Through The Evil Days

THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS: A CLARE FERGUSSON/RUSS VAN ALSTYNE MYSTERY by Julia Spencer-Fleming
Published by Minotaur Books, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780312606848, ebook ISBN: 9781250022653
Copyright (c) 2013 by Julia Spencer-Fleming

***** FROM THE BOOK JACKET *****

On a frigid January night, Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Clare Fergusson are called to the scene of a raging fire. The extent of the tragedy isn’t known until the next day, when the charred remains of a man and woman are recovered–along with evidence showing they were shot execution-style.

The last thing Russ needs are two potential homicides. He’s struggling with the prospect of impending fatherhood, and his new wife is not at all happy with his proposal for their long-delayed honeymoon: a week ice-fishing at a remote Adirondack lake.

St. Alban’s Church is still in turmoil over the Reverend Clare Fergusson’s news that she’s five and a half months pregnant–but only two and a half months married. Worried her post-deployment drinking and drug use may have damaged the baby, she awaits the outcome of the bishop’s investigation into her “unpriestly” behavior: a scolding, censure, or permanent suspension.

Officer Hadley Knox is having a miserable January as well. Her on-again-off-again lover, Kevin Flynn, has seven days to weigh an offer from the Syracuse Police Department that might take him half a state away. And her ex-husband’s in town–threatening to take custody of their kids unless Hadley pays him off with money she doesn’t have.

When Hadley discovers the dead couple fostered an eight-year-old girl who was a recent liver donee, the search for the killer takes on a new and terrible urgency. With no access to immunosuppressant drugs, transplant rejection will kill the girl in a matter of days.

CHAPTER ONE

The dog’s barking woke Mikayla up. Ted and Helen—she was supposed to call them Uncle Ted and Aunt Helen, but she never did inside her own head—had told her Oscar was really a sweet dog. And it was true, he never growled at her. But he was so big, with his tail going thunk-thunk-thunk and his long pink tongue and his stabby white teeth. Mikayla didn’t care how sweet he was, he scared her.

Right now his big deep bark was booming, over and over and over again. Mikayla burrowed beneath her quilts and pulled the pillow over her head. “Shut up, stupid dog,” she whispered. She waited for the thud of Ted and Helen’s bedroom door, footsteps on the stairs. It sounded like Oscar had to go bad. She shivered. What if the MacAllens didn’t do anything? She would have to let him out. That was the rule. Then she’d have to stand around in the freezing hallway until he pooped so she could let him back in.

She pushed her pillow away and scooted up. It sounded like the dog was already outside. Maybe Ted had let him out and fallen asleep. Grown-ups could sleep through anything. There had been times Mikayla had to talk to her mom before the bus came in the morning, and she’d shake her and shake her and mom still didn’t do anything but mumble and roll over.

She climbed out of bed and put on her booties and her robe. The MacAllens had given them to her the afternoon she had come out of the hospital. The robe was pink and wooly and the booties had real sheepskin inside, which was good, because the MacAllen’s old house was always cold. She missed her mom’s trailer. She could spend all Saturday watching TV in her shortie pajamas, it was so warm inside.

Mikayla opened the bedroom door and wrinkled her nose. The hallway stunk like a gas station and the night light was out. Moonlight streamed from Ted and Helen’s open door at the other end of the hall and for a second she thought about trying to get one of them to let Oscar in. But they might be mad if she woke them up.

She clung to the railing as she walked down the unlit stairs. The stink was even worse in the front hall. She had her hand on the doorknob to let Oscar in when someone said, “Wait.”

She screamed.

“Shh. Shh. Mikayla. It’s me.”

She caught her breath at the familiar voice. “You scared me!”

There was a clank, like a pail setting on the floor, and then a figure moved out of the deep dark of the living room into the shadowy gray of the hall. “I’m sorry. I’m here to take you to your mom.”

“My mom?” Her heart was going bumpety-bump. She wasn’t sure if it was from her fright or from the idea of seeing her mom. “Really?”

“Yeah. I was just coming upstairs to get you.”

“But-” she frowned. “It’s the middle of the night. Are you supposed to be here?”

“Look, do you want to stay here with them? Fine by me. I’ll just leave. Have a nice life.”

“No! Wait!” Mikayla stumbled toward the living room. “I wanna go. I wanna see mom.”

“I dunno. Maybe I made a mistake, coming to get you.”

“No! No!. Just let me—I have a suitcase. I’ll get my clothes and then we can go.”

“I’ll get your clothes. You go get in my car. It’s in the driveway. I’ll be there in a minute, and then we can go.”

It was snowy outside, and she was in her robe and pajamas, but she was afraid if she argued, she’d be left behind. “Okay.” She turned back to the door. “Can I take my coat and my book bag? They’re right here.”

“Yes, yes, yes. Jesus.”

She snatched them off their hooks and opened the door. Oscar’s barking got wilder.

“And don’t let the dog in!”

Mikayla shut the door behind her and ran along the narrow shoveled path to the drive. Oscar, standing in the snow, whined as she passed him, but he didn’t do anything to stop her. She jumped into the back seat of the waiting car and slammed the door. She sat, shaking from excitement and fear, her arms wrapped around her book bag. She was going to see her mom again. She was going to see her mom.

Then she had an awful thought. Her recorder. She had left it in the bedroom, and tomorrow was music class. If she forgot it again, Ms. Clauson would kill her.

She could run back and get it. She knew right where it was. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. That would be okay. Maybe. She bit her lip and opened the door. Slipped out. She left the door open. That would prove she was coming right back.

She had taken three or four steps toward the house when she heard a whumping noise. Oscar stopped barking and laid in the snow. He whimpered. It sounded almost as bad as the barking. Then there was another whump, and another. In the black, moon-blank windows, she saw a pinpoint orange-red gleam. It was far back, like something in the kitchen, maybe.

Oscar whined again.

The door slammed, and for a second she thought, It’s Ted, he’s running to stop me, he’s coming to get me, he’s going to save me, but she could see it wasn’t Ted MacAllen at all.

The orange red glow grew brighter. Oscar sprang up, barking and barking, and Mikayla’s whole body shook. She remembered what she learned on Fire Safety Day: Don’t run back into a burning building, and that was a burning building, and what she had to do was call 9-1-1 and the firefighters at the station had been nice and she had gotten a real, hard helmet–

“What the hell are you doing? Get into the car, goddammit!”

She scrambled into the car. The door slammed against the bottom of her boot, like a hard slap. She twisted around to see out the back. The helmet bear was up in the bedroom, too, she remembered. With her recorder. She stuck her thumb in her mouth. The car engine firing up almost hid the sound of breaking glass. She sucked her thumb harder. She wasn’t going to think about Ted and Helen. She wasn’t going to think at all. But she stayed facing backwards, looking at the snow and the moonlight and the house and the fire, until they rounded the bend in the road and she was gone.

CHAPTER TWO

In her dream, Clare Fergusson was flying. Fast and low, heeled hard to the Blackhawk’s nose, aiming for the drifting gray-brown column of smoke and debris on the horizon. The radio cracked.

“Bravo five two five, this is three/first transport. Where the hell are you? We need evac, and we need it now!”

Three/first transport had been forty klicks out of Mosul when they hit the IEDs. Clare’s crew had been the closest. They had unceremoniously dumped a load of officers at the nearest Forward Operating Base, and now–

Clare switched on her mic. “Three/first, our ETA is in five. Hang on.”

She dropped the nose another five degrees. Checked the yaw to make sure she wasn’t overcompensating. The flew on, over flat, hard-baked desert and over coffee-brown, irrigated fields, and over narrow canals and cement villages, but the slowly rising smoke never got any closer. Clare could feel her heart pounding in rhythm with the rotors. “We need more speed!”

“Roger that.” Beside her, her copilot switched on the remaining fuel tank and increased the oxygen mix.

“Bravo five two five, this is three/first. We’ve got people bleeding out here. For chrissakes, hurry it up.”

Fear turned and kicked in her belly. Clare gasped, sucked in air, tried to control her panicked breathing. “We’ll be there, three/first. Hang on.” The yoke grew slippery in her hands and her feet felt like lead ingots on the pedals. More desert, more fields, more canals, more villages, and the smoke always ahead, always in sight, always out of reach.

“Help us, Bravo five two five. For God’s sake, help us!”

“I’m trying!” She blinked away tears of frustration and rage. “I’m trying!”

Her copilot shook her arm. She took her eyes away from the dirty, drifting column to look at him. It was Russ. “Clare, wake up,” he said. “Wake up, love, wake up.”

She rolled toward him, bringing the sheets and blankets with her, her heart pounding, her breath coming in short pants. “Oh, God.” Over his shoulder, she could see the clock glowing. 2 a.m.

Russ pulled her close, rubbing her back with a firm hand. “What was it this time?”

She took a deep breath. “I was flying a med evac. People were dying, they were calling and calling on the radio, but no matter how fast I flew, I couldn’t reach the wounded.” She shivered.

