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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

Chapter 12

When Troy asked Cheryl if she wanted to wait with him in the driveway for the ATF agents, she was surprised to find herself famished—even though she knew the remains of her pancakes would be cold. “I think I’ll stay back here and finish my breakfast.”

Troy hesitated, studying the pancakes then Cheryl’s face. “Why do they look so good?”

Keeping her eyes on her husband’s face, Cheryl brought a forkful of pancake to her mouth. “When they’re cold, they’re even sweeter.” She chewed as sensuously as she could.

Taking a step back, Troy rubbed his cheeks vigorously. “You’re getting me aroused again, Cheryl. I’ve got to greet those ATF guys, and you’re going to have me walking stiff-legged all over the place.” Troy limped to the patio doors. “Finish your breakfast before I come back with the agents.”

As soon as Cheryl realized that she had started feeling a glow of arousal herself, she stood up. “Are we behaving suspiciously, do you think?”

Troy opened the doors then turned to face Cheryl. “What is going on with us?”

“Even on my best normal days, I couldn’t eat a whole order of McDonald’s pancakes, much less feel such a craving for cold ones.” Cheryl took another big bite of her breakfast.

“And if we weren’t about to be visited by a branch of the Department of Justice, I’d drag you back under that willow tree.” With a sweep of his hands, Troy gestured toward his crotch.

“So who looks more guilty? The man with the sausage or the woman with the pancakes?” Cheryl brushed up against Troy.

Careful not to jostle her pancakes or his sausage, Troy clasped Cheryl’s arms and pushed her away from him. “You’ve got to let me deflate.” He hurried through the patio doors.

Cheryl sat back down on the stone wall and decided she would look more distraught if she appeared not to be harboring such healthy appetites. But then, if she was so distraught, why would she have bought pancakes in the first place? Surely, that’s what a suspicious government agent would want to know. Although she’d never been a victim of arson before, she had talked to enough insurance agents to know that the owners were always prime suspects. So, she had to figure out, in the next few minutes, how an arson victim, a completely innocent arson victim, would be acting the morning after the devastating fire.

Meditatively, Cheryl took another bite of her pancakes. Devastating. That might be a good place to start. She tried to remember how Knox’s mother acted that day she came back from the beach to find her house burned. Mrs. Pritchard had sat at Cheryl’s mother’s kitchen table, drinking coffee. Cheryl distinctly remembered how Mrs. Pritchard’s hands kept shaking. And she had started to cry, but not in a frantic way, the way someone might cry over a close relative dying unexpectedly. It was a tired kind of crying, seeming to come from a spread of years spent making a home rather than from some deep sense of injury. More of a last straw cry rather than a last breath cry.

The problem, Cheryl admitted to herself, was that she didn’t honestly feel like this last straw was breaking her back or her spirit. She took another bite of pancake. She was so far from feeling devastated that it’d be impossible to fake it for the ATF agents. Of course they were trained to detect fake reactions in their prime suspects. Confusion. Now there was a state of mind that she wouldn’t have to fake. Maybe paranoia as well?

After another mouthful of pancake, Cheryl pulled herself more upright on the stone wall and spoke aloud, “Who would want to do this to us?” No, that delivery sounded too much like she was accusing the ATF guys.

Tone down the accusatory a little. Cheryl took a deep breath and glanced at the patio doors. No sign of Troy or the agents. Less accusatory and more confused. “Who would want to do such a thing to us?’ Yes, that sounded a little more sincere. More pancake. As she chewed, Cheryl tapped her plastic fork against her lips. But maybe the ATF agents would expect a woman in her position to be accusatory, demanding, indignant. She should have asked Troy what emotional state he was going to adopt. Looking back over the last few hours, though, Cheryl was surprised to recognize Troy’s own suspicious failure to act devastated. After all, it was more his dream house than hers.

Definitely, Troy was acting confused. Paranoid, too, but more in reaction to the ATF investigators than to the arson. As they were leaving Cedar Run this morning, Cheryl had carefully avoided looking at the lot where their house had stood. More than anything that had happened yesterday and last night, Troy seemed more disturbed by the disappearance of the house’s ruins. Once Cheryl permitted the full image of that empty but undisturbed lot to enter her mind, she barely tasted the last piece of pancake that she put into her mouth.

