5 • Fire
Barbara broke a long silence from the dashboard, ordering Will to take a left in .6 miles. He considered taking a right to spite her—and Mad Dog—but thought how far he was already from his warm bed. He slowed and took his left off the highway, dutifully following Barbara’s guidance to their destination.
Will parked his truck at the curb and got out. He spread the paperwork on the hood to brief himself on the details, then looked up at the house. Story and a half, 1930s construction. White paint peeled off aged wood slat siding. Black window trim, mostly chipped away. The downspouts were unhooked from the gutter and from the ground he could see vegetation peeking up over the top of the eaves troughs. Unless a house burned down entirely, it wasn’t always noticeable from the street that anything at all had happened, and this house, in the waning sunlight, just looked tired, not burned out. Will walked around to the right and saw the back end of the house, an addition, was blackened. A hole gaped in the roof where firefighters broke through to extinguish the flames. Smoke still curled out from the smoldering attic, barely visible against the dusk sky.
Then he heard the growl.
“Mongrel at 11:00, Phillips.” Mad Dog issued a quiet warning from the cab in code, as though otherwise the brown and black boxer would comprehend. Will stood still, looking from the corner of his eye. A dog charged off the front porch from his left, barking and snarling. By now he should know better, but in all his years of onsite visits, he rarely remembered to check for dogs before exiting his vehicle. Will kept his face toward the back of the house. This was his way. If a dog approached friendly, he sweet-talked and crouched down to pet it. If it came aggressive, he ignored it. Or at least he wanted the dog to believe it was being ignored. But he was always ready to move.
The dog did not slow and from his sideways glance Will could see the scruff on its neck up and angry slobber hanging from its loose mouth. He was about to jump to the side when the dog jerked back with a yelp, reaching the end of a rope tethering it to the porch and sprawling onto its back; then it jumped back up and strained at the end of the rope, barking and showing yellow teeth.
Will relaxed. “You’re fine, old fella. Settle down. I’m one of the good guys.”
He stepped back off the curb and onto the street in a good-faith show for the dog. A woman came from behind the house, brushing uncombed blonde hair from her face.
“Mitzi! Quiet!” She yanked the rope and kicked the dog lightly in the backside to send it back to the house. “Get on out of here.” She looked at Will, then Mad Dog. “Damned dog is just a cupcake, really. But she puts on a pretty good show. I’m Nina. This is my boyfriend’s house, but he’s working.”
Mad Dog stuck his hand out the pickup window to shake the woman’s hand. Her eyes were puffy under narrow glasses with green frames, her stained V-neck cotton shirt not quite enough to contain all of her. An ample behind slipped out from under her cut-off denim shorts. Will noticed her hands were blackened and her cheeks lined. She’d been in the house looking for her valuables, with mixed success, no doubt.
“I’m Mike, ” Mad Dog said. “You’d better put your dog away while we’re here, Ma’am. My friend Willy is afraid of dogs. Probably wet himself already.” He grinned and winked at Will from his seat behind the car door.
Will had a rule about never arguing with his partner in front of a customer, but Mike Delaney had no qualms about saying whatever crossed his mind, and so he often found himself at the wrong end of Mad Dog’s jokes. He looked at his feet and clenched his jaw, then stepped up on the curb, strutted over to Nina and introduced himself.
He shook her hand and gave her his business card, taking over the conversation even though this job was Mad Dog’s and Will was only along as the extra hand this time.
“Don’t mind my assistant, ” he shook her hand and gave her his business card. “He’s just going to tag along to see if he can learn a thing or two. Listen, I’m sorry for the situation here. I know it’s hard. Let’s go around back and get a look at things so we can get you back on your feet.”
Will followed Nina around the house, but not without a quick turn and grin at Mad Dog, still eyeing Nina’s Boxer on the front porch from his seat in the cab. He got out and jogged a few steps to keep up.
The yard was short, narrow. An alley cut across the back. There was no car. The grass had been cut, but from the looks of the weeds along the fence line the trimming was rarely done. Three children—one boy, two girls, probably between 4 and 8—sat in webbed lawn chairs in a row along the garage by the alley. Three pairs of bright colored Crocs hung from their feet, none of them reaching the ground. They wore stained T-shirts, dirty faces, and up-from-bed lopsided hair. Each had a slice of pizza from a box in front of them on the ground and traded sips from a single plastic bottle of Pepsi they passed between them. None of them spoke, even to each other. Will smiled in their direction. They looked down at their Crocs in unison.
Will turned back to Nina. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“The Red Cross is putting us up at the Super 8 tonight. After that I just don’t know. My mom will take the older two kids to their dad’s in the morning. But I don’t have anywhere to send Lucy Mae. She’ll have to stay with me and Justin.”
Nina looked toward the children along the garage and pulled at the elastic of her watchband, twisting it around her index finger.
“Is Justin going to meet us?” Will asked. “And what about Pamela? The policy is issued to Justin and Pamela.”
“Pamela is Justin’s ex. The divorce isn’t final but she’s long gone. Justin works long hours. He won’t be here until late.”
“How long have you been with him?”
Nina pushed her hands through her hair from her temples to the back, holding the tangled mess of blonde into a makeshift ponytail.
“Five months. Maybe four.”
“Alright, ” he said, writing in a small black notebook he’d pulled from his pocket. “Let’s get to work. Tell me what happened.”
“What happened? What the hell kind of question is that? My effing house burned down is what happened.”
