Theo Hanson wasn’t surprised the joy from his promotion was short-lived. If there was anything
he knew for certain, it was that happiness didn’t last.
That Friday morning, after a few weeks of salary negotiations, piles of contracts to sign, and a firm
handshake, he was the newest investigator at Prometheus Consulting, one of the most respected fire
and arson investigation companies in the country. In a few years, he hoped to become a partner.
Sometimes he didn’t recognize his own life. When he joined the army at twenty, he didn’t care if he
came back. Now at thirty-one, he had a successful career with a promising future.
After a celebratory lunch with his co-workers, there was a note on his desk: Call Martin Sinclair.
His heart raced. A note meant Martin told the receptionist not to transfer him to voice mail. Something was
very wrong. Not again, said a voice in his head. Theo looked at his cell phone to see he’d missed two calls
while he was out. It had to be about Millie, Martin’s wife. Something terrible had happened. Why else would he call?
On the first ring, Theo ran his hands through his hair, gripping the back in his fist. After almost seven years stateside, he still marveled at how long it felt. When the phone rang a second time, he stood. By the third, he was pacing. Finally, a familiar voice answered, “Hello, Theo. Don’t panic. Everything’s fine.”
“Everything can’t be fine, or you would have left a message.”
“Stop pacing, sit down, and don’t pull your hair.”
Sometimes he hated how well Martin knew him, but since Martin and Millie practically raised him and his brothers, it wasn’t a surprise. Theo took a deep breath and sat. “So, Millie’s okay? You haven’t had another heart attack? Because, seriously, you nearly gave me one.”
“Sorry, son. We’re both fine, well mostly.”
“What do you mean, ‘well mostly’?”
The brief pause was enough to make Theo worry again. “We had a fire in an office building Tuesday night. Two of us went in looking for hot spots, and the stairs gave out from under me. I’ve broken my arm and wrist and bruised a bunch of other things.” A sheen of sweat broke out over Theo’s body. He knew what it was like inside a burning building, even though as an arson investigator he didn’t have to go into the blaze. Not that this kept him safe. His hand went to the scar on his leg, which was a constant reminder of what had happened less than a year ago. “Theo,” Martin said, bringing him back to the present. “This was the third property destroyed by fire in a little over a month.”
Now he understood the reason for the call. Martin getting injured was terrible, but three fires in such a short time were unheard of in their small New Hampshire town. They could go a year and not have as many. “You suspect arson.”
“I do. I haven’t told anyone else, except Millie and my team, but rumors are flying.” Rumors flew easily where Theo grew up. “I won’t beat around the bush. I need you to come home, take over my job while I’m laid up, and investigate. If it is arson, and I’m convinced it is, our volunteer department is not equipped to handle it.”
Theo didn’t hear much beyond “come home.” It had been years since he’d been in New Hampshire, let alone Fable Notch. His reason to even consider returning to where he’d grown up was long gone. He loved Martin and Millie and all they did for him and his brothers, but they understood why he didn’t visit.
Theo didn’t want to make the trip if there was another way. He hadn’t even gone back after Martin’s heart attack. It was the only time he’d offered. Truthfully, he didn’t care if the town burned to the ground, but Martin felt differently. Shaking off his thoughts, Theo switched into professional mode. “Why don’t you send me what you have on the fires so far, and I’ll help where I can from here. I can show you how to use Skype or Zoom, and we can talk face to face.”
“And when the next fire happens, and no one knows how to look for or collect evidence?” Theo gave a small smile. Martin had been listening over the years when Theo shared information about the process he used to solve cases. It wasn’t something most firefighters or police understood.
Theo scrambled for options. “Why not call the state investigator?”
“I did, but there’ve been some issues down in Manchester, so they don’t have anyone available. You know I wouldn’t ask if I thought there was another way.”
Which was likely why it took three days for Martin to call and ask for help. The thought grabbed Theo’s attention. “How long has it been between the fires?”
There was a pause before Martin answered. “Over two weeks between the first and second, and then a little less than that before the third.”
Theo looked at the calendar on his desk. “You have less than a week before the next.”
“How do you know?”
“He’s speeding up. He’s enjoying what he’s doing and is getting a rush from the chaos and concern it’s causing. He won’t want to wait to experience that power again. I’d guess you’ve got no more than ten days from the last to the next, which means a week from today, a week from tomorrow at the latest.”
“So you’ll come?”
Back to where he was pitied because his father abandoned them, and his mother was a drunk? Back to where everyone remembered every piece of trouble he and his brothers had gotten into? Back to a place where he’d experienced his greatest heartbreak? Theo couldn’t believe what he was about to say. “Yes. I’m not in the middle of an active investigation. I could be there by Sunday night.”
