THE TRUTH SEEKER
The fire had been alive; it had left its signature in the coiled, twisted wood, the bent metal, the heavy ash. It was a tamed beast, but still here, ready to come back to life with a nudge. Lisa O’Malley walked with great respect up the stairs, following her brother Jack into the heart of the fire damage. The heavy boots he had insisted she wear were welcome as she realized it was glass crunching beneath her feet. Light bulbs and picture frames had shattered in the heat.
The firecoat was harder to get accustomed to. The nomex cloth was rough and it felt like thirty pounds on her back as she struggled to keep her balance. When Jack worked a fire he ran stairs wearing the coat and an air tank, carrying another forty pounds of gear; she didn’t know how he did it. The man rarely showed a serious side but it was there when he was doing the job he excelled at.
Reaching the upstairs landing, she turned her flashlight to inspecting the hallway ceiling and walls. The superheated gas created by the fire had reached down five feet from the ceiling, burning into the paint and wood, marking a suicide line. Two or three feet down indicated a severe fire, five was explosive. The firemen confronting this fire had been taking their lives in their hands in facing it head-on.
“Watch your step, I don’t trust this hallway. Stay close to the north wall.”
Lisa returned her flashlight to the floor to pick her next steps. Jack had hesitated before letting her come up. The house was safe for now, but with the weight of walls and joists shifting to beams not designed to handle the weight, every day brought the structure closer to collapse. It had rained yesterday, making the damaged wood swell and further stressing the structure.
She was careful not to get snagged by a nail or by exposed wiring. The firecrews had pulled down part of the hallway ceiling and torn portions of the walls back to the studs in order to locate dangerous pockets of lingering heat. Six days ago this had been a two alarm fire; and in the smoldering remains, still in his bed, the body of Egan Hampton had been recovered.
She reached the back bedroom and stopped.
“An accident—” she could only shake her head in disbelief. The furniture was charred, the mattress burned down to the springs, books on the shelf were now warped spines enfolding wrinkled pages of ash, the alarm clock was a chunk of deformed plastic adhered to the bedside table, the television tube had cracked and buckled in.
The only items not burned or blackened in the room were a portion of the bedding that had been protected by Egan’s body and a section of the floor rug that had been under the bed frame. The bedroom door was still on its hinges, but it had burned on both sides to a fraction of its normal width.
“Like I said, it was a hot fire.”
She stepped with caution inside the room, instinctively looking up to make sure she wasn’t going to get hit with something. The ceiling was open in sections, looking up into the attic, and in one place she could see all the way through to the sky.
Through the destroyed window she could see the orchard and nursery, the buildings and commercial greenhouses which comprised Nakomi nurseries, the business Egan had built up over the years and recently passed to his nephew Walter to manage.
Jack dealt with fire every day, he knew how it moved and breathed and burned. She’d learned enough from him to understand the patterns. This looked like a flashover, everything in the room heating up, reaching burn point, and suddenly bursting into flames en-mass. “Did the room smolder and smoke before flashover, or was it a steady fire? In the police report Walter said he saw the smoke and then a flash, called 911.”
“It began as a smoldering fire.” Jack knelt and picked up large shards glass from the shattered window. “Look at the smoke stain that burned into the pane of window glass.”
He used the crowbar to pull off the bottom piece of the window frame casing, turned it over to show her the details. “You can tell it started as a floor fire burning upward because the fire swept across this wood and out the window. Had it initially been flames at the ceiling coming down the wall and out the window, the burning would be pitting on the top of the wood, not this charring underneath.”
Daniel had done the autopsy on Egan Hampton, and while smoke had killed the man—there had been carbon monoxide found in his lungs indicating he’d been alive when the fire started—there was also a puzzle: there was evidence he had suffered a contusion on the left temple coincident to death. Not severe, the bruising had just began to seep into the deep tissue; and it would have at best stunned him, not disabled him.
The explanation could be as simple as something falling on him as the fire began, but it needed explained. And there was the fact he had taken what had been determined to be two sleeping pills. Within the doctor’s prescribed dosage, not enough to be suspicious, but still a factor to be looked at. For now the autopsy results were inconclusive.
As with all cases that could go either way, it had come back to the central staff at the state crime lab for another look at the autopsy results in light of the case circumstances. Her boss had dropped the case in her lap Friday afternoon.
As a forensic pathologist the question she asked was simple to state and often maddeningly hard to answer: was the death suspicious, warranting a murder investigation, or accidental?
Lisa loved a good puzzle, but not one that arrived to ruin a weekend. She’d read the reports yesterday, concluded only that she needed more information. “It would help if you could tell me this was an arson fire.”
