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Burn You Twice
Author: Mary Burton

 PROLOGUE

Missoula, Montana

Thursday, May 13, 2010

1:00 a.m.

Ten Years Ago

The college-campus bar was packed with students celebrating the end of another school year. All eyes were on the small stage, now flashing with blue and white spotlights as a singer gripped the mike and hit the high notes on the song’s last chorus. Everyone was mesmerized, including Joan and Ann, who were standing near the bar.

He had been watching the two women for weeks. He knew where they lived, where they hid the spare key to their house, their class schedules, and even what they ate for breakfast. He had been in their house several times, lain on their beds, inhaled the scent of their perfume from their clothes, and dreamed about this night. Over the course of the last few weeks, the rhythm of their lives had become second nature to him.

Now, as Joan and Ann moved seductively to the music’s beat, he removed a small vial from his jeans pocket and moved closer to the bar. When the bartender turned to fill a drink order, he quickly squeezed several drops of a sedative into each woman’s drink. The drugs would not knock either woman out immediately, but the dosage would be enough to coax each back across campus to the safety of their home.

As he melted back into the crowd and the song ended, Joan and Ann turned back to the bar and gulped from their beer mugs. Their bodies glistened with sweat, and they were laughing. They were so confident and sure of their bright futures.

He had only five minutes to wait before Ann set down her drink. She yawned, said something to Joan, who shook her head as if she wanted to stay. He thought for a moment that Ann might leave alone. Having only Ann at the house was not part of the plan. For it all to work, Joan needed to be in the house as well. Tension rippled through him as he thought about all his plans crumbling. Maybe he should have put more drops in their drinks.

And then, minutes later, Ann spoke to Joan again, and the two stepped out into the cool night air. He followed, careful to keep a safe distance.

“I just need a minute,” Ann said as she walked toward the middle of the parking lot. “I’m dizzy.”

“I’m a little tired myself,” Joan said, yawning.

“Would we be wimps if we called it a night?” Ann said.

“No. We’ll both head home.” Joan’s words sounded a little slurred.

Ann blinked and gently patted her own cheeks with her hands. “But you’ve been looking forward to hearing this band.”

“I’ve heard enough,” Joan said. “And you look dead on your feet.”

They walked the three blocks to their small one-story house, located at the edge of the campus. He followed, careful to remain in the shadows. Several times, they paused, drew in breaths as if to clear their heads, and then continued walking.

When they arrived home, Joan fished out the key from under the front doorstep mat and pushed it into the lock. “I didn’t think I was that drunk. But I feel like I’ve been kicked by a mule.”

Ann leaned against the house. “We’re tired is all. We’ve been burning the candle at both ends for weeks.”

Joan opened the door and clicked on the light. Ann said something he could not hear, and they both giggled as they moved into the living room and plopped onto the couch by the bay window.

Anticipation burned in him as he moved toward his truck, parked across the street. He was anxious to get this party started but knew patience and the details mattered. He pushed back a surge of desire.

“Focus,” he whispered. “Stick to the plan.”

Through the window, he watched Joan rise and move toward the kitchen. She tripped, righted herself, and then opened the refrigerator door. While she stared, her body swayed, as if standing up straight required too much concentration and effort. Finally, empty-handed, she closed the door and moved past Ann, who had passed out on the couch.

She shut off the light in the living room, and, seconds later, a bedside light in her room clicked on. He watched as she all but fell down on the purple bedspread. She tugged off her shoes, tossed them on the floor, and shut off the light.

He waited another ten minutes before reaching under a tarp covering the bed of his truck. He grabbed the handles of two gallon-size plastic jugs stowed side by side. The containers were each filled with gasoline, and the tops were sealed with fragments of a torn sweatshirt.

The night’s inky blackness offered him the cover he needed as he moved with practiced efficiency. He had planned this night for weeks and could picture each and every detail, down to the last moment.

After crossing the small front yard, he ducked around the side of the house. He set the first unlit device under Joan’s window and then, moving around the house, placed the second jug by the back door. There was a third gasoline-style bomb under the house’s crawl space, positioned near Joan’s bedroom.

