Written for Dorinda for Yuletide 2007.
Huge thanks to my cheerleaders and betas, who kept me going and made this better: elynross, Keiko Kirin, Merryish, and Therienne.
written December 2007, posted January 1, 2008
The heat of the fire was a wall pushing against him as Jared threw bucketfuls of water into the building, every breath tasting of smoke. The crackle and hiss of flames nearly overwhelmed the sounds of the men behind him, passing each new full bucket forward as a group of boys ran the empty ones back to the troughs and barrels in the street.
Two more lines of men were doing the same, spaced a little apart to cover as much of the building as possible. Ralph James headed the line closest to Jared, with the preacher right behind him handing him buckets without a blink, and some part of Jared nodded in approval. He'd known preachers who would've let a building burn rather than get so close to a man who served alcohol in a cathouse. Beyond them, Joe Larson was handing buckets to Babbles, who could throw without tiring longer than nearly any man in town.
If anyone on a line did start to falter, a fresher man would switch in smoothly. Down the street, wagons were coming in loaded with more barrels of water from the river. This was the fourth fire in five months, and the whole town was far too used to this now.
Movement that broke the steady rhythm of reach-and-toss caught Jared's eye and he glanced up and to the side, frowning, nearly dropping the bucket in his hands as he realized what he was seeing. Finch was running back into his laboratory next door, holding a cloth over his mouth and nose. The fire was already moving that way -- they had minutes, at best, before the lab caught fire, barring a miracle. Jared went cold. "Finch!" he yelled, knowing there was no way Finch could hear him. "Finch!"
"Marshal Stone," the man behind him said frantically, shoving a bucket at him. New man on the line, Jared noted automatically, someone he only vaguely recognized. Didn't matter -- he was as grimly determined as any other man on the line, and he was waiting on Jared.
Jared swore and got back to work. With every mechanical toss, his eyes shifted briefly to the nearby doorway Finch had vanished into, a knot tightening in his stomach as the moments slid past and the doorway stayed empty.
Finally, dozens of buckets later, Finch appeared, wreathed in dark smoke and clutching a sack that looked like he'd made it out of his bed sheets. He staggered out a few steps before dropping to his knees in the street, pitching forward and catching himself on his hands as he coughed desperately.
"I've got this, Marshal," a voice said near his ear. "Go get Mr. Finch!" Hands took a bucket from him and a solid body nudged him aside, and Jared started running.
"Finch!" He reached out, then hesitated. "Are you burned? Did the fire break through?"
"No," Finch croaked, shaking his head and coughing again. "Not burned. Smoke."
Thank God. The knot in Jared's stomach loosened a little, and he had to lock his knees to keep from sinking down beside Finch. Last time they hadn't been so lucky. George Chandler had run back into his shop to save what he could, and had come out blistered and burned. Jared had reached him first; he'd had nightmares that weren't as bad as that. Poor bastard had lasted six days. Last he'd heard, George's widow had sold what little was left and gone to live with her sister back east.
He shook the memory off, taking Finch's arm to pull him to his feet. "C'mon. I'll get you to Doc Gates, get you checked out."
Jared glanced over at the lines of men still working and realized it was Isaac who'd taken his place. He'd moved closer to the burning building, clearly trusting his thick leather apron and his familiarity with the high heat of the forge to protect him, and flinging his buckets of water hard and high in an easy sweep of thickly muscled shoulders. The whole line was swinging buckets with renewed vigor as miners showed up and took over as many places as they could, even forming a fourth line to start soaking down Finch's laboratory.
"They're doing fine," he reassured Finch. "They can spare us. C'mon, let's get you looked at."
Jared leaned down and picked up the sheets, tied roughly into a bundle with a pillowcase, blinking at the awkward weight of it.
"You want me to take that, Marshal?" Chipper asked, appearing beside him, streaked with grime and sweat.
"Yeah, thanks, Chipper -- bring it to the office for now."
Chipper nodded, reaching out to take the bundle. "Mr. Finch gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine, lad," Finch wheezed, then doubled over Jared's arm, coughing.
"I'm taking him to see the doc now," Jared said, tightening his hold. "You drop that off, then go see if there's anything else you can do to help with the fire, okay?"
"I will, Marshal," Chipper promised, with a worried look at Finch. "Looks like it's getting under control, at least."
Jared glanced back again and nodded. "It does. Thank God for that. Go on, now."
Chipper took off, and Jared started walking Finch down the street, one slow, easy step at a time.
Doc Gates looked up when they walked in, narrow face going almost pinched. "Is he burned?" he asked sharply, gesturing toward the examination room and following as they went in. Jared winced, knowing the doc had sat with George until the end, trying to help.
Finch shook his head, shooting Jared a grateful look as Jared answered. "No, he says he just caught some smoke. Don't know how much."
Jared withdrew a couple of steps as the doc pulled out his stethoscope and bent in to listen to Finch's chest.
Finch shot an exasperated look at Jared, who shrugged and rolled his eyes back. "He's been breathing, doc," Jared pointed out.
