Why hello, dear reader! Thanks for stopping by to check out my mystery thriller novel, Skyveil. Currently, it is about two months away from completion. I just began it in April, so I feel like this one has practically written itself. You can read the prologue and first two chapters below. Enjoy and let me know what you think or if you have any critiques in the comments!
The body dragged and scraped along the forest floor as white smoke and sparks swirled through branches and rain poured down. If it could be left close enough to the edge of the wildfire and the storm didn’t extinguish the flames too quickly, perhaps it would burn to ash. It may even look like an accidental death.
As it bumped over roots and plowed through fallen leaves and brush soon to be consumed, the body seemed to grow heavier. Pockets of fire began to appear on either side as the night air glowed like a furnace, smoke lit to a simmering orange while the strong winds kept moaning through the forest as if the wildfire was expelling spirits. Maybe just ten more yards—
That would have to be far enough.
“Hello…?” I mumbled, cell phone mashed against my ear as I squinted at my old digital alarm clock on the side table. I wanted to say mature, Godly thoughts were running through my mind at that moment, but they weren’t. It was 4:09 AM. I wasn’t feeling mature, and I was most certainly not feeling Godly.
“Lee? It’s Stephen.”
I jerked into a sitting position, blankets falling away. “What is it?” I said, heart pounding as I scrubbed my hand over my face. The last time I’d heard Sheriff Stephen Alderman, my friend and mentor since I was sixteen, sound this worried, it was my junior year in high school. Principal Hargrove had just pulled me out of fifth period Chemistry with no explanation, and escorted me into his office, where I’d found Stephen waiting for me, blue eyes sharp above his mustache, arms crossed, gun handle and badge flashing.
At that point, I began contemplating all the possible meanings of the term, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Instead of arresting me though, he’d said, “Lee, I need a favor.”
It would be a phrase I’d come to hear a lot.
“We have a situation,” Stephen said, voice terse and overly loud, as if he were pressing his mouth against the microphone and cupping his hand around the bottom of the phone. Now that I was more awake, I noticed the roar of rainfall in the background. It was still raining here too, humming over the tin roof above as it had all night, broken by an occasional crack or roll of thunder. The storm had kept me awake until around 2:45 AM.
One hour of sleep.
I tried not to think about it.
I could also make out a different kind of roar and what sounded like people talking and yelling. I couldn’t be sure, but the roar sounded like…
“Stephen, where are you?”
“Hill Country National Park. Southeast corner.” That was just five miles north of the outskirts of Schoenburg. “There’s a wildfire.”
I was up, phone on speaker and tossed onto my bed as I pulled on my jeans and grabbed a pair of socks. “I’ll be right there—”
“Lee,” he said, and I stopped at his tone. “We’ve got plenty of people here at the forest.”
Confused, it took me half a second to realize the real reason why he’d called. I tensed.
“I hate to do this to you right now, Lee, but I need a favor.” He sounded strained but firm. “There’s someone I need you to question about the wildfire. We think it was arson.”
Feeling the tension radiate up my neck, I hesitated for a fraction of a second, then said, “Understood,” and snapped up my belt from the top of my dresser. At least they already had a suspect. That was good news.
“She’ll be waiting for you at the station.”
She? Arsonists tended to be male. And to get a blaze hot enough to turn into a wildfire in a rain-soaked forest…?
She’d probably used explosives.
“Carter’s with her,” Stephen said.
I grimaced. Deputy Carter Pearson and I had an unfortunate history.
“I was thinkin’ I’d hire you as a consultant,” Stephen continued, “just like old times. The regular fee okay?”
I didn’t want the county to pay me, but it was the only way to make this legal since I was currently on leave. “Of course.”
Stephen hesitated, then said, “You sure you’re in a good place to do this?”
Pain stabbed into my chest. I squeezed my eyes shut, heart pounding again as I fought the raw emotions suddenly rising like acid. Taking a deep breath, I pushed it down. “I’m fine,” I said, slipping on a long-sleeved flannel over my white undershirt. Actually, this was exactly what I needed. Work. A distraction. Something to keep my mind busy.
