Two miles before they got back to Cedar Run Estates, Cheryl could see an unnatural glow in the sky. When everyone was at home in the development and burning lights inside and outside, they could brighten up the sky like a small city. However, Troy had once pointed out to Cheryl that the light was more visible if it had clouds to bounce off. She leaned forward in her seat to inspect the night sky directly overhead. Just as she thought: it was clear. Yet, the glow hovering above Cedar Run Estates was quite obvious even this far away. This glow seemed disturbingly familiar. That’s the only way Cheryl could describe it.
Oddly, perhaps in an effort to keep herself from confronting the fact that her house was burning, Cheryl thought the light resembled the pillar of fire from Exodus. Deep down, she felt dread. She’d grown up in a fundamentalist Baptist church and been taught that bad things happened to good people because they probably weren’t really as good as they seemed. At a tent revival she’d attended when she was twelve or thirteen, the preacher had insisted that even the best people deserved whatever punishment fell on their heads because most people can’t be good without becoming complacent and self-satisfaction was the biggest sin of all.
While Cheryl didn’t really worry about sin the way she used to when she was a child, she had let herself get satisfied with how she and Troy were living. Certainly, their infertility had raised some serious doubts about what their affluence really meant, but they had just started looking into what fertility clinics might offer them. What worried her most was the amount of time she and Troy would have to invest in fertility treatments. Except for trips directly related to business, Troy hadn’t been away from his office since they were married. Dipping into another pool of dread, Cheryl admitted that Troy benefitted from his sterility. That thought wasn’t fair, Cheryl reminded herself. What if they had a child or two and they were driving home not knowing if the children had gotten out of the house safely?
“My God, look at that!” Troy pulled into the entrance to Cedar Run Estates. Even from 500 yards away, the flames dwarfed the entire neighborhood. It was the biggest burning Cheryl had ever seen. The fire had more substance to it than any of the objects it illuminated, the other houses, automobiles, Winnebagos, the five fire trucks with their flashing lights, and especially the people standing in the street. She had watched forest fires on the news, but when a fire burned thousands of acres somewhere in the mountains out west, it had almost been part of the scenery. Here in Cedar Run Estates, any flames not confined to somebody’s grill or fireplace resembled something abnormal or supernatural.
With the crowd in the street and the fire trucks, Troy had to park the car five houses down from their burning home. For a few seconds, he slumped in his seat and stared at the fire. “The whole damn place is blazing.” He glanced at Cheryl. “A house like ours isn’t supposed to incinerate like a mobile home.”
Gradually, Cheryl sensed through the tight windows of Troy’s Mercedes a sound like the ocean. It wasn’t exactly a roar, but it did make her think of waves, a rolling liquid sound. When she shut her eyes, she could still see bright, broad scales of light climbing up the inside of her eyelids. Despite the air conditioning, her face grew warm. She wasn’t sure if she actually felt the heat from the fire or if her blood was about to ignite. “Do you think Betsy got out of the house okay?”
Troy turned off the car then scratched the back of his hand with the key. “We should go find out.”
Three sheriff cars formed a secondary perimeter a hundred feet from the fire trucks. Several deputies moved along a semicircular line, chatting with people in the crowd but keeping them contained. Between the deputies and the fire trucks, a group of six or seven men conferred. Two of the men, Cheryl noticed, kept bringing walkie-talkies up to their ears. “Looks like the people we need to join are over there.” She opened her door and pointed the group out. The air was so warm that Cheryl had to tilt her head back to take a breath. Directly above her house, a cloud of smoke roiled like a modest thunderhead. That was why the fire’s glow could be seen from so far away despite the clear weather. The fire made its own reflective cloud.
“Everything’s burning.” Troy met Cheryl in front of their car and took her hand. “Total loss.”
The rotunda’s stones were sheathed in flame, window frames and molding burning so quickly they didn’t have time to blacken. They seemed to dissolve. Now, the sound of waves flapped in unison with a constant drone that sounded like a jet engine. That noise was punctuated by the snap and hiss of Cheryl’s possessions exploding and melting. Adding a note of transiency to the din of uncontrolled consumption, the fire trucks’ diesel engines growled like grainy conveyor belts. Pumps throbbed, pulverizing the voices of the men plotting to get advantage of the flames. Cheryl hadn’t expected disaster to come so loudly. To call so much public attention to itself. As she and Troy approached one of the deputies, she realized that all of her neighbors had turned their attention to her and Troy.
“We can’t let you get any closer,” the deputy said, raising his palm in their direction. However, his tone was almost cordial.
Troy leaned close to the deputy, resting his hand on the man’s shoulder but still keeping hold of Cheryl’s hand. “It’s our house.”
