Authors: Renee Pawlish
Tags: #(v5), #Thriller, #Mystery, #Private Investigator, #Suspense, #Crime
A Reed Ferguson Mystery
First Digital Edition published by Llama Press
copyright 2014 by Renée Pawlish
The author gratefully acknowledges all those who helped in the writing of this book, especially: Beth Hecker, Beth Treat, and Janice Horne. Special thanks to Beth Treat for the Norma Desmond scene in chapter twelve. If I've forgotten anyone, please accept my apologies.
Follow me on Twitter - @reneepawlish
It woke me out of a deep sleep. I stared up at the ceiling and noticed a dancing glow penetrating the darkness. I blinked and turned my eyes toward the window. The light through the cracks in the blinds was too bright and too red to be the moon’s luminosity. I propped up on an elbow, trying not to disturb Willie, who was cuddled beside me. We were lying on the couch in my living room, and we’d both fallen asleep while watching a movie. The television screen was glowing neon blue, the movie over. I sat up carefully, noting Willie’s soft, regulated breathing. Then another noise carried through the stillness. Sirens, growing louder.
There was a fire, somewhere close by. Wow, I was some detective to have figured that out.
I pushed myself off the couch, tiptoed in my socks to the window, and peeked out through the blinds. My jaw dropped. Fire raged through the top story of an old Victorian house across the street. It was a beautiful structure, although lately it was suffering from the rundown blues. It still had lots of charm, with a long balcony, arched windows, and plenty of original wood. I watched, hypnotized by the red, orange and white flames that licked at that old wood. Brilliant flames soon enveloped the roof.
I stared at the blaze for a moment, too stunned to act. It was quite a sight, and I held up a hand to block the glare. Dark shadows raced along the sidewalk as my neighbors poured out of their houses to watch the sight.
Behind me, Willie stirred. “Reed?” She yawned. “I can’t believe I fell asleep. I should go home.”
I turned around and shook my head. “You can’t.”
“Nice try, but I shouldn’t stay.” She stretched and groaned. “I’ve got to be up early and I don’t want to disturb you.” A puzzled look crossed her face. “What’s wrong?”
I felt pressure on my chest, and for a moment I couldn’t find my voice. “Your building is on fire,” I finally managed to say.
Her eyes widened. “What?”
I pulled up the blinds and the fiery glow burst into the room.
She flew off the couch and rushed to the window. “Oh no!”
I suddenly found my faculties. “Come on.” I grabbed her arm.
We both slipped on shoes, then ran outside and down the stairs. The wail of sirens grew to a crescendo as we rounded the corner to the front of my building. My neighbors, Ace and Deuce Smith, emerged bleary-eyed from their first-floor condo. Both wore nothing but white boxer shorts and socks.
“Hey, Reed, there’s a fire,” Ace said, stating the obvious.
“A big fire,” Deuce said as he crossed his arms over his beefy chest to ward off the chilly April night air.
This level of insight was typical from the two, whom I’d affectionately nicknamed the Goofball Brothers because they were, perhaps, a few snowflakes short of a blizzard. Ace had worked at Blockbuster until they closed, and now he was job-hunting, and Deuce was a construction laborer. Their parents helped them financially, which explained why they could afford to live in this neighborhood. Their older brother, Bob, who lived a few miles away, watched over his younger, intelligence-impaired brothers, and tried to make sure they stayed out of trouble. As far as the younger sons’ goofy names, apparently their father had discovered his love of poker only after Bob was born. Lucky Bob.
We stood on the porch and watched the spectacle unfold. Two fire trucks pulled to a stop on the street in front of us, and firemen poured out of the trucks, rushing to and fro, yelling as they hooked up hoses and maneuvered ladders. The sirens died a slow death, and a couple of police cars screeched to a halt behind the trucks. Four officers shot from the cars and began shouting orders for everyone to stay back. Not that they needed to tell us. Even from across the street, the heat from the blaze was intense. A couple of our neighbors sidled up near the porch and watched with us.
“Damn,” Mr. Darmody said. He must’ve been in his eighties and he and his wife lived next door. “Never seen anything like that.” His wife, Mrs. Darmody – I didn’t know her first name either – nodded mutely as she tugged a sweater around her shoulders.
It was amazing how the fire brought us all out, like this was a Fourth of July fireworks display, and not someone’s home dying before our eyes.
