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Though I didn't have a watch on, I'm sure it was just after ten p.m. when on a cold Friday night in January the Rocks Road Motel in Tyler Beach, New Hampshire, gave up its soul and died. Its death was well-attended, with about forty or so people there--some working, some watching--and I was standing about seventy feet away when the roof collapsed with a crackling boom. Then there was the roaring sound of the rushing flames, reaching up to the freezing night sky, feeding on the oxygen. The sparks were bright orange and quick, and moved up into the night like fireflies looking for a home. The crackling sound of the fire, the creaking of the timbers, the rumbling of the fire truck engines, and the echoing noise of the police and fire radios all drowned out the sound of the Atlantic's waves, about a hundred feet away.
It hadn't been long since the fire had been called in, and I stood outside the ring of firefighters from Tyler and Falconer--our sister town to the south--as they struggled through the snow with their heavy turnout gear, air packs, helmets, and boots. A ladder truck had its spindly aerial ladder over the collapsed roof and a deluge stream of water flowed into the fiery mess. Three other pumpers, two from Tyler and one from Falconer, were parked on the narrow street, their rigid hoses twisted through the snow.
I shrugged against the cold, wearing a green parka I had bought the previous summer at the Eastern Mountain Sports store in North Conway, when a companion and I had stopped on our way up to the White Mountains for a day climb. As I stood in about a half-foot ofsnow, I pretended the fibers still contained a faint breath of that hot summer day when I had made my purchase. My gloved hands were in my pockets, along with a reporter's notebook, and I had a navy wool watch cap pulled over my ears.
The hotel was near some cottages and another motel, the Dune Wave, and no lights were showing from any of the buildings. The tourist season was gone, and the bulk of the businesses and motels were closed up until April or May. There had been mild winters in the past when some places remained open during the short days and long nights, but this season wasn't one of them. Winter had struck early and hard, with a blizzard two days before Thanksgiving and a storm nearly every week after that, and though Christmas was only a few days past, most people were already heartily sick of winter.
Before me a couple of firefighters crunched by in the snow, icicles hanging from their helmets, their faces puffy and red from the cold and exhaustion, carrying another length of hose. It had not been a good winter so far for Tyler Beach and its firefighters. Since those first snows, four motels had burned to the ground--including tonight's victim--and none of them had been accidental. All had been arson.
The cause hadn't been determined yet for this fire, but I had that feeling, and I could tell from the nervous and edgy look of the firefighters that they had the same feeling, that the Rocks Road Motel would soon join the list. It just made sense. And though no one was saying the words tonight, it was plain to see what was going on.
An arsonist was at work in Tyler, and so far the winter promised to be a long one. I shifted in the snow again, saw the little clouds from my breath, and waited.
A woman stepped away from a couple of firefighters and came over to me. She had on a blue down jacket and jeans, and knee-high leather boots. A metal clipboard was in her gloved hands, and she wore no hat. Though the light was bad, it was still easy to make out the brown hair of Diane Woods, sole detective for the Tyler Police Department. Her face was scrunched up some from the cold and what looked like frustration. Diane has a wonderful smile and a light brown skin, marred only by a short white scar on her chin that came from a fight when she was a uniform cop, but this evening she didn't look particularly happy. I didn't have any envy for anyone who got on her bad side tonight.
She stood next to me and stamped her feet in the snow and said, "I, for one, Lewis Cole, am getting mightily sick of this crap."
"I can imagine," I said. "I'm not having much fun, either."
"Where's your notebook?" she said, a slightly demanding tone in her voice.
"In my coat."
"Not taking any notes?"
"Don't need to, right now," I said, keeping my hands in the parka. "Just observing the scene, and I don't need a notebook for that."
"Hah. Seems to me you're getting lazy. Maybe I should call your editor."
I smiled, thinking of the retired admiral who was editor of Shoreline magazine and pretended to be my boss. "Go ahead. Knowing Seamus, he'd tell you to go to hell."
"Maybe," and she angled the open metal clipboard and used a tiny black flashlight to illuminate her notes. There was another crackling and groaning sound as a few more building beams collapsed, and it seemed like the deluge gun from the ladder truck was at last having an effect. The flames were dying down some and the steady heat on my face was beginning to diminish. From near the fire scene I made out the quick shots of light that came from a camera strobe, and I knew that the Tyler Chronicle was on the scene.
