Being a novel, all characters, events, dialogue and representations are fictional ... and in no way are meant to represent any real or living persons or events... except the few annual events that are used to move me through time. The opinions expressed are my own, and not necessarily those of my author. And the story is copyrighted, by my author of course. Oh, and from time to time I may include some real time events to keep the blog more authentic. Comments and suggestions will be appreciated and seriously considered as the story moves along.

If you are just joining us, start with the Prologue and Chapter One on March 1, 2011, in the Archives.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chapters 67 and 68

        The evening after the museum fire, Colin and I dined again with our friends, and although Doug’s cuisine was no less delicious than the evening meal the night before, none of us really tasted it. I had relayed the sad news that Henry Cassidy, the waiter/plumber, had died earlier in the afternoon, leaving a grieving wife and two teenage daughters. He had underlying health problems and his heart couldn’t cope with the severity of the burns and infection. 
   The communications team had put in a hard day updating staff, students, parents, community and interested news stations from around the country. I had to dissuade Winston again from going on camera, so instead Dr. Whitaker busied himself, along with the ever-faithful Miss Katherine, with overseeing the cleanup and getting a new workplace set up. Mrs. Fauntly had sent over an office trailer from one of her company’s construction sites early that morning, complete with phone, fax and computer lines and equipment, telling Winston to spare no expense in getting things back to normal. 
   Had it been a tragic accident? we asked ourselves. Or was it the arsonist again? Colin had suggested we pool our collective creative minds and work through the four fires, trying to find commonalities. He knew the police were already doing that, in fact had been doing that for several months with the first three, but fresh eyes never hurt. And, he reasoned, it gave us all something productive to concentrate on instead of the close call we’d had, especially Sharon. 
   When dinner was finished, he’d asked Sharon if she was okay to talk about it.
   “Yes, of course. I apologize for my behavior last night. It just ... I don’t know what happened.”
   “It’s fine, really, Sharon,” Colin said quickly. “I only wanted to make sure you were up for this, that’s all.”
   “Right, Phelps. No need to apologize,” I added as Doug moved protectively closer to her.
   “I’m fine, now, really,” Sharon said firmly. “So quit fussing, and let’s figure out who this bastard is and stop this insanity.”
   Doug was a man of details. Having talked with Colin earlier in the day, he’d borrowed two large dry erase boards from the music department and set them up on easels in the den. He’d asked Colin when he called if this is how they did it back in his Bureau days. 
“Yep,” was his reply. “You wouldn’t believe how seeing things written down can help the thinking process.”
   Colin started the discussion. “We need to put down everything we can remember about each fire, then look for similarities. Don’t neglect anything, even the smallest thing you can think of or remember might help. First, we’ll list the dates.”
   To the far left, he wrote Library-Mid September. Then Engineering-End of October, Tower- Early December and, finally, Wind Museum-End of January.
   Under each heading, one at a time, we discussed what we knew about the fires. We knew how the first and second had been set but were still waiting for completed information on the tower fire accelerant. And, of course, we knew nothing yet about the one last night, except that again it appeared to be arson because the sprinklers were disabled and delayed, and it had completely destroyed the office area and killed an innocent man.
Doug, the music professor said, “First thing I notice is the meter isn’t even.” To our quizzical looks he said, “The meter – the rhythm. The time between isn’t consistent. Nothing in November, not the same number of weeks in between any of the fires. Longer between the September and October fires than between the October and December fires, and then much longer between the December fire and the one last night.”
   “Good ... and bad,” Colin said. “Good that the arsonist–if it is just one person doing all this–doesn’t seem to be on a schedule. But it also means we can’t predict when the next one might occur. But good catch, Doug.”
  Sharon said, “Also, the times of day are different, aren’t they?”
  “You’re right, they are,” Colin said, writing times under each heading. Early evening, morning, and the last two at night, with about an hour’s difference. 
   “Maggie,” Colin asked. “Do you remember seeing anyone at all four fires? Anyone who stands out? Start with the library. Who did you see?”
   I thought for moment. “Well, there was the student librarian, but he was terrified. I can’t imagine him setting it, and I don’t remember him at any of the other fires. There were lots of students, all going down the stairwell. Any of them could have also been at the next two fires, but no one particularly stood out. Then I talked with the Campus Police. That’s all. Oh, wait, Jamie was outside in the rain. Said he’d come up from the basement, I think. He took charge of the librarian for me. That’s it. They said Bennett Boyle was there talking to reporters, but I hadn’t seen him beforehand and he was gone by the time I was allowed out.”
