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Kat was dreaming about Henry when she heard the sirens. She had no idea why. It's not as if she dwelled on him so much during her waking hours that it invaded her subconscious at night. In fact, it had been weeks since she thought about Henry, months since she had heard from him, and a full year since she last saw him.
Yet there he was, front and center in her dream. They were in a nondescript room so dim and vast that Kat wasn't sure if it was a room at all. Dreams were like that. Ceilings not supported by walls. Floors as malleable as wet sand. The only thing concrete about their surroundings was the table in front of them—white Formica as bright as a smile in a toothpaste commercial.
On the table were two large sheets of paper, thin and translucent. Henry, staring at his swath of paper, frowned.
"I don't know how to do this."
"It's easy," Kat said. "I'll show you."
She lifted a corner of her sheet to the center, cementing the fold with a crease. Henry followed suit. They did it again, this time simultaneously, with an upper fold.
"See," she said. "I told you it was easy."
Then the sirens started, so distant and muffled that Kat at first thought they were just another part of the dream. But they continued, even after Henry, the table, and the paper all vanished. That's when she knew they were real.
Kat listened without opening her eyes. Although they were far away, she could tell the sirens belonged to the fire department and not her police force. The ones on the fire trucks were louder and deeper—the baritones to her patrol cars' tenor.
Sliding out of bed, she went to the window and saw the reason for the sirens—a fire, glowing orange and eerie in the distance. She couldn't tell how large it was or pinpoint its exact location. All she knew was that she needed to be there, no matter how much she wanted to crawl back into bed. Pausing only long enough to yawn, she started to put on her uniform a mere hour and a half after taking it off.
She was mostly dressed by the time her phone rang. As expected, it was Carl Bauersox, her deputy, sounding much more energetic than she did. On the night shift, he was used to being alert at this hour. Kat was not.
"We've got a fire, Chief."
"I know," Kat said. "I hear the sirens. What's burning?"
He was referring to the Perry Hollow Historical Society and Exhibition Hall, a collection of documents, artifacts, and photographs that dated back to the town's founding and beyond. Because of its unwieldy name, and because most of the town's history resided within its walls, people simply called it the museum.
"Is it bad?"
"Looks like it," Carl said. "It's a big draw, too. We're going to have a crowd control problem on our hands in a minute."
This didn't surprise Kat. Fires weren't common in Perry Hollow, and she was sure a good portion of the town would come out to gawk. They certainly couldn't sleep. Not with all those sirens echoing down the streets.
"Hold them off as best you can. I'll be there soon."
When she was finally on the road, her own sirens blaring, Kat noticed that the fire was visible from all over town. Even from six blocks away, she could see the licks of flame flashing over the rooftops of neighboring buildings. A thick column of black smoke, rising straight up into the night sky, punctuated the blaze like an exclamation point.
Crossing Main Street, she noticed plenty of residents staggering along the sidewalk in tossed-on sweatpants, sneakers, and robes. All of them were headed in the same direction she was, drawn mothlike to the flames. Crowd control problem, indeed.
She brought her Crown Vic to a stop a block away from the museum, parking sideways in the middle of the street. It wasn't much of a roadblock, but it would be enough to keep any cars from trying to come through. Plus, it was easy to move out of the way to let in fire trucks from neighboring towns, if it came to that.
Kat hoped it wouldn't.
Leaving her patrol car, she hurried down the street, finally getting a good look at the blaze. It wasn't as big as she first thought, but still bad by Perry Hollow standards. It looked to be contained to the front of the building, a three-story Queen Anne with all the frilly trimmings. Fire ate away at the steeply pitched roof and munched swiftly toward the ornate turret in its center. Flames leaped from the front windows and curled in the crisp autumn air, making Kat think of Satan's fingers beckoning a group of sinners to Hell.
Filling the street in front of the museum were two of the Perry Hollow Fire Department's three fire trucks. A ladder truck and a standard pumper, they formed a wide V on the lawn. In the center, members of the volunteer squad—all five of them—had already unfurled their hoses and were now blasting away at the blaze. The jets of water rose high into the air, arching over the front lawn before diving into the flames.
