APD Detective Justice Monroe stood in the middle of a squadron of firemen and police. They were all about twenty feet away from a fire that was rapidly consuming one of Ashebrook’s oldest apartment buildings. Justice’s best friend and partner, Austin Hawke, stood next to him. As usual, his friend was wearing his tattered and faded bomber’s jacket that looked like it should’ve been thrown away ten years ago.
Justice continued to watch the blaze consume the building, but his eyes weren’t focused on the fire itself anymore. Instead, he focused on a literal army of horribly disfigured, semi-translucent shapes flitting in front of almost every window. They were the dead. All of them were victims of the fire that still chewed through the building and every last one was burned into a twisted, no-longer-human-looking creature. They looked like they just crawled out of a nightmare. If Justice wasn’t already used to ghosts, he might’ve run away while screaming his head off in terror. Instead, he just felt the familiar pangs of sadness and grief. He knew, rationally, that he couldn’t do anything to save them, but that never stopped the guilt from coming.
He sighed and looked away. It was too much. There must’ve been a dozen figures in those burning windows and several of them were children.
“They there?” Austin asked, his voice stern.
“Yeah. More than a dozen of them,” Justice answered. He had a deep, rich voice that usually intimidated the hell out of suspects he came across. Right now, it seemed small to him. It was always like that when he saw the dead.
“Can they tell you anything?”
“They can’t leave the building and it’s on fire, so no, they can’t. At least not right now,” Justice answered, slightly irritated. He’d been over that bit of info with Austin several times, but his friend always seemed to forget. The rules when dealing with the dead were pretty solid and often unbreakable (at least as far as he’d ever seen). One of the biggest rules was that the dead were restricted to the place where they died. They couldn’t leave...not until they left whatever burdens were keeping them anchored to the earthly world. More often than not, in Justice’s experience as a homicide detective, the unfinished business ghosts most commonly had was finding out or getting revenge on the person (or persons) who brutally murdered them.
Justice sighed with frustration. Ever since he was a little kid, he’d been able to see ghosts. He remembered one day, when he was about ten, his father came right out and asked him if he could see them. When he told him that he could, his father just nodded with a look of sadness filling his eyes. He tried to explain things to his son, that whatever it was they had, it was in their blood. It was traced back a century or more through their line. Generation after generation had been cursed with it.
His father wasn’t sure what it was about them that made them so special. His best guess was that they were just born with something special in their brains, some kind of overdeveloped region that let them perceive things other people couldn’t. At the time he had that talk with his dad, all Justice could remember thinking that he didn’t care. He just wished his gift would go away.
It never did.
He’d come across a lot of the dead during his life. There were some that left him alone and didn’t bother him. These seemed almost as afraid of him as he was of them. There were others that went out of their way to torment and terrify him. They used to scare him so badly that he’d have nightmares for weeks afterward. Then there were the ones that asked for his help. They were the reason he became a cop. They were the reason he went searching for people’s killers, because he just couldn’t stand by and do nothing. It was as simple as that.
Not everyone was the same. He understood that. But other people didn’t have to see the pain. Other people didn’t have to look into the eyes of the dead and see the torment they suffered with.
“Let’s go,” Austin said, turning away from the building and heading toward the car. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”
Justice didn’t respond, he just turned away from the building with his face a mask of familiar, bitter anger. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his leather coat and hunched his shoulders up. His mind ran through all the facts he’d been able to piece together so far. It was a bizarre case. There had already been three other fires, with all three suffering fatalities, across town. The strange thing, however, was that after CSI and fire investigators picked through the rubble, none of them had been able to find conclusive evidence of arson. Or a cause of the fire for that matter.
“It’s like it just started itself. Without an accelerator or trigger or anything,” one of the fire investigators, a man named Shawn Newsome, told him. “The other fires were the same way. No obvious cause.”
Somebody was starting fires all over the city, but no one, not even trained professionals, could figure out how he or she was doing it. The dead he’d already talked to weren’t much help either. Once he was able to get past their moans for help, all he’d gotten was a description of a shadow man outside the previous three buildings. None of them had been able to provide accurate details.
