He was framed for murder… Now can he convince her of his innocence? Sheriff Sarah Winfrey has seen her share of men claiming not to be guilty. Yet something in Lanford Davies’s haunted gray eyes convinces Sarah to investigate the fire that killed Lanford’s family—and sent him to prison for eighteen years. But if Lanford is innocent, that means a killer is still out there. Can they sift through the ashes of a long-ago past to find the truth…without getting burned?
Release date: July 27, 2021
Print pages: 240
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Out of the Ashes
She’d come to Balsam Grove to escape trouble, but it walked in her front door.
The front door of her police station, that is. Her police dog, Festus, promptly vanished under her desk.
“Trouble” in this case was six feet tall, with shaggy black hair, stubble and pale gray eyes. The man appeared to be about forty, not much older than she was. He was a stranger to her. After six months in town, she knew most of the residents, at least by sight. She’d never seen this man before.
Those eyes had a guarded, watchful expression. With his pale complexion and the faded, irregular tattoos on his knuckles, she identified him immediately as an ex-con. He stood stiffly, in new jeans and a T-shirt, showing he’d spent at least some of his time in prison working out.
Sarah Winfrey was a cop. She’d seen men like him before. She dropped her hand to her side, where it would be able to reach her weapon on her hip quickly. He hadn’t made a threatening movement yet, but she didn’t want to be caught unprepared. She had no idea why he was here.
At least he wasn’t armed, based on what she could see from her position, seated at her desk.
But she wasn’t a big-city cop anymore. She was the sheriff of a small town. And here in the sheriff’s station, there was no bulletproof glass or protection. Just an exterior door leading to an open room that housed her desk, a seat for residents to come and make their complaints to her and a couple of chairs against the far wall.
He didn’t sit.
He stood just inside the door and paused, giving her a look as assessing as the one she must be giving him. His eyes narrowed, his gaze scanning her features.
She wondered if he’d been able to categorize her as easily as she had him.
“You’re the sheriff now?” His voice was rough. Smoker?
She nodded, waiting for him to explain why he’d come into her station.
“My name is Lanford Davies. I was sent to prison for the death of my family. Now I’m back. I’ve served my time, I’m sober and you’ll see me at church. But I’m going to find whoever killed my family and sent me to prison for it. I won’t cause trouble, but I want the truth. Thought I should let you know. I hope that won’t be a problem for you.”
With another look, he turned and walked back out the door of the station, leaving her speechless.
To date, Sarah’s assignment in Balsam Grove had been a sinecure. Some lost hikers, or a drunk and disorderly on a Saturday night at the tavern. An occasional domestic, and teens drinking and vandalizing the school.
She’d taken this post for the quiet. She’d needed time to lick her wounds, regain her peace and sense of purpose. She wasn’t expecting trouble.
But trouble had found her.
She waited, in case Lanford Davies returned, but the door stayed closed. A pickup drove by the window, followed by a couple of cars. The afternoon continued as usual for everyone else. Had that really happened?
She wrote down the name he’d given, Lanford Davies, on the pad of paper on her desk.
She hadn’t come across anyone with the last name Davies in town. There were a few families out in the hills that she didn’t know, but most of the people in town she recognized, at least by name.
She stood up to check the door. And barely saved herself from falling flat on her face.
She’d forgotten Festus.
Festus was the only other member of the sheriff’s department. Or so she’d been told. She’d yet to find any way the dog would contribute to her job. She suspected Roy Harding, the previous sheriff, just hadn’t wanted to take the dog with him to his retirement in Florida.
Presumably. He hadn’t answered her emails or calls since she got here.
Festus, named for a deputy on a Western drama that had been a favorite of her predecessor’s grandfather, was the least prepossessing police dog she’d ever seen. He was knee-high, partly brown, partly white, with bits of black scattered here and there. His ears perked up halfway and then drooped. He had a beer belly to rival that of the previous sheriff. His legs were just a little too short for his body, and his tail wagged up and down, rather than side to side.
He encompassed almost every breed of dog and, as a result, resembled none of them.
He would certainly be of no help in a crisis. When someone entered the building, such as Mr. Davies had, Festus would curl up under her desk and tremble.
