After the Fire by Meredith Rae Morgan - Read Online
After the Fire
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Summary

An insurance adjuster investigates a suspicious fire that killed dozens of people from her home town. The fire was arson and the owners had motive, but Bev believes them when they tell her they didn't set the fire. She sets out to find out who did it, and why.

Published: Meredith Rae Morgan on

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After the Fire - Meredith Rae Morgan

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Chapter 1

Bev pulled up to the curb across the street from the gutted restaurant and parked behind the fire chief. The local volunteer fire-fighters had brought the blaze under control, but the building was still smoldering. Firefighters from neighboring towns were still hooking up their hoses to help with the mopping up. She heard a cop yelling at a firefighter to call for ambulances, as many as could be rounded up. The police chief and the ranking firefighter on the crew that had responded first to the alarm provided a quick update to the chief. Bev stood back far enough not to get into trouble, but close enough to hear what they said.

This one's bad, sir. There was a big crowd in the restaurant tonight. A wedding rehearsal party was the biggest group, but it was a pretty full house. The fire spread fast. As far as we can tell it looks like the only people who got out were the ones in the bar waiting for tables and the people in the kitchen. Looks like most of the people in the dining room were trapped. We gotta get in there quick and see if there are any survivors.

The chief nodded and waved his hand, Do it.

He pulled out a cell phone and made a call, Dan, this is Ed Casey in Stanforth. I've got a serious situation, and I need help. We're responding to a restaurant fire with a lot of casualties. I need as many firefighters and EMT's as you can spare. I got a feeling I'm also gonna need some higher powered fire investigation technology than I have available here. Can you help me?

After a few seconds, he nodded and said, Thanks.

Then he turned to Bev and tried to smile but didn't quite succeed. I suppose you're here for the insurance company.

Yes, sir. I'm the adjuster assigned to handle the claim, but I have to tell you as a preliminary matter, I have EMT training. With your permission, I'd like to help with the rescue operation.

Sure. We need all the help I can get. I don't like the idea of letting an adjuster get inside the fire site before my investigators do, but if there are survivors, we need to get them out. Get some protective gear from the truck and go ahead. He put one hand on her shoulder and shook the index finger of his other hand under her nose. Don't you touch anything you don't need to touch and you'd better share with me anything you think you discover in there. This is a potential crime scene and I won't have anybody fuck it up. You got that?

She reached out and patted his chest, Yes, sir. I understand the rules. Trust me, you and I are on the same side here. First we get the people out, then we figure out what started the fire and how much damage there is.

He pointed her in the direction of the nearest fire truck. The local firefighters knew her and nobody stopped her when she started pulling out protective gear.

A few minutes later, Bev stepped into hell. Firefighters were battling hot spots at various places around the room. The entire inside of the restaurant was gutted. Bev was glad she'd had the presence of mind to grab a bandanna to cover her mouth and nose for what little protection it would provide against the smoke and ash. The smell of burnt flesh was nauseating.

A firefighter touched her arm and asked her to help him turn over a table: there were human legs sticking out from underneath it. They moved the table and found four people who had crawled underneath it in an effort to stay low and away from the inferno. Three of them were dead. A lady who lay on the bottom of the pile, underneath a man's body, was still alive.

Bev helped the firefighter pull the man's body off the woman. The firefighter called for a stretcher. They helped the EMT's get the lady onto the stretcher. Bev hoped they didn't hurt the woman too much by touching her burned legs, although from the looks of the woman's injuries an the shallowness of her breathing, Bev thought she was probably a goner anyway. Considering how badly she was burned, Bev thought that might be a blessing.

They turned to the next table. Two people. Both dead.

Slowly Bev, and the other EMTs worked their way around the room. There were perhaps eighty or so people in the main dining room, both customers and wait staff. They found fewer than a dozen survivors. Most of those who were alive were badly burned over most of their bodies. If they lived, their recovery would be a hellish ordeal of multiple skin grafts.

Behind the leading line of of search and rescue workers, the volunteer firefighters and police officers hauled out bodies. They ran out of body bags and simply lined the bodies up on the sidewalk, covering them with table cloths someone had located in a storage closet off the bar.

Bev had no idea how long the initial rescue operation had taken. She emerged from the building and gulped the relatively clean air outside. She accepted a bottle of water from a Red Cross worker and sat down on the bumper of an emergency response vehicle to catch her breath. Helicopters and car sirens were approaching from different directions.

