The phone’s sudden peal echoed through the night. Allie Robbins bolted up in bed. The room was dark. So dark, she could see nothing but the bedside clock’s brilliant blue numbers. Two-thirty-two in the morning. Another ring made her mouth go dry. Who could be calling at this hour? No one except her landlord knew she and Caden had moved into this aging, double-wide trailer in central Mississippi.
A third loud ring sent a shiver skittering up her spine. She snatched up the cordless phone.
“ H-hello?” The word stuck in her throat like a wad of cotton.
“ Hello?” She tried to swallow past the lump. “Is someone there?”
“ Just me.” The gravelly voice chewed at her nerves. “I have a surprise for you.”
Oh, God! Tears stung her eyes. It’s him.
“ H-how did you—”
“ Doesn’t matter. Folks are gonna pay ’cause you won’t cooperate.”
“ I’ve told you before—I don’t know where that flash drive is.”
“ And I’ve told you, your scared little girl act isn’t working. You were his wife.”
“ He didn’t share anything about the organization with me.”
“ Bullshit. We want the files on that drive, and we want ’em now,” he growled. “I know you got our other message. Next time, we’ll do a helluva lot more than just overturn a few lamps.”
“ Are you kidding me? You ransacked our trailer.”
“ Had to show what we can do.”
“ You didn’t find the flash drive, did you?” Cold fury entwined itself with the terror stinging her chest. She sat up and gripped the sheet. “Do you know why? Because I don’t have it!”
“ Same song, second verse. Find the flash drive and put it in a bubble mailer in your mailbox. You have until Tuesday afternoon.”
“ Wait—” Allie’s heart skipped a beat. “That’s not enough time. Marshall never told me—”
The line went dead.
Fear squeezed the breath from Allie’s lungs. This was the second time she and Caden had moved since Marshall had been murdered, and each time the stalker had found them.
“ Mama?” Caden’s quivering tone broke the terrifying silence.
She jerked her startled gaze to the door.
Her ten-year-old son stood in the hallway, his eyes wide with uncertainty. “Is everything okay?”
“ Oh, honey.”
She gulped back her fear and dropped the phone into its cradle. She had to stay calm, for Caden. Even though her heart was pounding like a jackhammer. She reached up and turned on the lamp.
“ Come here.”
He padded across the rug. “Who was on the phone?”
“ Nobody. It was a wrong number.”
“ You’re lying.” He drew his brows together. “I heard you. It was about the files again, wasn’t it? The stalker’s found us.”
“ Don’t make up any more stories. I’m not a baby. You have to tell me the truth.”
“ I know you’re not a baby.” She wanted to give him a hug but instinctively held back. He’d grown up so much since Marshall died. He wasn’t a little boy any more. She sat up against the headboard and patted the mattress. “I’m sorry, honey. Come here and let’s talk.”
He chewed his lower lip, and she watched the child inside of him war with his new tough guy persona. Finally, he gave in and sank onto the bed beside her.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “I shouldn’t have lied to you,” she said. “I apologize.”
“ It’s all right.” He met her worried gaze, and she couldn’t help but notice how much his sky blue eyes resembled another intense pair of eyes. His father’s eyes.
A lump rose in her throat. “I’ll be honest with you from now on. I promise.”
“ All I had to do was look at you, and I could tell it was him.”
“ That was very perceptive of you.” Allie dropped her hand.
He stared at the floor.
She took a deep breath. No time like the present to start telling the truth. “Caden, about the break-in on Monday—”
“ That was him, too, wasn’t it?” Her son’s eyes widened. “He’s gonna kill us, just like he killed Dad.”
“ No, he’s not.” She had no choice but to reassure him. She’d gone from wealthy corporate wife to struggling single mom in one deafening blast of gunfire, and Caden had lost the only father he’d ever known. “I’m going to find those files. Somehow.”
“ We’ve searched everywhere. We don’t know any other places to look.” He vaulted off the bed. “I hate Magnolia Springs.”
Allie flinched at the contempt in his tone. “I’ve told you why we moved here.”
“ I know. Dad spent all our money.” Caden shot her a fiery look. “Still, Mom, come on. We could have moved somewhere else.”
“ Magnolia Springs is my home.”
“ Maybe so.” He glared at her. “But I had to leave my friends.”
“ I’m sorry. It couldn’t be helped.”
She wrapped her arms around him and, to her surprise, he didn’t protest. He simply hugged her back. Her heart swelled with love...and fear. She tightened her hold on him. For all his new-found maturity, he was still a little boy. Her little boy. She kissed the top of his head.
“ I’m thinking we should maybe get a dog.”
“ A dog? Really?” Caden pushed away from her, and his eyes lit up. “Can I name him?”
“ Sure.” She smiled. “We’ll go to the animal shelter after school one day soon.”
“ Aw, Mom. Can’t we go today?”
“ It’s Sunday.” She tousled his hair. “The shelter’s not open.”
“ Oh, yeah.” His face fell.
She smiled. “Meanwhile, I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe. I promise.”
