Tuesday, August 7, 2007


Title: Judgment Fire
Author: Marilyn Meredith
Publisher: Mundania Press
Date of Release: August 2007

Buy your copy of JUDGMENT FIRE by Marilyn Meredith by clicking here!

Chapter 1

The massive rock barrier of the southern Sierra and its jagged snow-covered pinnacles never failed to inspire Tempe. Normally, the pine, aspen and cedar forest bordering the winding highway calmed and reassured her--until this afternoon.

A face popped into her mind. Someone she hadn't seen or thought of for quite awhile, which added to the apprehension she couldn't shake. Deputy Tempe Crabtree attributed her uneasiness to the fact that her assigned beat, the tiny community of Bear Creek and the surrounding area, would soon be swollen with Memorial Day weekend tourists. Fishermen, swimmers, and water skiers would swarm the banks of Lake Dennison, and visitors in all sorts of vehicles would soon clog the two-lane road to the high country and its many camping sites. Her work load would increase a hundred-fold.

She made a quick pass through Bear Creek and continued upward into the mountains. Her vehicle, a white Blazer with SHERIFF printed in large black letters above the gold county seal on both doors, made her highly visible.

The route followed the river's course and she caught glimpses of it from time to time. Most of the homes and ranches were hidden from view by the thick tangle of wild berry bushes, manzanita, and shadowed woodlands.

Maneuvering the Blazer around a sharp curve, she drew in a quick breath and braked. Fire engulfed the front end of a green mini-van, outlining a person in the front seat. The vehicle was stopped at the side of the road, flames licking at the bordering brush.

Tempe radioed her position and requested assistance before leaping from her vehicle and dashing to the driver's side of the van. She yanked on the handle, but the door wouldn't budge. The cab was filled with smoke. "Get out!"

The driver, a Native American woman in her fifties, faced straight ahead, long fingers gripping the steering wheel. It was Doretha Nightwalker, her silver hair brushed tightly back into a bun. Though Doretha's eyes were open, she didn't seem aware of what was happening.

The windshield and dashboard were melting. Doretha would die if Tempe didn't get her out immediately.

Darting around the van, Tempe leaped the burning brush and reached for the passenger door. After a short struggle, the door opened. "Doretha! You've got to get out now."

The woman didn't react. Tempe scrambled into the front seat. Smoke burned her eyes and the intense heat made breathing difficult.

Tempe yanked the woman’s arm, but Doretha continued to clutch the steering wheel. Flames sneaked through the cracks of the firewall. One by one, Tempe pried Doretha's fingers loose. Grabbing her around the waist, she yanked the slender woman across the seat and pulled her out of the burning vehicle.

One of the van's tires exploded as Tempe dragged Doretha to her Blazer. Opening the passenger door, she hoisted the woman onto the floor of the Blazer. Doretha stared vacantly.

"Doretha, are you hurt?" Tempe spoke loudly, trying to get through to the woman. Another van tire burst. A siren whined in the distance.

Grasping her wrist, Tempe felt Doretha's pulse. Rapid and strong. No cuts or bruises were on her face. Examining her quickly, Tempe found no obvious broken bones. Of course internal injuries were possible.

The siren grew louder. "We'll have help soon, Doretha."

Doretha still didn't respond.

Tempe grabbed her microphone and contacted the dispatcher. "We've got a single vehicle, fully involved. One victim. We need an ambulance."

Long, slender fingers grabbed Tempe's arm. "No, no

ambulance. I'm not hurt." Doretha's voice was deep and raspy.

"You should be checked out by a doctor," Tempe said.

"There's no need."

Tempe shrugged, and picked up the mike. "Cancel the ambulance."

Facing Doretha, Tempe asked, "What happened? Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine. My mind was off somewhere. To tell you the truth, I was thinking about you. All of sudden the car was on fire...I pulled off the road. I don't remember anything after that."

Amazing. "That's strange because you're face popped into my mind just before I turned the corner and discovered your van on fire."

Doretha nodded. "Yes, I thought it was something like that."

Before Tempe could ask what she meant, the fire engine rounded the bend and came to a halt. Captain Roundtree and two volunteers in black-and-yellow turnout gear and helmets leaped out, carrying fire extinguishers and hoses. "I don't think they'll be able to save much," Tempe said.

"No, I realize that. A small sacrifice."

"You do have insurance, don’t you?"

"Oh, yes. My van will be replaced. But I'm relieved to know that this didn't happen because I was out of harmony. That's when most misfortunes occur."

Doretha, a shaman, viewed the world in a unique manner. Tempe first met her while investigating the disappearance and murder of a small child. Doretha was one of several Native Americans who had recently helped Tempe learn more about her own Yanduchi heritage.

Her curiosity piqued, Tempe asked, "Why do you suppose I had you on my mind just before I came upon you? Something psychic?"

