Darcy scrambled up the hayloft ladder, an entire kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering deep inside her. She could feel the scratchy straw beneath her fingers as she gripped each rung, but she didn’t mind. She was breathless, her knees quick to bend and snap back. Far below, she felt Caleb’s eyes watching her ass, gauging the darkness beneath her skirt where her legs met. The moment she reached the top, she whirled around, her dark hair skimming over her eyes. She blinked haltingly.
“Are you coming up, or are you too scared?” she taunted, tilting an exposed shoulder toward him.
Caleb laughed, his broad, quarterback shoulders shaking slightly. A bit of eighteen-year-old five-o’clock shadow dusted his cheeks and upper lip. His eyes gleamed with lust for her.
“You sure you want to do this?” he asked her, raising a thick eyebrow high.
“Just come on, before my dad hears us,” Darcy sighed. She beckoned, allowing him to see an inch of cleavage before ripping herself back toward the hay bales in the loft, listening as he climbed.
The pair had left the football game only thirty minutes before, speeding out across the dirt roads and toward her father’s farm, ditching their friends and their typical pizza joint. This night was different. It sizzled with something special.
When Caleb finally appeared in the hayloft, his face glinted in the moonlight, a slight gash beneath his right eye—a memento from the game. Darcy reached toward him, touching it delicately with her thumb. “Caleb, I didn’t think they hit you so hard,” she whispered, breathless. The moment she touched him, the tension between them broke, and he turned toward her, catching her lips with his.
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, feeling the force of his upper arms and back muscles. She allowed herself to forget about her father, only a heartbeat away, reading in the farmhouse. She was a young woman, brimming with endless sexuality. In a moment she felt Caleb’s fingers attack her cardigan’s buttons, ripping the top ones apart.
She broke the kiss, looking at him with misty, doe eyes. “Oh, Caleb,” she whispered.
“What?” he asked. His lips were red from the passion of their kisses.
“It’s just—it’s different this time. It feels like—like maybe—” she shook her head, the single word tickling along her tongue. “It feels like maybe I’m in love with you.”
Caleb didn’t move. He held her tight, looking at her with reassuring eyes. “I love you, too,” he said. His voice was deep, carnal. Almost like a hero’s in an old movie.
As Darcy leaned in closer to him, to catch him in a kiss once more, she noted that his eyes suddenly looked out behind her, toward the field and the pine-covered hills beyond. His jaw dropped, and his arms swept around Darcy, almost in a tackle.
“Holy shit, Darcy. Look!” He pointed toward the open bay door in the loft, inhaling sharply.
Darcy frowned slightly before turning toward Caleb’s extended arm. There, in the distance, was the most remarkable shooting star she’d ever seen. She slipped from Caleb’s embrace, feeling her breasts strain against her partially unbuttoned cardigan. She felt Caleb appear beside her as they crept toward the open window, watching as the shooting star seemed to burn light upon the field.
“It looks like it’s getting closer. But that’s impossible,” Darcy whispered, shaking her head. “It must be a million miles away.”
But Caleb took a step back, grasping Darcy’s hand. “Darcy. No. It’s coming right for us,” he said, his voice cracking.
Darcy stared into his eyes, the moment filled with tension and fear. She shot a fleeting glance back toward the shooting star, seeing that, sure enough, it was bearing toward them. It was now only about thirty feet above the trees that skirted around the field. It seemed like a bull’s eye. Like it knew they were there, waiting.
“WE HAVE TO RUN!” Caleb shouted, shooting his arm around Darcy’s small waist. “Come ON!”
But Darcy’s mind was too far away. She suddenly felt outside of herself, floating in the stars above. She thought she could even feel the heat from the streaming orb, shining against her cheeks. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, her pupils drowning out her pale blue eyes. “And besides,” she said, as the star whizzed closer, “if we run away now, my dad will see us. He’ll know we were about to—”
“IT DOESN’T MATTER. NOT IF WE DIE!” Caleb thrust her toward the ladder they’d only just climbed, launching her over the edge and toward a mammoth haystack below. As Darcy fell, her hair swept back. She was flying, feeling the rush of the shooting star in her ears in the moments before she landed.
