Getting her hair colored at Root 66, Suzanne is stunned to witness the County Services office next door suddenly go up in flames. Sadly, the fire claims the life of longtime civil-service worker—and friend to the Cackleberry Club—Hannah Venable.
When it’s discovered that an accelerant was used to fan the flames, Suzanne, Petra, and Toni vow to smoke out the culprit. When Suzanne finds a possible connection between the fire and the nearby Prairie Star Casino, she comes to realize that the arsonist wanted something very big and bad kept secret. And if the ladies aren’t careful, they may be the ones gambling with their lives.
Release date: December 2, 2014
Print pages: 320
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SUZANNE didn’t know how she felt about Blond Bombshell No. 4 as a hair color, but she was about to find out. Especially since she was sprawled in a red plastic chair roughly the size of a Tilt-a-Whirl car, bravely enduring her “beauty experience” at Root 66, downtown Kindred’s premier hair salon. Silver foils that looked like baked-potato wrappers were crimped in her hair, while a sparkly pink ’50s-era bubble-top hair dryer hovered above her head, blasting a constant stream of hot air.
Yup, the foils were bad enough, but the droning dryer made Suzanne feel as if her head were being sucked into a jet engine.
Jiggling her foot, tapping her fingers, Suzanne knew she should try to regard this as “me time” as so many women’s magazines advocated.
But, all cards on the table, Suzanne felt restless and a little guilty about ducking out of the Cackleberry Club, the cozy little café she ran with her two partners, Toni and Petra. She’d dashed away this Friday afternoon claiming a dire personal emergency. And when you were a silvered blonde who was a tad over forty, the emergence of dark, scuzzy roots all over your head definitely qualified as an emergency.
But now, after all the rigmarole of mixing and tinting and crimping and blow-drying, Suzanne just dreamt of sweet escape.
She glanced around at the five other women, customers in the salon, who seemed perfectly content to sit and be beautified. But scrunched here, paging through an old copy of Star Whacker magazine and reading about the questionable exploits of Justin and Miley, didn’t seem like the most productive way to spend an afternoon.
“How you doin’, gorgeous?” cooed Brett. He bent down and flashed his trademark pussycat grin. Brett was her stylist and a co-owner of Root 66. A man who wore his hair bleached, spiked, and gelled. “Are you in need of a little more pampering? Should I send Krista over to do a French manicure?” He cast a slightly disapproving glance at Suzanne’s blunt-cut nails.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” Suzanne told him as she balled her hands into tight fists. What she wanted to tell Brett was that she had working-girl hands. Every day she muscled tables, swept floors, hauled in boxes of groceries, and wrangled two unruly dogs when she finally arrived home at night. In her free time, she stacked hay bales, mucked stalls, and guided her quarter horse, Mocha Gent, through his paces at barrel racing. Oh, and last week, on an egg run to Calico Farms, she’d manhandled a jack and changed a flat tire on her Ford Taurus. Lifestyles of the rich and famous? Here in small-town Kindred? Like . . . not.
Suzanne poked a finger at an annoying tendril of hair that tickled the back of her neck. Ten more minutes, she told herself. Gotta white knuckle it for ten more minutes. Then I’m outta here.
She knew she should relax and let herself be coddled, but there were things that needed to be done. Kit Kaslik’s vintage wedding was tomorrow and she had to figure out what to wear. Toni was babbling about launching a new book club. Her horse, Mocha Gent, still wasn’t ready for the Logan County Fair. And Petra was all freaked out about the dinner theater that was coming up fast. And what else? Oh man. She’d gone and invited her boyfriend, Sam, over for dinner next week. And hadn’t he promised to bring a bottle of Cabernet if she grilled a steak for him? Yes, she was pretty sure they’d struck that particular deal.
Suzanne drummed her fingers. She wasn’t high maintenance, but she was definitely a high-achieving type A. Even so, she projected a certain calm and sense of poise, looking polished but not prim today in a soft denim shirt that was casually knotted at the waist of her trim white jeans. But underneath that denim shirt beat the heart of a racehorse—a thoroughbred who was smart, kind, and the kind of crackerjack businesswoman who could drive a hard bargain or negotiate a sticky contract.
