Burn Country: An Excerpt
As Detective Constable Tom Carty walked past the pickup trucks of the volunteer fire fighters called out to the scene from the Rideau Lakes Fire Department, he realized that the barn which had burned was not the big one behind the farm house but another, smaller one in an adjoining field. The smoke drifting in a dark cloud visible above the trees for several kilometres was actually coming from the remains of an old hay barn that had been standing, until sometime late last night, in the next field over from the house and yard.
Passing a parked Chevy Tahoe belonging to the area chief of the volunteer fire service, Carty walked up the long driveway. It was unpaved, and he picked his way along with fastidious care, avoiding puddles that had been left behind in the potholes by a recent rainfall. His breathing mask dangled by its strap from his fingers. He wore a yellow reflective vest over a navy long-sleeved t-shirt, khaki cargo pants, steel-toed safety boots, and an orange hard hat. His Ontario Provincial Police identification hung on a lanyard around his neck, and his badge was clipped to his belt.
Area Fire Chief Derek Flood saw him coming and motioned him over. They shook hands.
“It’s arson again,” Flood said. He pulled up the collar of his sweat-stained t-shirt to wipe at the perspiration around his mouth. His thermal turnout jacket, unbearably hot on this humid August morning, hung on a nearby fencepost, along with his helmet, fire protection hood, and respirator. His gloves were tucked under the suspenders holding up his turnout pants. He took a long pull at a bottle of water.
“Number five,” Carty said, looking at the mud and hay clotted under Flood’s boots. He and Flood were about the same age, early forties, and Carty considered him a friend. They participated in the same charity golf and softball tournaments, co-captained friendly tug-of-war competitions on Canada Day between law enforcement and fire and rescue, and manned the grills together to serve up hotdogs and hamburgers at various summer festivals and fundraisers in the township.
The firefighter spat out water and wiped his mouth. “I could smell accelerant this time. I’ve already called the OFM.” The Office of the Fire Marshal had sent an investigator to look into four previous fires that had been set in Rideau Lakes Township since mid-May. As the detective constable dedicated to this area from the Leeds County Crime Unit of the OPP, Carty had investigated them as well.
“Another thing,” Flood went on, “something burned in it this time. Maybe an animal caught under the loft when it collapsed. You probably smelled it back on the road.”
“I smelled it.” Carty looked around the yard. The back door of the nineteenth-century stone house, which led out onto a deck, was wide open. Across the lawn there was a small, new-looking building, a granny cottage or studio of some kind, with large windows and a skylight. Beyond the studio an open shed made of grey barn board housed an antique Massey tractor and a riding lawn mower, but there were empty spaces where you’d expect to find a car or truck belonging to the people who lived here. Behind the shed, on the other side of a fence and a gate, Carty saw an empty chicken coop, a garden of some sort that was sadly overgrown with weeds, and the big barn he’d first thought was the one that had burned.
“Neighbours down the road called it in,” Flood said. “Nobody’s home. Back door of the house was open like that when we got here. No animals in the barn, by the way.” The push-to-talk mobile phone in his pocket popped and scratched out his name. He threw aside his empty water bottle and fished out the phone. “I’m in the yard.”
“On my way, Derek,” someone said. “Sit tight.”
They watched an all-terrain vehicle bounce across the field from the burned-out barn. Carty recognized the ATV as part of the equipment inventory of the fire station located in the nearby village of Elgin, along with the pumper and tanker still parked in front of the blackened structure in the next field. Slowing to pass through a gate, the four-wheeler skirted a fenced-in corral and zipped through the barnyard. It slowed again to navigate another gate, then rocketed across the inner yard to where they waited. The young man driving the ATV killed the engine and stood up, stripping off his helmet and respirator. Carty recognized him as a farmer named Egan who lived just outside Jones Falls, about fifteen kilometres away.
“It’s out, right?” Flood shoved the phone back into his pocket. “It was out when I left. Don’t tell me it’s not out.”
“It’s out, Derek.” Egan shrugged out of his thermal turnout jacket and threw it across the seat of the ATV. “That’s not the problem.”
“Okay, so what’s the problem?”
“That damned stench we could smell? That we thought was an animal?” Egan ran his hand through his thick black hair and spat on the ground. “It was a body, Derek. Somebody died in that goddamned fire.”
“Okay, how about this one?” Kevin Walker gathered up the playing cards from the coffee table and began to shuffle them as Caitlyn, sitting cross-legged on the floor across from him, watched closely. Kevin leaned back against the footrest of his La-Z-Boy recliner as though to hide his movements from her.
