An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
Phone calls at three a.m. Never a good thing.
"Got it." Tucker's voice was groggy. He groped for his cell phone.
"Land line," Elliot mumbled, pulling the pillow over his head. One of the perks of academia. The three a.m. phone calls were no longer for him.
Tucker swore, dropped his cell and knocked the phone receiver off the hook. The mattress jumped as he lunged for it, and Elliot moaned.
"Sorry." Tucker grabbed the receiver and rasped, "Lance."
Tucker said in a completely different voice, "Say that again?"
Elliot opened his eyes, listening.
What felt like a long silence followed before Tucker said, "We're on our way." He clattered the phone back on the hook and snapped on the bedside lamp. "Elliot. Wake up."
"I'm awake." Elliot was already shoving back the covers. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"We gotta roll."
Elliot's heart pounded in a crazy mix of adrenaline and dread. He tried to read Tucker's face in the blinding blaze of light.
"Your dad is okay." Tucker emphasized the word. "But the house is gone."
Tucker put a hand on Elliot's arm and gripped it. "There was a fire. Your dad got out unhurt. He's fine. But it sounds like the house is going to be a write off."
Shock held Elliot motionless. Tucker had spared him the real fear before it had time to form, but even so. Gone? The house he had grown up in? In some ways, a lot of ways, that house still meant home.
He shook off Tucker's arm, jumping out of bed, barely feeling the jar to his reconstructed knee at the incautious movement. "There's no ferry this time of night."
"I'll sail us across."
Elliot nodded. He didn't trust his voice yet.
Tucker headed for the bathroom and Elliot automatically moved around the room, finding clothes, dressing in jeans and a sweater, forcing himself to concentrate on what he might need later that day once they were across the sound and into Seattle, once this immediate disaster had been met and dealt with.
That was the downside to living on an island. You always had to plan ahead.
Was he going into work today? What would Roland need from him -- beyond the obvious.
Outside the window, it was pitchy black. The silhouette of tall trees coalesced with the still darker night. No sign of dawn yet. The air was damp and chill. It was always a little damp on the island. Elliot shivered.
The bathroom door opened, and Elliot said to Tucker, "Did you actually talk to my dad?"
"No. His neighbor called. What's her name? Mrs. MacGillicudy?"
"MacGillivray. So my dad --"
"He's fine. She said he was still talking to the fire department." Tucker grimaced. "You know your dad. He probably figured he'd wait till a decent hour to break the news to you."
Yeah. True. In fact, knowing Roland, they might not have heard anything about this disaster until Elliot went over there for dinner tomorrow -- or rather, tonight. Though Elliot had been living with Tucker for nearly six months, he still tried to have dinner with his dad every Thursday evening.
Anyway, that explained why the call had come in on the land line and not Elliot's cell phone.
Elliot, already dressed, watched Tucker tug a crisp white shirt over his massive shoulders, and swiftly do up the buttons. He tried to control his impatience. It wasn't like Tucker wasn't moving fast. Anyway, whatever had happened had already happened. Ten minutes, even half an hour wasn't going to make a difference either way.
He was still having trouble absorbing it though. For all his dad's hippy dippy ways, he wasn't a careless person. No smoking in bed, no smoking at all. The house was an old bungalow in the historic Ballard neighborhood, but it was well-kept and carefully maintained. And at three in the morning what were the chances of fire in a lint trap or a cooking mishap?
He took his turn in the bathroom, swiping on antiperspirant, splashing water on his face, shaving, brushing his teeth. He still wasn't sure if he'd be going in to work or not. It was all going to depend on what he found at his dad's.
He walked out of the bathroom. "You ready?"
"Yep." Tucker finished buckling his shoulder holster and pocketed his cell. His day job was FBI agent. He worked out of the Seattle Division. That was where they had met. Elliot had been an FBI agent too before getting shot in the line of duty had permanently sidelined him. Now he taught history at Puget Sound University. He was okay with that. Mostly.
Sunrise was still an hour away when they left the cabin. The Nissan 350Z's headlights picked out clumps of glistening berries, secret messages carved in tree trunks, and the occasional gleam of eyes. Elliot drove swiftly down through the dense and silent woods to the Dorado Bay marina where Tucker moored his sloop in one of the yacht club slips. Tucker still rented an apartment in town -- that was the reality of the hours his job required -- but most nights he traveled by ferry to the island. Luckily he generally left his car on the mainland side.
No one was around as they parked and got out. Even in summer, the peak boating season, not many boats were anchored in the small marina. The sound of their slammed car doors echoed loudly across the empty parking lot.
The pulleys and halyards of the flag pole planted in front of the closed restaurant chimed against the metal like a ghostly ship's bell as they walked past. The breath of the sound rose damp and fishy. Colorless triangles of boating flags flapped desultorily overhead as they walked, soles biting on wet stones, down to the dock and Tucker's sloop, the Bull Fish.
It didn't take long to cast off. They had it down to a routine by now. Elliot, slower on his feet than Tucker, climbed aboard first and started the motor. He watched, the engine gently idling, as Tucker untied the ropes. The water slurped and sucked against the side of the boat, sloshed noisily around the dock. Golden bulbs of kelp bobbed languidly just beneath the green surface
Tucker waited until the stern began to swing away from the dock before finally casting off the bow line and springing onboard. He changed places with Elliot at the helm, and Elliot went down to the little galley to make coffee. Instant coffee, and no cream, but a slug of Irish whisky helped.
