He got out and walked over to Tank as he strapped his kevlar vest over his duty shirt. Tank was already wearing his protective vest. The house was dark except for a light in the upstairs bedroom, Molly and Garrett’s bedroom. Lloyd’s hands tightened around the stock of his rifle. Garrett’s truck was parked in front. The driver’s door was open, head lights left on, and they could hear it chiming from where they stood.
“Let’s get to the house.” Tank said quietly.
They jogged quickly along the treeline, both grateful for the bright moon. A woman’s muffled scream echoed in the valley, then cut off suddenly. Lloyd started to pass Tank but the sheriff grabbed his arm.
“Easy Lloyd, that sound means she is still alive. Take the shot if you see him. We have to lure him out. It’s Molly’s only chance,” Tank explained as he stopped Lloyd from charging the house.
“If we can get him downstairs, I can get Molly out the window.” Lloyd suggested. Tank nodded.
Together they crept around the side of the house, they stopped by the corner where a wrought iron trellis reached toward the veranda’s overhanging roof.
“Do you smell that?” Tank asked.
“It smells like gasoline and propane fumes.” Lloyd answered, leaning his rifle against the wall. “He’s going to burn the house when he’s done with her.”
“If either of us shoots him, the flash from the powder will set it off like a bomb.” Tank pointed out unnecessarily.
“I know that. Give me a minute to climb up. Then knock on the door.”
“Lloyd, I don’t think...“Tank started in a hushed voice.
“Tank, Molly isn’t just my cousin. She’s my half-sister. She’s the only immediate family I have left that means anything to me.” Lloyd interrupted, then practically begged. “Please… I have to save her and the baby.”
Tank nodded, “Go.”
Lloyd scaled the trellis, grateful that it was metal and not flimsy wood lattice. He took three careful steps across the roof to the wall. He could see Molly’s bedroom window. A shadow moved behind the curtains and Lloyd pressed himself against the wall as someone large peeked out. He knew it was Gerald, and was glad Tank was out of sight below the roof of the porch that wrapped the house’s first floor. Inside the house, there was the sound of someone heavy walking across the floor and down the stairs. Lloyd had just reached the window when the downstairs phone rang. He barely got his arm up when the house exploded.
He remembered the distinct sensation of flying or falling, then landing on his back hard enough he was sure he had cracked his ribs, just like the time he fell off the barn roof as a teenager. There was swearing, and shouting, and shooting as he tried to draw a painful breath. His ears were ringing, and he could feel the stinging bits of glass in his skin. Somewhere nearby, Tank was talking on the radio.
Lloyd staggered to his feet and tried to make the front door, but Tank intercepted him. “It’s too late, Lloyd.”
“NO!” Lloyd coughed out the word as much as he shouted it. He fought Tank uselessly to get to Molly. Gerald was lying dead between the house and Garrett’s truck with one of Garrett’s hunting rifles next to him. The house was fully engulfed in flames, but he didn’t care, Molly needed him to save her. He had failed to save another one, one that meant more to him than all the others. For a moment, he was back in Helmand in a firefight with buildings burning and men dying all around him.
“Stand down, Sergeant.” Tank barked at him and Lloyd froze, blinking as he came back.
“He killed her.” Lloyd breathed out painfully. His soul hurt more than his body ever could.
“Looks that way. Sit down, you’re hurt. Fire department will be here soon. They were already on the way. Your grandfather called Saul. Why?” Tank demanded. There were a lot of things he didn’t know about Gerald Durham that the old timers seemed to know.
Lloyd stared at the flames, Molly hadn’t screamed as the house burned so she was either already dead or unconscious when it blew up. He tried to be grateful that she hadn’t suffered more.
His answer was monotone. “Gerald liked to set fires. He burned a shed, a stack of bales, and even an old car. There were some burned animals that showed up around the county, but it was never proved. Uncle Ray and Chief Saul were watching him closely, but his father wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t in the report or the trial, but he was preparing to burn his father’s body when you and Burt arrested him. Grandpa and Saul found the kerosene, he had stashed. That’s where he was going when you arrested him.”
Sirens and flashing lights roared into the little valley. Lloyd sat on the tailgate of Garrett’s truck with his rifle across his thighs, watching them put out the fire until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stomped back up the hill, got in his truck and headed for town. He was planning on going to the station and telling Tonia, she was safe to go home. But he found the thought of seeing Tonia in person right now turned his stomach. He found himself parking at the Wild Anemone.
Milli opened the door looking tousled and sleepy in her deep red robe.
“Lloyd?!? Ohgosh, what happened to you?” She demanded, he had bloody cuts on his forehead, cheek, and hands.
“I had a house blow up in my face,” he said with such a strange disconnect that she brought him inside and sat him on one of her barstools.