The squad's third truck, trusty Engine 13, was a 1973 Ford used for brush fires. Despite its age, it was the truck that saw the most action. Brush fires were the norm in Perry Hollow. House fires were not—a fact made noticeable by the sheer amount of onlookers standing on the other side of the street. While Kat had overestimated the force of the blaze, she had underestimated the size of the crowd. Half the town, it seemed, was there, huddling together and gazing at the flames.
Carl tried his best to keep them at bay, but they were an unruly lot. The young men and teenage boys in the crowd were especially eager to get closer to the fire. Kat intercepted two boys, the same age as her son, who had slipped past Carl and made it halfway across the street.
"Where you headed, boys?"
One of them—a freckle-faced kid with a snide smile—answered. "To see if the firemen need our help."
"They don't need anything but for you two to keep at a safe distance."
Kat ushered them back to the curb, yelling to get the attention of the rest of the crowd. "Everyone take a step back and stay there. This isn't a basketball game, people. Courtside seats are not available."
She sidled up to Carl, who was visibly relieved to have reinforcements.
"Just in time," he said, wiping sweat from his perpetually clean-shaven face. "They were starting to overrun me."
"They're just excited. There hasn't been a fire in town since—"
She cut herself off. Not that it mattered. Carl knew what she was going to say anyway. The last major fire in Perry Hollow was at the sawmill the town had been built around. Abandoned for more than a decade, it had gone up in flames a year earlier, with Kat and two others still inside. One of them had been Henry Goll, the unexpected costar of her dream. He and Kat almost died in the blaze. The person with them perished, although that wasn't such a bad thing, considering that he had been trying to kill them.
Feeling the heat of the current fire on the back of her neck, Kat realized that it was the one-year anniversary of the mill blaze. No wonder Henry had been in her dream. Her brain was trying to remind her that it was now October 31. Exactly a full year since the great Halloween fire that destroyed a piece of Perry Hollow history.
Kat faced the burning museum. Although she hadn't been inside it since grade school, seeing yet another part of the town's past go up in flames saddened her. At least she wasn't trapped inside this time. If there was a silver lining to be found, that would be it.
Another bright spot was the fact that the blaze already seemed to be under control. The fire on the roof had receded, leaving the museum's grand turret untouched. The flames at the windows, those devilish fingers, had retreated indoors, allowing the firefighters to march closer and focus on the hot spots.
But as the fire got smaller, the crowd on the other side of the street grew larger. There must have been fifty people there, with still more on the way. They stood in a tight pack, eyes on the fire, murmuring to each other with a combination of concern and excitement that always seemed to occur at scenes of public chaos. Kat spotted a lot of familiar faces in the crowd and nodded or waved. She saw Burt Hammond, Perry Hollow's mayor, sporting a black suit and a face so pale it made him resemble a wax statue. Standing with him was Father Ron, who had been the priest at All Saints Parish for as long as Kat could remember. Nearby were Jasper Foxx and Adrienne Wellington, both of whom owned stores on nearby Main Street. Dave Freeman, whose lawn bore the brunt of the onlookers, passed out Styrofoam cups to the crowd. His wife, Betty, followed, filling the cups with coffee she poured from a thermos.
Pushing past them was a tiny woman with a big perm, a parka thrown over her pink nightgown. Kat recognized the parka—not to mention the hair—as belonging to Emma Pulsifer, vice president of the Perry Hollow Historical Society. Seeing Kat, Emma rushed forward with a manic energy that verged on hysteria.
"Chief Campbell, have you seen Connie?"
Kat knew of at least four Connies who lived in town. "Could you be more specific?"
Emma sighed with impatience. "Connie Bishop."
"Yes," Emma huffed. "I've been looking for her everywhere."
Constance Bishop, a prim but eminently friendly woman, knew everything there was to know about Perry Hollow. Accordingly, she served as president of the historical society. Kat wasn't sure what that entailed, but she assumed the museum fire was something that would concern her.
"I haven't seen her," she said. "Have you tried calling her?"
Emma held up her cell phone. "Four times. No answer."
She looked up and down the block, head bobbing wildly. With her puffy hair and unfortunately pointy nose, she brought to mind an exotic bird, like something from South America you'd see on the Discovery Channel. The resemblance was only heightened by the way she flapped her arms helplessly.