Immediately after Caleb threw Darcy from the loft, he turned briefly, curiosity running through him. Just as he spun, the meteorite made its final plunge toward the barn and crashed directly into the hayloft. It struck Caleb’s chest—dead center—blasting him through the air and to the ground, nearly fifteen feet below.
He died instantly.
Far below the wreckage in the hayloft, Darcy lay still. Smoke filtered from the barn. The sky was dark, without stars. And the meteorite steamed in the dirt.
Sheriff Clay Dobbs slipped socks over his feet, leaning heavily over the side of the bed. Fatigue made his arms weak, and they hung lazily as he blinked at the clock on the nightstand. It was already past eight in the morning, after a night of monitoring the football game for the high school. Throughout the evening he’d thwarted a small incident of vandalism, run several testosterone-filled teen boys back to their cars, and then, ultimately, collapsed on a chair in his living room upon his release. It wasn’t a heavy load for a sheriff, sure. But it was a small town. And keeping watch over the tiny comings and goings of the high school was a pleasure for him, especially given that his only daughter, Maia, was a freshman.
Valerie, his wife of nineteen years and his girlfriend for many more than that, was cooking eggs and bacon in the kitchen. He rambled down the steps, finding Maia already seated, sipping orange juice.
“What, no coffee today?” he asked her, teasing. He drifted his fingers over her fine hair, noting that she hardly looked up from her book.
Clay stole a kiss from his wife before taking a seat and sipping from his own mug of brew, gazing at his daughter. She was becoming gorgeous, no longer the little girl who’d played in the mud and banged up her knees. He knew it was cliché to think like this. To say the words, “Man, it all happens so fast.” But it truly did.
“Maia?” he said, his eyes coaxing. “Do you want to tell me what’s up? It’s a Saturday, and you’re not sleeping in till three in the afternoon. I assume you must be sick or something.”
Maia smirked, turning a page. “Maybe a little. Plus, I couldn’t sleep,” she said, swallowing with obvious pain.
Clay turned his eyes toward his wife, who shrugged her slight shoulders. She filled a plate with eggs and bacon and tucked it in front of Clay, the floor creaking slightly as she leaned. “We’ve both been awake for almost an hour. You, Sheriff Clay, are the sleepy one in this house.”
“Well. I suppose I have both of you to thank for holding down the fort,” he said, rubbing his hands together. The steam from breakfast crept over his face. “Why couldn’t you sleep, pumpkin?”
“Ugh,” Maia said, rolling her eyes. She snapped her book on the table and leaned heavily against her hands, casting her gaze out the window. “Something horrible happened at school yesterday. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Clay’s heart cringed. He felt vaguely panicked, realizing that he didn’t have much experience solving a teenage girl’s problems. Sure, he had saved the town from that rampant robber the previous year, and any sign of spousal abuse—he was on it. But as far as his own daughter was concerned, he was out of his depths.
“Why don’t you want to talk about it?” he asked her.
Maia pushed her cheeks out with air, widening her eyes. “It was so embarrassing yesterday. I asked a boy to the dance.”
The words hung in the air. Clay turned his eyes toward his wife, who had a single hand upon her hip. She beckoned toward her husband, as if to tell him to work harder, to say something. She was his coach.
“And it didn’t go the way you planned?” Clay asked, his voice tentative.
“No, Dad. It didn’t go exactly the way—”
Clay lifted his hands in the air, instantly realizing his mistake. He felt a wave of anger from his suddenly pubescent daughter. But as his expression changed, Maia turned her eyes back toward the table, shaking her head.
“I’m sorry, Dad. You know it’s not like me to snap. I think I’m catching that flu running around school.”
Clay sighed slightly, worried. “It’s okay, pumpkin. We all have shit days sometimes. Load up on the vitamin C to start.”
Maia barely looked up but held her half-drunk glass of orange juice up for all to see.