Gates glared at him. Surprised and a little amused despite himself, Jared put his hands up and backed up another step. "Sorry. Breathe, Finch."
Finch glared at him, too, but took a deeper breath, triggering another coughing fit.
"Mmmm," Gates said again, moving the stethoscope around.
"He sounds a little better," Jared said hopefully.
Gates stood up, nodding. "Good. Do you have a burning sensation in your throat or nose, Mr. Finch?"
"No," Finch said hoarsely. "My throat feels rough, and I keep coughing, but nothing's burning. I held my breath as long as I could, and breathed as little as possible through a damp cloth when I couldn't hold it any longer."
Gates tilted Finch's head toward the light. "Open, please." He peered in and nodded again. "I don't see any signs of damage. That's very good. How long were you exposed?"
"Only a minute or two, I should think," Finch said, raising his eyebrows at Jared.
"Couple minutes sounds about right, if he was holding his breath at first," Jared agreed.
"Well, doctor? Am I going to live?" Finch asked lightly.
Jared shifted, shoving his hands into his pockets.
"Hmf. You are, yes. Stay away from smoke for a few days, and get plenty of rest. Give those lungs a chance to recover, and I think you'll be just fine. Nothing strenuous," he warned sternly, "especially for the next twenty-four hours."
"But --" Finch began to protest, interrupted by another bout of coughing.
"Not even climbing a flight of stairs, if you feel short of breath at all," Gates said firmly, as he fetched Finch a glass of water. "Unless you want to permanently weaken your lungs."
Finch drank the water gratefully and took a careful breath. "No, of course not. I suppose that leaves out the hotel," he added wryly. "Perhaps Katie..."
Jared stared at him. "Finch, you cannot stay with Katie."
"What?" Finch frowned at him. "What do you -- oh!" A flush climbed his cheeks under the sooty streaks. "Quite right, of course, I wasn't thinking."
"C'mon, you can stay with me tonight. If your wind isn't up to getting to the second floor, I'm told the cots in the cells are pretty comfortable, considering."
"Charming," Finch muttered as he rose to his feet, then grimaced as another coughing fit took him at the sudden motion. "All right, Marshal, your place it is," he agreed once his voice was back under control. "And a cot in a cell, if it comes to that. Anything to keep from aggravating this any further."
They said their goodbyes and left, Jared promising to stay with Finch and let the doc know if he got any worse. He didn't say anything about the relief he could see in the doc's eyes, knowing he probably had the same look in his own.
Once outside, Jared looked Finch over carefully: grimy with soot, streaked where sweat had trickled a path, his clothes just as grimy and reeking of smoke. Jared's clothes weren't much better off -- they could definitely stand to be washed, and so could he.
"You think you can stay upright long enough for a quick bath down at Mackie's?"
"Marshal, for a bath, I'll stay upright as long as it takes," Finch said fervently.
Jared grinned, and gestured to little Willie Hansen, playing across the street.
"Marshal?" Willie asked politely as he ran over, eyes wide as he took in their appearance. He was still too young to run buckets for the men on the line, and was clearly hoping Jared would have something important for him to do.
Jared put on his most serious face. "Willie, I need you to run as fast as you can to fetch Chipper, and tell him to meet me and Mr. Finch here at the bath house. You got that?"
Willie nodded. "Yes, sir -- Chipper should meet you at the bath house. Is this about the fire, sir?"
Jared coughed a little. "It's related, yes. I can't say any more than that. Now, if he's not in my office, he'll probably be with the men on the bucket brigade. You make sure you stay out of people's way there, okay? If Chipper's working the line, it can wait till his turn is over -- you go wait behind the barrels for him. You got it?"
Willie nodded again, more emphatically than before. "I'll get him!" he promised, and ran off, full of purpose.
"Related to the fire?" Finch asked, sounding amused, and started walking slowly down the street.
Jared matched his pace and grinned at him. "Well, we're gonna need clean clothes, and that's because of the fire. That makes it related, right?"
Finch chuckled, then groaned into the cough it triggered. "Damn it," he croaked as the coughing subsided. "How long is this going to last?"
"It'll start getting better," Jared said soothingly. "Cough'll probably be mostly gone by tomorrow. Headache, too." He glanced at Finch sidelong in time to catch the startled look Finch shot him.
"How did you know?"
"Caught a lungful myself a few years back," Jared said, not mentioning the tight look around Finch's eyes that clearly showed he was in pain. "At least you're not coughing up black." He grimaced, remembering. "Anyway, the bath and clean clothes will help, so you're not breathing that stink in."
Before they'd made it halfway down the street, a voice started calling from behind them. "Marshal!"
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Jared said, turning and spotting Mayor Smith walking toward them with a purposeful stride. He smiled perfunctorily as Smith got closer. "Mr. Mayor. Something we can help you with?"
"There's been another fire, Marshal," Smith said pointedly.
Jared stared at him. "Yes, I know. We were there."
