Disclaimers: These characters do not belong to me, unfortunately. I am not making any money on writing for fun.
The man stood behind a veil of tree branches, hidden in the darkness. Not that anyone was in Emerson Canyon Park at that hour. He had double-checked the parking lot at the trailhead twice to make sure it was empty: once before driving up the fire road to the top of the west rim and again when after he came back down.
From where he now stood on the east rim, he could see the flames ripple orange and yellow on an outcrop of rocks. It was the perfect spot to set a fire: a flat rock with boulders on three sides to prevent the flames from spreading or attracting unwanted attention. In fact, his vantage point was the only place one could watch the growing blaze unobstructed, which is how it should be. The fire was for his personal viewing pleasure only.
He had approached this problem like he did everything else in his life: thoroughly and methodically. And solving this felt as if he had finally gotten rid of a bad taste in his mouth.
Weighing all the variables when faced with a dilemma—that was what he excelled at. And this solution was brilliant. He would watch until the fire burned down to nothing, then he would drive to the Food Basket grocery store in Long Beach and leave the suitcase in the dumpster out back. He had called to confirm that it would be emptied at 6 a.m. Nothing was left to chance.
But what the man didn't realize was that he couldn't control all the variables. On this night two unknowns he hadn't accounted for were a wind from the south and the Culliver family dog.
From the time he set the fire, scrambled up to his truck on the fire road, drove to the opposite ridge, and climbed to where he now stood, the wind had risen from the south. It wasn't much of a breeze, but it was strong enough to pick up some sparks from the fire and send them into the waiting arms of a dead oak tree that stood above the outcropping.
At the same moment Jason Culliver half-walked, half-jogged down the main Emerson Park trail. His two-year-old terrier had gotten out of the yard again, and between the children waking up and crying hysterically and his wife fretting that Spots might get hurt, Jason had no choice but to grab his jacket and flashlight to search for the dog. Because Spots had bolted from their subdivision and ran into the park across the road the last time she escaped, that is where he now headed.
"Five minutes. That's it. I'll look for five minutes," Jason said angrily. He just hoped Amy would have the kids back in bed before he got home. As he searched for signs of his wayward dog, he saw a flash of light as the old oak tree went up like a Roman candle. Jason froze for a moment, and then raced back to his house to call the fire department.
The man hiding in the trees also saw the oak burst into flame. "No!" he shouted as the fire crawled up the trunk and across the branches. Stay calm, he thought. No one saw it. But Jason had, and eight minutes later the man rapidly clenched and unclenched his fists as he helplessly watched flashing lights in the distance draw closer. A small emergency vehicle followed by a fire engine snaked up the hill opposite from him until they stopped exactly where he had parked earlier.
Get out of here! screamed a voice in his head. But he couldn't. He had to see this through to the end.
"Well that ain't right." Engineer Mike Stoker leaned forward over the large steering wheel of Big Red to glance up at the fire before looking back to the road and the next switchback.
"Nope, it's not," agreed Captain Hank Stanley. The call came in for a brush fire; the man reporting it couldn't say if there was anyone injured. But from what Cap could tell, this was just a bonfire that had spread to a lone tree. It was a clear June night, and he could partially see flames shooting up from some rocks. Standing alone in a bank of scree, a nearby tree was fully engulfed, but the fire thankfully didn't appear to have spread anywhere else.
The squad pulled to a stop just above the fire; the engine pulled in next to it. Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto jumped out as linesmen Chet Kelly and Marco Lopez disembarked from the engine.
Cap calmly took charge of the situation. "Marco, you and Roy take a line to the tree. Chet and John, take one to the bonfire."
John headed to the main fire with Chet to extinguish the blaze on the rocks. The fire had died down some, so it was easy for the firemen to get it under control.
"It's the summer solstice, you know. Someone set a bonfire. It got out of control, they got spooked and took off," Chet theorized.
"Are there Druids in L.A.?" John asked skeptically.
"I bet so!" Chet shot back.
"I always knew there was something different about you!" John teased. "Let me know when your next meeting is. I'd love to come."
"Ha, ha, ha. Man, you are so funny I forgot to laugh," Chet said dryly. "I'm telling you, that's what happened here."
John pulled himself up to the flat rock on which the fire had been set. "Huh…I don't think so."
"Really, Gage? What do your remarkable powers of deduction tell you?"
John squatted to get a closer look at the still-hot debris. Something under the ashes caught his eye. "I think this is more than kindling."
Grabbing a stick to his left, John poked at the ashes. Something bright and colorful caught his eye. He caught its edge with the stick and pulled it toward him. It was a gold buckle on a turquoise background. Warily he eyed the smoldering remnants. There was something odd about the way the branches had been stacked, but what grabbed his attention was the large, dark mass in the center. There was something familiar in its shape.
With a gasp, Johnny scrambled backwards. "I…I think it's a body."