“What the hell is going on?” she asked the Suddreths’ back yard. Now that, she thought, sounds sincere. Yes, this was a case where the confusion clearly trumped the devastation. Stunned. That was her mental condition. If she could just settle into being stunned. Uneasily, she admitted to herself that she was stunned. No falsehood there that ATF could detect. But she also had to admit that she couldn’t claim she was settled in that frame of mind. Deep down, she felt a runnel of exhilaration. Maybe she could pass it off as manic energy. Understandably, she assured herself, all of her brain gears would be whizzing because she had to make plans, detailed plans: insurance forms to fill out, a new house to find and finance and furnish. Temporary housing to arrange. Adjusting to the scrutiny of the ATF and the insurance investigators. And what about the news? The local reporters would be hounding her and Troy. Having to absorb the consolation of friends and relatives. Yes. She could make exhilarated pass for frantic.

While Cheryl was locking the lid on her empty McDonald’s carton, wondering if she should hide it, the patio doors opened.

As soon as Troy stepped onto the patio, he moved beside Cheryl, rested his hand on her shoulder and gestured to the two men who followed him onto the patio. “Cheryl, you remember Special Agent Rourke and Special Agent Ginn.”

Very much aware of the taste of maple syrup still on her tongue, Cheryl shook each man’s hand and smiled. Immediately, she wondered if smiling would seem suspicious. “Weren’t three of you at Nancy Muir’s this morning?”

The agent that Troy identified as Rourke crossed his arms loosely and shifted his weight to his left leg. “We’re minus Agent Swanson. He’s at the fire scene, taking pictures. He wanted to interview your housekeeper again.”

“I thought she was interviewed last night, poor thing.”

“By one of the fire investigators. We just like to corroborate details.”

“Have you started making any sense out of what’s going on?” Cheryl took a deep breath and noticed that her lungs expanded with an odd vibration.

“Not yet.”Rourke shifted his weight to his other leg. “But we will.”

“So it’s not completely crazy for the charred ruins of a house to disappear and be replaced in less than two hours by meadow grass?” Cheryl tried to sound more stunned than accusatory. The quaver she heard in her voice reassured her that she certainly succeeded.

Rourke nodded once and tightened his crossed arms. “It definitely appears odd, but sensible solutions always prevail. Always.”

Despite how calmly Rourke let his eyes rove from her face to the luxurious willows and confident magnolias, then back to her face, Cheryl thought she detected faint strain wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “Well, I want to do everything I can to unveil a sensible solution.”

“It may not come tomorrow or next week, but we will get to the bottom of this arson.” Rourke rested his hands on his hips. “No matter how exotic a crime might appear at first, time and scrutiny favor the solution .” Rourke motioned for Agent Ginn to step up beside him. “Mr. Moretz, I’d like to talk to you in the den. Agent Ginn can talk to your wife out here on the patio. That way, we can get the job done in half the time.”

Troy stood up. He patted Cheryl’s shoulder. “You know, Agent Rourke, my wife and I watch enough crime stories to know why you want to talk to us separately.”

Opening the door for Troy, Rourke made a slight bow with his head. “Procedure. It keeps us on track.”

“I’m fine with that.” Troy gave Cheryl a wave before he and Rourke disappeared into the den.

Agent Rourke smiled at Cheryl and looked over his shoulder at the glass-topped patio table. “Mrs. Moretz, do you mind if we sit at the table? I want to record our interview if that’s okay with you, and it’ll be less awkward if we can talk facing each other.”

Cheryl smiled back at him as she stood up and walked over to the table. She liked Agent Ginn’s looks more than Agent Rourke’s. Rourke looked too melancholy with his dark hair and brooding eyes. Something about the sharpness of his cheekbones made him appear to be suffering from indigestion. On the other hand, Agent Ginn had faded freckles and reddish sandy hair. While Rourke spoke confidently and seemed perched on incisiveness, Ginn struck Cheryl as having a more solvent approach to dealing with people. Agent Rourke might stab the problem, Agent Rourke would soften it until he could pry it open with his pale, blunt fingers.

Only after Cheryl sat down did Agent Ginn pull a digital recorder from his inside jacket pocket, turn it on, position it in front of Cheryl, then sit down in the chair on the opposite side of the table. “I’m Special Agent Ginn,” he smiled at Cheryl. “Would you please state your name and affirm that you’ve given me permission to record our conversation?”

