For the next three days I’m going to share the last of the chapters of A New Chapter (renamed Beauty From Ashes). The complete book will be available in full on various sites on April 26. You can pre-order it HERE or HERE.
Millie Baker stared at him through the glass door of her shop, her eyes widened in curious terror. He heard the lock on the other side of the door click and the door squeaked as it opened a few inches. “Matt, what should I do? Is that young man hurt? Should I call 911?”
“Yes, Mrs. Baker. Lock the door again and get to the back of the shop and call 911. Tell them we have an active shooter, okay?”
The elderly women lowered her head and he thought he saw a tear on her cheek. Poor Millie. Gunshots weren’t something the people of Spencer ever heard on their Main Street. The world was changing, and it wasn’t something anyone was comfortable with, not even Matt who’d known for years it would all spill into this picturesque scene one day, marring its quaintness.
He turned his attention back to Bernie. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dan running toward him down the street in the direction of the coffee shop.
“Active shooter! Everyone, get down!” Dan’s voice echoed through the street that had vacated within seconds after the gunshots sounded.
Dan kneeled next to Bernie in the doorway, looking at Matt. “Did you hear where the shots came from?”
Matt gripped the gun, looked down the street. “Somewhere low, I think. Not up from the buildings. There was an echo when it fired. Like off walls or a hallway.”
“Call it in. Tell them we need back up.” Dan’s jaw clenched as he gripped his service weapon and headed for the alley across the street. Matt used his cellphone to contact 911, pinning it between his shoulder and chin while he tried to get a better look at Bernie’s wound. Mille could report the incident, but he would need to give the police the information they needed before they came in to the scene.
Bernie groaned as Matt yanked his own jacket off while talking to the dispatcher, pressing it against Bernie’s stomach to try to stop the bleeding. “One man down, gunshot to the stomach, trooper on scene needs back up.”
“The ambulance is already on its way, Officer McGee.” The female dispatcher spoke in a calm tone. “I need to tell them if this is an active shooter situation. Is it? They won’t come in until the scene is cleared.”
Matt’s chest tightened. Bernie needed to get to the emergency room as fast as possible. “The scene is not cleared.” He hated saying it, but he couldn’t put the paramedics or anyone else at risk. “Active shooter situation. Have them set up at the end of the street.”
Stan stepped from the other side of him and kneeled next to Bernie. “What can I do?”
“Help me get his head propped up and him stretched out so I can keep pressure on the wound.”
Stan sat and slid Bernie’s head into his lap. “It’s going to be okay, kid. Hang in there.”
Stan’s eyes glistened and Matt knew it wasn’t the cold air causing it. The poor man was a real estate agent who had expected a quiet, calm day and here he was holding the head of a man who had just been shot in their usually quiet, calm town.
When Matt looked up, Reggie was running toward him, weapon drawn, the rookie and his former partner behind him.
In a few seconds it was clear their weapons weren’t needed, though, as Dan emerged from the alley with his hand gripping the back of a man’s shirt as he pushed him into the light and toward the bake shop.
Disheveled hair fell across the man’s forehead and dark brown eyes. His mouth twisted into a snarl as Dan pushed him up against the hood of the cruiser and yanked his arms behind his back.
“You got what you deserve, Denton!” the man’s voice echoed off the buildings on Main Street. “You snitch! You can die!”
Dan pinned him to the cruiser as he hooked the cuffs. “Are you serious right now? Did you really think you’d get away with shooting a guy in broad daylight?”
The man spit toward the ground, much of it landing on the hood. “No and I don’t care. Bernie got what was coming to him for being a snitch.”
Dan yanked the man to a standing position and shoved him toward the back of the car. “And you’re going to get what’s coming to you too.”
The sound of Dan reading the man his rights were drowned out by the sound of the ambulance. Matt’s attention returned to Bernie whose head was now propped up by Stan’s winter jacket.
“They’re almost here, Bernie. Stay with me, okay?”
Bernie’s head nodded slowly, his eyes closing. “I’m still here. Hurts like hell but I’m still here.”
“You did the right thing, okay? We’re going to get Gabe and anyone else he was working with.”
