Burn Away: An Adam Dutton & Beverly Laborde Mystery
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If you play with fire, you get murder.
When a series of arsons targets Vermont antiques stores, Detective Adam Dutton and con-woman Beverly Laborde worry a shop owned by their friend might be next. But the stakes take an even deeper and uglier turn after a body is found inside one of the burned buildings. Was it an accident, suicide ... or murder?
Adam and Beverly hoped they'd seen the last of a crime syndicate operating under the Northern Antiquities League—and that they could finally put those dark memories behind them. But do the arsons signal the last gasp of the NAL? Or is a new mob threat rising from the ashes?
With the help of the mysterious Mr. X, Adam and Beverly race to get to the bottom of the fires before any more lives are lost ... including their own.
Release date: May 31, 2020
Publisher: Crimetime Press
Print pages: 298
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Burn Away: An Adam Dutton & Beverly Laborde Mystery
Friday, December 11
The firefighters had most of the blaze under control as Detective Adam Dutton stood surveying the still-smoking ruins of the building, once a thriving antiques shop called Vintage Vibes. He’d opted not to wear a mask but was beginning to regret that decision.
He turned to the fire chief, Bent Vinson. “You found the body near the front register?”
“So it appears.”
“I’m surprised you could ID the register out of this mess.”
“We got here in time to save some of the structure, but most of the interior is gutted. The cash register is surprisingly still intact. A little melted, but intact. You’ll find the body right there beside it.”
“Safe to go in yet?”
“We cleared out a path for the EMTs when they get here. So, yeah. But you know the drill.”
Thankfully for Adam, the heat from the embers would keep out the bone-chilling cold. Vermont winters weren’t for sissies. The best news was, it wasn’t totally dark yet, although the firefighters had rigged some makeshift lights on stands. Just in case.
Adam pulled up the collar of his coat to use as a mask and walked along the “path” Vinson indicated. He coughed a few times, knowing the acrid smoky smell would cling to his hair and clothing long after he’d left the scene.
The body lay surrounded by a pool of firefighting foam. Adam stooped and used his gloved hand to gently pry up the victim’s shoulder—no foam underneath. He turned his attention to the victim’s head, and that was even more interesting. There was a gaping fifty-millimeter hole in the skull. From when he fell, perhaps? Hard to tell from the blackened ruins, but Adam didn’t see anything nearby that would have caused such a wound.
He stood up straight and almost jumped when a female voice behind him said, “Looks like we’ve got an extra-crispy one.”
Adam acknowledged fellow detective, Eliot Jinks, who was holding onto her hat to keep it from blowing off. “Yep. And one with a hole in his head.”
“Extra-crispy and holey. Sounds a little unholy, if you ask me. As in, maybe this wasn’t an accident.”
Adam waved to department’s forensics expert, Joe Brimm, who’d trailed behind Jinks. “He’s all yours, Joe. The usual. But make sure you pay attention to his skull. Oh, and the lack of foam solution under the body.”
Brimm’s eyes widened. “Interesting. He was dead before the firefighters arrived, then?”
“I’m hoping you can tell me.”
Brimm gave Adam a grim smile and put down the silver case he was holding as it blended in with the silver ashes and smoky foam. He quickly pulled out a camera and went to work.
Adam and Jinks left him to his task and headed toward Vinson, who was talking to some of his men. Adam asked, “Your fellows got any signs this was arson?”
“Don’t know for sure yet. But there are a coupla things of interest. For instance, a witness from a house one street over heard a low ‘whomp’ noise.”
“Is this witness the one who called it in?”
Vinson nodded. “Adding to the possible arson theory, the fire did spread unusually fast. Plus, there was some localized warping to the underside of a metal file cabinet. And one of my guys thinks he noticed unnatural floor burn patterns. Kind of a trailer shape.”
Adam clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks for getting here so fast, Bent. Kept it from spreading to other nearby businesses.”
The other man tipped back his helmet. “We got lucky this time. But I’ll take it.”
Jinks poked Adam in the ribs and pointed to their left. “Sergeant Moody’s kept the crowd at bay. The antiques store’s assistant director and his wife are over there.”
Adam followed her to the group of onlookers and addressed his question to Moody, “Which one is the assistant?”
