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Slow Burn

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

“Upstairs.”

“What about it?” I asked.

“Lori,” she said, struggling to get up. “She’s upstairs. Came home after all.”

I looked at the house, saw the flames in the living room, the smoke pouring from open windows. Listened for the sirens, definitely close, but still a few blocks off. Thought about the speed at which fire sweeps through buildings. Four minutes from ignition to flashover—isn’t that what they said? I took another breath, tried to stand up, swayed, nearly collapsed, swore, then tried again, and a third time, until I was up.

I glanced around, mind working slowly, too slowly, then settled on the girl wrapped in the comforter. It would have to do. I limped toward her, grabbed a corner and pulled. She gave a shriek as it fell away. As I turned and stumbled toward the burning house, I caught a glimpse of her sprinting in the opposite direction wearing exactly the same amount of clothes she’d had on the day she was born.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, wrapping the blanket around my shoulders and head.

I made it up the concrete porch stairs, glanced briefly at the man lying to the side, out of harm’s way for now, pushed open the door, and barged back into the maelstrom. The front hall was filled with smoke, and the flames had gone straight up the stairs to the second floor, pulled like fire up a chimney, blocking that approach.

“Lori!” I called.

No answer.

I stepped farther in, into the living room to the left. It was an old house, with building materials less apt to burn quickly, but filled with polypropylene-infused furniture and appliances and clothes, perfect fuel for modern fires. A draw, but a deadly one. Even in the few minutes since the blaze had begun, the flames had grown immeasurably. I didn’t have much time left. I had to get upstairs.

What was the lawyer’s expression for me? Indefatigable asshole? Time to prove it once more.

Except this time, I thought, as I crouched to avoid the cloud of heated gas and smoke rapidly forming overhead, my stick-to-it-iveness might be fatal.

“Say that again?”

“You heard me correctly,” the woman said. It had all begun three weeks earlier on a Thursday morning, nearing mid-April. Anne and I were working our way north along the Olentangy River exercise trail. She was looking smart in black shorts and a green jogging top, with her mane of red hair wrestled into a bouncing ponytail as she ran at a comfortable training pace for the upcoming Discovering Columbus Half Marathon. I was riding beside her on my twelve-year-old mountain bike, trying to look smart in a pair of faded gray workout shorts and an Otterbein College sweatshirt with at least two holes in it, admiring the fact she was training for a half marathon. The day was going well. Only one person had apparently recognized me, a woman riding a beater bike in the opposite direction, and her insult, “Shameful,” was so quiet and she was past us so quickly I was pretty sure Anne hadn’t heard. “What are you thinking?” she said as we negotiated the downhill by Third Avenue and were rewarded with the sight of a heron wading in shoals not twenty feet away.

“What a beautiful day,” I said.

“Anything else?”

“What a beautiful day to be working out with my favorite college professor?”

“Better,” she said.

“Only better?”

“It’s like I tell my students. You’re not trying hard enough.”

“What a beautiful day to be thinking impure thoughts about my favorite college professor, with clouds overhead like shredded cotton balls?”

“I’d go with torn skeins of fresh-washed wool,” she said. “But not bad.”

Anne did her long runs with a group of girlfriends on Saturdays, which had led me to privately dub our Thursday outings the “lunkhead” run, since I knew next to nothing about training for a half marathon and the only way I could keep up with her was on a bike. I tried not to let the fact that she was free on a Thursday morning because her classes didn’t begin until later bother me, given that I was free on a Thursday morning because I was, well, between jobs.

Which is why, when the opening notes of “Small Town” by John Mellencamp sounded from my fanny pack, I didn’t hesitate to reach down and extract the cell phone. Between jobs was between jobs.

“Mr. Hayes?”

“Yes.”

“You’re the private detective?”

“That’s right.”

“My name is Dorothy Custer. I’d like to talk about a job.”

“I’d like that too,” I said. “Topic?”

“My grandson.”

“What about him?”

“I need help clearing his name.”

“What did he do?”

“He’s in prison for murdering three people.”

“Say that again?”

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is legal affairs reporter with the Associated Press in Columbus. He has written extensively on capital punishment, the drug trade, and politics, and is also the author of the first Andy Hayes mystery, Fourth Down and Out, also from Ohio University Press.

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