The Last Move

The Last Move

Liz Sinclair

March 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-471-6

Murder is the goal. Fire is the weapon.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Blurb

Called the Chessman for the game pieces left behind in the wake of deadly fires, the arsonist is intent on making The Last Move.

Arson Investigator Katie Sullivan is determined to find the serial arsonist who murdered her father, but the arsonist is playing a deadly game with her, and only the winner will live.

Sheriff Drew Winters is just as determined to keep Katie, the woman he loves, alive and, if need be, save her from herself and her blind, reckless quest to succeed. They were a couple before and could be one again.

Flames and death await them at every turn. Can they survive? Who will die and who will ultimately declare checkmate depends on Katie’s skill as an arson investigator and Drew's abilities as a detective to outsmart the Chessman.

Liz Sinclair is the award-winning, bestselling author Elizabeth Sinclair, who’s written numerous novels and two acclaimed instructional books for writers. Her novels have been translated into seven languages and are sold in seventeen countries. She lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband and two dogs.

Visit her at ElizabethSinclair.com.


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Excerpt

Prologue

FIRE CHIEF JACK Sullivan was about to die a hideous death... and he knew it.

"Ironic, isn’t it, Jack?” The serial arsonist Jack had been pursuing for two years and had dubbed the Chessman smiled. "You’ll be dying at the hands of the one thing you’ve been fighting all your life—fire.”

He slipped on protective latex gloves and then took a can from the small black bag at his feet. Slowly, he poured until the liquid formed a large puddle on the floor near the warehouse wall.

The distinctive, almost sweet odor of acetone made its way to where Jack sat on the opposite side of the room, his hands and feet bound with duct tape. Jack’s blood went cold.

"Ah, you recognize that smell. Smells like...” The Chessman sniffed the air like a demented puppy. ". . . death.”

"Why in hell are you doing this?”

His captor recapped the can and turned to Jack, brows furrowed. "Oh, let me see. Because you couldn’t let it go? Because you deserve it? Because you’re not the super fireman you think you are?” Then he grinned. "Maybe... I’m doing it... just because I can.”

The Chessman dug into the bag and hauled out a light bulb, an electrical cord, an eye dropper, and a small jar of pinkish liquid—gasoline. All the makings of an incendiary device that, once it ignited in the pool of acetone, would blow Jack’s ass to hell and back. Cold dread washed over him. He tried to edge backwards, but the wall at his back blocked any escape.

"Is that fear I see on the great Jack Sullivan’s face?” The crazy bastard sniffed the air again and sighed contentedly. "Yup, I can smell it. You know exactly what all this is, don’t you, Jack?” He flashed a twisted grin. "Gonna make a hell of a fire.”

Jack knew all right. It was one of the simplest incendiary devices around. Any rookie fireman knew that it would take only one small electrical spark to blow the bulb and ignite that innocent-looking puddle of liquid into an explosive inferno. In minutes, the temperature in this room would go from that of a sultry Florida day to that of the inside of a steel blast furnace. Unless he got out of here, they’d be sweeping up what was left of him with a broom and a dustpan.

Jack kept an eye on his tormenter. He’d been so sure the Chessman was a female, but now doubts seeped into his thoughts. Women didn’t build incendiary devices as a rule. "Female fires,” as the guys referred to them, were normally set with newspapers or piles of laundry, not intricate devices like this guy was building. Still, everything else, all the clues he’d gathered, had pointed to the Chessman being a female. And something gut deep told Jack his instincts were right.

Right now, however, the gender of the arsonist was the least of his worries. He had to get the hell out of here and fast.

Think. You’ve been in tight spots before. Ass-on-the-line situations. But never one with zero odds. Until now.

The coppery taste of blood filled his mouth and mixed with the bitterness of the most intense terror he had ever known. In his heart, Jack knew this crazy bastard wanted him defeated, pleading for his life, but he’d bite his tongue off before he’d give the bastard the satisfaction of begging.

Despite his resolve not to show it, the signs of his fear began to manifest themselves. Sweat beaded on his brow and ran into his eyes. Panic clawed his gut raw. Nausea rose up, gagging him with his own bile.

He shook his head to clear it. Choices. What are the choices?

Maybe the crazy son of a bitch would listen to reason. "Think about this. Do you want to live the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? Is this what you really want to do?”

"Oh, this is absolutely what I want to do.” The arsonist stopped working and tapped the eye dropper against his cheek. "You know, Jack, you were always playing the big-shot hero. And it never occurred to you that you were flawed, just like the rest of us mortals. If you had been as terrific as you saw yourself...” His tormentor spoke softly, almost lovingly, as he went back to assembling the device. ". . . you wouldn’t have to die... and neither would Katie.”

Jack’s heart skipped a beat and then seemed to freeze in his chest.

