“Arson Task Force Blazes A Trail”, the headline read. The Herald story went on to describe how the team had slashed the number of arsons by twenty-five per cent in its first year.
“Well done, Sam,” Les said, slapping me on the back. “Some people said you couldn’t do it, but I knew you were the man for the job – that’s why I picked you.”
Les is my father-in-law as well as brigade chief. I knew he’d only made me Task Force leader to please Mary. The team was his pride and joy. He set it up after a fact-finding visit to America and it was the first of its kind in the UK.
When the job as leader came up, I told Mary it would probably go to one of the whizz kids the brigade was fast tracking.
“It’s not fair,” she said, her face turning an angry red. “You’ve been overlooked year after year while they promote kids hardly out of training. Just because they’ve got university degrees. What do they know about firefighting? I suppose you’re not going to do anything about it, as usual. It’s just as well you can count on me then, isn’t it? I’ll have a word with Dad.”
I flinched. It was a knee-jerk reaction whenever she mentioned Les’ name.
“Leave it,” I said, through tight lips. “Why can’t you understand that I’m happy being a station officer? I’m not ambitious.”
That’s your department, I thought. You’ve got enough for the two of us. I wanted to say it but I didn’t. After almost 25 years of marriage I’d learned life was a lot simpler if I kept my mouth shut.
“Why aren’t you a go-getter like dad?” she’d demanded for the umpteenth time. “He made chief when he was only 40. He’s the youngest chief the brigade has ever had.”
I looked at her coldly, wondering how many years it was since her once-pretty face had become so hard. Had it happened overnight? Or so gradually, I hadn’t noticed. I sat frowning in silence. Oh, I could have told her about the backs Les had stabbed in his ruthless climb to the top, and how he might be the youngest, but he was the most despised chief the brigade had ever had. But I didn’t.
Without saying another word I reached for Bruno’s lead.
As usual Mary got her way. She spoke to Les and I got the job. I could have turned it down. But it wouldn’t have been worth all the grief I’d have got from Mary. It would probably have cost our marriage.
We weren’t exactly living in wedded bliss. Not by a long chalk. Our marriage had been on shaky ground for years, but I’m just too lazy to do anything about it. Like a lot of fellas I know, I’m what you could call happily, unhappily married. I should have left Mary – and Les – long ago. Now it was too late; I couldn’t face the hassle.
Years ago I almost did. I wasn’t so stuck in my ways in those days. I had started an affair. Who hadn’t? All the lads were at it. Sheila was divorced and worked in the control room. Six months we’d been seeing each other and I was seriously thinking about leaving Mary and moving in with Sheila. If Mary suspected, she never let on. Les new – naturally. Les knows everything. But he never said a word.
Then one day, out of the blue, Sheila left the brigade. She said her new job paid more, had better prospects. I wondered if Les had something to do with it. Sheila denied it. Anyway, after that we didn’t see each other as much and the relationship kind of fizzled out. After that, I had the odd one night stand, but never anything serious.
When I took the leader’s job, I made myself a vow that I’d do whatever it took to make a success of it and once and for all crawl from under Les’ shadow. For a brief time it looked like all my efforts had paid off.
The Herald report was only half the story; it failed to reveal how the team was a victim of its own success.
“We’ve won praise from the Home Office for reducing fires to the lowest level for a decade – for all the good it’ll do us,” Les said, his voice bitter. “This could mean job cuts or the team…” He pulled his right hand across his throat in a slashing movement.
It was catch 22; the more fires, the more money the government forked out. I knew there would have to be some belt tightening, but I’d never dreamed the team might be axed. The taste of success turned sour in my mouth. A picture of Mary thumbing through brochures looking for a holiday to celebrate our silver wedding flashed into my head.
“I want to go somewhere really exotic,” she announced. “Somewhere that’ll make the neighbours green with envy.” Then there was Susan’s wedding in the autumn. “I want a real flash do,” Mary insisted. “Give the neighbours something to really talk about.”
I looked away. I knew it still rankled that I’d nearly been demoted for being drunk on duty. Not a day went by without Mary reminding me it was Les who’d saved my job. That was nine years ago. I’ve never touched another drop since. And as wave after wave of cuts hit the brigade I had to cling on by my fingernails, knowing all the time it was my father-in-law’s influence that continued to save me.
