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The fire department, called to a night blaze in a derelict building that was due for demolition, didn't consider it anything other than pure routine; their main efforts were directed at preventing the fire from spreading to the neighbouring properties. Their check in the morning, to make sure there was no hot spot that might re-ignite the fire, was also pure routine - until they found a body. The victim, a man in his late fifties, was lying in a sleeping bag in a corner where there was some very basic camping equipment, one or two books and a few clothes - although everything had originally been of good quality, he was obviously homeless, had made a shelter for himself in the building, and from the look of his corner, had been there for some considerable time. The area where he was had not been touched by the flames; it seemed that he had been overcome by smoke in his sleep.
But - there was clear evidence that this fire had been deliberately started.
"His name was Andrew Flett," Simon Banks said. "Around five years ago, he started a hardware store in the building where he was found. When he was declared bankrupt early last year, the bank repossessed the place, but was unable to find a buyer for it. Not surprising, considering its condition. There was no sign that the place had been broken into - though how anyone could tell that, what with the fire damage, I don't know. His home was repossessed at the same time - he had remortgaged it to raise enough money to start his business."
"In other words, he tried to start a business without having enough capital behind him," Jim said.
Simon nodded. "The body was identified half an hour ago by a son, who saw the photo we put in the paper asking if anyone knew the dead man. I'd like you and Sandburg to have a word with David Flett. On the face of it, this was a case of random arson and Flett was just unlucky, but it's always possible that someone with an axe to grind realized Flett was in there and torched the place deliberately."
Jim pursed his lips. "No sign of injury on the dead man?"
"None. Dan hasn't finished checking the body, but it appears the man died from smoke inhalation."
"Not a very efficient way to murder someone. If he was knocked out first, yes, possibly, but if he was just asleep... " Jim said.
David Flett was a successful writer and programmer of computer games, who had left the parental home and moved into his own apartment ten years previously. When Jim and Blair went into the interview room where he waited, Jim's first thought was that the man looked strained, almost guilty.
"Mr. Flett? I'm Detective Ellison, and this is my colleague, Detective Sandburg. We've been given the job of trying to find out exactly what happened regarding the fire last night." He gentled his voice a little. "I understand you identified your father's body earlier today."
"Yes. God, if I'd known... " He broke off, his voice catching slightly.
"What can you tell us about him? Our Captain told us a few things, but assume we know nothing."
Flett pushed his hair back in an unnecessary but clearly habitual gesture. "Dad started working with Myers' Hardware when he was seventeen. He was good at his work, was given more and more responsibility over the years, and when the general manager retired about seven years ago, he was promoted to the position. After a couple of years, he decided to branch out on his own, and start his own hardware store. He thought that... well, over the previous twenty years Myers had bought out all the smaller hardware stores in Cascade, and Dad didn't really believe in monopolies. A lot of Myers' customers said they'd support him - he'd always been good with customer relations.
"We all tried to persuade him not to - I tried, Mom tried, my brother Malcolm tried, but Dad wouldn't listen. He didn't have much money saved - he'd already put me through university, and Malcolm had just started his second year at Rainier, but Dad insisted he had some ideas that would benefit his customers and really bring in the money. That was when we tried to persuade him to start with a small business that mostly carried the sort of basic bread-and-butter stuff that would give him a steady income and let him get established, then expand. Again, he didn't listen; he wanted something big enough to be serious competition with Myers. He re-mortgaged the house to raise some capital, but he still didn't really have enough to get and stock a store in a good part of Cascade; all he could really afford was that semi-derelict building where he died."
"Not exactly an inducement to customers to give him business," Blair murmured.
"That's right. He ran into problems right from the start. He wasn't able to carry the range of goods Myers did - he didn't realize that firms that gave a large, successful and expanding business like Myers a good discount and extended credit wouldn't give the same terms to a new firm just starting, even though they knew Dad from his years with Myers. A lot of the customers who originally said they'd support him didn't, and even the ones who did... most of them went back to Myers when Dad couldn't get them the things they wanted because he didn't have the money to pay his suppliers as quickly as they expected.
"And he couldn't afford to do necessary repairs to the building, so over the three years he tried to make a success of it, the place got more and more dilapidated."
Flett sighed. "Early on, he realized that he couldn't afford to finance Malcolm at Rainier, and I took over that responsibility. I wanted to let Malcolm get the same kind of career advantage I had.
"Eventually, Mom and Malcolm... walked out is putting it too strongly, but they knew things couldn't go on the way they were, and they hoped that by leaving, they'd force him to realize he had to cut his losses and give up, find a job and try to get his life back in order. They came to me, and I gave them a home for a few months, until Malcolm graduated. He went to work in Seattle, and Mom went there with him. She still loved Dad, but she couldn't bear to see what was happening to him.
"Not long after that, Dad was declared bankrupt. The bank repossessed everything." He fell silent for a moment, staring blindly at the table. Jim and Blair glanced at each other, and Jim nodded slightly, telling Blair that he was sure Flett was telling things as they were, without exaggeration.
Flett picked up his story again. "If Dad had come to me, I'd have given him a home, but he didn't. He didn't try to get in touch with me, or with Mom, though I know she sent him word of where she was living in Seattle; he just disappeared. I thought he must have left Cascade. That was around eighteen months ago. And then today... his picture in the paper...
"Dad was supposed to have handed over all the keys, but he must have kept one, so that he could get into the building. He probably realized that the bank wouldn't easily find a buyer for it, and it gave him a roof of sorts. Though why he didn't come to me... "
"Pride?" Blair murmured. "You'd tried to persuade him against starting up on his own. He'd have known you wouldn't say 'I told you so', but he must have been very aware that you had."
"It's possible," Flett said. "And I know nothing about this was my fault - he chose not to contact me and I didn't even know he was still in Cascade - but I feel so guilty... "
"You did what you could, Mr. Flett," Blair said firmly. "You took over supporting your brother financially - that alone must have been a big help to your father."
"I suppose," Flett muttered.
