legs, she ran back upstairs, going into Austin's old bedroom since it faced west. There, she could observe the growing fire. Positioned in front of her brother's window, she watched the leaping flames. A forest fire in summer had always been one of her dad's worst fears about living next to the National Forest. And they'd had numerous evacuation alerts over the years, but she'd never seen anything this close before.
As she stared at the soaring flames, she felt certain this fire had been set by the same person who'd killed Kestra, the same person who had been threatening Mallory. And, although no one in the world believed her, Mallory felt sure that a certain charismatic newscaster from Portland's Channel Six News was involved. Somehow Brock Denni-son had to be behind this. As irrational and unbelievable as it sounded, she just had a feeling.
Oh, she knew it made no sense. She also knew that the Portland police were convinced she was at the very least neuroticand possibly something much worse. Even the seemingly sympathetic detective, Janice Doyle, had suggested it might even be the result of Mallory's sleep-deprived mind.
When Mallory had confessed her wild suspicions about Brock to them this morning, their expressions said it all. They clearly thought she was delusional. Detective Snyder hadn't bothered to hide his disbelief. When she'd shown them the words You 're Next scrawled across her car's windshield, Detective Snyder had pointed out that lipstick seemed to suggest a woman had written it, and Janice Doyle had mentioned that the shade of lipstick seemed to match what Mallory had been wearing. She'd produced a tube of lip gloss to show them they were wrong, but they'd remained unconvinced.
She realized now how ridiculous she must've appeared to them. She'd brought all the notes she'd made during her sleepless night, pieces of information that seemed important, seemed to be pointing at Brock. They'd made so much sense to her. And yet as she'd laid them all out, going into all the details that had been bouncing around in her mind, the detectives had been unimpressed. They had politely listened to her and even recorded much of it, taking pages of notes.
But when it was all said and done they obviously thought she was making it all up. Probably just one more reason for them to suspect she was the murderer.
Detective Snyder had even insinuated as much. "Why are you going to much effort to point us toward Brock Dennison?" he asked as they were finishing up. "He has a perfect alibi. Cut and dried. He was on live TV when Kestra died."
Janice had placed a hand on Mallory's shoulder. "It's obvious you're exhausted. Take a break and think this all over. It's possible that your focus on Dennison is related to your breakup with him. Maybe you're not over it yet."
Mallory shook her head as she watched the fire outside.
She'd felt so convinced that Brock was behind everythingnow including this firebut it really didn't make sense. How would he even know she was here? She'd never brought him to meet her parentsand this house was off the beaten path. Besides that, why would he start a fire? What would be the point?
She also knew from experience that most forest fires were the result of lightning strikes, sometimes they flared up from old strikespossibly even a week oldthat smoldered until the conditions were right and a breeze stirred the embers up. Did she think Brock had sped over here after doing the eleven o'clock news to light a forest fireto smoke her out? How would he even know her whereabouts? It was just plain crazy. Maybe she was crazy.
Coming back to her senses, she realized that the fire was moving steadily toward her dad's shopthe place where he stored gas cans and propane tanks and lots of other inflammable stuff. Dad had always warned them that, in the case of a fire, the shop would probably blow sky-high, taking the house and everything with it. And based on the usual mountain wind currents, the shop was in the line of fire right now.
She couldn't just remain up here, watching it burn, knowing that it would set the house aflame, as well. She had to do something about it. Digging through Austin's closet, she found his old letterman jacket and a Dodgers cap. Pulling them on for protection against flying sparks, she raced back downstairs and outside, locating the nearest hose. Her dad was well prepared and always kept long sturdy hoses handy. Just in case.
Blocking out her fears and telling herself that help was on the way, she turned on the faucet and stretched the hose toward the spot fire that had popped up dangerously near the shop, hoping that she could do damage control until the firefighters camewhenever that would be. At the very least, she hoped to keep Dad's shop from being engulfed. If that caught fire, the other structures would probably be goners, too. With the nozzle fully open, she positioned herself between the growing fire and the outbuildings. Her plan was to soak the ground and saturate the surrounding foliage, and hopefully keep the flames at bay until help arrived.
It felt like ages before she heard the sounds of sirens coming closer. Although she was relieved they'd finally made it, she was agitated that they'd taken so long. And with the fire even closer to the buildings, she wasn't about to stop her own firefighting efforts. Her single garden hose might not be enough to put out the whole forest fire, but until she was assured the firefighters were doing their job, she was determined to do her part. Besides, it was a distraction from her bigger problems.
It wasn't long until several sets of flashing lights appeared at the end of her parents' long driveway. Most of the vehicles parked upwind of the fire area, and a couple parked closer to the house. Soon there were people moving around and yelling back and forth.
Feeling that things were under control, Mallory was about to give up her post. But before she turned off her hose, she spied a new spot fire igniting some dry grass dangerously close to the shop. With hose still in hand, she dashed toward it, spraying the flames. But while she was running, she felt a heavy thud from behind, as if she was being tackledand then she was pinned facedown on the muddy ground, a heavy figure on top of her.
With the wind knocked out of her, her heart pounded in fear. Certain it was the killer, about to put his knife to her throat, she tried to get enough breath to let out a scream, but all she could do was gasp for airand pray for help!