Combustible (A Boone Childress Novel)

 

 

 

 

COMBUSTIBLE

A Boone Childress Novel

 

 

 

By

 

CC
Abbott

 

About COMBUSTIBLE…

 

A hero doesn’t need medals to show the woman he loves what he’s made of.

 

Former Navy hero turned firefighter Boone Childress has returned home to the Outer Banks to pursue a career in forensic fire investigation, but when a series of arsons points to murder and greed, he finds himself stymied by a corrupt law officer and his lack of formal training.

 

So he turns to fellow student Cedar Galloway, who’s as brilliant as she is beautiful, to help him gather the evidence they need. Drawn together by a common sense of justice—and scorching passion that ignites them both—they race to solve the crimes before the arsonist can strike again.

 

A New Adult Romantic Thriller by CC Abbott

PROLOGUE
 
 

On
Monday morning, May 4, 0600 hours near the town of Frisco on the Outer Banks, Stumpy Meeks was on the couch sleeping off a meal of Bud, stale donuts and month-old beef jerky when an explosion threw him ass-first to the floor of his trailer.

"Come in,” he said before he realize
d nobody had knocked.

His brain was working slower than usual. Eating for the first time in three days had that kind of effe
ct on a man with diabetes. He scribbled a mental note—next time, only eat half the package of jerky.

Just as he crawled up to the couch and rested his head on the cushions, another blast ripped through the night. The shock wave buckled the walls and cracked the windows in the living room. Stumpy crawled screaming under the couch as glass collapsed out of the frames and sprinkled the orange shag carpet.

This time, he knew it wasn't echoes in his head. Something really had exploded.

He was torn between hiding under the couch
or going outside to take a look around. It really wasn't a tough decision. Having more curiosity than sense, he waited a minute or two and then stumbled to the door.

He clicked on the porch light and squinted into the night
.

The Blevins place had blown all to hell, and a line of burning debris littered the sandy ground leading up to his yard.

"Jesus Christ Jones on a crutch," he whispered as he stepped onto the patio. “What the fuck is going on?”

The concrete felt clammy on his bare feet. The smell of gunpowder had burned the air, and though it was a cool and wet
May night, he could’ve sworn it was the Fourth of July. He shuffled a step, then felt something warm and hard on the sole of his foot.

Stumpy picked the thing up and held it to the porch light to get a better look. It was a human finger severed below a gold wedding band. He screamed and dropped it
, then scrambled back into his living room and slammed the door behind him.

P
anting, he tossed his head side-to-side and squeezed both eyes tight. "It wasn't no finger. Dear Lord, let it be my hallucinations again. Please, don't let it be real."

After a mumbled prayer, he peeked outside.
There it lay, right where he had dropped it. It was a finger, all right. No mistake. It had to belong to somebody, and probably, they would want it back.

"Now, Stumpy," he scolded himself, "if it was your finger, you'd want somebody to do
right by you."

After extracting a pair of hot
dog tongs and a sandwich baggie out of the junk drawer, Stumpy headed down the rickety steps. He stood over the severed digit for a few seconds, clicking the tongs and thinking of the best way to go about extracting it.

“It's no different than a hot dog on the grill,” he said and popped the finger into the baggie. He sealed the strip so that red and blue made purple
.

Inside, he dropped the baggie in the fre
ezer next to the ice cube tray and grabbed a cold beer for the trip back to the couch. He popped the tab, took a long swallow, and wondered who had busted out the glass in the front windows. Seemed like there was something else he needed to do, somebody he ought to call, but the phone was all the way down the hall in the bedroom, and whatever it was could surely wait until later.

Stumpy leaned back on the couch and was snoring before he could finish the
beer.

 

 

 

MONDAY

 

 

 

Boone Childress was training his eyes to see molecules. That's what he told people when he was in Hyper Attentive Mode, bent over an experiment, eyes pinched tight and focused so intently that he seemed to be looking straight through the object of his interest—the rat on the dissection tray in front of him.

But in reality, he wasn’t in the least interested in the critter. What really interested him was his BIO 102 l
ab partner, Cedar Galloway. She sat next to him on a high stool, wearing a white and yellow sundress that had ridden up her legs, showing off the sculpted thighs of a lethal tennis player. Cedar was captain of Coastal Carolina Community College’s tennis team, and even though she was barely five-two, those long, lean legs seemed to go on forever. The rest of her wasn’t bad, either. She had delicate hands with closely trimmed nails, a tight stomach, and B-cup breasts held up by a lace bra that peeked out of the top of her sundress.

She shifted on her seat, turning her legs toward him, and
lifted up her chin. Cedar had hazel eyes, a heart-shaped face complimented perfectly by a pixie cut, and lips that looked incredibly kissable. Even her perfume, which he could smell as she leaned in to take a look at the instructions for dissection, cut through the odor of preservative that filled the lab.

“What are you looking at so hard?” she asked.

