The doors swung open and the paramedics raced through, ferrying three hospital trolleys into the bowels of South Hants Hospital. The ambulances transporting the injured family from the Millbrook house fire had radioed ahead and the staff at A&E were standing by to receive them.
At the front of this fast-moving queue was Karen Simms, now in full cardiac arrest. Her brain and body had been starved of oxygen for a long period of time and her body was now reacting. The attending paramedics had used the paddles in the ambulance, but to no effect, so the team now hurried her towards the cardiac unit. Her life was hanging in the balance and every second was vital.
Next came her daughter, Alice. Like her mother she had suffered extensive second- and third-degree burns and was in terrible pain, but she was conscious at least, her young heart seemingly more able to withstand the pressures put on her body by extensive smoke inhalation. Reports from the scene suggested there were no toxic vapours in the house, so if she could survive the next few days, then the young girl had a decent chance. While her mother’s trolley veered off left, the young girl was taken straight to the lifts. The burns unit was on the third floor and they were awaiting her arrival.
Behind her came Luke, who had minimal burns but had broken two legs and had significant torso and facial injuries from his fall. He was being taken straight to scans and then to theatre. If he had serious internal bleeding or major head injuries, he stood little chance. But if it was just broken bones, he would be fine. Of the three, he was the one who had been least touched by the blaze.
Bringing up the rear, supported by staff, was Thomas Simms. He watched on as his wife, daughter and son’s paths now diverged, all heading in different directions through the hospital. He stood paralysed – like a man frozen in time – suddenly faced with an impossible choice. Who should he go with? Who needed him most? His mind swam, as he processed this dreadful dilemma, but his feet stayed still. There was no right choice.
In that moment, Thomas knew that his life had changed irrevocably and for ever. Nothing would ever be the same and much pain and sadness lay ahead. He didn’t know how they would get through it or what was the right thing to do. He was lost. And haunting him, like an insistent, nagging ache, was the fear that he would never see any of his family again.
The imposing Victorian house was now a ruin. The windows had blown out – dirty smears of soot stained the brickwork – and the whole place looked lifeless, haunted and defiled. A family home had become a horrific curiosity, scores of local residents, well-wishers and journalists having turned out to drink in the devastation. Helen Grace struggled to rid herself of the thought that a family had gone to bed here tonight, happy and relaxed, and had woken up to this.
The Fire and Rescue Service had secured the site and a local Fire Investigation Officer was on her way. The house was still too dangerous to enter, so Helen had to content herself with a tour of the perimeter of the building, accompanied by DS Sanderson. Sanderson’s predecessor, DI Lloyd Fortune, had moved on a few months back, allowing Helen the opportunity to promote her accomplished and loyal DC Sanderson was now her second-in-command and Helen was glad of her company.
‘We’re looking for signs of an intruder. Anything unusual or suspicious that might explain what happened here.’
The two women walked in silence, the gutted house casting a long shadow over them, affecting their spirits. The ground was frozen tonight, so there would be little chance of finding any useful footprints or tracks. And if a third party had been responsible for tonight’s blaze, they had obviously been careful. There was no obvious detritus left behind, nothing that could give them a sense of how the fire started.
But there was something that was intriguing. The back garden could be accessed via a passage adjacent to the house, the gate to which was unlocked. Someone could have entered the garden unseen from the street. Furthermore, the glass in one of the panes of the back door had been broken. It hadn’t cracked or blown out like the other windows, perhaps because the fire damage was less severe at the very back of the house. No, this window looked like it had been deliberately broken. More tellingly, the splintered glass from this fracture lay inside the house, suggesting the person responsible was standing outside the house when they struck the glass. The resultant hole would have been big enough for someone to put their hand through and turn the key in the lock on the other side. Donning latex gloves, Helen tested the door and was not surprised to find it unlocked.
‘I’ll get SOC on to this straight away,’ Sanderson piped up, following Helen’s train of thought, pulling her radio from her jacket.
As Sanderson liaised with her colleagues, Helen returned to the front of the house. The crowd had grown considerably in size. Despite the late hour, there appeared to be a few hundred people gawping now. Helen gestured to DC Edwards, who hurried over.
‘Round up a few plain-clothes officers and do a couple of circuits of the crowd. Use your cameras and get whatever footage you can. We’re looking for any suspicious activity, anyone recording the scene on cameras or phones. Also I want to know if you see anyone masturbating –’
‘Anyone masturbating or displaying any overt interest in the fire site. Got it?’
DC Edwards hurried off to find his colleagues. Helen watched him go, momentarily amused by his discomfort. But the request was a serious one. Arson was one of those rare crimes where the perpetrator could return to the scene of the crime to enjoy their handiwork. Helen wondered to herself if the person responsible for this awful crime was looking at her right now.
A sound made her turn – DI Sanderson was approaching, her face drained and sombre.
‘We just took a call from South Hants Hospital,’ she said quickly. ‘Karen Simms died just before two a.m. this morning. Cardiac arrest and multiple organ failure.’
‘Is anybody down there?’
‘DC Brooks is on site.’
‘Get in touch. Tell her to stick close to Thomas Simms and offer him whatever support she can.’
Sanderson hurried off, pulling her mobile from her pocket. Helen watched her go, a rising feeling of dread creeping over her. This was no longer a nasty case of arson.
This was now a murder enquiry.
The hospital was like a maze and with each wrong turn Charlie’s anxiety rose. She hated hospitals. Just the smell of them inspired a deep melancholy in her – a legacy of the many weeks she’d spent in this very hospital, following her abduction three years ago. She should have known the hospital backwards as a result, but every corridor looked the same to her.
She had headed to the fire at Travell’s first, but that had proved to be a waste of time. There had been no eyewitnesses to the start of the blaze, the CCTV had been deactivated some time ago and it was too early for any decent forensics. So, having done a fruitless pass in search of secondary evidence, she’d re-routed to the hospital to check on the Simms family.
As she made her way to the burns unit, Charlie felt her pace slowing. She knew that Karen Simms had died on the operating table and that Alice, the six-year-old, was now fighting for her life. This would always have provoked a strong emotional reaction from Charlie, but she felt it even more keenly now. Ever since Jessica’s birth, she’d been unable to stomach any article or news bulletin that involved children coming to harm. As a copper you had to have a strong stomach and be able to master your emotions, but if she was honest Charlie no longer trusted herself to keep her feelings in check – it was an instinctive and overwhelming reaction for her now.