I was in the King’s Arms the night after the press conference announcing the Task Force’s first year report.
“Saw you on the telly,” my mate Bob said. “At this rate you’ll be out of a job.”
My face must have shown my concern because he added, ‘Hey, don’t look so worried. I was only joking.”
I told Bob about the funding situation. “My squad might be disbanded.” I gulped down a mouthful of orange juice. “I feel like starting fires myself to push the number up.”
I was worried sick. In her drive to impress the neighbours, Mary spent money like we had our own personal printing machine. I thought about our overdraft all the time.
The Task Force had to survive. Although I hadn’t wanted the job at first, I had got used to the increased salary. I needed the extra dosh to keep up with Mary’s constant spending. Also I had worked my balls off to make it a success and I wanted to prove I didn’t need Les behind me all the time. Now it looked as though it was all a waste of time.
It didn’t take the government number crunchers long to break the bad news. The ink was hardly dry on the first year report when the letter arrived announcing that funding was being reduced. Rumours about job losses were rife, but nobody knew how many would go. A budget meeting was called for the following month and a delegation was going to Whitehall to lobby ministers.
Until a decision was made, work went on as usual. The school summer holidays had started so my daily school visits to educate youngsters on the dangers of starting fires was over until September. But there was still plenty to do, talking to residents, community groups and youths clubs; hammering home the fire prevention message.
The first in a spate of arson attacks began days into the school holidays. A supermarket was the first to go up. Two days later a comprehensive school’s science block was left a blackened shell. Next a mountain of tyres was set on fire. Bored school kids were blamed. The fires were in different parts of the brigade’s area and there was nothing to link them…not then. I was called in to investigate.
“At this rate we’ll not have to worry about losing funding,” Les snapped irritably, when he came over for tea on Thursday. He’d been coming every Thursday since Mary’s mother died three years ago.
“What’s the latest on the funding?” I asked, between mouthfuls of cottage pie.
Les looked up from helping himself to seconds. “Don’t ask me, I’m only the Chief,” he said, shortly.
You sly bastard, I thought. Nothing escaped Les. He knew how every penny was spent – even down to the last paper clip. He knew every firefighter under his command and every dodge they were up to because he’d invented most of them.
Mary scowled. “Oh, don’t talk shop you two, you do it every week. I get it every day from Sam, without getting a double helping on Thursday.”
She was wearing another new dress.
She thinks we’re made of bloody money? I thought about the overdraft and my stomach turned to acid.
“Dad, wait till I show you where I’ve chosen for our silver wedding,” she added.
Before the month was out, my team had six more arsons to probe. They included two factory units, a cash and carry warehouse, a redundant church, school gym and an office block. They all made front-page news in the Herald.
“Looks like you won’t have to start any fires because someone’s beaten you to it,” Bob said, when we next met up in the King’s Arms.
I’d forgotten the remark I’d made weeks before. “What the Hell are you on about?” I demanded.
“OK. Don’t lose your hair.” Bob chuckled but looked at me strangely.
Les constantly demanded progress on the investigations and he was annoyed when the police forensic experts came up with the breakthrough first. They found traces of the same accelerant at all the fires. Les wanted a lid kept on the information because he didn’t want the public to be panicked about a serial arsonist on the loose. He was furious when a reporter ferreted out the information and it made headline news. Soon there was speculation where the arsonist would strike next.
People didn’t have to wait long to find out. Days later another school was hit. This time the fire tore through the whole building. Sixty firefighters battled all night in vain to save it. Never slow to leap onto something that could boost sales, the Herald put a £1,000 reward on the arsonist’s head.
“I want this bugger found fast,” Les growled the following Thursday teatime. “I don’t want some little sod spoiling my record for me when I retire in a couple of months.”
If anyone can turn this to their advantage, you can, I thought. He’d make sure he went out in a blaze of glory.
Over Mary’s toad-in-the hole, we watched the news and a grim-faced Les saying, “We’re closely monitoring the incidents of arson in the area, and our message to arsonists is clear – your actions will not be tolerated.”
