“But we have no enemies!”… Why would a young mother, happily married and safely nestled
amongst the cornfields of small town Illinois suddenly start finding murder attempts around
every corner? A fireman, Jim thrives on danger, that is until, coming in a different form, it
creeps closer than he ever expected – not for him, but for the one he loves more than life itself –
his wife. Who and why? How can the “protector” keep his most cherished possession from this
unseen killer? Totally innocent – untouched by evil, Jess cannot explain nor understand the
incidents threatening her very existence. Holding on to her husband and clinging to her
knowledge of a powerful God, she can only strive to keep trust in her soul and a smile in her
heart, as the icy fingers of death lurk, coiled behind every corner. Safe in innocence, secure in
love – marked for murder! God bless our home – if it doesn’t blow up!
Bright autumn leaves whirled around an even brighter red F-150 spurting down the gravel road. At the wheel, Jim Richards, enjoying the cool breeze ruffling his hair and the warm sun tanning the side of his face, had his arm through the open window. In his opinion, northern
was at its peak in the fall. He glanced around at the walls of corn drying on
either side of the road, brown with just a hint of green. They’ll harvest ‘em pretty soon. Illinois
Jim returned a wave from the driver of an oncoming car. He didn’t know who it was. People were just friendly like that in this small-town, farming community. He and his wife, Jessica, farmed a few acres of hay and bred a small herd on a little horse farm between the
village of Oak Creek
and the larger town of .
For an average-size guy, Jim’s frame sported a lot of solid muscle. He liked to work and enjoyed a healthy lifestyle. His blond hair was dark, almost brown, cut short and combed to the side. His eyes were a soft, sky-blue and held a mixture of humor, determination, kindness, compassion, or anger – whatever the situation called for.
Giant, white, cotton ball clouds made the sky seem bluer than normal. Jim glanced down at the clock. Better hurry. You’re gonna be late for work. Pushing down on the accelerator, he knew he was going a little faster than he should on these curvy, gravel roads, but he told himself he had grown up around here and knew the area like the back of his hand.
He slowed to the speed limit as he turned onto the main drag going into
Jim flipped off the radio. It never took him very long to get annoyed with it. It was always on the
“all-news” station, and he really couldn’t care less how the traffic was moving
on the Eisenhower or the Kennedy. If there was anything else on that station,
he never knew, since he always turned if off before he heard it. Chicago
Huh, car in my spot, he thought to himself, as he pulled into the parking lot of the Spring Valley Fire Station.
Jim walked into the locker room. “Hey, Thundercloud, exactly what are you doing in my parking place?” Jim asked his best friend, jokingly.
“Your parking place? Your deed of ownership, please?” Wade Thundercloud held out his hand.
“Squatter’s rights, my brother. Everyone knows that is my parking place.” Jim took his uniform shirt out of his locker.
“Uh oh, looks like another storm’s a brewin’ between Jim and Big Chief Thundercloud,” Carlos laughed.
“Did I miss something?” a fireman Jim didn’t know asked.
“It’s relentless persecution for my name,” Wade grumbled, buckling his belt.
“His name’s Wade Thundercloud. In case you haven’t noticed, the boy’s a full blooded redskin,” Carlos, a brawny, Hispanic fireman, explained as he buttoned his shirt.
Wade rolled his eyes. “Isn’t that a racist statement?”
Carlos laughed, “Awww…we hurt the little guy’s feelings.”
Wade threw his shirt at Carlos. “Oh, it’s on.”
“Yeah, maybe we should change the subject,” Jim suggested.
“Hey, I was kinda enjoying it. The guys at my last station were, like, way too serious,” the new guy protested.
“Yeah, talkin’ ‘bout that, who are you anyway? Derrick get kicked out or something?” Jim put his foot on the paint-chipped bench to tie his shoelace.
“Name’s Travis. Derrick’s sick or something, so I got called over as his replacement.”
Jim nodded and began to tie his other shoe.
“Yeah, well, it’ll be nice to be partnered with a guy that has a little more experience.” Wade straightened his collar. “Derrick’s been out of the academy for almost two years, but he’s only twenty-one.” He buttoned his cuffs. “He graduated from high school a year early when he was sixteen, took one year of paramedic training, quit for a year, then took the last year when he was nineteen.”
“Why’d he quit for a year?”
“Who knows with that kid.”
Jim gave Wade a sideways glance of disapproval.
“By the way, Jim.” Carlos tucked in his shirt. “Cap’s gone at more divorce proceedings so we got Captain Johnson.”
