Playing With Fire – 2004

Playing with fire

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Press Reviews


Mist clung to the blackened ruins of the two barges as Banks, crime scene photographer Peter Darby, SOCO Terry Bradford, and FIO Geoff Hamilton climbed into their protective clothing, having been given the green light to inspect the scene by the station officer, who was officially in charge. Annie stood watching them, wrapped tight in her greatcoat.
“This isn’t too difficult or dangerous a scene,” Hamilton said. “There’s no ceiling left to fall on us, and we’re not likely to sink or fall in. Watch how you go, though. The floor is wooden boards over a steel shell, and the wood may have burned through in places. It’s not a closed space, so there should be no problem with air quality, but you’ll still have to wear particle masks. There’s nasty stuff in that ash. We’ll be stirring some of it up, and you don’t want it in your lungs.” Banks thought about all the tobacco smoke he’d put in his lungs over the years and reached for the mask.
“Got a film in your camera?” Hamilton asked Peter Darby.
Darby managed a smile.
“Thirty-five mill colour. Okay?”
“Fine. And remember, keep the video running and take photos from all angles. The bodies will probably be covered with debris, and I want photos taken before and after I remove it. Also, photograph all possible exits, and I want you to pay particular attention to any hot spots or possible sources when I tell you. Okay?”
“Basically every square foot, at least twice, while videotaping the entire search.”
“You’ve got it. Let’s go.”
Darby shouldered his equipment.
“And I don’t want any of you under my feet,” Hamilton grumbled. “There’s already too many of us going over this scene.”
Banks had heard the complaint before. The fire investigation officer wanted as few people as possible on the boats to lessen the chance of destroying evidence already in a fragile state, but he needed police and SOCO presence, someone to bag the evidence. Not to mention the photographer.
Banks adjusted his particle mask. Terry Bradford picked up his bulky accessory bag, and they entered the scene, starting with Tom’s barge. Bank felt a surge of absolute fear as he stepped onto the charred wood. One thing he had never told anyone was that he was terrified of fire. Ever since one particular scene back when he was on the Met, he’d had recurring nightmares about being trapped on a high floor of a burning building. This wasn’t so bad, he told himself, as there were no flames, only soggy debris, but even so, the mere thought of the flames licking up the walls and crackling as they burned everything in their way still frightened him.
“Go carefully,” Hamilton said. “It’s easy to destroy evidence at a fire scene because you can’t see that it is evidence. Fortunately, most of the water the fire hoses sprayed has drained over the side, so you won’t be ankle deep in cold water.”
All Banks knew, as he forced himself to be detached and concentrate on the job at hand, was that a fire scene was unique and presented a number of problems he simply didn’t encounter at other crime scenes. Not only was fire itself incredibly destructive, but the act of putting out a fire is destructive, too. Before Banks and Hamilton got to examine the barges, the firefighters had been there first and had probably trampled valuable evidence in their attempts to save lives. The damage may have been minimized this time because the firefighter who spotted possible signs of arson had some knowledge of fire investigation techniques, and he knew they had to preserve the scene as best they could.
But of everything, Banks thought, it was probably the sheer level of destruction caused by fire that was the most disturbing and problematic. Fire totally destroys many things and renders others unrecognizable. Banks remembered from the warehouse fire how burned and twisted objects that looked like nothing he had ever seen before-like those old contests where you’re supposed to identify an everyday object photographed from an unusual angle-had definite shape and identity to Hamilton, who could pick up a black, shapeless thing, like something from a Dali painting, and identify it as an empty tin, a cigarette lighter or even a melted wine-glass.
The barge was about thirty or thirty-five feet long. Most of the wooden roof and sides were burned away now, exposing the innards as a maze of blackened and distorted debris-sofas, shelving, bed, chest of drawers, ceiling–all charred by the flames and waterlogged from the firefighters’ hoses. One part of the room looked as if it had been dominated by a bookcase, and Banks could see soggy volumes lying on the floor. He couldn’t smell the place now, through his mask, but he’d smelled it from the canal side, and the acrid odour of burned plastic, rubber and cloth still stuck in his memory. As most of the windows had exploded, and the stairs and doors had burned away, it was impossible to tell if anyone had forced access.