After a few more procedural comments, Agent Ginn leaned back in his chair and pulled out a small notebook. “Where were you when you learned about the fire at your house?”

“My husband and I had gone to visit a client and friend of mine who had a problem with the house that we’d sold her and her husband about five years ago.” Even before she’d finished her sentence, Cheryl found herself wondering if now was the time to tell Agent Ginn about Nadine’s haunted house. She eased her conscience by deciding to answer only what Agent Ginn asked. If her mention of a “problem” perked up his ears, she couldn’t see it. “We got a call that our house was on fire.”

“And who contacted you?” Agent Ginn scribbled in his notebook.

“You know, with all the excitement, I didn’t even to think to ask Troy who called him. But I think I remember his saying at the time that it was Nancy Muir.”

“So your husband took the call?”

“Yes.” Cheryl felt a drop of guilt. Would Agent Ginn focus all of his suspicion, procedural or otherwise, on Troy?

“How did he respond when he got the news?” Agent Ginn didn’t look up from his notebook.

“Shocked.” Cheryl thought she might have noticed a small gasp pop from her throat. Had she answered too quickly? Should she have paused long enough to look like she was searching her memory? “Then he looked like he might throw up.”

“I’m sorry we have to go over these details, Mrs. Moretz.” Agent Ginn laid his notebook on the table and studied Cheryl’s face. “Your memories are as sharp as they’re going to be right now.”

“Seems like I don’t remember much of anything.” Cheryl returned his gaze. An insurance investigator once told her that a guilty person couldn’t maintain eye contact during official interviews. And the ones who could always appeared nervous about doing it. Or blatantly defiant. Deeply relieved, Cheryl could honestly admit that she didn’t feel nervous, much, as long as she kept her mind off of Nadine’s house. Given Agent Ginn’s bland interrogation technique, she felt no impulse to defy him. Or was that his secret weapon?

“People are always surprised by what they remember.” Ginn slid his notebook back onto his lap and leaned more heavily against the back of his chair. “Let’s take a rest from the details of the fire for a few minutes. I want you to tell me if you or your husband has been threatened by dissatisfied customers or maybe desperate business competitors.” Ginn shifted in his chair as if to consider Cheryl’s face from a slightly lower angle. “Today’s real estate market must be creating some frustration. Although Blue Ridge Real Estate seems to be doing better than most.”

This time, Cheryl deliberately paused to think about Agent Ginn’s question. Now he was making sense. “Well, we’ve been around longer than anybody who’s still alive.” Why did she phrase it that way? She glanced at Agent Ginn. He was scribbling. For some reason, Cheryl thought it important to continue her answer before he looked up. “I can’t think of anybody in the business in Hibriten who would want to hurt us like that. Nobody. Around here, the real estate business is more like a social club. Long term survival takes cooperation among agents in every office. We all work with multiple listings.”

Agent Ginn crossed his legs and rested his elbow on his chair arm. “But your husband did pull off a very successful property conversion project not too long ago?”

Now it was Cheryl’s turn to relax. She’d discussed this same subject with a newspaper reporter when the announcement of the distribution center first came out. “What you need to understand, Agent Ginn, is that almost every other real estate agency in Hibriten benefitted from Troy’s success. When a big company moves into a town, more people look for houses or apartments. A big company brings in more people, and more people always create more market.”

“So that project didn’t displace anybody?” Ginn tossed his hand in the air as if he were scattering a handful of seeds. “Didn’t drain possible profits from another agency?”

“No. He took a failed, empty furniture factory, and turned it into a distribution center for the Home Shopping Network. The co-owners of the property made money, the town acquired a juicy tax revenue. Even the railroad got a boost from Troy’s project.”

“What about people outside your regular circle of friends and business associates?” Ginn shimmied himself to a more inquisitive posture. “Think for a minute about people who might not have benefitted by your husband’s project, who might have seen him as a threat . . .”

“Threat?” Almost lurching, Cheryl skidded her elbows onto the table.

“Maybe people who want to protect historical locations. Some of those abandoned factories are pretty old.”

