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Authors: Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Tags: #ebook, #FIC022040, #FIC031010, #FIC031070

Playing With Fire

PLAYING
WITH
FIRE
PLAYING
WITH
FIRE
Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Copyright © 2015 Gail Anderson-Dargatz

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Anderson-Dargatz, Gail, 1963–, author
Playing with fire / Gail Anderson-Dargatz.
(Rapid reads)

Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN
978-1-4598-0840-9 (pbk.).—
ISBN
978-1-4598-0841-6 (pdf ).—
ISBN
978-1-4598-0842-3 (epub)

I. Title. II. Series: Rapid reads
PS
8551.
N
3574
P
53 2015
C
813’.54
C
2015-901564-2
C
2015-901565-0

First published in the United States, 2015
Library of Congress Control Number:
2015934294

Summary:
Small-town journalist Claire Abbott seeks an arsonist in this work of crime fiction. (
RL
2.8)

Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.

Cover design by Jenn Playford
Cover photography by iStock Photo

ORCA BOOK PUBLISHERS
www.orcabook.com

18 17 16 15 • 4 3 2 1

For Mitch, as always

ONE

M
y boss, Carol, was already at her desk when I opened our office door. I paused before entering. Crap, I thought. I’d only had a few hours of sleep the night before, and I knew it showed. Carol would undoubtedly grill me for details about my evening with Trevor. The thing is, I had spent most of the night with Matt instead.

Carol sat back, looking amused with me. Her black blazer was a bit too small and pulled at the shoulders. She was chubby from years of sitting at her laptop.
“Claire, you have someone waiting for you,” she told me.

I turned to see Trevor Bragg leaning against my desk. His muscled arms were crossed. I could see the ridges of his stomach muscles under his T-shirt. The guy was a hunk,
really
fit. But then, he had to be. He was a firefighter.

I suddenly wished I had taken more care getting dressed that morning. I had woken up late and grabbed the first clean outfit I could find, a blue T-shirt and jeans.

“Oh, Trevor,” I said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get to the restaurant last night.”

“Didn’t you two have a date?” Carol asked.

“I never made it,” I told her. “Something came up.”

“Something always comes up,” said Trevor. “Doesn’t it, Claire?”

I felt my face heat up in embarrassment. He was right, of course. I had stood
Trevor up three dates in a row. Each time, I’d had to cover some news story.

I work as a reporter and photographer at the
Black Lake Times
, a weekly newspaper. Our town is so small that Carol and I are the only writers for the paper. I rarely get a full day off.

“Trevor, I meant to call—” I started, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“The chief told me how you saved the Miller girl last night,” he said. “I ran into him when I picked up my morning coffee.”

He meant Jim Wallis, our town fire chief and a family friend.

Trevor pushed himself up from my desk. “Jim said you had some kind of vision that led you to find Amber in the woods,” he said.

He stepped so close to me I could smell him. Boy, did he smell good, and not just of shampoo. He smelled like a
man
. The night before, I was ready to tell him that we were
over. Now all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him.

Trevor clearly wasn’t in the mood. “I also heard you and Matt Holden were pretty cozy over at Big Al’s burger joint last night,” he said.

Matt was the search-and-rescue manager for our area. He had headed up the search for Amber Miller the night before. After I tracked down Amber, Matt saw me in a different light. He was interested in me now in a way he hadn’t been before. I wasn’t about to tell Trevor that.

“We were hungry after the search.”

“You were at Big Al’s until two o’clock in the morning.”

“Matt and I were
talking,
that’s all,” I told Trevor. “He wanted to know about my vision, how it worked.”

“Me too,” said Carol. “You’ve got the town buzzing. Everyone at Tommy’s Café was talking about you this morning.”

Tommy’s Café is the hangout for cops in our town. Fire Chief Wallis was there most mornings. Matt was often there too. If I wanted to find news, Tommy’s Café was the place to go. I had avoided the café that morning, however. I knew
I
would be the topic of gossip.

“I hear you knew Doug Connor had kidnapped Amber before anyone else,” Carol said. “Did you really see all that in a vision?”

“Yeah, but my vision didn’t tell me Doug would throw my camera bag into a gulley.” I was still mad about that. My wallet was in there.

Carol raised her eyebrows to me, asking me to explain.

“I don’t know how visions work,” I told her. “Last night was the first time I had one.”

“Your mom has them all the time, though, right? Or she thinks she does.”