God, No! Not my beautiful Katie.

Not his only child. Stark fear turned to rage. "What the hell does Katie have to do with this? This is between you and me.”

The Chessman shook his head. "’Fraid not. She’s inherited your genes. And now that she’s back, I know it’s just a matter of time. She’ll take her fire investigation job much too seriously for her own good, and, sooner or later, she’ll become a liability for someone, just like you were for me.” He shrugged. "Eventually, she’ll have to pay for her mistakes, too.”

Like you were for me. What the hell did that mean?

Jack struggled. The duct tape’s edges cut slashes in his wrists. He didn’t have time to think about what it meant. Katie’s life was at stake. He had to stop him. "You hurt her, and I’ll—”

"You’ll what?” The arsonist’s face contorted in rage. "You’ll sic your fire minions on me? Those poor excuses for do-gooders, the supposed so-called protectors of the community?” He laughed manically. Instantly, his rage evaporated into a whimsical smile. His voice took on a sing-song cadence. "But you can’t, Jack, because in a few minutes, you’ll be a crispy critter. But I’ll be alive, watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake, just like her hotshot daddy did.”

He hummed an off-key tune, and with deliberate concentration, he drilled a hole in the base of the light bulb, dropped in gasoline from an eye dropper, taped it over, then screwed the light bulb into the socket and laid it in the acetone puddle. "You may believe you’re all perfect, but the truth is you’re not. You’ve made so many mistakes and have so many dead bodies heaped on your soul, Jack, I don’t know where to start.”

Helplessness gnawed at Jack’s gut. Once more he battled to free his hands, to save himself, to save Katie. The edge of the duct tape tore into his skin. Warm blood trickled down his cold fingers. He ignored the pain and the blood. He had to get the hell out of here. No matter what the cost. He had to save Katie from this maniac. And, if there was no other way, he’d bleed to death trying.

"I’m actually looking forward to Katie’s ego tripping her up, too. I have it all planned, you know. I’ve been working on it for a long time, every detail, every nuance.” He began to hum again, that same tuneless, nerve-wracking ditty. "And I must admit, with all due modesty, it is masterful.”

Rage, hot and searing, boiled up from the depths of Jack’s soul. "You son of a bitch! You hurt her and I’ll haunt you from my grave, you piece of shit.”

Shaking his head, the Chessman clucked his tongue and continued with his work. "Words. Just words. Impotent, Jack. Very impotent. Words won’t free you or save that bitch. It’s too late for that. You have no one to blame but yourself for her death. After all, you taught her all you know... or think you do, and you’re the one who screwed up. She has your genes, so it’s inevitable that she’ll follow in Daddy’s footsteps, and someone else will die unnecessarily—again.” Taking the plug end of the electrical cord, he inserted the prongs into the wall outlet.

Jack tensed for the explosion. None came. Of course not. Crazy this son of a bitch may be, but stupid he wasn’t. He must have turned off the electricity at the main breaker box.

"Both of you need to get what’s coming to you. I outsmarted you, and, if she gets too close, I’ll outsmart her, too... after I play with her head for a while.” His laughter echoed across the dirty concrete floor. Purposefully, he walked over to Jack and then slipped something into his uniform shirt pocket.

Jack knew what it was without seeing it. It was a chess piece, the crazy bastard’s signature, a token he had been leaving at all his arson scenes. The thing that had eventually led Jack to him.

Roughly, he shoved Jack onto his stomach and then leaned down close. "When the fire comes for you, Jack, make sure you keep your face to the floor. I want them to be able to recognize you and find my little token of... remembrance,” he whispered softly. "We want to give credit where credit’s due, right?” He leaned close, his warm, fetid breath against Jack’s ear. "You were smart enough to finger me. Let’s see if Katie can. It won’t be right away. I want to give her time to figure this out before it happens. When she’s sure she knows who I am... I’ll have another barbeque.”

Jack struggled to turn over, but with his hands and feet bound, he was as helpless as a turtle on its back. His jailer stomped on his back, pinning him to the warehouse floor. Rough concrete and dirt ground painfully into Jack’s cheek.

The Chessman stepped away. Jack stared helplessly at the tips of the bastard’s shoes. "I have to be going now, Jack. Some careless person turned off the main breaker box. But not to worry, I’ll fix that on my way out.” He paused. "Too bad you’ll never know who really toasted you.” Once more, he began to hum, and then closed the door solidly behind him.

Two floors down, in the warehouse’s maintenance office, I paused and checked out the main electric breaker box. "Let there be light,” and, with a rush of utter contentment, I threw the main breaker on. I listened for the roar of the fire beast coming to life on the floor above me.

