Duct tape muffled the woman’s hoarse moans as a hooded figure stoked the glowing embers in the basement hearth. She had been screaming and struggling, hoping to get her captor’s attention since she’d started awake…was it an hour ago? Two hours? Down in this cellar prison, time leaked away like the drip, drip of water from an overhead pipe.
No amount of crying or rattling of chains against the stone floor diverted the shadowy figure’s attention from the flames that hungrily danced and licked the logs in the ancient hearth. Twig by twig, her jailer tenderly fed the flames as a mother might nourish a child, never paying her a moment’s attention. In this dank place, she was invisible, of no greater consequence than the three-legged chair leaning in the shadowy corner or the trash bags piled by the rickety staircase.
The hard, uneven stone floor dug into her back, cramping her muscles, numbing her skin and driving home the realization that there’d be no escape. She was going to die.
She closed her eyes, the thud of her heart mingling with the crackle of the fire and the clink of the andiron against the blackened grate cradling the logs. Since childhood, she’d been told she didn’t deserve happiness or a full life. Bad girl. You are a bad girl. All her life, she railed against those messages, grabbing or stealing what she could to not only survive but also to prevail.
Maybe the dark message funneled into her soul since the cradle was right. Bad girls always came to a bad end.
Despair rose up in her like a black storm cloud, wrapping around her throat and beckoning her to relent. It would be so easy to give in to her predestined fate. So easy just to close her eyes and let the darkness slide over her.
As she eased toward the mental abyss, ready to surrender to fate, a primal survival urge jerked her back from the edge.
No! You want to live! You deserve to live!
She opened her eyes and stared at her captor. He wasn’t so large. He didn’t look so strong. Or so evil. Perhaps she could wedge a bit of reason under his icy exterior and get him to take pity.
Drawing on what little energy remained in her limbs, she kicked and screamed, but he didn’t shift his gaze from the fire.
God, what was he planning? What could he want with her? As her mind tumbled over increasing vicious scenarios, fear and panic reignited her struggles. Please, God, get me out of this. A thousand promises, I swears and resolutions raced through her mind as she bartered with God.
And then a miracle came in the form of a loud thump from upstairs. The noise cut through the stream of I swears. She craned her neck toward the rickety staircase that led to the upper floor. Someone had arrived! Her heart pounded faster, harder and her stomach coiled like a tight spring.
She studied her captor’s posture, searching for a sign. Was the upstairs arrival good or bad? Did this creep have some sick friend who’d come to enjoy this party? Or did she have a savior?
His narrow shoulders stiffened and an abrupt jerk of his head toward the door told her that the guest was uninvited.
Hope exploded. Maybe someone had come! Maybe someone had figured out that she’d been kidnapped.
Oh, God. Oh, God. Please send someone to save me!
She jerked against her bindings and screamed muffled pleas, projecting her voice beyond the tape.
Sunglasses and a hood hid a great deal, but she caught traces of a scraggly beard as he carefully laid down his iron and climbed the stairs to the first floor.
He unlocked a shiny new padlock on the basement door, opened it and vanished.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she strained to listen. Above, the ceiling creaked as her jailer crossed the first floor in search of the intruder.
Someone, please, save me.
Floorboards creaked with light tentative footsteps of the newcomer who moved about the upstairs freely. As the seconds passed, the footsteps grew more confident as if the new arrival wasn’t expecting company.
Be careful! He’s waiting for you!
She screamed until her throat burned, but the duct tape muffled her words, garbling all her warnings.
The intruder moved across the first floor. Her jailer remained still, lying in wait, like a snake ready to strike.
And then a loud scream, “Shit!”
A scuffle followed. Bodies slammed against walls. Glass hit the floor and shattered. A subdued groan and something large slammed the floor, as if a body had crumpled under its own weight. And then silence.
The woman’s heart jack hammered her ribs so hard she thought bones would crack as she frantically twisted her hands and stared at the door, hoping for a miracle.
Who had won the battle? She struggled against her bindings, willing the hemp to snap even as it cut into her flesh.
