Authors: P. J. Alderman
Tags: #Suspense, #Mystery, #Romantic Suspense, #pacific northwest
At dawn the next morning, Michael stood with Zeke on the north jetty of the mooring basin, waiting for the state lab technicians to finish their work on the
Pale sunlight pierced charcoal clouds, illuminating the rippled spines of sand bars on the Columbia. Gulls screeched as they fought over the morning's catch, and on the docks, sea lions barked, their frenzied discussions broken only occasionally by the watery chug of a diesel motor as another fishing trawler headed out for the day.
Michael warmed his hands on his coffee cup while he gazed across the vast stretch of the water. Although he'd been in town less than a week, each new day brought moments of beauty so stunning they took his breath away. The river's surface was misleadingly tranquil—here and there, a small eddy the only indication of the turbulence that lay hidden beneath. Softly framed by forested, evergreen hills, illuminated by the choreography of sunlight and clouds, the river fooled most visitors. Only those who lived in its shadow understood that such daily theatrics came at a heavy price.
Initially, Astoria had evoked memories of summers on the Maryland shore. Driving into town that first day, he'd noticed what everyone else saw at first glance—the steep hillsides with weathered clapboard houses clinging to them, the mooring basins with their neat lines of docked fishing trawlers, the sharp smells of the waterfront. Those long ago summers had been a happier time in his life, a time when he'd felt a bone-deep satisfaction from helping his cousins bring in the day's catch.
But after less than a week of talking to Astorians, his impression of the town had quickly changed. On the Maryland shore, danger came from the storms that blew in from sea. One at least had warning. Here, danger was hidden in the submerged, shifting sandbars, and in the treacherous current of an unforgiving river that could reduce your boat to toothpicks in a heartbeat. Michael had come away from his summers out on the Atlantic Ocean with a healthy respect for the open water. But the Columbia…these waters made him uneasy.
He took a sip of coffee, its steam partially obscuring his view of a crab boat moving downriver. A slight breeze off the docks carried the scent of wet, charred wood from the
in their direction. Zeke looked up at him, his expression eager as he whined softly.
"Yeah, I know, boy," he murmured. "You can smell it all the way up here, can't you?"
After an exhausting night of battling high winds and rain, Michael had gone home to shower and change clothes only an hour ago. Thanks to a small pump donated by the nearby boat works, the
was now sitting much higher in the water, no longer in danger of sinking. And although the weather was calm, more storms were on the way. Which meant he had to hustle, because he wanted every damn bit of evidence off that boat.
Zeke whined again, and Michael drank the last of his coffee, grimacing at its bitter taste even while he was relieved to have the distraction. He'd had better coffee in Boston, for Christ's sake. This was the Pacific Northwest, renowned for its damn coffee. So why was it he couldn't find a decent cup in this town?
The techs from the state crime lab were packing up and preparing to leave. He looked down at Zeke. "Okay, boy. You ready to rock and roll?"
Zeke barked and jumped in a circle around him, nipping at the hem of his sweater.
Michael pulled a pad of paper out of his pocket. "So here's the deal, pal," he said as they walked across the wharf and down the ramp to the dock. "You've got to be careful not to fall through the deck in a couple of places. We need to check out the wheelhouse, and getting there's going to be a little dicey."
"Mawroooo, rooo," the dog responded in his unique combination of moaning and dog talk. His expression was baleful.
"I'm not insulting you—it's just that you're not always so nimble of paw, you know?" The sea lions that had been lazing on the dock slipped into the water, and Michael had to grab Zeke's collar to keep him from going in after them. "Not a good idea, big guy. They'll have you for breakfast. Didn't you see the warning signs up on the wharf?"
He nodded good morning to the lead technician. "You guys do a thorough sweep of the wheelhouse and the flying bridge?"
"Yeah." The kid yawned. "We might've found a hair off the guy; if we're lucky, it will have the follicle attached. With all the soot, there's no way to tell the color until we get it back to the lab. Of course, it could belong to the owners. Or is one of the owners the torch?"
"Always a possibility."
The tech grunted. "Figures. We also dusted the lock for fingerprints, like you asked. Nada. But there's a hunk of melted metal that could be what's left of the ignition source."
"Good. I'll have more for you once I dig out the forecastle and galley. What's your timeline on the hair?"
"We should have a preliminary opinion on the match to the vic by later this afternoon. DNA, you know the routine—like sometime in the next century, unless you've got clout." He grinned at Chapman. "Since you're new in town, I figure I've got plenty of time."
Michael tossed the dregs of his coffee into the water and crumpled the paper cup in his fist. "Put a priority on it. I want this guy yesterday."
The kid held up both hands. "Hey, man, I was just kidding."
"And if you've got any DNA saliva collection kits, I need them."
Mumbling something about no sense of humor, the tech fished around inside his voluminous carryall and produced the tubes. "You know to keep these refrigerated, right? And I'll need chain of evidence forms. I don't want to be sitting in court six months from now explaining who had access to the evidence and could've contaminated it."
Michael slipped them into the inside pocket of his jacket. "I'll handle any problems that come up in that area."
"It's your funeral, man."
He waited until the crime van had backed off the wharf, and then held back the tarp at the edge of the deck. "Here you go, Zeke. Jump!"
The dog looked at the decking, then at the dark, brackish water visible between the edge of the dock and the trawler's burned-through railing. He sat down on the dock, looked up at Michael, and yawned.
"Christ, dog. Down-shifting has turned you into a wimp."
Michael picked him up and transferred him to the boat, earning an enthusiastic licking for his efforts. Familiar with the routine, Zeke sat and waited patiently for his next command.