"Oh. Yes, of course," Smith said, a little flustered as he took in their appearance. He blinked in alarm as Finch started coughing again, fisting a hand in Jared's coat to hold himself up as the spasms went deep. "Ah--"
"He caught a lungful of smoke," Jared said shortly, slinging an arm around Finch's back to help support him.
"Is he going to be all right?" Smith fished a handkerchief out and held it out to Finch, who took it with a nod of thanks and held it over his mouth.
"Doc says he'll be fine in a few days. Did you want something, Mr. Mayor? We were kinda hoping to be able to get cleaned up."
"Have you had a chance to determine the cause of the latest fire?" Smith asked, smiling politely and tipping his hat to a group of ladies walking past, then looking back at Jared rather grimly.
"Now how am I supposed to have done that?" Jared asked, exasperated, and pulled Finch upright as the coughing eased. "It's still burning! I'll go check it out later, when things have cooled down. If I find anything, I'll let you know. Okay?"
Smith harrumphed. "Fine, I suppose, if that's the best you can do." He nodded awkwardly to Finch. "Sorry, Mr. Finch -- I hope you feel better."
"Thank you, Mr. Mayor," Finch said simply, under control once again as he moved back into place at Jared's shoulder.
"Yes, well. Tomorrow, then. Gentlemen." Smith left with a short nod to them both.
Jared glared after his retreating back.
"You can't blame him, Marshal," Finch said quietly.
"I know," Jared grumped. "I just wish he wasn't so damn pushy."
Finch chuckled a little, carefully, and started walking again. "Come on. That bath is sounding better by the minute."
"Oh, for -- what now?" Jared muttered a minute later, annoyed, as someone rushed toward them, waving. He blinked as the figure drew closer; it was the man who'd been behind him on the buckets. The man waved and slowed down, clearly a little winded, as he saw that they'd stopped.
"Morgan. James Morgan," Finch said beside him.
"Oh, right, the insurance fellow." Jared frowned a little as he watched Morgan approach. "Wonder what he wants." He'd only met the man once, when he arrived in town a month or so ago and had come to the office to try to talk Jared into insuring the place. Jared grimaced, hoping he wasn't in for another cheerful lecture on the many dangers of fire. Not today.
"Marshal Stone," Morgan said as drew closer, still panting a little.
"Mr. Morgan. You know Mr. Finch?"
Morgan and Finch exchanged polite greetings
"If you don't mind, we're kind of in a hurry here," Jared said pointedly. "Was there something you needed?"
"Oh. Yes, please. I'm sorry to bother you, but Mr. Verlinden -- he owns the store that just burned--"
Jared nodded impatiently.
"Yes, well, several weeks ago he purchased insurance with one of the companies I represent. My employers prefer not to pay claims unless they're certain it's warranted. I understand there've been several fires in town recently, and wanted to be sure that this would be thoroughly investigated, so I can submit Mr. Verlinden's claim without delay."
"And this couldn't wait?" Jared asked in disbelief.
Morgan colored a little. "I'm sorry, I didn't -- I saw you on the street, and just -- I'm terribly sorry to have bothered you."
Jared waved a hand, irritated. "No, it's all right. Of course you're welcome to ask me questions any time. Anyway, I can't give you an answer yet -- I know as much about the fire as you do, at this point."
Morgan nodded, still looking embarrassed. "Of course. You'll be investigating, though?"
"I'll be taking a look, yes," Jared said. "But now, if you'll excuse us..."
"Yes, of course. Marshal, Mr. Finch."
"Mr. Morgan," Finch murmured.
"And Marshal, if there's anything I can do to help with the investigation..."
"I'll let you know," Jared said dryly.
Morgan flashed a smile. "Splendid. Well. I'll just be going, then." He tipped his hat politely and left, heading toward Luci's with a long stride.
"Dedicated to his job," Finch observed.
"Pain in the ass," Jared shot back. "Come on, let's get to Mackie's before anyone else stops us."
They almost hadn't made it, but Jared had spotted the new reporter Gentry had hired for the paper before he'd seen them, and had managed to slip by without being cornered for an interview.
He'd figured the bath house would be full to overflowing in an hour or so, but as he'd hoped, it was empty at this time of day, most of the men fighting the fire sticking close by in case they were needed, and just using the water there to sluice themselves off.
He'd gotten them deep tubs side by side in one room, overriding Finch's embarrassed protestations that he didn't need a nursemaid with the pointed remark that he wasn't about to let Finch drown in the middle of a coughing fit because he pitched into the water and no one was there to haul him back out. Finch had given in -- reluctantly.
Jared grinned and reached for his shirt once they were alone with the filled tubs, amused by the cranky grumbles still coming from Finch's direction. They weren't slowing Finch down any; by the time Jared finished undoing his buttons, Finch was twisting out of his shirt, turning to toss it into the corner with a grimace of distaste.
"I hope it can be saved," Finch said, turning back to look at Jared with a wry grin. "I'm quite fond of that -- Marshal?"
