‘What can you tell me? I’m presuming all three fires were arson?’
‘They were,’ Helen replied quickly. She had already discussed their media strategy with Gardam and they both agreed that there was no point concealing the fact from the press or public, given their need for witnesses and the continuing threat posed by an arsonist at large. ‘I’m happy for you to print that, as I want the public to be vigilant and to ask themselves if they saw anything suspicious last night. But …’ Helen continued, fixing the young woman with a beady eye … ‘I don’t want this arsonist glamorized or sensationalized in any way. I want you to report facts, Emilia, not speculation.’
‘That’s the creed I live and die by.’
‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
‘So you think you’re after a glory hunter here? Someone who wants the headlines?’
‘Do you think they’ll try to contact you? Contact the press?’
‘It’s happened before, but, like I say, we have no idea what the motivation behind these fires might be. That’s why we print the facts, appeal for help and no more, right?’
Helen climbed on to her bike and turned the ignition.
‘One last question. Are you expecting more fires?’
As ever, Emilia had saved her best question – her real question – for last.
‘I sincerely hope not’ was Helen’s neutral reply, as she slipped on her helmet and sped away. But she had spent half the night wondering the very same thing. The three fires had been so ‘impressive’, so devastating, so newsworthy, wouldn’t the perpetrator feel some sense of triumph now? They had achieved their aims and got away scot free. So what was to stop them doing exactly the same thing again?
Denise Roberts stood in front of the full-length mirror. She turned this way, now that, appraising herself. She had spent a small fortune on her new underwear and she wanted to be reassured that it had been money well spent. Tonight was important – she’d been thinking about nothing else for days – and she wanted it to be right. No, she wanted it to be perfect.
Throwing on a dressing gown, she marched down the stairs towards the living room. She lived in a two up, two down in Bevois Mount which was well cared for and pleasant enough – or at least it would have been were it not for the constant presence of her layabout son.
‘Get off your arse and tidy this place up,’ Denise ordered, as she bustled into the living room. Her son, Callum, a truculent sixteen-year-old, always acted up when she had someone coming round and today was no different. A half-eaten bowl of Cheerios sat next to a mug of coffee, as usual plonked down on the wooden coffee table without a coaster. Magazines and freesheets littered the floor and her son sat beached on the La-Z-Boy, eyes fixed to the large plasma screen on the wall.
For a moment, Denise’s eyes strayed from the shambles in the living room to the TV. She was ready to launch another broadside at him for his viewing habits – he could waste a whole day watching Dog the Bounty Hunter and Ice Road Truckers – but momentarily she paused. He wasn’t glued to these staples today – for the first time in living memory he was actually watching the news. The screen was dominated by terrible pictures from last night’s fires. There were reporters at each scene relaying the latest news – overnight a mother of two had died – and this was the national news, not local. Southampton was suddenly on the map for all the wrong reasons.
‘A change from your usual rubbish,’ Denise commented drily, casting an eye in her son’s direction. But he seemed not to hear her – his attention was totally fixed on the screen. As was customary now there was endless amateur footage of the fires (not to mention the many eyewitness accounts of publicity-hungry meddlers) being replayed, meaning that the news channels could replay the fires as ‘live’ hour after hour. It was strangely hypnotic to watch – the huge flames from the timber yard exploding upwards as the warehouse roof collapsed – but still her son’s trance annoyed her. She couldn’t have him lying about, cluttering the place up. Not today.
She gave him a little kick.
‘What the fuck?’ he spat out, snarling at his mother.
‘You need to shift. I need to be tidying.’
‘Big night, is it?’
‘Got something nice in store for him, have you?’
‘Watch your mouth,’ Denise replied, her anger colliding with a strange and unnecessary sense of shame. What did she have to be ashamed about? She was a single woman, with many good years left in her, why shouldn’t she seek out a little affection? A little love? She got precious little from her own family.
‘Now shift before I say something I regret,’ she continued, bending to pick up the discarded magazines. ‘Come on, out!’
Still he didn’t move. Denise could usually predict his every thought, his every action – he was her only child and she had spent her whole adult life raising him. But something was different about him today. He was unreadable.
‘Why do you let him come here?’ Callum said suddenly. ‘He treats you like shit and still you go back for more.’
‘He does not –’
‘He’s a parasite. He takes what he wants and if you ever stick up for yourself then –’
‘That was just the once.’
‘Still hurt though, didn’t it? If you had any self-respect, you’d shut the door on him.’
‘Callum, I’m warning you –’
‘It’s him that needs the warning, not me. Why do you go on protecting him? Why can’t you see what he is?’
Denise braced herself for more abuse – there was a fire in her son’s eyes today – but Callum just stared at her. Then, dropping his eyes, he said:
‘I pity you.’
Hurt now punched through Denise’s anger – Callum had never spoken to her like that before, despite their many rows. She didn’t know what to say. What was the right way to respond to your son’s contempt?
Callum was now marching towards the front door. Denise stood frozen to the spot, but the sound of the latch lifting prompted her to action and she hurried after him.
‘Don’t you talk to me like that. Don’t you ever talk to me like that!’ she called after his retreating back. But he was already halfway down the road and didn’t look back – her anger had fallen on deaf ears.
Slamming the door shut, she stalked along the corridor into the kitchen. Her nerves were already shattered and it was only mid-morning. Would Callum stay out as she’d requested? Or would he return later to deliberately sabotage her evening? Denise could feel her anxiety rising, so she reached over and looked for her cigarettes in her bag. She pulled out her work pass, her phone, her make-up – but there was no sign of her cigarettes. Little bastard, she thought to herself. It had been virtually a full packet – she’d only bought them yesterday morning. Her son was a thief as well as a slob, it seemed. Muttering to herself, she started tidying and cleaning the house, but her mind continued to turn on the missing cigarettes. Just one more crime to add to her son’s growing rap sheet.
‘For God’s sake, do something. There’s a little girl in there. Where are those bloody fire engines?’
The woman looked crazed and desperate, scanning the horizon wildly for blue flashing lights. Sanderson paused the footage to study the scene, then wound it forward, stopping at intervals to study faces, expressions and body language. She had been at it for several hours now, trawling through the amateur footage from the fires and it was beginning to get to her. Not just because of fear and anxiety etched on the faces of many of the onlookers, but also because of the blank expressions on many of the others. These gawpers exhibited nothing more than a casual curiosity – as if a dead woman or a family home reduced to rubble might be momentarily diverting.