Our upcoming guest on the Crime Cafe podcast is Kristen Bird, who’s provided an excerpt from her next novel, Watch it Burn, and is giving away a copy of the previous one I Love it When You Lie, to three lucky winners in the U.S. Sorry rest of the world, the postage is
mindboggling a lot of dosh money.
All you have to do to enter is leave a comment right on this here blog. Make sure I get your email address, okay? Arrangements will be made!
So … let’s check out the excerpt!
Watch it Burn
Children and parents, teenagers and grandparents—all lined the banks of the river at sunset, their laughter echoing the delighted squeals of kids who’d once played along this waterfront.
Citizens and tourists—and even the ghosts—awaited the onslaught of black-and-gold floats, rose-laden kayaks, bright lights, and Tejano beats. Every business in Edenberg shuttered when water levels were high enough to hold the Our Lady of Guadalupe Paddle Parade each Labor Day. Maybe that was why no one noticed the first flicker.
For the people who bothered to look up, the horizon glowed with a faint orange haze not unlike a late-summer sky in the Texas hill country. The thing that finally gave away the secret of the flames was the smell, heavy with the aroma of family pictures curling at the edges before melting to nothing, of heirloom quilts sparking into kindling before dissolving to ash. An out-of-tune piano crackled like tinder, and a beloved plush rabbit lit up in a flash of cotton stuffing.
It wasn’t just one building or just one home or just one business that burned that night. It was the entire downtown. The fire didn’t discriminate between the hip new wine room and the hundred-year-old bungalow. That was what you got for building an idyllic town in a tight grid with Main Street cutting through the center: the flaming dominoes toppled, transferring the burden of heat from square to tragic square.
Listen, fire safety is key.
Flames double in size every thirty seconds.
Stop, drop, and roll.
Be sure to install smoke alarms in every room of the house.
For the next year, these words would echo in victims’ minds as they rebuilt their hamlet brick by brick. For now, as realization dawned, these people—made to withstand rising waters rather than trial by fire—turned their backs on the river that could’ve saved this place if only Mother Nature wasn’t so fickle about when she flooded the banks.
Only one person knew for certain how long the fire had been burning before the first call came through to 911, but she’d never tell. Nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds later, three fire trucks, laden with hoses and brave men, arrived on scene. They met the inferno as a rock meets water, submerged and steadily sinking. We should be grateful, the fire chief said, that only one person died.
By dawn, no matter how hard they fought, every place of business and historic home in the center of Main Street would be cradled in ash, citizens mourning the markers of lives well lived: a recipe box from a grandmother, the brand-new menus at the local diner, an antique guitar that Willie Nelson might’ve once played, a handwritten letter from an old flame.
Even the Blessed Mother herself couldn’t help them on this fiery night.
“When a woman thinks
that her house is on fire,
her instinct is at once
to rush to the thing
which she values most.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Excerpt from “Welcome to Edenberg” by Marge Pierce
September 5, 1988
Some may not realize that Edenberg is known not only for the very first Catholic cathedral to offer an Our Lady of the Guadalupe shrine; we’re also known for our wine.
William von Hoffman founded the town in 1849, settling in the hill country and naming his acreage Edenberg. He saw the land as the perfect place to start anew for his family and friends. The climate was mild most of the year, similar to his homeland in Germany, and he was glad he’d brought with him cuttings from his family’s winery, Weingut Hoffman.
Unfortunately, for reasons William never understood (according to his diaries), the pinot blanc grapes did not fare well in this new soil, so within five years, his dreams of a Texas winery had shriveled on the vine. At least we still have Our Lady.
Speaking of which, this year’s Paddle Parade is expected to be quite the shindig. The band Mariachi Mayhem will perform in the town square at 7 p.m. sharp, and you can come out early for a sampling of some of the finest wine from Messina Hof, our neighbors to the east. We’re grateful to them for sharing their wine, since we no longer make our own. Hope to see you there!
One Week Earlier
Nichole pulled on purple running shorts before plodding to the bathroom and gulping down four ibuprofen. Last night’s whiskey sours had been the wrong libation for the eve before school started.
Without looking in the mirror, she applied moisturizer with SPF and pulled back her straight black hair into a wide cloth headband, banging brushes and bottles as she went. As she made herself a bowl of oatmeal, she created as much racket as possible, hoping all the while that the man in her bed would wake up.
When fifteen minutes passed and he was still snoring soundly, Nichole left him a note saying she’d gone for a run and he should let himself out. Then, she turned her clock radio to the 80s station at full volume, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” echoing behind as she dashed out the front door as fast as her former cross-country legs would carry her. Nichole was a thirty-nine-year-old Korean American woman sneaking out of her own house. It had come to this.
Hot and sticky couldn’t sufficiently describe the smothering humidity, like a stack of wet paper towels pasted to her head, as she jogged the path she took every morning—only recently running from the men she’d invited home. This had to be the fourth such morning. Or the fifth. Oh, God, had she actually lost count? She was not supposed to be one of those women. She should’ve called her best friend, Jenny, like she’d promised to do if ever this situation arose again.
I’m back now. You don’t have to grieve alone, Jenny had told her earlier this summer, looking Nichole straight in the eyes. Much had changed since that first day of kindergarten when they’d swung side by side, conversing about the best name for the puppy Jenny’s mother had brought home (They’d finally settled on Bluebonnet Rose Dandelion), but their friendship had solidified. The next day on those same swings, Nichole had asked Jenny if she wanted to be “booby friends.” (She’d heard the term bosom buddies on TV and asked her big sister what the first word meant.) When Jenny said yes, Nichole figured she’d made a friend for life, that they’d forever be on the same team. She’d been right so far.
