The Central Alarm Office suspected no crime. Routinely, they only sent Homicide to the scene because the house fire had six fatalities. The burned hulk was vivid among the row of faded shanties. Violent death was as common among these people in Fruitvale Addition as “stick ‘um up”. The odor of burn debris, charred flesh, and death choked the air even before they got out of the car.

Dispatch had said there had been a sole survivor. A skinny kid about fourteen sat on the curb with no place to go. EMTs had bandaged his burned hands. He was crying into the gauze.

“Son, we are so sorry.” Even always hard ass Harper struggled for words as he knelt beside the boy. “How did the fire…I mean how did you escape?”

“Sleepin’ on the floor by the back door.” He kept the face covered. Agony hung on the air like green fog.

“Lucky you managed to get fully dressed?” Jackson asked. “How…?” Jackson had been around a long time. The kid’s hair and street clothes were singed.

The kid looked up, terrified, eyes glazed, vacant. He was skinny and pale, like a concentration camp survivor.

Harper caught Jackson’s glance. Both saw it instantly.

Jackson laid a hand on the kid’s shoulder. “We understand, partner. You didn’t mean to hurt your family. Playin’ with matches, maybe?”

“Lit a cigarette. Dropped the match.” The sobs disappeared into a high-pitched wail.

They’d seen it before. Chronic fire setter offering the lie about careless smoking.    Jackson said, “We know. You thought they’d all wake up and get out.”

He dissolved into tears. He hadn’t really survived. He was as lost as his loved ones the wagon had already carted off.

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