News of the fire epidemic and the hunt for the fire starter screamed from newspapers, television and radio. Everywhere I heard people talking about it and there was no shortage of speculation about who was responsible. Suspects questioned over previous incidents were pulled in by police and news leaked out about two others quizzed by detectives. I knew them both. Tony Adamson lived in my street. He had been sacked from the supermarket a week before it burned down. He felt he’d been unfairly treated and one night, when drunk, he’d been overheard threatening to get even – if it was the last thing he did.
Another suspect was a local teenager called Danny Bleacher, who’d served time in a youth offender’s institution for a string of arson attacks on schools. I had given evidence at his trial where a psychiatrist described him as having a morbid fascination for fires. He said they gave him a bigger kick than any drug. He’d started with hoax calls and cut his teeth on rubbish fires. He was eventually caught because he liked to watch the schools burn. A few days before I’d read an interview Danny had given to the Herald.
“People are saying I did it,” he said. “I didn’t. I started fires when I was young and stupid. I’m not proud of that but I’ve served my time and learned my lesson. My mum’s ill, she needs me. It would kill her if I went back inside.”
The police had no evidence to hold Tony or Danny and they were released without any charges being brought. Soon after, a fresh rumour began circulating. Whoever started the fires had specialist knowledge, it said. So now the public finger was pointed at a firefighter.
After two weeks of fire frenzy, there was a lull for a week. The jungle drum said the arsonist had been caught on close circuit television and the police were closing in. There were the usual stories in the local rag about there not being enough bobbies on the beat. This pleased Les because it took some of the flak away from the brigade.
I’d been away for a few days on a course, and came home to find Mary had been on another spending spree. With the trip to Bali coming up, it was the last straw.
“For God’s sake, Mary, we’re not made of money,’ I said crossly. “I might not have a job after tomorrow’s budget meeting.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Have you been talking to Les?” I demanded.
“He’s my dad and your boss, if I want him to help us, you can’t blame me. Besides…” she shrugged her shoulders, brown from a series of tanning sessions, “with all these arsons, they’ll need an arson task force, you said so yourself.”
I shook my head. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
I wasn’t sure which way the meeting would swing. The brigade was facing a crisis. But one more big fire might convince the politicians to keep the task force. After tea, Mary flounced out saying she was going to the bingo – hopefully to win the jackpot. Then she could buy some new clothes for Bali with a clean conscience.
I looked at her wondering when the rot had started to set in. When had I let Mary and Les take over my life? I didn’t hate her. I just didn’t love her any more. It wasn’t the kind of stuff I could talk to my mates about. And Susan was out of the question. She’d inherited Mary and Les’ ruthless streak for getting her own way no matter at whose expense. It was sad, but already her girlish prettiness was fading. She had Mary’s hard-as-nails look. I wondered if her boyfriend Steve knew what he was in for. Poor sod. There was only one person I could speak to. Bruno. He was the only one who understood. On our walks twice a day, I’d tell him all my marital problems. He’d listen quietly like a marriage counsellor, giving a sympathetic wag of the tail every now and again.
After going for my nightly marriage guidance session with Bruno, I was driving my car to meet Bob for a drink when my bleeper went off. I could see the blaze from half a dozen streets away, and hear the scream of fire appliances racing from all directions.
I turned and drove towards Belford Street. Flames were shooting from the ceiling and windows of the DIY and garden centre and clouds of thick black smoke belched hundreds of yards into the sky. I counted at least seven fire appliances and more were arriving every few minutes. As I got out of the car, I heard the roof tiles cracking. Sweaty-faced firefighters trained jets on the ground floor while another crew on a turntable ladder battled to douse the upper floor.
Amid the shouted orders and roar of the fire, I heard windows smashing. High winds fanned the flames towards a compound containing cylinders and barrels. A crew blasted water on them to keep them cool. I was here as an observer, so I kept out of the way. A crowd had gathered and was being kept well back behind a cordon by police officers. I panned the faces of the onlookers and settled on the features of Danny Bleacher.