Valerie made a throat noise beside him. Although they were aligned on nearly every element of their parenting styles, she didn’t always agree with the amount of cursing Clay did in front of their daughter. As a slight joke, Clay snuck his fingers over his lips, as if to “zip them.” He tossed an invisible key to the floor. His daughter snickered, thus ensuring they were on the same side.
Clay breathed a sigh of relief.
But as he did, his cell phone buzzed on the table. It was the station. His face turned stony and serious. The station didn’t ordinarily call him over the weekend unless something had gone wrong.
“Dobbs,” he answered, his voice firm.
As he listened, his face turned green, then grey. Both his wife and daughter paused, their eyes concerned. As the other end seemed to drivel on, Valerie allowed the second batch of bacon to burn. Maia leaned forward attentively, seeming to have already forgotten about the “incident” at school altogether.
“Yes. I understand,” Clay said curtly. “Any survivors?”
Valerie and Maia looked at each other then, shock splayed across their faces.
“And her condition?” he asked. His voice hung in the air, waiting. “Okay. I understand. I’ll be on my way shortly,” he affirmed. He dropped the phone back on the table and stood, rubbing his temples as he thought.
“What was that?” Valerie asked, still holding the spatula attentively.
“Well, it seems there was a fire early this morning out at the Crawford farm,” he said. “Darcy’s at the hospital. She’s been in and out of consciousness.”
Maia’s eyes grew wide. She and Darcy Crawford were classmates and had known each other for practically their entire lives.
“They tell me that the barn’s gone. Burned up. And there’s one dead, not sure who yet,” he said, opting to withhold Caleb’s name until he was certain his parents had been notified. He bounded toward the door, stopping long enough to slip on his shoes. “That’s all I know right now. I’ve got to head in to the station. I’ll call later when I have more information.”
Valerie and Maia followed him closely as he walked toward the door, both of them embracing him in a hug before he stepped outside. He felt his heart brim with love for them both, although the duty to his town forced him to walk quickly, away from this safety.
The world was a wretched place, he thought as he turned the key in the ignition. But being sheriff had certain responsibilities attached, and dealing with unforeseen tragedies was one of them. Thankfully, they were quite infrequent.
But accidents happened, he assured himself. And whatever happened out at the Crawford place was certain to be just that. Avoiding those meant you avoided fate.
Sheriff Dobbs drove swiftly through town, to where the sheriff station stood at the corner of Baker Street and Fifteenth. The notable early twentieth-century architectural landmark was the glory of Carterville. Across the street and down a half block was Clay’s favorite coffee shop, and remembering that he’d left his steaming pile of bacon and eggs untouched at home, his craving for donuts was overpowering. But this wasn’t the time for it, he grumbled as he pulled into his parking spot.
He bounded from his cruiser and nudged the door closed, giving a small wave to a woman walking toward the nearby bank. She looked at him with knowing eyes and smiled. Being the sheriff in a town as small as Carterville, everyone knew everyone and what you were up to. Clay eased his hand over the back of his neck, breaking his eye contact. Although he could recognize most everyone by face, he couldn’t quite remember this woman’s name.
Inside the police station, Jean, his longtime dispatcher and receptionist, greeted him. She stood at her desk, holding a stack of crumpled messages. “Sheriff,” she said firmly. “So sad to hear the news about Crawford farm.”
“Yes, well,” Clay said, shifting his weight. He rested a hand on his holster and tapped at it with an absent finger. “I suppose these things happen, unfortunately. What do you have there?” He gestured toward the handful of papers.
Jean thrust them forward. “The whole town is grieving about what happened to that poor boy. And about Darcy. God, that girl got lucky, didn’t she? I can’t even imagine.”
Clay looked at the messages with relative disdain. He hadn’t gotten into the business of saving lives and protecting towns to go through paperwork. But he nodded, knowing that they carried the weight of empathy from the town, a town he had grown to love since he’d settled there nearly fifteen years before. “I’ll take care of them. Thanks, Jean. Is Alayna in yet?”
Jean’s eyebrows shot high. “She’s been here for almost a half hour. She’s waiting for you in your office.”