Will looked up from his notebook. Nina was staring up at the charred rafters exposed in the open roof, hands on her hips, defiance set in her clenched jaw. He knew without knowing that the dark shadows under her eyes didn’t come from a house fire on a clear afternoon in May. He wanted to brush her blonde tangles away from her cheek.
He pushed his right hand into the pocket of his khakis and took two steps toward the house, away from Nina.
“Let’s try this a different way, ” he said. “Why don’t you just tell me about your day.”
Nina laced her fingers behind her neck. “I’m sorry, ” she said. “You probably see this all the time. I’m still in a little shock, I guess.” She picked up a lawn chair from the ground and opened it, offering it to Will. “Do you want to sit down?”
“No, I’m fine. But maybe you could use a break.”
“Hey, you kids!” she shouted, turning suddenly toward the garage. “Get off those chairs and bring them here for the insurance guys. Right now!”
“Nina. Really, I’m fine. I move around a lot anyway.”
The two older children sat still in their chairs. The smallest, with soft red curls, got up and dragged her chair across the lawn, stumbling once. She stopped in front of Mad Dog, let go of the chair, and scampered behind Nina, peeking out from around her leg. Mad Dog opened the chair and sat.
Will leaned against a section of the deck that was not burned, legs stretched out in front of him. He slipped his pencil behind his ear and closed his notebook, putting it into his shirt pocket.
“Okay then? I’m not even taking notes. Just tell me about your day. Start with breakfast.”
Nina sat down hard on her chair. The webbing was broken in spots, and her fleshy legs pushed out through the bottom. Lucy Mae crawled into her lap.
“Well, I got up at 7. Justin was already gone for work. He works a lot.” She rubbed her eye, smearing more soot on her cheek. “I came downstairs and started the coffeemaker, then went out to the deck for a cigarette. Justin doesn’t like me to smoke in the house, you know? I use that coffee can in the corner for the butts so they don’t make a mess.” She waved a hand toward the deck. Will spotted a black can in the corner, tipped on its side. If he had to guess, he’d say the fire started in that corner. The burn damage seemed to be the worst there, siding burned off and stud walls exposed and charred in both directions. The deck floor and rails were burned away in that corner and the windows were shattered.
“Okay. What did you do with your cigarette before you went into the house?”
“I put it out in the can. Like I always do.”
“I went inside. Had coffee. Brushed my teeth. Got dressed.”
Nina pulled at her watchband again. “Then I watched TV until the kids got up. Then I fixed them lunch.”
“Did you use the stove?”
“No. They ate peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips.”
“Okay. After lunch?”
“After lunch I cleared the dishes and sent the kids outside. I sat on the deck and had another cigarette. They started begging me to take them to the park and they were making me nuts. So I put my cigarette in the can and told Lucy Mae to get me Mitzi’s leash. I hooked up the dog and we walked to the park. We were there for an hour, maybe, and then came back. The house was on fire when we got here. I screamed and told the kids to go to the neighbor’s. I called 911 on my phone, and then Justin.” Nina was crying now. “I tried to get in but there was too much smoke. There was just too much goddamned smoke.”
Will didn’t speak. He took out his notebook and started writing, letting Nina gather herself.
Mad Dog broke the silence. “Your cigarette, Ma’am. Do you remember if you put it out?”
This was the thing about Mad Dog. The question surely had to be asked. But not yet. Another 30 seconds or so would not derail the investigation. But nuance was a quality Mad Dog had in short supply. Will shot a glare at him sitting imperiously in Lucy Mae’s lawn chair and returned to writing, to distance himself from his partner’s poor sense of timing.
Nina sniffled and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Will pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Thanks, ” Nina said, and dabbed at her eyes with the blue and red plaid cotton square. “I don’t know. That’s the thing. I thought I put it out in the can. But maybe I didn’t? Maybe I hurried too much and missed the can and didn’t notice. The kids were making me crazy. Maybe… Maybe.”
“Where was Justin?” Mad Dog asked.
“He was at work, ” Nina said. “He works a lot.”
Mad Dog leaned back in his chair, arms folded over his chest, and looked from Nina to the house and back again.
“I know what you’re thinking, ” Nina said, her voice suddenly high. “Fat lazy bitch burned her house down. It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t.”
Mad Dog got up and stepped toward Nina. “No, no. I wasn’t thinking that at all.”
Will needed a diversion. He’d seen Mad Dog try to talk his way out of his shit holes before. He didn’t know how to talk to women, always handling them like they were only good in the kitchen or his bed.
“Hey Mike, ” he said. “Run to the truck and grab the gear. Let’s go ahead and get the damages scoped.”
“Sure thing, Phillips.” Mad Dog jogged toward the front of the house. He was crass, yes. But he wasn’t stupid.
“Listen, Nina, ” Will said. “If you want to take the kids to the hotel, maybe they could play in the pool a while and you can relax. I’ll call you when we get what we need here and we can go over a few things. Do you want me to drive you?”
Nina wiped a hand across her forehead. “No, it’s just a couple of blocks past the park. We’ll walk. You’ll call me, right?” She was used to this, guys like Mad Dog thinking they knew all about her life, seeing her in the most stark, simplistic terms.
“Yes. I’ll call you. Promise.”
She yelled for her kids, with a tired voice, and walked down the alley as Mad Dog came back around the house. “Thanks for getting her to move along, Phillips. Thought she was coming for me, ” he said. “It’s so much easier to work without the homeowner underfoot anyway.”
He handed Will his phone. “Your phone was ringing when I got to the cab. Looks like you missed a call from your Grandpa Joe.”
(to be continued)