   Colin listed student librarian, Boyle and Jamie under Library.
   “Okay, how about the next one? At Engineering? Sharon?”
   “Students, of course, and colleagues, but Boyle was in the building, too. Maggie, did you see him there?” Sharon asked. 
   “I did, but I thought he’d come from his office. I didn’t really pay attention to him until he tried to take over. Luckily, Dr. Parker stopped him. I don’t know if Boyle was there before the fire.”
“He was. I saw him about ten minutes earlier in the main office and wondered what had brought him to our hallowed halls,” Sharon said sarcastically. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him there before ... ever.” 
   Colin listed Boyle under Engineering. “Maggie, you certain you didn’t see the librarian at the second fire?”
   “I’m sure I would have remembered him. No, I didn’t see him ... but I did see Jamie, I think. Didn’t you, Sharon?”
“I don’t know for sure. But he’s an engineering major. I see him all the time and he’s in one of my classes this semester. I don’t think that’s significant.”
   “I’ll still list him, although I agree with you,” Colin said. 
   “Right. Jamie’s just one of the few students I actually know by name, that’s all,” I said.
   Under Tower, we couldn’t list anyone, because we saw no one near the fire. And Boyle didn’t come until about an hour later, after most of the crowd had left, saying he was caught in traffic. 
   Doug said, “But he was there afterward, so I think you should put his name down.”
“I agree,” said Colin, writing it on the board. 
   “Well,” I said tentatively, “maybe you should put my name down. I was there for all four of them.”
   Colin looked at me and smiled wryly. “Did you set the fires, Maggie?”
   “Of course I didn’t!” I said indignantly. “But maybe ...”
   “Maybe what?” Colin said. “This is brainstorming, Maggie. Out with it.”
   “Maybe someone is setting them because of me.”
   “Because of you?” Doug said skeptically.
   “No, Doug,” Colin said, thinking about it seriously. “She may be on to something. Who has to be on camera and talk about each fire? Who has to answer phones the next day and put out news releases. And she was actually in the library and the museum when the fires started.  Maybe ...?”
   “But I don’t do those things by myself. I have a staff. Colin, you don’t seriously think one of my staff has been setting the fires, do you?”
   He raised his eyebrows as if it might be a possibility. “I don’t know, Maggie. Would be a good way to get some overtime hours, all right.”
   “They’re all salaried. They get comp time, but no extra money.”
   Sharon speculated, “Maybe one of them thrives on the excitement. Who was at the fires from your staff?” 
   “I had to call them for each fire, except your fire, Sharon. Charlie was at all of them, of course. But he was there to record for the website.”
“You saw Charlie at all the fires?” Doug asked.
  “Yes ... No, not at the library. But I was inside with the fire chief and police. There were some of his photos on the website, but I don’t remember seeing him there.”
   “Okay,” Colin said, “but we know he was there shortly afterwards. Let’s pull up the website archives and see what we’ve got, if we can tell how soon after the alarm he was there.” Doug opened his laptop and began surfing for the photos. “Maybe we can also see some of the same people in the crowds. They do say those who start fires like to watch the chaos they create. I’ll print them and we can tape them up.”
   “Good idea. What about Engineering? Maggie, was Charlie in your office or at the Engineering Building?” Colin asked.
   “My staff was in the office — Elaine, Ricky, Susan and Steven. I’m sure they were. Charlie? He was at the scene, taking photos like he should and feeding them to Ricky. I ... no, wait, he’d been somewhere else on campus, not in the office, because I remember Elaine saying she’d call him ... but then he’s always out of the office. He’s a busy guy.” With a pained expression, I looked at Colin. “It can’t be Charlie.”
“Right now, Love, we’re just writing down everything, remember? Not making accusations. He was also at the Carol of Lights and the Museum, wasn’t he?”
   “Yes, he was,” I said quietly.
   A review of Charlie’s photos showed fire engines arriving at each fire, meaning Charlie had been on the scene almost immediately, if not before. But I refused to believe he was a suspect. Nevertheless, Colin listed him under each heading. And we found no one in the crowds who showed up in all photos. 
   “Okay, who else?” Colin asked the group. He prodded them to think of the next fire in the tower. But still, no one came to mind.
Sharon said, “Well, Jamie was there again, but he was leading the procession.”
