n overweight Maine coon cat dozed in an open bedroom window, his bulk pressed against the screen so that the gentle breeze of the summer night could ruffle his long yellow fur. With a start, he went on alert. A moment later, he leapt from the windowsill to the top of the dresser and from there to the foot of the bed. He landed squarely on Liss MacCrimmon Ruskin's bare legs.
The impact, not to mention the slash of sharp claws, jerked her out of a sound sleep. On autopilot, she rolled over, reared up, and gave Lumpkin a none-too-gentle shove to the floor. She was already sinking back down onto the mattress, this time tugging the top sheet over her, when the insubstantial feeling that something was “not right” stopped her.
She blinked, bleary-eyed, at her surroundings. Shoving a tangled swath of dark brown, shoulder-length hair out of her face, she peered at the illuminated dial of the bedside clock. It was 3:35 in the morning. For some reason, she'd thought it would be later.
Except for the shapes of the windows, backlit by the streetlights that dotted the perimeter of the Moosetookalook town square, Liss could see very little in the darkness of the room she shared with her husband. The two front windows were raised as far as they would go, since Liss had been taught at an early age that fresh air was one of nature's best sleep aids. She had never had any reason to doubt that small bit of folk wisdom.
The side window held an air conditioner. It emitted a low hum when it was running, but there had been no need to turn it on after a day when the temperature never topped seventy-five degrees. Although it was now mid-July, there had been only a handful of nights that required extra cooling. This
Maine, after all.
Liss listened hard but heard only the tick of Lumpkin's claws on the hardwood floor and Dan's soft snoring. If a burglar was creeping about downstairs, he was doing so with remarkable stealth.
Cautiously, she sniffed. A tantalizingly familiar smell teased her nostrils. After a second, even in her groggy state, she identified it as wood smoke. Odd, she thought. Lots of people heated with wood or pellet stoves, but not at this time of year. A bonfire? There had been one to celebrate the Fourth of July. This wasâshe fumbled for a dateâthe seventeenth of the month.
With an abrupt movement, Liss swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up. There was something wrong with the streetlights. They were flickering. The most likely explanation had her stumbling toward the windows, her heart in her throat. She almost fell when she tripped over a catânot Lumpkin this time but Glenora, whose long black fur made her nearly invisible at night. Liss reached her goal just as an antiquated air-raid siren went off at ear-splitting decibels.
Glenora took off like a shot. Liss clapped her hands over her ears. The whistle wound slowly up to full volume and died away again, but it would keep repeating until someone shut off the power. The town of Moosetookalook used this means to signal emergencies of all kinds, but nine times out of ten it meant there was a fire. Dreading what she would see, Liss looked out.
She made an inarticulate sound of distress at the sight that met her eyes. It
a fire, and it was the bookstore on the far side of the square that was burning.
For a few crucial seconds, her mind simply refused to accept reality. Gripping the window frame for support, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut and tried to convince herself that she was still asleep, that this was just another nightmare.
Eight months earlier, Liss, Dan, and their friend Sherri Campbell had been, albeit briefly, trapped inside a burning house. That fire, too, had broken out in the middle of the night. It had been weeks afterward before Liss had been able to sleep soundly again.
Her eyes popped open in time to see flames shoot up behind the first-floor windows of Angie's Books. Angie! Where was Angie? Where were her children? The bookstore owner lived in the apartment above her shop with sixteen-year-old Beth and twelve-year-old Bradley.
The Moosetookalook Fire Department was located right next door, housed in part of the town's redbrick municipal building. The overhead door had already been raised. As Liss watched, unable to move, unable to look away, the truck pulled out, maneuvering so that it could get closer to the burning building.
More volunteer firefighters arrived on the scene as the siren continued to wail. Two of them hauled one of the fire hoses into position and aimed a steady stream of water at the blaze. Farther down the street and on the green, ordinary citizens had already begun to gather to watch in horrified fascination as the bookstore was engulfed in flames. There was no hope of saving it. Paperbacks, hardcovers, magazinesâthey were all extremely flammable.
Liss squinted, searching frantically for Angie and Beth and Bradley. She couldn't spot them anywhere. Her chest rose and fell in time with her agitated breathing. What if they were still inside? What if they were trapped?
Struggling for calm, Liss told herself that they must have escaped. Angie was scrupulous about changing her smoke-alarm batteries. She and her kids would have had plenty of time to get out. Heck, Angie was probably the one who'd alerted the fire department.
But where was she? Where were Beth and Bradley?
An overwhelming need to make certain they were safe broke the spell that had held Liss motionless. She pushed away from the window. On legs that felt like rubber, her brain as sluggish as molasses, she headed for the bedroom door.
Dan's shout was accompanied by the sudden flood of light from a bedside lamp. Liss stopped in her tracks to look down at herself. She couldn't go outside dressed as she was. Her lightweight summer nightshirt barely covered the essentials.
Dan, who'd had the good sense to start dressing as soon as he rolled out of bed, reached for the jeans she'd left draped over a chair and tossed them at her. She fumbled the catch and had to stoop to pick them up off the floor.
Although he had to be as shaken as she was, Dan was in better control of himself. Clothing in place, he jammed his feet into running shoes, barely taking time to tie the laces before he moved past her into the hallway.
Liss scrambled into her jeans. Her hands shook so badly that she had trouble managing the simple task of getting a T-shirt out of a drawer and pulling it over her head. Slipping on sandals nearly defeated her. It seemed to take forever to make herself decent. By the time she reached the foot of the stairs, the front door stood open and Dan was halfway across the town square.
* * *
Dan raced past the playground with its jungle gym, slide, merry-go-round, and swings without giving it a second glance. The gazebo-style bandstand and the flower beds weren't on his radar, either. He didn't even stick to the paths. Sighting on the flagpole, he cut across the grass.
