What Burns Within Excerpt by Sandra Ruttan

She wasn’t the type of woman he was interested in. Constable Tain knew that before he even set eyes on her. Everything from her tone of voice to her abrupt manner to the way she hung up the phone before she heard what he had to say bothered him.

Paranoid. That’s what his friends would call him, if he had any left he could talk to. It had been a while since he’d checked, but he knew what they would have said before. That he’d been thinking like a cop for too long.

That if he saw a smiling toddler with a lollipop he’d assume the kid stole it.

His gut told him the woman had probably had her share of run- ins with the law, at best a negligent parent, at worst… Well, he wasn’t sure yet. Despite that, he noted the store-bought blonde might have been a looker if the layers of makeup hadn’t cracked under her snarl.

“I’d better not hear you’ve been taking things,” the woman hissed at the child, who cowered on the edge of the bench as she clip- clopped by on her three- inch heels.

Tain wondered how she could move in clothes that tight. He gestured to the open door as he identified himself. “Right this way, Mrs. Brennen.”

She tossed her head, causing her multiple dangling hoop earrings to clink together, and marched past him. Once she reached the table inside the small, bland interview room she turned on her heel.

“Well?” Her right hand landed on her hip.

“Well?” Tain echoed, staring back. With heels she was about an inch taller than he was, and that was saying something. In bare feet she must have been 5’11”.

The woman blew out a deep breath. “What’s he done?”

Tain sat down on a chair. “He was found at the park near the fair just off the Lougheed Highway. Wandering around alone.”

She blinked, and the lines around her eyes softened, but only for a split second. Everything about this woman bothered him, from the fact that her first instinct had been to assume her son was in trouble to the fact that she acted more like a suspect than a parent whose child had been found unattended at the fairgrounds, brought to the police station by a stranger.

“Mrs. Brennen, what—”

“Jesus, what do you take me for? Is that what you’re after, some sort of trumped- up neglect charge? Who are you anyway? Quota filler so the RCMP can look like an equal opportunity employer for Indians too? Oh, I mean native or aboriginal or First Nations or what ever the hell you people call yourselves.”

Tain stared at her. No look of regret even flickered across her face. Her upper lip curled, and everything from the toe-tapping to the way she blew out her breath hinted at nothing more than annoyance and impatience. No trace of concern for her son.

Or evidence she felt any responsibility for the situation.

The woman finally dropped the hand from her hip, sat down and exhaled audibly as she crossed her legs to the side of the chair, her gaze leveled at the door instead of at the police officer across from her.

“He was with Taylor. His sister. When I get my hands on her…”

She froze. After a moment the scowl slipped from her face. Tain started counting and hit five before she looked him in the eye.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“I tried to explain when I phoned—”

She sprang from the chair and was across the room and out the door before he had a chance to stop her. He ran into the hallway.

“Where is she? Where’s your sister?” Mrs. Brennen grabbed her son’s shirt and shook him, lightly at first, then forcefully. Nicky’s head snapped back dangerously close to the wall.

The boy started to cry as Tain pushed his way between them. “Let him go!”

She did just that and slapped Tain across the face, his skin burning from the blow. He grabbed her wrists.

“Take your hands off me.” She jerked her arms back as soon as he released her. Tain unclenched his jaw and nodded to the officer who’d been watching Nicky.

“Please take Mrs. Brennen to an interview room.”

“I’m not—”

Tain lowered his voice. “I can charge you with assaulting a police officer. You can cooperate, or you can cool off in a cell.” He turned back to the officer. “And please find this young man a snack once Mrs. Brennen is settled.”

Nicky had slid down under the bench, curled with his arms wrapped around his knees.

The next ten minutes were spent painfully watching the officer try to coax the boy out from under the bench. It was a curious thing to Tain. Sims was a clean- cut guy. He had an easygoing smile and looked sharp in his uniform, but the boy kept looking at Tain, wiggling back against the wall whenever Sims reached toward him, pulling his knees up to hide his chin.

Sims stood up, looked at Tain and shrugged. “Do you want me to pull him out?”

Tain wasn’t great with kids, but he wasn’t eager to have one dragged kicking and screaming down the hall either. Especially when the child was a witness he was responsible for.

He squatted down beside the bench and tried to offer a reassuring smile. “My friend will take you for cookies and find you something to play with.” Nicky remained in a ball.

“We need to talk to your mom. It’s okay. My friend will take good care of you.”

For a moment they were locked in a stare. Tain wondered what was going through the boy’s mind. If his own brief encounter with Nicky Brennen’s mother was anything to go by, the child probably didn’t have much of a reason to trust adults. Tain reached out his hand slowly.

Nicky unclasped his hands, unbending his legs one at a time. His eyes were huge.