"I don't know what to do. I thought Connie would be here and have a game plan."
"Saving the artifacts, of course," Emma said. "There are priceless items in that building. We can't just watch them burn."
Kat told her they didn't have much choice in the matter. As long as there were still flames inside the museum, no one but members of the fire department would be going inside. That didn't sit well with Vice President Pulsifer.
"But the deed for the land Perry Mill was built on is in there," she said. "Signed in 1760 by Irwin Perry himself. And rare photographs of the town. And maps. We have items dating back to before the mill. Before the town was even called Perry Hollow. If we don't do something right now, all of it could be destroyed."
Kat looked to the museum again. Two firefighters had used the ladder truck to climb onto the roof, which they sprayed down with foam. Two others were in the process of knocking down the front door. When it gave way, they had to jump back to escape the flames rolling out of it. But they recovered quickly and ventured inside, hose blasting. Next to her, Emma Pulsifer cringed, no doubt imagining all that water damage.
"There's a back door," Emma said with noticeable desperation. "I know the fire's not out, but the town's entire history is in there. If we go through the back, we can try to salvage something."
"This is a tragedy," Kat told her. "It truly is. But I can't let you in there until the fire is completely out. I'm sorry. It's too dangerous."
Emma replied with a short, sad nod, the distant firelight reflecting in the tears that formed at the corners of her eyes. Quietly, she dialed her cell phone, pressed it to her ear, and turned away from Kat.
"Connie? It's Emma. Where are you? Call me back immediately."
Kat looked over Emma's shoulder, checking to see if the crowd was still behaving. They were, although one man near the back was on the move. He towered over the rest of the crowd, showing less interest in the fire than in getting past those who were watching it. Kat only caught a brief glimpse of his face—as pale as a full moon—but it was all she needed. She'd recognize those scars anywhere.
The man didn't hear her. He continued working his way through the crowd, carrying what looked to be a small suitcase. Kat tried to follow him, practically shouting his name.
"Henry Goll? Is that you?"
She was in the thick of the crowd now, surrounded by people far taller than her five-foot frame. Kat cursed her shortness while squeezing between the two boys she had forced back onto the curb earlier that night.
Exiting on the other side of the crowd, she looked in all directions, seeing no sign of Henry. If it was even him. Kat had her doubts. The last time she had heard from him, he was living in Italy, making it unlikely he'd be walking the streets of Perry Hollow at one-thirty in the morning. Perhaps she had spotted someone who merely looked like him. Maybe it was a trick of the fire-lit night. Or maybe she was simply seeing things. It was late, after all, and her dream had put Henry back into her thoughts.
Concluding that the dream was to blame, Kat whirled around, ready to return to Emma Pulsifer. She instead collided with a man standing on the edge of the crowd.
For a brief moment, she again thought it was Henry. The man was as solid as she remembered Henry being. Bumping into him felt like smacking into a brick wall. Kat almost said his name again, so certain was she that the man she had collided with was the long-lost Henry Goll.
Yet when the man spoke, she immediately realized her error. Henry's voice was deeper and more halting. The voice of the man she had bumped sounded high-pitched and startled.
"Whoa," he said. "Sorry about that."
"It was my fault." Kat wiped a strand of hair away from her face. "I should have been watching where I was going."
"Look before you leap, right?" the man said.
Kat studied the man a moment, certain she had never seen him before. Since she knew practically everyone in Perry Hollow—if not by name, then by sight—she assumed he was a recent arrival. Or else a visitor. He had the appearance of someone who didn't belong. Although his voice contained no hint of an accent, he looked vaguely foreign, with deep-set eyes the color of coal, sharp cheekbones, and blond hair pulled back in a ponytail.
His clothes, too, were out of place in a jeans-and-T-shirt town like Perry Hollow. His collared shirt was buttoned all the way to the neck. His black pants were too tight and too short. An extra inch or two of white socks poked out from the cuffs before vanishing again into pointy shoes fastened by silver buckles. Over it all hung a black trench coat that was slightly frayed at the sleeves.
Kat introduced herself, hoping the stranger would do the same.
He merely nodded politely. "Nice to meet you, Chief. Have a good night. Don't stay up too late."
