Desperate for Death – Chapter 1

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Chapter One

Gus woke me. I can tell, from the depths of sleep, how serious the threat to our safety is, ranging from a scampering squirrel to someone pounding on the door. This sounded pretty serious, the barking frantic. I reached for Mike and found only an empty pillow, still warm. Alarmed, I groped for shoes and gun (Mike by now had me trained well) and rushed downstairs to the girls’ bedrooms. Each slept soundly.

Then everything happened at once—the phone began to ring, I was aware of a distant alarm sound, not close enough to be the house system but perhaps the guest apartment, and through the windows of the girls’ rooms, I saw the flashing red lights of emergency vehicles. Someone pounded on the front door, driving Gus even more frantic. I grabbed him and rushed for the door, forgetting that I only had on a T-shirt and underpants. Maggie would be so embarrassed when the commotion woke her!

I shut off the alarm, turned the deadbolt, and opened the door cautiously, just in case it wasn’t Mike.

It wasn’t, and I was glad to hide my immodesty behind the door as I looked at a uniformed firefighter. Behind him I heard shouts and yelling.

“Ma’am, is there anyone in your guest apartment? I’m afraid it’s on fire.”

I yelped, forgot my modesty, and nearly dropped Gus. “On fire? Seriously? No!”

Behind me, Maggie demanded, “Mom, what’s going on now,” her voice echoed by Em who asked more gently, “What’s wrong this time?” My girls knew commotion in the middle of the night meant trouble.

Mike and I did occasionally put people in the guesthouse when they need a safe—or in one case cheap—haven, but no one had lived there for months, and we didn’t go out there when it was unoccupied. I managed to tell the firefighter there was no one out there. Maggie grabbed Gus, and I closed the door in the man’s face and ran for pants and shoes. It was October but darn cold outside. As I pulled on flannel pants and slid into tennis shoes, I worried about Mike. Where could he be? Grabbing a coat from the closet, I ordered the girls to stay inside and ran through the kitchen so fast I nearly missed the note on the table. I snatched it up, turned on the yard lights and ran outside, expecting the worst.

It was the worst. I could see flames through the open door of the apartment; firefighters with hoses tramped through. Whether burnt or waterlogged, everything would be ruined. And I knew enough about house fires, unfortunately, to know that they would pull all the wiring out of the ceiling. I stood and stared until Kelly Coconauer, the fire chief of the local station, put a gentle arm around my shoulders. We’d met several years ago when a property I was renovating burned. Our shared first name had made us friends.

“What happened?”

“Fellows tell me it started in the kitchen. Looks like a pan of grease caught fire. You been cooking out there? Maybe one of your girls?”

I shook my head. “No one’s been out there for months. In fact, I kept thinking I should get out there and clean it thoroughly. No way there was a pan of grease on the stove.”

“Good thing you didn’t waste the effort cleaning it. You’ll have to have it professionally repaired and cleaned now. I’ll get a report to you for your records. I think they’ve got it under control. Structure won’t be a total loss.”

It looked a total loss to me, except that the walls and roof appeared untouched. I’d call Anthony, my carpenter elevated to construction manager, first thing in the morning. I remembered the note, now crumpled in my hand. I could almost read it by the outdoor lights. Thank goodness Anthony had installed them in the patio ceiling when he built the add-on to our house.

“Called out. Didn’t want to wake you. Don’t know how long I’ll be. Love, Mike.”

Mike was chief at the district police station and didn’t get called out at night too often, so it must have been something big, which worried me. But in the last few years, I’d gotten used to living with a policeman who’s on duty twenty-four/seven. I shoved the note in my pocket.

Just then two girls, shivering even in their coats, crept up behind me. Usually by October in Texas, temperatures were falling into the upper forties at night, but this night the predicted low was in the upper thirties and a brisk wind fanned the flames and froze the girls and me as we stood around.

“Where’s Mike?” Em asked. “I’d feel better if he was here.” Em relied on her stepfather for safety; clearly, she didn’t think her mom provided it, since I’d gotten myself into more dangerous situations than I cared to remember.

“He got called out,” I told her.

Maggie was less tentative. “Mom, you promised no more danger. You promised Mike, and you promised us.”

Embarrassed that Kelly Coconauer was hearing this bit of family intimacy, I said defensively, “I didn’t do anything! The apartment caught fire. We don’t know how it happened. You girls go back in the house and stay there, as I told you.”