“Ah. She’s going to scold me, isn’t she?”
“I think you have some harsh words coming,” Jean teased, winking.
Alayna was Clay’s deputy, a thirty-something woman who’d grown up a local, leaving only briefly for school. She’d long joked that no matter how much she wanted to, she’d never find a better life outside of the town’s limits. “They just don’t get me out there, Clay,” she’d said over and over, half joking.
Clay proceeded toward his office and popped the door open, revealing Alayna Cordell before him. She sat in his office chair, her boots idle upon his desk and her arms behind her head. She gave no indication of moving. As their eyes met, a smirk stretched across her face. “Hey there, boss.”
“Alayna. Fancy finding you here, relaxing in my office,” Clay said, latching the door closed behind him. “You know, if you want my job, my pay, and this desk to rest your feet on for the rest of time, all you have to do is return every one of the fifty or so messages Jean just handed me.” He dropped the stack on his desk and tilted his head. “What do you say?”
Alayna dropped her boots to the floor and reached for the papers, sighing. “I suppose I can’t lounge around here all day. You run such a tight ship.” She gestured toward the empty coffee cup and the half-eaten donut beside her, Clay’s remnants from the previous day.
Clay chuckled. Alayna was his second deputy, and a damn fine one. The one before, a man named Chris, had fled back to Dallas, where his father had arranged an accounting job, a nine-to-five, a position of safety. Chris hadn’t had the grit to be a lawman.
Finally Alayna relinquished the seat, lending it back to its owner. “I was just waiting for you to roll your lazy bones in,” she said, still reading over the grieving messages. “Man, this town really pulls all the stops for tragedies, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a compassionate community, that’s for sure,” Clay agreed, easing into his chair. “So. Since you’ve been here, I take it you’ve read through some of the report?”
“Yep,” Alayna said, eyeing him. The light had gone out from her eyes. “The barn’s completely gone. And you probably know that Darcy Crawford’s in the hospital. The boy, Caleb, he didn’t make it. I think the coroner’s planning to take him, but I don’t yet have word if he’s still out at the farm.”
“Thank you,” Clay said, rubbing his fingers absently against his chin. “And nobody’s set eyes on the barn yet?”
“Nope. I mean, none of the other deputies have gone out yet,” she said. “I was thinking we could go.”
Clay nodded. “One of us to the barn. The other to visit Darcy in the hospital. To pay our respects, and also to get some information about what happened. What do you think they were doing out in the barn so late at night, anyway?”
Alayna laughed lightly, shrugging. “What else do teenagers do in dark barns at night?”
Clay sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Well. Shall we arm wrestle for the tasks? I certainly have no preference, and I’m still hanging on to my five-day winning streak.”
Alayna rolled her eyes. She smacked her elbow upon the desk, nearly knocking the half-eaten donut to the ground. “All right. If I win, I’ll take the hospital visit. I guess. I mean, in this case, I’m not sure who’s the ‘winner.’”
“Me neither,” Clay sighed. But he snapped his hand upon Alayna’s. They counted to three. Clay heard Alayna’s grunts as she focused, trying to beam his hand back across the table. And as she strained, Clay felt himself release slightly, his mind falling toward fear of what they might find at the barn.
What if Caleb’s body was still there, burned to a crisp?
He felt himself give up on the arm wrestling, then, knowing it was better for Alayna to meet with Darcy. He felt the cold table beneath his skin upon release. Alayna cheered, clapping her hands together, her eyes bright.
“Your winning streak, sir, is quite over,” she said, laughing. “So I don’t want to hear another brag out of you. Not for at least a week.”
“I’m coming for you tomorrow,” Clay said, snapping his sheriff’s hat over his head. “But in the meantime, I’ll head out to the farm. The sooner you get up to visit Darcy, the better. The memory’s fresh right now.”
“Right,” Alayna said, bringing her lips together in a grim line. “Good luck out there.”
Clay felt the weight of the coming day upon his shoulders. He stood in the doorway, feeling the sunlight upon his cheeks, imagining, briefly, what it would be like to have his own daughter, Maia, in the hospital. Darcy’s father, Mack—a widower who had raised Darcy on his own since his wife had died in the car accident several years before—was probably an absolute wreck.
