Duck the HallsChapter 1
The buzzing noise woke me from an already restless sleep. In my dream, it was Christmas morning. We were opening presents and all the boxes I'd wrapped so neatly had suddenly become empty. Or worse, they contained odd, inappropriate objects, like bottles of vodka for my four-year-old twin sons and a subscription to Guns & Ammo for my cousin Rose Noire, who couldn't even stand to see anyone use a flyswatter for its intended purpose.
"What interesting choices," Mother was murmuring, holding up the power drill that had been in her box. Where had the drill come from? And why did she keep turning it on and off, on and off, making that irritating noise?
Just then I woke up. I fumbled on my bedside table for my phone. It was a little past 4:00 A.M. December twenty-first, not the twenty-fifth.
"Only a dream," I murmured.
The buzzing wasn't coming from my phone and I could still hear it. Not a power drill. It appeared to be coming from Michael's side of the bed, from under the pillow. Some battery-operated toy, perhaps, that the boys had dropped while Michael had been reading them How the Grinch Stole Christmas before bedtime?
"Blast." His voice was sleepy and annoyed. Then he sat bolt upright and began searching frantically under his pillow.
"What is it?" I asked.
"My pager." He found the offending object, pressed something, and the buzzing stopped. A female voice took its place.
"Box fourteen oh four for the structure fire. One thirteen Clay County Road. Engine companies fourteen and two, truck twelve, rescue squad two, ambulance fourteen respond. Oh four fourteen."
I recognized the voice of Debbie Ann, the local police and emergency dispatcher. And the "oh four fourteen" part must be the time. As for the rest—
"We have a call!" Michael sounded excited and leaped out of bed.
My stomach clenched. Ever since Michael, in a burst of civic zeal, had joined the Caerphilly Volunteer Firefighters, I'd been dreading this moment. The pager had been his constant companion since he'd finished his training a week ago. And now here it was: His first fire.
The address sounded familiar, too. I had the feeling if I were a little more awake, I'd remember exactly what was located at 113 Clay County Road.
Michael dove into the walk-in closet.
"Maybe you should wake Rob," he called over his shoulder.
"Doesn't he have a pager, too?"
"You know Rob."
Yes. My brother—also a newly fledged firefighter—was capable of sleeping with a brass band rehearsing at the foot of his bed. I got up and winced when my feet hit the cold floor. It was in the twenties outside, and didn't seem much warmer inside. Not a night for running around barefoot or in pajamas. I threw on my clothes, then raced out into the hall, and headed up the stairs to the third floor of our overlarge Victorian farmhouse, where my brother lived in one of our many spare rooms.
On my way upstairs I passed my cousin Rose Noire who occupied yet another third-floor spare room.
"Rob's awake," she said. "His pager woke me from across the hall, so I woke him. I'll make them some coffee."
I could hear thuds and exclamations from down the hall. Rob was in motion. Had the noise awakened my twin sons? They'd only recently moved to separate bedrooms. Although it had been their own request and they were vastly proud of their new solo lairs, they were both still a little anxious when awakened in the middle of the night and prone to creeping into our room or each other's.
I went back down and peeked into Josh's room first. A few less beloved stuffed animals were scattered across the royal blue sheets and blankets on his bed. Both boys were fast asleep in Jamie's room, curled up together beneath the bright red bedding. I pulled the door closed to make sure they didn't wake when Rob came thundering down the stairs in full gear, including the world's noisiest boots. He'd probably have tried sliding down the banister for greater speed if the polished oak hadn't been completely swathed in evergreen and tinsel. Then when the noise died down, I slipped out again. Rob was standing in the hallway outside Michael's and my bedroom door.
"Where's Michael?" he stage-whispered.
"Here." Michael stepped out of our room, still fastening bits of gear. "I'll drive."
"Right," Rob said. "Meet you out front."
