“Some like it hot,” said the announcer on the radio.
“And some don’t,” said Fire Chief Colleen McCabe as she stretched across her gray metal desk in the Corolla, North Carolina, Station 6 firehouse and turned the volume down on the radio. She leaned back in her cushioned vinyl chair, switched on her desk fan, and swiveled to look out her second-floor office window at the cloudless morning sky.
Weather junkie that she was, Colleen didn’t need to hear the radio announcer’s Fourth of July weather report. She had checked the local radar online, the Weather Channel, and her own thermometer and barometer before leaving this morning. One thing was clear—the Outer Banks was on the verge of a record-breaking heat wave. Today, sand would burn the soft soles of children’s feet as they ran from the surf to the safety of umbrellas and towels; the sun would beat on tar roads and create the illusion of thin pools of standing water; and icicles would elongate on overworked air-conditioning units.
Despite her years of experience, Colleen’s heart skipped a beat and she felt a mild sense of anxiety thinking about the dangerous combination of brittle dune grass and vacationers’ illegal roadside fireworks. It wasn’t battling the fires that got to her; it was the anticipation of the event. Colleen used to get the same feeling before a race at college track meets. It was the waiting for the event rather than the competition itself that unnerved her. A call to the fire station had the same effect as a call to the starting blocks had had in college. Her jitters disappeared and she became focused, calm, and in her zone.
A car horn blared repeatedly outside. Colleen stood and peered out the window. A herd of wild Corolla horses slowly clopped down Whalehead Drive. Like Secret Service agents, three uniformed Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society officers followed closely behind the horses, making certain tourists kept their distance. A week earlier, a fierce tropical storm had knocked down a section of the sound-to-sea fences that separated the horses from the southern, more developed sections of Corolla. Until the fences were repaired and the horses returned to the refuge, the preservation officers were responsible for protecting herds that had escaped the sanctuary from speeding cars and curious tourists.
Colleen knew the horses were safest in the refuge but it was nice seeing them wandering the island again. The last time the threatened breed of Spanish mustangs had been this far south was in 1996, before the last of them were safely relocated behind the sanctuary fences. The 12,000 acres of refuge on the northern beaches had been created after twenty horses had been killed or injured by cars on Ocean Trail Road. Colleen missed the days when the horses roamed freely but understood the critical need to protect them.
The vacationers were eagerly trying to get close to the rare Spanish mustangs and the preservation officers were determined to stop them. Colleen watched as the line of cars grew longer behind the officers and horses. A second horn sounded and then a third.
“Stay away from the horses!” Myrtle Crepe squawked at the tourists.
Myrtle Crepe was the stocky, white-haired, sixty-five-year-old head of the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society and a royal pain to everyone visiting and living in Corolla.
Colleen sighed, tied her curly brown hair back in a ponytail, and descended the firehouse stairs. Sparky, her Border collie, followed quickly behind, his nails clicking on the corrugated metal. She approached Jimmy Bartlett, who was busy supervising the men as they checked their equipment. Jimmy was Colleen’s handlebar-mustached veteran captain and her most trusted colleague.
“Everything okay, Chief?” Jimmy asked.
“Just Myrtle stopping traffic again.” Colleen eyed the sparkling white engine with its navy blue stripe. “She looks good, fellas,” she said and exited. She folded her arms and stood in the shade of the firehouse entrance to witness Myrtle and the preservation officers in action.
“Little Bobby, stop that traffic. You’re letting cars by,” Myrtle said to her son.
Bobby Crepe, the second preservation officer, obediently lumbered to the middle of the street and thrust his hand at oncoming traffic. A tourist in the first car returned Bobby’s gesture with one of his own.
Myrtle spotted a small girl who had left her car and was tentatively reaching out to touch a foal. Myrtle scurried forward and whacked the child’s hand. Colleen winced, having once felt that smack on her own hand. Before retiring to work as a preservation officer, Myrtle had been a teacher at Colleen’s elementary school. Colleen had had the misfortune of being a student in Myrtle’s third-grade class.
The girl’s mother leapt from her car, rushed forward, and drew her daughter away in stunned silence. The vacationers retreated to their cars, whispering outrage among themselves.
“Was that really necessary?” Nellie Byrd asked. Nellie was the third and final officer, and the well-liked owner of Nell’s Gift Shop and Rentals.
“They need to know we mean business,” Myrtle said.
“We want to attract members to the horse society, not drive them away.”
“Are you head preservation officer?” Myrtle asked, pulling rank.
Nellie bit her lip and turned to observe the horses as they moved off the road to the nearby dunes to munch on vegetation. Colleen found it hard to believe that Myrtle and Nellie had stayed friends since childhood. The two could not have been more different. In Colleen’s mind, Myrtle was a pit bull and Nellie a cocker spaniel.