“Are you gonna find my sister?” Nicky pulled himself out from under the bench. He looked at Tain’s hand for a moment, his mouth twisted, and then he stood.

Tain pulled back his hand, his heart sinking just a bit as he contemplated what experiences would cause a child to be afraid to trust a police officer. He took out his wallet and handed Nicky a five- dollar bill. He whispered, “Make sure he takes you to get a treat.”

Tain watched the boy glance at his mother, who had her back to them, arms folded across her chest, not moving. A hint of a smile curled the boy’s lips as he clamped the money in his fist. He didn’t take the other officer’s hand either, but followed without argument.

As they walked away, Nicky turned back to look over his shoulder, those big eyes meeting Tain’s gaze. The smile was gone.

Tain drew a deep breath. From the corner of his eye he saw someone approach him.

Sergeant Steve Daly was a little shorter than Tain, with sandy hair just starting to turn gray at the temples. Daly nodded at the boy. “What’s the situation?” he asked.

Tain didn’t have a great track record of getting along with his superiors, or pretty much anyone for that matter, but he respected the way Daly operated. The man was available without being intrusive. It didn’t feel like Daly checked up on him, so much as checked in with him.

Most other officers would have punted Tain sideways, put him on desk duty or some marginal unit without much stress, tried to keep him out of the way. Instead, Daly had pulled him up for this case, getting him away from the routine humdrum assignments.

He’d even let him work alone. It had been the only thing Daly had hesitated over. In the end he’d agreed, as long as Tain understood that at the first sign the case was snowballing he’d have to deal with a partner.

Tain had hoped that wouldn’t be necessary, although he had to admit it didn’t look good now. He filled Daly in on how Nicholas Brennen got to the police station.

Daly’s eyes narrowed. “Some guy drove him here?”

“Apparently he didn’t want people to think he was abducting the boy. He didn’t come inside. Just wrote this note and gave it to the boy. Kid came in on his own. We’ll have to check the tape and see if we can get an ID.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” Daly said.

“Not quite.” Tain told him about the missing girl.

Something about the way Daly’s cheeks sagged made him look like he’d aged ten years in that moment. “How old is she?”

“I was just about to ask when Mommy Dearest flew off the handle.”

“Do we need to bring in social ser vices?”

“Already called them.”

Daly blew out a deep breath. “Talk to the mother. I’ll have Sims handle the background check. Report to my office as soon as you’re done.”

Tain nodded as he went to interview Mrs. Brennen for the second time.

When Tain reached Sergeant Daly’s office twenty minutes later, Inspector Hawkins was already there. “Sir.” Tain nodded.

Hawkins had a few years on Daly, but he was as fit as any man on the force. He was the poster boy for the respectable RCMP officers, the kind of man who embodied confidence and authority. Clean cut, with nothing more than a few laugh lines around his eyes and his rank to hint at his age. Few things rattled the inspector, but the fact that he was in Daly’s office suggested to Tain that he was worried.

The inspector didn’t acknowledge Tain’s arrival. “What’s the status?”

Daly answered. “Patrols are out canvassing now. We’ve got uniforms at every exit point from the fairgrounds, taking statements.”

Hawkins frowned. “And the girl is the right age?”

Daly glanced at Tain, then nodded.

“Shit.” Hawkins muttered the word under his breath, but not so far under that Tain didn’t hear him.

Tain looked at Daly. “There’s usually a news crew on the grounds filming, right?”

Daly nodded.

“We should get their tape, double-check it. Look for any known pedophiles, any sign of these kids in the background, anything.”

“I’ll call the patrols.”

“I think we should reassign this case,” Hawkins said.

“Respectfully, sir, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Daly said.

Hawkins turned to look at Tain. “Last month we recovered the body of Julie Darrens from a burnt- out shack at the industrial park near the Mary Hill Bypass. Isabella Bertini is still missing. The press will have a field day with this.”

“I decided to have Tain respond to every arson fire since we found Julie Darrens,” Daly said. “He’s been working ’round the clock on the Bertini girl. No solid leads.”

“Just crackpots and dead ends,” Tain said. “We’ll be getting more of the same when this hits the news.”

Hawkins kept his gaze on Daly. “You can have Tain assist, but I don’t think it’s in the best interest of this department—”

“What about the best interest of this case?” Daly’s eyes pinched with uncharacteristic anger. “Tain has been working in conjunction with Burnaby. He knows all the particulars. Pulling him off—”

“I didn’t say to pull him off.”

“No, just have him take a backseat so that Burnaby will think we softballed them, gave them a body just to shut them up because we don’t take finding dead kids on our patch seriously.”

