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“We’ve got a body here.” Mike used his boot to move aside the charred remains of a teddy bear and stepped up to a blackened bed. Lying on it was the body of a child, barbecued flesh still smoking.
Danielle entered the room behind him and groaned. She yanked off her helmet and shook her head. “Damn, I just found the mum next door. Smoke inhalation by the looks of it.”
“Looks like smoke inhalation did its job here too.” Mike pulled his cloth neckerchief up over his mouth and nose to combat the smell of cooked meat. “At least they didn’t suffer.”
Danielle didn’t seem comforted by that, but Mike felt better knowing the child had been tucked up in bed, fast asleep and oblivious to the inferno ravaging the house. Boy or girl, this child probably knew nothing. A mercy, if still a tragedy.
Flames had gutted the child’s bedroom, furniture reduced to cinders, walls painted in soot. A bedside lamp sat on a narrow table, twisted and burned into an almost demonic shape. A small patch of the child’s bedspread was miraculously unburned and Thomas the Tank Engine peeked out of the ash. The fire had taken four hours to contain. It would be morning soon.
“I’ll go tell Steve to call in a report,” said Danielle. “He thinks the fire started in the kitchen from a chip pan.”
“A chip pan? Who was cooking in the middle of the night? You found the mother in bed, right?”
Danielle nodded. “Asleep the whole time from what I can tell.”
“Are there no smoke detectors in this place? It beggars belief there wouldn’t be.” Mike studied the dead child and decided it had been a boy. Mike’s own son, Conner, was three years old. This dead boy could’ve been the same age. It sickened him to the bottom of his soul.
Mike had seen bodies before, but it was rare. The life of a firefighter wasn’t always as heroic or dangerous as people assumed. Most times they turned up to a small fire easily contained or a large fire they would have to hose down from outside. Rarely was a person trapped inside a burning building screaming for rescue. Most people got out in plenty of time, and when they didn’t, smoke inhalation usually got them before the flames. The last body he’d discovered had been a pensioner who’d fallen asleep beneath a knitted blanket in front of a ceramic heater. The blanket caught fire and the old lady lit up like a torch. That had been three years ago.
Bodies were rare.
Tonight was worse than all the other times. Tonight, a mother and child died asleep in their beds. If they had only known what was happening… Why hadn’t they been woken by smoke alarms? What kind of parent didn’t have them?
Danielle nudged him. “Let’s get out of here. The structural engineer hasn’t cleared upstairs, so we shouldn’t be up here.”
True, but Mike and Danielle had run upstairs anyway, determined to help anybody who might be in need. But they had been too late, finding only a blackened ruin and two dead bodies.
Mike turned away from the child and stomped out of the room. The carpets on the landing were obviously flame retardant as he could still feel the pile beneath his feet. The plastic fibres had melted and formed swirling patterns in the soot that were quite beautiful. While fire consumed and destroyed, leaving behind unbearable stenches and choking dust, it could also create. Television screens curled inwards like dying flowers. Lamp shades wilted and crumpled into curious shapes. Fire was a force of nature. Its lick could be transformative.
Mike didn’t need to check on the dead mother Danielle had discovered in the adjacent room – couldn’t bear it – so he followed her down the creaking staircase, through the hall, and into the kitchen. A grimy veil covered the lower floor and caused everyone to lower their visors.
The kitchen was long, with a table and chairs at one end where the mother and son must have eaten breakfast each morning. As Danielle had explained, a chip pan appeared to have started the fire. The large steel bowl had buckled and lost its plastic handle, still glowing faintly with heat. The stove beneath was a darker shade of black than anything else in the house, which suggested it had been the scene of a white-hot inferno. The glass of the oven had shattered under the pressure.
Steve, the watch manager, stood by the kitchen counter using a metal spike to sift carefully through the debris. When he saw Mike, he turned and lifted his visor to speak.
“What’s it looking like up there?”
Danielle spoke before Mike got a chance, which was good because he didn’t feel like talking. “The fire’s all out,” she said. “Two bodies – female adult and a child, possibly male.”
Steve sighed. “Tonight’s been a bad one. I best call the coroner. The police are out front waiting for our report and we need to clear out for the structural engineer, so we won’t be getting home for a while yet.”
Mike grunted and then pulled up his visor, deciding to endure the dusty air. “This should never have happened.”
Steve nodded. “I know.”
Nothing else to say, Mike headed for the back door. Danielle called after him, puzzled. “You want to check out the garden?”
“I just need some air, and I don’t want to deal with gawking neighbours right now. There’s probably a crowd out there.”
“There is,” said Steve. “I’ll check in with you in ten. You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Mike reached for the handle. He just wanted to be alone with his thoughts for ten minutes. He needed to get the stink of burnt wood and smouldering corpses out of his nostrils.
But Danielle appeared at his side. “I could use some air too. That okay?”
With a sigh, he held open the door and stepped out after her. The nip of the chilly night air was immediate, but beneath his jet-black fire suit his skin was sweating. The house had been oppressive and hot. Dirty. The crisp air of the garden was pure and refreshing.
The outdoor space was half-paved, with a small lawn lit by a row of cheap solar lights, of which only half were working. It was a family garden with a plastic slide set up in the middle of the grass. A small structure stood behind it: a shed or some kind of garden room. A light was on inside.
“Hey, what do you think that is?”
Danielle shrugged. “An outdoor office or something? Lots of people have them. Cheaper than an extension.”
Mike stepped off the patio and onto the lawn. Danielle asked what he was doing, but he ignored her as his curiosity got the best of him. The outdoor room was too well lit for the middle of the night. Perhaps the mother forgot to turn off the lights – or perhaps it was something else.
He crept up to the structure’s door, peering through the windowpane. Inside was a lounge or chill-out space. A large flat screen took up one wall and a minibar took up another, while a small two-seater sofa took up the middle. A man lay asleep on the sofa, his legs dangling over the armrest.
“Danielle, there’s a man inside here.”
Danielle hurried across the lawn. “You’re shitting me? Is he hurt?”
“No, he’s just… sleeping. Let me try to open the door.”
The door was unlocked. Mike stepped in and the stench of stale alcohol slapped his face. A bottle of whiskey lay on its side beside the sofa. The sleeping man was snoring loudly.
Danielle slipped inside beside Mike and huffed. “He’s drunk.”
“He must have been lying here the entire time while his family burned to death twenty feet away.” Mike shook his head and tried to make sense of it. From the sheer number of empties in the room, the man was apparently a heavy drinker – so much so he had built himself a man cave in the garden. Soon, he would wake up to the biggest hangover of his life. His wife and son were gone. Forever.
Danielle pointed to a small round table beside the sofa. There was a plate of overcooked chips on it. “Look at this. Do you think…?”
Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying not to scream. “Yeah, I do think.”
The sleeping man’s eyes suddenly opened and the unexpectedness of it made Mike flinch. Then he sprung up on the sofa and looked around frantically. “What? Who?”
Danielle knelt in front of the man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Sir, just stay calm. There’s been a fire, but you’re okay.”
The man’s eyes widened. “A f-fire? Katy! James! Are they—”
The man attempted to get up, but Mike eased him back down. “Sir, I’m afraid we have some bad news.”