Read All the Blue-Eyed Angels Online
Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
“He remembered the fire?”
“Uh, yeah—he had a vague recollection of one of the biggest fatal fires in Maine history.”
“He said ten, if it works for you. I have to work, but I figured you’d be okay on your own.”
“Yeah, of course. Thanks.”
When we pulled up in front of the house, Diggs wrapped his hand around my wrist as I was getting out of the Jeep.
“Hang on—can I talk to you for a second?”
I got back in and shut the door as quietly as I could. Einstein whimpered, then circled the backseat a couple of times before he lay back down. The porch light had come on when we rolled up but now it went off again, leaving us in darkness once more.
“I’m sorry Jack’s here—I really did think he’d be gone for a while. It’s bad timing, I know.” I waited for him to say what was really on his mind. Finally, he sighed. “Listen, Solomon, I’ve been where you are right now.”
I glanced around to indicate that I had no clue what he was talking about, though of course I knew full well.
“You’re just getting your feet back under you after… you know, everything. Things might be a little raw for a while.”
I raised an eyebrow, but remained silent while I waited for him to get to the point.
“I’m just saying, you might not be making the best decisions right now. So jumping into something with somebody new, while it might seem like a good idea now, can lead to complications you may want to avoid.”
“Jesus, Diggs—I told you, nothing happened. We had dinner. We talked. He went to bed; I had a close encounter with his crazy uncle, and called you.”
His hand was still on my wrist, warm against my cool skin. Our eyes held, his frustration clear.
“I’m not just talking about Juarez, Erin,” he said. “The last time I saw you, you were—”
I pulled away. “I’m fine, Diggs. And if you’d stop hovering and just let me do what I came here to do, I’d be that much better.”
His jaw tensed, but he didn’t say anything further. I let Einstein out the back and went inside. Diggs didn’t follow me. When I looked back at him from the front door, he was still sitting in the driver’s seat, hands on the wheel, watching me with frustration and worry and that tangle of emotions that had been tripping us up for years now.
I turned my back on him and went inside alone.
It was just after eight when I woke up the next morning, and Diggs and Juarez were both long gone. I showered and dressed and tried not to think about my fight with Diggs the night before, or the fact that he seemed to be sleeping even less than I was, or how justified he was in being pissed at me. Which meant, of course, that I just thought about it more.
I’d been visiting Maine the last time I saw Diggs, ostensibly covering a story on one of the neighboring islands in Penobscot Bay. I was three months pregnant at the time—though I hadn’t shared that with Diggs. Or my husband, for that matter. I had also neglected to tell anyone about the unexpected windfall that resulted from Malcolm Payson’s death. I didn’t mention inheriting Payson Isle, or the discovery of the photos Noel Hammond had taken. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, and I sure as hell wasn’t talking.
An OBGYN would probably have caught the fact that the pregnancy was ectopic weeks earlier; that diagnosis was complicated by the fact that I never actually
an OBGYN, however. Diggs got a call from Michael after my fallopian tube burst, telling him they weren’t sure I’d make it. He drove down to Boston that night. I was unconscious when he got there, and just coming around when he left forty-eight hours later.
So… In all fairness, Diggs’ concern wasn’t completely unjustified. I just wished he’d stop worrying and leave me be. I’d survived the miscarriage and my subsequent divorce, and now for the first time, there was nothing stopping me from learning the truth behind the Payson fire. I could dig as deeply as I wanted, work as long and as hard as I liked, and answer to no one while I was doing it. Unless, of course, Diggs kept up his self-appointed role as my Great Protector.
By the time I got to Augusta that morning, I’d convinced myself that whatever it took to get the information I needed was worth it. If that meant I had to shut Diggs out of the investigation, so be it. I parked outside the Maine State Sheriff’s Barracks, locked my car, and went inside with renewed focus.
