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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 16

When Troy pulled into the main entrance to Cedar Run Estates, Cheryl was stunned by how large the crowd had grown. Last night, when the fire was still burning, only their neighbors and friends stood out in the street to watch. But now, the cars lined up along the curb clearly belonged to people who had heard about the fire on the news and were curious to see how a mansion looked when it burned to the ground. Only two fire trucks remained, primarily to keep people from getting too close to the now smoky ruins of Cheryl and Troy’s house. The police had also stretched the yellow tape all the way around the lot. Cheryl had never realized before how oddly festive the yellow tape looked in contrast to the ashes of a burned house. Three deputy sheriffs patrolled the perimeter established by the tape, but most of the spectators crowded against the tape that protected the front yard.

Wanting to avoid calling attention to themselves, Cheryl and Troy once against parked five houses away from what had been their home. As soon as they pulled up to the curb in front of Alonzo Underwood’s house, he charged off of his porch, waving his hands with an angry weariness that suggested he had been running off trespassers in his parking place all morning long. When he saw Troy climbing out of the car, he stopped, shook his head sympathetically, and went back into his house.

As far as Cheryl could tell, all of her neighbors had apparently gotten their fill of looking at the ruins and were avoiding the crowds of curious passers-by. No doubt at the next home owners’ association, someone would once again argue that Cedar Run should be made into a gated community.

She knew no one in the mob gathered on the edge of her yard and loitering in part of her driveway. It seemed like everyone had some kind of camera. But when she turned away from the crowd to see if she could discover what strangers found so interesting in someone else’s misfortune, she realized that she was looking at her driveway and her front lawn which now displayed all the messiness of a burned down house. Charred chunks of material that totally defied identification. Nevertheless, Cheryl could also tell that Agent Rourke had been very accurate in his description of how furiously the fire must have burned. Not even a shell of the house remained. Cheryl could see that some of the foundation was left, but where the basement should have been was a black, somewhat symmetrical crater. And now, the smell of burned wood lingered heavily in the air.

From the direction of the ruins, pushing his way through the crowd, Agent Ginn approached Cheryl and Troy. “We want to go over the place with the fire marshal, and then, if it’s safe enough, we’d like to walk through the scene with you.”

“Do you have someplace you’d like us to wait?” Troy moved to the side of Agent Ginn in order to keep his back to the crowd.

Following Troy’s maneuver, Cheryl felt a little nervous with the crowd of strangers behind her. “Shouldn’t you be restricting who gets into our neighborhood?”

Agent Ginn stepped between Troy and Cheryl. As he led them away from the crowd, he lowered his voice. “Actually, we want a wide selection of spectators. While they’re taking pictures of your house, we’re taking pictures of them.”

Too late, Cheryl noticed that Agent Ginn was walking them toward Nancy Muir’s house.

“Mrs. Muir has allowed us to continue using her house as our base of operations.” Already shifting his attention back to the burned house, Agent Ginn took Troy and Cheryl by the arm and pushed them into the hands of Nancy Muir. “We shouldn’t be too much longer with our investigation. You have some lunch, and we’ll try to dig up some boots for you to wear during your inspection.”

With a firm grip, Nancy led Troy and Cheryl into her house. At her front door, she allowed them to pause and take another look at what was left of their house. “What do you make of it?” she asked Cheryl. Reluctantly, she had to let go of Troy’s arm in order to open her door, but she kept her body between him and the open street.

Barely noticing how Nancy was grasping her arm, Cheryl gazed across the street. She found herself more fascinated by the crowd than by the reappearance of the burned house. “It defies explanation.”

Once she got both her guests herded inside, Nancy shut her door and eased her grip on Cheryl’s arm. “That’s exactly what it does, Cheryl. It does defy explanation.” Briefly, she studied Cheryl’s face then Troy’s. “You two must be starved. When Agent Swanson came over and told me that you were being brought back to inspect your house, I fired up my George Foreman grill and made you my three-cheese-and-tomato paninis. Does that sound okay? I would have made you something more substantial, but today is my meat shopping day, and I haven’t been able to get out of my driveway because of the crowd.”