Closing my eyes, I envisioned the flames crawling up the wall and inching across the ceiling. Soon the oxygen would be used up and the white-hot flames would feed on the carbon dioxide. If he hadn’t suffocated by then with the 800 to 1,000 degree air filling his throat, Jack Sullivan would burst into flames from thermal radiation and cook like the sinners in Pompeii, because that’s how sinners should go... burned in the fires of hell.

By the time I heard Jack’s horrific screams, I had reached the front door. I paused and listened for the conclusive stages of the rampaging flashover, then the last of the exhilarating human shrieks. My blood was pumping so furiously through my veins I could hear the echo in my ears. Satisfaction flowed through me like a cooling breeze after a hot day. But I knew it wasn’t gone for long. Not until the rest of them joined Jack Sullivan in hell would I know true release from my hellish torment.

Lighting a cigarette, I took a long drag, exhaled, and smiled. A good smoke after a fire had become as satisfying as the climax after sex to me. As I listened to the sound of burning timber crashing to the floor and ceilings giving way under the weight of the collapsing building, I finished the cigarette, threw the butt to the sidewalk, ground it out with my foot, and grinned.

"One down. Three to go.”


 

 

Chapter 1

TWO YEARS LATER...

Engine Company 77’s Chief Arson Investigator, Katie Sullivan, stood amid the smoldering rubble of the used furniture warehouse. She stared fixedly at the light bulb base clinging to the socket end of a melted electrical cord that dangled from the sofa’s blackened springs.

Katie knew this device well. It had been used in a fire she knew intimately. Chief Jack Sullivan, her father, had died in that fire. No, not just died. He’d been murdered in a way that no human should have to spend their final moments on earth—burned alive at two thousand-plus degrees. Then, after the arsonist wreaked his destruction, the bastard had gone underground.

She shook off the memories that never failed to sicken her and churn her gut into a rage. After carefully going over what she’d determined as this fire’s point of origin, she marked it and the location of the incendiary device for the rest of her arson squad to photograph and collect.

As she continued her methodical search for evidence, her stomach knotted with the surge of adrenaline and a familiar excitement. Finally, she was going to get her shot at this cold-blooded killer.

She longed to skip the methodical, step-by-step examination of the warehouse ruins and go straight to searching out the one thing that would confirm her gut suspicions that he had resurfaced. But she had to be patient and take the proper steps drummed into her head by her father and the ATF arson investigator’s training program. Besides, arson was hard enough to prove, and, if she was right and this was the serial arsonist, the man who murdered her father two years earlier, she wanted the case against this slug to be airtight. She’d waited too long to screw it up now.

Perspiration poured down her sides beneath the protective suit she wore. Steam still emanated from the puddles of water left by the fire hoses. It would take more than the three hours she’d been forced to wait before entering the fire scene for everything to cool down. She could almost smell the acrid odor of smoke, burnt wood, plastic, and the sweet, fishy odor of burnt polyurethane foam shielded from her by the mask covering her mouth and nose.

She walked across the cavernous room that had housed an assortment of used furniture and stepped into a smaller, adjacent room. This part of the building, while sustaining a great deal of damage, was on the side the fire had not completely destroyed.

"Sullivan!”

Shit!

The strident, male voice drew her attention away from the burnt debris littering the concrete floor. She turned to see the Incident Commander Jerry Braniff striding toward her, his face distorted with anger. Braniff was not one of her favorite people, nor was she his. They’d been butting heads since he’d joined the department.

Though his fire gear covered the man beneath, Katie knew him to be unmarried, unattached to a girlfriend, and a prime candidate for a hunky firefighters’ calendar. She’d seen women swoon over his dark good looks and muscular body. But she knew the man beneath all that outer charm, and she didn’t like him. He was a user and an opportunist intent on climbing the ladder to District Commissioner and willing to step on whoever he needed to achieve his goal.

Katie slipped the face mask down and let it hang around her neck. "You’re contaminating my fire scene,” she said, leaning on her shovel.

"Since I haven’t released it yet, it’s not your scene. What the hell are you doing in here?” he demanded.

From the first day Katie had joined Engine 77, they had not seen eye-to-eye on much of anything. He viewed her as a renegade, out-of-her-depth female who’d gotten her promotion to lieutenant, not because she’d completed the ATF course and did it with honors, but because her father had been Chief. While Braniff was a heartthrob for most other women, for her, he was no more than a splinter under her skin. No—infection. Just a constant irritation and a major pain in her investigative butt and, right now, a distraction she didn’t need.

"I’m doing my job,” she said through clenched teeth and with barely-contained anger.

"Yeah, and as usual, you’re making it harder for me to do mine. This is an unsecured scene. We haven’t done a check for weakened structure yet. You could have gotten yourself buried under a roof cave-in.”

Holding her gloved hands out, she scanned the room then glared at him. "Well, as you can see, that didn’t happen. So your point is?”

