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Spirit of Fire [Jack and Jill Mystery #2]
by Arline Chase

Category: Mystery/Crime
Description: When the most hated man in 1904 Baltimore is murdered, Jon Abercrombie searches for the killer as the city burns around him. The story is fiction, but the fire was real.
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: July 2005

eBookeBook

6 Reader Ratings:
Great Good OK Poor
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [344 KB]
Words: 80495
Reading time: 229-321 min.


Chapter 1

"A Dead Man Rises"

Baltimore

Winter, 1904

On the ground floor of the Flag-Bulletin Building, the mighty presses of the Federalist Flag newspaper roared out the green edition, while two stories above in a paneled office just off the newsroom, a man with a large pair of composition scissors protruding from the back of his shoulder, lay slumped across a roll-top desk. Blood darkened the blotter, and stained the wooden work surface.

A figure watched as the pool of blood reached the telephone cord and ran in a semicircle around the loop, then stopped. He was dead.

The figure backed away slowly, opened the door to the office and left without a sound.

Inside the office, T.P. Fitzgibbons pushed away from the bloody desktop and felt over his shoulder for the scissors. He dragged them away from the wound and sat up, as fresh blood flowed. He reached for the telephone, smeared sticky half-congealed blood on the standard, then stopped and hung the earpiece back in the cradle with a thoughtful look. Behind him, a door opened, but Fitzgibbons did not turn around. He only glanced up at the convex mirror on the mantle, a frown of impatience on his face.

"Oh, it's you? Good." He did not even look up as a gloved hand reached over his shoulder to pick up the bloodstained scissors from the desk.

* * * *

Detective sergeant Jonathan Lloyd Abercrombie III's grasped the neck of the telephone as if he wanted to strangle it.

"There's death wrapped in old glory!" His sister Jillian's voice came over the line with only a mild stutter of static. "You must be careful, Jack, for you will soon be in grave danger."

Jon entertained thoughts unbecoming to a police detective, albeit a newly appointed and exceptionally youthful one. In these modern times, there were more than ten thousand telephones in Baltimore City. He cursed the day his sister Jillian had installed one in the front hall of the Hunter Street mansion they shared. Jilly was difficult enough at best. She had what the doctors called neurasthenia or a "nervous disposition." Jill heard voices constantly and often became upset. But since she had embraced spiritualism her constant messages from "the other side" had started to exhaust Jon's patience. The telephone only extended her range for dispensing pointless nonsense purported to be from beyond the veil.

"It's not nonsense." Jill sounded exasperated. "Heloise has been nattering away at me all day in medieval French and you know how bad my French is, Jack. But now I've figured out what she's saying. You are in grave danger. Hello! Are you listening to me?"

"Yes." Jon closed his hazel eyes and bit back a curse. All the family did it, but he hated to be called Jack, almost as much as he hated Heloise. Jilly had clung to her imaginary playmate long past babyhood and had recently elevated her erstwhile make-believe friend to the role of "spirit guide." For the past year she'd filled her house with a host of table-tapping, ectoplasm-producing, last-trump-blowing frauds. Jon tried to be tolerant of Jill's supernatural "studies," but he privately thought she used her quest for the spirits as an attempt to escape her grief after the death of her fiancé, and the family bitterness that had followed. He wanted to hang up, and he would have, but Jill would probably only call back.

"Jack? Don't you dare hang up!"

Jon could almost see her running her hand through that wild gold-streaked hair, her brown eyes moist with tears as she clutched the fluted handset in the entry hall. He turned his lean body away from listening ears, thinking were it not for the fortune she had inherited from their grandmother, half the world would have thought his sister stone crazy. Jillian's behavior sometimes embarrassed Jon, yet he loved her with all the exasperated resignation of an indulgent older brother. If she just didn't sound so mad.... Not for the first time, he wished he knew what to say to his sister.

"Jack! Say something."

He chose his words carefully, knowing the other men in the station were listening. "Jill, really, it's an exceedingly dull day here. The kind that makes me wonder why I gave up law school." Jon winced. Why had he mentioned law school? The senior men would think him pretentious and any mention of the bitterness that had all but destroyed their family and resulted in Jon's choosing to walk a beat in Pigtown rather than finish his law degree, always upset his sister.

"How is she?"

