Igniting Vic, On Call, Book Eight
The smell hits me seconds before my eyes recognize the unmistakable outline of a body.
Or what is left of one.
I freeze in my tracks.
The call came through an hour ago; fire at the Oxbow Motel on the north side of town. Unfortunately, it took us fifteen minutes longer than the five minutes it should’ve taken us to get there. Right off the bat we ran into gridlock on the bridge across the Animas River. A delivery truck driver thought he could beat the Cascade Canyon Express—the steam-engine train running between Durango and Silverton—and tragically miscalculated. The scene was chaos and although no one appeared to be seriously injured, the truck’s load was strewn across the bridge and blocked the railroad tracks.
Normally, that would’ve been our call since Station 3 is just down the road, but because we were already geared up and on our way to the Oxbow Motel, dispatch called in Station 2 to deal with the mess on the bridge, and we rerouted, navigating the backroads to get to the Oxbow.
The fire had already done tremendous damage to most of the sixteen rooms on the north side of the motel when we arrived, and it was encroaching on the office bisecting the two wings. Three Durango PD cruisers were blocking off the road and what looked like a group of guests who were standing on the sidewalk, held back by one of the officers. Two other uniforms were trying to round up the few idiots still trying to pull their belongings from the burning units.
When the crew from Station 6 up in Hermosa showed up a few minutes later with an engine and a tanker, Hog and I were sent to clear the units on the other side. Hog did the main floor while I darted up the stairs to the second floor.
As soon as I hit the gallery, I noticed a thin trail of smoke filtering out of the window of the third room down. I wondered if the fire had traveled through the ceiling from the other side or whether this was a separate source. It’s not uncommon for flames to move unseen between floors, or through an attic space, only to flare up in a hot spot away from the origin of the fire.
But there were no flames visible when I broke down the door and just the bed was smoldering, which was the source of the smoke.
The only source.
Whatever caused the fire on the bed looks to have burned itself out.
Unfortunately, too late for this poor soul, but judging from the chains anchoring the body to the bed, it may have already been too late when that fire alarm went off.
A dripping sound draws my attention to the edge of the bedcovers hanging down the side of the mattress. They look drenched, the next drop of water already falling to the puddle forming on the carpet below.
Someone put that fire out.
My eyes dart to the bathroom and find the door wide open. Empty. Then my gaze slides to the window, which is also open. Right below in front of the air-conditioning unit is a large, five-gallon bucket tipped over on its side.
I’m not sure what the hell is going on here, but it’s not good.
“Are you clear?”
I jump in my boots as Hog taps my shoulder and steps around me into the room.
“Fuck me, is that…”
When he starts moving to the bed, I pull him back.
“Don’t,” I warn him. “We need the boys in blue in here.”
My radio is already in my hand.
“Cap, come in.”
The unit crackles in my ear before my fire captain’s voice comes through.
“Vic. You all clear?”
“Negative. Got a body up in unit nine.”
“What do you mean?”
“You should probably send up the law.”
I hear a muffled curse as he realizes what I’m saying and then he’s back.
“Back out of the room and don’t fucking touch anything,” he snaps unnecessarily, since I’m already pulling Hog out the door and onto the gallery.
“Jesus…” Hog mutters, wiping a hand over his face. “That’s something I won’t be able to unsee.”
My thoughts exactly. Already my stomach is starting to churn as I try to process the scene I just witnessed, and I grab the gallery railing behind me for stability. Closing my eyes, I inhale deeply, trying to force the scent of death from my lungs and nose.
Unfortunately, in this line of work, we’re intimately acquainted with the many faces of death, but never in my nearly twenty years on the job have I seen anything like the horror in that room.
I turn my head when I hear someone coming up the steel stairs and see one of the patrol officers hurry toward us. He looks cocky, self-important, and young enough to be my kid. I don’t need to be a genius to know what’s going to happen next.
“I wouldn’t—” I start but, as expected, am ignored as he barges past us and leans into the doorway.
I glance over at Hog, who doesn’t even try to stop him and simply shakes his head.
The kid doesn’t even make more than a step into the room before he backs out, looking a little green around the gills. I wonder if he’ll be able to keep his cookies down, God knows I’m having a hard enough time.
