A Spark of Heavenly Fire by Pat Bertram

In quarantined Colorado, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying from an unstoppable disease called the red death, insomniac Kate Cummings struggles to find the courage to live and to love. Her new love, investigative reporter Greg Pullman, is determined to discover who unleashed the deadly organism and why they did it, until the cost — Kate’s life — becomes more than he can pay. This is a story of survival in the face of brutality, government cover-up, and public hysteria. It is also a story of love: lost, found and fulfilled.

 

Chapter 1

Kate Cummings counted backward from one hundred, though she knew it wouldn’t help her sleep. Dead people didn’t slumber, and she hadn’t felt alive for a long time. Not since before Joe’s funeral, anyway.

Three. Two. One. She raised her head, squinted at the illuminated face of the alarm clock, and flopped back against the pillow. Five-fifteen. Six hours of thrashing around in bed. She blinked away the sting in her eyes. All she wanted was one good night’s sleep. Was that too much to ask?

One hundred. Ninety-nine. Ninety-six. . . . A sound startled her awake. A siren’s scream, fading now. She checked the time. Five-thirty. Even if she could doze off again, she’d have to rise in less than an hour. Not worth the effort.

She hauled herself upright and groped for her eyeglasses. After sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment, gathering her strength, she dressed and wandered through the house. She hesitated by the closed door of the second bedroom where her husband had lived during the last years of his protracted illness, touched the knob with her fingertips. Yanked her hand away.

This is ridiculous. Joe’s been gone for thirteen months.

Taking a deep breath, she grasped the knob, but could not force herself to turn it. She rested her forehead on the door for a minute, wondering if she’d ever be able to face the ghosts of sorrow and regret locked inside, then squared her shoulders and headed for the front closet to grab a coat and hat.

She trudged the seven blocks to Cheesman Park. A dozen hardy souls had braved the frigid early morning air, but as the hematite sky softened to pearl gray, others joined the parade of exercisers rounding the paths.

An elderly couple swaddled in layers of heavy clothing marched in front of her, their arms pumping faster than their legs.

A young man jogged toward her. With his beard stubble, ancient gray sweats, and tousled hair, he looked as if he were one step away from being a street person.

Coming up behind the jogger was a man in a cropped tee shirt and skimpy nylon shorts, a rapturous smile on his face. He passed the jogger, moving so swiftly and lightly his feet barely touched the ground.

As he neared Kate, he stumbled, and his smile faltered. He held out his hands, a beseeching look in his bright-red eyes. All at once an impossible torrent of blood gushed from his mouth, soaking her, and he toppled into her arms. She tried to steady him, but she slipped on a patch of blood, and they both fell.

“Are you all right?” two quavering voices asked in unison.

Kate turned her head so she could look out of the one clean spot on her glasses. The elderly couple peered down at her, their faces creased in concern.

“I’m fine.” The stench of the blood and the weight of the runner made it difficult for her to breathe, and her buttocks felt sore and cold, but she didn’t seem to be injured.

She struggled to scoot out from beneath the runner.

“Let me help.” The voice sounded young, male, and had a pleasing timber. Catching a glimpse of gray fabric, Kate realized the voice belonged to the disreputable-looking jogger.

After rolling the body off her, he extended a sturdy hand. Clutching it, she lumbered to her feet.

She reached into her coat pocket for a wad of tissues, wiped her face, hands, and glasses the best she could. Then, squatting next to the runner, she checked his pulse, listened to his chest. No sign of life.

She passed a palm over the runner’s eyes to close them.

Her knees creaked as she pushed herself upright. Four or five people, still breathing heavily from their exercise, stopped and gawked at her. “What happened?” one bystander asked “Was he shot?”

Not shot, Kate wanted to say, but she couldn’t summon the energy to speak aloud.

A redhead in a pink and lime green warm-up suit jogged by while pressing buttons on a cell phone. “I’ve been calling nine-one-one,” she said without slowing her pace, “but the lines are busy.”

“Something’s going on,” the old woman commented. “I heard sirens all night long.”

Kate cocked her head to listen. Off in the distance, underlying the sounds of the wakening city, was a cacophony of sirens. Too many sirens.

She tried to hug herself to ward off a sudden chill, but the freezing blood stiffened her coat sleeves. She thought about going home, peeling off her ruined clothes, and taking a long hot shower, but she didn’t feel right about walking away from the unknown man lying dead at her feet. Besides, she had to wait until the police or the paramedics arrived.

“You go get cleaned up,” the old woman said, “we’ll wait for the police.”

Kate shivered. Her hands and feet felt cold, and her heart beat too fast. Perhaps she should leave; it wouldn’t help anyone if she collapsed. As she turned to depart, she heard the woman whisper, “Someone ought to go with her. I think she’s in shock.”

“I’ll go.” The voice was that of the man who had helped her up.

“I’m fine,” Kate managed to say. “I don’t need anyone.”

