Lord, what is that terrible noise? Feels like an ax whacking at my brain. Somebody, please turn it off. Jesus, make it stop.
Can’t see a thing. Are my eyes open? Black as pitch in here. No. There’s a light. Downstairs. A flickering light. Must have forgotten to turn off the television. Wait, was I watching television? Can’t remember. My head hurts. Make it stop.
My God, it’s so hot in here. I’m burning up. Can’t be the furnace, can it? Maybe it’s broken. Need to get up. Turn it off.
And that smell. Lord, I’m so dizzy. Something’s burning. Who’s been smoking in here?
Can’t breathe. Too much smoke. Can’t move.
Bear Donovan was the first one off the truck, landing like a sack of cement on flat feet, boots thwacking the sidewalk. He took a split second to size up the situation. Fully involved. Gotta get this under control right away or the houses on both sides could go up as well.
Flames curled from the upstairs windows in front, licking the gutters. Not good. Not good at all. These bungalows were tinderboxes, the old wood as dry as the inside of his mouth at this moment. Who lived in this place? He hoped to hell they weren’t home.
“Get a couple of hoses going on the roof,” he shouted. “Concentrate on the sides facing the neighbors. I don’t wanna see this thing spread.”
Gotta get in there, just in case. Can’t let anyone else do it. Too dangerous.
Donning his mask, Bear approached the front door. A massive grizzly of a man, nothing ever got in his way. But the wall of heat coming off the house felt solid, impenetrable. He forced himself forward, his skin prickling, the heat blasting right through his flameproof suit.
Images of his two kids flashed through his mind: Sara—with the freckled face like her mom—and Teddy—dark-haired like his dad—his little baby bear. He knew he still had to risk his life for strangers—this this was part of the job—but since his kids were born, he sometimes thought twice about it. Only natural.
Bear’s trained eye scanned the blaze. A neighbor down the street had smelled smoke maybe fifteen minutes earlier while staggering home from a night at O’Donahue’s Pub. According to the 911 call, there were no flames visible at that point. And now, the whole house was one raging inferno. If that caller was telling the truth, this fire had accelerated extremely fast.
Both of the first floor windows on the front of the house suddenly exploded, a twin set of angry dragons exhaling fiery roars. A quick peek into the house confirmed the worst: no one could possibly survive this. If anyone was inside, they were toast. Blackened toast. And no one was going in there. Not now. Not even him.
Bear turned away, heading back to the truck. He had a very bad feeling. It was more than a feeling, to be honest. It was a smell. Sort of similar to pork barbecue. But he doubted there were any pigs inside this burning house. More likely it was something that smelled a lot like pork when roasted.
Hours later, as the firefighters from Empire Company Number One closed up the last open hydrant, the first rays of dawn blushed over the Hudson River. Bear exhaled a long sigh, feeling as worn out as the rest of his team looked. At least they had achieved one of their goals: the houses on both sides of the blaze had been spared. But the devastation to the home in between was complete.
A total loss.
It didn’t help that the house was more than a hundred years old and built entirely of wood. It didn’t help that this had been one of the driest seasons on record. Almost no rain for the whole month of October.
And it didn’t help that this fire started on Gate Night. The night before Halloween. The traditional night of mischief-making. They had been called to put out several bonfires in backyards earlier in the evening. What with all the dry leaves and grass, the bonfires had quickly raged out of control. His team had been up all night. They were dead on their feet.
As his guys packed up the trucks, getting ready to head back to the station for some breakfast, Bear peeled off his heavy, smoke-blackened coat and glanced up and down Depew Avenue. Toilet paper hung like Spanish moss from the bare limbs of stunted trees. The houses were shabby and run-down, with sagging front porches and peeling paint. Their postage stamp yards, trapped inside chain-linked fences, were barren and dusty, not a patch of green grass anywhere. Growing up in Nyack, this was an area where Bear had once had friends and teammates. But in the last decade, this street had gone to seed.
