Excerpt from St Albans Fire by Archer Mayor, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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St Albans Fire

A Joe Gunther Mystery

by Archer Mayor

St Albans Fire
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 352 pages

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He started walking toward the bales, feeling confident and restored, when he froze abruptly, suddenly concentrating. Like most people brought up in a world dependent on tools and machines, he had an ear for mechanisms in action and often monitored this ancient and gigantic barn as much by ear as by sight.

There didn't seem to be anything amiss. Bobby could feel more than hear the fans and pumps and motors throughout the building, as soft and delicate to him as the inner workings of a living entity. But he could swear that he'd heard a hissing of sorts—clear and distinct. And, more important, all his instincts were telling him that there was something distinctly wrong.

He stood absolutely still in the near total blackness, searching for some form of confirmation. Slowly, as lethal as the message it carried, the smell of smoke reached his nostrils.

A farmer's nightmares are full of fire, from a carelessly tossed match to a spark from a worn electrical wire to a fluke bolt of lightning. Even the hay itself, if put up too damp and packed too tightly, can spontaneously ignite and bring about disaster. More than one farmer in Bobby's experience, Calvin Cutts included, wrapped up every day by giving the barn a final fire check before bed. To say that such vigilance smacked of paranoia was to miss the larger point: Fire to a farmer was like a diagnosis of cancer—survivable perhaps, but only following a long and crippling struggle, and only if you were lucky.

Bobby had two choices: to investigate and perhaps stifle the fire before it got worse, or to run back to the house, raise the alarm, and get as many people and as much equipment coming as possible.

Typically, but unsurprisingly, he yielded to a young man's faith in his own abilities and set out to discover what was wrong.

Bobby's sense of smell led him away from the bales and toward the sealed-off so-called fuel room that Calvin had built as far from any flammable materials as possible. Here was kept the gas and oil and diesel for their machines, locked behind a heavy wooden door.

He could hear more clearly now, as he approached that door, the hissing sound that had drawn his attention. But as he unhooked the key from a nearby post and freed the fire extinguisher hanging beneath it, he remained convinced of his course of action. It was a closed room; whatever lay within it was contained and could thus be controlled.

Which is when he heard a second sudden hissing behind him, accompanied by a distinct snap—sharp, harsh, like the bite of a rat trap—far across the loft.

He swung around, startled—frightened. He'd been wrong. The noise beyond the door wasn't his only problem. And this second one, he realized with a sickening feeling, was accompanied by a flickering glow. A second fire had started near where he'd just been.

Bobby Cutts began to sweat.

Distracted now, not thinking clearly, he clung to his initial plan of action. First things first. Ignoring the heat radiating from the lock as he slipped in the key, he twisted back the dead bolt, readied the fire extinguisher, and threw open the door.

The resulting explosion lifted him off his feet and tossed him away like a discarded doll, landing him on the back of his head with a sickening thud. His mouth was bleeding copiously from where the extinguisher had broken several teeth as it flew from his hands.

Dazed and spitting blood, a huge, curling fireball lapping at his feet, Bobby tried scrambling backward, screaming in pain as he put weight on a shattered right hand. He rolled and crawled away as best he could, the smell of his own burned hair and skin strong in his nostrils. In the distance, at the loft's far end, he could see a second sheet of flame working its way up the face of the stacked hay bales.

He got to his knees, staggered to his feet, and began stumbling back toward the ladder, his remaining instincts telling him to return below and free as many cows as possible before escaping himself.

Copyright © 2005 by Archer Mayor

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