After making sure the young officer is going to be okay guarding the door, Hog says he’ll finish checking the other units and sends me down to wait for the investigating officer to get here.
My eyes are focused on my boots as I come down the stairs, so I don’t see the collision coming. Strong hands grab my arms as I run square into a solid mass.
“Are you all right?”
No, I’m not, and the last person I want to be dealing with right now is Lance Bruner. I try to twist loose and move around him, but he holds on fast. It shouldn’t be a surprise since he has a history of putting his hands where they aren’t invited. In particular, on me.
“I’m fine, you can let go now,” I hiss through my teeth, pissed he was able to blindside me.
I didn’t know he was back in town and on the crew at Station 6, or I would’ve kept my eyes open. I had no idea he transferred back to Durango.
Four years ago, I worked with this man at Station 16 north of Hermosa and made the mistake of finally giving in to months of his dogged pursuit to go out to dinner with him. I’ll admit, I was flattered at first by the way he showered me with attention, but even after only a month of dating, I realized what I’d seen as affection was instead obsession. I broke it off but, apparently, ‘no’ was not part of his vocabulary.
It still isn’t, judging by the way one of his hands holds me firm while the other rubs up and down my arm, giving me shivers.
“I heard what happened and wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“Let go, Lance,” I snap.
“Everything all right here?”
Detective Bill Evans stops a few feet away, his feet spread and arms crossed over his chest. He clearly picks up on the tense situation and I’m as embarrassed as I am relieved.
The moment Lance hears the gruff voice behind him, he drops his hands and steps back, turning to Evans with a big smile on his face.
“Hey, Bill, how are you?” he says jovially.
Of course, he’s just one of the guys, or so he’d like you to believe. I know he likes to hang out at The Irish, the favorite local hangout for first responders, fraternizing with the boys. One of the reasons I avoid the pub like the plague. They probably play darts together or something.
Still shaky from the gruesome discovery upstairs, and knowing this will end as every other similar incident has in the past—with Lance clapping shoulders and me dismissed as overreacting—I’m about to walk off when the detective’s comment stops me.
“Excuse me, I’ll need to speak with Firefighter Paige. In private,” he adds sharply before turning to face me, effectively dismissing Lance.
I’m not prepared for the look of warm concern I see in his normally cool blue eyes.
It wasn’t difficult to interpret the situation I walked in on.
Body language rarely lies, and besides, I know Bruner’s type. I’ve heard his off-color comments around The Irish and at times when I bump into him at a call.
Fortunately, he takes the hint I don’t want or need him around, and with one last look at Vic—who pointedly ignores him—he swings around and heads back to his unit.
She seems startled and nods almost reluctantly. Then she glances up to the unit Officer Kaplan is guarding.
“No,” she replies with surprising honesty. “That’s the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever seen.”
Clearly, she’s already forgotten about that asswipe, Bruner. Must be quite the scene up there.
She turns her brown eyes on me. “How did you get here so fast?”
“I happened to be around the corner when the call came through.”
I pull a pen and my small leather-bound notebook from my jacket pocket, flipping it open. Vic follows my movements closely and breathes out a deep sigh. She knows what’s coming.
“Talk me through,” I prompt her and watch as she inhales deeply.
Then, in a soft voice, she paints me a graphic picture that has goosebumps rise on my skin.
Fifteen minutes later, I walk into the motel room alongside Dave Krajcek, the first of the forensic techs to arrive. He starts snapping pictures right away. I thought after what Vic told me and my decades of experience with horrific crimes I’d be prepared, but the sight still hits me in the solar plexus.
She appears to be young, from what I can see. Maybe late teens or early twenties. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot left of her face but the multi-colored fingernails on her hand give me an indication of age. That left hand and both legs below the knee are the only parts of her largely intact.
Vic has a good eye. Her detailed observations were a surprise. She’d mentioned the wet spot on the floor and the overturned bucket by the window, and her descriptions of the victim were dead on as well. Up to and including the painted nails. She’s the one who suggested perhaps the person who set the body on fire may have changed their mind and doused the flames before escaping out the window. They could’ve used the fire as a distraction.
Unless the fire on the other side of the hotel had been intentional? That almost seems the more likely scenario. I don’t believe in coincidences. That would mean that this entire scene was set on purpose.
