Authors: Jodi Thomas
When Hank pulled up, Alex was getting out of her car across the street.
“Mind if we talk a minute?” he called to her.
She shrugged with a frown.
Just once Hank wished that she’d look glad to see him, but he guessed it would be too much to ask in this lifetime.
He knew that Alexandra wasn’t a morning person, but where he was concerned, she wasn’t Miss Sunshine in the afternoon or evening, either. Hank held out little hope for the night.
They walked to the handicap ramp beside the entrance to the city offices, seeking the shade of the old oak. Legend was that the oak had been brought to West Texas by Harmon Ely himself when he hoped to settle here and then send for his family. But his family had all been killed in a raid near the border, leaving Harmon alone and bitter. The three men who worked for him—Truman, Matheson, and McAllen—all sent for their wives, and as the years passed, Harmon watched their children grow and play beneath the tree he’d brought for his children. Some in town thought that was why he willed all he had to the men who worked for him.
“Something’s bothering me,” Hank began. “I’ve been reading up on arsonists, and they don’t just stop. Maybe they’re frightened off, or maybe something makes them stop, like a car wreck or something else happening that’s more exciting and draws them to the action. But we’ve had no one to close in on and make nervous enough he might stop, and nothing’s happening of any interest around here.”
Alex crossed her arms as she leaned against the railing. “So now you’re upset because our little terrorist hasn’t come out to play?”
“Something like that.” He realized how odd he must sound. “Maybe he’s just laying low. Hell, maybe he just ran out of matches and has to wait until payday.”
“You’ll drive yourself crazy guessing,” she offered. “The only thing exciting that happened in the past few days was my little brother almost dying at the rodeo. I swear everyone in town has been by to see him. Half of them bring cookies. Add to that, my dad’s still here fretting over Noah worse than Mother does.”
Hank didn’t want to talk about the three-ring circus that was usually going on at the McAllen house when Adam came back. He’d heard about Adam and Fran enough from Warren when they were younger. “The rodeo and the fires couldn’t be connected.”
She met his eyes. “Or could they? Half the town was at the rodeo. Maybe our arsonist was there, or was working one of the booths. Maybe he watched the whole thing.”
“Or maybe he was pulled in to handle the crowd, or drive the ambulance, or take a shift at the hospital?” Hank tried to think like an arsonist. “If the guy sets fires for the excitement, he just might have found his fix that night at the rodeo, or afterward at the hospital.”
An hour later they were sitting in Alex’s office making a list of everyone they’d noticed in the waiting room at the hospital. Most were relatives and friends, but Hank remembered seeing a few he didn’t know, and when he described them, Alex couldn’t think of anyone she knew fitting the description.
Alex stood and grabbed two juices from the tiny refrigerator under her desk. She handed Hank one and sat back down across from him. “Now, we list everyone we know who’s been around for the fires. If one person keeps popping up, maybe we’ve got our man.”
“Someone besides me and you and Kenny from the paper?” Hank grinned.
“No. We list everyone
me, you, and Kenny.” She picked up her pen and pointed it at him. “And for now, we keep this between the two of us. No one else. If we’re wrong and this list gets out, it would hurt someone innocent. If we’re right, we can keep an eye on any suspects without them being aware of it.”
It was almost noon by the time they’d made lists of everyone involved in every fire. Alex had run checks of arson arrests over the past twenty years, and Hank had gone over his notes of every fire that had happened near Harmony in a year. Two firemen, besides himself, had responded to all the fires. Willie Davis, who never missed anything that happened at the fire station, and Andy Daily, who was sleeping at the station every night he wasn’t working dispatch for the sheriff’s office. Kenny, the newspaper’s only reporter not using a walker, came to take pictures of the fires, but the flames were usually out by the time he made it to the scene.
Neither Alex nor he realized how long they’d worked until Alex’s secretary poked her head in asking if the sheriff wanted lunch.
Alex hesitated, while Hank answered, “No, we’re heading out to one of the burn sites. We’ll pick something up on our way.”
When the secretary backed away, Hank lowered his voice. “If I’m reading Willie’s notes right, three of the early fires were called in by the same person. His name is Zackery Hunter and he owns a gas station out where two county roads cross. This was early, before we thought the fires were connected, so we didn’t ask as many questions as we should have.”
Alex smiled. “So now we should go out there and talk to him. Did he see the fires, hear about them and call in, or set them?”
By the time they’d made it to Alex’s cruiser, Trooper Davis pulled up beside them and decided to tag along. Hank had been around the man a few times. He seemed like a by-the-book officer, but there was something about him Hank didn’t care much for. He jumped too fast. Rushed in when he should hesitate. Hank also had the feeling that Davis considered himself an expert on just about any subject. If this had been a hundred years earlier, Davis would have been a bounty hunter, Hank figured.
He felt, more than knew, that Alex didn’t care for the man, either. Maybe it had something to do with Warren three years ago. Hank couldn’t be sure, but he thought he remembered seeing Davis the night Alex’s brother died, but there were so many highway patrolmen around that night, he couldn’t be sure.
From the way Davis said the word
every time he addressed Alex, Hank sensed the trooper felt the same way about her as she did about him.
On the way over, with Alex driving, Hank found himself staring at the place just below her ear. If he leaned over and put his mouth exactly there, he might feel her pulse pounding in her throat and smell her hair at the same time.
And that time would be one second before she slammed his head into the windshield. He groaned. He was just guessing here, but he doubted she wanted him nibbling on her neck while she drove out to question a witness.
“What are you thinking?” she asked as she made the last turn and headed for the country store at the crossroads.
