Scooping the girl up into his arms, James turned to follow his colleague. The odds were still in the balance. The building was collapsing around their ears and the extra weight they were carrying would seriously compromise their chances of making it out alive, but they had to try.
It was now or never.
‘How is she?’
Charlie turned to see Steve silhouetted in the doorway. Jessica, whom Charlie still called her baby despite the fact that she was now sixteen months old, was suffering from a nasty cold. The numerous doses of Calpol and Sudafed had achieved little – Jessica remained resolutely unhappy, her sinuses blocked and painful. Like most small children she had let her parents know that she was suffering – keeping Charlie up into the small hours nursing her.
Charlie raised a finger to her lips and gestured to Steve to stay where he was. Two hours of cuddling and reassuring had finally paid dividends and Jessica was asleep once more. Charlie made to leave, then paused to look back at Jessica. There was no sweeter sight for her than that of her little girl slumbering happily in her cot, boxed in by soft toys and her old baby blanket. It always warmed her heart to see her like this and she could have gone on staring at her for hours, but wisdom prevailed. Charlie knew she had better get going while the going was good, so avoiding the creaking floorboards, she tiptoed out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind her.
‘Do you want a glass of water?’
Steve was halfway down the stairs, making for the kitchen.
‘I might have a hot drink,’ Charlie replied, following him down the stairs. She was wide awake now and, despite the late hour, she would need to decompress a little before she could go to bed. It was amazing how stressful it could be, trying to persuade a toddler that it was in her best interests to go to sleep.
While the kettle boiled, Charlie flicked the TV on. Immediately, the rolling-news channel burst into life – a legacy of Steve’s viewing no doubt, as she was more of a Sky Atlantic girl. She was about to flick over to something less real, when she paused. The pictures on the TV surprised and alarmed her. Dominating the screen was live footage from an antiques emporium – a second-hand bric-a-brac-style place on Grosvenor Road. Charlie knew it well – she’d bought a few odds and ends from there in the past; but now the whole place was ablaze, the attending firefighters making little progress in tackling the huge fire. To the right of the screen, in a sidebar, were smaller images from two other incidents – one of a blaze similar in size and scale to the one at the emporium, the other appearing to be a nasty house fire. All of them were in Southampton.
Charlie’s mobile rang, loud and shrill, making her jump. Shooting a look at Steve, who’d now joined her, Charlie scooped up her phone and answered it.
‘Hi, Charlie. It’s DC Lucas here.’
‘Sorry to call you in the middle of the night, but you’re needed. DI Grace has called everyone in. We’ve got three serious fires in the city centre –’
‘I’m watching them on the TV now.’
‘Half an hour, ok?’
Moments later, Charlie was in Jessica’s room once more. Now smartly dressed, her hair tied back in an approximation of professionalism, Charlie leant in and risked Steve’s wrath by gently kissing her baby girl goodbye. Whenever she went to work she felt guilty – for leaving her baby, for relying so much on Steve to handle things on the domestic front – and the kiss went some way to mitigating those feelings. It was tough and she often felt physically sick leaving the house, but there was nothing else for it. There is one simple rule for working mothers – you have to work harder and longer than everybody else just to be taken seriously. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right, but it was the way of the world, which is why, having kissed Steve goodbye, Charlie unchained the front door and stepped out into the night.
Detective Superintendent Jonathan Gardam stood stock still, taking in the scene at Bertrand’s Antiques Emporium. He was new to the city – a few months into his tenure as the new station chief at Southampton Central – and if he was honest he was still finding his feet. He had been a front-line officer for so long, a very active and visible DCI in London before his recent promotion, and sitting in meetings all day wasn’t his style. He knew it came with the rank, but privately he was pleased for an excuse to be back in the thick of the action.
He walked in the direction of his DI, who was hard at work marshalling the troops. Helen Grace came with a considerable reputation for both brilliance and truculence, but so far Gardam had found her to be both pleasant and professional. She knew how to lead, how to make decisions, and that would prove crucial in what was already gearing up to be a major investigation. As he approached her, she turned and came towards him.
‘Do we have any casualties?’ Gardam asked.
‘No fatalities so far. We have four injured at the house fire in Millbrook, three seriously. There was no one on site here or at the timber yard, so unless the fire team turn up any unpleasant surprises, we should be ok on that front.’
‘And it’s definitely arson?’
‘Looks that way.’
‘Any idea why these three sites might have been targeted?’
‘We’re pulling the owners in and we’ll be talking to the family in Millbrook when we get the chance, but there’s nothing obvious. Two are commercial, one domestic, they’re all in distinctly different parts of town – we can’t even be sure yet that the fires were started by the same person, as they started at very similar times. Ever come across anything like this before, sir?’
‘Not on this scale,’ Gardam replied cautiously. ‘This feels … organized.’
Helen nodded – she’d had the same unsettling feeling since she’d arrived at the antiques emporium. There’d been no reported incident directly preceding the fire, no witnesses to any unusual activity – the site had just gone up in flames.
‘Travell’s was the first fire?’
Helen nodded, then continued:
‘First 999 calls were at eleven fifteen p.m. This place was next – the calls coming in at around eleven twenty-five p.m. The house in Millbrook about fifteen minutes after that.’
‘If the fires were set by the same person, it’s an interesting escalation,’ Gardam continued. ‘The first two sites are big and impressive, the third site much smaller, more domestic, yet potentially much more deadly. Whoever set the fire must have assumed there would be people asleep in the house –’
‘Which might suggest they are the real targets,’ Helen interrupted. ‘If they were, then what better way to tie up the fire services than by creating two huge fires in other parts of town? We’ve seen that kind of calculated firestarting in the States. No reason why it couldn’t happen here …’
Even as she said it out loud, Helen’s mind began to turn. It made sense and would be a good way of disguising the true intent of the crime. There was so much more to learn about tonight, so much evidence to be sifted and questions to be asked, but already Helen’s instincts were telling her that this was no ordinary crime. In the sixteen months since the death of Ben Fraser, her life had been pleasantly mundane. But that was all over now.
Once more she was being sucked into someone else’s nightmare.