Before she caught herself, Cheryl laughed. “Anybody old enough to be sentimental over a furniture factory will be too old to commit arson. The furniture industry has been dying out for years in this town. The factory owners had plenty of time to sell out their employers and lose the kind of loyalty that turns rednecks into terrorists.”

Abruptly, Ginn stopped scribbling and propped his elbows in the table. “That’s an interesting word you used.”

Cheryl found her tongue sweeping back and forth across the back of her lower teeth. “Oh come on. Terrorists? In Hibriten?”

“Mrs. Moretz, the fire that destroyed your house was like no other fire we’ve seen.” Ginn scooted his chair closer to the table. As he settled back just slightly, he tapped the table with his notebook. “You might get that kind of burn with rocket fuel, but you can’t just carry around a jug of such stuff. Your house wasn’t just burned-- it was incinerated to the point of vaporization.” Pausing, his notebook in mid-tap, Ginn leaned slowly toward Cheryl. “By all rights, everybody within seventy-five yards of your burning house should have died of suffocation. Such flames suck up cubic tons of oxygen a second. In a way, the fire that burned your house can’t exist. Somebody has come up with a very scary alternative to combustion as we in the Western world know it.”

“What about the ruins disappearing this morning?” Cheryl put her hand to her throat. “If the fire was so destructive, how could grass be growing?”

“Our labs will be chewing on that question for quite a while, I’m afraid. But until we get the results from soil and plant samples, we’re working on another theory.” Ginn glanced over his shoulder toward the den. “When you were at home prior to the fire and when you returned after your husband got the call telling him your house was burning, do you remember any unusual odors? Did you notice anything out of the ordinary that might not have seemed important at the time? Like a door that’s usually closed being opened or a pot holder on the counter when it should be in a drawer. Even an odd piece of paper in the trash can or a sticky spot on the floor.”

Keeping her eyes on Ginn, Cheryl rested her chin on her palm and ran her fingers across her lips. “Nothing comes to mind.” She wondered if now was the time to bring up Nadine’s haunted house. She really wanted to, but on the other hand, she suspected that Agent Ginn was not receptive to supernatural explanations for arson. He’d have to change all of his identification to read ATFG—“G” for ghosts.

“What about suspicious people hanging around your neighborhood or maybe in your place of business?”

People, Cheryl mused. Agent Ginn still wasn’t giving her the opening she needed to bring up Nadine’s house. If she could get him to bring up the topic of supernatural disturbances, then she wouldn’t seem like such a nutcase. Given the opportunity to talk about a haunted house, Cheryl though she would be smarter if she could lead up to the shape-shifting table gradually. Above all, she knew she should sound skeptical of her own story. She should try to get Agent Ginn to pull the details out of her.

Right now, though, Agent Ginn wanted her to tell him about suspicious people. Nadine and her family weren’t suspicious. Then there were Carl and Theresa Dula. New to her, but definitely not strange. Wholesome as they come. After showing them the Suddreths’ house, this house, Cheryl had gone back to the office.

“Wait!” Cheryl thrust her hand in the air, palm facing Agent Ginn. “Yesterday morning, after I finished showing this house to a young married couple, when I was in the lobby of our office, I met a very strange woman.”

“Strange in what way?” Agent Ginn rose slightly from his chair to check the recorder. As soon as he was seated again, he centered his notebook on the table.

“First of all, she looked like she was Hawaiian or Polynesian. Very large. Dark-skinned. Jet-black hair—long, all the way down to her hips.”

“Hawaiian.” Agent Ginn stretched his face slightly closer to Cheryl. “By large, do you mean heavy?”

“Yes, but very tall, too.” Cheryl frantically tried to reconstruct the woman’s appearance, her mind flashing like the hands of a champion plastic cup stacker. “Six feet, maybe a little more.”

“Do you remember anything else about her appearance?” Now when Agent Ginn wrote in his notebook, he always brought his eyes back to Cheryl’s.

“She was dressed like a Hawaiian. She had on this muu-muu, red and orange flowers on a black background. It might have been silk. Flip-flops. Now that I think about it, they might have been decorated with those little shiny, smooth seashells.” Cheryl had admired the woman’s flip-flops.

“Did she threaten you? Or maybe act aggressively? Ask you improper questions like where you lived?” Agent Ginn had to flip to a new page in his notebook.

