Smoke on the Water Episode 25

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 25: Hoyt

The interrogation room was getting crowded. Carson had brought in Damon and Eric Bradford, along with their parents, Doug and Nicole. Someone had dragged in a couple more chairs, but there still wasn’t enough seating for everybody, especially not once both Carson and Chief Thompson stepped inside.

Yet again, I was being allowed to watch from the observation room, provided I didn’t interfere. I wanted this whole thing done by the book so that if these little shits were guilty, they wouldn’t weasel out of the consequences. And judging by the evidence collected in the initial search of the property by Sutter’s Ferry PD, they were guilty of something.

“Our boys didn’t do anything,” Doug Bradford insisted.

“They’re good kids. Honor roll students,” Nicole added.

“As we said back at the house, if they’re innocent, then there’s nothing to worry about in a search. Y’all were incredibly cooperative. We really appreciate that.” Carson sounded almost amiable. “You’ve been on-island all summer, so you know we’ve had some trouble, and we’re eager to get to the bottom of it.”

Doug Bradford was the picture of agreeableness as he nodded, his salt-and-pepper hair hardly moving a millimeter. “Understandable. Which is exactly why we let you search the house.”

I didn’t miss how Damon, the elder of the two boys, jolted at that announcement. Eric’s face paled.

Yeah, you had something to hide that Mommy and Daddy didn’t know about.

“We found some interesting stuff.” Carson put three evidence bags on the table. He tapped each one in turn. “Firecrackers. Lighters. Lighter fluid.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Doug insisted. “I smoke, so the lighter and lighter fluid are mine. And we bought firecrackers for the Fourth of July.”

Carson nodded. “Sure. That makes sense. One of my officers also found this in the outside garbage can.” He added a large plastic bag to the table. Inside was some kind of fabric. An item of clothing? I couldn’t tell from where I watched. “Seems like those are scorch marks on this hoodie.”

Damon lifted his head in defiance. “I caught it on the top element of the oven when I was pulling some tater tots out the other night. Since there was a hole in it, I didn’t see the point in keeping it.”

But Eric’s shoulders were creeping up around his ears.

Nicole’s expression was turning mutinous. A similar shade to her eldest son. “I don’t like any of what you’re implying, Chief Carson.”

Carson smiled, but there was no hiding the edge to it. “I don’t like the mess somebody’s been making of my island.” He set one last evidence bag on the table. Inside was a cell phone. “This is one of those new-fangled models with the facial recognition. I’m a fan of having a fingerprint or proper password myself, but it’s handy in cases like this.” He pulled it out of the bag and tapped the screen on, then held the phone up first to Damon’s face, then to Eric’s. The screen unlocked. With a few more swipes of his fingers, he opened some app on the phone and set the device down on the table.

I didn’t have a good view from here, but I could see shades of red and orange on the screen. Flames?

Carson swiped the screen, moving from image to image. “If your boys are such law-abiding little angels, how is it they’ve got pictures of what appears to be every fire set on this island since the start of the summer?”

Eric’s face had turned a little gray.

Damon stared at him. “You dumb fuck. You took pictures?”

“Damon! Language!”

Doug clearly wasn’t registering the implications of what was happening.

But his wife was staring at her youngest. “Eric, explain yourself.”

The boy’s shoulders were rounded, and his voice was so soft, I almost couldn’t hear it. “It was Damon’s idea.”

Yeah, throw your brother under the bus.

Everyone turned to stare at Damon. I could see him considering the wisdom of doubling down, but ultimately, he threw up his hands. “Yeah, okay, fine. We set a few trash cans on fire. Some mailboxes. It was no big deal. Just little stuff.”

The elder Bradfords erupted.

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“How could you?”

“Don’t say another word. We’re getting you an attorney.” This last came from Daddy.

Eric seemed to shrink further in his chair. Nicole’s face was ashen as she studied her oldest son. “What were you thinking?”

Damon’s shoulders jerked in a belligerent shrug. “It was just something to do. We’ve been so damned bored here. There’s absolutely nothing to do on this backwater island.”

Chief Thompson had been standing quietly in the corner, observing the proceedings, but at this, he stepped forward. His jaw was granite. “Do you have any idea how many resources you wasted this summer? How many lives you risked by tying up the fire department with these nuisance fires? We’re the first line medical response on this island.”

Tears were tracking down the younger boy’s face now. Damon seemed to be dialed to a hundred percent defiant.

Their parents appeared to have the good grace to be horrified.

“How could you do this?” Doug demanded. “You’re supposed to be a better influence on your brother.”

