THE HOUSE was set well back from the main road, along a dirt-and-stone driveway that needed grading badly. It wasn’t until Brandon Lorcan pulled his four-wheel-drive truck close that he could see the telltale signs of blackened soot and charring that signaled this was indeed the residence where he needed to look.
Brandon parked the truck a respectful distance away, such that he could walk a complete circuit around the house with clear sight lines, and gazed up at it through the windshield. “This might take a few hours,” he said as he considered the outside damage. He wouldn’t know for sure until he saw the inside, but arson investigations were rarely quick. Crime scenes never were.
“As long as you’re done before dark,” said his boyfriend, Aran Woodrow, from the passenger’s seat. He leaned forward to dig through his backpack and pulled out a sketching pad and several pencils. “It’s a nice spot here. I should be able to sketch until I lose the light.”
“Then we’ll get to the B and B and hike Mount Monadnock tomorrow,” Brandon said. He’d agreed to take on this case because it was on the way to their already planned weekend getaway. Although Aran loved hiking, for his own personal reasons he refused to camp outdoors overnight. That meant luxurious rests on mattresses instead of sleeping bags on the ground, and while Brandon’s bones weren’t old by a long shot, he appreciated not waking up with a stiff neck. It definitely wasn’t something Brandon was going to argue with.
“I’m holding you to that,” Aran said. He cast a sidelong glance at Brandon, his eyelashes long and sweeping past dark eyes full of promises and delights yet to be bestowed. Aran’s smoke-dark eyes and hair contrasted with his easily burned skin, although a summer of spending time outdoors had caused him to burn and peel enough that he’d eventually developed a protective tan. Aran set one warm and solid hand firmly upon Brandon’s thigh, squeezed, and let go. “We missed out on Scarface Mountain last week because you ended up having to return and be a rebuttal witness.”
Brandon relaxed at the familiar touch and indulged for a moment as he contemplated the smoldering unspoken pleasures hinted at in Aran’s expression. His mind jumped ahead to the night at the bed-and-breakfast, but the reminder of the hasty testimony that had ruined their planned hike soured his mood a touch. “It’s the nature of the business,” he said, even though he’d been supremely unhappy at the time. He and Aran spent as many of their weekends as possible out hiking.
Brandon and Aran had met while on a hike. Brandon had been in search of peace, calm, and a cure for his work-induced burnout. Aran, as he later learned, was in love with hiking and with nature. An inherently gifted artist, Aran found depth and meaning in the beauty of the outdoors, even more so than the ordinary person who looked upon a gorgeous, scenic view. He seemed able to absorb its essence completely and then capture it on paper, even with the barest few strokes of his pencil. Aran didn’t make a living as an artist yet, but he was following his natural inclinations, and Brandon knew it was a matter of time given Aran’s amazing abilities. In the meantime, odd jobs and steady part-time employment as a barista at a café gave Aran enough to live on and purchase art supplies. His tendencies ran decidedly bohemian, and Aran didn’t seem to want much more than what he could fit in his backpack.
Five years ago they’d both parked at the same seldom-used trailhead for Esther Mountain in the Adirondacks and come across each other on the path. Brandon paused on the trail to drink some water and Aran caught up to him. After greeting each other and remarking on the trail’s unusual emptiness that morning, Brandon put away his water to continue the brief conversation while they walked. Usually Brandon liked to hike alone. He enjoyed the time to be contemplative and reflective. But Aran’s presence didn’t intrude on that. The short exchange had been pleasant, and Aran welcomed him to join in and continue on with a smile and a come-along-with-me hand gesture. Their hiking paces were about the same speed, and it had seemed natural to fall into step. Aran hiked easily, with a casual grace to his lithe, tall form, and Brandon had been more captivated by him than by the scenery. Brandon’s frame ran more to compact, though strong, and he was envious of the smooth lilting gait, even though Brandon’s sturdy musculature allowed him to keep up.
By the time they summited, there had been something between them already, nearly intangible but nascent, and the smile Aran had bestowed upon Brandon made him feel wobbly in the knees. They’d descended in near silence, exchanged a handshake, and then Aran had pressed a scrap of paper into Brandon’s hand. “Call me when you hike again,” he’d said.
“Great Falls Loop. Saturday,” Brandon replied, knowing it was an all-day hike with spectacular waterfalls and views.
Aran inclined his head and smiled knowingly. “I’ll see you at seven.”
