“It’s like Hell,” Whit McKenna grumbled.
The sun’s blazing heat rose from the asphalt like a mirage. It shimmered across the yard and joined forces with spirals of smoke from a burning three-story home. Billowing black smoke laced through the branches of an old oak tree in the front yard and up into the pale blue August sky.
It was a mansion in an older neighborhood of mansions. The double-decker porch and wood siding weren’t putting up much of a fight; the crisp old wood succumbing to the flames with little resistance.
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 it was better than covering city council meetings, the mind-numbing epitome of boring. Prime or not, she was 42-year-old journalist returning to work after eight months of post traumatic stress disorder and had to be grateful for whatever came along.
If she wasn’t so desperate for a decent story, she’d skip the heat stroke weather and grab a late lunch and a large Pepsi. Her mouth was sand paper dry.
Still, with any luck she could turn this 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 half-way onto the well manicured lawn, her arm raised to flag him down, when flames burst through the downstairs windows.
Fire licked up the side of the house like a dragon eating its prey.
As Whit hesitated, a sudden explosion from the center of the house sent her and the fire chief diving for cover. She winced as her right knee slammed into an exposed tree trunk, and her chin hit the ground. 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 as a shield. Her knuckles felt the heat from the fire as she choked on black smoke.
“Lady, get back. Get back!” The chief hauled her up by the arm and half carried her across the street. She stumbled over fire hoses, but the grip on her arm 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 watched angry flames engulf the beautiful house. She was lucky she hadn’t been any closer. 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. Not one of those clever i-Tune down loads, a regular old-fashioned ring. A bit of nostalgia that she clung to like it was the last trace of a civilized world. She grimaced at the name of her editor on the display. A scrawny five-foot-three semi-tyrant, who, in her estimation, suffered from ‘Napoleon Syndrome’. Actually, it was the general consensus, among those in the ‘bullpen’, where the reporter’s desks were gathered on the second floor of the Medford Chronicle. Hence his nickname, ‘Little Napoleon”.
“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?”
She glanced across the street. Two firefighters hosed the roof and she’d watched four others tug a hose around back. So far there was no sign of a rescue. “I’m not sure.”
“Find out who lives there. Talk to the neighbors. Talk to the fire crew.”
Whit stepped back up onto the sidewalk behind her as a paramedic emergency vehicle rolled past. Hmmm, maybe there was a casualty in the residence, hopefully no 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. Like an addict, she was trapped in a cycle of soaring adrenaline and inevitably the painful recovery from too much reality.
She’d go hover around the ambulance when she got off the phone and brace herself just in case. “I’ll check it out. Why did you call?”
“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?” Damn. Not the woods. “Don’t you think this fire takes precedence?”
“Not when the story is a homicide.” Whit frowned. Sometimes Stu got ahead of himself, and dished out the 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.”
“Any stats?” She turned and noted the crowd that lined the road, kids on bikes mostly, a few neighbors; 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 rubber necks paused for a better view.
They were all potential quotes. And ones she’d need to move on before the wolves descended. Ah, too late. Two news crews arrived, parking a half a block away. A blazing house fire was always great footage for television news. Of course now, with print going online, even the newspapers posted video coverage. Personally, she was fighting the technological leap into modern journalism with the tenacity of a pit bull. She had the basics down, like using an iphone and a laptop, but she drew the line at shooting video.
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 Thor 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.”
“Okay. I’m on it.” 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. And probably give her the boot. Print reporting was hardly in high demand. Neither was she any more. Damaged goods. “Give me another ten minutes here and I’ll finish by phone later.”
She glanced at her watch; it was nearly 4:30 already. With any luck surly ‘Little Napoleon’ was the first to figure out the body 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 buzzing along her nerves. 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 in the lime green skirt, no stockings, long tan legs and flat sandals. 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 indicative of his character, but he was an eye-witness none-the-less and she was running out of time. She forced a smile. “Whitney McKenna, The 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.”
As if she would conspire with him on anything. 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 into 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, probably used binoculars, but if the details were accurate, then she had hit pay dirt