Hawkins pointed at Daly. “Julie Darrens and Isabella Bertini may have gone missing from Burnaby, but Julie was found here, in Coquitlam, and now a child’s been snatched from within our borders. I want our department handling this case.”

“Then Tain will take the lead.”

The two men stood staring at each other for a moment, until Daly’s phone rang and he grabbed it. “Yes. No, I… Thank you.”

He hung up the phone and leaned against his arms, his hands planted firmly on the desk in front of him before he looked up again. “Industrial area just south of the Trans Canada Highway, right on the Fraser River. Not far from the fairgrounds where Taylor Brennen went missing. Another suspected arson fire.”

For a moment the room was silent, Hawkins and Daly still locked in a match of visual chicken, waiting to see who would blink first.

It was Hawkins who turned, glanced at Tain, then looked back at Daly. “I sure as hell hope you know what you’re doing.”

He crossed the room, pulled the door open and slammed it behind him.

Constable Craig Nolan was familiar with the image of his partner, all business, from the straight skirt to the pressed shirt, straight brown hair clipped back in a ponytail looking like it knew better than to dare fall out of place, the touch of makeup that somehow emphasized the icy eyes.

She stopped at the steps to the house and turned to look at him. “You should let me handle this.”

Craig unclenched his jaw. “Did I miss the memo?”

Her forehead wrinkled for a second. Lori Price was as pushy as she was tall, and she met Craig’s gaze steadily.

“The one about your promotion, putting you in charge,” he said.

Lori folded her arms across her chest. “It might be better for her if she deals with a woman. I didn’t know you were so touchy.”

Craig shook his head as he watched his partner turn, march up the steps, pause, then yank the door open. He counted to ten before he followed her silently, clenching his fists.

“I already told them,” the low, hollow voice murmured from just beyond the hallway where Craig stood.

“Yes, but I need you to tell me now.” Lori’s voice failed to sound sympathetic. Instead, it sounded pushy. As usual.

Her words were met with silence.

“Mrs. Parks, it really would be best—”

“No. I don’t think so.”

Craig heard movement, which told him that either Mrs. Parks was preparing to flee or that Lori was trying to corner her. He walked into the living room.

Mrs. Parks was standing, but Lori towered over her. Craig’s partner looked like she was ready to tackle Mrs. Parks if the woman tried to leave.

Craig stopped just inside the room. Mrs. Parks looked at him and blinked.

“For a second I thought you were Carl. Except your hair’s a bit longer.”

A quick glance at the prominent wedding photo on the mantel showing Mrs. Parks and a blond, fit man was all Craig needed. “Your husband?”

She nodded. “Three years. He’s at work.”

“Would you like us to phone him, have him come home?”

Mrs. Parks nodded again. She sank back down on the sofa across the coffee table from where Lori Price stood, arms now crossed.

“Perhaps you could locate her husband.” Craig glanced at Lori. Her eyes pinched partially shut, and her nostrils flared. He turned his back to her, approached Mrs. Parks slowly and knelt down until he was below eye level with her. When he finally heard Lori march out of the room he spoke. “Is there anything else we can get for you, Mrs. Parks?”

“Cindy.”

Craig frowned, glancing back at the photos for a clue. “Cindy?”

“Call me Cindy. Please.”

“Okay. Is there anything else we can do, Cindy?”

She continued sitting rigidly, her hands clasped together on her lap, her face long and cold, without a trace of a spark in her eyes. Then she lifted a trembling hand to wipe away an unbidden tear that had escaped, before tucking her blond hair back behind her ear. She looked at Craig. “You can find the man who did this to me.”

Craig swallowed. He felt like he’d been punched in the gut, winded. The look in her dark eyes sent a chill down his spine.

How’s she supposed to look? What do you know about how it feels to be raped?

“We’re going to do everything we can to catch him and put him away, but I’m not going to lie. This won’t be easy.”

Her face didn’t move, but her gaze shifted to the right, as though something on that side of the room had caught her attention. Then she took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. “You need me to tell you what happened.”

He nodded.

“Carl got a call just before four pm.”

“From his work?”

“From the fire department. He’s a volunteer.” Cindy Parks leaned back against the sofa, pulling her cardigan tight as she wrapped her arms around her body.

Craig eased himself onto the couch across from her, listening as she told her story.

Constable Ashlyn Hart parked her vehicle, the sting of smoke already burning her eyes. She flashed her ID and ducked under the barrier. With the spate of arson fires in the area lately the police weren’t taking any chances. They were being cautious about protecting the scenes.

Not that it had done much good. Officially no leads. Arsons were notoriously hard to bring to trial, and so far their arsonist hadn’t given them much to work with. That was the reason she was handling every scene personally. She had to find a different way to pinpoint the culprit.

“Maybe we should get you some gear, have you work out of our station.”