"What do you have, Diane?" I asked, keeping my eye on two people, a man and a woman, the man carrying a camera bag.
"What I have is what you and everybody else here has already guessed," she said. "Empty motel goes up in flames. Possible arson and will become a definite arson once Mike Ahern and the guys from the state fire marshal's office get in there to poke around."
I shivered as a breeze came by, salty-smelling from the ocean. "This guy's good. He gets the fire working so the building is fully involved by the time the first engine's on the scene."
"Unh-hunh," and she motioned with the flashlight to a man standing in the snow, holding a woman in his arms. The woman's face was buried against his shoulder, and he was shaking his head and kicking the snow with one foot, over and over again.
"That there's Sam Keller, with his wife Amy," she said. "Owner of the Rocks Road, and he doesn't know it, but his life is going to get even worse tomorrow."
I nodded in understanding. "When the investigation gets into high gear."
"Yep. And when Mike Ahern starts talking to him tomorrow, he's going to think that God's got a week's worth of punishments ahead of him and that God's only begun on day two. Look. There's Ahern now."
A squat man in fire gear came over to the couple, but unlike the other firefighters, he wasn't wearing an air pack. He talked some to Sam Keller, but I wasn't sure if Keller even comprehended what he was saying. The man then turned around, and a light caught the reflective letters on the rear of his turnout coat: TYLER in big letters, and underneath that, in smaller letters, AHERN. Mike Ahern, fire inspector for the town of Tyler, and one busy man these past few weeks. I felt even sorrier for Sam Keller at the sight of having Mike Ahern talk to him. Ahern had a short fuse, and every businessperson whose motel had been destroyed had come under sharp scrutiny and even sharper questioning by Ahern as the investigation started. But for all of his efforts, and those of Diane Woods and the state fire marshal's office, there had been no evidence that any of the businesspeople who had owned the motels had a part in the arson.
Usually it's easy to tell there's a lead when arson destroys a business. A day or two's worth of fact-checking, and if a guy's up to his ears in debts, if all of his mortgage notices are printed in pink, and if not-so-polite men in suits come a-visiting from banks, then that guy's vulnerable to the siren call of fire. One quick blaze and one fat insurance check later, you're back on your feet, breathing hard but breathing more free. Except these businesspeople, blind to the mountain of debts and the ringing phones from bill collectors, ignore the quiet, squat guys like Mike Ahern and the slim and very tough women like Diane Woods, and then end up some months later appearing before a Wentworth County Superior Court on charges of conspiracy to commit arson.
But that wasn't happening here. None of the owners had business problems. One or two were even considering expanding for next year. Which meant something worse, that the arsonist was a nut, that he wasn't following any particular agenda and was just burning down buildings for the hell of it.
That thought made for a lot of cold nights these past weeks.
I looked over to Diane and said, "How's things between you and Mike?"
Diane ducked her head, like she didn't want me to see her expression, and she said, "A bit of an improvement. I don't worry now about checking my Volkswagen for bombs every morning, and he's gotten to at least returning my calls after the third try."
"Oh," I said, not wanting to add anything more, and Diane nudged me with her shoulder and said, "I should get back to work, and make the most of a ruined evening."
"Previous plans?" I asked.
She winked. "A date, and one that was going to be--if you excuse the pun--an extremely hot one."
"There's always the weekend."
"Thank God for that." She looked around, perhaps to see if anyone was within earshot, and then she asked, "How goes the column you're writing, on these arsons?"
I shrugged. "About as well as your investigation. We've both been down those same roads, and I don't think either of us is missing anything. But I'm still, um ... I'm still doing the research."
She touched me with a gloved hand, her voice still low. "Glad to hear that. See you later."
Diane walked away, stumbled a bit in the snow, and went over to Sam Keller and his wife and started talking to them. Diane looked good, she looked skilled, and she had been my companion that day when I had bought my EMS parka up north. Yet spending the day on a mountain peak had not changed anything between us, for her heart belonged to another, and that was all right. I walked a bit nearer to the motel. The wind shifted and the smoke was thick for a moment, making my eyes water, and I coughed.
