Authors: Virginia Kantra



She'd made so many mistakes. The least she could do was learn from them.

"I don't think so," she said quietly. "Have a good time. I'll expect Mitchell around nine."

Back straight and knees shaking, she walked out to her car, leaving her old dreams behind.

Chapter 7


ob used to tell her he would kill her if she left him.

He hadn't yet, but Ann had suffered a sort of social death when she moved out of the big house on
Stonewall Drive
. She quit more than her marriage. She left the flower committee and the garden club, the clique of wives who reapplied lipstick while their husbands clinched deals over golf, the circle of moms who gossiped and tanned while their children splashed in the clean blue water of the club pool.

She didn't miss it. She tried not to mind that women whose baby showers she'd attended avoided her eyes when she brought them menus at Wild Thymes.

"Stupid cows," Val fumed. "What do they
that a felony conviction is something you can catch over lunch?"

Ann smiled, touched by her friend's loyalty. "I think they're more worried the divorce will rub off."

"They're jealous because you're free," newlywed Val said firmly. "They'd rather be you."

Ann rolled her eyes. "Honey, they don't want to be me. They don't even want to know me."

But something changed in the week after Rob brought Mitchell home from ice cream. Barbara Sue Evans called to invite Ann to a Pampered Chef party. Gladys Baggett stopped her in front of Silver & Lace Bridals and asked if she'd like to do the church flowers in August. Ann said "no" to the first request. She couldn't afford upscale kitchen gadgets even if she'd liked Barbara Sue. She said "yes" to the second. Everybody was on vacation in August, so her decorating the front of the church could hardly cause a schism in the congregation.

And then she telephoned Val to find out what the heck was going on.

"You tell me," Val said. "Mackenzie Ward told Mother you'd be at the club dance next Saturday."

Ann blinked, shifting the phone to her other ear as she unpacked Mitchell's lunch cooler. "Are you going?"

"I don't think so. Con's in
on business, and I'm not really up to an evening of committee discussions with Mother.
But what about you?"

Of course not.
I'm not a member."

"Rob is."

"Rob is barely forking over child support. He's not paying for me to attend dances at the club."

"I suppose," Val said.
"Although I can't see him taking Luella Hodges, either."


"Hodges. Mother says he started seeing her—"

"You mean, sleeping with her?"

"Now you know Mother would never come right out and say that. Anyway, he took up with her after Donna from the bank left town. Didn't you hear?"

Ann threw out the foil wrappings and squishy apple from the bottom of Mitchell's cooler. She worried be wasn't eating enough fruit. "No. People don't talk to me about my husband's dates."

Val snorted. "I would have thought that was the first thing they talked to you about."

"I don't listen," Ann explained apologetically.

"Oh, Annie.
You're too nice, did you know that?"

"Yes, but I'm working on it."

Maddox's rough voice stroked her memory:
doormat you turned out to be
. Sloshing a sponge around the bottom of the cooler, Ann smiled.

"Anyway, just be careful. I'm worried about what he could do," Val said.


Arm collected her thoughts. "I already gave my statement to the prosecutor. I don't think there's anything he can do."

"I'm not worried about your testimony," Val said rather sharply. "I'm worried about you."

"Oh." Ann felt humbled and disconcerted as always by the proof of her friend's concern. "Well, he can't do anything about me, either. He's divorcing me. The court date's next Friday."

"Are you … okay with that?" Val asked delicately.

She had to be. She understood the blow her guilty plea had delivered to Rob's pride and reputation. After what she'd said about him, how could he not divorce her? "You know what Wednesday is, don't you?" she asked.

We're closed.
Fourth of July."

"Independence Day," Ann deadpanned.

After a heartbeat pause.
Val laughed. "I guess you'll be fine."

"You bet," Ann said.

Sometimes, she even let herself believe it was true.

* * *

It took the state investigator listed in Rob's file four days to return Maddox's calls.
Son of a bitch.
Maddox hunched over the phone. This case was messy enough without some overworked State Bureau of Investigations desk jockey busting his chops.

"I've got the file in front of me," Maddox said, pushing the pages around on his desk. "I wanted an update on the physical evidence taken from the fire scene."

Detective Tyler Greene did not fall over himself answering his request. "Is this the part where you tell me this is your investigation and you know how to run it?"

Maddox leaned back in his chair. "No. This is the part where I tell you that up till now this has been somebody else's investigation and unless you help me out I'm totally screwed."

There was a short pause on the other end of the phone.
A brief laugh.
"I thought you said your name was Palmer."

"Maddox Palmer.
The chiefs my old man."

"My condolences," Greene said.

"Is this sympathy going to get me somewhere, or do I have to tell you sad stories about my childhood?"

"Spare me." But the detective's voice had warmed about twenty degrees. "What do you need, Palmer?"

"I need to know if you have any indicators linking our suspect with the arson."

You having
trouble with your case? Or does the chief still think your suspect is just misunderstood?"

Resentment still tinged the detective's tone. His father must have really yanked his chain.

"Hey, we're like the guys on Dragnet," Maddox said easily. "We just want the facts."

"So, what have you got?"