Suzanne shifted in her chair. She figured she had to be parboiled by now. After all, that wasn’t her morning spritz of Miss Dior that was wafting through the air. In fact, it smelled more like . . . what?
A few inches of sludgy French roast burning in the back room’s Mr. Coffee? A cranked-up curling iron? Someone’s hair being fricasseed by hot rollers?
Suzanne peered around suspiciously. Maybe it was Mrs. Krauser, who was tucked under the hair dryer directly across from her. Mrs. Krauser with a swirl of blue hair that perfectly matched her light blue puffed-sleeve blouse.
Wait a minute. Now she really did smell smoke!
Suzanne wiggled her nose and sniffed suspiciously. Was it her? Was her hair getting singed?
Tentatively, she touched a hand to the back of her head. She was warm but not overly done. So . . . okay. Peering around again, she felt a faint prickle of anxiety. It had to be Mrs. Krauser over there, blotting at her pink cheeks with a white lace hankie.
But wait, Suzanne told herself. There was something definitely going on. Something cooking. And it wasn’t Brett’s complimentary snickerdoodle cookies from his back-room oven.
So where on earth was that smell coming from?
Suzanne ducked her head out from beneath the behemoth hair dryer and gazed around the salon, where everything seemed copasetic.
Still . . . it really did smell like smoke. And were her eyes deceiving her, or did everything suddenly look slightly ethereal and hazy? Like she was peering through a gelled lens?
Holy crap on a cracker! That was smoke!
Suzanne scrambled to her feet so fast every pair of eyes in the place was suddenly focused on her.
“I think there’s . . .” she said, and then hesitated. Standing in the middle of the beauty shop, with everyone staring at her, she felt a little unsure of herself now. No sense making a ruckus over nothing. But when she inhaled, she definitely detected a nasty, acrid burning scent. A scent that touched the limbic portion of her brain and sent a trickle of fear down her spine.
Smoke. I definitely smell smoke.
“Something’s on fire!” Suzanne cried out, trying to make herself heard above the roar of the blow-dryers and the blare of show tunes playing over multiple sets of speakers.
Brett looked up from where he was shampooing a client. “What?” He sounded puzzled as bubbles dripped from his hands. “Something’s what?”
But Suzanne had already crossed the linoleum floor in three decisive strides and was pushing her way out the front door. On the sidewalk, smack-dab in the middle of downtown Kindred, the summer breeze caught her. It ripped the foils from her hair and sent her purple cape swirling out around her as if she were some kind of superhero.
And as Suzanne stood there, arms akimbo, knowing something was horribly wrong, she heard a terrifying roar. A rumble like the 4:10 Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train speed-balling its way through Kindred. Within moments, the roar intensified, building to such a furious pitch that it sounded as if a tornado was barreling down upon the entire town. And then, without any warning whatsoever, the windows in the redbrick building right next door to Root 66 suddenly exploded with an earsplitting, heart-stopping blast. And a molten blizzard of jagged glass, chunks of brick, and wooden splinters belched out into the street!
Suzanne ducked as shards of glass shot past her like arrows! She felt the intense heat as giant tongues of red and orange flames belched from the blown-out windows as if they’d been spewed by World War II flamethrowers.
Fearing for her life, her self-preservation instinct kicking in big-time, Suzanne dove behind a large blue metal sign that proudly proclaimed Logan County Historic Site. She buried her face in her hands to shield herself from flying debris, hunched her shoulders, and prayed for deliverance.
A few moments later, Suzanne peered out tentatively and was shocked to see that the entire building, the old brick building that housed the County Services Bureau, was completely engulfed in flames!
Like a scene out of a Bruce Willis action flick, people suddenly came streaming out of all the surrounding businesses. Realtors, bakers, bankers, and druggists, all screaming hysterically, waving their arms and pointing at what had become a roiling, broiling inferno right in the middle of Main Street. Everyone seemed hysterical, yet nobody was doing much of anything to help.
“Call 911!” Suzanne yelped to Jenny Probst, who ran the Kindred Bakery with her husband, Bill.
Jenny nodded frantically. “We called. We already called. Fire department’s on its way.”
Two minutes later, a fire engine roared to the scene. A dozen firemen jumped off the shiny red truck even as they struggled to pull on heavy protective coats and helmets.