“Not at first.” Cheryl surprised herself by remembering that she had initially found the woman exotically charming. “I have to admit to you, Agent Ginn, that I liked her. Of course, I assumed she might be a client. Although you might already know that we don’t see Hawaiians in Hibriten. She was the first for me, so naturally, I approached her.”

Cheryl closed her eyes for a moment, wanting to make sure that her memory of what the woman said to her had time to develop fully. “I asked her if I could help her. Now, I realize that what she said might have been suspicious. But when she said it, I thought she was just being friendly. She spoke in such a warm way.”

“What exactly did she say?” Agent Ginn lowered his head and tilted his right ear in Cheryl’s direction.

“When I asked if I could help her, she said something like ‘I’m here trying to help you.’”

Agent Ginn took longer than usual to finish this entry in his notebook. Keeping his eyes on his notebook and nodding, he repeated, “I’m here trying to help you.” Slowly, he returned his gaze to Cheryl. “Did she say it in a way that made you feel threatened?”

“Not at all.” Cheryl shook her head. Reconsidering the memory, she raked her upper lip with her lower teeth. “Not at the time.”

“So she didn’t move up close to you, invade your personal space?”

“No, she seemed more like she wanted to get away.”

Agent Ginn wrote something in his notebook then seemed to underline it three or four times.

“All the time she was talking to me, she kept smiling. It was a beautiful smile. But thinking back, she did strike me as a little stand-offish.” Cheryl squeezed the memory tighter. Something else she should be remembering. “Oh! Yes. I remember thinking that she might have been a hula dancer because even though she was large, she was also graceful.” Cheryl tilted back in her chair, fatigue softening her posture. “And I don’t mean graceful for her size. Graceful for any size.”

“Like she’d maybe had extensive training?”

Something in Agent Ginn’s voice made Cheryl suspect that he wasn’t really hearing what she meant. “I suppose. I don’t really know how dancers train. Can you teach gracefulness?”

“If you start early enough. With a child.” Agent Ginn made another lengthy entry in his journal. Slightly before he finished writing, he asked, “Anything else about this woman strike you as odd?”

“Well, now that you mention it, she had visited my husband to inquire about buying a house.”

“And that struck you as odd because . . .?” Agent Ginn made that seed tossing gesture again.

“First of all, my husband specializes in commercial property. But our receptionist told me that the woman insisted on talking to my husband.”

“But she could have simply been confused . . .”

Cheryl slid forward, wagging a finger at Agent Ginn. “But the house she wanted to buy wasn’t one we had listed. In fact, it was occupied . . .” Cheryl stopped in mid-sentence, her mouth dropping open.

“Is something wrong, Mrs. Moretz?” Agent Ginn raised his pen a few inches from the notebook.

“The house the Hawaiian woman wanted to buy belongs to Nadine and Grafton Watts. They’re the people that Troy and I were visiting last night when our house caught fire.”

After Agent Ginn rested his pen carefully across his notebook, he raised his writing hand to tap the corner of his mouth. For a moment, he studied Cheryl’s face then dropped his gaze down to his notebook. “These were the people you said had a problem with the house you sold them?”

“Yes.” Cheryl was surprised to discover how deeply reluctant she was to go into the details. “The kind of problem I have never encountered in my whole life.”

“What was the problem?” Agent Ginn flipped open his notebook and picked up his pen.

“Before I tell you, I want you to understand that I know how ridiculous it sounds. When I first told Troy about it, he was certain that Nadine was trying to work some scam so she and her husband could get out of paying the mortgage.”

Agent Ginn smiled. “Just tell me what happened. I’ve witnessed some pretty perplexing episodes myself. If the burning of your house hadn’t struck some upper level minds as suspicious to begin with, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. What happened to the fire scene this morning has some very smart people back at the office scratching their heads. I’ll take what you have to say very seriously.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that, Agent Ginn.” Cheryl almost reached across the table to squeeze his wrists. “About mid-morning, right at 10:30, I stopped by Nadine’s house because she had called me, just gloomy like I’d never heard before. She told me her dining room table changed about the same time every day when she was there by herself. If her husband or her boys were there, the table didn’t change. But for some reason, she got convinced that if I was there it would change and she’d have a witness.”