The siren, which fell silent just as he reached the municipal building, had done its job, alerting the neighbors. Summoning volunteer firefighters from every corner of the village had been done by pager. Trucks from neighboring towns would be on their way to help, but it would take at least another quarter hour for them to arrive.
A few months earlier, Dan had started the mandatory training required by the state before a person could serve as a volunteer firefighter. He had his CPR certification, but he wasn't even a quarter of the way through the 244 hours of class time, nor had he yet taken the CPATâthe Candidate Physical Ability Test that required him to complete eight components while wearing fifty pounds of equipment and racing the clock. He was confident he would pass every test with flying colors. He'd worked in construction for years and had the muscles to prove it. But the cold, hard truth of the matter was that, even in a pinch, the most he was allowed to do at the moment was work the pump.
Every little bit helps,
he told himself as he ducked into the now empty bay and headed for the lockers where spare protective gear and helmets were stored. He'd be freeing someone else to do more complicated tasks. Even so, he berated himself at every step for not having volunteered years ago. He'd be able to do so much more now if he'd only found the time to start his training earlier.
As soon as he was suited up, Dan headed back out. He was just in time to catch sight of two similarly outfitted men, their faces hidden behind self-contained breathing apparatus, making their way back down the stairs at the side of Angie's building. He took it as a good sign that they weren't carrying any unconscious bodies. Then again, if Angie and the kids were already out, why had the firefighters risked going up there at all?
Just to make sure, he shouted a question. “Clear?”
* * *
Following much the same route through the town square that her husband had taken, but at a slower pace, Liss changed course only when she reached the flagpole. She veered left at that point, in order to end up directly across from the bookstore. At the narrow strip of sidewalk, Mike Jennings, a part-time Moosetookalook police officer, stepped in front of her.
“Don't come any further, Liss.” His words were audible only because the siren had finally been turned off. “You'll just get in the way.”
Mike wasn't much taller than Liss. At five-foot-nine, she towered over most of the women and a fair number of the men who populated Moosetookalook. Mike, however, was in uniform. He spoke with authority. More than that, he was right.
“Have you seen the Hogencamps?” she asked. “Did they get out safely?”
“Someone just went up to check the apartment.”
He meant his words to be reassuring, but Liss saw the same anxiety in his eyes that she felt in her heart. She had just started to ask another question when his attention shifted to an over-eager civilian trying to cross Main Street to get closer to the blaze.
“Hey! You there! Back off!”
The fire burned hot, forcing Liss to retreat a few more steps and ignore the
KEEP OFF THE GRASS
signs. Ominous crackling sounds followed her, as did the eerie glow given off by the flames. The building was going to be a total loss.
Eyes swimming with unshed tears, Liss turned away from the appalling sight. She couldn't help fight the fire, but she could offer shelter to the Hogencamp family. She scanned nearby faces, once again searching for Angie and her children in a crowd that grew larger with every passing minute. She recognized most of the people she saw, but nowhere did she spot the familiar features of the three she most wanted to find. Neither could she pick out their voices in the general babble, although she had no difficulty recognizing others.
“Good thing the municipal building is built of brick.”
That was Dolores Mayfield, the Moosetookalook librarian, sounding just a tad smug. The municipal building not only housed the fire department and town office, but also the police station and the public library. The latter took up the entire second floor.
Dolores's words forcefully reminded Liss that all the houses around the square, including her own, were white clapboard structures, quaint old Victorians that would be at risk if the fire spread. Most of them had started out as single-family dwellings. Nowadays, the house where Liss and Dan lived still was, but most of the rest had been remodeled to house shops of various sorts downstairs and apartments above.
Liss saw that the firefighters had already begun wetting down the three buildings closest to Angie's Booksâthe house behind it; Gloria Weir's Ye Olde Hobbie Shoppe on Elm, a street running along one side of the bookstore; and the old funeral parlor, currently the home of the Moosetookalook Historical Society Museum, which sat kitty-corner to the bookstore, facing the west side of the town square.
Above the racket created by dozens of voices, all talking at once, Liss heard someone call her name. She turned to see her aunt, Margaret MacCrimmon Boyd, jogging toward her.
Tufts of silvery-gray hair bouncing, Margaret came from the direction of her apartment above Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, the gift shop Liss owned and operated on the Pine Street side of the square. Margaret hadn't taken time to dress before she rushed outside. Her bright red velour bathrobe only partially covered the hot pink cotton pajamas beneath.
“Have you seen Angie and the kids?” Fear made Margaret's voice shrill. “Are they safe?”
Liss's lips trembled. “I've been looking. I can't find them.”
Margaret leaned forward, hands on her knees. “Give me a second to catch my breath.”
She was only sixty-five and in good shape for her age. After a moment, she straightened.
“I was the one who called it in. The dogs woke me. I could see flames behind the bookstore's display window from my place. I'd have been out here sooner but when the siren went off it spooked Dandy and Dondi.”
Margaret pronounced it si-reen, as did many of the locals. Ordinarily, that would have made Liss smile. Not this time.
If Margaret had alerted the fire department, did that mean Angie had not done so? Liss looked back at the burning building, her sense of dread deepening as she stared at the flames. Smoke drifted toward them, hanging over the scene like a pall. She bit her lip in a futile effort to hold back tears, wishing that image had not been the first one to spring to mind.
The horrific possibility that her friends might have been trapped inside the burning building had never been far from her thoughts. Liss's stomach twisted into knots. Despite the warmth of the night and the heat of the fire, she shivered.
Stu Burroughs, who owned the ski shop next door to the Emporium, materialized beside them. Significantly more winded than Margaret had been, he had to cough a few times before he could speak. “A couple of the firemen went up the outside stair. Broke down the door. They say there's no one in the apartment.”