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Authors: George Fong

Fragmented

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George Fong

 

FRAGMENTED

 

www.outofthegutteronline.com

www.gutterbooks.com

FRAGMENTED

Copyright © 2014 by George Fong

Cover design by Matthew Louis/Outland Grafix

Edited by Joe Clifford

This is a work of fiction in which all names, characters, places and events are imaginary. Where names of actual celebrities, organizations and corporate entities are used, they’re used for fictional purposes and don’t constitute actual assertions of fact. No resemblance to anyone or anything real is intended, nor should it be inferred.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the written consent of the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts for the purpose of review or promotion.

Visit www.gutterbooks.com for other titles and submission guidelines.

Printed in the
USA

 

To my wife, Rebecca, my children, Kyle and

Rachel . . . and Sparky, the town greeter.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

Many thanks to:

Author Robin Burcell, for taking a moment back in 2004 when, during a difficult time in my life, I sent her an email asking about the art of writing. And she answered! From that point on, I was introduced to the world’s best people: mystery writers. Thank you, Sheldon Siegel, for letting me be a part of the Book Passage’s Mystery Writer’s Conference every year, which gave me the opportunity to learn from published authors and help me be part of their club. To Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, owners of one of the world’s finest independent bookstores, Book Passage—for hosting the annual conference and their continued support and encouragement.

To the writers who’ve spent countless hours with me—talking, reading, editing, (not to mention drinking!), and of course pushing me forward in this wonderful endeavor: Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Don Winslow, David Corbett, Kirk Russell, Cornelia Read, and PF Chang’s Platinum member customer, Tim Maleeny.

To the wonderful Kimberley Cameron of the Kimberley Cameron Literary Agency. Thank you for your patience and tireless advocacy. To my editor Joe Clifford, a phenomenal writer in his own right, who spent many days making me understand the meaning of “less is more.”(Read his books. It will make you hug your child.)

To all the law enforcement officers I had the great pleasure of working with over my twenty-seven years as a federal agent. What I learned from these interactions gave me the stories and life experiences I will always remember (and wish upon no other person).

And to my family. To my beautiful wife, Rebecca, for letting me work, write, and (sometimes) pass on taking out the garbage. To my children, Kyle and Rachel, who have survived listening to my war stories. Without their patience, support, and understanding, I never would have made it.

FRAGMENTED

 
 

1

 
 

Chico Police Department

 

October 1999 –

 

The smell
was a combination of smoke and charred skin.

Detective Jeff Iverson remembered the first time he was exposed to it. He was a rookie cop, responding to a warehouse fire. Pulling up to the scene, he could hear the crying sound of a frantic dog over the yelping police sirens. By the time the fire department put out the massive blaze, the poor animal was smoldering and blackened stiff. It had a sharp odor, like bad meat left too long on the broiler. He couldn’t take his eyes off the charred remains; sad to think just how horribly the dog must have suffered.

Today was different. It wasn’t a dog that burned.

As soon as Alvin Cooper walked into the small interview room at the Chico Police Department, the odor hit Iverson immediately. He pushed the back of his hand against the front of his nose to stave off the acrid smell, but it did little to help. He couldn’t stop himself from coughing up the foul air that invaded his lungs from the soot floating around Cooper, the only survivor of a devastating fire.

Cooper was slouched low in a hard, plastic chair inside the interview room. It was only hours past
, the sun far from rising. An
EMS
blanket draped across Cooper’s shoulders, the dark blue wool still matted with broken twigs and fallen leaves that came from his front lawn. His short, blond hair tangled above his head like loose hay. The splash of coffee left at the bottom of the Styrofoam cup perched in front of Cooper had gone cold, almost three hours old. Cooper rarely made a movement, his stare fixated on some invisible spot on the table. It’s what people do when they’ve lost everything.

Iverson kept his eyes on his notebook, not wanting to stare at Cooper. It’s never comfortable, two people sitting in a small room, void of conversation, having the only thing in common being a tragic event. He could tell Cooper was aware of his presence because every so often he would look up and give Iverson a look that said, Why are we still here? There were still a few facts he needed to gather. He had already collected the basics but knew his task force partner would have additional questions before calling it a night.