Crackling and popping sounds split the night air as wood burned and electrical circuits exploded. Smoke billowed into the air and ash fell around us like spring snow. Two firemen pointed a hose at the house, then a stream of water fanned back and forth, spraying the flames. It was hard to tell if it was making a difference. Two more firemen in fireproof suits and oxygen tanks stormed up the front porch, broke down the door with axes and rushed inside.
“Is anyone in there?” a man who lived down the street asked.
“I hope not,” someone else replied.
Willie choked back a sob as tears streamed down her cheeks. I put my arm around her. She was trembling, and it wasn’t just from the chilly air.
The blaze intensified, engulfing much of the top floor interior. Streams of water poured down on the fire. Then a loud groan broke through the cacophony, and we jumped as the cracking sounds of collapsing joists burst from the building. The two firemen emerged from the building just as some windows exploded. Someone screamed. The firemen dropped to the grass, then scrambled away from the house.
“Wow,” Deuce said, awe in his voice. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Sparks danced in the night sky, and black plumes of smoke rose up, obliterating the moon. A breeze shifted direction, and suddenly a fireman shouted and frantically gestured at the house next door. Flames were crawling up the roof.
A crew of firemen shifted focus and doused the new blaze, then covered surrounding roofs with water to keep them from catching fire. Then they aimed the hoses at the towering maple tree in the yard. The first unit still focused on the third floor, trying to get the blaze under control.
Willie’s other next-door neighbor, a guy named Rusty Householter, came running up.
“Oh my god!” he said as he ran a hand through thinning blond hair. “I can’t believe this.”
“You’re not the only one,” I muttered.
“Willie, are you all right?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, her eyes focused across the street, a helpless look on her face.
“Reed,” Rusty murmured, throwing a slight nod at her. “Where are the other tenants from her building?”
Willie stiffened. “Oh.” She emitted a little yelp and covered her mouth. “You don’t think…”
We stepped off the porch and approached the street. Before we’d taken five steps, an officer standing on the sidewalk hollered at us to stay back.
“We’re looking for the other tenants,” I shouted at him as I pointed at the inferno.
He cupped a hand around his ear and I yelled again. He nodded, then signaled us over. “How many tenants in the building?” he asked.
“Three,” Willie said. She coughed and waved at the smoke around us. “I live on the ground floor. Darcy Cranston has the second floor apartment, and Nick O’Rourke lives in the studio apartment in the attic.”
“What about the basement?” he asked.
“Laundry and storage,” she said.
“I saw Darcy earlier,” Rusty said as he joined us. “She was going out with her boyfriend.”
“She spends a lot of time at his place,” Willie said. “I hope that’s the case tonight.”
“What about Nick?” I asked.
“I don’t see him anywhere,” Rusty said as he scanned the people nearby.
The officer – his name tag read ‘Adams’ – turned and shouted a name. Another officer ran up.
“Ask around, see if you can find a man named Nick…” Adams glanced back at us.
“O’Rourke,” Willie said.
The second officer nodded and headed off to canvas a small crowd down the street. We stepped back, waited and watched. The firemen appeared to be making some progress, keeping the blaze confined to the attic. But even as I thought that, one attic wall moaned, then shuddered and collapsed. Another wall soon followed. The officer returned and spoke to Adams, then shook his head. Adams came toward us, his mouth a grim line.
“No Nick O’Rourke,” he said.
Willie’s lower lip quivered. “Was he…” she couldn’t finish the sentence.
Adams shrugged. “Do you know his phone number?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said as she pulled out her cell phone. Her hand shook as she touched a couple of buttons and put the phone to her ear. “It’s ringing,” she said in answer to quizzical looks. A moment later, she spoke into the phone. “Hey, Nick, it’s Willie. Can you give me a call as soon as you can? Thanks.”
“Voice mail,” Adams said. I guess he was taking his cue from Ace, pointing out the obvious.
“Where could he be?” Willie asked.
“We’ll find out,” Adams said. “We’ll need to talk to the owner of the building, and we can ask if they have more information on O’Rourke. You know who owns the place?”
“That would be me,” Willie said.
I stared at her. “You
the building?” I blurted, completely taken aback.