“When we left earlier this evening, our housekeeper was still in the kitchen.”
Cheryl found herself moving closer to the deputy. “Do you know if she got out before the fire started?”
“I don’t really know.” The deputy looked back at the group of men with the walkie talkies. “A few minutes ago, when I first got here, the fire chief and the sheriff were talking to a woman, but looks like she’s gone now.” Turning sideways so he could get a better view of the men behind him while keeping an eye on Cheryl and Troy, the deputy tilted his head and spoke into the radio on his shoulder.
Unable to hear what the officer was saying, Cheryl let her eyes wander over the crowd bunched together on both sides of her and Troy. She recognized all the faces turned in her direction, but she couldn’t bring herself to wave or even smile. This wasn’t a social event. She’d watched enough detective shows on television to know that she and Troy would be suspects. Yes, they had insurance. But once the investigators went through her and Troy’s financial records, they’d see that their suspects didn’t need to burn down their house to pay their bills.
On the other hand, how well did she know Betsy Sullivan? She’d worked for them eight years. Cheryl had always treated Betsy considerately. Bonuses on her birthday and Christmas. Let her pretty much set her own schedule. In many ways, Cheryl knew Betsy better than she knew Nadine. Standing in the street, watching her house disappear, the heat crisping her forehead and cheeks even this far back, Cheryl tried to put the enchanted décor at Nadine’s into perspective. Which was a worse way to lose a home? In the morning, this fire would be out. All she and Troy could visit would be a very large pile of ashes. At least Nadine could walk through her house in the morning, enjoy a couple of hours with her own furniture before the transformations cranked back up. Was it more satisfying to have a haunted house or a cremated ruin?
Finished with his transmission, the deputy turned back to face Cheryl and Troy. “The sheriff wants to talk to you.” He took a sideways step and motioned for them to follow him.
Troy pulled Cheryl against him as they walked and mumbled in her ear, “Here comes the preliminary interrogation.” When the deputy cast a glace back in their direction, Troy patted Cheryl’s arm.
By the time she had covered the distance to where the group of men stood talking, Cheryl felt the sweat collecting along her spine and down her ribs. This close to the fire, even though they were still seventy yards from her house, the temperature had to be three times hotter than it was back where Troy had parked their car. She could feel her hair turning to frizz. For the first time, she noticed the odors of incineration. Not anything like the scent of frosty morning wood smoke. This smell brought tears to her eyes, a blend of plastic and fabric, paint and stain, documents and photographs. She would have to make a list of all the papers that had to be replaced or cancelled. All the important documents were in a safe, supposedly fire-proof. But it was on the second floor, and Cheryl could tell that the house no longer had a second floor.
“You Mr. Moretz? Troy Moretz?” The sheriff shook Troy’s hand as he clasped Troy’s upper arm.
“Yes, and this is my wife, Cheryl.” Troy slid his arm from Cheryl’s waist up to her shoulder.
“I’m sorry about what’s happened to your house, Mr. Moretz . . .” the sheriff stepped closer so he could stand between Troy and Cheryl and speak without shouting.
“When we left, our housekeeper was still inside . . .” Cheryl hugged herself despite how sweaty she felt.
The sheriff nodded once. “She’s okay. She told us that she had gone to your neighbor’s house to make a phone call. According to her, all the phones in your house quit working, even her cell phone. What’s interesting is that she wanted to use her phone because she claims the power went off in your house.” As he spoke, the sheriff snapped his fingers to get the attention of an older fireman.
Heavy and going gray, the fireman touched his fingers to the square bill of his helmet as he joined the sheriff, Troy, and Cheryl. “It’s a shame to lose a place like this to fire.” The fire chief coughed, glanced down at the ground as if collecting his thoughts. “Your housekeeper assured us nobody else was in the house, no friends or relatives, no kids, no pets.”
“Betsy was the only person at home.” Cheryl thought the fire chief could be the sheriff’s brother. Both of them had wide torsos, chunky hands, and heavy stubble on their flushed cheeks.
“Yeah, we’ve talked to her. What she says about the power going off is consistent with some sort of electrical surge . . .”
“Would that knock out the phones?” Troy wiped sweat from his eyebrows.
“Normally, it wouldn’t. Phones aren’t connected to the house’s power line. And cell phones are even more separate from the house lines, but electricity and electronics have their own rules . . .”
“It’s a whole different world, digital appliances,” the sheriff added.
“But what we have to look into is how fast and furious this fire has burned.” The fire chief shifted his weight to one foot and stroked his stubbled cheek with his knuckles. “I have to tell you, Mr. Moretz, a blaze that moves like this one is suspicious. We’ll have to investigate, and you can be sure that your insurance company’s going to send somebody to poke through the ashes.”
