THE NEXT MORNING came unkindly on a field that was flat and barely blue with first light. I had gotten up at four, and Wesley had gotten up, too, deciding he would rather leave when I did. We had kissed briefly and barely looked at each other as we had headed to our cars, for brevity at goodbyes was always easier than lingering. But as I had followed West Cary Street to the Huguenot Bridge, a heaviness seemed to spread through every inch of me and I was suddenly unnerved and sad.
I knew from weary experience that it was unlikely I would be seeing Wesley this week, and there would be no rest or reading or late mornings to sleep. Fire scenes were never easy, and if nothing else, a case involving an important personage in a wealthy bedroom community of D.C. would tie me up in politics and paperwork. The more attention a death caused, the more public pressure I was promised.
There were no lights on at the Eye Institute, which was not a place of medical research nor called such in honor of some benefactor or important personage named Eye. Several times a year I came here to have glasses adjusted or my vision checked, and it always seemed strange to park near fields where I was often lifted into the air, headed toward chaos. I opened my car door as the familiar distant sound moved over dark waves of trees, and I imagined burned bones and teeth scattered through black watery debris. I imagined Sparkes's sharp suits and strong face, and shock chilled me like fog.
The tadpole silhouette flew beneath an imperfect moon as I gathered water repellent duffle bags, and the scratched silver Halliburton aluminum flight case that stored my various medical examiner instruments and needs, including photography equipment. Two cars and a pickup truck began slowing on Huguenot Road, the city's twilight travelers unable to resist a helicopter low and about to land. The curious turned into the parking lot and got out to stare at blades slicing air in a slow sweep for power lines, puddles and muck, or sand and dirt that might boil up.
'Must be the governor coming in,' said an old man who had arrived in a rusting heap of a Plymouth.
'Could be someone delivering an organ,' said the driver of the pickup truck as he briefly turned his gaze on me.
Their words scattered like dry leaves as the black Bell LongRanger thundered in at a measured pitch and perfectly flared and gently descended. My niece Lucy, its pilot, hovered in a storm of fresh-mown grass flooded white by landing lights, and settled sweetly. I gathered my belongings and headed into beating wind. Plexiglas was tinted dark enough that I could not see through it as I pulled open the back door, but I recognized the big arm that reached down to grab my baggage. I climbed up as more traffic slowed to watch the aliens, and threads of gold bled through the tops of trees.
'I was wondering where you were.' I raised my voice above rotors chopping as I latched my door.
'Airport,' Pete Marino answered as I sat next to him. 'It's closer.'
'No, it's not,' I said.
'At least they got coffee and a john there,' he said, and I knew he did not mean them in that order. 'I guess Benton headed out on vacation without you,' he added for the effect.
Lucy was rolling the throttle to full power, and the blades were going faster.
'I can tell you right now I got one of those feelings,' he let me know in his grumpy tone as the helicopter got light and began to lift. 'We're headed for big trouble.'
Marino's specialty was investigating death, although he was completely unnerved by possibilities of his own. He did not like being airborne, especially in something that did not have flight attendants or wings. The Richmond Times Dispatch was a mess in his lap, and he refused to look down at fast retreating earth and the distant city skyline slowly rising from the horizon like someone tall standing up.
The front page of the paper prominently displayed a story about the fire, including a distant AP aerial photograph of ruins smoldering in the dark. I read closely but learned nothing new, for mostly the coverage was a rehash of Kenneth Sparkes's alleged death, and his power and wealthy lifestyle in Warrenton. I had not known of his horses before or that one named Wind had sailed in last one year at the Kentucky Derby and was worth a million dollars. But I was not surprised. Sparkes had always been enterprising, his ego as enormous as his pride. I set the newspaper on the opposite seat and noted that Marino's seat belt was unbuckled and collecting dust from the floor.
'What happens if we hit severe turbulence when you're not belted in?' I talked loudly above the turbine engine.
'So I spill my coffee.' He adjusted the pistol on his hip, his khaki suit a sausage skin about to split. 'In case you ain't figured it out after all those bodies you've cut up, if this bird goes down, Doc, a seat belt ain't gonna save you. Not airbags either, if we had them.'
In truth, he hated anything around his girth and had come to wear his pants so low I marveled that his hips could keep them up. Paper crackled as he dug two Hardee's biscuits out of a bag stained gray with grease. Cigarettes bunched in his shirt pocket, and his face had its typical hypertensive flush. When I had moved to Virginia from my native city of Miami, he was a homicide detective as obnoxious as he was gifted. I remembered our early encounters in the morgue when he had referred to me as Mrs Scarpetta as he bullied my staff and helped himself to any evidence he pleased. He had taken bullets before I could label them, to infuriate me. He had smoked cigarettes with bloody gloves and made jokes about bodies that had once been living human beings.
I looked out my window at clouds skating across the sky and thought of time going by. Marino was almost fifty-five, and I could not believe it. We had defended and irritated each other almost daily for more than eleven years.
'Want one?' He held up a cold biscuit wrapped in waxy paper.
'I don't even want to look at it,' I said ungraciously.
Pete Marino knew how much his rotten health habits worried me and was simply trying to get my attention. He carefully stirred more sugar in the plastic cup of coffee he was floating up and down with the turbulence, using his meaty arm for suspension.
'What about coffee?' he asked me. 'I'm pouring.'
'No thanks. How about an update?' I got to the point as my tension mounted. 'Do we know anything more than we did last night?'
'The fire's still smoldering in places. Mostly in the stables,' he said. 'A lot more horses than we thought. Must be twenty cooked out there, including thoroughbreds, quarter horses, and two foals with racehorse pedigrees. And of course you know about the one that ran the Derby. Talk about the insurance money alone. A so-called witness said you could hear them screaming like humans.'