Maddox pulled out one of the three cigarettes he'd put in his breast uniform pocket that morning and looked at it. He'd picked a hell of a time to cut down. "So far, all we can prove is aggravated assault. Both the victim and the ex-wife are willing to testify."

"What, he beat the wife, too?" Greene joked.

"As a matter of fact, be
," Maddox said flatly. "But the defense will try to throw her story out on the grounds of relevancy. We've got motive and opportunity, but the victim was unconscious when Cross set the fire. So unless your lab can turn up evidence, we may not be able to make our case for attempted murder."

"What do you want? An engraved lighter?" the detective asked with heavy irony.

Maddox paused in the act of lighting his cigarette.
"How about a matchbook?"

"Look, we've got several hundred pieces of evidence from that fire, and they're all being identified and tested. Maybe there was a matchbook. Maybe there wasn't. When we have something for you, I'll let you know."


"Whenever the lab gets to it."

"It's been a year," Maddox said.

"Victimless arson.
It doesn't have priority. You know that."

"A woman could have died in that fire."

"But she didn't."

"But the guy who set it is going up to trial in four weeks."

Greene sighed.
"All right.
I'll see what I can do.
might slow things down, though. Lab's closed."

"That's okay. I've got a big day Wednesday myself."

"Writing traffic tickets?" the state agent ribbed.

"Worse than that," Maddox said gloomily. "I've got parade detail."

Greene laughed.

* * *

The parade was over.

The floats—4-H and Channel Five and Little Dancers Studio—were coming down in the courthouse parking lot. A couple dozen kids carrying band instruments walked back to their parents and their cars. Men with lawn chairs and women with covered dishes drifted across the street to the park where the Rotary Club was firing the grills.

For the past three hours, Maddox had dealt with lost children, lost purses, lost tempers. He had ice cream on his uniform pants and sweat in his hat band.

And he was having, he realized with a sense of shock, the best time he'd had on the job in years.

He slowed a kid on a speeding bicycle shedding red, white and blue crepe paper. The ground was already littered with crumpled cups and busted balloons. Some poor public servant had a hell of a mess to clean up tomorrow. But it wasn't his mess. Maddox felt good.

He ambled toward the dunking booth, watching girls with braided hair and boys with balloons race across the wilted grass.

And then he heard the pops, coming from the line of trees on his right, and the whole scene cracked and twirled like a broken kaleidoscope.

Running children and screams.
Falling children and blood.
A woman teacher on the ground, covering an eleven-year-old girl with her body, while a skinny kid too young to drive sighted down his rifle…

Pop. Pop. Pop.


Maddox shuddered. He wasn't there, in that
schoolyard. He was in Cutler. It was the Fourth of July. And there were some stupid kids with fireworks behind the cover of the trees who were due to get the lesson of their lives.

He strode over the littered ground, armpits drenched in sweat, relief burning like rage in his belly.

There were eight of them, a dozen if he counted the hangers-on: boys, ranging from almost ten to pushing fifteen, laughing and squatting by the stream that bounded the park. Maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe they were launching their rockets over the water, and he wouldn't have to spend the rest of the afternoon tramping through the pines and poison ivy to search for smoldering fires.

The gurgling water and the boys' own noise covered the sound of his approach.

"My turn."

"I got it."

A tall kid in a baseball cap pushed away the boy at his elbow. "Watch out. I'm gonna light it."

"Don't," Maddox ordered from the top of the bank. The older boy swore, and the circle rippled like water. The underbrush crackled as somebody bolted, and another child, all legs and a flash of white T-shirt, jumped for the opposite side of the stream.

"Stay there," Maddox warned.

The jumper froze and then turned, white-faced and defiant.
Nine-year-old Mitchell Cross.

Aw, hell. That made everything just perfect. Maddox glared at the sullen circle from under his hat brim. "You boys know you're breaking the law?"

The tall kid balancing in the stream straightened slowly, not sure what to do with his height or his eyes or the rocket in his hands.

"My dad says fireworks are legal now," he said, trying for cool.

"Not these. Not in
North Carolina
. Not on public property, and never unsupervised. Hand 'em over."

"But my dad said—"

Maddox raised his eyebrows. "You want to involve him in this discussion? Maybe make an announcement over the PA?"

The kid fidgeted.
"No," he muttered.

Turn out your
I'll take what you've got. Now," he barked, and flushed the stiff and staffing boys into action.

He watched stuff bounce on the rocks and get lost in the weeds: rockets and cherry bombs, mortar tubes and strips of firecrackers… It would take forever to collect.

Now get out of here. Not you," he added as Mitchell prepared to slink off with the rest. "You can help me pick up."

The boy said something to his shoes.

"What was that?"

Mitchell's chin jerked up. "I said, you can't tell me what to do."

Maddox sighed. "I can, you know. I'm bigger than you. I'm older than you. And I'm a police officer." He started down the bank, feeling his way along the rocks and ferns, and pulled a sample bag from his belt. "Here."

Grudgingly, the boy took the bag and reached for one of the yellow tubes lying on the ground. "That doesn't make it right," he whispered.

There was a kicker. This kid had a lifetime of somebody bigger and older and in authority throwing his weight around.

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