Soon, fire investigators from Cincinnati and Dayton hopped off the chopper and huddled with the fire chief. In only a few minutes they began processing the scene. There were some bitter words about the chief letting EMT's -- not to mention a god-damned civilian, and an insurance adjuster at that -- into the crime scene, but that was all for show. Everybody knew looking for survivors was, appropriately, the first priority.

Bev's cell phone rang. Her boss's number appeared on the screen. She was not ready to talk to him, so she ignored the call. She placed an outgoing call to her daughter, who was obviously sleeping, her hello was muffled and indistinct. Emily, it's Mom. I was called out on a fire. I may not be home when you get up in the morning. I'm just letting you know not to worry if I'm not there when you get up. You will hear about the fire on the news. I'm okay, but I can tell you, I'm gonna be real busy for a while. Talk to you tomorrow. Love you. Emily murmured something unintelligible, but it was at least an acknowledgment that she was awake enough to hear Bev's message.

A few minutes later the arson investigator and the ranking officer from the crime lab approached Bev, with Ed Casey right behind them.

You the adjuster? She took an immediate dislike to the arson investigator from Cincinnati. His tone and posture made it clear he thought the folks from this small town were a bunch of rubes, and he was a big-city guy who knew it all.

Yeah.

You wanna tell me what you saw inside?

She stood up and looked at him, matching his contempt and his swagger, Not really because I don't like dealing with condescending assholes, but in view of the fact that you're a cop and I'm a witness to a potential crime scene, I'll cooperate. She described in as much detail as she could remember everything she saw inside. As she began speaking, she reached in her pocket and turned on the voice record feature of her phone. It occurred to her she might as well make her statement to the police count as her preliminary draft of an initial report to her employer.

The fire inspector and the crime lab guy asked a lot of questions, but eventually they were done.

The guy from the crime lab looked at his notes and whistled, Thanks, Ms. Deller, you're very observant. I think you gave us a lot of good information. May I have your card in case we need to follow up?

She handed him the card, and ignored the fire investigator. The two cops walked away to interview some of the other EMT's and local firefighters who had been inside the building. Other cops were interviewing the people who had escaped the blaze and some witnesses who had been in the neighborhood. Bev poured the last of her bottle of water on her bandanna and wiped her face with it.

Ed Casey chuckled. First of all, that only just smeared the soot around on your face. You might want to get an clean hankie and try again. Second of all, I want to thank you for your help tonight. I also want to thank you for calling Bill Burnside an asshole. I've been wanting to do that for decades, but I have to work with him occasionally so I don't dare.

She held up her hand indicating she'd be right back. In a minute she came back with two bottles of water from the Red Cross truck and a bunch of wet paper towels. She handed him a bottle, and wiped her face with the towels.

Casey said, That's better. You don't look quite as much like Al Jolson. He moved in close and asked in a voice that was barely above a whisper, What do you think about the fire?

She shook her head in dismay, raised her eyebrows and then nodded, acknowledging what he already feared, It sure as heck looks like arson, all right. Obviously, we're going to have to get experts and study it carefully, but I think the fire started in the far rear corner. It doesn't look like a professional job, but sometimes pros like to make it look sloppy to throw us off. The accelerant was assisted by the fact that the dining room had wood beams and support posts. Old wood. Dry, old wood salvaged from a couple of barns. I know because I eat here -- or I guess more accurately -- I used to eat here quite often. The whole place went up like a torch.

No sprinkler, I imagine.

I doubt it. I'll pull the policy and the application tomorrow, but this place had been in business for decades. Hell, they didn't even have a computerized cash register. I'm guessing they had the minimum amount of safety devices that was legal. Maybe less than that.

He nodded and cocked his head to one side. "How well do you know Ron Mazzoli?

I don't know Ron very well, personally. I went to school with one of his sisters. Actually, when I was in high school I worked at The Barn for a few weeks, busing tables and washing dishes. At that time Ron's mother still ran the place. He worked there, tending bar and occasionally working the front of the house. Mrs. Mazzoli was the brains behind the operation, and the chief cook.

Is the one you knew the sister who's the cook now?