Oh, God, save me!
Her mind tumbled as she imagined police storming into the basement and cutting her bindings as they explained in soothing tones that she was now safe.
They’d ask her what had happened and she’d calmly explain.
“The last thing I remember was sitting at the bar in Moments, a little upscale place on the Potomac. It’s a good place to hang out. Normal people, like doctors, lawyers and bankers, drink at Moments. It’s not the kind of place crazy people visit. It’s safe.”
She’d be sure to mention that she’d only sipped a single white wine and had spent most of that night chatting with the female bartender, killing time until her blind date showed. This had been her Saturday night routine for over a year.
Toward the end of the evening, a guy had settled beside her on a bar stool. He’d worn sunglasses, had a neatly trimmed beard and a nice oversized dark suit. He was a strange still man who could hardly be classified as overly masculine. Her stepfather would have called him a “Girlie-man.” He’d ordered vodka in a quiet raspy voice that had sent a chill whispering down her spine. But his drink had arrived and he’d sipped it without fanfare as if content to be alone. Ignoring him had been easy.
She remembered a woman walking into the restaurant and shouting someone needed to fix her flat tire. The shrill voice knifed through the hum of conversation and soft jazz.
Distracted, she had turned to see who was making so much noise. She’d classified the woman as unimportant . . . some nobody from the street. She’d returned to her drink, forgetting the woman even before she’d swallowed her next sip.
And then…then she’d woken up here --- a dank, dark basement, tied to the floor.
Oh, God, how she desperately wanted to tell that story. To be saved.
Seconds passed --- then minutes and then the steady sound of footsteps. Steady. Not rushed. Cautious like a rescuer or unhurried like a madman? Impossible to tell.
And still she hoped. What if her savior was just being cautious? He didn’t know what was downstairs.
He had to be careful so he didn’t get hurt himself.
The door at the top of the stairs opened and a silhouetted form appeared. Who was there? He descended the steps, carefully and deliberately moving into the light generated by the fire.
Fresh tears welled and streamed down the side of her face, pooling in her knotted blond hair.
As if she were invisible, he passed her, his attention transfixed by the fire. He stoked the embers, whistling as he lovingly coaxed more life from the flames.
Tears ran down her face. Look at me, damn you! See me as a frightened woman! She was a good girl. She was from a respectable family. Sure she liked to party. What girl didn’t? She’d told a terrible lie years ago, but it had haunted her almost every day of her life and she’d prayed for forgiveness. She’d donated to an animal shelter at Christmas. She went to church at Easter. She laid flowers on her stepfather’s grave even though the bastard had never deserved respect. Christ, she’d just turned thirty.
Good people didn’t die this way.
She didn’t deserve this!
Her head slumped back as she tried to block out the panic and focus on what might get her out of this horror.
Oh, Holy Mother of God, this had to be a nightmare. It had to be! This did not happen to regular girls. It just didn’t.
But the raw skin on her wrists and pain in her spine said otherwise. This wasn’t a nightmare.
Fear fisted in the woman’s gut as she stared at the man. Was he the one from the bar who’d sat down beside her? She couldn’t tell, but sensed he had to be the one. Who else would do this to her? The one man she’d known who could be this cruel had died years ago.
“Finding you was easy, you know.” His voice sounded like sandpaper rubbing against wood. “You didn’t move more than five blocks from your parents’ house.”
She stopped struggling, searching her brain for any clue to his identity. But as much as she tried to cut through haze and confusion, she found no answers. Fear rose up in her and she couldn’t suppress a moan that sounded like an animal caught in a trap.
The guy straightened and turned. He wore a large bulky coat, making it hard to judge his size, maybe five nine. As the figure moved toward her, his glasses reflected the firelight, which mingled with her terrified face. He pulled the tape from her mouth and the adhesive pulled bits of the skin on her lips. She tasted blood.
“Surprised to see me again?”
The raspy voice sent a chill snaking down her spine. In the dim light she could see that he wore a wig and his beard appeared fake. Smoky glasses obscured his eyes.