"Do you know if your father had any enemies?" Jim asked. "Anyone who might have wanted to see him dead?"
Flett thought for a moment then shook his head. "No. I don't suppose he was the most popular person with the CEO at Myers after he tried to set up in opposition, but since he failed, I'd have thought that would be... well, revenge enough. And in any case - as far as I know, nobody knew where he was. None of my friends, or my Dad's friends, ever said to me, 'Hey, I thought I saw your Dad the other day'. Whatever he was doing to pass the time, whatever he was doing to get the money for food, he managed to stay out of sight of anyone who might know him."
After David Flett left, Jim and Blair turned their attention to the fire department's report.
Basically, the building had been a fire just waiting to happen. Despite its condition, despite its leaking roof, much of the interior consisted of very dry wood. The blaze had been started by someone who had pushed a garbage bin against the door, then set fire to it. Once the door had burned through, the flames spread quickly.
Blair sighed. "On the face of it, this was a piece of random vandalism," he said. "Someone with an obsession with fire, picking a derelict building to burn, and Flett's death was just an unfortunate accident."
"Looks like it," Jim agreed.
Blair typed up their report and took it in to Simon. When he returned, Jim was already concentrating on a report of a shooting during a robbery. Blair settled down and reached for the pages Jim had already read.
Two days later, another derelict building, this time in the dock area, was burned. It, too, was an old building with dry wooden shelving and a great deal of dry timber in its walls; this fire was also started by a garbage bin pushed against a door and set alight.
At least this time nobody died.
As he read through the report on it, Jim said, "On the face of it, these two buildings weren't linked in any way. Different owners. Both due for demolition, certainly... "
"I noticed that." Blair had read the details while waiting for Jim to arrive - the older man had had an appointment with the dentist, and arrived nearly an hour after his partner. "So I checked to see if anyone had a contract to demolish them - remember the way All City Demolition was either burning or blowing up places they'd bid on to demolish, then all they had to do was clear up the debris? But neither one of these had been put out to tender yet."
Jim made a face. "So what we've got is an arsonist who is at least considerate enough to target derelict buildings? Never mind that he killed someone in the first one and had no way of knowing if there were squatters in the second."
"And the fire department didn't see anyone hanging around either time."
"When would they have time to look? They were concentrating on getting the damn fires out. Even the reporters had better things to do than chase up a fire in an empty building - they got their info from the fire department the next day. You can tell that from the size and style of the reports."
Blair gave a short, unamused laugh. "A few lines tucked away on a middle page. Even Flett's death only got a short paragraph, and probably wouldn't have been given even that much if we hadn't asked if someone could identify him."
"On the other hand, if there's another fire - and if this is a serial arsonist, there will be - the papers will start paying attention - "
"And the PD will come under fire - sorry, that wasn't meant as a pun - for not catching whoever it is."
"Ellison! Sandburg! My office!"
Simon Banks' voice greeted Jim and Blair when they were halfway between the bullpen door and their desks. With a quick glance at each other, they changed direction and headed for Simon's door.
They were barely inside his office before Simon said, "Our arsonist is upping the ante, gentlemen. It's a house this time."
"Deaths?" Jim asked.
Simon shook his head. "No, the neighbors told the fire department the owners are on vacation in Europe."
"They're in for a shock when they get home," Blair muttered.
"It's not as bad as it might have been," Simon said. "There wasn't actually much damage - just the front door." "Can we be sure it's the same guy?" Blair asked.
Simon nodded. "Same MO - a burning garbage can against the door. By sheer luck, the neighbors had been out for the evening and arrived home before the door had burned completely through. The wife phoned 911 while her husband tackled the fire - he had it under control before the fire department arrived. Anyway, you need to go and check the place and have a word with the neighbors."
There was a patrol car parked in the drive of the damaged house. They exchanged a few words with the cops in it before going on to look at the burned door.
"Nothing," Jim said. "I can smell burning, but that's all."
"Filter it out," Blair murmured.
"Nothing," Jim repeated. "I can smell the plants in the border, but that's..." He broke off, glancing around.
The burned-out garbage can lay on its side a short distance from the door, where it had probably been dragged by the firemen. Jim checked it, sniffing, then said quietly, "Gas. This was doused with gas to make sure it would burn well."
Blair frowned thoughtfully. "Two derelict buildings, and now a house where the occupants are on vacation. I wonder if the arsonist knew there was nobody at home, or if it was just sheer chance?"
"Whichever, Simon was right. This is escalating... but then this kind of thing usually does. Let's go and have a word with the neighbors."
The woman who answered the door was young, probably in her mid-to-late-twenties. "Mrs. Cooper?" Jim asked.
Jim held up his badge. "Detective Ellison, Cascade PD. This is my colleague, Detective Sandburg. I understand you alerted the emergency services last night about the fire next door."
"Oh - yes. Come in."
She took them into a comfortable-looking living room. "Coffee?" she asked.
"No, thanks. This won't take long. We'd like a word with your husband as well... "
"He's at work. The Cascade City Bank, head office." There was a faint note of pride in her voice that both men appreciated; if Mr. Cooper was the same age as his wife and already working in the head office of Cascade's biggest bank, his career prospects were very good.
"All right; we'll see him later. I understand you were out last night?"
"Yes. It was our third wedding anniversary, and we went for a meal to celebrate. We got back home around ten o'clock, and as we passed the Stark's house, Brian saw the door was burning. As soon as we turned into our driveway, Brian ran over to see what he could do, and I went into our house and phoned the fire department. Then I went back out to see if there was anything I could do to help Brian, but he'd already kicked the burning garbage can away from the door. I feel sorry for Henry and Zoe, but... Is it very selfish of me to say I'm glad it was their house, not ours? Do you suppose whoever started the fire has been watching to see which houses are empty just now?"
"It's possible," Blair said. "Did you see anyone hanging around when you went out?"
"No, but I wasn't paying much attention. And why someone would want to set fire to a stranger's house, I can't think," she went on.
"Vandals only want to cause trouble," Blair replied quietly. After a moment he went on, "You referred to your neighbors by their first names - you're on friendly terms with them, then?"
