The same goes for the title. I like Fire On Mist Creek ... although it should be pointed out that at no time in the story will there be a literal fire on the creek. Anyway, here's the opening scene:
FIRE ON MIST CREEK
Alice didn’t have to be a firefighter to know the truck had been on fire.
She switched on her SUV’s hazard lights and slowed down, passing the pickup truck before coming to a stop on the berm. It didn’t take great detective skills, either: A red fire extinguisher and an empty water jug stood near the truck’s hood, which was propped open. The underside of the hood was covered with whirls of smoke and scorch marks, and in the glow of her taillights she could see the slightest wisp of smoke drift up from the engine.
Grabbing her Maglite, Alice opened the door and stepped out. Her passenger let out a mournful howl, and she turned toward the elderly Dalmatian. “You need a potty break, Halon?”
Halon wagged her tail. “Well, it’s not like there’s a lot of traffic at three in the morning.” She left the door open, and the dog climbed down. There was a passing lane here, a third lane added to let drivers get by semis climbing the slope away from Mist Creek, although the truck had been headed toward the town. Passing lanes were common in this hilly section of northwest Kentucky, but at this hour it just meant a lonely stretch of highway seemed lonelier.
Alice played her light over the pickup truck while Halon headed for the side of the road. After a moment Alice approached, shining the light inside to confirm a lack of occupants. Two old, battered suitcases and a backpack appeared to have been abandoned in the truck bed. She was reaching for her cell phone when Halon started whining and she glanced over, to see the old girl beside the guardrail, wagging her tail.
Along with another shadowy figure.
Alice’s heart skipped a beat, and it took a second for her to recover enough to shine the light that way. The man sitting against the railing paid her absolutely no attention—he was busy petting the dog.
“How you doing, girl? Love a Dalmatian, and you’re an extra cute one.” Now he glanced up, shading his hazel eyes. “Is this your guard dog?” Halon laid down and rolled over, presenting her belly to the stranger. “Guess not.”
“She’s supposed to be tearing your arm off right now.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll get around to it.” He commenced belly rubbing, making one of Halon’s back legs twitch.
After an automatic moment of caution, Alice had to relax a bit at the way Halon took to the man. Usually the dog was a bit standoffish toward anyone who wasn’t a Mist Creek resident, or a …
Ah. When he looked up again, Alice recognized the Maltese cross on the newcomer’s t-shirt. A glimpse of his wristwatch showed the same symbol, and she relaxed more. “Have a fire, fireman?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle—I had a backup supply of drinking water. If that hadn’t done it, I’ve been on the road for a while and haven’t seen a rest stop.” He stood, revealing himself to be half a head taller than Alice—maybe six foot three. His sandy hair was cut short, but he sported at least a day’s stubble. Halon stood on her hind legs to lean against his muscular chest, so he went back to petting her. “Oh, and I believe the term these days is firefighter. You look like you are one.”
“The front license plate that says ‘Mist Creek Fire Department’, and that little red light bar on your Ford. Where I come from there’s no place for a vanity plate.” He smiled.
Nice smile—wherever he came from apparently had a good dental plan. She could so be a detective. “I’m Alice.”
“Reed Carter.” They shook hands, which struck her as faintly ridiculous. He had a good grip, and less calloused hands than she would have expected. Halon wedged between them in a push for more loving, which this time Alice provided. “I would have called for help, but it appears your hills are phone service resistant.”
“Just passing through?” A reasonable question, she thought. Technically they were on a Kentucky state highway, but it didn’t get much traffic, especially lately.
“Well …” Halon jumped up, planting her forelegs on his chest again. He rubbed her back, then gently lowered her to the ground. “It depends on whether your dog is the biggest tourist attraction. Is there a motel in Misty Creek?”
“Mist Creek. A few miles past, but it’s right along this highway. How do you plan to get there?”
Apparently he hadn’t thought of that. “Um …” He glanced back at the truck. “Well, I’ll just walk. The weather’s nice for this time of year—it’s October now, isn’t it? Seems like it should be cooler.”
Alice’s mind was on anything but the weather. Reed Carter looked a few years older than her, maybe thirty-five, and he was built like—well, a firefighter. Overall he seemed like a pretty normal person, if you could call firefighters normal, but she had to keep in mind that he was a stranger.
Halon broke away from her and rubbed against Reed’s leg. He reached down to scratch behind her ears.
Okay, Alice might have lost her skills at judging men, but Halon could be trusted all day long. “Put your stuff in the back. I’ll give you a ride to the motel.”
Reed blinked. “You will?”
She didn’t miss the look of gratitude on his face, but he said only, “We’re all brothers … and sisters.”
She reached into the pocket of her windbreaker, which suddenly seemed too warm, and pushed the button to unlock the SUV’s gate. “You’re not a pervert, are you?”
“No more than average. You’re not hauling uranium or nitroglycerin, are you?”
“Not this week. This week I’m serving with the Town Watch.” She felt a little silly identifying her more or less official position, and realized she never had to before. But sometimes that kind of thing cut down on the chance of someone acting wrongly.
“I see.” He carefully set his luggage into the back of her Ford. “So we’ll make our Escape. See what I did, there?”
“I do … I’ve never actually had anyone make fun of my vehicle’s model.”
Alice opened the car’s back door, as Reed walked around to the other side. “Halon, get into Lucy.”
Reed paused with his door open. “Lucy?” The dog vaulted into the back seat, then lurched forward to lick his hand.
“She’d a redhead” Alice patted the Ford’s top, then got in at the same time Reed did. There was a moment of uncomfortable closeness before they situated themselves and belted in. “Does your truck have a name?”
“Clunker. But I named her—it—him? Just now. I’ve never driven it much, and never out of town … I’m not all that surprised it didn’t hold up for a road trip.”
“Good thing you were the right man for that particular breakdown.” She made a mental note to notify the county dispatch center of the vehicle’s location and the status of its driver, then gave him a sidelong glance before pulling out onto the highway. “Do, how long have you been fighting fires?”
“Fourteen years, but I don’t do it anymore.” His voice seemed to tighten a bit for a moment, then relaxed again. “How about you?”
She couldn’t help smiling. “Fourteen years.”
“No kidding? We should start a fourteen-year club.”
“I have a feeling you were on a busier department, though.” His t-shirt did indeed have the fire service’s traditional Maltese cross on it along with a pattern of firefighting tools—crossed ladder and ax—but there was nothing to identify his department. She’d noticed words across the back: “Just Point to the Smoke and Get Out of the Way”. Definitely not an official department shirt.
“Oh, probably. They all burn the same, though.” He reached back to pat Halon, who had rested her head on his shoulder. “I decided to move on a few months ago.”
Moving on from firefighting? Alice had a hard time imagining that. “Have you considered—?”
Halon sat up straight and gave out a blood-curdling howl.
Shrill beeps came from the pager on her belt. She jumped a little despite herself, while Reed leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. The female voice that emerged from the little speaker made her heart start pounding.
“Mist Creek Fire, respond to a house fire, 5364 North Old Trail Road. CP advises heavy smoke from the second floor.”
Alice’s foot, almost unconsciously, pressed down on the accelerator. Then the address kicked in, and she eased up. “Oh, boy.”