I felt my face flush in embarrassment. Mom had claimed she had visions for years. I had thought she was a flake. The whole town thought she was a little nutty. Now I was sure they thought I was crazy too.

I’d always had hunches, but I kept them to myself. I often followed that gut feeling to the scene of an accident. That’s how I ended up standing up Trevor so often. I would be on my way to a date with him and would
know
someone was in trouble. Like last night. I had felt driven to help Amber.

“I
am
sorry about last night,” I told Trevor.

He brushed my hair off my shoulder. “Maybe you can make it up to me later.”

“Knock, knock.” I turned to see Matt Holden standing at the door to our office. He paused, taking in Trevor’s hand still on my shoulder. Then he offered me a coffee.

“I kept you up most of the night,” he said. “I figured the least I could do was bring
you coffee.” I got the impression he was talking as much to Trevor as to me. He was telling Trevor to back off, that I was his girl.

Trevor ran a thumb across his manly chin. “Claire missed her date with me last night because of you,” he said. “Seems to me you owe
me
a little something.”

Matt faced Trevor. “Well, maybe there was a reason she chose to spend the night with me instead of you,” he said.

Both men were so tall I had to look up at them. I found myself between them as they stared each other down. I have to admit, their attention was thrilling. I’d never had two men fight over me before.

“Okay, boys,” said Carol. “Take it outside. We’ve got work to do.”

In the near distance, I heard the wail of the firehouse siren, calling the volunteer firefighters. “Shit,” said Trevor. “Sounds like I’ve definitely got work to do.”

Trevor gave my arm a squeeze before he pushed past Matt. Carol and I watched him swagger out the door.

Matt cleared his throat to get my attention. “I guess I’d better get going too,” he said. He took my hand. “I would like to see you again,” he told me.

“I’d like that too.”

“Maybe dinner tomorrow night?”

“Dinner would be great.”

“I’ll call you later.” He paused before leaving. “You aren’t going to stand
me
up, are you?” he asked.

I laughed. “No, I won’t stand you up.”

“Good.”

“Matt’s cute,” said Carol after he left.

“Rugged,” I said. “Not cute.” With his day-old beard, I could picture Matt in a log cabin. He was comfortable in the wild. As the search-and-rescue manager, he had to be. Our town was surrounded by mountain forest.

Carol eyed me. “Trevor is cute too.”

I collapsed into my office chair, exhausted. “What are you getting at, Carol?”

“You will have to make a choice, you know.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I just want to get to know them both a little better first.”

“Matt is more mature,” Carol said. She played with a curl of her perm. “But then, Trevor has really big feet.” She was right. Trevor wore size thirteen boots.

“So?” I asked.

“You know what they say about men with big feet.” She winked at me. “Men with big feet have really big—”

“Egos,” I said, finishing her sentence. “I think Trevor likes being a firefighter, maybe a little too much.”

“Of course he does,” she said. “
You
like that he’s a firefighter.” Then she gave me a stern look. “Speaking of firefighters, don’t you have somewhere to go?”

“Bed?” I said.

“The fire?” she asked.

“Of course. Sorry. I’m so tired I’m not thinking straight.” I grabbed one of the office cameras. Then I jumped in my car and followed the smoke to the fire.

TWO

T
he shed behind the garden and pet store was on fire. The wooden building had housed hay bales and bags of feed. All that dry material fed the fire. Now the roof was aflame.

I took photos of the firemen as they sprayed water with the fire-truck hoses. I admit I took more pictures of Trevor than of the rest of the crew. I emailed several of the best shots to my editor, using my smartphone as a hotspot.

As the firemen put out the last of the flames, the crowd cheered. I clapped too.
Trevor tugged the rim of his helmet at me. I beamed back at him. In that moment I felt he had put on this show entirely for me.

As the men started to roll up the hoses, I walked over to the fire chief. “That’s the fourth shed fire this month,” I told him. “Have we got a firebug on our hands?”

Jim took off his fire helmet. “I hate to say it, but I do think we have an arsonist in town. He’s likely some teen who gets a thrill from setting fires. Up to this point, he’s only burned empty buildings where no one was likely to get hurt.”

“But this shed is right in town,” I said. “The other fires were out in the country.”

“The arsonist is getting braver. This is the first building he’s set on fire that was still in use. Looks like his obsession with fire is growing.”

I glanced around at the crowd. “Isn’t it often the case that firebugs like to watch the fire they set?”

“That’s what I understand, but the arsonist could be anyone. With all these kids on their way to school, there’s a dozen teens here now. The firebug could have been any one of them.”