Moody narrowed his eyes at Adam and grunted out, “The one wearing the green-and-red plaid coat. Lucas Barratt.”
Moody might as well have said, “I’m not your goddamn flunky, Dutton.” But his rigid stance and his eyes that held a fire of their own made it quite clear. Adam wasn’t in a mood for another pissing contest with Moody, so he just headed toward Barratt along with Jinks.
He stopped in front of the thirty-something man sporting coal-black hair and a small goatee. “Are you Lucas Barratt?”
The man nodded, making a few of the ice crystals on his beard flake off in a mini-snowfall.
Adam pulled out his badge. “Detective Adam Dutton. You’re the assistant manager of the Vintage Vibes store?”
Barratt stared at Adam with wide eyes. “I don’t know what happened. It was all so fast.”
“Then you were here at the start of the fire?”
“No, I mean, it burned down so fast. Only learned about it when I got a call from a friend. He has one of those police radios.”
Adam frowned at that. He wasn’t a fan of people listening to emergency communications and living out some sort of spectator-adrenaline-fantasy. “So the owner—”
He looked at Jinks, who helpfully added, “Jared Lake.”
“Jared Lake, yes. Can we talk to him?”
“I don’t know. Tried calling him. But I get no answer.”
Adam and Jinks exchanged glances. After many years working together, they were on the same wavelength most of the time.
Jinks asked, “Mr. Barratt, could Jared Lake have been in the building during the fire?”
“He’s usually so prompt, leaving right at the dot of five. Never once recall him putting in overtime. Can’t imagine why he’d have been in there.” Barratt shivered.
Jinks replied, “We just found a body inside. But we’ll have to wait for the Medical Examiner to get a positive ID.”
Barratt grabbed onto the auburn-haired woman at his side whose eyes were as wide as his. “Jeanne, it can’t be him, it just can’t.”
Realizing this must be the wife Sergeant Moody alluded to, Adam said to her. “You’re Mrs. Barratt?”
“Yes, and I do hope you’re wrong about Jared. Maybe that body in there is a burglar. Maybe he set off the fire by accident. Or on purpose.”
“That’s one possibility. Can either of you think of any reason someone might want to set fire to Vintage Vibes?”
“Absolutely not.” Barratt grabbed his wife’s hand. “It’s unthinkable. You really think it’s arson?”
“It’ll take some time to investigate. These things always do. But our fire chief is pretty good.”
Noting the growing darkness, the cold, and the increasingly pale faces of the couple, he said to Barratt and his wife, “Why don’t you go home. There’s not much you can do at this point. And the investigators won’t be releasing the scene anytime soon. Get some rest.”
Adam added, “We’ll check with you again soon.” To see how they were doing, sure. But he had a lot of additional questions and no time to deal with the duo right then.
Jinks was scanning the crowd, occasionally taking photos of the scene, including the people standing around. She had a talent for doing it without people realizing she was doing it. She said to Adam, “That man over there is acting odd.”
She turned to point, then dropped her arm. “He’s gone. Good thing I’ve got him in little bits and bytes.” Flipping through the photo stream on her cellphone, she stopped at one in particular. “That’s the guy.”
Adam studied the man’s face. “Don’t recognize him. Do you?”
“Nope. But he didn’t look shocked. Or afraid. Or worried, or whatever you might expect from a normal person. Maybe he’s a ‘fire tourist.’”
“You haven’t heard of them? They go around to all the fires like a scavenger hunt. Guess it’s how they get their jollies.”
Adam thought of the police radio Barratt’s friend had used. Yep, he really hated those civilian radios. As if law enforcement types didn’t have their hands full enough as it was. Fire tourists. Bah.
“Print out that photo when we get back to the station, Jinks. Maybe someone there will know the guy.”
Jinks saluted, and Adam glared at her. “Not you, too?”
“Me, too, what?”
Adam lowered his voice. “Moody. He’s been giving me shade all evening.”
“Guess he’s pissed at having to do crowd control instead of being the ‘big-shot’ detective. As in, the mayor’s cousin,” Jinks made air quotes with her fingers, “shouldn’t be just a lowly sergeant.”
“Probably. But he’s trouble with a capital T. As in threat.”
