He stood at the edge of the oddly shaped concrete slab, looking back over his shoulder, getting his bearings, setting carefully in his mind where everything was on that singular day in the small city park.
He knew before he arrived that there wasn't going to be much to see - not after this period of time. Plenty of others had already been here, tramping all over the place. A cleaning crew likely showed up afterwards - probably even some heavy machinery to haul away all the debris.
Anyone else investigating this would have just read the reports, made a few assumptions – took a few educated guesses from their years of experience - then they would have checked all the boxes, dittoed the previous reports, and let that be that.
But his inquisitive nature and keen investigative mind wouldn't allow him to do that.
Instead, in spite of the period of time that had elapsed and all the major evidence being removed, he would do exactly what his training and instincts told him to do: Start at the beginning. Know where your ending is. Work your way slowly, steadily, methodically, towards the center from both ends. Expect anything. Leave nothing out.
That's how mysteries got solved.
It was more often a long, slow slog through hidden facts, purposeful miscues, twisted testimonies, and devious lies to where the answers were. There weren't any shortcuts or sudden hallelujah moments. It was always an uneventful plod toward truth, set at a glacial pace.
Eventually, everything would converge at one clear moment in time - and that's where all the answers would be.
He walked to the center of the concrete foundation, stopping along the way to toe at a dark mark on the cement. The melting snow and early Spring rains had washed away just about every sign of the fire. Only a few scorch marks remained.
And there was the smell.
To his experienced nose there was still a trace of it. And even from this tiny trace, he could tell exactly what materials had burned here.
Every fire smelled the same, and every fire smelled different.
Fire was a strange beast.
He inhaled - slowly and deeply.
Wood. Definitely wood.
Paint. Lacquer. A lot of lacquer.
He closed his eyes.
In the darkness of his mind he saw the merry-go-round completely ablaze. Its dry wood burning quickly, snapping and popping angrily. It would have gone very fast. Once the flames devoured the wood, only the metal frames and poles would remain, falling into a circular heap, the heat melting some of them into slag.
The wooden building that had enclosed the ride - with its high-ceiling and open slatted windows - would have breathed in and out, panting like a mortally wounded animal, the air movement fueling the fire even more.
Flames would have leapt straight up off the ride, hurling themselves into the center of the domed roof, spreading out along the ceiling beams and joists before crawling down the wooden walls. The roof would have caved in, pulling the walls inward. The entire structure, he estimated, may have barely lasted twenty minutes.
He opened his eyes to the scorched concrete.
A man had died here.
The man's body would have fallen..., about..., here, he thought to himself, judging the location from the reports he had read.
He went to this spot, bent down, then looked up into the sky. He imagined a roof above his head, angrily ablaze - raining down chunks of flaming wood, dropping heavy beams. Something like that might certainly crush a man's skull, leave him unconscious, if it hadn't killed him outright.
The fire would've raged on, consuming everything.
He had seen a lot of strange things happen with fires.
Fire was a strange beast.
* * * *
Hugh felt eyes on him.
Many years as an investigator had sharpened this ability in him. He could always sense himself being watched.
He stood, seeing a man approaching from the parking lot, noticing that an old, service-style pickup truck had pulled into the lot beside his car.
The approaching man had a small, white bag in one hand. He raised the other hand in a friendly greeting.
"Hello there," the man called out.
Hugh stepped off the concrete slab, reaching into his shirt pocket for the business card he had put there earlier, signaling a greeting with his other hand.
"Name's Arlon," said the approaching man. "I'm park caretaker."
"Hugh Kelly," he said, holding out the business card. "Investigator for Founder's Insurance. Philly, P.A.."
"You're a long way from home, mister," said Arlon, glancing at the business card before tucking it under the finger that held the bag and offering a handshake.
"Just a bit," said Kelly, taking the man's hand. "I'm here about the insurance claim on this fire you had."
"That sure was a doozy of a night," said Arlon.
"Sounds like from the reports that there were two locations."
"Yes, sir. Other one was off in that direction," said Arlon, pointing to his left and starting to walk in that direction. He spied over his shoulder to see if the stranger was following.
"The other fire was nothin' but two of them big canvas tents," continued Arlon. "Like one of them you rent for outdoor weddings and such. The folks who were workin' here at the time had two of them set up as a kinda temporary shelter for the horses. They also kept their tools, paints, and what not stored there."
"And you were here during the fire."
Arlon stopped cold, half-turning toward the man. He wasn't quite sure - but the way the man had said it - Arlon couldn't determine if Kelly had asked him a question or was making a statement. Not that it mattered. He wasn't going to lie about anything. But it bothered him for some reason - the way the man had said the words. Almost like he was letting Arlon know that he knew all about that night and was half-expecting Arlon to lie about it.