Tested by Fire Excerpt

Tested by FireTESTED BY FIRE
The Baxter Series #1


Rhonda Wilson lay in bed, curled up with a pillow, resenting a huge golden moon that hung in the autumn sky outside her window as if to taunt her loneliness. It was 11:30 on Friday night, and she already knew this weekend would be a repeat of all the others.

Jed had come home shortly after 9:00, tipsy enough to be happy and just drunk enough to be anesthetized to her sharpened claws of silence. He had immediately retreated to the den. That’s the way it was almost every night, and Rhonda was growing weary of this heavy burden of loneliness. Jed occupied his days with work and his evenings with his friend Mike McConnell and the good ol’ boys down at O’Brian’s bar.

The most maddening part of all was that Jed could stop drinking any time he wanted to. He imbibed just enough to deaden the pain of an old wound for which neither of them had a cure. Had Rhonda not understood, perhaps she could have despised him for having left her in the arms of indifference while he found solace in his precious pitchers of beer. Hating him would have been much easier than hanging on to the hope that someday he would love her again.

Upon hearing Jed’s approaching footsteps, she wiped her tears with the corner of her pillowcase and pulled the covers up around her shoulders. The creaky bedroom door slowly opened and Jed’s shadowy figure shuffled across the hardwood floor before finally flopping onto his side of the bed and turning his back to her.

The mantle clock struck 11:45, its chimes drowning out the sound of her sniffling. Rhonda held back the tears and exhaled slowly through her mouth. The last thing she wanted was his pity.

Chapter 1

At 11:46, a brilliant flash ignited the midnight shroud, and a window-rattling explosion woke the sleeping town of Baxter with a jolt.

Rhonda and Jed Wilson sat straight up in bed.

“What in the world was that?” Rhonda threw the covers off and rushed to the window.

“It came from the direction of the lake,” said Jed, sitting on the side of the bed, already pulling on his jeans. “I’m gonna find out what it was. You stay here.”

He ran down the porch steps and out to his red pickup, hopped in and backed down the long driveway. He sped off toward Heron Lake, leaving tire marks on the street in front of his house.

Within minutes, he was driving along the eastern stretch of town only a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. He slowed when he saw people standing on the side of the road.

“Did you hear the explosion?” he asked.

“Yeah, look,” said a teenager, pointing in the distance. “Must’ve happened on the lake.”

Jed got out of his truck. Through a break in the trees, he spotted a number of fires burning on top of the water, none near the shoreline. He stood frozen, his eyes fixed on the location of the blazes.

“Sir, are you all right? Sir?”

He got back in his truck and pushed the accelerator to the floor.  At CR 157, he made a sharp right turn, his truck moving in a cloud of dust as he barreled down the gravel road that led to Mike McConnell’s pier . He tasted smoke before he saw a conglomeration of vehicles and flashing lights.

When he spotted Mike’s truck, Jed slammed on his brakes and jumped out, leaving the door to his pickup wide open.

“Let me through,” he said, bulldozing through a wall of bodies., “I need to get through, let me through…”

He felt someone grab his arm. “Jed, wait!”

He broke free and fought his way until he was at the end of the pier looking toward the spot where Mike always anchored the houseboat. The explosion had spewed burning debris in all directions, giving the eerie illusion that Heron Lake was on fire. The largest fire appeared to have engulfed the entire hull.

Jed felt as if he were inside the head of someone else, watching the monstrous inferno, like some dragon from the deep, devour the McConnells’ houseboat.

All he could do was stand there with friends, neighbors and firefighters as the lake opened its mouth and swallowed everything that remained, pulling it down to the depths of an unholy grave.

Though the harvest moon shone bold and bright, midnight on Heron Lake never seemed darker.

* * *

As lights from emergency vehicles flashed all around him, John Washburn went through the motions of filling out preliminary paperwork.

As Norris County fire marshal, John had been exposed to many tragedies, but he couldn’t remember a single time of standing there with all the water he could ever need, unable to do anything.

The moon shone like a searchlight on the water, and smoke hovered like the sinister fog of a horror movie. It seemed to him that even nature was determined to point out his failure.

“How could this happen?” mumbled a recognizable voice nearby with barely enough energy to be audible.

John sighed. He didn’t look up. “Don’t know yet, Jed. There wasn’t anyone else around. Nobody saw anything. We figure they were asleep inside the cabin when the thing blew. Let’s hope they never knew what hit them.”