Out of the blue, a sharp finger of fear poked him in the chest. It wasn’t the poverty. It wasn’t the sadness or the desperation he sensed in the neighborhood. No, this was something meaner, uglier. There was the lingering smell of charred human flesh. Yeah, that was making his skin crawl. And underneath that, he caught a whiff of something else. It smelled to him like pure evil.
What on earth was that terrible noise? It couldn’t be the alarm clock. He was sure he hadn’t set it. Detective Ian McDaniel rolled over and covered his head with his pillow. What day was this, anyway? Wasn’t it Saturday?
Yes. Definitely Saturday. It was Halloween. Nyack was holding the first annual Halloween parade today. The entire town would turn out. Probably a load of tourists from the city, too. And the entire police force would be needed to patrol the streets, monitor barricades, keep an eye on the displays of public intoxication, you name it.
He had to get up. But it wasn’t the alarm clock making that racket. It was the phone. He snatched up the receiver to make it stop.
“McDaniel here,” he whispered.
“Ian, it’s Chief White. Did I wake your lazy ass?”
“No, no. My lazy ass is up, Chief.” McDaniel glanced at the clock. Seven-thirty. He climbed out of the king-sized bed, taking the phone on its long cord into the dining room so as not to disturb his wife. Not that she could be easily awakened. More than likely, she’d still be sleeping off her drunken stupor well past noon. “What’s up?”
“I got a call just now from Julian Peterson, head of the county’s arson investigation team. Looks like we had a suspicious fire late last night in Central Nyack. You’ll probably smell it the minute you step outside. I’m told the whole house was demolished.”
“And they already know it was arson?” McDaniel asked, taking a seat at the dining room table. His legs were so long, his bare knees grazed the underside of the table.
“More like a suspicion at this point,” Chief Keesha White explained. “Your buddy Bear Donovan called it in first thing this morning, as soon as they put the fire out. He’s pretty sure there’s a body in the building.”
“Oh, shit.” McDaniel ran a hand through his dark brown curls.
“Shit is correct. If there’s a finding of arson, we’ve got another murder on our hands. And we’ve already had more than our quota for the year. Maybe for the century.”
McDaniel nodded, thinking nineteen eighty-seven would go down in history for the highest murder rate ever recorded in the lower Hudson Valley. He had solved three homicides during the month of August alone. But he had had help. Lots of help.
“Ian? You still there? Or are you off in la-la land?”
“I’m here. Sorry.”
“If I’ve got your full attention now, I need to tell you a few things. I’m putting Sergeant Niklaus in charge of the parade today. I want you to get over to the site of the fire and meet with Peterson. If he finds a body, you’re on the case. The mayor is trying to pull in even more tourists this season, what with this damn parade and all the leaf-peepers, so the last thing we need is another murder making us look as bad as the Bronx.” Chief White had been born and raised in the Bronx, so she knew what she was talking about.
McDaniel stifled a yawn. “Gotcha. I’m on it.”
“Good. And Ian, do me a favor and stay in touch.”
He tiptoed back into the bedroom to hang up the phone. His wife, Janice, was on her back, mouth open, a snore vibrating out of her nose and throat. Her lungs rattled from the cigarettes she had added to her long list of bad habits. Now she reeked like an ashtray as well as a wino. Any warmth that once existed, anything resembling love, had been sucked from their now dead marriage.
He grabbed a freshly dry-cleaned suit out of the closet, along with a new shirt, socks, boxers, and a pair of shoes. Carrying the bundle into the bathroom, he hung up the suit while he showered and shaved. Within fifteen minutes, he was walking out the door. He didn’t bother to leave a note. As far as he could tell, Janice couldn’t care less where he was, what he was doing, or when he’d be home. He wasn’t sure how much longer this could go on.
On Broadway, he paused for a moment, looking up at the third floor windows of the ornate Victorian mansion across the street from his apartment building. The lace curtains were drawn. He wished Angelica would open the window and poke her head out. Maybe invite him inside and offer to make him some breakfast. Hell, if this was his fantasy, she might as well be wearing a see-through negligee while stirring those scrambled eggs.
And speaking of breakfast, somebody around here must be grilling some meat. Pork sausage, maybe?