They’d hiked together on weekends and found they both lived on the outskirts of Albany, close enough to arrange for dinners on work nights, and eventually they’d moved in together. Brandon felt lucky every day he was with Aran. It had been such a chance meeting, and more than ten minutes either way, and Brandon suspected they wouldn’t have met at all. Two points moving along the trail at the same speed would have only crossed paths once, when the first person turned to go back down. That crossing point would have been too brief. Brandon had never been so thankful for stopping to rehydrate.
Brandon had always been too focused, making long-range plans and jumping from milestone to milestone. Aran’s gentle ease and adaptability to a chaotic life filled in the scratched-away places of Brandon’s nerves. Being with him was effortless and wonderful and soothed hurts in Brandon that he’d hardly been able to name. Sometimes Aran’s nonconformity would snap against Brandon’s detail-oriented retention characteristics, but that was his police academy training coming back to the surface, and Brandon would breathe deeply until the feeling passed. He’d already gone down that road, and he didn’t want to suffer the agony of extreme burnout again. Brandon vastly preferred Aran’s perspective on life, and he was working on slowly adopting bits of it.
Now Brandon cast a glance at Aran, who had exited the truck and looked about to plunge off into the vegetation surrounding the overgrown yard. “Just don’t get lost. Sometimes cell phones don’t work in these kinds of places.” He wasn’t really worried. Aran had an impeccable sense of direction and an acute, nearly imperturbable inner clock that never seemed to be off. If anything, Brandon was the one with a less than stellar track record of navigation and time management.
“I’ll be careful,” Aran said and then teased him right back. “Don’t get yourself lost inside the house. Or fall through any floors. Like that one time.”
“Do my best,” Brandon said. He hadn’t actually fallen through the floor, but he’d done some quick footwork to make it back to a safe corner of the room. He’d been an untrained rookie at the time and did not consider his ignorance that much a disgrace. Everyone started from scratch, and even though Aran teased him, Brandon didn’t regret telling him the story.
From the back of the truck Brandon grabbed his gear, which consisted of a large plastic work box stuffed with every useful tool he could fit inside and a bag containing note-taking material and a camera. He headed to the house. Insects droned in the long grass as the late-summer heat pressed against the top of his head and shoulders and hazed the sky above. He rubbed one hand through his short hair and wished he’d remembered to wear a baseball cap. His light brown, nearly blond hair did little to protect his scalp from the sun. The poorly maintained lawn around the residence was yellowed with dryness, and he caught the sun-warmed scent of cedar and wood chips. It would be oppressively hot in the house, without even the slight breezes from outside wafting through the windows, which he could not open because the focus remained on creating the least amount of change in the scene as possible. Those investigating prior to his arrival had done the same, and anyone after him would expect it of him. He’d dealt with worse heat and humidity, and he knew it was a matter of getting the job done.
Brandon had worked as a trooper for the New York State Police for a few years and discovered he had a knack for investigating arson crimes, although he’d spent the majority of his time working on other duties. With a decade left until retirement, he’d grown more than tired of the internal politics, the relentless seedy side of humanity, the sadly inevitable outcomes, and the long, exacting days. Others might be able to work through burnout, but he couldn’t. It was the right time and the right thing for him, so he left the force. His skills, as well as his certifications, would enable him to make a living as an independent fire investigator. He knew he could take on contracting work for insurance companies and the defense side in criminal cases.
That was the reason for his examination of this house today. The trial date crept closer and closer, and the defense wanted more answers to questions. They probably hoped for a miracle from Brandon’s report. Brandon was good at scene investigation and analysis and had built himself a solid reputation within the private contractor sphere. He didn’t often disagree too widely with the official fire investigation unit’s report. He believed in the integrity of that office and had witnessed the hard work and effort put forth during his years with the police. Sometimes, though, they got it wrong. His skill, abilities, and his outside perspective allowed him to understand a scene without the inherent bias of working for the prosecution. He was being paid for his time and to give his opinion, which he did, being truthful and forward. It was the lawyers’ jobs to craft arguments and the jury’s job to determine guilt or innocence. Brandon left it to them to do their duties.
Brandon watched Aran finish his consideration of the high-grown meadow off to the side of the parched lawn. With a final wave goodbye, Aran ducked in, obviously finding a concealed path to somewhere.