That was news to me. She’d moved into the first floor apartment a few years ago, and I’d just assumed that she was a renter. We’d been dating for a while and she’d never said anything about owning the entire building. Not that it was something she had to mention.
Oh, Reed, now that we’re dating, you should know that I own the building
. Still, you’d think it might have come up in conversation at some point. Paranoia crawled through my veins and I didn’t enjoy the feeling, nor did I understand why I was feeling that way. Especially right now. Willie didn’t need that from me.
“Do you have any other information on Nick O’Rourke?” Adams interrupted my thoughts.
I threw him an odd look, wondering how he knew I was a detective and why I would have pertinent information about O’Rourke. Then I felt my face burning as I realized he was talking to Willie.
She shook her head. “All my paperwork is…was…in the house.”
“Let’s hope he calls,” Adams said. “The fire inspectors will want to talk to you.”
“Right,” she said. “We’ll wait for them.”
Adams glanced back at the blaze across the street. “It’s going to be a while.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.” Her voice was barely audible above the chaos.
Someone shouted for Adams. He tipped his head at us and dashed off.
Willie suddenly pulled out her phone again. “I should call Darcy.” She dialed another number and again had to leave a message, this time asking Darcy to call her. She held the phone, as if hoping it would ring right away. Then she wiped her hands over her face, but the worried look remained. “What if Darcy was in there, too?”
“Think positive. She’s usually with her boyfriend, right?”
“This is a nightmare,” Willie said.
She was in a fog, so I guided her slowly back to the porch and we sat down. Ace and Deuce stood nearby. No one said a word as we watched the firemen work to contain the fire. After a while, I heard a loud yawn from behind me.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Why don’t you guys go back to bed,” I said. “There’s nothing to do here.”
“Okay,” Ace said, stepping forward, shifting from foot to foot. “Willie, are you going to be okay?”
She didn’t say anything. I nudged her. “Oh.” She turned around and nodded. “I’ll be okay, Ace, thanks.”
“If you need any help, you let us know.” He nodded, then tugged at Deuce’s arm. They shuffled across the porch and inside their condo. A square of light from their living room window briefly illuminated us, then blinked out.
I put my arm around Willie again as we watched the firemen. A couple of times she would open her mouth to say something, then without a word, her jaw would clamp shut. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. And again, I couldn’t imagine what
was thinking. I still wanted to ask her about the building. When did she buy it? Why hadn’t she told me she owned it? And I again chided myself for my lack of focus. Then other questions popped into my head. Did she have insurance? If so, was it enough? How were her finances? Would she have enough to cover what insurance didn’t? And although I didn’t know much about fire investigations, I knew that the fire inspectors would take a good hard look at her.
My mind wandered to the old Alfred Hitchcock classic,
. I wouldn’t call it film noir, as some did, but it was a great movie, with one helluva dramatic house fire at the end. Unlike the movie, I was thankful the firefighters had gotten
blaze under control before it consumed the entire building.
Willie rested her head on my shoulder and sighed, and it broke my reverie. The fire eventually died down and the gawkers trickled away to their homes. Willie and I continued our vigil from the porch. Amidst shouts and clanging of equipment, one of the fire trucks rumbled to life and soon pulled away. The other truck remained, dousing what fire was left and searching for hot spots.
The sky soon morphed from black to pink, then orange as the sun introduced a new day. By now the attic of the building was a smoldering mess of black ash, and the remaining floors were saturated. An acrid smell hung in the air. Another group of people showed up in an unmarked car. The fire inspectors. As the firemen soaked the attic, Adams and the other patrolman strung police tape around the perimeter of the property.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Willie as I stood up.
I hurried into the street and spoke to Adams, then returned, noticing how shocked Willie still looked. Her face was devoid of emotion, and I had to get right down in her face to get her attention.
“I talked to Officer Adams,” I said. Damn, now
was stating the obvious. “I gave him both of our numbers. He said the fire inspectors would call later.” She gazed out past me, barely blinking. “Why don’t you come upstairs?” I continued. “We can call your insurance company, and then you can get a little rest. The fire inspectors are going to have questions for you later, and you may have to meet with the police. You’ll want a clear head.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said automatically.
I held out a hand. “Come on. There’s nothing we can do right now.”