“What do you mean by her table changed?”

“It went from being this Mexican design with small tiles on the top, rectangular, framed in a sort of mahogany wood to an older style, round, heart of pine. Exactly the same kind of table that my childhood neighbors had in their dining room eighteen years ago.”

“Sounds like a pretty common sort of table.” Agent Ginn leaned forward on his elbows and rotated his pen as if inspecting its barrel for flaws.

“I know what you mean, but two things made this particular pine table special.” Cheryl waited until Agent Ginn stopped rotating his pen. “First of all, this table that kept fading in and out of Nadine’s table had a little note scratched on the underside that had been put there by a boy that I grew up with. When we were twelve, he used a nail to scratch underneath the tabletop Knox Loves Cheryl. I saw that very same message scratched on the bottom of that ghost table.”

“You’re absolutely sure it was the message your boyfriend scratched for you—twenty or twenty-five years ago?”

“It sure looked like the same scratching I saw twenty-four years ago.”

“What else made this table special?” Agent Ginn jotted a quick note in his book. “You said two things made the table seem unusual.”

“Well, I knew it couldn’t be that table with the love note scratched on it because that table burned up in a fire about eighteen years ago. “ I saw the charred pieces tossed into the yard by the fire department.”

“There was another fire?”

“Eighteen years ago.” Cheryl was gratified to see Agent Ginn succumb to a moment of surprise before he calmed his face into its procedural slackness. “It was a brick home, so it was gutted but not burned down.”

“Was this house also part of the Cedar Run community?”

“Oh no.” Cheryl paused a moment to calculate. “We didn’t develop Cedar Run—well, nine years ago.” With her thumb, she tapped the years across her fingertips. “Just nine years ago.”

“Do you remember anything that the investigation turned up about that fire? Anything unusual?”

“A couple of men did come by and talk to my mother and father. My mother was the one who called the fire department.” Cheryl had heard her parents calling the fire department, but she’d stayed in bed, thinking maybe she was just dreaming, until the first fire truck arrived, siren howling. “I think the investigators found faulty wiring in a hallway wall outlet. They seemed pretty certain it wasn’t arson. For months after the Pritchards’ house burned, I went around to all the wall outlets in our house just before I went to bed, feeling them to make sure nothing was smoldering behind them.”

“Any fatalities or injuries connected to the fire?” Agent Ginn dipped his chin slightly and raised his eyebrows at Cheryl.

“No, the family had gone to the beach for a long weekend.” She didn’t like the way his brows arched. He looked like someone who had just been unexpectedly smacked by a friend.

“And you say this table from that house that burned eighteen years ago appeared in the same house recently?”

“Yesterday.” Cheryl patted the table to emphasize the three syllables of the word. “But it didn’t just poof into Nadine’s dining room. It kind of faded in and out of Nadine’s Spanish style table like it was trying to switch places with it but couldn’t come into full focus but for a minute or two. Then after a few minutes of wavering, it did . . . stabilize . . . for a while.”

“Did any other pieces of furniture behave that way?” Once again, Agent Ginn busied himself with writing even before Cheryl began her answer.

“I think a lamp appeared too. Furniture in the living room. Even the floor covering shifted between Nadine’s terra cotta tiles and the original wood floors in the dining room and the living room.” Cheryl chewed on her lower lip. She knew that something else had happened. “The door from the living room into the dining room changed some too. Back when the Pritchards lived there, they’d had just a regular rectangular door, but Nadine and her husband and had added an arch to it. While the table was bouncing from square to round, the floors shifted from tile to wood, wood to tile. And that arch kept opening and closing.” Cheryl gave into a shiver.

“Now, you’re talking about when you visited Nadine yesterday morning?”

“Yes. When Troy and I went back later last night, more things started changing as well. The food on their table changed. Her two sons’ clothes became somebody else’s. And in the den, the television wavered between an old model and Nadine’s flat screen.”

“And all of you saw this happening?” Agent Ginn didn’t look up from his writing.

“All of us. Me, Troy, Nadine, Grafton, and their two sons.”

“When you visited Nadine that morning and then later last night, did you notice any unusual odors, something you wouldn’t expect, an odd chemical odor or some familiar scent that seemed unusually strong?”

