LUCY AND JANET lived in a ten-story apartment building called The Westpark that was in the two thousand block of P Street, a few minutes' walk away. It was tan brick with a dry cleaner downstairs and the Embassy Mobile station next door. Bicycles were parked on small balconies, and young tenants were sitting out enjoying the balmy night, drinking and smoking, while someone practiced scales on a flute. A shirtless man reached out to shut his window. I buzzed apartment 503.
'Who goes there?' Lucy's voice came over the intercom.
'It's us,' I said.
'The us with your dinner. It's getting cold,' I said.
The lock clicked free to let us into the lobby, and we took the elevator up.
'She could probably have a penthouse in Richmond for what she pays to live here,' Marino commented.
'About fifteen hundred a month for a two-bedroom.'
'Holy shit. How's Janet going to make it alone? The Bureau can't be paying her more than forty grand.'
'Her family has money,' I said. 'Other than that, I don't know.'
'I tell you, I wouldn't want to be starting out these days.'
He shook his head as elevator doors parted.
'Now back in Jersey when I was just revving up my engines, fifteen hundred could've kept me in clover for a year. Crime wasn't like it is, and people were nicer, even in my bad-ass neighborhood. And here we are, you and yours truly, working on some poor lady who was all cut up and burned in a fire, and after we finish with her, it will be somebody else. It's like what's-his-name rolling that big rock up the hill, and every time he gets close, down it rolls again. I swear, I wonder why we bother, Doc.'
'Because it would be worse if we didn't,' I said, stopping before the familiar pale orange door and ringing the bell.
I could hear the deadbolt flip open, and then Janet was letting us in. She was sweating in FBI running shorts and a Grateful Dead T-shirt that looked left over from college.
'Come in,' she said with a smile as Annie Lennox played loudly in the background. 'Something smells good.'
The apartment was two bedrooms and two baths forced into a very tight space that overlooked P Street. Every piece of furniture was stacked with books and layered with clothing, and dozens of boxes were on the floor. Lucy was in the kitchen, rattling around in cupboards and drawers as she gathered silverware and plates, and paper towels for napkins. She cleared a space on the coffee table and took the bags of food from me.
'You just saved our lives,' she said to me. 'I was getting hypoglycemic. And by the way, Pete, nice to see you, too.'
'Damn, it's hot in here,' he said.
'It's not so bad,' Lucy said, and she was sweating, too.
She and Janet filled their plates. They sat on the floor and ate while I propped up on an armrest of the couch and Marino carried in a plastic chair from the balcony. Lucy was in Nike running shorts and a tank top, and dirty from head to heel. Both young women looked exhausted, and I could not imagine what they were feeling. Surely this was an awful time for them. Every emptying of a drawer and taping shut a box had to be another blow to the heart, a death, an end to who you were at that time in your life.
'The two of you have lived here, what? Three years?' I asked.
'Close to it,' said Janet as she speared a forkful of Greek salad.
'And you'll stay in this same apartment,' I said to Janet.
'For the time being. There's really no reason to move, and when Lucy pops in and out, she'll have some room.'
'I hate to bring up an unpleasant subject,' Marino said. 'But is there any reason Carrie might know where you guys live?'
There was silence for a moment as both women ate. I reached over to the CD player to turn down the volume.
'Reason?' Lucy finally spoke. 'Why would there be a reason for her to know anything about my life these days?'
'Hopefully there's no reason at all,' Marino said. 'But we got to think about it whether you two birds like it or not. This is the sort of neighborhood she would hang in and fit right in, so I'm asking myself, if I was Carrie and back out on the street, would I want to find where Lucy is?'
No one said a word.
'And I think we all know what the answer is,' he went on. 'Now finding where the doc lives is no big problem. It's been in the newspapers enough, and if you find her, you find Benton. But you?'
He pointed at Lucy.
'You're the challenge, because Carrie'd been locked up for several years by the time you moved here. And now you're moving to Philly, and Janet's left here alone. And to be honest, I don't like that worth a damn, either.'
'Neither of you is listed in the phone book, right?' I asked.
