Enter the netherworld of Arson, where police careers go to die. At least, that's what everyone says about it. But the truth was that the career of Cole Phelps, war veteran and golden boy for the LAPD, was already dead. It was only a matter of time.
To describe the drive to the investigation scene as tense would be an understatement. After the tense exchange in the briefing room, Cole drove in silence while his new partner, Herschel Biggs, stared glumly out the car window.
Cole spoke to break the lingering silence. "How long have you been working Arson?"
Herschel's rather direct response swiftly brought any hope of productive small talk to a swift conclusion. It was with a profound sense of relief that they arrived at the first address.
Cole and Herschel stepped out of the car into a scene taken straight from between the pages of Dante's Inferno. The charred remains of the once pleasant home proved a grim reminder of the scenes from Okinawa. It seemed no matter how much time had passed the war was never far away.
A frank and curt discussion with the responding Patrolman revealed the key facts of the case. A family of four, father, mother, son and daughter all burned in their beds during the night. A heater explosion. A neighbour called the fire brigade, but it was too late to the save the family or their house. With the key facts of the case in hand, Cole adjusted his hat and set to work.
While Herschel spoke to the Coroner, Cole set about the scene searching for clues. Years of service with the LAPD had given him a keen eye for clues. But in the burnt our remains of what had once been a family's home there was not much to be found. The charred remains of a sofa, the burnt-out ashes of Sunday dress, the last flickering embers of the curtains hanging in the-
Then he found it, perhaps the one piece of vital evidence which had survived the fire intact. The water heater, no doubt the same heater that had been the source of the first in the first place. A review of the blackened remains of the metal case revealed the key component, the gas regulator valve. Dusting away the ash, it didn't take an expert to see the tell-tale tool marks showing it had recently been modified. The seal around it was loose. This could be due to the fire, or perhaps even what caused it. On its own it was not much to go on, but a useful piece of evidence none the less.
Cole rose to his feet, taking one last look at the charred remains of the house. Nothing left but burnt wreckage. It was time to speak to the neighbours, see who might have something relevant to the case. The Patrolman had already done an initial canvas. Most were away or had little to add that wasn't already immediately apparent. One in particular stood out, the next-door neighbour Mr Eric Hadder. On the surface he seemed a pretty standard guy, Middle aged, wife and two kids. The mention of his profession as Manager at an Automotive parts company made him potentially relevant to the case.
Cole stepped across the yard and approached him.
"Mr Hadder?" Cole asked. He matched the Patrolman's description, middle aged man, close cropped dark hair.
"Yes" Hadder replied.
"Cole Phelps, Arson Detective" Cole explained. "I would like to ask you a few questions?"
"Sure" Hadder affirmed.
"Where were you last night during the fire?" Cole asked.
"I was in bed when I heard the explosion" Hadder recounted. "My wife Helen called the Fire Department while I ran outside to help. By the time I got there the place was already ablaze. There was nothing I could do"
"Did you know the family well?" Cole asked as his typical opening gambit.
"About as well as you could saying hello to him every other day" Hadder answered.
His tone suggested there was more to it than that. He decided to press the matter.
"You didn't like Mr Stevenson, did you?" Cole asked as a follow up.
"Who says I had to like him?" Hadder deflected.
"Most people tend to like the people around them" Cole suggested.
"We're neighbours, we live next door to eachother. That's it" Hadder explained.
"Are you a religious man Mr Hadder?" Cole asked, changing the topic once again.
"Of course, my family goes to Church every Sunday" Hadder affirmed. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Then I'm sure you're familiar with the sin of bearing false witness against your neighbour?" Cole asked, resisting the temptation of reviving his Sunday School credentials to give him a full list of the Commandments.
"There's also something in there about not coveting your neighbour's wife" Hadder retorted.
Cole flinched at the outburst, was he really referring to-
"Seems like he was pretty fast and loose with that one himself" Hadder persisted.
It took a moment before Cole realised who he had been referring to. There was the heart of it. Cole chose to pursue it.
