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by Judy Nichols
Description: Single mom Kate Dennison finds her new reporting job at a local paper is not at all what she expected. On her first day, two men die in a fire apparently set by a militant environmentalist group called The Forces of Nature. Kate is assigned to cover the story, including the trial of the young man charged with the crime. As she works to unearth the truth, she begins to fear for her own safety and is faced with the loss of her daughter, her freedom and even her life.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications/Zumaya Enigma, 2008 2008
eBookwise Release Date: November 2008
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [366 KB]
Reading time: 211-295 min.
Tree Huggers will have you smiling and biting your nails as Kate does what she has to do to get her story ... and the killer. Nichols is a skillful writer, and I look forward to reading her next book!--Joyce Lavene, author of the Peggy Lee Garden Mystery Series
Tree Huggers fairly sizzles in a firestorm of arson, murder, and greed between developers and environmentalists, with a lone reporter caught in the dangerous backdraft.--Wanda Canada, author of Island Murders, Cape Fear Murders
1. BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
It was a travesty of a house, a sprawling hulk of glass and freshly painted cedar siding with redwood decks jutting out at all different angles. The real estate agency handout stated it was six thousand square feet of pure luxury. It had five bedrooms, seven bathrooms, four wood-burning fireplaces, a great room, a home office, a gourmet kitchen, a wine cellar, a music room, a den and a few extra rooms with no particular purpose whatsoever.
And then there were the breathtaking views of the North Carolina coastline, visible from virtually every window on the east side of the house.
It was perfect for the discerning homeowner who could afford the multi-million-dollar price tag, as well as the army of maids required to keep it clean.
John Cochran surveyed the building with disgust. He knew his beat-up old Volvo looked out of place, parked here next to the huge six-car garage. He was also aware that he looked out of place at this obscene display of conspicuous consumption. Wearing a pair of old blue jeans and an even older "Save the Whales" T-shirt, his hair graying and his face weathered, Cochran appeared to be a tramp. All he needed was a "WILL WORK FOR FOOD" sign.
In reality, he had enough money to buy this piece of property and several others like it if he chose.
He leaned against the car and worked on a crossword puzzle while he waited for Warren Owens to show up. Owens was a representative from the development company that was intent on buying up Cochran's beloved stretch of Carolina pine savannah and building houses on it.
"Over my dead body," he muttered.
A shiny new Mercedes sedan pulled into the driveway, and Warren Owens hopped out. He was a man who'd done well for himself. His designer suit fit him perfectly, and it looked great with the French linen shirt, the Italian silk tie and matching handkerchief. Though he was not yet forty, his brown hair was already starting to thin, and he had developed a noticeable paunch. Still, he exuded an air of affable self-confidence.
He was the perfect salesman.
"John, John, great to see you again, my friend," he said, extending his hand and grabbing John's in a well-practiced firm handshake. "Glad you could make it."
"Yeah, right. Let's get on with it," Cochran said, sneering. "Already I can tell you this building is a waste of good wood. You could have built ten houses for people who really need them instead of this castle for spoiled yuppies with more money than sense."
"Now, John, there's nothing wrong with having a little bit of luxury in your life. You should try it. Spend some of that money you've got on yourself. Shane tells me you never have any fun."
"Now, that's something my son does know plenty about--having fun. Twenty-seven years old, never had to work for anything. By the way, isn't he supposed to be joining us?"
"Yes, he and Mr. Kominsky will be driving in together." Owens glanced at his watch, and Cochran noted its prestigious brand name. "They should be here in about twenty minutes."
"If Mr. Kominsky can get my son to arrive anywhere on time, my hat's off to him. Nice watch, by the way."
"Thank you. My wife gave it to me last Christmas. I'm a Timex man myself, but I have to admit, it sure is a fine way to tell time. Come on, let me show you around."
He placed a hand on Cochran's shoulder and steered him to the huge slab of ornately carved dark wood that served as the front door.
"Lovely door, isn't it?" Owens gave it a proprietary slap. "Solid teak. It'll stand up to wind, rain and salt, whatever the Atlantic Ocean dishes out. They used this stuff to cover the decks of the USS North Carolina."
Pausing from his spiel, he opened a small gray plastic box by the door, revealing a security keypad. He punched in a series of numbers and opened the door.
"State of the art security system," he continued. "Keyless entry, twenty-four-hour surveillance cameras, the works. If anyone breaks in, the local police are notified right away. And of course, there's a whole slew of smoke detectors hooked up directly to the security command center. No need to call nine-one-one--the fire department is dispatched immediately."
"Doesn't it take a while for them to get here? It's pretty out-of-the-way," Cochran observed as they crossed the marble floors of the foyer. "The Winslow Beach firehouse is twenty miles away and it's run by volunteers. They'd all have to be paged. And there's not a fire hydrant in sight. Where's the water going to come from? A good-sized fire could burn this place to the ground."
Owens laughed nervously and smiled.
"Oh, John, don't be such a worry-wart. When was the last time your house burned to the ground? Besides, there's an automatic sprinkler system. Take my word for it, John. You have enough money to buy this house, you have enough money to protect it."
