For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, interrupted occasionally by a reference you might like to follow up. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files.
Smell the Rain
The emergency lights threw a sick yellow glare on everything. Four red fire trucks were parked in a semicircle in front of a house already very small and now reduced by a burnt-out half. The fire was out and the trucks and auxiliary pumps made loud winding down noises, like tired machines sighing, wanting you to know they’d had enough. Floods of water lingered everywhere, sallow but glinting like shiny pools of urine each time a flashing light swept by. The fire smell was atrocious.
Rangel and Mitman stood at the curb and gazed at the destruction. “It stinks,” Rangel said. It had taken them more than two hours to get here from the lodge.
“Stinks, hell, it’s criminal. Arson. Someone has to pay for this.”
In a small, calm voice, Rangel said, “I mean it smells bad. That stinging, acid smell in the back of your throat. Sort of like decay, only if you’d pushed it to the extreme.”
“They’ll have to put a guard on your house, G.R. Cameras, alarms, I can set it up. You’ll need protection.”
“It’s very dramatic looking in this light, isn’t it? Like a movie set. Look, the right half’s almost perfect, intact roof slope, unbroken window, clean clapboards. Washed by the fire hoses, I guess. Then suddenly there’s this jagged black and jaundiced mess smelling . . . mephitic. No, that’s too sulfurous. Scorched.” She lifted her hands and weighed the halves up and down in her palms. “House. No house.”
“One thing, though. All of your records are safe. Every last line and paragraph. Our machines are toast. But it’s all in the cloud, the sweet safe and dry cloud where it never rains and is lined with silver. I made sure of that. And we’ve got that fireproof safe with the backup disk. So if these fuckers thought they’d get your files this way, they lose. Big time.”
Rangel put a hand on Mitman’s arm. “Let’s go in,” she said. And for the first time she became aware of the crowd gathered in the deep black behind the lights. Everyone in Backton, it seemed, was up out of bed and here for the show. At the nape of her neck she felt — what? — the prickle of their curiosity, avidity, satisfaction, hate?
As Rangel and Mitman stepped deeper into the lit area, they were met by a firefighter, the chief, according to the announcement on his helmet. “BFD” was stencilled on his chest in large red letters. Backton shared a volunteer fire service with a number of smaller surrounding communities, and some of the volunteers lived outside Backton. Rangel had never met the chief. She looked for his name tag.
“Chief McKnight, I’m Gregoria Rangel. This is — was — my office.” McKnight knew who she was. She could see the distaste in his eyes instead of the reflection she usually got, which was: ‘tall, pale, skinny, geek.’
“Ms. Rangel,” said McKnight. He didn’t offer to shake hands. Rangel saw he was annoyed that he almost had to look up to meet her gaze. “Sorry for your loss.” He was chunky, bulked out in that ten-thousand dollar protective gear that firefighters wore now. His face was red, even in the odd cast of the lighting.
“I thought you only said that when people had died.” Alarm crossed her face. “No one’s died, have they?”
“No, the premises were empty.” He waved a heavily gloved hand behind him. “Could have spread easily, and then, who knows? Lucky we got here in time.”
“Neighbour called it in?” asked Mitman. McKnight looked at him for the first time.
“Wallace Mitman,” said Rangel. “My law clerk.”
“Anonymous call,” said McKnight, after a moment’s hesitation.
Mitman breathed out loudly. “Arson, then, for sure.”
“Hold on,” said McKnight, pushing the air with both gloves. He shook his head. “We don’t think so. There’s no smell of accelerant. And the source seems to be an electrical junction box.”
“A fault?” Rangel sounded surprised, sceptical.
McKnight turned to look at the building, then at his crew packing things up. “I’ll show you,” he said. “Be careful. The floor is still sound except for one spot which we’ve roped off. But still… ”
It didn’t feel like her office. She was removed, observant at a distance. A sorry-for-your-loss sort of distance. McKnight pointed down at a carbonized baseboard where a blackened steel junction box had been exposed. “See how the spread goes out from here? And there’s nothing at the floor at all in front, all going up and out, first with the hot wires and then —” he made an expansive gesture “— through the old lath and plaster.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Rangel said, speaking a thought.