Cheryl allowed herself to be gently pushed into Nancy’s dining room where the table was already set for seven people. Mildly alarmed, Cheryl balked. “You aren’t having some kind of party, are you, Nancy?”

“Lordy, no.” Nancy squinted at Cheryl, as if she were searching for signs of mental fatigue. “Three of the places are for you, me, and Troy. Then I thought that the three agents might want to eat something as well, and there’s that other man, the fire marshal, I think. He’s been around all night and all morning, and I haven’t seen him eat anything.”

Feeling a little ashamed, Cheryl patted Nancy’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Nancy. I think I’m more tired than I realized.” Cheryl walked to the table and sat down, feeling a warm fatigue in her knees. “And when I saw all those strangers crowded around. And I think about what Agent Ginn said about somebody starting the fire on purpose. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel safe again.”

Troy sat down beside Cheryl. “We can build back. As soon as they finish their investigation, I can get a crew in here to clean up the debris, and within two weeks, we can start construction.”

“Of course.” Nancy sat down on the other side of Cheryl. “With all your resources, you can have your house back exactly like it was in no time.”

Cheryl nodded. She pictured the bulldozers and backhoes that Troy had at his disposal. She had seen how quickly those men could knock down an old building, scoop out a new foundation, and get the frame up in a little over a week. But wasn’t it the fact that they had such “resources” that made them a target? If somebody wanted to burn down a mansion, why didn’t they pick one of the more ostentatious examples over on the older side of Hibriten where the furniture factory barons had their homes? For the first time since the fire, Cheryl wondered if this arson was more personal than she or the ATF agents suspected.

Worse yet, Cheryl realized that she had begun thinking of their house as barren. Why would they want to rebuild something that would continue reminding her of her own emptiness? For a moment, she let herself conceive of rebuilding their house and moving back into it. They could adopt. She knew she could love an adopted child, but she’d still feel haunted by the bitterness of having all their resources except the one that she wanted the most. She had argued with more than one person that a woman didn’t need to be a mother to be a complete woman. Nevertheless, when she considered all of the women who were mothers, she felt an unsettling indignation. She didn’t question her womanhood so much as she resented the unfairness of it all.

“Are you ready to begin construction, Troy?” Cheryl put her hand over her husband’s.

Troy blew a long breath through his lips. “Not right away. There’s no telling how long the ATF will want to sift through the debris.”

“Especially when they act like the fire was so suspicious.” Nancy left the table to check on their sandwiches. “What would you like to drink?”

“Tea.” Cheryl leaned against Troy and kissed his cheek.

“Me too,” Troy replied.

“Do you mind if it’s made with lemonade? I used up all my tea bags making it for my grandchildren who were supposed to come this evening.”

“No, we don’t want to drink what you made for them.” Cheryl remembered that her mother would occasionally make lemonade tea when Cheryl had friends over for lunch.

“Oh, they aren’t coming after all. When I saw how crazy it was outside, I called my daughter and told her to wait until next weekend to come up.”

“Do you need some help?” Cheryl started to get up, hoping that some sort of activity might lift her spirits. It seemed odd to have felt so alive earlier in the morning only to crash into this emptiness in the afternoon. She hadn’t started feeling this way until they turned into Cedar Run Estates.

“Don’t you dare.” Nancy returned from the kitchen, carrying two tall glasses. “If you clean your plates, I’ve got a margarita mix waiting in the freezer.”

“That sounds like the perfect dessert.” Troy handed a glass to Cheryl then took a prolonged drink from his glass. “I didn’t realize how dry I’d gotten.”

“Your sandwiches’ll be ready in about fifteen seconds. You can eat, have a margarita, then take a nap. I bet you didn’t sleep much at all last night.”

Cheryl was surprised by how thirsty she was. “Being interrogated by the ATF does parch a person.”

“Well, as much as I like those three agents, I still think they might have waited a day or two before questioning you.” Nancy returned to the kitchen.

In a few minutes, she returned, carrying two plates loaded with Cheryl and Troy’s sandwiches, potato chips, and dill pickles. She’d just finished settling Cheryl’s plate in front of her when the doorbell rang. “I’d never realized how quiet our neighborhood was until it filled up with tourists and firemen.” Nancy bustled to her front door.