She winced, moistening her cracked dry lips with her tongue. “You were in the bar.”
If she hadn’t been trying so hard to ignore him in Moments she’d have seen he was a freak. “You drugged me.”
“Makes you more reasonable.” With a gloved hand he pushed up her shirt, exposing her flat belly.
“What are you doing?” Her white flesh quivered with fear.
Gently, he smoothed his hand over the pale skin.
“So pretty and clean. But we both know that you aren’t clean, are you?”
“I’m a good girl.”
“No, you are not.”
Her mind reeled. Make a connection. Let this freak see that I’m a person. “I have a family. Parents. A child.”
He circled an index finger around her belly button. “You haven’t seen any of them in a very long time. None of them want you.”
The words clawed at her insides. He was right. She’d lost contact with them all. She grasped for the right words that would cause delay. “Someone was upstairs! Someone knows you are here. They know I am here.”
“He’s trussed up like a pig for slaughter. I’ll deal with him after you.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “Please let me go.”
He arched an amused eyebrow. “Can you imagine?
A thief breaking into this house, tonight of all nights. Talk about timing.” A smile teased the edges of his beard. “You can scream if you want.”
Her heart hammered so hard it rattled her ribs like a speeding freight train. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“I’m not going to scream.”
The guy cocked his head. “Why not? You’ve reason to scream.”
Oh, God. Please. “I won’t scream.”
The smile widened, revealing small yellowed teeth. “We shall see.”
Words tangled with fear and caught in her throat. “What do you want?”
“Why? I’m nobody. You said so yourself. My family doesn’t want me. I’m not worth the time.”
“No, you’re special.”
Special. That’s what her stepfather used to say. My special little girl, it’ll be our secret, won’t it? “What do you want?”
“Not much really. All you have to do is lie still.”
Gloved hands stroked her hair, the heavy-handed gesture pulling hard against her blond curls.
She winced. “I want to leave.”
Panic rose up in her throat. “People will miss me.”
“No they won’t.”
With quick, angry strokes, the guy jabbed a metal rod into the embers. Finally, he raised the tip out of the flames and inspected the glowing star-shaped tip.
A four-pointed star.
Memories from long ago burned through her mind, forcing her to remember a time she’d worked hard to forget. “What are you going to do with that?”
“You remember the star, don’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The star. And The Secret.”
Memories elbowed to the front of her mind. “No, I don’t remember,” she lied.
“No, I swear.” She squirmed and tugged against her bindings but her struggling only tightened their hold. He adjusted his sunglasses as he stared at the glowing red star. “I promise you before I’m done, it’ll be burned in your memory.”
Sobs fueled her hysteria. “Please, I don’t want to remember.”
He knelt beside her, the coarse fabric of his pants brushing her hip. “Your job is to send a message to the others.”
The others. “You don’t know about the others.”
“I surely do. I surely do. And soon everyone will know of their betrayal.” The scent of hot metal wafted around her, stirring up the old sin buried under a decade of wine and denial.
“Please.” Her gaze locked on the red tip of the brand and every muscle in her body tensed with terror.
“Starlight, star bright; the first star I see tonight. I wish I may; I wish I might; Have the wish I wish tonight.”
And then he touched the hot brand to her stomach. The metal seared into her flesh. Instantly, pain robbed her of breath and she couldn’t squeak out a sound.
Every nerve in her body convulsed. When he pulled the brand away, the pain lingered. Her heart slammed the walls of her chest, as if trying to flee the agony.
Glasses hid her tormentor’s eyes, but a twitch of his lips betrayed a euphoric joy as if this moment had been a pleasure long denied. “When I’m done, they’ll see you and they’ll know it’s time to atone.”
Her lungs contracted, sucking in air.
She screamed like a wild animal caught in a trap.
Monday, April 3, 10:20 P.M.
Alexandria City homicide detective Deacon Garrison spotted the woman easing toward the back of the crowd. He could see she was short, slim like a boy, and had thick, long dark hair that skimmed the middle of her back and framed a pale face. She wore jeans and a hoodie that looked like it didn’t keep her very warm. She could have easily passed for a teen if not for the intensity electrifying her stance.