'What witness?' It was the first I'd heard of it.
'Oh, all kinds of drones have been calling in, saying they saw this and know that. Same old shit that always happens when a case gets a lot of attention. And it don't take an eyewitness to know the horses would have been screaming and trying to kick down their stalls.' His tone turned to flint. 'We're gonna get the son of a bitch who did this. Let's see how he likes it when it's his ass burning.'
'We don't know that there is a son of a bitch, at least not for a fact,' I reminded him. 'No one has said it's arson yet, although I certainly am assuming you and I haven't been invited along for the ride.'
He turned his attention out a window.
'I hate it when it's animals.' He spilled coffee on his knee. 'Shit.' He glared at me as if I were somehow to blame. 'Animals and kids. The thought makes me sick.'
He did not seem to care about the famous man who may have died in the fire, but I knew Marino well enough to understand that he targeted his feelings where he could tolerate them. He did not hate human beings half as much as he led others to believe, and as I envisioned what he had just described, I saw thoroughbreds and foals with terror in their eyes.
I could not bear to imagine screams, or battering hooves splintering wood. Flames had flowed like rivers of lava over the Warrenton farm with its mansion, stables, reserve aged whiskey, and collection of guns. Fire had spared nothing but hollow walls of stone.
I looked past Marino into the cockpit, where Lucy talked into the radio, making comments to her ATF copilot as they nodded at a Chinook helicopter below horizon and a plane so distant it was a sliver of glass. The sun lit up our journey by degrees, and it was difficult to concentrate as I watched my niece and felt wounded again.
She had quit the FBI because it had made certain she would. She had left the artificial intelligence computer system she had created and robots she had programmed and the helicopters she had learned to fly for her beloved Bureau. Lucy had walked off from her heart and was no longer within my reach. I did not want to talk to her about Carrie.
I silently leaned back in my seat and began reviewing paperwork on the Warrenton case. Long ago I had learned how to focus my attention to a very sharp point, no matter what I thought and in spite of my mood. I felt Marino staring again as he touched the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, making sure he was not without his vice. The chopping and flapping of blades was loud as he slid open his window and tapped his pack of cigarettes to shake one loose.
'Don't,' I said, turning a page. 'Don't even think about it.'
'I don't see a No Smoking sign,' he said, stuffing a Marlboro into his mouth.
'You never do, no matter how many of them are posted.' I reviewed more of my notes, puzzling again over one particular statement the fire marshal had made to me over the phone yesterday.
'Arson for profit?' I commented, glancing up. 'Implicating the owner, Kenneth Sparkes, who may have accidentally been overcome by the fire he started? Based on what?'
'Is his the name of an arsonist or what?' Marino said. 'Gotta be guilty.' He inhaled deeply and with lust. 'And if that's the case, he got what he deserves. You know, you can take them off the street but can't take the street out of them.'
'Sparkes was not raised on the street,' I said. 'And by the way, he was a Rhodes scholar.'
'Road scholar and street sound like the same damn thing to me,' Marino went on. 'I remember when all the son of a bitch did was criticize the police through his newspaper chain. Everybody knew he was doing cocaine and women. But we couldn't prove it because nobody would come forward to help us out.'
'That's right, no one could prove it,' I said. 'And you can't assume someone is an arsonist because of his name or his editorial policy.'
'Well, it just so happens you're talking to the expert in weird-ass names and how they fit the squirrels who have them.' Marino poured more coffee as he smoked. 'Gore the coroner. Slaughter the serial killer. Childs the pedophile. Mr Bury buried his victims in cemeteries. Then we got Judges Gallow and Frye. Plus Freddie Gamble. He was running numbers out of his restaurant when he got whacked. Dr Faggart murdered five homosexual males. Stabbed their eyes out. You remember Crisp?' He looked at me. 'Struck by lightning. Blew his clothes all over the church parking lot and magnetized his belt buckle.'
I could not listen to all this so early in the morning and reached behind me to grab a headset so I could drown Marino out and monitor what was being said in the cockpit.
'I wouldn't want to get struck by lightning at no church and have everybody read something into it,' Marino went on.
He got more coffee, as if he did not have prostate and urinary troubles.
'I've been keeping a list all these years. Never told no one. Not even you, Doc. You don't write down shit like this, you forget.' He sipped. 'I think there's a market for it. Maybe one of those little books you see up by the cash register.'
I put the headset on and watched rural farms and dormant fields slowly turn into houses with big barns and long drives that were paved. Cows and calves were black-spotted clusters in fenced-in grass, and a combine churned up dust as it slowly drove past fields scattered with hay.
I looked down as the landscape slowly transformed into the wealth of Warrenton, where crime was low and mansions on hundreds of acres of land had guest houses, tennis courts and pools, and very fine stables. We flew lower over private airstrips and lakes with ducks and geese. Marino was gawking.
Our pilots were silent for a while as they waited to be in range of the NRT on the ground. Then I caught Lucy's voice as she changed frequencies and began transmitting.
'Echo One, helicopter niner-one-niner Delta Alpha. Teun, you read me?'
'That's affirmative, niner Delta Alpha,' T. N. McGovern, the team leader, came back.
'We're ten miles south, inbound-landing with passengers,' Lucy said. 'ETA about eight hundred hours.'
'Roger. It feels like winter up here and not getting any warmer.'
Lucy switched over to the Manassas Automated Weather Observation Service, or AWOS, and I listened to a long mechanical rendition of wind, visibility, sky condition, temperature, dew point, and altimeter setting according to Sierra time, which was the most recent update of the day. I wasn't thrilled to learn that the temperature had dropped five degrees Celsius since I had left home, and I imagined Benton on his way to warm sunshine and the water.