He pulled his thoughts back into the present and opened the door to the car. As he did, he took one final look at the blazing building and saw all the dead again. He was already too late to prevent their deaths, but there was no way in hell it was going to happen again.
He sat down in the passenger seat and closed the door behind him. Austin was already inside, but wouldn’t start the car. Justice waited for him and gave his partner an inquisitive look.
“I’m not starting the car until you buckle up,” Austin declared matter-of-factly.
“Really?” Justice asked. “I told you I hate it when you do that.”
“It’s the law, and you’re a cop. Try setting a good example,” Austin replied with a smile. It crinkled up the corners of his vibrantly blue eyes.
Justice grumbled but eventually gave in. As soon as the seatbelt clicked, Austin started the car.
“Did you get anything? I saw you scanning the crowd.” He watched Austin’s face to gauge a reaction. There might’ve been a slight irritation to his eyes, but that was it.
“Yeah, I was. I thought maybe he, or she, would be there to enjoy their handiwork. But no. I got nothing.”
Austin had a gift too that wasn’t exactly normal either. He couldn’t see ghosts, but when he looked anybody in the eyes, he stripped away all their lies (even the lies they told themselves). The only thing left was the absolute truth. Pure and simple. He had a fairly good range on his ability and could even scan several people in as little as five minutes. It wasn’t exactly mind reading but it was pretty close. Needless to say, it was a super handy ability when dealing with suspects.
“I guess we do this the old-fashioned way,” Justice muttered.
Austin was forced to agree.
They drove through the city’s confusing network of one-way streets to the Ashebrook Police Department’s main, five-story building. Austin drove the car into the underground parking lot under the station. He drove around for ten minutes trying to find a good spot until Justice snapped at him to just pick one. Austin grumbled something under his breath and swerved into a spot that wasn’t quite located in a different zip code.
Austin turned the car off and they got out. They walked for a bit until they got to a simple metal door. Austin held his badge up to a scanner, then there was a loud buzz and the door unlocked. They opened it and walked inside the building.
About two years ago, the place was looking pretty bad. Not rundown exactly. Just old. Then city officials approved a renovation and now everything was clean and ultra-modern. The front reception desk now had a faux marble counter and APD’s gold seal was plastered to the front and back-lit artfully. There was a wall right behind the main counter, but off to either side of it were two hallways that opened out onto a large, round pit. Brand new desks and computers were all clustered in that pit while offices and conference rooms surrounded it.
Thankfully, they happened to be senior detectives which meant they were lucky enough to get an office. They had to share it, but it was better than being crammed into the pit. They walked to their office and went inside.
Justice immediately sat down in his large, padded chair. Austin, however, couldn’t sit. He was restless. He paced around the room with a frustrated look on his face.
“Okay,” he said, talking to himself. “The building set on fire today makes four total arsons. Four buildings and no leads. What else do we know?”
“That someone is getting a lot of pleasure from torching buildings and burning the people still inside,” Justice answered with a heavily sarcastic tone.
“Thanks, smart ass. I already knew that.” Austin sat down and let out an irritated sigh.
Justice couldn’t blame him. The whole case was frustrating. No obvious suspects, no credible witnesses, no evidence. It was a dead-end case. But they’d been through dead end cases before and always managed to get to the bottom of things, so Justice wasn’t overly worried about it.
“Quit complaining. There’s something there. There always is,” Justice told him. “We have to assume this guy has an agenda, which means he has motive. If we can figure that out, we might be able to find him.”
“Fine,” Austin agreed. “Where do we start looking?”
“Those buildings were targeted for a reason. We need to find out why them. Why that apartment building? Why that floral shop? Why that house? You get what I’m saying?” Justice asked.
“Yeah. So how do we find that out? We have nothing to go on remember? We’re dead in the water as far as this investigation goes,” Austin responded, letting his temper slip. He looked like he wanted to put his fist through a wall.