Left to do the job that brought him here, Brandon retrieved the casework file from his bag and gave it another read through. It was unusual in some respects and sent a chill down Brandon’s spine. If it was true, then it was horrible. But Brandon always remembered the “if” part of that statement. Assuming the veracity of others’ conclusions was a fool’s errand. Brandon would see the scene for himself shortly.
The house was a two-story colonial, painted a light blue with darker blue trim work. The paperwork also listed a crawlspace for an attic and a dirt cellar. A two-car detached garage stood twenty feet away and looked completely unaffected by the fire. The property had been purchased by the Williams family three years ago. The husband and wife, Tyler and Suzanne, moved in with their three-year-old son, Trevor, and one-year-old daughter, Lucinda. Suzanne and Tyler were both employed as schoolteachers. An oncoming thunderstorm woke Suzanne at approximately 2:00 a.m., and she realized her husband wasn’t in bed. The power was out and she left the bedroom, found the hallway engulfed in smoke, and went immediately to her children’s bedrooms. She gathered them up and had them crawl to safety. She used a cell phone to call for help. Tyler staggered from the house minutes later, burned on his hands and forearms, and collapsed from smoke inhalation. The fire department arrived shortly thereafter, put the fire out, and took the family to the hospital. Later investigation revealed multiple fire start points and a combination of negative and inconclusive results for the possible use of accelerants. There had been no clear motive, although other staff at the school claimed Tyler had recently become chummy with a younger, blonder teacher. Both had denied an affair and none could be proven. Tyler Williams had been arrested for arson and attempted homicide. He claimed to have little memory of the event, although he was adamant he would never have tried to burn the house or hurt his family. Given the significant burns on his hands and the massive painkillers he’d subsequently been given, it was plausible to assume he was telling the truth about his poor memory. Suzanne brought the children to her parents’ home. After the arson investigation concluded and the scene released, she had returned to move out salvageable items. The residence had remained relatively undisturbed since.
The taint of infidelity always gave Brandon pause. He’d had a relationship once where he’d been cheated on, and it never ceased to raise his ire. He needed to be careful not to allow himself to become biased because of it.
Of course, the easy explanation was that Tyler Williams had wanted to clear the way for the new woman in his life by getting rid of the old family. Having gotten up in the middle of the night, he tried to use accelerant, was clumsy and spilled it on himself, attempted to ensure a quick conflagration by starting fires in several locations, but chose poorly and ended up burning himself far more than the house.
Another explanation was that Tyler Williams had not done any of that. Something else started the fire.
Bias or not, Brandon didn’t want to accept the easy explanation until he had a good, hard look at the scene itself. Brandon walked around the house slowly, assessing egress points and general damage.
There was a burgeoning stockpile of wood along one side of the house, with more logs off in a pile, ready to be cut down to size. Close enough that if the house became entirely involved in a fire, this stockpile would have burned handily, quickly, and intensely. Brandon eyeballed it and guessed at least five full cords of wood comprised its bulk. That was a lot. The family wouldn’t have been cold that coming winter. The old adage of wood warming a person twice sprung to Brandon’s mind. Once when being chopped and again when burned. A father who spent his time preparing for winter by chopping and stacking that much wood did not match up well with one willing to burn it in a house fire. Or perhaps desperate cheaters did not care how much money and effort were destroyed while they chased their dreams of being with the newest woman.
He also noted the unkempt, uncared-for remains of a vegetable garden in one sunny spot of the yard. It had been months since the incident itself, and zealous weeds overran the area now, but tomato cages and trellises supported dried-out stalks. Without regular watering, the garden hadn’t thrived. A few perennial herbs had toughed out the conditions. Next to an oregano plant going to seed, there was a dark-skinned snake sunning itself against one of the rocks forming the border. The snake slithered off as soon as it heard the swish of his boots through the dry grass.
He took photos as he went. Much of his work would be done later, including his written report, and he would need the photos as reference material. The fire marshal had inspected the house and later cleared it as generally safe for investigation, so Brandon guessed that little serious structural damage had been done but that everything ancillary had probably been ruined.
