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Willow Traynor's eyes opened to the blackness of deep night as the noise and flash of an overbusy dream receded into the mist of her subconscious.
She held her breath as her eyes adjusted to the square edges of the dresser across the room, the dim reflection of light in the mirror, the ghostly drift of gauzy white curtains above the heat register. Something had awakened her.
She knew the dream had not been a nightmare, because in the past two years it seemed as if nightmares had become her constant companions. She would have recognized the aftereffects. She didn't feel them now no racing heart, no night sweats, no rush of relief upon waking to discover that she was still alive.
Something else, then. A noise? Perhaps a passing car, or a boat on the lake? The neighbors in the apartment complex? Sometimes the two little Jameson girls got rambunctious late at night, and Mrs. Bartholomew in the unit next door called to complain.
Willow sat up and peered toward the small digital numbers on the nightstand clock. Two-thirty, April 1. Probably wasn't the children.
It might be something as insignificant as the unfamiliar silence. Even after two weeks she hadn't yet adjusted to the moveor rather, the escapefrom bustling Kansas City to her brother's rural log cabin six miles south of Branson in the Missouri Ozarks. Major change.
She had never lived this far out in the country. Although the eight-unit apartment lodge her brother managed meant they weren't exactly isolated from civilization, it was nothing like city life. Living in the cabin, situated on the shore of Table Rock Lake, was more like being on permanent vacation. Willow still struggled to come to grips with the comparative solitude.
As she stared into darkness, the square of sliding glass door at the far end of her room seemed to emit a pulsing glow. She blinked to clear her vision, but the glow increased. Headlights from a boat on the lake, perhaps? Except she heard no sound of a boat motor.
She turned her back to the light and plumped her pillow. "None of my business anyway," she whispered into the darkness.
Her brother, Preston, certainly didn't want her help keeping track of the renters. As he'd told her several times in the past two weeks, she needed to take a break and heal.
After a little more than twenty-three months, she'd almost given up hope of that. True, she no longer relived the night she'd received the visit from the police chief to tell her that her husband had been killed in the line of duty. At least, she didn't relive it every single night. Maybe more like once a week now.
And she no longer had the nightly awakenings to cries of her forever unborn child. Only a couple of times a week did she cringe when someone invaded her personal space.
People did that all the time now, because her personal space had extended, in the past twenty-three months, to include whatever room she was in. She usually allowed people she knew into her personal space, but there were still those times when she could do nothing but withdraw from the world.
Since two attempts had been made on her own life after Travis was killed, she'd found herself suspecting practically everyone. She had known when she married Travis that he had one of the most dangerous jobs imaginablenot only was he a cop, but he was an undercover narcotics agent.
Here in Missouri, the Bible Belt, the heart of the nation, a war raged against illegal drugs, particularly methamphetamines. She had never dreamed the danger would extend to the cop's family. But with Travis's death, it most certainly had.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, exhaled, tempting sleep with as much entreaty as she could muster, willing her body to relax. The art of relaxing had become a lost skill for her.
Since arriving here in the middle of March, she'd assured herself daily that the only things she had to fear in this place were her memories. If she died, it would be a side effect of the grief that had imprisoned her since the day she lost Travis.
There's nothing out there. It's your imagination. Again.
Wasn't that what everybody kept telling her? Even Preston. They hadn't exactly told her they thought she was imagining the attempts on her life, but after the investigations turned up no evidence of foul play, she had felt her friends and her brother looking at her differently.
Try as she might, her eyes refused to remain closed. A faint flash of light greeted her again from the wall. She sighed and rolled from the bed, irritated by her exaggerated sense of responsibility. Maybe one of the renters was wandering around the yard with a flashlight, or maybe there was a party going on.
She slipped noiselessly to the glass door and unlatched it. All she needed was to prove to herself that no one hovered in the shadows watching her, waiting for her to go back to sleep so they could pounce.
And yet, what if someone was there this time?
She slid the door open and frowned. She caught a faint whiff of smoke, with an underlying scent of something else, pungent and strong.