He fell into step beside her. “If I remember correctly, there’s a city ordinance prohibiting a woman covered in blood from walking the streets unescorted.”

She slanted a glance at him. The compassionate look and the hint of mischief in his brown eyes warmed her, and she gave him a flicker of a smile. “In that case, I have no choice. I wouldn’t want to attract any further attention.”

They set out for her house on Elizabeth Street. She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, and after a few minutes, the worst effects of the shock wore off.

“I’m Greg Pullman,” he said, breaking the long silence.

“Kate Cummings.”

“So tell me, Kate, do you work for a living, or do you hang around parks all day waiting for men to fall on you?”

She scrabbled about in her mind for a witty response, but when the pause dragged into awkwardness, she said simply, “I work at the Bowers Clinic.”

“Isn’t that the converted mansion on Seventh Avenue where the rich people go?”

“Yes.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“We like rich people,” she said. “They have money.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“No. A patient’s representative. I take medical histories, deal with any grievances patients might have, and listen if they need someone to talk to.” Trying to match his light tone, she added, “What about you? Do you work for a living, or do you hang around parks all day rescuing women who have men fall on them?”

“I’m a reporter for The Denver News.”

Kate stopped and slapped herself on the forehead with the heel of a palm. “I am so stupid. Here I thought you were being nice, and all you want is a story.”

“No story. I promise.”

She glanced into his guileless eyes. “You don’t look like a reporter.”

“I don’t?”

“Reporters are hard-eyed, weary-faced people, beaten down by the low-level types they have to deal with.”

He smiled at her. “Funny you should mention that. I go to a bar downtown—The Lucky Star. It’s close to the central fire station, police headquarters, The Denver News, and Channel Ten, so it’s filled at all hours with hard-eyed men and women. I used to try to imitate their stare, but I looked ridiculous.”

“Good.”

He seemed bemused by her response. “Why do you say that?”

“All the hard stare means is that they no longer have the desire to care. You do.”

***

Kate shifted uneasily in her seat. She tried to focus on Rachel Abrams’s play-by-play description of this past Sunday’s Broncos game, but it reminded her of the dead runner in the park; he had been wearing a Broncos tee shirt.

Rachel’s shoulders twitched, and an arm flailed out. She stopped in the middle of a rambling account of a pass interception and announced, “There’s something terribly wrong with me. I feel great. I never feel well, you know that.”

Kate studied the elegantly dressed woman sitting across from her. With a rosy glow brightening her normally sallow cheeks, Rachel did indeed look healthy. Or she would have if not for her twitching muscles and blood-shot eyes.

“Have you been experimenting with your insulin dosage again?”

“No. I’ve been following Dr. Hart’s orders.”

“What about the spasms? How long have you had them?”

Rachel’s head bobbed, one of her feet kicked the desk, and her fingers kneaded nonexistent dough.

“What spasms?”

Kate made a quick notation on the medical form: Patient seems unaware of muscle spasms. When she looked up, she saw Rachel bending forward, clutching her midsection.

Dropping the pen, she jumped to her feet. “What’s wrong?”

Rachel’s body jerked upright.

Kate hit the panic button to summon a doctor. Rachel’s mouth opened and bloody vomit burst out with such force it arced over the desk and hit Kate full in the chest.

Gagging on the smell of so much blood in such a small room, she rushed to Rachel’s side. She was bending over the inert woman when a lanky blonde wearing a pristine lab coat, linen slacks, and an ecru silk blouse came charging into Kate’s office.

“Oh, Kate. Now what have you done?”

Kate stepped aside to make room for the doctor. “She acted fine, then she vomited blood.”

Dr. Hart looked Kate up and down. “Wait in the examination room next door. I’ll check you over when I’m finished here.”

With an odd sense of detachment, Kate obeyed.

She was staring at the white tiled floor, wondering how she could have seen two people die in the same manner within such a short time, when she heard a familiar voice.

“Exactly how many times a day do you do this?”

She looked up. An attractive clean-shaven man in his early thirties lounged in the doorway. Dressed in dark slacks, a tan trench coat belted at the waist, and a battered fedora perched rakishly on his chestnut curls, he bore little resemblance to the scruffy individual who had walked her home a few hours earlier.

She gave him a sheepish smile.

“Okay,” Greg said. “Time for me to take you home again. Let’s go.”

Kate finally found her voice. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see if you’re all right. But look at you.”

“Don’t remind me. I need to get my coat.” She went into the locker room off the women’s restroom and came out holding her old blue coat at arm’s length. “You better carry this. I don’t want to soil it. It’s the only coat I have left.”

Dr. Hart exited Kate’s office and stood with hands on hips, narrowing her eyes first at Kate then at the reporter.

“What’s going on here?”

“I’m going home to get changed. I can’t work looking like this.”

“And who is he?”

Kate glanced at Greg. The mischievous gleam in his eyes encouraged her.

“He’s an experienced escort. Every time someone vomits blood on me, he’s there to escort me home.”

