Smoke screen, p.1

Smoke Screen, page 1

 

Smoke Screen
 


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Smoke Screen


  Dedication

  This book is lovingly dedicated to the Nazarene.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Discussion Questions

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Praise for Terri Blackstock

  Books by Terri Blackstock

  Copyright

  Chapter 1

  Brenna

  He left me for a size-two selfie star and didn’t want me to make a scene. My husband—who’d remarried as soon as our divorce was final—overestimated the preacher’s kid in me and underestimated my maternal grit. I wasn’t going to be blotted out of my children’s lives. I couldn’t be erased, and I planned to show him. I just had to figure out how.

  “He’s here,” my sister, Georgi, said, looking out the front window. “It’s not right that he’s doing this, Brenna. It’s not his day yet.”

  “He’s announcing his candidacy for mayor tonight, so he wanted the kids with him.” I turned to the hallway. “Sophia! Noah! Your dad’s here.”

  The doorbell rang as my eight-year-old, Sophia, came out of her room, barefoot and wearing shorts and a My Little Pony T-shirt. Her corkscrew curls fell in front of her eyes. She’d taken the bow out.

  “Where’s your dress? Why did you change?”

  “I don’t want to wear it,” she said. “It itches.”

  “That’s my girl,” Georgi said.

  I sent her a sharp look, then turned back to my daughter. “Honey, he’s going to make you put it on.”

  “I want to stay home. It’s not his day.”

  “I know, honey, but it’s an unusual night with the campaign starting, so I’m trying to work with him.”

  The doorbell rang again, and I took a deep breath and opened the door. The man I once loved stood there under the light, his character so clear to me now. “They’re not ready,” I said.

  “Why not?” He came in as if he belonged, though he’d never lived here. He looked at Sophia, then back at me. “Why can’t you do the least little thing I ask, Brenna? I wanted her to wear the dress Rayne bought her.”

  “She hates it.”

  “I don’t care. She’s wearing it. This is an important event.”

  “Hi, Daddy,” Sophia said meekly.

  “Hey, baby.” He shot me another look. “You couldn’t even do her hair?”

  “She undid everything. That’s how much she doesn’t want to go.”

  “Sophia, go to your room and put on that dress. Rayne will fix your hair in the car since your mother can’t seem to do it.”

  “Don’t start on her, Jack,” Georgi said.

  “Georgi, stop,” I said. Neither of them had a problem brawling in front of the kids, but I wouldn’t let it happen. “Noah!” I called.

  Four-year-old Noah came out, thankfully still wearing the little suit I’d put on him. “I’m sweaty,” he said, looking up at his dad with round, pleading eyes.

  “You’ll be okay, little man. You look really snappy.”

  “I hate snappy.”

  “I have gummies in the car.”

  Noah sucked in a breath. “Really?”

  “Only for kids who keep their nice clothes on.”

  “I’m not sure gummies and nice clothes go together,” I pointed out. “You might want to rethink that.”

  “There’s no time. I’ll feed them to him one at a time.”

  “No!” Noah said. “I want to hold them.”

  Jack ignored him and looked up the hall. “Sophia!” She came out with her dress on, and she had stuck the bow back in her hair. It was crooked and hanging halfway over her forehead. I took it out and clipped it in right, hoping it would keep Rayne from torturing her. I bent over and kissed her. “Be sweet, okay? It’ll be over before you know it.”

  I got the little backpack that went with Noah. “His inhaler is in here. Just keep it close. You never know who’s going to smoke or wear perfume or . . . whatever.”

  “He’s tougher than you think,” Jack said.

  “He has to be able to breathe to be tough. Please. If Rayne’s going to be watching him, tell her where it is.”

  “Daddy, do I get gummies too?” Sophia asked.

  “Maybe a few, if you don’t complain about that dress. It’ll hurt Rayne’s feelings.”

  “Really, Jack?” Georgi set her hands on her hips. “You’re saying that in this house?”

  “I wasn’t talking to you,” Jack snapped. “What are you even doing here?”

  “Visiting my sister,” she said defiantly. “Remember those kids are not little tin soldiers bred to make you look good for the mayoral race.”

  “Georgi!” I said again.

  Sophia looked up at me but wisely kept her thoughts to herself. I kissed both kids and watched as Jack took them away. “I’ll see you tomorrow, munchkins,” I called down the sidewalk.

  No one answered. The light came on in the car, illuminating my nemesis in her gold lamé top that looked more sorority sister than stepmother. But then, she’d been barely out of her teens when he married her.

  I restrained myself from slamming the door. When I turned back, my sister was standing right behind me.

  “Did you see what that woman is wearing?” she asked.

  “How could I not?”

  “You should get angry, Brenna. You should get fighting mad.”

  I couldn’t believe her. “You think I’m not mad? You think I like having to move out of my home, struggle for money, hand my kids over when it’s not even his day? Trust me, I’m mad. I just don’t want the kids to hear your smart-aleck comments. I don’t want to make this harder for them.”