He chafed her arm. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m supposed to.” The counselor she was seeing encouraged her to share each bad memory out loud in order to lessen their power. Like the ancient Hebrews, who knew that to name God was to in some way control Him.

But dammit, Russ was her husband, not her therapist. She laid a hand on his cheek, rough and in need of a razor. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Hey, I have bad dreams about helicopters, too.”

She made a noise. “Vietnam-era Hueys. My nightmare helicopters are much cooler than yours.”

In the darkness, she could hear him smile. “No doubt.” He slid his hand down her arm, on to her hip. She scooted closer. His hand slipped onto her rounded belly. Paused. Lifted again, so casually she might have thought it didn’t mean anything, if she didn’t know better.

“Russ…” she whispered.

From the bedside table, his phone rang. He swung away from her, grabbing the phone and curling upward in one smooth movement. As the Millers Kill Chief of Police, he had long experience with middle-of-the-night calls. “Van Alstyne here.” There was a long pause. “Oh, hell. Yeah. Okay.” He snapped on the lamp. “Give me the address.” He jotted something down on a notepad. Then he shifted his gaze to look at her. “Yeah, she’s here.” His eyebrows rose. He handed her the phone. “John Huggins. He wants to talk to you.”

“Me?” She wrestled herself into a sitting position. “Is it a missing person?” Huggins, the head of the volunteer Fire and Rescue department, had taken her on as a searcher a couple of times, but Clare knew she was at the bottom of his roster. She couldn’t imagine he’d want her now. Maybe he didn’t know. “Hello?”

“Fergusson? You’re still a reverend, right? I mean, you didn’t have to quit or anything, now you’re hooked up with the chief?”

She rubbed her face. “Episcopal priests can get married, John.” She watched Russ haul his heavy winter uniform out of the closet.

“Good. Good. I got a favor to ask. We’re on a fire call, and it’s a bad one. The folks who lived here didn’t make it out.”

“Oh, no.”

“A lot of my guys never worked a fatality before. They’re kind of shook up. I was wondering if you could maybe be out here, you know, to talk to any of the guys who need some bucking up.”

She slid out of bed, shivering again as her feet hit the cold floor. “Of course. I can hitch a ride with Russ.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. I figured since you were going to get woke up anyway, I’d ask you instead of Dr. McFeely or Reverend Inman. See you over here.” He hung up.

Russ tugged his thermal shirt over his head. “What was that?”

She handed him back his phone. “Evidently, we’re now a two-fer.” She picked up yesterday’s clerical blouse from where she’d tossed it. “Huggins asked if I could go over with you and make myself available to anyone who needs to talk.”

Russ paused from buttoning his insulated pants. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“He said it’s the first fatal fire for some of the volunteers. If I can help, I will.” She tossed a bra and longjohns onto the bed.

“I meant I don’t think it’s a good idea to be standing around all night in minus ten degree weather when you’re…you’re…”

She pulled her voluminous flannel nightgown over her head and faced him, naked. “Pregnant is the word you’re searching for. Expecting. With child. In a family way.”

His face tightened. He glanced at her abdomen, in all it’s well-rounded, five-and-a-half-months glory, before turning back to the closet and lifting his gun locker from the shelf. “Fine. If you’re okay with it, I’m okay. Dress warmly.”

“Dress warmly,” she muttered, wiggling into her underwear and long johns. She felt plenty warm already, from the small hot flame of anger that had ignited in her gut. “Knocked up,” she said to his back. “A bun in the oven. Enciente. Preggers.”

He whirled toward her, startling her. “Are you trying to start a fight?”

Yes. At least a fight would clear the air. “I just want you to be able to look at me without wincing.”

He shook his head. “I have a lot of reactions when I see you nude, Clare, but wincing isn’t one of them.” He picked up his glasses and put them on. “I’ll make us some coffee to go. Hurry up.” He headed downstairs.

“Decaf for me,” she yelled after him. God, how she hated decaf. She layered a heavy wool sweater over her clericals before buttoning on her collar. She fastened her silver cross around her neck and held it tightly in one hand. She closed her eyes and tried to let her anger float away with her breath. Dear God, please help me to be more understanding of my husband, who’s being a monumental jerk– she started again. Dear God, please help me to break through my husband’s stubbornness– no. She released the cross and pressed her hands against her abdomen. She knew what the right prayer was. “Dear God,” she said, “please help me.”

CHAPTER THREE

Huggins had said the fire was a bad one, and he hadn’t been exaggerating. Standing shin-deep the churned-up snow near the fire chief’s vehicle, Russ could feel the heat in waves across his face despite the single-digit temperatures. The MacAllen place was—or had been—an old farmhouse, set uphill and across the road from its barn. The land on either side had probably been cleared in the distant past, but it had been allowed to run wild, so that the blazing structure was boxed in on both sides by trees and brush.

“We’re concentrating on keeping it contained at this point.” Huggins had left his oxygen mask dangling beneath his chin, but otherwise was fully suited in his turnout. He pointed to where teams of men were hosing down the foliage on either side of the house. Russ could swear he saw the arcing water freeze as it touched the spindly black branches outlined against the moon-bright sky. “If it gets past us, these woods could carry it to the neighbors’ further on down the hill.”

Russ nodded. “Any idea how it started?”

“Smoking in bed? Faulty kerosene heater? You know how it is, this time of year.”

“Oh, yeah.” Winter was always the worst. Christmas lights in overloaded sockets on tinder-dry trees. Candles left burning in empty rooms. And with the extreme cold they’d been having this January, people were lighting fires in unused hearths and running badly-wired space heaters next to oil cans in the garage.

“I’ll tell you one thing.” Huggins squinted at the structure, as if he could see inside the blackened timber and blinding flame. “This bastard’s spreading a lot faster than your usual house fire. Look at how the fire’s boxed the place, both floors, corner to corner.”

“You thinking an accelerant?”

Huggins made a noise. “Maybe. I’m no expert, but if we can save enough of her, I might be able to tell.”

“You’re sure the MacAllens were inside?”

“Are they on your snowbird list?”

The Millers Kill Police Department kept a record of residents who fled to milder climates until spring. Their homes were checked out regularly during patrol—Russ had found fully furnished, empty houses were a magnet for trouble. “I don’t remember ever seeing their names.”

“Welp. Their cars were in the drive.” Huggins pointed again. “We had to tow ’em back out of the way.”

Between the ladder and the pump trucks crowding the driveway, Russ could glimpse a couple vehicles wedged into the snow. Beyond them, the EMTs had erected a rest station out of the back of the ambulance; a half-open tent containing a few camp stools and a sports keg of water. They must have had heaters, because Clare, talking to one of the firefighters, had shed her parka. “Anybody else who might have been in the house?”

“Not that we know of. One of my guys says they were an older couple, around our age. If they had any kids, they were long gone.”

Clare turned as the firefighter strapped his helmet back on.

“Huh,” Huggins said. “She’s, uh…”

“Pregnant. I don’t suppose your guy has any contact names? Closest relatives?”

“Nope. That’s up to your people.” Huggins was still staring as Clare shouldered on her parka and walked the firefighter out of the tent and through the snow bordering the drive. “They can do that? Protestant ministers?”

“If they’re women they can. Did you see anything else that made you think the fire might have been deliberately set?”

“Nothing off hand. I’ll be able to tell you more tomorrow.” He finally tore his gaze from Clare and looked at Russ. “So you’re gonna be a dad.” He whacked Russ’s arm. “Better you ‘n me. I have a hard enough time keeping up with my grandkids, and we get to give ’em back at the end of the afternoon. If Debbie told me we were having another kid, I’d shoot myself. Of course, she’s already gone through the change, so we don’t have to worry about that.” He gave Russ another whack for good measure. “Guess that’s the downside of those younger women, huh?”

“I guess so.”

Clare watched as the man she’d been talking to tapped out one of the guys on the pumper. The newly relieved firefighter raised his hand in greeting as he climbed down, but didn’t seem inclined to talk to a priest. Instead, he pointed to the far side of the rig. Clare vanished around the nose of the truck.

A wrenching wooden groan drew Russ’s attention away from his wife.

Huggins switched on his radio. “The roof’s gonna go. Everybody back. Everybody back.” The teams staggered away from the farmhouse, clumsy with the snow and their water-whipped hoses. With a roar, the roof collapsed inward, sending sparks and gouts of flame high into the frosty air. Huggins shook his head. “I take back what I said about telling you tomorrow. It’ll be a miracle if there’s enough left for us to make out how this monster started. We may need to call in one of the state investigators if we want to rule out arson.”

“I’ll do a run-down on the MacAllens from my end.” The noise from the fire and the water was louder now, and Russ had to raise his voice to be heard. “See if there’s anything that raises a red flag.”

Clare emerged from the far side of the pump truck and headed toward them, a big, broad-chested dog walking beside her.

“How ’bout that,” Huggins said. “She got the mutt to come with her.” He looked at Russ. “The dog was in the front yard when we got here. Ran off when we towed the cars and wouldn’t let any of us get near it.”

The dog stopped several yards away and dropped to the snow. Clare bent over, scratching its head and ruffling its fur until it rolled over and allowed her to rub its belly. She stood up and slapped her thigh. “Come on, Oscar. That’s a good dog.”