If someone needed to be tripped, Festus might be able to assist. Beyond that, he was a mouth to feed and a body to walk. She was pretty sure that droopy middle of his had shrunk, a bit, under her regimen.
She was tempted to give herself points on her next self-review, for improvement in her detachment’s physical conditioning.
Festus had one major redeeming quality. He was someone to talk to, since she spent most of her day alone.
“Thanks, Festus. Great help there.”
Festus watched her, prepared to run for the file room in the back.
Sarah sighed. “Let’s see if Mr. Davies is still around. I’ve got some questions.”
She opened the front door and checked the sidewalk in each direction. No mysterious ex-con. No one walking this way. Festus stayed well back. She closed and locked the door.
She took a notepad and a pen and went into the back file room. It was located between the single holding cell and the kitchen and bathroom. Festus hovered at her heels.
One of the duties she’d assigned herself, since calls on her time weren’t taxing, was to upload all the old paper records to the computer. She hadn’t been in a rush, and she hadn’t been searching for anything in particular.
There weren’t that many files, and if she couldn’t find this one, she’d do some online research. She’d rather read the official records before the web mind influenced her with whatever conclusions it had come to.
Mr. Davies had admitted to being imprisoned. He hadn’t explicitly said the crime that had sent him to prison had happened in Balsam Grove, but since he’d announced his intentions to her, she expected it had. It would behoove her to check into the case and get an idea what kind of problems he could bring to the town.
She wasn’t sure exactly what trouble that was, but she could almost taste it.
She was familiar with guilty men maintaining their innocence. She’d arrested them. Testified against them. Prison was full of them. Not as many, once they were done their sentence and free to move on, set out to prove that innocence.
The odds were against Mr. Davies having been framed, even if there was a slight chance that he was right. She didn’t expect he’d get far. But if he planned to delve into ancient history, she needed to be prepared.
The files in the back room were recorded by date, and she’d be looking for something within the past twenty-five years. Any further back and he would have been tried as a juvenile. Those records wouldn’t be here.
She closed up the file cabinet she’d last digitized and turned to an older set of files.
“Come on, Festus. Let’s see if we can find out what kind of trouble Mr. Davies is going to be.”
Lanford returned to the church where he had been offered a place to stay. It was only two streets over from the police station. He’d left his duffel on the front step of the parsonage, since the minister hadn’t been home when Lanford had first arrived in Balsam Grove. The pastor had posted a note for Lanford, saying that he’d return soon.
The minister was waiting for him now.
“You must be Lanford Davies.” The smaller man held out his hand, and Lanford shook it. “I’m Harold Andrews. It’s nice to meet you.”
It had been a long time since anyone had considered it nice to meet Lanford.
“Thank you for what you’re doing, Mr. Andrews.”
“Call me Harold. May I call you Lanford?”
“We built these two apartments for people who need assistance. Your prison chaplain went to seminary with me, so when he said you were looking for a place, I was happy to help. The place isn’t much, but you’re welcome to it.”
Harold led him around the parsonage to a set of stairs at the rear.
The parsonage was a large, three-story brick building located beside the church. Long ago, when people had big families and servants, space such as this was necessary. Nowadays, the third floor was unused, so the church had made it into living quarters.
Lanford looked up the stairs to the two doors on the top landing. The apartment would be hot as summer came into force in another month or so, but Lanford wasn’t complaining. It sure beat the cells he’d been sleeping in for the past eighteen years.
He followed Harold up the stairs.
“My wife put some linens in there, and there’s some staples in the fridge and kitchen cupboards. It’s furnished, not anything fancy, but it’ll get you started.”
Harold unlocked the door with a key that he then passed to Lanford and stood aside to let Lanford enter.
There was a couch and an easy chair. A TV. He didn’t know if it was hooked up to anything. A tiny eating area and a small kitchen. There was a short hallway with two doors at the end.
“That’s the bedroom and bathroom back there.”
Lanford nodded, not moving far from the doorway.
“You’re welcome to join our church services but it’s not a requirement to stay here. We’d talked about you doing some work around the place, so come and see me about that, maybe tomorrow afternoon?”