'We got rain over there,' Lucy's copilot said into his mike.
'It's at least twenty miles west and the winds are west,' Lucy replied. 'So much for June.'
'Looks like we got another Chinook coming this way, below horizon.'
'Let's remind 'em we're out here,' Lucy said, switching to a different frequency again. 'Chinook over Warrenton, helicopter niner-one-niner Delta Alpha, you up this push? We're at your three o'clock, two miles northbound, one thousand feet.'
'We see you, Delta Alpha,' answered the twin rotor Army helicopter named for an Indian tribe. 'Have a good'n.'
My niece double-clicked the transmit switch. Her calm, low voice seemed unfamiliar to me as it radiated through space and bounced off the antennae of strangers. I continued to eavesdrop and, as soon as I could, butted in.
'What's this about wind and cold?' I asked, staring at the back of Lucy's head.
'Twenty, gusting to twenty-five out of the west,' she sounded in my headset. 'And gonna get worse. You guys doing all right back there?'
'We're fine,' I said as I thought of Carrie's deranged letter again.
Lucy flew in blue ATF fatigues, a pair of Cebe sunglasses blacking out her eyes. She had grown her hair, and it gracefully curled to her shoulders and reminded me of red jarrah wood, polished and exotic, and nothing like my own short silver-blond strands. I imagined her light touch on the collective and cyclic as she worked anti-torque pedals to keep the helicopter in trim.
She had taken to flying like everything else she had ever tried. She had gotten her private and commercial ratings in the minimum required hours and next got her certificated flight instructor rating simply because it gave her joy to pass on her gifts to others.
I needed no announcement that we were reaching the end of our flight as we skimmed over woods littered with felled trees scattered haphazardly like Lincoln Logs. Dirt trails and lanes wound narrowly, and on the other side of gentle hills, gray clouds got vertical as they turned into vague columns of tired smoke left by an inferno that had killed. Kenneth Sparkes's farm was a shocking black pit, a scorched earth of smoldering carnage.
The fire had left its trail as it had slaughtered, and from the air I followed the devastation of splendid stone dwellings and stables and barn to wide charred swaths that had denuded the grounds. Fire trucks had rolled over sections of the white fence surrounding the property and had churned up acres of manicured grass. Miles in the distance were more pasture land and a narrow paved public road, then a Virginia Power substation, and farther off, more homes.
We invaded Sparkes's privileged Virginia farm at not quite eight A.M., landing far enough away from ruins that our rotor wash did not disturb them. Marino climbed out and went on without me as I waited for our pilots to brake the main rotor and turn off all switches.
'Thanks for the lift,' I said to Special Agent Jim Mowery, who had helped Lucy fly this day.
'She did the driving.'
He popped open the baggage door.
'I'll tie her down if you guys want to go on,' he added to my niece.
'Seems like you're getting the hang of that thing,' I lightly teased Lucy as we walked away.
'I limp along the best I can,' she said. 'Here, let me get one of those bags.'
She relieved me of my aluminum case, which did not seem to weigh much in her firm hand. We walked together, dressed alike, although I did not wear gun or portable radio. Our steel-reinforced boots were so battered they were peeling and almost gray. Black mud sucked at our soles as we drew closer to the gray inflatable tent that would be our command post for the next few days. Parked next to it was the big white Pierce supertruck with Department of the Treasury seals and emergency lights, and ATF and EXPLOSIVES INVESTIGATION announced in vivid blue.
Lucy was a step ahead of me, her face shadowed by a dark blue cap. She had been transferred to Philadelphia, and would be moving from D.C. soon, and the thought made me feel old and used up. She was grown. She was as accomplished as I had been at her age, and I did not want her moving farther away. But I had not told her.
'This one's pretty bad.' She initiated the conversation. 'At least the basement is ground level, but there's only one door. So most of the water's in a pool down there. We got a truck on the way with pumps.'
I thought of thousands of gallons of water from fire hoses and imagined a cold black soup thick with dangerous debris.
'Depends on where you're stepping. If I were you, I wouldn't have taken this call,' she said in a way that made me feel unwanted.
'Yes, you would have,' I said, hurt.
Lucy had made little effort to hide her feelings about working cases with me. She wasn't rude, but often acted as if she barely knew me when she was with her colleagues. I remembered earlier years when I would visit her at UVA and she did not want students to see us together. I knew she was not ashamed of me but perceived me as an overwhelming shadow that I had worked very hard not to cast over her life.
'Have you finished packing?' I asked her with an ease that was not true.
'Please don't remind me,' she said.
'But you still want to go.'
'Of course. It's a great opportunity.'
'Yes, it is, and I am so pleased for you,' I said. 'How's Janet? I know this must be hard…'
'It's not like we'll be in different hemispheres,' Lucy answered back.
I knew better, and so did she. Janet was an FBI agent. The two of them had been lovers since their early training days at Quantico. Now they worked for different federal law enforcement agencies and soon would live in separate cities. It was quite possible their careers would never permit their relationship again.
'Do you suppose we can carve out a minute to talk today?' I spoke again as we picked our way around puddles.
'Sure. When we finish up here, we'll have a beer, if we can find an open bar out here in the sticks,' she replied as the wind blew harder.
'I don't care how late it is,' I added.
'Here goes,' Lucy muttered with a sigh as we approached the tent. 'Hey gang,' she called out. 'Where's the party?'
'You're looking at it.'
'Doc, you making house calls these days?'
'Naw, she's babysitting Lucy.'