“Three buildings have been burned. A floral shop was the first. George Randolph, twenty-five and the only employee working at the time, was found burned inside. A residential house on Walker street was hit next. Lyla Johnson, eighteen, was killed in that fire. Five people were killed at 3, the night club in the Warehouse District. Then there’s the apartment building. We’re still waiting on the numbers of dead from the investigators and IDs on those bodies. Which will take forever.”
“They all seem random. How does that help us?” Austin asked, with zero confidence in either of them being able to piece together any kind of clues from the facts they had. There just wasn’t enough information. Not enough of anything.
“Who owned the floral shop?” Justice asked.
“A guy named Dale Holstein. He’s already been interviewed. He had no idea who would want to burn his shop down. The dead kid wasn’t much of a go either. We concluded that it was probably a case of wrong time, wrong place. The arsonist wasn’t gunning for him.” Austin said.
“Right. He wasn’t scheduled to work that night. He took over someone else’s shift,” Justice said. “What about the person who’s shift he took over?”
“Alive and well and not burnt crispy as of an hour ago,” Austin replied. “There’s a protective detail attached to him and that was their last report. I’m sure if he was a target the arsonist would’ve made his move already.”
“What about the home then? Who owns that?” Justice continued without pause.
“A woman named Leanne Johnson. Lyla was her daughter. She was too distraught to answer any questions,” Austin said without thinking. He had been over the files so much that most of the facts were burned into his memory.
“Any other pertinent information on her?” Justice asked.
“She also has a son named Lenny. Twenty-three-year-old male. Hasn’t seen him in a year,” Austin answered.
“Have you gone over the list of residents from the apartment building yet?” Justice asked.
“No. Haven’t gotten it yet,” Austin replied.
“We need that list. We need to see if there’s a link to the other-”
He was interrupted when someone knocked on their door frame.
A friend of theirs named Rick Gutierrez was standing there. He was a uniformed cop with black hair he always slicked back with some kind of hair product. He had super tan skin and strong Latin features.
“Hey. There’s another alleged arson in progress,” he told them. “On Cypress Boulevard. It’s at the hospital.”
Austin and Justice both jumped up before Gutierrez was finished talking. They headed for the door and accidentally pushed him to the floor on their way out.
“Sorry,” Austin shouted over his shoulder.
Gutierrez just raised a hand and got back up. He ran his hands over the wrinkles in his crisp, blue uniform. He let out an exasperated breath, looked around to make sure no one saw him fall, fixed his hair, and then went about his business.
Justice and Austin practically flew out of the stairwell and into the parking lot. They rushed to their car and when both were inside (and buckled), Austin flipped on its sirens and lights and they raced off, heading for the newest fire.
They burst out into the fading light of day and watched as cars cleared the way so they could pass without trouble. About fifteen minutes later, they made it to the site of the fire and parked. Fire trucks were already there as well as two squad cars. The rapidly growing darkness made all the red and blue flashing lights seem brighter than they normally were.
They looked around and found that most of the wide street was taped off and restless onlookers were being held at bay by four uniformed APD officers. Several firemen were directing traffic, motioning with a hand for cars to either go on their way or stop to let the other side go.
They got out of the car and walked toward the yellow tape, pulling it up slightly so they could go under it. They came to stand next to one of the big red trucks and watched the fire burn. The building on fire was (or what used to be) Ingram Memorial Hospital, named after one of Ashebrook’s founding fathers, Alvin Ingram. It wasn’t the city’s biggest hospital, but it was plenty big enough to hold at least two hundred patients and keep a staff of about a hundred and fifty. Justice could only hope that everyone inside made it out.
Justice glanced around. He didn’t see any body bags. He swept his gaze around the hospital’s well-manicured lawns, trying to find any groups of people that looked like they’d come from inside. It didn’t take that long to find them. Their group was pretty large. At a guess, he’d say there were at least a hundred and twenty of them. They were off to the side, clustered around a giant maple tree. Patients, doctors, orderlies, and nurses.
Despite their own injuries, doctors were still racing to make sure all of Ingram’s patients were stabilized and in good condition. He saw one doctor working even though the fire had burned up her left arm. It looked painful. Other hospital employees were trying to get her to sit down so they could tend to it, but she shook them off. Several times.