Cheryl managed to take only one bite of her sandwich before Nancy returned, leading the three ATF agents directly to the table. Oblivious to the men’s reluctance to eat with civilians, she resorted to pushing them down into their seats. Until she was sure of their compliance, she hovered over each man, resting her hands on their shoulders or tugging at an elbow. “Just one sandwich,” she pleaded over and over. “Look at how small they are.” She pointed at Cheryl’s Panini. “I make them for my grandchildren. If I was really trying to force you to eat, I’d be insisting that you eat three instead of one apiece.”

“You’ve already helped more than we could have hoped.” Agent Rourke coiled in his chair.

Interpreting his broken resistance as a confession of hunger, Nancy hurried back into the kitchen. On her way, she assured the agents, “It won’t take more than five minutes. I’ve got the grill fired up and the ingredients already laid out.”

“Now there’s a person you should recruit to be an interrogator.” Troy took a bite of his sandwich and chewed with surprised satisfaction. “I have to admit. She makes a fine sandwich.”

Cheryl was in such deep agreement that she didn’t want to speak until she’d finished chewing. Talking was something she wanted to do only between bites. “I can’t believe I’m so hungry after the breakfast I had this morning. But I think if Nancy offered to keep making me these sandwiches, I’d keep eating them.”

“They do look awfully good.” Agent Swanson spoke with a soft coastal lilt to his voice. It was what Cheryl and Troy called the “plantation modulation.” Toward the end of each sentence, the words began to sashay. It was what bad actors resorted to when they thought they were doing a Southern accent.

“Have you found anything over at our house that you didn’t expect to find?” Troy raised his sandwich to his mouth halfway through his question.

But even as Cheryl turned to Agent Rourke to hear what he had to say, she found herself taking another big bite of her sandwich. Food had never tasted this good. She wondered if some residue from the fire and the nerve gas still drifted around the neighborhood. For a moment, she dropped her attention from Agent Rourke to Nancy’s tablecloth. She felt that hum of energy that stirred in her just before Nadine’s table started shifting its shape. It was the same hum of energy she felt this morning seconds before she and Troy found the mossy spot underneath the Suddreths’ willow tree.

“The damage was much more extensive than we thought.” Agent Rourke glanced toward the kitchen door. “Cross beams were completely incinerated. Floor beams completely consumed. The foundation is gone. What you have out there is the hole that was dug for the basement, filled with ashes. And while there’s a lot of ashes, there’s not nearly enough to account for the size and contents of your house.”

“Do you have any theories about where the rubble went to earlier this morning?” Cheryl wanted the reassurance that all of them had been hallucinating.

Agent Rourke shook his head. “If the hole wasn’t so obviously a basement at one time, I’d like tell everyone a missile with a small nuclear warhead accidentally crashed in the middle of your house, but despite how thoroughly everything is destroyed, the damage is just too confined to be the result of any incendiary devices that I’m familiar with. To produce that sort of heat, you’d have to produce an explosion that would have taken out this entire development.”

“Then I think I’m more comfortable going with the hallucinatory drug theory.” Cheryl finished her sandwich with a pang of regret. She hoped that Nancy would force another one on her.

“Can’t your lab people analyze microscopic shards of metal and reconstruct what they came from?” Although Troy often got home late, he religiously recorded all the CSI episodes.

“Well, they can’t be too microscopic.” Agent Ginn eyed the last dill pickle spear on Cheryl’s plate.

“We also have a serious problem because according to all the witnesses, the scene of the crime seems to have vanished for nearly six hours. Some people might argue that the crime scene has to be considered compromised.”

“Even if we just hallucinated that it was gone?” Cheryl looked directly at Agent Ginn and ate her pickle. Feeling as good as she did inspired her to commit small acts of provocation.

“For all we know, our hallucinations might have been so powerful that the arsonists could have brought in a team of elephants and carried off the debris right under our noses.” Agent Rourke pushed his chair back from the table a few inches and crossed his arms. “I’m certain we won’t get any leads from the ashes, but as soon as we finish lunch, I’d still like for you to take a look if you don’t mind.”

