Who would have thought Lucas Guarrad, of all people, would be looking forward to a toddler's birthday party? Not anyone down at LAPD headquarters, that's for sure.
With a blue tank engine secured under one arm, a yellow stuffed bear pressed against his chest, and a grin edging his mouth, Luke stepped from his black sixty-seven Thunderbird onto the curbed lawn. He would have spent more on little Nicky, but he'd been asked correction … ordered, to keep the cost in a reasonable range.
Well, so much for seats on the fifty-yard line at the Super Bowl.
Luke glanced up and, through the picture window of his partner's enormous fixer-upper, he spied the birthday boy as the two-year-old popped above the high-backed couch. It took only a moment before Nicky spotted him. A luminous smile spread across the child's cherubic face.
The excited toddler made a trampoline of the cushions and waved his chubby arms. Luke could almost hear the tyke give his usual greeting, "Unka Ouke. Unka Ouke!" Then the little guy jumped down from the sofa.
Chuckling, Luke's grin widened. It felt good to be wanted. Real good. He loved the boy and his five-year-old sister, Rachael, as if they were his own. They made him, a professed bachelor, think about the possibility that a cop could have it all … career, spouse, and children.
A real family life.
Somehow, against all odds, his partner, Detective Nicholas McCammon, made it work. A feat Luke swore a policeman could never do.
The outside light flicked on, and Nick stepped onto the porch. He smiled. "You're late."
"Only by thirty-seven minutes and…." Pushing the car door shut with the heel of his Wellington boot, he made a great production of raising his arm to look at his watch. "Fifteen seconds. I couldn't decide on the tank engine, or … the stuffed toy." He nodded to each in turn.
"So, you got both.”
Luke shrugged. "What can I say?"
McCammon shook his head. "Party's out in the gazebo. Justine's setting it…."
Glancing at his feet, he paused and picked up what appeared to be a small piece of paper. Brow puckered, he held it up to the light. All at once he staggered back a step and jerked his attention to the opened garage. A wrapped, glossy blue present sat on his gas heater. A visible shudder passed through his now rigid body.
Just as he turned his horror-stricken expression to Luke, an abrupt explosion reverberated through the air. The blast torpedoed Nick off the stoop as if his body were made of so many goose feathers.
Stunned, Luke froze in place. His heart stopped. His mind blanked out, and his blood turned to ice.
In shocked disbelief, he took a stumbling gait forward, a cry escaping his constricted throat. The bomb ignited the living room curtains, growing, consuming.
Justine. Rachael. Little Nicholas.
Did they make it to the gazebo? Or were they still inside?
With a guttural scream, Luke dropped the presents and bolted toward the house. He refused to admit it was already too late.
The gas pipes detonated. In the next instant, subsequent explosions worked their way through the home. Like deadly dominoes, a wave of air pressure crumpled the ranch-style structure as if it were fashioned from graham crackers.
Glass splintered from window frames. Smoke billowed from the foundation. Fire spurted into the pewter sky. Blinding light chased away shadows hovering around the tops of nearby palm trees. Resembling a colony of ravenous termites, flames ate at the wood frame. The roaring noises had to be there.
But Luke couldn't hear them. Instead, a deafening quiet rang in his ears.
Jetted debris knocked him flat on his back. The impact punched the air from his lungs. Fighting for oxygen, he covered his face with his arms and rolled onto his stomach. He knew shrapnel struck him, although, like the thunderous clamor, shock sedated any pain.
Warm blood ran from his brow and trickled down the side of his nose. It dripped onto his eyelid, and he scrubbed his face against his shirt sleeve.
He scanned the yard for Nick, barely making out the man's inert form among the rubble. Digging his fingernails into the sandy earth, he dragged himself over to his friend and managed to pull himself to his knees.
"Nick? Nick, can you hear me?"
Luke placed the pads of two fingers at the side of the man's burned neck, trying to find a heartbeat. It was faint, but there. He positioned an ear to his mouth and a hand on his chest.
With his pulse throbbing in his temples, he tilted Nick's chin, pinched the man's nose and, with his mouth over Nick's, administered two slow breaths. He watched his chest rise and fall. Again, he checked for any sign of breathing.
"McCammon, don't cut out on me now."
Over and over Luke gently blew air into Nick's lungs, while silently vowing to never give up. He rechecked for a heartbeat and drew strength in finding a steady thump.
Yet the man would not breathe on his own.
"Come on … come on! You can't…." He choked on the words.
For the third sequence, he breathed for his friend. All of a sudden, Nick gasped. He drew in a shuddering breath … then another.
