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Authors: Margaret Maron

Tags: #Knott; Deborah (Fictitious Character), #Mystery & Detective, #Women Judges, #Legal, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Missing Persons, #Fiction

Home Fires

BOOK: Home Fires
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
1

Fire cleanses but the Blood of the Lamb
Washes whiter than snow

—Jones Chapel

Flames are already jetting through one side of the roof. Daddy brakes sharply and pulls his old Chevy pickup right in behind Rudy Peacock. Before he can switch off the truck, I have the door open and am running towards the fire.

The West Colleton volunteer fire truck swings in next to that blazing corner and half a dozen men swarm to unreel the hose connected to its water tank. No water mains or fire hydrants this far out in the country. I doubt if there’s even a garden hose. Most buildings this old and this poor, the best you can expect in the way of on-site water is probably a rusty old hand pump out back.

No electric pump and nothing much else electric, judging by the outdated transformer on the light pole and the single thin line that runs down to the small one-room structure where flames leap up against the darkening sky. Where it started, no doubt. Frayed wires. A power surge or maybe a short. The wiring here probably hasn’t been inspected since it was installed fifty or sixty years ago.

Typical rural complicity. Long as you pay your bills and no one complains, Carolina Power and Light won’t bother you. But get cut off for letting your payments lapse, and they’ll make you bring your wiring up to code before turning the power back on.

All this and more rushes subliminally through my mind as I race for the open front door.

Daddy hollers for me to stop, to come back, and I hear one of the firemen call, “Reckon they’s still any gas in them old tanks?” Then I’m through the door and into the smoke-filled room.

Someone in protective gear pushes past me with a roughhewn cross. “Get out!” he yells, but a young, barrel-shaped man gestures urgently from across the smoky room. “The Bible! Grab the Bible!”

I snatch up the big open book and the white lace runner beneath it just as he hoists the wooden pulpit, slings it over his shoulder and heads for the door. Two more men try to move a monstrous upright piano but they can’t get the casters to roll and the thing’s too heavy for them to pick it up.

Flames lick the exposed rafters only nine or ten feet above our heads and sparks shower down on us, stinging my bare arms. One of the pews in the middle of the room is burning like a solitary bonfire, although the most intense heat radiates from the corner. Smoke chokes me, the skin on my face feels tight and hot, and my eyes are streaming as I look around for something else to save. Adrenaline pumping, I scoop up a stack of paperback hymn books. Some old-fashioned hand fans are heaped together at the end of one pew and I pile as many as I can on top of the hymnals and the pulpit Bible, then stumble towards the door and out into the humid night air as a burning rafter crashes somewhere behind me.

Daddy breaks free of restraining hands and grabs for some of the fans that are sliding out of my control.

“Don’t you never do nothing like that again as long as you live,” he says angrily as I cough and cough and try to clear my lungs. His hand is rough as he brushes at my hair where sparks have singed it. “You hear me, girl? I’m talking to you!”

“I’m okay,” I gasp between coughs. “Honest.”

But then I look back at the burning structure, and like Lot’s wife, I am struck dumb and motionless.

More people have arrived and their headlights light up the front of this makeshift church. For the first time I see the swastika and some large dark letters:
KKK
and
NIggERS
.

Small g’s and the capital I is dotted.

The tin roof gives way with sharp cracks as metal sheets twist in the heat. Flames shoot heavenwards and my silent, involuntary prayer follows them.
“Oh God! Not A.K.?”

It’s the second time in four days that my nephew’s had me begging God’s mercy.

2

When things go wrong,
Don’t go with them.

—Faith Freewill Baptist Church

Four days ago, I was in New Bern. In Kidd Chapin’s bed.

Kidd’s a tall skinny game warden from down east. He’s my reminder that there’s more to life than courtrooms and campaigns. He’s also the main reason I’m finally building my own house out in the country and why I came to wake up that hot Sunday morning to feel him nibbling at my ear.

“I thought you said you bought bagels for breakfast,” I murmured sleepily.

“I did. But then I saw this tasty little ear just laying here…”

His unshaven cheek brushed mine as he kissed my neck, then moved on to my shoulder and from there to my breasts.

Air-conditioning had us snuggled under a heavy comforter but flames began to kindle along the length of my body and small brushfires erupted wherever his hands and mouth touched. I turned in his arms and stoked the flames that were building in his own body while the fire between us grew and raged and blazed white-hot until we were consumed by wave after fiery wave and came together in a blazing conflagration that left us lying naked on top of the comforter, breathing in cool drafts of frigid air.

His long thin fingers traced the features of my face. “I missed you.”

“Me too, you,” I said inanely as our lips met again.

It had been way too long. Things keep coming up: his job, my family, his teenage daughter, my political commitments—judges do a lot of after-dinner speeches. A dozen different obstacles had kept us apart since the middle of May, but this late June weekend was ours. I’d driven down to New Bern Friday night and got to his cabin perched above the Neuse River while it was still light enough to see small boats heading upriver after a day of fishing in the Pamlico Sound.

We’d spent most of yesterday in bed, making up for lost time, and though today was Sunday, church was not on our docket.

He pulled the comforter back over us and we lay twined together in post-coital laziness. The whole day stretched before us. Later we would shower, make coffee, have honeydews and toasted bagels on the deck.

But not now.

Now was the afterglow of tenderness and sweet intimacy.

And then the damn phone rang.

Kidd sighed, took his hand from my breast and reached for the receiver.

I lay quietly against his chest, almost certain that it would be Amber, Kidd’s fifteen-year-old daughter. She must be slipping, I told myself. Normally, her radar lets her catch us in the middle of making love, not at the end.

