JULY 3, PRESENT DAY
The world shimmered.
It was that damn hot.
Detective Ellie MacIntosh said an obscene word under her breath as she slid out of the car and the humidity rolled over her like a tidal wave.
With a grimace, she said, “Sorry I’m late. Long story. Okay, why am I here?”
Not her usual greeting, but it had already been one hell of a day. Never mind that the arch of sky was a glowing blue and the air thick enough that when she took in a sharp breath she got a lungful of acrid smoke.
“One victim,” a young patrol officer said, pointing toward the still-smoldering building. “We’ve been waiting on you, and the ME is on his way, Detective.”
Santiago, her new partner, was already on the scene, his wavy blond hair looking like he’d just got out of bed. It was almost noon. She didn’t want to know if that was true or not for myriad reasons. He nodded as she walked up toward the house and remarked sarcastically, “Nice of you to show up.”
“First of all, I took a vacation day to visit my sister for the holiday weekend and so I’m technically not on duty. Second, I was headed out of town when the call came and had to turn around, then there was an accident on 94, and my cell phone went dead. You know how hot it is to sit in stopped traffic today?”
He lifted his hands. “Hey, I was joking. No need to get hostile. I’ve an ex-Marine buddy who lives in New Orleans. He sent me a text telling me how he felt sorry for us up here in Milwaukee, that’s how bad it is. I think I heard it hit a hundred in International Falls, Minnesota, for Christ’s sake. It’s the jet stream or something. Even the Canadians are roasting, but forget the heat.”
“Easier said than done.”
“Wait until you see this, MacIntosh.”
Wait until I see …
No good conversation ever started that way.
“See what?” she asked sharply, glad she wore a sleeveless summer blouse with her slacks, her jacket back in the car. Maybe she didn’t look as much like a homicide detective, but neither was she going to be covered with an instant sheen of sweat.
Santiago shook his head. He had intense blue eyes and was around her age she’d guess, early thirties, his attitude slightly cocky, which she found abrasive. He was smart according to her boss, and she thought that was true with a few reservations, though this would be their first interaction on a case outside of the station.
It was probably wrong because she didn’t know him well enough, but there was a bit of an issue. She didn’t dislike him precisely, but he had an edginess that made her wary. If she didn’t operate on her instincts she wouldn’t be good at her job, and he rubbed her the wrong way, plain and simple.
He handed her his notepad, but his writing was indecipherable, like graffiti on a tenement wall, some of it in capitals and other words too small to read. Apparently he’d never written a college term paper, which was something else she’d heard. He’d worked his way up through the law-enforcement ranks without higher education. She gave it back. “Give me a vocal thumbnail. I rarely do notes anyway.”
For a second he looked annoyed, but it was just a flicker across his face. “Fine. The fire apparently came out of nowhere, and because almost everyone in this neighborhood works, no one noticed the blaze until the place was too far gone to save. The fire department answered, but there was no going inside. It was flames up to the roof. They didn’t decide to call us until they went in and discovered the victim.”
“Owner?” Ellie squinted at the house through the haze of smoke.
“Not our deceased.”
“Oh? You know that how?”
“A couple named Tobias owns the house. A neighbor called them to tell them about the fire. She was at work all morning like just about everyone else. He had a job interview and went to get one of the tires replaced on his car. He was still in the waiting room when the fire was called in, and had been for over an hour.”
“Sounds like they can back up their stories?” she answered, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “Why does it have to be one hundred and ten degrees on the day we investigate a fire? Okay, so not them. Who do they think it is and why is this a case for homicide?”
“They have no idea who it could be.” He walked next to her toward the house, which no doubt had resembled the other houses in the neighborhood, single-story, neat and square, with a small front yard with a cement walk and bushes along the foundation. Now the sprawl of hoses, the smoke still hanging in the air, the gaping hole in one corner, and the broken roof made it a one of a kind.
She looked at him sharply. “None? Are you serious?”
“Nope, none. And when you get inside, you’ll see why we’re here. There is no doubt this fire was set.”
He had the assurance of a seasoned homicide detective and she wasn’t quite there yet.
Fine. This was not an exact science. It was more like an acquired skill, something you might have apprenticed to if this was the Middle Ages, but it was right now and she was a fast learner.
“The arson squad can tell you for sure, but let’s just say I am making an educated guess and I’ll say yes.”
The ambulance pulled up then, quiet, no lights revolving, no siren. That was never a good sign, but then again, if there had been any need for speed, she wouldn’t be there.
Too little, too late …
She nodded. “Let’s go in and take a look if we’re clear.”
