Alarm In The Night
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by Stewart Sterling
Description: A FIRE MARSHAL PEDLEY MYSTERY A murderous arsonist leaves a trail of horrible death and destruction in his wake, and a series of difficult cases for fearless and resourceful Fire Marshal Pedley to solve. Pedley fights desperately through a maze of clues, and a group of evasive suspects which includes everything from slick night-club operators to a cagey lady numerologist, to ferret out an arsonist-murderer far more deadly and difficult to trace than any ordinary killer.
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: September 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [250 KB]
Reading time: 138-193 min.
Engine Six-One...Engine Five-O...Truck One-Three-Eight...Truck One-Four-Nine...Rescue Eleven...On a third alarm...Box Four-Two-Eight...Lexington at Fiftieth...At Five-O-Nine a.m....Authority Bureau of Fire Alarm Telegraph.
--1630 k.c. broadcast from WNYF, Monday, July 22.
Chief Fire Marshal Ben Pedley caught the zombie intonation of the loud-speaker as he unlocked his door at the Metropole; automatically he wondered what sort of blaze could have gotten away from Jack MacKinnon's battalion on a windless summer dawn like this.
But it was a purely mechanical speculation. The Marshal had been on his feet--when he hadn't been on his hands and knees in sooty, scalding water--for twenty hours straight. He could use a little pillow drill. Besides, one of his most reliable deputies would be on the job in midtown now.
Force of habit took him to the alarm ticker before he'd even shed his coat. A name jumped at him from the slowly reeling tape--Club Carib.
To most New Yorkers the name would have brought to mind a floodlighted marquee, a muscle-bound giant in a drum major's uniform, limousines and chauffeur-driven convertibles, bare-shoulder dinner gowns and discreetly displayed glitter, white dinner jackets and dollar hat-tips. The Marshal's mental snapshot was of a skinny, gray-haired grandmother balancing on the sill of a third-floor tenement window, beating sparks off her nightgown, screaming.
Hastily he riffled through reports on his mantel, found the mimeoed sheet. There it was, halfway down the list:
* * * *
Gothamusement Corporation, operating as Club Carib, 816-18-20 East 50th, Manhattan. 7/21.
He scowled. The sharp furrow between his wide-set eyes extended the long line of his bony nose, giving his weather-leathered face the look of a startled horse sniffing broad-nostriled at some alarming smell. The inch-long dull-red slash of scar tissue across the angle of his jaw on the right whitened suddenly.
Might be sheer coincidence, this three-alarmer MacKinnon's boys were having trouble with--and that July twenty-first deadline.
Could have been coincidence, too, that other night a couple of weeks ago, when the old woman hadn't been able to wait for the net to be spread beneath her window. To date, Pedley hadn't been able to prove differently. But there had been the ultimatum--that time, too.
He waved sardonically at the inviting bed--cool sheets neatly turned. "See you."
In the lobby an overalled porter let his mop drip on the tiling.
"You ain't goin' out again, Mister Pedley!"
"Sometimes fella has trouble getting to sleep, Robbie."
"You don' live right, hours you keep, that's a fact." The porter waggled his head in concern.
Pedley switched on the red sedan's blinker, roared cross-town through lights, the bloodshot eye winking balefully at busses that couldn't pull over, trucks whose drivers slammed on squealing brakes.
If there was anything suspicious about this Carib conflagration, the important thing was to get to it fast. Incendiary fires were always flash burners; the firebugs arranged that.
Streaking up Fourth and Park at sixty, he'd told himself the danger at the night club wouldn't be too great. Evidently the fire hadn't been discovered until after the swankery had closed. Now, as his tires bumped over the first tangle of hose lines, he swore briefly at the absence of a crowd. Could be a bad sign.
There was nothing spectacular for the early risers to see, only a mud-gray mushroom of fumes oozing from under the marquee, spreading to form a canopy over the street.
Little to attract the seeker after excitement. No leaping flame or lurid flashes against belching smoke. No gleaming water turrets or streams lancing up from gunlike deck pipes. Nothing but leaning ladders vanishing up into that murky haze, rubber-clad men disappearing in the club entrance as in a film fade-out.
Passers-by stared at the big red rigs, the waiting ambulances.
"Guess they got her where they want her." "All over but th' shoutin', huh?" They went on about their business.
Pedley would have been relieved to see a few flames instead of these deadly low-wreathing fumes; even with ten or twelve companies on it, apparently MacKinnon hadn't been able to ventilate enough.
In the moment it took the Marshal to get across to the battalion chief, two limp, booted figures were brought out, hurriedly, stretched along the curb out of the coupling spray.