Julian Peterson had one leg inside his protective suit when Ian pulled up in his Crown Victoria. The arson investigator’s van was parked in front of the charred, smoking ruins on Depew Avenue. Ian hopped out as Peterson finished zipping up.
“Ian McDaniel.” He reached out to shake hands. “Looks like you’re almost ready to go in.”
“Julian Peterson.” The older man smiled grimly as he shook hands, then pulled on a pair of gloves. Peterson was probably in his late forties with a thinning silver crew cut, bright blue eyes, and a ruggedly handsome face. He reminded Ian of Paul Newman. “I’m just waiting on the rest of my team. We’ll collect samples today and send them off to the crime lab. Hopefully have some answers before the end of the week.”
Bear Donovan warned Ian on the phone that the structural integrity of the home had been completely destroyed, making it very dangerous. But the possible presence of a body in the wreckage could not be ignored. Every detective knew that the first forty-eight hours after a crime were the most crucial.
“Looks like the gates of hell,” Ian commented. And it wasn’t just the burnt remains. The rest of the street didn’t look much better.
“Must have gone up fast. From what Bear told me, there wasn’t much they could do, besides saving the neighboring properties.”
“I guess that’s something.” Ian looked doubtfully at the adjacent homes, thinking they should probably be condemned. “Are you sure it’s arson?”
“That’d be my bet. But that doesn’t mean jack until we get the proof.” Peterson gestured toward another van inching up behind McDaniel’s vehicle. “Here they come.”
“I’m gonna hang out for a bit, see if anything turns up. Can someone give a shout if there’s something in there I need to see?”
“No problem. But you’ll need a mask and some protective boots if you want to walk around in there. What size do you wear?” Peterson beckoned to the guys who just arrived.
“I’m a ten.” Ian looked down at his feet. They suddenly looked extremely small to him. Barely adequate.
“I brought an extra pair,” one of the new guys offered. “I wear an eleven so they’ll be plenty big enough.”
Of course his feet are bigger, Ian thought. Look at that guy. He could probably bench press my car. I gotta get back to the gym. “Thanks a lot.”
McDaniel watched as the team suited up and followed Peterson toward the pile of ash and debris that had been someone’s home only hours earlier. With their masks and coveralls, they reminded him of astronauts stepping into an extra-terrestrial environment. Bleak and lifeless, it was a planet he had no desire to visit.
As far as he could see from his vantage point, nothing recognizable remained. No walls, no furniture, no curtains, no staircase. A few blackened copper pipes and charred beams poked out of the smoldering ash like dead insect legs.
Minutes later, he was proven wrong.
There was something more in there. Someone more, he corrected himself. He knew it the minute Peterson stepped out of the ashes to approach him, pulling down his mask. The look on his face was unmistakable.
“You got something,” Ian said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah.” Peterson sighed. “You wanna take a look? I’m gonna call the forensic guys and the ME.”
Ian stepped into the oversized boots, tucked his pant legs inside, and tied the laces as tightly as possible. He slipped a mask over his nose and mouth to prevent inhaling the dust and fibers that could be floating in the air. Feeling a little like Frankenstein’s monster, he lurched into the rubble, arms outstretched in order to balance.
Heat emanated from the deep piles of ash, rising in waves. Up close, the smell was even more gag-worthy: a combination of melted plastic, assorted chemicals, charred wood, and pork barbeque. But he now knew it wasn’t pork.
“Where to?” he called to the men sifting through the layers with their tools.
“Straight ahead. Pretty much dead center.”
Death, front and center.
Underneath a fallen beam, buried in more than a foot of gray ash, was a blackened corpse. Peterson, or one of these other guys, had brushed off enough of the ash to be absolutely certain of what they had found. Although he was no forensic specialist, Ian could clearly see that this was a body. Someone’s body. It was impossible to say more than that.