Relief washed over Luke. Salty tears stung the gashes on his face. Grasping his partner's lacerated hand, he found the paper Nick had been examining moments before the first explosion.
Luke didn't have to look at it to know what it was. Shaking, he withdrew the business card and stared transfixed at a glossy insignia.
In gradual succession, he became conscious of shouts from somewhere down the street, a siren howling in the distance, and a relay of barking dogs. Pain crawled into his being, consumed his mind. But it failed to match the burning ache in his heart. A gathering blackness tunneled his vision.
As he caught the flash of the blue engine and the yellow bear heaped by the bumper of his car, he slumped over Nick's body; the card clenched in his fist.
Fort Dodge, Kansas
Mute with fear, Michelle gripped the music box to her chest. Soot smudged her arms. A lock of hair had fallen over her eye. Her transfixed gaze failed to focus on anything in the captain's quarters save the two officers' wives sorting through her few belongings. One woman reminded Michelle of her rag doll, Gretel. The other made her think of Buttercup, her grandpa's milk cow.
“Poor dear,” “Gretel” murmured, “and her being so young to lose her family.”
“It'll be her age that'll help her through this. I've seen it before.”
“How old do you think she is?”
“Not much more than three, I suspect.”
“Look at her, Constance, she just stands there, not moving, not talking.”
Daddy says I'm his brave little girl. But I'm not.
“Would you be acting normal if you were her?” “Buttercup” shook a fly off a crumpled night-gown and laid the garment beside clean underclothing. “You have to get used to things like that out here in this godless land, Amelia. If you don't, you won't last the year.”
Gretel poured hot water from a pitcher into a basin. “Is it true, Constance, did the scouting party really find her in a covered wagon, hiding under a quilt?”
No, sweetheart, mustn't move. Remember our game? You lie very still and see how long you can go without making a sound.
“Hiding and clutching that music box. Her mother probably hoped the Comanches wouldn't find her.” Buttercup gave a disgusted sigh and tossed another knife-slashed blanket onto a growing pile of mending.
“If her mother'd had her hidden well enough, the Indians wouldn't have found her, would they?”
“From the looks of this mess those savages would have stumbled across her sooner or later. At least we can be thankful the men stopped them from torching her wagon.” Buttercup threw what had once been a beautiful shawl into a trash barrel. “I can't understand some of these people coming out West in small trains. Don't they realize there's safety in numbers?”
“Hush, Constance, you'll disturb the child.”
“I'm afraid she's far from understanding anything. Heaven knows she needs that protection right now.”
Gretel set the basin on a little table. Michelle felt herself guided toward the bed. The woman gently raised her chin. “My, but isn't she an angelic little soul! Such glorious black hair. Oh, and look at those eyes. Have you ever seen such large gray eyes? Or are they green? No matter, she's going to be a real beauty whatever their color.”
Buttercup straightened her back. “Beauty or no won't stop the nightmares.”
“Does she have family? Somewhere to go?”
“Don't be getting any mothering ideas, Amelia. The captain found letters from an aunt of hers who lives in San Francisco. He'll send her out on the next wagon train coming through.”
Gretel began to unbutton the soiled dress. Michelle shied away, grasping tighter to her music box. “It's all right, sweetheart, I just want to take those dirty clothes off you and give you a bath.”
Michelle refused to move. Buttercup scooped up the pile of washing. “That music box must mean an awful lot to her.”
“I wonder why?”
If you do exactly what Mommy says, and keep still, you may keep the music box in your new room.
“Maybe it was her mother's.”
“It is exquisite. It must be an heirloom.”
“Whether it is or not, it's obviously priceless to her.” Buttercup hefted the laundry to get a better grasp and lumbered out the door.
“Honey, can we listen to your music box?” A key projected from underneath the base, and Gretel turned it. Tiny figures whirled and bobbed in time with a tinkling aria.
Michelle relaxed. The woman lifted her up, sat her at the edge of the bed, and rolled down her dirty stockings. All the while she talked in soothing tones. Michelle felt her eyelids droop. As long as she could keep a hand on her music box, she permitted herself to be undressed.
Working the washcloth in warm sudsy water, the woman bathed her, then gingerly dried her with a piece of toweling. Smiling, Gretel pulled a nightgown over her head and brushed the snarls from her hair. A softness came to Gretel's face, making the woman look more like Michelle's doll.
Gretel carefully tucked her into bed. She felt the woman's soft hand on her cheek. “I can imagine your mother's heartbreak,” she whispered. “I can understand her panic.”
The music wound down.
Darling, play the music box every time you feel lonely or afraid, and always remember that I am near.
Michelle turned the key. Again the elegant figures danced.
Slowly she relaxed her grip.