Up in Flames – Hannah Martin

What bothered Detective Inspector Henderson about the Morris house fire was the straighteners.

He understood that all the boys at the office had written off the tragedy as an electric fault caused by the overheating of a pair of straighteners but still, he knew better. Veronica – ‘Mrs Morris, Steven,’ he frustratedly corrected himself – had never straightened her hair once in all the time he had known her, and to his knowledge did not even own a pair.

And yet the indigo hair tool was one of the only artefacts recovered from the blaze.

DI Henderson wasn’t officially assigned to the case due to the obvious yet unspoken personal conflict, but he could not resist investigating the death of a mother, father and teenage daughter for himself. After all, he did have the highest conviction rate of anyone in the North East Division.

And that is how he found himself at the station on a fog filled Friday night, staring with bleak, strained eyes at a computer screen whose words had converged into one riddled mess. He was deflated after another chaotic day of solving everyone else’s problems instead of being allowed to get on with his own assignments, and now he had stayed in the office for God knows how long in an attempt to find some closure through cracking this ‘incident’.

Henderson groped blindly for his mug of coffee, and grimaced at the bitter, cold taste. ‘Christ’ he wondered, ‘what time is it?’ He stretched over the laptop to grab his phone from the large pile of memos on his desk. The cheeriness of the lock screen staring up at him almost intensified the guilt that he was constantly attempting to repress. There was Sharon, beaming at the camera whilst fixing Jamie’s tie on his first day of school. Henderson remembered practically brimming with pride as he watched his son walk through those gothic iron gates for the first time. He was so happy back then, comfortable and pleased with life and everything it had to offer – it was not until much later that he had noticed the great feeling of unease in his stomach, causing him to doubt the content he held for life.

Shaking his head and rubbing his eyes, DI Henderson attempted to clear both his mind and his conscience. Three people had died. Given that everyone else had shoved this case to the bottom of their piles, he had no other option but to try his hardest to ensure that if someone was to blame, they would get the punishment they deserved.

He reviewed all the evidence that had been gathered by the investigation department once more in the hope of connecting something that he hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t much to work with, only a few witness statements from neighbours claiming not to have seen anything out of the ordinary during the early hours of the 20th, and DNA results from the forensics lab from recovered items which came back inconclusive.

Henderson was getting more and more frustrated, and he couldn’t tell whether it was with the case or himself. There was nothing mysterious or even alarming about the house fire, just the deep sense of tragedy and loss that had instantly become deep rooted into the local community. But despite the fact there were no official suspects, he felt that the damning evidence needed to unravel the never ending thread of this case was close to being discovered, but he couldn’t seem to be able to grasp it.

With a deflated and defeated sigh, Henderson shut down his laptop, shrugged on his grey raincoat and switched off the IKEA desk lamp. He realised that he was one of only a few left in the dull office, before the unlucky members of the night shift claimed the space as their own.

He stood at the main door for a moment, his mind continuing to race as it searched for possible suspects, motives, methods, theories, anything. He became frustrated as he faced the prospect of having to leave this case alone with nothing to show for it but a gut feeling that it wasn’t an accident, as he opened his umbrella and stepped out into the car park.

The night immediately enveloped him, and he struggled with the harsh wind and pouring rain. He regretted not having driven his car to work that morning because despite the walk only being a mile or so, in this weather time would stretch itself out as far as it could possibly manage. He begrudgingly started the walk, while scanning the mental documents of his mind in the hope of exposing a clue to the fire that he hadn’t noticed before.

Henderson was so engaged in his review, he physically tensed up when the sound of a car horn entered his head. When he finally reconnected to reality, he located the source of the noise, a red Ford Fiesta which was being driven by a man who appeared to be beckoning him over. He strode over to the car with faltering confidence – why was a stranger intent on getting his attention?

“That umbrella’s not doing you much good is it pal?” The man had a cheery voice, held within a ruddy, weather beaten face that could’ve belonged to a 30 year old or a pensioner. Henderson began to recognise him, almost sure he was a constable.

“Ah yes, it’s my own fault for thinking that I could get fit,” Henderson replied politely – he didn’t know this man very well, and at that moment was reaching desperately into the crooks of his brain for his name.

The guard didn’t seem to notice his struggle as he carried on, “Here, aren’t you out near that new Sainsbury’s?”

“Eh, yes that’s right.” Was it Bob? No, definitely Bradley. Bill?

“Well what’re you still standing out there getting soaked for then? Jump in, I’m going that way anyhow.”

Henderson became immediately aware of the sense of suspicion that seemed to vibrate through him as he analysed the strange situation. “Are you sure? I don’t want to bother you.”

“Absolutely pal! It’s not a bit of trouble.”

Henderson walked slowly around the car, grappled with his umbrella, and settled into the passenger seat. He glimpsed at the dashboard, where he caught a glimpse of the police constable’s ID card. So he’s a Bill then.

After Henderson mumbled his gratitude, the first few minutes of the ride were tense and awkward, with the only sound being the windshield wipers as they struggled to clear the storm that lay ahead.

“So, Steve,” Bill asked casually, “where is it you live exactly?”

He gave Bill the address of his quaint, modest bungalow and watched as he took the next exit off the roundabout. They were getting close when Henderson felt a pang of guilt as he realised that he must be keeping Bill from getting home to his family. Henderson began to voice an apology when Bill abruptly cut him off. “Ah nonsense! It’s nothing to me, I’ve got no family, you see. Never married. No kids. Nothing. So pal, it’s the least I could do for a family man in need.” Henderson became quiet at that, feeling as though he had somehow brought up a sensitive subject for Bill.

“Ah look at that Stevey, we made it here in record time for this kind of weather, don’t you think?” He nodded in reply, and thanked Bill again for the lift home.

“Anytime pal,” Bill said earnestly. “I’ll see you soon enough.”

“Eh, yes I’ll definitely see you around. Thanks again Bill.” Henderson replied, getting out of the car in a brisk manner and attempting to dodge the huge swell of rain on his way up the path of his home.

Bill watched as DI Steve Henderson approached his front steps, readying himself to be greeted by his picture perfect wife and young son. Bill’s pebble eyes hardened, as he toyed with the lighter in his pocket. As he waited in the twilight for the family’s lights to extinguish, the arsonist could practically see how beautiful the bungalow would look as it became wrapped in the dancing embers of sunset flames. The arsonist waited, and as he waited he laughed to himself because after all – all good things must, eventually, go up in flames.