In addition to Marino and me, NRT on this call-out were nine men, two women, including team leader McGovern. All of us were dressed alike in the familiar dark blue fatigues, which were worn and patched and supple like our boots. Agents were restless and boisterous around the back of the open tailgate of the supertruck with its shiny aluminum interior divided into shelves and jump seats, and its outside compartments packed with reels of yellow crime-scene tape, and dustpans, picks, floodlights, whisk brooms, wrecking bars, and chop saws.
Our mobile headquarters was also equipped with computers, a photocopier and fax machine, and the hydraulic spreader, ram, hammer, and cutter used to deconstruct a scene or save a human life. In fact, I could not think of much the truck did not have except, perhaps, a chef, and more importantly, a toilet.
Some agents had begun decontaminating boots, rakes, and shovels in plastic tubs filled with soapy water. It was a never-ending effort, and in brisk weather, hands and feet never dried or thawed. Even exhaust pipes were swabbed for petroleum residues, and all power tools were run by electricity or hydraulic fluid instead of gasoline, preparing for that day in court when all would be questioned and judged.
McGovern was sitting on a table inside the tent, her boots unzipped, and a clipboard on her knee.
'All right,' she addressed her team. 'We've been through most of this already at the fire station, where you guys missed good coffee and donuts,' she added for the benefit of those of us who had just gotten here. 'But listen up again. What we know so far is the fire is believed to have started day before yesterday, on the evening of the seventh at twenty hundred hours.'
McGovern was about my age and based in the Philadelphia field office. I looked at her and saw Lucy's new mentor, and I felt a stiffening in my bones.
'At least that's the time the fire alarm went off in the house,' McGovern went on. 'When the fire department got here, the house was fully involved. Stables were burning. Trucks really couldn't get close enough to do anything but surround and drown. Or at least make an attempt at it. We're estimating about thirty thousand gallons of water in the basement. That's about six hours total to pump all of it out, assuming we're talking about four pumps going and don't have millions of clogs. And by the way, the power's off, and our local friendly fire department is going to set up lights inside.'
'What was the response time?' Marino asked her.
'Seventeen minutes,' she replied. 'They had to grab people off duty. Everything around here is volunteer.'
'Now don't be too hard on them. They used every tanker around to get enough water in, so that wasn't the problem,' McGovern chided her troops. 'This thing went up like paper, and it was too windy for foam, even though I don't think it would have helped.' She got up and moved to the supertruck. 'The deal is, this was a fast, hot fire. That much we know for a fact.'
She opened a red-paneled door and began handing out rakes and shovels.
'We got not a clue as to point of origin or cause,' she continued, 'but it's believed that the owner, Kenneth Sparkes, the newspaper tycoon, was inside the house and did not get out. Which is why we got the doc here.'
McGovern looked straight at me with piercing eyes that did not miss much.
'What makes us think he was home at the time?' I asked.
'For one thing, he seems to be MIA. And a Mercedes burned up in the back. We haven't run the tags yet but assume it's probably his,' a fire investigator answered. 'And the farrier who shoes his horses was just here two days before the fire, on Thursday, the fifth, and Sparkes was home then and the farrier didn't say that he indicated he was headed out somewhere.'
'Who took care of his horses when he was out of town?' I asked.
'We don't know,' McGovern said.
'I'd like the farrier's name and number,' I said.
'No problem. Kurt?' she said to one of her investigators.
'Sure. I got it.' He flipped pages in a spiral notebook, his young hands big and rough from years of work.
McGovern grabbed bright blue helmets out of another compartment and began tossing them around as she reminded individuals of their assignments.
'Lucy, Robby, Frank, Jennifer, you're in the hole with me. Bill, you're general assignment, and Mick's going to help him, since this is Bill's first NRT.'
'Ohhh, a virgin.'
'Give me a break, man,' said the agent named Bill. 'It's my wife's fortieth birthday. She'll never speak to me again.'
'Rusty's in charge of the truck,' McGovern resumed. 'Marino and the doc are here as needed.'
'Had Sparkes been receiving any threats?' Marino asked, because it was his job to think murder.
'You know about as much as we do at this point,' the fire investigator named Robby said.
'What's this about this alleged witness?' I asked.
'We got that through a telephone call,' he explained. 'A male, he wouldn't leave his name, and it was an out-of-the-area call, so we got no idea. Got no idea if it's legit.'
'But he said he heard the horses as they were dying,' I persisted.
'Yeah. Screaming like humans.'
'Did he explain how he might have been close enough to have heard that?' I was getting upset again.
'Said he saw the fire from the distance and drove in for a closer look. Says he watched for maybe fifteen minutes and then got the hell out of Dodge when he heard the fire trucks.'
'Now I didn't know that and it bothers me,' Marino said ominously. 'What he's saying is consistent with the response time. And we know how much these squirrels like to hang around and watch their fires burn. Got any idea about race?'
'I didn't talk to him more than thirty seconds,' Robby answered. 'But he had no discernible accent. Was soft-spoken and very calm.'
There was silence for a pause as everyone processed their disappointment in not knowing who this witness was, or if he had been genuine. McGovern went on with her roster of who was doing what this day.
'Johnny Kostylo, our beloved ASAC in Philly, will be working the media and local bigwigs, like the mayor of Warrenton, who's already been calling because he doesn't want his town to look bad.'
She glanced up from her clipboard, scanning our faces.
'One of our auditors is on his way,' she went on. 'And Pepper will be showing up shortly to help us out.'
Several agents whistled their appreciation of Pepper the arson dog.
'And thankfully, Pepper doesn't hit on alcohol.' McGovern put her own helmet on. 'Because there's about a thousand gallons of bourbon out here.'
