Candice M. Hughes, award-winning poet and essayist, is former Poetry Editor for the MHC literary journal. She has authored a wide variety of creative and nonfiction works. Her debut technothriller was Death on a Thin Horse. Her newest novel is Dead Evil, a paranormal thriller with an intriguing romance, from which an excerpt appears below. She is published in The Allegheny Review, The Lyon Review, and Pegasus among others. She is a recipient of the Ida F. Snell Poetry Prize and a Pen Works Honorable Mention for Creative Nonfiction. Other books include the Small Business Rocket Fuel nonfiction series. Candice is founder of a health game company developing games for teens with ADHD, a biotech consultant and professional medical writer. She holds a PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and an MBA in general business management with a focus on strategy and technology innovation.
Thickening smoke and ash cut visibility from twilight to moonless black night as sure as a Nor’easter rolling in from the Atlantic. Detective Gabe Bennett’s radio crackled a three alarm-fire alert a quarter mile from his location. He knew the place well. It was eight houses down from his own. He edged his Ford pick-up truck to the curb as a Ferrara tanker ripped past, racing to his neighbor Rebecca Howland’s flame-ravaged colonial. His boss’ phone was sure to light up what with Rebecca being one of Plymouth, Massachusetts’ last blue bloods, Mayflower pedigree and America’s royalty.
He pulled back onto the road, navigating through the chaos of flashing lights, cruisers and tankers. He’d left work hoping for an early night, but work had found him after all.
He slammed his vehicle to a stop at the curb across the street from the conflagration. Only ten hours ago, the house had been starched white with black shutters. Gabe jammed his Stetson on his head, threw open the door of his truck and stepped out, inhaling searing gases that ripped his lungs raw. Hell. These flames were white-hot. Jumping back, he grabbed a lamp post lining the sidewalk to steady himself. Heat radiated across his fingers from the metal. He’d never seen anything like it, even when his own house burned, back when Darlene had been his wife. He turned his gaze to Rebecca’s driveway, squinting through the glare of red lights and smoke.
With a thud, a black hose slammed down onto the asphalt twenty feet in front of him. The firemen, bundled in full gear, respirators distorting their faces, threaded their way between two fire trucks toward the fire. A few feet farther on, the lead man flipped the lever. An explosion of water arched into the blaze and vaporized. God-damn! He’d never seen that before. The structure shuddered, belching a wall of pure heat that tore across his face, singeing his skin, burning his lips, sucking his breath out.
“Please,” Darlene had said, her white face smeared with ash. The only time she’d ever said “please.”
He shook his head. Jogging around an in-coming black and white, he crossed the street, stepped up onto the curb, balancing on the balls of his feet. Hairs on his neck prickled. Rebecca’s gleaming white Cadillac had been in the driveway this morning. He glanced over noting it remained in place. Maybe she’d gone for a walk. Supposition.
He looked back to the smoke…Rebecca’s life rising to the heavens, everything she was, everything she owned, perhaps even body and soul. Two jets soaked the homes flanking each side of the inferno. Sparks fluttered like seedlings, drifting down and catching on the brim of his hat. He lifted it an inch, scattering ash into the thick, black air.
Gabe glanced northwest toward Town Brook. The stream ran shallow and stony, winding its way down to the ocean three miles below, its descent hidden from his view by shops and houses. He shifted his gaze to Sparrow House, a nondescript, clap-board cottage dotted with miserly windows that happened to be the oldest Puritan house in Plymouth. It stood directly behind Rebecca’s home, and if the wind continued blowing sparks, the flames could jump to the wooden roof of that cottage. Sparrow House would turn into a bonfire, and every cop and firefighter here would get their butts kicked out the door by their chiefs.
Gabe turned back to what had been Rebecca’s house. Her now charred Cadillac leaned sideways in the driveway, metal warped, tires melted, barely recognizable as a car.
The torrent of water flowed over the metal, cooling the flames from white to red. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around his face as protection from the thickening smoke. Inside the dissolving frame of the burning house, a flicker of darker red caught his eye…a barely visible form, a magenta in a deeper red like congealed fire. The shape turned toward him. Rebecca? No, not that silhouette. The breasts too upright. The waist too narrow. Flames roared in his head, the sound pulsing like blood, his sweat-soaked shirt clung to his back. Darlene? Was Darlene still inside? Hands beckoned him. Inside the inferno, a woman danced. Gabe’s throat tightened. His heart pumped double-time.
A dog barked in the night. Dogwood flowers hung in clusters, ghostly white. Sweat trickled down his forehead into his eyes. Darlene needed him. She was still his wife, no matter what they’d shouted at each other this morning. He had to get her out of the fire. He stumbled out of his truck, ran to the front door. The windows revealed quivering flames. He tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around his hand, grabbed the door knob. Flames jumped through the cracks around the door, singeing the hair off his forearm. Sharp, rancid smell. He wanted Darlene. He wanted to smell the lavender soap on her skin.
The back of his shirt jerked. He turned. Darlene, her fingers clutching the damp fabric of his shirt. Blood trickled down her cheek. She wore black panties and a bra. No nightgown. Her skin blazed red with ugly blisters bubbling up. Where to touch? “Gabe, please” she screamed, “your brother’s still in there.” His brother? Why? She didn’t say why. Why was he here now? He glanced at his watch, 12:05 AM…past midnight. How did she get out? Maybe the side door. It didn’t matter. She had made it out alive.