McKnight puffed up his chest, but was too tired to maintain the effect for more than a moment. “A lot of these places got done up, down and dirty reno, back in the seventies when aluminum wire was being used. Some people still use it. It’s code, I guess. But you gotta know what not to do. Problem’s with the connections: aluminum on copper connectors. Differential flow. Creeps the connection. Makes a gap eventually.” He showed a gap with his hands. “You get sparking then and —” He didn’t say “boom” but his hands flew up and away from each other.
“No aluminum here,” said Rangel.
“Sorry to disagree,” said McKnight, pleased as punch. “We found melted aluminum at the source.”
Rangel shook her head. “Uh-uh. See, this was completely rewired by my brother when I bought it three years ago. He’s an electrician. He uses only copper. I’m certain. And the circuit breakers would have kicked in.”
“Looks like your brother shorted on you,” said McKnight. He gave a one-stroke laugh and started to walk away.
“You’re going to report it to the fire marshal, right?” said Mitman.
McKnight turned around. “It’s not arson. I told you. I’ve been to more fires than you’ve had — than you can imagine. I know what I’m talking about.”
Mitman said to his back, “BFD, right?”
McKnight paused, then carried on. “Go home and get some sleep,” he said.
Rangel looked thoughtful. “I’ll need you rested, Wally,” she told him. “We’ve got — you have — a lot to do tomorrow. So I think you should go home and sleep. He’s right. Even an asshole can give good advice occasionally.” Mitman closed his eyes and nodded. Then he turned and walked away.
Rangel moved slowly through the wet disaster, touching this and lifting that only to set it down again. Everything was ruined. Oh, there was insurance. That wasn’t the real concern. No, the fact of destruction, of devastation, that was the troubling matter; that something so organized and elaborated as a law office could be reduced to nothing in the flare of a moment, that was, well, an unwelcome reminder of death.
Her books. She hadn’t many in the office. Who bothered with books anymore? But she did keep a few old volumes nearby to connect her with the profession’s past and lend the meaning of continuity to what she did with her life. And now they were waterlogged victims. She had an old Martin’s Criminal Code and an even older version of Tremeear’s, one she’d found in a used books shop in the city. Criminal law was her love. It would survive, books or no books. And here was a very old Armour on Titles that someone had given her years ago. She hefted it, opened it, brought it close to her face, and smelled the strangely appealing odour of foxed and yellowed paper.
She should go home and sleep, though it was probably too late for that use of the night. So she proceeded methodically through the battered little dwelling, marking each loss, noting how each and every thing was at once inconsequential and utterly irreplaceable. Eventually she came to where there should have been a door to the back garden and a neighbour’s field beyond. Perhaps it was good not to have doors any longer, to have the element of fire open things out to nature’s other elements. She stepped carefully down and out of her . . . former office. And only then, when her feet were on solid ground once again, did she feel the tines of fear run through her, understanding that indeed someone wished her harm — and was prepared to bring it about.
She shuddered and moved away from the house towards the small field, surprised to see that dawn was imminent. Like an animal, she snuffed the air without thought and knew that rain was coming. A slight frisson went through her, the elation telling her that it would be a thunderstorm. She was sure of it. And no sooner had she formed the thought than the first drops fell. She lifted her face gratefully, feeling fat, luxurious splashes on her skin. And then she smelled the rain, the delicate aroma of the world’s waking to the sky’s attentions. Fear was gone for the moment and replaced by unreasonable optimism. Lightning flashed in the dawn clouds and like a child she counted to the rumble that followed.
Suddenly there was a man in front of her. “Are you all right?” he was asking. She shuddered, cold and wet now. “You should get inside,” he said, reaching out towards her but not touching her. “You might be in shock. And besides—” a smile lit his face for her to see “—an open field is not the place to be in a thunderstorm.”
She saw him, saw that he was one of the firefighters. He had his heavy, stiff jacket in his hand, offering to put it around her shoulders. She let him do that. And she allowed him take her arm and walk her through the rain to the street in the front, thinking all the while just ‘golly’ and ‘golly,’ like the thunder countdown kid. “Is that your phone,” he asked her. “It’s a bit early to be calling someone. But it might be important. You’d better get it.”
She shook her head. The ringing stopped.
He grinned at her. “I’ll drive you home,” he said. And he helped her clamber into a red fire truck. And she let him.
© Simon Fodden