“This isn’t real,” said Jed. “I was with Mike at O’Brian’s just hours ago. We had a few beers and some laughs, unwinding like we always do. I can’t believe…” His voice broke.

John forced himself to look up. “I’m sorry, Jed. There wasn’t anything we could do.”

“Twenty years, John. We put in twenty…”

“At the highway department. I know.”

“Mike always said we’ve gone a few miles together…”

John sighed. He pulled the paperwork from his clipboard and put it over the visor. “Listen, I’m finished here. Let me take you home. We can come back for your truck tomorrow.”

Jed looked at the ground, his thumbs hung on his jeans pockets, his feet rocking from heel to toe. “That’s OK, you go on.”

John reached out the window and gripped Jed’s arm. He looked him straight in the eye. “Give it time, man. Trust me, you’ll get through this.”

John Washburn looked in the rearview mirror as he pulled away. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Jed Wilson without Mike McConnell.

* * *

The breakfast rush at Monty’s Diner was noticeably subdued, especially for a Saturday morning. Folks who didn’t frequent the place wandered in to see what everyone else knew about the McConnell explosion. The Baxter Daily News arrived a little late, but after that, the conversation all but died. All eyes were on the headline story.

Explosion Rattles Baxter

Local Family Perishes in Fiery Inferno

Residents of Baxter were awakened at 11:46 on Friday night when an explosion on nearby Heron Lake blasted the sleepy silence with a powerful jolt. Michael S. McConnell (46), his wife Rose (45), and their three children, a daughter Erin (14), and twin boys Todd and Timothy (6), are presumed to have perished in their flaming houseboat. Authorities believe the family’s home was engulfed as a result of an explosion of undetermined origin. Officials in the sheriff’s department and fire department have already formed a team of investigators to determine the cause of the explosion.

Heron Lake looked like a war zone when authorities and some Baxter residents arrived at the McConnell family’s pier, less than a quarter mile northeast of town on CR 157. The houseboat had been anchored about 100 yards from that pier, and flaming debris was scattered in a 50-yard radius of the explosion. As far as could be determined, that was all that was left of the houseboat. Friends and neighbors watched in horror as the burning hull sank to the bottom of Heron Lake.

Divers will be working to recover everything they can find, and to recover the bodies, but fire officials have cautioned that the intensity of the fire may make that effort extremely difficult or impossible. It is uncertain just how much was reduced to ashes. In addition, heavy rains are expected to drench Norris County over the weekend, making the search effort even more difficult.

Fire Marshal John Washburn said: “I have never in all my years of service felt this helpless. We weren’t sure what blew, and by the time we realized where the fire was, we had no time to get a rescue team out on the water. It’s ironic—all that water and we couldn’t use a drop of it to save this family. It’s going to take some time to get over this one.”

Norris County Sheriff, Hal Barker, a long-time Baxter resident, said: “Every effort will be made to find out how this happened. Just give us a little breathing room to do our job. We’ve never had any real trouble on the lake before, and as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to expect that this was anything other than an accident.”

Another Baxter resident who stood by helplessly as this tragedy unfolded was Mayor Charlie Kirby. His comment to this reporter was: “We need to pull together as a community and comfort one another as we seek to find answers.” Mayor Kirby asked that local residents cooperate with investigators by avoiding the area so that county officials needing to bring in equipment will have unobstructed access.

The investigation will be handled as a county matter since the explosion occurred outside the Baxter city limits, but the game warden and local police will be assisting the sheriff’s department.

Though authorities could not say how long the investigation would take, the preliminary report could be filed as early as Tuesday.

Customers at Monty’s Diner remained unusually subdued throughout the day. There were more questions than answers, certainly not the usual opinionated fare served up daily at this landmark gathering place on the town square. Hearts were heavy as friends and neighbors sought to make sense of this terrible tragedy.

* * *

Ellen Jones didn’t like her job today. She sighed as she folded her personal hot-off-the-press copy of The Baxter Daily News. This much-better-than-average newspaper was a legacy passed down from the town’s founder, Reginald T. Baxter, and had helped to foster the hometown spirit for a hundred years. For the last six of those years, she had been the editor and special feature writer, and her paper had met the challenges of reporting unpopular or upsetting news head on. However, today’s local headlines were the most tragic in her memory, and in such a close-knit community, no one was unaffected.

