The house was a total loss. Firefighter Lieutenant Jack O’Malley shone his bright light on the dripping walls, looking for anything that would provide a source for the smoke he was still chasing. Second floor beams above him groaned as the building settled. Fire had shattered what had once been a beautiful, well-kept home. It was like walking around inside a sarcophagus. The place felt like it was dying.


     The kitchen smelled of something nasty, the sharp smell of burnt cleaning supplies making Jack’s eyes water. Limp bananas were now hanging over a bowl whose apples looked like cooked mush. Coupons fluttered from the counter to the floor, turning to a sodden mass in the standing water. Pictures on the refrigerator had bled away color in the heat, leaving behind the ghosts of people barely discernible.


     The big calendar on the wall beside the phone had been reduced to darkened, curling pages. A family’s life, documented in dates and times and appointments, gone. Jack let the light linger on the calendar, the month of November half marked off with Xs, today’s date of the fifteenth highlighted by something now illegibly in bold red ink. Their vacation dates, he guessed. Thanksgiving was next week and they had chosen to travel early. He was grateful they had not been caught in the inferno.


     This was so incredibly senseless. The fire looked like it had been set.


     Jack could feel the weariness wash over him again, and behind it, building, the tick in his left eye that showed his growing anger. He’d like to find the man responsible for this and deck him.


     A wisp of gray caught his attention as the house breathed. Some smoke was coming through the central air ductwork. Jack touched his radio. “Nate, check the utility room again.”


     “On it.”


     Jack walked through what had once been the patio door, stepping out into the night. The massive spotlights from the fire engines in front of the house cast strange shadows onto the backyard through holes in the house where windows had never been intended.




     Jack stopped in his tracks when he spotted the white kernels lying at the edge of the deck protected from booted feet by the waist-high wooden railing. The building anger surged and fury swept through him. Someone had stood and watched the house burn, had come prepared to enjoy the sight. It was a signature he’d seen before.


     The white kernels were scattered, dropped as though stragglers from an overflowing fistful. Jack searched the area. A few of the unpopped grains that had been flicked into the flames to pop lay burned with hulls split in two. Jack had hoped with a passion this particular arsonist was going to stick to his nuisance fires of grass and trash. Instead, he’d just escalated to his first house.


     Fire was supposed to be an accident, not a weapon, not something enjoyed. Jack kicked a smoldering chunk of wood ripped from a window frame away from the evidence. His job was turning into that of a cop.


     He hated arsonists. Painful experience from his own past had taught him how ruthless a fire starter could become. Destruction of property. Innocent victims. Injured firefighters. They had to find this guy before someone got hurt.


     He could fight a fire, but fighting a man—Jack felt like his hands were tied and he hated the feeling of being helpless. He was an O’Malley. He wasn’t a man to duck trouble. He preferred to go after it. And this was clearly trouble. How was he supposed to go after a man who chose to be a coward and hide behind a match?


     Thanksgiving was coming, then Christmas, and he had enough on his plate already with his sister Jennifer fighting cancer to want to add this kind of tangle. The holidays were like waving an invitation to make trouble. He couldn’t be two places at once. They had to stop this guy soon. But it was tomorrow’s problem.


     Around him the firefighters from Company 81 were pulling hose and shouting to be heard over the sound of a power saw. They were aggressively searching for hot spots within the burned-out house trying to find the source of that smoke still rising like a wavering cobra into the air.


     Somewhere in the ruins this fire was still alive. Jack pulled back on his gloves and looked over the ruins of the house with an experienced eye. A decade of fighting fires had taught him well, for it was not a forgiving profession.


     Fire was an arrogant beast. If in control, it challenged with ferocious disdain anyone who approached. If forced to retreat, it liked to lie low, patiently waiting, then exact a painful revenge.


     They’d find it. Kill it. Another dragon would be slain.


     “Cole.” Jack got the attention of the fire investigator.


     There were few men who could dominate a fire scene just by being present; his friend Cole was one. Six-two, one hundred and eighty pounds, prematurely gray at forty-two, Cole Parker had made captain at thirty-six, a decade before most. He now led the arson group. Jack trusted the man in a way he trusted few outside his family.


     “What do you have, Jack?”


     With his flashlight, Jack illuminated the popcorn.


     Cole, a big man with a big shadow, stilled for a moment, then walked over to the deck.


     “He’s escalating,” Jack said.


     Cole bent to pick up a kernel. “We knew he eventually would. Five fires in seven weeks, he’s not a patient man.”


     “He’s ringing fires around the new boundaries of the fire district,” Jack suggested, knowing it was at least a clue to figuring out who the man was they had to stop. The smaller, older fire stations had been closing over the past months, their engines and crews dispersed to expanded hub stations. The reapportioned equipment better reflected the new housing construction and demographics of the area, but nothing could change the reality that more territory in each district meant longer response times. This firebug knew how to take advantage of the change.


     Cole just nodded. “A dangerous man playing a dangerous game.” He ate one of the popped kernels. “Salt. He’s bringing his own refreshments.”


     “I really didn’t need to know that.”


     His friend rose gracefully to his feet. “I thought this had the sound of one of his. Late at night, edge of the district.” He looked over at Jack. “Gold Shift.”