'We know anything more about that?' Marino asked. 'We know if Sparkes might have been making or selling the stuff? I mean, that's a hell of a lot of hooch for one guy.'
'Apparently Sparkes was a collector of the finer things in life,' McGovern spoke of Sparkes as if he were certainly dead. 'Bourbon, cigars, automatic firearms, expensive horses. We don't know how legal he was, which is one of the reasons why youze guys are here instead of the Feebs.'
'Hate to tell you, but the Feebs are already sniffing around. Wanting to know what they can do to help.'
'Aren't they sweet.'
'Maybe they can show us what to do.'
'Where are they?' McGovern asked.
'In a white Suburban about a mile down the road. Three of 'em hanging out in their FBI flak jackets. They're already talking to the media.'
'Shit. Wherever there are cameras.'
There were groans and derisive laughter directed at the Feebs, which was what ATF rudely called the FBI. It was no secret that the two federal agencies were not fond of each other, and that the FBI routinely appropriated credit when it was not always due.
'Speaking of pains in the ass,' another agent spoke up, 'the Budget Motel doesn't take AmEx, boss. We're going through the heels of our boots, and we're supposed to use our own credit cards?'
'Plus, room service quits at seven.'
'It stinks anyway.'
'Any chance we can move?'
'I'll take care of it,' McGovern promised.
'That's why we love you so much.'
A bright red fire engine rumbled up the unpaved road, churning dust and small rocks, as help arrived to begin draining water from the scene. Two firefighters in turnout gear and high rubber boots climbed down and briefly conferred with McGovern before uncoiling one-and-three-quarter-inch hoses attached to filters. These they draped over their shoulders and dragged inside the mansion's stone shell and dropped them into the water in four different locations. They returned to the truck and set heavy portable Prosser pumps on the ground and plugged extension cords into the generator. Soon the noise of engines got very loud, and hoses swelled as dirty water gushed through them and over grass.
I gathered heavy canvas fire gloves and a turn-out coat and adjusted the size of my helmet. Then I began cleaning my faithful Red Wing boots, sloshing them through tubs of sudsy cold tap water that seeped through old leather tongues and soaked the laces. I had not thought to wear silk underwear beneath my BDUs because it was June. That had been a mistake. Winds were now strong and from the north, and every drop of moisture seemed to lower my body temperature another degree. I hated being cold. I hated not trusting my hands, because they were either stiff or heavily gloved. McGovern headed toward me as I blew on my fingertips and fastened my heavy turn-out coat up to my chin.
'It's going to be a long day,' she said with a shiver. 'What happened to summer?'
'Teun, I'm missing my vacation for you. You are destroying my personal life.' I gave her a hard time.
'At least you have either.' McGovern started cleaning her boots, too.
Teun was really an odd hybrid of the initials T. N., which stood for something Southern-awful such as Tina Nola, or so I had been told. For as long as I had been on the NRT, she had been Teun, and so that was what I called her. She was capable and divorced. She was firm and fit, her bone structure and gray eyes compelling. McGovern could be fierce. I had seen her anger flash over like a room in flames, but she could also be generous and kind. Her special gift was arson, and it was legend that she could intuit the cause of a fire simply by hearing a description of the scene.
I worked on two pairs of latex gloves as McGovern scanned the horizon, her eyes staying a long time on the blackened pit with its shell of standing granite. I followed her gaze to scorched stables, and in my mind heard screams and panicked hooves battering stalls. For an instant my throat constricted. I had seen the raw, clawed hands of people buried alive, and the defense injuries of victims who struggled with their killers. I knew about life fighting not to die, and I could not bear the vivid footage playing in my mind.
'Goddamn reporters.' McGovern stared up at a small helicopter flying low overhead.
It was a white Schweizer with no identification or mounted cameras I could see. McGovern stepped forward and boldly pointed out every member of the media within five miles.
'That van there,' she let me know. 'Radio, some local-yokel FM dial with a celebrity talent named Jezebel who tells moving stories about life and her crippled son and his three-legged dog named Sport. And another radio over there. And that Ford Escort over that way is some fucking son-of-a-bitch newspaper. Probably some tabloid out of D.C. Then we got the Post.' She pointed at a Honda. 'So look out for her. She's the brunette with legs. Can you imagine wearing a skirt out here? Probably thinks the guys will talk to her. But they know better, unlike the Feebs.'
She backed up and grabbed a handful of latex gloves from inside the supertruck. I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my BDUs. I had gotten used to McGovern's diatribes about the biased, mendacious media, and I barely listened.
'And this is just the start,' she went on. 'These media maggots will be crawling all over the place because I already know about this one here. It doesn't take a Boy Scout to guess how this place burned and all those poor horses got killed.'
'You seem more cheerful than usual,' I said dryly.
'I'm not cheerful in the least.'
She propped her foot on the shiny tailgate of the supertruck as an old station wagon pulled up. Pepper the arson dog was a handsome black Labrador retriever. He wore an ATF badge on his collar and was no doubt comfortably curled in the warm front seat, going nowhere until we were ready for him.
'What can I do to help?' I said to her. 'Besides staying out of the way until you need me.'
She was staring off. 'If I were you, I'd hang out with Pepper or in the truck. Both are heated.'
McGovern had worked with me before and knew if I was needed to dive into a river or sift through fire or bombing debris, I was not above the task. She knew I could hold a shovel and did not sit around. I resented her comments and felt she was somehow picking on me. I turned to address her again and found her standing very still, like a bird dog pointing. She had an incredulous expression on her face as she remained fixed to some spot on the horizon.
'Holy Jesus,' she muttered.
