Winner of the Willa Literary Award for Contemporary Fiction
Texas is experiencing its worst season of wildfires in a decade, forcing police chief Josie Gray to evacuate the citizens of Artemis and the surrounding ranchlands. Not everyone makes it out alive, however.
In the fire's wake, Josie discovers the body of someone who didn't leave in time, inside the partly burned home of a local country music singer. A syringe found near the body offers an answer for why the deceased missed the evacuation. The question remains, though, why the unlucky soul was in the house in the first place. As Josie investigates, digging further into the country music scene and its hard-living characters, she begins to wonder whether or not something more sinister took place.
Firebreak continues Tricia Fields's award-winning Josie Gray mystery series, which has drawn acclaim for its detailed portrayal of this remote corner of America and the tough, resilient people who call it home.
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By Tricia Fields
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Tricia Fields
All rights reserved.
The wind from the east pounded the watchtower and sliced across the guy wires, moaning like a violin. Josie felt the building shudder, but her attention was drawn to the north, fixated on a swirl of gray billowing upward and then disappearing against the overcast sky. The paint-splattered transistor radio propped on the window ledge beside her crackled through another lightning strike. The announcer for the Marfa public-radio station warned of forty-mile-per-hour wind gusts and dry lightning that would spark the parched grasslands like a match to paper.
The wooden rafters that held the observation room fifty feet above the ground groaned and creaked from the battering winds. Josie grabbed the binoculars off the bookshelf under the lookout window and stepped out onto the balcony and into the gusts. Pressing her back against the side of the tower, she scanned the land for smoke as sand and debris stung her bare arms and face.
Through the binoculars she located the river, and worked her way across the Mexican border to Piedra Labrada, a town similar in size and population to her own town of Artemis, Texas. The wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to tell if she was seeing dust or smoke. All over Arroyo County, spotters scanned the roiling sky, trying to stay ahead of the wildfires that raged across Texas in the worst fire season the state had ever seen.
Then she saw the unmistakable curling tendrils in the sky. She took the binoculars down and squinted into the layered shades of gray, sifting through the clouds and smoke and the desert sand beneath them, until she was able to reestablish the location. She estimated the smoke was about ten miles west of the watchtower. She went back inside the lookout to examine the maps and identify the nearest road for the spotters on the ground.
The watchtower was used jointly by Border Patrol and local police. Standing on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, a half mile from downtown Piedra Labrada, the vantage point gave her a clear view to the access road that followed the Rio and led to four blocks of factories and bars in Piedra. On the U.S. side of the border, scrub brush and mesquite dotted the landscape, as well as brittle clumps of grass that allowed the wind to rapidly spread the fire. Canyons along the Rio Grande added to the problem, causing unpredictable gusts of wind that could carry the fire embers like a rock skimming across water.
Downtown Artemis was located ten miles northeast of the watchtower and was Josie's principal concern. The town had been spared intense wildfires over the past several years, but the result was they had fuel ready to burn. The commissioners' court had just extended the burn ban for an additional ninety-day period; now the combination of drought, high winds, low humidity, and dry lightning had everyone in the county watching out their back doors for the first sign of smoke.
Josie knew the thunderclouds she'd seen were deceiving. With no humidity the rain evaporated before it could ever reach the earth. With no rain to extinguish the spot fires caused by the lightning, a single strike could turn into a fire blazing across thousands of acres in a day.
She glanced at her watch. It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the radar showed cloud cover across northern Mexico and into south Texas for at least the next eight hours. It would be a long night of watching and worrying.
A map rack made of old pallet wood sat underneath the makeshift table at the center of the watchtower. Josie bent down and sorted through the stack of laminated maps and pulled out one with marked roads into Piedra Labrada. She knew every road in Artemis, and most along the northern edge of Piedra, but with land and property at stake she had to be certain.
Josie smoothed the map out on the table and oriented it toward the west in the direction of the smoke. Running her finger along the Rio, she identified the major roads heading into Mexico and dialed Doug Free's number. Doug was the Artemis fire chief and a thirty-year veteran of the volunteer fire department. He was a friendly man, quick with a handshake and a smile, and dead serious about his job.
When the wind picked up that morning and the forecast called for dry thunderstorms, the fire department, the sheriff's department, and Josie's own Artemis Police Department were put on notice. When the humidity reached such low levels, car crashes, trucks dragging chains, and even tire blowouts were enough to create a spark that could ignite a grass fire. Doug wanted to ensure that every available person was on the lookout for fire until the extreme danger passed.
"This is Doug," he answered.
"It's Josie. You have a minute?"
"You bet. What's up?"
"I'm on the watchtower. I've confirmed smoke on Del Comercio in Mexico, just across the Rio Grande, about eleven miles west of the watchtower."
"Any idea on the size?"
"The wind's blowing so hard it's difficult to estimate. I'd say the fire is contained at this point. It took me ten minutes to know for sure I was looking at smoke and not dust."