“There are people in there!” Suzanne cried to the fireman who seemed to be in charge. She pointed desperately at the building that was now a wild torrent of flames. “You’ve got to get them out!”
“Stand back, ma’am,” ordered one of the firemen, and Suzanne did. She retreated a few steps and took her place in the middle of the street along with the rapidly growing crowd.
A second fire truck arrived and a metal ladder was quickly cranked up to a second-floor window. To shouts of encouragement from the onlookers, a fireman gamely scrambled up. Then a siren blatted loudly directly behind Suzanne, giving its authoritative whoop whoop, and she was forced to move out of the way again. Sheriff Roy Doogie had arrived in his official maroon and tan cruiser, along with two nervous-looking deputies.
Sheriff Doogie, by no means a small man, hopped out and immediately began to bully the crowd back even farther.
“Get back! Give ’em room to work!” Doogie shouted as his khaki bulk quivered. “Get out of the way!”
Then a white ambulance came screaming into the fray and rocked to a stop directly next to Doogie’s cruiser. Two grim-faced EMTs jumped out, pulling a metal gurney with them, ready to lend medical assistance.
Thank goodness, Suzanne thought.
When Suzanne glanced up again, she was thankful to see a terrified-looking woman and a small child clambering over a second-story window ledge and into the waiting arms of the fireman on the ladder.
“That’s Annie Wolfson,” said a voice behind her.
Suzanne turned around and found Ricky Wilcox, the young man who was the groom in tomorrow’s big wedding, staring fixedly at the rescue that was taking place.
Good, Suzanne thought. Annie and her child have been saved. But what about the folks in the first-floor County Services Bureau? Bruce Winthrop, the county agent. And his longtime secretary, Hannah Venable. What about those poor souls? Were they still inside?
Suzanne’s question was partially answered when Winthrop, looking bug-eyed and scared spitless, suddenly crashed through the crowd. Arms flailing, he caromed off her right shoulder and then continued to push his way toward the burning building.
“Hannah!” Winthrop cried, frantically trying to charge through the surging crowd. “Hannah!” He seemed ready to rush into the burning building and save her single-handedly.
“Whoa, whoa!” Suzanne cried out. She dashed forward a couple of steps, snagged Winthrop’s arm, and tried to pull him back. But the man was in such a blind panic that he simply shook her off. Suzanne made a final frantic grasp at the back of his tweed sport coat, found some purchase, and fought to reel him in backward. “Wait,” she cried. “You can’t go in there. You’ve got to let the firemen do their jobs.”
Winthrop spun around to look at her, but was in such an anguished state that he didn’t display a shred of recognition. His face contorted with fear as he tried to jerk away. “Let me go!” he cried. Then, in a pleading tone, “I’ve got to go in and get her.”
“No you don’t,” Suzanne told him. She grabbed Winthrop’s arm and gave a sharp tug that made him suddenly wince. But at least she’d commanded his attention. “Better to alert Doogie,” she said. “He’ll send a couple of firemen in to rescue Hannah.”
“Gotta hurry hurry hurry,” Winthrop chattered.
Suzanne waved an arm over her head and cried out, “Doogie! Sheriff Doogie!”
Doogie heard his name called out above the roar of the fire and the nervous mutterings of the crowd. He swiveled his big head around, saw Suzanne, and frowned.
Suzanne pushed closer toward him, dragging Winthrop along with her. “Hannah Venable’s still inside,” she shouted. “You’ve got to send someone in to get her.”
Doogie’s eyes widened in surprise and he gave a sharp nod. Then, quick as a wink, he grabbed the fire chief and pulled him into a fast conversation.
“You see?” said Suzanne. She still had a firm grip on Winthrop’s arm. “They’ll get Hannah out. She’ll be okay.”
Winthrop just nodded woodenly as if in a sleepwalker’s trance.
The firemen shot thick streams of water at the building now, trying to beat back the flames. As water gushed from fat, brown hoses that crisscrossed the street, the fire hissed with fury but seemed to slowly retreat.
“I think they’re gaining on the fire,” Suzanne said to Jenny, who’d taken up a spot in the front lines next to them.
“I hope so,” she said.
