He watched from a safe distance although in his current state that seemed superlative. It would all burn, he thought. They would not be able to save a single stick of it.
The tinder dry structure had endured two centuries of both hellish droughts followed by the irony of floods, watching the land below it battered by the wrath of Mother Nature scorned.
It listened through the years to the hush of swaying pines. And within its walls it had hosted a multitude of people passing through the mountains. In the early days it provided sanctuary to fugitives of the law, to men trekking to gold fields, and to the occasional whore following the same trail. Its modern life meant the whores were more discrete … they had to be to mix with a range of clientele including honeymooners, business people on retreats, and families travelling from point A to point B for family festivals.
Cerryn Murphy grew up at the Pine Coppice Inn. So had his father and grandfather. It was expected of the Murphy men to continue in the business and keep the Inn alive and thriving. However, a good genetic pool did not guarantee strength down the line. Cerryn was hopeless. Worse, he was cunning and conniving as well.
Funnily enough the history of the Inn ran through his mind as he watched the flames begin to lick the window architraves, spreading from the red velvet curtains within.
A window shattered on the other side somewhere and smoke billowed up and over the whole structure. Despite the darkness of the forest night, a warm glow built up almost as though a dome surrounded the inn. A slight breeze threatened to carry sparks on a quest for dry wood and there was no shortage of that in this area.
In the distance, Cerryn could hear fire sirens.
“Bloody Schultz,” he muttered. “Fuckin’ busy body probably called ‘em.” His neighbour, the bane of Cerryn’s life even from childhood, was always hanging around the property, snooping through outhouses and sheds as though looking for something. Cerryn reported him to the police on more than one occasion but nothing was ever done. “We can’t arrest him on your say-so Murphy,” the local fuzz told him after a dozen calls within a week. “We have to catch him at it and he says he’s never been over to your place.”
“Maybe they’ll blame Schultz now! Maybe they’ll realise I wasn’t just being paranoid. He’s the most likely candidate, isn’t he?” he asked no one. “They won’t blame me. No, not one of the respected Murphy clan,” he emphasised bitterly.
The crackling yellow flames grew to a roar and showed at almost every window of the two-storey building. Cerryn was satisfied there would be little the fire brigade could do by now. The hundred-year-old tree downed across the entrance road made damn sure of that. Even so, he saw half a dozen yellow-coated figures come tearing around the bend and into the front courtyard, hauling amazingly long hoses.
“Determined buggers!” he thought.
The roar of the flames almost drowned out their voices, let alone the sizzle of flames at the edge of the bonfire extinguished as powerful jets of water doused them.
“Over there,” roared Jeffers. “Over there,” he yelled again, waving his heavily gloved hand towards another part of the building. Two figures followed his lead while another two headed for the area he pointed to, a wing of the building, double-fronted with bay windows. The stained glass had already blown out and sprinkled the ground. Dust mixing with the hose jets turned the ground to slush. The emeralds and rubies of a destroyed art work in glass were stomped unceremoniously out of sight as the battle between man and the life-force that is fire raged on.
A crack split the soundscape followed by tumbling rocks.
“Get outta there,” roared a male voice. “Chimney’s coming down,” he bellowed. Distinct silhouettes against the orange rage soldiered on through the night, keeping it corralled within the clearing. The beast roared but could not escape; each tentative step outside its circle was thwarted by water, axe and hoe.
Cerryn took all of this in; every minute detail. He savoured it. A splendid job he had done this night. There would be nothing left for the bitch to take away from him. He slapped his head as he remembered, then laughed. The bitch had not survived, he was sure of that. He saw the body on the floor before he left. He wondered what they would say when they found his wife.
He thought about their argument before the rage set in. She accused him of losing every cent the business ever made. She accused him of stealing their stuff and selling it. She cried when she told him she knew he sold her wedding ring. (She was right, of course). She belittled him, called him hopeless, paranoid. She was going to leave him for someone else. Her bags were all packed. She tried to run from him. He laughed when she could not open the door. Tears streamed down his face when he saw the look of shock and horror on her face as she realised what he held in his hands, and recognised how the place smelled. It was too late though. She could just put that carving knife down; it would do her no good. She was trapped. She would burn.
Satisfaction washed over him. That hopeless body lying in the hallway, arm outstretched towards the locked door. It had been surprisingly easy. Just a lunge; grabbing at her wrist; then the knife sliding in like cutting a sponge cake and what was once a person dropping to the floor. Nothing left, just a lump of meat.
There was no remorse within him. He felt justified.
Somewhere up the hill a chainsaw coughed into life. Cerryn pictured in his mind desperate attempts to cut and remove the tree across the road. It would take them hours, he thought, although he underestimated the well-oiled machine of the local fire brigade. While a dozen fought the blaze directly, another two dozen worked a chain gang to remove the obstacle.