He departed, his trench coat fluttering behind him. Kat watched him walk toward Main Street, still unable to shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right about the guy. And it wasn't just because he refused to give a name. It was the whole package—his face, his clothes, his whole manner—that unsettled her. Had the circumstances been different, she would have tried to follow him, just to find out where he was going.
Behind her, the crowd on the Freemans' front lawn erupted into cheers and applause. They were clapping for the firefighters, who had started to emerge from the cloud of smoke still pouring out of the museum.
The fire had been conquered.
* * *
Kat waited to approach the ladder truck until the firefighters had peeled away their turnout gear, their cast-off boots, coats, and helmets littering the grass. She then thanked each of them, doling out a few high fives in the process. She was in the midst of being taught an elaborate handshake by Danny Batallas, the youngest member of the squad, when the fire chief beckoned her over.
Even in his younger days, Boyd Jansen had looked so much like a fire chief that it was inevitable he'd become one. Strong upper body. Thick around the middle. He kept his mustache neatly trimmed, although, like his sandy hair, it gathered more gray with each passing year. Joining him at the front of the ladder truck, Kat greeted him by his nickname.
"Great job, Dutch. You and your boys knocked that fire out in a hurry."
The chief waved away the compliment. "It was a birthday candle—quick to flare up, easy to snuff out."
"That's a good thing, right?"
"You'd think," Dutch said. "But my gut tells me that fire might have had some help."
And Kat's gut told her she was about to be served some bad news. She was proven right when Dutch pulled her to the far side of the ladder truck, where they were out of earshot of the others.
"That fire went up quick," he said. "Never seen one sprout so fast."
"It's an old building," Kat countered. "Not exactly fireproof."
"You're right. But I've seen enough fires to know that this one makes me suspicious."
Suddenly, Kat longed to be back at home, in bed, fast asleep. Because if she understood Dutch correctly, she wouldn't be getting any sleep for a very long time.
"You think someone set the museum on fire?"
"On purpose or by accident?" Kat asked. "It's the night before Halloween. A few kids could have been bored and decided to get creative on mischief night."
She was grasping at straws. In Perry Hollow, mischief night never got more dangerous than a few egged windows and a generous toilet-papering of front yards. Very rarely did it escalate into setting something on fire. If it did, that something was usually a paper bag full of dog poop.
"You don't know too much about fires, do you?" Dutch asked.
"Not really," Kat said. "How'd you guess?"
"Because if you did, you'd know that a flaming bag of shit couldn't do this kind of damage."
"Do you think we should get an arson investigator out here? Maybe find out just what we're dealing with."
"That," Dutch said, "would be a fine idea."
Both Kat and Dutch looked to the front of the ladder truck, where Danny Batallas now stood.
"Sorry," he said, blushing. "My chief."
Dutch straightened. "What is it, Danny?"
"Did you give the all clear to enter the museum?"
"Hell, no. Why?"
Danny jerked his head in the direction of the still-smoldering museum. "Because I think someone's about to."
Kat was on the other side of the truck in an instant, although it wasn't fast enough to catch the face of the person rounding a burned-out corner of the building. Not that she needed to. A flash of pink fabric flaring in the person's wake was enough.
"It's Emma Pulsifer," she said. "Help me drag her out of there."
Dutch and Danny both grabbed helmets before joining her in a sprint across the museum's lawn. Kat felt them behind her as she hopped over the fire hoses still sprawled in the grass. Then it was through a wall of smoke that drifted languidly from the building. Small bits of ash swirled in the air, clinging to her face. She swiped them away as she moved along the side of the museum.
Reaching the back of the building, Kat saw the door Emma had mentioned earlier. It was open and creaking slightly back and forth on its hinges. Smoke escaped from the doorway, but not as much as from the front of the building. Back there, it was merely a trickle. Still, it was enough to make Kat want to cover her nose. It smelled like the world's biggest ashtray.
"She's already inside," Kat told the two firemen behind her.
"She shouldn't be anywhere near this place," Dutch hissed with annoyance. "God knows how unstable it is. The whole thing could crumble with one wrong step."
