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Authors: Debra Dixon

Playing with Fire

BOOK: Playing with Fire
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Playing with Fire
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

A Loveswept eBook Edition

Copyright © 1996 by Debra Dixon

Excerpt from
All is Fair
by Linda Cajio © 1986 by Linda Cajio.
Excerpt from
Bad to the Bone
by Debra Dixon copyright © 1996 by Debra Dixon.
Excerpt from
Rescuing Diana
by Linda Cajio copyright © 1987 by Linda Cajio.

All Rights Reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

LOVESWEPT and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Playing with Fire
was originally published in paperback by Loveswept, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. in 1996.

Cover design: Dreu Pennington-McNeil

eISBN: 978-0-307-80460-0

www.ReadLoveSwept.com

v3.1

This one’s for Bill—a hero in training

A special thanks to:

Gary D. Newman, Assistant Chief of Fire Investigation—City of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His kindness and generosity made my research a pleasure. Any mistakes regarding arson investigation practice and procedure should be attributed strictly to the author.

And to Cheryl Wolverton and Sharon Knoell, whose E-mails were works of art.

Debra Dixon

viii

As a reader, I can always count on
Loveswept
romances to speak to my heart, to make me laugh and cry, and to keep me on the edge of my seat. Being a part of that tradition has been a dream come true. Where else could I write stories about little boys and bears, ice-skating nuns, ex-Navy SEALs, hit women, and arsonists? And did I mention the psychic archaeologist?

So, happy birthday,
Loveswept!
I hope it’s a real barn burner!

Contents
PROLOGUE

Watch me.

The fire whispered the invitation like one of Maggie St. John’s playmates.

I’ll dance for you.

And from that moment it had her. The ten-year-old was caught in the spell, frozen in the doorway of her upstairs bedroom. Relentless heat rolled over her from below. The alarm screamed above her, and her eyes burned from the smoke that rose and hovered—trapped against the high ceiling of the two-story entryway. But she didn’t move, couldn’t move.

The flames were terrible and beautiful, creeping up the winding staircase, consuming the first step in their path. They were coming for her. All she had to do was wait, and the fire would take her.

Some days Maggie created fire. Most days Maggie dreamed of fire.

And every day she hated it, because she was afraid of it, of what it could do.

Fear began to penetrate the numbness as she sucked
in a breath of the hot, smoky air, almost choking herself. Coughing made her light-headed. She swayed and tightened her hand on the knob of the open bedroom door.

Get out.
The command rang in her head.
Get out!

Maggie dropped to her knees, terrified of the fire, terrified of her fear, ashamed because the flames had paralyzed her. She crawled backward so fast, the carpet burned her knees, but she didn’t get up. The air was better down there. It didn’t hurt so much to breathe.

Blindly she obeyed the voice in her head. By the time she reached the window she desperately wanted out, but her hands were shaking so badly, she couldn’t undo the stubborn latch.

“No! You have to open,” she begged. “Please. Oh please, oh please.”

The latch swung, and she heaved the old warped window up with as much strength as she had in her thin arms. Even so, the opening was barely wide enough for her to squeeze through. By the time she finally collapsed on the front lawn, she was battered and scraped over most of her body. Something was wrong with her ankle, too—from the fall—but she didn’t care. She was out. The fire didn’t get her. She beat it.

In the distance she could hear the siren of the parish’s volunteer fire department and wondered who could have called them so quickly. The light of the flames was just beginning to creep toward the front windows of the big white house. A column of smoke was just beginning to sneak out the raised window.

And that’s when she remembered Sarah.

Maggie’s scream was lost in the wail of the approaching siren.

ONE

Fire was a bitch, no matter the origin. Especially a hospital fire. Arson investigation was automatic. The potential loss of life was too great to ignore any blaze, no matter how small, and everybody wanted instant answers. Beau Grayson was never inclined to give instant answers. That fact, he guessed, would soon irritate a fair number of hospital administrators.

As he studied the burned utility room, water dripped off the ceiling and onto his head. Beau swore softly and stepped aside. He hadn’t bothered to put on his turnout gear or even a helmet. He rarely did. While he delayed, evidence could be eaten away by flames—fingerprints destroyed by heat and smoke and water; the scene trampled by firefighters battling an enemy that took no prisoners.

And, unfortunately, there was little real need for protective gear. By the time an arson investigator arrived on the scene, the fire and the firefighters had done the damage. Ordinarily, all that remained were the whispers, rumors, bystanders, and damn little evidence. This scene
was no different. Not that he had expected anything more. Arson investigation was a war waged as much with intuition and past experience as with hard fact.

Knowing that, Beau scanned the room, looking for the unusual, letting the fire tell its story. There was always a story. All he had to do was pay attention. That was his stock in trade—the little details.