  “You think that if you give him the kids on demand, he’ll change his mind about the custody suit. But he won’t. He has to get the kids so he can play the part of the perfect family man and make people forget he cheated on his wife.”

  “I don’t think that. His father is driving that suit, so there’s no way Jack will drop it. But I do want to look reasonable to the judge.”

  “Brenna, don’t be reasonable. Be angry. Channel that anger and don’t let him walk all over you. He has a lot of gall even looking you in the eye when he’s suing you. You have to handle this, Brenna. Your head has to be clear.”

  I didn’t respond. I knew what she meant.

  I went back to the den and picked up the toys, tossed them into their basket. “No right-minded judge would take those kids away from their mother,” Georgi muttered.

  “Unless Jack’s father has paid the judge off,” I said. “And we both know that’s possible.”

  “Then we have to make it harder for him to do that.” She got her phone out of her purse on the couch’s end table and thumbed it. “I’m going to stalk her on social media. Get pictures of her in that outfit. You can show that to the judge as evidence that she shouldn’t
even be around those kids, let alone making decisions about them. And we both know Jack’s going to stick them with nannies if he gets them. It’s not like he really wants them. He just doesn’t want you to have them.”

  I went into the bathroom and closed the door as she started her cyberstalking. I knelt, reached under the sink to the far back of the vanity cabinet, and pulled out the little airline-size bottle I had stashed there.

  I opened it and swallowed the whole thing in two gulps, then put the empty bottle back where it had been. I sat on the floor, my head against the wall, and waited for my pulse to slow.

  “Brenna, your phone is ringing,” Georgi called through the door. “Want me to answer it?”

  “Yeah,” I yelled back.

  When I came out, she had my phone on speaker. Our mother’s voice sounded higher pitched than normal.

  “Calm down,” Georgi was saying. “I can’t understand you. What happened?”

  “He’s getting out,” my mother yelled. “He got pardoned. Roy Beckett is coming home this week!”

  Georgi’s mouth fell open, and she gaped up at me. “How did that happen?”

  “He asked the governor to pardon him. My lawyer said he laid out a whole case about how he was innocent and wrongly convicted, and apparently convinced the governor. Forget the jury. That man is pardoning people left and right.”

  Was I hearing right? I grabbed the phone out of Georgi’s hand. “Wait. So he can just pardon a convicted murderer and let him walk? Shouldn’t we have had a chance to weigh in on that? Don’t they talk to the victim’s family?”

  “I guess he didn’t care how we felt. The governor said that even if Beckett did it, it was a crime of passion and not likely to happen again.”

  “Unless he drinks and gets in a fight.”

  “Your father didn’t fight with him. He walked away.”

  “I know. Still . . .” I was sweating now, feeling a little sick. “When will he be home?”

  “They said probably tomorrow.”

  My heart was pounding again, and I could see that Georgi was struggling too. She got her purse and dabbed at the tears in her eyes. “I have to go.”

  “Georgi . . . ,” my mother said.

  “Mom, I’ll call you back,” I said. I clicked off the phone and went to my sister, but she shook me off.

  “The world has gone completely bonkers. Roy Beckett back on the streets, and your husband suing the best mom in the world to take away custody. I can’t stand it.”

  “Ex-husband,” I whispered.

  “I’m going. I have to tell people this is happening. Warn them.”

  “Yeah.”

  She swept her blonde hair back and then let it fall into her face. She turned to me before she went out the door. “Try to sleep tonight. Seriously. Don’t do what you do, okay?”

  I lied. “I’ll be okay.”

  “Call me if you need me.”

  “I will.”

  “And if you don’t sleep, write.”

  I nodded and watched her leave. Writing would be a good escape, if I could motivate myself tonight. But I’d had writer’s block for a full decade when the rest of my life had to be rewritten. I didn’t yet know how my own plot should go.

  When I closed the door, the house, which was about two thousand square feet smaller than my previous one, felt enormous and empty.

  I went to the kitchen and got a big bottle of wine. Wine wasn’t so awful, was it? It wasn’t as bad as straight vodka. All I needed was a little numbness. Just enough to survive.

  I poured a tall glass of wine, called my mother back, and let her rant as I drank.

  I felt a little more numb, but it wasn’t enough. When I got off the phone, I stared at the empty glass, hating myself. What was I doing?

  I wasn’t going to let Jack Hertzog or Roy Beckett send me into the abyss. But I felt like a kid walking on top of a narrow wall. I was going to fall all by myself.

  I went to the couch and opened my laptop. Instead of going to Word where my piecemeal fiction efforts were parked in promising folders, I clicked on Snapchat and saw that Rayne had already posted. She was sitting in the backseat between my brooding children, doing one of her clichéd duck-lip poses. Noah and Sophia wore their forced “say cheese” smiles. “Me and my sweetie pies,” Rayne had written.

  Three dozen of her closest friends had commented already.

