Prologue — Dust
”Breaking news this morning from the Olympic region. We’ve just received word that Rallstown — excuse me, Rallsburg — suffered a devastating fire last night. We bring you live footage from News Chopper 8, now approaching the area.”
”Why’re we watchin’ a local news channel, chief?” asked Jeremy Ashe, glancing up from his newspaper.
”Something just happened to a tiny logger town. This is an hour ago,” said Michael Aderholt. He paused the video. “You’re gonna want to see this, Ashe.”
Please go away. “Sir. I’ve got cases I should be workin’.”
”No you don’t. I assigned those cases, and it’s Wednesday. You’ve got time.” Michael leaned forward and snatched the paper right out of Jeremy’s hands. He sat up, about to protest, but a sharp shake of the head from his partner Lani Makaio stopped him. “Now watch.” He unpaused the video.
”The town appears to have burned down overnight. Very few buildings seem intact.”
”What’s that there, Chopper 8? The big church building.”
”Actually, Ted, that’s a library. One of the oldest buildings in the town, in fact, nearly a century before the university was established. It looks like the gothic architectural style helped protect it against whatever happened here.”
”I didn’t know you were an expert on local history.”
”Hang on, we’re seeing something else…”
”Okay, some town in the middle of nowhere burned down.” Jeremy leaned back in his chair and yawned. “What does that got to do with us? Sounds like statie work.”
”We don’t have jurisdiction on local affairs,” Lani agreed. He looked just as bored as Jeremy, even if he was a bit more of a stick in the mud on most cases. If both of them thought this was a waste of time…
”What the hell is that?”
Jeremy looked back up again at the sudden outburst. Ted Winters never swore on camera. He was a consummate professional. When Jeremy saw the picture on the screen, an overhead view of a street in the town, he cursed under his breath too.
”What is that?” Lani asked, leaning in closer.
”Bodies,” answered Aderholt triumphantly. He zoomed in on the paused frame.
”Those are arranged,” Lani said slowly. “All around one point. They were trying to get to something.”
Jeremy felt a chill down his spine. “Sir, what’s going on?”
”Well, we’re about to get every resource we need to find out.” Aderholt clapped his hands together eagerly. “We’ve got a real case, boys, and you two are next up.”
Jeremy grimaced. He was older than both of them. The excitement of a new case had long since been replaced by dread. Still, something about the frozen pile of corpses on screen disturbed him, and not just because it was a pile of dead people nominally under his protection — as tangential as that might be for an FBI National Security Branch agent stationed in the Pacific Northwest, where nothing ever happened. They all knew they were at the weak end of the Bureau, a small remote office of the station where they sent everyone they didn’t need but couldn’t get rid of. It disturbed him because for once, it might actually mean something. As much as he didn’t want to believe it. “What makes you say that?”
”The entire town was wiped out. Over two hundred dead. The story just broke two hours ago and we’ve already got groups claiming responsibility.” Michael looked back at the screen eagerly. “Our station has the case. I’m about to call D.C. and ask for reinforcements. You two are heading over there right now to head off the locals.”
Jeremy reluctantly got to his feet. “Permission to speak, sir?”
”When the hell has that ever stopped you, Ashe?”
Not often enough. “Groups are always gonna claim responsibility. Everyone already knows about the story thanks to the internet. Is there anything conclusive to say they’re responsible and that this is a national security matter?”
”Of course not, but who gives a rat’s ass? For now, we get to go in there and chase something more meaningful than meth heads and dealers crossing state lines between Washington and Oregon. We’re the NSB. Isn’t this what you signed up for? This is our big break.”
”Your big break,” Jeremy muttered.
”Say that again Ashe?”
You’re a greedy asshole, sir, and I wanted to stay in bed this morning. “Nothing, sir. Do we get transport?”
Aderholt smiled. “Hell, Ashe, you get whatever you want. An attack this hard out of the fuckin’ blue, with no warning and no alarms tripped anywhere? Call in a goddamn fighter jet if you like.”
Jeremy sighed. He glanced at Lani, who smiled and shrugged. Typical Lani. His partner would go along with anything. “Just give us a chopper then. No way I’m driving all the way out and back on those shitty roads.”
