Maria stepped out of the car, took in a deep sniff of the afternoon air. It tickled the back of her throat. She spent enough time around fire to know that she worked better with its aftermath, following its spoor and the marks it left.
The tragic circus of emergency services and bystanders had moved on, a day late and a dollar short, leaving only the ruined, stained show they gathered to watch. Participants and witnesses. Maria went to her trunk, got out her kit and crossed the police tape.
Fire, like any living thing, left traces of itself. She would measure, account and assess what had happened and report it to her superiors. She took a quiet pleasure in her work. Her fascination with fire had found a healthy outlet, and it paid well. The how and when became the boundaries of her time spent amongst the ashes.
The why and who. Irrelevant.
However, this was the third fire in as many weeks that appeared to need those irrelevancies; She worked with what was there and what was not. In most cases, the latter provided her with the information she needed
Accelerants set to bloom once the place became conveniently unoccupied.
Precious or sentimental items taken for safe keeping.
Deliberately overloaded sockets.
The ineffective natures of people told her everything. Fire, in its purity, told her of how it was misused, squandered and she paid homage to it. She measured, recorded, tested and observed her findings, typed it up into reports as dry as tinder, free of conjecture and subjectivity and left the rest to people with more dog in the hunt than her.
Except this scene, like the previous two bore similar flaws that disturbed her.
No clear path of accelerants. No accelerants at all aside from the furniture, the possessions, the people and the traces their burning left.
Fire needed three things to exist.
Maria had been to two previous fires. Both were persons reported, which meant bodies. Each site had been stubborn in their refusal to give her tangibles to work with. Nothing splashed or sparked. Her reports were literary exercises in the art of being dumbfounded without coming out and saying it. The excreta of inefficient fire was notable by its absence. Failure, like fire, clung to her with the tenacity of dog shit on a trainer tread.
These were important people who died. The kind who had public officials on speed dial.
Maria was stood in the ruined home of a former senator, without a clue how to proceed. She did the work though. Her conclusion held the confusing elegance of a zen koan.
First, there was a fire.
Then there was no fire
Then there was.
She found a thick, grey pile of ash, the remains of a wardrobe that had collapsed through the floor and was sifting through it when her fingers found the outlines of something. She pulled it forward. A lock box, buckled but intact. She recorded the dimensions of a tentative excitement in her voice into the recording app on her phone. She took photographs.
An order had come from on high. An eleventh commandment.
THOU SHALT REPORT ANY HIDDEN OR WEIRD SHIT.
Maria resented the struggle to make sense of it. Her pride did not take to being thwarted. She got that from her mom, a woman who would wander for hours in a petulant funk if a conclusion to a crime novel or a movie eluded her sense of logic or story. That inheritance was mitigated by her dad’s work ethic. This situation blew fat, sloppy raspberries at both aspects of her.
She put the phone away and got out her multi-tool.
Two tugs and a pump later, she was done. Much like sex with her ex-husband.
The box opened with a whining, raspy creak and she looked inside.
The sickly gleam of flesh on glossy photographic paper.
She was relieved that she had worn gloves. She wished that she had worn a blindfold.
The sigh made her turn and reach for the wheel gun on her hip. A young woman stood there.
She had old eyes that had seen too much of the world.
Her hair stuck up in tufts and clumps, done with blunt scissors in bad lighting. She would have been pretty but for the poor hygiene and claw marks of anxiety. She wore an oversized grey pullover that hung past her bony wrists with black skinny jeans that were bagged out at the knees. Her trainers were cracked like dehydrated lips.
‘You nearly got shot there, miss.’
The woman laughed and looked around the wreckage.
Her voice was flat, resigned to little more than a whisper. Maria gauged that the girl wasn’t carrying but that her eyes were focused on something other than her.
‘There’s nothing here for you. You really should go.’
The woman bobbed her head in agreement but her eyes remained fixed on the box.
‘I know, I just wanted to make sure you found it.’
Maria’s breath stuck in her throat. Perpetrators came back to the scenes of their crimes. To relive them, to tease another moment’s pleasure from the grand acts of destruction they needed for release or success. Maria had a familiarity with the faint, ammoniac scent of desiccated semen that had killed more dates than a statement of religious belief.
People liked to fuck as much as fire did.
‘Miss, you’re going to need to be a little more forthcoming, if you’re trying to tell me something.’
The woman’s face twitched and her eyes bulged in their sockets.
‘Did you look through them?’
Maria glanced at the box then back up at the girl ‘s face.
‘I saw enough.’
The woman wiped away the tears with the sleeve of her jumper.
‘Did you see me?’
Maria had paused her recording. She reached and shut it off completely.
‘I could have you brought in.’ Maria said.
The woman’s hands clenched into fists and she started to back away. Maria put her hands out and kept her voice soft.
‘I don’t really want to do that.’
Maria heard the crackle of flames, caught the scent of ozone and charcoal between one breath and the next. The girl squared her shoulders. Preparing for something. The air between them hot in an instant, enough to draw perspiration along Maria’s hairline.
‘You’ve got your reasons. Normally, I wouldn’t care but -‘
She kicked the lock box to emphasise her point.
The woman smiled and the temperature between them dropped.
Maria took photographs of the lock box, picked it up and bagged it with the contents intact before putting it into her trunk. The woman smiled, still broken by circumstance but clinging to a cause like a sickly child clings to their mother.
Maria suggested coffee. A place down the street. The woman nodded, pensive and polite.
Some people wanted to watch the world burn. Once in a while, Maria figured, they had a reason.
She would follow the evidence, no matter how far fetched it might have appeared.
The woman introduced herself as Ruby.