THAT’S what winter feels like to me.
But this one is different. A good deal worse and a whole lot better. This year I am taking control of the situation – and the angels are on my side. I saw what people said online about the fire at the Millbrook – they said it was hideous, ugly, an abomination. But not to me. I thought it was beautiful.
‘Everyone’s here now, so let’s begin.’
It was only 8 a.m. but already the incident room was packed. Crime scene photos from the three fire sites adorned the walls and data officers were logging and labelling the many hours of footage – both police and amateur – that had been taken from last night’s incidents. Nearly everybody present had been up half the night, yet they had all assembled punctually, as Helen had requested.
‘I don’t have any detailed forensics for you yet,’ Helen continued, ‘but we are treating all three fires as arson. There was a strong smell of paraffin on the ground floor of the Simms house and at the timber yard. Both Thomas Simms and Dominic Travell have confirmed there was no paraffin stored on site. Presuming the same is true at Bertrand’s Emporium, then we can assume that all three fires were started deliberately by a person or persons unknown. CCTV was deactivated at Travell’s, Bertrand’s didn’t have any and of course there wasn’t any at the domestic property in Millbrook. We’ll see if street cameras picked up anything but it’s likely to have been busy at that time – it was kicking-out time from the pubs. The fires were extremely fierce and extensive so it’s very likely that any on-site traces of the perpetrator – DNA, hairs, fibres – were destroyed, plus the ground outside was frosty and hard, so we weren’t able to find any obvious tyre tracks or footprints. Which means … we’re going to have to rely on some old-fashioned detective work. I’ll pull in as many uniformed officers as I can as we’ll need to be knocking on doors, seeing if anyone saw anything out of the ordinary, anything suspicious. DC Edwards, are you ok to coordinate this for me?’
‘Anything comes up, feed it straight back in. Someone set three major fires last night and got away with it. They might be shocked by Karen Simms’s death or they might be feeling empowered and excited. I want whoever it is to know that we’re tearing the city apart, looking for them. So be visible, make some noise.’
‘I’ll try my best.’
‘DC Lucas, I’d like you to handle the PNC checks. See if any local arsonists have been active recently.’
Helen put her file down and addressed the whole team.
‘Arson. What are the possible motives?’ she asked.
‘To cover up a crime?’ Charlie offered.
‘Good. Anything else?’
‘Property crime. To claim on the insurance,’ DC Edwards offered.
‘Revenge. On a former partner or unfaithful spouse.’
‘For the thrill of the fire itself?’ Sanderson pitched in.
‘Fire gives some people a sexual charge, a feeling of being in control. So we have to put pyromania on the list,’ Helen added.
‘What if it’s something to do with the city itself? Someone who feels let down in some way? By the people or the place?’
Helen nodded, but before she could reply DC McAndrew jumped in.
‘Could there be a financial motive? Two businesses were hit. Plus Thomas Simms runs an import/export business. Might that be a connection?’
‘It’s certainly possible and in the absence of any hard evidence guiding us towards the perpetrators’ motives, we’re going to have to focus our initial attention on the victims,’ Helen responded. ‘Why would someone want to attack them? What connects the three attacks? It’s not geographical, so there must be another reason why they were chosen. Look at the victims themselves, their spouses, family members, colleagues, lovers. Look at their business affairs, bank accounts, their successes, their failures. McAndrew, I’d like you to coordinate this, paying special attention to the Simms family – they could well be the principal targets of last night’s fires.’
Helen paused a second, before concluding:
‘Leave no stone unturned. There is a reason why these three sites were targeted. And it’s our job to find it.’
The Simmses’ ruined house was even more sinister in the daylight. It looked hollow – like a skull picked clean of eyeballs, skin and flesh. Deborah Parks, Hampshire Fire and Rescue’s most experienced Fire Investigation Officer, was already hard at work when Helen arrived. Helen had crossed paths with Deborah before and knew her to be a determined and incisive investigator. She was hoping Deborah would be able to give them something – anything – to work with in a case that was already extremely light on leads.
Deborah was an attractive and intelligent brunette, but encased in her sterile suit, goggles and mask, she looked like a robot, painstakingly picking over the wreckage, minutely sifting the ash for evidence. Pulling on her suit, Helen quickly joined her and they walked the fire site together, starting their journey at the back door of the house.
‘I’d agree that our intruder entered by the back door,’ Deborah began in her typically brisk and efficient way. ‘The damage to the glass was made by an implement or a fist, not by the fire. Has Meredith found anything useful on the exterior of the door?’
‘Nothing yet. We were hoping for a print or something but …’
‘I’m nearly done now, so I’m happy for her to try her luck inside. It’s perfectly safe now that the struts are up.’
‘I’ll let her know.’
‘I would suggest,’ Deborah continued, ‘that our arsonist then made his or her way towards the stairs.’
They had reached the ruined stairwell and Deborah now gestured towards what had once been a small understairs cupboard. Helen bent down and was immediately assaulted by a strong scent of paraffin.
‘The fire started here, directly beneath the main stairwell. There’s no trace of paraffin anywhere else in the house and look there …’
Helen followed the line of Deborah’s index finger to see a small, black, crumpled box, lying amid the ash on the floor.
‘It’s a carbonized cigarette packet. It was used to ignite the fire, which then spread upwards – as fire always does – meaning that though the cigarette packet was burnt in the fire, it wasn’t destroyed.’
‘Why would you use a packet of cigarettes to start a fire, why not a match or a lighter?’ Helen responded.
As Helen did so, Deborah continued:
‘The cigarette packet has something wrapped around it, something which melted in the heat and is now fused to it permanently. My guess is that it was a rubber band. It’s a common arsonist’s trick. You lay down your accelerant. Then you take a cigarette out and attach it to the packet with a rubber band, not forgetting to stick a few matches under the band for good measure. You lay the box on the accelerant, then light the cigarette. The cigarette burns down until it hits the matches, sparking a fire flare –’
‘Which sets the accelerant alight.’
‘And how long would the cigarette take to burn down to the matches?’
‘Ten to fifteen minutes.’
‘Leaving our arsonist plenty of time to get away before the fire ignites.’
Deborah Parks nodded. Helen digested this development – struck by the care and intelligence of the perpetrator – as the FIO continued:
‘There were old cardboard boxes, a couple of brooms, other detritus in the cupboard – plenty of fuel to help the fire grow. If the cupboard door was closed the temperature would have risen quickly. Hot gases would have built up above the flames and when the temperature in the cupboard reached a certain level, the gases themselves would have ignited, causing a flashover. And, of course, the stairs above are made of wood that’s over a hundred and fifty years old –’