The Sheriff pulls John into his office right when John comes in, 9AM on the dot. "I'm turning the Hale case over to you," Rob says, shutting the door behind them. "Sit down. This might take a little while."
John investigated a major arson once before, the Whitings' barn back in '98. The Whitings lost three stallions, a foal, and thousands of dollars worth of tack, and no one called in the fire until at least an hour after it started. By then it had spread from a burning trash can in the tack room to the stables and then a horse trailer parked next door. The youngest in the family got third degree burns getting the mares and the fillies to safety; Claire was seventeen, first in her class at Beacon Hills High. There were lots of allegations thrown around by the neighbors about insurance money, but it turned out to be a cousin of Mrs. Whiting's with a grudge.
"Kevin's not making any progress with this," Rob says. He dumps the stack of files on his desk. "And we had an accomplice turn himself in last night. Adrian Harris, he's a teacher at the high school, said he told a woman how to do it."
John takes the chair opposite and leans forward to take the topmost folder. "Why'd he come in now?" he says, flipping the file open. He's seen the pictures, of course, they all had in that first week, first month, before it became clear they didn't have any leads, that every trail lead to dead end.
"Getting sober." Rob rubs the back of his neck. "Repentant, cried, you know the drill."
"Think he's telling the truth?" John says. Underneath the photos, there's the start of the paperwork, the stuff that's been sitting on Kevin's desk for weeks untouched. John can't really blame Kevin; they're understaffed at the station and there's more urgency around cases with live victims instead of the ones who've only left survivors. They've all worked to appease the insurance investigators poking around the fire, so Laura and Derek can have something to live off while everything else goes through the nightmare of probate court, but there's hardly time for anything else.
"Seems like it," Rob says. "I've got someone from Sacramento coming in, arson specialist—Karen Swanson, you worked with her on the barn fire. You're going to have to take some of Kevin's night shifts to swing this, though. You up to it?"
John sighs. From Rob, it's a honest question—they've been good to him at the station, since Nadya got sick, since she died. Rob put him at the desk, then on days, after, so he's home in the evening with Stiles, around at least one day on the weekend. He can't keep coasting on good will forever, though. Kevin has a daughter in first grade and another in third, and Connie works, too. "I'm up to it," he says. "Got to find someone to stay with Stiles, though, Melissa McCall can't keep him all the time. Give me a week?"
"You got it," Rob says.
John ends up hiring Laura Hale. That's a conflict of interest, for sure, but she's never been a suspect, and Beacon County is small—Laura's younger sister went to school with Stiles, her father and Nadya were both in the PTA at Lake Ellis Elementary. Rob okays it, anyway. "Keep your work at the office," he says. "It'll be fine."
It helps that Stiles takes a shine to her right away, thinks she hangs the moon. "Laura's the greatest," he says when John asks him. "She made jello jigglers. Can Scott spend the night next time?"
"We'll ask Laura," John says. They've had a rough year, and it's hard to say no to his son, after all that, when nothing's gotten that much excitement out of him in a while. Stiles gets himself into plenty of excitement, he always has, restless and alternately laser-focused and incessantly distracted by turns. Medication helps for school, but the rest of the time he's just the same, wandering off in the forest with Scott for hours and coming back covered in mud after dark with no explanation. What's that metaphor about cobblers and their barefoot children?
That's all to say, Stiles could use some additional supervision.
Karen starts two weeks later, driving up from Sacramento and parking herself at the Tree Lodge Motel. She'll be here for two days every week to work with John; that's as much as her office can spare her. When he pulls up in the parking lot in his car, she's sitting on the back bumper of hers, paging through the morning paper, dark curls clipped close to her head and broad frame crammed into an unflattering pants suit. John rolls down the window. "Might as well change," he says. "We're just going out to the site and into the office. Not so formal out here, if you recall."
"You sure?" she says, straightening.
"Go on." He waves her off. "Coffee'll be hot when you get back."
In jeans and a worn Giants sweatshirt, Karen's obviously more comfortable. "God bless you," she says, buckling her seatbelt and reaching for the mug he brought from the house. She downs half the thing in one long, intimidating swallow. "How intact is the site? Couldn't tell from what you faxed over. Can we go in?"
"Front of the house is intact, mostly, the floor and the facade," John says. "Back's all collapsed in the basement, but we can take a look."
It's easy enough to establish how the fire started, once they know how it was done, where to look. The bigger questions are the same ones they're always been, of course; why the Hales didn't get out, not a one of them, why all nine of them ended up in the basement where they died, six adults and three children. Talia and Roger Hale, their daughter Kelly; Rosemary and Eva Hale, their sons Alex and Jesse; Jessica and Peter Hale, who had to be identified by their teeth in the bone char. The house burned hot and long.
The only survivors were Laura and Derek, who were driving across the country to take Laura to her freshman year at Columbia in New York. As far as John knows, her admission's still deferred.
"I don't know why anyone would do this," she told Rob, when they broke the news to her, when they brought her and Derek in for questioning. That's in the transcripts. Rob and Kevin went easy on both of them, it looks like; they didn't get anything helpful from either of them, before or after the family lawyer showed up. John was barely there for any of it, bouncing between Nadya at the hospital and Stiles at home. He saw Laura sitting in the lobby once with Derek slumped against her, bent uncomfortably over the arms of their chairs. They probably don't remember that.