Justice was going to head that way, but Austin saw an APD officer walking nearby and hailed him over. The uniform was clearly a rookie, but Austin never saw him before.
“How many are left inside?” Austin asked. “Any bodies?”
The came up to them. He looked awkward and uncomfortable but being a rookie, that was expected.
Justice watched the guy as he nervously flipped through his notepad. The uniform grew increasingly anxious the longer it took him to find the info he was looking for.
Austin was glaring at the poor guy with an impatient look on his face.
“Looks like everyone managed to escape. Only minor injuries and burns were reported,” the uniform finally said.
Justice felt a sudden wave of relief. Thank God for that much, he told himself.
He glanced once more at the group huddled by the big maple. His eyes were drawn to the doctor with the burned arm and he couldn’t help but feel a certain attraction to her. She clearly had abundant strength, both mental and physical. and even though they were pretty far away, Justice could still tell she was beautiful. Her long, glossy black hair fell down her back, creating a stark contrast between it and the white of her doctors’ coat. She was exotic and her intense desire to help her patients only made her more attractive to him. As he watched her, he saw her take a brief pause and gingerly grip her arm. He saw her wince in pain for a second before taking a deep breath and going back to work.
Justice made a decision. He started walking over to the woman, leaving Austin alone with the newbie cop. It was a somewhat long walk. Ingram Memorial’s front lawn was pretty big. Soon, however, he came to a stop directly behind the doctor and waited for her to notice him.
He waited awkwardly as a few more minutes went past but she barely registered his presence.
“I’m Detective Justice Monroe. If you could please come with me, I’d like to ask you some questions,” he told her.
The woman stopped what she was doing and turned around to look at him. Her dark eyes were narrowed aggressively and her body language read that she had no intention of going with him and that he needed to leave her alone.
“I don’t really have time right now,” she said with a voice full of annoyance. And pain. “I have patients to attend to here.”
“Your team is taking care of the situation, Dr...?” he asked, waiting for her to supply her name.
“Ramirez. Caroline Ramirez,” she replied, exasperated. She handed a nurse a roll of gauze and pointed to the patient in need of it.
“This is important. It could help us catch the person who set the building on fire,” Justice explained, calmly waiting.
She looked at him for a long minute, her expression still one of complete annoyance. Then she let out a bitter sigh.
“Fine. But I can’t be gone for long. They need me,” she explained.
Justice gave her a nod and a small smile.
“Let’s head this way,” he said before he started walking off. “That way we won’t be in anyone’s way.”
Caroline allowed herself to be led away from her patients as she followed Justice. They didn’t stop walking until he arrived at the back an ambulance. It was one of three that had arrived only a minute or so ago.
“Sit,” he commanded. He gave an authoritative point to the back of the ambulance and the waiting paramedics and EMTs.
“But...” she complained as she looked back toward her own patients.
“Sit!” he commanded again, this time in a voice ringing with authority.
She promptly sat down in the back of the ambulance and let the medics take a look at the cooked flesh of her left arm. She gasped in pain several times before they were done with her.
“These burns are pretty bad. Second-degree mostly but you have some third-degree as well. I suppose I don’t have to tell you to get to the hospital,” the EMT said as he eyed the white coat she wore. He grabbed a roll of gauze and what looked like a topical antibiotic. He slathered the ointment all over her burned arm, ignoring her cringes and gasps of pain. Then he rolled a thick layer of gauze over the whole thing and looked up at her when he was finished. “If you don’t get it properly treated, it’ll get infected. Then there’s a good chance you’ll lose the arm.”
“I know, I know,” she responded.
Bruce rolled his eyes and grabbed one of the gurneys out of the back. In that time, another ambulance had arrived. Justice watched them unload their gurney as well, and then all four sets of medics rushed out to the survivors, trying to assess which patients were the most critical.
Justice turned his attention back to Dr. Ramirez.
“Did you see anything?” he asked her. He completely ignored her evident ire at being tricked.