Jared was staring at a dark streak of soot along Finch's collarbone, transfixed. "You could have been killed," he said hoarsely, dragging his eyes up to glare at Finch. "That was a damn fool stunt you pulled, running into that building. We buried George Chandler not five weeks ago for doing the same damn thing."
He looked away, his mind's eye seeing the image he'd refused to consider when Finch had run into the building: Finch being pulled back out after the building had been engulfed in flames, clothes in tatters around him, skin blackened and bubbling as he fought for every breath through a scorched windpipe.
"Marshal -- Jared. I'm sorry. Truly."
Jared took a step forward without thinking, caught by the look in Finch's eyes, then pulled back, shaking his head to cover his confusion. "Just -- dammit, Finch, what could possibly have been important enough to risk dying like that?" he exploded, flinging out one hand in a helpless gesture, shocked at the depth of his own anger.
"The evidence," Finch said quietly, watching him steadily.
Something twisted in Jared, sharp and tight, and he made an inarticulate noise of frustration. "The evidence isn't worth your life!"
"I calculated that there were several minutes before the lab was in any real danger from the fire, enough time to go in and save what little we've collected these past few months," Finch said earnestly. "You know that without it, we haven't a chance of proving these fires aren't accidents."
Jared did know it, and scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. Even with it, they had next to nothing -- some scorched cloth that didn't seem to belong in the second building that had burned, a sketch of a shoeprint from the back of that same building, a couple of buttons that had survived the third fire and that hadn't come off George's clothes.
He sighed, deflating a little. "I still think it was a damn fool thing to do, but I guess I can see why you did it." He shook his head and started pulling off his shirt, scowling at the twinges across his shoulders that said he'd be sore tomorrow. "Okay. Let's go over it again. We've got three fires --"
"Four, now," Finch said soberly, dropping onto the bench to pull off his boots. "The first could have been an accident, and the second a coincidence --"
"But three makes a pattern, and four..." He shook his head. "We have to figure this out, Finch. We were damn lucky today we got everyone out of there in time. Hell, there were women and children in that store!"
"We can be grateful for that," Finch said quietly.
"What?" Jared stared at him, shocked.
"I overheard Jan Verlinden telling someone that it was one of the children who spotted the fire in the office. He shouted the warning, and everyone fled. Had he not been there..."
"Jesus," Jared muttered, dragging a hand across his chin. He hadn't realized just how close a call it had been. "People are going to stop believing they're accidents soon. I can only tell folks to be careful about their stoves and lamps so often. If they figure out these are being deliberately set, they're going to panic."
Finch grunted in morose agreement as he tugged his second boot off. "So what now?"
Jared sighed, leaning his hips back against the wall so he could bend more easily to take his boots off. Motion caught his eye and he glanced over as Finch stood up again and began stripping efficiently out of his trousers and drawers, with no sign of embarrassment. Jared huffed out a quiet, amused snort as he tugged his right boot off, the leather creaking softly under his hands.
Fully dressed, Finch could still give an impression of an Eastern dandy when he wanted to, although as soon as he undid his collar or rolled up his sleeves the illusion was shattered, hard muscles and competent air giving visible proof that here was a strong man, alert and agile, ready for anything that came at him.
Naked, the difference was even plainer, and Jared couldn't stop snitching looks as Finch bundled up his clothes and tossed them in the corner with his shirt, muscles flexing cleanly under pale, fine, mercifully unmarked skin. A last knot in Jared's gut loosened at the blatant evidence that no trace of fire had touched Finch, replaced with a slow, heavy curl of warmth in his belly that was happening more often around Finch lately. He locked his eyes on his left boot and pulled steadily on it until it slid past his heel and cleanly off.
Finch turned to his tub and took a deep breath as he began to climb in, then bent to grip the edge as he coughed desperately.
Jared lunged forward, one hand outstretched, only slowing when Finch shook his head and held a hand out toward him, open-palmed.
"I'm all right," Finch gasped out a moment later. "I'm fine." He climbed gingerly the rest of the way into the tub, sinking into the warm water with a careful sound of relief. He leaned his head against the back of the tub and shut his eyes, suddenly looking utterly exhausted.
Jared opened his mouth.
"Don't say it," Finch warned, voice still hoarse, without bothering to open his eyes. "I didn't drown, after all."
"You could have," Jared said, disgruntled. He dropped the boot still in his hand on the floor and reached for his belt buckle, stripping down as efficiently as Finch had and tossing trousers, drawers, and socks on the growing pile of dirty clothes. He climbed into his own tub with a small splash, sliding down along the heated copper until he was as submerged as possible. "Oh, this is nice," he said, shutting his eyes briefly.
"Yes, very," Finch agreed, and cleared his throat. "So where do we go from here, with the fires?"
"You're a persistent man, Mr. Finch, I'll give you that," Jared said lazily, leaning back and wishing he'd thought to bring his pipe in with him. "But okay. We go... back to the beginning. What if they really were accidents? It's been a dry summer, it's no surprise places go up like tinder in weather like this if someone kicks a stove, or a lamp falls over."