The fire started in the utility room on the first floor of the house. There was a recall on the dryer two months later, so it could have been an electrical fire, easy: there's plenty of accelerants that are common enough around the house, turpentine, butane, kerosene. The furniture in the den that collapsed into the basement was mostly wicker with foam cushions. Almost as good as gasoline.
"Kevin thought they might have gone into the basement to get away from the smoke," John says, looking at the mess of mulch and tinder where the den used to be. "But the fire went down after them and that's where it got the hottest. Still doesn't make any sense."
"There could have been a second fire down there," Karen says. "Started later."
They were good people, the Hales. John stares into their dining room, two walls stripped away now, charred wallpaper drooping toward the ground. "I still—I can't imagine it," he says. "Who'd do something like this, Karen?"
Ralph Keller, who'd burned down the Whiting barn, was a real estate developer down in the Bay Area and had his own stables. He was calm, collected when they cuffed him and took him in. "Showed her right," he said to John, sitting right next to his lawyer. "She deserved it."
Now, Karen folds her arms close against the early morning chill. "Someone who thought they had a reason," she says.
John comes home from a day shift a few weeks into his investigation and finds Stiles upstairs in the spare room with a pile of Nadya's books around him. Even after years in the US, Nadya still read and wrote mostly in Russian, to former colleagues and her mother and sister at home. She taught Russian at the community college, but never spoke it at home aside from endearments and the diminutives she draped over their son, always Vova, Volodya, Volodechka, never his given name. Toward the end she spoke in Russian at the very edges of sleep, chest rising and falling with her breath while her lips barely moved. John knew what was important: I love you, my darling, it'll be all right.
The books Stiles pulled out of the bookcase are familiar, the scuffed copy of Eugene Onegin next to a collection of short stories by Petrushevskaya, the older books that have been in Nadya's family for years, and then some of Nadya's notebooks, her sloppy, rounded handwriting in felt-tip bleeding into the lined pages. Stiles isn't looking at any of them. He's doubled over, arms around his knees, hyperventilating. Panic attack. This isn't the first.
John gets down on his knees, close to his son but not touching. "Stiles," he says. "Breathe. You can breathe. You want to count with me? We'll do it together."
There are tear tracks down Stiles's face, dried, when he lifts his head. "'kay," he says, choking on the word.
Later, they sit on the couch and talk around it. Which isn't what Stiles's counselor said to do, but that's why he has a counselor, to talk about things. If John talked about Nadya all the time, he's the one who'd be having panic attacks. But he can do this—be present. Take care of his son the best he knows how.
Stiles wipes at his nose with the back of his hand. "Why didn't mom ever teach me?"
"I don't know," John says. "She said—she said a lot of things, when I asked her. That you'd learn it if you wanted, when you were older. That you didn't need it. I was never any good with languages, so I never—I didn't try, really. I should have—"
"It's okay," Stiles says, looking up at him with Nadya's eyes. His son is too calm like this, too old for his age, and there's nothing John can do about it. He can see now, too, how this will go: how Stiles will slip himself into the empty pockets that Nadya left behind in their lives, fold his jittery, distracted self into her stillness in her absence.
"Do you want to learn?" John asks him.
"Yes," Stiles says.
There are books upstairs, the textbooks Nadya used in her courses, a whole shelf of them. Review copies. John could get them right now, move away. Instead, he stays with Stiles, nods. "Okay."
Sometimes, John drives by the Hale house on his night shifts; it's not far from the station, and there have been a few vandals, one arrest when Kevin was up here on some errand. It's eerie, under the full moon or lit solely by John's headlights when the moon's new, but he's seen it plenty by day. There's nothing to be afraid of.
Tonight, there's someone on the porch, and John gets out of his car, leaves the lights and the keys in the ignition. Whoever's up there isn't trying to make a run for it. Coming closer, he can see that it's Derek Hale, head tilted up to look at the sky. "Derek," John says. "You shouldn't be out here, son. Do Laura or Alan know where you are?"
"It's my house," Derek says. It's a cool night; he's wearing a leather jacket, looks like the rough kid John know he's not. He's still babyfaced, not quite grown into his ears. "Is that a problem?"
"There's still an active investigation," John says. "Hence the tape."
Derek shrugs. "I'm not going inside. Just sitting here."
"You got a ride home?" John leans back against the car.
"Laura will come pick me up," Derek says. "I'll call her."
"Laura's with my kid tonight. How about I give you a lift?" That's not quite an order, but Jesus, it's eleven o'clock on a school night and this has to be five miles from Alan Deaton's place. John can't in good conscience leave Derek out here.
Derek sighs, expansive enough that his shoulders droop beneath his jacket. "Fine," he says, getting up, dusting off his pants. "I mean, thanks, sir." There's manners still in there somewhere, apparently.
John can't blame Derek, not really. There's nothing like losing something—someone—to make you realize how precious it was, how deeply linked you'll always be by the pain of that sundering. Claire Whiting moved back to Beacon Hills after college, back on the farm, still rides and shows even though she never got back full use of one arm. It would have been easy enough for Derek and Laura to leave, but here they are.
"You're welcome," John says. He holds open the passenger door.