He had been provided a key, along with permission to be on the premises. He broke the length of tamper tape across the frame and door, an evidence seal that let him know nobody had been inside since the initials and date on the tape, and let himself in. Most everything remained in place, ruined from the smoke and heat and then the water used to douse the fire. It was mostly dry now, having sat for months while the case meandered through the system. Some kind of growth discolored the lower baseboard. The summer humidity encouraged mold, especially since it would have been particularly difficult to get the moisture out from inside the walls. It must have been quite hot in the house during the fire event because all the plastic in the room, like the light switch covers and overhead fixtures, had grown soft and melted, distorting their forms. Brandon frowned at that. The extent of the damage on this floor was minimal and did not lend itself to the melted plastic. He would have expected more charring and burning on the walls and floors with that type of heat situation. It wasn’t impossible, but it was less likely.
Even with the sun gleaming in through the soot-and-dirt encrusted windows, Brandon squinted into the darkness and shadows. He flicked his flashlight on and swung its beam into the debris-strewn entryway. The house sat warm and still, having not been opened for long months, and the air was stale, but it wasn’t unbearably hot.
Brandon worked methodically through the first room, taking notes and photos. The telltale V patterns fire investigators noted were not present here, so it was not considered the source of the fire. That was in the basement. Brandon knew examining that space would take the longest, so he quickly walked through the rest of the house, noting damage and gleaning an understanding of the floor plan.
The wife must have returned for personal items from the upstairs rooms because less damage existed on that level, and the dressers were thrown open, with empty drawers. Brandon nudged a stuffed toy donkey left haphazardly in the middle of the second-floor hallway and wondered if it had been dropped by accident or if they hadn’t meant to take it with them. Its fuzzy gray fur looked relatively unscathed.
Spiders had taken up residence in all the corners, and he could see evidence that field mice made their homes in the walls. Really, situated as it was, he was surprised that larger animals weren’t living in the wreck. The Williams had chosen to live as far on the outskirts of town as they could. He’d occasionally dreamed of living far from the rest of humanity himself, and Aran often spoke of it, so he couldn’t fault the idea, but he was starting to comprehend the serious drawbacks it posed.
Finally, he descended into the cellar. The stairs leading down were steep and short, and Brandon felt like he might pitch off into space as he navigated them. He angled the flashlight’s beam into the cellar. Granite blocks two feet tall and three feet wide sat stacked on top of each other without benefit of mortar to form support walls. Hard-packed dirt comprised the floor. Two-by-fours braced under the floor beams at irregular intervals and a boiler furnace squatted on a portion of the space. For once Brandon was glad for his average stature. With the floor above drooping, barely six feet of height existed even at the tallest point, but that gave Brandon an easy leeway of three inches. Still, he crouched and ducked, mindful that pipes jutted down.
The worst of the damage was found down here, with dark streaks and defects against the granite and charring on the wooden beams above. The stairway would have acted like a chimney, sending smoke and heat upstairs. He could see the characteristic V patterns against the walls, several of them, which indicated the origin points of the fire, although what had been initially burned was no longer present. The presence of numerous points of origin signaled that the fires had been individually set by a person’s deliberate hand, rather than the result of an accident. Brandon stared at the telltale defects. It seemed unusual and particularly futile to attempt starting a fire in a cellar, especially against granite blocks that did not burn. With the point of the V marks so low to the ground, there couldn’t have been much flammable material piled up either.
Brandon scribbled some notes to himself. Could the father have been doing something else stupid and illegal down here in the middle of the night? Perhaps fireworks? Many untrained people underestimated the danger of setting off even small-scale fireworks.
It was also odd that while there had been characteristic light damage upstairs, although with intense heat, the majority of the incident looked considerably contained to the cellar. It was as if a raging furnace had been stoked and the doors opened, letting sparks fly out, along with unimaginably severe heat and smoke. Brandon adjusted the settings on his camera, activated the flash, and took a few photos. The easy scenario of the husband setting a fire down here did fit, somewhat, but not exactly. Minute details about the scene seemed inconsistent with that theory. Something was off. Answers didn’t jump out at him, and Brandon figured he would need some time to dissect what he’d observed here today.
He peered into the darkness, swinging his light around until he located the electrical box. He couldn’t find it for a moment, until he realized it was set into a recess, a sort of alcove formed by an irregularity of design in the granite blocks. He walked over, studying it. The stones around it exhibited burn marks and blackened stains. The metal box was grimy with soot. Brandon wondered if the husband had attempted to burn the electrical box or if the fire incidentally affected this location. He reached in to open the door to the box and heard a strange noise that caused him to freeze. He couldn’t place it, but the sound set off warning bells in his head.