Jinks added, “Make that turd, and you’ve nailed it.”
The flashing red lights at the scene got even redder with the arrival of an ambulance as it screamed into view. Adam walked over to greet the crew and pointed out the body, giving them instructions on taking it to the M.E. When he rejoined Jinks, she said, “This is the second suspicious fire in the past week. There was the other one over in Woodstock.”
“I heard about that. Another antiques store, wasn’t it? Main Street Antiques?”
“Think so.” She rolled her eyes. “You know me and antiques. Can’t stand all those fusty doo-dads. Gimme IKEA any day.”
Adam smiled briefly. “Two antiques stores in a row. Gotta worry a little bit about Harlan.”
“Dear Harlan and his Tossed Treasures store will be there long after the rest of us. They’re timeless. Maybe two antiques store fires are just coincidence.”
“Still . . . you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Jinks frowned. “Hope not. Thought we were done with the Forsythes and that whole Northeastern Antiquities League crime-gang shit.”
“Gotta wonder who’s left of that ‘gang,’ since Reginald Forsythe the Third is dead. And Reggie junior is essentially brain dead in a nursing facility.”
She sighed. “Ivon Kozak and Darnell Warner . . . sorry, Redbeard, are very much alive. And in Red’s case, a bail skipper. And AWOL.”
Adam frowned. “This would be taking their tactics in a whole new direction.”
Jinks gave Adam some side-eye. “Now that you mention the Forsythes, where’s Beverly Laborde? Gotta wonder why she hasn’t turned up since she seems to magically appear at crime scenes. Especially if it might be related to a Forsythe.”
“Hopefully, she’s at the Apple Valley Resort enjoying some Christmas-time spa pampering.”
“You mean hard cider?”
“Maybe some of their mistletoe or cranberry treatments.”
Jinks stamped her boots in the thin layer of snow. “I could use some pampering right about now.”
“Cranberry oil massage?”
“Hell, no. An imported beer, some of Felicia’s homemade soft pretzels, and some basketball on TV. Without the kids pestering me about who did what to whom.”
Adam chuckled. “Maybe I’ll write you up a prescription.”
“You’re not a doctor.”
“I’m an enforcer of the law. I’ll make it an edict, then.”
“And hell will freeze over before those kids pay any attention to it whatsoever.” Jinks rubbed her gloved hands together. “Speaking of freezing over. Standing still is turning me into a Jinks-sickle.”
“You take the remaining crowd on the right, I’ll take the left, and we’ll meet in the middle. That’ll give Vinson’s crew time to do their job.”
As they started in on their questioning, Adam wondered what Beverly really was doing tonight. Hopefully, she was warm. And safe. And not getting into any more trouble.
But his discussion with Jinks about the Forsythes and the NAL had sent a little tingling burst up his spine. If his sixth sense was worth anything, he had a bad feeling about this arson business being more than it seemed. And he wouldn’t be at all surprised if a con woman like Beverly Laborde somehow managed to figure into the middle of it all.
Beverly grabbed the spa menu card and ran her finger down the list. Merry Mistletoe Lip Special? Cranberry Pedicure? Buttered Rum Massage? Hard to tell it was Christmas time, ho ho ho. Sarcasm this late in the day, Beverly?
She tossed the card on the marble-topped table, a little annoyed at her snarky attitude. After all, what was wrong with the resort’s efforts to add a little holiday cheer for their customers? Just because Beverly didn’t like the holidays, it didn’t mean everyone else had to suffer.
She stood in the middle of the cavernous lobby next to the monster granite fireplace, wondering what to do for dinner. Room service? Take out? Try that new Indian place in town?
It seemed she couldn’t make any decisions these days, not even able to pick a place to eat. What was wrong with her? It wasn’t like her to be morose and tentative. Unfinished business had a way of doing that to her, though, didn’t it? Always had. Well, the morose part. The tentative part was new.
Standing up straight, she marched into the café. There. She could make a snap decision. Once inside the café, however, she lost a little of her new spine, looking at the gleaming white tables without much enthusiasm. That is until she spied a friendly face and headed over.
“Nyssa, I’m so glad to see you.”
The other woman pushed a strand of her dark, curly hair behind her ear and studied Beverly’s face. “Is something wrong?”
