It was so good to be back.
Dropping his bag, Bolivar MacDaniel waved as the charter boat he’d been working on pulled away from the dock where it had dropped him. The rest of the crew would be heading for the mainland, letting the others off closer to Norfolk.
Mac had only been gone for a week this time, which was a bit shorter than most of his fishing gigs. Even so, it was always a relief to set his feet on land again.
Luck had been with them, and their fishing trip had wrapped up a day earlier than planned when the coolers filled with tuna. All he needed to do now was haul his gear to his car and drive home. His wife wasn’t expecting him for at least another day, so this would be a fun surprise.
Mac glanced toward the horizon, where the sun was just beginning its descent into the sea. There were about two hours of daylight left. If he didn’t waste time, he could still make it for a sunset walk with Paula. They didn’t get a lot of nights together, so they both treasured the time they did have. Watching the sun fall below the horizon, the sky shifting from amber to blue, the air cooling on their cheeks…nothing was more romantic than an evening stroll.
He scanned up and down the stretch of coastline. Deserted. Everyone was probably having dinner with their loved ones. Soon enough, that would be him too.
Unfortunately, he’d packed too fast upon learning they’d be returning ahead of schedule and had to dig through his bag to find his car keys. He chuckled to himself, thinking about how Paula would curse nonstop as she searched her purse for keys that she swore had to be hidden at the bottom.
Taking inspiration from his wife, he shoved his hand to the bottom of his jam-packed duffel, which required him to kneel and put his arm in all the way up to his shoulder. Wriggling his fingers, he was rewarded by the curve of a metal key ring and wrapped his fingers around it. The keys snagged repeatedly as he pulled, but with a bit of tugging, he managed to free them.
Time to go home.
Keys clenched in his teeth, he folded and secured the top of his bag. Now all he had to do was lug his equipment down the long pier at Dee’s Dock and then up the gentle slope to where he’d left his car.
Mac stood, slinging the bag over his shoulder, and headed that way. He was already daydreaming about the kind of greeting his wife would give him when he arrived home.
Then he smelled the smoke.
Whirling around, he surveyed the boats lining both sides of the dock. Working crafts of all kinds crowded the dock, front to back. There was even an extra vessel he could barely perceive beyond a row of others on his left.
Could someone be grilling on their ship? Though not uncommon, the smell was wrong. This wasn’t the scent of meat cooking.
Mac took several steps, looking for the source of the scent. He only made it a few feet before a thin stream of smoke rose over the boats. Dropping his bag, he shoved his keys into his pocket and ran.
Smoke billowed from a cabin on a boat two slips closer to the shore. A light was on inside it. Whether it was from the flames or a bulb, he wasn’t sure.
“Hey! You okay in there?”
When no one answered, Mac climbed aboard. It was a fishing vessel with an awning that covered half the back deck. His gaze landed on that boat he’d noticed a minute ago. It was a large yacht with an angled canopy.
That’s odd. Why would a yacht be here?
This dock was for deepwater working boats. All the yachts were moored elsewhere.
Rushing under the awning, he spotted the stairs that led down to the cabins and another set that led up to the steering. The smell of gasoline hit him, and he pulled his phone from his pocket to call 911.
“Ahoy, the boat!” He cupped his free hand to his mouth in an effort to be heard. “Anyone down there? Can you hear me?”
The crackle of flames was his only response.
Shit. Shit. Shit. I need a damn fire extinguisher. Now.
He looked around, searching for one. The fire belowdecks wasn’t big yet. If he could put it out, he could save precious minutes before help arrived.
Tapping on his phone’s keypad, he headed back to the dock. He’d search another boat for an extinguisher while he called the fire department.
He’d just tapped nine when a searing pain detonated at the back of his head. His world exploded into a cacophony of dazzling lights. He teetered sideways and reached out for something—anything—that could anchor him to reality. The cruel void met his desperate search, offering no solace or stability.
Finding nothing but air, Mac was hurled into the abyss.
What the hell?
Had it been a minute? An hour? Disoriented by space and time, Mac groaned.
Pain stabbed through his skull the instant he tried to roll over. His head pounded like he’d just finished a three-day bender, but that didn’t add up. Forcing his eyelids apart, he saw light pulsing and dancing around the small cabin. He slammed his eyes shut again.
Heat. It’s so hot. What’s going on?
He struggled to gather his scattered thoughts. He was lying on something hard, harder than even his bunk. Rolling to his side, away from the heat, he gasped. Pain crackled in his head. Taking a deep breath, he coughed. The smell finally registered, and he opened his eyes in horror.
Smoke filled the room. Thick and darkened from the burning area rugs and varnished wood. Flames leaped into view.
There was no air, and he barely managed to croak out one word. “Help.”