“Right,” Colin said. “And I was with him for about three hours before that getting things ready for the ceremony. But, I’ll list him anyway.” He put his name under Charlie’s and Boyle’s.
   “He was also at the museum,” I said quietly. “So was Charlie and so was Boyle. All three were there, Charlie taking photos, Jamie waiting on tables, and Boyle ... well, Boyle left early, before dinner in fact. He and Winston had argued about something. Then he said something to Jamie that made him furious.”
   Sharon said, “Probably about throwing the Saddle Tramps out of the tower. I still can’t believe Boyle did that. What’s the status on reversing that assinine decision, Colin?”
“President Parker has postponed our talking with the Board of Regents until March or April. Said he’s still trying to get more information about the fire. Doesn’t want to make too much of it until we find out who did it, so we’re on hold.”
   “What about how the fires were set?” Doug asked. “What do we know?”
   “Not much,” Colin said. “I’ve talked with Chief Callahan, and he said the first one, in the library, was fairly easy to set. Perp pulled old magazines with ancient paper and set them on fire, closing and then disabling the stacks. Put some metal rods in the tracks to block the movement. Seemed to know air could reach the fire, but the firemen couldn’t, at least not until they pulled the stacks apart.”
“What did they burn?” Doug asked. “Which books?”
   “Good question. I’ve no idea. Maggie?”
“It was in the ‘T’ section. I remember seeing the letters when I was trying to get the stacks apart. I thought the chief told me it was Scientific America publications, from the 1860s, I think, and something else ...?”
“That’s right, it was,” Sharon said. “Now I remember. We had to put out requests all over the country to get some replacements. We have them all on computer, but wanted some originals. Some old Iron Age magazines burned, too, beginning in 1911. Completely destroyed.”
   Colin said, “All old paper and extremely flammable.”
“And about science, engineering,” Doug said. “Maybe we need to look for a disgruntled science or engineering student.” 
   “Why do you think it’s a student?” Sharon asked, defensive of her kids.
   “Just a hunch. Plus, there are more of them around than anyone else, that’s all.”
  “You could be right,” Colin said, and wrote it down. “But it also could be a professor or any staff member. And maybe he ... or she ... was more interested in the location of the fire. Close to the stairwell for a quick getaway? We just need to look at everything.  Now, what else?”
   “Well,” I ventured, “What burned at the other fires? Books and magazines in September, paper towels soaked in some type of accelerant in October, old carpeting and the wooden platform in December. And last night? An entire office building.” Colin was writing furiously. “But what do they have in common?” I asked.
   Standing back and looking at the boards when he finished, Colin said, “They increase in intensity ... each one burned hotter and bigger than the last.”
   “You’re right!” Doug said. “Our arsonist–if it’s only one–is getting bolder each time.”
“That’s a really scary thought,” I said quietly.
   “What about the fuses or what he uses to ignite the fires?” Sharon asked. “Is he getting better at them each time, too? Is he setting bigger fires because he understands them better after each one?
“That’s a good question,” Doug said. “Or were we just lucky enough to find the first two before they could get bigger?”
   “I don’t think so,” Colin said, “because he had to have known there were others on the library floor. Didn’t you say, Maggie, that the elevator bell rang loudly, so he must have known someone was there? And didn’t you also say you used the copier?”
  “Yes, I did. For about 15 minutes. It’s really noisy and I used it right before I heard the southwest exit door close. He... or she... had to have known I was there. So, he either thought one person, me, would be able to get out, or, he didn’t want too many casualties.”
“No, unless someone knew it was you up there,” Sharon said with a sudden insight. “What was the name of that girl from HR you forced out?”
“Allison?” I cried, shaking my head. “She’s so stupid I’m not sure she knows how to strike a match, much less deliberately plan four fires. And I haven’t seen her since late last spring. No,  I can’t imagine it’s Allison. And besides Boyle, I don’t really have any other enemies, do I?” I said, trying to think of anyone else I might have crossed. 
    Colin wrote Allison’s name on the board.

   About an hour later, we photographed the now full boards and Colin e-mailed them to Chief Callahan. The chief had told Colin he welcomed any help from the ex-agent, but our group wasn’t certain our random thoughts were anything but random thoughts. We had many more questions than we had answers. 
Chapter 68
   In our Monday morning staff meeting, the Communications team debriefed about their work with the latest fire. I praised Elaine for her quick thinking with the extra phone, flat shoes, gloves and the warm socks, saying that once again, they had all done their jobs well. 
