‘So it would have gone up like a candle. And the fact that the stairs would be ablaze before anyone was the wiser, means there would be little chance of escape.’
This crime became more unpleasant the more Helen learnt about it. This was a calculated attempt to kill the Simms family.
‘Any room for doubt?’ Helen offered, more in hope than expectation.
‘No. There are no electrics under the stairs and clear evidence of paraffin having been poured on the floor. This wasn’t accidental or vandalism, it was murder.’
Helen took this in, then:
‘What does such a calculated attempt on their lives suggest? In your experience?’
‘Well, if you’d wanted to make it look like an accident you would have started the blaze by the fuse box or in the kitchen perhaps, where there are plenty of appliances that could cause a fire. Your arsonist isn’t interested in that. He or she doesn’t care that people know it’s a deliberate act of arson. Perhaps they want people to know.’
‘So it’s an act of hatred? Revenge of some kind?’
‘Could be. If I was a betting woman I would wager that the arsonist was known to them. Someone they’d crossed swords with, wronged in some way perhaps.’
Deborah Parks paused before concluding her train of thought.
‘This was personal.’
Luke Simms looked broken in every way. He was putting a brave face on things for his dad’s sake, answering Charlie’s questions patiently and politely, but his eyes gave the lie to his performance. As he lay with his legs suspended in his hospital bed, he seemed to stare past Charlie to some unspecified spot on the wall, as if he was still struggling to take in what had happened.
By all accounts, Luke was a bright lad with a promising future. He was a pupil at St Michael’s Secondary, a prestigious fee-paying school in Millbrook. He was studying for his A-Levels – Maths, Biology and Sports Science – but his real dream was to play football. He practised five times a week and was a key player for a semi-professional team. He had twice been scouted by the Saints and like many local boys harboured hopes of playing for his hometown club. But that seemed a very distant possibility now.
Luke had sustained compound fractures to his legs – both were now encased in plaster and raised on hoists, making it virtually impossible for him to sit up. A dislocated shoulder made matters even more awkward, meaning Luke lay flat on his back hour after hour, supine and defeated. He had a digital radio and a packet of his favourite Percy Pig sweets to cheer him up, but both remained untouched. This young man was thinking only of his mother, his sister and his own broken body. Charlie’s instinct was to reach out and comfort him – she couldn’t bear the fact that his hopes and dreams had been so brutally shattered – but that wasn’t her place, nor her priority. She was here to do a job.
‘I’m sorry to have to ask you this, Luke, when you have so much else on your plate, but can you think of anyone who might have wanted to harm you or your family?’
Luke looked at her blankly. For a moment, Charlie thought he hadn’t heard the question, but then something changed in his expression. A look of utter incomprehension settled across his features.
‘No, of course not.’
‘Is there anyone you’ve argued with? Anyone you’ve seen threatening your mum or your sister? Do you remember anything that worried you or made you suspicious?’
‘No. I … I don’t pick fights with people. And even if I did, they wouldn’t do this.’
It was a fair point and the boy’s protestations seemed genuine, so Charlie asked a couple more questions, before moving the conversation on. Luke’s dad, Thomas, had been present throughout, keeping a watchful eye over his son. He divided his time now between Luke’s bedside and the burns unit, where his daughter Alice continued to defy her injuries. There seemed to be no time in this punishing schedule for sleep and Charlie decided to keep her preliminary questions to the point, such was Thomas Simms’s exhaustion and desperation.
‘So you were heading home around midnight last night, Mr Simms?’
‘Is that normal?’
‘It shouldn’t be, but it is’ was the swift response. ‘I import clothes and sell them on. Teenage fashion from China, Hong Kong, Asia. Margins have always been tight but since the recession …’
Charlie nodded, but said nothing. The deep worry lines on Thomas Simms’s face told their own story.
‘I’ve had to lay off a lot of staff, so most nights I’m there late. I hadn’t planned to be packing and unpacking stock at my time of life, but I’ve invested too much in this business to let it fail.’
‘And you had no inkling that there would be trouble last night?’
‘No. It was just another day. I’d spoken to Karen earlier in the day and she seemed fine. She was just about to put Alice in the bath when I spoke to her and … and she was happy.’
Thomas Simms wept now, holding his face in his hands, as his grief ambushed him once more. Charlie turned away from him only to find that Luke was also crying, tears running down cheeks that were already livid and raw. Charlie felt the emotion rise in her throat and she stared hard at the floor, determined not to give into the tears now pricking her eyes. After a moment, Thomas’s silent sobbing subsided and Charlie looked up once more, determined not to be weak. She was pleased that her voice didn’t betray her as she resumed her questioning:
‘And Karen hadn’t confided in you about anything – or anyone – that she had concerns about?’
‘And Alice had seemed ok? Nothing worrying her?’
‘Nothing at all.’
Some of the vigour seemed to be returning to Thomas now, as he gathered himself.
‘And what about you, Thomas? Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to do this to you and your family?’
For the first time Thomas paused, before replying.
‘No. I’ve no idea who might have done this to us.’
Charlie nodded and moved the conversation on. But she had seen the pause – that brief moment where something might have been said and wasn’t – and it left her wondering. What was he about to say? What did he know? And, most importantly, why was he lying to her?
An experienced journalist knows when to pounce. Those who’ve been around the block know not to fight for scraps with the press pack – better to bide your time and hit a police officer once they think they’ve escaped the mob, when their guard is down.
Helen was just about to climb on her bike, when she saw Emilia Garanita approaching. The Crime Correspondent for the Southampton Evening News was no stranger to Helen and they had been through a lot together – some of it good, some of it bad, some of it downright unpleasant. But they were currently enjoying an extended truce, so for once Helen didn’t cut and run.
‘You’ve got two minutes, Emilia. I’m needed back at Southampton Central.’
‘Same old same old,’ Emilia replied, smiling broadly. It never ceased to amaze Helen how brazenly unaffected Garanita was by the things she reported on. A woman had died here, three other family members had been injured, yet still Emilia seemed happy, excited even, about the story that lay ahead.