Two firemen hastily donned protective gear—full breathing apparatus and special asbestos coats. Then, after a hasty conference with their fire chief, they plunged into the burning building to make the daring rescue.
They were the brave ones, Suzanne thought. They were the ones who risked their lives for others. God bless and keep them.
The firemen working the hoses were definitely gaining a foothold on the fire now. Flames were knocked back as charred beams and red-hot embers sizzled and hissed.
“Getting it under control now,” said Darrel Fuhrman, a man Suzanne recognized as one of Kindred’s firemen. He was tall with slicked-back dark hair and eyes that danced with wild excitement.
Suzanne wondered idly why Fuhrman wasn’t in the fray lending a hand, as she continued to keep her eyes fixed on the front door of the building, waiting to see Hannah Venable come staggering out. Hannah was the sweet-natured clerk who had manned the front desk at the County Services Bureau for the past fifteen years. She answered phones, kept the books, and handed out brochures on how to grow snap peas, raise baby lambs, and put up fruit jams and jellies without giving your family ptomaine poisoning.
Antsy and nervous now, Suzanne moved forward. She could feel the heat from the fire practically scorching her face, like having a too-close encounter with Petra’s industrial-strength broiler back at the Cackleberry Club. What must the firemen be feeling inside, she wondered? What must poor Hannah be going through?
Sheriff Doogie whirled around and saw Suzanne edging up to the barricade.
“Get back!” he yelled, waving a meaty arm. “Everybody, get back!”
Suzanne retreated two paces, and then, when Doogie turned around, when he wasn’t looking anymore, she crept back to where she’d been standing.
“Watch out!” cried one of the firemen who was manning a hose and shooting water through one of the front windows. “They’re coming out.”
Everyone peered expectantly through the drift of smoke and ashes. And then, like an apparition slowly appearing from a dense fog, the two firemen who’d made the daring foray into the burning building came into view. Their faces were smudged, their eyes red, their respirators dangled around their necks. But they carried a stretcher between them.
“They got her,” Suzanne whispered. Everyone in the crowd behind her seemed to relax and heave a deep sigh of relief.
Sheriff Doogie, who’d been clutching a blue blanket, stepped forward and laid it gingerly over the stretcher.
Thrilled that the firemen had been able to make such a daring rescue, Suzanne pressed even closer. “Is it Hannah?” she asked Doogie. She crept forward expectantly, practically bumping up against his beefy shoulder now. Surely they were going to load Hannah into the waiting ambulance. They’d rush her, lights twirling and sirens blaring, to Mercy Hospital, where Dr. Sam Hazelet, Suzanne’s boyfriend, Dr. Hazelet, would resuscitate Hannah and tell the old dear what an amazingly close call she’d had.
“Is it Hannah?” Suzanne asked again.
The brim of Doogie’s modified Smokey Bear hat barely quivered. A muscle twitched in his tightly clenched jaw.
“Is she . . . ?” Suzanne was about to say okay.
Doogie turned to her, his eyes sorrowful, his hangdog face registering total dismay. And uttered the two fateful words that Suzanne had not expected to hear: “She’s dead.”
BY the time Suzanne got back to the Cackleberry Club on Friday afternoon, Toni and Petra had heard the news about the fire. They were standing in the kitchen, listening to the latest report on the radio, looking bewildered and shaken.
“The whole thing’s been on the radio,” Toni cried out. “Tom Wick, one of WLGN’s DJs, was downtown when the fire started. So he called in to the Afternoon Farm Report and the station broadcast a kind of play-by-play.” Toni was wild-eyed and skittish. Her roaring metabolism kept her sleek as a cat and today her frizzled blond hair was piled atop her head making her look like a show pony. Except that show ponies didn’t wear scrunchies, false eyelashes, and coral lip gloss.
“Hearing the whole thing pretty much killed us,” said Petra. She was big-boned and sorrowful in a pink shirt, khaki slacks, and bright green Crocs, clutching and twisting her red-checked apron in her hands as if it were a lifeline. “It was like watching one of those wars in the Middle East broadcast live on CNN.”
“Did they say anything about Hannah?” said Suzanne.
