The Hinges of Hell
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by Stewart Sterling
Description: Expect the unexpected? A hotel fire. A murdered million dollar heiress. A missing priceless sapphire. A pyromaniac newly-wed-husband-turned-widower. All the elements and the accompanying evidence point to an open-and-shut-case, but for some reason, seasoned Chief Fire Marshall Ben Pedley doesn't think so. His investigation brings him in circles, but in the end he realizes the first place to go to is always the last place anyone ever looks!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [185 KB]
Reading time: 110-154 min.
The buckeye whistle slashed the early-morning quietness with a shriek that drove a solitary cruising hackman to the curb in a flurry of slush. The Mars light wove its lurid figure eight from side to side like the bloodshot eye of a berserk Cyclops. The red sedan rocketed up the avenue at a speed forbidden by the Manual for Apparatus Drivers. Chief Fire Marshal Ben Pedley had a feeling in his bones there was work for him to do.
He wasn't happy about it. It was twenty minutes past three on a freezing February morning. The northwester coming in off the North River needled the marrow in his bones with a five-below bitterness. The Marshal had been in his warm bed at the Metropole less than an hour since returning from a two-bagger, caused by a short circuit, at Far Rockaway. Moreover, he hated fires, all fires, whatever time of day or night, wherever occurring.
Had been a time, back when he'd been a probationer at Truck Nine, practicing jumping into the life net, learning to use a ceiling hook to open up a draft, or crawling across a ladder bridging an alley ten floors up, battling along a smoke-choked corridor to smash down a door and make a rescue, or sitting around in the firehouse afterward shooting the breeze about it, when every fire had been a real kick, a chance to show his stuff. Not any more.
All that had changed after he'd transferred to the B.F.I. eight years ago. Only thing better than being a member of a truck company in the N.Y.F.D., he'd been sure, was to do detective work for the Bureau of Fire Investigation. Hadn't taken long for him to find out how wrong he'd been.
From being a challenge to guts and strength and training, fires had suddenly become ordeals involving charcoaled bodies pinned beneath smoldering wreckage, whimpering pyromaniacs, terrified old women peering beneath the sheets on morgue slabs, greedy and subsequently tearful policyholders, children on hospital cots screaming as burns were dressed, cunningly vicious firebugs. Even the promotion from deputy to chief fire marshal had given him no thrill; these days his only real satisfaction came from putting some arsonist behind bars.
Probably this blaze he was racing to now wouldn't even provide that somewhat morbid compensation, he thought, slewing around a stalled bus at Columbus Circle. The croaking voice from the short-wave speaker there on the dash had said that the night clerk at Hotel Wrenton Towers phoned in a still alarm at 3:05 A.M. the battalion chief had sent in a second from Box 872 at 3:11, a third at 3:15. In Pedley's experience hotel fires, late at night, were more often the result of someone falling asleep smoking a cigarette than of a planned torching. Still, there was always the possibility of the discharged and disgruntled employee trying to take revenge on a hotelful of sleeping people, of the intoxicated and depressed guest deciding to end it all regardless of how many others he took with him into eternity. It would at least be necessary to take a look.
An ambulance clanged around into Broadway from Seventy-second. A patrol coupé zoomed across from the drive. The intersection cop semaphored the Marshal to cut through the red light. Up ahead the stream from a water tower was pointing a silver finger at the hotel in the emergency floodlights. Ice on the mall between the traffic lanes was splashed with claret from the red lights of three pumpers, two hook and ladders, a couple of hose trucks, and the battalion chief's car.
Hook Twenty had its eighty-five-foot aerial angled up from Seventy-fifth Street to the northern face of the hotel. Smoke, cauliflowering out of the windows on the eighth floor just above the peak of the giant ladder, was shrouding its tip. As Pedley bounced his sedan over tangled hose lines, slid across greasy ice against the rear bumper of Hose Thirty-two, a gust lifted the veil.