On his hands and knees, he tried to escape the heat from the fire. Black smoke engulfed his body, even low to the floor as he was. Memories flickered as the flames encroached.
He’d been on the dock. Was about to go home to surprise his wife. A sunset walk. Then he’d seen the smoke on a boat. He’d rushed onto the boat and then…what?
He tried to make out his surroundings. There was the metal leg of a table and the base of a curved bench. This was the galley. Somehow, he’d fallen down the stairs and wound up here, where the fire had started.
If he wanted any chance of survival, he had to get out. Bracing his hands on the bench, he pushed himself to his feet. His head spun as his balance shifted. After spending most of his life on ships, his sea legs were rock steady, yet he couldn’t keep his footing.
Years of working on chartered fishing excursions told him he had a limited amount of time to get off the boat under these conditions. If he stayed there much longer, the fire would spread to the fuel tanks, and he’d be blown right out of the water.
He clenched his eyes tight against the pain throbbing in his head. It felt like any moment his eyes would explode from the pressure behind them. He held his arm up in front of his face, trying to stave off the smoke.
There was nothing but heat. Lunging forward, he prayed he’d find the stairs leading up to fresh air and safety. Fire raced over the surface of the counter next to him. He jerked away from it, slamming his hip into something he could not see.
His throat burned, and he started coughing. It was like a furnace in his chest as the fire cascaded down the cupboards and approached his feet. Mac shuffled forward, not sure if he was walking toward or away from the exit. All he knew was that he had to move.
A jarring boom resounded overhead. The concussion of it knocked him forward, forcing him back onto his hands and knees.
Air. He needed air.
It was so hard to breathe. He couldn’t stop coughing. Swiping a hand across his eyes, he tried to clear his vision. He could barely make out what was in front of him.
A metal square with a handle that ran along the top. An oven.
In his desperation, he must’ve stumbled deeper into the galley instead of toward the stairs. Flames crept down around him as the fiberglass ceiling above melted.
Mac opened his mouth to scream for help once again. He never even heard the second boom as the propane tank for the stove exploded in the heat.
Sheriff Rebecca West stood beside the open door of her cruiser where she’d just parked next to the dock house at Dee’s Dock.
The sun was about an hour away from leaving them in twilight. Shadows stretched long, distorted by the dance of flames racing along the dock, the boats, and even across the water itself. Heavy black smoke billowed from the entire right side of the wooden walkway, obscuring her view. She tried to make sense of what she was seeing to formulate the best plan.
Viviane was right. This was bad, and even from her vantage point, Rebecca could see that it could easily get much worse.
Up and down the dock, people disappeared and reappeared through the smoke, calling out to each other as they ran. Their words were jumbled from the crackling roar of fire and the slap of waves.
High tide was about three hours away, so they had limited time before the waves would push the burning watercraft to shore.
Was that good or bad? Rebecca didn’t know.
Slamming her door shut, she darted around the raised porch of the dock house and down the ramp to join the swarm. Once she was below the belching smoke, she watched people of all ages running with buckets, axes, knives, and hoses. The boats that weren’t engulfed in flames had been cut loose and pushed out of harm’s way by anyone who could reach them.
A fire brigade had started, with good Samaritans lining the edge of the dock where it was safe from the heat. They pulled up seawater, passing buckets over their heads to the waiting hands of the next person. Two pitiful hoses worked along the pier, but they didn’t seem to make any difference to the blue-white flames.
The roar of a heavy engine caught Rebecca’s attention. She was surprised she could hear anything over the shouting and the devouring noises of the fire. A silvery red fireboat raced in from the north, coming around the curve of the island.
Before it even seemed close enough to help, it shot a large stream of water from below its hull. As the boat neared, the driver skillfully maneuvered the water cannon, targeting the fiercest patches of the blaze with impressive precision.
With a cacophony of curse words and prayers, the bucket brigade dropped what they were doing and ran to the ramp that led them back to shore, away from the drenching spray. Rebecca stepped aside as they passed before turning to watch the firefighters work. All of them were dressed in casual clothing. Volunteers who’d dropped everything to run out and help when needed.
Rebecca turned to find Deputy Greg Abner on the porch of the dock house. His silver hair served as a stark contrast to his deep tan, acquired from countless hours on his fishing boat. He’d come out of retirement to help her get the two new deputies trained.
Right beside him was one of the new ones, Jake Coffey, a Virginia State Trooper until recently. Even at a distance, his piercing blue eyes stood out against the evening sky. Her newest deputy had come highly recommended by VSP Special Agent Rhonda Lettinger. The two men ran down the ramp.
“Where do you want us, Sheriff?” Jake was slightly out of breath as he paused next to her—not from any lack of fitness, but because the air was getting harder to breathe.
