The arson had been hot, fast, and lethal.
The cloying, acrid scent of the extinguished arson fire had FBI agent Nora English breathing through her mouth as she walked carefully through the remains of what had been the research wing of Butcher-Payne Biotech. The bright white light from emergency spotlights cast an eerie starkness throughout the burned building. Her boots sloshing through the water left behind by the firefighters. Tens of thousands of gallons had flowed into this building to put out the blaze, and the fire crew was surveying the structure to insure there were no remaining hot spots.
They’d been damn lucky. Last winter had been dry, creating a summer combustible with dry brush and trees. The hill of dead, brown foliage behind Butcher-Payne, and the arid canyon across the two-lane highway, could easily have caught fire, spreading through the crisp timber and underbrush faster than they could respond. Fortunately, there’d been no wind to push the fire, and the first responders had done a magnificent job saturating the rooftops and surrounding grounds. In addition, the solid exterior and internal firewalls of the five-year-old building had contained the fire within the research wing.
“The fire sprinklers didn’t go on as they were supposed to,” the Placer County fire chief, Ansel Nobel, said while he escorted Nora to where the body had been found. “The most recent inspection was three months ago; then, they were functioning properly. I don’t understand.”
“Have you checked the water-pump station? Is this area on city or well water?”
“There’s a water storage tank uphill for—damn, that’s it.”
“The water storage tank is for the hydrants. The sprinklers are on a pump system maintained by the county. We hooked up the hydrants without any problems, so when my crew chief told me the sprinklers hadn’t come on, I assumed they were faulty.”
He gestured at the ceiling with his flashlight. The sprinkler heads had distended, but had no water.
“I’ll ask my partner to check it out.” She called Pete Antonovich using the walkie-talkie feature of her BlackBerry. Technically he was no longer her partner, now that she’d been temporarily promoted to squad leader while their SSA was teaching for four months at Quantico. But old habits; she and Pete had been partners since she transferred to Sacramento FBI headquarters nine years ago.
“Pete, it’s Nora. Chief Nobel said the sprinklers didn’t activate. The pump may have been sabotaged—can you talk to the sheriff’s department and get a team over there to check it out?”
“Will do. What’s it like inside?”
His voice had a modicum of restrained humor. “I meant damages.”
“Same apparent burn pattern as the previous arson fires. Started in the lab and was contained ninety percent there and adjoining offices. The lobby walls have some damage. Hot enough to melt electronic equipment. Arson investigation will know more.”
“When’s Quin going to get here?”
Nora hesitated a moment. Her sister had a reputation, and she hated to fuel it. But this was Pete, so she simply said, “She had a date.”
“It’s five-thirty in the morning.”
“In San Francisco. She promised she’d leave immediately. She wasn’t on call tonight,” Nora defended.
“I’m not being critical, but we need her. I don’t need to tell you they’re escalating.”
The arson gang they’d been investigating for twenty months had never killed before. The three previous arsons had targeted the same industry—biotechnology—but the first two were set in warehouses, and the third fire in a small genetic research building at Sacramento State University. Nora wasn’t certain yet exactly what Butcher-Payne did, but they had “Biotech” in their name and that, coupled with the “message” that had been spray-painted on the exterior—stop murder, signed with the moniker the previous arsonists used, BLF—was enough to make Nora and Pete feel comfortable adding Butcher-Payne to the list.
The only difference in the arson at Butcher-Payne was the victim. Why kill now? Accident or premeditated? Was Jonah Payne targeted because he was Jonah Payne, or simply because he headed the research lab?
“Something else is going on. This just doesn’t feel right to me.” Nora caught herself twisting her shortish, dark blond hair between her thumb and forefinger. She tucked the loose curls behind her ear and dropped her hand.
“Have you seen the vic?”
“I’m heading that way now.”
“I did a field test on the graffiti. The paint is identical to the other arson fires. Chances that this is a copycat drop dramatically.”
“Dammit, Pete, they haven’t killed anyone before.”
“It was just a matter of time, you know that. I’ll go check the pumps and get back to you.”
Nora pocketed her BlackBerry as Chief Nobel said, “It’s happened before.”
That seemed obvious to Nora, and should to Chief Nobel, who was well aware of the previous three arsons. “Excuse me?”
“Arsonists setting a fire not knowing someone is inside.”
“It still makes them murderers, whether they intended to kill someone or not.”
Nobel stood at the entrance to Jonah Payne’s office. “Brace yourself, it’s not pretty.”
Nora buried her emotions deep. It didn’t matter how many times she saw a dead body, or in what condition, the anger and deep sadness at a life taken too soon could overwhelm her if she didn’t close off her feelings. She couldn’t afford to impair her critical judgment. Cops learned to compartmentalize to do the job or they ended up dead or drunk. There was a reason cops had nearly twice the suicide rate as the population at large.
Her ability to fully detach herself had earned her a reputation as levelheaded with those who liked her, and a cold bitch with those who didn’t.
Chief Nobel stepped aside. Bright crime-scene tape crisscrossed the charred opening leading into Dr. Jonah Payne’s office off the main research laboratory. The metal door was open, the paint burned off on one side. Had it been open or closed when the fire crew came in? The office itself wasn’t large, approximately fourteen feet square. Paper fueled the flames in here, soggy remnants of pulp everywhere, higher piles of wet ash and partially burned paper on the credenza behind the large desk. No windows, no natural light—Nora didn’t know how anyone could work in such conditions. She’d put skylights in every room of her small country home because she needed sunlight.
The only thing her mother had ever done for her was give her an appreciation of nature.
Good job keeping your emotions in check, thinking of that woman.
Nora focused on the victim, presumed to be Jonah Payne, who lay flat on his back in front of his desk. His position seemed odd to Nora. She’d investigated only one domestic terrorism case that had resulted in fire deaths: in that case, the fourteen victims had been trapped in a burning building and all had died of smoke inhalation. The bodies had been either in fetal positions or prone.
Payne had second- and third-degree burns over all exposed areas of his body. His hair was gone, and the metal from his glasses had melted into his charred skin. His shirt was completely gone, but he’d been wearing jeans, she noted, and while they were black they appeared intact. Denim could withstand fire longer than many other natural-fiber materials. They’d need to put together all these details to figure out exactly what happened to Payne and whether his death was intentional or accidental.
Fire fatalities were among the most difficult crimes to investigate. Much of the damage to the body came from necessary fire-suppression activities, but when firefighters discovered a victim, they did everything they could to preserve evidence while also putting out the flames. Unless there was a bullet in the body, severe blunt-force trauma, or another obvious external force, determining cause of death was extremely difficult.
The man inspecting the body glanced up. “Chief.”
“Keith, this is Special Agent Nora English with the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit.”
“Don’t come in,” he ordered.
“Nora, have you met our M.E., Keith Coffey?”
“No,” she said. “Dr. Coffey, does it seem odd to you that the victim is on his back?”
He stopped his inspection and looked at her. “Yes, it is very odd. But I don’t want to jump to conclusions before the fire inspector gets here.”
“She’s on her way,” Nora said. “She was out of town and—”
A raspy voice behind her bellowed, “She? Last I checked I’m still a man, sugar.”
Nora bristled and turned. The smoker’s voice belonged to a man who looked old enough to be her grandfather. He wore black pants and a red plaid shirt on which was clipped a fire marshal’s badge.
The man grinned at her and winked. “Yep, still a man.”
Excerpted from Cutting Edge by Allison Brennan. Copyright © 2009 by Allison Brennan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.