'No way,' Janet said, and she was listlessly picking at her salad.
'What if someone called this building and asked for either of you?'
'They're not supposed to give out info like that,' Janet said.
'Not supposed to,' Marino said sardonically. 'Yeah, I'm sure this joint's got state-of-the-art security. Must be all kinds of high profile people living here, huh?'
'We can't sit around worrying about this all of the time,' Lucy said, and she was getting angry. 'Can't we talk about something else?'
'Let's talk about the Warrenton fire,' I said.
'I'll be packing in the other room,' Janet said appropriately, since she was FBI and not involved in this case.
I watched her disappear into a bedroom, and then I said, 'There were some unusual and disturbing findings during the autopsy. The victim was murdered. She was dead before the fire started, which certainly points at arson. Have we made any further headway on how the fire might have been set?'
'Only through algebra,' Lucy said. 'The only hope here is fire modeling, since there's no physical evidence that points at arson, only circumstantial evidence. I've spent a lot of time fooling around with Fire Simulator on my computer, and the predictions keep coming back to the same thing.'
'What the hell is Fire Simulator?' Marino wanted to know.
'One of the routines in FPEtool, the software we use for fire modeling,' Lucy explained patiently. 'For example, we'll assume that flashover is reached at six hundred degrees Celsius - or one thousand, one hundred and twelve degrees Fahrenheit. So we plug in the data we know, such as the vent opening, area of surface, energy available from the fuel, fire virtual point of origin, room lining materials, wall materials, and so on and so on. And at the end of the day, we should get good predictions as to the suspect, or the fire in question. And guess what? No matter how many algorithms, procedures, or computer programs you try with this one, the answer's always the same. There's no logical explanation for how a fire this fast and hot could have started in the master bathroom.'
'And we're absolutely sure it did,' I said.
'Oh yeah,' Lucy said. 'As you probably know, that bathroom was a relatively modern addition built out from the master bedroom. And if you look at the marble walls, the cathedral ceiling we recovered, you can piece together this really narrow, sharply defined V pattern, with the apex pointing somewhere in the middle of the floor, most likely where the rug was, meaning the fire developed really fast and hot in that one spot.'
'Let's talk about this famous rug,' Marino said. 'You light it, and what kind of fire do we get?'
'A lazy flame,' Lucy answered. 'Maybe two feet tall.'
'Well, that didn't do it,' I said.
'And what's also really telling,' she went on, 'is the destruction to the roof directly above. Now we're talking flames at least eight feet high above the fire's origin, with the temperature reaching about eighteen hundred degrees for the glass in the skylight to melt. About eighty-eight percent of all arsons are up from the floor, in other words the radiant heat flux…'
'What the hell's radiant flux?' Marino wanted to know.
'Radiant heat is in the form of an electromagnetic wave, and is emitted from a flame almost equally in all directions, three hundred and sixty degrees. Following me so far?'
'Okay,' I said.
'A flame also emits heat in the form of hot gases, which weigh less than air, so up they go,' Lucy, the physicist, went on. 'A convective transfer of heat, in other words. And in the early stages of the fire, most of the heat transfer is convective. It moves up from its point of origin. In this case, the floor. But after the fire was going for a while and hot gas-smoke layers formed, the dominant form of heat transfer became radiant. It was at this stage that I think the shower door fatigued and fell on top of the body.'
'And what about the body?' I asked. 'Where would that have been during all this?'
Lucy grabbed a legal pad off the top of a box and clicked open a pen. She drew the outline of a room with a tub and shower and, in the middle of the floor, a tall narrow fire that was impinging upon the ceiling.
'If the fire was energetic enough to project flames to the ceiling, then we're talking about a high radiant flux. The body was going to be severely damaged unless there was a barrier between it and the fire. Something that absorbed radiant heat and energy - the tub and shower door - which would have protected areas of the body. I also think the body was at least some small distance from the point of origin. We could be talking feet, maybe a yard or two.'
'I don't see any other way it could have happened,' I agreed. 'Clearly something protected much of it.'
'How the hell do you set off a torch like that without some sort of accelerant?' Marino asked.