What he was thinking was, how do women know just the right time to ask that question? Can they sense when a man’s thoughts step over the line, or are they just guessing that something is up because he gets some kind of strange glaze over his eyes? Or maybe men are so often thinking about things they won’t talk about that it’s a good question to ask anytime.
He answered with the first plausible response that came to mind. “I was thinking it’s not going to be this easy.”
They pulled into the crumbling parking lot of the little store. Country Corner had been there for fifty or more years and didn’t look like it had been upgraded since the grand opening. It sold gas and snacks mostly, along with beer. The only thing that kept it going was the fact that it was halfway to anywhere from this point. For those who wanted to travel the back roads, it was the only restroom stop, ice cream break, or pay telephone around.
“I can’t believe he has that old thing.” Hank looked at the phone booth. “Who doesn’t have a cell these days?”
“Cell service is iffy out here.”
Hank checked his phone just to make sure he could be reached if needed. Between the fires and Saralynn’s medical problems, he was never without the phone on his belt.
Trooper Davis joined them as they went into the store. Hank didn’t miss the fact that Davis checked his gun as if expecting Bonnie and Clyde to be waiting just beyond the door.
The place was empty except for the owner.
Zackery Hunter sat on a stool behind the counter reading a magazine he quickly shoved out of sight. “Hi, folks. Just taking a drive, are you?” When he smiled, his teeth were so yellow Hank swore he must color them.
Alex, as always, was all business. She flipped open her notepad and began asking questions. Davis tossed in a few, but Hank just watched. Zackery was a talker and stretched out every answer as much as he could. He hadn’t seen the fires; they’d only been reported by folks coming by. He was left of one, right of the other. The third, he heard about from a farmer who saw the smoke from his place, but Zackery called it in anyway.
Alex made a list of each of the people who’d stopped by to even talk about the fires.
Zackery scratched his stubble. “The funeral director from Harmony stopped by for an ice cream, but he always takes the back roads and I seem to be his ice cream stop. Sometimes I see him twice, three times a week. I remember on the third fire, he was so interested in where it was he forgot to eat the Nutty Buddy and it started dripping on my floor.”
Hank looked down, thinking that from the looks of the floor, the remains of the ice cream were still there.
“You think Tyler Wright might have expressed an unnatural interest?” Davis asked.
“I don’t know,” Zachery said. “I guess so, or maybe he was just making conversation. He’s a nice guy, and last I heard loving ice cream ain’t no crime.”
Hank didn’t miss the look Davis gave Alex. Davis hung back and motioned for Alex to do the same as they left a few minutes later. Hank walked on toward the car. He couldn’t hear, but he sensed they were arguing.
A moment later Alex stormed past him. She’d climbed in and slammed her door even before he reached the passenger side.
When Hank climbed into her cruiser, Alex was gripping the stirring wheel so hard her knuckles were white. “He wants to bring Tyler in for questioning.” There was no need for her to explain more.
“Tyler is not our man,” Hank said.
“I don’t think so, either, but I’ve got to go along with Davis. It’s a lousy lead, but it’s the only thread we have.”
Hank pulled a Nutty Buddy ice cream out of the bag. “Lunch?” he asked.
Alex’s smile didn’t make it up to her eyes. “Thanks.”
TYLER WRIGHT TALKED WITH A COUPLE WHO WANTED TO do pre-need arrangements. He was a retired professor from over at Clifton College, and she’d been an accountant for a small oil-drilling company. They’d bought a place out on Twisted Creek years ago and were finally settling down to becoming one of the nesters who stayed at the creek year-round. Neither fished. He was a bird watcher and she quilted, but they both loved sitting out in the evening and watching the water.
Since they were about an equal distance from Bailee, Texas, and Harmony, they picked Harmony to be their last resting place. Tyler often expressed pride in the town’s cemetery. Early on, his grandfather had suggested that everyone who wanted to could plant a tree in memory of their loved one who had died. Wright Funeral Home would even order the tree and see to its planting—which not only brought in extra profit, it also made Harmony’s Cemetery stand out as a place of beauty among so many of the dried-up, tumbleweed-collecting cemeteries in the area. There were a few cemeteries on the plains where the ground was so dry and hard it was impossible to dig a six-foot hole.
Tyler smiled at the old couple as he tried to remember what they’d said their names were a half hour ago. He had it written in the pages of notes somewhere. He really had to make an effort to remember details.
As they looked at caskets, he fought down a laugh as he thought of something funny that Kate had said last night. He wished he could hear her words and not just read them. She’d had a nice voice the one time they’d met. A solid voice, not whiny or too high. The kind of voice a man doesn’t mind listening to.
Tyler remembered every detail about what she’d told him in her e-mails. Last night she’d said that sometimes she was so tired she’d just toss off her clothes and crawl into bed without even thinking about her pajamas.
After they’d said good night, he’d tried it—though he couldn’t toss off his clothes, he had to hang them up, and he did leave his underwear and socks on when he went to bed. He had a wonderful night feeling free and thinking of Katherine.
The professor picked a wooden casket, his wife a metal one that sealed. Tyler did all he was supposed to do. He said all the right things, but he also counted the minutes until they left.
He wanted to go back and read through the e-mails from last night. Tonight was Tuesday, and for some reason they always talked about food on Tuesday. She said she loved to cook but never had enough time. He said he was learning, though unless sandwiches and cereal counted he’d never cooked anything.
The old couple left. Tyler stood on the steps smiling and waving as he thought that he might tell Katherine he collected coins. He might even tell her about his little friend, Saralynn. Thanks to Hank’s bringing her to breakfast, Tyler felt like he’d watched her grow up. Sometimes, he thought he saw death’s shadow standing just behind her, but she always made him smile, so it was easy to forget about the shadow.