“Come here, Little Bobby,” Myrtle said, pointing to the ground in front of her.
Bobby lowered his arm and shuffled to the shoulder of the road. A line of cars inched past the firehouse. Angry drivers honked at Bobby as they passed.
“Myrtle Crepe is a witch!” came an irate voice from a passing car.
Edna Daisey shook her fist at Myrtle through the open driver’s-side window of her car, then took off down the road.
“Why, I…” Myrtle said in an indignant huff.
Colleen, Nellie, and Bobby quickly averted their eyes, not wanting to meet Myrtle’s gaze. All knew the tumultuous history between Myrtle Crepe and Edna Daisey and none wanted to be caught taking sides, not if they knew what was good for them.
Edna was a sturdy redhead and Myrtle’s contemporary. She had been the librarian at Colleen’s elementary school when Myrtle was Colleen’s teacher and had ruled the library with an iron fist. Signs posted around the library read NO FOOD! NO GUM! NO TALKING! Colleen was amazed Edna had actually allowed reading. Edna had prided herself on her meticulous maintenance of the library and its collection. Myrtle’s lax attitude about book due dates and mistreatment of periodicals had driven the obsessive Edna to fits, many of them in front of Colleen and her class.
It was a surprise to everyone when Myrtle and Edna agreed to work together at the Lighthouse Wild Horse Preservation Society after retirement and a surprise to none when, a few weeks later, they were at each other’s throats again. One day, in an effort to “save” the Society’s documents from Myrtle, Edna had secreted them in her tote bag and was leaving the office when Myrtle caught her in the act. Myrtle promptly had Edna removed from the building and the Society. Myrtle and Edna hadn’t exchanged a civil word since.
“Little Bobby, stop loitering and come here!” Myrtle said, turning her displeasure on her son.
Colleen watched Bobby walk toward her. Bobby was forty, unmarried, and still living with his mother. He was as wide as he was tall, with pudgy cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and graying hair that was cut short and parted on the side. His blue preservation society uniform was snug around his belly; his shorts rode up on his plump inner thighs; and his matching socks were stretched to just below his sunburned, dimpled knees. Colleen wondered why he let his mother dress him like that.
“Morning,” Bobby said, spotting Colleen standing in the station entrance.
“Things busy today?” Colleen asked as he approached.
Bobby sighed and rolled his eyes in Myrtle’s direction.
“Little Bobby!” Myrtle said, advancing toward Colleen and Bobby.
“Little Bobby,” Bobby said, mimicking his mother under his breath.
“Good morning, Mrs. Crepe,” Colleen said in as sweet a tone as she could muster. Since nothing else had worked, Colleen thought she’d try killing Myrtle with kindness.
“Isn’t it enough you’ve cast a spell on the men at the station? Now you’re after my son?” Myrtle protectively grabbed Bobby’s hand. “Well, your charms won’t work on my Little Bobby. He’s a fine boy.”
“Mother!” Bobby said with a hiss and yanked his hand away.
“Yes, he is, Mrs. Crepe,” Colleen said, winking at the mortified Bobby.
Myrtle gave Colleen a quick head-to-toe appraisal. “A woman in her thirties not married. Humph. Believe me, your looks aren’t going to last, Leenie Beanie.”
Colleen’s cheeks reddened. Leenie Beanie. Myrtle had a way of finding a soft spot and stomping all over it. So what if she had been the tallest and skinniest kid in her school? So what if she had been the only girl to stand in the back row for class pictures every year? She wasn’t so tall or skinny now. Besides, how would Myrtle like to know what the kids had called her?
“Colleen doesn’t have time for marriage,” Nellie said, joining them outside the station. “She has a career.”
“Careers like hers are for men,” Myrtle said and snorted for emphasis.
“I run a business,” Nellie said.
“Exactly my point.”
Nellie opened her mouth to reply, then clamped it shut. The pupils of Colleen’s steel blue eyes narrowed. She wanted to give Myrtle a swift kick in her elderly derriere but decided to spare Bobby the embarrassment of seeing his mother spanked in public. He had suffered enough.
“Now that the horses are safe, why don’t we go help Dr. Wales,” Nellie said, changing the subject. “I heard he has a new foal on the way.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Nellie, if you’re keeping things from me…”
“Like anyone could keep something from you,” Nellie said a little too sweetly.
Myrtle studied Nellie a moment. “Okay then. We’re off to Doc’s.”