As he reached for his lighter, he noticed that the back door was unlocked. “Sloppy, girls. Sloppy.”

The temptation to see Joan and Ann unconscious and helpless was too strong to resist, so he carefully pushed open the back door. The house was silent as he moved into the small living room toward Ann, who lay on her belly, her hand draped over the side of the couch.

A part of him was sorry for her. Ann was sweet by nature and so pretty.

“You should have listened to me.”

He moved more confidently across the room and carefully pushed open Joan’s bedroom door. She lay on her back, her body relaxed and boneless. Her breathing was deep and steady. He stood by her bed and gently brushed back her dark hair. She had a pretty face. A very nice body. But she was bossy. Loud. Had a real mouth on her.

“This is all your fault. Ann will suffer because of you. You just don’t know when to stop pushing.”

As if something deep inside her sensed the danger, she drew in a deep breath and rolled on her side toward him. He stood very still, watching and waiting for her eyes to open. Even as he feared discovery, a part of him wanted her to see him standing over her. He imagined her shock and then her fear. God, how he wanted to see her tremble.

“Joan,” he whispered. “Guess who?”

Dark urges burned inside him. It would be so easy now to strip her naked, shove inside her, and show her just how badly she had underestimated him. But that was not part of the plan. His fire would dish out the perfect punishment.

He rose, crossed the room, and closed her bedroom door. He exited the house via the kitchen, carefully centered his device by the door, and adjusted the torn sock deeper into the gasoline. He fished a lighter from his pocket and dragged his thumb over the spark wheel. A flame flickered. For just a moment, he stared at the pretty flame that danced and undulated as it whispered promises of destruction.

He lit the gasoline-soaked cotton cloth, and it caught fire immediately. Practice had taught him that this was the critical time. He had only seconds before the flame reached the gasoline reservoir, so he had to move quickly to the second device, light it, and hurry to his truck.

As he slid behind the wheel and started the engine, the first bomb exploded. Though it was tempting to stay and watch his fire roar to life, he gently pressed the accelerator and slowly drove down the street. The second explosion, under Joan’s window, pulled his gaze to the rearview mirror, now illuminated with orange and yellow flames licking up the side of the house. The blaze on the back side of the house cast off dark, billowing smoke that threaded up and through the flames.

God, it was beautiful. Pride swelled in him. He grew hard, sorry now he had not taken Joan.

As he turned the corner, the third bomb detonated, and more flames shot up as a fire engine’s siren blared in the distance. Help was on the way. Too bad it would not be in time.

CHAPTER ONE

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Friday, September 4, 2020

4:55 p.m.

Present Day

If homicide detective Joan Mason had a superpower, it was her ability to erase memories. Born with a supersize “Delete” key in her brain, she was able to forget grisly homicide scenes, a long-lost mother, a whiskey-soaked father, friends, and lovers. Like little ol’ Cinderella, she could scrub the past’s stains until they were almost imperceptible.

The noises of the bar hummed around Joan as she reread the letter from the Montana Department of Corrections and sipped her whiskey. Elijah Weston, the man who had set fire to the house she had lived in during her senior year of college, was being released from prison today. She was being notified not out of any professional courtesy but because she had been one of Elijah’s intended victims.

She raised her glass and peered through the amber liquid, which cast tawny golds on the letter. She might be many things, but she was not a victim.

“What’s turned you so sour?” the bartender asked.

The bar’s owner, Ray O’Toole, was a mountain of a man, standing over six foot, five inches. He sported a graying beard that would have made him look fierce if not for the doe eyes outing him as a soft touch. When Joan’s father was alive, Ray had given him work when rent money was scarce. When she was in middle school and her old man had accidentally set fire to their apartment, Ray had given them the extra two rooms above the bar. And when Joan’s father had finally taken off for good when she was fourteen, Ray met with social services and saw to it that Joan stayed with him.

O’Toole’s Pub was still a neighborhood favorite, an everyone-knows-your-name place that also had the added bonus of being within walking distance of her current town house. It was the closest place she had to a home base.

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