“It was a hot fire; but then it’s been a hot dry summer. The house has no air conditioning and the furniture and flooring had absorbed the afternoon heat. We found a lot of dry rot in the roof, and with this being a small back bedroom the fire was able to flashover within minutes.”
“The fire started at the base of this wall?”
“As best we can tell, he fell asleep, dropped his cigar. We found the remains of one there,” Jack pointed. “It hit what appears to have been a burlap bag of laundry. The fire moved across the floor, you can see the distinct burn line,” he traced it with his hand, “and eventually reached into the closet where it had an unlimited fuel load. It built in intensity and then moved back into the bedroom along the ceiling—see the bubbling in the wood? By then it was moving hot and fast.”
“How long before the smoke blanket dropped low enough to kill him?”
“The fire probably took four to six minutes to get a footing. From then to a killing blanket of toxic smoke, you’re talking maybe two minutes at the outside. The window was open, and the door, an unfortunate reality for him. The air flow would cause a natural eddie of smoke into that corner of the room over the bed.”
She looked at the damage, now more able to understand why Mr. Hampton had not awaken. The fire Jack described would not be loud enough to wake a man sleeping heavily under the influence of two sleeping pills and building carbon dioxide. By the time the fire surged from the closet back into the room, the smoke would have been thick enough to kill.
She looked again for what might have caused the bruise. “The heat weakened and collapsed the plaster?”
“The house is old construction, they used a plaster paste over wood, and you can tell that most of it broke away. Directly above this room in the attic were cardboard boxes storing his wife’s things, including clothes.”
“Another fuel load.”
“Yes. Once in the attic, the fire was burning on both sides of these joists.”
“So falling plaster could account for the blow.” Lisa walked to the remains of the bed frame, started searching the area. “Is there any evidence of a picture on the wall? Something else that might have fallen on him?”
Jack started tugging back debris.
They searched for ten minutes and found the remains of two picture frames and a shelf. The shelf would have been heavy enough, or an item on it. She felt herself relax. “One of these items is probably what gave the bruise.”
“Agreed. The cat was found there,” Jack commented, pointing to the far corner of the room.
“Cat? What cat?”
“It wasn’t in the notes? There should be an addendum to the fire report. During the fire mop up, Craig found it. We figured the cat was on the bed, got a face full of the smoke and retreated to escape the fire, got trapped.”
“A cat losing all of its nine lives? I thought the door was open?”
“It was open when we came up the stairs fighting the fire. I suppose its possible the force of the water pushed it open, but that would be apparent in the burn patterns.”
Jack crossed over to the door, carefully swung it to take a look. “The door was open during the fire. If it was closed, this door edge around the knob and the edge back by the hinges would have been protected by the door frame, but both show serious burning.”
“Then why didn’t the cat bolt from the room?”
“It’s hard to tell a burned cat’s age, but it looked young. And a cat is not going to jump through fire at the window or past fire in the doorway. It tried to hide and the smoke eventually overcame it. We’ve seen it before.”
“Up here, Ford.”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs as the detective assigned to the case came upstairs. He had been talking with Egan’s nephew Walter. The house was going to have to be demolished in the next few days; Walter was in the process of recovering what essential papers he could from the downstairs office.
“Ford, do you know what happened to the cat?” Lisa asked, curious, before she realized Walter had also come upstairs with the detective.
Walter was the one to answer. “I’m sorry, I buried the cat this morning. I didn’t realize it would be a problem. The crows had been attracted by the death, I found them in here,” he swallowed hard. “Listen, it’s in a shoe box buried at the end of the garden; it will take only a minute to get it for you.”
“No,” Lisa replied, stopping his movement away. “It’s okay. Jack just told me it had also been killed.”
“Egan liked that cat. It was from a neighbor cat’s spring litter. I guess the house was lonely at night since Patricia was taken to the nursing home; he never liked pets before.”
Lisa saw Walter look again toward the bed, and knew it was best that they leave. She could see how hard this was on him. He was in his forties, lean, a landscaper by profession with an appearance that fit it, his jeans and gray tee-shirt sweaty in the heat. At close range, the ravages of the last six days—the healing burns, the stress, the grief, and the lack of sleep, were all there to be seen on his face. He’d tried to reach his uncle, been unable to get past the flames.
“I’ve got everything I need to finish up my report. We were just coming down.” She was comfortable with the assessment this had been a tragic accident. The dead cat disturbed her, but Jack was right, pets died in fires. She’d think it through again tonight, look one last time at the autopsy results, and if she didn’t see anything else she’d recommend to her boss they sign it off as an accidental death.
Lisa was relieved. The last thing she needed was another murder investigation.