Doretha chuckled. "That's one way of putting it I suppose. However, I think there's a simpler explanation. Our paths were intended to cross."

Why? Did Doretha have a specific reason why they were supposed to see each other? Did the shaman have a problem she needed Tempe's help with? Or was it Tempe who needed Doretha?

Before she could ask any questions, Pete Roundtree walked toward her, pulling off his helmet. His round face, black hair and chestnut skin revealed the Yanduchi ancestry he shared with Doretha and Tempe. Tempe had encouraged Pete to go to school to become a fireman. He, in turn, had assisted Tempe's son Blair to become a volunteer fireman. Blair had been accepted by the state university in San Luis Obispo where he planned to major in fire science. As the son of a highway patrolman killed in the line of duty, Blair received some assistance from the state. Ever since her first husband's death, sixteen year's earlier, Tempe had been saving for Blair's education. If more was needed, Hutch, whom she'd married a short time ago, promised to help.

"This van belongs to you, Miss Nightwalker?" Pete asked. Apparently not as upset or sad as Tempe suspected she would be under the circumstances, Doretha smiled. "Yes, Captain Roundtree, and I've only had it two weeks. That's what I get for trading in my perfectly good old car."

"Fire's out, but I'm afraid your van isn’t worth much now. Any idea what started the fire?" Pete scratched behind one of his large ears.

"I'm afraid not."

He turned his attention toward Tempe. "Have you called a tow truck?"

"No, but I'll do that now unless you have other plans, Doretha."

"That sounds sensible to me though I'm not sure how I'll get home."

"Don't worry, I'll take you," Tempe said.

* * *

After instructing the truck driver as to where the burned-out hulk should be taken, Tempe headed back toward Bear Creek with Doretha in the passenger seat. She hoped the Yanduchi woman would talk more about what she'd hinted at earlier.

Before she could bring up the subject, Tempe’s radio crackled with a domestic disturbance call. Jotting the address on her clipboard, she said, "I’m sorry, Doretha, I won't be able to take you home after all. I'll drop you in town so you can call someone from there."

"I wouldn't mind going with you," Doretha said. "Perhaps I could be of some help."

"I'm sure you could, but I can't do that. Domestic calls can be dangerous."

Doretha didn't argue.

Tempe spotted Hutch's old blue-and-white truck waiting at the intersection of the road leading to Bear Creek Chapel where he served as the pastor. "Look," Tempe pointed out, "There's my husband. I'll signal him. He can take you home."

Frowning, Doretha said, "Oh, I don't know. We didn't hit it very well when we were together last. He might not be eager to do me a favor."

Tempe blinked her lights to get Hutch's attention. "Don't worry, he'll be glad to do it." She parked the Blazer. Hutch was already out of the truck and on his way to meet her, the late afternoon breeze ruffling his thick auburn hair. He wore one of his favorite plaid flannel shirts, faded blue jeans, and cowboy boots.

Doretha climbed out of the passenger side, while Tempe hurried toward her husband.

Greeting her with a quick kiss, he asked, "Hey, Tempe, what's going on? His gray eyes twinkled with curiosity.

"Remember Doretha Nightwalker?"

Hutch glanced past Tempe at the woman who had almost reached them. "Of course, but what is she doing..."

"She'll have to explain. She can do that while you're taking her home. Got to dash, I'm on a call." Tempe whirled around and jogged back to the Blazer.

She heard Hutch saying, "How are you, Miss Nightwalker?"

Doretha's answer was lost to Tempe, as she sped away.

The address the dispatcher gave Tempe was on the other side of Bear Creek. Tempe recognized it. She'd been there twice before on a family disturbance call.

Passing through the town, she had to slow down because of the Friday night traffic. The only market was busy. Residents and visitors filled the front lot. Bear Creek Inn had a full house too. All the parking spaces in front of The Saloon and The CafƩ across the street were filled. Though she'd turned on her light bar, she didn't run the siren. A young mother holding a toddler by the hand and a sack of groceries in the other, flashed her a smile while scurrying across the road.

Once she reached the outskirts of town, Tempe sped up. Little traffic was in front of her, all of it was heading the other way--toward Bear Creek: commuters returning home, visitors to the Inn and other tourist attractions higher in the mountains. Folks were already anticipating the coming holiday.

Making a right-hand turn on Aspen Road, Tempe began thinking about the couple she would soon encounter. The husband, Tom Cannata, was a respected leader of the Bear Creek community and a building contractor with plenty of work. Jackie, his wife, belonged to all the women's clubs. Her son from a previous marriage was the same age as Blair.

The first time Tempe dealt with the Cannatas’ problems was about four year's ago, not long after their marriage. They were partying with several other couples on a houseboat in the middle of the lake. Lucky for Jackie, Tempe had been cruising the lake's parking lot after being attracted by angry shouts and screams coming from the boat. The colored lights decorating the roof reflected gaily in the black water.