Pedley touched the stocky, smoke-grimed chief on the shoulder.
"Hi, Ben. A stinker." The battalion chief patted his streaming eyes with a lotion-soaked gauze pad.
"Building was empty. Upper floors been vacant six months, anyway. No watchman on the premises. Wish there had been. Blaze started in the kitch. Worked down into the cellar. Crept into the retaining wall. Boys opened up the roof. But those exhausters can't seem to clear the damn basement." MacKinnon held the gauze over one eye, peered closely at the Marshal with the other. "You're not figuring this is one for your book!"
"Building was on the Or-Else list, Jack."
"Telling me? They were makin' repairs already. Reason we lost so much time gettin' down cellar. Dopes stored gypsum blocks and plaster smack against the cellar door. We lost five minutes freeing it. Time we got it open, heat had wedged it. But it don't look like any torch job. Cry-sake, you wouldn't figure 'Easy' Varini'd have to burn down his own place to make a buck! Got more dough'n the Federal Reserve, hasn't he?"
"So they say."
"One those dumb waiters probably rolled up a live butt in a dirty tablecloth, Ben."
The Marshal knelt beside one of the senseless figures at the curb--a fireman from a truck company, by his height. Two interns worked over him with a resuscitator. His face was putty, his lips liver-purple.
Something glittered on the instep of his left boot. Pedley picked it loose from the rubber, held it out on his palm where MacKinnon could see it.
"Piece of one of those toy tet extinguishers, isn't it, Ben?"
"Tip of the bulb. Broken off. Not melted."
The battalion chief squinted painfully at it. "Well, hell. Didn't amount to a damn, anyway. The sprinklers were working all right."
"Might not mean a thing. Stream from one of your lines might have busted it. You check their extinguisher racks?"
"All in place. Don't know if they were functioning."
Pedley wrapped the fragment in a handkerchief, stuck it in his pocket. "Who pulled in the box, Jack?"
MacKinnon pointed to an ambulance backed up against Rescue 9. "Guy cut himself to hell-an'-gone trying to get in the joint, before we rolled up."
Pedley went to the ambulance.
A husky-built, bull-necked youth was slumped on the rear step, his head between his knees. He held his right forearm, swathed in a bandage, across the top of his head. Blood reddened the gauze, glistened on short-cropped tow hair.
The Marshal squatted on his haunches; his face was on a level with the youth's head.
The other looked up wearily. "They just put this bandage on for a gag."
"Seen you somewhere, haven't I? Lineup, maybe?" Pedley believed in questioning while people were still excited, in needling them so they sometimes answered without taking time to be cagey.
"Not your kind of lineup." The youth had an amiable square face, short, slightly pug nose, sleepy gray eyes. There was dried blood at one side of his big, rather humorous mouth; the smear extended down across the blunt, broad chin. "You're the third who's given me that 'I-ought-to-know-your-name' yatadayatada. Wait'll I needle that publicity putz of ours. He's always giving with the build-up every citizen on the subways'll recognize Don Reece."
"Reece?" Pedley recalled headlines and photos in Sunday sports sections. Zipper Reece Runs Riot; Reece on Scoring Rampage; Zipper Dipper Wins for K's. "Football pro, hah?"
"I don't do it for love. I'm with the Knicks, yeah."
"Up early for a gridiron guy, aren't you? How'd you spot the blaze in the Carib?"
"Was snackin' over at Toots's--hoofing home--heard this holler for help--"
"How would I know! I just heard somebody yell--maybe you'd call it a scream--it was pretty faint and far away--"
"Inside the club?"
"You want me to tell it?" Reece held the bandaged arm in front of him, supporting it with one hand. "I hear this screech, go up to the door--light inside somewhere--couldn't see anybody, but still there was this yelping--"
Reece grimaced. "Might have been either--anyhow, while I'm flattening my puss against the pane, I see smoke--first off, figure I'm slightly goof, but no, smoke, sure 'nough--more of it, all the time. I look around for a cop--never find a cop when you need one, so I hotfoot for the corner and hit the ole fire box."
"What time would that have been?"
"Way I feel, might've been a week ago--see, I didn't wait for the engines to come, thinkin' whoever was inside there must be hurt or something, so I scram back an' bust in the plate glass."
"Cut your arm, hah?"
Reece patted the bandage. "Didn't get this shaving. After I crash in, smoke's so thick I can't see anything an' I don't hear the hollering anymore, so I'm just trying to scramoose out of there when I do a keel. Next I know, they're pumping me full of oxygen."
"Those fumes would slow down anybody." The Marshal stood up. "Better coast awhile. Might feel like getting up and walking away. Don't try it."