Oscar obediently rose and accompanied her. As they waded through the snow toward Russ and Huggins, the dog whined and trembled.

Clare stopped a few feet from them. “I think he’s afraid of men.” She dug her fingers into the dog’s fur.

Russ got down on one knee in the snow. “Hey, boy.” He held out his hand. Oscar sniffed toward him, but wouldn’t leave Clare’s side. Russ looked up toward Clare. “Did you get his name off his tags?”

She nodded. “And his address. Fifty-two Crandell Hill Road.”

“That’s the MacAllens’,” Huggins said. “Looks like we’ll have to get P.J. over here.” P.J. Adams was the Millers Kill animal control officer.

Clare made a sound of protest.

Russ braced a hand on his knee and pushed himself back up. “How did he get out of the house?”

Huggins shrugged. “Must of been kept outside.”

“Did you see a dog house? Any other outbuildings?”

“Just the barn.”

Russ looked across the road. In the bright bands of moonlight, he could see the barn’s double doors shut up tight. “Maybe.” He could hear the doubt in his own voice.

“So they left him out for the night,” Huggins said.

“Not in this weather.” Clare thumped the dog’s side. “Look at him. His coat’s thick enough to keep him comfortable for a while, but he’s still a short-hair. He’s cold right now.”

She was right. The trembling Russ had taken for fear was the dog’s reaction to the deep freeze. “Could he have escaped from inside the house somehow?”

“Maybe,” Huggins said. “The front windows blew out before we got here. He would have been pretty scorched and smoky if that were the case.”

Clare squatted down and buried her face in the dog’s fur. “Smells like baby shampoo.” She rubbed briskly over the dog’s legs. “Somebody took good care of you, didn’t they?”

“What’s the deal about where the dog was?” Huggins asked.

Russ looked at the inferno that had once been a home and was now a funeral pyre. “If he was an indoor dog, one of the MacAllens had to let him out before the fire started.”

“To do his business. So?”

“So if one of them was up with the dog, how come neither of them made it out alive?”

CHAPTER FOUR

The dog came home with them. Russ hadn’t planned on it. Of course, nothing in his life seemed planned at this point—everything rolled over him, one chaotic accident after another.

What little he could do at the MacAllens was done; he wasn’t going to roust any of his people out of bed before the state arson investigator made a ruling, and Huggins assured him that wouldn’t happen until midmorning at the earliest.

Clare was kept busier than he was. She sat in the warming tent, the dog at her feet, and passed out Gateraide and talked with the guys. Once in a while she and the dog walked down the road a ways with one or another of them, her head bent, nodding, listening as they told her what they didn’t want their buddies to hear.

When Russ was sure every volunteer had cycled through the warming tent at least once, he collected her. The fact that she only put up a token protest told him how tired she was. In his truck, she closed her eyes and let her head fall back, one hand on her stomach and the other on the dog, who had wedged himself between her seat and the glove compartment and sat with his head resting on her thigh.

He called PJ. Adams, and got a recorded message letting him know she was vacationing for the week and any emergencies should be handled by the Glens Falls Animal Control Department. Glens Falls’ message said they would be open at 8am. He got a real live human being when he called their dispatch, who assured him that he was free to drop an animal off at the impound, but no, they weren’t coming to get it unless it was dangerous. He cursed under his breath as he stowed his phone.

“What’s the problem?” Clare asked.

“P.J.’s frolicking on some beach in the Caribbean, which means we’re going to have to take the dog to Glens Falls ourselves.”

Clare scratched the dog’s head and let out an unhappy sigh. The dog whimpered and butted against her. They both looked at Russ.

“It’s a perfectly good shelter. They takes excellent care of the animals.”

Clare nodded.

“Somebody will be by to claim him or adopt him in a few days.”

The dog whined.

“Give me a break, Clare. He’s used to living out in the country. We live in town near a busy intersection. And we don’t have a fenced yard.”

Clare nodded again.

“Besides, we’re supposed to be heading up to the lake for our honeymoon. What are we going to do, bring him to the cabin with us?”

The dog looked straight at Russ and perked his ears up.

“Cabin,” Russ said. The dog’s ears perked up again. “Cabin.” This time he got a tongue loll in addition to the ear alert. “Huh.”

Clare bent over Oscar and scratched beneath his jowls.

“Oh, for chrissakes.” Russ threw the truck into gear. “Just until we make other arrangements.” He pulled back onto the road. Christ. He didn’t want a dog. He shot a glance at his wife. She had leaned back and closed her eyes again. She was smiling faintly. He didn’t want a kid, either. They had agreed on that, hadn’t they? Before they had gotten married. No kids. Being a priest took too much out of her to leave anything left over for motherhood. And he was for damn sure too old for fatherhood.

She had found out at the beginning of November, a week after the wedding. Some blood work that should have been nothing turned up something, and he had been so nauseatingly scared he was going to lose her that when she hung up the kitchen phone and turned to him and said, “I’m pregnant,” for a second, he had felt nothing except a huge heartbeat of relief. Then the reality settled in.

“Pregnant?”

She nodded.

He collapsed into one of the ladderback chairs. “How?” She looked at him incredulously. “I mean, I thought you had the birth control thing all covered.” He jammed one hand through his hair. “Jesus, Clare, I would’ve used condoms if there was a problem.” He squinted up at her. “You didn’t forget to take ’em, did you?” He didn’t mean to sound suspicious, but it came out that way.

She stalked across the kitchen and slammed the percolator on the stove. “I didn’t screw up my birth control pills in order to trick you into fatherhood, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He rose from the chair and went to her. Wrapped his arms around her stiff shoulders. “I’m sorry.”

“This is as much of a surprise to me as it is to you.” She poured a scoop of her home-ground coffee into the pot.

“You didn’t have any idea?”

“No.” She turned to face him. “I mean, yeah, I suppose I had symptoms. I was exhausted in the run-up to the wedding, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have other reasons for it. And I had some bouts of nausea, but never in the morning.”

“I don’t think it has to be in the morning.”

She pushed him away. “Well, thanks for updating me, Dr. Brazelton.” She twisted a faucet on and filled up the water chamber.

“How far along are you?”

“I don’t know!” She sloshed some of the water onto the enamel stovetop. She pressed her palm against her forehead.

He took the container and poured it into the percolator. “Let’s think.” He turned on the element and the blue gas flame sprang to life. “We decided to forgo sleeping together about a week before we got engaged–”

“You decided.”

He bit his tongue before continuing. “Which was a week before Labor Day. So, mid-August. Which would make you two and a half months.”

“If that’s when we conceived! I got home from my tour of duty at the end of June. I could be over four months pregnant right now!” She yanked her baggy sweater up and stared at her abdomen “Can you tell? Do I look different?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Oh, good Lord, what am I going to do?” She released the hem of her sweater and put her hands over her mouth. She shook her head. When she looked at him, her eyes were full of tears. “I’ve been married for a week and I’m going to start popping out any second. What’s my congregation going to think? What’s the vestry going to say?” She moaned and covered her eyes. “Oh, my God, what’s the bishop going to say?”

He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “They don’t need to know. We’ll get this taken care of quietly. We can find a good clinic somewhere outside the diocese if you’re worried about your privacy.” He didn’t mention it would be harder if she really was over three months along. Better not to borrow trouble before they knew.

“An abortion?”

“If we get it done as soon as possible, no one will ever know you were pregnant in the first place.”

“I’m not getting an abortion to save myself embarrassment, Russ.” She broke his hold on her and went to the cupboard.

“I’m not implying that’s the reason why–”

She banged two mugs onto the counter and yanked the silverware drawer open.

“Look, we agreed. No children. For very good reasons. Your job—your calling—takes a huge amount of time and emotional energy. You told me you didn’t think you could be a priest and a mother both. Right?”

She took out two spoons and nodded.

“And I’m fifty-two years old, Clare. I’d be sixty-five when the kid’s in middle school. I’ll probably be dead before we get the last college tuition bill. That’s not fair, not to me, not to a kid. Is it?”

She fetched the sugar bowl from the table and shook her head.

“So an abortion is the logical solution. Isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” She poured out the two mugs and handed him one.

Her ready agreement threw him. He spooned sugar into his coffee, eying her. “Okay. Then the next step is to find a clinic.”

“No.”

“Clare–”

She stirred her sweetened coffee slowly. “This isn’t about logic or rational thought. It’s about a child, yes or no.”

“No,” he said.

She looked down at her abdomen with an entirely different expression than she had had only minutes before. His stomach sank. “Look,” he said, before she could say something that was going to blow up their life together. “We’ve just found out. Would you at least take the next twenty-four hours and think about it? Please?”

She picked up her coffee and blew across it. “Of course.” She was about to take her first swallow when she stopped. She put the mug down. “I can’t drink this.” She sounded as if she’d just discovered it was radioactive. “It’s got caffeine.”

And that was when he knew what her decision was going to be.

