The Family Eternal

an excerpt

Chapter 1

Thick, black smoke roiled against a blood red sunrise. Yellow and orange tongues of flame licked up the trees and ran like a reverse waterfall across the ground. Men in turn-out gear scrambled about, slipping on slush and mud. Rigs, pumpers and smaller trucks created a maze of metal. Red and blue hoses snaked across the frozen ground. They bucked the men, fighting the efforts to focus jets of water at the fire. I pulled up along the side of the road, parked with my lights and engine going before stepping out onto a bank of snow alongside the pavement. An assault of radio chatter and sirens broke over me. A chainsaw screamed. It all looked like chaos. It was anything but. A dance of skill and training and adrenaline.

Jess Garts pulled alongside me. As his window rolled down, he yelled, "What do you need from me, Joe?"

"Traffic control." It was dawn. Not many cars. But what there were needed to keep moving so emergency vehicles had unfettered access.

I caught his, "Got it!" as I ran toward the property. I kinda knew the place, a set of small rental cabins set back from the highway.

"Hey, Flynn!" I caught sight of one of the volunteer crew from Panguitch. "What's going on?"

"Back cabin." He barked back. "Occupied." I jogged behind him as he ran toward one of the big engines. "Fully engulfed."

Shouts called us further in. I heard Kabe's voice. "EMTs! We've got one!"

A figure broke from the smoke and chaos. A wiry form in a yellow and black turn-out coat. He cradled a tiny, limp bundle. Two medics shot out from behind the bulk of a back-county pumper. I skidded to a stop. Didn't want to be the way. The two EMTs rushed up and took the child, I could see a mop of honey blond hair and a tiny pink hand. Then they whisked her from view.

Kabe's face mask was up. He turned toward me. Soot and sweat streaked his face. Exhaustion pulled his sharp features into stark relief. And he looked like he'd just been raptured up to Heaven. A big grin cut through all the grime. As I came up to him, Kabe whispered, "I found her. She's alive."

I guess he had reason to smile.

Chapter 2

I stood aways away from the burned-out hulls of three of the cheap rental cabins wondering if I'd ever get feeling back in my toes. An undulating V of char and devastation split the pristine snow. It shot from the cabin area and up along the ridge at the top of the rise. It could have been so much worse. It was still pretty awful. I pulled off my sunglasses and wiped a bit of errant soot from my eyes.

Fire started here and it spread towards the National Forrest. The cabins equaled ground zero. Actually, the burned corpse laying in the ruins of one cabin, in what was left of a bed, equaled ground zero. We'd already kinda figured that the fire was most likely a secondary crime, arson, to cover up that of potential murder.

"It's a fucking candle wick." I looked over to the left at the sound. Kabe talked to the senior fire inspector for the forestry service out of Salt Lake, Travis McHenry. "It blew up and out." He still wore his turn out pants and boots, but had switched out his jacket for a winter weight coat.

"Roman Candle." McHenry corrected. His voice was gruff, but his tone gentle. "Like the firework." All instruction, 'cause he'd volunteered to bring Kabe up through the ranks. "A candle is a hot center flame, that licks and burns, it's a slow burn." He pointed to various places. "The whole cabin was a hot core. It picked up the flames and shot sparks in little spurts." He picked some charcoal off the wall with a gloved finger. "The cheap cabin frame acted as a chimney, blowing little balls of flame up into the trees." He pointed to the burnt branches above them. "We got lucky with the snow. Things were wet enough to keep it from doing more damage."

Doc Snow stamped his feet next to me. "When are they going to be done?"

I reached up and scratched at the scruff along my chin with gloved fingers. Although I'd shaved it all off last spring in a knee jerk reaction, I'd decided to grow it back this fall. "Don't rightly know." Thank Heavenly Father that Trevor got appointed to the role of County Coroner after the County Supervisors finally decided to ditch the idget that held the post prior. "This stuff takes time." I hated to call my High School bud, Trevor Xavier Snow, MD, out to this as his first crime scene. 'Specially since I'd kinda twisted his arm into taking the job.

He blew into his hands to warm them. "I'm going to be in my car." I guess he ran out without his gloves. He'd learn, soon enough, to keep a good deal of outdoor gear stuffed in his trunk.

I nodded as he walked away. "Okay." This was baptism by fire as it were. We all had a heck of a laugh at that, when it came out of Jess Garts' mouth. Well, everyone but Doc Snow.