"I feel like I been beat up an' stomped on. An' for nothin'! Fire laddies say there wasn't anybody in there, after all."
"No?" Pedley could see a couple of Rescue Company men lugging a stretcher out through the pall of smoke; the football player was looking in the other direction. "A for effort, anyway. Just stay here. Take it easy."
On the canvas was a boy, half covered by a rubber coat. Pedley guessed the kid would be about twelve or thirteen. He was short, fattish, moon-faced, with sleek hair parted along the middle of a grotesquely large skull. His eyes were closed; his plump face had the sheen of a week-old mackerel belly. He breathed in short convulsive gasps.
The Rescue Company man at the front end of the stretcher knelt to lay the canvas on the sidewalk. "Maybe it was this kid that guy heard."
Pedley looked at the boy's hands. The knuckles were raw and caked with dried blood.
He bent down, took the right hand. There was a deep gash on the fleshy part about an inch below the little finger knuckle. The kind of slash a knife might have made. "Where'd you find him?"
"Closet off the kitch," answered the other Rescue man. "Linen closet or something. He was laying on the floor with a half-dozen tablecloths over him."
"Hid in there?" Pedley picked a splinter of wood off the boy's knuckles.
"Hid, hell! He was locked in!" The first Rescue man added an expletive. "That's why we missed him first look-around. The closet was locked!"
"From outside," the other added vehemently. "Not a spring lock either! Kind y' use a key on."
"Kid's shot with luck, at that." His partner coughed up a thin trickle of smoke. "That lousy floor's practically burned through, now. Another five minutes, he'd have dropped down in th' cellar."
Pedley slid his mask over his face, fastened the strap. He grabbed an ax from the running board of Truck 149.
"Hey!" the Rescue men cried in alarm, "you're not going in there!"
Pedley moved under the marquee.
"Holy cats! The floor won't hold you! It's caving already!"
The Marshal was where he couldn't hear them.
* * * *
* * * *
Arriv'd Carib 5:19 a.m. Battl'n Chf. MacKinnon in chg. op's; Chf. Marshal inside. Fire confined; wind n.w. abt. 5 m.p.h.; sunny; smoke, brownish gray, some cream-yellow nitrous; vol. consid.; mostly 1st floor; no flames vis.; few sparks. Took smoke pix 5:22; six exposures, using c.s. film.
--From Daily Activity Report of Deputy Marshal Edward Shaner, July 22.
The Marshal had seen his deputy's coupe roll in behind the big quad while the Rescue men were bringing the boy out. By now, he knew, Shaner was setting up the tripod for his smoke photos. Ordinarily, Pedley would have waited, let Ed take over; but this might be a case where split seconds counted.
He went in under the canopy.
Ten feet inside the club door, Pedley lost two of his senses. Vision through his eyepiece was limited to indistinct loomings in dense murk. Heat stung his mouth and throat so it was impossible to distinguish smells.
He could hear, all right--roar of streams overhead, crackle of burning woodwork, thud of falling plaster, shattering of glass, hiss of cold water spitting at hot metal. But sounds were no guidance. He had to depend on feeling his way.
Scalding spray rained from sprinkler heads. Sparks bit at his neck. Heat banking from the ceiling seared his ears.
The only cool thing inside the burning building was the hard, round boa constrictor of canvas which he followed, stooping, through the lobby, past checkrooms, into the cocktail bar.
A couple of hours ago, this place had been clouded with a different kind of smoke. Jammed with socialites and celebrities sitting too close together, chattering like chimps, drinking too much, laughing too loud. How did a fourteen-year-old fit into that picture?
The Marshal's fingers recoiled from steaming water gathered on tarpaulins the insurance patrols had thrown over banquettes and tables. But he bumped into no red-helmeted men.
If the salvage boys had given up this floor as lost, Pedley knew he'd have to work at top speed. Those crews were picked men. Last-ditchers. As long as there was a chance to save anything, they stuck on the job. They wouldn't have been scared away by smoke alone.
It would be touch and go whether he'd have seconds enough to do his job--
But it had to be done now or not at all.
There was still an outside chance the fire might not have been set. Kid might have shut himself in the closet. Heat could have expanded the lock so that Rescue Company men might have assumed the key'd been turned in it.
Accidental conflagration was out of the question. It was summer; no chance of static starting a blaze in hot, humid weather like this. No stoves or furnaces would have been left going, to get out of control. Still, in a cafe there was always that possibility of spontaneous combustion.
One of the chefs might've left a greasy ham bag near a cookstove where warm metal could speed up oxidization, start the cloth smoldering. A careless bus boy might have tossed a rag, damp with furniture polish, into a closed closet. The Marshal couldn't guess about those things. He had to make sure, this time.