“The fire department guys say to step carefully, but they’ve got it out. The place is one hot fucking mess.”
It might have been okay if he didn’t laugh.
She shot him another sidelong glance as they walked up the cracked steps to the smoldering building. Billows of smoke still eddied out to mar the cloudless summer afternoon. Jason Santiago had what she thought of as a Renaissance face. A slightly Roman nose, his eyebrows darker gold than his hair, his chin almost too square to make him attractive, but almost was almost. He was good-looking, not that it mattered to her one way or the other really, but his personality so far was a bit of a problem. She said deliberately and meant it, “None of this is funny.”
“Lighten up. I just pointed out I wasn’t trying to be funny.” Like her he wasn’t wearing a suit coat, but wore a button-up with a collar in deference to the job, and there was a hint of wet rings under his armpits, his white shirt stuck to his torso, his sidearm prominent in the shoulder holster.
The front door was warped, the glass glazed by dark streaks, the handle wrapped in protective police tape. She asked, “Where are the homeowners?”
“They’re waiting next door with a neighbor. Both of them are in shock, or doing a very good imitation of it if they aren’t, and it is too hot to expect them to stand outside. I thought the wife was going to pass out in the driveway.”
“I might too if my house burned down with a person inside it who wasn’t supposed to be there. I’ll go in and take a look and then go talk to them.”
“Whatever you want. I’ve already done both.”
The tone irritated her, but then again, she had been late.
“Once again, sorry.”
It was grudging, and if he noticed he didn’t show it as he swept the door open. “Let me let you into the candy store.”
She’d been warned he was a wiseass.
She shot him another glance that said she didn’t approve of the levity and he looked entirely unmoved, his gaze sardonic.
The real problem was she knew cops and he wanted to see her reaction to the scene, so it must really be bad. Great. She was new to the department and this was no doubt some sort of stupid male test … She could practically hear him thinking Let’s see if she barfs …
Because Jason Santiago would use the word “barf.” She was sure of it.
Well, she hated to break it to him, but after the serial murder case in northern Wisconsin last year, she didn’t rattle all that easy.
It took her a moment before she stepped across the blackened space, lifted in place over her face the mask one of the firemen had given her, and then registered the unnatural odor and saw the body.
Yeah, at that moment she could see why they were there.
It was displayed on what looked like the coffee table, set on the hearth, no doubt about it, raised as if an offering on a makeshift altar, the rest of the room in ashes, part of the ceiling down, the couch still smoldering, the carpet soaked from the rescue attempt. The remains resembled a forgotten rack of ribs on a grill, blackened flesh, bones poking through like spines on a fin, teeth startlingly white against the macabre background of what used to be a face. Open windows made no difference; the smell was there even with the smoke, a faint hint of cooked meat.
It was gruesome as hell.
But this was her job, what she’d signed on for when offered the position. In northern Wisconsin, when working with the county sheriff’s department, she’d been a detective handling all sorts of cases. Now that she was a homicide detective in a fairly big city, dead bodies were going to be part of the scenery.
Still, she didn’t like this aspect of her job and doubted anyone would. The hunt, yes, but not the reason for it.
One foot in front of the other. That was how this worked, right? The carpet squished under her shoes and fixtures from the ceiling hung like stripped skeletons, naked and useless. The room was close with death; steaming, wet, and at the moment could be the most unpleasant place on the planet.
“Jesus, it’s hot in here.” Santiago mopped his brow with his sleeve, his voice muffled by the mask.
Ellie had to agree with that. “This is staged. Victim was dead before the place was torched.”
“Oh, yeah. Hell yes. My thoughts exactly. Victim torched before the fire. Look at the table, it really isn’t all that burned, not nearly as much as Mr. or Ms. Crispy.”
She was really going to have to learn to ignore the tasteless remarks.
They both stood very still, gazes roving over the topography of destruction; quiet, apart, thinking. She could see why even identifying the sex of the victim could be a problem. The body was nothing but a blackened outline suggestive of a human being.
Ellie went closer, though it wasn’t particularly what she wanted to do. “The arms are crossed. No one dies that way.”
“I have to agree with you on that one.”
“Why is the body laid out and posed?” She pulled gloves out of her pocket from habit, and slipped them on.
“I’m thinking it’s a statement.”
“Maybe gang related? Can you tell?”
“Is that an inference because of my last name, Detective?” His smile was thin.
“No.” For a second she was puzzled, but then caught on. Seriously? She couldn’t really care less about his background. He looked just as Scandinavian as she did. “I was asking if you have something to impart, so feel free. I’ve not been in Milwaukee that long, remember?”