"I'm not buying this house. I have a house," Cochran replied. "You do know I'm only here because my son begged me to take a look at this place, right? He figured your boss Kominsky could talk me into selling my property even though there is absolutely no way in hell that's going to happen. I only agreed to come after Shane promised to help me clear the phragmites from the marshes this weekend."
"Mr. Kominsky can be very persuasive."
"Yes, I'm sure he can sell refrigerators to the Inuits."
"Don't you mean the Eskimos?"
They entered the expansive great room. Since there wasn't a stick of furniture in the entire house, Cochran felt like he had just walked into an empty airplane hangar instead of someone's living space. He craned his neck for a view of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling thirty feet above his head. Crystal prisms dangled in clumps like giant stalactites, a vain mockery of the stately crystal chandeliers he'd seen in European opera houses. This thing was downright ugly.
"Isn't that chandelier something?" Owens asked. "An original design, handmade by a highly regarded artist name of Cameron Jericho. Works out of Chapel Hill, though I believe he's originally from Ohio. He's the best in art glass. You won't find another chandelier like that anywhere."
"Thank God for that."
Ignoring this remark, Owens ushered his charge into the kitchen, which boasted the obligatory array of industrial-sized stainless steel appliances tossed in among an endless jumble of cabinetry and granite counters. A gourmet cook's dream, Owens told him.
Then it was through the breakfast nook to the formal dining room, a look into the music room and finally into the first-floor master bedroom. Cochran saw their reflections in the mirrored doors to the closet and noted how ludicrous they looked together. The salesman and the beach bum.
"Walk-in closet, plenty of room for the wife to keep all her clothes and doodads. Even has a timed lock so the maid won't steal anything while the lady of the house is out."
"Is that a problem, maids stealing clothes?"
"Well, let me put it this way--if your wife had a closet full of shoes at fifteen hundred dollars a pair, wouldn't you want a lock on the door?"
"Women pay that much for a pair of shoes?" Cochran asked.
"Tell me about it. Seems like fast as I earn my commission, my wife's spent it all on a pair of designer shoes. And the handbag to match, of course."
Owens walked over to the back wall of the bedroom. It was entirely made of glass, a sliding door flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows. The door opened onto a wooden deck, and beyond that Cochran could see the waves coming up on the beach.
"Now, who wouldn't want to wake up to this view?"
"That view won't be there for long," Cochran answered. "You guys built the house too close to the ocean. The sand will erode away completely in a couple of years. Maybe sooner."
"Nonsense, John. Kominsky Builders consulted one of the best structural engineers in the business when we selected this site. He assured us there would be no erosion problem."
Owens reached over and pulled the sliding glass door open. Cochran followed him outside. He noticed that the deck followed the jagged outline of the house. So many angles, so much wood.
He thought he noticed a bit of movement. He felt there was something or someone just out of sight, hidden by the corners of the house.
Owens leaned against the railing and took a very audible deep breath.
"Just smell that air," he said robustly. "John, come on over here and take a look at the ocean."
Cochran did not particularly want to look at the ocean--he had a much better view from his own property up the coastline; but he could see no reason for ignoring the man, so he went over to the railing and stood next to him, fidgeting impatiently.
"Isn't that the most beautiful thing on God's green earth?" Owens asked.
Cochran never got a chance to comment, as the sound of the crashing waves was drowned out by heavy footsteps running toward them. He looked up to find they were surrounded by four men, all dressed in camouflage army fatigues, their faces hidden by thin olive-colored ski masks. Each one held a revolver.
One thug grabbed Cochran's left arm, jabbing the gun to his back, while another took his right arm and pointed the gun at his temple. He knew nothing about guns, but he thought the one in his face looked a lot like the one Clint Eastwood used in the Dirty Harry movies. It certainly was intimidating, and he offered no resistance.
The other two did the same with Owens.
"Do exactly as you're told, and no one will get hurt!" one of them yelled as they pushed Owens and Cochran back into the house.
Once inside, one of them grabbed the handle on the mirrored closet door and slid it open. The others shoved the two frightened men inside and shut the door, plunging them into total darkness.
Cochran stood very still, trying to hear what the men were doing. It was difficult to do, since Owens was making so much noise stumbling around in the dark; Cochran assumed he was looking for the light switch.
"Here it is," Owens said, sounding relieved as the lights went on. He gave the door a shove. It didn't budge.
"Damn, those guys must have hit the timer lock," he said. "Well, I guess they're just here to steal the stereo equipment then they'll be on their way. Mr. Kominsky and your son should be here any minute. They'll let us out."
"Don't you have a cell phone? We could call the police."
"Yes, but I left it in the car. Reception is so bad here, there isn't much point in having it. Besides, the police should be here soon. Those guys must have tripped the alarm when they came in."
"You idiot! They didn't trip any alarms. Don't you remember? We let them in through the back door!" Cochran shouted in frustration.
Outside, four pairs of feet pounded about the room. There was the glug-glugging sound of liquid spilling out of a big container and splashing against the walls.
"Oh, God, they're trashing the house--they're throwing paint all over the place!" Owens moaned.
"It's not paint," Cochran said quietly.
Someone outside shouted "Let's go!" and they heard the men run out of the room, followed by a grim silence.
Then the house exploded into a fireball.