As Clay strode from his office, his mind revving, Jean held up her hand. He halted, peering toward her. She was on the phone, nodding.
“That’s right. Okay. I’ll let him know immediately.” She dropped the receiver back in its cradle and turned toward him. She swallowed. “Apparently the mayor would like to speak with you before you begin this investigation.”
Clay frowned, tilting his head. “Lois? That’s who was on the phone?”
“She called herself. Personally,” Jean nodded. A flicker of puzzlement swept across her eyes. “She’s over at the Sunrise Diner. She says you can meet her there before you head out.”
Perplexed, Clay bowed his head, thanking Jean, and then walked from the station. As he climbed into his cruiser, he tried to bolster his mindset. Just because the mayor wanted to speak with him now, before even getting started, didn’t mean a thing. It was going to be just like any other investigation. Chances were, she just wanted to convey her sympathies about the death of the Latimer boy. She probably just wanted to ensure that everything was going to be handled with the utmost care. After all, nobody cared about Carterville more than Lois Washington. She’d been the mayor since before Clay had arrived in the town, and she ran an efficient township, ensuring that its people were safe, attending the silly town parties and parades, and not only kissing all the babies in a political move but also occasionally babysitting for them, as well.
Clay forged through town, flexing his fingers around the steering wheel anxiously. The Saturday morning traffic was vibrant, bustling. As he drove, several cars slowed their speed, shooting their foot to the brake pedal and giving him a hearty wave.
Clay stopped at the diner, which was only a mile and a half from the Crawford farm, and parked beside Lois’ notable bright red car. As he entered, everyone inside turned their eyes toward him, chewing their food like a cow does its cud. He held up a hand in greeting and leaned toward the counter, where he whispered to the diner’s owner. “Just a coffee, Theo, thanks.”
Lois was seated in her usual booth beside the corner window. Her slight frame was a shadow in the sunlight, outlining her sharp nose and her high bun. The woman had never married and very much had the air of someone who didn’t wish to share her life with anyone. She was a private person, but bright and warm. And the moment she saw Clay, she stood, shot her hand out to shake his, and gave him a sad, steady smile.
“What an event to wake up to,” she said. “Darcy in the hospital, and poor Caleb.” She shook her head, reseating herself before her breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Clay couldn’t imagine how she kept such a trim figure.
“It’s a tragic thing, Lois,” Clay said, accepting his coffee from Theo. The warmth of the mug was pleasing upon his fingers. “I haven’t even made it out to the farm yet, so I’m not sure how much I can say right now that you probably haven’t already heard.”
“Tell me what you do know,” Lois said. She eyed him with an eagle’s glare. It seemed the air had shifted around them.
“We know the barn caught fire somehow. The girl was protected from it, and her boyfriend, Caleb, perished in the blaze. According to Jean’s report, Darcy’s father, Mack, called it in and probably saved her life. I’m assuming Mack’s at the hospital with her now, and Alayna’s on her way to speak with them.” Clay spoke in a rush, feeling the mayor’s steely eyes upon him.
Lois nodded, slurping her orange juice. “All right. That all sounds fine,” she said as she returned the glass back to the table. “Now listen here. I’d like to make a request through all of this.”
“All of this?” Clay asked. “This accident?”
Lois’s eyebrows rose high up on her forehead. “Sure. This accident. I’d like for you to exercise your best judgement throughout your investigation. You’re a capable leader in this community, but we can’t have things run off the rails here. In such a high-profile incident, there’s certain to be … outside eyes and ears in our small community. Keep it low-key if possible, and keep me apprised of everything—and I mean everything. Do you understand?”
Clay leaned back heavily, feeling the plastic of the booth seat rub against his shirt. He’d never received such a brash request from the mayor, and it made his heart feel squeezed. Did she think he ordinarily made things too dramatic? Did she believe he often messed things up? Since he’d taken on the sheriff’s position, there hadn’t been a single scandal.