He sat there, numb and unflinching as she cleaned his cuts and rubbed some salve that smelled like yams on his bruises. She believed he was in shock. Milli talked randomly about the Trunk o’Treat and how there were boys that changing costumes to get more candy and cookies. When she mentioned Garrett’s name, he pulled her into his arms and cried on her shoulder. It was the first time he had cried in the presence of another person since finding out Tonia was pregnant with Tim’s baby.
Milli just held him, running her fingers through his charred, dirty hair. She kept murmuring that she was there for him, and it would be alright.
Finally, he lifted his head. ” I’m sorry. ” He looked like he had lost everything in the world of value to him.
“Lloyd, what’s going on?” Milli asked, her jade eyes becoming grayer with worry.
“Gerald killed Garrett and Molly tonight, he escaped from prison, came home, and killed them. Then he blew up and burned their house.”
Milli looked at him with a mixture of horror and confusion. “Lloyd, Molly is fine. She is asleep in room 2 of the Anemone. Garrett was going to come by later. He messaged that they were taking down the maze. We thought he ran later.”
“H-how?” he stammered.
“Garrett said she was craving cheesecake and apple pie filling. She burned the one she tried to make because she had never made one before. Since I always have a cheesecake made for Auntie, I told him to have her come over for some, and that they could stay here tonight since it would be so late.” She explained. “When I got home, I made caramel apples to go over the top of the cheesecake for her. She ate three huge pieces then went to bed. Molly’s safe, she’s been here all night.”
Lloyd let go of her, he rushed out the door and across the lawn, Milli hurried after him. She unlocked the door to the Anemone and he bolted upstairs two at a time. He stopped outside room two before turning the knob slowly, Milli watched him like he was crazy as he looked in, then closed the door as silently as he opened it. He sagged against the wall for a moment, then took Milli by the hand and led her back downstairs. He stopped on the floor with her still standing on the last step.
“Can Molly stay here? With Garrett dead and her house... her house was fully engulfed when I left,” Lloyd begged, holding her eyes. They were the softest color of green in the dim light.
“Of course, Lloyd.” She put her hand on his cheek where it wasn’t cut. “How could this happen here? Garrett is such a nice guy.”
“It’s a long story. I... I have to go to the station now and take care of some things and let people know Molly is okay. I’ll be back in the morning to tell Molly the bad news. I’ll explain everything then. Okay?” Lloyd looked so relieved, so different from the numb man whose wounds she had bandaged, so different from the grieved man who had cried on her shoulder.
Milli gave him a gentle smile. “I trust you, Lloyd. I feel terrible for Molly, but I’ll let you tell her. And she can stay here as long as she wants.”
“Thank you Milli, thank you for saving Molly... When I thought she was dead, I thought I’d go crazy. I don’t even know why but I needed to see you before I went to the station.”
Milli’s brows furrowed and she asked, “Why would you want to see me?”
“Not want, needed.” His lips were against hers in a gentle caress of a kiss, but when, he leaned back, she leaned forward.
The kiss seemed to take a momentum of its own, it became a living breathing thing trying to devour them. Milli’s breath caught painfully when she tried to put her arm cast around Lloyd. He froze then lifted his head, her other arm wrapped around his shoulder. Her fingers slipped down as she dropped down from her tiptoes.
“I’m sorry,” He murmured.
Her eyes seemed a softer, brighter green, “I’m not, Lloyd. I... ” She blushed.
He sighed out and pressed his lips against her forehead. “I don’t know how to make this work. You know I have issues.”
“So what. My issues have issues, and they are older than yours.” She grinned.
He shook his head, “This isn’t a joking matter.”
“Lloyd, I have to joke, or I will freak out about you showing up and telling me, my friend’s husband was murdered, and her house blew up in your face. Your hair is singed, and you had glass in your cuts. You could have been hurt so much worse...”
“Milli, I got blown off the porch roof and fell a story to the ground,” Lloyd interrupted.
Milli’s eyes flashed the apple green color of her temper. “You were on the roof when the house exploded. Are you crazy? You could have been killed. Why were you on the roof?”
Lloyd’s eyes widened, he pulled away. “The scream... I have to go, Milli. I have to let Tank know Molly is alive and we have a second homicide. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He left her standing on the step, stammering, “Lloyd, wait... who else... Lloyd?” But he was already out the door and getting in his patrol vehicle as she rushed to the window.
“Sounds like the Pagosa Sheriff’s Department is having a busy night.” Aunt Elizabeth’s voice had Milli almost shrieking as she whirled around, her hand pressed over her heart.
“Don’t do that!” Milli wheezed.
“What’s wrong, sweetie? Lloyd is safe now, and he came to see you.”
“Auntie, he could have died tonight.” Milli’s lips pressed a thin line.