Beverly looked around and, not spying any other diners at the moment, flopped down at a table. “Nothing serious. But I could use someone to talk to. I’m so bored with sitting in my room and flipping through the TV channels.”
Nyssa smiled, grabbed a couple of cups of coffee and some lemon poppy seed muffins, and joined Beverly. “Having a job helps keep you grounded.”
Beverly had noticed Nyssa seemed much happier than the first time she’d met her—when her controlling and manipulative husband was a suspect in the murder of their former neighbor. “You like working here?”
“I love it. And thanks to you for recommending it for me.”
“Since Gloria will only work weekends soon, seemed like the perfect solution.”
Nyssa took a bite of the muffin. “Gloria’s getting her life in order, going to college and all. I’m a bit jealous. Did you know she’s even gotten close to Ramsay Ryall?”
“Ramsay?” Knowing it was his brother who Nyssa’s husband had been accused of killing, Beverly was beyond surprised. “How do you feel about that, I mean, the Ramsay part?”
“I’m fine with it.” At Beverly’s skeptical look, Nyssa added, “Really.”
“I guess they do both work here. If Ramsay’s still a guide for outdoor sports, that is.”
Nyssa nodded. “He is. I think he’d rather be doing what he and his brother used to do, building custom snowmobiles. But he’s having some financial problems, so . . . ”
“Ah. I think we all know what that’s like.”
As they both spied a woman walking past the café door wearing a fur coat and expensive Gucci boots, Beverly said, “Most of us, that is.”
Beverly leaned on the table. “Wasn’t Ramsay Ryall dating someone up in Bangor?”
“He was. It didn’t work out. Guess that’s why he took a shine to Gloria, though I hope it’s not just that rebound thing.”
A sudden shrill laugh in the lobby caught their attention. A group of three women wearing matching red cashmere sweaters peered into the café, saw them, and turned around. Beverly had a twinge of guilt it might be her “down-with-the-holiday” vibes scaring off potential customers.
Nyssa sighed. “Vernon didn’t want me working here.”
The muscles in Beverly’s neck tensed at the mention of the man’s name. “Why would your husband care if you get a job?”
“Mr. Philandering Professor cares about his image. And his wife working as a clerk in a café? Oh, the horror.”
“Nyssa, I know I shouldn’t pry. But this whole open marriage thing . . . are you sure it’s a good idea?” Beverly held the cup of steaming liquid up to her face to feel its warmth on her skin, though she felt pretty steamed already at her companion’s situation.
“It’s a horrible idea. I went along with it since trying to stop Vernon from doing anything is like trying to stop a tsunami. But he’s targeting his students more and more for his conquests. And I’m a little worried he’s not just sticking to the ‘legal’ eighteen-year-olds.”
“I think there was one seventeen-going-on-eighteen. And I heard a rumor another was sixteen. She was a prodigy and likely naive. And vulnerable.”
“You should report him to the police. In fact, I should tell Adam—”
“Please don’t.” Nyssa’s eyes pleaded with Beverly even more than her words. “Not even to Detective Dutton.”
Nyssa looked down at her hands holding her mug, but Beverly hadn’t missed the glint of tears in her eyes. “I know I should report him. But I don’t have evidence. And if I do file for divorce, I need it to be as amicable as possible. I’m afraid of what he’d do to me otherwise.”
Beverly considered that for a moment. “You’re in an ugly bind, Nyssa, and I do understand that. Truly.”
Nyssa’s laugh was hollow. “Not that it isn’t already bad. He wouldn’t buy me a car to drive to work. I had to find someone willing to sell me a used clunker with my first paychecks from the café. And then there’s Muttley.”
“Vernon will say it’s his dog and try to hold on to him out of spite. Even though Muttley clearly favors me.”
Beverly made a mental note to consult Adam anyway, despite Nyssa’s reservations. Maybe there was something he could do without getting Nyssa in trouble with her shitty husband. How could it get much worse? And Beverly wasn’t about to let the man get away with what was technically statutory rape. Even if it was consensual between him and his underage students.
Her anger turned to concern when her cellphone rang, and she saw it was from Agnes Flamm. Agnes didn’t usually call her at this time of day. “What’s up, Agnes? I hope Blaine isn’t giving you any trouble.”