But he had no option but to agree. “Sure, Lois. I’ll keep things … under control. And I’ll keep you in the loop, if you like,” he said. He eyed his coffee, realizing he was wasting time. He needed to get out to the Crawfords’. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a tragedy to … suppress. You have some pancakes to focus on, anyway.”
A false smile stretched across Lois’s face. She looked sure, unemotional. “Sure, Clay. I know I can trust you.” She shook his hand again and turned her neck toward him as he left. “Thanks for keeping our town safe, Sheriff,” she called.
Strangely, Lois’s words chilled Clay far more than they should have. He hurried from the diner, his eyes wide. And he sped from the parking lot, still shaking slightly, unsure of why Lois would tell him all this.
But the woman was growing older, he reasoned. And the only thing in the world she really cared about was the town. If she felt she needed to speak with him—even if it seemed like the silliest thing in the world—then, he supposed, he had to go along with it. It was just another quirk in a small town.
Despite the fire that had burned all around her, Darcy wasn’t in intensive care, or the burn unit, for that matter. Rather, the nurse told Alayna that Darcy had only a few bumps and bruises and was most likely suffering from a moderate concussion. “She’s been in and out of consciousness, but she looks like she’ll be okay,” the nurse said, her eyes wide. “But the boy. What a tragedy this all is. And right before he could have played college football. All that potential.”
Alayna wasn’t sure what to say. She nodded awkwardly, her tongue frozen to the roof of her mouth, until the nurse spun toward the bright hallway. Alayna followed the nurse’s squeaking tennis shoes, her police hat in her hands. A tight bun at the base of her neck, holding her black hair, stretched her skin, causing a minor headache.
The nurse led her to Darcy’s room, where she lay silently, her arms folded over her chest and a white blanket tugged close to her neck. Her face was grim, scratched. Her teeth were clattering with cold, despite the air being a humid 75 degrees. Alayna frowned, sensing that the girl was in shock.
“Darcy,” Alayna said, her voice soft. She eased into a chair beside the hospital bed. “Darcy, can you hear me?”
Darcy’s eyes were wide open, searching the ceiling. She nodded blankly. “I’m sorry. I’m just so cold,” she whispered.
“It’s okay, Darcy. I know you must be going through a lot,” Alayna said. She eased her hand over her arm. She wondered where Darcy’s father was. Mack Crawford was a fine man, one she’d dealt with a few different times. And without the necessary “mothering” element of her personality, Alayna felt lost speaking with this teenage girl.
“It’s cold, and then hot. W-what’s wrong with me?” Darcy whispered. She eased her fingers over her forehead, flipping sweat from her pores. “Do you think we were just being punished?”
Alayna frowned. “For what? Punished for what?” she asked, shaking her head in confusion.
In that moment, Darcy’s father entered the room, holding a bouquet of flowers. His eyes locked onto his daughter for a long moment. He held the flowers like a sword, then tapped them against his pectoral. He looked empty, defeated.
“Mack,” Alayna said, standing from the plastic chair. She shook his hand. “Wanted to come down from the station to check on Darcy’s condition.”
Mack nodded curtly. “I appreciate that. We both do. She’s—she’s not feeling so good.”
“I suppose I wouldn’t be, either,” Alayna affirmed. She kept steady eye contact with Mack, noting his cheeks’ discoloring. A bit of sweat ebbed on his forehead. He was shaking as well. If Alayna didn’t know any better, she’d think they both had that damn flu bug. But surely it was just panic, altering their state of mind and body.
Mack dropped the bouquet of flowers into a glass vase and grasped his daughter’s hand, eyeing Alayna once more from the other side of the bed. “It’s strange, growing older. Knowing your entire happiness depends on the well-being of another. Of course, with your mother being the way she was, and your father being gone all those years—” he paused. Alayna felt slapped. “It must have been difficult for you, raising yourself like that.”
