“This is hell,” Whit McKenna grumbled.
The sun’s blazing heat rose from the asphalt in a haze and merged with billowing black smoke from the roof of a pale yellow turn of the century Victorian. The mansion was nestled on a quiet tree-lined street amid other carefully restored homes of a bygone era. Flames engulfed the turret on the South side and the siding wasn’t putting up much of a fight; the crisp old wood succumbed to the fire with little resistance. A gust of hot wind pushed the smoke across the well manicured lawn, and up into the branches of an old oak tree, emerging like a dark ghost into the pale blue August sky.
Standing on the blacktop in the middle of the street Whit felt as if she’d stepped into an oven. Temperatures had soared over a hundred the past three days, and forecasters for southern Oregon projected at least another week of sustained triple-digit numbers. She could only imagine how the scurrying fire crews must feel in their heavy protective clothing. Four massive fire trucks and other emergency personnel flanked the corner house.
Always alert to potential stories for the crime and emergency services beat, she’d followed the sirens. Although a fire was not prime news she was a forty-two year-old journalist returning to work after a much publicized fall from grace as a prized reporter with the L.A. Times. After eight months of post traumatic stress she considered herself a survivor dredging the bottom of the news media swamp at a small-town newspaper. Still, she could at least do the historic home proud and turn the house fire into a feature and make it read like Hemingway
As she tried to gauge her best vantage point, a trickle of perspiration trailed from her forehead, and she flicked it away irritably.
Upon seeing the fire chief emerge from around the backyard through a haze of smoke, Whit eagerly crossed the street in pursuit. She was halfway onto the well-manicured lawn, her arm raised to flag him down, when a sudden explosion from the center of the house sent flames bursting through the downstairs windows, tossing shattered glass and flaming debris into the air like projectiles.
Whit and the fire chief hit the ground hard. Her right knee slammed into an exposed tree trunk and her chin slid across the grass. Bits of burning debris sailed in the air around her. For an anxious second she pictured her long red hair sparking into a mini inferno, so she held up her steno pad, which was obviously not enough shelter. Her knuckles felt the heat from the fire as she choked on acrid smoke.
The blast tore a large hole in the side of the house, exposing the interior living room, and what looked like a gas fireplace, which would explain the explosion.
“Lady, get back. Get back!” The chief hauled her up by the arm just as she caught sight of a man in a semi-sitting position, wedged between the partial wall and a smoldering upended living room chair. A thin man, shirtless, his chest badly scorched and blue plaid pajamas singed into the flesh on his legs. One side of his face was blackened bone, teeth exposed by lips drawn back in an eternal scream, as if the heat had shrink-wrapped his skin to his skull.
Though she’d seen every kind of war torn body and accidental disfigurement, this was shocking even for her. She sucked in her breath.
The fire chief tried to pull her along, but she pushed back. “Look!”
Two other firemen hauled one of the hoses closer and aimed the water at the flames around the body, but she was certain he had no possibility of being alive.
Tugging on her the chief half-carried, half-dragged her across the street. She stumbled over fire hoses, but his grip forced her upright. He deposited her in a small group of neighborhood gawkers, paused just long enough to ask if she was all right, and rushed away yelling commands to fellow firefighters.
Heart still thumping wildly in her chest, Whit hurriedly snapped some pictures, zooming in to get a better look at the corpse with her iPhone just before a tarp was thrown over the body. Not that the Medford Daily Chronicle would publish any pictures of the victim, but it might help her identify him later. She was lucky she hadn’t been any closer.
A woman standing next to her pointed out, “You’re bleeding.”
A trickle of blood trailed down her shin. After further inventory she decided she hadn’t fared too badly, with only a minor scrape and a couple of singed spots on the shoulder of her white blouse. She tore off a piece of paper from her steno pad and dabbed the blood from her knee, then flexed her chin a few times. Everything seemed to be working.
Her phone rang. She grimaced at the tone for her editor, a song by Taylor Swift, ‘You Need to Calm Down’. Emma, her fifteen-year-old daughter, thought it was amusing so she'd downloaded it. Whit had to agree. Stu was a wiry little guy who seemed to always be on the verge of hysterics. Sometimes she found him infuriating, even so, over the past few months he had kind of grown on her, almost endearing.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at a burning house that just exploded.”
“Yeah. Heard it on the scanner. A photog’s on the way. Anyone in the house?”
“Yes. At least one victim.” She glanced across the street. The vic was being transported to an ambulance for either "dead on arrival" at the hospital or a trip straight to the morgue. Two firefighters hosed the roof and she’d watched four others tug a hose around back. “No luck in saving him I’m afraid.”
“A shame. Find out who lives there. Talk to the neighbors. Talk to the fire crew. Find out if there are any more victims. Kids, pets.”
She closed her eyes briefly, trying not to react to Stu’s penchant for telling her what to do at every turn as if she were a novice reporter.