For this woman, this fire was more than a night’s diversion. It was personal, painful, and as much as she seemed to want to turn away he doubted she could. A tear trickled down her pale cheek and she swiped it away with an agitated hand. She didn’t belong.
Whoever she was, she needed to be questioned before she slipped away. Instinct told him that she had information that would be valuable.
As he moved toward her, a man called his name. “Deacon.”
Garrison turned to see his partner, Detective Malcolm Kier, duck under the yellow crime scene tape.
Malcolm had a boxer’s muscular frame, ink-black hair and a cynical nature rarely seen in men in their early thirties. He wore jeans, a gray sweatshirt and worn leather boots. His badge dangled from a chain around his neck and his gun rested on his right hip. The last few days he’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and had returned to Garrison’s message. Garrison and Malcolm were two members of a four-person homicide squad that served Alexandria, Virginia, a city bordered to the north by the Potomac River. The city was packed with a mixture of history, prosperity and poverty.
“I just heard about the fire.” Malcolm’s accent held a hint of his central Virginia roots.
Garrison rested his hands on his hips and shifted his gaze back to the crowd. The woman had vanished. He searched the crowd, carefully going over each face in search of the woman. But she’d slipped away. Shit. He released a frustrated sigh, already wondering if surveillance cameras had picked her up. “I saw a woman in the crowd. She was too wrapped in the fire.”
Malcolm frowned as he too searched the faces in the crowd. “You want to sweep the crowd for her?”
“Yeah. We won’t get near the body until the scene has cooled. Let’s take five.”
“Who am I looking for?”
“Petite, long black hair, looks like a kid but she’s older.”
The two swept the crowd for the next thirty minutes talking to people to see if anyone knew the woman. None did. A woman carr ying a terrier had seen a hooded figure but hadn’t noted in which direction she’d gone. Although the witness had commented the girl had electric blue eyes.
Garrison moved among the crowd, fending questions about the fire, wondering why the woman had captured his attention so quickly. Had seven years on the police force honed in on an arsonist’s vibe or had his tarnished knight-errant character chink simply responded to a woman’s terror? Whatever stirred his fascination, he was wise to remember that waiflike appearances could hide dangerous, unsteady waters.
After forty-five minutes, they’d not found the woman. If she remained in the area, she’d hidden herself well.
“Any sign of her?” Garrison shoved calloused fingers through his hair.
“Nope,” Malcolm said. “And no one seems to have seen her. She’s vanished.”
Damn. Damn. “Fine.”
“She set the fire?”
“I don’t know. But something about that fire bothered her a lot.”
“Deacon Garrison.” The husky, unmistakable voice belonged to Lieutenant Macy LaPorta, arson investigator for the Alexandria Fire Department.
Garrison turned and spotted Macy standing between two firemen. She held up a hand. He’d seen the look before. Stay put.
Macy’s five-foot-eight-inch frame was slight and willowy and she looked almost frail standing so close to two bulky city firefighters who each topped six feet. But only a fool categorized Macy as frail. She wasn’t intimidated by anyone, regardless of physical size or rank. Curly auburn hair stopped at Macy’s jawline. Expertly applied make-up added color to her naturally pale skin and covered the band of freckles that trailed over the bridge of her nose. She hated the freckles. As always, she dressed neatly in dark pants, a white tailored top and a dark blazer. Her brown eyes reflected a piercing concentration.
The fireman talking to her had his head bent forward slightly, as if careful not to miss a word. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll let you know as soon as it’s safe to examine the structure.”
“Thanks.” Her gaze caught Garrison and she moved away from the fire toward him. “You two got here fast.” “You never call unless there is a reason,” Garrison said. Her glance moved between the two detectives. “No, I do not.”
Garrison and Macy had dated a couple of years ago. They’d had a lot in common. The sex had been great. But in the end she’d wanted more. And more was the last thing he could offer. When her patience had worn thin, she’d told him now or never. He’d chosen never and broken up with her.