Jim grunted an acknowledgment and then closed his locker door. He was glad to be back to work and was ready for action.
Today was hay-stacking day. Jessica Richards really didn’t mind. She loved being out in the barn with the smell of hay. Besides, throwing hay bales all day was one way of keeping in shape, and what girl didn’t want that? Of course, if her husband had been home, she would have conned him into doing it or at least into helping.
She grabbed a bail in each hand and climbed the ladder to the loft. People had commented that she was stronger than she looked. She was only five-foot-three and one-hundred pounds. Her chestnut hair fell thick and shiny to the middle of her back, and her deep brown eyes danced with joy and excitement more often than not. At twenty-three, she was a year younger than her husband and the proud mother of their beautiful baby girl.
After two hours of strenuous hay-stacking, Jess was beginning to wonder if the horses were worth all this trouble. She plopped down on a bale of hay in the loft and sighed. Halfway done.
She just sat there a moment, leaning against the stack of hay bales. She seriously contemplated just backing the hay wagon into the lower half of the hay shed and calling it quits for the day. Why not just leave the wagon there permanently and save all this trouble? After all, they never used this barn for anything other than hay, anyway. She smiled to herself as she imagined Jim’s reaction to that idea. That item of business would never make its way to a serious discussion bu-ut… She chuckled at some humorous mental images of his likely aghast response and filed the topic away in her memory as a good conversation starter to lighten the mood some likely evening. Smile weakening, she huffed a sigh. Un-for-tun-ately… that topic would have to keep for a while since he would not be coming home tonight.
She stretched. Maybe I should go inside, get a glass of cool lemonade, and see how Morgan’s doin’. Mrs. Robinson, an older lady from church, had offered to watch Morgan so she could get some chores done. She wiped her face with her sleeve. It felt good to sweat again. She hadn’t done much really hard labor since before she had Morgan.
As she got up to go down, the smell of smoke drifted up to her. She looked down the ladder. A thick cloud of dark gray smoke filled the barn. Breathing into her sleeve, Jess practically jumped down the ladder, frantic to get out. She raced for the door, but bright, daunting, orange flames already billowed across that escape route. Smoke burned her eyes. She darted for the back, but it was no good. Fire devoured the entire frame. Every wall blazed. Her lungs burned from the smoke.
She turned a full circle but saw fire in every direction. I have to get out, now! Lord, please, please give me a way out! The loft! Spinning around, she raced for the ladder. The heat grew more intense. Flames crept around the ladder, but she knew she had to go for it. As she raced to the top, the heat nearly overwhelmed her. Her lungs screamed for air. Relief flooded her when she saw that the loft door wasn’t engulfed. Thank you, Lord.
Kicking the wooden doors open, she jumped, bracing herself for the impact. Pain and gladness swept over her as she hit the ground. Gasping for air, she was so glad to be alive. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.
Jim sniffed the air as he walked into the kitchen. “What’s that smell?”
“Wade’s cooking lunch today. We’ll probably all end up in the ER with food poisoning,” Dan, their oldest firefighter at forty-three, replied.
“Hey, don’t criticize my stew.”
“Yeah, I found a prize-winning stew recipe and a prize-winning soup recipe. I’m just gonna mix everything together, and you won’t believe what I come up with.”
“I’m sure of that.”
“Just wait. You’ll love it.” Wade stirred the concoction.
Jim looked skeptical. “Did you burn something?”
“Well, the rice got a little done.”
BURRRUZZZ… The deafening fire bell sounded. Wade switched off the stove and hurried after the crowd out to the trucks. The address came over the loud speaker. Jim froze as he grabbed his helmet. “That’s my house!” Carlos shoved Jim into the engine, flipped on the sirens, and followed the squad out onto the road.
Jim’s heart raced, and his adrenaline pumped in overdrive. What happened? How did it start? Are Jess and Morgan okay? Did they get out? Jim clutched the handle near the door until his knuckles turned white. Faster! Faster!
He could see the smoke billowing as they turned onto the gravel road.
Fear invaded him as he saw flames plume above the hay barn. NO! Jess was going to be in there stacking hay today! His heart pounded.
The engine swung into the driveway. The barn looked like a lost cause. Jim’s eyes wildly scanned the area, looking for Jess. She stood in the grass with the elderly babysitter a little ways from the barn, holding their baby. Relief swept over him. They’re okay.