"Who?" Jon's eyes flicked to the framed daguerreotypes on his desk. One was of his parents, one was Jill dressed in the fashionable ruffles often depicted in Charles Dana Gibson's drawings. On the wall above was a framed poster of a young woman with long shapely legs, half-falling off the back of a nervous-looking horse. Theatrical type proclaimed, "Genevieve Desmond as Mazzeppa."

"Your friend, the one--"

"Desmond is fine and--none of your business."

"Yes, well, you're much too busy to talk to me now. The bull dog will be along any minute."

"What?" Jon bit his lip. "What are you talking about?"

"How should I know? You know the voices never explain anything. All I know is the bulldog is coming and it means danger. Oh! And do wear your gloves, Jack. The thick ones. Heloise says that's very important, though she doesn't know why. You mustn't take them off at all for the next week. I'll see you at dinner. Maggie's planned a leg of lamb. And don't forget, Madame Hortense is coming tonight to materialize her spirit guide for us. Sir Harold? Sir Hart? I forget. Anyway, he's a Knight of the Round Table and communicates directly with King Arthur." Jill's voice took on excitement. "Oh, how I wish I had a true talent like Madame's. I mean can you imagine what would happen if I had the power to bring Heloise into the corporeal world?"

"I shouldn't care to think about it." At Jill's sharply indrawn breath, Jon realized he had hurt her feelings. "Dash it, Heloise causes quite enough trouble as a disembodied voice. Why on earth would you want to materialize her so she could plague you even more?" Jon caught the grin on Cameron Holister's face. The older detective would never let him live this down. So much for his plans to be circumspect.

"Jack, I wish you'd have a little respect. I may not have a true talent like Madam Hortense, but--"

"I've told you before I don't believe in spiritualism. What I can see, hear, touch or smell is real. All the rest is balderdash!" His comment was followed by a resounding bang from the other end of the line.

Jon rubbed his ear, hung up the telephone, and apologized to the duty sergeant for tying up the line.

"It ain't everybody on the force that gets personal calls over the telephone." Holister cleaned dark-rimmed nails with a matchstick. "'Course I reckon an Abercrombie can afford it."

Jon shrugged. In theory, Holister was his mentor, but they had never got on well, in part because they came from such different backgrounds. Holister had worked his way up from the ranks and often told war stories of bloody battles with railroad strikebreakers and the horrors of cleaning up after the Jones Falls flood, back in the 1880's. Jon was the youngest detective in the city, and he had risen to his rank after less than a year in the field. He'd be a fool to expect Holister to like him, but he found the older man's superior attitude tiresome, nonetheless.

"How about that?" The duty sergeant grinned as he looked up from his log book. "Miss Jill Abercrombie called, and asked to speak to her brother, JACK."

"Jack, Jack, Jack. You've been keeping secrets from us." Holister started on his other hand. The matchstick left a rim of black close to the quick. "Jack and Jill. Ain't that cute? My, what a cozy little family the Abercrombies are!"

"Actually I've always preferred Jon. Jack was my father's nickname as a child. And after Jill was born, calling me Jack became his idea of a joke."

"Your old man? Ain't he that hotshot lawyer? High-muckety-muck in city politics." Both Holister's feet hit the floor and he leaned forward, staring at Jon. "With all the strings your old man must've pulled--no wonder--say, how come he ain't got you stationed uptown with the rest of the rich bastards?"

Jon only shrugged and reached for some paperwork. No point in denying Holister's accusation. If he said he hadn't spoken to his father in nearly two years, nobody would believe him. Or worse, maybe they would and he'd find himself reading it in the newspapers over breakfast. Jon stared at the rain beating on the windows, remembering. During what Jill always referred to as the "family quarrel," in a cold rage his father had instructed Jon to stop seeing a certain actress whom he termed "nothing but a cheap gold digger." Unless Jon complied, his father said, he'd be cut off without a penny. Jon had joined the police force the next day. Since then he had not accepted a cent of his father's money. Living on a policeman's salary, Jon could no longer afford to send Desmond roses after every performance. Now he was lucky to manage a modest floral tribute on special occasions. And that only because he saved on living expenses by sharing his sister's household. Jon glanced at the framed pictures again and smiled, then devoted his attention to a treatise on the work Scotland Yard was doing on the newly-developed standardization of fingerprints. He ignored a steady stream of jokes about disembodied spirits and nursery rhymes passed back and forth between Holister and the desk sergeant. Jon had heard them all before.