Macy had ranted and raved and called him a few names he’d probably deserved. But to her credit, when their paths did cross professionally she remained civil. “So why have we been called to the scene of a house fire? I know it wasn’t my winning smile.”
Macy nodded. “We suspect arson.”
Garrison stared at the charred and smoking timbers that still hissed a protest as firefighters sprayed water onto the embers. “Fatalities?”
“How many people got out?” Malcolm said.
“Seven. And that was a miracle. Witnesses say flames engulfed the place in less than two minutes.” Macy rubbed the back of her neck and glanced toward the charred timbers. “Ever yone was spared because they’d been in the front of the house watching television and when the smoke detectors went off everyone hustled out.”
“Where was the victim when the fire broke out?” Garrison said.
“That’s the thing,” Macy said. “She didn’t die in the fire.”
“Where is she?” Malcolm said.
“In the backyard.” She crooked her finger. “Follow me, gentlemen.”
Garrison and Malcolm followed Macy around the perimeter of the yellow crime scene tape to what had been the home’s backyard. Fifty feet from the house lay an area roped off with red crime scene tape and in the center lay a body covered by a white sheet. Macymoved up to the body, squatted and reached for the sheet. “We covered her up to protect the evidence until we could get the blaze out. This close to the house it’s a miracle she’s not soaked in water.”
Garrison moved beside her, bracing as he pulled rubber gloves from his pocket and tugged them over his hands.
Macy folded back the sheet to reveal a woman’s still, slack-jawed sallow features. The fire had not touched her face and death had yet to rob her of what must have been striking looks when she’d been alive. Full lips, a high slash of cheekbones and blond hair that he imagined were just as much an asset to her as the large breasts hidden by the sheet.
“She doesn’t look like the type who’d have been in the homeless shelter. She came out of that building?” Garrison said.
“I don’t think so.” She rolled back part of the sheet to reveal stab wounds into the victim’s heart.
Malcolm pulled on gloves as he moved to the other side of the body. Both detectives squatted next to the body and studied the deep and jagged wounds. “She reminds me of the woman we found near the Metro stop a few months ago. Stab wounds are similar.” That victim had been identified as Eliza Martinez, age fifty seven. She’d lived alone, worked as a domestic and her only daughter had died of cancer a year earlier. She didn’t use drugs nor had she ever been arrested. Neighbors had said she was a nice woman. “A good Catholic,” one neighbor commented. Loved it when her grandson visited. No one understood why anyone would have wanted to kill Eliza. So far the case remained unsolved and growing colder by the day.
“This victim’s wounds look deeper, which suggests a lot of rage,” Garrison said. “Martinez had a single knife wound to the chest and she wasn’t naked. In fact, the killer had covered her face with a towel.”
“There is another big difference between the two victims.” Macy pulled the rest of the sheet down and a rush of worry shot through Garrison’s limbs. The woman’s belly had been branded four times with four pointed stars, which encircled her navel.
“Shit,” Malcolm said.
Garrison studied the red, angry stars. Christ, the pain she must have endured. He could almost hear her screams in his head. “Martinez certainly wasn’t tortured like this victim.”
Garrison looked around the backyard, encircled by a privacy fence. A back gate banged gently, as if someone had just passed through it. “Any blood trail?”
“No. And there are no apparent signs of a struggle.
Clearly, she wasn’t tortured or murdered here,” Malcolm said.
“Why dump her here?” Macy said.
“That’s what we need to find out,” Garrison said.
“You said you suspect arson?”
Macy nodded. “I’d bet a paycheck on it.”
Garrison stood, the discomfort in his knees reminding him of his last days as an air force paratrooper. “Why?” “Hard to say. Intense, intense blaze that started out of nowhere near the back door. There appeared to be nothing near that door that could have accidentally just exploded like that.”
“How long before you know for sure?” Garrison said.
“Chances are I won’t even be able to inspect the embers until tomorrow when the area is cooled and safe to investigate.”
“Let me know as soon as you have information.”
