A big thanks to my editor, Anne Bohner at NAL; to Winterville, Georgia, Chief of Police Eric Pozen for bringing me up to speed on meth labs; and to Judy Iakovou and Diane Trap for their wise advice. I appreciate all of you.
Diane Fallon jerked to consciousness. She lay for a moment, caught between waking and sleep, frightened, not knowing where she was or what she had heard. She tried to focus her eyes. On the wall next to her bed a glass-covered photograph of a chambered nautilus flickered with an orange glow. Diane sucked in a breath, rolled over, rose on her elbow, and looked out the window of her apartment. Beyond the glistening fresh-fallen snow covering the ground, the ice-covered trees lining her street were silhouetted by an unnatural orange glow. A smoky haze drifted through the light of the streetlamps. A hail of sparks, punctuated by intermittent sounds like muffled gunshots or distant fireworks, swirled and fell from the navy blue night sky. In the distance, orange and yellow flames engulfed whatever lay beneath.
Diane swung her feet to the floor and sat up, trying to clear the fog that still held on to her brain. “Oh, God,” she whispered. There were houses on that street, mostly rented by students of Bartram University. She looked at her alarm clock but found it dangling off the nightstand at the end of its cord. The illuminated digits switched from 3:06 to 3:07 as she put it back in place. Explosion. There must have been an explosion. That’s what woke me up.
Diane reached for the phone, heard a distant sound of sirens, and drew back her hand. Garnett, the chief of detectives, would call her when she was needed. She wasn’t a first responder. Like medical examiners and undertakers, forensic anthropologists and crime scene specialists are among the last to be called—when there are only the dead to help.
Watching the fire, she sat for several moments on the edge of her bed. Briefly she thought of lying back down to try for a few more hours’ sleep, but went for a shower instead. When the inevitable call came, she wanted to feel alert, and she thought a shower and coffee would do the job better than sleep.
It wasn’t a call that came, but a banging on the door. Diane stepped out of the shower, wrapped herself in a robe, and hurried across the living room.
“Who is it?” she called out.
A female voice, stressed and hesitant, called through the door. “Miss Fallon? We’re your upstairs neighbors.”
Diane opened the door. The two of them, young husband and pregnant wife, wrapped in dark blue parkas and knit caps pulled down over their ears, stood in the doorway.
Diane stood dripping under her robe, trying to think of their names. Leslie and Shane, she remembered. They’d lived here several weeks, but Diane hadn’t made their acquaintance yet. She felt a pang of guilt. A cool breeze from the stairs made her shiver.
“Hello,” she said, looking down at Leslie’s swollen midsection. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“No.” They both shook their heads. “We’re just making sure everyone heard the evacuation announcement. The police are driving up and down the street calling out for everyone to leave this area. There’s been some kind of chemical explosion.” The young woman cradled her belly as she spoke.
“Oh, oh, my God,” said Diane. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I was in the shower and didn’t hear . . .”
She let her words trail off as the door across the hallway opened and Veda and Marvin Odell, the