“ Okay,” he said, looking serious and very grown up. “I’ll keep you safe, too.”
“ Thank you.” She touched his cheek. “You’re my hero, you know?”
“ Yeah, right.” He turned away and tried to hide his wry grin. Then he abruptly sobered. “You think he’s gonna call back?”
“ Not tonight,” she said, trying to convince herself as well as her son. The caller hadn’t threatened bodily harm. But if she didn’t find those files…
Caden nodded. “Okay. I’m going back to bed. Wake me if anything else happens.”
“ I will, honey,” she said, hoping she wouldn’t have to keep that promise.
He turned away, and her eyes misted. Thanks to Marshall’s involvement with that damned paramilitary group, her son was in danger. Her heart ached at the thought.
A loud boom echoed from somewhere in the distance. She caught her breath.
Folks are gonna pay because you won’t cooperate.
The stalker’s words rang like warning bells inside her head. She hurried to the window and peered past the tall pines standing like silent sentinels along the fence. A strange orange glow lit the sky beyond them.
Oh, God. A cold chill iced her skin. He’d followed through on his promise. The idea that the group might have hurt someone else to prove their point disturbed her on a visceral level, yet it also galvanized her defenses. No way would she let them hurt Caden. Ever.
He was her world.
* * * *
Rayford’s black heart filled with glee as he watched swirling gray smoke and ash float up into the star-flecked night sky. He loved fire. Loved watching it lick at brick and wood, turning mundane structures into flaming works of art. Loved the way it suffocated the unsuspecting and dashed the hopes of folks trying to save their precious belongings. Fire, fierce and powerful, provided the ultimate cleansing, ridding the earth of unnecessary scum and buildings that had outlived their usefulness.
That’s why he called himself The Dragon inside his own head, after the vigilant, mythical creatures able to ignite a fire with a single breath. The higher-ups in the organization thought he liked fire a damned sight too much though and believed he was a danger to their carefully laid plans. Their presence in Mississippi was increasing and the General Council feared he might jeopardize their campaign to cleanse the state of undesirables. He laughed.
If they only knew.
His father had always said that tolerance breeds weakness, and he was happy to do all he could to keep his race strong. He’d been carrying out his own purification campaign for years, before the organization ever came into the picture. Never once had he been caught or even suspected of starting a fire and certainly not one in which people died. He was an upstanding, church-going man. A good man, with a wife, two grown children, and a nephew who’d been a Marine. A virtual pillar in his community.
Ha ha. He had the community, his wife—hell, even his badge toting nephew—totally fooled. Not an easy task in anybody’s book. Since the organization had entered the state, his quota of fires had increased, and so had the number of lies he’d told. He had to scramble to keep them all straight. At least now, he was getting paid for his hard work. And setting fires was hard work.
He got very little sleep, had to explain to his wife why he often slipped out of bed in the middle of the night, and still had to show up on time for his day job without letting on that he’d been up all night watching churches burn. Then there was the incessant odor of smoke and sweat that clung to his buzz cut and leached from his pores. He bathed so often now, his water bill had tripled.
Still, so far, so good. Evelyn hadn’t questioned it.
He focused on the inferno before him and smiled grimly.
The flames engulfing the tiny church had finally reached its pristine steeple. A keen sense of justice washed over him as its bright, white paint bubbled up and melted away, leaving a fiery orange spire pointing straight to heaven.
His pulse thrummed with satisfaction. Soon the blaze would eat through the remainder of the roof and the tall steeple would collapse into the ruined sanctuary in a thrilling shower of sparks. That was his favorite part. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Too bad no one was inside the building. That would have made this night even more special.
A loud wail suddenly cut through the roar of the flames. Startled, he jerked himself from his worshipful trance and whirled to see a set of spinning blue bar lights zooming down the road leading to the church. The fucking cops.
His heart rate increased. He had to get moving before they and the volunteer fire department arrived. The Council would leave him to rot if he got his ass thrown in jail.
He stared at the flames for another satisfying moment and then bolted for the trees. He’d left his truck inside a friend’s detached garage about a half mile away, so there would be nothing here tying him to the scene. No tire tracks, no refuse, no footprints. He’d been careful to stay on the thick grass and not leave tracks in the dirt.
As he loped off through the darkness, a sense of accomplishment spread through him.
Another church gone for the cause.
© Melanie Atkins
read of excerpt HERE
Author: Melanie Atkins
Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press
Genre: Romance Suspense
When Allie Robbins broke his heart, Noah Sterling couldn’t leave Magnolia Springs fast enough. He joined the military, then the FBI. Ten years later, a domestic terrorism case forces him to return, only to discover that Allie is now a widowed mother with one young son—and that she's suspected of aiding the group responsible for setting area churches ablaze.
Allie can't believe her eyes. Noah is back in Magnolia Springs, and he’s asking questions. She's not worried about the investigation, because she's innocent. But she's willing to do anything to keep him from asking the one question that could destroy her life--a question about her son.
Then the boy is kidnapped, and she must reveal the truth in order to save him by turning to the one man she can trust—and the only one who can take her son away. Noah. His father.