“If your killer set this blaze to cover his tracks, he didn’t do such a good job,” Macy said. “It was a long shot that the house fire would have destroyed the body.”
“I’m not so sure the killer wanted the body destroyed,” Garrison said.
“Why not get rid of the evidence?” she said.
Malcolm shook his head. “If the body is obliterated, there is no one to admire his handiwork.”
Macy’s gaze lingered on the body before she tore it away. “Think he’ll do it again?”
“I don’t know,” Garrison said.
She shook her head. “As unpredictable as fires can be, I understand they will kill me if I don’t respect them.” She stared at the draped lifeless body. “Whereas people, well, you never quite know where they are coming from. They are a mystery.”
Garrison couldn’t tell if she referred to him or the killer. “I don’t want anyone near this body --- including your men. The last thing I need is some nutcase trying to copycat this murder.”
Macy planted her hands on her hips. “A few have already seen it, but I can trust them to keep quiet.”
Garrison met her gaze. “I’m counting on that.”
Bristling at his tone, she raised her chin. “You worry about your people and I’ll worry over mine.”
The fire sparking in her gaze told him if he didn’t back off, they’d land in a full-blown pissing match. Intensely loyal to the men and women who worked for her, Macy would go toe-to-toe with anyone who spoke badly about her “crew.”
Garrison needed cooperation, not a turf war. And if Garrison was good at anything, it was convincing people to see things his way. He relaxed his stance, trying to cool off her temper. “Have you spoken to the survivors of the fire or the shelter director?”
“That’s your gig, not mine.” Still defensive, but breathing a bit less fire, she said, “I’m just here to show you the body so I can get back to figuring out how that fire got started.”
Malcolm dusted imaginary dirt from his hands. “Fair enough.”
Garrison grinned at Macy. “And when you find out anything about the fire, you’ll let me know.”
“You’ll be the first.” She walked back toward the throng of fire trucks and let the controlled chaos swallow her.
“You have a knack for pissing her off,” Malcolm said.
“It’s a gift.”
Malcolm muttered an oath. “You dated her once, didn’t you?”
“Christ, man. Any woman in this city you haven’t dated?”
“I never lie and I never make promises.”
“That why all the women love you?” Sarcasm dripped from the words.
Garrison ignored the comment. “Forensics has been dispatched and should be here soon. The first priority is to run prints and find out the victim’s identity. If by some remote chance the two murders are linked, we need to know.”
“The killings look as if they were done by different people.”
“That’s my initial thought.” But he’d let the forensics play out.
“She looks classy,” Malcolm said. “Doesn’t look like she and the first victim ran in the same circles.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t have something in common.” Garrison glanced at the dark roots peeking out from her blond hair. She appeared well nourished and didn’t show any track marks on her arms. Her breasts appeared to have been enhanced by a plastic surgeon. He covered her body with a sheet.
“Want me to canvas the crowd again?” Malcolm asked.
“Yeah. And keep on the lookout for that woman in the crowd. She might have doubled back. I’ll talk to the survivors.” Tonight promised to be long.
“Will do.” Malcolm peeled off toward the onlookers while Garrison cut back toward the front yard where the seven survivors were huddled under blankets and cradling cups of coffee. Each stared blankly --- a sign of shock.
The group looked ragtag, worn and shell-shocked from the fire. Garrison’s gaze scanned the group, beginning with a woman in her fifties. Wisps of gray hair escaped a thinning ponytail, and crow’s feet highlighted brown sunken eyes and leathery skin.
At the opposite end sat a man --- mid-thirties with a mocha complexion. He wore a thick hunting jacket two sizes too large, a tattered ball cap that read ACE, steel-toe boots, gray shirt and jeans covered with a half-dozen patches.
He’d have to talk to them all individually so one person’s story didn’t contaminate another’s. Eyewitness testimony coupled with trauma often meant skewed memories.
“I saw what happened.” The man on the end with the ACE hat had spoken up.
Garrison slipped a hand in his pocket and pulled out a pack of gum as he strolled toward him. He offered the man a stick and waited patiently as the guy unfolded the wrapper and folded the gum in his mouth.