Maggie turned away angrily, and after a moment Em followed her. Uselessly, I called after them, “You girls go back to bed now.” They just kept walking without answering or turning to look at me. I had realized lately that I was losing my daughters, in the way all mothers lose them as they head toward their teens. They no longer thought I was right about everything, and they didn’t confide in me the way they had just a year ago. I told myself family dynamics changed, and it was the nature of life.

Meanwhile, Kelly Coconauer demanded my attention. “Arson team will investigate. Unless you left grease on the stove, could be some mischief involved. And I believe you that you didn’t. You’re not the type to leave grease on the stove in an unoccupied guest house.”

I thought back to the time Maggie hid a runaway girl in the house. Could a homeless person have moved in? There would be signs, if either the fire or the efforts to put it out didn’t destroy them.

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding? Arson?” A spontaneous fire was one thing; arson was a whole different thing.

“Not ruling it out,” he said.

At that moment, I would have sunk in a pile of self-pity if Mike hadn’t come up the driveway at a run.

He nodded at Kelly and demanded, “What the hell is going on?”

“Fire in your guest house,” Kelly said. “We’ll get to the root of it.”

Mike exploded. “How can there be a fire? No one’s been out there in months.”

Kelly just looked at him, and Mike turned to me. “Kelly, you’re turning blue in the cold. Go back to bed. I’ll stay out here until they wrap it up.”

Usually I would have protested, but I was miserably cold and nothing sounded better than my bed. I felt a bit sick, but probably it was just the tension of wondering about the fire.

****

Next morning, Mike wanted to talk about the fire, and I wanted to throw up. Which I did, and then crawled back into bed. Mike went off to feed the girls and get them ready for school, saying he’d take them and come back. I drifted off, dreaming of burning pans of grease. When I woke up, Mike was sitting on the side of the bed.

“You okay? Did you eat something?”

I shook my head. “We all had the same thing for dinner last night…smothered steak with noodles shouldn’t make anyone sick. You okay?”

“Other than tired, yeah, fine.”

“It’s just me. I’ll get up and move slowly.” And I did, but while I crept around the bedroom getting ready for the day, he questioned me.

“Kelly, I’m with Coconauer on this. It wasn’t a spontaneous fire. Someone was trying to get our attention, maybe trying to get revenge. Can you think of anyone you’ve angered?”

I’ve angered! I wanted to shout what about Mike himself? He arrested people and put them in jail all the time. More likely someone would want vengeance on him. Somehow it always seemed to come back to me. But I just shook my head. Yes, I’d been involved in several major “incidents” as he called them, but most of the people who would be angry with me for those were either dead or in prison.

I countered by asking, “Why did you have to go out last night?”

“Domestic violence. A kid really, nineteen, hit his girlfriend several times, and she called 9-1-1.”

“How old is she?”

“Seventeen.”

“What happened?”

“He says he lost his temper. I’m not sure over what. He’s just one of those punk kids who thinks he’s a big power. Gave up pretty easily—all bluff and no substance—and he’s cooling his heels at taxpayers’ expense. She refuses to press charges. Even when her folks came to get her, she was adamant. She loves him, it was just a bad moment, and she won’t file.”

“Will he do time?”

“No, and he would because she’s a minor. Law gets all confused at this point. Her parents could press charges, but it doesn’t sound to me like they will. They were letting her live with him.”

“At seventeen?” I squeaked.

“Yeah, Kelly, not everyone lives like we do. She probably dropped out of school, and I suspect she’s working to support him. Now back to this fire….”

“I need to eat something,” I announced.

Mike made me scrambled eggs and dry toast, bland enough to sit well on my stomach, and we both went off to our jobs without talking any more about the fire.

****

Keisha, my all-purpose assistant, was busily typing into her computer when I arrived at the office of Spencer and O’Connell. She raised an eyebrow at me but didn’t speak, her way of chastising me for being late.

I am the sole owner of Spencer and O’Connell, a real estate/renovation company in the Historic Fairmount District of Fort Worth. Spencer refers to my ex-husband, but he was murdered several years ago after he had already left the girls and me and the company. I kept his name not out of sentimentality for him but because I thought O’Connell Realty sounded lame. It needed two names.

Keisha came to me from a work-study program for non-traditional students through the school district. I wouldn’t have guessed it when she walked through the door, but she proved to be a gem. She appeared that first day in tight jeans, a flowing, swirling top printed with pink, purple and chartreuse, and the highest chartreuse heels I’d ever seen. I was astounded…and hesitant, but I’ve thanked my stars ever since that I gave her a trial run.

Today she wore a bright pink muumuu, matching heels, and her spiky hair had been tinted pink at the ends, matching her outfit and her nails, both toe and hand. She was nothing if not coordinated.