Finch frowned at the ceiling. "It's possible, yes. Just not plausible. It hasn't been that dry, surely. And all of the fires have been businesses in town; why not houses on the outskirts, or miners' cabins on the mountain, if it's a matter of accidents exacerbated by dry weather? The pattern, such as it is, is consistent."
Jared nodded. They'd been over this before, several times, but he didn't want to miss anything. "Right. This last one adds to that, so it's less likely than ever that these are accidents. So what does that leave us?" He relaxed further into the tub, the familiar back-and-forth soothing him in body even as his mind focused in on the trail of these fires, sparked by Finch's keen intellect.
"Fires set with a purpose," Finch said. "Either for a specific reason, or simply for the joy of setting fires."
Jared shuddered slightly. "I still hope it's not a firebug. They scare the bejesus out of me."
Finch let out a startled laugh, then coughed. "Dammit, don't do that," he said, when he had his breath back. "And yes, I quite agree. There was a case in Chicago -- terrible thing. The suspicion tore an entire neighborhood apart."
"Okay, so let's go with fires set for a reason, for now."
"People set fires for insurance money, for vengeance..." Finch offered.
Jared shook his head. "All the fires have been at buildings owned by different people, and none of them even had insurance. Well, until this one, if our Mr. Morgan is to be believed. So that's out." He looked moodily at the water in the tub, already going cloudy, and reached for the soap nearby, lathering up as he thought.
Finch followed suit, frowning a little. "All right, then -- what about vengeance? Have you learned anything more about any connections between the shop owners?"
"Nothing," Jared grumped. "They knew each other casually, as businessmen in the same town, but that's it. George Chandler and Mark Stevenson were church-going men; Pete Thompson isn't. Stevenson's a drinking man, but not the other two. Chandler was married, Thompson's a widower, Stevenson's a bachelor. Chandler and Thompson have been here for more than a decade, Stevenson moved here last year. The businesses were completely different -- livery, cobbler, barber. Hell, they didn't even all owe the bank money. Thompson had paid off his mortgage six months before he got burned out."
"And today it was the general store," Finch mused. "Different again. Jan Verlinden's married, not very religious, likes to have a drink at the end of a hard day but has never been drunk that I've heard of, and he's only been here a few years."
"Dammit," Finch said, and sighed. "There has to be a pattern. We're missing something."
"I know it," Jared agreed.
They splashed in contemplative silence for a few minutes, scrubbing out as much of the day's sweat and grime as they could.
"There's another reason to set a fire," Finch said suddenly.
"To hide the evidence of a different crime."
Jared made a face. "By burning down four businesses? That seems a little extreme."
"True. But it is a possibility."
"Yeah, okay. We'll put it on the list." Jared held his breath and slid under the water to rinse all of him off. When he came up, Finch was watching him, eyes dark and steady. Jared swallowed. "Finch?"
Finch smiled a little. "Just making sure you don't drown," he said lightly.
"Thanks," Jared said, confused.
Finch chuckled, then groaned as it triggered yet another cough.
"Maybe we should go back to Doc Gates's."
Finch shook his head stubbornly, still coughing. Jared scowled.
"Marshal?" Chipper called distantly.
"We're in here!" Jared yelled toward the door.
Chipper came in a moment later, shooting a worried look at Finch, who waved a reassuring hand at him as he started to catch his breath. Still frowning a little, Chipper turned to look enquiringly at Jared. "You needed me, Marshal? Willie said it was important."
Jared winced. "Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I may have overstated things just a bit. Actually I just need you to do me and Finch a favor -- could you go scrounge up some clean clothes for us?"
"Please," Finch added hoarsely.
Chipper grinned, and leaned out into the hallway, coming back in with a bag in his hand. "I figured that might be it. I grabbed extra of yours, Marshal, for Mr. Finch."
"That's real good thinking, Chipper," Jared said approvingly.
Finch took a careful breath. "Indeed it is," he agreed. "And I for one am quite grateful. I'd no wish to put those filthy clothes back on."
Chipper beamed. "Oh, and Mr. Finch, don't you worry -- the fire's out, and your lab is fine. Well, mostly. There was a lot of smoke, I don't know if that damaged anything. But nothing burned up, at least."
Finch let out a relieved breath. "Thank you, Chipper. That's a burden off my mind."
Jared fought down the flare of momentary, irrational anger -- Finch had risked his life for no reason, dammit -- and focused on what was important. "Chipper, grab one of those towels for me, would you?"
Chipper put the bag down and brought towels over for each of them. "I'll just get back to work," he said, pink-cheeked and not looking directly at either of them.
Jared traded an amused glance with Finch. "Okay," he said easily. "Listen, can you grab those clothes and take them to the laundry on your way?"
Chipper nodded wordlessly, scooped up the reeking clothes, and fled.
"Modest lad," Finch said, suppressed laughter in his voice.
Jared snorted, amused. "Most people are, you know," he pointed out. More voices and heavy footsteps from outside the room caught his attention, and he sighed reluctantly. "Sounds like the place is filling up. C'mon, let's clear out, let someone else use the tubs." He heaved himself up with a grunt of effort and climbed out of his tub, drying off briskly with the towel Chipper had left him before reaching for his clean clothes, keeping his eyes firmly to himself this time when he heard Finch moving around behind him.