I pitched in to help Michael with his gear. Rob clattered the rest of the way down to the front hall, where Rose Noire was standing beside the Christmas tree, holding two travel coffee mugs.
"It's only instant," she said as she handed one to Rob. "So I added just a hint of nutmeg."
"But it's caffeinated, right?" he asked as he grabbed the mug and opened the door.
"Of course." Rose Noire looked mildly affronted that he'd doubted her, but given her fondness for trying to reform everyone else's caffeine habits with odd-tasting herbal concoctions, I could understand why he'd asked.
Rob ran out. I finished fastening the last buckle holding bits of gear to Michael's belt.
"Thanks," he said, giving me a kiss. "And yes, I'll be careful."
"Where's the fire?" Rose Noire asked.
"At one thirteen Clay County Road," I said. "Whatever that is."
"The New Life Baptist Church." Michael frowned. "At least I think. It would help if they just came out and said it."
"Sounds right to me," I said. "Somewhere in town—you can have Rob look it up on his cell phone well before you need to make any turns."
"Good idea." Michael took the second travel mug, murmured his thanks, and followed Rob.
Rose Noire and I looked at each other. We knew many of the New Life congregation—particularly Henry Burke, our local police chief, and his wife, Minerva. And I'd been over at the church last night when a friend who had to work the night shift asked me to take her daughter to choir rehearsal.
We heard Michael's car start up and race off.
"It's four twenty—a.m.," Rose Noire added, as if she thought I might not have noticed the darkness. "I doubt if there would be anyone there now."
If she was trying to make me feel better, it wasn't working.
"Which could mean the fire would have plenty of time to become big and dangerous before anyone reported it," I said. "Watch the boys, will you? I'm heading over there."
I grabbed my coat from the enormous Victorian hat rack and my purse and keys from the hall table and dashed out into the bitter cold night.
Then I dashed in again, and upstairs to add another layer of clothes.
Even though I prided myself on how quickly I could get dressed and ready in the morning, I was at least five minutes behind Michael and Rob when I set out. Maybe ten.
A good thing this hadn't happened two nights ago, when we'd had near-blizzard conditions. Or last night, when the plows still hadn't finished moving the foot of snow off our roads. All we had tonight was the bitter cold, which meant the huge mounds of snow lining the roads weren't going away any time soon.
I was relieved when I drew near the New Life Church and could still see its enormous steeple rising proudly into the air, illuminated by floodlights below—and with no flames or smoke.
By the time I pulled into the parking lot, I was not just relieved but downright puzzled. The church looked unharmed. All three of Caerphilly County's fire vehicles were there, along with four police cruisers. All their lights were flashing. The firefighters and deputies were all standing around in clumps, staring at the church, except for one larger group that seemed to be staring at something at the back of the ambulance.
I scanned the scene. No, the church was fine. Not just the church but the entire sprawling complex, including two wings and a small outbuilding, all filled with classrooms, meeting rooms, and the multiple rehearsal rooms for New Life's nationally renowned gospel choir. The floodlit façade was serene and unmarred by any signs of a conflagration.
I pulled into a parking space toward the side of the lot, about twenty feet from the ambulance, and close to where Michael and the other firefighters had parked. I was aiming to be far enough away that I wouldn't be underfoot, but close enough that I might overhear what was going on. And my chosen spot was partly behind one of the mountains of snow that the snowplows had piled up, so maybe the firefighters wouldn't notice me quite as easily.
As I turned the engine off, I saw a particularly tall fireman detach himself from the group around the ambulance and stride over toward my car. So much for my attempt to stay unnoticed. I braced myself to defend my right to rubberneck, and then relaxed. It was Michael. I opened the door and stepped out.
"The good news is there's no fire," he said.
"What's the bad— Oh, gross!"
The wind had shifted, bringing with it an unmistakable odor, like garlic, rotten eggs, and burned rubber all mixed together.
"Is that what I think it is?" I asked.
"Yes. The church has been skunked."