The fire on the dock was almost out, and ropes of smoke swirled through the heated air as the cool ocean water from the fireboat arched over it. Nowhere on the docks was safe now, as structural integrity had been compromised by the fire. Cool mist and superheated air washed over them in waves, revealing charred areas.
Rebecca turned and motioned for them to retreat. It would only get worse once the firefighters turned their attention to the boats.
They reached the porch, where they could talk without having to scream. The civilians who’d run over to assist earlier were spreading out, walking through the tall grasses on the shore. None of them paid any attention to the police among them. Everyone’s focus was centered on the fire.
Greg tapped Jake’s shoulder. “See that guy in the white shirt with the red axe?” Jake nodded. “That’s Dee Newton. He’s the owner of the dock and head of the fire crew as well. Coordinate with him.”
As Jake ran off, Rebecca raised her pen camera toward one group of people.
She caught Greg staring. “Just in case. I’m going to take a quick video. Firebugs like hanging around to watch their fires but leave as it gets extinguished.”
“Which means you need to make sure you get the shots while the fire is still burning.” He kept his gaze locked on the water, but she still heard the hint of condemnation in his voice because she wasn’t rushing forward to put out the fires. It stung a little, but she tried to shrug it off.
Rebecca nodded, pivoting so she got the entire scene in detail. “Truthfully, there are enough people helping with fire control already. I’d rather document evidence.”
Greg grunted as she finished and tucked the camera into her pocket. “That makes sense.” He gestured at the people who were sliding down the hill toward the water. Jake was already down there, up to his waist as he pulled a tired swimmer in. “They’re going to be cold as hell. Follow me inside. I know where the blankets are kept.”
“On the right in the blue bins.” Rebecca walked beside him.
He slid his eyes over to her. “You been here before?”
“I wasn’t just standing there twiddling my thumbs before you showed up. Situations like this, where I’m one of the last on the scene and everyone seems to know what they’re doing, it’s best to hang back and take it all in first. I heard Dee telling people to come in and get blankets.”
Rebecca yanked open the door to the dock house. It was weather-beaten and smaller inside than it looked. The land side of the building was for parts and repairs. There was a wall with a doorway dividing it down the middle. The side she was on was for the dock renters. It was a basic reception area with two metal-and-plastic chairs along the front wall and a counter that served as the room divider.
Wooden racks holding brochures flanked an old corkboard slathered in business cards and help-wanted flyers. Under that was a stack of four long blue tubs. Rebecca popped the lid on the top one. It was filled to capacity with carefully folded woolen blankets.
“Good thinking, Sheriff.”
Rebecca turned to find that a man carrying a fire axe had followed them in. He was the same one Greg had pointed out as Dee.
“Haul those down and get as many people wrapped as you can. Couple of folks got their arms and legs burned when the fire flared up. It’s not cold, but the water’s a bit chilly. That, plus the shock will get to them. We got ambulances on the way?”
Greg pulled out his radio. “Dispatch, what’s the ETA on those buses?”
“The vans from the health center should be there any minute, but they don’t have sirens. Keep an eye out for them. The ambulances have just crossed the bridge. Another five minutes they said, since you’re on the opposite side of the island.”
Even though he was new to his position, Elliot Ping was already settling into his job as dispatcher and didn’t sound as shaky as he had even a week ago.
Rebecca checked the second blue tub and found that it, too, was filled with blankets.
Dee was busy moving around behind the counter. “Greg, come help me with this. The sheriff looks like she can handle the blankets. But we need to get something warm in their bellies too.”
The aroma of coffee took over the small space in no time as the two men gathered Styrofoam cups and two carafes.
“I’ll meet you outside, gentlemen. Greg, while you’re handing that out, see if you can get some answers about what happened.”
Rebecca stacked the tubs on top of each other and hoisted them up, barely able to peer over the top bin. They were heavier than she’d expected, but she managed to push open the door with her back. She was grateful the pain from her previous injuries was gone and no longer impacted her ability to help the great people of Shadow Island.
Two dozen souls, some visibly scarred from burns, others shivering uncontrollably, gathered in the aftermath. Rebecca hated that the thin comfort of blankets and the warmth of hot coffee were all they had to stave off their immediate suffering. Thankfully, medical assistance would arrive shortly.
As Rebecca looked over the huddled figures, she sent a silent plea skyward, hoping against hope that everyone would pull through.
Where there’s smoke, there’s murder.
As the sun dips toward the horizon at Dee’s Dock, a yacht ignites more than just the evening sky— it sparks yet another deadly mystery on Shadow Island. Sheriff Rebecca West leads the charge as the tight-knit community bands together to battle the blaze. But as the smoke clears, a chilling discovery is made… arson is only the beginning, and the charred remains aboard signal murder.
Was the fire the ultimate goal, or was the blaze a smokescreen for a much darker deed?