He pulled into the rectory driveway and shifted the truck into park. Clare was asleep. He looked at her sharp features and the violet smudges under her eyes. He almost hated to wake her.

The dog’s wet nose poking at his hand startled him. Reflexively, he scratched the mutt’s head. “Don’t get used to it,” he said. “In a week, P.J.’s back and you’re gone.” He may not have any control over the rest of his life, but he could by-God draw the line at a dog.

CHAPTER FIVE

Officer Kevin Flynn had developed a particular morning routine since he got put on the day shift at the MKPD. He got up at 5 and ate a bagel with peanut butter. Then he drove from his apartment in Fort Henry to the Millers Kill Community Center to work out. Other departments had their own weight rooms—the Syracuse PD, where he had served six months temporary detached duty, had a whole freaking fitness center on-site—but in Millers Kill, population 8,000 and falling, the best they could do were free memberships to the Community Center gym, where officers could keep duty-ready next to the Keep On Movin’ Arthritis Action class and the Mommy-and-Me yoga.

Showing up at 5:30am meant Kevin was through before the moms and grandmas got in. He showered, shaved, and swung through the McDonald’s drive-through for two bacon-and-egg McMuffins. He tried to finish those off before arriving at the station; if he didn’t, the chief or deputy chief always wound up reminiscing about the good old days when they could eat whatever they wanted and stay up all night and walk uphill to school both ways. Kevin got ribbed enough for being the youngest person on the force; he figured he should at least be able to enjoy the benefits of being 26 without having to listen to the old guys jaw on about their lost youth.

He always stopped by the call center and said hi to Harlene first. Their dispatcher, who was even older than the chief and the dep, liked to give him a sort of eyeball-health-check. In the summer, she made sure he had on sunscreen. “You know,” she’d say, “Fair-skinned redheads burn easier than anybody else.” Since his mother had been telling him that for longer than he could remember, Kevin did, in fact, know this. In the winter, she fed him home-baked goodies. “You need to put on some weight,” she’d say. “Skinny people die out in the cold, you know that?” Harlene herself was in no danger of death-by-thinness.

Then he logged in, checked the circ sheets, and booted up his computer. He kept his face to the screen until it was time for the morning briefing, not talking, only answering with a quick “’morning,” as the rest of the shift arrived in the single large squadroom that served as everyone’s office.

Getting as much paperwork done in the a.m. meant he got out faster in the afternoon. It also meant he didn’t see Officer Hadley Knox until roll call. A great deal of his time at the station was choreographed so as to avoid Hadley Knox.

Today, despite burying himself in a CADEA report, Kevin knew when she arrived. He could smell her. He didn’t know if it was perfume, or the shampoo she used on her boy-short hair, or if it was just Hadley, but he could always smell her.

Lyle MacAuley, the deputy chief, stuck his head into the bullpen. “Briefing.” Kevin folded up his laptop, grabbed his notebook and followed the rest of the officers out the door. He always got in last to the briefing, so he could position himself as far away from Hadley as possible. In Syracuse, they had sat by tens in ordered rows while their names were called off, but at the MKPD they had a jumble of wooden chairs and no more than five officers at any one time, so he had to keep flexible. He didn’t sit behind her, where he’d be tempted to look at her. To the side was best, where he only caught glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye.

When he got to the briefing room, Kevin was startled to see the chief in his usual place, sitting on the large wooden table, his boots planted on two chairs. At his TDY, Kevin had been bemused to see the sergeant-in-charge standing, behind a podium, with a laser pointer. In Syracuse, they had Power Point. In Millers Kill, they had Lyle MacAuley, with the erasable marker, by the whiteboard.

“What’re you are doin’ here, chief?” Nobel Entwhistle stopped in the middle of the floor while he processed the unexpected sight. “I thought you was going on vacation for the week.”

The chief gestured for them to take their seats. “I’m still heading out this afternoon. I had a call last night I wanted to get you up-to-date on.”

“The fire on Crandell Hill Road?” Kevin had read last night’s logs, and the only other activities had been a dead deer on Old Route 100 and a couple low-level traffic stops for missing lights.

“That’s right. Home of Theodore and Helen MacAllen, who did not survive the fire. You all know the drill when there’s a fatality. The state fire marshall’s office’ll send one of their investigators over this morning, and Kevin, I want you to be there.”

“You don’t trust ’em to share everything they find out?” Lyle MacAuley raised his bushy gray eyebrows. “I’m shocked. Shocked, I say.”

“When it comes to state agencies, my motto is trust, but verify. Kevin, be polite, but make sure we’ve got a copy of everything and that your signature’s on the evidence tags along with the arson investigator’s.”

Kevin nodded.

“I don’t recall their names ever coming across my desk.” The chief glanced around the room. “Anybody? Noble?”

The big man shook his head. “Three or four MacAllens between here and Cossayuharie. Nobody’s been in trouble that I know.”

If Noble hadn’t heard of them, they were clean. He had a prodigious memory for the families and features of their corner of the Adirondacks.

“Okay. Knox, I want you to run down the MacAllens from our end. Was there anything going on that might point toward arson? Pay special attention to their finances—they wouldn’t be the first people to wind up killing themselves while trying to collect on their insurance.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. I’ll be here until noon. After that, report in to Lyle if you run across anything.” The chief’s boots thudded on the floor as he slid off the table. “Kevin? Can I see you a minute?”

Kevin followed the chief back to his office. “Have a seat,” the chief said. Since there was only one chair that wasn’t piled with manilla folders, report forms, and back issues of Police Digest, Kevin took it.

The chief sat across the paper-strewn desk from him. “I got a call first thing this morning from Captain Iaccoca in Syracuse. He wanted to let me know he was extending an offer of employment to one of my officers.” He folded his arms over his chest. “I wish the staties would be so courteous. They just poach my guys with no warning.”

Kevin blinked. “Employment?”

The chief nodded. “They’d like to hire you.”

“Me?”

“Don’t look so surprised. I got a glowing report of your performance after your TDY.”

“But I haven’t gotten anything–” he suddenly realized how this must look. “I didn’t apply to them, chief. Honest, I didn’t.”

“I know. The invitation to join their department’s in the mail. It’ll probably be waiting for you when you get home.” The chief braced his arms on his desk. “You’re a good cop, Kevin. I’d hate like hell to lose you, but I realize Syracuse can offer you opportunities we’ll never be able to match. They’ve got a detective squad, a fraud unit, tactical response,” the chief plucked a hair from his sleeve. “Hell, even K-nine, if you want to work with dogs.”

Kevin gripped his chair. He felt like he might lose his balance. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Think about it. If you have any questions, if you want to bounce anything off me, just drop in and–” the chief frowned. “No, I’ll be away. You can call me on my cell. Captain Iaccoca would like to hear from you by next Monday. He’s trying to fill his positions before going up for budget review.” The chief stood and held out his hand. Kevin got up, knock-kneed, and shook it. “You’ll be a great asset to whatever department you choose. And wherever you go, you’ll always be part of the Millers Kill family.”

Twenty seconds later, Kevin was making his way along the same hallway he’d walked down every working day for the last five years. Possibilities spun in his head like pictures on a slot machine. SWAT team. Major Crimes. Detective.

Then he thought about what he’d be giving up. Sunday dinner with the family. Going to basketball games in the same gym he played in. Home.

The door to the ladies’ room swung open—it had been the visitors’ john before the department had hired a woman—and Hadley charged out. Kevin skidded to a stop, barely avoiding crashing into her. She looked up at him. Way up. She was tiny compared to him. For a split second her dark eyes met his. “Sorry.” She dropped her gaze and bolted toward the squad room.

Kevin rubbed his chest as he went to collect his parka. He was putting their non-relationship behind him. He wasn’t still dreaming and hoping and wanting all the time. So why did the thought of never seeing Hadley again hurt more than all the other possibilities combined?

CHAPTER SIX

Clare normally kept working – her secretary, Lois, referred to it as hiding in her office – until she was summoned to the monthly vestry meeting. But this wasn’t the usual meeting, and it wasn’t the usual church business, and so she startled Lois when the secretary entered the meeeting room carrying a tray with two pots and jumble of mugs. “Am I late?” Lois asked, setting the tray on a black oak sideboard. “Or are you early?”

“I’m early.” Clare rubbed her stomach. She didn’t want to call attention to her pregnancy, but she couldn’t seem to help herself. She had no idea where the impulse came from. She’d never had the slightest urge to touch another expectant mother’s abdomen.

“Bearding the lions in the den?” Lois unstacked the mugs and set out the sugar and milk.

“I feel like the politicians you see hanging outside the town hall on voting day. One last chance to shake hands and smile before my fate’s decided.” She looked around her at the reproduction linenfold paneling, the diamond-paned windows, the worn Aubusson rug. “Either that, or Anne Bolyn. I can’t decide.”

“Cheer up! They’re not going to cut your head off with a sword.” Lois handed her a mug. “Have some tea. It’s herbal.”

Clare made a gagging noise, but poured herself a cup anyway. “God, I wish I hadn’t agreed to this honeymoon thing. I should be here.”