Alayna took several deep, staggering breaths. She blinked several times before righting herself, giving him a brief smile. She knew he didn’t mean it. News of her mother’s alcoholism and father’s abandonment had surely spread through the town like wildfire. Just because she’d put many years between her and those events didn’t mean people didn’t link her to them still. They were a part of her. And she was a part of the town.
“Anyway,” Alayna said, attempting to change the subject, “they said she’ll be okay?”
Mack nodded. Another bead of sweat dripped down his face. “We’ll have to find someplace else to go when they release her,” he told her. “The farmhouse was completely destroyed. The fire took both buildings. I managed to escape, but just barely.”
Alayna jotted this information down on a pad, making the note: “Shivering. Both have flu—shock, or just panic?” beside it. “That must have been horrible for you,” she said, her voice light. “Sheriff Dobbs has gone out to the farm now. He’ll have answers to us soon. And in the meantime, you and Darcy should relax as best you can. Confusing times can make us ill in more ways than one.” She passed her eyes over the father and daughter, feeling suddenly anxious.
After several minutes, Alayna excused herself and walked outside to the bright, near-autumn sunlight. She thought of Darcy, whose life had taken a dramatic turn in the previous several hours. When Alayna had been a teenager, cooking her own meals, shopping for groceries, trying to coax her mother to work in the days before she was officially fired, she hadn’t felt that life could be bright, that hope would ever meet her somewhere down the line. She’d felt only darkness.
She trudged back toward her deputy vehicle, hoping she’d hear from Clay soon. She needed the kind of hope he brought to an investigation. She needed his insight.
Clay Dobbs saw the smoke from only a half mile away as he sped down the country road. He frowned, feeling suddenly choked. They hadn’t had such a dramatic instance of death in the town in several years. Sure: there was the occasional car accident, the rare suicide. But this—a fire that overtook the very farm that most restaurants and grocers in town relied upon for dairy and meat—was something different. It felt intimate. Was it arson?
He parked far from the now smoldering fire and marched toward it, his hands upon his hips. As he passed the field, he saw a fleck of fabric, heard footfalls, before finding two farmhands before him. They peered toward him with frightened eyes. Their hands were restless. “Sheriff, you’re here!” one of them called. “We hoped someone would come out. The fire crew showed up and left, claiming the farm was a lost cause. Something about no water source near. We’ve only been here for an hour, and Mack is nowhere to be found, and this … disaster—”
Clay raised his hands, stretching his fingers high. “I’m here now. I’ll check it out. Mack’s at the hospital with Darcy.” He eyed them curiously, then, noting that both were sweating profusely. The one who hadn’t spoken was dabbing his forehead with a rag, seeping up sweat. They were also shivering, their teeth clattering. “Are you boys nervous about something, or are you coming down with that damn bug making its way around town?” he asked.
The pair made brief eye contact. “Maybe we should just go home,” one stammered. “We’ll get ahold of Mack and see what’s up.” He eyed the wreckage, the dark smoke. “I don’t really want to go over there again. It seems—wrong somehow.” Silence stretched long in the air.
As the farmhands crept back toward their trucks, Clay edged forward, his hand upon his gun. The farmhouse, a once glorious representation from the 19th century, was burned almost totally to the ground, leaving only a slight, downstairs skeleton and a lonely stone chimney. The barn was completely obliterated, although Clay marched past slight, red shards of barn as he grew closer. This made him feel that perhaps the barn had exploded, sending these wooden flecks so far from the source. But who would blow up a barn, so far out in the field?
Once he was close enough, he felt the heat. It was impenetrable, blasting against his cheeks and his forehead. He swiped his own rag from his pocket and blocked it over his cheeks and mouth, blinking wildly. He felt his eyebrows could singe off, that his eyes could melt into pools.
The barn was a dark, simmering mass of rubble, constantly eating at the remaining pieces of wood. Clay found a slight path through the devastation, thankful for his high-top boots, and stepping carefully, around the glowing embers.
In the center of the once-barn structure, a crater had pushed deep into the earth. Clay edged toward it, feeling that this, perhaps, supported the bomb theory even more. As he drew closer, he felt he could hardly breath. His lungs felt singed with the heat of the black smoke.