Suddenly there was a loud explosion. There was a collective gasp from the crowd and several people screamed. I tore my eyes away from Danny and back to the blaze in time to see a fireball shoot 100ft into the air like a rocket. Shouting broke out and firefighters ran for cover. I watched the fireball hurtle back towards the ground. It was one of the cylinders. It smashed onto the bonnet of a car, which exploded like a bomb had hit it. There were several smaller explosions as barrels overheated and ruptured, spewing out oil. Within seconds a river of burning oil ran down the street, exploding the petrol tanks of parked cars and melting their tyres as it went. Crews battled to hold back the flow as police evacuated residents from nearby houses.
The air reeked with the acrid smell of burning rubber, kerosene, smoke and sweat. I watched the crews working to bring the blaze under control and felt proud to be one of them. I moaned about the pay and the long hours, but deep down I love the job. Politicians talk about cutting edge equipment and pioneering schemes, but at the end of the day it comes down to guts.
“I want everyone well back,” I heard Divisional Officer Mike Leyland shout. “The rest of those cylinders are going to go.”
A weary fireman, who recognised me, shook his head and said, “I hope there’s no bugger inside because they won’t stand a chance.”
My eyes darted back to the blazing building. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone inside at this time of night. I prayed no one was. A fleet of ambulances stood by just in case. The media had turned up and several people with cameras ran around trying to get the best shot.
Then I saw someone being stretchered towards the nearest ambulance. My insides grew cold and tight as I recognized Mary. I bolted for the ambulance.
“That’s my wife,” I screamed at the paramedics.
A paramedic giving Mary oxygen looked at me. Mary put her hand up to stop the mask going over her face.
“Dad. Dad.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper.
“It’s me, Mary. Sam.” I was annoyed her first thought was of Les.
The paramedic tried to put the mask back over her face but again her hand stopped him. “Must tell Sam…”
“We’ve got to get her to hospital,” the paramedic insisted.
“Let me see her, please,” I begged and sank to my knees beside the stretcher. I grasped one of her hands. Tears poured down her smoke-blackened face.
She started to speak but her voice was growing weaker and I had to put my ear to her mouth.
“He said it was like a drug…” she croaked. “Followed him…” She clutched weakly at my shirt with her free hand.
My eyes flickered to the crowd and tried to pick out Danny Bleacher. But the police had pushed the cordon further back and the faces were just a blur. He’d said starting fires was like a drug. He’d also said he’d mended his ways. I had believed him but I guess a leopard doesn’t change its spots.
“Tried to stop him…” Mary whispered. Then her hand slid from my shirt and she was still.
The paramedic took her pulse. “Sorry, she’s gone,” he said.
“NO!” I grabbed the mask from the paramedic’s hand and put it over Mary’s face. “Mary, Mary.”
I looked at the paramedic praying he’d tell me she was going to be all right. His mouth was grim. He shook his head.
I shut my eyes and our 25 years together flashed through my head like a movie on fast forward. Our first date, Mary so happy on our wedding day, the birth of Susan, all pink wrinkled skin and mop of black hair, Mary smiling and kissing me on just the right spot on the ear that was guaranteed to made me weak at the knees. She hadn’t done that for a long time. An unbearable ache surrounded my chest and I found it difficult to breath. Tears stung my eyes. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into the paramedic’s face.
“Do you want to ride with her to the hospital?” he asked.
I stood up and shook my head. I don’t know how long I stood there. Time seemed to stand still. I never heard the ambulance take Mary’s body away or the clamour of the firefighting operation around me. I was suddenly seized with panic. I realised that despite our differences, I still loved Mary.
“What am I going to do without you?” I sobbed. My legs trembled and I felt like I was going to collapse. I felt light-headed and dizzy. I don’t know how long I stood like that. Suddenly I was jerked from my trance by a hand clawing at my shoulder. I turned and looked into Les’ blurred face.
“Sam, listen carefully,’ he said, his voice urgent.
My brain refused to function.
“Sam are you listening? This is what happened. Mary was passing, she saw Danny Bleacher running from the factory and heard a scream from inside-“
I started to speak, but he waved an impatient hand.
“I won’t have Mary’s name dragged through the mud. I can’t afford any scandals so close to my retirement.”