“Sorry I’m late. I wasn’t feeling well this morning. Think I have a touch of a stomach bug.”

“Uh-huh. I know what bug it is.”

My heart sank. Keisha had sixth sense, and she usually knew things long before I did. But this time I also thought I knew what was wrong, and if she sensed it, it suddenly became gospel to me.

“We had a rough night,” I said, trying to change the subject.

“Uh-huh. José goes to morning report before he meets me for breakfast. He told me about it. Any idea who set the fire?”

“No, you?”

“I got my suspicions.” Changing the subject she said, “Messages for you on your desk. And the fire was in the paper…tiny little notice. Still Sheila saw it, and she’s worried. You better call her.”

Sheila was one of the people Mike and I had taken in for protection, especially from her televangelist husband and his goons. He was now in jail, which meant I could count him out on Mike’s list of suspects. Sheila was at home in her updated Craftsman house in Fairmount, with her three-month-old baby girl, Lorna, and, I suspected, with Don Kenner, her ex-husband’s former lawyer who had jumped ship at the dishonesty and unethical practices of Reverend Dr. Bruce Hollister.

I called, and even as Sheila answered I could hear the cooing soft sounds of an infant. For a moment, I was speechless, remembering those days with my girls and, frankly, longing for them again. Then, “Sheila? It’s Kelly. Everything’s okay. Not to worry.”

“You sure? I read it might be arson, and I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any of Bruce’s so-called followers who might have done this. Would Nick come back?”

“I doubt it.” My tone was wry. Nick was a hired killer out of New York who had been sent to help Bruce Hollister—for a price, I’m sure. But the Alamo Heights police department, along with Mike, had outwitted both him and Bruce, only to have Nick post bail and jump bond within twenty-four hours. “I don’t think Nick will ever set foot in Texas again or even the States. There are warrants out for him—he’s probably on some tropical island that doesn’t have an extradition agreement with the U.S. And Bruce has no money now to pay him. Nope, this is definitely not connected to you.”

Changing the subject. “How’s Lorna?” The baby was named after Sheila’s late mother, Lorna McDavid, but that’s another long and involved story.

“Oh, Kelly, she’s the most adorable thing. Happy except when she’s hungry. Loves Don and reaches for him when he comes home at night. You know how wonderful new babies are…I never knew.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, and my stomach did this funny flip-flop thing. We signed off, each promising to call soon. I didn’t ask all the things I should have—what was Don doing these days, had he moved in, all those girl things to talk about. I wasn’t in a girl-talk mood.

I waited until Keisha had gone to run errands before I called my doctor. I simply told her nurse that I hadn’t been feeling well—stomach issues—and when could I get in. She scanned her calendar and said, “How about tomorrow at nine in the morning?”

“Fine,” I said reluctantly. I wanted to know but I didn’t. I thanked her and hung up. In less than twenty-four hours, I’d know if our lives were going to change forever. I didn’t know how I felt about it. I could have gone to the drugstore and gotten one of those test kits, but I figured another twelve hours or so in denial might give me a break.

When Keisha came back, her first, oh-so-cheerful question was, “What did your doctor’s office say?”
“They’ll see me tomorrow.”

“Well,” she said with a sigh, settling down at her desk, “at least you’ll know if you have a tumor.” She gave a wicked little laugh.

Thank goodness the conversation was stopped by Anthony’s arrival. He blustered in, loudly complaining, “Whoever did this knows about fires, Miss Kelly. Very clever. I suppose the arson people took the pan—it wasn’t there—but I doubt they’ll get fingerprints. The wiring in the entire place will have to be replaced. And everything is covered with soot. You might as well chuck most of the furniture, the curtains, all that. I’ll see what I can salvage. Insurance should replace wood floor, appliances, that sort of stuff. You call them yet?”

“No,” I sighed. “I’m waiting for you to get me some hard figure.”

“Okay. I call electrician, floor people, painters today. Structure looks sound to me. You have to figure cost of furniture. Go out there tonight and see what you can save.”

That sounded depressing to me, and I sighed again.

He left, slamming the door in his lasting anger at whoever set the fire, and I sat there a bit puzzling over who that could be and why they did it. No answers popped into my mind, and a little before three, I left to go get the girls.

****

Mike was solicitous that night. Was I sure I felt all right? I assured him I did, and I was hungry. He baked potatoes, giving them a jump-start in the microwave, and fixed all kinds of toppings, including some chili from the freezer, which he seriously advised me not to eat. Of course, chili was the one thing I immediately wanted on my potato.