“What do you mean, ‘every time’? Has this happened to you before?”

“This morning when I took a walk in Cheesman Park.”

Dr. Hart studied Kate for a moment. Apparently deciding the preposterous story was true, she flicked a wrist.

“Take the afternoon off, Kate. You’ve had enough for one day. Let me know if you need me.”

When Kate and Greg stepped outside, he asked, “Yours or mine?”

“Yours. I don’t have a car.”

He ushered her toward a battered red Honda Accord that looked as if it could have been one of the first models off the assembly line.

“It has close to two hundred thousand miles on it,” he said proudly, opening the door for her.

To her relief, the heater worked.

They headed down the long sweeping driveway and waited for a break in the unusually heavy traffic. After several minutes, Greg slipped his car between a Volkswagen and a Porsche.

“Are you married?” he asked.

Kate shook her head. “What about you?”

“No, but I think I’m going to be.”

Kate’s lips twitched. “You’re not sure?”

“My girlfriend has been hinting at marriage for months now, but when I proposed, she said she’d think about it.” He smiled at Kate. “What’s with you women, anyway? Some of you can’t make up your minds, and some of you are always covered in blood.”

Kate glanced ruefully down at her beige suit. She had thrown away everything she’d worn to the park; now she’d have to throw away this set of clothes, too.

“At the rate I’m going,” she said, “I’ll need to get a whole new wardrobe.”

“You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”

“I hate shopping.”

“A woman after my own heart,” he teased.

She turned her head toward the window to hide a sudden flush, and noticed they’d progressed only a few blocks.

Slanting a glance at him, she took a deep breath. “You found out something, didn’t you?”

“What makes you say that?”

“Your eyes. I see a reticence in them now I didn’t see earlier.”

“I talked to my contact in the medical examiner’s office.”

When he didn’t offer anything more, she said, “And?”

“And they don’t know what causes the red death.”

“The red death?” She swallowed. “They’ve named it already?”

“Unofficially.”

“Do they know how many have died?”

“Hundreds, possibly thousands.”

Kate stared straight ahead, trying to imagine so many people dying the same horrific death as Rachel Abrams and the runner in the park. Remembering the woman’s description of the game and the man’s tee shirt, she mentioned a possible Broncos connection.

Greg gave her a thoughtful look. “Interesting coincidence.”

They drove in silence for another couple of blocks, then Kate said softly, “It isn’t going to end any time soon, is it?”

His response was as subdued. “I don’t think so. The death rate is rising.”

***

The driver of the green Jeep Grand Cherokee behind Greg edged closer, revved his engine, and honked his horn. It had no effect on the stalled traffic, but the driver of the white Subaru ahead of Greg thrust an arm out the window and extended a middle finger.

Greg double-checked his doors to make sure he’d locked them. Any minute now, it seemed, the two drivers would be resorting to violence, and he had enough problems.

He glanced at his watch. Half an hour late. His editor wouldn’t be pleased he’d missed his deadline, but he couldn’t help it. All afternoon, ever since he had dropped Kate off at her house, he’d been caught in one traffic jam after another.

He called the newspaper again but still could not get through. He tossed the phone onto the seat next to him, then folded his arms across the top of his steering wheel, and rested his chin on them.

In the end, it didn’t matter that he couldn’t reach the newspaper—he had been unable to complete his assignment.

His contact at the medical examiner’s office had supplied him with the names of the first victims of the red death. He’d interviewed the families of three of them. They were too grief-stricken to tell him much, though they did confirm Kate’s surmise of a Broncos connection. Those three victims had all been at Sunday’s game.

Another early victim had been John Takamura, a professor at the State University Extension. Greg hoped the man’s wife, a professor herself, would be able to give him a newsworthy statement. She had not been at her campus office, and when she didn’t answer her phone, he headed for her house in University Hills, but it looked as if he wouldn’t get there.

Movement jarred him out of his contemplation. The driver of the Jeep had closed the gap between them and was nudging Greg’s car toward the white Subaru.

The Subaru pulled out of the line of traffic, drove over the median, and made a U-turn. As it passed Greg, the driver—a white-haired, apple-cheeked woman who had to be seventy—once again displayed a middle finger.

So much for sweet little old ladies.

But she had the right idea.

He crossed the median and headed back to The Denver News.

Two blocks later, Greg noticed the white Subaru zigzagging. Suddenly the windshield of the vehicle turned crimson; the old woman fell forward and collapsed onto her steering wheel. Then, midst the clamor of honking horns and screeching tires, the Subaru veered across the next lane and crashed into a parked car.

As Greg slammed on his brakes, he found himself looking around for Kate, but didn’t see her. This time, at least, she wasn’t involved.

Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. Bertram’s novels — Light Bringer, Daughter Am I, More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire — are all available from Second Wind Publishing.

Bertram’s Website: http://ptbertram.com
Bertram’s Blog: http://ptbertram.wordpress.com

Click here to buy: A Spark of Heavenly Fire

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