He hadn't been able to do it when the tenement over that bowling alley had collapsed. It had been harder to dig evidence out of the wreckage than to identify what had been left of the old lady after she jumped. That was the hell of arson, too often it destroyed the evidence against itself.
He kept his left hand on the snaking hose. With his right he swung the ax, short-handled, blade up, pounding the floor a yard ahead. Here in the main dining-room, the carpeting was spongy with water. The planking had an unpleasant springiness.
He collided with tables, stumbled over stacked chairs. He wasn't familiar with the layout of the Carib, but a blind man could have told the aisle spaces were too narrow for the crowds which swarmed into the club every night. Maybe that was the reason the Gothamusement Corporation had been on the Or-Else list.
He tripped over a helmet, crouched, found a smoke mask beside it. He circled on hands and knees--over shards of crockery, lumps of soggy plaster, bits of broken chandelier. The fireman who'd lost that mask had evidently been dragged out.
He crawled on.
The heat increased. His eyeballs and fingernails began to ache. He kept moving, through a door, off the carpet, onto slimy linoleum. The axhead made the floor shudder.
Pressure pounded at his eardrums. Occasional spurts of orange in the gloom became a steady yellow glow. But the expected "hrrush" of water was absent. Evidently that helmet had belonged to one of the nozzlemen. The other must have lugged him out to the street.
The Marshal's left hand touched cool metal. The nozzle. He dropped the ax, clamped the heavy length of brass under his left arm, slowly pulled back the lever.
The tip bucked, rocking him back on his heels. He pointed the stream straight up.
Water cascaded from the ceiling, cutting off that blistering heat. He let it drench him, sucking in cool air. The soaking reacted on him like a drug; he felt an overpowering desire to doze.
But the floor shivered; the linoleum beneath him buckled up, fell away with a nauseating wavelike motion. He moved swiftly to a partition, braced his back against it. The wall, too, swelled against him and slowly receded, as if the stricken building were gasping for breath.
The pressure on his ears grew to a throbbing pulsation. He inched along the wall.
His fingers touched the smoldering woodwork of a long table. Above it, shelves, stacked dishes. Rows of salt and pepper shakers. A service pantry.
The closet where the boy had been shut in ought to be close. Pedley edged along, keeping the nozzle upturned, holding that protective curtain of water around him. His right hand jerked away from sizzling metal--the brassbound edge of a swinging door.
He felt for the push plate, the metal rectangle that waiters bumped with their elbows to swing the door on its two-way hinges. It was gone. He found it on the floor. It had melted off. Queer--the woodwork of the pantry shelving back there had barely been charred.
He held the door open with one foot. A two-inch spike came out of his pocket, went in beside the jamb, above a hinge. Now the door couldn't swing closed behind him, cutting off his escape, if the building settled suddenly.
The first step he took beyond the pantry sent him sliding to his knees. The thing he'd slipped on had been oil-slick. It felt like wet glass.
He pawed around with one hand, fighting the nozzle with the other. His fingers touched a bottle. A whisky fifth. With the neck fused into a lumpy blob.
His eyes pained viciously. The backs of his hands were puffy with blisters. But he no longer felt tired.
The weariness he'd felt at his rooms in the Metropole was gone. Rage gave him a boost like adrenalin. He felt like a man watching from a distance a reckless driver racing through a street full of playing youngsters. Anger at being helpless to prevent tragedy, a grim bitterness at his inability to identify the person responsible.
He couldn't see the bottle, though he held it an inch from his eyepiece. But he knew it was what he'd been searching for ever since the night that old woman had leaped to her death.
High-grade night clubs didn't leave liquor fifths around on the floor. Nor where they could roll off a shelf or be knocked off easily. Besides, there'd been something more inflammable than alcohol in this one, something that had burned hotly enough to melt the neck but not the rest of the bottle.
He was shoving the fifth inside his belt when the room seemed to explode--
Even through the screen of water the blast slammed him against the wall. The concussion knocked off his mask.
He had no need for it, anyway, momentarily. The smoke cleared as if a fog had lifted. For a split second the air around him was a blinding envelope of incandescence. Then he felt as if a weight were being lifted off his back. A mighty gust blew upward, sweeping the room clear of flame and fumes.
For a count of three he held the nozzle open, then slammed it shut, dropped to his knees, waited for the crash he knew would follow. Heated air within the walls had built up such a pressure it'd blown one edge of the roof off. The tremendous updraft had ignited the hot gases here on the first floor. With the support of the roof gone, one wall would collapse.
The wall beside him bulged like a sleeper heaving a deep sigh before waking.