“Doing what? You met with the bishop. The vestry’s met with the bishop. You can be sure Elizabeth deGroot’s been meeting with the bishop.”

“She probably has him on speed dial.” Clare’s deacon pulled her own weight, no one could fault her on that. But her primary job responsibility was to keep a close watch and an even closer rein on Clare.

“The die is cast. What’s done is done. You might as well be off relaxing and enjoying that hunky police chief of yours.”

Clare gestured toward her maternity clerical blouse. “That’s the point, isn’t it? I’ve obviously already been enjoying that hunky police chief.”

Lois made a token attempt at schooling her expression, then guffawed. She was a petite woman, but she laughed like Santa Claus on nitrous oxide. Clare began laughing helplessly, too, which was when the first of the vestry entered the room. “Goodness.” Mr. Madsen blinked, making him appear more worried than usual. “Are we interrupting?”

“I suspect they’re just blowing off steam, Norm.” Mrs. Henry Marshall released the arm of her gentleman friend and gave Clare a hug. “How are you doing, dear?”

“I’ve been better.”

The elderly woman nodded. “At least your trouble’s professional this time, instead of personal. Remember, jobs can be replaced. Husbands cannot.”

Mr. Madsen paused while easing off Mrs. Marshall’s fur-collared coat. He frowned, as if trying to tease out where he fit in that statement.

“Hi, everyone.” Geoffrey Burns, the youngest member of the vestry, strode through the door, shucking off his camel coat. He tossed his briefcase on the black oak table with the disregard that comes from having much finer antiques at home. “Clare, I want you to know Karen and I support you one hundred per cent.”

“Thanks, Geoff. That–”

“Although I still think you’re crazy for taking up with Van Alstyne. Hi, Terry.” The lawyer nodded to the portly banker entering the room. “I’ve got plenty of divorced friends I could have introduced you to if I had known you were actually getting serious about the guy.”

“There was that nice fellow from Barkley Investments,” Terry McKellan agreed, shucking off his puffy parka. “I liked him.”

“He knew wines,” Geoff said.

“Yes, Hugh Parteger was a lovely man. However,” Clare could hear her voice stretching, “I’m married and expecting, so I think you can say I’ve well and truly made my bed.”

“And now you have to lie in it?” Sterling Silver didn’t enter the meeting room, he made an entrance, with the rest of them serving as his audience.

“Sterling…” Mrs. Marshall’s usually composed voice sharpened.

“I’m just saying this sort of thing didn’t happen back when we only had male clergy. Which is what I told the bishop.”

Oh, wonderful. Clare wasn’t just embarassing her own congregation, she was putting a black mark on every woman in the diocese.

“It seems to me,” Mrs. Marshall said, “male clergy have had their share of scandals.”

“Scandal? For God’s sake. We’re not living in the nineteenth century.” Geoff Burns thumped his coffee mug on the sideboard. “Hell, nowadays, the fact a couple actually gets married before bringing a child into the world is enough to earn them a gold star from Miss Manners.”

“Barely exceeding the low expectations of the present day is hardly what we’re here for, though, is it?” Sterling took his seat, tugging his cashmere scarf for emphasis.

“Back in our day, there were plenty of girls who walked up the aisle in a tight-waisted dress, Sterling.” Mrs. Marshall accepted a cup of tea from Norm Madsen and carried it to the table. “As long as the niceties were observed, no one commented if they had six and a half pound premature babies.” She paused. “Well. No one nice would comment.”

Clare felt a weight pressing on her chest. At that moment, she was sure if she tore open her blouse, the letters PMS would be emblazoned over her breastbone. Pre-Marital Sex.

“Excuse me. Sorry.” Clare looked up to see Lois sidling through the door past two figures in black clericals. The Reverend Elizabeth deGroot entered, closely followed by the diocesan archdeacon, Willard Aberforth. They made an odd pair; the one petite and composed, the other stilt-like and stooping. One worked closely with Clare as part of the St. Alban’s family. The other was opposed to women’s ordination in general and many of Clare’s actions in particular. One would throw her under a bus with a regretful moue. The other would step in front of the bus in her place, lecturing her until the moment he was was mown down.

Aberforth had already divested himself of coat and boots, which meant he had stopped at Elizabeth’s office before proceeding to the meeting room. Clare tried to gauge his news by the look on deGroot’s fine-boned face. The problem was, her deacon only had three basic expressions, as far as Clare could tell. Saintly patience, regret, and I’m disappointed in you. No, there was a fourth. Smiling bravely. She was using it right now, crossing the room, looking as if she’d just heard the rector of St. Alban’s had a fatal disease. “Clare. Oh, Clare. Are you nervous?”

“Father Aberforth’s just here to tell the vestry the next step in the bishop’s review.” Clare kept her voice calm. “I don’t think he’s going to hand me a bell and send me out to cry, ‘Unclean.’”

“I wish I had your sense of humor. It just makes me sick to think–” Elizabeth touched the silver cross on her chest. “Well, I suppose that’s the benefit of being so impulsive. You never really have to think about the consequences of your acts until it’s all too late.”

Clare smiled tightly. “Shall we sit down?”

She took her usual place at the head of the table. Until and unless the bishop removed her, she was still the rector here. She wasn’t so far gone that she didn’t see the grim humor in her possesiveness. She’d been wrestling with doubt ever since she became a parish priest. She’d jumped at the chance to recommission in the Guard as if the army were a rescue basket waiting to lift her away from her pastoral failures and a relationship she’d believed was irretrivably broken. She dropped her hand on her abdomen again. The voice of her survival school instructor echoed in her head. You’re not very bright, are you, Fergusson?

“…are you, Ms. Fergusson?”

“Hm?” She snapped to attention.

“I asked,” Fr. Aberforth said, “if you were waiting for anyone else.”

“Mr. Corlew isn’t here yet,” Elizabeth said. “He’s our senior warden.”

“We can bring him up to speed when he arrives.” In the tally she kept in her head, Clare suspected he was a no vote. Not that they would be voting today. “I believe you all know the Reverend Canon Aberforth. Father? This is your meeting.”

The archdeacon nodded perfunctorily to the rest of the table. The droops and folds of his face made him look like a basset hound—if bassets had shrewd eyes and caustic tongues.

“The bishop first wishes me to thank all of you for the time you’ve taken to respond to his questions. He knows this is a matter of some delicacy, and he appreciates the vestry’s willingness to be perfectly frank with him.”

Clare’s gaze slid toward Sterling Sumner. She could just imagine how perfectly frank he must have been.

“As we know, the church’s position toward her clergy is that they be either married, or celibate.”

“Or in a faithful, monogamous relationship if they’re not allowed to marry by the laws of their state.”

Aberforth blinked at her. “Yes, Ms. Fergusson. I believe we all know your position in that regard. However, there was no legal or moral impediment to your marriage.”

“You just jumped the gun,” Sterling said.

“This is ridiculous,” Geoff Burns said. “Clare and Van Alstyne tied the knot less than five months after she’d gotten back from deployment! When my wife and I got engaged, it took her mother a year and a half to organize the damn ceremony. Frankly, I think starting their family as quickly as possible is smart. It’s not like Clare’s getting any younger.”

Clare covered her face with one hand.

Aberforth looked at both men quellingly. “The circumstances surrounded Ms. Fergusson’s pregnancy are well-known to the bishop.”

And boy, hadn’t that been a fun conversation.

“Nevertheless, the disciplinary canons are clear. Under Section Four, Title Four, Ms. Fergusson could be brought up on charges of sexual misconduct and conduct unbecoming to a priest.” He raised his hand against the room’s instant uproar. “The bishop has no wish to convene a disciplinary panel. He feels the resulting publicity would reflect poorly on St. Albans, the diocese, and the church as a whole.” From across the table, Aberforth pinned her with his black eyes. “Therefore, he is offering you the chance to quietly resign. If you do so, no actions will be taken, and you will be free to seek a parish in another diocese without fear of commendation.”

Resign? Clare swallowed. “Does he… do I have to give you my answer right now?”

“No. I’ve informed him of your upcoming vacation, and suggested a period of quiet reflection and prayer, away from the press of your day-to-day duties, would be beneficial. You can give us your answer when you return.”

“So… a week?”

Aberforth nodded. The vestry erupted into arguments; Geoff threatening, Mrs. Marshall high-handed, Mr. Madsen pointing out the pros and cons of the plan to anyone who would listen.

The archdeacon continued to look at her intently. What was he trying to say? Should she take the offer? Should she fight? Was the bishop seeing this as a test? Or as an opportunity?

One week. Her hands curled over the edge of the black oak table as if she could anchor herself to it. One week.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Kevin Flynn had expected the wreckage of the burnt home to be messy. Cinders, charcol, melted snow refrozen to ice; picking his way around the rubble of the MacAllen’s life had already coated his boots with a gray slime and stained his uniform pants up to the knee. What he hadn’t expected was the smell.

“God.” He waved his glove beneath his nose in a vain attempt to clear some breathing space. “Stinks like an industrial accident in New Jersey.”