I followed her stare to a lone black foal, maybe a hundred yards due east of us, just beyond the smoky ruins of the stables. The magnificent animal looked carved from ebony from where we stood, and I could make out twitching muscles and tail as he seemed to return our attention.
'The stables,' McGovern said, in awe. 'How the hell did he get away?'
She got on her portable radio.
'Teun to Jennifer,' she said.
'Take a look maybe beyond the stables. See what I do?'
'Ten-four. Got the four-legged subject in sight.'
'Make sure the locals know. We need to find out if subject is a survivor from here or a runaway from somewhere else.'
'You got it.'
McGovern strode off, a shovel over her shoulder. I watched her move into the stinking pit and pick a spot near what appeared to have once been the wide front door, cold water up to her knees. Far off, the aloof black horse wavered as if made of fire. I slogged ahead in soggy boots, my fingers getting increasingly uncooperative. It was only a matter of time before I would need a toilet, which typically would be a tree, a mound, an acre somewhere in what was sworn to be a blind with no men within a mile.
I did not enter the remaining stone shell at first but walked slowly around it from the outside perimeter. The caving-in of remaining structures was an obvious and extreme danger at scenes of mass destruction, and although the two-story walls looked sturdy enough, it would have suited me better had they been pulled down by a crane and trucked away. I continued my scan in the bright, cool wind, my heart sinking as I wondered where to begin. My shoulders ached from my aluminum case, and just the thought of dragging a rake through water-logged debris sent pain into my back. I was certain McGovern was watching to see how long I would last.
Through gaping wounds of windows and doors I could see the sooty pit coiling with thousands of flat steel whiskey-barrel hoops that drifted in black water. I imagined reserve bourbon exploding from burning white oak kegs and pouring through the door in a river of fire downhill to the stables that had housed Kenneth Sparkes's precious horses. While investigators began the task of determining where the fire had started and hopefully its cause, I stepped through puddles and climbed atop anything that looked sturdy enough to bear my weight.
Nails were everywhere, and with a Buckman tool that had been a gift from Lucy, I pulled one of them out of my left boot. I stopped inside the perfect stone rectangle of a doorway in the front of the former mansion. For minutes I stood and looked. Unlike many investigators, I did not take photographs with every inch I moved closer into a crime scene. I had learned to bide my time and let my eyes go first. As I quietly scanned around me, I was struck by many things.
The front of the house, unsurprisingly, would have afforded the most spectacular view. From upper stories no longer there, one should have seen trees and gentle hills, and the various activities of the horses that the owner bought, traded, bred, and sold. It was believed that Kenneth Sparkes had been home the night of the fire, on June seventh, and I remembered that the weather had been clear and a little warmer, with a light wind and full moon.
I surveyed the empty shell of what must have been a mansion, looking at soggy couch parts, metal, glass, the melted guts of televisions and appliances. There were hundreds of partially burned books, and paintings, mattresses, and furniture. All had fallen from upper stories and settled into soupy layers in the basement. As I imagined Sparkes in the evening when the fire alarm went off, I imagined him in the living room with its view, or in the kitchen, perhaps cooking. Yet the more I explored where he might have been, the less I understood why he had not escaped, unless he were incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, or had tried to put out the fire until carbon monoxide had overcome him.
Lucy and comrades were on the other side of the pit, prying open an electrical box that heat and water had caused to rust instantly.
'Good luck,' McGovern's voice carried as she waded closer to them. 'That's not going to be what started this one.'
She kept talking as she slung a blackened frame of an ironing board to one side. The iron and what was left of its cord followed. She kicked more barrel hoops out of the way as if she were mad at whoever had caused this mess.
'You notice the windows?' she went on to them. 'The broken glass is on the inside. Makes you think someone broke in?'
'Not necessarily.' It was Lucy who answered as she squatted to look. 'You get thermal impact to the inside of the glass and it heats up and expands more and faster than the exterior, causing uneven stress and heat cracks, which are distinctively different from mechanical breakage.'
She handed a jagged piece of broken glass to McGovern, her supervisor.
'Smoke goes out of the house,' Lucy went on, 'and the atmosphere comes in. Equalization of pressure. It doesn't mean someone broke in.'
'You get a B-plus,' McGovern said to her.
'No way. I get an A.'
Several of the agents laughed.
'But I have to agree with Lucy,' one of them said. 'So far I'm not seeing any sign that someone broke in.'
Their team leader continued turning our disaster site into a classroom for her soon-to-be Certificated Fire Investigators, or CFIs.
'Remember we talked about smoke coming through brick?' she continued, pointing up to areas of stone along the roofline that looked as if they had been scrubbed with steel brushes. 'Or is that erosion from blasts of water?'
'No, the mortar's partially eaten away. That's from smoke.'
'That's right. From smoke pushing through the joints.' McGovern was matter-of-fact. 'Fire establishes its own vent paths. And low around the walls here, here and here' - she pointed - 'the stone is burned clean of all incomplete combustion or soot. We've got melted glass and melted copper pipes.'
'It started low, on the first floor,' Lucy said. 'The main living area.'
'Looks like that to me.'
'And flames went up as high as ten feet to engage the second floor and roof.'
'Which would take a pretty decent fuel load.'
'Accelerants. But forget finding a pour pattern in this shit.'
'Don't forget anything,' McGovern told her team. 'And we don't know if an accelerant was necessary because we don't know what kind of fuel load was on that floor.'
They were splashing and working as they talked, and all around was the constant sound of dripping water and rumbling of the pumps. I got interested in box springs caught in my rake and squatted to pull out rocks and charred wood with my hands. One always had to consider that a fire victim might have died in bed, and I peered up at what once had been the upper floors. I continued excavating, producing nothing remotely human, only the sodden, sour trash of all that had been ruined in Kenneth Sparkes's fine estate. Some of his former possessions still smoldered on tops of piles that were not submerged, but most of what I raked was cold and permeated with the nauseating smell of scorched bourbon.