“Is it possible that the drug is still affecting us?” Cheryl found herself thinking that if she acted quickly enough, she could take Troy into Nancy’s guest bedroom and have a satisfying interlude with him while the agents ate their lunch. They would have to get a motel room tonight. And at some point, both of them needed to get back to the office. She definitely needed to call up Carl and Theresa Dula. They’d surely want to make an offer on the Suddreths’ house. Earlier in the day, Cheryl might have seriously considered delaying the sale so she and Troy could stay in the house until they rebuilt in Cedar Run.

Now, though, Cheryl couldn’t ignore what Agent Ginn said about how privacy could provide concealment for hostile strangers. She knew that behind the Suddreths’ back yard stretched a patch of scraggly woods that eventually halted at the edge of the creek where she and Knox had waded and searched for spring lizards and salamanders. She could imagine all sorts of unsavory characters with binoculars and cameras creeping up through those woods to the very edge of that beautiful, secluded yard, spending the night just watching those back windows.

“We got the latest lab reports on blood, ground, and air samples, and everything’s showing up clear.” Agent Rourke stretched his back then rubbed his stomach. “Some of the office staff have begun to question the presence of any nerve agents.”

Carrying two heaped plates, Nancy swept into the dining room. “You know, I’m starting to wonder about that too.” She slid plates in front of Rourke and Ginn then leaned her elbow on the top of Agent Swanson’s chair. “Yours and my sandwiches will be just a minute more. She stroked his shoulder. “Maybe something in the smoke made all of us think the house disappeared. You know, not an intentional chemical but something accidental. All of our houses have so much plastic and flame retardant this and mold resistant that . . .”

“But Nancy, Agent Rourke was telling us that all the samples they took from the fire and the people at the fire came up clean.” Cheryl felt mildly disappointed that Nancy wasn’t offering her and Troy seconds. She turned to Agent Rourke. “Wouldn’t accidental chemicals show up?”

“Not necessarily.” Agent Rourke took a bite of his sandwich and chewed before he finished his answer. “See, we have a list of chemicals that the lab boys test for. But if a chemical isn’t on the list, and a test doesn’t accidentally reveal it, then it’s like the chemical isn’t there. So, Mrs. Muir could have a point.”

Nancy patted her hair and smiled at Agent Rourke. “ Even a broke clock is right twice a day.” She gave Agent Swanson’s shoulder another squeeze and hurried back into her kitchen.

“Seems like this case is getting pretty messy.” Troy reached over and cupped Cheryl’s elbow as if it were her breast.

She cupped her hand over his and glanced in the direction of the guest bedroom. Given the slightest opportunity, she would announce that she and Troy needed to go make a few business calls. At the same time, she pulled back from the temptation because she was mildly shocked, once more, by how little concerned she was about losing her home. All of her clothes, furniture. Come to think of it, she did need to buy a couple changes of clothes. She couldn’t detect any skulking depression. In fact, she felt intensely alive. Practically exuberant. Maybe it was some sort of survivor syndrome. Surviving a devastating loss—her mind and body just might be celebrating a near miss.

“All we have to do is find the message in the mess. There’s always a message.” Agent Rourke closed his eyes as he spoke and kept them closed to take another bite of his sandwich.

“And brie in the debris,” Cheryl added. “Troy, would now be a good time to check in with the office?”

They were about to rise from their seats when Nancy hustled from the kitchen. This time, she carried two heaped plates for her and Agent Swanson as well as two smaller plates holding single sandwiches. “I had just enough ingredients for four sandwiches. I know that Troy and Cheryl are hungry enough to eat another one because I can see it in their eyes.”

Picking up their sandwiches at the same time, Cheryl caught Troy studying her eyes. She wondered if the three ATF agents were scrutinizing them, but she knew she shouldn’t glance in their direction. Pretending to brush crumbs from her blouse, Cheryl turned her face toward Agent Ginn, but he was completely engrossed in his lunch. A quick inspection of the other two agents assured Cheryl that their sandwiches were much more engaging that any possible suspicious behavior.

“What do you expect us to find over at our house?” Troy didn’t look up from his plate.

“I know it looks like a pointless procedure.” Agent Rourke took a deep breath and resolutely put down what was left of his sandwich. “But sometimes people who have spent time on the property might notice something that doesn’t belong or isn’t where it’s supposed to be.”