”You got it.”
Please let this just be something local. “What’s the name of this place again?”
He paused. “Rallsburg?”
”Mean something to you?”
God, I hope not. “Nope.”
The chopper crested the last hill and Rallsburg came into view. Lani and Jeremy strained to see over the front seats. “What do you think?” Lani asked, voice crackling through the headset.
”I think we’re gonna find out jack shit, turn it over to the staties and I go back to pretendin’ to chase my Walter White wannabes.” The library’s half-destroyed towers and spires loomed into view out of the morning fog. “Jesus, what the hell happened out here?”
”That’s our job.”
Jeremy keyed his radio to call back to the station. “How long until forensics gets to the town? Over.”
”Two hours, sir. Over.”
He sighed, turning to Lani. “Two hours before we get real support.”
”Where do you want to start?” asked Lani.
Jeremy glanced around again. “Fuck it. Pilot, put us down right in front of the library.”
The chopper blades blew up gravel and dust everywhere as they slipped down onto the narrow street. The road was barely built wide enough for two vehicles, and debris littered the ground. Their pilot was skilled, though, and landed them neatly onto the pavement without incident.
”No cell service,” Jeremy noted with another sigh, after they were out and the chopper had spun down.
”Really? Mine’s okay.”
”Well fuck you and your carrier, then.”
Lani’s phone buzzed to confirm his point. “Chief says we’ve got a press embargo for twelve hours.”
”You don’t want people to know about this?”
”I don’t care if they know about it, I just don’t want to be on a billion cameras. Twelve hours gives us time to get the fuck off the case and far away.”
”I wouldn’t mind.”
”You actually look good though. I’ve got a face made for desk work.”
Lani laughed. “So how come you get dates while I can’t get a single girl to spend an hour with me?”
”‘Cause I’m not looking for a relationship,” Jeremy said with a shrug. “Some of ’em, it pretty much goes ‘hey, you look down to fuck. Wanna fuck?’ and he just gives me the nod. But if you actually want to meet a real girl, you’ve gotta show some confidence.”
”So you’re saying I look good, I just need to act like it?”
Jeremy shrugged again. Lani was a very good looking man. He had a nice lined face with just the perfect balance of stubble on his chin, he worked out, and his eyes were absolutely perfect — but he wasn’t Jeremy’s type. Besides, they were partners. He didn’t need that complication in his life. Especially since he’d have to report it, and that would mean telling everyone in the office. He really didn’t want to end up the ‘token gay FBI agent.’
”Your shoulders are going to get stuck there if you keep doing that.”
”There you go, you made a joke. That’s progress.” Jeremy pulled aside the board that had been set in front of the library door and glanced inside. “Well, this place looks fine. I doubt we’re gonna find anythin’ here.”
”Social media picked up the story, but we’re still clear for now. They declared a temporary no-fly zone.” Lani reported as they wandered down the next street.
”Don’t you love working for the guy with all the power?” Jeremy murmured. He glanced around. “What the hell kind of town is this, anyway? It’s got enough buildings for a couple thousand easy, but only a couple hundred lived here? And there’s a state-level college, but no public schools?”
”Former logging town that dried up, I guess.”
”Just seems weird, that’s all.” Jeremy shrugged. “There’s mansions right next to apartments next to a farm. I don’t get it.”
Lani scrolled through his phone. “It doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Just some old census data. We’ve put in a request for the last known population list from the town and the school both, but they have to go digging through public records since the town’s so obscure.”
”‘Course not. They wouldn’t send us anywhere that might have decent food.” He sighed. “Where was that spot on the video? We should head there.”
”You want to get close to that?” Lani asked, shuddering.
”Gotta do it sooner or later. Might as well take a look before anyone else touches it.”
It only took them a few minutes to find the correct street. Rallsburg wasn’t very big. The smell was the first thing to hit them. The bodies were burned and charred, and had been sitting out in the sunlight for who-knew how long. He did a brief headcount. Twenty-five dead here, he noted with a shudder. “None of ’em were trying to run,” he noted aloud.
”They’re all facin’ the center. Trying to get their attacker. Or they’re the attackers. I don’t have a clue on that.”