Eventually, he saw the trucks bump their way over the rough road. Fire fighters, men and women in yellow rubber overalls, helmets and breathing gear, poured off the trucks like ants attacking from their nest. It was almost poetic, a ballet, as they worked together in vain to douse the flames. It was beyond Cerryn to think they were doing anything other than trying to save the building. It was lost. However, they toiled to prevent the fire spreading from the clearing and into the forest, threatening life and limb, not to mention thirty thousand people in the nearby town.
The hours ticked by in what seemed like seconds until only glowing rubble remained. Dreary, grey daylight appeared and still the fire fighters worked their hoses although adrenalin prevented exhaustion from taking hold. Trucks emptied their tanks and left to refill, replaced by more tankers. Finally, only a caretaking crew remained, raking through the ashes and extinguishing embers that could reignite the remains of what was once a grand hotel.
The fire fighters were, in a sense, victorious. Not only had they prevented the fire spreading to the forest. They even saved an outbuilding or two.
Cerryn watched as a police car pulled up beside the two remaining fire units, followed by the undertaker’s vehicle. Jerry Raven slid out of the police car and approached one of the figures standing back from the debris. They began to talk but Cerryn could not hear what they were saying at first. He edged closer, hovering behind a large holly bush. Raven was talking to the chief, Jeffers.
“… forensics are on their way,” Raven said.
“One of our guys saw the body in the main building. Couldn’t see who it was. Crispy by the time we got here, I’d say.”
“Yeah. There’s someone over here you need to speak to.”
The men walked out of Cerryn’s line of sight, but he waited patiently. He wanted his victory complete. He had to see them pulling her body out of the rubble of his life.
Wisps of blue smoke rose from mounds here and there. A new team of fresh-faced people set to work putting up crime tape around the scene. Men and women with notebooks, digital cameras and tool cases scanned the scene. A young redhead in white overalls and boots covered in ‘shower caps’ walked close to Cerryn. He stopped stock still, slowly turned his head and looked toward the holly bush. Cerryn shrank down beneath the shadows. The lad shrugged, turned and walked away.
By mid afternoon they were ready to remove the deceased. “At last,” Cerryn thought. “Patience is rewarded,” he muttered.
A man carrying a black body bag made his way towards what had been the grand entrance. Cerryn rubbed his cold hands together, blew on them to try to warm them, then thrust them into the pockets of his parka. He smiled and did a little jig, like a child in a queue at the fair.
Raven was back. He watched from a distance. An official looking gent wandered over.
“How will we go about an identity, do you think?” Raven asked him.
“It would be cruel to put anyone through that,” he responded.
Cerryn thought, I’d do it! I’d do it in a shot. He almost stepped out from his hiding place, but checked himself. Too obvious. Amazing, he thought, that they had not tried to contact him. Or perhaps they had, but he lost his phone when he left the blaze.
“There’s a wedding ring on the body. Perhaps that could be identified?” Raven asked. The other man nodded. “We could show just the hand, that wouldn’t be too bad would it? Just knowing the identity is probably as bad for the victim … would already know what happened, how they died.”
Raven’s companion nodded again and ‘hmphed’.
“Yep. Has to be done. Not so sure about dna. Need something to check it against. Not in the system. Can you get her?”
Raven nodded and walked off towards a cabin which had remained untouched by the disaster.
They’re bringing her out, Cerryn thought. But who would know her wedding ring? Only me.
Two men appeared from the wreckage carrying the filled body bag. In the distance Cerryn could see Raven, accompanied by a police woman and another figure, a familiar one.
“How the fuck did she get out?” he yelled, anger replacing his glee and forgetting to try to stay concealed. He stepped out from his hiding place and ran into the middle of the courtyard, rage growing like the night’s blaze. People walked past him without saying a word. He looked around him and they were ignoring him.
“Always invisible,” he yelled, as the hint of panic he felt at being caught was again consumed by his rage. But still no one looked at him.
His wife bent down next to the body bag. The lad in the white overalls carefully lifted a blackened hand out of the bag.
“Yes, that’s Cerryn’s wedding ring,” the woman sobbed.
“That’s him. Please forgive me. I had no choice,” she wailed. “I had to stop him or I’d be in that bag.”
“But I saw her body,” Cerryn yelled at the retreating figures. “I saw the body! I saw a body. I saw it.”
And they walked right through him.
A man watched from the bushes as fire fighters battle to keep a fire from spreading to the forest.
Inspired by Christopher Ewing’s fantastic photos
Engulfed in Flames
My volunteer job
Richmont Inn Blaze