“Yeah.” Patrick Lent, the state arson investigator, didn’t look up from his camera, aimed at a stack of debris the rest of the fire marshall’s team was sorting through. “The crap that gets released when a house burns is crazy. Toxic chemicals, asbestos, lead.” He snapped off a series of photos. “The insulation, the electrical system, rubber, plastic—that’s why we’ve got my partner, here.” Lent made a gesture, and the dog that had been sitting guietly a few feet away rose and trotted to the his side. Unlike most K-9 police dogs, the arson dog wasn’t in a vest or identifying collar. He could have been someone’s mutt, a mix of German Shepherd and lab, maybe, watching the scene.

“What’s he do?” Kevin asked.

“Dakota’s trained to sniff out acclerants. Somebody could have gone through this house with a bucket of parafin-oil blend, and you and I couldn’t tell. But Dakota catches the smallest trace of a fire-starter and can track it for miles.”

“What about the bodies?” Both men looked to the far corner of the ruined house, where firemen were shifting debris from a towering pile suspected to have been an upstairs bedroom. Part of the second floor had collapsed onto the floor below, making the search a slow excavation rather than a quick retrival. Nothing had been found yet, but everyone knew it was only a matter of time.

“He hasn’t been trained to find corpses. He’ll ignore humans, unless they’ve got accelerant on them.” Lent pointed to the charred and listing timbers framing non-existant rooms. “Dakota. Seek.”

The dog trotted toward the ruins. He entered through the shell of the front door and veered to the left, picking his way over the wreckage, nosing in what looked to Kevin like a random pattern. Suddenly, he sat.

“Huh,” Lent said. “That was fast.” He walked toward where the dog was sitting. “Show me.” The dog scratched. Lent bent over and placed a marker where his canine partner had indicated. “I’ll take the evidence sample after Dakota’s run the rest of the house. Seek.”

The dog sprang up and headed toward what must have been the center hall. Abruptly, he sat again.

“Does he do that every time?” Kevin asked.

“Yeah. He’ll only scratch to indicate the spot. Keeps him from injuring himself.” The arson investigator set another marker. “Seek.”

The dog went a few feet and sat again. Kevin and Lent followed the dog throughout the house, walking, sitting, marking. After forty minutes, they had a trail of flourescent flags streaming in and out of every room.

“Jesus,” Kevin said. “Whoever did this wasn’t leaving much to chance, was he?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Lent scratched Dakota’s head and gave him a treat.

In the heap of charred rubble that had been a bedroom, one of the fire marshall’s men straightened. “Hey. Officers. We got remains.”

Kevin and Lent made their way through the scorched and broken rooms. “If the owners were inside, chances are good it’s not going to be insurance fraud, which is what my first guess would have been.” Lent stepped back while two firemen lifted another timber out of the way. “The other most usual scenario is a pissed-off husband or boyfriend.”

“They were a middle-aged married couple,” Kevin said.

“Then I’d check out the grown kids. Do they have a daughter who broke up with someone? Left an abusive husband?”

Two of the fire marshall’s men lifted a ragged panel that might have been attic insulation. “There they come,” another man said.

Kevin concentrated on keeping his face neutral and his stomach down. He had seen death before, but not like this. The two corpses, blackened, mummy-like, were barely identifiable as human. Age, gender and features had all been burned away. The bodies curled toward one another, as if they had been– “It looks like they were just lying there.”

“We see that a lot,” Lent said. “The smoke gets them in their sleep. These two probably never even woke up.”

Thank God for that. Keven stepped closer as the arson investigator picked up his camera again. “We’ll get the shots and then you can bag the remains,” Lent told the fire marshal’s men.

“Wait.” Kevin removed his leather gloves and stuffed them in his parka pocket before tugged on purple evidence gloves in their place. He bent over the two heads. Each skull had charred cracks radiating from a chipped hole. He touched one hole lightly. His finger went all the way through. “The hell? These look like gunshot wounds.” He glanced up at Lent. “Is this some sort of natural result of extreme heat?”

“No. It’s not.” The arson investigator’s voice was grim. “Better call in your M.E.”

Kevin retreated to his squad car, grateful for the chance to warm up. He held one hand out to the vent as he keyed his mic with the other. “Dispatch, this is fifteen sixty-three.”

“Fifteen sixty-three, go ahead.”

“Requesting a medical examiner at thirty Crandall Hill Road. We’ve found–” he almost said the MacAllen’s remains but the memory of the chief’s voice stopped him. Never assume. “–human remains. Two adults who appear to have been shot in the head.”

“Roger that, fifteen sixty-three. Please hold.” Flynn unscrewed the lid of his thermos and took a swig. He almost spat the mouthful out. His hot chocolate had gone cold and gritty.

“Fifteen sixty-three, I have confirmation the M.E. is on his way. Please hold.”

Flynn unzipped his parka and let the heat seep inside. The radio cracked again. “Fifteen sixty-three, I’m connecting you to fifteen seventy.”

There was a snapping sound, and Hadley’s voice came on. “Flynn? You’ve found remains?”

“Yeah. Two adults. Why?”

Even over the bad connection, he could tell she was upset. “There may be another body in there. It turns out the MacAllens were fostering a little girl.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

“Her name’s Mikayla Johnson.” Hadley wasn’t great at doing the unemotional cop voice at the best of times. Now, standing in the squad room reporting to the rest of the team on this little girl, she was worse than usual. “She’s eight years old.” Eight. The same age as Genny. Her throat tightened. She focused on the notes in her hand. “Mother, Annie Johnson, lost custody six months ago. She got cranked on meth and drove into a tree. Mikayla was severely injured. She had to have a liver transplant.” She glanced up from her notebook. “According to the woman at Children and Family Services I spoke with, the MacAllens had experience dealing with the post-transplant issues. They have – they had a grown daughter who got a kidney transplant when she was a kid. Mikayla was their first foster child.”

The chief looked at Flynn, sprawled in a chair, his usual immaculate uniform crumpled and filthy. “Any sign of a third body?”

“No. As soon as I got the call from Hadley—from Officer Knox—the fire marshal’s team and I started searching. By the time I left the scene, we’d sifted through everything. She wasn’t in the house when it burned.”

“Thank God,” Hadley said under her breath. Flynn glanced at her.

The chief nodded. “What’s the ME say about the adult bodies?”

“No formal report until tomorrow or Wednesday, but he did confirmed they’d each been shot in the head,” Flynn wiped his face, leaving behind an ashy streak his jaw.

“No way it’s a firebug, then.” Lyle MacAuley pushed off of the wall he’d been leaning against. “I don’t care how screwed up a kid is, no eight-year-old’s going to double-tap her foster parents.”

“Did anybody have overnight visitation privileges? Grandparents? Aunt and uncle?”

Hadley shook her head. “Not according to CFS.”

“No. Would have been too easy.” The chief chewed his lip. “So this kid was taken. Why kill the MacAllens? Why burn the place down?”

“Patrick Lent, the state investigator, told me lots of first-time arsonists overestimate how much a fire will destroy.” Flynn brushed at his sooty pants almost unconsciously. “There was accelerant splashed all over the place. Could be whoever set the fire thought everything would be burned down to ashes, with no way to tell who had died in the fire and who had survived.”

“Where’s the mother?” The chief’s gaze went back to Hadley.

“Out on bail awaiting trail for posession, reckless endangerment, criminal speeding, evading and resisting.”

“Is there a father in the picture?”

Hadley shook her head. “Not that CFS knew about. There are grandparents over in Fort Henry. I’ve got last known addresses.”

“Okay. We start with the mom and the grandparents.” He pointed to her, then to Flynn. “See what you can find out about the father, or another man in the mom’s life who might be involved. Talk to the girl’s teachers and her social worker. See if she self-reported anything funny going on beforehand. Run up the sex offenders list. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible she was marked as a vulnerable target by a pedophile.”

Hadley glanced at Flynn before looking back at the chief. “Both of us?”

“Unless you’ve got something better to do, yes, both of you.”

The deputy chief raised his bushy gray eyebrows. “You sure you don’t want Eric to take lead? Or me?” Eric McCrea was their sergeant and senior investigator after the dep.

“Eric’s got too much on his plate right now.” The chief didn’t go into detail. He didn’t have to. They all knew McCrea was seeing an anger management therapist twice a week and trying to patch his marriage back together. The chief had had him on light duty since November. “And I need you here, running the department for me.”

“You’re still going?” MacAuley looked out the window, where the five o’clock dark had settled in. “Tonight?”

“Yes, I’m still going.” The chief’s voice didn’t invite discussion. “It’s an hour’s drive. I can be back here any time if you need me.”

The dep made a noncommital noise.

“Chief,” Hadley said, “about the transplant issue.”

“What about it?”

“According to the woman at CFS, Mikayla’s on daily medication.” She checked her notepad to get the word right. “Immunosuppresants.”

“Good. Find her doctor and put out a med alert at all the area phamacies. If we’re lucky, whoever took her will waltz right in and fill the prescription.”