”Twenty-five of them facing the middle and not running — they’d be the attackers, then, right?”
”Makes sense.” Jeremy crouched down to take a closer look. He didn’t want to disturb the scene in case forensics found something important, but he couldn’t resist taking a closer look. His old days as a detective on the city streets were coming back to him bit by bit. “All dead by whatever burned them.”
”That’s not fire, though.”
Lani pointed at a spot on one of the bodies. “Those burns. They aren’t caused by fire. There’s not nearly enough surface damage. Those are electrical burns.”
Jeremy shook his head. “Can’t be sure of that without forensics.”
”I guarantee it.”
”Then where did juice to zap twenty five people come from? The lines didn’t fall anywhere near here, and they’re still intact.” Jeremy pointed at the wire strung out across the road, more than a hundred feet away. “No discharge at all. You sayin’ they all got struck by lightning?”
”I don’t know.”
”We’re not allowed to not know.” Jeremy stood up and stretched out his shoulders. I really should exercise more. “Come on, let’s keep movin’. Nothing more we can learn here.”
After the fourth home they picked through, Lani was close to tears. “They’re all just gone,” he murmured. “No one had a chance. All their stuff’s still here.”
”Whatever didn’t burn up, anyway,” Jeremy agreed. “I’m still not convinced on the terrorist card though.” Anything to get this out of my hands. “Chief send over those pop lists yet?”
”No. We got word from forensics though. They’re almost here, they got held up by something on the road. Apparently there was a freak landslide, but it was already cleared up by someone. Just one lane, tight fit. But there’s nothing in the news or municipal records.”
”Another mystery for the goddamn pile,” Jeremy muttered. “There’s nothin’ but ghosts here.”
”…Do you believe in them?”
Jeremy shrugged. “I’ve seen some crazy shit, but ghosts?”
”Yeah. Ridiculous,” Lani agreed, a little too quickly. Whatever. Man’s entitled to his beliefs. Not my business.
”Back on topic,” he went on, “there’s no evidence of firearms or explosives or anything. There wasn’t a lightning storm and there didn’t seem to be any single origin point for the fire. As far as I can tell, this place just spontaneously burned down all at once.”
”You know how to find the origin of a fire?”
”You just gotta know what to look for,” Jeremy replied. “Every single place we’ve gone to has a different origin. The way the wood burned is all different, and they all stopped in different ways too. It’s fuckin’ bizarre.” He shrugged. “Gonna have to wait for forensics to drill it down.”
Another buzz of the phone startled them both. “Forensics is here.” He grimaced. “So are the reporters, apparently.”
”Goddammit,” Jeremy sighed. “What happened to the embargo?”
”They won’t print for twelve hours, but they’re not gonna sit on the sidelines.”
”Tell them it’s a fucking crime scene.”
”They haven’t entered the town.”
”We don’t know how big the crime scene is.”
”What should I do, kick them out of the state?”
They heard a couple vehicles cruise down the road toward the library, which had been designated the staging area. Jeremy sighed. “Time to go, then.”
Lani started coordinating the forensic sweep of the town, while Jeremy hitched a ride back to the entry road. As the most senior agent present, he got lumped into the duty of handling the reporters — much to his dismay.
At least there weren’t any cameras.
”No comment,” he stated blandly.
”Is there a single survivor in the entire town?” asked a woman with a severe face and a droning voice.
Hell if I know. “No comment.”
”Is this the work of Islamic extremists?” shouted a journalist wearing a logo for a small Oregon paper. Apparently the story was spreading fast, if he’d made it here already.
Fucking racist. “No comment.”
”Was the college still in session at the time of the attack?” asked a reporter from the Oregonian.
Hey, a useful question. “No. The university did not hold a summer term.”
”So all students were sent home before the attack occurred?”
She’s trying to catch me on ‘attack.’ “We can’t confirm that. Nor can we confirm this was an attack. The investigation is ongoing.”
”Does the Bureau’s involvement imply this was perpetrated across state lines?”
If a fire crosses state lines, does that make it a federal fire? “No comment.”
”Are you going to tell us anything useful?” asked the severe woman.