Ellen’s phone rang. It was only 6:45 a.m., and she already guessed who it was.

“Good morning,” she said.

“It’s your husband, Guy Langford Jones, remember me? Did you run away from home? Your side of the bed hasn’t been slept in.”

Ellen chuckled. “You don’t have all the facts, Counselor. I stayed here all night with the staff to get the McConnell story on the front page.”

“Actually, I just read it. Good job.”

“Good and bad, I guess. Good reporting. Bad news.”

“Honey, you did what you had to do. Why do you sound disappointed?”

“Because this story really hurts, and reporting the straight scoop on tragedy is so…cold. It needs to be softened with a human interest slant.”

“Well, that’s where you shine, Ellen. You’ll work out something. You always do. But it’s not going to happen today, so…how about coming home? It’s Saturday. I’m lonesome.”

“Poor baby. Was it too hard to pour the cereal and milk by yourself? Or weren’t you strong enough to push the on button on the coffee maker?” She giggled, glad for a temporary break in the gloom.

“None of the above, thank you very much. I’m quite the little homemaker when I need to be. Right now, I’m looking at your empty chair on the other side of the kitchen table and happen to miss my wife. Now, having studied law, I know that’s not a crime.”

“No, the crime is my having gotten so bogged down over here that I’ve abandoned you on your favorite day off. Let me clear my desk and get out of here., I need twenty minutes.”

“Ah, just enough time for me to brew a fresh pot of coffee and bake these cinnamon rolls,” he said. “Tell me again how the oven works.”

“Guy, don’t touch anything, you’ll burn the house down! Wait for me.”

“Better hurry then…I’m putting an apron on.”

“An apron? You can’t be serious.” She laughed. “All right, all right, I’m hurrying.”

Ellen was still smiling when she hung up the phone. The two of them knew when to rescue one another from obsessing over troublesome cases—hers in the newspaper, his in the courtroom.

Ellen quickly answered two e-mails and straightened the stacks on her desk. She yawned and rubbed her eyes, then leaned back in her chair and stretched. She looked up at the oil painting of Reginald T. Baxter, which had been passed down from editor to editor for more years than she had been alive. His eyes seemed to look into her heart as if he shared her shock over the McConnell tragedy.

* * *

Jed Wilson hadn’t slept all night. He was holed up in the den, slouched in his easy chair. Rhonda picked up the morning paper and three more empty beer cans. It was only noon, but she had already counted eleven.

“Jed, you should try to get some rest.”

“I don’t want to rest.”

“Well, at least let me fix you something to eat.”

“I don’t want to eat. Just leave me alone.”

“I feel completely useless,” she said.

“Duh, I wonder why?”

“At least I care about how you feel.” She positioned herself directly in front of Jed, trying to get him to look at her.

“You don’t have a clue how I feel,” he said.

“Maybe not, but I care.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t ask you to care. What I asked you to do is leave me alone.”

He got up from the chair. Rhonda went ahead of him and stood in the doorway.

“This isn’t a good time for you to be by yourself,” she said.

“I might as well get used to it.”

“Jed, you don’t have to go through this alone.”

“That’s right. I’ve got four six-packs to keep me company.”

She glared at him. “This isn’t the way to handle it!”

“Good grief, woman, will you back off?”

He pushed past her and staggered out to the kitchen.

“Jed, don’t shut me out. You can’t handle this by yourself—not this pain.”

He turned around, his eyes unfocused and bloodshot. “Ever think maybe you’re the pain?”

“I’m trying to help you. This is all so weird. There’s no one to comfort, no one to make a casserole for, no place to send condolences—”

“So give it a rest!” He popped the top off another can of beer. “You’re not needed.”

Her green eyes brimmed with silent suffering.

“Don’t start with the pitiful looks. And stop pushing. Just stay out of my way.” Jed walked past her and stumbled toward the den.

* * *

Sheriff Hal Barker had been on the phone most of the day. Before he had one minute of quiet, the phone rang again.

“This is Hal.”

“It’s John Washburn. You sound hassled.”

“Just tired. How’s your part of the investigation going, John?”

“It’s tedious, but the divers are pulling up all kinds of debris that should help us figure out what happened. How about you?”

“There’s no indication of foul play,” Hal said. “Just speculation that Mike’s drinking may have been a factor. My deputies should wrap things up by Tuesday or Wednesday, especially with the police helping out.”

“It’ll probably take my team longer than that. Depends on what we fish out of the lake.”