It took a long moment, but she finally grabbed my hand. I practically had to haul her to her feet and drag her upstairs. She slumped onto the couch while I looked online for the State Farm 24-hour service. After a brief conversation, in which they assessed that she had a place to stay and then set up a meeting with her for later in the day, we undressed in silence and crawled into my bed. I wrapped her in my arms and held her as she cried herself to sleep.
I dreamed of a campfire, hot coals, and smoke. So much smoke. I lingered on the edge of consciousness, wondering about the campfire. Was Willie tending to it? I reached out for her and my arm hit the mattress. My eyes flew open. Bright light streamed through the bedroom window. I was in the bed alone.
I rolled over and stared at the alarm clock on the nightstand: 11:50. My body cried for more sleep, but I sat up, then scrunched up my nose against the smoky odor clinging to my hair. I tugged at the sheets. That reek was everywhere. I fluffed the sheets, trying to get rid of the smell, and then a sound broke through my fuddled brain. Running water. The shower. That explained where Willie was.
I yawned and stretched, then pushed myself off the bed. I donned shorts and a tee shirt, and plodded into the kitchen to make coffee. When I returned to the bedroom with two steaming cups, Willie was just emerging from the bathroom wearing one of my shirts.
“My clothes smell like a forest fire,” she said as she used her hand like a comb and ran it through her short blond hair, giving it a rakish look. Even though stress lines streaked her face, and sadness ringed her eyes, she was cute as ever.
I kissed her and handed her the coffee.
“Thanks.” She sat wearily on the edge of the bed and took a sip. She made a face and put the cup on the floor.
“Not good?” I said, trying for pseudo-offended. Trying to make her laugh, but it didn’t work.
She ignored that and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. “I missed a call.” She hit some buttons and listened to a voice mail. “It’s Darcy,” she said with relief. “She’s going into a meeting and said to call later.” She hung up and sighed. “I’ll call her back, and I hope she’ll answer. I don’t want to leave this kind of news in a message.”
“That’s probably a good idea.”
She returned the call, waited and shook her head. “Still not answering.” She left another message, saying to call, all the while trying to keep her voice from breaking.
“Did you hear from Nick O’Rourke?” I asked when she finished.
“No.” She stared off into space. “What am I going to do?”
I leaned against the dresser. “You can stay here. I’ll clean up and we’ll go get you some clothes and stuff.”
“I don’t mean that.” She made a halfhearted gesture toward the street. “The whole upstairs is gone. And the damage…” her voice trailed off.
“How did…when did…” I wasn’t sure if now was the time to ask about her owning the building, but I had to admit, my curiosity was killing me.
“How long have I owned the building?”
“I bought it shortly after I moved in, when I was dating Alan.” Alan was the boyfriend before me. “I heard the building was for sale and I thought it would be a good investment, with the real estate market the way it was. I got it at a steal, and the hope is that I can sell it for a nice profit down the road. It’s risky for me, though. The rent I get from the other units covers the mortgage, but not much else.”
“I never knew,” I said.
Her face colored slightly. “I wasn’t trying to hide it. It just never came up.”
We hadn’t been dating that long, but I was still surprised she’d never told me. I wanted to talk about it more, but like last night, it didn’t seem like the right time. She had too much to deal with right now.
“You’ve got enough insurance, right?” I asked.
“I think so.” She stood up, went to the window and peered out.
“That’s good. I know that doesn’t help when you’re talking about personal things, like photos, but at least you’ll be able to –” I saw the expression on her face and stopped talking. “What?”
“The fire inspectors are still there,” she said. “Maybe they know how the fire started.”
“You want to talk to them now?”
“Yes.” She turned around. “Will you come with me?”
“Sure.” I really wanted to take a shower so I didn’t smell like barbecue, but Willie was already headed out of the bedroom. I yanked on a pair of tennis shoes and followed her.
We tromped down the stairs, neither of us saying a word. The sun was high in the sky, but the day was cool, and a burning odor still clung to the air. We rounded the corner of the house and hurried down the sidewalk. A television truck was parked just down the street, and a couple of unmarked police cars sat in front of the building. Behind them was an ambulance, and then I spied a classic blue ’65 Mustang in front of one of the unmarked cars. I suddenly stopped as I recognized the car’s owner standing across the street, in front of the charred remains of Willie’s house. It was Sarah Spillman, from Denver’s homicide department. My stomach roiled. Seeing her meant only one thing: someone had died in the fire.