"I'm at the sheriff's department. Hang on. I'll get dispatch to call it in."
Josie couldn't see her house on Schenck Road, located about eight miles from the watchtower, but she was uneasy. The gusts were hard to predict. Not only was her own house a worry, but she also was concerned about her neighbor Dell's cattle ranch.
Several minutes later Doug came back on the line. "There's a spotter in Piedra headed that way. What's the river look like down there?"
Josie walked to the window and examined the banks of the river. "It's a good four feet below normal. The water's maybe fifteen to twenty feet across in that area. If the fire gets too close a strong gust will carry it over." She paused, scanning both sides of the Rio for several miles north of the smoke. "There aren't many trees along the Mexican side of the river, but the salt cedar's thick on our side."
"It'll catch, as dry as it is."
"You have somebody connecting with Mexican authorities?" she asked.
"Dispatcher already called the fire officials. Will you be up there through the night?"
"Marta Cruz just came on duty and is headed this way. She'll be stationed here through midnight. I'll come out then if things still look bad." Josie turned toward the north, in the direction of the fire that had already consumed thousands of acres. "What's the status of the Harrison Ridge fire?"
"Unstable. The heat's causing unpredictable wind conditions. It's probably fifty miles northeast of Artemis and headed south. That open grassland around the mudflats worries me."
"You'll keep me posted?"
"Will do. Be safe."
* * *
Josie walked slowly around the perimeter of the observation room, scanning the two sister cities on either side of the Rio Grande and the vast unpopulated Chihuahuan Desert that spread out before her. With populations that hovered around twenty-five hundred people, both Artemis and Piedra Labrada faced many of the same difficulties as other border towns across the Southwest: unemployment, scarce resources, underfunded state mandates, understaffed local fire and police departments. What both cities shared was a hardscrabble spirit and determination that came from making a good life in such isolated, unforgiving conditions.
Josie faced the northern expanse and leaned against the ledge: no houses or signs of human habitation for miles. She imagined herself working as a fire spotter at one of the remaining national park lookouts, spending several months stationed in a tower not much bigger than the one she was currently standing in, with a five-mile hike from the outpost to the tower and a donkey to ferry in supplies — isolation at its finest.
Josie heard Marta Cruz's PD boots clomping up the zigzag wooden steps below her, and then watched her appear on the outside deck that wrapped the tower.
She pushed open the door and entered, her expression betraying her fear. "Hi, Josie. How's it going?" she asked.
"I called in smoke in Piedra Labrada. If it crosses the river we've got major problems. We could have fire approaching from both the north and the south. For now, it's a watch-and-wait."
"Someone alerted Mexico?"
Josie nodded. "Doug's working with spotters in Piedra."
Marta pulled her water bottle off her gun belt and drank. She had a sturdy presence, short and squat, and a resolve like no one else Josie knew. Marta's high-school-age daughter gave her fits, but Marta never gave up hope, never gave up her demands for respect and reliance on the rules. Josie admired her, as both a single mother and a police officer. She approached both with the same commitment and determination.
Josie pointed toward the west window and they both looked out, searching for the gray smoke Josie had seen just a few minutes before. Marta drew in a sharp breath and pointed; slow spirals reached straight up into the charcoal sky, now calmed by a break in the gusty wind.
"The spotter in Piedra Labrada is headed that way. Keep an eye on it. Anything new, call it in to Doug." Josie glanced at her watch. "There's a crew of smoke jumpers flying into Marfa, scheduled to arrive at four. They're flying in for training exercises in Big Bend."
"I hope they'll give us a hand. Are you going to the airport?" Marta asked.
"An old friend of mine from high school is on the crew. That's where I'm headed."
Marta smiled. "Small world."
Josie nodded. "It'll be good to see him again. Then I'll be at the briefing at the firehouse at six. I'll fill you in."CHAPTER 2
Josie leaned against the concrete barrier facing the airstrip, smiling as Pete Beckett caught her up on life since leaving rural Indiana after high school to discover the world. Pete was now a grown-up version of the rebel she'd once spent every weekend with: he, Josie, and two other kids had crammed into the front seat of his Ford F-250 with a rusted-out floorboard and a four-wheel drive that took them through more cornfields and creek beds than she could count.
He was taller than she remembered, more bulked up around the shoulders, wearing a white button-down shirt tucked into faded Levi's. Pete had the leathery-textured skin of a man who worked under the desert sun. Deep wrinkles framed his eyes, and silky brown hair hung over his collar in the back, giving him the same offhand measure of cool that Josie had always loved. When she escaped from home at the age of twenty, she had lost touch with the three friends who had saved her from the chaotic world her mom had created after her father's death. It had been fifteen years since she'd talked to Pete, and she realized how much she'd missed him.
"I couldn't take college and a forty-year desk job," he said. "I painted water towers for a year, moved from town to town, but I couldn't shake that need for a rush."