When I was out of the smoke I came up to a man and woman, talking to each other at one end of the unplowed parking lot that belonged to the motel. Paula Quinn, reporter for the Tyler Chronicle, gave me a little half-wave, holding her notebook in one hand and a pencil in the other. A reporter who carries a pencil in the winter is a good reporter, for the new ones forget that ink can easily congeal in cold weather. Paula was experienced and Paula was good, but in her talks with me, she still expressed the same old frustration of having a big talent in a small town. She had on a black wool coat and red beret that looked nice on her long blond hair but probably didn't do much for giving her warmth. Paula has a bit of pug nose and her ears have a tendency to stick out of her hair just when she wants to look serious, and tonight the poor things were red with cold.
"Glad to see Shoreline is being represented here tonight," Paula said, giving me that smile of hers that managed to tickle something deep inside of me. "If the Chronicle has to be out here freezing, at least your magazine should be here, too."
"Thanks for the invite," I said. "When did you get here?"
She gestured to the bearded man at her side. "Jerry and I drove in a couple of minutes after they sounded the alarm. Message came over the scanner that this place was going to three alarms."
A little imp of the perverse came to me, that voice that tells you to jump when you're standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. This time the voice was telling me to ask Paula just what she and Jerry had been doing before the fire alarm came in, but I managed to resist. I just smiled and said to Jerry, "Getting your fill of pictures?"
The man next to her was wearing a green heavy down jacket, with a bulky camera bag slung over one beefy shoulder. He had on jeans and, like me, Canadian-made Sorrels on his feet. His face and nose were bright red, and his brown hair was almost as thick as his beard. Jerry Croteau, sole photographer for the Tyler Chronicle, and a man I was beginning to dislike for no good reason except that he was spending time with Paula Quinn--both on and off the job. It disturbed me, and it shouldn't have, for I had no formal hold on Paula. Just some pleasant memories and odd hopes. It shouldn't bother me, but it did. Sorry for the contradiction.
His smile was almost as wide as his beard. "Got a bunch of great ones when we first drove up. It was a hell of a scramble, with the hoses getting dragged across the snow, and even though it only took a couple of minutes for the first truck to roll in, the roof was fully involved. Got some great shots of a couple of guys trying to ventilate the roof with axes, with the fire backlighting them. Gonna try to sell them to AP tonight."
"Sounds pretty good."
He nodded enthusiastically. "It does. Paula tells me you might be doing a piece on the arsons for your magazine. Let me know if you need anything. I also shot some color."
There was a smart-aleck remark in there about taking advantage of someone else's misfortune, which I left alone. Instead, I looked at Paula and felt that funny little tug, and wished that I felt comfortable enough to rub those cold ears.
Instead, I played professional and said, "Hear anything about arson tonight?"
She moved her feet, shivered, and said, "Not officially, but you can tell from the way the guys are working. They're tired and I think they're also scared. Firefighters are macho, but they get scared when an arsonist is working. Look at their faces. There's the story fight there."
There was another crackling and rumbling as another portion of the roof caved in. More water was being brought onto the motel and the building was being transformed with each minute. When I had arrived, hard on the heels of the police cruisers and the fire engines, the building with its empty swimming pool in front and the two rows of balconies almost looked majestic, the flames and smoke pouring from the roof, so many men and women working desperately to save it, the lights from the vehicles making the white paint and black shingles look almost new.
But with the center and the roof gone, with the exposed beams and flying shingles and broken glass and hanging wire and pipes, the Rocks Road Motel looked sad and pathetic, like an old woman who had been hit by a car and who was lying dead in the road, pocketbook in her hands, before the EMTs could cover her with a blanket.
Jerry took another picture and shook his head. "Who could blame them for being scared?" he said. "Read once about arsons in New York City. Sometimes the arsonists, they'll cut holes in the floors and cover 'em with linoleum, so the firefighters fall through when they go in. Bad enough to go in a burning building; must be ten times worse when you know someone's busy setting the fires and setting you up."
"True enough," I said. "Good luck in getting the story. It's time for this magazine writer to get going."
Paula nodded and said, "Lunch soon?" and instead of looking at her, I quickly caught a glance of Jerry Croteau, seeing something pass over his face. Maybe it was concern, maybe it was jealousy, and maybe it was just a passing wisp of smoke.
"Sure," I said. "I'll call you."
I left the two of them there, and they bent heads together to talk, and I wondered if my name was coming up in the conversation.