Carefully, Brandon aimed his flashlight in the general direction of the noise, directly below the electrical box. In the recessed area’s bottom curled a dark-skinned snake, either the same or similar to the one that had been outside in the garden. Brandon’s boots had come close to it. Another step and he might have kicked it. It looked agitated now, its skin limned red in the yellow glow of the flashlight. Brandon frowned and squinted into the area. No, he was wrong, there were two snakes. The second one was barely a shadow along the crease where stone block met dirt floor, but it was there.
With the recessed wall behind and Brandon in front, neither had an easy escape path, and Brandon realized that would make the snakes unusually aggressive. He took a cautious step backward, but his movement caused the snakes to become more active. He froze.
Very few snakes in the area were venomous, and none of them were the continuous dark color that these snakes were. Plus, the dangerous snakes were endangered and considered rare. Aran and he had looked them up one evening after a hike where they’d seen a large garter snake sunning itself on a rock along the trail. Even if these particular snakes weren’t venomous, Brandon preferred not to deal with a bite that might become infected.
He slowly took another step backward, and the closest snake must have sensed the vibration of his movement, because it struck out. Brandon was far enough away that it menaced empty air, but it snapped closer than he’d have preferred, and his adrenaline spiked. His initial urge was to run, but the snake could strike lightning fast, and it might not miss a second time. He froze in place while he contemplated what to do.
The two snakes remained agitated. Their tongues flicked in and out of their mouths, tasting the air, scenting for him. Brandon watched them with fascinated horror for a long moment before pulling his attention away. He scanned the room. Now that he knew the approximate size and color of the snakes, he spotted at least three more in the cracks and crevices between the granite blocks making up the cellar walls. It made sense. Abandoned houses provided ideal, attractive dens, and the cellar would be a more constant temperature because of its depth beneath the ground. The cool stones afforded refuge, and the snakes could move in and out to stabilize their body temperature as they pleased. This particular cellar seemed mostly dry, although Brandon could see the glimmer of condensation and moisture on the stones of one wall.
A small part of his brain whispered the suggestion that having wild creatures in the basement might be a useful bit of knowledge for the investigation. He didn’t know enough about snakes to guess if they could have been a reason for the fire, but he certainly knew that rodents often chewed into wires. Where there were snakes, there might be other creepy-crawly things. Deciding he would try smaller retreating movements, Brandon slid one foot back carefully and lightly. Then he did the same with his other foot until he’d a better cushion of safety between himself and the snakes. Brandon hefted his camera and snapped a quick succession of photos, holding his breath to see if the movement and sound would cause the snakes to slither away past him, especially if he kept his feet very still.
He realized the snakes escaping was not the outcome he should have been worried about.
The larger of the two snakes at the bottom of the recessed area became more active, coiling over itself, its eyes fixed in Brandon’s direction. He took a step backward, wanting even more distance between himself and the danger, but his careful maneuver caused the snake to roil forward.
He desperately wanted to bolt from the cellar, but he forced himself to remain calm. He had on thick jeans and sturdy steel-toed boots. If he were careful, there should be no problem.
Except the snake continued moving forward, and as Brandon watched, its dark skin began to transform. The black of its scales bled into brown, and the brown kept growing deeper until it turned a dark red. The mahogany red of the snake’s skin lightened until it brightened into russet orange, and as Brandon stared transfixed at its shift of color, he realized one more thing.
Small flames surrounded the snake. Yellow and orange fire licked over its skin, and then the snake blazed hotter. Brandon could now see an intense white burn, and when he blinked, spots of color shadowed against his retina, lingering. The miasma of concentrated heat was extraordinary, and he could feel it against his skin as if he were standing too close to a smelting forge.
He stepped back quickly, gauging the distance to the staircase. The cellar design gave only one way out. No other exit was available. He needed to return the way he’d arrived.
As he pivoted and began to stride, he caught sight of images that sent fear coursing through him. Several more sinuous lengths of heat and flame writhed stark against the dark gray of the solid granite blocks. All the snakes were on fire.
Brandon sprinted. The heat of the burning snakes baked the skin at his nape and the backs of his arms.
Bursting through the doorway, he braced his hands against the corridor wall, slamming and bouncing, unwilling to slow down because he needed to make a tight corner. He rolled against the wall and kept running. He bounded through the front entrance and aimed for his truck.
“Aran!” he yelled, desperately hoping that Aran had stayed within shouting distance. “Aran! Get back here!”