Excerpt - Grave Madness


Chapter 1

Chance Dawson smelled the smoke long before he heard the sirens. Just like Butte's latest arsonist, the bastard (whoever he was), to torch a building on St. Patrick's Day. Angling through the massive crowd along Main Street, Chance knew he wouldn't be able to free himself for the next half hour, even if half the mountainside was on fire.

   Shamrock-adorned revelers, clapping to the bagpipe music, had him hemmed in at the corner of Park and Main. It was barely noon and two thirds of the crowd was "a bit boiled." Their enthusiasm erupted as the Edmonton Police Drum and Piper Corps came into view, pouring forth with "Ireland Forever," their standard crowd pleaser. It was all Chance could do to avoid being sucked down the street by the horde.
    The Pipers, who made their annual trek from Alberta south to Butte for the St. Patrick's Day Parade, were a too-good-to-be-missed highlight. Justifiably, the Mining City Messenger always included a front-page photo of the kilted cops as part of its St. Patrick's Day coverage, and Chance was perched to deliver.
    Since his sister, Mesa, had taken over as editor of the weekly, Chance had curtailed his involvement as a sports reporter. His role as photographer was mostly a way to keep an eye on the paper in case Mesa needed him. Not that she ever did. In fact, she pretty much ran the paper without much trouble after only six months in the saddle. After all, she was a trained journalist with plenty of experience, even though she was only thirty. And she was smart enough not to part with tradition. A photo of the fire would have to wait.
   Partiers jammed the streets at each corner along the parade route, oblivious to the possibility of fire. The skeleton crew of firefighters, streaming out of their uptown engine house at Mercury and Montana Street, would be stymied. A sea of people blocked the direct route up Main Street toward the ominous smoke that now billowed high above the hill.
   And, thanks to the harsh winter, a frozen water main had burst at Woolman and Montana Streets two days before. The county had delivered gallons of drinking water to the affected families rather than force employees to work overtime on St. Paddy's Day. So, that route up the hill would be blocked as well. If Chance could find his way through the crowd and up Main Street on foot, eventually he might even beat the fire department.
   The Pipers finally marched by, their Stuart tartans, white spats, and black ostrich-plumed bonnets shimmering in the sunshine. Chance pulled and pushed his way through the masses, craning to look up the hill to calculate how many blocks away the fire was, and whether he could find a ride. The two Irish coffees foisted upon him when Muldoon's started serving at nine a.m. weighed heavily on his decision.
   It looked like the fire was just below Centerville, one of Butte's oldest neighborhoods and, with so many wood structures, one most vulnerable to fire. If the blaze was not extinguished quickly, another house would soon go up.
   The pulsating sirens from Butte's fire engines were not going to be enough to clear the streets of the weekend crowd. Patrol officers on foot were doing their best to try to separate the throng, who were attired in every conceivable type of green clothing to enjoy Butte's oldest and largest free-for-all. Herding cats, drunken green cats, came to mind.
   Chance fought his way back into Muldoon's, which now held three times the occupants dictated by the fire marshal, who was not likely to be issuing any citations as he was doubtless amongst the day's revelers. Don't cha know?
   Fighting through the patrons, eight deep toward the bar, Chance saw Casey Van Zant, one of the three extra bartenders hired for the day. He was a mountain biker who Chance suspected might have ridden to work that morning, knowing the streets would be blocked off to car traffic until well after the bars closed at two a.m. A sudden change in the weather, this particular March 17th morning, made for one of the mildest St. Paddy's Days in recent memory, assuring large crowds who would stay late.
   Before he could get Casey's attention, Chance felt the vibration of his cell phone. "Where are you?" he heard his sister, Mesa, yelling through the phone. A rush of people entering the bar obliterated whatever else she said. Chance squeezed through the doorway to stand outside, hoping he could get better reception.
   "Chance?" he heard his sister blaring into the phone. "Where are you?"
   "I'm outside Muldoon's," he screamed back.
   "Look down the street," she said.
   Across the street and a block away, Chance saw his sister with her former college roommate, Alexis Vandemere. She stood above the crowd on the concrete planter in front of the M & M, the one-hundred-year-old bar that served as the unofficial, holiday headquarters.
   This was the first St. Patrick's Day that Mesa had celebrated since she departed Butte for college in Ohio a decade before. Even when she worked at the River City Current, an award-winning weekly in Cincinnati, she claimed the big city St. Patrick's Day celebration there lacked the spirit, or maybe the spirits, that made Butte's festivities legendary.
   Alexis had come to town to make sure the celebration of Mesa's return reached the proper pitch. The pair had started early at Muldoon's as well. Alexis held onto the lamp pole next to the planter, her blonde ponytail, tinted green, swishing as she swung back and forth with a can of Guinness in her hand. Chance wondered what the two of them wanted.
   Then Mesa pocketed her phone and leapt down into the chaos of the street. Running interference for her with a green, white, and orange sash across his chest was Shane Northey, a state legislator and her latest squeeze. He must have abandoned the contingent of politicians, including the governor, who had marched in the parade.