“I know this would be hard on you even on a good day,” Stephen said. He sounded like he was going to say something else, but didn’t. I could hear him breathing on the other end, waiting for my response. I didn’t know what to say. We both knew I was going to question her regardless of how difficult my current situation would make it, so I didn’t reply.
After a moment, Stephen said, “You know I wouldn’t ask ya’ if it wasn’t an emergency.”
I picked up the phone and took it off speaker, putting it to my ear. “I know.”
I paused. “Yes?”
Neither one of us spoke for a moment.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said, hung up, and slung my gun belt around my hips.
The rain wouldn’t stop.
Usually, in my case, that was a bad thing. But right now I was praying it’d come down even harder.
Lying on a cot, I stared through bars fitted over a square window at the water rushing down in silvery sheets beyond the metal, illuminated by the streetlight outside. The window looked particularly small and lonely, positioned high on the back wall of the holding cell of the County Sheriff Office and Schoenburg Police Department.
This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself falsely accused and stuck in jail. I just had to trust God. Stay positive. Not panic. Focus on the silver lining. It had all worked out the last two times, and I was confident it would again.
Mostly confident. I was working on it.
“Ms. Easton,” said an oily voice from behind me.
I started, then turned my head to see a short, thin young man wearing khaki pants, a matching long-sleeved, button-down shirt, and a black gunbelt with a silver deputy badge pinned to his breast pocket. On the surface, he looked professional, gentile, meek even, but I could see the boiling anger just beneath. Like a slithering mass of snakes twisting over each other under a blanket in a dark room.
I always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, but Deputy Carter Pearson had creeped me out from the moment he’d arrived at the Forest Ranger Station. Within seconds, he’d volunteered to drive me here to await Sheriff Alderman’s questioning instead of staying to fight the fire. The entire ten minute drive had been nails-on-chalkboard dead air. I’m a talker for sure, but even I’d been unable to find anything to break that silence.
Part of me wondered if it had to do with that blog post and subsequent interview I gave six months ago about Eric, my best friend since the sixth grade.
My eyes burned, but I blinked the feeling away.
Everything still reminded me of him, but the pain felt like a ghost inside of me now, a sort of echo of a grief the Lord had helped me work through over the past three weeks to the point of scarring over. But sometimes, like right now, I was certain a little fresh blood had seeped out.
The pain only served to strengthen my resolve. I wasn’t apologizing for what I’d said. I’d meant every word and didn’t care who hated me for it. I’d say it again. I’d paint the sky with it.
“Hey, Deputy Pearson,” I said in an attempt at friendliness. “What’s up?”
His mouth twisted. “It’s time for your questioning,” he said, opening the cell door. I noticed his hands were shaking. I wondered if it was because of the events of this morning with the wildfire, or something else.
“You can call me Remmy, you know,” I said as I stood and walked up to him, trying again to ease the animosity there.
Holding the door open for me, he ignored me as his deep set eyes glittered like black marbles. He looked to be a few years older than me and had intense dark brown eyes and brown hair combed over to the side in a severe, gelled part. Bony and about an inch shorter than my five foot nine, I felt bad for him because of it. With a better haircut and the right clothes, he could’ve been good looking in a kind of goth way if he wasn’t so obviously bitter and insecure, carrying around rejection in his face and demeanor like a small dog throws around its yippy bark and tiny-toothed bite.
Maybe that was a harsh judgment, but it made me feel sorry for him more than anything else.
“Would you like to add anything to your…” it was subtle, but it looked like the twist of his lips curved into the hint of a smirk “…statement before the questioning begins?”
The way he’d said statement made me unsettled. Like it was a trap of some kind, though I couldn’t imagine how that could be. I’d done nothing wrong and once again the evidence would prove it, so the first thing I’d done when I’d arrived here, was write and sign a detailed statement. I had nothing to hide. I’d also decided not to call anyone yet, not Henry Ellingsworth, my lawyer, or even Quentin Blake, my agent. I’d arrived here at 4:05 in the morning. No one wanted a phone call at 4:05 AM, especially Quentin. Henry lived in York City, New York, but Quentin lived on the west coast in Los Iglesias, and California was two hours behind Texas so it had been 2:05 AM there—even worse. The man got too little sleep as it was. And I stressed him out too much as it was. Especially after that interview.