“You are going to have to get used to this. He was a soldier and now he’s a police officer.” Elizabeth chided. “There will always be danger, it is the chance he takes for the good he does.”
“I thought I was okay with that. I thought he was safe here,” Milli complained.
“Don’t worry sweetie, it has been years since we have had this much excitement, it will probably be years before we have more. But if it will ease your mind, he is more likely to get hurt working his grandfather’s cattle than being a deputy here in Pagosa. You never know the day or the hour when you will lose someone, that is why it is important to live and love while you can.” Elizabeth hoped Milli was really listening to her words and not to her own fears. “Don’t keep wasting time.”
Milli nodded, absently answering, “Maybe... Good night, Auntie.”
” Good night, deary.”
Elizabeth put a note on the door that the bakery would be closed. She sat in her chair and watched the night passing. Her thoughts dwelling on the grandniece that had become like a daughter and the deputy she loved and feared to love. There wasn’t much time left.
Lloyd sent Tonia home alone, despite her protestations that she was still frightened by the night’s turn of events. He radioed Sheriff Tanner, who was glad Lloyd had found Molly. Two firemen had managed to get in the window and pull the body out before it was burned. Chief Saul and Dr. McConnell had already determine that the woman in the upstairs bedroom was not Molly Durham. Lloyd’s grandfather had rushed to the Durham farm in spite of the danger Gerald Durham represented. The body was being sent to Durango for full autopsy, but Dr. McConnell had determined that the cause of death was a broken neck and strangulation following a violent sexual assault. A car parked next to the barn was registered to Sharon Davis, Molly’s college roommate from Fort Lupton University. Lloyd knew Molly would be devastated. The house was a total loss, even though the fire department had arrived within minutes of the explosion.
There was a fax from the State Department of Corrections informing them that Gerald had been found to be missing after not returning to his cell from morning laundry detail. The laundry truck that delivered linens from one building complex to another was found parked at a Walmart, with the driver dead inside. An employee of the store reported their car stolen when they got off-shift. While Vick drove around looking for the stolen car, Lloyd went back and worked the crime scene at the Trunk o’Treat.
Since Tank was tied up at the Durham farm, Lloyd dealt with Garrett. His soul hurt as he helped load Garrett into a body bag. Molly’s husband had been beaten to death with such brutality that he was almost unrecognizable. As a family member, Lloyd gave the coroner a positive I.D., the last thing he wanted was for Molly to see Garrett like this.
As dawn, broke in the east, Lloyd called Tim on the satellite phone number he had. He waited while the oil rig worker found his cousin.
“What do you want, Lloyd?” Tim demanded without greeting.
“You need to come home, our sister needs us.” Lloyd said, he expected this bitterness from Tim.
“Oh, now she’s our sister? What happened to keeping our parent’s dirty little secret from her?” Tim had wanted to tell Molly the truth for years, but Lloyd had refused because Molly loved the man who wasn’t really her father with a blind devotion. Lloyd had always feared that if she found out his father Humphrey was her biological father and not Tim Sr, that she would turn her back on him the way his mother had.
“Garrett’s dead, Gerry killed him tonight, and Sharon too, at the farm. It was only pure damn luck and Molly’s craving for cheesecake that saved her and the baby. She is going to need all the family she has. I am going over to tell her in a few minutes. She needs you to come home, Tim.” Lloyd’s voice was level and firm.
There was silence for several moments, and Lloyd was afraid he’d lost the line. Finally, Tim spoke, it was a strangled, grieved sound. “I can’t. We have a typhoon in-bound, a dozen rigs in the path. I won’t be able to get there for weeks. Just... Just do what you need to do for Molly. I’ll try to get home for Christmas.”
Lloyd wanted to snap at him that Molly was more important, but he took a deep breath and said, “Fine. Stay safe.”
“Lloyd?” Tim spoke before Lloyd could hang up. “Take care of our sister for me.”
“I always do.” Lloyd reminded and hung up.
Lloyd showered quickly and put on his last clean uniform at the station before driving over to the Anemone. He wanted to hold Milli again, he knew it was irrational, but he wanted it. Holding her, crying in her arms, it made him feel strong enough to face anything. He knocked and waited.
Barely managing to hide his shock when Jackson answered to door in only a towel, he asked, “Is Milli here?”
Jackson shook his head, “She couldn’t go back to sleep after you stopped by, tossed for an hour then went next door to bake.”
“Sorry, she kept you awake,” Lloyd said in a neutral tone.
Jackson shrugged. “She’s always been squirmy in her sleep. Marni complained about it all the time. Look, it’s cold. I’m gonna get dress, see ya later?”
“Maybe. I’ve got a lot of paperwork.” Lloyd warred with the almost overwhelming urge to punch the tall baker the way he had once punched Tim.