“No. All I remember are regular house smells, normal supper smells.” Cheryl shifted in her chair. She glanced over Agent Ginn’s shoulder, thinking she saw some movement in the den. Her butt was getting numb. “You asked me about how things smelled at my house. What makes you so interested in smells?”

“In ordinary arson cases, if an accelerant is used to get the fire going, there’s likely to be a strong chemical smell.” Agent Ginn laid down his pen and locked his fingers together. “The unusual nature of your house fire has us concerned. The typical firebug, even a pathological arsonist, just can’t do what was done to your house.” Studying his fingers, Agent Ginn cleared his throat. “Then when you add to the case these instances of wavering furniture, the obvious explanation is that you and your husband, as well as Nadine and her family have been exposed, possibly multiple times, to some kind of hallucinogenic. Something so new we don’t know what it does or how it’s delivered.”

For a moment, Cheryl didn’t know if she was insulted or relieved. To her way of thinking, the most unsettling experience she’d had over the last several hours, even more than the destruction of her house, was how the ground had healed itself and swallowed all signs of the fire. “Would your explanation really cover what happened this morning when the debris and foundation all disappeared? All the firemen and the policemen—you saw how the lot looked like it did when it was part of a cow pasture.”

“Actually, a large house fire would be an ideal scene for somebody or some group to release a nerve gas or some other biological agent. Depending on the kind of chemical we’re talking about, the arsonist could put it in a glass container, leave the container in some strategic part of the house, set the fire, and know that in an hour or two or three, the heat is going to shatter the glass and release the gas.”

“And everybody in the neighborhood would have hallucinations?”

“We have any number of weapons that can penetrate clothes—even the kind of protective gear worn by firemen. They could be breathing their own canned air, but they’d still absorb the gas. That kind of weapon is big business right now. Theoretically, it’s much cheaper than explosives, easier to deploy—provided the suspects know what they’re doing. And with each passing hour, I’m becoming convinced these people know what they’re doing.”

“But you and Agent Rourke did see the ruins and all the mess disappear, didn’t you?” Cheryl heard in her voice a trill of panic.

“From what we’ve heard from other witnesses, and I mean the police and the firemen, we all saw exactly the same thing, which strongly argues for the presence of a hallucinatory agent—a powerful one.”

A new dread struck Cheryl in the pit of her stomach. “Do we need to go to a hospital?”

“If it would give you some peace of mind, but as far as we can tell, the effects, while intense, aren’t long-lasting. Generally, if a chemical is causing damage, people have definite side-effects, headaches, grogginess, nausea, extreme loss of appetitie, debility, tunnel vision, ringing in the ears, metallic taste, lesions, blisters . . .” Stopping in his recitation of symptoms, Agent Ginn shook his head. “What I’m trying to say is while the hallucinations might be terribly unsettling, the toxicity seems almost benign. We‘ve taken blood samples from all of the firefighters, policemen, and some of your neighbors who spent the whole night watching the fire. Agent Rourke, Swanson, and I contributed about three pints to the lab boys, but I can assure you, I’ve been exposed to some really nasty chemicals, and you don’t have to worry.”

Cheryl exhaled deeply and stood up. “I’ve got to stretch my legs.”

Checking his watch, Agent Ginn stood up too. “You’ve been very helpful, Mrs. Moretz.” He followed Cheryl to the edge of the patio where she stood, admiring the back yard. “We’ll need to talk to your friend and her family. Where is their house?”

“Just down the road about a mile. I doubt if they’re home. They more or less moved out last night, but I’ll call her.” Cheryl walked over to her purse and retrieved her phone. Returning to Agent Ginn’s side, she noticed that he was studying the landscaping. “It’s one of the best yards in Hibriten. You could be on your own planet back here. Gorgeous, magnolia-scented privacy.”

“This kind of privacy works two ways, Mrs. Moretz.” Agent Ginn swept his hand toward the trees and bushes. “If people can’t see you, then you can’t see them. Thirty burglars could be sitting under those willows and behind those magnolias, and we wouldn’t even know it.”

Resting her hand across the front of her throat, Cheryl said, “I see your point.”

“And some of the deadliest poisons have the sweetest smell.”

Cheryl opened her phone then glanced at Agent Ginn. “Do me a favor. Please don’t talk to any of my perspective customers.”

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