The young constable, who had been talking to the leading firefighter, walked over to Banks and introduced himself: PC Smythe, from the nearest village, Molesby.
"So you're the one responsible for waking me up at this ungodly hour in the morning," said Banks.
PC Smythe paled. "Well, sir, it seemed ... I ..."
"It's okay. You did the right thing. Can you fill me in?"
"There's not much to add, really, sir." Smythe looked tired and drawn, as well he might. He hardly seemed older than twelve, and this was probably his first major incident.
"Who called it in?" Banks asked.
"Bloke called Hurst. Andrew Hurst. Lives in the old lockkeeper's house about a mile away. He says he was just going to bed shortly after one o'clock, and he saw the fire from his bedroom window. He knew roughly where it was coming from, so he rode over to check it out."
"Okay. Go on."
"That's about it. When he saw the fire, he phoned it in on his mobile, and the fire brigade arrived. They had a bit of trouble gaining access, as you can see. They had to run long hoses."
Banks could see the fire engines parked about a hundred yards away, through the woods, where a narrow lane turned sharply right as it neared the canal. "Anyone get out alive?" he asked.
"We don't know, sir. If they did, they didn't hang around. We don't even know how many people live there, or what their names are. All we know is there are two casualties."
"Wonderful," said Banks. It wasn't anywhere near enough information. Arson was often used to cover up other crimes, to destroy evidence, or to hide the identity of a victim, and if that was the case here, Banks needed to know as much about the people who lived on the barges as possible. That would be difficult if they were all dead. "This lockkeeper, is he still around?"
"He's not actually a lockkeeper, sir," said PC Smythe. "We don't use them anymore. The boat crews operate the locks themselves. He just lived in the old lockkeeper's house. I took a brief statement and sent him home. Did I do wrong?"
"It's all right," Banks said. "We'll talk to him later." But it wasn't all right. PC Smythe was clearly too inexperienced to know that arsonists often delight in reporting their own fires and enjoy being involved in the fire fighting. Hurst would now have had plenty of time to get rid of any evidence if he had been involved. "Heard anything from Geoff Hamilton yet?" Banks asked.
"He's on his way, sir."
Banks had worked with Hamilton once before on a warehouse fire in Eastvale, which turned out to have been an insurance fraud. Though he hadn't warmed to the man's gruff, taciturn personality, he respected Hamilton's expertise and the quiet, painstaking way in which he worked. You didn't rush things with Geoff Hamilton; nor did you jump to conclusions. And if you had any sense, you never used the words "arson" or "malicious" around him. He had been browbeaten too many times in court.
Annie Cabbot joined Banks and Smythe. "The station received the call at one thirty-one A.M.," she said, "and the firefighters arrived here at one forty-four."
"That sounds about right."
"It's actually a very good rural response time," Annie said. "We're lucky the station wasn't staffed by retained men."
Many rural stations, Banks knew, used "retained" men, or trained part-timers, and that would have meant a longer waitat least five minutes for them to respond to their personal alerters and get to the station. "We're lucky they weren't on strike tonight, too," he said, "or we'd probably still be waiting for the army to come and piss on the flames."
They watched the firefighters pack up their gear in silence as the darkness brightened to gray, and a morning mist appeared seemingly from nowhere, swirling on the murky water and shrouding the spindly trees. In spite of the smoke stinging his lungs, Banks felt an intense craving for a cigarette rush through his system. He thrust his hands deeper into his pockets. It had been nearly six months since he had smoked a cigarette, and he was damned if he was going to give in now.
The foregoing is excerpted from Playing with Fire by Peter Robinson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
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