Toni nodded solemnly and Petra, even with her natural stoicism, looked like she was about to cry. None of them were used to having a major disaster like this intrude into their daily lives. Kindred was a sleepy little Midwestern town where you shared coffee and sticky buns with your next-door neighbor, sang hymns in church on Sunday, grew bushel baskets of zucchini, and watched life chug along on a nice even keel.
Nestled in a river valley next to Catawba Creek, their town was, Suzanne often thought, reminiscent of Brigadoon, that wonderful, mythical Scottish village that disappeared into the Highland mist only to emerge every hundred years.
Petra continued to be dazed and more than a little angry. “How could this happen?” she choked out. “Hannah was a member of our church. She has grown children.” Her placid, square-boned Scandinavian face shone with outrage.
Suzanne noticed that Petra was already speaking about poor Hannah Venable in the past tense.
“Maybe we should say a prayer or something,” Toni mumbled. A self-proclaimed wild child who favored skintight cowboy shirts, she wasn’t a regular churchgoer like Petra, but this occasion seemed to call for a certain degree of solemnity.
“Yes, let’s,” urged Petra.
Suzanne quickly glanced through the pass-through. There were three customers still sitting in the café. Two at a table, one at the marble counter. They were all working on their afternoon coffee and apple pie, looking perfectly content.
“Okay,” said Suzanne. “Let’s take a few minutes right now. But do it fast.”
“Prayer should never be rushed,” said Petra.
“I think she meant for us to keep it short but sweet,” said Toni. “Really, I’m sure it will be heard.”
“Dear Lord,” said Petra as she bowed her head, “please accept dear Hannah Venable into your Kingdom. Please know that she was a truly good person, kind and gentle, and that she . . .” Petra halted abruptly as tears welled up in her eyes and streamed down her face. She bit her lip and shook her head, unable to go on.
“And know that Hannah made the best cherry pie in town,” Toni finished.
“Amen,” said Suzanne. She figured they really did have to wrap this up, since old Mr. Henderson was suddenly standing at the cash register, looking around, waiting to pay his bill. Not only that, she’d just caught a glint of Doogie’s cruiser as it rolled into their front parking lot.
Now what? Suzanne wondered.
* * *
LIKE a rifle shot, the screen door whapped open hard against the wall and Sheriff Doogie strode into the practically deserted café. His leather utility belt creaked, his broad shoulders were hunched forward, and his gait seemed heavy and dragging. Only his sharp law enforcement eyes betrayed his high level of anger and intensity.
Toni, who was piling dirty dishes into a gray plastic tub, looked up and said to Suzanne, “I have a feeling we won’t be closing none too early today.”
Suzanne took one look at Doogie and figured the same thing.
Doogie made a beeline for the end stool at the marble counter. It was his favorite stool, the one that creaked when he sat down and, over the past couple of years, had assumed a distinct list.
Suzanne reached behind her and grabbed a pot of coffee from where it rested on the soda fountain backdrop they’d scrounged from an old drugstore. She filled a ceramic mug for Doogie and slid it across the counter to him. “How are things at the fire?” she asked. But she could tell by the look on his face that the situation wasn’t good.
“Terrible,” said Doogie. He took a quick gulp of coffee. “Real bad. The building’s a complete disaster and—”
Petra came flying out of the kitchen, shoes clumping, hair sticking up in uncharacteristic spikiness, to interrupt. “Who cares about the stupid building?” she demanded. “We want to know about Hannah! Did the poor woman even have a chance?”
Doogie threw a sad, haunted look in her direction and shook his big head. “Probably not. I’m sorry . . .” His voice dropped off to a low mumble.
“Did Hannah burn to death?” Toni asked, edging closer to the group. Toni had a certain fascination with the macabre that wasn’t always healthy.
“Toni!” cried Petra. “That’s a terrible thought!”
But Doogie hastened to alleviate their fears.
“No, no,” said Doogie, spreading his hands as if to make peace. “The fire chief was pretty sure that Hannah was overcome with smoke first.”
“Which means she suffocated,” said Petra. She gazed at them in horror. “That’s a terrible way to go.”
“Try not to think of it that way,” said Suzanne. “Try to think of it as Hannah blacking out and not suffering much.”