What was it? Turpentine? Like the bottle of stuff Preston had been using in the shed a couple of days ago? No. Not turpentine
Her frown deepened. Had Preston left the door open to the utility shed in the back? He'd spilled some gasoline on his clothes yesterday when he was working on the boat motor, preparing it for the coming warm days of spring.
She sniffed again. Smoke. Fuel.
She caught her breath. Smoke? "Preston!" she cried over her shoulder. "Fire!"
She shoved the door wide and dashed onto the cold deck. The wood chilled her bare feet. The odor of smoke blasted her. She scrambled down the steps and around the west side of the cabin, racing between it and the east wall of the apartment lodge.
Light flared as she reached the front corner of the cabin. To her horror, she saw several jagged lines of flame streaking across the yardsnakes of fire, winding through the darkness.
She blinked and stared, stumbling in the grass, fighting confusion. What was going on? The flames pitched in headlong flight directly toward the cabin.
"Preston!" she screamed. "Oh, Lord, help us!" Please, let this be another dream.
She raced toward the front door. She couldn't shake the impression that she'd stepped into one of those B movies where a long, glowing fuse raced toward a bomb. Fuses. That was what those ribbons of flame looked like.
Before she reached the front steps, she saw her brother's dark form stumbling out the door onto the porch.
"Get away!" he called. "Willow, get"
A curtain of flames suddenly blasted across the wooden porch with all the force of an explosion. Preston leaped free of the fire and caught Willow in a tackle that rocked her backward. They crashed into the privacy hedge separating the cabin's yard from the wider lawn encircling the entire complex.
He shoved her forward, through the hedge. She cried out as roots and stones bruised her bare feet. Preston kept pushing her farther from the danger.
They collapsed into the grass.
"Willow, you okay?" Preston asked, his deep voice harsh with alarm, breathing as if he'd run for miles.
"Yes. What's happening?" She stumbled to her feet and drew back the hedge branches to stare at the fire, nearly deafened by the roar.
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her around to face him. "Listen, Willow, help me get the others out. I'll call 9-1-1 as soon as I get to a phone, so don't worry about that, just get the people out of here! Take the top level, I'll take the bottom, but keep a close watch on the fire."
She swallowed hard, her attention returning to the holocaust as if she were a human moth.
He took her by the shoulders, his fingers digging into her flesh with urgency. "Willow, go now. Hurry!"
Slipping on the damp grass, she scrambled toward the first unit. The lodge was built into a hillside, so both floors were at ground level, and both had scenic views of the lake below.
She reached unit One A and pounded on the door as she rang the doorbell, remembering the two little girls and their single mom who lived there.
"Sandi!" she shouted. "Get the girls and get out. Sandi, please wake up!"
She glanced over her shoulder. Preston was gone. Fire engulfed the cabin. Smoke billowed into the sky, casting an eerie glow. It was crazy! Those streaks of fire
what was happening? As she watched, headlights came on about a quarter of a mile away, brushing the treetops with their probing beams.
No one answered at Sandi Jameson's apartment. Willow picked up a decorative flowerpot on the porch and flung it through the glass pane in the door. The crash of shattering glass should have awakened anyone inside.
"Sandi?" she shouted through the gaping hole. "Fire!
Get out of there. Now!" She reached through the window, fumbled for the door latch and snapped it open, catching her right arm on a glass shard as she withdrew her hand. The sharp point sliced through the tender flesh of her inner forearm.
Gasping, she bent over with the shock of pain. There was no time to deal with it. She shoved her way inside. No light, no one came running into the room. Could they be gone?
She rushed through a kitchen cluttered with dirty dishes and trash of unbelievable proportions, past the living room. She found her way to the bedrooms at the far west end of the hall.
She heard a startled squeal through one of the doors and burst inside to find Sandi's two little girls, Brittany and Lucy, huddled together on the lower level of a set of bunk beds. They wore tattered, oversize T-shirts for nightgowns.
"Girls, it's okay," Willow said, rushing to them. "We've got to get out of this apartment now. Where's your mother?"
"Sissy, she's bloody!" five-year-old Brittany wailed, clinging to her older sister.
Willow looked down at her right arm and saw the blood dripping at a rate that alarmed her. "It's okay, honey. I'll take care of it later. Right now we've got to get you out of here. Please tell me where your mother is."