“I shouldn’t have to be my brother’s keeper. Why did you have to bring us to this place? Taking us away from our friends and everything there is to do?”

For all his bluster about a lawyer, Doug Bradford seemed to finally register that they were fucked. “We’re happy to pay for damages. Both of them will be grounded until the end of time, and certainly they’ll do community service to help make up for everything.”

Carson was back to looking conciliatory. “I appreciate that, Dr. Bradford. I do. But it’s not that simple. There are the criminal charges for the house they nearly burned down, and the truck they torched. Not to mention the destruction of the OBX Brewhouse a couple days ago.”

At this declaration, both kids went sheet white.

“We didn’t have anything to do with any of that,” Damon insisted. “We were at the house with our parents the night the tavern burned.”

“Can anybody other than your parents verify that fact?” Carson asked.

“Actually, yes. We had company over for dinner that night,” Nicole said. “We were all playing games until right before they left around ten.”

“We’ll need their names and contact information to verify. But that doesn’t clear you of the rental fire at the beginning of the summer or the vehicle fire a few weeks ago.”

“We didn’t burn either of those.” Damon’s expression turned speculative. “But we know who did. That was what gave us the idea in the first place.”

“If you know anything about either of those fires, you’d best speak up right the hell now, son,” Carson warned.

“I want immunity.”

“This isn’t the movies, kid. You’re not getting jack shit when you’ve already confessed. Now, unless you want to go down for these other two fires, I’d start talking.”

Apparently realizing his little gamble wasn’t going to get him anywhere, Damon lost some of the bravado. “Our rental is a couple of doors down from the one that burned. We saw a guy sneaking out of the house after the guys who’d been there that weekend had already left. I noticed because he looked older than the dudes who’d been staying there, and I thought it was a little weird. Then we saw the smoke.”

“Why didn’t you call 911?” Nicole’s voice had gone strident.

Another shoulder jerk. “We wanted to see what would happen. Nobody was there. The hotties cleaning the place had left.”

Caroline and Gabi. I wanted to plant my fist in the little shit’s face.

“Can you describe the guy you saw?” Carson asked.

“Big guy. Broad shoulders. Dark hair.”

Which could describe about fifty percent of the men on the island at any given time.

“Anything else?” Thompson prompted. “Anything about what he was wearing?”

“We didn’t get a good look.”

“He was scruffy,” Eric added. “Like he hadn’t shaved in a few days.”

“What about how he was acting? Where he went after he left the house?” Carson prodded.

“Not after, but before. He came from the house across the street,” Eric said.

“From inside that house?” Thompson asked.

“No. Like he’d been hanging around outside somewhere. But out of sight. I think he was waiting for those cleaning ladies to finish and leave.”

The perp had been watching Caroline and Gabi. I curled my hands into fists, wishing these kids could give something actually useful.

Carson leaned forward, bracing his hands on the table. “This is really important, kids. Have you seen this guy at any other point this summer?”

Eric nodded. “On the street behind the fire station. It was the day that truck got set on fire. We were wandering around town and saw him slipping out from between some buildings.”

“And how did you know it was the same guy? Maybe it was just somebody who happened to be cutting through the alley.”

“Because we could smell the gas on him. It’s not a smell you forget.”

Again, not evidence it was the same person, though it did link whoever they saw the second time to my truck.

“Did you get a better look this time?” Carson asked.

Damon squinted, thinking. “He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Older guy. Maybe a little older than Mom and Dad. Kind of weathered around the face, like he spends a lot of time outside. He walked right by us. We pretended not to see because we recognized he was bad news.”

My brain spun. If these kids were responsible for all the smaller fires this summer, and this second perpetrator had torched the beach house and my truck, what were the chances he’d been the one behind the tavern fire, too? I considered what little they’d said about him. Dark hair. Scruffy or bearded. That narrowed it down. Troy, Marcus, and David Foley all had lighter hair and were generally clean shaven. Of the two remaining, only one actually looked older. Except, he’d had an alibi for when my truck had been torched, so the cops had stopped looking at him.

Had a coworker lied for him? Or had they simply assumed he was where he was supposed to be, when he was supposed to be there?

Either way, Caroline needed to know that the threat definitely wasn’t over.

I yanked out my phone, intent on calling to warn her, and spotted her text.

Caroline: I can hear you downstairs. Rios is out helping Gabi and a friend with a flat. Why don’t you come up and join me?

The message came with a shot of her feet, clearly in the bathtub.

Fear grabbed me by the throat as I hit her contact and listened to the phone ring and ring before it finally went to voicemail. I bolted out of the observation room so fast that the door banged against the wall.

Someone was in the fucking house with her, and she thought it was me.