Smoke on the Water Episode 9

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 9: Hoyt

Caroline: Fine.

I might not have been in a relationship in a while, but I was well aware that this concession was hard won.

I hadn’t been trying to start a fight this morning. I’d just wanted to make it clear that I’d be paying for any paint or other materials she’d be using on the house. The hardware store had already set up my account, and I’d called to add her to it first thing, because I didn’t want the burden of the cost of materials to fall on her.

You’d have thought I’d insulted her first born considering how she reacted. At least, that was my interpretation of her text responses. She’d tried to insist she could cover her own costs. I pointed out that anything she did was staying with the house I owned, so it only made sense that I pay for it. She’d finally relented. Grudgingly. I really hoped she didn’t severely limit what she wanted to do just because I was footing the bill. While I wasn’t a rich man, I could certainly afford a bunch of paint.

I wondered if this was going to torpedo my chances at our relationship becoming a real one. Once the subject of her tenancy came up, the question of real or fake dating had been dropped. I hadn’t wanted to do anything to pressure her. Which meant I also hadn’t kissed her or touched her again after that unguarded moment in the kitchen. Even so, the dinner itself had gone great. She liked my cooking—bonus—and we’d enjoyed each other’s company. At least, I thought we had.

Maybe I’d be able to turn it into a more regular thing, given she’d be right next door. Granted, with both of her siblings. But still. I wanted to spend more time with her. Because I just… liked her as a person. Beyond the attraction. Once she loosened up a little from the wine and being out of the public eye, she was really smart and funny, with occasional irreverent remarks I hadn’t expected. I wanted to see what else was under all those layers of caution.

And, okay, also under those layers of fabric. I’d spent half the night fighting the urge to trace those little spaghetti straps where they draped over her shoulders. Proof that I still had a pulse. I could still see them in my head, still imagine what it would’ve been like to nudge them down and follow the trail with my mouth—

“McNamara, see you in my office?”

I shook off my musings.

Right. I was on shift. There was work to do.

Shoving up from the table, I followed Chief Thompson into his office and shut the door. The room smelled of coffee and the barest hint of smoke that seemed to have soaked into the very walls of the firehouse. Papers were strewn across Thompson’s desk, and I recognized photos from the open investigation.

As I took a seat, I nodded toward them. “So, what’s the latest on the beach house fire?”

“It’s almost certainly arson, but we don’t know the who or the why.”

I had to fight to remain casual. “Do you consider Caroline sufficiently cleared?”

Thompson studied me for a long moment. “By rights, I should exclude you entirely from this investigation due to lack of objectivity, because of your involvement with a person of interest.”

I knew that. It was why he hadn’t used me more than absolutely necessary in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Him allowing me to come along when he questioned Caroline had been a professional courtesy that had skated a few lines. I had considered telling him the truth about our relationship status or lack thereof, but I’d realized it didn’t matter. Either way, I wasn’t objective about her.

But Thompson had hesitated instead of saying an outright no.


“But you have more investigative training and experience than the rest of the department. So, while I can’t have you actively investigating, I want your insight.”

I could live with that compromise. “Do you believe Caroline set that fire?”

“If I did, I’d hardly have you sitting in that chair. But no, apart from the fact that she’d get no financial gain, no insurance payout, and has no history of trouble with her employer, the timeline doesn’t fit. She was already across island starting her shift at the tavern well before the fire began. And while you and I both know that there are ways to set up a delay, there was no evidence of that in the debris.”

I relaxed a little. “Okay.”

The chief kicked back in his chair. “The sister’s alibi also checks out, as does the brother’s.”

“You asked about Rios? Why? Is there some connection there that we didn’t originally know about?”

“No. Just covering our bases. I didn’t actually think he had anything to do with it. But he’s a favorite scapegoat on this island right now, and the chief of police will investigate him one way or the other because he’s got a hard-on for him. Figures if he can’t pin him for the Busby girl, he’ll get him on something else.”