She looked up and offered the firefighter who’d spoken a smile as she accepted a helmet from him. Ashlyn recognized Adrian Vaughan, the man under the layers of soot, but he’d barely stopped to offer the remark and hat before he disappeared again. She watched him move toward the thick plume of smoke billowing from the building. Flames were already licking the exterior from windows on the upper floors.

“Not much we can do now but hope to contain it.”

She turned. Paul Quinlan, the battalion chief, was standing beside her. “Arson?” she asked.

“What color’s that smoke?”

Dense dark clouds swirled out of every opening she could see. She’d been getting an education in fire ever since she got this assignment, but Ashlyn still hadn’t learned everything. “And black smoke means what?”

“Petroleum- based accelerant. Likely gas.”

Gas. Not too helpful. Only about a thousand local places where someone could get their hands on that.

Paul passed her the object he was holding. “We found it on the door, just like before. Could this help you?”

Ashlyn pulled a bag from her pocket, wrapped the angel quickly, then put it in the trunk of her car. “Generic materials found in hundreds of stores in the province, virtually untraceable, handmade. We haven’t turned up anything so far.”

“What the hell?” Paul raced forward, toward the door. She tried to follow him. Other firefighters started running, and one grabbed her arm.

“Stay there.” He glared at her as he backed away, watching until she stopped moving before he turned around. The man disappeared amidst the sea of turnout gear each firefighter wore for protection on the job.

Ashlyn moved her head from side to side and up and down until she could see through the smoke and men to what had caught Quinlan’s attention.

A firefighter was racing down the front steps carrying a child.

The paramedic repositioned the stethoscope and paused. It had been at least twenty minutes since the girl had been pulled from the building, and the paramedic’s shoulders sagged. She shook her head.

“Fuck.” The firefighter who’d found the girl turned and kicked a garbage can. His dirt- streaked fingers clenched into a fist beside his head as he walked away.

Ashlyn pulled plastic gloves from her pocket, stepped forward and knelt beside the body. She tossed the helmet she’d been given aside. The girl’s hair was darker than hers. Careful not to touch her unnecessarily, Ashlyn surveyed the victim visually until she got to her hands. Then she reached into her jacket pocket, pulled out a pen and used it to nudge the loose shirtsleeve up, revealing black and purple skin mixed with partially healed wounds. The gashes and bruises stretched out like an overgrown tattoo, covering the girl’s arm.

A voice cut into Ashlyn’s thoughts from above her. “Can’t you cover her up and get her out of here before the reporters start shooting photos?”

She shook her head. “This is a murder investigation now.”

“For Christ’s sake, she’s already been moved. What difference does it make?”

Purple shirt, green pants… It kept playing through Ashlyn’s head as she studied the girl’s face. There was a shiny metal pendant around the girl’s neck, and she reached for it.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” A different voice this time. One she’d describe as demanding, unapologetic…

Familiar.

“My job.” She pulled out her ID as she turned around. For a moment she crouched, jaw open, then dropped her hand and put her badge away. He was tall, athletic, dark hair, a face of stone, and he never let anyone call him by his first name. She frowned as she realized she didn’t even know his first name herself. That was the kind of distance he put between himself and even the people he worked closely with, but she knew he had a warm smile when he let his guard down and was a good person. “Jesus.”

“Well, I am back from the dead.”

“Your penance is over?”

One curt nod. “Sorry. Didn’t know you’d been called out on this.”

“I wasn’t. I’m working the arsons.”

The skin between his brows puckered. “Wasn’t that Robinson’s case?”

“Not anymore. He died.” Ashlyn was still crouching between him and the girl, obscuring Tain’s view.

She almost couldn’t believe it was him. They’d worked together once, on a tough case. One she tried hard not to think about. At the end of the day they’d solved it, but it seemed like Tain had managed to piss off every se nior officer from Vancouver to Halifax in the pro cess. It had taken a toll on him.

It had taken a toll on all of them. Maybe that’s why she’d found herself making excuses when it was over, picking up the phone and setting it down without dialing the number . ..

Willing herself to forget. Willing herself to believe they all had forgotten and that nobody wanted to hear from her because it would bring it all back.

“What have you got?”

“Likely the reason for the fire.” She stood up and stepped back so that she wasn’t in his way.

“Purple shirt, green pants . . .” Tain’s eyes turned down at the corners. With him, the expressions were all subtle, but she knew him well enough to see it.

“And a charm on a necklace.”

“Shit.” His fingers pushed through his short dark hair and into his skull. “It’s Isabella Bertini.”

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What Burns Within is currently available from Dorchester Publishing and is the first book in the Nolan, Hart and Tain police procedural series. It will be followed with the release of The Frailty of Flesh in November, 2008.

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