Petra sniffed and pulled a hankie from her apron pocket. “I can try to think about it that way, but it won’t be easy.”
“Do they know what caused the fire?” Suzanne asked.
“Was it faulty wiring?” asked Toni. “That was a pretty old building, after all.”
“On the Historic Register,” said Suzanne, recalling the sign she’d been so very lucky to duck behind.
Doogie sucked air through his front teeth and hesitated.
“Doogie, what?” said Suzanne. She knew the sheriff well enough to know when he was stalling. Their battery of questions had caught him a little unprepared.
Doogie scratched at his chin with the back of his hand. “Ah, jeez.” He looked like he was mulling something over in his head.
“What?” said Petra.
“Tell us,” said Toni.
“Fire Chief Finley’s working on a couple of things,” said Doogie.
Suzanne cocked her head. “Such as?”
Doogie stared directly at her. “The fire started with a huge burst, right? I mean, you were there. Next door at that beauty salon.”
“It felt like that’s the way it happened,” said Suzanne. Sure it had. She’d smelled smoke, run outside, and then, boom, the fire was suddenly raging.
“Did you hear a loud explosion first?” Doogie asked.
“Not really,” said Suzanne.
“What are you thinking?” asked Toni. “That it was a gas main explosion?”
“Not exactly,” said Doogie. He picked up his coffee cup and took a very deliberate sip. Watched out of the corner of his eye as the last customer got up and left.
“There’s something else going on here, isn’t there?” said Suzanne. “You’re already working on a theory.”
Doogie hesitated for a moment. “Fire Chief Finley thought there might have been an accelerant.”
“An accident?” said Petra.
“No, an accelerant,” Doogie repeated.
Toni frowned. “Oh, you mean like the fire accelerated and burned super fast? Like spontaneous combustion?”
“Not exactly,” said Doogie. He looked around as if someone might be listening in. As if they weren’t the only ones hunched around the counter at the Cackleberry Club at four in the afternoon. “You ladies have to keep what I tell you under your hats, okay? I mean, you can’t be spreading this information all over town.”
“What?” said Suzanne, her heart doing a little flip-flop. Then, when Doogie still seemed hesitant, she spoke the terrible words they’d all been thinking but hadn’t wanted to voice. “Are you saying the fire was deliberately set? That it was arson?”
Doogie gave a kind of tight-lipped grimace. “It’s looking that way, yes.”
“How would you determine that for sure?” asked Toni.
Doogie frowned. “For one thing, Chief Finley is talking about bringing in an arson investigator.”
“Oh my,” said Toni. “This is serious.”
* * *
“CRAZY things like fires and arson aren’t supposed to happen in Kindred,” declared Petra.
Sheriff Doogie had departed some fifteen minutes ago, a white bakery bag containing three sticky rolls clutched in his hand. Now the three of them were sitting in the Knitting Nest, trying to sort through and digest Doogie’s words. Though he hadn’t expanded on his arson theory, or said that he believed it was the absolute gospel truth, he’d certainly tap-danced around the idea.
“If it was arson,” said Toni, “then it was . . .”
“Intentional,” said Suzanne.
“Exactly,” said Petra. “So who would . . . ?” She shook her head and dabbed a hankie to her eyes. For all of Petra’s toughness, she was still pretty much in shock.
“Who indeed?” Suzanne murmured. She gazed about the Knitting Nest, the small shop that was adjacent to the café and right next door to their Book Nook. With hundreds of skeins of gorgeous yarn tucked into virtually every corner, and displays of knitting needles and quilt squares, it was a cheery little place. A kind of safe harbor. Women came from all over the tri-county area to settle into the comfy, rump-sprung chairs, work on their latest project, sip tea, and hang out. Generally, the Knitting Nest was Petra’s domain. She taught knitting classes several nights a week, always encouraging her knitters with smiles and creative suggestions on new stitches and techniques. And the colorful shawls, wraps, and sweaters she’d whipped up herself were artfully displayed on the walls.
But today Petra’s heart was truly broken. And no kind words would mend it, no pair of smooth bamboo knitting needles would soften the look of despair on her face.
“We have to do something,” Petra said finally.
Toni hunched her shoulders. “Do what? That’s easy to wish for from the cozy environs of the Knitt
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