Unimpressed, she rolled her eyes.
Five-year-old Brendan, sitting on the recliner, pushed his bare foot gently against Kevin’s back as he watched cartoons on the television in the corner of their basement play room. One of Brendan’s socks was draped over Kevin’s shoulder and the other was somewhere behind the couch. Brendan preferred to be barefoot, although Janie invariably yelled at him when she caught him without his socks and slippers on. It was an ongoing battle that would not be settled any time soon.
Kevin fanned out the cards and extended them to Caitlyn. “Pick a card. Any card.”
“This is lame, Kevin.”
“No, it’s not. It’s magic. Come on, pick a card.”
Caitlyn dutifully pulled a card out of the middle of the pack.
“Don’t show it to me. Just look at it and memorize it.”
As she frowned at the card with the fake intensity only an eight-year-old can muster, Kevin squared up the cards and put the deck down on the table. “Okay now, my lovely lady, show the card to the other spectators, if you will, please.”
“You’ll see it.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll close my eyes.”
“You can see it through the cracks in your lids.”
“The cracks in my lids? No, I can’t. Okay, here.” He picked up a magazine from the table and held it in front of his face. “Can you see my eyes now?”
“So I can’t see you, either. Hold the card up in front of your face and show it to Brendan.”
He listened to cartoon sound effects. No one spoke. A commercial began on the television.
“Did you show it to him?”
“He’s not looking.”
“Brendan, look at the card your sister’s showing you.”
“Okay,” Caitlyn said, “he looked at it.”
Kevin tossed the magazine aside and picked up the deck of cards, holding them out to her with a wide, phoney smile. “And now, my young princess, I will show you an astounding feat of magic. Place the card you have chosen back into the deck without revealing it to me.”
Caitlyn reached forward and hesitated, not sure what to do.
“Just push it anywhere into the middle of the deck,” Kevin said. “Face down, so I can’t see it. That’s it.”
When she’d put her card back, he moved the deck behind his back. “Your card is very warm. Very warm! I can feel it, right through all the other cards.”
“No you can’t.”
“Yes I can, because it’s a magic card. In fact,” Kevin brought the deck back out and passed his hand over it several times, “it’s so magical it has revealed itself to us in an incredible way!” Using his thumb, he began to push the cards, still face down, from his right hand into his left, one at a time. “Where’s that magic card? Where is it? Where is it?” He suddenly came to the five of diamonds sitting face up in the deck. “There it is! It’s magic!”
“No I didn’t. How did I know it was that card? You didn’t show it to me.”
“You saw it when I showed it to Brendan.”
“No, I didn’t. Plus, you put it face down into the deck, and now it’s face up, revealing itself to us. Admit it, Cait. It’s magic!”
Kevin’s cellphone, sitting on the coffee table, began to vibrate.
Giving her the cards, he picked up the phone and glanced at the time—9:29 am—and the caller identification—S. Patterson.
“Let’s roll, Kevin. Another barn fire, and a possible homicide this time.” Detective Sergeant Scott Patterson, Kevin’s supervisor, recited an address just north of the village of Elgin in Rideau Lakes Township. “Get your ass in gear.”
“It may take a few minutes,” Kevin said. “I’m watching the kids for Janie while she’s at work. It is my day off, remember?”
“Not any more. Get moving.” The line went dead.
“Don’t leave,” Caitlyn said. “I won’t make fun of your tricks any more.”
Kevin gave her forearm a gentle squeeze. “It’s not that, sweetie. It’s just work, that’s all.”
“Mommy’s doing Nanna’s hair this morning. She’s going to be pissed at you.”
“Pissed!” Brendan parroted behind Kevin, his eyes still on the TV.
“Language, please.” Sighing, Kevin called Janie and braced for the worst.
Half an hour later, when Janie’s mother let herself in the side door and came up the stairs into the kitchen, Kevin gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek. “Your hair looks lovely, Barb.”
“Butt kisser.” She patted his arm. “Go ahead. We’ll be fine.” She smiled at Caitlyn. “Won’t we?”
Watching Kevin secure his holstered firearm to his belt, Caitlyn rocked up onto her tiptoes. “Kevin was showing me magic!”
“Magic! Is that so?” Barb looked up at Kevin who, at six-foot-five inches and an athletic 235 pounds, towered over her. “What’s all this about?”