Hearing that did nothing to put Kat's mind at ease as she leaned in the doorway. It was dark, of course, the gloom made even worse by the smoke that hovered like a stubborn fog. Kat tugged the flashlight from her duty belt and flicked it on. Then she stepped inside.
Emma Pulsifer was just beyond the doorway, standing in what appeared to be a cramped hallway. She bumped against the walls, fumbling blindly in the darkness. Kat placed a hand on her shoulder—a small attempt to calm her.
"We shouldn't be in here," she said. "It's not safe."
"I know." Emma looked up at her with tear-filled eyes. "But please let me try to salvage at least a few things. Please."
Kat liked to think she was too tough to be swayed by tears. She was wrong. The fire had left Emma devastated. Letting her try to save a few items was the least she could do.
"Okay," she said, stepping in front of Emma. "But let me go first."
Dutch entered the museum. Gripping his own flashlight, he aimed the beam at Kat's face. "Not a chance," he said. "I'll go first."
Behind him, the voice of Danny Batallas rose from outside. "I'll stay right here, if you don't mind."
"Go back to the truck," Dutch instructed. "Tell the others what we're doing. If we're not back in five minutes, send in a rescue team."
He waved his flashlight back and forth between Kat and Emma. "You got that? Five minutes."
Dutch handed each of them a helmet and demanded that they put them on before going any farther. "You'll thank me if the ceiling caves in," he said.
Kat did as she was told. The helmet was heavier than she expected—a weight pressing down from the top of her skull—and did nothing to aid in navigation. It obscured her peripheral vision, forcing her to twist her head to the sides if she wanted to see anything that wasn't directly in front of her.
Not that there was much to look at in the hallway. Inching through it, Kat saw only a few administrative offices and a meeting room. Still, she could tell that this section of the museum wasn't nearly as fire-ravaged as the front. Other than the smoke and some puddles of water, everything seemed to be in decent condition. It wasn't until they reached the end of the hallway, which opened into the main gallery, that Kat saw the extent of the damage.
The gallery, a large room packed floor to ceiling with displays, had been obliterated. Sweeping her flashlight across the room, Kat saw that portions of the floor and most of the ceiling were badly charred. The walls were, too. The one facing the street had been so severely gutted that she could see right through it to the thinning crowd outside. Whatever had been hanging on the wall was now gone. Only warped and blackened frames remained.
In fact, most of the displays in the gallery had been destroyed. Those that weren't consumed by the fire had been ruined from water damage. Display cases that might have withstood the flames had been knocked over by the pressure of the hoses. The floor was covered with glass shards and water, which combined to make a crunching and sloshing sound that reminded Kat of a pebble beach at high tide.
Roaming the gallery, she noticed random objects among the detritus, some of which she still remembered from her childhood visits. A pocket watch. A woman's shoe. A blade saw from the mill's early days. In the corner, a wax figure wore the remains of a Union Army uniform from the Civil War. Drops of water fell from the sleeves, and large holes that resembled cigarette burns marred the fabric. The figure's face had melted, its misshapen nose oozing down to what had once been its chin.
She looked to the wall opposite the front door. Still hanging there, safe in its frame, was the deed Emma had mentioned earlier. Roughly the same size as a newspaper and written in florid script, it stated that Mr. Irwin Perry now owned a hundred acres of land outside an unnamed village in southeastern Pennsylvania. A year later, the Perry Mill opened, flooding the village with workers. To mark this surge, the village was officially named Perry Hollow. Of all the pieces in the museum, the deed was the most treasured. Seeing that it had been spared made Kat breathe a sigh of relief.
Emma, however, was downright overcome with emotion. Sniffing back tears of gratitude, she hugged both Kat and Dutch.
"You helped save history," she told them. "You really did."
"I'll take it down," Dutch said. "Then we've got to get the hell out of here. I don't want to press our luck."
While he removed the frame from the wall, Emma took off her helmet and whipped out her cell phone one more time. "I have to tell Constance. She'll be thrilled to know the deed survived."
She dialed and held the phone to her ear. A second later, Kat heard a muffled trilling coming from somewhere inside the museum. It chirped three more times before abruptly going silent.
"She's still not picking up," Emma said, flipping her phone shut.
Kat also removed her helmet. "Call her again."
"Just do it."