Hadley shook her head. “No, listen. She has to have this stuff or her body will start to reject her transplant. If whoever took her didn’t also grab her medication, or doesn’t know how important it is, she’s going to get very sick, very fast.”

“How fast?” Flynn’s voice, next to her, startled her. She hadn’t realized he’d moved from his seat.

“A few days. Maybe seven or eight. After that, no drugs will help. Her body rejects the liver and…” her voice trailed off.

“She dies,” Flynn said.

CHAPTER NINE

Russ pinched the bridge of his nose. God. “Okay. Obviously this is top priority. Chances are, the mom’s snatched her and has already hit the road. Be ready to call an amber alert if that’s the case.” He thumped off the table, dismissing the two junior officers with a wave. After they had disappeared through the squad room door, he turned to Lyle. “I’m authorizing any overtime necessary. Just in case it’s not as simple as a parental kidnapping.”

“You’re still going off on your vacation?”

“Jesus, Lyle. You take off every other day during hunting season. I can’t get a week off for my damn honeymoon?”

Lyle spread his hands. “I’m just saying. Maybe that little girl is sitting beside her mom at a truck stop in Pennsylvania right now. Or maybe she’s with some perv who didn’t think twice about torching the MacAllens so’s he could have more time with his new toy.” Russ winced. “Either way,” Lyle went on, “we’re looking at a double homicide.”

“I know it’s a bad time. And I know if I stay and work the case we won’t have as much overtime. But let’s face it, there’s never a good time.” Russ looked at the corkboard where Lyle had pinned up the photos from the arson site. “There’s always going to be some case going on. There’s always going to be a good reason to come in early and stay late and drop in on the weekend and postpone the vacation.” He looked at Lyle. “I screwed up my first marriage because whenever the choice came between Linda and my job, I picked the job. Every. Damn. Time. I’m not going to make the same mistake with Clare.”

“You’ve got some all-new mistakes to make with her, huh?”

Russ snorted. “No doubt.” He picked up the case file and handed it to his deputy. “You can run this place without me. And Kevin and Knox can handle the investigation. If you need to bounce anything off me, you’ve got my number.”

“You want me to call in a daily update?”

Russ opened his mouth to say yes, then closed it. “No. One thing I learned from quitting booze. You have to go cold turkey.”

“Which makes me Jose Cuervo?”

“Ol’ Granddad, maybe.” The two men grinned at each other.

“Chief!” Harlene called. “Better get in here.”

“What?” Russ crossed the hall into the dispatch room. “Is it Clare?”

The dispatcher shook her head, setting her springy gray curls in motion. “Hold on a sec, Merva,” she said into her headset. She snapped a switch. “Okay, I’ve put you on the speaker. The chief’s right here.”

“Russell?”

He recognized the voice. Merva was one of his father’s cousins, halfway between his parents’ generation and his own. She worked in the town clerk’s office. “Yeah, Merva, I’m here. What’s up?”

“You need to get over here to town hall and you need to do it right now. They’re talking about the police department.”

Russ frowned. “Who is?”

“The aldermen. They’re having a closed-door meeting.” Meaning the public hadn’t been notified in advance.

“It’s okay, Merva. I’ve put in a request to hire another officer. They’re probably in there complaining about the cost.” The only thing they liked to bitch about more than the MKPD was the road department.

“They’re not complain’ about hiring a new officer.” Merva dropped her voice. “They’re talking about getting rid of you.”

“What? What do you mean?” Russ’s contract had just been renewed at the start of the fiscal year.

“No, no, not you, personally.” She sounded flustered. “They’re talking about getting the state police to take over patrolling Cossayuharie and Fort Henry, and cutting your department down to three or four men. There’s been other towns done it and saved lots of money.”

Lyle and Harlene stared at him. What the hell? Russ took a deep breath. “I’ll be there in three minutes. Thanks, Merva.” He ducked into his office and snatched his parka off its hook.

“Want me to come with you?” Lyle fell into step as Russ strode down the hall.

“No. I’m used to dealing with the penny-pinching sons-of-bitches.” He paused in front of the outside door and tugged his MKPD watchcap on. “Christ on a bike. What the hell is Jim Cameron thinking?”

“Might not be the mayor’s idea.” Lyle caught Russ’s arm as opened the door. A gust of icy air blew into the hall. “Don’t go in there shooting. You might wind up hitting someone on our side.”

Russ nodded. “Do me a favor. Call Clare and tell her I’ll be late.” He grimaced. “Later.”

“Will do.”

Russ stepped out. The lights on either side of the doorway set the granite stairs glittering in the dark. “But don’t tell her about this. She doesn’t need one more thing to worry about.”

CHAPTER TEN

At twilight, Clare read the Evening Service at the old high altar. She usually loved praying the evening prayers or Compline all alone, the words and the candlelight and the quiet becoming part of who she was rather than something she did. Now, she wished she was leading a Eucharist. She wanted the church full, parishioners calling her up, people knocking on her office door. She wanted to feel… necessary.

Afterwards, she listened to a message from Lyle MacAuley explaining Russ would be a little later than planned. Wonderful. She wasn’t needed at home. They had packed everything and Russ had already loaded up the truck. “I’m about as useful as tits on a bull,” she told Lois’s empty desk. Her husband’s farm-boy phrase would have made the secretary laugh. If she were here.

The Young Mother’s program. Of course. Downstairs in the undercroft, the teen mothers in the St. Alban’s program would be working on their homework, while their children were cared for next door.

The nursery in St. Alban’s undercroft was as cheery as a two windowless rooms could be; lemon yellow walls and puffy white painted clouds forever floating over a blue painted sky. Sundays, the space sheltered the youngest members of her congregation. The rest of the week, it served as day care, homework spot, and employment center for teen mothers.

Clare opened the playroom door, bumping into a toddler and sending him staggering forward. Another two-year-old, taking advantage of his loss of balance, rammed into him and grabbed the doll he’d been holding. The little boy screeched, the thief laughed, and another child at the play kitchen started banging pots together. “Oh, lord.” Clare didn’t know which one to deal with first. “I’m sorry.”

“Clare! What are you doing here?” Karen Burns, one of the volunteers, laid an infant in a playpen and expertly scooped up the red-faced little boy. “Here you go, Brayden, here’s a baby for you.” She wiggled a doll in Brayden’s face. He snatched the substitute. When Karen let him down, the avaricious little girl came at him again. “Uh-uh, Jazmin.” Karen performed a knee block that would have done the New York Rangers proud. She steered Jazmin toward the low table at the other end of the room. “You and I can change our babies together.” Karen lifted the infant back out of the playpen, then handed the pots-and-pan musician a basket of fake food. “Kiefer, can you make us all a yummy meal?” The boy accepted the container and began laying plastic pork chops and burgers on wooden skillets. Karen did a sort of shift and flip and the baby on her arm was lying on the changing table with it’s feet waving in the air.

“Oh, my God, Karen.” Clare shook her head. “I’m never going to be able to do this. I mean it. I am so unprepared for motherhood, it’s not funny.”

Karen’s hands flew as she unsnapped, ripped, folded and tossed. “You’ll learn. We all do.”

“I don’t even know how to change a diaper.”

Karen held out a box of wipes. “Want to learn?”

Clare wrinkled her nose. “Not really.”

Karen laughed. “Trust me, I felt the same way the first time we brought a foster child home. Utterly incompetent in the face of a six-month-old. But I figured if I could make it through law school and pass the New York bar, I could learn how to mash bananas and give baths in the sink.”

“You bathe them in the sink?”

Karen gave her an amused look. “I have some books I can pass on to you.” She hoisted the now-fresh baby into the air, kissed her terry-covered tummy, and handed her to Clare. “Here.”

Clare reflexively accepted the bundle.

“So what are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be off for seven glorious days and six fun-filled nights in an ice-fishing cabin?” Karen moved to the sink and turned on the faucet. “For which, by the way, you earn the saintly wife award. If Geoff had suggested something like that for our honeymoon, our marriage would’ve ended after the reception.”

“It’s a beautiful vacation cabin with eight hundred feet of shoreline on Lake Oban. It’s the ideal year-round getaway.” At least that’s what the Realtor had said. Russ’s description had been more succinct. No phone, no neighbors, and too far for your parishioners to just drop in. “This is our chance to try it before we buy it.”

“In January. In the Adirondacks.” Karen scrubbed her hands. “No wonder you’re hiding out down here.”

“Russ had some last-minute work to do. I figured I could help out.” The infant in her arms began to squirm and fuss.

“With your black-belt child care skills?” Karen took the baby from her.

“I was thinking more along the lines of their mothers.”

“Mae Bristol is in the other room helping with homework. Unless you’ve got better credentials than someone who taught for thirty years, you’ll be redundant. Go home.” Karen smiled reassuringly. “We don’t need you.”

That’s what I’m afraid of.

She went back to the rectory the round-about way, through the front door, lingering in the Narthax, casting one long last look at the great nave of St. Alban’s as she went. She knew she was being ridiculous, but she couldn’t help it. It might be the last time quarreled with Don’t be a drama queen in her mind. If I have to go, I’ll find somewhere else to serve. Some other way to serve. The thought didn’t do anything to make her feel better.

