Fire and Ashes - Chapter 1
Five fire engines, two ladder trucks, a portable light truck, a battalion chief’s van, and what looked like every cop car in Chouteau County were fighting this fire. Death investigator Angela Richman knew it was already too late—she was summoned only for death. Tonight, someone had died in that blazing building, choked by the smoke and seared by those flames. Angela oversaw the bodies at Chouteau County crime scenes or unattended deaths. The death investigator reported to the county medical examiner.
Who was it? Angela didn’t know yet. The detective’s call was cryptic: “Luther Ridley Delor’s house is on fire. One body so far. They’re bringing it out. Get over there now.” Seventy-year-old Luther called himself a financier to take away the sting of how his family made a trainload of money: running a nationwide chain of payday loan companies. People—especially desperate ones—knew the slogan “You get more with Delor.” Was the old man dead? Was the victim his young fiancée? Or did a friend or servant die in that hellish fire?
Angela prayed there was only one victim. She’d expected this death. This was the third major fire in the county in two weeks. Fear smoldered beneath the comfortable surface of Chouteau Forest, Missouri, the biggest town in the county. Chouteau County was a ten-square-mile preserve for the 1 percent and those who served them, about thirty miles west of Saint Louis.
The blaze was in Olympia Forest Estates, an exclusive development built five years ago. That made it brand-new compared with the county’s extravagant old-money mansions: robber barons’ Romanesque castles, English country houses, and Bavarian hunting lodges built at the turn of the last century. Olympia’s brick-and-stone houses seemed subdued after those architectural fancies, but they were still luxurious. Thanks to relentless advertising, everyone knew their prices—three to five million—and their amenities.
Angela, still recovering from six strokes, brain surgery, and a coma at the fairly young age of forty-one, leaned on her cane behind the yellow caution-tape barrier while she tried to spot the best route through the shifting, smoking chaos. She’d trundled her death investigator kit—a black rolling suitcase—across the water-soaked street. Her plain black pantsuit kept her warm in the chilly May night, and her flat, black lace-up shoes helped her navigate the treacherous ground.
Hastily dressed gawkers had gathered in the cul-de-sac outside the burning house. Angela stood next to a scrawny-legged, bald man in blue boxers and sandals and tried not to look at his pale, flabby chest. She knew him: Ollie Champlain. Ollie lived on stale bar snacks and martinis at the Forest Country Club.
“Woo-eee!” Ollie said. “You can almost smell the money burning. That’s Luther’s house.”
Dread seized Angela. Now that she heard Luther’s name, the death was real. The Forest “financier” had created a major scandal at age seventy. He’d left his wife of forty years for Kendra Graciela Salvato, a twenty-year-old manicurist. Luther’s wife was fighting the divorce, but he’d given Kendra an engagement ring with a diamond bigger than Delaware and swore they’d marry as soon as he was free.
“Don’t be disgusting,” said a worried woman clutching her long, baggy plaid bathrobe. “The smell is horrible.”
Angela caught the toxic stink of melting plastic mixed with the stomach-turning stench of burned meat and hair. The flames were eating the victim’s body.
Ollie refused to be shamed. He acted as if the fatal fire were staged for his entertainment. “Look at the firefighters taking axes to that bay window. I can hear the corks popping in that thousand-bottle wine room.”
“Humph,” Plaid Bathrobe said. “The way Luther drinks, I doubt he could keep a thousand bottles.”
“He was definitely pissed tonight,” Ollie said. “I watched him stagger home with his little Mexican cutie. Kendra had to help him inside the house. It was fun watching her in that tight white dress. Luther was too drunk to walk into his house, much less run out of it. Jeez, I hope that’s not her burning in that house. What a waste of a fine p—” Plaid Bathrobe glared him into changing his crude words. “A fine young woman,” he continued. “The Rhinestone Cowboy’s a shriveled old coot. I hope she gets out alive.”
The Forest residents secretly laughed at Luther’s garish outfits. The liver-spotted financier dressed like a drugstore cowboy, from his black Stetson with the diamond hatband to his tight, western-cut jeans flared to fit over his handmade Lucchese boots. Luther’s rhinestone-studded shirts sparkled. Angela rather liked his style.
“I hope they both get out alive,” Plaid Bathrobe said, her tight gray curls bobbing in disapproval.
“The firefighters are going to have a hard time searching Luther’s place to save him and Kendra,” Ollie said. “It has four or five bedrooms.”
“At least they don’t have to search a thirty-room mansion,” Plaid Bathrobe said. “A house in Olympia Forest is downsizing for Luther. He left the Delor estate that’s been in his family since the 1890s to move in with that woman. They never entertain, and it’s no big secret why. No decent person would visit or invite them. She may get lost in that big place. Her house was practically a shack.”
“What time did you see Luther and Kendra come home?” Angela asked.
“About nine o’clock tonight,” Plaid Bathrobe said. “I’m Elvira Smythe. I heard the sirens a little after midnight. My husband slept through it all. He’s still asleep.”
Angela took out her iPad. Both these people had information she might be able to use about the body she’d be examining.
“I wonder if he set his place on fire with one of his cigars,” Mrs. Smythe said.
“No, it was the arsonist,” Ollie said. “Had to be.”
“Whoever he is, he’s destroying only the best neighborhoods,” Mrs. Smythe said. “There hasn’t been a fire in Toonerville yet. That’s where she’s from.”
Mike Peters, a blond cop who looked like a cute country boy, came out from behind the yellow tape barrier. “Okay, people, let’s go home. The blaze is under control. It’s safe to return to your houses.”
“I think I will go back inside,” Mrs. Smythe said, pulling her plaid bathrobe closer. “It’s cool, even if it is May.”
“Good idea, ma’am,” the cop said.
“I see some friends over there.” Scrawny Ollie practically sprinted toward a group across the street.
The cop turned to Angela. “Hey, Angela, are you working?”
“Afraid so. I got the call from Ray Greiman. I was waiting for the smoke to shift so I could see my way through.”
“I’ll escort you.” He lifted the yellow tape, and Angela ducked her ponytailed head under it. “Watch your step—that’s broken glass and slippery mud. Glad you’re dressed for work. How are you feeling? You had quite a battle not too long ago.”
“A year ago last March. Six strokes, brain surgery, and a coma. Three months in the hospital, including physical therapy.”
“You’ve made an amazing recovery.”
“It’s been a long road back. I’m glad to be working again.”
“And looking good, too.” He smiled at her. “I don’t suppose . . .” He stopped.
Uh-oh, she thought. The newly widowed Angela still wore her wedding ring, hoping it would ward off any potential dates—but even married women get hit on.
Mike seemed to gather his courage, and the words tumbled out in a rush. “I don’t suppose you go out with cops?”
“I would, Mike, but I’m not ready to date yet. It’s too soon.”
“I understand. But when you’re ready, I’m here.”
“Thanks.” She smiled and changed the subject. “Do you know who’s dead? Is it Kendra or Luther? Is anyone else inside?”
“Don’t know. I just got here, and they put me to work keeping out the ghouls. The firefighters found a body in the upstairs bedroom. I hope it’s not Kendra. She’s a pretty thing. They’ll be bringing out the body shortly.”
See what happens next...