Kevin shrugged into his suit jacket and ran a hand over his short brown hair, checking himself in the mirror at the top of the stairs. “From a book. I’m teaching myself.”
“From the library!” Caitlyn chirped. “Kevin got me my own library card, Nanna!” The Elizabethtown-Kitley Township Public Library’s Spring Valley branch was located next door to the OPP detachment office where Kevin worked, and he’d started taking Caitlyn there on his days off, hoping she would develop an interest in reading.
He knelt down and gave her a hug. “Be good for Nanna, Cait-bug.”
“I will. Catch the bad guy!”
As Kevin backed his Ford Fusion motor pool vehicle out onto the street and hurried away, he glanced at the dashboard clock. It was already 10:06 am. Elgin was about a twenty-minute drive away, which meant he’d be arriving at the scene almost an hour after having received the call out.
Patterson would not be pleased.
Sparrow Lake, the village west of Brockville where Kevin lived, had a population of about six hundred people. Most of them seemed to be out all at once on this humid Monday morning. He slowly worked his way along Main Street and up to the village limits where he stepped on it, anxious to make up time. He headed north to County Road 42, turned left, and then had to slow down to navigate his way through Athens, which was just as busy as Sparrow Lake. Once he was able to jump back up to highway speed, he followed 42 west to Delta, where he was forced to slow down once again, after which he ran another five kilometres at something above the legal highway limit to Philipsville, where he endured yet another slowdown. Eventually he reached County Road 8, where he turned left and floored it in a straight run southwest as fast as he could push it.
Kevin was used to the challenges of local geography that went along with policing in a rural jurisdiction covering just over two thousand square kilometres with only thirty-five thousand inhabitants scattered along county roads and back lanes that hooked and bent around countless lakes, swamps, and rivers. He was used to it, but he didn’t like it. How the crow flew and how the car travelled were two very different things, and he was constantly pushing the envelope not to arrive late these days, it seemed.
He reached an open stretch where there were no trees. Through the windshield on the passenger side he could see a large, trailing cloud of smoke that had risen into the air from a spot somewhere below the horizon to the southwest. He gritted his teeth and gripped the steering wheel even more tightly.
Thank God for Barb. Janie’s regular day care person was on vacation this week, and while Barb had agreed to take the kids, this morning she’d been Janie’s first appointment at the hair salon, which was why Kevin had booked the day off, in order to baby-sit. Janie had been stressed. She did her mother’s hair free of charge, and this morning it had been a full permanent treatment and God knew what else, but on top of her mother, Janie’s appointment calendar was booked solid for the day, thanks to a reception of some kind in the village later this week. She was wired for sound. Dropping the kids off at the hair salon had not been an option. Kevin valued his health too much to have tried pulling that stunt.
Life with Janie was a bit of a challenge these days.
As he approached Elgin from the north on County Road 8, the speed limit dropped to forty kilometres an hour. Passing a sign welcoming him to the village, he braked again and drew up behind a short line of traffic crawling past a set of wooden barriers blocking access to Charland Road. Predictably, everyone wanted to look down the road before passing the intersection. At the barrier, he lowered his window and held out his badge and identification to the uniformed officer, who waved him through.
“It’s about two and a half kilometres down,” the constable said, his uniform shirt dark with perspiration.
“Thanks.” Kevin eased through the opening and drove on. Charland Road was narrow, with no shoulders to speak of on either side. He passed a series of ranch-style semi-detached houses on one side and corn fields on the other until he came to a T-intersection. Another set of barriers had been set up here, and Kevin again lowered his window and held out his identification and badge for inspection by the uniformed officer on duty. This time the officer wrote his name and badge number down in a log book and stuck the clipboard through the window for Kevin to sign. This was the outer perimeter that had been established to contain the crime scene, and Kevin winced as he rolled through, knowing that his time of arrival had been duly noted for the record.
As he drove on, he could see that the smoke had dissipated considerably below the tree line. He passed more corn, a house, a barn, and then pulled over behind a long line of vehicles parked along the side of the road. He got out and hurried toward the crime scene tape at the end of the driveway of the large hobby farm just ahead.
Farther down, a fire truck and a pumper edged out onto the road, their job obviously done. A few steps from the driveway, he paused next to an unmarked grey Crown Victoria and glanced inside. On the passenger seat he saw a black leather handbag that was a cross between a computer bag and a soft-sided briefcase. Recognizing it, he groaned.
If she was already here, then he was indeed very, very late.