The first word that came to mind was chaos.
Fire trucks, police cars and ambulances swamped the entire vicinity. Dark, angry smoke billowed, artificial clouds that blackened what was supposed to be a glorious sunrise. Emergency crews scurried back and forth, faces streaked with soot and sweat.
Searching for survivors.
The entire mill was devastated, torn apart as though by precise military bombardment. Fire hoses soaked the remains, trying to contain the roaring flames which sprang from the building’s gaping wounds.
Police captain James Forrester stepped onto the grounds, immediately soiling his shoes in the sucking mud. His eyes took in the scene without blinking.
One of the officers approached. His face was bleary-eyed from being snatched from sleep to sudden disaster. The captain looked down at him, then back to the disaster site.
“What in God’s name happened?”
Graham’s slow, bewildered shrug told all. “Hard to tell, sir. For the moment they’re saying it was a mill explosion.”
Forrester frowned. “I’ve seen a damaged mill before. This...looks like a war zone.” He rubbed between his eyes. “Any witnesses? Hell, any survivors?”
“None so far. The plant supervisor was working late last night. He never made it home. The explosion took place right before third shift was set to arrive at 11 o’clock pm. All second shift employees are unaccounted for.”
Forrester suppressed a groan. “How many were on that shift?”
“Six employees, counting the supervisor.”
Forrester found himself in the dilemma of wavering between relief and guilt. “Only six? In a mill this big?”
Graham nodded. “Well, the mill is mostly self-regulated. The majority of employees are on first shift. Second and third shifts load trucks, keep an eye on things, and change wheat blends when necessary. Computer stuff.”
Forrester exhaled slowly. “I heard units were called to this location earlier yesterday.”
“That’s right. They had a jumper. Suicide.”
“Suicide. And now this.” Forrester frowned. “I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking maybe the jumper might not have jumped after all.”
Graham finally seemed to shake off his drowsiness. “You think he might have discovered someone setting up this explosion and got killed for it?”
“Yeah, but what I think doesn’t amount to anything if we can’t find any evidence.” Forrester took in the disaster area. “And that won’t be easy in all of this.”
He pointed to a small crowd of people gathered anxiously behind a police curtail. Their eyes were haunted, battling despair with dwindling hope as they gazed at the smoldering corpse of a building.
Graham nodded. “Yeah. Families and friends of five of the six missing employees, along with some of third shift. We’re not allowing anyone else cross the barricade right now. They haven’t been too much trouble. Just want some answers. Want to know what happened.”
Forrester sighed. “Yeah. Don’t we all.”
They turned as a trio of black SUVs pulled up and parked alongside the police units.
Graham looked up at Forrester. “What are the Feds doing here?”
Forrester’s jaw clenched as he eyed the agents who exited from the vehicles. “Standard procedure for an explosion of this magnitude. Always possible that terrorists might be involved.”
A pair of agents noticed Forrester and strode toward them. He took another look around at the damage. “Hell, they can have it. I don’t like this. Not one bit.”
“Say what, Captain?”
Captain Forrester’s gesture took in the whole disaster area. “Something like this. It’s rotten, mark my words. A case like this never ends. No answers. Just more questions.”
He stared beyond the wreckage at the surrounding thicket. A raven fluttered from the branches, cawing loudly. The woods were tangled, smothered in smoke and distorted shadows...