The back wall was scorched but not blackened and charred. The neatly folded, once-white linens were now a soggy mess of half-burnt gray rags, some of them hanging haphazardly off the metal shelving. A mop was stashed by the door in a bucket that had begun to melt into a piece of modern art sculpture. But it was the skeleton of a canvas bin that pointed him toward his answer. The bin had been shoved aside from the pressure of the water trained on it to put out the blaze. Centered in an outline left by the bin’s metal frame was a darkly charred patch of linoleum-covered floor.

Bingo.

He had his point of origin. The fire started in the hamper, probably burned through the linens to the floor, eating away at the fabric, smoldering, and maybe running out of oxygen. Until someone opened the door and pulled air through the room.

That’s what intrigued him. Someone had been right here when the fire flashed. Heroes always got his attention. Especially heroes who discovered small fires before they had a chance to do much damage.

“Yo, Beau!”

The shout broke his concentration, forcing him to turn.

Ron Morris was a big man, made impossibly bigger
by the soot-covered yellow turnout coat that flapped open. He was the kind of fire-eating lieutenant who was first in and last out of every blaze. “I scrounged up the woman who discovered the fire. They decided to check her out in emergency. She sucked some smoke. Nothing serious.”

“Nothing short of asphyxiation is serious to you.”

Ron shrugged. “
Dead
is serious. Everything else is just a minor inconvenience. Or don’t you remember?”

“I remember.” Beau remembered a lot of things he’d rather forget. “But when I said that, I was young and immortal. Things change.”

“Not much. You’re still immortal. You’re still the Iceman.” The words were unexpectedly hard and edged with an old rivalry. “Nobody took a fire the way you did.”

“Except you,” Beau noted wryly.

“Somebody had to back you up.”

“What’s your excuse now?”

“Somebody has to show you up.”

“Just don’t show up dead. Where’s the woman?”

“Treatment room six. I asked her to wait. Maggie St. John is real easy on the eyes, but hard on the ego.”

“Shoot you down?”

“In flames. Look, we’re clearing out.” Ron gave him a mock salute as he walked away. “The field is yours. Happy hunting.”

Beau nodded, realizing that’s what he’d become—a hunter. He used to be a hero, a fireman. He was still a firefighter, but most people forgot that. They avoided him now, afraid his questions would implicate them. Even accidental fires created incredible burdens of guilt.
His job was to worry the details, attack the guilt until he uncovered the truth.

When he finished his preliminary examination of the utility room, Beau found no obvious accelerants, no plant to start the fire. All he found was an old and waterlogged cigarette butt in a corner. He slipped it into an evidence bag and wondered if his handy heroine smoked. Only one way to find out. Ask her.

Beau stopped a moment in the depressing gray hallway to get his bearings. Cloister Memorial was old and mammoth with endlessly convoluted corridors from additions through the years. Walls painted the most depressing shade of gray ever mixed had been put up, knocked down, and put up again. But patients didn’t come to Cloister for the amenities or because they wanted to. They came because they had no other place to go.

Oriented, Beau realized the morgue was to his left, and he needed to go right, toward ER. In Baton Rouge, there were no convenient basements in which to stash a morgue. Cloister hid it in the back of the original structure, along with the utility and storage rooms that serviced ER and the outpatient clinic. As Beau walked, his hope of finding more than one witness began to fade.

To have any prayer at multiple witnesses, he needed a well-lit, high traffic corridor. This wasn’t it. At least half the overhead florescent bulbs were out. He suspected people were in and out of this area as quickly as possible. And why not? This was a dark and ugly hallway full of bad memories and musty smells.

But the utility rooms along it provided a perfect place to sneak a smoke. He made a mental note to compile a
list of smokers on the staff of ER, the morgue, and the outpatient clinic. That’d make more than a few people cranky. Seemed like this was his lucky day for making friends.

When he reached ER, Beau had to flash his badge to gain admittance to the treatment rooms. One young nurse offered to walk him down, but he declined. He didn’t want the distraction. Or the attention.

Room 6 was about halfway down on the left. A couple of the other rooms were open, bristling with the quiet, purposeful activity associated with a busy ER. His witness’s door was ajar. The slight opening funneled the sound into the hallway as he approached.

In a social setting stopping at the edge of the door without announcing his presence would have been eavesdropping. In his line of work, it was called evidence gathering. He was comfortable with that distinction, so he propped himself against the wall and tried to sort out the two female voices already deep in conversation.

The first was filled with exasperation. “Thank God you’re okay, but what is it with you? It’s not enough to take potshots at Dr. Bennett on your first day back, but,
Maggie
, you have to go and find a fire too?”

BOOK: Playing with Fire
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