"The air force wasn't rush enough?"
"It should have been. I joined in '96. Two years later I was in Iraq when Clinton signed the order to bomb. It was a thrill ride." He grinned at the memory like he was remembering an old girlfriend.
"Why'd you leave?"
He shrugged and didn't speak for some time. Josie was certain the answer was long and complicated. His gaze followed the airstrip out into the desert flatland until it hit a jagged outcropping, part of the Chinati Mountains.
"I got tired of the hierarchy. The rules. The kiss-ass." He turned back to Josie. "I'm not much of a rule follower."
She laughed at his lopsided grin. "Or an ass kisser."
"So you left the air force and became a smoke jumper?"
"Best decision of my life."
Josie pointed toward the north. "We're hearing this is the worst year yet. We had a fire pass through Presidio County that destroyed quite a few homes. People are worried Arroyo County's due."
"Last count there's thirty-nine major fires burning in twelve states. In 2012, over nine million acres burned in the U.S. A record. At this rate, we'll top that unless we get a break from the heat wave and some rain." He nodded his head toward the airfield. "Look at that brown grass out there. Nothing but fuel."
"Floods two years ago, then steady rain. It was beautiful for a while. Green grass across the desert. Then this year, no rain. Not a drop for nine months."
"That's life. Rain then drought."
Josie tilted her head toward the north. "What's the latest with the Harrison Ridge fire?"
"The wind's blowing southeast through the center of Arroyo County. If the wind whips up and throws sparks into that grass?" He shrugged. The result was obvious.
"Will your crew be at the briefing tonight at the firehouse?"
"We'll be there. The rest of the guys are inside, gathering gear up."
Josie put her arms out to give him a hug. "I'll get out of here and let you get to work. It's good to see you again."
"Hang on a minute." Pete crossed his arms over his chest and looked at Josie hard. "I heard about your boyfriend. They arrest the bastards that kidnapped him?"
Josie took a step back at the abrupt question. "How do you arrest a Mexican cartel?"
"No kidding?" He shook his head, his expression incredulous. "He got kidnapped by the cartel? I figured that was rumor."
She felt the familiar dread over the topic she had discussed ad nauseam since it took place. She said nothing in response, but Pete had never understood verbal cues or body language. If he had a curiosity he pursued it, oblivious to a person's discomfort — sometimes endearing, other times infuriating.
"Why'd they kidnap him? He have a lot of money?"
She blew out air in frustration. "No. It was a money-laundering scheme gone bad." She shrugged and stared at him. Four months after the incident she was still reluctant to discuss the horrific position she had been placed in as a police officer whose lover was being held captive.
"I thought the stories were just rumors gone crazy. The cartel get their money back?"
She shook her head. "That was the one satisfaction in the whole mess. The feds got the money. The county's supposed to get a cut, but we haven't heard anything yet."
"How long ago?"
"How's he doing?"
Josie looked away.
"Sure, I get it. He's going through hell," Pete said.
She said nothing.
Pete took a step toward her. She felt his eyes on her, but she continued staring at the ground. Dillon was seeing a therapist, but he was not doing well.
"Let's all go out one night while I'm here. Might do him good to get out and talk to new people," he said, but Josie stopped him.
"He left me, Pete. He moved out about two months ago. He closed his business and moved back with his family in St. Louis."
"You still talking to him?"
"I tried for the first month. I still thought he might come back. Then one day he said talking to me was too hard, the memories of what happened too awful for him to stay connected to Artemis, or to me."
"You think about moving away too?" he asked.
She shook her head, feeling the familiar resolve. "This is my home. When we left high school, I never looked back. This is the first place that ever felt right to me. I can't imagine living anywhere else."
"You gotta be messed up after all this. You seeing a shrink?"
Josie grinned. "What's with the interrogation? You haven't changed a bit."
His eyes fixed on her and his expression didn't waver. "Seriously. Are you seeing a shrink?"
"I talked to somebody a few times. The guilt over what happened is pretty bad. The kidnapping, the murder, none of it would have happened if it wasn't for me."
"Murder? Are you serious?"
Josie sighed, frustrated. This wasn't the conversation she had imagined having with her old friend. "I don't want to rehash this, Pete. It's all too hard to get into again. You understand?"
"The shrink doing you any good?"
Josie sighed. "I'm not sure how a therapist can fix me. I know the guilt is misplaced, but it's still there. My involvement wasn't intentional, but it's a fact. And I can't get it out of my head."
Pete crossed his arms again and leaned back to get a better look at her. "I saw more shrinks during high school than you could count. You remember."
She nodded. She did remember. Pete could do no right in his parents' eyes. He had spent many nights sleeping on a cot in her garage after his own parents would kick him out for not obeying their rules. Then they'd come to collect him, to drag him off to another therapy session.
Excerpted from Firebreak by Tricia Fields. Copyright © 2015 Tricia Fields. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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