But Nichole hadn’t called her oldest friend before that first drink, and now here she was.
She reached the edge of the neighborhood where the asphalt ended and the earthen path into the woods began. As she kept her eyes on the horizon, she tried to recall the sum total she knew about the man she’d left alone in her house.
- He was mixed race, half Native American and white.
- He took up much of her queen bed, which meant he was more than six feet tall.
- She was pretty sure his drink of choice had been a gin and tonic.
- He worked in…air-conditioning, or maybe he was a mechanic? Something with his hands.
- He could say the alphabet backward while drunk.
A stirring list, no doubt, but not enough to keep her interested in… What was his name? Oh shit. What was it? She swiped hard at her brow, either to jar her memory or to punish herself for this terrible lapse in judgment. At least she’d known the names of the others.
As her feet padded against the earth, she decided to distract herself by thinking through the day in front of her. After showering and dressing in her first-day-of-school outfit—even after nineteen years of teaching, she still selected a special ensemble each year—she would arrive at school and cut the remaining All About Me worksheets into heart shapes for her students. Then, she would place a special eraser at each desk and wait for the first bell to ring. It would be a fresh start for a new year. Still, at the periphery of her mind, something bothered her about this plan.
A few more yards and she remembered the problem: when she was on her way to the bar last night, she—along with the rest of the faculty—had received a vaguely worded email from the head of the board, letting them know a new position had been created on campus: a curriculum coordinator.
The title sounded appropriate for an educational administrative position, but the last-minute appointment and the description of the role had seemed…off. It stated that this person would be evaluating—and, when necessary, censoring—books and exercises deemed “inappropriate” or “irrelevant” to “today’s cultural climate.”
In past years, Nichole would’ve responded to the email with a professional series of questions and concerns pushing back on such a sudden decision; she might’ve even protested the appointment. As it was, she had no emotional energy for an outcry.
Ten minutes into her run, and her stomach roiled with the liquid contents of last night’s debauchery. She slowed to a steadier pace, holding hands above her head in an effort to stem the nausea. It would be fine. Everything would be fine.
When she got home, the man in her bed would be gone, and she would shower and dress and enter the new school year without any of the baggage of this lonely summer of men. A new leaf to turn over this fall. That was what she needed. She would embrace her singleness like Cheryl Strayed in Wild or Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love. She shook her head. No, not Julia Roberts—that was the film. The book was Elizabeth… Elizabeth Something.
Nichole took gulps of the dank air and tried to sprint across the slatted bridge hovering over the Guadalupe. She could see that the river levels were low, which meant the Paddle Parade was unlikely to happen this year unless they got a good rainfall in the next week. Rocks cut a jagged course to the other side, the whitewater shallow but fast as it dodged impediments.
One time when she was a kid and the water had been low like this, she and her sister had taken their neighbor’s kayak down to the banks. Ten-year-old Christina, with her fair skin and blue eyes, looked nothing like Nichole, but that made them no less a bonded pair. Christina sat in the stern, gripping tightly to a tree root, as five-year-old Nichole stepped shakily into the bow. When her sister let go, the two of them caught a current that carried their borrowed vessel into the middle of the river, bumping them across algae-ridden rocks and silty divots before eventually hurtling them into a tree growing at the edge of the water and upending the kayak. Nichole had flailed, arms and legs pulsating, as she attempted to stay afloat in the drop-off. Only seconds had passed, but fear slowed time for Nichole, so when her torso connected with Christina’s leg, Nichole held on for dear life, climbing her older sister’s body like a koala in a bamboo tree.
After the two of them finally made their way to the banks, dragging the boat behind them, they swore never to step foot in those waters again. When fifteen children died in the river a few years later, their pact was solidified. To Nichole, those waters meant danger, even at low levels.
As she ducked under a hanging branch now, leaves scratched at her shoulder and she remembered the stories kids in her class told about the tragedy that had stolen lives in this river, whispers about how you could hear children laughing on the banks on late-August days.
Nichole shivered despite the feverish heat and forced herself to make a full loop by crossing the second bridge.
As she came closer to the paved road, she peered into the distance, trying to see if the man’s Jeep was still parked in front of her house. As she squinted toward home, something colorful caught in her periphery, a typical sight in a river that kept flowing in the same direction day in and day out, all the way to the Gulf. But this wasn’t the usual orange lifejacket, bikini top, or beer koozie. It was a pink-and-blue paisley-printed scarf, possibly silk and certainly expensive.
Nichole watched the fabric glide past before turning her face upstream. In the distance she spotted a mound of clothing piled in the center of the riverbed.
She glanced at her watch. It was almost 6:30 a.m., and if she was going to make it to school on time, she really needed to get home. But something about the fabric in the middle of the river wasn’t right. She needed to take a quick look.
She navigated the bumpy terrain with precision, and as she crept closer to the bank, stepping around fallen branches and exposed roots, the mound began to take shape. That of a torso, of arms, of legs.
Nichole stopped midstride as she realized exactly what was in front of her: this was a body—a woman, it seemed—face down in the center of the shallow river.
Kristen Bird lives outside of Houston, Texas with her husband and three daughters. She earned her bachelor’s degree in music and mass media before completing a master’s in literature. She teaches high school English and writes with a cup of coffee in hand. In her free time, she likes to visit parks with her three daughters, watch quirky films with her husband and attempt to keep pace with her rescue lab-mixes. WATCH IT BURN, out from MIRA/HarperCollins in March 2024, is her third suspense novel.
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