He brought a cup of the black, bitter brew to Tucker.
"Thanks," Tucker said. He swallowed a hot mouthful. His eyes were a glint of blue in the pre-dawn gloom. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Elliot summoned a smile. Some people might find their silence odd under the circumstances. But they had both been trained not to speculate, not to waste time and nervous energy on questions no one had the answer to. Tucker had told Elliot everything he knew and that would have to do for now. Just having Tucker here helped.
He turned to study the approaching lights of Ketron island. Spray hit his face, cold, salty, invigorating. He drew in a deep, steadying breath.
They were making good time, doing about fifteen knots. The wind was behind them and it was only about a twenty minute sail anyway.
In the east, dawn had finally arrived like fire curling the edge of black paper, burning the night away.
An unexpectedly hard shove of water hit the prow of the Bull Fish.
"Holy mackerel," Tucker muttered.
Elliot emerged from his own dark thoughts in time to see a gray whale breach surface several yards away and smash down again, sending up a wall of water and foam that rocked the sloop again. He steadied himself on the metal port railing. This was not the deepest part of the sound, averaging only about four hundred and fifty feet, and mid-June was late in the season for grays. They migrated from Alaska to Baja in the early spring.
"That is one big fish," Elliot said.
They looked at each other in the gloom. Elliot saw the gleam of Tucker's smile. His own mouth curved in answer.
* * * * *
The garage was gone. The house had not burned to the ground, but it might as well have. Elliot stared at the charred ruins in the wan light, but it was almost too much to take in. The air was acrid with the stink of smoke and the exhaust of the fleet of still rumbling fire engines. Most of the garden too was gone. The enormous old wisteria was a black, twisted stump. Ash lay like snow on what was left of the rose bushes. The lawn was a muddy, boot-trampled swamp.
He was dimly aware of Tucker's hand on his shoulder, squeezing tight, and he appreciated that wordless offer of support.
Turning from the rubble, he scanned the throng of people -- firefighters poking around the soggy, smoldering ruins of the house and looky-loos doing what they did best, namely getting in the way of everyone else -- until he spotted his father standing with a crowd of neighbors, some of them in bathrobes, some of them dressed for work, all talking animatedly.
Roland wore jeans and the red and gray Beacon bathrobe he'd had since Elliot was a kid. His graying hair was looped back in its usual ponytail, though more haphazardly than usual. He was holding what looked like a small safe.
Roland turned, startled, and came to meet them. "Elliot? What are you doing here?"
They embraced awkwardly, Roland still clutching his portable safe. He was not a tall man, but he was built to last. Sturdy-framed and muscular. Except this morning he seemed to have shrunk, and his clothes and hair smelled of smoke. Elliot's arms locked around him. When he drew back he said, "What do you mean, what am I doing here? Mrs. MacGillivray phoned and said --" His voice cut out. His father looked drawn and, for the first time, old. It was all Elliot could do not to haul him into a hug him again. "What the hell happened?"
Roland shook his head. "Maybe something in the wiring. It's an old house." He drew a deep breath. "Was." He noticed Tucker standing silently by, and managed a weary smile. "Tucker."
Tucker said gruffly, "I'm very glad you're okay, Mr. Mills."
Roland nodded and then shook his head as though words failed him.
"How did you get out?" Elliot asked. He had to force himself to look at the house again. If his father hadn't woken up in time... there wouldn't have been any surviving that. Hell, smoke inhalation killed more people than burns.
"It started in the garage, but luckily the smoke alarms inside the house went off. I had just enough time to pull my pants on, grab my wallet, and find the safe. I went outside and turned on the hose, but..."
But a garden hose against what must have quickly turned into an inferno?
Once again Tucker rested his hand on Elliot's shoulder. Support and solidarity. Not that he didn't expect support from Tucker, just that Tucker had turned out to be more emotionally generous than Elliot had expected.
"What do you need from us?" Tucker asked. "Say the word."
"I should be all right. I've got good insurance," Roland said grimly. "Now's when those bloodsuckers can start earning their premiums."
"The shock must be wearing off," Elliot told Tucker, and the serious line of Tucker's mouth tugged into a half smile.
Elliot watched as firefighters began to expel the water and air from the heavy yellow hoses, preparatory to flattening them out so they could be retracted and folded. The battle was over. Now it was just a matter of mopping up the ruins. No ambulance. No coroner's van. He was deeply thankful, and yet he heard himself saying, expostulating, "You shouldn't have spent time going after that safe. You could have been trapped in there. Every minute counts in a fire."
"Your mother prepared this safe for just such an occasion. No way in hell was I leaving without it."
Elliot's reply was forestalled by the approach of the fire captain, still wearing his yellow helmet and protective gear. "Professor Mills?"
Elliot and Roland's "Yes?" popped out in unison.
The captain was a middle-aged, ruddy-faced man with silvered scars on the right side of his face. His pale eyes moved from Elliot to Roland.
"I'm the homeowner," Roland said.
Roland offered his hand. "I appreciate everything you tried to do here tonight, Captain Burris."
"I wish it had been more. But even if we'd gotten here sooner, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot we could have done."
"Which means what?" Tucker asked before Elliot could.
Burris said to Roland, "Which means that this is off the record, but I think you ought to know that we're calling in arson investigators on this one."
"Arson?" Elliot repeated.
Roland said nothing.
"You think this was arson?"
Burris looked at Elliot. He said simply, "I know it was arson."
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.