In the crowd there was a sickly-looking kid eating a breakfast sandwich. A chubby kid picking his nose. Over to the left, there was a tall lanky guy who must have been on the basketball team. He stood head and shoulders over everyone else.

Then there was a young stud in his late teens dressed in a hoodie and jeans. A girl with flaming-red hair leaned against him. The dye job had to be his girlfriend.

I felt that familiar twinge in my gut. I
knew
something about this kid wasn’t right. He bit his thumbnail. He was jittery, too nervous for a guy that good-looking.

“Hey,” I said, walking over to him. He startled, then immediately darted through the crowd. “Hey, wait!” I called out again.

The kid bolted across the parking lot. A glove dropped from his pocket, landing on the pavement. He paused as if to pick it up but saw me following and took off.

I ran after him, but when I turned the corner, the kid was gone. He had disappeared down one of the many alleys between buildings.

I walked back to the pet-store parking lot. I hoped the guy’s girlfriend was still there so I could get his name, but she was gone too.

I paused before picking up the kid’s glove. I knew if I touched it, I might have a vision as I had the night before. The feeling wasn’t pleasant. The vision had left me dizzy and a little frightened.

Still, I had to know where the kid had gone. He could be the arsonist who had started all those fires. I picked up the glove and held it in both hands.

All at once the vision hit me. I was
there
, standing at the back of the feed shed, but the fire hadn’t started yet. In my mind, I had returned to the past. I couldn’t see much, just a hazy figure. The person held what looked like a jerry can full of gas.

“Claire, are you all right?” As soon as the fire chief took my arm, I was back in the present, in the pet-store parking lot. The burned feed shed smoked as the firefighters mopped up after the fire.

“What was that all about?” Jim asked me.

I was confused a moment, thinking the fire chief was talking about my vision.

“I turned and saw you run off around the corner,” he told me.

“Oh, that,” I said. “I was chasing after a kid. The guy was nervous, like he was afraid of something. He took off when I tried to talk to him. I think he may be the firebug.”

“Do you know who the kid is?”

“No.” I looked down at the glove. “Chief, he dropped this. When I picked it up, I had a vision.”

“Like the one you had last night about Amber?”

I shook my head. “This one was different. When I had that vision about Amber, I felt like I was with her in the present. This time I had a vision of the past. In it, I saw someone setting that fire.”

“The boy you just chased?”

“I was holding the kid’s glove when I had it, so I guess it must be him. In the vision, I didn’t see the firebug’s face. I only saw a guy’s back. At least, I think it was a man. He held a jerry can of gas. Like what you’d use to fill a lawn mower.”

“We found a jerry can at the other fires. If that kid used gas to start this one, then the jerry can may still be here.

“I imagine.”

“Okay, I’ll take a look. If I find it, maybe we can pull some fingerprints.” The fire chief started to walk back to the smoldering shed.

“Jim, wait.” He turned back. “In the vision, I saw the figure at the back of the shed. He was over there, close to those houses.”

“Show me.”

I led the chief to the back of the blackened building as his team rolled up the hoses. Past the fire scene, there were three sets of boot prints in the snow. Two were men’s boot prints and the third belonged to a small woman. The biggest prints led from the burned building to a nearby house.

“Careful not to step on those prints,” Jim said. “The cops will want to take a look.”

We stepped to the side as we followed the footprints into the backyard of the house. They stopped at a garden shed and then
doubled back. Jim opened the shed door. He pulled out a jerry can.

“The firebug must have stolen the gas from here,” said Jim. “He’s done the same thing in the last four fires. He always puts the jerry can back where he found it. He sets things up so the fire smolders for a while before the flames burn the building.”

“So he can leave the building before anyone notices the smoke.”

“That’s my guess.”

“What about those other footprints at the back of the feed shed? Are another man and woman involved?”

“Arsonists usually work alone. Maybe the owners of this place saw something.” The chief glanced at the empty driveway and darkened windows of the house. “No one’s home now. I’ll stop by here later and ask the homeowners a few questions.”

“So what do you think? Was the arsonist that kid I saw?”

“Very likely, if he was jumpy enough to run away.”

I held out the kid’s glove. “Then all I have to do is figure out who this belongs to.”

“Yes, but quickly. From what I see here, the firebug is getter bolder and more dangerous. He’ll likely set another building on fire here, in town.”

“We’ve got to stop him before he burns down a place with people in it,” I said. “We’ve got to stop him before he kills someone.”

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