Banks walked carefully behind Hamilton, who would stop every now and then to make a quick sketch or examine something, instructing Terry Bradford to pop something into one of his evidence bags. The three of them moved slowly through the ruins. Banks could hear the whir of the camcorder, which he held while Peter Darby took still photographs on Hamilton’s instructions.
“This looks to be where it started,” said Hamilton as soon as they got to the centre of the living-quarters.
Banks could see that the fire damage here was greater and the charring went deeper in certain areas than anywhere else they had seen yet, in places running in deep channels, pooling. They had to go slowly to make their way through all the debris littering the floor. Hamilton’s voice was muffled by his mask, but Banks could make out the words clearly enough. “This is the main seat. You can see that the burning on the floor is more severe than that on the underside of this piece of roofing.” He held up a piece of partially burned wood. “Fire moves upwards, so the odds are that it started at the lowest point with the worst degree of burning. This is it.” Hamilton took off his mask and instructed Banks to do the same. Banks did so.
“Smell anything?” Hamilton asked.
Amidst the mingled odours of ash and rubber, Banks thought he could smell something familiar.
“Turps,” he said.
Hamilton took a small gadget from his accessory bag, bent and pointed a tube at the floor. “It’s a hydrocarbon detector, technically known as a ‘sniffer,’ he explained. “It should tell us whether accelerant has been used and.” He flicked a switch. “Indeed it has.”
Hamilton instructed Terry Bradford to use his trowel and shovel two or three litres of debris into a doubled nylon bag and seal it tight. “For the gas chromatograph,” he said, sending Bradford to other parts of the room to do the same thing. “It looks as if it’s multi-seated,” he explained. “If you look at the pattern of burning closely, you can see more than one fire occurred in this room, linked by those deeply charred narrow channels, or ‘streamers,’ as they’re called.”
Banks knew that a multi-seated fire was an indication of arson, but he also knew he wouldn’t get Hamilton to admit it yet. Peter Darby handed him the camcorder and clicked away with his Pentax.
“Hasn’t the water the firefighters used got rid of any traces of accelerant?” Darby asked.
“Contrary to what you might imagine,” said Hamilton, “water cools and slows the process down. It actually preserves traces of accelerant. Believe me, if any was used, and the sniffer indicates that it was, then it’ll be present in this debris, bits of carpet and floorboards.”
Terry Bradford bent to remove some debris and uncovered the mostly blackened human shape that lay twisted on its stomach on the floor. It was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman at first, but Banks assumed it was most likely the man known to Mark only as “Tom.” Though he looked quite short in stature, Banks knew that fires did strange and unpredictable things to the human body. A few tufts of reddish hair still clung to the cracked skull, and in some places the fire had burned away all the flesh, leaving the bone exposed. It was still possible to make out patches of a blue denim shirt on the victim’s back, and he was clearly wearing jeans. Banks felt slightly sick behind his particle mask.
“That’s odd,” said Hamilton, stooping to look at the body more closely.
“What?” said Banks.
“People usually fall on their backs when they’re overcome by flames or smoke inhalation,” Hamilton explained. “That’s why you often see the knees and fists raised in the ‘pugilistic’ attitude. It’s caused by the contraction of the muscles in the sudden heat of the blaze. Look, you can see the pooling where the accelerant trickled into the cracks of the floor around the body. Probably under it, too. The charring’s much deeper around there and there’s far more general destruction.”
“Tell me something,” said Banks. “Would he have had time to escape if he’d been conscious and alert when the fire started?”
“Hard to say,” said Hamilton. “He’s on his stomach, and his head is pointing towards the source of the fire. If he’d been trying to escape, he’d most likely have been running or crawling away, towards the exit.”
“But could he have got out, if he’d seen it coming?”
“We know a part of the ceiling fell on him. Maybe that happened before he could escape. Maybe he was drugged, or drunk. Who knows? You’ll not get me speculating on this. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait till the post mortem and toxicology screens for answers to your questions.”
“Any signs of a container or igniter?”
