One hour later he was standing next to the high school study cabin, wondering if he’d ever get that smell—charred wood, burned flesh, and the cloying stink of gasoline—out of his head.
He remembered the cabin from times he’d had to deal with kids messing around close by. Smoking dope. Drinking. Screwing. Doing all the kid things they thought they could get away with out in the woods. The place had been there a good thirty or forty years. Vern had gone a couple of times at school—study visits only, not that he was into nature much. The building was fashioned after someone’s idea of an old-style wooden lodge. Heavy timber planking, big entrance door, just one window and that had bars all over it to stop intruders stealing some of the art supplies and science equipment the teachers left inside.
Now it was hard to imagine what it had been like at all. There was just a low, crooked skeleton of blackened timber stumps, smoking away. The fire crew said they’d found the window grate on the ground, still padlocked. There was a chain and another lock through what was left of the door. From what it looked like, someone had trapped whoever was inside, spread gas all around the parched grass and tinder-dry timber, then set the place ablaze.
The hut was tucked away in a seldom-visited part of the wood beside the lake. No one but the school used the place, and it being a Saturday it was odd anyone was here at all. No tire tracks on the shingle. Just a couple of mountain bikes thrown on the ground next to some trees, one newish and it looked like a woman’s, the other older and probably a kid’s.
The fire department had taken down what was left of the burned timber walls. Men in heavy work gear were tiptoeing among the foam and debris, not looking too hard at what they were stamping through. Sweating like pigs in all that clothing, Miller guessed. And maybe over more than the heat. In the center of the devastated cabin he could make out two charred corpses crouched in contorted agony, both so badly burned you couldn’t tell if they were young or old, male or female. Human either, really. Miller took it all in, silent, thinking, and knew in his gut this was going to be the worst thing he’d ever had to deal with in all his years as a Prosper cop.
‘What the hell do I do?’ he said to no one in particular.
‘Won’t be your job for long,’ someone said. ‘They can’t let small-town cops handle a thing like this. Wouldn’t be surprised if the State don’t wash their hands and pick up the phone to the Feds.’
‘You’re a detective now?’
The fireman glared at him. He was mid-thirties, foreign-looking face covered in smoke, eyes wet with tears from the fire.
‘No. Just seen this kind of thing before. Have you?’
‘Everyone’s a smartass around here, aren’t they?’ Miller snapped straight back.
It was only later, after the crazy case came to a strange end, that he realized who’d made that remark. Jorge Rodriguez. Two years living in town, which made him a rank outsider, kicked out by the fire department the following week after a fight with his wife wound up at work. Supposedly, Rodriguez had locked his victims in the shack that morning, set the deadly fire around them, then reported for his shift like nothing had happened. Seemed odd that the perp should have been asking for the Feds to turn up with all their science and clever college investigators. Odd, too, that he’d gone back to stare at his handiwork, tears in his eyes, which maybe weren’t all down to smoke.
But then ‘odd’ was a word that was never far away when it came to events that July Saturday down Mohawk Lake.
If this thing was as bad as it looked—two people murdered in a blaze that was going to leave little in the way of evidence—Rodriguez was probably right. Miller was no fool. He appreciated right away that he was out of his depth, and that how he responded to this catastrophe might well affect his future. The Council and a few of the men who thought of themselves as town elders had been asking when he was retiring. He was getting old, getting crabby. Or crabbier, to be precise.
There was also the problem of how to proceed in the brief time he had before the outside teams started to show. With a road accident, and there’d been a good few of those, it wasn’t hard to find the relatives or parents. He could call in his three deputies, though all were off duty and two were probably close to drunk in Reggie’s Sports Bar by then. The four of them would work the phones, scrape the place for IDs, start the slow process of putting a name to those charred bones and burned flesh. Maybe they belonged to someone he knew already, Prosper being that kind of place.
But Miller had stared hard at those two incinerated shapes and realized there wasn’t a chance he was going to get a shred of anything there. That meant he had no way he could break the news to the bereaved, to wait for the shrieks, the tears, the denials, then offer to make a cup of coffee or find some booze. Which was his job and always had been. The first thing a cop like him did when faced with sudden death. To be denied that opportunity left him thinking there weren’t just relatives out there facing a loss that day. His position, his standing in the small upstate town, was on the line as well.