A high-pitched scream barely human ricocheted through the air. He swiveled toward the house. A man’s hand, gold band on the ring finger, smashed through the glass of the front window. Michael? Get him out. He took a step. Another window exploded, spewing glass and heat. He jumped back, grabbed Darlene’s wrist, bare flesh sticky with sweat and ash, and ran. Pulled even with his truck just as the screaming stopped. Why was he…why was Darlene still alive?
Gabe wiped a shaky hand over his eyes. “Get a grip.” He’d seen a woman in the fire. He crossed the street in five strides. The heat prickled his skin, too close. He stepped back. Scanned the flames for the woman, but he’d lost her. Only flames clawing their way to the moon. His mind worked overtime. No one could still be alive inside. No one could survive this blistering heat.
He wiped his hands over his eyes. Too close. He glanced around. Every man focused on the fire. His secret was safe. No one would ask what he’d been doing, running into the fire. After ten years in Plymouth, he’d seen how the cold, biting New England ice and snow froze Yankees heart-deep. At least that’s how he rationalized why so many of them passed their neighbors without a glance.
Two uniformed officers walked alongside the road toward him. Gabe strode toward them. Hearing light footsteps behind him, he turned to face a white haired woman wrapped in a blue cotton cardigan. Adele Roberts. She lived next door, or used to. “Mrs. Roberts, glad to see you’re all right.”
“Oh, I’m fine. I saw smoke and scurried out.” Gnarled fingers gripped the edges of her sweater, twisting it tight. “It’s Rebecca I’m worried about.”
“Have you seen her recently?”
A tear rolled down her cheek, she fumbled for a tissue in her sweater pocket. “She called and invited me for dinner. Scrod, broccoli and ice tea. You know how nice she makes it. But I’d already eaten. So I didn’t go over…why didn’t I go?”
Gabe winced. He hoped Rebecca would prove him wrong. He pulled his notebook out of his jacket pocket. “When did she call you?”
“About an hour ago.”
“Did anyone come in or out of the house after that?”
Mrs. Roberts shook her head slowly. The gesture reminded him of his own grandmother…the way she stared at him as though he had a screw loose when he didn’t get something obvious. “Has she got any relatives nearby?”
“Her niece, Hope, moved back to town last week. She’s a nice girl and a professor, too. She came to see Rebecca all the time. We were so proud of her when her name appeared in the New York Times after she found those cave man bones.” Mrs. Roberts wiped a hand across her cheek. “She helps with police investigations sometimes.”
Gabe nodded, jotting down a few lines. The Chief had mentioned something about a new forensic archeologist arriving. “Have you got a number for her?”
“Oh, yes.” She felt in the pocket of her sweater and extracted a scrap of paper. “She wrote it down for me a few days ago.” Her hand shook as she handed it to Gabe. “Maybe she came and took Rebecca out for dinner. I hope Rebecca is with her.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Roberts. Have you got a friend or relative to stay with? It’s too dangerous here.” Gabe glanced back at the fire. With a sigh, a charred wall collapsed releasing a shower of sparks and sending a crackling wave of heat over his arms and face. Gabe jerked his face away from the stinging hot air. Sensing someone behind him, he turned to see the two blues he’d spotted earlier. “Hey, Jim, can you get Mrs. Roberts somewhere safe?”
A blocky shape lumbered toward him. A few feet away, the bipedal creature raised a thick arm, dragging a bulky helmet off its head, revealing the fire chief. “Tom,” Gabe said, nodding a greeting. “What do you think?”
Tom ran a gloved hand over hair plastered to his head with sweat, leaving streaks of soot on his forehead. “That fire’s not electrical. Weren’t no match neither. Not with this heat. Can’t figure out why there’s not more collateral damage.” He turned back looking toward his men scattered around the flames then looked back at Gabe. “That house went up like a tank full of rocket fuel.”
“So you’ll be investigating?”
“Looks like it. May have to call in the team from the State Fire Marshal’s office.”
“Rebecca Howland’s sister, Constance, drowned a few years back,” Gabe stated.
“And Rebecca’s husband is deceased?”
Tom nodded. “Heart attack. Brother-in-law, Constance’s husband, died in a car accident.”
“Three early deaths in one family.” Gabe rubbed his chin. “Now maybe a fourth. A mite unusual.”
Tom shifted uneasily and looked away. “Some say there’s a Howland curse.”
Gabe jerked his head toward the fire. “I don’t believe in curses or coincidences. What I’m seeing is something that needs looking into.”
“We can look, but I don’t expect we’ll find anything,” Tom said, looking Gabe in the eye. “No one else has. Considering who they are, I’d stay out of it.” Tom pulled his helmet back on and headed back to the fire.
The Howlands. Blue bloods. Plymouth residents since stepping off the Mayflower. His chief had told him their genealogy included Churchill, Nixon, Ford, Bush and Eleanor Roosevelt. All Mayflower blue bloods. All Howlands. Himself, he was a Confederate at heart. Gabe climbed into his truck. If he didn’t speak for the dead, no matter who they were, who would? He couldn’t investigate until the flames died back. He’d wait until the morning. Let them finish hosing down the lot. Drive two blocks home or wait it out here? He settled into the driver’s seat and slipped out his phone. Only one Howland remained in town. He punched in Hope Howland’s number. Yet another one of her family dead, most likely. How would she take it? He owed it to her and to Rebecca to poke around, no matter what Tom said.