Finch had moved even slower on the trip back to the office, his shoulder brushing Jared's with almost every step. By the time they made it back, he looked ready to drop, heavy-eyed and almost leaning into Jared, and Jared managed to get him to go upstairs for some shut-eye without too much effort. He looked around until he spotted Finch's bundle of things tucked safely behind his desk and nodded in approval; Chipper was doing real good today.
With a last wistful thought about catching a little sleep himself, Jared settled his hat on his head and headed back out to see what he could find out. The fire site wouldn't be cool enough to poke around in for hours yet, which meant it would be tomorrow before he could check that out. That left Miss Luci's as his best bet -- by now it should be full of people eager to tell anyone who'd listen anything they knew, or thought they knew, about the fire.
Besides, he could really use a beer.
A few hours later, he was back at the office, basket of food from the hotel in his hand and simmering with anger. There was no sign of Finch, so Jared went upstairs to check on him, carefully opening the door to his bedroom. Finch was still asleep, face smooth and peaceful in the waning light. He'd kicked the blanket off at some point and had drawn one leg up in a comfortable sprawl.
Jared leaned on the doorjamb and just watched for a minute, a quiet sense of contentment stealing in and damping down the anger that he'd been nursing almost since he stepped into Luci's.
Finch stirred and rumbled a little, his eyes blinking opening sleepily, smiling so sweetly that Jared's breath caught. "Jared," Finch said huskily, shifting a little and reaching one hand out toward him.
Jared gripped the doorjamb tight, the invitation almost too much to resist. But Finch was half-asleep, and sick with smoke; Jared would be taking advantage.
"Go back to sleep," he said softly. Finch smiled at him again, his eyes drifting shut, body relaxing deeply back into the mattress.
Jared let himself watch a little longer, and then withdrew silently, easing the door shut behind him.
"Morning," Jared said as Finch made his way downstairs the next morning. He looked better today; clear-eyed and with his usual spring back in his step, even if Jared's clothes gave him a rumpled look rather than his usual neat appearance. He was already rolling the sleeves up to his elbows, clearly ready to face the day. Jared cleared his throat. "Good morning." Finch shook his head as he reached for the coffee Jared handed him. "I can't believe I slept straight through the night."
He hadn't, not really. Jared had slept downstairs, and had heard every time the coughing had woken Finch up. He'd almost gone up, once, when the coughing had been particularly bad, lasting for several minutes with a deep, harsh sound. But it had started to ease before he could set foot on the stairs, and that had turned out to be the worst of it. He reckoned Finch had gotten several hours of uninterrupted sleep at the end. "Best thing for you. How're you feeling?"
"Much better," Finch admitted. "What did I miss? Did you find anything out?"
"Oh, yeah," Jared said, anger rising again. He sat in his chair and leaned back, nursing his own cup. "Rumor has it that Babbles started the fire."
Finch dropped into his own chair, slack with shock, staring at him. "What?"
Jared nodded. "Yeah, exactly. But it's all over town. Someone told someone that he'd seen Babbles in the store right before the fire, so obviously, Babbles started it."
"But that's absurd!"
"I know. I spent most of last night wanting to knock people's heads together down at Luci's. I think I managed to talk some sense into some of them, anyway."
"Jared," Finch said, frowning as he sat upright again in one quick motion, "if people believe that, Babbles is in danger."
"I know. It's okay -- Doc Gates was there having a drink, and as soon as he heard what was going on, he told me he was going to bring Babbles to his place for the night. No one'd go after him there."
"Good," Finch said firmly. "That poor man." He shook his head. "I don't suppose you found out how the rumor started?"
Jared shook his head in turn, frustrated. "No, of course not. Everyone had heard it from someone different." He drained the last of his coffee, eyeing Finch. "You feeling up to a trip to Doc Gates's? I want to check on Babbles, make sure he's okay."
"Yes, of course," Finch agreed, putting down his own cup and rising to his feet. "I feel fine. Let's go."
Doc Gates waved Jared toward the back room where Babbles was still sleeping so Jared could check on him, and pointed Finch toward a chair as he reached for his stethoscope.
"Doctor, I'm fine, I assure you," Finch said in exasperation.
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that," Gates said, and Jared beat a hasty retreat at the glare Finch aimed at him.
Babbles was sleeping like a baby, curled up on a small cot in the doc's office, and Jared nodded in satisfaction as he went back out into the main room.
"You did this on purpose!" Finch said, still glaring.
"Figured we could kill two birds with one stone," Jared said comfortably. "How's he doing, doc?"
"He'll be fine," Gates said, putting his stethoscope away.
"Yes, as I told you," Finch said.
Jared patted the air in Finch's general direction as a last little bit of tension unknotted in his chest. "Doc, listen, can you keep Babbles here today? Find something for him to do, or something? I want to see if we can get folks calmed down a little."