The rectory echoed empty when she opened the kitchen door. She drifted through the living room and fetched up against what used to be the drinks tray in the front window. The bottles had been cleared away. The decanters stood empty. She traced her hand over the fat, squared off crystal glasses that had been her parents’ in the 60s.

She wanted a drink.

She pressed her palms against her rounded abdomen. Haven’t you done enough damage already?

Sitting in the obstetrician’s office on that first visit had been one of the most humiliating experiences of Clare’s life. She knew – she knew – that every other pregnant woman in the waiting room had been taking folic acid six months before conceiving and had stopped drinking as soon as the stick turned blue. The doctor, who looked like someone’s kindly grandmother, laid the the sonographer’s report on her desk as she indicated the chairs opposite. Clare and Russ sat.

The doctor tapped the sonograms. “Based on the fetal measurements, I’d estimate you’re fifteen weeks along, Ms. Fergusson. When was your last period?”

“Well…that’s part of the problem. I was taking birth control pills. I had several…they seemed light but I thought–”

“We weren’t trying to get pregnant,” Russ said.

The doctor frowned and folded her hands. “We don’t do terminations at our practice, but I can refer you to–”

“No,” Clare said firmly.

Russ cleared his throat. “There’s also an issue of…” He glanced at Clare.

“Substance abuse.” She was amazed she could get the words out, her throat was so dry. “I didn’t realize I was pregnant, as I said…” her voice trailed off. She took a deep breath. “I was taking sleeping pills. And amphetamines.” Her eyes felt hot and prickly. “And I was drinking pretty heavily.”

Russ took her hand and squeezed tightly. “She just got back from a tour of duty in Iraq five months ago. She was having a hard time readjusting. As soon as she found out she was pregnant, she stopped.”

He didn’t want to be here, he disagreed with her decision, and he still leapt to her defense. Even under these excruciating circumstances, it made her heart lift.

“I see. Are you getting any support for your sobriety?”

“I’m seeing a therapist twice a week,” Clare said.

“Is there any way to tell if there’s been any damage?” Russ leaned forward. “At this point, I mean?”

The doctor pursed her lips. “There’s no evidence at this time that amphetamines or sleeping pills are teratogenic – that they cause any birth defects. Although obviously, I don’t recommend you take either during pregnancy.” She looked down at the sonograms. “It looks like the fetus has good spinal closure, there’s no evidence of hydrocephaly or any of the other developmental defects we might be able to see at fifteen weeks gestation. We can do amniocentesis in another two weeks – that will enable us to rule out Down’s Syndrome and a few other genetic problems. The issue is going to be the alcohol. Can you give me an idea of how many drinks per day you were consuming before you knew you were pregnant? And when you stopped?”

Clare swallowed. “Probably three or four on average. Somedays only one. Somedays…a lot more. I had my last drink around the twentieth of October.”

“So about two weeks.” The doctor nodded. “That’s actually encouraging. While the effects of drinking vary from woman to woman, as you’d expect, I wouldn’t expect to see Fetal Alcohol Syndrome resulting from that level of consumption.”

“Really?” Russ said. He shook his head. “I thought, you know, they say no drinking at all for pregnant women.”

“That’s right. But FAS requires a lot more than your wife was putting away, for a lot longer time.”

Clare felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted off her chest. She looked at Russ.

“However.” The doctor’s voice sent her thudding back to earth. “It is possible the baby will show signs of Fetal Alcohol Effect.”

Russ frowned. “That doesn’t sound good.”

[Explanation of FAE’s symptoms.]

“Can we…” Clare reached for a life preserver. “Can we test for that? So we know in advance?”

The doctor shook her head. “I’m sorry, no. FAE can only be diagnosed after birth.”

“Is there anything I can do? To ameliorate the effects?” Clare raised her hands, as if she could pluck something hopeful out of the air. “Eat…organic? Take vitamins?”

“No. At this point, if there’s been any damage – and I reiterate, that’s still very much an if – it’s irreversable.”

“So you’re saying it’s a crap shoot?” Russ’s voice was rough. “She goes through the pregnancy, and if she makes it to the end, we may or may not have a kid with brain damage?”

“’Brain damage’ is an unecessarily severe way of thinking about it, Mr. Van Alstyne. You may or may not have a child with special needs and challenges. An enormous amount can be done with early intervention. I’ll put you in touch with our counsellor. She can give you all the information you’ll need to prepare yourselves. If it proves necessary.”

They left the obstetrician’s office under a cloud of silence, Clare clutching a prescription for prenatal vitamins and a date card for her next appointment. She couldn’t look at Russ. He opened the truck door for her and shut it behind her after she climbed into the cab. He got in behind the wheel. He sat there, keys in hand, his eyes in the middle distance, doing nothing.

Finally she broke. “Say something.”

He shut his eyes. “I’ve already told you what I think.” The lines of his face stood out.

“I know I’ve made mistakes, Russ. If I could go back and change what I did–” she swallowed to get her voice under control. “But I can’t. And I can’t correct those mistakes by making another one.”

“Oh, Christ, Clare.” He bent his neck until his head rested against the steering wheel. “Do you have any idea what having a disabled kid can do to a marriage?”

She reached out and touched her fingertips to his back. “Yes. But I also know what having strong and loving parents can do for a disabled child.” When he didn’t say anything, she went on. “Two weeks ago, you told me that if we just kept holding on, if we didn’t let go, you and I could get through anything.”

“You and I. Throwing a kid into the mix is a whole other ball game. Pregnancies are dangerous. You wake up every morning wondering if it’s going to last. You can’t talk about what-ifs and you can’t think about it like there really might be a baby, because then what happens when things don’t pan out? So there’s nothing but silence and stuff you didn’t say and grief and anger…” he trailed off.

Part of Clare – the selfish, petty part – wanted to shake Russ and yell at him to snap out of it. She didn’t have enough problems surrounding her own pregnancy? They had to rehash everything that had happened to his first wife? She put that part aside. “What happened with Linda?” she asked. “Her sister said she’d had three miscarriages–”

“Five. Two were early, before we’d told anyone she was pregnant.”

“Oh, Russ.” She pressed her hand down more firmly, rubbing his back. “That must have been devastating. Did she have some sort of uterine condition?” Clare was vague on the details, but she knew there were women whose wombs simply couldn’t carry to term.

He shook his head. “No. That was the hell of it. It was always something different. Infection. Failure to develop. Cord death – Jesus, that was a hard one.”

She put her hand on his cheek and turned his face toward hers. “There’s no reason to think any of that will happen this time.”

“So instead we get to burn ourselves out taking care of a dependent, special needs kid?”

“It might not–”

“Of course you think it might not, Clare. That’s how you operate. You live in a world of belief, and faith, and half-full glasses. I live in a world of bad news and worse outcomes.” He pushed away from her and started the ignition. “Look, I can’t change you. I never wanted to change you. But don’t ask me to change, either. I’ve been on this ride too many times before. I know where it comes out and I don’t want to go there again.” He threw the truck into reverse and backed out of the parking spot. “I won’t say a word against you on this. But don’t expect me to pretend to be happy about it.”

The flash of headlights turning onto Elm snapped Clare out of her reverie. She stepped toward the window, hoping it was Russ, but the car swept past and continued up the street. She watched it until the red tail lights disappeared in the winter darkness. She rubbed her arms. She needed to get away. They needed to get away. It felt as if she and Russ hadn’t had any time or space since that first doctor’s visit to just sit together quietly and talk. He is offering you the chance to quietly resign. If you do so, no actions will be taken. Clare winced. Of course, if she rolled over for the bishop and gave up her cure, she’d have lots of time to sit quietly, wouldn’t she? Lots and lots of time.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Nichole Johnson’s address of record was a third floor walk up on Causeway that looked like it was one good storm away from collapsing into the old canal that ran behind the street. It was one of several apartment houses in the neighborhood that were regularly visited by the MKPD. Kevin debated a stealth arrival by parking a block away, but he figured by the time he and Hadley had walked half-way to the building, everybody on the street would be texting each other a warning. They double parked and got out in front of the apartment house.

Even in the fading twilight, the sagging facade’s peeling paint and battered aluminum trim were obvious. Hadley pulled on her watch cap and gloves. “I’ll take the fire escape.”

“In case she runs? You sure?”

“I’d rather hang out in the freezing dark than breath the air in there. Everybody over the age of seven smokes in that building. You risk lung cancer just walking up a flight of stairs.”

“It can’t be worse than the Los Angeles smog.”

“Hey. California was banning indoor smoking while you New Yorkers were still selling kids packs out of cigarette machines.” She started to grin up at him, then looked away.

Look, Flynn, we can still be friends.

With me slicing myself open every day and you waiting and dreading the next time I break down and beg you to love me? Is that what you really want?

It was his fault she couldn’t even smile at him now. God, he was stupid. He cleared his throat. “I’ll give you a squawk if she’s not there. No sense waiting around in this cold any longer than you have to.”

She nodded without looking at him and headed to the back of the building.

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