“I —” Bernie winced. “I shouldn’t have taken that package. I should have known there was more going on than Gabe said.”
Barriers were being set up at the end of the street by Reggie and the state police, but they stepped back to let the ambulance through. Matt only hoped the paramedics could stop the bleeding long enough to get Bernie to a trauma unit, which was a 45-minute drive. It was a clear day. Maybe they could call in the medivac helicopter instead. Living in a rural area had clear benefits but on days like this it also had clear drawbacks.
He sat back only when the paramedics arrived and took over. Standing, he lifted his hands, his throat thickening with emotion at the sight of dark red blood staining his skin. For several seconds he couldn’t think of anything but the blood, Bernie groaning in pain, the overwhelming worry that this man who had started turning his life around wouldn’t get the chance to see his children again.
The voice of the paramedic calling for a landing point to rendezvous with the helicopter blurred with the voice of Stan asking if he was okay. The older man clapped a hand on his shoulder, shook him. “Hey, let’s get you cleaned up. Come back to my office.”
Matt moved his head back and forth slowly. “No. I’ll need to give a statement and —”
Stan’s voice deepened into a firm tone. “We’ll tell the troopers where you are going to be. Come on.”
Matt staggered back away from the scene of the paramedics gently loading Bernie onto a stretcher, turning slowly to follow Stan. He watched the blood mix with water and soap, spiral down the sink as he washed his hands a few minutes later. He lifted his hands and stared at the tremble before clenching them into a fist and reaching for the towel.
“Your trooper friend is looking for you.”
Stan’s voice sounded far away, somehow, like in a dream, but he followed him back out onto the sidewalk to look for Dan.
Ginny’s voice stopped them both and they turned to see Ginny at the barrier, clutching her coat closed, anguish and worry distorting her usually calm features.
Stan waved at her dismissively. “I’m fine.”
“They said there was a shooting.” The tremble in Ginny’s voice made Matt want to hug her, but apparently Stan didn’t feel the same. “We heard the gunshots at the library.”
Stan’s tone was strained, abrupt. “I said I’m fine. I’ll fill you in later.”
The brusqueness startled Matt, but he tried not to show it. Ginny was clearly upset and worried, but Stan didn’t seem remotely interested in comforting her.
Maybe Stan was made of sterner stuff because seeing Liz walk toward the barrier with an expression on her face that told him she’d thought the ambulance had been for him broke something inside him.
The only people he’d ever had to worry about worrying about him were his parents and his siblings. It had always meant a lot that they didn’t want to see anything happen to him, but it was an entirely different situation watching the woman he’d fallen hard for almost go to pieces in front of him.
When he thought of her, he also thought of Bella and the idea that a future in law enforcement could leave them behind —Liz without a husband, Bella without a father.
Wait a minute. What am I talking about?
He wasn’t either of those things to either of them. Not yet anyhow. He couldn’t deny that he hoped to be both one day. He broke rank with Stan and stepped the barrier grabbing the front of Liz’s jacket with one hand and holding her a few inches back so Bernie’s blood that was on him wouldn’t get on her. His eyes locked with hers and realized that, yeah, he’d be proud to be Liz’s husband one day, and also honored to be Bella’s father.
He pressed his mouth against hers firmly then pulled back, keeping her at a physical distance. Her eyes trailed down his form.
“Is that your blood?” Her bottom limp trembled when she asked it. He’d only seen her that vulnerable one other time, in the front of his pickup truck with a baby covered in vernix on her chest.
He shook his head once. “Bernie’s.”
She looked up sharply, her eyes meeting his. “Wh-what happened? Did you shoot Bernie? Is he dead?”
“No.” He kissed her briefly again. “I’ll fill you in later, but right now I need to make a statement and head home to get cleaned up.”
The dealer who’d shot Bernie was in custody and Gabe would be too soon, but a sudden desire to protect Liz rushed over Matt. “Go home, okay? Can you do that? Go home and stay there until I tell you it’s okay?”
Liz’s brow dipped in confusion. “Yeah. I can do that. If Ginny says it’s okay.”
“She will. Where’s your car? Do you have your keys?”
She nodded and he could tell she was still confused.