“Well, we weren’t much help at Nadine’s house.” Cheryl was surprised by the impatience in her voice. She didn’t really feel impatient. She just felt absolutely certain that nothing would seem unusual about their house except that it was burned all the way down to the hole that was their basement.

Nancy Muir seemed as entranced with her sandwich as everybody else. But she stopped eating when she heard what Cheryl said. “Was another house burned last night?”

“No, Nancy. We just went to look at a house that a friend of mine thought was haunted.” Cheryl glanced at Agent Rourke to see if she’d said something she shouldn’t have.

“Don’t tell me the ATF investigates ghost sightings as well.” Nancy spoke with no trace of irony.

“We thought there might have been a connection between the hallucinations everybody here experienced and the hallucinations that Mrs. Moretz’s friends experienced.” Agent Rourke picked up his sandwich.

Nancy nodded and took a bite of her sandwich. After a second, she asked, “When did you have your first hallucination, Cheryl?”

“As far as I can tell, it must have happened yesterday morning around 10:30 when I was visiting my friend’s house.”

Nancy put down her sandwich and rested her chin on her knuckles. “Then I think I had my first hallucination before you did. Me and my grandson Ralph shared one the day before yesterday down at the boat dock.”

All three agents jerked closer to Nancy. “You had a hallucination two days ago?” Agent Rourke pushed his plate to the side, as did Ginn and Swanson. “You should have mentioned that sooner.”

“Well, it didn’t strike me as being a hallucination until just now.” Nancy smiled and gave Agent Rourke an odd little wave. “And since Ralph shared it with me, I just assumed the man was real.”

Turning to face Cheryl, Agent Rourke asked, “Did you hallucinate any people?”

“No, just furniture and flooring mostly.”

“How about you, Mr. Moretz?”

Troy shook his head. Then he glanced at Cheryl and laughed. “Unless that Hawaiian woman we talked to was a hallucination.”

“That was my hallucination!” Nancy exclaimed. “Only my Hawaiian was a man!”

“What makes you think this Hawaiian man was a hallucination?” Agent Rourke pushed his chair from the table.

“He was Hawaiian.” Nancy spread both her hands, shoving them in Agent Rourke’s direction. “There aren’t any Hawaiians in Hibriten.”

“You say he was down at the boat dock?”

“Yes. Ralph always wants to go down to the lake and look at the boats. He loves boats .”

“What was he doing down at the dock?” Agent Rourke stood up and nudged Agent Swanson to his feet.

“At the time, I thought he was cleaning boats or maybe repairing them for people. He was carrying this big covered bucket in one hand and a large tool box in his other hand.”

“Did you speak to him?” After Agent Rourke asked this question, he turned to Agent Swanson and mumbled something into his ear. Immediately, Swanson hurried out.

“Oh, yes. He was awfully friendly.” Nancy paused to watch Agent Swanson leave. Then she glanced at his plate and seemed satisfied that it was empty. “We talked about how low the lake level was, and how he admired the layout of Cedar Run. Then he talked to Ralph for a long time about fishing.”

“Did he do or say anything that might have been suspicious? Looking back. Try to not think about how friendly he was.” Agent Rourke pulled up a chair and sat close to Nancy.

“No. He was just friendly. Not in a suspicious way, either. Acted like he would be happy to chat with me all afternoon long. I halfway expected him to offer to go fishing with Ralph.”

From across the table, Agent Ginn asked, “Did you notice any unusual odors when you talked to the man?”

Raising three fingers to her cheek, Nancy strained to remember. “He did have a sweet smell, now that you mention it. Reminded me of a cantaloupe.”

“Did you happen to notice what kind of car he left in?” Agent Rourke leaned an elbow on the table and tapped a finger next to Nancy’s hand

“No, but that’s another reason I think he might have been a hallucination. Because when he said he had to go, I turned my attention away from him for just a second because Ralph got over too close to the edge of the dock, and I had to pull him back. In the five or six seconds I took to get Ralph situated, the Hawaiian man was gone. And he was a big fellow too. Wearing a black shirt with bright red peonies all over it. Hard to miss. But when I looked over in the direction where I thought he’d be, he wasn’t there.”