“Oh my, no. That young Blaine has proved to be a model employee. Despite his unsavory background. No, dear, I just wanted to let you know there’s been a fire.”
“A fire? Where?” Beverly uttered a silent prayer to whatever gods might be listening that it wasn’t another bombing at Adam’s house.
“An antiques store. Vintage Vibes. But that’s not all. I heard a rumor the police found a body inside.”
“I know the owner, Jared Lake. And I’m worried it might be him.”
“Oh, Agnes, I hope not.”
“And this is the second antiques store fire recently.”
“The second?” That was news to Beverly. A serial arsonist targeting antiques stores, perhaps? That made her start to fret about Harlan Wilford and his Tossed Treasures shop. “Agnes, I must go see Harlan to make sure he’s okay.”
Agnes chuckled. “Don’t think you need to worry about that. Harlan’s with me in my wine shop right now, safe and sound.”
“He’s helping get the store ready for our first live performance. Did you know he’s done some audio work in the past?”
“To be honest, I don’t know much about his past.”
“Neither did I. But he’s such a multi-talented man.”
A tone of something more than admiration crept through the cellphone connection. Maybe that time Beverly thought she’d seen the two of them flirting wasn’t just her imagination. She should be happy about that, shouldn’t she? Then why did it make her heart sink a little bit?
“Agnes, just tell him to be careful.”
“Of course, dear.” Agnes paused, then added, “Have you seen Adam recently? I’m sure he’d have more details about the fires. And other things.”
“Not in several days. I hate to bother him since he’s so busy.” Agnes wasn’t very subtle with her matchmaking. Not that Beverly hadn’t wanted to see Adam. But . . . there was always that “but.”
“I’m sure he’d make time for you, dear.”
Beverly forced a laugh. “Maybe soon.”
After hanging up with Agnes and finishing her snack with Nyssa, Beverly headed to her room. Perhaps there’d be some interesting home-renovation show on. She slid onto the four-poster bed and flipped on the TV to surf through the channels, finding several. But they bored her, too. Who was she kidding? She’d rather watch the true-crime shows.
That was the problem with her, wasn’t it? She wasn’t at all “normal” in any sense of the word. No house, no home base, no husband, let alone a boyfriend, even a shady “employment” history—if being a con woman could count as employment.
Why did she feel so at loose ends? Maybe it was because her five-year vendetta against the NAL to avenge her grandmother’s death wasn’t finished. Ivon Kozak, the mysterious figure her friend, Mr. X, had mentioned, was still out there. And Redbeard, equally enigmatic and dangerous, was on the lam.
Nothing in her life had any sort of closure. Even her criminal louse-of-an-uncle, Reggie Forsythe, was in limbo—caught between life and death on a ventilator in a nursing facility. Beverly should feel sorry for him. But after what he’d done to so many people, including her and Adam, he didn’t deserve much pity.
She stared at the cinnamon-scented pinecones the staff had put on the nightstand as a holiday touch. They were giving her a headache.
She got up to get some Zinfandel from the room’s mini-bar when a knock on the door stopped her in mid-stride. She opened it to find a red-hatted bellhop standing there holding a letter in his hand.
“Special delivery for you, Miss Laborde.”
“For me? From whom?”
“I don’t know, Miss. Came via a courier.”
She gave him a tip, sent him on his way, and studied the envelope. No return address, no postmark. Just her name in letters that looked like they were cranked out by an ordinary computer printer.
She pulled out the note inside, which was also computer-printed in several different colors and fonts, and studied the words. “A friendly word of advice. Don’t pursue the NAL any further, or you might end up like your uncle.”
Beverly stared at it in disbelief and then sank down on the bed, still clutching the card in her hand. Who would have sent it, and why? The enigmatic NAL kingpin, Ivon Kozak, the hired-goon, Redbeard, or someone else entirely? Just when she thought she might start having a more normal life.
Should she tell Adam about it? She got up to place the note in the drawer of the nightstand. Adam had an arson case and who knew what else to deal with. No, she wouldn’t tell him about it just yet.
But that cranberry soak suddenly seemed a lot more appealing. With a double shot of vodka for starters. It’s not as if she’d be getting much sleep tonight.
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