"Yes. They're a lot older - in their seventies, but very active - and when we moved in, they were so helpful... I'm an only child and my parents are both dead, and Brian's family moved to Baltimore four years ago, so we were on our own, and... well, the Starks have become almost surrogate parents." She gave a wry smile. "Though considering their age and ours, surrogate grandparents is probably more like it."
"When did they leave for their vacation?" Jim asked.
"Ten days ago."
"And have you any idea where they are?"
She shook her head. "Just that they were going to Europe. They didn't have any sort of itinerary; they started in London, but only planned to stay there for three or four days; after that they were just going to follow their noses, take whatever transport was convenient. They'd seen a program on TV called The Diceman, about a traveler who didn't have anything planned - each time he stopped somewhere he decided on several different possible destinations and rolled a dice to decide which one he'd go to. From what they said, they were planning on doing something like that. They won't be home for several weeks."
"You don't know if they have any enemies who might have been responsible?" Blair asked.
"Not as far as I know. They're not the kind of people who make enemies."
"Do they have any relatives we could contact? Someone will have to take responsibility for securing the house."
"I know they have a daughter in Seattle, but I don't know anything about her; just that her name is Yvonne. They never speak about her. I only know about her because I found Zoe crying one day a few months ago, really upset, and she said that it was her birthday, but she hadn't even had a card from her daughter, who was in Seattle. They never heard from her. Zoe admitted it was mostly their own fault - they hadn't approved of the man their daughter married, and had rather said 'We told you so' when the man ran into financial difficulties. But that was all she said.
"So even if you managed to contact the daughter, I doubt she'd have a key, or be interested in helping. There's a grandson who visits them occasionally - I think he lives in Cascade - but I don't know his name or where he lives. It doesn't matter. We'll see that the house is secure for them."
"They're lucky to have neighbors like you," Blair said.
Elaine Cooper smiled. "They'd do the same for us."
When they called at the Cascade City Bank to see Brian Cooper, they found that he couldn't add anything to what his wife had said. They had left their house about seven, had a leisurely meal, and arrived home a few minutes after ten, just in time to prevent the house next door being badly damaged by fire. He hadn't seen anyone anywhere around as they approached the house, and he'd already arranged for the door to be replaced.
As they returned to the station, both men were thoughtful.
"Three fires," Jim said as they settled at their desks. "Same MO, which hasn't been mentioned in the papers, so it has to be the same guy... yet he doesn't hang around to watch, either the buildings burning or the fire department at work... or even to see if the building actually has gone up in flames. What's his motive?"
"Maybe he just wants to annoy the police and the fire department," Blair suggested. "Maybe his house burned down and he thinks the fire department should have responded faster, and it was caused by vandalism so he blames the police for not stopping it."
Jim looked at him; opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He frowned thoughtfully. At last he said slowly, "It's possible, I suppose. But when you consider the number of house fires there are... Though if we discount all the ones caused by carelessness or electrical faults, things like that, there can't be many left that might have been caused by vandalism or a burglar setting fire to a house he's robbed, either accidentally or deliberately to cover his tracks."
"It would have to be fairly recent," Blair said. "These fires have all been in the last week. Someone who'd been brooding for a while over a wrong, real or imagined, wouldn't suddenly snap like that, would he?"
"He might... Though I'd expect someone who'd been brooding for a while might have passed the stage of actually acting on his 'wrongs', real or imagined."
"And would someone whose house had burned target another house?" Blair asked, suddenly doubtful of his own theory.
"You're the expert on people," Jim said. "Do you think he would?"
Blair sighed. "I wouldn't," he said. "Most people wouldn't. But yes, there are people who would happily do something like that. Spread the misery, you know?"
He turned to his computer, and quickly typed up his report, then as it printed he called up a map of Cascade and marked the position of the three fires. Three sites weren't enough to give a geographical profile - they needed at least two more for that - but they were enough to show that although the two destroyed warehouses were fairly close together, the Starks' house was in a totally different part of the city. Blair saved the marked map and turned his attention to a two-year-old cold case that he suspected could be linked to a recent high-profile murder in Oregon. As he began carefully compiling his facts, he realized that he was thinking more and more like a profiler. He was happy as Jim's partner... but might he be of more use to Simon, and the department, if he took a course on profiling? It might be worth discussing it with Jim and Simon.
Putting the idea out of his mind for the moment, he concentrated on reading the old report, occasionally scribbling a few words on the pad in front of him.
They were wakened by the phone ringing. As Jim pushed himself onto his elbow and reached for the phone, he saw that it was just after 4 am. "Ellison."
"We've got another warehouse fire, Jim." It was Simon. "On Phillips. It's the storage warehouse for Connolly's Radio and Television Supplies."
"On our way, Simon."
As Jim put the phone down, Blair, already swinging his legs out of bed, said, "What's happened?"
"Warehouse fire on Phillips."
"That's not a derelict area."
"It's the escalation thing again," Jim said.
Blair thought about it as he finished dressing. "I don't think geographical profiling is going to help us find this guy," he said. "This place, the Starks' house and the first two warehouses are too far apart. Whoever it is could know enough about geographical profiling to avoid his home area and scatter his fires, or he knows Cascade really well, and counts the entire city as his home territory."
They ran down the stairs. Jim tossed Blair his jacket and as he locked the door behind them, he said, "There can't be many people who know all of Cascade that well. Even cops or firemen or paramedics have their assigned beats depending on where they're based."
"Cab drivers," Blair said. "And nobody pays much attention to a cab cruising around. They're too much part of the background. Odds are that even if a witness saw a cab in the vicinity of one of these fires he wouldn't think to mention it. People only notice cabs if they want one."
Connolly's was one of a row of big warehouses. Only the back of it had been affected by the flames, although there was some smoke damage in the rest of the building. The garbage can, kicked clear of the building, still smelled strongly of gas.
The manager was already on the scene, but could offer no suggestions as to why this building should have been targeted.