“I’m all for an investigation or two.” Troy cupped the back of his head in his palm and nodded. Then for several seconds, massaging his neck, he stared at his burning house. “We spent close to two years getting this house built. It had a computer brain that was supposed to let us know when a faucet was about to start leaking. It could tell if a fire needed water squirted on it or if the CO2 spray should come on.”
Cheryl remembered when the man from Fire Alarm Security Systems had visited them to talk about the importance of fire detection technology. Back then, they still lived in Cheryl’s childhood home. When they had first made their appointment, Cheryl assumed they would simply get to look at a collection of smoke detectors and heat monitors. She had felt good about their resolve to put smoke detectors in every room and every hallway of their new house. More than anything, they wanted the house to be safe for their children. It was too bad, Cheryl thought, that someone hadn’t come up with an Infertility Alarm System that could be hooked into the fire alarm.
The alarm salesman had brought a video of house fires to emphasize his argument that a luxury home owner should spend as much as he could afford when selecting security for his property and possessions. But as far as Cheryl was concerned, the salesman could have saved his breath and his tape. She still clearly remembered the night that Knox Pritchard’s house had burned. Her mother and father had sat up with her on their front porch through most of the night watching the flames crackling through the windows. Destructive as it had seemed, the Pritchards’s fire couldn’t compare to the way these flames enveloped her house, swelling and stretching like a mountain range trying to be born.
Something about fire on this grand scale suggested to Cheryl that it had to be part of a larger strategy. She didn’t want to make it a religious event, but just the scorching breath of the flames hinted at hell. Even at her most devout as a young girl, she had felt a deep skepticism when confronted with the deepest mysteries of her Baptist training. Now, confronted with the elemental force of fire eating her dream home, Cheryl felt vulnerable. All the money and all the science they had wired into the home security system hadn’t made a bit of difference to this fire. Such uncertainty made Cheryl feel jittery, the same kind of muscle collapsing nervousness she experienced when she skipped breakfast and lunch.
She tugged at Troy’s elbow. “If I don’t sit down, I’m going to pass out.” She leaned heavily against her husband’s arm.
Troy turned to face her and clutched her forearms.
The sheriff slipped to Cheryl’s side and caught her elbow. “We should have made you get out of this heat as soon as you and your husband walked over here.” He pointed to one of Cheryl’s neighbor’s house. “Let’s get you into some air conditioning.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I feel weak in my knees too.” Supporting Cheryl on one side and following the sheriff’s lead, Troy moved her across the street and up the driveway to the house indicated by the sheriff.
Waiting for them in her doorway stood Nancy Muir. Cheryl had sold Nancy this house, but she hadn’t pursued any sort of friendship with her. She was a widow with five grown, married daughters, and her life revolved around the activities of her twelve grandchildren. Nancy Muir was the kind of grandmother who had photo albums on every flat surface in her home, and because she was a professional photographer, she was perpetually working on her next collection of family photographs.
During that first meeting, after five minutes of polite conversation with Nancy, Cheryl began to ache in her jaws and her lower ribcage. From the first time she met Nancy to show her the enchantment of Cedar Run Estates, Cheryl had sincerely wanted to like her. She was one of those older women who exuded energy and wholesomeness, but all she could talk about was grandchildren. Naturally, Cheryl had pointed out all the grandchildren-friendly features of the Cedar Run Community and the homes, particularly the lake, the boats, and the private recreation center.
As they approached Nancy Muir, Cheryl leaned close to the sheriff’s ear and asked, “How did Nancy’s house become your center of operations?”
“She volunteered her facilities.” The sheriff removed his hat and smiled at Nancy.
“Oh, Cheryl, I’m devastated by what’s happened to your beautiful home!” Nancy pulled Cheryl from the sheriff and Troy and led her into a living room with a blue marble floor and cathedral ceiling. “Sit down. Don’t try to be brave and straight when you’re going through this sort of loss.” Nancy planted Cheryl in a white leather chair that looked like a gigantic lily.
As Cheryl sat down, she observed that the leather was marked by faint patterns, a faded, primitive picture of a dog or a horse on one arm, a house on the other arm, and a collection of wavy lines on the seat.
Noticing that Cheryl was studying the marks on her chair, Nancy laughed. “That’s the handiwork of my grandson Peter. The Magic Marker wasn’t supposed to be permanent, but I’ve learned that when they say their ink is washable, they don’t really mean you can clean it. You can wash it all you want and then you can wash it some more the next day and the day after that.”