No. The one I knew moved to California right after college. She works in Silicon valley and makes a zillion bucks a year. I get Christmas cards from her, but I don't think she comes home to visit very often. The sister who works in the kitchen now is the youngest. I don't know her other than to speak to her on the street.

He scratched his head. You think Ron would torch his place?

She shook her head and slammed the paper towels into a trash can for emphasis, Absolutely not! That restaurant has been his family's livelihood for generations. His grandmother started it in the 1950's. I can't see him destroying it.

Had you been there lately?

She didn't look at him and shuffled her feet. She knew perfectly well where he was headed. No. We both know the place has kind of gone down hill in recent years. She ran her fingers through her hair and looked sad, I'm guessing that when we look closer we will find that the restaurant was having financial problems, not unlike a lot of businesses in this shitty economy. I'm guessing that Ron will have all kinds of motive. We will both probably have to ask him a lot of really uncomfortable questions.

You going to turn this over to your company's fraud unit?

"Not yet. At least I'm going to try to get the company to let me investigate a bit more first. I'll need some expert fire investigators to look at causation and to assess damages. I'm going to hire a herd of lawyers to defend Ron in the lawsuits that will be filed against him by the families of all the dead folks. Initially I plan to proceed as though this is a covered claim.

If we uncover evidence that Ron did it, at that point I'll turn it over to the fraud unit and turn my file over to the prosecutor. Then, I'll hire more lawyers to defend the lawsuits that will be filed against my company by Ron and by the families of the dead people. Hopefully by then my legal department will have taken the claim over and I'll be out of it.

Sounds like a bunch of lawyers will do okay on this deal.

She put her hands in her pockets and looked toward the smoldering building, crawling with cops taking pictures and measurements. Lawyers are the only people who benefit from a tragedy like this. She started to walk away, then she turned around and walked up to him. There's one thing that occurred to me in there which I didn't mention to Mr. Fancy-Pants-From-Cincinnati.

What?

The place that I think was the source of origin for the fire was in one corner of the room near a bunch of diners. If Ron were going to burn the place, I'd think, as an amateur arsonist, he would have started the fire either in one obvious place, like the kitchen, or he would have started it in several places around the room. Why only in one corner?

Sounds like you have a theory.

I'd be interested to know a little about the people who were seated in the area where the fire started.

He reached out to shake her hand, and said, It appears we'll be seeing more of each other for a while.

She shook his hand and smiled, We'll be either best friends or bitter enemies before this is all over.

Have you ever worked a claim this big before?

Never in my own back yard, but yes. Big fires are my specialty. Usually I handle fires in other places. This is my first big fire in my home town. Come to think of it, it's the only really big fire in this town as long as I can remember. She handed him the protective gear and added, Thanks for letting me help with the rescue ops. I'd feel like a jerk standing by and not doing anything.

Someone yelled for Ed and he turned to go, waving in her direction.

She knew she couldn't put off calling her boss forever. Her car was surrounded by firetrucks and cop cars, so she went across the street and sat down on a bus-stop bench. Someone had arrived with more body bags. Staff members from the coroner's office and cops were loading bodies into a van.

She dialed her boss's number and he answered on the first ring. Where have you been?

Sorry. I was helping with search and rescue inside the restaurant.

How bad is it?

This one's bad, Dave. We pulled out maybe a dozen people who were still alive, but most of them were hanging on by a thread. There were maybe fifty or sixty fatalities. The building is a total loss.

Causation?

More than likely arson.

You want me to call the fraud unit?

I'd rather you wait. I think the fire was set, but I'm not prepared to accuse the insured yet. You have to understand that this is my home town. Both the insured and probably most if not all of the victims are my neighbors. There's a good chance that at least a few local families were all but wiped out tonight. I don't want to be too hasty to make things worse by raising the specter of insurance fraud too soon. The Mazzolis are a respectable and well-liked family.

The line was silent for a long time and Bev knew her boss was torn between ordering her to turn over the investigation to someone else who could be more objective and trusting the judgment of his most experienced fire adjuster. Eventually, he said, Okay. I won't turn this over to special investigations, yet. But, I mean it Bev, the minute you have one inkling the insured was involved, I want you to relinquish that file.

I promise I will, Dave. For one thing, if I think the insured is involved, I don't want to be the one making that accusation. I live here, remember.

What's your plan?