From Kidd’s casual grumbling, I know that she usually goes five or six days in a row without calling.

Unless I’m in town.

He’s always so happy to hear her voice that he doesn’t seem to notice how her calls pick up when I’m down and I’m too smart to point out this recurring coincidence.

But this time he wasn’t speaking in his indulgent-father tones.

“Just fine,” I heard him say with country politeness. “And you?... That’s good... Yes, she’s right here.”

He handed me the phone. “Your brother Andrew. Sounds serious.

My heart turned stone cold and a silent prayer went up—
Dear God, no!

Andrew’s nine brothers up from me. He hates any show of emotion and while he did plenty of catting around in his own day, he’s like the rest of the boys in wishing I’d quit mine and settle down. Even so, despite his relatively recent respectability, he’d never take it upon himself to confront me head-on about my love life. I could think of only one reason why he’d call me here.

(
Please not Daddy. Not yet.
)

“What’s wrong, Andrew? Is it Daddy?”

“Daddy?” My brother’s voice came gruffly over the line. “Naw, Daddy’s fine. It’s A.K. He’s really stepped in it bad this time, Deb’rah.”

A.K. is Andrew’s oldest child by his third wife. He’s seventeen now and will be a senior in high school this fall if Andrew and April can keep him from quitting. Unlike his sister Ruth, A.K.’s not much for the books. Too near like Andrew used to be, from all I’ve heard.

“What’s he done now?” I asked apprehensively. I’ve been on the bench long enough to see some of the messes a seventeen-year-old can step in and A.K.’s already dirtied his feet a time or two.

“I swear I feel like taking my belt to his backside. He knows better’n this.”

His paternal exasperation couldn’t mask the worry coming to me through the line.

“What’d he do?” I asked again.

“You know old Ham Crocker?”

I said I did, even though Abraham Crocker must have died around the time I was born.

“Well, A.K. and a couple of his buddies sort of busted up his graveyard Friday night.”


What?

“They got hold of some beer and I reckon they got drunk enough to think it was funny to knock over the angel—you know the one on Ham’s mama’s grave?—and then Charles or Raymond, one had a can of spray paint. A.K. swears he didn’t do no writing, but he’s charged same as the others.”

“Charged?”

“Yeah. Bo Poole sent a deputy out to bring him in this morning and me and April don’t know what to do. John Claude’s gone off to Turkey.”

He made it sound as if Turkey was the dark side of the moon and an outlandish place for a Colleton County attorney to visit under any circumstances.

“Did you call Reid?” I asked, since Reid Stephenson is John Claude Lee’s younger partner.

“I thought maybe you could come and take care of this,” he countered.

Though no kin to the sons of my father’s first marriage, John Claude and Reid are both cousins on my mother’s side and they’re also my former law partners, but the boys have never quite trusted Reid the way they trust John Claude. Maybe it’s because John Claude has silver hair while Reid’s two years younger than me. Or maybe it’s because Reid’s personal life is such a shambles and John Claude’s stayed respectably married to the same woman for thirty years.

“Call Reid,” I said firmly. “He knows us and he’ll do just fine.”

“But can’t you—?”

“No, I can’t.” I thought I’d made it clear to him when A.K. got caught with marijuana a second time after John Claude had made the first offense go away. “I told you that last year, remember? Judges aren’t allowed to represent anyone or give legal advice.”

“Not even to your own family? Now that just don’t make no sense.”

Incredulity was mixed with suspicion and right then’s when I knew my weekend was over. If I waited till tomorrow morning to drive back as I’d originally planned, Andrew and the others would think I cared more about my own pleasure than a brother’s need, even though there was absolutely nothing I could do except hold his hand and April’s while Reid did all the work.

“His probation’s not up yet on that marijuana possession, either, is it?” I asked.

“And he got hisself another speeding ticket last night,” Andrew admitted glumly. “I swear I’m gonna lock that boy up myself.”

I was ready to hand him a key. A.K.’s not really a bad kid but bad luck and bad judgment aren’t helping him these days.

It was going to take all Reid’s skills and a kindhearted judge.

“Try not to worry,” I told my brother. “I’ll be there just as soon as the speed limit lets me.”

“I ain’t worried,” he said doggedly. “It’s his mama that’s worried. But you’ll get him off, right?”

“I’ll do everything I can,” I hedged, since I clearly wasn’t getting through to him about the legal restraints on my help. “I’ll call Reid myself and he’ll have A.K. out of jail before I get to Kinston, okay?”

“Okay. And, Deb’rah?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really sorry ’bout messing up your weekend.”

So was I, but there was no point grousing about it. If you have to do something you don’t want to, you’re not going to get any Brownie points unless you do it with a willing air. The Lord’s not the only one who loveth a cheerful giver and holdeth it against you if you aren’t.

My only sour compensation was rousting Reid from
his
bed and hearing a woman’s sleepy complaints at being awakened so early. Eventually Reid agreed to go see what Bo Poole, our longtime sheriff, and District Attorney Douglas Woodall had in mind for A.K., but he wasn’t happy about it.

“This is not how I was planning to spend my Sunday morning,” he grumped.

“Tell me about it,” I said heartlessly.

Kidd wasn’t happy about it either, but he’d had to cancel out a couple of times himself because of Amber’s last-minute demands, so he tried to be a good sport.

He poured me a mug of coffee for the road, stowed my overnight case in the back of my car, and even managed a crooked smile as he watched me fasten my seatbelt, but his voice was wistful.

BOOK: Home Fires
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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