Jerry shook his head. "My point is your freaking hotshot attitude. When are you ever gonna learn that rules were made for a reason? You’re not to enter until I’ve secured the scene, and you damned well know it. I should report your ass.” He looked around, his anger and frustration evident in his stiff back and clenched, pulsating jaw.

She needed to get back to her search. "Look, I don’t have time for this right now. So, do what you gotta do.”

"Well, you better freaking make time, Sullivan,” he yelled, shaking a finger in her face. "You pull this crap all the time, and if you don’t care about getting your ass in a shitload of trouble, I care about mine. My name’s in consideration for Assistant Chief, and I plan on getting it. And I’m not going to let some gung-ho female screw it up.”

She’d learned a long time ago to let chauvinistic remarks roll off her back. She’d also learned to fight fire with fire. "Well, let me tell you something. You’re contaminating a possible arson scene.”

That stopped his rampage dead in its tracks. "Arson? You think this was arson?”

"Yes. Arson. And right now you’re not only contaminating my scene, you’re impeding my investigation. So unless you want me to report you, which might just take your name out of the running for Assistant Chief, I’d advise you to get your ass out of here, and let me do my job.”

He glared at her, his dislike for her burning in his eyes. Then his expression altered. A strained truce had been achieved. "How long do you need?” he asked, his tone controlled, but with a definite knife edge.

"I just got started.” She glanced around, assessing how much time it would take to inspect the rest of the building. "Give me another couple of hours, and then my squad will need time to photograph and collect evidence.”

He nodded wordlessly, started to walk away, and then turned back. "Did you get here in time to walk the crowd?”

Katie nodded and shrugged. "Not much to see. Nobody talking much at all. No pocket jockeys getting their jollies.” Jerry allowed a shadow of a grin to sneak through at her description of the arsonist who got his sexual thrills by masturbating while watching his fire. "I’ll need to look at the video before I decide if our torch was a happy onlooker or not. What about your guys? Did they get anything?”

Jerry glanced around him at the damage. "The guy that turned it in said he saw black smoke coming from that side of the building, then a rush of bluish-green flames.” He pointed in the direction of the sofa. "Polyurethane foam. That’s the problem with these used furniture warehouses. Most of the contents were made before the stuff was outlawed, and there’s enough polyfoam in them to burn down a city block. I’m surprised the whole thing didn’t go up.”

Katie begrudgingly admitted he was right. This fire should have done a lot more damage than it had, but whoever set it made sure that it didn’t by starting it in an isolated section that didn’t have too much furniture to fuel the fire. "That’s because our torch wanted to make sure it didn’t go that far.”

His full attention swung back to her. "You onto something?”

She glanced around the room, and then shook her head. No point in her going into what she’d found until she had the final proof. "Right now, I’m just working on a strong hunch.”

That seemed to satisfy him. "Well, let me know what you find.” He started to leave, and then stopped abruptly. "By the way, the news vultures are already gathering. Watch what you tell them.”

Her already stretched nerves tightened more. Not much brought her anger to a boil faster than the media at a fire scene. She avoided talking to them any way she could. Everyone in the firehouse knew her opinion of the news sharks, and so did Jerry. But she didn’t have time for his crap, so she ignored his insinuation that she was a blabbermouth media darling and nodded, then glanced over Jerry’s shoulder for any sign of the Fire Chief.

"Is Bill around?” She was eager to tell her surrogate uncle about her hunch.

"Not now. He was here. Got here before the first truck. But he left a little while later. Said he had a meeting with the mayor.”

Made sense. With the fire department’s budget coming up for consideration by the city council, she supposed the mayor took precedence, even over the fire monster.

As Jerry stepped outside, she could hear the clamor of reporters throwing questions at him. Damned media. They seemed to smell smoke before the alarms came in.

She shrugged. Time to worry about them later.

Aiming her flashlight beam at a scorched metal file cabinet with the remains of singed file folders spilling out of the open drawers, she resumed her search. As she fanned the beam of light over the room, a small object, sitting on the dripping windowsill to the right of the cabinet and silhouetted by the meager light coming through the grimy window, caught her eye.

Her gut clenched. Blood pounded in her ears. She moved closer, sloshing through puddles of black water and keeping the flashlight beam trained on the object, her heart racing. Carefully, she stepped over a charred desk chair frame; a few half-burnt cardboard boxes, their contents nearly unrecognizable; and some chunks of ceiling tile that had fallen to the floor.

Once she stood in front of the window, she took a deep breath. Blackened a bit from the smoke, but totally recognizable, she stared down at a white marble chess piece... a pawn, the piece that usually started the game.

An icy chill chased down her spine. Her suspicions had been right on target. It was the signature of the Chessman.

The son of a bitch was back.