Truthfully, she was struggling more than a little not to gag because the scene was so disturbing, but there was no way she’d give him that satisfaction.
No. No gagging.
“I was in a little trouble when I was younger. Jesus, gossip in the department is as bad as a high school hallway.”
His eyes were straightforward, not openly hostile, but it was there. He half unbuttoned his shirt, the material hanging open. “Leave the last name at the door. It wasn’t gang related either.”
“Actually, no one has mentioned to me anything about your juvenile activities until you did just now. You always this defensive? I merely wondered, since I agree it looks like a statement, if it was a signature you might recognize from your police experience as a detective.”
“Nope.” The word was flippant, but his whole attitude was flippant in her opinion.
“You do realize we are supposed to work as a team, right?”
Because of the mask she couldn’t see his expression, but his eyes narrowed a fraction. “Yeah, I sure as hell realize that, Detective MacIntosh.”
* * *
It wasn’t that great a start to this case that they were already arguing.
MacIntosh didn’t want to work with him. He got the vibe every single time she looked at him.
That was fine.
He wasn’t thrilled either. Honey blond hair, wide hazel eyes … Normally he liked pretty women; he was quite a fan, actually, and though it sounded sexist, he really didn’t want someone who looked like a high school cheerleader for a partner. Besides, though she’d worked a few homicides according to Chief Metzger, in Jason’s opinion, she hadn’t paid her dues. The only thing that had landed her the job was one high-profile serial-murder case up north and the fact that she’d helped recover the missing niece of a federal judge this past spring.
He’d worked dozens of cases and he was good at it, and he resented the idea he might have to baby-sit her. She’d gotten the job so easily, equal footing with him, equal money …
Jason adjusted his gloves, looked at what they had to work with, which wasn’t much, and shrugged. “We have a few problems in this city with gangs. And no, this is not gang related. They like to leave a calling card. This might be a statement, but if it is, I have no idea what the motherfucker is saying.”
The language bothered her. He could tell from the flicker of disapproval in her eyes, but he really didn’t care and she was going to have to get used to it. Surely she’d heard worse. She’d gone a little pale too since they’d entered the nightmare, but otherwise she hadn’t so much as flinched.
“If the message is intended for us in the first place. It seems to me the homeowners are the likely target.” MacIntosh walked gingerly around the destruction of the room, her slender shoulders tense, her attention everywhere but the body. Couldn’t blame her for that, he had to admit. They couldn’t touch it, and until the scene was processed, anything else either. She said decisively, “Let’s go ahead and do the interview now. The crime scene guys can let us know when they’re done.”
See now, that was another reason he didn’t like her. He’d been with the department for twelve years. Busted his ass to get hired in the first place because of his juvenile record, worked his way up as a patrol officer, then paid his dues through vice and up to homicide. He looked younger than he was, he’d guess he was at least four years older than she was, and he sure as hell knew more about the Milwaukee crime map than she did.
No two ways: He didn’t like her trying to take charge and she really, really needed to realize it or they were not going to get along. “I’ve already talked to them. I offered the notes on the interview, but you gave them back.”
“I haven’t talked to them,” she responded, looking directly at him since the first time they had entered the stinking room. If she wore makeup it wasn’t easy to tell. Natural lips, clear skin, hair straight and shining blond to her shoulders, eyes unadorned. Not married that he knew, but he’d heard a rumor she’d moved down from northern Wisconsin because her boyfriend lived in the area.
It was in him to argue, but he managed to contain it and not point out that she was being insulting, but then again, they really hadn’t worked together yet except for a couple of cases that were mostly paperwork. So he said nonchalantly, “Go for it. I’ll stay here with our overdone friend.”
Maybe, just maybe, she caught the tone because she sent him a sharp look. “I might catch something you didn’t during the interview, Santiago.”
“You might.” He hunched his shoulders and looked at the grisly corpse, then glanced out the window. Through the scarred glass and smears of soot, water still dripping from the frame, he saw the medical examiner’s car had rolled up.
He didn’t envy the guy this one. Dr. Reubens was young, fairly new to the job, not one of the gray-faced old guard that had seen it all. This might even rattle a seasoned ME.
MacIntosh looked at him. “Looks like the room is going to get crowded. I’m going next door to talk to the owners.”
Copyright © 2013 by Katherine Smith
Kate Watterson grew up on a steady diet of mystery/suspense novels. If it involves murder and intrigue, she is bound to be hooked. Kate also writes award-winning historical novels as Emma Wildes. Charred is the second book in the Detective Ellie MacIntosh series following Frozen. She lives in rural Indiana with her husband, three children, and a temperamental cat named Poot.