“There are plenty of possible containers,” said Hamilton, “but not one with ACCELERANT written in capital letters on it. They’ll all have to be tested. Odds are he used a match as an igniter, and sadly there won’t be anything left of that by now.”
“Deliberate, then?”
“I’m not committing myself yet, but I don’t like the looks of it. It’s hard to predict what happens with fires. Maybe he was drunk and spilled some accelerant on his clothes and set fire to himself and panicked. People do, you know. I’ve seen it before. And smoke inhalation can cause disorientation and confusion. Sometimes it looks as if people have run into the flames rather than away from them. Let’s just call it doubtful origin for now, okay?”
Banks looked at the blackened figure. “If the doctor can tell us anything from what’s left of him.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Hamilton. “Rarely is a body so badly damaged by fire that a good pathologist can’t get something out of it. You’ll be having Dr. Glendenning, I imagine?”
Banks nodded.
“One of the best.” Hamilton instructed Terry Bradford to take more samples, then they moved towards the bow of the barge, to the point where it almost touched its neighbour’s stern. They waited while Peter Darby changed the film in his camera and the cassette in his camcorder.
“Look at this,” Hamilton said, pointing to a clearly discernible strip of deeply charred wood that started in the living-quarters, near the main seat, and continued to the bow, then over to the stern and living quarters of the other boat. “Another streamer,” he said. “A line of accelerant to spread a fire from one place to another. In this case, from one barge to another.”
“So whoever did this wanted to burn both barges?”
“It looks like it.” Hamilton frowned. “But it’s not very much. Just one narrow streamer. It’s like.I don’t know.a flick of the wrist. Not enough. An afterthought.”
“What are you getting at?”
“I don’t know. But if someone had really wanted to make sure of destroying the second boat and anyone on it-and I’m not saying that’s what happened-then he could have done a more thorough job.”
“Maybe he didn’t have time?” said Banks.
“Or he ran out of accelerant.”
“Again, it’s a possible explanation,” said Hamilton. “Or maybe he simply wanted to confuse the issue. Either way, it cost another life.”
The body lay wrapped in a charred sleeping-bag. Despite some blistering on her face, Banks could see that it was the body of a young girl. Her expression was peaceful enough, and if she had died of smoke inhalation, she would never have felt the fire scorching her cheeks and burning her sleeping bag. She had a metal stud just below her lower lip, and Banks imagined that would have heated up in the fire too, explaining the more deeply burned skin radiating in a circle around it. He hoped she hadn’t felt that, either. One charred arm lay outside the sleeping-bag beside what looked like the remains of a portable CD player.
“The body should be fairly well preserved inside the sleeping-bag,” Hamilton said. “They’re usually made of flame-resistant material. And look at those blisters on the face.”
“What do they mean?” Banks asked. “Blistering is usually a sign that the victim was alive when the fire started.” Making sure that Peter Darby had already videotaped and photographed the entire scene, Hamilton bent and picked up two objects from the floor beside her.
“What are they?” Banks asked.
“Can’t say for certain,” he said, “but I think one’s a syringe and the other ‘s a spoon.” He handed them to Terry Bradford, who put them into evidence bags, taking a cork from his accessory bag first, and sticking it over the needle’s point. “The fire’s sure to have sterilized it,” he said, “but you can’t be too careful handling needles.”
Hamilton bent and scraped something from the floor beside the sleeping-bag and Bradford put it in another bag. “Looks like she was using a candle,” Hamilton said. “Probably to heat up whatever it was she injected. If I wasn’ t so certain the fire started on the other barge, I’d say that it could have been a possible cause. I’ve seen it more than once, a junkie nodding off and a candle starting a fire. Or it could even have been used as a crude timing device.”
“But that’s not what happened here?”
“No. The seats of the fire are definitely next door. It’d be just too much of a coincidence if the two fires started simultaneously from separate causes. And this one caused so much less damage.”
Banks felt a headache coming on. He glanced at the young girl’s body again, nipped the bridge of his nose above the mask between his thumb and index finger until his eyes prickled with tears, then he looked away, into the fog, just in time to see Dr. Burns, the police surgeon, walking towards the barges with his black bag.