"Do you want to elaborate Mr Hadder?" Cole offered. "Before I decide to continue this conversation with you in an interview room down in the station?"
Hadder bit back a retort, clearly weighing his options before him.
"He had an affair with my wife" Hadder reluctantly confessed. "While I was away on deployment. I served in Occupied Europe as a Mechanic. He had been exempted from active service, a hereditary heart condition. Over twenty years we knew eachother and the first time I go away he-"
Hadder bit back saying any further.
"You're not telling me everything" Cole pressed.
Hadder snorted, turning his gaze away. "When I found out I… punched him. We got into a fight, spent the night in custody" Hadder turned to look Cole straight in the eye. "But I would never kill him over it"
"Do you know anything about water heaters?" Cole asked as another avenue of questioning.
"I should, my father was a fitter" Hadder explained. "I helped him out as a part time job in school"
Cole rechecked the details in his book. Infidelity, an all-too-common motive. Technical skill and familiarity with the product, ample means and opportunity. It all fit together so well, almost too well. Cole's every instinct told him to bring him in for further questioning.
But despite it all there was nothing directly tying him directly to the crime scene before the fire. His wife and the call records to the Fire Department would no doubt support his alibi. Without further evidence Cole couldn't justify it, not with the department already breathing down his neck. Reluctantly, he had to let it go for the time being.
"That'll be all Mr Hadder" Cole said. "We may have some additional questions for you later"
Cole began to step away.
"Hey" Hadder called out. Cole turned back to face him. His face was suddenly cast in regret. "I may not have liked him, but what was going on was between me and him. His family, they never deserved something like that"
"I know" Cole replied.
Cole continued back towards his partner, ready to compare notes. It was time to talk to someone who knew something about water heaters.
As it turned out, Herschel had the same thought as him. They pulled the car into the parking lot outside of the InstaHeat main office, that same blazing red logo adorned across the front of the building.
Greeting the woman behind the reception desk they were directed to meet with Mr Ivan Rasic, one of the duty managers for the factory. Cole stepped into Rasic's office.
"Detectives Phelps and Biggs, LAPD Arson" Cole said by way of introduction. "We're investigating a house fire. What can you tell us about this?"
Cole held the valve out in front of him.
"Pressure regulator valve from a Model 70" Rasic confirmed. "Let me take a look"
Rasic accepted the item. He opened up the top of the valve, surveying the contents with a keen technical eye.
"We have a problem" Rasic said grimly. "The seal has been replaced, recently too"
A hint of eagerness rose in Coles voice. "You mean foul play?"
"No" Rasic was quick to dispel his implication. "I mean someone's tried to repair it. My guess would be the owner"
Rasic laid the valve down on the desk in front of him, sitting down behind his desk. Cole and Biggs took their seats across from him. "It's a fault with the assembly method" Rasic pointed towards the seal. "If you don't assemble the parts in the correct way the sealant doesn't take, and it risks a gas leak. We had an issue with this model a few years ago"
"And you're still selling the same units?" Phelps pressed. "Even though you know about the faults?"
"Stow the attitude" Rasic was quick to rebuff. "We recalled all the units we thought might be affected. We added secondary checks to our future production. We've had no reoccurrences and we were cleared by the safety authority. We can't be held responsible for idiots trying to fix it themselves-"
"Thanks for your help" Herschel raised himself as the voice of reason, reaching forward to shake Rasic's hand. "That's all for now. We'll be on our way"
Herschel led Phelps out of the office and down to the car. Phelps took his place behind the driver's seat; his hands gripped the steering wheel hard enough to turn his knuckles white.
"You're goanna have to learn the truth, Phelps" Herschel said. "This is the reality of life in Arson. You were on some big cases before but here, sometimes you just have to accept the mundanity of the situation as it appears"
Phelps let out a slow controlled breath. His moment of frustration passed.
"Come on" Herschel marshalled his colleague. "Let's head to the next address"
Inspired by a video by Frustrated Jacob