'All we can hope is that something turns up in the labs,' my niece said. 'You know, since the fuel load can't account for the observed fire pattern, then something was added or modified, indicating arson.'
'And you guys are working on a financial audit,' Marino said to her.
'Naturally almost all of Sparkes's records burned up in the fire. But his financial people and accountant have been pretty helpful, to give the guy credit. So far there's no indication that money was a problem.'
I was relieved to hear it. Everything I knew about this case so far argued against Kenneth Sparkes being anything but a victim. But this was not an opinion that was shared by most, I felt sure.
'Lucy,' I said as she finished her gyro pita. 'I think we're all in agreement that the MO of this crime is distinctive.'
'Let's just suppose,' I went on, 'for the sake of argument, that something similar has happened before, somewhere else. That Warrenton is simply part of a pattern of fires used to disguise homicides that are being committed by the same individual.'
'It's certainly possible,' Lucy said. 'Anything is.'
'Can we do a search?' I then asked. 'Is there any database that might connect similar MOs in fires?'
She got up and threw food containers in a large trash bag in the kitchen.
'You want to, we can,' she said. 'With the Arson Incident System, or AXIS.'
I was well acquainted with it and the new supersonic ATF wide area computer network called ESA, which was an acronym for Enterprise System Architecture, the result of ATF being mandated by Congress to create a national arson and explosive repository. Two hundred and twenty sites were hooked up to ESA, and any agent, no matter where he was, could access the central database, could pipe himself into AXIS with his laptop as long as he had a modem or a secure cellular line. This included my niece.
She led us back to her tiny bedroom, which was now depressingly bare save for cobwebs in corners and dust balls on the scuffed hardwood floor. The box springs were empty, the mattress still made with wrinkled peach sheets and upended against a wall, and rolled up in a corner was the colorful silk rug that I had given her for her last birthday. Empty dresser drawers were stacked on the floor. Her office was a Panasonic laptop on top of a cardboard box. The portable computer was in a shark-gray steel and magnesium case that met military specifications for being ruggedized, meaning it was vapor-proof and dust-proof and everything-proof and supposedly could be dropped and run over by a Humvee.
Lucy sat before it on the floor, Indian style, as if she were about to worship the great god of technology. She hit the enter key to turn the screen saver off, and ESA lit up rows of pixels at a time in electric blue, flashing a map of the United States on the next vivid screen. At a prompt, she typed in her user name and password, answered other secure prompts to work her way into the system, invisibly cruising through secret gateways on the Web, passing through one level at a time. When she had logged on to the case repository, she motioned for me to sit next to her.
'I can get you a chair if you want,' she said.
'No, this is fine.'
'The floor was hard and unkind to my lower lumbar spine. But I was a good sport. A prompt asked her to enter a word or words or phrases that she wished the system to search for throughout the database.
'Don't worry about the format,' Lucy said. 'The text search engines can handle complete stream of consciousness. We can try everything from the size of the fire hose used to the materials the house was made of - all that fire safety info and stuff that's in your set forms fire departments fill out. Or you can go with your own key queries.'
'Let's try death, homicide, suspected arson,' I said.
'Female,' Marino added. 'And wealth.'
'Cut, incision, hemorrhage, fast, hot,' I continued thinking.
'What about unidentified,' Lucy said as she typed.
'Good,' I said. 'And bathroom, I suppose.'
'Hell, put horses in there,' Marino said.
'Let's go ahead and give it a shot,' Lucy proposed. 'We can always try more words as we think of them.'
She executed a search and then stretched her legs out and rolled her neck. I could hear Janet in the kitchen washing dishes, and in less than a minute, the computer came back with 11,873 records searched and 453 keywords found.
'That's since 1988,' Lucy let us know. 'And it also includes any cases from overseas in which ATF was called in to assist.'
'Can we print out the four hundred and fifty-three records?' I asked.
'You know, the printer's packed, Aunt Kay.' Lucy looked up apologetically at me.
'Then how about downloading the records to my computer,' I said.
She looked uncertain.
'I guess that's all right,' she said, 'as long as you make sure… Oh, never mind.'