The flesh had been cooked to such an extent that it no longer even vaguely resembled flesh. Several bones were exposed where the flesh was completely burned away. Any clothing worn by the victim must have been consumed by the flames. Or maybe it had melted. The body, curled on its side, rested in a fetal position; the two hands had tightened into bony fists as if prepared for a fight. But there was no fight left in this poor soul.
Identification would have to be made based on dental records. Ian hoped his victim had visited a dentist in the not-too-distant past.
After only a minute, the pervasive smell began to twist his stomach into knots, while the smoky fumes made his head spin. Or maybe it was staring into the empty eye sockets of this blackened, skeletal corpse.
Ian stumbled out of the collapsed structure. He made it as far as his Crown Vic before he started heaving. Thanks to a lack of breakfast, there was nothing in his belly to bring up. He spat out some stomach acid mixed with saliva and sank to the curb.
Here we go again.
His last investigation had taken a toll on him, physically, emotionally, in every way possible. He hadn’t slept much, neglected to eat, lost his temper, lost his sanity at times, and almost lost the person he cared about most. Angelica. These days, he thought of her as his better half, even though he was married to someone else. Even though he hadn’t touched her. Not yet, that is.
Thinking about Angelica immediately aroused his carnal energies. And that instantly made him feel better. It seemed to be impossible to be both nauseous and horny at the same time. If he had to choose one over the other, well, that wasn’t a difficult decision.
“Fumes getting to you?” Peterson approached cautiously, having witnessed the heaving.
Ian removed his borrowed boots. “Yeah. You’d think a homicide detective might be more accustomed to dead bodies.”
“You’re still young. Give it a few years and you’ll be cracking jokes while the ME saws open a skull.”
Ian felt the blood leave his cheeks. “Thanks for that image. I was almost feeling better.”
Peterson laughed. “No problem.” He reached out a hand and helped Ian up. “I’ll send over my full report this afternoon. We should be able to verify if it’s arson today, but the lab results will confirm our findings.”
“Thanks.” Ian handed over the boots. “For everything,” he added, sarcastically.
On his way back to the station, Ian cruised down Nyack’s Main Street, heading toward the river. The windows of many stores and businesses had been painted by high school art students. This was a yearly Halloween tradition as far back as he could remember. Scenes of colorful witches and ghosts set the mood for the upcoming festivities. Nothing too gruesome or horrific, the designs were all kid-friendly. Families milling around the sidewalks admired the artwork, killing time before the parade.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect if the town’s Board of Trustees had ordered this day out of a catalogue. The sky was brilliant blue, without a wisp of cloud. The chill in the air this morning would be banished by mid-afternoon.
As he watched the children cavorting in their costumes, a tiny pang pierced the detective’s heart. He imagined, for the first time ever, future kids of his own attending this event. His little boy in a fireman suit, waving to the real firefighters as they cruised along in their shiny, red engines. Maybe a girl as well, in a witch costume. He knew these imaginary children did not belong to Janice. For one thing, they were dark-haired. Like him. And Angelica. For another thing, Janice was sterile, the result of a traumatic stillbirth and subsequent hysterectomy.
He pulled the Crown Vic into the parking lot behind the station and jogged up the concrete stairs to the back door. The receptionist at the front desk looked up as he passed. “Anything I need to know?” he asked her.
“Everything’s on your desk.”
A new case file awaited him on top of his yellow legal pad. Ian preferred to take notes the old-fashioned way, with a pen and a pad of paper.
Inside the file was all the information collected up to this point on last night’s house fire. The department’s intern had already discovered the name of the homeowner, the insurance company, and the mortgage information from the bank. All these details would become crucial if the case went to court. But Ian still didn’t have the most important piece of information: the identity of that body in the ruins. Could be the owner, but he couldn’t make assumptions.
Ian got up and opened his window a crack. It was still chilly outside, but the fresh air helped to wake him up and settle his stomach. The nausea had mostly abated, but he still wasn’t feeling great. And he wanted to hear the crowd outside, the laughter and shouts of the kids in their costumes. He wanted to feel like he was a part of the festive atmosphere even if he was chained to his desk, making dozens of phone calls, trying to nail down all the details of this gruesome crime and its toasted victim.