Sergeant Bill Flint had the square jaw and the piercing blue eyes of a Hollywood action hero. We met in his office, a concrete enclave in the back corner of a larger concrete enclave that housed the Sheriff’s Barracks. Five minutes after he showed me in and mysteriously vanished, he returned with two cans of Coke and a box of files. He set the box on a card table in the corner of the room, where I’d already seated myself.
“Sorry,” he said, indicating the soda. “I’m trying to quit, but we got called in at midnight for a house fire in Lewiston. All-nighters don’t come as easy as they used to.”
Laugh lines and graying at his temples suggested the sergeant was in his fifties. The hint of shadow under his eyes and the faintest hint of stubble nudged the action hero mythos a shade closer to icon status. Between Diggs, Juarez, and Captain America here, it was getting damned difficult to stay focused.
“No need to apologize—I just appreciate you meeting with me. These are the files?”
“You lucked out. We had an intern here yesterday, so I had him photocopy what you’ll need. We won’t have time to go through all of it, I’m sure, but you can take the copies back with you. The ME will have the autopsy reports over in the crime lab archives—I’ve already put in a call. They’re expecting you.”
Working as a reporter in Boston, I’d gotten used to being stonewalled at every turn. This new spirit of openness and cooperation was unnerving.
“Thank you. I was hoping to ask a few questions, as well. Diggs told me you were on the scene—I know it was a while ago, but I was hoping you might remember a few details.”
He looked amused.
“That’s funny?” I asked.
“Sorry,” he said quickly. “Diggs told me your connection to the fire—believe me, I don’t think it’s funny at all. It’s just that we’ve all gone over the case so many times that I think even our newbies could walk you through it, point by point. Everyone here’s been trained on the details, using it as an example of what
to do in an emergency.”
I assumed my poker face, sensing a lead. “There were problems that night?”
“Not from this office,” he assured me. “The Fire Marshal and the other agencies did a great job of handling the investigation and the inevitable fallout, considering it was a situation no one had been remotely prepared for.”
I didn’t say anything. I was crossing into dangerous territory—even twenty years after the fact, any government agency would do its best to protect its own. Flint seemed to sense my skepticism, however. He leaned forward.
“I spoke with Fire Marshal Cooper this morning, before meeting with you. He was clear on one thing: he wants you to have access to whatever you need in your investigation. We did a good job on that case—or as good as we could, considering what was handed to us. You can ask me anything, Ms. Solomon, and I’ll do my best to give you whatever answers I have. I’m confident that any issues you might find with the way the investigation was conducted, the fault won’t lie with this department.”
“So where do you think the fault
He grinned—a broad, boyish smile that made me like him that much more. “I guess that’s the question, isn’t it? But if you’re looking to lay blame, you don’t need to look much farther than your hometown.”
“They were first on the scene. And while I know small town fire departments are sometimes lacking in training and equipment, that doesn’t really explain what we found when we got out to the island.”
I slipped a digital recorder from my bag and set it in the center of the table. Flint stood and closed the door, then returned to his seat. I waited until he’d taken a long pull from his Coke, and switched on the recorder.
“Would you mind walking me through what you found when you first arrived on the scene?” I asked.
I leaned back, giving him space, and he began.
“Because it’d been a dry summer that year, everyone was pretty maxed out by the time August rolled around—lots of brush fires, that kind of thing. I was new in the department. I’d trained as a fireman, then went through the Academy and got a degree in criminal science before I wound up here. Still, there’s not a lot of training short of the battlefield that can prepare you for something like the Payson fire.
“The first we heard of it was the afternoon of Wednesday, August 22
. The reports were conflicting—somebody from the volunteer fire department in the next town said there was a fire out on one of the islands, but then we got another call from the Littlehope fire chief saying that everything was under control.”
“What time did you get that call?” I asked.
Flint checked his notes. “That came in early that afternoon—around noon.”
“And Joe Ashmont was the fire chief then, right?”
He nodded grimly.
“And he told you that the Fire Marshal wouldn’t be needed for the Payson fire? That would mean he told you there were no casualties out on the island, wouldn’t it?”