* * * * *
US Marshal Quinn Diamond walked through the concourse at O’Hare, carrying a briefcase he hated, his cowboy boots leaving an echo behind him. His face was weathering by the sun and wind, the lines around his eyes deep. He was not a man to enjoy the crush of people, but at least Chicago was better then New York or Washington.
He had planned to take a direct flight from Washington D.C. to Montana, spend his month of vacation at his ranch, let the physical hard work wipe away the after affects of two months spent tracking down who had murdered a federal judge.
Instead, he was in Chicago, on very short notice. The folded newsclip in his billfold was from yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. There was a booksigning Tuesday night for a Sierra Club book titled A Photographic Guide to Birds in the Midwest —the author’s name: Amy Ireland Nugan.
Quinn had been checking out of the hotel in Washington when the news alert service tracked him down. It had been so long since the last lead. Was it her? Was it the Amy Ireland he had sought for so long?
He’d been able to get a few answers. She was married to a Paul Nugan. She was the right age, thirty-seven. Amy had been seventeen when she disappeared from Justin, Montana twenty years ago.
The same day Amy had disappeared, his father had been shot in the back out on the southern range of the ranch near the bluffs.
After twenty years of searching he had finally accepted that Amy must have also died that day; but if she had instead fled, appeared sometime later in Chicago—he didn’t think she would have pulled the trigger, but she might have been with someone who had.
If he could solve what had happened to Amy Ireland, maybe he could get a lead on who had killed his father.
He had almost given up hope of ever finding a trace of her. He’d eliminated dozens of Amy Ireland’s over the years, but this one...the sense of hope was back. It fit. Amy had been a high school photographer with a passion for what her camera could reveal. She’d had real talent even in her teens. Quinn could easily see her making it a future career.
He had to know if this was the right Amy Ireland. And he had to be very careful not to send her running again if it was. Practicing patience was not going to be easy.
His partner Marcus O’Malley would have joined him if Quinn had alerted him to the hit on the name, he was that kind of friend, but Quinn hadn’t wanted to interrupt Marcus’s chance to spend time with both his sister undergoing cancer treatment at John Hopkins and his new fiancée Shari. Instead, Quinn had called an old friend of them both.
Quinn found Lincoln Beaumont waiting in the United airline’s business lounge. If he hadn’t known better, on first impression he would have assumed lawyer or investment banker, not retired US Marshal and now private investigator. “Thanks for coming Lincoln.” He tipped his cowboy hat to the lady with the retired Marshal. “Ma’am.”
“Emily Randall; I handle Lincoln’s research.” She was a nice looking lady, businesslike in her handshake, feminine in her dress, and confident in her gaze. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Diamond.”
“The pleasure’s mine,” Quinn replied with a smile. Lincoln had been right, she’d be perfect if it became necessary to have someone approach Amy.
The smile directed at him showed curiosity. He was accustomed to it; he made no attempt to disguise the fact he was a misplaced man in the city. Why that should draw women was a phenomena he accepted but didn’t really understand.
It didn’t attract the attention of the one lady he wanted to notice him. No, he changed that, Lisa O’Malley noticed, she just found his interest uncomfortable to deal with and more often then not scowled rather then smiled when she saw him.
He was determined to get Marcus’s sister to accept a dinner invitation on this trip through Chicago. She’d been ducking him long enough. He wasn’t after something profound, he just wanted to change her rather mixed reaction to him and replace it with a solid friendship. He visited Chicago on a regular basis; he wanted to be able to call Lisa when he was in town and have her actually be pleased to hear from him.
Eating alone was a waste of time, so was spending his down time at a hotel watching TV. He spent enough time with strangers. Lisa he knew, and she was the kind of friend he wanted: loyal, fun and smart, with a stubborn streak that he liked to ruffle. It was a bit like rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way. She was cute when annoyed, and calling her ma’am always got a reaction. One thing was certain: Lisa’s life was never boring.
He smiled as he thought of the excuses she was likely to throw up to the invitation to dinner and unfortunately misled Ms. Randall into assuming his smile was in response to hers. Before she could say something that would put them both in a fix, he calmly turned the conversation. “Tell me what you’ve found out about Amy Ireland.”
* * * * *
Her hair smelled like smoke, her jeans were going to have to be bleached to remove the ground in ash, and she’d managed to rub the back of her neck nearly raw with the sweat and the heavy pressure of the fire coat. Miserable didn’t define it. Lisa paused to let Sidney out of his cage before heading to the shower. The ferret was a recent pet and one of her favorites; he scampered up her arm to push into her flyaway hair, sneezed. “Sorry. I’m covered in ash.” She lowered him to the floor and with her foot sent a small rubber ball rolling down the hallway. Sidney gave chase and leaped to stop it.