“What’s morale like?”

“Everyone’s bummed—it’s a little close to home. But we’re professionals. We’ll get the job done.”

“OK, John, keep me updated.”

“Yeah, I will. Get some rest.”

Hal hung up and glanced over the top of his half glasses to a recent picture of his kids. He couldn’t imagine losing Matt and Wendy, especially not in such a horrific tragedy.

His phone rang for the umpteenth time.

“This is Hal Barker,” he said in a monotone.

“Hi, it’s me. Do you realize what time it is?”

“Judging from the rumbling in my stomach, I’d say it’s half past dinner time,” said Hal, suddenly realizing he was famished.

“I know what kind of a day you’ve had if you forgot to eat,” Nancy Barker said. “We’re having beef stew and cornbread. Dinner will keep until you’re ready. Want me to feed the kids now so you and I can eat together later?”

Hal looked at his watch. It was twenty minutes until seven.

“No, I want to spend some time with Wendy and Matt before they go to bed. I’ll be home in ten minutes.”

“How are you doing?” she asked.

“I can’t stop thinking about the McConnells, especially the kids. I keep seeing their faces.”

“I know. We’re all taking it hard. Wendy and Matt have been talking about it off and on all day. I suppose that’s what everyone in town has been doing. Did you find out when the service is being held?”

“Two o’clock Thursday afternoon at St. Anthony’s. They want to wait until my investigation has been completed.”

“By they, do you mean the relatives?”

“Actually, no relatives are coming. As far as anyone can tell, there are only two—Rose McConnell’s sister in California, who just had surgery and will be in rehab for weeks, and Mike’s father in Atlanta, who lives in a nursing home and can’t travel.”

“How sad,” said Nancy. “Can you imagine losing your whole family and not being able to go to the funeral?”

“Well, everyone in town will probably show up. I have no idea where Father Donaghan plans to put all the people.”

“Hal, come home. You sound tired. There’s nothing more you can do tonight,” she said gently.

“OK, honey, pour the iced tea. I’ll be home in a few minutes.

Sheriff Barker hung up the phone and fumbled with the piles of papers on his desk. When he was sure his emotions were safely locked up, he turned out the lights and headed home.

* * *

By late Tuesday afternoon, the sheriff’s deputies had interviewed scores of friends and neighbors, had checked out every aspect of the McConnells’ lifestyle and routine, and had found no suspicious materials among the recovered debris. Now satisfied that there was no reason to suspect foul play, law enforcement’s part of the investigation seemed to be completed. Hal was just about to fill out his final report when the phone rang.

“Hal Barker.”

“It’s John Washburn. I need to come over there and show you something. It won’t take long, but you need to see this.”

“Sure, come on.”

* * *

Ten minutes later John spread out several photographs on a big, round oak table in the sheriff’s office.

“So what’s this about?” Hal asked. “A snag in your investigation?”

John picked up one of the black and white Polaroids. “Here, take a look.”

The sheriff looked through the glasses resting on his nose. “What is it?”

“Part of a jaw bone—human remains.”

Hal recoiled. “You mean, you actually found…?”

“Yeah, we did, and after those heavy rains over the weekend, we didn’t expect to either. We just got lucky these were in the lake in spite of the undercurrent.”

Hal stared at the photographs on the table. “John, maybe we should suggest the Memorial Mass be postponed until we know more.”

“I don’t see why. We know the entire family was at home and had to have perished in the fire. Hal, you said yourself that no one suspects foul play. If we wait until we recover enough to identify all five of them, it could take too long for the memorial service to have any real closure for the community. I’d let it go forward as planned. But you’ll need to authorize getting these remains over to Dr. Hicks for pathology to analyze them. Hopefully, there’s something here that’ll tell us who this is.”

Hal sighed and leaned back in his chair. “John, I hate this! There’s no dignity in the McConnells’ being reduced to remains, scattered all over the place.”

“Look, I’ll keep the divers searching the lake, but we need to search downstream, too. The longer the remains are out there, especially with the water still being warm, the less chance of identification and determining the cause of death. We don’t have enough manpower to do this by ourselves.”

“What about the ATF?” asked Hal. “Matt Nash offered his help if we need it.”

“I think it’s time to take him up on his offer.”

“OK, John. Get whoever and whatever you need to tackle this, and keep me posted. Thanks for your effort. I know this isn’t pleasant.”