Standing by the burned-out shack, smoke and worse in his nostrils, Fred Miller wondered if he was going to throw up. Before the year was through he’d be out of a job, trying to get by on his pension with some night-time security work for a grocery store chain twenty miles away in Burnsville. The lack of money wouldn’t trouble Miller too much. He was a bachelor, tending to find women more trouble than the enjoyment they handed back in return. The loss of status in the only job and the only town he’d ever known… that was different.
Something—the shack, the ground, the world—began to shift beneath him. It was as if an earthquake was rising up from beneath the hard, burned earth to shake Mohawk Lake and everything around. Before he knew it Miller found himself on the ground, arms flapping, head spinning, warm vile puke coming out of his mouth, spitting it straight and desperate at the dark and sooty soil because he sure as hell didn’t want it on his uniform.
He was rolling in the black and smoky filth, couldn’t get upright, couldn’t stop thinking all these fire guys had given up looking at the cabin and its corpses and were staring straight at him instead.
Strong arms came and pulled him to his feet. Another one of the firemen. Steve. That was his name. He couldn’t remember the rest. Names were getting hard. Someone, somewhere was laughing, and a voice in Miller’s head whispered: They’ll be talking about this in town before the night’s out.
Along with all the rest of the gossip.
Chief Miller fainted and threw up.
What kind of cop does that?
Jesus… No wonder they want him out.
Steve looked him up and down and said, ‘You OK?’
‘We all done it. No need to be ashamed.’
‘Like that helped,’ Miller growled.
‘You know we had to call Albany. When it’s a crime like this—’
‘I do crime.’
‘Yeah, but. I mean… it’s way beyond us. You understand that, don’t you?’
‘I do crime. When they give me the chance.’
‘Sure. When they show, can you give them this?’
Steve had something in his gloved hand, was holding it out to shine in the bright summer sun. A woman’s necklace, silver heart-shaped pendant on a chain, everything stained by smoke and fire. Someone had rubbed off the soot so you could see what was engraved in a crude script that almost looked homemade: To Mia. Always and forever.
‘Forever don’t last long,’ Miller said, then pulled himself together as best he could, took a tissue from his pocket and a plastic evidence bag, placed the necklace carefully in there. The firefighter was wearing gloves. That was something anyway. ‘Where’d you get it?’
The guy nodded to a stand of trees close to a small clearing. There was a picnic table and some wooden seating next to it. Hunched over on a bench was someone Fred Miller had known since he was a kid at school alongside Vern. Jackson Wynn, wearing a park ranger uniform, kneading his felt hat in nervous hands, glancing in their direction.
‘Jackson called us.’
Steve shrugged and wiped some grime and sweat from his face with the back of a gloved hand.
‘He was holding that thing. Started wailing like a baby the moment I opened my mouth and asked him about it.’
Miller had had words with Jackson Wynn a good many times over the years. When he was a student at Lafayette High and people said he was trying to peek into the girls’ changing rooms. Later, when a couple of families thought he was stealing underwear from clotheslines out among the new houses on the edge of town. Not so long ago, after someone complained he was trying to take pictures with his shiny new phone, sticking it under women’s skirts.
Some of the older brats used to yell ‘Got your rocks off yet, Jackson?’ when they saw him around town. He lived on his own now his mom was dead, in a rundown shack off Madison that had all kinds of junk—sinks and old bicycles and a rusting Ford that was going nowhere—on what passed as a front lawn. The town had set him up with a park service job, which was ten percent sympathy and the rest a desire to get him off the street. No one wanted to see him hanging around with his long miserable face gawking at anything in a dress.
Miller pulled out his pocket tape recorder. Mia. There was only one woman he could think of with that name. A pretty one too, recently turned up at Lafayette High. So she’d know about the cabin for sure.
‘I’ll talk to him.’
Molly could type out the transcript later. Once she stopped sobbing. Because a thing like this…
He gagged. The sick came up again. He spat up what bile was left onto the black burned ground.
A thing like this wouldn’t go away easy at all.