  I slammed the computer shut and took my glass back to the kitchen. I thought better of pouring another glass and set it in the sink. I got the cork, intending to put it back into the bottle. But before I’d even made the decision to, I was pouring it again.

  I would drink until I fell asleep. Then in the morning I would guzzle Pedialyte and try to get myself to Georgi’s boutique to work. Georgi couldn’t suspect what I’d done to cope. She’d have me in some kind of rehab within the hour.

  If my father had lived, he would have died all over again to learn that one of his daughters drank any alcohol at all, much less as much as I did. The preacher’s daughters were supposed to be above reproach. Georgi had been the problem child, with her bad-boy relationships and a five-week marriage. But she was an entrepreneur now, doing well in spite of the bad choices of her youth, and I was the one who drank to survive. I was glad he couldn’t see it.

  And what would he think about the man who’d killed him being back on the streets?

  I went to my bedroom that still didn’t feel like home. I hadn’t completely unpacked all the boxes yet. I’d focused more on the kids’ rooms and the den and kitchen, so Noah and Sophia would feel at home. I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself. Failure, victimhood, and hatred weren’t a good look. But I didn’t know how to change it. Somehow I had to channel my anger into a legal strategy.

  I drank some more and crawled onto my bed. It wasn’t going to get better anytime soon. The best I could do was hang on and pray like mad.

  But I doubted God was listening to me anymore.

  Chapter 2

  Nate

  From the sky, the fire was beautiful, burning in a neon arc down the side of the mountain, moving with rapid grace. But the grace was only visual. I knew it was really a monster, creeping down the slope to devour everything in its path.

  That lethal wind whipped against my ears as I stood at the open hatch of the plane, trying to make the target our spotter had decided on. The darkness would make it a tough battle, but this type of challenge only pumped my adrenaline more. I glanced at the houses just a few miles downhill from the fire. The lights I could see from the air twinkled with hominess and ironic calm. It could have been my hometown of Carlisle, its residents distracted by homework and sitcoms, football games and dancing lessons, bedtimes and prayers. Few headlights were on the roads. From here, nothing in the town suggested a sense of urgency.

  This fire had been burning in a fairly contained area for three days, but because the other teams of smokejumpers and helitacks had been tied up in a battle with some fires farther north until yesterday, it had been considered low priority. It had been a longer-than-normal fire season that had stretched us all thin, but with the drought continuing, it didn’t seem close to ending. Now the wind had whipped up and the fire had taken a turn. We wouldn’t get any sleep tonight, and the work wouldn’t be pleasant. We would spend the night chainsawing trees to create a fire line, a gap where the fire would stop because there was nothing there to burn. I wished for sunlight to aid in our fight, but it would come soon enough.

  I checked my parachute as the pilot flew toward the target, several miles south of the moving arc of flames. “All right!” I shouted to my team of Hotshots behind me. “See you in the furnace!”

  I hurled myself out the door of the plane as adrenaline and dopamine rushed through my body like the beating wind. It never got old. Over the sound of the air rushing around my ears, I heard the whoop of the teammate who’d jumped next to me. I counted off seconds as I fell through the sky, letting gravity have its way . . . then pulled the cord. Th
e parachute walloped out into a mushroom, jerking me out of gravity’s pull as the wind took over.

  Around me, one by one, other parachutes opened, and with expert aim, they all floated down toward the target. A second plane moved overhead and another team jumped out.

  I came down within feet of my target, the chute pulling as I ran to a stop. As others dropped around me, I gathered my chute and put it back into its case. I’d repack it later when I had room to do it right. The box with our supplies, chainsaws and all, floated down on a separate chute, and the designated guys caught it and got it to the right spot.

  Spreading out in a line across the mountain with our chainsaws and Pulaskis, we began clearing brush and cutting down trees so the fire would die a natural death before it ever threatened the town below. The noise was deafening, with the buzz of saws all around me and the waffling sound of the flames moving across the landscape. I glanced up the mountain and saw the yellow-orange glow of flames creeping toward us. At its current rate, and if nothing went wrong, the fire would take hours to reach where my team and I worked.

  But in a matter of minutes, the wind changed direction, billowing through the trees we were targeting for our fire line. Fed by the new blast of wind, the fire exploded as if a bomb had been dropped into the center of it. Flames shot out over us and behind us, spreading wildly with unbridled fury.

  “I need help!” Bull yelled a few yards above me.

  Saws dropped and tools were abandoned as my teammates closest to Bull tried to get him out of the flames caging him in.

  “Take cover, Cap!” Hill shouted to me. Adrenaline pumped through me as I pulled out my survival shelter, a thin cover I could throw over myself if I couldn’t get out. I saw a dozen or more men trying to outrun the blaze below me, and I shouted for those above me to follow. Wrapping the shelter around myself like a blanket, I tried to make it down the hill, out of the reach of the fire.

  The team that had come in before us was already down there and had started digging a trench to be used to set the controlled backfires that would consume everything between the firebreak and the rushing conflagration. But these backfires would threaten the men now left behind.

 
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