Police Chief Tess O’Rourke’s small town is still reeling from a devastating fire when the FBI asks for help: Could she shelter a witness in a high-profile human trafficking case? Initially reluctant to put the townspeople of Rogue’s Hollow at risk, Tess is swayed after she sees Pastor Oliver Macpherson’s genuine conviction to rescue those in need, a trait in him she’s coming to love more each day.
Tess’s fledgling faith is tested when crews of workmen from out of town come in to assist with the fire cleanup and she worries that one of these strangers might shine a light on things best kept hidden. Neither she nor Oliver knows that Rogue’s Hollow is already home to a suspect from a twenty-five-year-old murder case . . . and someone is taking cold aim at those Tess is sworn to protect.
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Today should have been the day of her baptism. But instead of being dunked in the cool water of the church's baptismal, Police Chief Tess O'Rourke coughed, eyes squinted and burning because of the hot smoke swirling everywhere. She wore a nose and mouth mask, but it barely helped. A lightning strike fire was raging. Half of Rogue's Hollow was under a mandatory evacuation order.
She hopped back in her patrol vehicle as the Coopers, the second-to-last holdout family on this rural road she was evacuating, grabbed their kids and a dog, climbed into their truck, and reluctantly left their property. The husband, Garrett Cooper, wanted to stay and defend the home, and he'd slowed Tess down considerably, eating into her margin of safety.
"The house is a hundred years old — we can't just leave it!"
"Garrett, the house can be replaced, possessions can be replaced — your life can't be." Tess tried to reason with him and got nowhere. It was Janie refusing to leave without him that finally worked to change his mind. Tess witnessed a tense fight between the pair that ended when Cooper recognized that his wife wasn't going anywhere without him. And fighting to save a hundred-year-old structure on two wooded and brush-choked acres, with the wind driving the flames this way, was foolhardy to say the least. Finally common sense won out. The only way he'd save his brand-new pickup was to drive it out with his family in it.
Even now, in spite of helicopter and plane water drops, Tess could see the flames swirling and consuming on a seemingly unstoppable march. They were off to her left now, roughly behind Arthur Goding's place, and the wind was driving them along the ridge of hills that bracketed the boundaries of Rogue's Hollow. Arthur had left his home without argument, taking his dog and loading his livestock into a large trailer.
"Have to trust this all to the Lord," he'd said.
The property next to Arthur's, a onetime pot farm, was vacant, so no worries there. Nearly everyone else, including Bart Dover, who owned the property at the end of the road, had already evacuated as well. Dover's farm was at the western boundary of Rogue's Hollow. He hadn't wanted to wait or to take a chance, so he left with his family at the first sign of trouble. Tess wished everyone had been so easy. There was one last resident Tess had not been able to contact — at the end of Juniper, a gravel road that cut south, between here and the Dover place. Fighting with Garrett Cooper had put Tess on the razor's edge of danger; the safe time cushion the fire captain had given her was expiring.
"Edward-1." The radio crackled with her call sign.
Tess yanked off the mask to answer. "Edward-1, copy."
"Fire is advising that you hurry. The wind has shifted, and they can't guarantee you won't be cut off."
"I've got one more home. Five, ten minutes, max."
"10-4, will advise."
Tess wiped sweat from her brow as she pressed the accelerator, able to breathe again inside her air-conditioned SUV. She followed the Coopers' truck down the long, bumpy driveway. They turned right to head to town and safety, while she turned left.
The last property on Juniper was the largest at 105 acres, and it backed up to a hillside that could erupt into flames any minute. Tess was barely acquainted with the person who lived there. A bona fide recluse, Livie Harp was sometimes the lead topic on all channels of the Rogue telegraph, the thread of gossip that wound itself everywhere through the Upper Rogue valley.
That gossipy thread told Tess that Harp had bought the property in cash, several years ago, before Tess came to Oregon. Everyone labeled Harp a "prepper" because she'd spent months having the property renovated and "fortified," as Tess's friend Casey Reno liked to say. The Harp property was as off the grid as possible with solar panels, well water, a septic system, a greenhouse for vegetables, and no listed phone. Tess had heard that Harp even butchered her own meat.
Tess learned from Pastor Oliver Macpherson that Harp seemed to be trying to come out of her shell.
"Twice now she's come to church. She comes late, sits in the back, and leaves early, but at least she's putting her toe in the water."
Tess had worked in the Hollow for over a year and had seen the woman only a couple of times, in her car, an old-style Land Rover that almost looked armor-plated, driving back to her place.
In southern Oregon, a lot of large properties tended to look like they were built — and stuck — in the nineteenth century. But Harp's place was all twenty-first century. One of the improvements she added to her property was strong metal fencing and an equally heavy security gate. Tess had heard that she had an intercom system and cameras everywhere, and that when she transacted business online and deliveries came, they didn't get past the gate. She'd provided a chute for packages to be pushed through, so they were safe on the other side of the gate. Livie herself would come and get the package only after the delivery person had left.
Tess wasn't certain how much the gossip she heard could be trusted, but as she pulled up to the gate now, it was obvious that the security here was formidable. Mindful of the cameras on either side of the fence, she punched the intercom.
The minute or so before there was a response seemed like an hour. Tess was about to punch it again.
"Can I help you?"
"This is Chief O'Rourke. Ms. Harp, there is an out-of-control forest fire heading your way. I'm ordering a mandatory evacuation."
"I have no intention of leaving."
"Maybe you didn't hear me. There's a raging fire —"
"I heard you. I'm not deaf or stupid. I'm also not leaving my home, my property."
"Fire personnel will not be able to respond to your residence in the event you need help."
"I'll be fine. I'm not asking for help. I can take care of myself. I have defensible space."
The intercom clicked off. Tess had only a second of openmouthed shock before her phone rang. It was Oliver. He hadn't wanted her to go, telling her that she'd already completed her duty when it came to warning people and facilitating evacuation. A recent fast-moving fire in northern California had amped up his angst; people there lost their lives when the fires moved toward them so fast they had no chance to get away. Putting herself directly in harm's way was not in her job description.
"Tess, you need to get back here now!" The emotion in his voice touched her deep inside, making her wish she could hold his face in both hands and assure him that she was fine.
Tess heard debris smack her car, and she felt it move as a strong wind gust slammed into it. She'd been in a car pelted with sand during a sandstorm in the Arizona desert years ago, and that was what this felt like.
"I'm heading back now," she said and then realized the phone was dead, the connection dropped. She plopped the phone on the seat next to her, frowning because she knew Oliver was justifiably worried. Briefly, she considered a radio call to the incident command center so someone could let him know that she was okay.
Tess looked in her rearview mirror and saw a tornado of flames. She was certain the house she'd just left was lost. The flames were angry, clawing at the sky, and the smoke dark and ominous. She jammed her car into reverse as a large explosion rent the air, deafening even to her with her windows rolled up. The Coopers' propane tank must have exploded. As if shot from a flamethrower, fire squirted across the road. Tess was cut off.
She reached out and punched the intercom again. There was no choice but to hunker down with the recluse.
But would the woman open the gate?
Tess waited for a response even as her rearview mirror showed a wall of smoke and flames coming closer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cold Aim"
Copyright © 2019 Janice Cantore.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
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