Four years in the Navy intelligence had drilled into Boone’s brain that a direct question is given a direct answer, so even though he was now a civilian studying forensics at CCCC on the GI Bill, he almost blurted out the truth.

Instead, he grabbed the
beeper clipped to his belt. “This. I keep waiting for it to go off.” For almost a week, since he finished the volunteer firefighter training program, he had been waiting for The Call. The beeper went everywhere with him. Even when he had to hit the head.

“Darn,” she said
. “I hoped it was something else. Time to take care of those testicles.”

“Excuse me?” he said, his voice rising. What the hell? He’d done two tours on aircraft carriers and heard every dirty
joke imaginable, but a rat’s balls made him react?

“The rat’s testicles,” she said with a glint of mischief. “The instructions say to remove them.”

“Right,” he said. “I’ll do the honors.”

She handed him the probe. “You’re an officer and a gentleman. And very tall, by the way.”

“Chief Petty Officer,” he explained. “I was enlisted—I worked for a living.”

“I can tell,” she said, mischievous again.

If he were being honest with himself, Boone knew what she meant. His blonde hair was still cropped short, and years of regular PT had him strong and fit, with a ripped chest, washboard abs, and arms that he wasn’t ashamed to be seen under a tight T-shirt. In the service, he collected lots of numbers and got a lot of texts. Most of them, he didn’t pursue because of his job, but now after a few months of freedom, maybe it was time to start.

A few minutes later, he was in the middle of removing the left testicle from the rodent and formulating a plan for asking Cedar for a date—civili
ans still went on dates, right? —when someone flung a string of preserved bowels across the room. The Toluidine-stained string spun through the air like a gut bola, covering twenty feet of lab space, barely missing the heads of three students.

It landed
with a squish next to Boone's dissecting tray.

"
Gero gero
!" Luigi Hasagawa, a student sitting next to Boone’s station said. He pointed at the intestines and turned green. "Disgusting!"

Luigi was an exchange student from Osaka, Japan.
His parents named him Ryuu, after the Japanese god of thunder, but because the American tongue could not wrap itself around the sounds, he nicknamed himself Luigi.

Boone barely glanced up. Testicle removal was delicate work,
so he had no time for some dumbass’s prank. Unlike Boone, most of the students were a year out of high school, and they had a lot of growing up to do, especially the guys. Very few of them knew what it meant to act like an adult.

Cedar, though, wasn’t about to let the assault go unanswered. She
speared the mass with her stainless steel probe, flicked her wrist—a polished move accomplished due to a decade worth of tennis lessons—and fired it back at a student named Dewayne Loach.

“Don’t be an asshole,
Loach,” she said. “This isn’t high school anymore.”

Cedar and Dewayne had both graduated from nearby Bragg High School almost two years before. Boone was an alum of the school, too, but from an earlier class. To save money and stretch his GI Bill, he’d moved back in with his mother and
stepfather, who still insisted on treating him like a kid. Whoever said, “you can’t go home again” knew what he was talking about.

Dewayne
ducked behind the lab table. The rat guts sailed past and hit the window behind him. He stood up, his face turning purple with rage. "Stupid bitch," he said and started across the room.

In the same instant,
the lab professor, Dr. Krzyzewski looked up from the PowerPoint displayed on the screen in front of the classroom. "And you see here, the first step is to hold the sac gently but firmly with force—Loach!"

Dewayne
stopped mid-stride. He pointed at the intestines sliding down the glass. "Childress threw it!"

"
The hell I did," Boone said without looking up. He asked Luigi for the forceps. But it was Cedar who slapped them into his palm. Then she stalked across the lab. Using an empty dissecting pan, she swept the guts off the window and dumped them into a biohazard trash bag.

Dewayne
gagged.

"
Don’t be a pussy." She gave him a smack on the shoulder and returned to her lab station.

Loach
looked stunned. Boone had met Cedar only at the beginning of the semester, but she often had that effect on guys who thought young women should be giggly idiots.

"Thank you, Cedar,"
Dr. K said.

"You're very welcome," she
replied.

Boone was glad Cedar was
on his side, but at the same time, he wished he’d handled Dewayne himself. Next time, he thought. There was always a next time with guys like Loach.

Bzzt
! Boone's pager sounded. He grabbed Cedar's thin wrist and clapped the handle of the scalpel into her palm. "Hold this for a sec," he said, unclipping the pager from his belt. "And don’t flinch. You'll turn Ratatouille into a eunuch."

"Wasn't that the idea?" she said.

Luigi laughed and scribbled a string of
kanji
in his notes. His hair was so black, it was almost blue, and he had it cut into spikes so that his head looked like a sea urchin. His wardrobe was an eclectic mix of Japanese
mode-kei
fashion and cowboy couture, a style that on any given day looked either shockingly original or just plain shocking.

Boone pumped a fist. "
Fucking-A! It's a fire!"

“Childress!
" Dr. K said and pointed to the lab safety rules on the wall. "No cellphones in the lab."

Boone held up the pager. "
Frisco Volunteer Fire Department, professor. I have to respond."