Gates nodded. "I was thinking the same thing, honestly, Marshal. He can help me out today, no problem."
"That's great, doc, thanks," Jared said warmly. "C'mon, Finch -- let's check out the building. It should be safe for him now, right, doc?"
"As long as he's careful," Gates agreed.
Finch just glared more.
The building wasn't a total loss, at least. Verlinden would be able to rebuild, if he wanted to, although his inventory would have to be completely replaced -- what hadn't burned had been too damaged by smoke or water to sell. Jared left Finch to check outside the building while he poked around gingerly inside, looking for anything that might be useful.
An hour later, neither of them had found a damn thing, and Jared's jaw was clenched in frustration. Oh, there were bits all over the inside of the store -- but there was no way to tell if it had been merchandise, or something that one of the customers had dropped or lost. And there were footprints outside -- hundreds of them.
Jared sighed, rubbing a hand over his face as he walked over to Finch, who was crouched in the street prodding the ground dispiritedly. "I don't think we're going to find anything," he admitted.
"No," Finch agreed unhappily. He stood up in a smooth motion and dusted his hands off, sunlight glinting off the hairs on his arms and the silver ring on his finger.
"Have you checked your place out yet?"
"Briefly. Most of it looks undamaged, but I want to let it air out more before I do a detailed inspection." Finch's voice was going hoarse again, and Jared glanced up sharply at his face.
"Good idea," he said mildly. "Come on, let's get out of here. We should talk to Verlinden, see what he can tell us."
Verlinden didn't know much; he'd been at the front of the store when the fire started in the back, and had stayed only long enough to make sure everyone got out. Jared got a list of all the names he could remember as being there.
"So Babbles was there," he said, wincing a little on the inside. That wasn't good. Finch shifted in his place leaning against the wall.
"Yes, of course. He's there every afternoon," Verlinden said. "He sweeps up for me just before closing. I pay him in kind -- a little food or some sundries, whatever he needs that week. Is there a problem?"
"I hope not," Jared said frankly. "A few people have mentioned seeing him, and seem to think he might have started it. Do you think that's possible?"
Verlinden looked startled. "Babbles? Oh, I don't think so - certainly not on purpose, if that's what you're implying!"
Jared shrugged noncommittally, waiting to hear what else the man had to say.
Frowning, Verlinden went on, "He's very careful. And if he had knocked a lamp over, he would have put out the fire immediately." He paused, clearly thinking about it, then shook his head. "No, I just can't imagine it, Marshal. I think it's more likely that one of the children knocked something over, and simply didn't notice, or was afraid to say. It's a terrible accident, to be sure, but thank God, no one was hurt, and what more can one ask for, really?"
Jared smiled at him. "You're a good man, Mr. Verlinden. That's it for now. I'm sure you're right and this was just an accident, but we have to be thorough. We may have more questions for you later, if that's all right."
"Of course, Marshal, Detective Finch." Verlinden showed them out, shaking both their hands. "I appreciate your dedication. Thank you both."
Finch caught Jared's eye as the door shut behind them. "Did you hear who else was on that list?" he asked quietly.
Jared nodded. "Our friend, Mr. Morgan. Interesting he didn't mention he was there when the fire broke out."
"Yes, it is, isn't it."
Finch was starting to flag a bit, although he wouldn't admit it, so Jared insisted on a trip back to the office for some lunch and a review of what they had so far, little though it was. They pulled out Finch's sack of rescued stuff and opened it, pulling out the bits of evidence and setting aside the equipment Finch had managed to grab while he was at it.
"That's the stuff from the fires?" Chipper asked, bringing them each a mug of fresh coffee.
Jared nodded, staring glumly at it. "Yeah. It's not much, but it's all we've got to go on."
Chipper settled himself on the corner of the desk while Finch prodded the small pile.
"All right," Jared said finally. "We've got a tiny bit of evidence that there's a person involved in at least some of these fires, but no way of knowing it's the same person. We've got four completely different victims with next to nothing in common other than owning a business here in town. What else?"
"Everyone thinks the first three are accidents, but that the last one was set by Babbles," Finch said.
"Because someone started a rumor."
Finch looked at Jared, sitting up straighter. "To distract attention away from himself."
"Which means that whoever it is thought that he might have been noticed this time."
"The only people in Verlinden's store were Verlinden, Morgan, Babbles, two young mothers and their children, and an elderly widow," Finch said, deflating again. "Of them all, Babbles is the only reasonable suspect."
"Aw, come on, Finch -- Babbles couldn't hurt a fly."
"I know that, but who else is there? Verlinden owned the store, Morgan is hardly likely to burn down a building he'd just insured, and I sincerely hope you're not suggesting the mothers of Silver City are out there lighting fires for fun."
Jared glared tiredly at him. "No, I'm not suggesting that."
"Mr. Morgan was real interested in finding out about the fires," Chipper offered.
Jared grunted. "Yeah, he caught us right after we saw Doc Gates, asked if we'd be looking into it."
"No, I mean before."