Once Michael had completed a scaled drawing of the fire scene, he pulled on surgical gloves. He and Zeke picked their way around the gaping hole of charred timbers over the hold and forward to the wheelhouse. Inside, the equipment was badly melted, the wheel charred black and partially disintegrated, the room scorched. Where the fire had burned hottest, the paint on the ceiling was blistered. But the walls were still intact, which meant that the fire had burned here only briefly before spreading quickly to other sections of the boat.
Even after being up all night, which impaired his sense of smell, Michael still had no doubt as to what odor he was picking up. "Okay, pal, are you getting what I'm getting?" He gave Zeke the command to go to work.
The shepherd criss-crossed the room, sniffing eagerly, then focused on a spot at the base of the wheel. He lifted one paw in a positive signal. Michael knelt beside him, studying the floor. Pulling out a pair of tweezers, he picked up a bit of cloth and held it to his nose. Gasoline. Placing the cloth inside a small, clean paint can, he tapped the lid shut, then continued his perusal. A short distance away, as the technician had indicated, lay a melted clump of metal, the remains of a piece of wire, and another smaller, scorched lump—possibly some kind of cheap timer. Michael pulled a large Baggie out of his jacket and carefully put the whole mess inside. Then he sat back on his heels and surveyed the area.
He'd lay odds he was looking at what was left of a small space heater, its electrical chord, and a simple timer. The guy had probably stuffed the heater with gasoline-soaked rags. When the timer had turned the heater on, firing up the electrical elements…kaboom.
"Our torch seems to have known what he was doing, huh Zeke?" Michael murmured. "Now isn't
a bad sign."
Marking the location of the ignition source on his diagram, he stood up, his eyes tracking the burn flow pattern down the stairs to the engine room and out the door to the foredeck. He stared at the decking, the hairs on his neck rising. He'd seen flow patterns hundreds of times, but this one….The pencil he was holding snapped in two, and he swore at himself.
Don't go there.
So some burn patterns had become, for him, emotional triggers, like Rorschach inkblots. He'd cope, dammit.
He rubbed the back of his neck with a shaky hand and made himself run through possible scenarios. Maybe a fight had erupted and gotten out of hand. The arsonist had hit the victim too hard, accidentally killing him. That fit Jorgensen's MO—he'd thrown a punch six months ago that had broken a guy's jaw.
Michael frowned and glanced around. Most people use whatever is handy to start the fire, maybe old rags and gasoline. Not a space heater. Had the Jorgensens actually kept a space heater on board? He supposed it was possible—it had to get damned uncomfortable out on the water during the winter. But in his experience, most crab boats had an oil heater down below for the crew. You simply didn't waste precious battery power on a current-hogging space heater.
As for the gasoline, Kaz Jorgensen had told him the night before that she and her brother didn't keep any on board. Which made starting the fire not so easy. To use diesel, Gary would've had to siphon the tanks. And according to Kaz, they typically brought the boats in on empty, which meant siphoning would've been a bitch and a half. Besides, he and Zeke had identified gas, not diesel.
Michael straightened and studied the layout of the mooring basin. The problem was, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to get rid of the body by dumping it in the river from the jetty. There was a nice, swift current, and last night, there'd even been a convenient storm as cover-up. Even if the body hadn't been washed out to sea, it probably would've gotten snagged under a dock somewhere downstream, which meant that it would've been days before it was discovered. Or it would've come ashore, possibly as far downriver as Warrenton. Either way, dumping it in the water was less risky than leaving it on board the
And why, if Jorgensen was the torch, had the guy been willing to burn his own boat? Had he needed the money? Or was he just tired of struggling to keep the family business alive, had decided to cash out, and Lundquist had been in the way? Michael made a note to check into the Jorgensens' finances.
It was fully light now, and he noticed that more fishermen were arriving. The crabbers would want to use the window between storms to lift and rebait their pots. Someone—he couldn't remember who at the moment—had said that the fishermen crossed the bar just before the tide turned, on the slack tide. That way if they got into trouble, at least the tide would carry them out to sea before their boat was reduced to a pile of debris on the rocks or run aground on the sandbars. Michael grimaced. Hell of a way to make a living.
Several fishermen cast curious glances his way, but no one approached him. Those guys knew what was going on, he'd bet on it. He'd have to interview them later, but he had no illusions as to their willingness to cooperate. He shrugged, returning to the task at hand.
"Okay, Zeke, what about streamers?" He pointed to a burn mark that flowed away from the wheelhouse door and around to the deck. "If I'd been in this guy's place, I would've poured gasoline from here to the deck, where I dumped a shitload of it, then I'd continue around the corner and down the stairs into the engine room. What d'you think? Have I got it right?"
"If I'd known you had conversations with that dog of yours, I might not have hired the two of you."
Michael glanced over his shoulder. Wallace Forbes, Astoria's mayor and his new boss, was standing on the dock. "Don't try to come on board, sir."
"Wouldn't even think of it. Just stopped by to see how things were coming along."
Forbes was typical of politicians everywhere, dressed casually to put his constituents at ease, persistently cheerful, and always careful about what he gave away in a conversation. He wasn't a bad sort, necessarily, just the product of the electoral environment. Michael had never had much use for politicians, but he'd learned to live with them.
"Zeke is helping me confirm that this fire was deliberately set," he said by way of explanation.
"From what I hear about that nose of yours, you already knew that," Forbes observed.
"Never hurts to have a second opinion."
are words to live by." Forbes pulled a cigarette out of a monogrammed silver case, tapped it a few times, and lit it. "So tell me you also know
Michael hesitated. "Fires have a way of burning up a lot of the evidence, and the weather last night was particularly foul. But with any luck, I'll find something useful."