“Fire’s out, Sheriff. We opened the windows, but the smell is still pretty bad.”
Sarah nodded, her eyes misting. “Thanks, Billy.” Swallowing hard, she tried to stop the gagging reflex that hit her the second she entered The Lodge. There was nothing in the world worse than the smell of burned flesh. Tommy and three of the volunteer fire fighters were still outside vomiting, and Joshua looked slightly green, although he was holding up better than most. Dammit! They weren’t prepared for this. She wasn’t prepared for this.
“Are you okay, Doc?” Sarah noted the grayness of the doctor’s face, the blueness around his mouth as he slipped on his mask and nodded.
Sarah allowed her gaze to drift around the room, looking for something, anything to look at besides the badly charred body of what she knew must be Marisa Hutchins. They had caught the fire in time to save most of the room, but the body was burned beyond recognition. She swallowed hard again, concentrating on breathing through her mouth. She had to focus on her job, not her feelings. Her gaze fell on the small pink card on the dresser. Picking it up, she shivered as emotions ran up her arm, making her skin crawl, chilling her to the bone. Evil had its own special feel, and this was evil. A gift from me. You’re next.
“Anything on McAllister’s whereabouts?”
Sarah felt Joshua’s keen gaze on her face. She would have to look at him eventually. Struggling to control the overwhelming fear that threatened to pull her into the darkness, Sarah placed the card inside a plastic package and handed it to Joshua. She wanted a hot shower.
“He told me he was going to Richmond, but I didn’t ask where. Said he’d be back tomorrow.”
“I’m finished.” Doc Hawthorne rose, his shoulders drooping more than usual. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He’d delivered these children, watched them grow up. He shouldn’t have to sign their death certificates. “Not much more I can do here. I’d say it’s Marisa Hutchins. You can wait for the autopsy to make it official.”
Sarah grimaced. She didn’t need an autopsy.
“The Edgewood forensic team is on their way. Said they’d be here within the hour,” Joshua stated.
“Thanks, Joshua.” Sarah had hated calling in outsiders, but they just didn’t have the equipment, or the expertise, to handle this type of situation. Nothing like this had ever happened in Glade Springs. Gavin McAllister had a lot to answer for.
“What do you make of the card?”
Joshua was turning the package over in his hands. Sarah glanced at it, a cold chill running down her spine. . . . never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
“You’re next.” Joshua read the card out loud and glanced at Sarah. “Who do you think he means?”
“Not a clue,” Sarah lied. “We’ll run it through the system, see if anything like this has happened anywhere else.”
“Good idea.” Joshua hesitated, “Sarah, I think this card is for you.”
Sarah didn’t bother answering. She’d known the second she touched the card it was for her. You know, echoed in her mind.
“Joshua, stay here, lock it down and wait for Edgewood. Go ahead and do the photographs and sketches of the scene. I have to go tell the Hutchins.” Sarah knew her voice was quivering. She cursed silently at life’s cruel joke of giving her the ability to feel what others felt. She was having enough trouble controlling the pain and fear she’d picked up in this room. She didn’t know how she was going to handle the parents’ emotions.
“Sarah, why don’t you stay? I’ll go.”
Sarah met the concerned green eyes, not trying to disguise the pain in her own. “It comes with the territory, Joshua. It’s my job.”
“What do I do if McAllister shows up?”
Sarah considered her answer carefully. She knew Gavin McAllister hadn’t killed Marisa. The evil she’d felt in that room wasn’t attached to him. He could, of course, sue the city, but at the moment she didn’t give a damn. It wouldn’t hurt him to cool his heels for a couple of hours. And, dammit, he was partially responsible. If he hadn’t come here none of this would have happened. At least in jail he’d be safe and one less thing for her to worry about.
Joshua nodded. Sarah was in charge. “The Hutchins are pretty religious people. Why don’t you call the new minister, have him meet you out there?”
“Bless you, Joshua. You always seem to know the right thing to do.”
“Comes with the territory, remember? It’s my job.”
Sarah exited The Lodge, her thoughts serious. Joshua would make a good sheriff. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about that when she left. She turned her thoughts to the new minister. She hadn’t had an opportunity to meet him or his wife. What was his name? Cooper. Picking up the cell phone, she automatically dialed the number and hoped it hadn’t been changed. How was she supposed to address him? Was it Reverend, Father, Pastor?
“This is Sheriff Burns. I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to call on you and welcome you to Glade Springs, but I wonder if I could speak with your husband, please?”
“He’s asleep, Ms. Burns.”
Sarah frowned. No Sheriff Burns, and the Ms. Had been spoken with disapproval. It was apparent Mrs. Cooper didn’t believe in women sheriffs. She probably didn’t believe women should work at all.
“Could you wake him, please? It’s an emergency.”
“Oh, no, I could never do that. Never.” The voice had changed, a slight tremor just beneath the words.
Good Lord, she’s afraid of him, Sarah thought. What kind of minister instilled fear in his wife?
“Mrs. Cooper, I’m sorry, I’m a little upset, and I’m afraid I haven’t made myself clear. I know it’s late, but we’ve had a,” Sarah paused. “We’ve had a death in the community. The family is going to need him. Please put your husband on the phone.”
“I’ll have him call you in the morning.”
“Mrs. Cooper . . .”
The phone went dead. And people wondered why Sarah didn’t go to church. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in God; she just didn’t believe in organized religion. As usual, she was on her own.
A half hour later Sarah stood outside, breathing deeply in an attempt to control the tears streaming down her face as she waited for Doc Hawthorne. Thank God he’d been here. She should have known he would feel an obligation to do just that. He’d been there for thirteen years through every broken bone, every cough or late night fever. He wouldn’t desert them now.
Sarah watched his approach, realizing for the first time just how old he was getting. She’d ignored the Mayor’s ravings at the council meetings that they needed to start looking for a younger doctor, someone more up to date. How much longer could he last? And getting a doctor to come to a small town like Glade Springs wouldn’t be easy. Of course, there was always Edgewood. It was only a two-hour drive, but what about emergencies? The next time the mayor brought up the subject, Sarah would be more open-minded. Not a replacement, because no one could ever replace Doc Hawthorne. Maybe a partner.
“I gave Irene a sedative. She’ll sleep until morning.” His eyes never left Sarah’s face, the question left unspoken between them.
“Dammit, Jim, I can’t stop him if he wants to see her.”
Doc nodded. Edsel Hutchins wanted to see his daughter. “Call me when he comes in. I’ll be there.”
Sarah nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He would be there, sedative in hand. They both knew sedatives weren’t going to help Edsel Hutchins when he saw his daughter’s body. It was almost two a.m. and Sarah felt a desperate need to hold Nikki. To know she was safe. That, like sleep, was a luxury she didn’t have. It was going to be a long night.