The guy nodded. “Thanks.”
The two moved out of earshot of the other six survivors. Garrison learned long ago if he didn’t rush the interview process he often learned more in the end. And a little kindness led to more information than hard-edged questions.
“Can I have the rest of that gum?” Ace said. “Sure.” Garrison handed him the packet. “My name’s Detective Garrison.”
“Just like your hat.” Garrison pulled out a slim notebook and pen from the breast pocket of his blue sports coat.
“They call me Ace because of the hat.” Ace fumbled with the gum and then held it up to his nose. He inhaled deeply then shoved the pack into the pocket of his jacket.
“What’s your real name?”
Dark brows knotted. “I don’t remember.”
Garrison smiled. “Maybe it’ll come to you.”
He knotted his brow as if it bothered him that he didn’t know his name. “Sometimes it does. Give it time.”
“Well, we’ll just stick with Ace for now. Ace, what happened? How did the fire start?”
“I was watching the television. We were all watching Entertainment Tonight. I like Mary Hart. You watch ET?”
“No. Not much of a TV guy when it’s not football season.”
“I love ET. Proves even the celebrities got their issues. Maybe if I’d had a handler like those stars I’d still be fine.”
“I suppose we could all use a little handler.” Hell, there’d been a time when his parents had stepped into his life and straightened him out. No telling where he’d have ended up if not for them. “Did the fire start before or after the show ended?”
“Right at the end, thank goodness. I was just getting up to get water from the kitchen when I saw this flame in the front yard.”
“A flame?” Garrison jotted notes.
“Yeah. Some guy held a flame in his hand.”
“A Molotov cocktail?”
“Could be. I ain’t never seen one before.”
“What happened next?”
“The flame carrier came right up to the house and tossed the fire bottle at the house. When it hit the house, it kind of exploded. If you don’t believe me, then check the eyes.”
“Cameras. They are all around. They catch everything.” Garrison’s gaze swept around. “Mostly homes around here.”
“There’s a camera on the home on the corner. The guy is afraid of us. Doesn’t like homeless people on his street. Uses the camera to watch us.”
“White one on the corner.”
“Thanks. I’ll check it out.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “Know anyone that would want to burn the place down?”
“Always someone that’s mad with someone here. Last week I got into a fight over the television remote. Darryl demanded the remote during ET. I got mad. We fought.”
“Darryl here tonight?” He wrote the name down, doubting if any of this would pan out.
“No. Ain’t seen him in a week.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“No. He comes and goes. He ain’t a regular like me.”
Ace’s nostrils flared. “You don’t believe me about the flame carrier.”
Garrison shook his head from side to side, letting his lips rise into a grin. “I believe you, man. I believe you.”
Ace’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t have to believe me. Just check the eyes. They’re always watching.” “I will. Thanks, Ace.”
Ace wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“What’s your name? I forgot.”
“Garrison. Deacon Garrison.”
“Good.” Garrison patted Ace on the back. “Where are you going to stay tonight?”
“Once I’ve finished talking to everyone I’ll see what I can do about finding you a bed.”
“Ace, you ever seen a short, petite woman around? Dark hair. Looks like a kid.”
Ace hesitated, frowned as a child with a secret might. “Could be a lot of people, I guess. Can’t say for sure.”
He was lying. “She moved through the crowd about a half hour ago.”
Ace flicked a foil gum wrapper. “Sorry.”
Garrison leaned forward, close enough to invade Ace’s space, but careful not to touch. “You wouldn’t be holding back on me, Ace?”
Ace dropped his gaze. “No.”
“Good, because I don’t want to get her into trouble. I just want to talk to her.”
“Sorry, Boss. Can’t help.”
Ace was protecting the woman. But why? Was Ace a tarnished knight like himself or did he have a darker secret?
Garrison could kick himself now for letting her melt into the crowd. He hoped his hesitation didn’t cost the investigation.
Excerpted from SENSELESS © Copyright 2011 by Mary Burton. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.