     The implication that his shift was being targeted hadn’t escaped Jack’s attention. They worked twenty-four hours on, forty-eight hours off, yet all the fires had been fought by his shift, none by Black or Red Shifts. Jack would not easily admit he’d started to sweat when the tones sounded. It was hard to hold his trademark good humor when someone out there appeared determined to make sure he was going to face flames.


     Cole brushed his hands on worn jeans. He’d been paged to the scene from his home. “Tell me about this fire.”


     “It was in the walls.”


     First on the scene, Engine 81 had pulled up as smoke began to pour from the attic vents and around the eaves. Jack had pushed his way into the front hallway, shining his light, and had watched the paint bubble from the heat inside the walls. No flames had been visible, but as soon as he had poked his ax into the wall, the dragon had leaped out, roaring. “We had a hard time getting water onto the face of it.”


     Nate on the nozzle, Bruce pulling hose, they’d lost precious time cutting into the walls. With no moon and the neighbor’s homes a distance away, the fire had not been reported until it already had a good hold. Jack had been thinking it ignited because of an electrical short until he saw the intensity of the fire. He illuminated the smoke line and burn pattern with his light as they walked.


     “Center of the house?” Cole speculated.


     They slogged across the yard now turned into mud by the hours of streaming water. Jack stopped by a dogwood tree. “I think so. There was too much ambient heat to assume it started on the second floor and worked down within the walls, not enough fire scarring on the siding to show an origin point in an outside wall.”


     Arson for profit didn’t fit this guy’s pattern—probably a guy—Jack decided. It didn’t feel like the work of a young offender either. These fire locations were carefully planned. And it was odd for a fire starter who did it for enjoyment to acquire the taste late in life. “Think he’s after the press attention?”


     “Bold enough to stand around after the fire starts and flick popcorn into the flames, arrogant enough to set fires frequently. Now escalating in the type of fires he sets. Yes, he wants the attention—ours, the press’s, and ultimately the public’s.”


     “We’ll have a panic on our hands if we don’t stop him before the press connects the fires.”


     “Not to mention copycats.”


     Smoke twisted in their direction, the heavy ash particles making Jack cough. “What time is it?”


     Cole sent him a sympathetic smile. “Something after 2 AM.”


     Two and a half hours. Jack felt like he had run a marathon. The fire turnout coat sat heavy on his shoulders and it stuck and rubbed at his neck as he moved. The last hours had turned his blue uniform shirt and cotton T-shirt under the coat into a sweaty mass. Jack knew he could forget any idea of sleep tonight. It would be dawn before they got the fire mop-up complete.


     His left knee was still complaining about the force of the impact earlier when he dropped from the engine to the asphalt street with more speed than care. The initial sight of the house with smoke beginning to pour from the roof vents had made him push faster than safety would dictate.


     It might have appeared haphazard to the spectators watching their arrival, but the company had executed a well-coordinated attack on the fire. The crew from Ladder Truck 81 had gone after the roof and ventilated the fire; the men from Engine 81 had surged to lay hose and get water on the face of the fire; and the crew of Rescue Squad 81 had hit the ground reaching for air tanks, ready to go in if people were trapped.


     The drills and teamwork had paid off; no time had been lost during the attack. There were benefits to working with the best. And a few drawbacks. First engine on the scene, last engine to leave.


     He’d kill for a shower. The smell of smoke and sweat was a stench he didn’t mind as long as he was moving and was downwind of himself.


     “You did a good job of knocking it down.”


     He was pleased at the praise for Cole didn’t give it lightly. “Thanks.”


     Jack would prefer to be on the roof or pulling down scorched plaster, even coiling hose, than to be the guy tapped to manage the scene. But the captain of Company 81 had been called to the site of a chemical spill, so the job passed to Jack.


     He retrieved two bottles of ice water from the rescue squad and handed one to Cole. As he drank, Jack scanned the few remaining spectators—neighbors hurriedly dressed, a couple kids entranced at the sight of the red engine and ladder truck, local media, a cop blocking the street from thru traffic.


     Some firebugs were watchers. They acted just so the firefighters would get called out. They’d stand and watch the battle, their own personal entertainment. No one stood out among those watching.


     Jack turned back to the house and watched guys turn a nozzle back on to deal with a pocket of fire found smoldering in the wall between the garage and the breezeway. “This isn’t going to be his last fire.”


     “Safe wager.”


     “Any ideas?”


     Cole drank deeply, then shook his head. “No ideas, no assumptions, no conclusions. You know how this job is done.”


     Jack did. It took patience he didn’t have. “My men are at risk.” His words were quiet because he knew the memory Cole carried, knew how the words would resonate.


     Cole reached over and squeezed his shoulder.


     Jack didn’t know if he ever wanted to make captain, knowing how much the privilege and burden of command had cost his friend. Cole had led Company 65 before moving to head the arson group. He’d moved because an arsonist had made it personal. Jack wanted to ask about Cassie, about Ash, but found himself in this situation hesitant to voice the names.


     “Lieutenant?” A firefighter from Truck 81 stepped to the open front door. “You’re going to want to see this.”