Our sifting went on throughout the morning, and as I moved from one square of muck to the next, I did what I knew how to do best. I groped and probed with my hands, and when I felt a shape that worried me, I took off my heavy fire gloves and felt some more with fingers barely sheathed by latex. McGovern's troops were scattered and lost in their own hunches, and at almost noon she waded back to me.
'You holding up?' she asked.
'Not bad for an armchair detective.' She smiled.
'I'll take that as a compliment.'
'You see how even everything is?' She pointed a sooty gloved finger. 'High-temperature fire, constant from one corner of the house to the other. Flames so hot and high they burned up the upper two floors and pretty near everything in them. We're not talking some electrical arc here, not some curling iron left on or grease that caught fire. Something big and smart's behind this.'
I had noticed over the years that people who battled fire spoke of it as if it were alive and possessed a will and personality of its own. McGovern began working by my side, and what she couldn't sling out of the way, she piled into a wheelbarrow. I polished what turned out to be a stone that could have passed for a finger bone, and she pointed the wooden butt of her rake up at an empty overcast sky.
'The top level's gonna be the last one to fall,' she told me. 'In other words, debris from the roof and second floor should be on top down here. So I'm assuming that's what we're rooting around in right now.' She stabbed the rake at a twisted steel I-beam that once had supported the roof. 'Yes sir,' she went on, 'that's why there's all this insulation and slate everywhere.'
This went on and on, with no one taking breaks that were longer than fifteen minutes. The local fire station kept us supplied in coffee, sodas, and sandwiches, and had set up quartz lights so we could see as we worked in our wet hole. At each end a Prosser pump sucked water through its hose and disgorged it outside granite walls, and after thousands of gallons were gone, our conditions did not seem much better. It was hours before the level dipped perceptibly.
At half past two I could stand it no longer and went outside again. I scanned for the most inconspicuous spot, which was beneath the sweeping boughs of a large fir tree near the smoking stables. My hands and feet were numb, but beneath heavy protective clothing I was sweating as I squatted and kept a nervous watch for anyone who might wander this way. Then I steeled myself to walk past every charred stall. The stench of death pushed itself up into my nostrils and seemed to cling to spaces inside my skull.
Horses were pitifully piled on top of each other, their legs pugilistically drawn, and skin split from the swelling and shrinking of cooking flesh. Mares, stallions, and geldings were burned down to bone with smoke still drifting from carcasses charred like wood. I hoped they had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before flames had touched them.
I counted nineteen bodies, including two yearlings and a foal. The miasma of burned horse hair and death was choking and enveloped me like a heavy cloak as I headed across grass back to the mansion's shell. On the horizon, the sole survivor was watching me again, standing very still, alone and mournful.
McGovern was still sloshing and shoveling and pitching trash out of her way, and I could tell she was getting tired, and I was perversely pleased by that. It was getting late in the day. The sky had gotten darker, and the wind had a sharper edge.
'The foal is still there,' I said to her.
'Wish he could talk.' She straightened up and massaged the small of her back.
'He's running loose for a reason,' I said. 'It doesn't make sense to think he got out on his own. I hope someone plans to take care of him?'
'We're working on it.'
'Couldn't one of the neighbors help?' I would not stop, because the horse was really getting to me.
She gave me a long look and pointed straight up.
'Master bedroom and bath were right up there,' she announced as she lifted a broken square of white marble out of the filthy water. 'Brass fixtures, a marble floor, the jets from a Jacuzzi. The frame of a skylight, which by the way, was open at the time of the fire. If you reach down six inches to your left, you'll run right into what's left of the tub.'
The water level continued to lower as pumps sucked and formed small rivers over grass. Nearby, agents were pulling out antique oak flooring that was deeply charred on top with very little unburned wood left. This went on, and added to mounting evidence that the origin of the fire was the second floor in the area of the master suite, where we recovered brass pulls from cabinets and mahogany furniture, and hundreds of coat hangers. We dug through burnt cedar and remnants of men's shoes and clothing from the master closet.
By five o'clock, the water had dropped another foot, revealing a ruined landscape that looked like a burned landfill, with scorched hulls of appliances and the carcasses of couches. McGovern and I were still excavating in the area of the master bath, fishing out prescription bottles of pills, and shampoos and body lotions, when I finally discovered the first shattered edge of death. I carefully wiped soot from a jagged slab of glass.
'I think we've got something,' I said, and my voice seemed swallowed by dripping water and the sucking of pumps.
McGovern shone her flashlight on what I was doing and went still.
'Oh Jesus,' she said, shocked.
Milky dead eyes gleamed at us through watery broken glass.
'A window, maybe a glass shower door fell on top of the body, preserving at least some of it from being burned to the bone,' I said.
I moved more broken glass aside, and McGovern was momentarily stunned as she stared at a grotesque body that I instantly knew was not Kenneth Sparkes. The upper part of the face was pressed flat beneath thick cracked glass, and the eyes were a dull bluish-gray because their original color had been cooked out of them. They peered up at us from the burned bone of the brow. Strands of long blond hair had gotten free and eerily flowed as dirty water seeped, and there was no nose or mouth, only chalky, calcined bone and teeth that had been burned until there was nothing organic left in them.
The neck was partially intact, the torso covered with more broken glass, and melted into cooked flesh was a dark fabric that had been a blouse or shirt. I could still make out the weave. Buttocks and pelvis were also spared beneath glass. The victim had been wearing jeans. The legs were burned down to bone, but leather boots had protected the feet. There were no lower arms or hands, and I could not find any trace of those bones.
