Fire Inspector Jake Campbell climbed out of his official Biggin Hill Township issued car and the air hit him like a wet washcloth. He scanned the scene of the wreckage. His heart always stopped at the devastation. No matter how long he'd been around fires, the sheer destruction gave him pause.
The house had collapsed. Thankfully no one had been inside.
He shook his head. No one should have been inside. But he knew he shouldn't second guess the chief. Jake had been unpacking his stuff when the call went out.
As Fire Inspector for Biggin Hill he became an honorary member of the fire department. He meant to be a true member. Just like he'd been, years ago.
He'd been friends with the chief in another life. Now, he didn't think Brad would be glad to see him so he chose not to respond to the fire call. A fire ground was not the place for a confrontation.
Jake shut the car door, pulled turnout gear from the trunk and donned it. His helmet secured to his head, he walked to the scene.
In his capacity as fire inspector, he made the decision when to call the county arson squad. He hoped to look around the fire ground, then get back to his unpacking.
No chief to get in his face.
“Jake Campbell," he said to the officer at the scene. “I'm the new fire inspector."
The uniformed policeman eyed him. He possessed more than fifty pounds and six inches on the cop, but Jake knew when to use his size. He wouldn't because this guy was merely a foot soldier doing his job.
“I don't have ID yet. I actually start tomorrow."
“I better call my supervisor," the cop said.
He radioed dispatch. He received his answer in five minutes.
Meanwhile Jake sweat in his Nomex gear. Designed for protection in a fire, not for shooting the breeze on a July New Jersey day.
The officer waved him onto the scene.
He tromped through rubble, uncovering the point of origin.
“The middle of the room."
Without a shovel he couldn't clear all the debris, but enough. He could see enough to know the pattern the accelerant had been poured in.
A cold chill possessed him. Despite the heat and humidity. He looked to the sky for an answer, but found none.
“It's been set," he said to the cop on the way out.
The cop nodded and went back to a newspaper that appeared while Jake tramped around the desiccated house.
Back in his car, turnout gear stowed, Jake's heart beat a staccato.
“It can't be a coincidence. Why now?"
He knew there hadn't been a fire like this in Biggin Hill since he left. He'd kept track.
His head leaned on the steering wheel. “Why did I come back?"
Chelsea tapped one booted foot on the concrete floor and spoke into her cell phone. “But I didn't give you the go-ahead to print the flyers."
Standing in the small office in the back of the Biggin Hill Volunteer First Aid Squad, she glanced down at the poster in her hand and listened to the man on the phone spout excuses. Why did it seem that she had to overcome incompetence on a daily basis?
An anemic air conditioner wafted in tepid air. She could already smell herself. The day had only begun.
He whined like a child. “We contacted you. There was no reply."
Chelsea unzipped her blue coveralls with its EMT patch, to reveal a tank top and shorts. The disrobing gave her minimal relief.
She retained one nerve and this guy insisted on tap dancing on it. Her fingers pressed the bridge of her nose. “There is no implied consent in printing."
A snicker made her turn then glare at her brother. Who let him in?
“Ms. James. I actually don't see the problem. It's a hoedown, right?"
She rolled her eyes and tapped her foot faster. Taking a deep breath, she talked slowly like she needed to at times to her six-year-old son Max. “Yes as in H-O-E-D-O-W-N." She paused. This man didn't get it. “Country line dancing, pig roast and fireworks. Without the 'e' it's a gathering of whores."
The blackness of her situation surrounded her. What would her father think if he were alive? Wouldn't he be disappointed that his little girl had run his legacy into the ground? She shoved the idea into some deep cellar of her mind.
Focusing on one problem at a time would be the best tactic.
Too bad the disasters happened all at once, throwing her methodical nature off kilter. Would she drown in her inability to solve all of them?
No, dammit, she refused to wallow.
The man sputtered. “I hadn't thought of that. But what can I do? They're running them now."
She thought her weariness would melt her bones and she'd never stand upright again. Her voice came out between teeth clamped together. “Then, go out into the press room and unplug the press."
“If not, I can be there in ten minutes and do it myself. Five with lights and sirens."
He cleared his throat. “That won't be necessary."
“Good. Now fix the problem."
She punched the disconnect button hard and resisted the urge to scream. Brad's laughter halted her deep breathing exercises. “You are not helping," she said.
His wet hair looked darker than its usual blond. He possessed the same shade she did. That's where their likeness ended. Where she had taken after her small-boned mother, Brad possessed the body type of their father. Each day he looked more and more like him. He wouldn't appreciate her reminding him of that.
She envied his chance to shower.
“I didn't come here to help, Chief."
She cringed at his mocking tone. Then her chin snapped up, her gaze trying to penetrate his. She deserved the same respect he did. She was a leader, too.
She let out a breath to push away her frustration. She didn't want to fight the only family she had left.
“Talk while I check the rigs."