It took a few more minutes of walking through the snow and looking at the backs of firefighters' turnout gear before I found the man I wanted. Mike Ahern was sitting on the hood of his car, smoking a cigarette. His fire helmet was off and the top of his sweaty head steamed in the cold air. He was writing with some difficulty on a notepad, wearing fingerless gloves, and he looked up at me and went back to work as I came over.
"Wish you'd change your mind about an interview, Mike," I said, standing in front of him. His pullover pants and fire boots were wet and black with soot and debris.
"And why's that?" he said, not looking up again from the pad. "What advantage would I have in talking with you?"
"Maybe not an advantage to you, but an advantage to others. Readers of my magazine. People in town. This is becoming a story, whether you like it or not."
"Hah." He put down the notepad and stretched. Mike was about as tall as I was, but was easily a foot wider, with thick forearms and hands. His black hair was trimmed short and was streaked with gray, and on the side of his thee, above his left ear, his skin bore the shiny and wrinkly marks of burned skin that had not healed well.
"Let me tell you this: I don't have to tell you anything," Mike said, removing his cigarette and pointing it at me. "Newspaper writers, maybe. They're here in town and taxpayers like to read them, and since the taxpayers have an unholy grip on my balls every budget time, I gotta keep them happy and amused. But not magazines from Boston. I don't owe you, I don't feel like wasting my time with you, and you can't hurt me."
Even without looking, I knew that the battle for the motel's timbers was almost over. The heat on my back from the flames was easing up. I said, "You're probably right in everything you said, and it's true I can't hurt you, but maybe I can help you."
His eyes narrowed at that and he took another drag from his cigarette. I'm not sure why so many firefighters smoke. Maybe it's just fatalism.
Mike said, "Yeah? How? Free subscriptions?"
I shrugged. "Information. Let's just say I do a lot of research for my columns, and not all of my research appears in print."
That seemed to get his attention, and he looked away and said quietly, "This is the fourth major fire in as many weeks, and I'm getting mighty tired. A winter like this, you plan for maybe a couple of suspicious fires, when a guy who runs a restaurant decides to cut his losses and move to Orlando with an insurance check in his back pocket."
Then he looked to me, the light from the flames and the strobes from the fire trucks and police cars making his face look like it was shimmering with some emotion. "But not this time around. This time, it's crazy. No link. None of these guys who owned these hotels had a bad year. But here we are. With four hotels burned to the ground in a month. So far we've been lucky, with nobody getting hurt. They've all been closed for the winter and were empty. But next time?"
He stood up from his car and put his fire helmet back on, tugged at the chin strap. "Next time, we might need flatbed trucks here to pull away all the bodies, if our nut friend decides to try his or her hand at a motel with people in it. You say you can help? All right. We'll talk. Next week, when I catch my breath from this latest disaster."
After some fumbling on my part, I passed over my business card, which lists my name, home phone number and my post office box in Tyler, and my job at Shoreline magazine: columnist. I'm not sure if it's against the law to lie on business cards, but so far I've gotten away with it. The IRS and a few others think being a columnist is all I do, and I've never been one to discourage that fantasy.
Mike Ahern trudged across the snow to meet up with Diane Woods, and I gave her a half-wave as my own thermostat told me it was time to go. I silently wished her luck on her hot date, and then I began to walk away from the rubble that used to be a business that contributed something to this town. Maybe not a big deal as far as disasters went, and I knew that only the local papers might cover it, but for many lives, this was a big story. For those vacationers who came back to the Rocks Road Motel each summer, that place was now gone. For the chambermaids and clerks and shortorder cooks for its restaurant, their jobs at the Rocks Road Motel were gone. For the other businesses that supplied the motel with towels, soap, and food, one big customer had just been lost.
A lot of losses, all due to a man, woman, or a gang who was having too much fun with flammable liquids and incendiary devices this past month. As I walked to my Range Rover, parked skewed near a snowbank, I passed Sam and Amy Keller, still holding each other, still grieving at seeing so many years of work and effort being reduced to ashes.
For the drive home I took Atlantic Avenue--also known as Route 1-A--and the road hugged the beaches of Tyler as it headed north. Driving here in winter is always disorienting. It's like going back to your childhood home and seeing a garage has been added and the familiar red paint has been replaced by ugly ivory siding. All along the beach road there were hundreds of empty parking spaces, and except for a set of taillights far ahead, I was the only one on the road.