He stepped around the barrier, placed a hand under her elbow, steered her away from the scene where more state troopers were now gathering. “Next to the library, right?”
“Matt?” She looked at him as they walked, eyes darkening with worry. “What’s going on? Are you in some kind of danger? Am I?”
He picked up the pace, knowing he needed to get back to the scene and talk to Dan. “I don’t think so, but I just want to be sure you’re somewhere safe. Where’s Bella?”
“With Mom and Dad.”
He scanned the sidewalks and buildings around them as he walked. “Good.”
She didn’t ask any more questions until they reached her car. “Does this have something to do with Gabe? Is he threatening you? Did he shoot Bernie? I can’t believe he’d shoot someone.”
“Don’t worry.” He took her keys from her trembling hands and unlocked the car, still looking around him, avoiding her gaze. “I’m sure everything is fine.”
But he wasn’t sure everything was fine. He’d never pegged Gabe for a drug dealer, but it sure looked like he was based on what Bernie had recorded. Not only that, but someone had ordered Bernie taken out, and that someone could have been Gabe. Of course, there was always the possibility the shooter had just been a little off his rocker, which was also possible, especially if he’d been sampling the product.
He kissed her quickly before she slid behind the steering wheel, closed the door behind her, and when she rolled the window down he told her he’d call her as soon as he was done. He watched her drive toward her apartment before turning to walk back toward the scene. He was glad she didn’t have far to go. Maybe he should have followed her.
He dragged a hand through his hair. No. She was fine. He was over reacting. Gabe had somehow gotten himself messed up in trafficking drugs but he wasn’t a psychopath. A jerk and a horrible boyfriend, yes. A crazed maniac, no. He’d clearly been reading too many Harry Bosch novels lately.
This was Spencer Valley, not Los Angeles, and yes, while there had just been a shooting in broad daylight on Main Street, there wasn’t a full-blown crime spree underway. Not yet anyhow.
He shouldn’t have walked away from Ginny, but he couldn’t talk to her. Not there, in front of everyone asking him if he was okay. Of course, he was okay. It was Bernie he was worried about. The man had just been shot and his color hadn’t been good at all when they loaded him in the ambulance to meet the helicopter.
He watched the aftermath of the chaos hundred feet from his office as if watching something in a movie. Was this real? It certainly didn’t feel like it.
A shooting outside his real estate office.
There was something he never thought he’d see. The world was certainly a mess and while he once thought that mess was confined to bigger cities, it wasn’t. It was spreading out, touching even little Spencer Valley.
When he was done talking to the trooper he went back to the office, filled Emily in on what had happened and told her to go home, he was closing up for the rest of the day, maybe longer. The young woman hugged him briefly, told him to go wash up and get some rest.
Wash up. Right. He looked down at his suit and dress shirt, at the red stained there. This certainly hadn’t been his week.
First, he’d found out his wife had kissed another man and now he’d somehow gotten himself mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong. It was surreal and even more surreal was that he wasn’t going back to his house to clean up and try to calm down, he was walking toward the Blueberry Inn where his clothes were, where he’d spend the last couple of nights because, apparently, his life was falling down around his ears.
Unlocking the door to his room — after assuring the young woman at the front desk he was fine and avoiding her questions about what had happened — a rush of emotion pressed down on him. He swallowed it, though, and reached for a towel and a change of clothes. Under the hot water of the shower the dam broke and the tears came. He pressed his hands against the wall, dropped his head under the water, trying to ignore how much he wanted Ginny here with him now, the old Ginny, the Ginny he used to know, not the Ginny who’d betrayed him by kissing Keith.
“He kissed me.”
He heard the words over and over in his mind, but he didn’t know whether to believe them.
Her pleading expression, the tears on her cheeks swam in his mind as the water pounded against him.
“I wanted you to kiss me. Not him.”
He shut the water off and toweled off slowly, remembering the many slow kisses he’d given his wife over the years, thinking about how long it had been since he had, though. Exhaustion seeped through his muscles to his bones and he collapsed on the bed after pulling on a pair of boxers and an undershirt.
Images of Ginny’s worried expression at the scene filled his mind seconds before sleep slammed him hard into darkness.