She held her palm to her forehead and sighed. “I’m sorry, Tom, it’s just…I read about what happened last night and…it’s been almost seven years since I left the Bureau. There have been other high-profile murders. But this one has just…crawled under my skin…and I don’t know why.”
“You don’t?” He sounded surprised. “How do you think I knew you’d call?”
“What do you mean?”
“The homeless man. As soon as I learned about him, how the killer used him as bait, I knew this case was going to stick to you like a bad dream. I almost called you.”
“The homeless man? Why would he…?”
“Because of your parents, Esme.”
Esme shrank down in her seat to a little girl.
Who’d lived on and off welfare all their life. Who falsified addresses to get their daughter into the best public schools. Who pushed her every day to rise above their situation and, when she did, when she got that scholarship letter to George Washington University, when she said goodbye to them and went off to start her freshman year…
There was a shelter in the south side, Coleman House. Lead paint on the walls but walls were better than the open air in December in Boston. Eighteen-year-old Esme came home from her first semester in D.C. full of stories but home was no longer there. Coleman House was there, yes, but her parents had gone. All they had left her was two blue ink words—her mother’s careful cursive—on a piece of yellow paper.
BE FREE, it said. BE FREE.
She spent the entire two weeks searching the city for her mom and dad but they didn’t want to be found, and when you didn’t want to be found in the cross-streets of Boston, you might as well have been vapor.
She almost didn’t go back to school, but her friends urged her. They insisted it’s what her parents would have wanted. Still, every break she returned to Coleman House, and the Congress Ave. YMCA, and searched every shelter and underpass in the whole city for her family. Until the day she got into Quantico, when she decided to never go back.
Rafe didn’t know.
Almost all of her friends didn’t know.
Tom knew only because he knew everything.
“The man’s name was Merle Inman,” said Tom. “He grew up in Macon, moved to Atlanta in his twenties to be an architect, fell into drugs…every story’s the same story. He was forty-two years old. We’re going to release his information tomorrow, but, well, there it is.”
Esme realized she was crying, and wiped her cheeks. “Thanks.”
“The guy who did this—he’s something else. Using people as clay pigeons. Fancies himself a gamesman. Thinks he can beat the house. Nobody beats the house. Not my house.”
“Go get that fucker,” she said.
After she hung up, she remembered her musings about whether or not the killer had left a note. But it just didn’t seem as important to her anymore. Maybe what she’d really needed was to talk with Tom. Mentor, profiler, friend, therapist. That she couldn’t have connected the relevance of the case herself—forget about God, it was the human mind that worked in mysterious ways.
Esme prepared a bath. Rafe wouldn’t be home for another hour. Sophie was fast asleep in her bed, perhaps dreaming of the man made out of balloons. That had been a recurring dream of hers for a few days now. The man made out of balloons. All different colors. And tomorrow morning she’d saddle up to the table and declare, “I dreamt about the balloon man again.” Apparently it was a happy dream.
Her daughter was having happy dreams. Esme lowered herself into the hot, hot bathwater. Life was good, wasn’t it? She thought again about Amy Lieb. This was the high drama in her life now. Hundreds of miles away, Tom Piper was searching for a madman. She hoped he caught him. She hoped Rafe returned home soon. She clicked on her bath stereo (Joy Division this time, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”), shut her eyes, and allowed her mind to finally, finally, exhale.
O n February 11, someone lit the Amarillo aquarium on fire.
In the days that followed the conflagration, security tapes confirmed police suspicions of arson. FBI investigators went frame by frame over footage of the night janitor, a new hire named Emmett Poole, mopping up the third floor, twenty minutes before the fire began on that floor.
It was Tom Piper who figured it out.
“That’s lighter fluid,” he said. He pointed at the freeze-frame of the mop bucket, then at the broad-shouldered back of Emmett Poole. Upon further review, they couldn’t find any footage of the janitor’s face, none at all. Employees described him as nondescript. He’d only been on the job about a week. He’d answered an ad in the paper. His references had checked out. The authorities gathered to raid the address he’d listed. But it was a church. Emmett Poole, like the aquarium he’d ignited, had gone up in a puff of ash.
Tom Piper and his task force weren’t in Amarillo, though, because of the arson.
He was there because of what had happened shortly thereafter.
Station 13 had responded to the blaze at 9:55 p.m. Most of the crew had been watching the Democratic debate between Jefferson Traynor and Bob Kellerman. Up in his home state of Ohio, Kellerman was a volunteer fireman, so the boys in the firehouse (thorough Texas Republicans one and all) were rooting for one of their own. They watched the debate up in the bunk room on a soot-smeared fifty-two-inch LCD they’d rescued back in September from the toasty remains of a Best Buy. Then the call went out, and the TV went off, and the men grumbled into their gear.
On the way to the aquarium, Lou Hopper declared, “Kellerman kicked his ass.” Lou Hopper was the shift’s resident pontificator. Every workplace in America sported (at least) one. The self-educated expert. The know-it-all. The bar in Cheers had Cliff Clavin. Station 13 had Lou Hopper. He even had a gray mustache like Clavin, although not a wisp of hair on top. He claimed it had been singed off in a fire; somehow the flames had slipped their hot tongues underneath his helmet and licked off his hair.
Three other firefighters crowded the back of the engine with Lou. The chief sat up front with Bobby Vega, who always drove the truck.
It didn’t take them long to reach the aquarium from their home base off of Third Avenue. Amarillo was a city of daylight and most businesses closed shop by six o’clock, so the chief didn’t bother to activate the engine’s blaring siren. The few still on the road at 10:00 p.m. either knew enough to get out of the way or deserved to get run over. The three boys in the back, though—they had a tradition to uphold: feline-faced Roscoe Coffey popped a well-worn cassette into a boom box (acquired in 1989 from the toasty remains of a Conn’s—which the aforementioned doomed Best Buy had replaced) and pressed Play. As they neared the aquarium, a crown of streaming smoke rising from its brick skull, Johnny Cash and his mariachi horns warbled to life.
“I fell into a burning ring of fire…”
Never let it be said Station 13 lacked a dark, dark sense of humor.
Bobby Vega navigated the engine up North Hughes toward the aquarium. His family had settled in Amarillo when he was three years old. Everyone had assumed they were originally from Mexico, so that’s what they’d claimed. Coming from Mexico meant fewer questions than coming from Colombia. They had left Colombia in the middle of a drought and the year after they came to Amarillo, the city suffered its longest dry spell in one hundred years. Even today, water conservation remained a major concern; the fire department had been chastised on more than one occasion for their “extravagant use of water.”
The same moronic bigwigs who had chastised the fire department for