"Not here," said seven-year-old Lucy. "We can't leave the apartment. Mom said never leave the apartment when she's not here."
"Your mother's gone?"
The girls stared at her, one pair of green eyes and one pair of brown eyes wide with apprehension.
"Your mother will want you to leave this time," Willow said. "I need to get you out of here to safety. You can trust me. I'm not going to hurt you." She reached for Brittany, who cried out and backed away, staring at Willow's arm.
"But what's wrong? What's happening?" Lucy asked.
"Preston's cabin is on fire." Willow forced her voice to remain gentle and reassuring, though she felt anything but calm. "We need to get you out of here because the cabin is too close to the lodge."
"A fire?" Brittany wailed.
"It's okay, I'll get you to safety." Willow would deal with the negligent mother later. She switched on the overhead light and reached into the connecting bathroom for a towel.
In deference to the squeamish child, she wrapped her wound with the not-so-clean towel, then scooped the youngster into her arms and grabbed the older sister's hand. "Girls, you'll have to trust me. This way."
Brittany trembled in Willow's arms, but held tightly around her neck and burrowed against her shoulder.
There were more people who needed to be warned. Would she reach them all in time?
Graham Vaughn snapped awake at the first trill of his cell phone on the bedside stand. He wasn't on call tonight, but still he reacted instinctively, like one of Pavlov's beleaguered animals, when he heard that particular sound. Somehow he'd expected to break that unwelcome habit when he left the practice.
He'd obviously been demented to even consider such a possibility. After all, it wasn't as if he'd stopped taking patientshe'd just stopped getting paid for it.
He glanced at the numbers on his clock. Two thirty-five. He grabbed the cell phone, but didn't recognize the number on the screen. A patient in trouble? He pressed the green button. "This is Dr. Vaughn."
"Graham, it's Preston. I need help. My cabin is on fire and it could spread at any minute."
The news didn't register for a moment. "Uh, Preston?"
"Did you hear me?" The man's voice rose in panic. "Fire!"
Graham lurched from the bed and reached for the clothes he'd dropped onto the floor three hours ago. "I'll be there. Have you called 9-1-1?"
"Yes. Help is on its way, but there are two other fires in the Branson area tonight. They're shorthanded. Hol-lister's responding, but I think we'll need some extra hands to help us evacuate, and the renters will need a place to stay tonight. Can you get here in time?"
"I'm on my way now. Where are you?" Graham pulled on his jeans with one-handed awkwardness, then reached for his shirt, shoving his feet into a pair of sneakers. Preston was rightGraham couldn't possibly get there in time to help with evacuation, but he was ultimately responsible.
"Down below at Two B. I'm using Carl Mackey's cell phone." There was a sound of pounding, then Preston's voice as he shouted for the occupant.
Graham had purchased the lodge at a greatly reduced price last year and had invested a good deal of sweat equity in it since then. He'd spared no expense on safety, and in spite of the high rent, Preston, his manager, had filled all the units in record time.
People liked to live in the country, except for times like this, when help was farther away.
"Has it spread past the cabin?" he asked.
"Not yet," Preston said.
"It shouldn't. We took every precaution when we refurbished that lodge."
"You're right, it shouldn't spread naturally," Preston said. "But this monster doesn't look natural to me. I've never seen green grass burn either, until tonight."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying this doesn't look accidental. Look, I've got to go," Preston said. "Rick Fenrow's not answering his door, and I didn't think he was scheduled to work tonight. Carl's gone up to see if Rick's car's in the carport."
"Okay, but be careful. Don't let anyone go back inside for belongings. And don't you go back in for anything."
"No chance of that. My place is an inferno. If my sister hadn't awakened, we wouldn't have made it out. Got to go."
The connection ended. Graham shoved the phone into his shirt pocket, then immediately retrieved it. He pressed a number he knew well and grabbed his jacket on the way out the front door.
He ran down the hillside from his house and pounded across the wooden dock that stretched out into the private cove that fed into Table Rock Lake. He was jumping onto his jet bike when the groggy voice of his friend splintered a half-conscious greeting through his cell phone.