Myrtle marched down the road. Nellie and Bobby followed, unhappy ducklings. Myrtle jumped into her pickup and honked loudly. Nellie jogged and Bobby waddled to catch up. Colleen cringed as Bobby wedged himself into the middle of the front seat. Before Nellie could get the passenger door closed, the pickup was moving. Nellie managed to close the door and wave to Colleen before the vehicle disappeared in a cloud of sandy dust down the road.
Colleen shook her head and walked across the driveway. She called for Sparky who, seconds later, shot out from the back of the station with an old leather shoe in his mouth. “So that’s where my shoe went,” Colleen said, trying to wrestle it free. “Okay, okay,” she said after a brief struggle with the dog. “If you want it that badly, it’s yours.”
Sparky settled down to chew on the shoe. Colleen squatted next to the dog and played with his ears. The dog had been a gift from her father when her parents moved to New Orleans for work. According to her father, every decent fire chief had to have a dog. She knew the gift had more to do with her father’s worries about her safety and living alone.
Colleen didn’t particularly like living by herself but it beat the complications of having another person in the house. She had tried living with her college sweetheart after graduation and it had been disaster. After a year, he had popped the question. She had tearfully declined his proposal. She wasn’t ready for marriage and didn’t think she would be for some time. She moved out of their apartment the next day. It wasn’t fair to him to stay. She could never give him the commitment he wanted. She cried for a week, sorry for the pain she had caused him, then moved back home to the Outer Banks and became a firefighter with Whalehead Fire and Rescue.
The alarm on Colleen’s watch went off. Sparky jumped, dropped the shoe, and ran to her side. The Border collie knew what the beeping meant. Time for morning rounds. Colleen smiled, not knowing which of them enjoyed rounds more. For Sparky, it was a time to put his nose out the window and into the wind. For her, driving the slim barrier island was a time of reflection about her life and the island.
As she and Sparky toured the island, Colleen pondered how Corolla had changed from a rustic destination for sportsmen to a vacation retreat for northern suburbanites. She wasn’t sorry to see the practical, one-story, hurricane-proof cement structures go, but she wasn’t thrilled about the new estates either. She missed the miles of dune grass and wildflowers that once covered her island. And there was nothing like rounding a bend in the road and spotting a horse with her foal in the late afternoon sun.
Colleen scanned the road ahead, squinted at the sky, and sighed. “Not again.” Sparky cocked his head. He saw it, too. Smoke. The brown-and-gray, billowy kind that comes from burning trees and brush. Colleen pressed the gas pedal, flipped on her vehicle’s flashing lights, and drove toward the development of Island Sands.
Colleen’s breathing grew shallow as she neared Island Sands. She forced herself to inhale deeply. She needed to be calm, professional. Her past confrontations with Pinky Salvatore had not ended well.
Antonio “Pinky” Salvatore was a developer from Long Island, New York, who had arrived in Corolla three years ago. His Island Sands was a community of opulent estates near the southern end of Corolla. The Mafia rumors made Pinky the closest thing the area had to the criminal element. But that wasn’t what bothered Colleen. What bothered Colleen was how Pinky repeatedly ordered his men to burn debris. Nothing stopped him. Not citations. Not fines. Not even threats to shut down construction.
Pinky’s recurring violations made Colleen a frequent visitor to his construction trailer. Colleen’s visits to Pinky made Bill Dorman, her closest friend and the Currituck County sheriff, jealous. Bill was straightforward and sensible. He had told Colleen directly that he thought the New York developer was interested in her. She had told Bill he was being ridiculous but she knew what he said was true. Every time she visited Pinky’s trailer, the businessman made a romantic proposition. These inevitable, unwanted propositions were why Colleen dreaded her visits.
Colleen’s cell phone rang. She glanced at the number. Bill. He must have sensed she was on her way to see Pinky. She hit the ANSWER button.
“Good morning,” Colleen said, smiling in anticipation of Bill’s jealous warning.
“Not so good for some of us,” Bill said.
“Before you get started about Pinky—”
“Mr. Salvatore isn’t my concern right now. I need you to meet me on the beach at the northern end, just inside the sanctuary.”
Something was wrong. Bill only referred to Pinky as Mr. Salvatore when he was speaking in his official capacity as Currituck County sheriff. “What’s up?” she asked.
“You’ll see when you get here,” Bill said and hung up.
Colleen changed course and headed toward the northern end. She hit the button for the station on her cell phone. Pinky Salvatore would have to deal with Jimmy today. Colleen smiled picturing the disappointment on Pinky’s face when he opened the door to his trailer, two glasses of champagne in hand, and found the mustached and tattooed Captain Bartlett on his doorstep instead of her.
Copyright © 2013 by Kathryn O’Sullivan