So I would wait and see how the questioning with the sheriff went. I was assuming it would be unpleasant, like all the other times I’d been questioned or interrogated. But I wasn’t worried about it. The real thing that had me jumpy was the fact that the “incident” had occurred within the borders of a forested national park. The location made my predicament much worse. Not only was this what I’d been investigated and temporarily incarcerated for before, but this time, because it had happened on land owned by the government, if I was convicted…
Arson would be a federal offense.
The door of the small interrogation room swung open, rattling the blinds against the door window, and a tall man, strong and broad-shouldered but whip-thin and lean like a swimmer, stepped inside, muddy cowboy boots banging against the wooden floor with his heavy footsteps. A brown leather western gun belt that made think of old John Wayne movies looped low around his hips, but he wore no badge, which I thought was odd. He looked young, maybe in his mid-twenties like me and it made me wonder how he’d become a sheriff so quickly. Despite his youthful appearance, his face was haggard, bags under his eyes, sandy blonde hair matted, probably from the drenched western hat I’d seen him wearing earlier when Deputy Pearson had escorted me in here. The shoulders of his thin flannel were dark with rainwater, shirttails hastily tucked into belted wranglers, which look loose on him. Everything was wrinkled. He looked like he’d just rolled out of bed. And probably had. According to the clock above the door, it was 4:27 AM.
Without looking at me, he blindly closed the door behind him, pinched the bridge of his nose as if to center himself, sighed, and held up a folder in front of his face filled with papers haphazardly stuffed inside. Squinting at it, his forehead wrinkled and he flicked the folder down, looking at me over the papers. “Your name is Remington?” he asked, surprised.
Yes, I shared my name with a gun and a fictional con man played by Pierce Brosnan in that old 80’s TV show, Remington Steele. When I’d asked my parents where my name came from, I’d received two very different answers. My dad, an avid hunter originally from Ontario, Canada, had said immediately that he’d named me after Eliphalet Remington, the man who founded the Remington Arms Company.
After hearing that I was just grateful he hadn’t given me the man’s first name.
My mom’s answer—or rather, non-answer—had been more mysterious. Her answer was always the same. A funny little smile and a shrug.
I was fairly certain my mom was in love with Pierce Brosnan.
At least the sheriff’s surprise at my name meant he hadn’t googled me yet. “Yes,” I said, waiting for the inevitable gun or fictional character remark. Surprisingly, it didn’t come.
“Hm,” was all he said. Popping the folder back up, he kept reading. Shuffling through the papers, he stepped forward and hooked a foot around the leg of the lone chair across the table from me, deftly pulling it out without looking at it before sitting down with a surprising amount of grace. After lowering the folder to the table, he kept reading, occasionally mumbling or rubbing his forehead, one elbow on the table, head propped up by a fist.
“You can call me Remmy though,” I said.
Without pausing or looking up he said, “Mm,” and the chair creaked as he adjusted his position.
“So do I just call you ‘sheriff’ then?” It came out as sarcastic, but I couldn’t help it. He hadn’t even introduced himself yet, and at this point it felt like he was just ignoring me.
He looked up, startled. “What?”
“Aren’t you Sheriff Alderman?”
“No.” He cocked a thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “Didn’t Deputy Pearson inform you? Sheriff Alderman is at the forest fire with the rest of the Deputies, police force and fire department, the NPS, and anyone else they could wake to try and extinguish the blaze before it spreads any further.”
He sounded tired and a little angry.
With me, I supposed. Maybe he had googled me.
He rubbed an eye. “I’m Lee Erikson from the Company F Division of the Texas Rangers, here from Welman as a consultant, and I will be conducting your questioning until the sheriff returns.”
“You’re a Texas Ranger?” I said, shocked and pleased. I’d never met a Ranger before and not being a Texas native, I was instantly intrigued. “As in—” I pretended to fire at him with finger guns accompanied by, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Then I blew invisible smoke from each “barrel,” “holstered” them, and grinned. I wasn’t trying to make fun of him, just break the tension and formality.