"The insurance will cover the damage," he commented, "and when we start the repairs, I might even get Mr. Connolly to agree to some of the improvements to the layout I've been suggesting. He's resisted up till now because of the disruption it would cause. Short-term, of course, and in my opinion worth it for improved efficiency in the longer term. We'll have to have a fire sale to dispose of the undamaged items - they can't possibly be sold as new if there are smoke marks on the boxes. People tend to expect the boxes their goods are in to be in pristine condition even if all they're going to do is throw them out once they've emptied them - the thinking seems to be that if the box is damaged or marked in any way, what's inside might also be damaged. We'll lose some money, of course, but it could be a lot worse."
"When was the last time you increased your fire cover?" Jim asked, thinking back to the fire at Gershwin's Furniture.
"We increase it in line with inflation every year, but apart from that? About five years ago, I think it was."
Jim nodded, mentally crossing both Mr. Connolly and his manager off his list of suspects. An increase in fire cover in line with inflation made sense, and wouldn't net the firm a huge return.
As they went back to the truck, Blair said, "Correct me if I'm wrong, Jim, but aren't all these fires very close together, timewise? Don't serial criminals usually start off with a bit of a gap between their crimes? Here we've had four fires in less than a week."
"What's your point, Chief?"
"Just that our arsonist is a busy little firebug, and as far as we can tell isn't even staying around to watch either the fires or the fire department putting them out. Like you said - what's he getting out of it?"
"Apart from tying up fire department and police time?" Jim frowned thoughtfully. "I don't know. On the face of it, he hasn't been getting anything out of it, even newspaper reports. Though he'll certainly get that from this one."
"Could it be a cover for some other crime? While the cops patrolling the immediate area are involved with the fire, the arsonist is busy two streets away, breaking into the building that's his real target?"
"We could check that, certainly," Jim agreed as he unlocked the truck.
They drove back to the PD, where they checked for any major break-ins within a short distance of the three earlier fires, and came up blank.
"Well, it was an idea," Blair said as they finished going through the list of the most serious crimes in Cascade over the preceding week. "Just not a very good one."
"Just because it wasn't useful this time doesn't mean it was a bad idea," Jim told him. "Maybe the escalating fires are part of a plan - next fire or the one after to be a really big one, and that's the one he'll use as cover for his heist."
When they got home that night, having chosen to work until their normal finishing time - they could either claim overtime or ask for time in lieu on a day that suited them better - Blair said, "I'm going to try a spirit walk. I don't think it'll help - the fires seem to be a totally mundane crime - but it can't do any harm."
"Right," Jim said. "I was expecting that - I noticed you didn't have anything to eat today." Blair always fasted before he attempted a spirit walk; something he had done, with varying success, several times since Incacha passed 'the way of the shaman' on to him.
Jim helped Blair set out his candles before retreating to the kitchen to start preparing a meal that could be left simmering indefinitely, ready for when Blair surfaced. Once everything was heating nicely he went back into the living area where he could be close to Blair and keep an eye on him, and switched on the TV with the sound turned very low - not that it was necessary for him to remain quiet. Once Blair was 'under' he was aware of nothing in his immediate surroundings - which told Jim that Blair was better at being a shaman than he thought he was. What was it Naomi had said once? Blair had always believed that his best wasn't good enough; whatever he did, he always pushed himself to do better. Yes; Jim had seen that for himself, many times.
There was, Jim knew, a big difference between meditation, something Blair could do anywhere, and a spirit walk, where he was in danger of 'losing' himself inside his mind. He never tried a spirit walk when he was alone, although he had told Jim that he believed a more experienced shaman would have little hesitation in doing so. But Jim knew how very aware Blair was of being untrained, of picking up a shaman's skills by trial and error - although he had been fascinated by the work of shamans in the various tribes he had visited, it was a skill he had never considered for himself until he met Incacha. Jim didn't have to monitor him closely; he just had to be aware of Blair's 'mood', to bring him 'back' to the loft if for any reason he grew very agitated; or if he failed to 'waken' at the end of an hour.
Blair 'walked' out of the loft and, once he was in the street, looked around. To his surprise, he could feel a subtle 'pull', and followed it. At this time of year darkness fell quite early, but it was with some surprise that he saw the street lights were already shining, although it had still been daylight when they arrived home. He had taken longer than he'd thought to prepare for his spirit walk.
From habit he checked the road before he crossed it, although he knew that in this incorporeal state nothing physical could harm him, and moved, faster now, through the city streets. He soon realized he was being drawn towards Phillips Road, the site of the last fire. So... was the arsonist planning on torching another of the storage warehouses there?
His instinct - whatever it was that was pulling him forward - led him to the rear of the row of warehouses, which were all closed for the night.
The near-total darkness behind the buildings was no handicap to his spirit sight as he moved along. He passed Connolly's, noting that the doorway had been boarded up, and then, two buildings further on, he saw a human figure pulling a garbage bin against the door. He moved closer as the perp poured gas over the garbage, trying to get a good look at him - but the man had a scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face. All Blair could register was that he was well under average height - not more than five foot four, possibly less.
The perp struck a match, and tossed it onto the gas-soaked garbage; with a soft 'whoosh' the fumes caught fire. The man delayed only long enough to ensure that the contents of the bin had begun to burn before moving quickly away. Blair followed.
The man scrambled over the six-foot high fence separating the warehouse from the one next to it and ran along behind the next building, then paused to pull the scarf off his face and wrap it around his neck before walking briskly back to the road - and it was with a sense of considerable shock that Blair saw it was a woman. She checked the road to confirm that it was empty, then climbed over the gate, dropped lightly to the sidewalk, and set off briskly down the road.
He kept pace with her, unhampered by the barriers that the firebug had negotiated, imprinting her features on his memory. There was, he knew, nothing he could physically do about the burning garbage, but the warehouse's fire alarm would probably alert the fire department before too much damage was done, just as it had at Connolly's. In any case, even if he went straight home and told Jim, how could they possibly explain why he was there? Although they could always call it in anonymously...