   But silently I was ashamed I was paying particular attention to everything Charlie said. I was still certain in my heart he was not guilty. However, his name had remained on the board. 
  As the meeting was wrapping up, Charlie spoke. “My wife knows Henry Cassidy’s widow from the high school PTA. She volunteers there, my wife, I mean — it’s her alma mater. Anyway, she said they have two girls who are a few years away from college. She wondered if Tech could, or would, set up a scholarship fund for them ... to help. He was an employee, after all.”
   Steven said, “My wife knows her, too, from the hospital. Says she’s one of their best nurses. I think it’s a great idea.”
        “Good,” I said. “I’ll bring it up to President Parker this morning. Or perhaps the Wind Museum could initiate it. Surely, something can be done. Thanks for the suggestion, Charlie.” 
He wouldn’t be so kind to the family if Cassidy had died because of him, would he?  I thought. Or maybe that’s why he was being kind—out of guilt?

   On Wednesday, Chief Callahan asked Colin to join them in their own brainstorming session–an extra investigator, even a retired FBI investigator, couldn’t hurt. Colin was happy to oblige, but they seemed to be going in circles, too. The only new piece of information Colin learned is they’d been correct on the increasing intensity of the fires and the increasing sophistication of the ignitions. 
          The first was a simple paper trail fire, with torn-out pages of old books and magazines as the fuel. By the time the police had arrived and pulled the stacks apart, it had almost burned itself out. Books, as a general rule, don’t burn that well unless torn apart and sprayed with an accelerant of some type. The fire department’s arson dog had found no vapors from an accelerant. It was the torn and crumpled, decades-old dry paper that caused the massive amount of smoke. 
  Colin thought the arsonist must have set it all up while I was at the copy machine for those 15 minutes. That would have covered any noise. To test the theory, he and the chief went early the next morning to experiment before the library opened. Standing where I said I sat, Colin listened as the chief moved the stacks, but the only thing audible was a light ping preceding the movement and he thought I might not have heard it. 
          Then he used the copier, while Callahan crumpled paper. Colin heard nothing but the copier. Their conclusion was the arsonist had put it together while I was at the copy machine, then left using the stairs. My stuffy nose had obviously prevented me from detecting the smoke until I saw it.
In the Halloween fire in the engineering building, cleaning supplies from the burned closet were used as an accelerant on paper towels and old rags. Again, it was a relatively small confined fire and should easily have been out by itself after damaging the inside of the closet. 
          Unfortunately, Sharon had opened the door to investigate, creating a backdraft that burned her and allowed the flames to spread briefly into the hallway. Luckily, Professor Nash, Sharon’s colleague, had used an extinguisher to knock it down and close the door before the sprinklers were activated and flooded the hall. 
   In the tower fire, the stair’s worn carpeting and the old wooden benches were piled up and soaked with gasoline. A simple trigger device had ignited the fire, though they didn’t yet know how it had been started. It was a bigger pile of fuel than the last two. 
          And the heater at the bottom of the stairwell warming the door was interesting — the arsonist must not have wanted anyone to be accidently hurt this time ... although according to the arson investigator, with the windows blowing out, a backdraft would not have occurred. 
Was our arsonist still an amateur, not quite understanding how fires worked? And an arsonist who didn’t want anyone burned?  Was more than one person doing this? How were the fires connected? Four fires since September, yet no fires anywhere at the university in the five previous years. Still, more questions than answers, Colin said.
  Accelerant was used at the Wind Museum fire. Lubbock’s arson chief said the fire was started with papers as fuel up against the northeast corner walls. They were certain accelerants were used, but which ones and how much was another unknown at this point. 
   More than likely, one reason the fire had spread so rapidly was because holes had been made in the north and east inside walls so the flames quickly expanded to the attic area and to old insulation between sheetrock and brick. They’d found not only evidence of the holes, but the charred remains of a timing device that had served as the trigger. It could have been set as early as an hour before the fire started, giving the arsonist plenty of time to leave the scene, or as close as two minutes. Guests were concentrating on having a good time instead of noticing anyone entering or leaving the office area. An outside office door could have been used instead of the one to the hallway, the one Cassidy had opened. However, the doorknob on the outside door was  locked. 
  Yes, it appeared the arsonist was learning. That bit of analysis scared the hell out of everyone. 

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