Pedley crawled a few feet out from the partition to examine the floor. Charred deeply into the linoleum was a yard-wide crescent, about where the door would have swung when open. This was the place where the torch had been lighted.
A deep, grinding vibration prickled the back of his neck--a shower of plaster grains stinging like hot needles. A brick burst out of the mortar, wrecking the partition at his side.
He'd dropped the nozzle, started to run the gantlet through licking tongues of flame, back toward the street, when the rear wall let go.
The concussion was paralyzing. Bricks, beams, plaster, piping, metal window frames thundered down through the ceiling. A piece of three-inch waste pipe clouted him across the shins, numbing his legs so that for an instant he thought they'd both been broken. He went down.
The floor sagged sickeningly.
He half crawled, half climbed, hand over hand, along the pantry counter.
"Hi, skipper! Grab!" The voice sounded miles away.
The point of a fireman's hook slid in front of his eyes. He grabbed it, hung on.
"Kay-riced! Thought I was gonna hafta ruin a suita clothes comin' after you." A heavy-set, muscular man clung to the slanting angle of the pantry door, hauled the Marshal up bodily. "You open up that back draft all by yourself, skipper?" The raw-hamburg face under the man's soggy-brimmed straw was bland; his heavy-lidded eyes showed neither alarm nor much curiosity; he chewed dispassionately on a stub of cigar that stuck out from one corner of his mouth like a bung in a barrel.
"Look out for that bottle." Pedley swore curtly as his deputy hauled him up to the still-level floor of the dining-room.
Ed Shaner eyed the whisky fifth. "Souvenirs, already."
"Yair. Rare old antique. Used as a candle holder." Pedley picked his way through the clutter to the street door.
"No kid! A gimmick?"
"Ether, for a guess." The Marshal stared as a girl screeched, down the block.
She tore loose from the bluecoat who tried to grab her, sprinted toward Pedley, flannel coat flapping wildly, blond bobbed hair jiggling over her face with every stride.
"Where is he?" she flung herself at the Marshal.
Shaner stepped in, caught her, a good-looking youngster of twenty or so, her face twisted with anxiety. "What've you done with him?"
"Who?" Pedley looked for the Polyclinic ambulance. It had gone. So had the husky with the injured arm.
"Don!" she pounded Shaner with clenched fists in helpless exasperation. "Don Reece! They told me you'd know about him."
Shaner released her. "Keep your hair on, sis."
Pedley cut in. "Who told you he was here, Miss--"
"Corkran." She quieted, but the terror stayed in her wide, slightly slanting eyes. "Nobody told me! I know Don was here! I was with him! Are you afraid to tell me he's been--killed?"
The Marshal sized her up. Pretty, in a spoiled-brat fashion, too much shadow touched in beneath the big gray-green eyes, maybe. Society, by the way she dressed. Money, if that emerald pendant was real. She wasn't putting on any act--the way the color drained out of her face suddenly.
"Reece is all right, Miss Corkran." He wondered why he hadn't noticed her in the crowd when he'd arrived; he always gave the onlookers a fast once-over as a matter of routine, but he was positive he hadn't seen this girl. "Cut a bit. Nothing serious. Amby took him to the hospital. What made you think he might have been killed?"
"Why--he--he--" she stammered, confused. "I don't know--I guess I was just so scared--"
Pedley caught her arm, pulled her close.
"What was it?"
"Ow!" She made a face as if he were hurting her. "Don--he--said something--when he saw the smoke--and heard that boy--something about its being murder. I s'pose he meant it would be terribly dangerous--to go in there--" her voice trailed off weakly.
The Marshal tightened his grip. "You were with him? When he heard that youngster?"
"Oh, yes." Her face pinched up as if she were going to cry. "I ran to the fire alarm with him. He made me stay there--to tell the firemen where to go." Tears rolled down her face. "That's why I didn't see him--when he went--Oh!" She looked down at her feet. "That--damn--cat!" she moaned, closed her eyes, became a dead weight in Pedley's arms.
Shaner reached down, tried to pick up the big yellow tom who'd rubbed against her legs.
The cat skittered away, under the marquee, into the burning building.
The deputy raised one eyebrow.
"One jittery jane you got there, skipper."
"Yair." Pedley lifted her, held her out. "I don't want her, you can have her. Turn her over to Rescue. Let 'em run her home. You take her from there. I want everything you can get on this babe. Stick with her."
The deputy settled her in his arms. "You can make it a permanent assignment, it's jake with me."
It took a minute for Shaner to carry the girl over to the Rescue truck; at the end of that time, Pedley hadn't seen the cat come out of the Carib.