Hopefully there were no more victims, especially children. There was nothing worse than covering the death of a child. She’d written her fair share -- homicides, drownings, fires, car accidents, war zones -- and it never got any easier.
“I’ll check it out. Anything else?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact. Listen, McKenna. Got another story. Here’s the deal. It came across the radio as a bear mauling, out in the Applegate, up by Gin Lin Trail.”
“A bear mauling out in the Applegate?” The woods… “Don’t you think this fire takes precedence?”
“Not when this story is a homicide.”
Whit frowned. Sometimes Stu got ahead of himself, and dished out critical information in spurts that made no sense, usually with agitated little hand movements. Especially if the story was hot. When he started stammering it was a sure-fire sign that she was about to be gifted a front-page lead.
“Did ya hear me? A homicide!”
She couldn’t resist a little goading. “A homicidal bear?”
“Ha-ha!” Stu slurped maddeningly on a straw, reminding Whit of her parched throat. “I said it came across as a bear mauling. But I don’t know. Fifteen minutes later it sounded like dispatch had upgraded the call to a possible homicide.”
“Yeah. Anyway, after I heard ‘homicide’ on the radio, the cops got sneaky and switched to cell phones.”
“Yeah. Classic, huh? But as usual I outsmarted them. I called my forest ranger buddy. He confirmed. Now we have a possible homicide. I need somebody to go check it out. That’s you. If it pans out, and we have a homicide, I’ll toss the fire story over to the new intern, George.”
“Any stats?” She turned and noted the crowd that lined the road, kids on bikes mostly, a few neighbors and a young woman wrapped in a beach towel, hair dripping. An ice-cream truck, its carnival music playing from a loud speaker, cruised to a stop not far away. Drive-by rubberneckers paused for a better view. They were all potential quotes. And ones she’d need to move on before the wolves descended.
Too late. Two news crews arrived, parking a half a block away. A blazing house fire was always great footage for television news.
Stu was shouting into the phone. “What’s that annoying racket?”
“An ice cream truck. Hold on, I’ll move.” She sprinted away from all the noise, pausing under a shade tree near a lawn gnome. The gnome was sitting on a toilet reading a book, half hidden in the ivy. Tacky. “Go ahead, Stu.”
“The woman’s body was found up by Gin Lin Trail. I already sent Jake out for photos. So far all I have is, Caucasian, female, no age yet.”
“How far into the woods?”
“The trail starts right off the road there. Don’t worry, you’ll find it easy enough. The place is probably crawling with cops by now.”
Her stomach shrank into a hard knot at the thought. “Ah…”
If she didn’t jump on this lead he’d just toss the treasured front-page homicide to another reporter. She was hardly in a position to pick and choose her stories. Damaged goods.
“Give me another thirty minutes here and I’ll finish by phone later.” She glanced at her watch; it was nearly 4:30 PM on a Friday. With any luck Stu would be the first to figure out the body in the woods was a homicide. Getting a jump on the other reporters was half the battle, but she’d be faced with five o’clock traffic.
As if reading her mind, Stu said, “Take the upper Applegate road. And McKenna? Don’t hog the info. Let me know as soon as you have some firm details.”
She hung up with a sense of urgency, her nerves buzzing. And something else…just the tiniest bit of terror.
Did it have to be in the woods?
She realized she was white knuckling her phone and relaxed her grip.
“Hey,” a guy in his early thirties called to her from the driveway of the vulgar gnome house. He wore khaki shorts and a purple Hawaiian print shirt, and held a Samuel Adams beer in his beefy hand as if he was at a barbeque. His gaze traveled over Whit’s slender figure, long tan legs exposed by her knee length dress. His heavy-lidded smirk raised her hackles.
Don’t go there barbeque boy…
When his inspection finally traveled back up to her face, and he caught the drop-dead look in her cool blue eyes, he changed course, scratched behind his ear and nodded toward her pad.
“You a reporter?”
He was a lush, and possibly a perv if the gnome was any indication of his character, but he was an eyewitness nonetheless and she was running out of time.
She forced a smile. “Whitney McKenna, Medford Daily Chronicle. You know who lives there?” she asked, nodding to the burning house.
“Yeah, man. He’s an attorney. DUI’s.” He took a step toward her and gave a conspiratorial laugh. “He’s good too. Got me off.”
The fact that this guy bragged about driving drunk came as no surprise. “You have a minute for an interview?”
He beamed, his ruddy face glistening. “Sure.”
Down to business now, Whit stuffed her unease about the woods to the back of her mind. She swapped the pad for a digital recorder from her shoulder bag and, in rapid succession, fired off questions.
The guy was a treasure trove of quasi-personal information on his neighbors. Borderline peeping tom, he probably used binoculars; but if the details were accurate, then she had hit pay dirt.