The woman moved briskly past another two warehouses then turned into an entry where the gates stood open. A car was parked there; she got into the driver's seat and drove off without pausing to close the gates behind her. Blair noted the number of the car, and willed himself back to the loft.
Jim glanced at the clock. Fifty-three minutes. Blair had been very quiet during that time, unlike once or twice when he had been restless, clearly uneasy, and when he 'came out of it' had admitted to Jim that he had been frightened by something, although he didn't know what it was.
Then Blair's lowered head rose and he looked straight at Jim. "We're looking for a woman," he said. "She's just set another fire two or three warehouses from Connolly's."
Jim reached for the phone, punched in 911. "Fire at a warehouse on Phillips," he said, and hung up as Blair blew the candles out.
Blair's lips twitched. "The warehouse alarm might have already sounded, but that's as good a way as any of reporting it without having to explain how we know," he said.
"All right," Jim said. "A woman. Go on."
"She left in a car she'd parked another two or three buildings down the road; number 895 PXT. Hard to put an age to her, but I don't think she's young - I'd say she's possibly around the same age as Naomi. Five foot three or four, dark hair, slim build, with the kind of face it's not easy to describe - but I'll know her if I see her again. Despite her age, she was athletic enough to get over the fence between two of the warehouses relatively easily, and over a high gate. She didn't waste any time once she'd lit the fire, but she wasn't in the sort of hurry that makes mistakes; she clearly had everything well thought out beforehand."
"A woman close to fifty? That's not what I would have expected."
"I know. You'd normally expect it to be someone young, maybe an emotionally disturbed teenager, and almost certainly male."
"We can put out an APB on the car in the morning," Jim decided. "She's not likely to do anything more tonight."
Blair nodded, then said, "I wonder if there's a pattern here. Two derelict warehouses fairly close together, then a house where the owners were on vacation, in a totally different part of Cascade. Now two more warehouses close together, this time still in use... makes me wonder if her next target will be a house in another part of the city, and this time with the owners at home."
"You already commented," Jim said slowly, knowing he was repeating things they had already discussed, "on how close the fires are, time-wise. This sort of thing does escalate, and I would normally expect longer between the fires, especially in the early stages, when the perp is just starting his 'career'. But this is the fifth inside a week.
"And she isn't staying to watch at all; she lights her fires then - from what you saw tonight, from what we've surmised from the earlier fires - she leaves immediately. It might be that she's been disappointed at how little coverage the papers have given her earlier fires, so she's trying to get attention with the sheer number of fires she sets, but - as we've already asked - why? What for?"
"I didn't get any sense of... well, furtiveness from her," Blair said. "She was getting away from the area before the fire could possibly be detected, but anyone who actually saw her in the street wasn't going to be suspicious of her at all; she was just someone walking briskly along, but not obviously hurrying, and at that time in the evening could have been someone who'd worked late in one of the buildings and was now anxious to get home for her evening meal."
"Yes, and talking about evening meal - you must be hungry." He knew, as Blair did, that they must wait to be called to the scene of this latest fire; it would be strange if they arrived too quickly.
They ate quickly, however, not taking time to put the candles away, aware that it wouldn't be long before that call came. They were just finishing when the phone rang, and Jim picked it up. "Ellison."
It was Simon. "Another fire on Phillips," he said. "Someone phoned in an anonymous alert, and the fire department was already on its way before the warehouse alarm kicked in. This one is the storage warehouse for Myers Hardware."
"On our way," Jim said. As he put the phone down, he said, "You didn't see the name of the warehouse?"
Already heading for the door, Blair shook his head. "I was at the rear of the building; approached it from Connolly's and was one warehouse past it before the perp cut back to the street."
"It was Myers' Hardware."
Blair swung around, mouth dropping open. "Where Andrew Flett originally worked."
"I wonder if there's any connection?"
The fire had been caught early, and there was very little damage to most of the building. After checking it, Jim and Blair returned to the truck, and Blair directed Jim past three warehouses. "There," he said. "That's where the car was parked."
Jim stopped and went over to the entry. The gate stood open, the chain that would normally have held it locked shut cut by obviously heavy-duty metal clippers.
"You were right, Chief," Jim said. "This was carefully planned. It was early enough that nobody would have thought twice about an open gate - especially with a car standing there. Once she was away she wasn't going to care if someone was suspicious of the gate. It was far enough from Myers' that it's doubtful we'd have linked the cut chain with the fire, if you hadn't seen her."
"How do we know the number of the car? What excuse do we give for tracking it down?" Blair asked.
"We don't need to say it's linked - a tip-off about the car and a crime, any crime," Jim said. "We can worry later about how we knew."
They headed back to the loft.
As they went in, Blair yawned. "God, I'm tired!" he said.
"I'm not surprised. You've had a long day, and a spirit walk isn't something to take lightly either, is it?"
"I know, but I used to be able to pull twenty-hour days without any bother. I must be getting old."
"No, Chief, you'll never get old," Jim said affectionately. "As for the twenty-hour days - that wasn't day after day after day, because you had no choice, was it? I remember you saying once you had to set an alarm to remind you to go to bed because you were so intent on what you were studying. But almost any time you wanted an early - well, earlier - night, you could pack it in as soon as you began to feel tired. We've had a hard week, with all these fires, and no real chance of a respite."
"You're not exhausted, and you've had just as hard a week."
"I haven't included a spirit walk after going hungry all day." Jim glanced at the time. "In any case, it's time all good little shamans were in bed."
Blair yawned again. "I won't argue with you," he muttered, and stumbled off towards the bathroom.
When he came out again, Jim was waiting to help him undress and get into bed.
Blair was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow.
Jim watched him for a moment, then turned to put the candles back in the drawer and make sure everything was secure, make his own visit to the bathroom then went upstairs.
When they checked vehicle registration in the morning, it was to discover that 895 PXT had been reported stolen a week previously.
"Just in time for this woman to use it when she drove around setting fires," Jim said dryly.