'Who the hell is this?' McGovern said, amazed. 'Did he live with someone?'
'I don't know,' I said, scooping more water out of the way.
'Can you tell if it's a female?' McGovern said as she leaned closer to look, her flashlight still pointed.
'I wouldn't want to swear to it in court until I can examine her more closely. But yes, I'm thinking female,' I answered.
I looked up at empty sky, imagining the bathroom the woman possibly had died in, and then got cameras out of my kit as cold water lapped around my feet. Pepper the arson dog and his handler had just filled a doorway, and Lucy and other agents were wading our way as word of our find hummed down the line. I thought of Sparkes, and nothing here made sense, except that a woman had been inside his home the night of the fire. I feared his remains might be somewhere in here, too.
Agents came nearer, and one of them brought me a body bag. I unfolded it and took more photographs. Flesh had cooked to glass and would have to be separated. This I would do in the morgue, and I instructed that any debris around the body would need to be sent in as well.
'I'm going to need some help,' I said to everyone. 'Let's get a backboard and some sheets in here, and someone needs to call whatever local funeral home is responsible for body removals. We're going to need a van. Be careful, the glass is sharp. As she is, in situ. Face up, just like she is now, so we don't put too much stress on the body and tear the skin. That's good. Now open the bag more. As wide as we can get it.'
'It ain't gonna fit.'
'Maybe we could break off more of the glass around the edges here,' McGovern suggested. 'Somebody got a hammer?'
'No, no. Let's just cover her as is.' I issued more commands, for I was in charge now. 'Drape this over and around the edges to protect your hands. Everybody got their gloves on?'
'Those of you who aren't helping here, there may be another body. So let's keep looking.'
I was tense and irritable as I waited for two agents to return with a backboard and blue plasticized sheets to cover it.
'Okay,' I said. 'We're going to lift. On the count of three.'
Water sloshed and splashed as four of us struggled for leverage and balance. It was awful groping for sure footing as we gripped slippery wet glass that was sharp enough to cut through leather.
'Here we go,' I said. 'One, two, three, lift.'
We centered the body on the backboard. I covered it as best I could with the sheets and fastened it snugly with straps. Our steps were small and hesitant as we felt our way through water that no longer came over our boots. The Prosser pumps and generator were a constant humming throb that we scarcely noticed as we ferried our morbid cargo closer to the empty space that once had been a door. I smelled cooked flesh and death, and the acrid rotting odor of fabric, food, furniture, and all that had burned in Kenneth Sparkes's home. I was breathless and numb with stress and cold as I emerged into the pale light of the fast-retreating day.
We lowered the body to the ground, and I kept watch over it as the rest of the team continued their excavation. I opened the sheets and took a close long look at this pitifully disfigured human being, and got a flashlight and lens out of my aluminum case. Glass had melted around the head at the bridge of the nose, and bits of pinkish material and ash were snared in her hair. I used light and magnification to study areas of flesh that had been spared, and wondered if it was my imagination when I discovered hemorrhage in charred tissue in the left temporal area, about an inch from the eye.
Lucy suddenly was by my side, and Wiser Funeral Home was pulling up in a shiny dark blue van.
'Find something?' Lucy asked.
'Don't know with certainty, but this looks like hemorrhage, versus the drying you find with skin splitting.'
'Skin splitting from fire, you mean.'
'Yes. Flesh cooks and expands, splitting the skin.'
'Same thing that happens when you cook chicken in the oven.'
'You got it,' I said.
Damage to skin, muscle, and bone is easily mistaken for injuries caused by violence if one is not familiar with the artifacts of fire. Lucy squatted closer to me. She looked on.
'Anything else turning up in there?' I asked her. 'No other bodies, I hope.'
'Not so far,' she said. 'It will be dark soon, and all we can do is keep the scene secured until we can start again in the morning.'
I looked up as a man in a pinstripe suit climbed out of the funeral home van and worked on latex gloves. He loudly pulled a stretcher out from the back and metal clacked as he unfolded the legs.
'You gonna get started tonight, Doc?' he asked me, and I knew I'd seen him somewhere before.
'Let's get her to Richmond and I'll start in the morning,' I said.
'Last time I saw you was the Moser shooting. That young girl they was fighting over's still causing trouble round here.'
'Oh yes.' I vaguely remembered, for there were so many shootings and so many people who caused trouble. 'Thank you for your help,' I said to him.
We lifted the body by gripping the edges of the heavy vinyl pouch. We lowered the remains onto the stretcher and slid it into the back of the van. He slammed shut tailgate doors.
'I hope it's not Kenneth Sparkes in there,' he said.
'No identification yet,' I told him.
He sighed and slid into the driver's seat.
'Well, let me tell you something,' he said, cranking the engine. 'I don't care what anybody says. He was a good man.'
I watched him drive away and could sense Lucy's eyes on me. She touched my arm.
'You're exhausted,' she said. 'Why don't you spend the night and I'll fly you back in the morning. If we find anything else, we'll let you know right away. No point in your hanging around.'
I had very difficult work ahead and the sensible thing to do was to head back to Richmond now. But in truth, I did not feel like walking inside my empty home. Benton would be at Hilton Head by now, and Lucy was staying in Warrenton. It was too late to call upon any of my friends, and I was too spent for polite conversation. It was one of those times when I could think of nothing that might soothe me.
'Teun's moved us to a better place and I got an extra bed in my room, Aunt Kay,' Lucy added with a smile as she pulled a car key out of her pocket.
'So now I'm Aunt Kay again.'
'As long as nobody's around.'
'I've got to get something to eat,' I said.