Finch frowned. "When, exactly?"
"A few days ago -- I was helping my Pa with the horses down at Isaac's, and Mr. Morgan was there getting his horse shoed, and was talking about the fires, thinking maybe it was a firebug. Isaac told him that if it was, Mr. Finch here would have found him using forensics -- fingerprints and stuff. I remember Mr. Morgan seemed pretty impressed with that."
Finch leaned forward. "Did he know you were with the marshal's office?"
"No, sir, I don't think so. I wasn't wearing my badge. Doubt Mr. Morgan even noticed me there -- I was pretty busy with keeping Molly calm, she hates getting new shoes."
Finch looked at Jared, eyes gleaming.
Jared nodded back, the same certainty settling into his bones. "Time we paid Mr. Morgan that visit, I think."
Morgan was all smiles when they arrived, gesturing them in and toward seats. "Gentlemen! I wasn't expecting to see you so soon. What can I do for you?"
Jared sat, leaving Finch to casually move around the room. "Well, I was wondering why you didn't mention you were in the store yesterday."
Morgan froze for a second, then smiled again. "I didn't think it mattered."
"It probably doesn't," Jared said casually. "We're just trying to get all the facts straight, make sure we have the timeline correct, you understand."
"Of course. There were several people in the store when the fire broke out." Morgan frowned. "In fact, now that you mention it, there was one fellow -- he could be the culprit."
"Oh?" Jared asked politely.
"Yes -- Babbles, I believe he's called." Morgan shook his head. "He's a wild man, can't even speak properly. I've seen men like that before, Marshal. They're angry at the entire world. Someone like that may well have caused that fire."
"So you believe the fire was set?" Finch asked, sounding only vaguely curious. He caught Jared's eye, and nodded subtly to Morgan's shirt. Two of the buttons were mismatched to the rest, as if they'd been replaced.
"Oh, well -- no, I didn't mean that. Perhaps it was accidental."
"Mmm. Well, we've spoken with Mr. Verlinden, and Babbles is an employee of his, who was at the store working yesterday afternoon."
"Tell me, Mr. Morgan -- what happened to your shirt?" Finch asked.
Morgan looked down, confused. "I lost some buttons. Why?"
"I believe I found them," Finch said coolly, and pulled the burnt buttons from his pocket, a perfect match.
Morgan shut his eyes and sighed deeply, looking more resigned than surprised.
"Why?" Jared asked, sounding honestly confused. "You're in the business of helping people recover from fires. Why set them?"
"Money," Finch said simply.
Jared looked at him.
Finch gestured to Morgan's desk. "See those papers? New clients, one and all, I'd wager. These fires have been a bonanza for Mr. Morgan, if I'm not mistaken. Set a few fires, then move into town and set up shop, and watch the customers line up."
"Is that it?" Jared asked Morgan, lip curling in distaste.
"The insurance business is extremely competitive," Morgan said defensively. "You need an edge to make a name for yourself. If I ever wanted to be more than a simple agent, I needed to show I was capable of bringing in a lot of customers."
"My God," Finch muttered in disgust, drawing away, his eyes snapping with anger.
"And this last one? And don't try to blame it on Babbles, we know damn well he didn't do it," Jared growled.
Morgan shrugged. "Doesn't matter now. I found out that Mr. Finch here had scientific ways of telling who had done something, and by then I'd been in town long enough to know that if I'd left any evidence behind, you would have found it. I had to get rid of it without being obvious. Burning the store next door should have meant that the evidence was destroyed too -- I set it so it would burn both buildings. But that damn kid spotted it too soon."
"So you decided to blame Babbles," Jared said, still angry about that.
"Why not? I couldn't imagine that anyone would defend him, and it's not like he could speak up for himself."
Jared met Finch's eyes, swallowed what he wanted to say, and stood up. "James Morgan, you are under arrest for murder and malicious destruction of property."
Jared weighed the personal satisfaction of watching Morgan rot in his jail against the likelihood of a mob storming the place to get at him -- George Chandler had been well- liked by everyone who knew him, and the town was still mourning his loss -- and sent for Chipper and a couple of horses. Chipper could escort him to the county seat to be tried -- he'd earned himself some responsibility.
Chipper arrived with manacles and a grim air, and led Morgan away with a promise to deliver him safely and be back as soon as possible.
Turned out watching him be led away in shackles had a fair bit of personal satisfaction in it, too. Jared looked at Finch, who was slowly relaxing as the at his side, the hard set to his jaw easing. They started back to the office, side by side, just a few inches apart.
"Well," Finch said, sounding a rueful, "I suppose I should take a room at the hotel, until I can get my place livable again." He smiled at Jared, with a hint of the same sweetness he'd shown last night. "I don't want to impose any further, but thank you, Marshal, for your hospitality."
Jared's breath caught sharply as he looked into Finch's knowing eyes, and he thought about Finch sleeping in his bed last night, looking like he'd always belonged there. Always wanted to belong there.
"You could stay," Jared said quietly, voice just a little hoarse. "If you wanted."
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