Lisa glanced into her office as she headed to the shower, saw the answering machine blinking. Work would have paged...Jennifer. She abruptly changed course, hoping it was her sister.
It was Jennifer and the recorded message was three hours old. Regretting having not been home to take the call, Lisa picked up the cordless phone and punched in the hospital number, hoping she wouldn’t have the bad timing of catching Jen when she was sleeping. Jennifer’s fiancé Tom answered, reassured her that Jennifer was awake, and passed the phone over.
“Thanks for calling back.” Jen’s voice was soft and Lisa had to press the phone close to hear, but compared to some days when the pain and the fatigue were slurring her words, Jen sounded good.
“Hey, it’s my pleasure. I had to work this afternoon or I would have called earlier. Are you having a good day?”
“I’m running a fever.”
“That’s excellent!” Lisa sank into the nearby chair, overjoyed. Jennifer’s immune system, overrun by the cancer, was finally getting a foothold to fight back.
“I’m going to lick this yet.” The optimism that had been in Jennifer’s voice throughout the weeks of hospitalization hadn’t wavered, even though it was there in spite of the facts.
“You better believe it.” The cancer was around Jen’s spine, had touched her liver. The odds were severely against her, everyone in the O’Malley family knew that, but they also knew Jennifer had to win this fight. It was too incomprehensible to imagine life without her.
Lisa rubbed her eyes, winced as the smoke residue made them burn. Staying positive was mandatory, and yet it came at a cost. There was so much fear inside—she had seen too many people die. It was her profession to deal with death, but this situation was going to crumble her defenses and shatter her heart. Jennifer had to get well; she just had to.
The cancer was doing permanent damage each day it progressed and the toxic radiation and chemotherapy being used to battle the disease were inflicting their own lasting damage. Lisa wished she had chosen pediatrics as her medical specialty like Jennifer had instead of forensic pathology so she could be less aware of the painful truth; death was coming and unless the process could be checked she was going to lose her best friend. It was a struggle to force her voice to stay light. “Tom’s there, so I gather you’re enjoying the evening.”
“You better believe it. Mushy movie, good looking date...”
Lisa had to laugh. “Engaged suits you.”
“The wedding won’t come soon enough.”
Jennifer had set her heart on getting married October 22st, it was looming a short five weeks away. The family had already caucused with Jennifer’s fiancé Tom; if the O’Malleys had to arrive en-mass in Baltimore and have the wedding at the hospital they would make it happen for her. “Have Marcus and Shari arrived?”
“They got in this afternoon. Shari is a sweetheart.”
“Yes, she is.”
“So what were you working on this afternoon?”
“Follow up on a fire case from last week. I dragged Jack along with me out to the scene, spent two hours climbing around a burned out house. It was hot, heavy, dirty work. I haven’t been this beat in ages.”
The doorbell rang. Lisa turned, surprised; she wasn’t expecting anyone. She was tempted to ignore the doorbell but her car was in the drive making it obvious she was home. Which local kid had she not bought candy from for the junior high school band trip? She’d seen Tony and Mandy yesterday. Chad.
She reached for her spare stash of cash she kept tucked inside the baby panda cookie jar on her desk along with an assortment of hard candy and slipped the money into her pocket; the problem was she always said yes and all the kids knew it. And to miss someone—she’d long ago determined not to let that happen. She moved through the house taking the phone with her.
“Kate brought in the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times newspapers. Was it the Paretti family fire? I saw the write up in the metro section.”
“No, thank goodness.” The Paretti family had died in a house fire on Monday. “This one was an old farm house out in Villa Grove; it looks like a dropped cigar started it.” Lisa looked through the front door security hole. Flinched. “Jen, I need to call you back. Quinn’s here.”
“He’s suppose to be in Montana,” Lisa said darkly. “And I’ve got enough ash in my hair it looks gray,” she muttered, releasing the chain and turning the dead bolt, “while he looks his normal elegant self.” Her brief glance had been enough to confirm that. In the habit of cops, he was standing three feet back from the door and off to the side while he waited for her to answer the summons, his thumbs resting comfortably at the pockets of his jeans, his hands halfway to his concealed weapon.
He was tall and lean and fit and would probably live to be a centurian. From the boots, to the cowboy hat, to the way he walked through a crowd, he was a man who knew where he came from and was comfortable with it. She distrusted the politeness and niceness. He was Marcus’ partner, and the stories she had heard of what the two of them had pulled off over the years…appearances were deceiving with this man.