Six months earlier I would have been in bumper-to-bumper traffic, at a time when fistfights sometimes break out over the privilege of parking near the sands. Instead of nearly a hundred thousand vacationers and moms and dads and kids and bathing beauties of both sexes, I had an empty road, flickering streetlights, closed-up motels and restaurants, and beach sand and snow blowing across the pavement.
It was a cloudy night, promising more snow, and I saw not one star as I neared the border between Tyler and North Tyler. Near that dividing line is a resort motel that stays open year-round, the Lafayette House, and I pulled into the tiny parking lot across the way. A large sign at the entrance said PRIVATE PARKING FOR LAFAYETTE HOUSE ONLY, and I turned into the lot and went to the north end, passing a few parked cars, BMWs and Volvos. The lot was plowed clean, which wasn't the case for my destination.
At the end of the lot was a low stone wall and an opening where some of the rocks had fallen free. There was a narrow, snow-covered path there, just wide enough for my Rover. The path went to the right, past two homemade no-trespassing signs, and my house came into view. It's a two-story house that's one step above a cottage, that's never been painted, and that has a dirt crawl space for a cellar. The snow-covered lawn rises up to a steep rocky ledge that hides my home from Atlantic Avenue, and I parked in the sagging shed that serves as my garage. Just beyond my house is another outcropping of land called Samson Point, which used to be a Coast Artillery station, and which is now a state wildlife preserve.
I unlocked the front door and did the winter two-step, which is trying to remove heavy boots at the entrance without falling down or stripping off your socks. Before me was the rear landing of the stairway that led to the second floor. I shook off my coat and breathed in the cold air of my house. The building first served as quarters for the supervisor of a lifeboat station that was operating at Samson Point sometime in the middle part of the 1800s, and has belonged to the government ever since. How it got from the U.S. government to my ownership is a depressing tale that I've not told anyone since I moved here some years back.
I padded across the hardwood living room floor, decorated in some parts by oriental rugs. There's a living room with a fireplace and big kitchen on the first floor, along with an outside deck. Upstairs is a bathroom, my study, and a bedroom. There are a lot of bookshelves, some antiques and historical memorabilia, and on this January night, not much heat. There's a lot to be said about living in a house that's almost a hundred and fifty years old, but its ability to retain heat is not one of them.
I sniffed as I went up the stairs. I smelled of smoke, and I knew it was shower time. In the bathroom I stripped off my clothes and jumped in the shower, suddenly feeling weary about having been out in the cold for such hours, watching something as awful as a family's business burn to the ground. I stood under the hot water for some long minutes, feeling the cold seep from the bones and muscles. I stepped out and rubbed myself down with a white fluffy towel, and then started checking my skin, an activity that's almost a habit, but not quite. There's a scar at the small of my back, on my right knee, and two lengthy ones on my left side. The skin was smooth and supple, and I felt no bumps, lumps, or other disturbances, souvenirs from my previous career. I live in this wonderful house rent- and mortgage-free, but this shower routine is one payment that I make, almost every day.
Some days, I almost think it's worth it.
The bathroom is between the study and bedroom, and I went into the bedroom, still tingly and slightly wet from the shower. There's an old four-poster oak bed in the center of the room, with matching bureaus and bookshelves, and a reflector telescope standing in one corner on a black tripod. A sliding glass door leads to a small deck on the south end of the house. I turned on a reading light and slid under the covers, shivering a bit, and then I picked up last month's issue of Smithsonian magazine. I hardly got past the letters page when my eyelids started drooping, and I switched off the light and let the magazine drop to the floor. My breathing started to slow and I listened to the wind and the whispering sounds of snow or sand striking the windows. The waves were there, always moving, never once letting up in their movement to my shore and my house.
And then I fell asleep, on an evening that was to be my last quiet and peaceful night at home for many weeks.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Being from the Seacoast area of NH, this book was impossible to put down. Myself, and two others who borrowed the book, each read the book in two nights. I would highly recommend it to those living in the area and for those who don't, enjoy reading a classic mystery story that will only reveal it's secrets at the very end. You'll love it !!
It took a couple chapters to really get into this book but once I did I could not put it down. My only issue, I purchased an ebook and there was typing mistake on almost every page. Five stars for the content
BUT couldn't finish it because the PAGES wouldn't turn. Want my money back
Good book but I could not finish reading it as the pages stopped turning and then disappeared around page 198. All of the other books work so something is wrong with this one. I can only give it a 2 rating because I can't finish it.