She’d driven down to the shore line. No sooner had she parked, when a woman toppled from the houseboat into the lake. The people on the boat hollered and yelled, but no one went in after her--and she didn't come up.

Tempe yanked off her shoes, unfastened her belt and tossed it along with her holster and gun into the front seat of the Blazer and dashed into the water. Swimming hard until she reached the boat, she dived where she'd seen the woman disappear.

The first time down, Tempe found nothing. She came up gasping for air. She had a vague remembrance of a blur of white faces and people shouting at her. Diving again, Tempe pulled hard with her arms, going deeper. It was so dark and murky, she couldn't see anything. She swung around, and her fingers touched what felt like a foot. She yanked, felt a leg and a torso. Circling the body with one arm, she swam upward with her other hand, pulling and kicking herself through the water. When she broke the surface, a cheer went up above her.

Gasping for air, she stared at the victim. Even with her tanned face turned ashen, her bleached hair darkened and plastered to her head, Tempe recognized Jackie Cannata.

Arms reached over the side of the boat. Tempe lifted Jackie upward and someone hauled her aboard. Big hands grabbed Tempe under the arms, lifting her into the boat. Voices were raised all around her.

"Wow. That was brave of you, Deputy."

"My, God, Jackie isn't breathing."

"Someone, do something!'

"Get us into shore."

Jackie lay at Tempe's feet, water pooling around the shapely body clad in a brightly colored bikini. Ignoring everyone, Tempe knelt beside the woman. Her fingers pressed against Jackie's neck, she felt a weak, thready pulse. Pushing her head back and pinching her nose, Tempe blew into Jackie's mouth. She did it again.

Jackie gasped, her body arching. Water spewed out of her mouth and Tempe leaned out of the way. Coughing, and gagging, Jackie vomited. From the smell, much of it was alcohol.

Once it was obvious Jackie would be all right despite her surprise midnight swim, the bruise on her cheek and a cut and swollen lip, Tempe stood. "Now, will someone please tell me what this is all about?"

All eyes turned toward Tom Cannata. He flashed a huge smile at Tempe, "I'm afraid I got carried away, Deputy. You know how it is. We were horsing around and it got out of hand."

Tempe glanced at Jackie. "How about you, Mrs. Cannata. Do you want to tell me what happened to you? How’d you get that split lip?"

Jackie's fingers flew to her lip. She looked surprised. "I guess I must have hit something when I fell out of the boat."

"Fell or were you were pushed?" Tempe suggested.

Without looking at her husband, Jackie said, "Oh, my. It was nothing like that. Just as my husband told you, we were just playing around."

"Anyone else want to tell me what happened?"

Tempe was acquainted with most of the party. If there were such a thing as a social set in Bear Creek, all were present. No one made eye contact with Tempe. Some turned away.

"Too bad. Let's get this boat to shore. Mrs. Cannata should be examined by a doctor."

After that, Tempe had been called to the Cannata home three more times when neighbors reported the sounds of fighting. Jackie explained away her bruises as something she'd done to herself due to clumsiness. Tom, always charming and in control, was the perfect host. Jackie's son, Ronnie Keplinger, had been present during Tempe's questioning on one occasion. Though he said nothing, he'd stood in the hallway, with an unreadable expression, his arms crossed.

The Cannata home was at the end of the Aspen Road, a new, two-story, fashioned after an old-time farm house and set off by a rustic, split-rail fence. The sun had disappeared behind the boulder-studded hills though the sky was still bright. Tempe pulled into the driveway behind Tom's silver BMW. As she climbed from the Blazer, she heard a male voice shouting and a woman screaming. Maybe this time there would be enough evidence of violence to arrest Tom whether Jackie wanted to press charges or not.

As she ran up the circular path, the front door banged open and Ronnie burst out onto the porch. Tall and gangly, his head was shaved. An Army issue camouflage shirt gaped open over an olive green T-shirt. Baggy camouflage pants were tucked into combat boots. Ronnie must have been in new phase. Last time Tempe had seen him, his hair was dyed purple, pink and green and combed into spikes.

"They're at it again," he snarled, stomping past her.

Tempe pushed through the door he'd left open and stepped into the foyer. The yelling and screaming came from upstairs though it was obvious the fight had been going on downstairs as well. A ceramic lamp lay shattered on the cream colored carpet of the living room. An antique chair had been overturned.

Grabbing the oak bannister, Tempe took the stairs two at a time. When she reached the landing, she heard the sound of a hand hitting flesh and Jackie cry out in pain.

Tempe swung open the door that she knew led to master bedroom. "Hey! What's going on here?"

1 comment:

Lady Penguin said...

Congratulations on being published!

There was a lot crammed into one chapter.

Best of luck with your sales.