For a couple of moments, Agent Rourke studied Nancy’s face. Then he turned to Agent Ginn. “Why don’t you stay here with Mrs. Muir and go over her encounter again, slower. See if more details surface.”

Circling around the table to where Cheryl and Troy say, Agent Rourke pointed toward the front door. “Do you feel up to inspecting the crime scene?”

Cheryl stood up but then leaned over the table in Nancy’s direction. “Do you want me to help you clean up?”

Nancy held her hand over her head and waved Cheryl away. “No. If I feel overwhelmed by six plates, I’ll ask Agent Ginn to help.”

With an authority that nobody questioned, Agent Rourke wedged through the crowd standing in front of Cheryl’s house. Not pausing, he ducked under the police tape and lifted it for Cheryl and Troy. Cheryl made a point out of not looking any of the strangers in the eye. Their curiosity in her and Troy made her feel crusty and sluggish. Confronting the acrid stench of her burned house, Cheryl clutched at Troy’s elbow. Tears came to her eyes, but she wasn’t sure if it was from a sense of loss or simply from the suffocating odor. A firefighter came over to Cheryl and Troy, carrying two pairs of boots. At first, Cheryl thought she’d have to remove her shoes. Thankfully, the night before, she’d switched from her heels to a pair of deck shoes. She thought if too much activity cranked up at Nadine’s house, she’d want to be wearing a pair of shoes that would give her the traction she needed to jump through a window if need be. When the fireman saw her starting to remove her shoes, he shook his head and told her to put the boots on over her shoes. It’s probably help the boots fit better.

After Troy and Agent Rourke got their boots on, they walked to the edge of the foundation. When Agent Rourke had told them that nothing was left of the house, Cheryl had only partially understood what he meant. Not even cinderblocks were left. However, the dirt walls of the foundation didn’t show any signs of scorching or high pressure water erosion. And as Agent Rourke had mentioned, only a very shallow layer of ashes covered the bottom of the crater. To be the scene of a devastating fire, it struck Cheryl as terribly incomplete.

“It doesn’t look like much of a fire was even here,” Cheryl said.

“But it smells like it.” Troy eased closer to the edge of the crater and looked down.

“The pieces don’t fit together. I admit that.” Agent Rourke moved closer to Troy. “Do you see something?”

“Total destruction.” Troy rested his hand on top of his head.

“The closest I’ve ever seen.” Agent Rourke paced between Troy and Cheryl, his gaze plowing through the ashes.

When Troy followed Agent Rourke, Cheryl discovered that her feet didn’t want to do the circuit of the destruction. The smell was getting too strong for her. She thought if she didn’t get away from it, she might lose the lunch that Nancy had provided for her. In fact, she realized that she preferred the raucous serenity of Nancy’s house to the slightly smoky hole of the crime scene. As casually as possible, hoping not to catch the spectators’ attention, Cheryl drifted back toward her front yard. She worried how she would push herself through the throng of spectators then felt a glow of gratitude when she saw Agent Swanson emerging from the crowd and dipping under the police tape. Hurrying to catch him before he circled on the other side of the crater to join Agent Rourke and Troy, Cheryl clomped across the cement of her driveway. As soon as he heard her approach, he turned to face her and waited.

“Why don’t you wait here while I go get Agent Rourke and your husband.” Agent Swanson couldn’t repress a grin after he took a closer look at Cheryl’s boots.

“Did you see a fireman around here?” Cheryl asked. “These boots belong to him.”

“I did see one a second ago. He had to go over to his truck for something. He should be back in a minute.” Agent Swanson led Cheryl to the farthest corner of her driveway.

From this spot, Cheryl could see the back of their house and the patio where she and Troy ate supper the night before. The memory made her slightly nauseous. How close they were to just going for a boat ride then spending the rest of the evening at home. Some sadistic impulse allowed Cheryl to wonder what the fire that disintegrated tile and marble would have done to skin and bones. Less concerned about the stares of the crowd at the bottom of her driveway than the distress caused by the sight of her patio, Cheryl clomped down toward the yellow tape. Once she got close enough to the crowd to see one of the fire trucks, she stopped to take off the boots. Her foot came out surprisingly easy, but she had to reach inside the boot to pry out her shoe. She had trouble finding a place where she could get a good grip on her shoe, and for several minutes, she struggled with the boot.

