Figueroa said, “Sir, may I ask what the circumstances were that led up to the fire? We came into a situation midway-“
“Which is no excuse.”
“I’m not suggesting that it is. But the fire obviously started in that apartment, and there were three adults inside who didn’t seem to have made any effort to put it out. Why was Mr. Molitor lying in the middle of the living room floor? If he’d been shot, for instance, I would think I’d be entitled to know that. It certainly wasn’t the smoke that killed him. He was down on the floor where the air was good.”
“I don’t suppose there’s any reason not to tell you. We have a reasonably full picture, from the statement of the woman and the statements of the neighbors.”
The Molitors had begun fighting in the afternoon-a husband, his wife, and the wife’s brother. Fighting and drinking, and drinking and fighting. Among the burned remnants of their apartment were dozens of beer cans and the fragments of two bottles that had contained scotch.
By early evening, the neighbors were getting pretty tired of it. Judging by their observations and the wife’s story, about nine the husband, who until then had been just shouting and threatening and hitting the wall with his fists, started hitting his wife. She hit back for a while, then fell, and he kicked her. She screamed for help and one of the neighbors, too frightened to go in or knock, called the police.
Meanwhile, the brother had come to the wife’s defense. He attacked the husband, who by now was in a blind rage. The husband pushed the brother, who fell over the wife, and then the husband grabbed a can of lighter fluid, ran wild, spraying it along the living room and kitchen walls, and lighted it. The brother surged up off the floor. The wife, terrified, crawled to what she thought was the front door, but she was dazed from several blows, and now smoke was filling the room, and she actually went into the kitchen.
Meanwhile, the brother had picked up a chair and hit the husband over the head, hard. The husband went down.
At about this point, Figueroa and Bennis were pulling up outside. The brother’s hair had caught fire. He panicked and ran out of the apartment, where he was intercepted by Bennis.
Wardron continued: “Officer Figueroa, what you should have done after Officer Bennis left with the baby was to attempt to get Mr. Molitor out. You might not have succeeded, but you should have tried.”
“I knew the man on the floor was dead. He was cold.”
“Officer Bennis, was he cold?”
Bennis swallowed. Figueroa fixed him with her eyes, but he didn’t look at her. For a moment he straightened up, squaring his shoulders, as if he were steeling himself to take action. Then his face sagged.
“He was still warm,” he said.
Commander Sazerac asked, “Isn’t there a way to tell whether he was dead before the fire got to him? You should be able to test for carbon sucked into the lungs. If he wasn’t breathing-“
“Commander Sazerac, we appreciate your help,” Wardron said, in a tone that made it clear that he didn’t. “Believe it or not, we thought of that.”
Sazerac watched sourly. He knew there was something wrong with the way they were getting the picture, but he couldn’t put his finger on where the problem was. Figueroa would not have left a living man to burn to death. Sazerac had been a commander much too long to make serious mistakes in judgment about his officers’ characters. There was a problem with Figueroa, but it was the opposite. Like a lot of short female officers, she had a tendency to put herself in harm’s way unnecessarily and play Jane Wayne. This charge against her was dead wrong.
Wardron added, “The entire building was engulfed when the fire department finally made it. Shortly after that, the top three floors of the structure collapsed into the basement. What was left of Mr. Molitor looked a lot like a blackened pipe cleaner.”
Figueroa had been staring at the tabletop.
“Wait!” she said suddenly. She knew that wasn’t the way to talk to the brass, and said in a quieter voice, “If you’ll give me a minute, to go get something, I think I can explain what happened.”
She got up.
Wardron said, “You can explain it right here.”
“If I may leave for just a minute, sir, I can demonstrate.”
“One minute, then.”