AFTER KATIE GAVE final instructions to her arson squad, then stepped outside the burned building a few hours later, the dogged reporters swarmed around her like a pack of starving, wild wolves, hungry for any bit of news she could feed them.

"Lieutenant Sullivan, how did the fire start? Was it arson?” A female reporter rushed Katie and shoved a microphone bearing the Channel 8 logo in her face.

"Do you know who did it?”

"Was it for the insurance?”

"Did you find the point of origin?”

"What was used to start it?”

"Was anyone inside?”

The questions flew at Katie with the speed of bullets leaving the barrel of a machine gun. Impatiently, she gave them her token answer. "It’s still under investigation.”

She continued pushing forward through the choking crowd, the aluminum evidence case, which contained the documented chess piece concealed in an evidence bag, clutched tightly in her hand.

"Can’t you even give us an educated guess as to the cause and estimated damage?” The insistent, raised voice of a man in his early twenties came from midway into the crowd of reporters. With his notepad at the ready and his eager expression, he reminded her of Jimmy Olsen of Supermanfame.

"I don’t make guesses,” she retorted in a clipped, impatient tone, and then turned away.

She’d just spent four hours rooting through the burned-out ruins of Scott’s Used Furniture Warehouse. She smelled like a horse fresh from a run in the Kentucky Derby. The helmet, now tucked beneath her arm, had turned her sweat-soaked hair into a tight, black cap of curls. Soot smeared her cheeks and hands. Her nose was full of the stench of smoke. Her nerves were stretched as tight as they would go and, if these reporters didn’t lay off, one of them could end up having an up-close-and-personal relationship with the toe of her boot.

In an effort to avoid their torrent of questions, Katie took an escape route straight into a wide, muscular chest covered by a sage green shirt. Directly in her line of vision, a star pinned to the pocket that read Coral County Sheriff’s Department reflected the bright sunlight. She staggered backwards. Strong hands came out to catch her shoulders in a firm grip.

"Whoa! What’s the hurry, Katie?”

Removing herself from his grasp, she looked up into the familiar face of Sheriff Drew Winters, the only person who could make her blood run hotter than one of the fires she investigated. Worry and concern darkened his brown eyes. It irked her that he questioned her ability to take care of herself, but the way her body came alive at his touch threatened to override her irritation. Quickly, she put distance between them.

"Getting here a bit late, aren’t you, Drew? The fun’s all over.” Anger tainted the humorous tone she’d sought for, turning her intended quip into a snappy judgment.

Drew sighed and dropped his hands to his sides. "I had a prisoner to pick up in Sarasota and just got back.”

Just then, Jerry emerged from the burnt shell of the building. She used it as an excuse to break eye contact with Drew. "Jerry, my team should be done in there in the next half hour. Once they’ve finished, if it’s all right with Drew, you can release the scene back to the building’s owner.”

Jerry glanced at Drew.

"No fatalities, right?” Drew asked.

"Only a bunch of sofas that should have been put out of their misery back in the seventies,” Jerry said, obviously avoiding eye contact with Katie.

"Then, I guess you can release it when you’re sure it’s out, or when Katie’s team is done. Whichever comes first.” Drew glanced at her for her okay.

She nodded.

The Incident Commander turned his attention to Katie and frowned. "Make sure they have everything. Once it’s released, if you forgot anything, you’ll need a search warrant to go back in there.”

Dammit! Why did he think she needed to be reminded of something she already knew? She hated being treated like an idiot, and Jerry seemed to enjoy doing it every chance he got. However, she was too tired to go head-to-head with him again. "Don’t worry, we’ll get it all.”

As she watched Jerry walk toward the big ladder truck parked at the side of the building, she became extremely aware of Drew’s gaze on her.

"Problem?”

She shook her head. "No more than usual. Someday, he’ll get used to me being a woman.”

"Then he’s a better man than I am.” When she swung her gaze to him, Drew quickly averted his study of her to the burnt shell of the warehouse. "So what’s the verdict? Insurance?”

Happy for the change of subject, Katie glanced over her shoulder at the reporters. The young man had broken free of the pack and was advancing on them with purpose in his stride.

"Damn!” Taking Drew’s elbow, she steered him toward his patrol car and out of earshot of the nosey media.

Against her will, as they walked, her gaze veered to Drew. He was a handsome, no-nonsense man, whose Seminole father’s blood shown vividly in his dark hair and eyes and coppery skin. After helping his widowed mother raise three younger siblings and then serving four years in the military, Drew had become a deputy sheriff. His crackdown on the drug dealers trafficking their wares up and down I-95 had gotten him elected to the position of Coral County Florida’s Sheriff by an overwhelming majority. His background had made him a guy who went by the letter of the rules, something Katie had never learned to do.