Jeremy had to struggle to hold back his smirk. “No comment.” He bowed slightly. “That’s all the time I have right now. Stick around if you want, but don’t cross the line into the town.” Most of the gaggle looked like veterans who knew better than to violate a police line, but he was a little worried about a couple of them. He didn’t want to be babysitting a gung-ho amateur slapped with obstruction for the rest of the day.
He turned and walked away, ignoring the shouted questions while the state troopers who’d accompanied forensics set up wooden temporary barriers across the road.
”That went well,” he commented dryly to Lani, who was with the forensic team lead inside a tent they’d erected a block into town.
”How many did you get in?”
”Eight. They actually got one good question, so I couldn’t go for the full ten.” Jeremy pulled out his phone, which finally had signal again thanks to the repeater they’d set up at his request. “Oh thank God.”
”We’ve got our helicopter sweeping around the outskirts of the town,” Lani reported. “Looks like another fire broke out in the north as well, but it didn’t spread far. There’s still half a mile of untouched forest before you hit the town.”
”We’ve also confirmed the bodies in the streets were covered in electrical burns,” added the forensic guy from the staties. Jeremy couldn’t be bothered to remember his name. “The victims inside houses were killed by blunt trauma from the collapsing structures, asphyxiation by inhaling smoke, or thermal burns. There’s a few odd ones out though.”
He passed a tablet over and started flicking through pictures. Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. He was trying not to look too closely at each one. Despite everything he’d seen in his career, he never really got used to it — which was a comfort, as he was terrified of the day when seeing them didn’t bother him anymore.
”This one here,” continued Mr. Forensics, “and this one as well. Massive avulsions.”
”That’s not an avulsion,” Jeremy muttered, “that’s a goddamn amputation.” The woman’s arm had been torn off and there was a hole twice as large as his fist through her stomach. Jeremy pointed at the hole. “How the hell does that happen to someone?”
”Incident with some kind of power equipment?” He frowned. “Whatever happened, it wasn’t natural and there wasn’t anything nearby that could have caused it.”
Jeremy sighed. “Please tell me you didn’t find any evidence of weaponry involved.”
”Does a pitchfork count?”
”Then no. No weaponry we could determine.”
Jeremy passed the tablet back. “So far as I’m seeing, this is all local. Crazy and fucked up, but local. Seems like it’s a job for the state police.”
Lani looked dismayed. “That’s it?”
Didn’t see her anywhere, and I’m sure as hell not sticking around for anything else. “It’s outside our jurisdiction, Lani. We’re not allowed to operate at this level except to support their investigation.”
”You’re already here,” said the forensics guy, who Jeremy was really starting to dislike. “They’ll probably ask you to stick around to consult.”
”We do have other cases, you know.”
”More important than this?” he asked incredulously.
”But we—” Lani started, but Jeremy gave him the same sharp shake of the head he’d received earlier. It was an unspoken rule they both held to firmly. They trusted each other enough to be told when to shut up. Lani fell silent, and Jeremy went on. “I’m sure the Bureau will be happy to supply lab work in support, so you guys should have everything you need.”
”Thank you, Dave,” Lani added, when the forensic guy’s face started to fall.
An email popped up on Jeremy’s phone. The population lists had just come through. He scrolled through them briefly — they weren’t very long. As expected, a couple hundred residents, plus the hundred or so university students. Most of them would need follow-ups to knock them off the list of potential dead. The town residents would be more difficult, given how many bodies were buried under rubble or otherwise obscured.
Jeremy paused at one name on the list. His heart sank. He wasn’t getting out of this case after all. Goddammit, Jackie. What were you still doing out here? He sighed aloud.
Lani noticed the change in his expression. “What’s up?”
Jeremy, with all the reluctance in the world trying to hold him back, shook his head slowly. I still owe her. “We might be stickin’ around.”
As he spoke, another email slid onto the screen below the first one. One of the names had flagged up on an automatic scan. A hospital in Olympia had one William Carbonell currently checked into a bed, listed Tuesday May 15th at 1:32am. That was just yesterday. The only survivor?
”Call in the chopper, Lani,” he added. “We’ve got our first lead.”