Two firemen were on the aerial. One stood on the second rung from the top, lifting a scaling ladder to hook it onto the ledge of the middle window on the eighth floor. The other braced him from behind. Ten feet above, a man's arm emerged from the swirling smoke like that of a drowning man going down in a whirlpool.
The Marshal picked his way over lumps of frozen coupling spray, across a treacherously slippery sidewalk to the main entrance, where four canvas boa constrictors writhed into the lobby. A bulky man in a black rubber coat and a white helmet festooned with icicles stood bellowing to a motor-pump operator.
Battalion Chief Jack Mackinnon slapped his forearms across his coat front like a seal. "Hi, Ben. Goddamn thing started in one of the air shafts; it's all through the eighth and ninth. Worst of it's that block of four-story brownstones just east. Roofs were going before we could get lines up there."
"Many still inside?" Pedley gestured toward the procession of half-clad men and women trudging out from the lobby in bathrobes over pajamas, fur coats over nightgowns, blankets over trouser legs.
"Not many. Elevators are running. Goddamn standpipe froze; we had to thaw out before we could get water on the ninth. Some of the people on that north wing were cut off on the eighth and ninth. We've got the Pirsch up to the seventh; we'll get 'em." The Battalion Chief bellowed instructions to the water-tower operator.
Pedley went back to the corner where another fireman was mounting the giant Pirsch ladder. The top man had his safety belt hooked around the scaling ladder, was climbing up to the window ledge of the eighth floor like a monkey on a stick.
The wind had shifted. Wisps of smoke blurred the Marshal's view temporarily, but that blossoming cauliflower of creamy yellow smoke was now trailing off eastward into the floodlit night. The waving arm at the window had shoulders and a head attached to it now. The fireman on the scaling ladder reached up, caught hold of the ledge beside the trapped victim.
* * * *
A hoarse cheer went up from the crowd, invisible to Pedley behind the fierce glare of the floodlights; it merged almost instantaneously into a deep, rumbling groan as rescuer and rescued began to struggle on that narrow ledge a hundred feet above the sidewalk.
The fireman seemed to be trying to get the man--a youth in topcoat and muffler, his face streaked with smoke or soot--to descend the scaling ladder; the other was apparently afraid to try it. Suddenly the trapped man ducked back into the window. A glint of bright orange showed on the pane just above where his head had been.
The fireman on the ledge crawled inside, reappeared after a dozen seconds with the other over his shoulder, began to rope the unconscious man beneath the armpits. He lowered the limp body to the second man at the top of the ladder. The victim was passed down to the third fireman, who half carried, half slid him toward the aerial's turntable. As the fireman who made the rescue began the ticklish descent from ledge to aerial on the scaling ladder, there was a soft punnh like a partly inflated paper bag being exploded high above the street. A tongue of flame whooshed out of the eighth-floor windows, tasted at the ledge.
The cheers began again. Bright flares sparked the incandescence of the floodlights--flash bulbs somewhere inside the police lines. Pedley edged past hosemen trying to free lines frozen to the pavement, reached the turntable of the great fly ladder. The roped victim was being lowered to the street.
One of the truck-company men growled, "Better put him in the amby; looka that mark on his puss!"
Pedley scowled. "Hold it, boys." He bent over the victim, used his handkerchief, wiped the smoke smudge off the young man's face. It was, or had been, a darkly handsome face with a long, thin nose, high cheekbones, a fine forehead, and deeply shadowed eye sockets. "Get that ambulance interne here, fast."
The fireman who held the youth's legs protested: "Jeeze, Marshal, we oughta rush this guy straight to the hospital. He looks like he's had it!"
Pedley was bleak. "Put him down. Bring the doc! Jump! I know this lad. He's Raff Estero. I sent him up, year ago, for burning down a grade school in Harlem. Maybe he has had it. If he has, I want him to talk before he checks out."
And if he hasn't, the Marshal added silently, maybe I'll have to see he gets it.