   "Are you in any shape to chase after that siren?" Mesa asked when she reached Chance.
   "I thought you were all about taking the day off?" he countered. "It being Sunday and you with company," he added, nodding knowingly toward Alexis. Now that Mesa had taken the job as editor of the Messenger permanently, he took more than a little enjoyment giving her a hard time. He had planned to end his St. Paddy's Day revelry early, in Adrienne's hot tub, staring at the side of Thunder Mountain. Taking photographs of the fire might get him warmed up, but probably not as enjoyably.
   "I know I did, but that's because I figured with Alexis in town all the excitement would be here in the street. I didn't consider the arsonist would strike on St. Paddy's of all days."
   "If everybody else thinks that way," Shane chimed in, "let's hope any house on fire is empty at least."
   "Or littered with passed-out drunks," Mesa said with a roll of her eyes. "Especially if they started celebrating last night."
   Above and beyond St. Patrick, Butte's citizens embraced the patron saint of the Finns, St. Urhu. Like the Irish, the Finns needed no excuse to drink heavily. Those Buttians with Finnish miners in their ancestry kept the celebration alive.
   The specious holiday was the perfect way to get one up on all the Irish by starting a day early. Mesa and Shane had taken Alexis, a New Yorker who had traveled the world and never heard of St. Urhu, up to the Helsinki Bar and Yacht Club the previous night to witness the brawl first hand.
   "You do have your camera," Mesa said sheepishly, "and I've got Alexis." His sister was on tiptoe, hoping to keep her friend in sight amidst the crowd.
   "All right, all right, I'll see if I can get up there." He knew that Mesa would be reluctant to leave Alexis to fend for herself, not that she couldn't. But Mesa would feel responsible for the poor fools who ran up against her cocky wing woman.
   As if the gods had pre-ordained it, Casey appeared outside the front door of Muldoon's. Bartending on St. Patrick's Day was a sacrifice made on behalf of one's community, and an act of endurance. He clearly needed a breather. Moments later, Chance had borrowed the mountain bike and begun the long slog up the hill. He had maybe a mile to go and it was straight uphill, about an eight per cent grade at an altitude of more than 5500 feet, but who was measuring?
Chance had already begun to gasp for air by the time he had ridden the five blocks to Woolman Street. He could see the Public Works barriers a block away to the west, obstructing the closet alternative route to get the oversized hook and ladder trucks up the hill to the fire.
   The smoke filtered past the Mountain Con mine frame, its towering head frame a convenient landmark. It might make more sense to shuttle the BSB's firefighters up to the Walkerville fire department, north of the Con mine yard, and bring their equipment, what was left of it, down the hill. Most of their volunteer fire department were on their hose truck in the parade, escorting the junior girls' world-series softball team, this year's parade marshals. Whatever the case, Chance wondered if much would be left of whatever was on fire.
   Up the hill, the dark plumes of smoke, along with the growing smell of burnt plastic, guaranteed some kind of flammable material was well on its way to a first class blaze. If every able-bodied soul on the hill was down at the parade, which always used to be the case, then Chance hesitated to think how a fire had been started by accident. Surely, no one was smoking in bed or frying up a mess of trout on a day like today.
   The bigger question was what an arsonist would find in Centerville that was worth setting on fire. Sadly, many houses in that neighborhood, once a proud community of Irish and Cornish miners, were little more than historic relics, with the emphasis on relics.
   The previous summer, the community had recommitted itself to address its ragtag dwellings and had gotten a Habitat for Humanity grant. Concerned citizens were particularly pleased when the county had agreed to remove a mobile home, which was a vacant eyesore, and covered in obscene graffiti. The "butt-ugly blue trailer," as they called it, had attracted a steady stream of transients, and become a hangout for other n'er-do-wells. Its owner, a Bozeman developer, had made a last-ditch appearance at the Council of Commissioners meeting the previous Wednesday to protest the action. Too little too late, the removal was scheduled for the coming week. Maybe the developer had decided to recoup his losses through insurance.
   Chance's thighs had begun to burn as he was spinning in first gear, pedaling like a circus clown on a tricycle while the bike's wheels inched forward. Meanwhile he was sucking air. At this rate, no one was going to get to the fire.
   Finally, hopping off the bike to walk alongside, he managed the last two blocks, the fire department's sirens growing closer. He was only mildly deflated when he saw that the infamous "butt-ugly blue trailer" was almost engulfed, the remnants of "crack whore" graffiti being teased by flames, and not a soul anywhere to be seen.
   This was the fourth fire in as many weeks. Maybe this was an accident but, if so, there were no current residents to question. And if it wasn't another of the latest arsonist's stunts, a hastily filed insurance claim might suggest another suspect. He pulled out his Nikon, and began circling the structure to document what was for sure going to be called a "suspicious fire."

Marian at the Butte Archives



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