We'd already figured that the fire started by the body. However, she wasn't so burned we couldn't tell she was a she. But this fire burned in a way that the potential murderer hadn't expected. I didn't need to see pour patterns or smell incendiary accelerants to figure that out. The floors were actually modern carpet tile on a concrete pad, so that even when you poured gas on it, the material is designed not to burn. The mattress, again modern and fire-safe, smoldered. And the fuel used, you could smell the diesel. That takes a while to catch, don't flash like gasoline.

Here and there, the accelerant did create some flames and flashes, which grabbed the homemade drapes and old wood furniture, shooting up through the false-log walls that were far drier than the woods around them. That lit the winter-bare birch trees overhanging the roof like a match touched to a wick of Fourth of July fireworks. If the various fire crews hadn't gotten there when they did the cabin would have likely been no more than a cracked cinderblock foundation

with two sets of bones buried in the char.

Honestly, if it had been a real log cabin with a metal roof-- instead of splits nailed onto a frame for show, with interior siding and a tar-paper shingles and plywood top -- well the fire would have baked her and everything inside, but it would have taken hours for an actual log cabin to catch.

Which is why the fire inspector called it a Roman Candle. And why Doc Snow called it a suspicious death requiring inquest. Trevor understood. Better to call it suspicious and then recant, than the other way around.

The call out was hours ago. All the area crews, volunteer or otherwise, jumped on the scene and knocked it back to where, at this point, they were stamping out hot spots. Between then and now, a few acres of national parks and maybe five of private land went up. We, as in all the residents nearby 'cause my house--our house--weren't but twenty miles down the road, were lucky that a guy collecting fallen wood on permit saw the initial blaze and called it in. And we were darn lucky that it all happened in the dead of winter and not two months earlier, before the snow. Still, this winter had been bone dry. Snow came late and thin this year. ‘Less the land stayed in a shadow, or was up higher than we were, the snow melted and the land dried out before the next sparse fall hit.

Right now I mimicked Trevor, stamping my feet trying to get the blood flowing again. Kabe and McHenry walked the scene for maybe the fortieth time; cataloging, mapping and discussing it all. This was Kabe's first scene on the investigative end of things.

See, my boy had gone and earned himself a Utah Fire Service Investigator Certification this fall. Kabe's degree in Environmental Management from Berkeley, that he'd finished in August, set him up for it. He'd had to take wide ranging courses, studying a variety of fields: chemistry, toxicology, hazardous waste management, OSHA standards, and terrorism incident management...all dependent on what he could get online or a lab waiver for the local U of U location. The two wildfire investigator courses he'd done on a whim for general education credits.

Those meant that he, having lived with me and read through my old course books on law enforcement procedure, had gone in blind to the certification course for fire investigator, and nailed the written test at ninety-eight percent. The manipulative skills portion, he walked out of fifteen minutes early with his evaluator's jaw dangling. That boy is smarter than I can ever think of being.

He had issues with the background investigation because of his felony possession and trespass convictions, but he'd always been open and honest about how he'd screwed up, so the department evaluators figured he'd survive a cross examination. When they'd brought in a county prosecutor for a test run, Kabe's first answer was, "Yeah, I was young and stupid and I fucked up." Forty minutes of brutal hammering later they'd told him not to use the word "fucked" and figured he'd survive. Not that he was gonna be the lead on a scene any time soon.

Yeah, he was a Fire Investigator I, probationary... 'cause he needed a boatload of years and hands-on training to climb the ladder, but he was in that Law Enforcement bubble. My chest puffed out when I looked at him in his uniform; what there was of it for the volunteer department of Panguitch -- an emblazoned tee, under a sweat shirt with a patch, and his red ski jacket. Still, my Lord, he looked good. And didn't he just reek proud and confident most days. So there he is with McHenry and they're walking the cabin. We'd all been over it more times than I could count; photographing, measuring and flagging evidence.

McHenry and Doc Snow both sported about the same shade of green.

I knew Trevor's was likely from having to stand downwind of his first Bar-B-Q'd corpse for most of the day. He'd called her dead, said we could move her, but the fire investigator asked over relayed radio if we could hold the scene 'til he arrived. Holding the scene meant Trevor waiting on site to take custody of the body. I suspected he was hoping for a highway pile-up to call him to the emergency room or such; the living take precedence over the dead, after all. No such luck.

I told him this was God's way of telling him what the worst he might expect out of the job was. My first day working the State pen was a riot, literally; locked down and overflowing toilets. I judged every day of law enforcement after that based on day one. Any shift that didn't have fifty men flinging their shit, or worse, at me, equaled a base line of not too bad. Yes, there is worse than the contents of a man's commode.