I need to get some experts in here. Cops and CSI's have been all over the place, but I would like to get Ben Tucker on board early. I've worked with him before and he does a good job. I also think we should hire counsel. There are a lot of dead people. I know this restaurant. It was a bit of a fire trap on its best day and everybody in town knows it. I expect the first lawsuits to be filed about the time they start digging graves.

Okay. Go ahead and get Ben on board. Who do you want for counsel?

I have to think about that. I would prefer to have a local guy as lead counsel, but I'll need some bigger firepower for later when the national plaintiff's lawyers start arriving.

Do you have any idea what we should set for reserves?

Put up policy limits on both the property and the liability. In the unlikely event there's any excess coverage, go ahead and tell them to reserve at limits, too. While you're at it put up a couple of million for defense costs as well. There is no way we're going to get out of this without multiple lawsuits. I'd frankly almost consider simply tendering limits and walking away now -- except for that arson element.

Understood. Keep me closely informed. When can I expect your initial evaluation?

Asshole!!!! She struggled to keep her voice calm. It was five-thirty in the morning, smoke was still rising from the ruin and the coroner was loading bodies in the back of a third van -- and this jerk-weed was asking for a written report. I'll email you a preliminary report by the end of the day. Right now, I'm going to go home and get some sleep.

She paused and added, Would you do me a favor and call Ben Tucker this morning. Ask him to come as quickly as he can.

Sure. Go get some rest.

I'll do that. There won't be much rest for me for a while.

Do you want me to reassign your other cases?

Yeah. I think so. Cassandra can babysit the small stuff, but that hotel thing in Dallas will have to go.

I'll give that to Steve. He's fine with all that damages negotiating stuff.

Actually, he's better than me at that stuff. I've been meaning to talk to you about that one. We're going to need a forensic accountant for the business interruption part of that claim.

I gotcha. Steve works with a guy on that kind of thing already. Don't give it another thought. You concentrate on getting a handle on this one. He was quiet for a while, then he said, Are you sure you are okay about handling this one yourself. The insureds and the victims are your neighbors. Any relatives or friends among them?

She shook her head, I have no idea. The bodies were so badly burned I wouldn't have recognized anyone. If it turns out there's somebody I know personally among the victims, I'll let you know immediately. You'll need to reassign it. While we're talking about potential conflicts and shit, I guess I do need to disclose that I worked at this restaurant when I was in high school, for about a month. I don't feel that's a conflict, but you might want to run that by legal.

Why are you, my biggest rogue adjuster, all of a sudden getting all legal and above-board on me?

Because the fire marshal let me go inside the restaurant to help look for survivors. I'm definitely going to be a witness in whatever lawsuits and or prosecutions come out of this. For once in my life I'm going to have to go strictly by the book.

Jamison tried -- without success -- to stifle a laugh, It'll be interesting to see if you can pull that off. I'm not putting any money on it.

You're an ass. I'm going to bed.

She hung up the phone and asked a police officer if she could move her car. They had to move several emergency vehicles, but they let her out.

Chapter 2

She arrived home just as Emily came out of the shower in the morning. Her daughter looked at her and said, My God, Mom, where have you been? You're filthy.

The Barn restaurant burned down last night. My company insured it.

Since when do insurance adjusters help put out fires?

I didn't help put out the fire, but they were short handed for the search and rescue part. They let me help with that.

There were people inside?

The place was packed.

Bev watched Emily's face as the reality of what happened dawned on her. Were there people hurt?

There were actually a lot of people who died in the fire. We pulled out a few who were still alive, but barely. I have to warn you, things could be very weird at school today.

Tears filled Emily's eyes and she walked over to give her mother a hug. Bev backed up, Thanks for the thought, but you're already clean and I smell like the bottom of an ash tray. We'll hug and cry later. You get ready for school. I'm going to take a shower and go to bed for a while after I drop you off.

I'll take the bus, Mom. You're a wreck. Take your shower and go on to bed. You think you could pick me up this afternoon, though?

Sure.

Emily started to go into her bedroom, but she turned back to her mother. I guess this means that for once I'll get to see you at work in person instead of over the phone from some hotel far away.

Bev blew her a kiss, It's not that exciting.

Somehow she made it into the bathroom and turned on the shower before the sobbing started. Eventually, she pulled