'Don't worry, I'm used to confidential information. I'll make sure no one else gets hold of them.'
I knew it was stupid when I said it. Lucy stared longingly into the computer screen.
'This whole thing's UMX-based SQL.' She seemed to be talking to no one. 'Makes me crazy.'
'Well, if they had a brain in their head, they'd have you here doing their computer shit,' Marino said.
'I haven't made an issue of it,' Lucy replied. 'I'm trying to pay my dues. I'll ship those files to you, Aunt Kay.'
She walked out of the room. We followed her into the kitchen, where Janet was rolling glasses in newspaper and carefully packing them into a Stor-All box.
'Before I head out,' I said to my niece, 'could we maybe go for a walk around the block or something? And just catch up?'
She gave me a look that was something less than trustful.
'What?' she said.
'I may not see you again for a while,' I said.
'We can sit out on the porch.'
'That would be fine.'
We chose white plastic chairs in the open air above the street, and I shut the sliders behind us and watched crowds come alive at night. Taxis were not stopping, and the fireplace in the window of The Flame danced behind glass while men drank in the dark with each other.
'I just want to know how you are,' I said to her. 'I don't feel like you talk to me much.'
She stared out with a wry smile, her profile striking and strong.
'I'm all right, Lucy. As all right as I ever am, I guess. Too much work. What else has changed?'
'You always worry about me.'
'I have since you were born.'
'Because somebody should.'
'Did I tell you Mother's getting a facelift?'
Just the thought of my only sibling made my heart turn hard.
'She had half her teeth crowned last year, now this,' Lucy went on. 'Her current boyfriend, Bo, has hung in there for almost a year and a half. How 'bout that? How many times can you screw before you need something else nipped and tucked?'
'Oh, don't be self-righteous, Aunt Kay. You feel the same way about her that I do. How did I end up with such a piece of shit for a mother?'
'This isn't helping you in the least,' I said quietly. 'Don't hate her, Lucy.'
'She hasn't said one fucking word about my moving to Philadelphia. She never asks about Janet, or you, for that matter. I'm getting a beer. Do you want one?'
I waited for her in the growing dark, watching the shapes of people flow by, some loud and holding on to each other, while others moved alone with purpose. I wanted to ask Lucy about what Janet had told me, but I was afraid to bring it up. Lucy should tell me on her own, I reminded myself, as my physician's voice ordered that I should take control. Lucy popped open a bottle of Miller Lite as she returned to the balcony.
'So let's talk about Carrie just long enough for you to put your mind at ease,' Lucy matter-of-factly stated, taking a swallow. 'I have a Browning High-Power, and my Sig from ATF, and a shotgun - twelve gauge, seven rounds. You name it, I can get it. But you know? I think my bare hands would be enough if she dared to come around. I've had enough, you know?'
She lifted the bottle again. 'Eventually you just make a decision and move on.'
'What sort of decision?' I asked.
'You decide you can't give someone any more power than you already have. You can't spend your days in fear of them or hating them,' she explained her mindset. 'So you give it up, in a sense. You go about your business, knowing that if the monster ever steps into your path, she'd better be ready for life or death.'
'I think that's a pretty good attitude,' I said. 'Maybe the only attitude. I'm just not sure you really feel that way, but I hope so.'
She stared up at an irregular moon, and I thought she was blinking back tears, but I couldn't be sure.
'The truth is, Aunt Kay, I could do all their computer stuff with one arm. You know?'
'You could probably do all the Pentagon's computer stuff with one arm,' I said gently as my heart hurt more.
'I just don't want to push it.'
I did not know how to answer her.
'I pissed off enough people because I can fly a helicopter and… Well, you know.'
'I know all the things you can do, and that the list will probably only grow longer, Lucy. It's very lonely being you.'
'Have you ever felt like that?' she whispered.
'Only all my life,' I whispered back. 'And now you know why I've always loved you the way I do. Maybe I get it.'
She looked over at me. She reached out and sweetly touched my wrist.
'You'd better go,' she said. 'I don't want you driving when you're tired.'