“Is Betsy here?” Cheryl felt her muscles sag under the influence of the chair’s padding. “The sheriff said she came over here.”
“One of her sons came to pick her up barely five minutes after the sheriff and the fire chief talked to her.” Nancy patted Cheryl’s shoulder. “He acted like he was afraid if she waited around, his mother might still catch fire.”
A small chime of energy vibrated through Cheryl’s chest. She laid her fingers across Nancy’s hand. “Did he act suspicious?”
“Oh, no.” Nancy squeezed Cheryl’s shoulder. “Just concerned. By then, the fire was already roaring. “Anybody who had to look at that fire and think that his mother might have been caught in it would want to get away from it.”
Over the hushed conversation her husband was having with the sheriff, Cheryl detected a roaring in her ears. She wasn’t sure if the noise came from outside or if this was a memory she’d carry around inside her head for the rest of her life. She leaned back, resting her head against the comforting leather, but the motion stirred up a gray fog along the edges of her vision.
Hovering next to her, Nancy immediately recognized the blank expression spreading over Cheryl’s face. “Mr. Moretz, I think your wife is about to pass out.” She grabbed Cheryl’s ankles, lifted her feet up, and slid a coffee table under Cheryl’s heels.
Just having her feet jerked into the air brought Cheryl out of her stupor. “I was feeling lightheaded . . . “
Troy kneeled beside her, patting her hand.
The sheriff moved in behind Nancy. He stooped down to eye level with Cheryl. “You want me to get you an oxygen mask from one of the firefighters? They got a bunch of tanks out there.”
“No, thank you, Sheriff.” Cheryl sat up straighter. “I’m getting enough oxygen. I’m just overcome by oddness.” She leaned against Troy’s shoulder. “Hasn’t it been the oddest day you’ve ever seen?”
“Damned odd!” Troy put his arm around Cheryl’s shoulder.
“I’ll tell you, them boys out there riding the hoses would agree with you.” The sheriff hooked his thumbs in his belt. “They’ve already called the A.T.F. to get an investigator or two up here soon as possible. They want them to see how it’s burning. It’s like some kind of mutant blaze.”
“Is anybody videotaping it?” Troy’s arm grew slack around Cheryl.
At first, the sheriff leaned back as if repulsed by the suggestion, but in a second, he recovered. “Not that I’ve seen. Between fighting the fire and restraining the spectators, we’ve been too busy to document.”
“I filmed some of the fire when the fire trucks first started arriving.” Nancy hurried to a closet in the hallway and came back with a camcorder. “I thought my grandchildren would learn something from watching some of the fire.” She handed the camera to the sheriff. “The battery’s charged. Ready to record.”
The camcorder fit easily in the sheriff’s palm. He held it in front of his stomach and licked his lower lip. “I’m going to be busy with coordinating my deputies . . .”
“Let me do it.” Troy stood up, leaned across Cheryl, and held his hand toward the sheriff. “We had one pretty much like that. I used it for presentations.”
The sheriff gave the camcorder to Troy.
Troy inspected the camera then turned to Nancy. ’Do you have a hotwire for it?”
“It’s in the camera bag . . .”
“Hotwire?” The sheriff cocked his head toward Troy.
“It’s a cable that lets you hook the camera right up to a computer.” Troy glanced around the living room to see if Nancy had a computer.
“That’ll please the A.T.F. boys.”
“Hold on just a minute.” Cheryl rose unsteadily from the chair and grabbed Troy’s arm to steady herself. She firmly intended to keep him from running outside to film their burning house. She knew that when Troy got stressed, he started acting busy. Better than anybody else in the room, even Troy, Cheryl could see the frantic energy just beneath Troy’s determination to spend the rest of the night with Nancy’s camcorder, stumbling over fire hoses and dodging flaming debris. “We need to make some plans.” She glanced at the sheriff, raised her eyebrows, then turned back to Troy. “Unless you have a vine-covered cottage tucked away somewhere I don’t know about, we don’t even have a place to sleep tonight.”
Taking the camera out of Troy’s hand, the sheriff said, “She’s right, Mr. Moretz. You and your wife do have to take care of some basic concerns. Besides, we couldn’t let you expose yourself to the dangers of the fire scene.”
“I’ve got plenty of room here.” Nancy inserted herself between Cheryl and Troy, clamping an arm around each of them. “It’d be senseless for you to even think about going anywhere else. I’ve got spare pajamas, men’s and women’s, three different sizes for you to choose from. Spare toothbrushes. And you’ll be close to all that goes on throughout the night.” Nancy studied Cheryl’s and Troy’s faces.