"Or else it was her own - or her family's - car but she reported it stolen to give herself an alibi if anyone actually saw it near one of the fires and reported it," Blair said thoughtfully. "I think we need to have a word with the owner and his family. If one of them is the perp, I'll know her."
"Right," Jim said.
But the owner of the car turned out to be a thirty-year-old single man, and he was the sole driver of it.
"Have you found it?" Alan Fox asked hopefully. "Is that why you're here?"
"It's been seen," Jim said carefully. "Major Crime doesn't normally deal with car theft unless it's a carjacking; we were checking out a car that was seen near a crime scene we are investigating. We wanted to eliminate it from our enquiries, and it led us here. When exactly was it stolen?"
"Tuesday last week - around 8 pm. I admit I was stupid," Fox said. "I left the key in the ignition when I went to an ATM machine. I wasn't more than a minute, but of course my back was to the car, and by the time I turned, it was gone."
"You didn't hear the engine starting?" Jim asked.
"There was some traffic noise."
"Sounds as if it was a sheer opportunistic theft," Blair said.
Fox nodded agreement. "I just never thought. It's a fairly old car, only worth about two, three hundred dollars, not the sort of car you'd expect someone to steal, even for spare parts. But it's got... well, sentimental value - I inherited it when my father died eleven years ago. He'd had it for years; it was his pride and joy, and I've tried to look after it for him, though I can see the day coming when I can't get parts for it. I just hope I do get it back."
Expecting to be disturbed at some point in the early morning, Jim and Blair went to bed early. However, they were not disturbed.
Jim woke at his usual time, just before six. He checked the time then lay for some moments, thinking, before going downstairs and shaking Blair. "Time to wake up, Chief."
Blair rolled over to face Jim. "I didn't hear the phone."
"It's six," Jim said.
"No phone call."
"No phone call," Jim agreed.
"So no fire last night?"
Jim gave an unamused grim. "I'd doubt there weren't any fires last night," he said, "but it certainly looks as if there weren't any suspicious fires."
"But the last four have been one a night," Blair said. "And we're agreed that serial crimes escalate. Though it's hard to see how the arsonist can escalate more than that; the move would be from derelict buildings through empty ones that were in use to someplace inhabited."
"And yet we've now had a blank night," Jim said. "That's better than the alternative, but it's odd."
Alan Fox's car turned up two days later, in a quiet corner of a supermarket parking lot. Fox confirmed that the mileage had increased by only a little; the thief had driven it not more than a hundred miles during the week it had been missing.
"All right," Simon said when the report came in that the car had been found. "What makes you think this car was involved?"
"We... got a tip-off. Someone saw it on Phillips at about the time the Myers' fire started."
"Considering how deserted that area is after the warehouses close for the day... a very convenient tip-off," Simon commented. "Is this some sentinel thing?"
Jim and Blair glanced at each other. "More of a shaman thing," Blair said. "I went on a spirit walk the night of the last fire, and saw it - "
Simon gazed skywards for a moment. "That's even worse! A dying Chopek shaman passes 'the way of the shaman' to Sandburg and suddenly he can do all kinds of weird things. I can come up with rational explanations for a lot of the sentinel stuff, but how do I explain someone calling himself a shaman pulling answers out of thin air?"
"That's why we're saying a tip-off. We don't have to say who the snitch is," Jim said.
"What's more, I got a good look at the arsonist," Blair said. "It's a woman, about fifty; possibly five foot four, dark hair, no grey in it unless she dyes it. She's kept her figure, either through exercise, dieting or just plain good genetics - though I'd guess exercise comes into it; she was athletic enough to climb a high gate with no apparent effort. But I know that my seeing her under those circumstances is not admissible as evidence, so we'll have to find some other way of identifying her."
"Your convenient snitch gave you a description?" Simon suggested.
"Well, he saw the driver clearly enough to say it was a mature woman," Jim said. "That gives us cause to look for a woman as the car thief. Yes, I know we'll have to liaise with Traffic for that. Getting her for the arson will need careful questioning."
"So now another department's involved... Damn it, Jim, I wish we lived in a society where sentinels were generally known about and we had a regular Sentinel Department. I'd have to do a lot less tap dancing!"
It was hard to see how the fires could escalate any more - apart from the target becoming one where, as Blair had already suggested, loss of life could be expected. Jim agreed with his partner. He did anticipate an escalation to that sort of situation. Andrew Flett's death was probably accidental; the woman had undoubtedly thought the derelict building was empty. Indeed, Jim was surprised at the two-day gap since the last one.
Certainly the fact that they had found the car 'reported seen on Phillips by a snitch' could have temporarily halted the arson; the woman would presumably have to steal another car, since she was spreading her fires around Cascade. Meanwhile, after a short discussion with Captain Randolph of Traffic, Simon had claimed the case for Major Crime and promptly turned the car over to Forensics. The fingerprints found on and in the car mostly belonged to Alan Fox, but one or two didn't. However, when those were run through the fingerprint database, there was no match found. Whoever they belonged to had no police record.
"Unless there's a definite motive like insurance fraud, where someone sets fire to his own property, or to cover up a burglary or try to disguise a murder, arsonists are usually young men." Jim repeated the obvious when the negative result landed on his desk. "So what makes a fifty-year-old, previously law-abiding woman suddenly start setting fires?"
Blair looked up from the report he was reading. "Murder," he said thoughtfully. "Jim, maybe we're looking at this from the wrong angle. Maybe the first fire was deliberately set to kill Andrew Flett, and the later ones were red herrings, to draw our attention away from Flett and make us think the real crime is the arson. Then if she is caught, arson, even with the 'accidental' manslaughter of a homeless man sleeping in a derelict building, is likely to carry a far lighter sentence than the obvious murder of that same man."
Jim thought about it for a minute. "It's possible, but the cause of death was smoke inhalation. Unless he was unconscious, there was no certainty that he wouldn't waken and be able to escape."
"I suppose Dan did check for drugs in Flett's bloodstream?" Blair was checking through the folder about the arson cases as he spoke. He pulled out the autopsy report, glanced quickly down it and answered himself. "Yes, he did. No sign of drink or drugs in Flett's system, no sign of any injury." He replaced the report and sighed.