“You said you couldn’t sleep?” Iverson asked.

Cooper nodded, his head hanging low over the table. “I tried but everything kept me awake.” Cooper reached up and massaged his face with both hands without realizing he was smearing black soot deep into his skin. “I remember hearing a dog bark and the wind rustling through the trees.”

“You had a lot on your mind?”

Cooper again nodded. “Work. Of all the nights to think about something so unimportant.”

Iverson grunted, trying to sound empathetic. “When did you first notice the fire?” Iverson started flipping back a few pages in his notebook, scanning for something Cooper had said earlier in the interview. “You said you were already downstairs when you saw the flames. Do you remember how long?”

Cooper paused for a moment, as if running the series of events through his head. He was tired and distraught. In a matter of minutes, his whole life went up in flames and now he was trying to account for each and every detail as if this were a test. He dug his fingers into his forehead as if he could tear out the memory of what had just happened. A tear slid down his cheek and fell to the Formica top, marking it with a dark droplet the color of gray ink. “I went downstairs to pour myself something to drink.”

Iverson interrupted. “You told me you went downstairs to watch TV.”

“Yeah, both.”

“Sorry. Go on.”

“I walked into the kitchen, opened up the refrigerator and grabbed the milk. Then I remember walking to the living room and sitting down in my chair.”

“The smoke, Mr. Cooper. How long were you watching TV before you noticed the smoke?”

Cooper’s head rocked side to side. “I don’t remember. I only remember the flames. Bright flames all around me. I could have fallen asleep and then woke up to the flames. I just can’t remember. I didn’t know what to do. I panicked.”

Iverson reached over and patted Cooper on the arm. “Take it easy, it will be all right. I’m sorry we have to go through this but we want to get all the facts while it’s still fresh in your mind.”

Cooper’s head slid out of his hand. He folded his arms on top of the table and buried his face in them. His body jerked in spasms as tears started to form a puddle of black below his face. “Two for one,” he said to himself. “God I’d do it. Two for one.”

“I don’t understand.”

He lifted his head and used his blanket to wipe his bloodshot eyes. Cooper reached across the table, grabbing a hold of Iverson’s arm desperately. “As the saying goes,” he confessed. “Two for one.”

Iverson remained quiet, keeping his stare on Cooper.

“I would trade my life for my wife’s and my daughter’s, right now.”

Iverson’s eyes sagged. The wife was trapped upstairs in the bedroom. His daughter never woke up. They found his wife’s body crumpled up by the bedroom door, his daughter’s still in her bed.

Cooper buried his face in both hands. “Take me, God. Take me in trade.”

“Everything’s going to be okay.”

Cooper’s gaze drifted slowly above his hands, in Iverson’s direction. “You think everything’s going to be okay?”

Iverson felt the pang of guilt. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“My wife and daughter were burned alive. They burned, for God’s sake.” Cooper’s hands fell hard onto the table. The Styrofoam cup took a hop then tipped over, the remnants spilling, mixing with the soot and tears. “And I did nothing to save them.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Cooper.”

That’s all Iverson could think to say. Alvin Cooper’s entire world died four hours ago in a tragic accident. From what Iverson could surmise, it was probably the main gas line. Broke, leaked. The gas stove pilot set it off. It wouldn’t be the first time in these older homes. Cooper woke after falling asleep in front of the television, became confused and disoriented. He stumbled out the front door, choking on the thick smoke and passed out, far enough away so that he wasn’t consumed by the fire, unlike his family. Lucky him.

“I would trade places with them, I swear I would.”

“I know,” Iverson replied.

The minute hand on the clock rolled straight up. Three in the morning. Iverson fought back a yawn. The buzzing sound coming from the florescent lights in the ceiling was disrupted by the clank of the door hinge. Iverson sat up. Cooper remained lost in his own thoughts.