Lanford nodded again. He wasn’t used to talking much.
“I’ll leave you to settle in. Let me know if you need anything.”
He turned to Harold, hoping he hadn’t appeared ungrateful. Lanford considered this an answer to prayer, one he’d not even put into words. He should say how much this meant to him.
“Harold...” Lanford paused. “I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. You’re an answer to prayer.”
Harold’s face lit up in a smile. “That’s what I aim to be.”
Lanford wasn’t sure anyone would ever say that about an ex-con.
Harold left, leaving Lanford in his new home.
A temporary home. It wasn’t easy to think of anything as permanent.
It was hard to accept that someone had that much faith in him, someone who didn’t know him. He took it as a sign that God approved of his mission.
He didn’t want revenge. Revenge would only lead him down a bad path. Lanford wanted justice.
This also gave him a purpose, in the short term, while he struggled to get his life together. To get some experience of life outside before he tried to imagine a future. He’d spent as many years of his existence in prison as not. It would take some adjustment. He needed to do it right because he had no intention of going back.
Lanford picked up the duffel bag and carried it into the bedroom. He took the few pieces of clothing he had and put them in the closet. He placed his razor, shampoo and body wash in the tiny bathroom. His well-worn Bible he set on the bedside table.
He pulled out the notebook and pens he’d purchased and went back to the main room. He sat down at the small table and opened the notebook.
He had a simple plan to find out the truth of that night, eighteen years ago. He’d had years to think it through, and he’d mentally prepared a list. He’d often heard follow the money. His family didn’t have money. But he would follow the consequences of the events of that night.
He picked up a pen and clicked out the nib.
First consequence. Dad died.
His father was gone. Lanford hadn’t spread the gas or lit the match that had started the fire, but he feared he was responsible just the same.
His fingers were clenched tightly around the pen, and he deliberately loosened them. Lanford and his father had been on bad terms when the fire destroyed his world, and he would always regret that. He took a long breath.
His brother had been angry with him, as well. Lanford had been on course to mess up his life before the fire. Maybe prison had been a kind of blessing. He hadn’t been able to hurt anyone else, and he’d finally found his peace. But someone had killed Dad and Dan, and that was not right.
Their house, and the lot it was on, were the only assets the family had, the only thing someone might have coveted. The house had burned in the fire, but the property had still been of value. They’d lived just outside of town in a small house, set back in the trees. The lot wasn’t any different from the others in the area, but there was no chance Dad would have sold it, not then. After the fire, it must have gone to someone. Not to him, obviously, since state law prohibited him from profiting from his crime. Maybe whoever had bought the land had needed it, badly enough to set a fire.
I went to prison.
This was the most likely avenue to follow. He’d been nothing but trouble before the fire.
His mother had died when he was in grade school. His dad had been on the road all the time, making deliveries as a long-distance trucker. Dan had been at college on a track scholarship, so Lanford had been home alone for long periods. Like a stupid kid, he’d gotten into trouble. It had been easy to find.
Parties, drinking, girls, shoplifting, joyriding, vandalism. He’d done it all. Lots of people would have been happy to have him gone.
Still, it was difficult to imagine anyone being so angry with him that they’d set fire to his house. Killing his father, his brother and almost Lanford himself.
He didn’t remember a lot about that night. He’d been out partying before the fire.
Lanford had dragged himself home and passed out, drunk, on the couch. He’d been awakened by smoke, and stumbled his way out of the house, falling off the porch, rolling down the lawn and hitting his head on a rock.
When he came to, his house was an inferno. Beside him lay a jerry can, still with traces of gasoline in it. A lighter was stuffed in his pocket.
He hadn’t set the fire. But no one believed him—not in court, not around town, not even his public defender.
One person knew the truth, though. One person knew, because that person had started the fire, not Lanford.
Lanford looked over his list of four consequences. One of these things may have inspired someone to burn down the house and set him up for the crime.
As he ran through the list, he realized there was one other outcome that could have happened that night. It chilled him to think of, but it was a possibility, so he should list it.
I could have been killed.
Maybe someone had hated him enough to want to kill him.
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