Lee’s eyes were still sleep deprived, but right now they were flint. Maybe he wasn’t in a joking mood. He didn’t say anything defensive though, which I respected, so I jumped in with another question. “Where’s your badge?”
“I’m on leave.”
Something like pain flashed across his face, but it was gone so quickly I wasn’t sure if I’d gauged his expression correctly. “Personal reasons. Now Ms. Easton—”
“How did you become a Ranger so young?”
One side of his mouth pulled down slightly. “I’m older than I look.”
There was something about the way he said it that made me think he got teased for this. “What are the requirements then?”
His eyelids lowered in outright annoyance for the first time, and he said, “You have to be in excellent physical condition and have an outstanding record of at least eight years experience with a bona fide law enforcement agency, engaged primarily in the investigation of major crimes.” It sounded memorized.
As Lee spoke I noticed his lip color stood out against his deeply tanned skin. On him it didn’t look feminine, just defined. They were almost a coral shade, surrounded by light blonde stubble. He’d probably rushed over here without shaving.
“Is that all?” I said, an eyebrow raised. Despite my sardonic response, I was impressed.
“No,” he said, but didn’t take the bait.
“I’m assuming you have to be male too,” I muttered, already mad at the answer I was about to receive. I liked Texas so far, even if they were a little too proud of themselves, but there were other flaws in their rural culture I wasn’t particularly fond of.
“The first woman to serve as a Texas Ranger joined in 1993,” Lee said, holding out and emphasizing the syllables of the year.
Pleasantly surprised and admittedly chastised about my assumption, I jumped to another question even though he’d been about to say something. “So what did you do for the eight years experience?”
“Texas State Trooper,” he answered immediately, as if just to get me to stop talking, then said, “Ms. Easton—”
“Why were you already in Schoenburg?” Now I was consistently interrupting him, but I couldn’t help myself. As an extrovert, the last three weeks of nothing but solitude and silence out in the forest had nearly driven me crazy. While it had strengthened my relationship with God, giving me hours upon hours to talk to Him and find the healing I so desperately needed after everything that had happened with Eric, I was absolutely starved for human conversation and interaction. Lee just so happened to be the one who’d crossed my path.
Also, he was extremely intriguing, whether he was aware of that or not. What was a Texas Ranger doing in a little town like Schoenburg?
“Welman’s hours away,” I continued, “and I only just got to the station twenty minutes ago.”
Instead of answering, Lee closed the manila folder with a snap, leaving several pages sticking out all over the place. It made me want to reach over and shake them into order, tapping the folder against the table until all the papers were invisible.
Seeing that I was looking at the folder, Lee slid it aside and leaned forward, setting his forearms on the metal table and clasping his hands, truly looking at me for the first time.
I mirrored his movements as a sort of challenge.
His eyes bored into mine, unmoving, unflinching. It felt like he was looking at my soul. It only strengthened my resolve to stare back with the same intensity. The moment stretched on but I refused to look away or blink. In fact, I didn’t know if I could have looked away even if I’d wanted to.
His gaze appeared to deepen even more and he asked, “Did you voluntarily or involuntarily start the fire that occurred this morning in the Hill Country National Park?”
Surprised only for a moment at his cut-to-the-chase start to the questioning, plus the oddly specific delivery, I retained eye contact and said, “No.” I’d involuntarily caused the circumstances that led to the fire…but I hadn’t started it.
“In the Hill Country National Park,” Lee said, “did three instantaneous lightning strikes hit three trees in a circle around your campsite within an approximate radius of 100 yards, causing them to explode, which started the fire?”
It was what I’d reported in detail in my statement. Because that’s exactly what had happened. “Yes,” I said.
A flicker of something I couldn’t decipher flashed in his eyes. “Is every detail you wrote in your statement this morning true and nothing but the truth?”
I continued to stare at his eyes. He stared back, both of us not blinking, but I noticed the blood drain from his face.
Finally, after what seemed like a whole minute but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, Lee looked away and leaned back, expression concerned, confused, and unsettled. “I believe you,” he said quietly.
That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed it, and stay tuned for updates! Blessings, friend.
(Unfortunately, I have to add this…)
Unpublished work © 2018, 2019 Mandy R. Campbell