"Some people are very heavy sleepers," Jim said. "And if the man was, or had been, a smoker, he'd probably be less likely to become aware of the smell of smoke in the building, while a non-smoker, even one who was a heavy sleeper, might very well be wakened by it. But the word is still 'might'. A heavy sleeper can be very difficult to waken."
The anticipated continued escalation did not happen. Either the woman had changed her M.O. or - more unlikely - she was satisfied with setting five fires. Several days passed with no sign that any of the fires in the city, over that period, were suspicious. Certainly none of them started because of a burning garbage bin.
Wondering if the woman had simply moved on - although considering her apparent knowledge of Cascade, that seemed unlikely - Jim and Blair pushed the case into the background while they turned their attention to a more recent crime.
Two weeks after he died, with the death ruled as accidental, the result of a fire started by a person or persons unknown, Andrew Flett's body was released to his son.
"I think we should go to the funeral," Blair said when he saw the announcement of it in the morning paper.
Jim spared a moment from his preparation of breakfast to look thoughtfully at him. "Since the arson cases are ours, it would be good PR," he agreed before turning his attention back to the eggs he was scrambling. "It would show the family that we're not just dismissing him as a homeless victim who's not worth anything."
"Not just that," Blair said. "Five fires, but he's the only death. The perp's been careful to attack buildings that she had reason to believe would be empty; she might just come along out of a feeling of guilt that she did kill someone."
"Two buildings she had reason to believe would be empty," Jim said. "She might have known the Starks were on vacation, but how could she know that Connolly and Myers didn't have night watchmen? A lot of those firms do."
"Um. Okay, but night watchmen would be awake - or should be awake - and if she didn't know the Starks' house was empty, that fire was early enough that the occupants of the house probably wouldn't be in bed."
"True," Jim agreed as he served the eggs. "The house is the one that puzzles me, though. The other four fires were at buildings that were - or had been - business premises. Why hit that one house?"
Blair joined him at the table. "Any chance that the four business premises fires were started as red herrings to draw attention from the one house fire, which might have been personally motivated?"
"From what Mrs. Cooper said, the people who owned the house are elderly, were friendly and helpful; not the sort of people to made homicidal enemies," Jim said.
"I know, I know," Blair said impatiently. "Lack of motive... Lack of obvious motive."
"And that's what makes some crimes very difficult to solve," Jim murmured.
Two years previously, it would undoubtedly have been a very large funeral, attended by many of Myers' employees and customers; Andrew Flett had been well known and well respected. Now, the early morning funeral was very quiet; apart from Jim and Blair there were only a dozen or so people who had probably been the dead man's more loyal customers. David Flett was accompanied by a slightly younger man and a heavily veiled woman - presumably his brother and mother.
The service was short and simple. Afterwards, everyone else moved away from the graveside fairly quickly, almost as if they were glad that, having done their duty by the dead man, they could escape and forget him. Jim and Blair lingered, waiting at a respectful distance till the family finally turned away from the grave.
David Flett crossed to them. "Thank you for coming," he said quietly. He turned to his mother and brother, who had followed him. "Detectives Ellison and Sandburg. They're investigating the fire that killed Dad. Detectives, this is my mother, and my brother Malcolm."
"We're very sorry about Mr. Flett," Blair said. "As far as we can make out, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"There have been more fires, though?" David asked. "According to the papers... "
"Yes," Jim replied as they all turned to walk towards the nearby parking space. "There were several other suspicious fires that week that we believe are linked to the one that killed your father, although we don't know why those particular places were targeted, or why, after five fires inside a week, there have been no more."
"So you don't think you'll catch whoever it was?" Malcolm asked in the abrupt voice of someone only just managing to keep from openly breaking down.
"We do have a description of someone who was seen in the vicinity of one of the fires, but that doesn't help us much. If the arsonist had carried on, there would have been a good chance that sooner or later he'd have slipped up, made a mistake and been caught," Jim said. The look on his face told Blair that he was listening intently.
"Can't you publicize a... an artist's impression?" David asked. "See if anyone can identify him?"
"We could," Jim said, "but if he were to see it, it could be enough to make him run. In any case, sometimes fireraisers have no connection to the place that's been torched. They're... well, professional arsonists who know how to avoid being noticed. There was a case a year or two ago, where a man calling himself Prometheus was paid by businessmen to burn down their property - mainly an insurance scam. Prometheus did very nicely out of it and, because he had no direct link with the destroyed buildings, remained unsuspected for quite some time."
"Did you catch him?" David asked.
"Yes and no. We had a suspect, who was trapped in the last fire he set, and died."
"Playing with fire is... well, playing with fire," Blair said. "Dangerous. We're not fire's master; nobody is. At best it's a controlled wild animal that is forever searching for a way to escape. We can use it, but if we're not careful, it will destroy us."
Jim looked at David. "We're not letting this go," he said. "And we'll keep you informed."
They separated, the Fletts climbing into the funeral car and Jim and Blair getting into Blair's Volvo - a vehicle they had agreed was more suited to the occasion than Jim's truck.
Once inside, Jim glanced at the other car. Mrs. Flett was finally removing her veil. "Chief - have a look at Mrs. Flett," he said softly but urgently.
Blair did, and stiffened. "God, Jim - that's the woman I saw!"
"When we were speaking about the fires, I could tell she was uneasy, then her heart started really pounding when I said we had a description. It calmed down again when I said 'he'."
"So what do we do?" He indicated the cars that were beginning to arrive for another funeral. "This isn't really the place or time to arrest her, is it?"
The Fletts' car moved off, and Blair started the Volvo. "There are her sons to consider," Jim agreed.
"You don't think they know, do you?" Blair asked as he set off following the other car, quickly dropping back once they were on the main road to allow several other cars to overtake and hide the Volvo from the Fletts, should one of them look back.
