He drove through the city centre, then picked up the West Quay Road, before finally hitting the home straight. Millbrook wasn’t a fancy neighbourhood, but the housing was solid Victorian, the neighbours were decent and best of all it was quiet. Or at least normally it was. Tonight there seemed to be a lot of people about, the majority of them making their way to Hillside Crescent – his road.
Thomas muttered to himself. Please God there wasn’t some kind of party going on. A couple of the more expensive houses had been occupied by squatters recently and local residents had been kept awake as a result. But things had been quiet of late and, besides, the people hurrying towards Hillside Crescent were not ravers, they were ordinary mums and dads, some of whom he recognized from the morning run.
The expressions on their faces alarmed him, and as he approached the turning into his road he realized why they were looking so concerned. A huge plume of smoke billowed into the night sky, illuminated by the sombre sodium glow of the streetlights. Someone’s house was on fire.
No wonder everyone was worried – the housing round here was gentrified Victorian – all scrubbed wooden floorboards and feature staircases. If the fire jumped from one house to the next then who’s to say where it would end? Fear gripped him now as he sped down the street, honking his horn aggressively to clear his path of gawpers. What if the fire was close to his house? Immediately he clamped down his fear, telling himself not to be stupid. Karen would have called him if she was concerned about anything.
The road was blocked now with ambling pedestrians, so Thomas pulled over to the kerb and climbed out. Locking the door, he started to jog down the street. The fire was near his house – it had to be given the direction of the smoke and the concentration of people at the far end of the road. His jog now turned into a full-on sprint, as he barged startled onlookers out of his path.
Breaking through the throng, he found himself at the bottom of his drive. The sight that met him took his breath away and he suddenly ground to a halt. His entire house was ablaze, huge flames issuing from every window. It wasn’t a fire, it was an inferno.
He found himself moving forward and turned to find his neighbour gripping one of his arms, guiding him gently towards the house. The expression on her face was hideous – a toxic mixture of horror and pity – and it chilled him to the bone. Why was she looking at him like that?
Then Thomas saw him. His boy – his beloved son Luke – lying on the grass in the front garden. Shaded by the mulberry bush, he lay with his head on the lap of another neighbour, who was talking to him earnestly. It would have been a touching sight, where it not for the crazy angles of Luke’s legs, bent nastily back on themselves, and the blood that clung to his face and hands.
‘The ambulance is on its way. He’s going to be ok.’
Thomas didn’t know whether his neighbour was lying or not, but he wanted to believe her. He didn’t care what injuries his son had sustained as long as he lived.
‘It’s ok, mate, Dad’s here now,’ he said as he knelt down next to his son.
The ground around Luke was covered with leaves and branches from the mulberry bush and in an instant Thomas realized that his son must have jumped. He must have leapt from the house and landed in the bush. It probably broke his fall – may even have saved his life – but why was he jumping at all? Why hadn’t he just run out the front door?
‘Where’s Mum? And Alice? Luke, where are they, mate?’
For a moment, Luke said nothing, the agony racking his body seeming to rob him of the ability to speak.
‘Has anyone seen them?’ Thomas cried out, panic rendering his voice high and harsh. ‘Where the hell are they?’
He looked back at his son, who seemed to be trying to raise himself, in spite of his injuries.
‘What is it, Luke?’
Thomas knelt in closer, his ear brushing his son’s mouth. Luke struggled for breath, then through gritted teeth finally managed to whisper:
‘They’re still inside.’
Helen Grace flashed her warrant card and slipped under the police cordon, walking fast towards the heart of the chaos. Three fire engines were parked up outside Travell’s Timber Yard and over a dozen firefighters were tackling a blaze of monumental proportions. Even from this safe distance, Helen could feel the intense heat – it rolled over her, clinging to her hair, her eyes, her throat, revelling in its power and appetite for destruction.
Travell’s Timber Yard was one of the largest in Southampton, a prosperous family business, popular with tradesmen and builders the length of Hampshire. But little or nothing of this successful venture would survive the night. From humble beginnings, this city centre outlet had grown year on year, culminating in the construction of a huge warehouse where timber of every variety, shape and size could be found. Helen watched now as this cavernous building raged in flame, its metal skeleton shrieking in the heat, as the windows shattered and fire rained down like confetti from the disintegrating roof.
‘Who the hell are you? You can’t be here.’
Helen turned to see a firefighter from the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service approaching her. His face was caked in dirt and sweat.
‘DI Helen Grace, Major Incident Team, and actually I have every right –’
‘I don’t care if you’re Sherlock Holmes. That roof is going to go any second and I don’t want anyone standing nearby when it does.’
Helen cast an eye over the roof in question. It was buckling now as the fire ripped through it, seeking new fuel and fresh oxygen. Instinctively she took a step back.
‘Keep going. There’s nothing for you here.’
‘Who’s in charge?’
‘Sergeant Carter, but he’s a bit busy at the moment …’
‘Who’s the Fire Investigation Officer on duty?’
He walked back towards the fire engines – two of which were now moving away from the scene.
‘You’re leaving?’ Helen asked, incredulous.
‘Nothing we can do here, except contain it. So we’re being sent elsewhere.’
‘What are we looking at? Any chance it could have been accidental? An electricity short? Discarded cigarette?’
The exhausted firefighter cast a withering look in her direction.
‘Three major fires on the same night. All starting within an hour of each other. This wasn’t an accident.’ He fixed her with a fierce stare. ‘Someone’s been having a bit of fun.’
The lead fire engine paused as it passed, allowing the firefighter time to clamber up into the passenger seat. He didn’t look back at Helen – she was already forgotten, he and his team discussing the trials that still lay ahead. Helen watched the flashing blue lights disappear down the road, before returning her attention to the huge conflagration behind.
Seconds later, the roof collapsed inwards, sending a vast cloud of hot smoke and ash billowing towards her.
Thomas held up his hand to shield his face, then plunged through the front door into the house. Immediately his mouth and lungs filled with a thick, sooty smoke and he began to choke. It was impossible to see – the smoke collecting under the hallway ceiling formed an impenetrable cloud. He had only taken a few steps and already he felt himself succumbing to the foul atmosphere, the carbon monoxide steadily driving out the evaporating oxygen.