She didn’t answer right away. Instead, she tried folding her arms around her belly but ended up hissing in pain instead. She abandoned that position and finally settled on leaving them straight down at her sides.
“It could’ve waited you know. I was fine. Those people are under my care. They’re depending on me. You had no right,” she whispered, her voice more of a disgruntled mumble than anything else.
“I had every right,” Justice responded with no sympathy whatsoever. “That burn was serious, and you were too busy caring about other people to realize it. I stepped in. There’s been enough death lately. I didn’t want to see you added to the list.”
She thought about what he said and some of the annoyance on her face disappeared. Not all of it though. She was still irritated with him.
“Thank you.” she did finally say. “I’m sorry I got so angry with you.”
“It’s okay. You thought you were doing the right thing. I understand that,” he said. “This wasn’t just a trick to get a medic to take a look at that arm though. I really did need to ask you some questions.”
“I didn’t see anything, or anyone start the fire,” she told him before he could even say anything else. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know what kinds of questions Justice would ask. “I don’t even know where it started. As soon as I saw it, I grabbed anyone I could and got them out.”
“That was brave,” he replied. He realized the more he talked to her, the more he liked her. Her intensity was incredibly sexy.
“I’m in the business of saving lives, detective, not leaving them there to burn,” she answered back with no trace of boasting, just honesty. “I managed to get a team together and we got everyone out.”
“Did you notice anyone strange hanging around the hospital before it went up?” he asked her. He had his notepad out and was writing down her answers. “Anything strange?”
She was about to tell him no. But then she paused.
“Yes. There was something.” She looked up at him. “When I was trying to get all those people out, the fire...it...it felt...alive. Somehow. I don’t know how else to describe it. It just seemed to try whatever it could to block us from getting outside. Am I losing my mind?”
“No,” Justice said, after a thoughtful pause. “I don’t think so. It might’ve been adrenaline mixed with fear. It messes with people’s heads. Was there anything else strange?”
“There was one other thing. When I went back to get my last patient, he was gone. I don’t know where he went or what happened to him.”
That definitely peaked Justice’s curiosity.
“Can you tell me anything about this person?” he asked.
“Male. That’s about it,” she responded. “His charts said someone had beaten him and his face had suffered the worst of it. It was bandaged pretty heavily.”
“Any distinguishing marks or characteristics you managed to notice?”
“No,” she said. Then she reconsidered. “Wait. There was one thing. On the inside of his right wrist, he had a tattoo. It was a small picture of a flame. That’s all I remember.”
“Was the tattoo in color or just black ink?” he asked.
“It was in color. Yellow fading to an orange red at the tip,” she answered. “Do you think that was the guy who started the fire?”
“I can’t tell you that for sure, but I’d be willing to bet it was.” He shut his notepad. “Thank you for your help.”
He held out a hand to her. Clasped in his thumb and forefinger was his business card. “If you think of anything else.”
They stood there for a moment, neither one talking. His attraction to her intensified and when he looked in her eyes he could feel it mirrored there.
“I-I have to go now,” she told him, a flush of heat filling her face. She brushed hair out of her eyes with a sweep of her hand and then took the card. She stuffed it into a pocket.
After she took it from him, he gave her a slight nod, smiled, and walked back toward Austin.
“Detective!” Caroline yelled. He turned around; one eyebrow raised. “Thank you again. For making me get my arm looked at. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I’m in the business of saving people, Dr. Ramirez, not letting them die from their own stubbornness.”
She smiled brightly at that and then started walking back toward her patients. The paramedics and EMTs had done a good job of making sure everyone was okay and had loaded up the ones that needed serious medical help.
Justice watched her take over the situation with effortless speed and control and then resumed his walk toward Austin.
His partner stood alone, watching the blaze with intense eyes.
“We need to catch this guy, Justice,” he said without bothering to check if it really was his partner coming up to him. Austin was creepy that way. He had a sort of intuition that went with his other gift. “The guy’s bad. Something about these fires just feels...I don’t know. Wrong, I guess. You know?”