His black hair was often smashed by the cowboy hat, and the deep lines around his blue eyes showed his habit of spending his days outdoors without sunglasses. It should have made him looked ruffled, instead it just added a relaxed tone to the already strong sense of presence.
She didn’t like the fact at 5’4 she had to tilt her head to look up at him. His presence intimidated witnesses he was interviewing, and he worked so hard to change that perception when he was off duty that it unfortunately just made her more aware of it.
Quinn worked all over the country with her brother and while she warily tried to keep track of him he still caught her off guard at the most inconvenient moments.
“He’s gorgeous enough to make your toes curl, and he’s one fine date.”
“You should know.” Jennifer had dated Quinn two years ago. Last year Quinn had dated her sister Kate. Lisa had no intention of being number three. Not that she minded losing out to her sisters, but it was the principle of the thing.
There was something humiliating at being thought of as third. And any guy who dared ask out three sisters in the same family had a lot of guts or a lot of nerve. In Quinn’s case, both. She thought her answer to his last invitation to dinner had been creative, eloquent, and final. She’d sent him a petrified squid.
“Smile at him. And call me back.”
“Maybe,” Lisa replied, to her sister’s laugh. She hung up and forced herself to open the door.
* * * * *
“Hello, Lisa.” She looked confused to see him; Quinn considered it an improvement over annoyed. A wave of cold air washed out from the house as she stood in the doorway, one hand gripping the doorframe and the other resting on the screen door handle. “I was in town, I thought I’d say hi,” he elaborated.
He tipped his hat, the brim rough against his fingers, silently laughed as he scanned and enjoyed. Freckles. Baby blue eyes. Hair so fine and thick the sun set its color and the wind defined its form, much to her dismay and his pleasure. Cut short to try and tame it, her hair instead now curled and bobbed as she moved.
Her voice held a touch of the full world—Quebec French, South American Spanish—the blend and tone of her voice changed with each passing year as she added traces of the people she met. She’d been in Venezuela six months ago and some inaccessible part of Africa a few months before that, absorbing the local culture and fitting herself in. He loved listening to her voice. He wanted to add to it a touch of Montana drawl. “Can I come in?”
She flushed and stepped back. “Yes. Sorry. I just got home.”
Bad timing on his part. Black ash streaked her left forearm, her faded yellow shirt was sweat stained and her jeans were grimy at the knees, there was a marked tiredness to her polite smile, and something had scraped her right cheek.
His eyes narrowed at the blisters he saw on the back of her neck as she turned. A fire scene; and for Lisa that meant victims. He couldn’t get a break even when he most needed one; she was obviously not in the mood for company tonight even though she probably needed that distraction more on this evening then most others.
“I was just talking with Jen.” She lifted the phone she carried, looked awkward. “Let me hang this up. I’ll just be a minute.”
“Of course,” he said gently. He’d seen Lisa’s sister last week; the reality of that call explained part of the droop to Lisa’s shoulders. The situation was a source of stress to everyone, but for Lisa…Quinn knew how close the two of them were. And with Lisa being a doctor—the placating words others said in reassurance would not help her. She understood how much the hopeful language covered grim reality.
He’d do what he could to get that stress to drain away tonight, even if he had to resort to badgering her into getting angry and letting that tension loose against him. It was one of the odd times where ruffling her into reacting would be the right thing to do.
She turned toward the hallway, and he shot out a hand to grab her arm. “Hold it, you’ve got more company.” The animal nearly tripped her as it came between her sock feet. It scampered across his boots and returned, intrigued by the smell.
Quinn scooped him up in a worn callused hand, held him at eye level, he and the animal showing equal curiosity. His smile was easy, and amused. “One of your more interesting choices.” He settled the animal on his shoulder and it reached up to explore his hat. “Take a shower Lisa, clean that scrape, and I’ll take you out somewhere nice to eat.”
“I’ve got plans for tonight.”
“I know. With me.” He didn’t ask her to extend the lie by trying to come up with what the plans were. She was a lousy liar. And since Marcus, the oldest and thus guardian of the O’Malley clan was currently half a continent away, he was stepping in by proxy to make happen what was best for her: she needed a relaxing evening out. She started to protest and he interrupted. “Marcus and Shari have been talking about wedding plans; I thought you’d be interested.”
She shot him a quelling look that he knew details before she did, but reluctantly gave in. “Drinks are in the refrigerator; help yourself.”
He turned that way, grasping the ferret and lowering him to the floor, knowing better then to stay put and give Lisa a chance to get her bearings. When she dug in her heels she was a formidable opponent. “Has she fed you yet, buddy?”
THANK YOU FOR READING CHAPTER ONE