A movement in the crowd twenty feet to her left caught her eye. A body clothed in camouflage army fatigues had moved up against the tape. Half consciously, Cheryl recognized the body as female, the curves were clearly female—and much larger than average. Still not making a definite connection, Cheryl looked up at the woman’s face, but it was obscured by a floppy fatigue hat and large sunglasses. Then, while Cheryl continued to stare at the woman, someone in the crowd jostled her, and a long strand of blue-black hair fell across the woman’s cheek.

Involuntarily, Cheryl crouched, hoping the woman wouldn’t notice her. As far as Cheryl could tell, the Hawaiian woman was engrossed in the destruction. Pretending to have more trouble removing her shoe from the boot, Cheryl glanced anxiously toward the far side of her house’s crater. Much to her relief, she saw that Agent Swanson was herding Troy and Agent Rourke fairly quickly in her direction. As she watched their approach, she realized that they seemed in a serious hurry.

“Do you need some help?” Troy got to Cheryl first because the two agents had paused to share what appeared to be some intense information.

After a quick glance at the Hawaiian woman, Cheryl grabbed Troy’s arm and hopped around as if she had no idea how to remove her second boot. She wasn’t sure, but she thought the Hawaiian woman might actually be listening to what she was saying to Troy. “I cannot pull my foot out of this other boot, Troy.” Cheryl spoke as loudly as she could. “I need you to hold me around the waist while one of the agents pulls the boot off.” She tugged Troy toward the two agents.

Continuing to hop, Cheryl tried, as nonchalantly as possible to get her back toward the Hawaiian woman. Then she got Troy to hold her waist. Continuing to speak loudly, she told Agent Swanson to pull on her boot. “Agent Rourke, you need to stand next to me and help Troy keep me from falling on my butt.” As soon as Agent Swanson began pulling, Cheryl leaned against Agent Rourke and told him that the Hawaiian woman was there, probably watching them.

“What’s she wearing?” Agent Rourke gestured to Agent Swanson.

“She’s hard to miss. She’s got on camouflage. One of those floppy army hats. And dark sunglasses.”

As soon as the boot came off, Agent Rourke made a big display of patting Cheryl on the shoulder. Then he collected both of her boots and started down the driveway as if on his way to the fire truck. Just as he reached the police tape, the Hawaiian woman took a step back and disappeared into the crowd. Agent Swanson bolted after her, leaving Cheryl and Troy alone in their driveway.

“What was that all about?” Troy asked steadying himself with one hand on Cheryl’s shoulder as he wiggled off first one boot then the other .

“I saw the Hawaiian woman from your office,” Cheryl replied. “She was standing right down there.”

“Well, something is going on because when Swanson came to get me and Rourke, he pulled him off to one side, and I got the idea that they found something down at the dock.” Troy stooped over and massaged his calves.

“Didn’t you ask them what it was?”

“I didn’t have the chance, Swanson was in such a lather to get Rourke down to the dock that they almost forgot to bring me along.”

Just as Cheryl was about to suggest that she and Troy return to Nancy’s, Agent Swanson pushed his way through the crowd and hurried back up the driveway to her and Troy. “She got away, but Ginn was close enough to her vehicle to get the license number. He’s running it right now.”

“What did you find down at the boat dock, Agent Swanson?” Cheryl picked up her boots but kept her eyes on the agent.

“Agent Rourke said I should let you know since we’re now pretty certain that you and your husband are targets.” Agent Swanson took Cheryl’s boots from her and positioned himself between her and Troy. “Keep this to yourselves for the time being, but I did find an explosive device on your boat.”

“They put a bomb on our boat?” Troy clutched his boots to his chest.

At that moment, Agent Ginn rushed up the driveway to join his partner. “The owner of the car is Preston Loomis.” He turned to Cheryl and Troy. “Didn’t you mention the Loomises during our interviews?”

“We were practically in their back yard this morning.” Cheryl clamped her hand around Agent Ginn’s elbow. “They live right across the field behind Nadine’s house.”

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