Where There's Smoke
Firefighter Jo Woods is struggling to hold onto her job and her sanity. Banished to the backwater town of Mourne Lough, she vows to stop making waves, admit her family's death was an accident, and that the guilt she feels is plain old survivor guilt.
Then she finds the roses and everything changes.
The killer hasn't stopped. He's here. In the same town. Stalking her. And once again, no one believes her.
After seven years of avoiding family and friends, Jo is alone and friendless in a strange town. In order to survive and, more importantly, bring the killer to justice, she must overcome her fears and embrace her new life. And she must do it quickly, because the killer has his sights set on her and he's willing to kill anyone who gets in his way.
Enter Ian "Coop" Cooper, who sets Jo's pulse fluttering and her antenna into overdrive. Does she dare trust him?
One thing Jo is clear about: this killer destroyed her life once before. No way is she going to let him do it again--no matter what it takes.
Death approached, not with a scream but a whimper, as six-year-old Lucy Hamilton's thumb slipped from her mouth. She sat up in bed and peered into the darkness, wondering what had awakened her.
Outside the wind whistled and shrieked, and she shivered as the branches of the old oak tree tapped against her window like brittle knuckles rapping for entry. She reached for her Barbie but found the bed beside her empty.
Taking a deep breath, Lucy slipped from the covers, legs trembling beneath her bright-pink nightdress. Determined not to cry, she held tightly to the mattress with one hand while the other groped shadows until she found the smooth curve of a plastic leg. With a relieved sigh, she clasped the doll to her chest and clambered back into bed.
A loud thump came from the direction of her parents' room and Lucy froze. She heard a cry, quickly muffled, then a thud. She waited, but the sound wasn't repeated. "It's okay, Barbie," she said, her arm tightening around the doll. "There's nothing to be afraid of." She lowered her head, nuzzling the doll's fine blonde hair. The wind eased, silence descending once more over the house. Safe and warm with Barbie to keep her company, Lucy was lulled by its gentle whisper. Her eyelids drooped.
Lucy bolted upright. "Who's there?"
The answer was a laugh--a laugh so cracked that her skin shrank in protest, shrivelling until it felt much too tight for her bones.
Even as she asked the question, Lucy knew it wasn't. She held Barbie close.
The figure advanced and Lucy's nose crinkled in disgust. No, not Mummy either. The bed dipped and a large shadowy face appeared.
Lucy began to cry.
"Ssshhh," the voice soothed, "I won't hurt you."
Lucy didn't believe him. She opened her mouth to scream, but found it blocked when a heavy hand descended.
"I've brought you flowers. Roses. You like roses, don't you?" The voice hardened and the pressure on her mouth increased. "Don't you?"
Terrified, Lucy nodded. She couldn't breathe. Her nose was full of snot, but she couldn't stop crying. Crazed with fear and frantic for air, she struggled to throw her attacker off, but he was too strong, easily subduing her with a forearm across her chest.
"My little birds are usually fast asleep when I visit," he said. "They never get to see my roses, to appreciate the time and effort I put into them. It makes you special. However, it leaves me with a problem."
The forearm on her chest lifted and Lucy heard him fumble in his pocket.
"Luckily, I came prepared."
There was a sweet, sickly scent before the cloth covered her face and the pressure on her mouth eased. Lucy was quick to take advantage. With her voice released, she screamed in shock and pain.
There was no answer. The only sound Lucy heard as darkness reached out to claim her was the unrelenting tapping of the bony limbs on glass and the first faint crackle of fire.
* * * *
Seven years later
Firefighter Jo Woods checked her air gauge: one hundred bar. Not good.
"Gonna be tight," her teammate Dave said as he crested the staircase behind her.
Jo agreed. Turnaround time was ninety bar, but they were close. She could feel it. "Exit'll be quicker."
They stepped into the smoke-filled hallway. Jo dropped to a squat, sinking to the neutral plane below the smoke.
Dave followed suit. "And if we hit a snag?"
"We won't." Retreating wasn't an option. Five-year-old Emma Forbes and her parents were relying on them.