“Yeah. I know.” Justice glanced around. “You scan this crowd yet?”
“I did it a while ago. Nada.” He hunched his shoulders against a sudden blast of cold wind. Justice did the same. “Did you find anything out when you were flirting with that hot doctor over there?”
“I was interviewing her,” Justice replied.
“Flirting,” Austin said, barely holding back a wide grin. “With a hot doctor.”
“Do I have to tell Kim you’re looking at other women?” Justice asked, smirking. He felt a satisfied thrill when Austin’s big, smug grin fell off his face.
“You wouldn’t dare,” he said, a note of disbelief in his voice.
“You know I would.”
“Man, that’s all kinds of fucked up.”
“I’m messing with you,” he told him. “Besides, since when is interviewing witnesses classify as flirting?”
“Since when does interviewing a witness involve flirting?” Austin shot back.
“Just drop it,” Justice said, clapping Austin on the back. “Besides, I’ve got something to go on.”
“You got a lead?”
“Not much of one,” Justice grunted. “But more than we had before. Our guy was posing as a patient.”
“Do we know what he looks like?” Austin asked, an anxious, excited gleam to his eyes.
“No. His face was heavily bandaged, so we don’t have a description,” Justice replied. “I told you it wasn’t much of a lead.”
“Is that all? That’s not much to go on.”
“Also, he has a tattoo. Caroline told me he’s got one on the inside of his right wrist. It’s a pic of a flame if you can believe that. This guy’s not much for subtlety.” Justice started walking back to their car with Austin following behind him.
“Caroline?” Austin asked with a grin. Justice just glared at him and mouthed the word Kim. But Austin called his bluff this time and went on. “Did you do that thing with the business card and then feed her the line about calling if she thinks of anything else?”
Justice didn’t respond. He just got in the car.
“Oh man, you did didn’t you?” Austin lost it. He laughed for a good five minutes before he was finally able to quit. “That’s so cheesy.”
“Shut up,” Justice told him, shooting him a warning look.
Austin shook his head and then started the car, blasting the heat. It was late autumn now and the weather had turned cold real fast. He waited a moment for the windows to defog and then peeled out, plastering Justice to the seat.
Justice’s cell phone started ringing. He fished it out of the inside pocket of his coat and put it up to his ear.
“Monroe,” he said.
“Justice. It’s Gutierrez,” Gutierrez said. “I’ve got a preliminary list of dead from the fire earlier today. Some of the bodies are still being identified but the Coroner managed to get confirmations on eleven people. You want me to read it to you?”
“Go for it,” Justice replied. It couldn’t hurt to have the information. After the fourth name was read, however, Justice stopped him. “Give me that last one back.”
“Uh...Holstein, Dale.” Gutierrez replied. He was about to continue but Justice hung up on him.
Facts and bits of information he’d gotten since this case first began started to fit together now. He double checked his memory to make sure he was right before he said anything out loud. Three out of the five places hit were connected to each other. Fact one...The floral shop was owned by Dale Holstein. Fact two...his girlfriend was Leanne Johnson, victim number two’s mother. Fact three...now Dale turns up dead in the apartment fire. He wasn’t sure what the other two places had in common, but three out of five was good enough for him.
It gave them more to go on.
“It’s gotta be the son, Lenny Johnson. He’s either our perp or he’s gonna be next.” Justice said, absolutely sure of himself.
“How do you know that?” Austin asked.
“That was Gutierrez. One of the dead bodies from the apartment building was Dale Holstein’s. Dale is our connection. He owned the floral shop. He was dating Lyla Johnson’s mother. Lyla’s already dead, so it’s not her. The only ones left that are connected to him are the mother and the son and I don’t think the mother was the type to off her own kid. Do you?”
“No. I scanned her when we interviewed her. She had something buried pretty deep. Deeper than I could get to, but she wouldn’t do that to her daughter. I could tell she really loved her,” Austin said. He thought for a moment. “So the son targets Dale’s floral shop, his own family’s home, Dale’s apartment building, a random night club, and a victim rich environment? Why?”