Shortly after his election, he and Katie had had a rather torrid affair, which she had called off a few months later, shortly after her father’s death. Unfortunately, Drew had never accepted the end of their relationship. She’d never been able to make him understand that it wasn’t him. She just wasn’t ready to risk her heart with anyone. Until he did see her side of this, she struggled to keep her strong attraction to him under wraps. But that didn’t mean that Drew did, and as a result, she found herself constantly on her toes around him.

They settled inside the patrol car. The smell of stale coffee coming from several empty Styrofoam containers rolling around the floor amid convenience store sandwich wrappers at her feet attested to his long drive. The killer heat building within the car’s interior magnified the pungent odor to the point of making it sickening. She rolled down the window next to her.

"This fire was no accident, and it wasn’t for the insurance.” Handing him an evidence bag she’d pulled from her case, she explained, "I found this.”

Drew took it. For a scant moment, his gaze stayed on her face, then something shuttered his emotions, and he looked at the object in the bag. His eyes widened and a frown creased his broad forehead. "He’s back.” Though the words emerged as barely a whisper, there was no missing that his tone was grim.

She tried to contain her excitement and failed. "It’s him, Drew. The Chessman. I know it. I also found his signature incendiary device under a burned-out sofa. The polyfoam filling almost destroyed it, but there was enough left to recognize a light bulb with a small hole drilled in the metal base.” She laughed sardonically. "Who would believe that anything that simple could become a lethal weapon?”

Drew stared through the windshield at the warehouse. "Considering what it could have done, there’s not much damage.”

She agreed. "We’re lucky it’s all not just a pile of ashes. My guess is that he planned it that way.”

Drew sighed and shook his head. "So, not only is he back, he’s getting more brazen. Setting a fire only minutes away from the firehouse? Is he crazy?” Then his broad brow furrowed. "Why would he plan it that way?”

"He’s making a point.” Drew frowned at her and handed the bag back to her. Their fingers touched and a jolt of awareness zipped up Katie’s arm, straight to her heart. Quickly, she opened the car door, climbed out and then leaned down to peer at him through the open window. "By setting the fire under our noses and controlling the destruction, he’s letting us know he’s so clever that, even when we’re on top of it, we can’t stop him. This whole thing is a game to him.” She held up the evidence bag containing the chess piece. "Well, it’s my move now.” She stepped back. "Gotta go.”

As she started to walk toward her SUV, Drew called to her. "You can’t run forever, Katie.”

There was no need to ask what he meant. Their relationship had moved from "Hi, how are you?” to "Welcome to my bed” with astounding speed. And she’d been as eager as he was to jump in the sack. Now, how did she make him understand that it had been a mistake?

How did she make him understand that she had real reservations about becoming emotionally attached to a man who looked death in the face every day when he pinned his badge to his shirt and strapped on his gun? How did she make him see that she could not lose another man she loved?

Right now, however, she didn’t have time to try. She had other things to do before she worried about her private life. Though Drew did things to her heart and body that no other man could, she had firmly made up her mind to let things cool down. With the reappearance of the Chessman, she didn’t have what it would take to engage in an emotional battle with Drew and concentrate on catching the bastard who’d killed her father, too.

"I don’t know what you mean. I just have to get back to work.” Feigning ignorance of anything went against her grain, so she did it poorly.

"Don’t play stupid, Katie,” Drew said. "You’ve been avoiding me for a long time.” His smile clearly said he had not given up the chase.

When the sunlight caught on his badge and reflected a blinding flash in her eyes, it gave her just the excuse she needed to look anywhere but at his determined expression. She didn’t have time for this crap. Not now. Not when she had the chess piece to process. Not when she was looking at her best chance in two years to nail her father’s killer.

"Sorry. Can’t talk right now,” she called, walking backwards and putting distance between them... literally and figuratively. "I want to catch Bill when he comes by the firehouse. Then I’m on duty, and I’ll be tied up for the next few days with reports and such...” Quickly, before Drew could protest, she spun around, and then hurried away to her car.

While she piled one excuse not to see him on top of another, Drew watched her go. As she walked away, she began stripping off the shapeless suit that had protected her from contamination inside the building. Slowly, the body of the Katie he’d held in his arms on long, hot nights emerged. He swallowed hard and ripped his gaze away.

He’d been willing to give her room, to wait her out. However, the discovery of the chess pawn had sent a wave of panic through him that had prompted him to tear down the invisible wall she’d erected between them. Now, chances were that she’d pull into her investigative cocoon completely, and if he didn’t do something about it, he’d run the risk of losing her forever—emotionally and perhaps actually.

He hated the risks she took in her normal investigations, but a gut feeling told him that this one would be worse, much worse. He knew she’d move heaven and hell to find this guy, and if putting her life on the line would do it, then she wouldn’t hesitate for a second to do so.