As the engine came to a stop in the front of the barn, they all piled out. Jim raced to his wife. As soon as he reached her, Jess handed the baby to Mrs. Robinson and fell into his arms. He could smell the strong odor of smoke on her. She hid her face in his shoulder. Now that she was in her husband’s strong arms, she let tears flow and allowed herself some quiet sobs.
Jim could feel her shaking. He held her tight, resting his cheekbone on her head. “Are you all right? I almost went crazy when I heard the address and saw….” His voice trailed off.
“I’m fine. Twisted my ankle. Just gla… I’m just glad to be alive.” Her voice shook.
“What happened?” He didn’t want to let go.
Wade put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “They need your help, man. We’ll take care of her.” Reluctantly, Jim surrendered her to the paramedics and, after a final kiss, left to help with the fire.
The barn was so far gone that they decided just to contain it. Jim thanked the Lord that there was no wind and that the fire had not spread to the main barn or the house.
After the fire was out, Jim took off his helmet and began looking around for his wife. Seeing her seated on the ground leaning against the squad, he took his equipment back to the truck and joined her.
“So how ya doin’?”
“I have been diagnosed with a twisted ankle and mild smoke inhalation.” She coughed into her arm. “For a minute I thought I was a goner, but the Lord showed me a way out.”
“I’m just so glad you weren’t hurt any worse.” He put his arm around her and pulled her into a hug.
She leaned her head against his shoulder, feeling so much safer with him there. “Do they know how it started?”
Jim broke away from her gaze, glancing back at what had been their barn. “They think it was arson.”
“Arson?” Jess sat up straight and stared at him.
“Yeah…they say that someone soaked the walls with accelerant, then came back later and lit it.”
“Why would anyone do that?” She paused. “You mean they came back and lit it while I was in there? They were trying to…?” Her voice quivered.
“That’s not why. Most likely, they got scared off the first time and then came back. It’s probably just teens doing it for kicks. You were up in the loft. They must not have seen you.”
She glanced down at her hands. “I hope you’re right. I just can’t imagine anyone doing something like that for fun. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Some people don’t make sense.”
Wade came over and knelt down in front of Jess. “Are you sure that you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
“Yeah. Mrs. Robinson will drive me to my own doctor after I’ve had a chance to calm down.”
“Do you want me to try and get off work to go with you?” Jim asked.
“No. I’ll be fine. Just so whoever this was doesn’t come back.”
“It was probably just some jerk….”
“I know.… That’s what Jim said.”
“Of course, on the other hand…” Jim lowered his voice and shifted his eyes back and forth. “…it could be the ghost of some long lost second or third cousin seeking vengeance.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “Right.”
“Vengeance for what?” Wade grinned.
“Only the shadow knows.”
“Uh-huh.” Jess held out her hand to Jim who stood in front of her. He pulled her up.
“I better go find Mrs. Robinson and the baby. I’m pretty sure they went inside.” She reached to put her arms around her husband’s neck. Jim bent down. Usually, she stood on her toes, but that wasn’t going to work with a twisted ankle. Jim really wasn’t that tall. She was just that short.
“I’ll see ya tomorrow.” She finished the hug.
“Yeah, okay.” He kissed her and let her go. “Do you need help getting to the house?”
“No, I’ll be fine.” She smiled and began hobbling toward the house. As she went, she heard the alarm sound on the engine’s radio. Turning, she watched everyone pile in and the trucks speed out of the drive.
Not seeing Jim for twenty-four hours at a time was what she disliked most about his job, but it was what he really wanted to do, so she put up with it. She limped up the porch and into the house.
Mrs. Robinson sat in a recliner, rocking the baby. “Did Jim leave already?”
“Yeah. They had another call.” Jess coughed into her elbow. She still felt a little shaky, but she was calming down. “Oh, give me my little girl,” she said softly, bending down to gather her little one into her arms.
“Here you go.” Mrs. Robinson smiled as she handed her to her Mama.
“And how’s my little Morgan?” Jess swung the baby over her head, causing the little girl to wiggle and giggle. Sitting down, Jess put Morgan down in her lap as another coughing fit struck.
Mrs. Robinson headed for the phone in the kitchen. “Do you want me to make an appointment with your doctor?”
“I suppose. … Maybe she won’t have any openings today.”
“Jess-i-ca.” Mrs. Robinson put her hands on her hips reprovingly.
“Well… Can I help it if I’m not crazy about doctors?”
“Jim must be rubbing off on you. I’ll call.”
Jess just stared a moment into the bright, lively blue eyes of her beautiful girl, just so thankful that she could.