Once again, Emma tapped in the phone number. And once again, Kat heard the electronic trill. She edged to a corner of the room. The sound was slightly louder there, though still muffled. When it chirped again, Kat realized the noise was coming from beneath the floor.
She turned to Emma. "Does the museum have a basement?"
"There's a crawl space under the gallery. We sometimes use it for storage, although the rest of the collection is up in the attic."
"How can I get down there?"
"A trapdoor," Emma said, confused. "You're standing on it."
Kat took a step backward, finally seeing several gaps in the floorboards that formed a square. A nickel-sized hole—easy to miss if you weren't looking for it—sat on one side of the square. Kneeling, Kat jammed an index finger into the hole and raised the trapdoor until she could slide a hand under it.
Seeing what she was doing, Dutch handed the framed deed to Emma. He then knelt next to Kat, aiming the flashlight into the crawl space as she removed the door and peered inside.
What they saw was Constance Bishop.
She was slumped over a wooden chest, her generous rump raised in the air. Her legs were bent slightly, knees pushing against the wooden chest, and her lifeless arms dangled forward. One of her shoes was missing, revealing the sole of a foot blackened with dirt.
Dutch moved the flashlight beam over her body, which hadn't been able to escape the fire hoses despite being beneath the floor. Beads of water dotted the pale skin on the back of her legs. Her blouse and skirt, darkened by moisture, clung to her body.
When the light reached the back of her head, Kat saw a flash of crimson. Blood. Just behind her right ear. Tiny bits of white stuck to her hair. Bone fragments, Kat surmised. Or maybe brain matter.
"Sweet Jesus," Dutch muttered.
"What's down there?"
It was Emma Pulsifer, stomping toward them with the deed tucked under her arm. Kat stood, trying to block her, but it was too late. Emma peered into the crawl space, spotted Constance, and choked out a strangled cry.
"No! Dear God, no."
She clamped a palm against her open mouth, the deed slipping from her arms. The frame shattered when it hit the floor—Perry Hollow's founding document smashed into a hundred pieces.
The noise snapped Kat into action. Returning to the floor, she lowered herself into the crawl space. It was a tight fit, especially with Constance there, but she managed to squeeze herself inside. For once, being short was an advantage. Still, wiggle room was nonexistent, forcing her to stand behind Constance, straddling her lifeless legs.
As Dutch held the light steady from above, Kat leaned forward until her chest was pressed against Constance's back. She placed two fingers against the side of Constance's neck, feeling for a pulse.
There wasn't one.
Not content with the results, Kat pivoted as much as space would allow and reached for Constance's left arm. Although it was as heavy and unwieldy as wet cardboard, she managed to raise it enough to slip two fingers against her wrist. No pulse there, either.
"She's dead," Kat announced.
She swallowed hard, suppressing the sob that threatened to bubble up from deep in her chest. Part of her sadness was, of course, for Constance Bishop, a kind woman whose life had been cut short. The rest of the grief was reserved for her town. She thought the violence had died with the Grim Reaper killer. She was wrong. Murder had once again visited Perry Hollow.
Above her, Emma's sobs grew louder. They blasted through the hole in the floor and echoed into the smallest recesses of the crawl space until they became tinny and faint. The light above Kat shifted as Dutch apparently turned in an attempt to comfort Emma. The new slant of the flashlight's beam illuminated the left side of Constance's head, her shoulder, and part of the arm that Kat was still holding. It also, Kat noticed, shed light on a series of black marks on Constance's hand.
"Don't move," she shouted up to Dutch. "Keep the light right where it is."
"Why?" he called back.
Kat didn't answer. Instead, she leaned forward even more, staring at the dark lines on chalky flesh. They were letters, she realized, scrawled in what seemed to be black marker.
Someone had written on Constance Bishop's hand.
Kat twisted the wrist until all of the words were visible. Fear poked her ribs as she read what had been written across Constance's skin. It was a fear she had last experienced a year ago. A fear she had hoped to never feel again. But there it was, jabbing at her with an insistence that made her want to scream. It stayed with her as she read the words on Constance's hand a second time, then a third.
A mere five words long, the message was simple but agonizingly clear.
THIS IS JUST THE FIRST.
Copyright © 2013 by Todd Ritter