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Central Dispatch suspected no crime. It was routine - they only sent homicide because the house fire had six fatalities. The burned hulk was vivid among the row of faded shanties. Death was no stranger among these people. The stench of burn debris and death choked the air even before we got out of the car.

They said there had been a sole survivor. A skinny kid about fourteen, sat on the curb with no apparent place to go. E.M.T.'s had bandaged his burned hands. He was crying into the gauze.

"Son, we are so sorry," Harper struggled for words as he knelt beside the boy. "How did the fire...I mean how did you escape?"

"Sleepin' by the back door," he kept the face covered. Agony hung on the air like green fog.

"How'd you managed to get fully dressed," I asked. His shirt and hair were singed.

He looked up, terrified... eyes glazed, vacant.

Harper caught my glance. We both saw it instantly.

"We understand, partner. You didn't mean to hurt your family." I touched his shoulder. "You thought they'd all wake up and get out."

He sobbed harder. He hadn't really survived. He was as lost as the loved ones the wagon had already carted off.

Story by:

Gary Clifton

19 June 2012