Chapter Sixteen

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"Well this is just getting ridiculous," Jamie fumed, staring over the heads of the crowd at the corkscrew spiral of smoke rising from the dumpster.

It was pre-dawn Saturday morning, an hour before Conner was set to pick me up. We were standing with a gaggle of rubberneckers in the alley behind the hippie grocer - the back half of which, somebody had just tried to torch. It was a pattern that seemed to be causing Jamie more annoyance than concern at this point. Personally, I was just happy we weren't the ones trying to put it out.

'This generation,' a man behind me was muttering, followed closely by what I was fairly certain was 'the internet.'

Jamie's gaze met mine, his expression wry. "Teenagers," he pronounced, voice pitched just loud enough for me to make out the added sarcastic twang. "Always at it with their instant messenger and felony arson."

I bit back an uncharitable snort.

"Still," I said, allowing myself a bit of petty vindication, "so much for coincidence."

"So much for militant tree huggers," he countered, raising a brow at me.

"Like that was actually my working theory." Okay, so maybe I had considered it. In a vague kind of way. Very briefly.

A clatter and a curse pinball echoed through the alley. Turning my attention back to ground zero, I saw that Sheriff Young had come up with a length of old pipe from somewhere and was surreptitiously probing the dumpster's contents. Trying to find the remaining pockets of whatever was burning, I supposed and fought the urge to cover my nose. The only thing worse than kale, it turned out, was the smell of rotting kale that's been set on fire.

Odeur d'compost heap aside though, the morning's bonfire could have been worse. Compared to the cafe, the store had come through with only minor smoke damage. Not, I thought, from any lack of trying on the perp's part. A quick survey had told me that whoever they were, they'd done their job, doused this area just as thoroughly as the last. This time, the cavalry had simply arrived quicker and better prepared.

The thought settled itself like a weight in my stomach.

Your average, random vandal didn't go to this kind of trouble. And they wouldn't worry about sticking to such a clearly defined system. Jamie's comment a minute ago had been sarcastic, but I was starting to think he'd hit the target center mass.

A pink dawn was edging the sky by the time the sheriff declared the situation, "handled." The crowd was mostly dispersed by then. Just myself and Jamie and few stragglers from the morning coffee crowd at the cafe left hanging around.

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The whole thing had taken maybe thirty minutes. Thirty minutes I should have spent getting ready back at the hotel if I wanted to be ready for "the hike." Aka, my imminent cardiac infarction. And yet, there I was, watching. Somewhere around age seven, my father had affectionately dubbed me 'inquisitive.' Mom, being the less flowery of the two, just called it a pathological inability to mind my own business.

You spot the lawyer.

"Don't suppose you boys are hagnin' around to file a report?" Young inquired, giving the lot of us an eyeballing as she smacked soot off her hat.

Behind her, deputy dipstick - Thompson, I reminded myself, was wrestling a roll of crime scene tape. And losing, by all appearances.

"Saw our man in the act maybe," she continued, still in that golly-gee amiable tone. "Maybe got his plate numbers."

Give her a few minutes and a muscle-mag and the woman could have had J. Edgar Hoover blushing like a schoolgirl.

"Well," hedged one of the old-timers, his Wilford Brimley brush of a mustache twitching in discomfort at this obvious dressing-down.

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