"No. David certainly doesn't - he's too anxious for us to find whoever was responsible - and Malcolm? I don't think so. He seemed to be genuinely grieving. But it could explain why there were five fires, then nothing; she and Malcolm live in Seattle. If she was on vacation for a week, came here without letting David know... or Malcolm, in case he said anything to his brother... "
Blair frowned. "That would argue premeditation, wouldn't it."
"Yes. And I wonder why. The whole failed business thing, with the bank repossessing everything, blew up eighteen months ago, but she'd walked out a good year before that."
Both men fell silent, thinking, as Blair continued to follow the other car. It went to David Flett's apartment, and Blair drove on past as mother and sons crossed the sidewalk to the building. He drove on another block before turning and parking facing back the way they had come. "I don't suppose they'll come out again today," he said, "but it doesn't hurt to keep watching."
"What's the link?" Jim muttered, frustration in his voice. "I can see why she tried to destroy Myers' warehouse; a sort of twisted revenge because Myers was successful and her husband's business failed. I can even see why she torched the building Flett had used; that was destroying the outward evidence of his failure. But why the other three?"
"I already suggested that the other two warehouses might have been set to muddy the waters, confuse the issue, disguise the connection between Flett and Myers," Blair said. "The house is the odd one out... Unless... "
"It's a reach, but... Mrs. Cooper said the Starks' daughter didn't have any contact with them... and she lived in Seattle."
"They didn't approve of their son-in-law..." Jim remembered.
"Who ran into financial difficulties," Blair said.
"And there was a grandson in Cascade," Jim added. "Could be coincidence... "
"The fire at the Starks' never made the papers because there was no damage," Blair went on. "Jim, I think it's worth checking with David if the Starks are his grandparents. But if they are... and Mrs. Flett tried to burn the house... Even if she wasn't on speaking terms with her parents - why try to burn their house?"
"They were unsympathetic when her husband ran into financial difficulties," Jim said.
They looked at each other. "She's waited until now to make it look less obvious that she was planning some sort of revenge?" Blair suggested.
"And if Andrew Flett hadn't died, she'd have been safely back in Seattle, with nothing much to draw her back to Cascade. It would have been pretty well impossible to catch her."
"All right," Blair said. "Why do we want to question her?"
"We have the 'description' that fits her," Jim reminded him. He glanced at his watch. "Right, they've had time to take off their coats and get themselves a cup of coffee. Let's go."
Blair drove the short distance to David Flett's apartment block, unblushingly driving into the area reserved for tenants' parking.
"What was his apartment number again?" Jim asked as they entered the building.
"Five thirty," Blair said, heading for the elevator.
At number five thirty, Blair knocked; David Flett came to the door.
"Detective Sandburg!" he exclaimed. "What... "
"I'm sorry to bother you, today of all days, but can you tell us... What's your mother's maiden name?"
David looked puzzled. "Mom's maiden name? Stark. Yvonne Stark."
Blair closed his eyes and let out a long breath. "Can we have a word with her, please?"
"Yes, of course. Come in."
He let them into a comfortable living room, where his mother and brother were sitting, cups of coffee on small tables beside them and a plate of cookies to hand. "Mom, Detective Sandburg would like a word."
She looked up. "Yes - yes, of course."
"Why did you try to burn down your parents' house?" Blair asked bluntly.
Her mouth dropped open. "How... How did you know? How... how could you know?"
"What is this?" There was anger in David Flett's voice.
"I'm sorry," Blair said again. "We saw your mother taking off her veil once she was into the car, and the description we had... It fitted her. One of the fires - caught by neighbors before it had time to do any damage - was at a private house. The neighbor told us that the people who lived there - Henry and Zoe Stark - had an estranged daughter in Seattle and a grandson in Cascade, but they didn't know his name." He shook his head. "We hoped - we really hoped we were wrong."
David swung round to look at his mother. "What did you do? Mom, what did you do?"
"They deserved it!" she said, her voice quivering. "They had the money, but Dad refused to help when Andrew needed financial backing. If Andrew had had more money behind him - "
"Dad was a good manager for someone else, but he didn't have the - well, ruthlessness he needed to be a good business owner," Malcolm said.
"He wasn't given a fair chance!" Yvonne Flett exclaimed. "The CEO at Myers didn't give him a chance! Myers told all the suppliers that if they gave Andrew good terms, good discounts, he would take all his business elsewhere! Keeping his custom made more sense to them than dealing with small businesses - Myers had done it before, to let him buy out any competition cheaply!"
"How can you know that?" David asked. "No small business just starting up will ever get the same conditions and advantages the big ones do."
"One of the suppliers let your Dad know that was why they wouldn't give him credit. But even knowing that, Andrew was stubborn; said he wouldn't let Myers frighten him off. In the end, it didn't make any difference."
"Was that why you torched Myers' warehouse?" Blair asked.
"What about the other fires? The first one, for example?"
"I just wanted to destroy the place that cost us everything," she said, and her voice had lost any animation it had held. "I didn't know Andrew was in there. How could I know? He knew where David lives, he knew where Malcolm and I live - he could have come to us, but he didn't... I thought he'd decided to abandon us."
"And the other two? Were they just meant to mislead us?" Blair's voice was sympathetic.
Blair looked at David Flett. "I'm really sorry," he said quietly, then turned to the woman. "Yvonne Flett, you are under arrest... "
"I feel sorry for David and Malcolm," Jim said as Blair finished typing up a report that leaned heavily on information from an unnamed snitch. The fact that Yvonne Flett had admitted everything, even after David contacted his lawyer to represent her, simplified matters considerably. She was pleading temporary insanity, and it seemed probable that her plea would be accepted.
"I know," Blair said. "It must be hell for them, knowing that their mother killed their father, no matter how accidentally. Revenge... I don't really understand how anyone could go out looking for revenge like that... "
"I know," Jim agreed. "There's far too much chance of someone innocent being harmed. You did good on this one, you know."
"Yeah. That the report finished? Then let's get it in to Simon, and head off. It's past our time for going home, and I'm hungry."
Blair grinned at him. "Okay." He crossed to Simon's office, left the report, and side by side the partners left the bullpen.