Uneasily, Cheryl glanced around at all the scrapbooks. But then again, she didn’t feel at all like driving to a motel and even less like plodding through Wal-Mart to buy toiletries and underwear. She could also tell that now Troy was finished with his own form of hysteria, he was beginning to slump with fatigue. Vaguely, Cheryl realized she was so drained that following Nancy’s voice through half a dozen scrapbooks might make the world feel a little more normal.
The next morning at seven o’clock, Nancy woke Cheryl, shaking her arm and insisting, “Cheryl, you and Troy must get up. The sheriff, and the fire chief, and the men from the A.T.F. are in my living room wanting to talk to you.”
Adjusting the silk robe Nancy had suggested that she wear, Cheryl followed Troy into the living room. The sheriff and the fire chief stood, looking very much like two men who had spent the night in smoke and extreme heat. Three men Cheryl hadn’t seen before sat on the couch, drinking coffee.
“Is it out?” Troy had hurried into his clothes after Nancy left the bedroom. But he hadn’t tucked in his shirttail or put on his socks. He rubbed the back of his neck then left his hand there, his elbow pointing toward the ceiling.
“It’s out beyond all reason.” The fire chief shifted his weight from his right leg to his left and drummed his fingers on his thigh. The slight movement released into the room a pungent odor of smoke and sweat.
“What does that mean?” Cheryl thought she detected a slight accusation in the fire chief’s voice. Looks like the investigation has begun, she warned herself. And the three men in the dark suits hadn’t even spoken yet.
The sheriff brushed his chin three times with his fist and stepped closer to Troy and Cheryl, almost as if he didn’t want the three men on the couch to hear him. “Mr. and Mrs. Moretz, about five o’clock this morning, just a few minutes after A.T.F. agents Swanson, Ginn, and Rourke arrived, your house stopped burning.”
“That’s what it was supposed to do, wasn’t it?” Troy asked. “After burning all night and getting sprayed with a few thousand gallons of water, you expected it to go out, didn’t you?”
“I’ve seen all kinds of things at fires.” The fire chief stared at the floor. “But I’ve never seen one just stop. Just go out all at once.” He turned to face the three men on the couch. For a moment, he studied them, his jaw moving side to side. Then he aimed his gaze at Troy and Cheryl. “One minute that fire was burning the way it had burned all night. No sign of diminishing even with its fuel completely gone—as far as I could tell. Then the next minute, gone. No smoldering. Nothing.”
Cheryl took Troy’s hand. “Has it stayed out?”
“We’ve been raking through the ashes for the last two hours.” The fire chief shook his head and took a few steps toward the front door. “It’s like the fire has been out for a month. It’s all dead ashes. Not one ember.”
Before Cheryl or Troy could respond to the fire chief’s obvious puzzlement, the radio on his grimy jacket beeped. Turning his back to everyone in the room, he spoke in a low but hurried voice. Although Cheryl couldn’t make out what he was saying, she could tell from his voice inflection and the way he stroked his cheek that he was hearing something that pushed him from being puzzled to being fully confounded.
Finishing his hushed conversation, the fire chief turned back to face everyone in the room. Then he let his eyes settle on the three A.T.F. agents. As he motioned for the three men to follow him, he spoke to Troy, Cheryl, and the sheriff. “My lieutenant said we need to get outside right now.”
“Has our house started burning again?” Cheryl was certain she didn’t want to see the destruction in full daylight. She took several steps away from the front door.
“Nothing like that.” The fire chief didn’t even look back at Cheryl. But when he got to the door, he paused long enough for Troy, the sheriff, Nancy, and the three agents to collect around him, as if he didn’t want to go outside without company.
Seeing she was about to get left alone, Cheryl hurried to the door. She almost knocked Nancy off of the wooden bench she had climbed onto so she could see over the heads of the men on her front porch. Solid and still, everyone gazed at Cheryl’s house. She wedged herself between Troy and the sheriff. What they stared at was not a charred ruin but an empty lot. A weed covered empty lot with the lacy heads of queen anne’s lace bobbing in the morning breeze. Not only were no signs of a destroyed house visible, the lot looked as if it had never been graded for any sort of construction.
Still not speaking, Cheryl scanned the entire neighborhood, wondering if they had somehow come through the wrong door out of Nancy’s house. Cedar Run Estates hadn’t contained an empty lot in over three years. She caught Troy conducting the same inspection of the neighborhood. Down the street, Cheryl saw their Mercedes. Even with their car as a point of reference, she still couldn’t accept the empty lot. She noticed that all the firemen, soot-coated and fatigued, had formed in a stunned semicircle along the edge of the lot, like an exhausted fence.