This earned another nod. “We’re charged with investigating any fire that results in a death, whether accidental or otherwise. So, yes—if Ashmont told us we wouldn’t be needed, he was basically saying the fire was harmless. Everyone was okay. He made it out to sound like a brush fire that had gotten a little out of hand.”
“What time did you finally get the call saying you
be needed out there?”
“At four o’clock that afternoon, we got a call from a volunteer fireman summering in Littlehope.”
“Noel Hammond,” I said.
“Right. Hammond put in the call, and because we’d already been getting conflicting information all day, we had an idea that something was up. Until we heard from him, we had no idea what a large-scale investigation would be required. And no clue of the number of fatalities, of course.”
“So, how long did it take you to get to the island?”
“There were a number of different agencies involved—the ME’s office, State police, criminal investigations, the Fire Marshal… To get everyone out there, we had to pull in Marine Patrol. It took all night and part of the next day before everybody was on the same page and we were all headed out to Payson Isle.”
“So, early afternoon on the 23
?” I asked.
“Around eleven o’clock.”
“And what did you find when you got out there?”
He scratched his chin. Eased back in his seat, something distant in his blue eyes. I had the sense that he was no longer seeing me, was no longer rooted in the safety of the barracks.
“The fire was out by then, of course. A few people had stayed on the island overnight to make sure no new fires sprung up—that can happen sometimes. You’ll think a fire’s dead, but it’s just waiting for a little breathing room before it comes back to life. So, there were a few people on watch.”
“Do you remember who?”
He checked his notes again. “Ashmont, of course. The town constable—Matt Perkins. Hammond was there. And there was a doctor there, too—Katherine Everett.”
My mother. I tried not to show my surprise.
“And the scene itself? What did you see when you got there? What was your initial reaction?”
“Horror. I can’t even begin to describe…” He stopped suddenly, his eyes on me. “But I don’t really need to tell you that, do I?” he asked, his tone softer now. When I didn’t respond, he continued. “It was the kind of thing you hope you never see. Everything burned to the ground. Bodies and rubble swept up and cast to the side.”
The description triggered something in me—a memory buried so deep that I’d thought it would never surface again. Crawling through soaked grass, inching closer to the fire. Blackened bodies. A hand with fingers curled as though beckoning me.
“I’m sorry—I was just…” I shook my head. “Sorry. You said the bodies were swept to the side. That’s not the way they would have fallen though, would they?”
He smiled, just slightly. “Diggs said you were good. No—they wouldn’t have fallen that way. They
fallen that way. Sometime between when the fire was put out and the time we got there, Ashmont took it upon himself to clean things up a little.”
“He stacked the bodies?” The image sent a chill straight through me.
“He stacked the bodies, raked the debris, and didn’t take so much as a Polaroid to give to the investigative team.”
“How could he get away with that? He calls and blatantly lies to dispatch saying the Fire Marshal wouldn’t be needed on the scene, breaks protocol, destroys evidence… How did he not get in trouble for any of this?”
“He did get in some—they forced his resignation, from what I recall. But it was hard to prove intent… He said he’d just been confused when he put that first call in and hadn’t realized how bad things were, and then things got too chaotic to follow up.”
“And the others who were there—Hammond and Perkins, Dr. Everett… They all corroborated his story?”
“That was the major reason we never prosecuted. Between you and me, it was a bullshit story and everybody knew it, but you’ve got four respected members of the community insisting that that’s what happened. Short of an eye witness to say otherwise, there wasn’t much anybody could do.”
We spoke for another half hour before Flint had given me all the details he could remember, and I was ready to end the interview. Beyond his description of those first impressions of the scene, there weren’t a lot of surprises. The investigative team had set up camp on the island for several days, which I had known, with the ME conducting cursory exams of the bodies on site before the remains were returned to the mainland.
Before I said goodbye and prepared for an afternoon with the ME to follow up on their findings, I stood at the door with Flint and asked a final question.