The girls asked about the guesthouse, and I told them Anthony was getting estimates. “He says it’s major, and it will take a long time. Told me to go out there tonight and see what furniture I thought was salvageable.”

“Ugh,” Maggie said. “I don’t want to go out there. It stinks for one thing.”

“Me, neither,” Em echoed.

I wished she wouldn’t follow Maggie’s lead in everything.

“We’ll do it together, while the girls do the dishes and clean the kitchen,” Mike said. “Want a jacket from the closet?”

“Yes, please.”

The girls moaned and exchanged looks.

Mike brought a jacket, one for himself, and a super-duty flashlight. I noticed on the way to the guesthouse, he held my arm carefully, as though I was fragile. Immediately my mind flashed to the question: Does he know?

The damage was worse than I’d expected. Anthony was so right—not much if anything was salvageable. The dishes that Mrs. Hunt, the former owner, had so carefully chosen could be washed, but her lovely yellow curtains couldn’t be saved. Nor as far as I could tell was any of the furniture worth restoring, though Mike claimed he or Anthony could refinish the wood desk and bookcase, both old pieces left by the Hunts. My job for the next day was to price what we’d need for replacements—a bed, chairs, appliances. The linens in the small closet were ruined and would have to be replaced. We went inside and made a list. I didn’t tell Mike I had an important appointment in the morning and couldn’t work on this, but I did say, “I don’t think I can whip this together quickly.”

He covered my hand with his and said, “It’s okay, sweetheart. It doesn’t have to be done right away. Just call Dave Summers and let him know it’s coming, you’re collecting the fire report, Anthony’s estimate, and your own.”

I managed a small smile. “We haven’t called Dave in so long, he probably has forgotten us. I hope he doesn’t think this will start another string of claims like we had when gangers vandalized my renovation project and my old house.”

“He won’t. But it’s a good thing there’s been a lapse of time.”

I thought he had forgotten his inquisition about the fire and possible suspects, but when the girls were asleep and we went upstairs to our new hideaway master bedroom, he began again, though I gave him credit for trying to be subtle.

“Sweetheart, have you thought any more about who might have set the fire?”

I was ready. “No, have you thought about any of your cases? People you might have convicted, someone who is out on parole…or just plain out?”

Mike looked startled. “I’m sure it doesn’t have anything to do with me. The people I come in conflict with don’t know where we live, and we have an unlisted phone.

I gave him a long look. “And how hard would it be for someone on the wrong side of the law to find out where you live?”

He threw his hands up. “Okay, not hard at all. But I’m sure it’s someone you tangled with in your so-called adventures. Call it instinct.” He actually smirked at me.

Mike and I had an ongoing disagreement about facts versus instinct, and of course I was on the instinct side. Most of the time I’d been proven right, and he sometimes pouted. Lately he’d used instinct to twit at me.

I changed the subject. “I’ve had a lot on my mind, lately. I’ll put Keisha on it in the morning. I have a nine o’clock appointment, so I should be in the office by ten.”

“Keisha and her sixth sense?” he asked, his eyes laughing.

Mike never believed in her sixth sense, but it had saved me a couple of times, and he was slowly coming around.

As usual, Mike was sound asleep the minute he hit the bed, but my mind was on my appointment with Sherrie Goodwin the next morning. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t told Mike about the looming change possible in our lives, but what if it was a false alarm? I’d see how I felt in the morning. One hand, almost of its own volition, reached for the crackers to be sure they were there. The other hand began to stroke Mike’s back.

****

About three in the morning, Mike jumped out of bed, asking, “Did you hear that?”

“No,” I said sleepily. “And neither did Gus. He’s still asleep.” The dog lay on the foot of the bed, snoring comfortingly. When Mike began to move around noisily, Gus raised his head in disapproval as if to ask, “Why are you making such a ruckus?”

I couldn’t talk him into sense so Mike got dressed and went downstairs. I heard him turn off the alarm and gently open the front door. What was my wifely duty? To get the gun he insisted I have and go down as backup? Since I really hadn’t heard anything—and I’m a light sleeper—I decided my duty was to stay safely in bed.

He was probably gone ten minutes when he came back upstairs and muttered sheepishly, “I didn’t see anything. Nothing appears disturbed.”

“Tires still have air in them?” I asked.

“Yes. And don’t be sarcastic. I think that fire has me on edge.”

I wanted to tell him then that he should find out who did it and stop shoving that responsibility off on me. After all, wasn’t he the one who kept telling me to stay out of police business?