"Go you, Longneck," Luigi called. He lifted his own scalpel from the rat in salute. "
Chikushou
! There goes Mickey's gall bladder."

“What about me?” Cedar asked. “You
’re leaving me hanging.”

“How
about lunch?” He removed the pair of latex gloves, then slung his backpack over a shoulder. “Or dinner?”

“Are you asking me out?” she asked. “When I’ve got rat parts in my hands?”

“Sure. You’re wearing gloves, right?” he said and headed for the exit.

"
Childress," Dr. K called. "If you leave before the experiment is finished, I'll be forced to give you a zero on the lab. Department policy. It’s in the syllabus."

Boone had b
een top of his class in A-school after boot camp, and in his job, he knew all about rules and regs. He also knew that sometimes, your sworn duty was more important than following the rules.

"
I know that, doc," he said as he slipped out the door. "But I still have to go. I made an oath as a firefighter, and I always keep my word.”

Dr. K puckered up
her face, and Boone knew she was going to follow the rule to the letter. That’s when Cedar slipped around him, a strap of her sundress slipping over her tanned shoulder. It was one of the hottest things he’d ever seen.

“Don’t worry,” she said as she leaned close, standing on
tiptoe and whispering in his ear. “You do the hero thing. I can take care of the professor.”

The mix of her husky voice and smell of her perfume set his head spinning, and a knot of desire formed in his gut. If this had been any other time and in another place, he would’ve pulled her close and kissed those soft, pink lips. Now, all he could say was, “Thanks. I owe you one.”

 

"Hey,
Julia," Boone said into the radio as he climbed into the seat of his pickup. "Where's the fire?"

Julia
Poteet, one of the Town of Frisco firefighters, was working dispatch. “Use the codes, rookie.”

The
Frisco Volunteer Fire Department still used the old radio codes for communication, called “ten-codes.” The feds were slowly getting rid of the codes because every county or district had its own confusing version of them. A 10-33 meant a fire call, but in other counties, it meant a road kill. The Frisco department, though, was slow to change. Most of the firefighters were over fifty, and they saw no reason to learn a new system.

“I’m 10-76 to the 10-33,” Boone said, indicating that he was
en route to the fire site. “What’s the location?”

"Tin City. It's a wide place in the road near the county line. Know where it's at?"

Boone did. "But I need to hurry. That's fifteen miles away."

He backed out of the slot, slinging gravel into the air. The student parking lot was behind the
college in an old tobacco field. It wasn't fenced in, but there were gullies on all four sides, and a thick line of security cable blocked the exit.

Boone dropped the truck into gear and roared toward the cable. A few feet away, he slammed the brakes, cut the wheel to the left, and plunged into the gully where it was the shallowest. The front
of the truck disappeared from view, and then popped up as he gunned the engine again, spinning all four wheels and throwing sandy dirt into the air.

"
Holy shot!"

The truck bounced across the uneven field until it reached Deems Landis Road. Boone pulled the red light out of the glove box and stuck
it on the roof of the cabin. A quick right at the next stop, and he was on Highway 12 headed for Tin City. The town was near the county line, which meant that the fire would be burning hot by the time he got there. It also meant that Boone was probably as close as any of the firefighters, and if he put the peddle to the floor, he could be the first one to arrive.

First responder on his first fire. Imagine the look on
the captain’s face if he could pull that off.

The old v-8 rattled like a pile of dry bones. Bo
one's truck was a long bed '72 Ford, painted white under the layers of dirt caked on the body. When he hit the highway, the transmission started slipping. The old girl could get him through just about anything. She just couldn't do it very fast.

His mind drifted, and he found himself thinking not
about the fire call, but about Cedar’s shapely legs and the short hem of her sundress, which had kept riding up higher and higher. A knot formed in his gut. It had been almost a year since he’d had sex or even been attracted to a particular woman. A year since his old girlfriend, Veronica, had broken up with him on a port call in Japan. She’d just said, “I’m always going to be Navy, and you’re never going to be.”

“Nope,
I’m not,” he said to the salty air.

Even though
the Navy had offered him a hefty sign-up bonus to re-enlist, he knew that he wanted to get out of intelligence and start a career as a fire investigator. He hated fire, hated her like the bitch she was, hated her for taking the life of his best friend on the Teddy Roosevelt. He had to find something to do with that hate, instead of letting it eat him up.

The truck's eight cylinders roared as Boone stepped on it. The speedometer climbed. Sixty. Seventy. Eighty.
Eighty-five.

The longleaf pines that lined the highway shot
by. Cotton and blueberry fields passed into and out of his peripheral vision. The wind caught a plastic bag inside the cabin and whipped it out the window before Boone had the chance to catch it. In the rearview, he watched the tattered bag rip into the truck's jet wash and then float gently down onto the hood of a Bragg County Sheriff’s cruiser as it passed him. The brake lights glowed, and the driver whipped a U-turn. The roll lights switched on, and the siren sounded.

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