"Oh, Ja-ack! Sorry, I didn't mean to spook you, but you'd better wake up. We wouldn't want Jill to break her little crown worrying about you making a bad impression." The duty sergeant nodded toward the door. "The bulldog's on a tear!"

"Bulldog?"

"Burke, you idiot! The police commissioner is parking his automobile outside. Boy, you really are green."

"Have you already forgotten me, boy?" Harry Burke swung through the door, propelling his large frame and beer belly forward with a fluid motion. Jon remembered him all right. Though their former associations had been brief, Jon's life had changed forever the night they met. Burke's dark grey eyes missed nothing, despite the bags under them. He exuded the scent of cigar smoke and bourbon, but nobody complained. Neither did they mention the puddles forming on the floor from his dripping boots and umbrella.

Holister got to his feet. "Commissioner." Belatedly, Jon remembered his manners and rose from his own chair. Burke nodded to Holister, but leaned on Jon's desk, spattering raindrops on the curly oak. "Got us a murder. You're reassigned until further notice!"

Jon fought to gather his wits and banishing echoes of Jill's voice whispering murder. "Who? Where?"

"Somebody finally stabbed T.P. Fitzgibbons in the back. 'Course it was only a matter of time. Anyway, we got to get right over there." Burke snapped his fingers under Jon's nose. "Wake up, boy! Get your coat."

"Wait a minute! Ain't he that newspaper editor? The Federalist Flag? That's it." Holister gave Burke a belligerent look. "Hey, this should be my case. I'm senior man here."

"I make the assignments." Burke blew smoke at Holister's face.

"Harry, how can you send in a green kid? You need somebody with balls on this." Holister glowered at Jon.

"I need somebody with brains on this! Half the city hated the bastard. The mayor's already yelling--"

"But I--"

Burke raised one eyebrow and stared at the older detective. "Do you really want to be the cop who couldn't crack this case, Holister?"

Holister dropped into his chair like a stone. Jon got his overcoat and followed the commissioner outside into the rain.

"Hurry up, can't you?" Burke dashed to the yellow Stanley Steamer he had parked in front of the station house. Jon wondered briefly where Burke got the money to afford such luxuries, then climbed into the waiting machine. Even the novelty of riding in the unusual vehicle could not distract him from his private thoughts. Burke had said everyone hated the editor of the Flag. As they motored past endless brick row houses with rain-slick white marble steps, Jon summoned up bits and snatches of conversations he had heard about Fitzgibbons. No one had said anything good about the man. Fitzgibbons had married well--Suzanne Lanier.

Jon had known her as a child, but had not seen her in recent years. He remembered reading about the wedding, which Jilly had attended, though his mother had refused on grounds that she was unwilling to "sanction Suzanne's unfortunate connection to a Papist Irishman with absolutely no breeding." Now there was gossip that things were less than perfect for the couple. Jon knew full well that gossip was not evidence, but his mother lived for the stuff. What Burke had said was true; Fitzgibbons was one of the least liked men in Baltimore. It wasn't just the business community he had offended.

The masthead of his newspaper might claim it was "A Shining Flag of Truth," but the social lions of Baltimore would cheerfully have lunched on T.P.'s liver. Almost everything he printed stepped on somebody's toes.

Finding the murderer would test Jon to the limit. He knew that Burke would take the credit if he cracked the case. If he failed, the commissioner could point to Jon's legal training and say he'd assigned the best-qualified man on the force. And he was young and inexperienced enough for failure not to ruin his career completely--maybe. If Burke was hedging his bets so soon, he must have serious doubts about finding the murderer. Jon sighed as the bright yellow steamer pulled up and parked beside a fire hydrant in front of the Flag building.

Jon opened the door, then glanced back. "How much leeway will I have on this? Experts, that sort of thing?"

"Anything you need, I'll authorize the expense." Burke reached for his umbrella, still dripping on the floor between them. "Fitzgibbons has been crucifying the mayor, and half the city council, in that dirty rag of his. We can't afford to have anyone say we ain't trying on this one."

Jon took a deep breath and leaned forward. "DO you want me to find the killer, or only look as if I'm trying?"

"I want you to do your best, boy." Burke met his gaze. "And I don't want anyone to be able to say we've missed anything."

"But you don't think we'll succeed."

"No, sir. I do not. By god, it could have been anyone. Half Baltimore thought the man was the devil incarnate."


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