The odds were against them, Jo knew. They had been briefed on entry. Four rooms upstairs--a bathroom and three bedrooms. Chances were they'd have time to search one--two, if they were lucky. She peered up the hallway. It didn't look like the fates were on their side. Visibility was almost zero. For all she knew, her next step would send her hurtling into thin air.
"Move it, Woods."
Jo hoisted the bulky hose, took a deep breath and a leap of faith. Her boot found solid ground. A half-step later, she located the first room. The door was ajar. A quick glance was enough to confirm it was the bathroom. Unlikely the family would be there. They entered, doing a primary search.
There was no time for disappointment. Jo forged ahead, panting and sweating in her heavy fire kit. One down, three to go. The next door was closed tightly, the one beside it open and spewing smoke. She groaned. Can things get any worse? The neutral plane shrank beneath the added smoke.
She waited for Dave to signal retreat. Prepared herself. When he didn't, she moved into place. While he tested the back of the door for heat, she listened to the sound of the fire inside.
She heard the usual mixture of crackles and pops, andâ€¦ Alert, she listened closer. There was something else, something above the fire's normal voice.
Dave was pressing for an answer. Her adrenaline spiked. The noise could be anything--or nothing. It was a judgement call. She gave Dave the thumbs up.
It was a go.
Jo pushed the door open and Dave sent a pulse of water fog into the room. She shut the door, letting the water droplets take effect. They waited a beat then repeated the process.
Time ticked by. Jo tapped Dave's shoulder. "I'll do this one," she shouted. "You do next door."
Dave stared at her, clearly unhappy with splitting up. It wasn't procedure. However, they both knew it was their only option if they wanted to save the family. With a reluctant nod, he moved up the hallway.
Jo checked her air; eighty bar. It would be close.
"Out! Out!" Dave reappeared, voice urgent. "Boss says the building's about to go."
Instinctively, Jo looked up. A useless action. The light on her helmet couldn't penetrate the dense smoke. She assessed their exits--stairs and front bedroom window. Both were accessible--just.
"Out!" Dave said again. He tugged her arm.
All her training told her to leave, but Jo's conscience wouldn't let her. She turned back to the door. Thick fingers of smoke scrabbled over the engraved plaque--Emma's Room. She knew it was hopeless. Yet, she didn't move.
She nodded, but as Dave moved away, she darted through the open doorway.
Darkness engulfed her. A blistering cloud of smoke surrounded her. She ducked lower, the muscles in her thighs protesting. She closed the door against the hose and checked behind it.
Jo refused to be discouraged. Emma hadn't made it this far. That was all. At the back of her mind was the knowledge that children hid from fire. They huddled in the most obscure places, believing that if they couldn't see the fire, then the fire couldn't see them.
She moved farther into the room. Clusters of fiery embers appeared, glowing like bullseyes in the dark. She stamped on those closest, putting them out.
The valves in her facemask clicked in pace with her laboured breathing. Around her, the air seared and crackled. Sweat poured down her brow and into her eyes, making them sting. Jo's hands became her eyes. She searched on, in, under, and behind every piece of furniture she could find. She tossed cleared items out of her way.
She didn't dare look at her air gauge. Although only seconds had passed, Jo knew she was running out of time. She forced herself to slow down, to control her breathing.
She scanned the room for any sign of life. Distorted shapes appeared then disappeared. Smoke was an impenetrable barrier--especially when searching for someone as tiny as a child, yet something drove her on. If there was the slightest chance, she had to take it.
She heard something and moved forward, straining to hear. Was it a moan? A hiss? The noise came again. Jo tilted her head, trying to decipher the sound.
A flicker on the edge of her vision alerted her. She turned. An ominous glow sparked then grew.
Jo stood transfixed as a lake of flames appeared. Dammit. Her desperate efforts must have fanned an ember. One of the bullseyes had re-ignited. The flames leapt, shooting up the walls and across the ceiling.
Time to leave.
As if to confirm her decision, Jo's gauge beeped a warning. The low-pressure whistle sounded. Ten minutes of air left. Fear had a stranglehold on her chest. Her heart accelerated, as did her breathing. At this rate, her air wouldn't last five minutes, never mind ten.
She had to get out and she had to get out now.