I figured McHenry'd had a bumpy ride in. He'd flown up via an older model Beechcraft Barron over the mountains from Salt Lake to Panguitch Muni airstrip... a little over an hour direct. Folks pay good money to ride coasters with four minutes of fifty foot bumps and drops, but a good chunk of your morning playing that game over half a dozen minor ranges, yeah, that's enough to turn all but the most iron stomachs to Jell-O. Especially when confronted with the smell of burnt flesh on arrival.

He and Kabe both walked out, over their own steps, and headed towards where I loitered, holding the scene. When they got close enough, I asked, "So what's your take?"

Kabe stated the obvious. "I'd say it's ugly."

"Well," I snorted, "we all kinda figured that."

I got a glare. "Bite me, Joe."

Oh Lord, Kabe'd shot off his mouth without thinking about the company we kept. I tried to deflect and turn it into a joke. "Hey. I'm in uniform here." And that didn't do it. While we ribbed each other like this all the time, our paths didn't usually connect on the job. A little sterner than I meant, I growled out, "Show me some respect."

He smiled -- one of those wicked, nasty things he could summon up just to tell me I was in trouble. "Bite me." He leaned in close. "Deputy." I hadn't cowed him at all.

I caught the weird look that ebbed between confusion and, well, consternation flashing across McHenry's mug. My gut started turning to ice. "We're good friends." I explained our teasing to him, fudging the extent of our relationship a bit.

That earned me one of those slit eyed stares off of Kabe. Not about to let my white-wash lie, he added, "Joe's my boyfriend."

Not just my gut, but my whole body froze over, so fast and quick it was near painful to breathe. That boy needed to just kill me quick, 'cause this death by inches he put me through every time he chose to force the issue made me want to run and hide. The longer we were together the more he pushed to make sure folks knew we were together. I kept trying to caution him what that might mean 'round here. He seemed hell bent on ignoring me.

And yet. There was this little part of me that wanted to be able to belt it out like he did. Tell the world that I was here and with him and that wasn't going away. Their issue, not mine. I just couldn't manage to get there, so far.

There was a pause, a real long pause, before a muttered, "Okay, then," slipped between his lips as McHenry rubbed the back of his neck. I don't know what was going through his head. On days like today, I wished a bullet would go through mine. I was going to have to have another one of those talks with Kabe when we got home. The dozens we'd already had didn't seem to be doing much good.

Had to wait a little longer before McHenry managed to put his thoughts in order. "I'm pretty certain we're dealing with a murder, but the OME will have the final say on that. She's your jurisdiction." He swung a thick finger in the air between himself and Kabe. "Fire is ours, but there's no sense in conducting two separate investigations. Just keep me in the loop." McHenry was a Fed, Panguitch volunteer didn't have an investigator, so they generally borrowed who might be available. Though some of the damage had landed on public lands so that meant the Forestry Service got a piece of the pie.

Trevor Snow clambered out of the front seat of his car. "Can I take custody of the body now?" It was at least a hair warmer in there than standing in the snow. "I'd like to be home for dinner. Don't know as I'll eat much, but I won't be freezing my nuts off."

McHenry turned to Kabe and shrugged in a way that said he was tossing the ball that way. A little startled, Kabe answered, "Yeah, I guess. We've pretty much learned what we could." When he snuck a quick glance at McHenry, a blank expression answered him...he was being given a rope to see if he'd handle a rappel or hang himself. "We don't need the body in situ any longer."

Yeah, my boy with his lawyer Latin. "So you're not going to work with him on interview techniques and procedures?" I figured that he'd want to at least have Kabe shadow him on a bit of digging.

McHenry lick his lips and smiled. He looked like a shark and I wasn't sure why. "Y'all are, apparently, close. He can dog your digging."

"Ah..." I stalled a bit, "I don't know as my department would let me mentor him." I didn't know as it would be a problem, but it might be. "I'd have to ask Sheriff Simple."

"I'll make the call." He slapped Kabe on the back. "I think having him with someone who knows him, who is deep in the investigation and wants him to succeed is probably a better teacher than my part-time, not really my investigation, attention would be." His open palm came out toward me and it took my brain a moment before I realized what was going on and took his shake. The other hand covered mine. "I want reports on how he does. Don't be nice 'cause you're going to own him, warts and all, when he's done with training." After dropping my grip he reached out for Kabe's. "I want your reports too. Not just what's going on in the investigation, but your thoughts, ideas and what you've learned. Okay?"

"Okay." Kabe used the shake to pull McHenry into a quick hug. "Thanks." The man looked about as shocked as I normally would.