“This is some crazy motherfucker…” Krajcek mumbles as he bends his lanky frame over for a close up of the carnage on the bed.
“You’re not kidding.”
I turn to find my partner, Jay VanDyken, walk in with the medical examiner, who also happens to be his wife. It’s Doc who spoke. Pulling on a pair of gloves, she approaches the body.
Jay stops beside me.
“Shit,” he mutters. “Shouldn’t have had that brisket for dinner.”
Yeah, I’m grateful my last meal was breakfast. I’ve been on the go all day, living off bad coffee, and I don’t think I’ll be eating anytime soon either.
It doesn’t take me long to fill my partner in on what I know and leave him in charge of the scene, while I go find the manager. There’s something about this whole setup that has my hair on end. I barely got here and already I’m feeling like I’m missing something. I could waste time wracking my brain and spinning theories, but my energy would be better spent gathering hard information.
The manager is a good place to start.
I don’t think about the little scene I interrupted earlier until I hit the bottom of the stairs and my eyes are instantly drawn to the other side of the motel, where fire squads are still milling about. I try to spot Vic but don’t see her as I walk across the parking lot to the group of people herded onto the sidewalk. I’ll have to catch up with her later, make sure she’s okay.
It’s already getting dark outside and I spot Officer Kaplan underneath one of the street lamps, talking to a young couple. They barely look legal. I put Kaplan in charge of taking names and looking for witnesses and walk right up to him.
“Which one’s the manager?”
He points to a balding guy pacing back and forth, talking on his phone. He’s maybe five nine, has a substantial gut, and looks to be about my age.
His name is Troy Bennet and he’s worked here for fifteen years. Nights and weekends, he shares. No, he can’t tell me who rented unit nine if we won’t let him into his office. He gets a little testy when I explain we need to wait until it’s cleared by the fire department and I can’t help wonder why that is.
“Of course we’ll have to get in there first to check your video feed,” I throw out on a hunch, pointing at the single camera mounted over the door to the office Bennet’s been darting glances at.
His eyes snap to me, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead. I clearly rattled him.
“Uhh…that camera is not reliable, blurry picture, and the software is old.”
The sun is already coming up again by the time I drive away from the Oxbow.
My eyes are gritty and my head is pounding. I’m getting too old to be pulling these all-nighters. I need some shut-eye, but Doc Carter has the autopsy scheduled for eight so all I have time for is a quick bite. Probably not the best idea before stepping into the morgue, but after almost twenty-four hours on coffee alone, I need to fuel my body and my brain.
This case may well see more missed meals and sleepless nights. So much evidence, so many bits and pieces to sort through. Figuring out what can be dismissed and what fits together with witness accounts and known facts. I about filled my notebook and should probably head to the station to convert my notes into a report, but I can’t even remember my own goddamn name by now.
I won’t forget the victim’s name though.
Caitlyn Esposito, aged twenty-four, according to the copy of her Michigan driver’s license Bennet was able to produce. He also remembered the rainbow colors on the girl’s fingernails.
The man had still been sweating when Krajcek uploaded the security feed to our department server and was eager to get in our good graces. I’m sure whatever is on there, making him nervous, will come out when we go over the video back at the station, although I doubt it’ll have anything to do with the murder or the fire. It’d be monumentally dumb to shit where you sleep, and Bennet doesn’t strike me as being that stupid. Still, we’ll be keeping an eye on him.
I pull into an empty spot outside CJ’s, a diner a few blocks from my condo. A quick three-egg breakfast and a two-minute shower should give me enough of a base so I can stomach the postmortem later.
When I get out of the car, I spot Vic inside, sitting at a table by the window by herself, her head down. I did not expect to find her here. I happen to know she lives right downtown, five minutes from the firehouse.
She looks up when I push the door open and step inside. She may be physically present, but I venture to guess in her mind she’s still back at the motel.
We’ve bumped into each other from time to time through work since I transferred here but we don’t socialize. Mind you, I don’t really spend a lot of time socializing anyway. I’ve learned to enjoy my own company over the years, but the woman looks miserable and something makes me pull out the chair across from her.
“So, what’s with you and that slime bucket from Station 6?”