"Damn!” He hit the steering wheel with his palm and watched her drive out of the parking lot. "Not this time, Katie. You forget that if this is the Chessman, it’s a homicide investigation, too, and I’m going to be attached to your hip. If you put your ass on the line for this one, I’m going to be there to pull it out of the fire, whether you like it or not.” And no one had to tell him that she’d hate it.

Three hours later...

I stepped over the body of the nude woman at my feet and smiled. I took one last glance in the direction of the fire that two blocks away had raged so beautifully for so long. One of my better efforts.

Before stepping off the balcony, I stared down at the woman. The growing puddle of blood beneath her head made me smile. She never should have told me she had a balcony overlooking the street that ran past the warehouse. How could I resist the chance to watch my latest test of Company 77?

The blood-stained cut-glass vase dropped from my gloved hand, and I watched as it smashed into a million pieces on the floor. Then I nudged the woman with the toe of my shoe. Just to make sure. Couldn’t leave any loose ends. No response. Dead. Just as well. One less slut to walk the streets and sell her body like a slab of roast beef in a meat market.

Now, to make the next move in my game with the Sullivan bitch. I tucked one of my calling cards into the woman’s mouth, then another in her hand and closed her fingers around it. I didn’t want it to get lost or overlooked. I caressed her cold cheek. The expression of stark terror frozen on her face made me smile.

"Let the games begin.”

WHEN BILL O’BRIEN arrived at the firehouse, Katie was studying the firefighters’ preliminary reports at the big trestle dining table in the mess hall.

"Hear you had a busy day,” Bill said, going straight to the coffeepot and filling a mug with black-as-pitch coffee.

Carrying the cup back to the table, he straddled the bench next to her. Katie curled her nose at the odor of the black sludge that cooked over a hot plate for most of any given day.

"He’s back, Bill.” She slid the evidence bag containing the pawn across the table. Having been her father’s closest friend since childhood, Bill had become her surrogate uncle early in her life and her strength after the fire that took her dad’s life. She told Bill about the light bulb she’d found. "Same incendiary device; same white marble pawn.”

Bill picked up the bag, examined its contents, and then laid it back down. He sighed. "After all this time, I thought we’d seen the last of him.”

The man had set a fire that had killed someone—her father. She told herself that she’d hoped, when he disappeared, that it would be the end, too. But deep inside, she had to admit to a deep down exhilaration at having another chance at nailing the Chessman and making sure he got what he deserved. Too bad they’d decommissioned Florida’s notorious electric chair, Old Sparky. But a lethal injection would do just as well. Dead was dead. If she had her way, she’d lock his sorry ass in a room and set fire to it, just like he’d done to her dad.

She slipped the bag back into her case. "I’ll lock it up tonight, then I’m gonna ship everything off to the forensics lab in Atlanta in the morning.”

Bill frowned. "Why Atlanta? We’ve got a good forensics lab right here.”

She snapped the lock closed on the case. "I don’t want any slip-ups on this one. I want the best people in the business to analyze it.” She smiled tiredly and combed her fingers through her hair. "I missed you at the fire.”

Bill sipped his coffee, then gave her the same explanation Jerry had given her as to why he’d been absent from the fire. "Politics. You know the drill. It’s the same every year at budget time. Kiss the mayor’s ass enough to get him to push through the increase we need for improvements around here, and hope for the best.” He shrugged. "So where did you find the device?”

"Under an old sofa. It wasn’t until I saw the remains of the bulb that I knew for sure it wasn’t an insurance scam.” She shuffled the papers in front of her. "I just scanned the reports, and all but one of the firefighters said it wasn’t electrical.” She picked out one of the reports and handed it to him.

While he read, she studied the man who had taken her under his wing after her father’s murder. His looks shouted his Irish ancestry: red hair dusted with streaks of white, sparkling blue eyes, and a mouth always at the ready to smile.

"One of the firefighters said it was electrical?” Bill studied the name at the top of the report, then gave a short laugh. "Well, this explains it. This guy’s a rookie. He hasn’t had more than two big fires under his belt. Didn’t know enough to dig deeper.”

"He’ll learn, just like I did.”

"Don’t blow your horn too loud, Katie girl. There’s always someone sharper than you waiting in the wings to throw you off stage.” He frowned at her. "What are you still doing here anyway?”

Katie fussed with the sheets of paper that comprised the fire report. "I wanted to finish these before I went home while everything was fresh in my mind.”

"You look wiped out. Get the hell out of here. Go home and get some shut-eye.” Bill touched her shoulder, and then began massaging the bunched muscles he found there. "This torch really has you strung tight.”

She pulled away from his touch. "Not really. I’m just concentrating on figuring him out. And I will figure him out this time. This bastard is gonna be mine.”

"You sure?”