I had nothing good to say about Bill Carson. He’d been chief of police for most of my life, and while I hadn’t had any run-ins with him, I knew others who had. He wasn’t what you could call a fair and impartial sort of man to begin with, and I’d spent a fair amount of time wondering whether his obsession with Rios was because he truly believed Caroline’s brother capable of harming someone or because he was just a racist son of a bitch. I appreciated Thompson’s doing due diligence ahead of time.

“That’s true enough. So, where are we? Give me the overview.”

“We have a case of probable arson—not a particularly sophisticated one—that left the kitchen of the beach house a total disaster, caused damage to the structural integrity of the second floor, and likely would have taken out the entire house had it not been caught so quickly by the Newmans.”

I considered. “They arrived more or less when they’d told the rental company they’d be arriving, so either the person setting the fire wasn’t aware of the schedule or wanted the blaze to be stopped before it could get fully involved. The latter doesn’t really make sense unless the insurance was the point.”

“I can see something else is circling around in your brain. Keep going.”

“Is it a matter of convenience that the fuel used was readily available cleaning supplies, or was it meant to make it look like Caroline was the guilty party?”

“It’s possible. To what end?”

“Somehow striking back at her instead of her brother?” I shook my head. “That feels far fetched. I might just be paranoid on her behalf. What if it wasn’t a particular effort to frame Caroline? Maybe it was simply meant to look like an accident. The kind of thing that insurance would still cover. There were no trailers, no fuel scattered elsewhere. It literally looks as if someone set a tub of cleaning supplies on the stove and turned on the burner. Oh, whoops. My bad. That’s terrible. Can I have a check now?”

“That’s certainly a decent working theory. We’ll need to get local PD to look into Jim Foster’s personal and company finances. Certainly his insurance is going to want a ruling one way or the other before they’re going to pay out. We’ve put in for the State Fire Marshal to come out, but we’re way on down his list. We’ve done as much evidence collection as possible and passed that on to the lab. Again, that’ll take time to come back. So we’re in a holding pattern. This is largely going to be a waiting game.”

“Often is. When was the last time you had arson on the island?”

“Aside from the usual contingent of kids playing with shit they aren’t supposed to, about three years back, we had a fire at the marina office. Late night fire that took out the whole damned building, including some pretty valuable navigation equipment and historical records. It all ended up being because the marina manager couldn’t keep it in his pants. His wife found out about the infidelity and went to confront him about it up at the office, which was, coincidentally, where he met his mistresses.”


“Yup. He wasn’t there at the time, but she had a right hissy fit and started trashing the place. Broke a lamp that sparked on all the heaps of paperwork on the desk and one thing led to another… You know how that goes.”

“I do, indeed.”

“Anyway, she tried to get things under control but couldn’t find the fire extinguisher and ended up fleeing the scene. By the time we got there, nothing could be done to save the building. In the course of the investigation, we started digging into the manager’s world and found out about the split with the wife. Went to talk to her, and she ended up breaking down in the interview and admitting to the whole thing. It was a damned mess, even though the investigation itself wrapped pretty quickly.”

“Sounds like. Don’t know that we’ll be eliciting a blanket confession like that on this one.”

“Hope springs eternal. Gotta figure out who we can put some pressure on. Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll pass them on to Chief Carson.”

Recognizing the conversation was done, I shoved to my feet. “If I can be of any more help, just let me know.”

“I will. And McNamara, about this thing you’ve got going on with Caroline Carrera.”

I tensed. “What about her?”

“Just watch yourself. Make no mistake—I think she’s a nice girl. But trouble sticks to that family like sandburs, and I don’t want to see you get caught up in that.”

“I can handle whatever trouble comes my way.”

“I hope that’s true, son.”

The blare of the alarm cut off any further reply I might have made. I bolted from Thompson’s office, heading straight for my locker. It was time to suit up and roll out.