“Thank you, Theo. This means a lot to me.”
They talked for a little longer before Millie grabbed the phone from her husband and gushed over how much she was looking forward to seeing him. As they spoke, Theo heard children’s voices in the background. None of the boys raised by the Sinclairs — Theo and his two brothers, along with their own son, Ryan — had children, and none lived in Fable Notch. “Who’s there?” he asked.
“Grace Duncan and her twins. Didn’t Martin tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Of course there was more.
“The second fire destroyed a building with four apartments. Grace and her twins are living here. Which reminds me, you’re more than welcome, but if you stay with us, you’ll be surrounded by two energetic eight-year-olds.”
“No problem. I’ll find somewhere else.” He knew a place that might be available even with Harlow, his arson dog, accompanying him. May as well jump completely into the deep end.
A few minutes later, he hung up and stared at the phone. Like it or not, he was going back to Fable Notch.
* * *
Theo spent the next day and a half preparing for the trip. He got approval from the senior partner to work remotely and to list this work as a pro bono case, so Prometheus would pick up the tab for any samples Theo sent to the lab. He’d check in regularly and join meetings via video conference. As he packed, he called his younger brother, Nick, to find out if he could stay in their old house, which Nick had renovated and rented to tourists. Fortunately — or maybe not — Nick was having the basement finished, which meant there were no bookings for the next three weeks. Theo hoped it wouldn’t take him that long. The less time he spent in Fable Notch the better.
On Sunday, after two restless but mostly dreamless nights, he and Harlow set off for New Hampshire. Eight hours later, they crossed the state border, and it wasn’t long before he saw mountains in the distance. As he drove north, the highway dropped from three lanes to two and then one as the White Mountains loomed before him. Less than two hours after entering the state, he got off at the exit and was soon passing the sign welcoming him to Fable Notch. His stomach clenched as if he needed a reminder he didn’t want to be here.
Driving into town, he saw familiar stores and businesses as well as a few new ones. The Triangle Market, at the intersection of the main street and the diagonal one that met it, was the first place most tourists stopped. A Thai restaurant was an unexpected addition. There were several souvenir shops, and when he saw a sign telling him there were tastings and tours at the Seven Brothers Brewery, he wondered which members of the large Stewart family opened it. Plenty of places to trigger memories and remind him of one person in particular.
There was hardly anywhere in town where he hadn’t spent time with Eden, his high school girlfriend and first love. Only love, if he were being honest. She’d gotten out of Fable Notch years ago to pursue her dream of being a professional dancer. At one time he thought he’d be by her side, but they’d split because he didn’t want to hold her back.
There was enough light in the summer sky to check the sites hit by the arsonist before heading to the old house. At least he could be productive while delaying the inevitable. Pulling out the addresses Martin gave him, Theo drove by each site to get a quick impression of the destruction. After taking in what was left of the properties, he headed back into town and made a stop at DeMarco’s picking up a sub for dinner.
It wasn’t long before he turned onto the street where he grew up. Despite money being scarce, they’d never been in danger of being homeless because his mother’s parents owned the place. He never imagined willingly staying here again.
As he pulled into the driveway, he thought he might be at the wrong address. Several years ago, Nick convinced Theo and Cole he could turn the house into a profitable rental property for leaf peepers, hikers, and skiers. Truthfully, it was the only building Theo would have gladly set fire to himself, but since Cole agreed, Theo did too. He never looked at the plans or pictures Nick sent and donated the quarterly checks he received to the school that trained Harlow.
He shut off the engine and stared at the updates Nick made. Nothing but the basic structure was left, and an addition had been built on the side where his mother’s bedroom used to be. When he was a kid, the outside had been faded blue with the paint peeling, the porch sagging, and shutters missing. Today it was cream color with forest green shutters. The porch looked deeper and now wrapped around one side. There were even oversized chairs and a swing. If the inside was as different as the outside, maybe it wouldn’t be too horrible staying here.
He got out of the truck and Harlow followed as he went to the back to get his bags. There was a tiny Mini Cooper parked next to him in the two-car driveway, which he assumed belonged to the person Nick had called to open the house and bring in supplies. It seemed like a ridiculous car to have in an area which got so much snow, but when he saw the AWD on the trunk, it made a little more sense.
He found the key where Nick said it would be, gave himself a mental “you can do this”, before going inside.
He was right — nothing looked the same, and he let out an involuntary sigh of relief. Harlow sniffed around the room as Theo marveled at the changes. He put his dinner on the kitchen island, then realized he’d forgotten to bring in Harlow’s food and dishes from the car. “I’ll be right back, girl,” he said. As she bounded up the stairs, he headed to the door. He was halfway out when a scream brought him racing back.
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