Katie glanced up at him. "When I’m on to something, have you ever known me to let go? Dad’s favorite story about my childhood was the day I took my first step after falling down and getting right back up repeatedly for days. He said every time my bottom hit the floor I bounced up without a tear and tried again. Like a dog with a bone, he’d say. Well, that’s what it’s gonna be like this time, too.”

Bill smiled at her, walked to the sink, and then poured the remains of his coffee down the drain. He turned back to her. "I’m counting on that.”

NORMALLY, KATIE’S alarm clock went off at 6:30, but when she forced her tired eyes open and looked at the digital clock on her bedside table the glowing red numbers read 4:18. She propped herself up on one elbow and looked around the darkened bedroom that had belonged to her parents, the room she’d moved into after her father’s death.

Moonlight shafted through the filmy curtains and reflected off a picture of a uniformed Jack Sullivan that stood on her dresser. A breeze billowed the curtains out in front of the window, sending the sheer panels into a sensuous Salome-like dance. Shadows filled the corners of the room. The bedroom door hung open just a crack, enough for the hall nightlight to cast a small luminous puddle on the threshold.

She listened. Silence filled the old house. Somewhere outside a dog barked sharply several times, and then quieted when an irritated, disembodied voice called out "Boomer, shut up and lay down!”

Collapsing back on the pillow, Katie stared at the ceiling. As exhausted as she had been, it had felt so good last night to shower, crawl into bed, and forget arsonists, fires and one very handsome lawman, who had managed to resurrect all her buried feelings for him with one smile. Surprisingly, despite visions of Drew dancing through her mind, exhaustion overruled desire, and she’d fallen into a deep sleep quite fast.

So what had awakened her? Flash? No. It couldn’t be him. The poor dog had been at the vet’s for the last two days with a bad stomach upset.

As she reached to check the setting for her alarm, she heard a muffled sound from downstairs, as if someone had dropped something on the floor. Intruder? The hair on her nape prickled to instant attention. She listened for another sound, but none came. Holding her breath, she threw back the light blanket, and then eased noiselessly out of bed. From her night table, she took a flashlight and a .38 handgun.

Leaving the flashlight off, she slipped from her bedroom and tiptoed barefoot down the hall to the stairs. A cool breeze from below passed through the thin material of one of her dad’s old flannel shirts that served as her nightgown, raising goose flesh over her body. Careful to avoid the squeak in the third step, she slowly descended to the lower hall, her back tight against the wall. With the gun and flashlight cradled in both hands, and her arms extended in front of her, she clicked off the gun’s safety and pressed one finger in readiness on the flashlight’s switch, then positioned another firmly on the gun’s trigger.

Moonlight streaming through the open front door washed everything in the empty hall in an eerie silver cast. A breeze burdened with the smell of humid air, freshly mowed grass, and damp earth nudged the door open another inch or so.

She stared at the open door. Had she been so exhausted when she came home that she’d forgotten to lock the door? Not very likely. Upstairs, she could easily have attributed the noises to the creaking of an old house. But not now. Her whole body went on alert.

Slowly, she moved through the living room, sweeping corners and shadows simultaneously with her sharp gaze and the muzzle of the gun. Nothing. Another muffled sound, like something being scraped across the countertop, came from the kitchen. Picking her way in her bare feet, she crept toward the kitchen.

Taking a deep breath, she clutched the gun tighter and made sure her finger was on the flashlight’s switch. With one continuous motion, she swung open the kitchen door and hit the flashlight beam.

There on the sink, looking like the criminal that he was, crouched a gray tiger-striped tabby belonging to Mrs. Hanford, Katie’s neighbor. The cat was scarfing up the leftovers from Katie’s hasty tuna sandwich supper from the night before. On the throw rug in front of the sink lay the broken pieces of a glass that had held the milk she’d had with the sandwich. Katie breathed a sigh of relief and lowered the gun.

"Professor Higgins, are you trying to scare me to death? And how in hell did you get in here anyway?” The cat, named for Mrs. Hanford’s favorite stage character, My Fair Lady’s Professor Henry Higgins, looked at Katie and meowed. "Yes, I know. The sandwich was just lying there so you helped yourself. Well,” she added, skirting the broken china and then scooping the cat off the counter, "it’s been nice, but I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow, and it’s way too late for me to be entertaining. I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave.”

Katie padded down the hall, deposited the cat on the porch, then stepped inside and closed and locked the door. Silently, she stared down at the turn-piece in the center of the deadbolt. She twisted it to the unlock position, then back to lock it. The click of the lock sliding into place echoed around the hall.

If she’d locked up when she’d come home, how had the door been opened to let in the cat? According to Mrs. Hanford, Professor Higgins possessed innumerable talents, but Katie was certain they didn’t include breaking and entry.

She headed for the phone to call the police.

 


 

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