Iverson didn’t get a chance to reach for the door handle before FBI Special Agent Jack Paris entered the small room. He had a manila folder in one hand and a small plastic bag in the other. Jack looked over at Cooper then over at Iverson.

“Okay to join in?”

Iverson nodded, adding a sigh of relief that his partner had finally arrived, hopefully bringing this day to an end.

Jack pushed the empty chair away from the table and then slid into the seat, shifting his position in order to face Cooper directly. He opened the folder, exposing a report from the on-scene fire investigator, and placed the plastic bag gently next to the folder. Inside the bag was a very small flat box with a picture imprinted on top.

Jack looked over at Iverson. “You get all the details?”

Iverson nodded and tapped at his notebook with his pen.

“Good.”

Jack sat back in his chair but kept his stare on Cooper. It took a minute of silence before Cooper looked up at Jack, letting go of a deep sigh.

Cooper said, “What more do you want from me?”

Jack raised a hand, like he didn’t mean to upset him. “I know it’s late. I’m sorry for keeping you here so long but I want to cover a few facts before we stop. It won’t take long.”

Cooper’s eyes fell shut as he discriminantly waved a hand. “Fine, I’ve got no place to go.”

“You told Detective Iverson you got out of bed because you couldn’t sleep?”

Cooper kept his gaze on the table. “Yes.”

“And so you went downstairs . . . to pour yourself a drink.”

“Yes, yes, a glass of milk.”

“Then, turned on the TV.”

Cooper lifted his head and looked at Jack. “That’s right. Why are we going over this again? I told you all of this already.”

“Bear with me.” Jack picked up the folder, flipped through a few pages and then let the folder drop back onto the table. “The fire. You said the first thing you saw when you awoke were the flames.”

“Yes.” Cooper’s voice was becoming agitated.

“Along the stairs, is that correct?”

Pause. “I think so. They were all around me. I can’t be sure if they were in front of the stairs or not. I just know the whole house was on fire.”

“You told Detective Iverson the stairs. That’s why you couldn’t go up to get your wife and child.” Jack turned his head and looked over at Iverson.

Iverson flipped back a few pages and read from the notes he took a few hours earlier: “I couldn’t get up the stairs. They were totally engulfed. I couldn’t go up to save my family.”

“That’s right,” Cooper responded. “The stairs were on fire. The whole fucking house was on fire.”

“No, I don’t think that’s what you originally said. You said the stairs were on fire.”

“The stairs, the living room, the hallway. The whole place.”

“But if the whole place was on fire, how did you get out without even a burn mark?” Jack stood and walked over to Cooper, pushed back the blanket to expose Cooper’s pajamas. “Those are cotton. They’re covered in soot but not a singe. How do you explain that?”

Cooper’s jaw tightened. He slammed the table with his fist. “I don’t know. Why does this matter?”

“Because it doesn’t make sense. Conflicting statements, no burn marks….” Before Cooper had a chance to respond, Jack continued. “This is the fire investigator’s report. It’s only preliminary but according to them, the fire started from outside, along a row of Japanese boxwood.” Jack leaned forward. “That would be right in front next to the entryway door.”

Cooper remained silent.

“The fire went hot and fast. That means there had to be an accelerant used. Your garage. There were three empty gas containers in there.” Jack paused a moment to study Cooper’s reaction. There was none. “The fire then made its way into the house, starting in the living room, then moving toward the back. Toward the stairway, as you stated.”

Again, Cooper remained silent.

“How were you able to make it out the door when that’s where the fire originated from? I mean, at that point, the whole front of the house would have been totally engulfed. You would have turned to charcoal trying to get through there.”

“Maybe I didn’t go out the front door,” Cooper said. “I was confused. Maybe I went out the back?”

“No, that’s not what you said. You said the front door. You were very clear about that.”

Iverson remembered Cooper’s original statement: “Front door, that’s what he said.”

“Front door, back door, I just got out.” More tears welled up in his eyes. “My family. My family died.”

“Then there was this.” Jack picked up the plastic bag. He held it up in front of Cooper’s face, close enough to read the markings. “It’s a matchbook.”

BOOK: Fragmented
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