The fog in my head was lifting. I stared at him in disbelief. The man actually thought his own daughter was the arsonist.
“He’s scum,” he said. “Prison’s the best place for the likes of him.” He put a hand on my shoulder again. “Now listen to me, Sam, this is what I want you to say. She heard a scream, she thought someone was trapped and she went in to rescue them.” His grip on my shoulder tightened. “You owe me, Sam. If it weren’t for Mary and me you’d have been all washed up 10 years ago. Remember where your loyalties lie.”
He was right. I did owe them. After splitting up from Sheila, I had started to drink heavily. One day I was drunk on duty. An instant sacking offence. But Les had pulled strings and saved my job. He and Mary had held me to emotional blackmail ever since. It always amazed me how I had the guts to go into a blazing building but never had the balls to say no to Mary and Les. Take Sheila, for instance. I had loved Sheila, loved being with her. She made me feel like my old self. I should have fought for her. But it was easier to let her go. Less hassle.
Les was growing impatient. “Or are you going to be spineless, as usual?” he hissed.
I flinched like I’d been punched in the face. What hurt more was that it was true. He hadn’t tried to disguise the scorn in his voice. He despised me for not being like him – a ruthless, self-obsessed, arrogant bastard. He’d tolerated me all these years for Mary’s sake. Well, the feeling was mutual.
“If you don’t back me up, I’ll make sure you’re out of a job,” he said, his steel grey eyes, flickering with anger. “I’ve only a few months to go, but if it’s the last thing I do I’ll make sure you’re all washed up.”
Tom Waugh, Delta’s station officer came up and coughed. “Chief, the press know about your…eh…daughter. I don’t know how, sir, but they’ve heard. They want you to give an interview. Insensitive bastards. I’ve told them you’re too upset-“
“It’s all right,” Les said, interrupting him. “Give me a minute to compose myself and I’ll be over.”
Tom Waugh walked away. Les looked at me. “Remember what I said.”
I watched him walk towards the waiting group of reporters. My eyes swung towards the crowd of onlookers in time to see Danny being pushed into a car by two men I recognised as detectives. I looked back at Les. The reporters were all shouting questions at him at the same time. He put his hand up to quieten them.
“I’ve got a short statement to make,” he told them. “We’ve been able to piece together what happened from what my daughter told her husband, before…” He paused and coughed. He was in full uniform and his brass buttons gleamed under the television camera lights. “My daughter was a hero.”
Our eyes locked over the reporters’ heads. His were cold, confident, knowing I would do exactly what he wanted, as usual. And he was right. I was spineless. I didn’t have the bottle to take him on.
“We’re proud of her,” he said, giving the press his full attention once again. “She was passing when she saw someone running from the burning factory. She was about to call the brigade when she heard a scream from inside and dashed in to try and mount a rescue. Tragically, she became trapped herself.’’
I felt sick. I shook my head and turned away. I was desperate for a drink.
“Firefighting has been my life,” I heard Les continue, “it’s been like a drug. Now I’m ready to retire.”
I stopped dead. Mary’s words came back to me. “He said it was like a drug.” I spun around to look at Les.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve matters of a personal nature to attend to,” Les said. He gave a curt nod and walked away.
A barrage of questions was fired after him.
“That’s all for now,” Station Officer Waugh said, stepping forward. “There’ll be a press conference in the morning.”
I watched Les walk away. What sort of man was he, who’d send an innocent lad to prison to protect his bloody image? I knew he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory but I never dreamed he could be so ruthless.
His words came back. “You owe me, Sam. If it weren’t for Mary and me you’d have been all washed up 10 years ago. Remember where your loyalties lie.”
I took a deep breath. I owed him nothing. For 25 bloody years I’d danced to his tune. No more. I couldn’t prove it but I knew that Les had started the fires. And I’d find the evidence if it took me the rest of my life.
My accusations would force the brigade to suspend him and carry out an investigation. Even if they cleared him, the mud would stick.
The press pack was about to move off. I squared my shoulders and hurried over. I hadn’t felt so in-control in years.
“Before you go,” I said, “I’ve a statement of my own to make.”