“Yeah, dad always had a lot on any homicide and you have two and an arson.” Jackson shivered, obviously not used to the cold. “Hope you get some sleep, see ya, Lloyd.”
Lloyd just nodded, and stalked over to the Anemone, cursing himself for being stupid again because evidently some of the rumors about the baker and her ‘friends’ were true. Inside, he could hear Milli, singing to herself above the hum of a mixer. It smelled like his favorite Caramel Praline rolls. He went straight upstairs to see Molly. She was still sleeping. He sat down in a chair and waited for her to wake.
Milli called Chief Saul and invited him and his crew to stop by for Cinnamon rolls and kolaches. She was surprised when Dr. McConnell had shown up with the old fire chief and part of his fire crew. The exhausted, smokey men gratefully accepted the food and coffee.
Dr. McConnell pulled Milli aside. “How is Molly?”
“I don’t know. Jackson said Lloyd got here about six, but I didn’t see him. I haven’t gone up because I didn’t want to disturb them.” Milli explained. “They are in room two if you want to take some food and coffee up.”
The elderly veterinarian nodded absently. “Thank you. That would be nice.”
Milli nodded and started to turn away when he spoke again. “Ms. Milli, do you still work for the dispensary?”
“No, but I trained their bakers. Why do you know someone who needs a recommendation on flavors?”
“Not exactly. My wife has been diagnosed with breast cancer and was to start treatment soon, we were going to tell the kids tomorrow but now... ” He frowned, blinking at the moisture that gleamed in his eyes. “Could you make her some of those pumpkin spiced sugar cookies but with no cloves as cannabis infused cookies? She really liked them, and she is going to need them when she starts her treatments. She can’t take promethazine.”
“Of course, I still bake for some of Big Ed’s cancer and HIV patients.” Milli nodded rapidly, Mrs. McConnell was one of the sweetest ladies she had met in Pagosa. She had been one of the women that threw her baby shower before they found out Charlie wouldn’t live and had helped Elizabeth keep Emily while Milli had gone back to Vegas to bury him. “Anything she wants.”
“Thank you, just... just don’t say anything to Lloyd or Molly right now,” He asked quietly.
“Of course not. I’ll... I’ll get that tray.” Milli hurried away and a few moments later was back with the tray balanced on her cast. “I can’t wait to get this off in two weeks!” She huffed exasperated.
Dr. McConnell smiled at her, “You’re still the best baker in town, Ms. Milli, one-armed and all.”
A while later, Dr. McConnell came down with a very pale looking Molly and a stoic-faced Lloyd. The family went out without a word. Milli watched Dr. McConnell say something to Lloyd who made an unhappy face before turning back to the bakery. She busied herself putting the rest of the cheesecake and caramel apples in a plastic container. Turning with a smile, she handed them to Lloyd as he came up to the counter.
“Uhhh, tell Molly anything else she craves, I’ll bake.” Her smile faltered slightly at his cold look. “I’m sorry about Garrett, he was a good guy. You know Molly can still stay here if she wants.”
“No, she’ll be staying with me. How much?” He demanded.
Milli almost stepped back at the harshness of his tone. “Oh ummm. Nothing. For Molly, I couldn’t ask...”
“Milli, you’ve got a timer going off.” Jackson called from the kitchen.
Lloyd’s eyes narrowed slightly, “You’d better go. Jack-son needs you.” He threw a couple of twenties on the counter. “For the room and cake.” Before turning to stomp out.
Milli was so glad the bakery had emptied out and she was alone as she blinked the tears from her eyes. She turned back to the kitchen to answer the timer, looking over the praline tarts she wanted to smash them all in Lloyd’s face. Her fingers ran along the tip of the pan and she considered dumping the whole lot into the trash.
Instead she turned toward Jackson with her professional mask in place. “Just put them in the case when they cool as free samples for our Thanksgiving Praline Sale. If anyone asks, just tell them I said, it’s because I’m nuts for them. I’m going to take a shower; can you watch Emily?”
“Sure, do you need help wrapping your cast in plastic wrap?” He asked her, his expression showed all the questions he didn’t ask.
She shook her head, her chin trembled as her mask cracked, “I guess it was just a kiss.”
Jackson held her as she cried, “Just forget about him, go have a shower, and a nap and we’ll close early and go shopping. Somebody has a birthday coming up.” He said cheekily trying to cheer her up.
“Beanstalk... I said I wasn’t going to celebrate it anymore.” She whined.
“Who said I was talking about you? My princess is going to be one year old soon. Sir Jackson has a big party to plan. Oh, and dad invited you all to stay with us if you want to.” He smiled gently down at her.
“Thanks Jackson, you’re the best friend a troll could have.”