Burnt Offering — sample from Chapter Three

Warning to my younger or more sensitive readers: some adult language within. 

 

 

“We should have sent a uniform cop,” Jeffries complained. “Then we wouldn’t have wasted our time.”

“The fresh air will do you good,” Webber answered with a false smile.

The two of them stood on the porch of a small house that was flanked by old trees; no one had responded to the doorbell, and there were no signs of life inside.

Jeffries checked his watch. “He probably left for work,” he said. “Rush hour’s coming up soon.”

“We can check with the neighbors.”

Jeffries glowered at her. “And if they’re not home?”

“We can come back later,” Webber said.

“Or we can send a uniform,” argued Jeffries.

“Do you want a different assignment, Detective?” sighed Webber tersely. “Because I’m sure I can ask Lieutenant Nichols for you to be put on a different case, if this is too hard for you.”

Jeffries blinked in surprise. “No. No, I want this case.”

Webber held his gaze for a moment. Honestly, it was like dealing with one of her daughters. Or her husband when he was in one of his moods. When she thought Jeffries was properly admonished, she turned to walk down the steps of the porch, trusting he would follow along.

“Can I help you?” asked a petite black woman, approaching them on the sidewalk. She wore a white tank top and maroon shorts, with an iPod clipped to her waistband. The ear buds hung loosely around her neck, and she was breathing a little heavily.

“Out for a jog?” Jeffries asked conversationally.

The woman looked at him disdainfully. “Do you two need something? Because if you’re here to give me a copy of The Watchtower, I’m not interested.”

“No, ma’am, we’re not missionaries,” smiled Webber. “We’re detectives. IMPD. Does Robert O’Grady live here?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Can I get your name, please?” Jeffries asked, notebook at the ready.

“Vicki Semetka,” she said, spelling it for him at his request. “Now what do you two want with Robbie?”

“Is he here?” Jeffries pressed.

“He went to St. Louis a couple days ago,” Vicki said impatiently.

“When will he be back?” he asked.

“This morning.” She checked her watch and continued, “Maybe in half an hour or so. I’ve got to get some coffee going for him.”

“Do you live here too?”

“Yeah, I do. And I’d really like to know what this is about.”

Webber and Jeffries glanced at one another, an unspoken signal passing between them. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a little information, and it might keep her talking to them. Right now, it was the only information source they had.

“There was a fire the night before last at the Garnet Cannery,” Jeffries said. “You may have seen it on the news.”

Vicki’s jaw fell open. “I don’t watch the news,” she said. “The Garnet Cannery – that’s Robbie’s old factory, right?”

“Yes, it is,” Jeffries acknowledged. “And we really need to speak with him.”

“Was it a bad fire? Because Robbie’s been trying to sell that place, and he’s really not gonna be happy about it if he’s gonna have to do repairs now.”

Uh-oh, Webber thought. Difficulty selling real estate, and it burns down. That’s a major insurance fraud red flag…

“Well, his insurance should help take care of that,” she said casually.

“Yeah, but that would take time. And he just went to St. Louis to try to sell it to somebody over there this week.”

“Any idea who?”

“No, I don’t get involved in his business. I only know this much because he wouldn’t stop bitching about it before he left.”

“Was he having trouble selling the place?” Webber asked, looking for confirmation.

“It’s just about all he talks about. But, you know, I really don’t pay that much attention to his business. It’s his business.”

“Miss,” Webber said, “does Robbie have a cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the number?”

“Memory number three,” she shrugged indifferently. “I don’t know it offhand. I got it programmed.”

“On your cell phone?”

“Home phone. We only got one cell phone for the two of us. It was too expensive to have two. He says I go over my minutes too much, so he wasn’t paying for it anymore.”

“Could you call him for us? Just to make sure he’s on his way?” Jeffries asked politely.

Vicki paused, sizing them up. “This is pretty important?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Webber said.

“All right,” Vicki said hesitantly, squeezing between them on the stairs. “Come on in.”

The detectives followed her into the house. Jeffries stayed with Vicki as she walked into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Webber lagged behind to get a look around.

The room she was in appeared to be a living room or family room, except that it was nearly bare. There was a loveseat and a bean bag chair, but no other places to sit. An old beat-up radio was plugged into a socket, but it sat on the floor – there were no end tables, no coffee table, nothing but a couple shelves attached to the wall, which held some old paperbacks. Webber had a sense of something missing, but the room was so empty that she couldn’t quite figure out what one single thing could be nagging at her.

The carpet was heavily worn and patchy, and two of the lights on the ceiling fan were burnt out. The fan was on high, but Webber suspected that if it weren’t for the early morning coolness, the July heat would be unbearable in this house; she detected no air conditioning.

“No answer,” she heard Vicki tell Jeffries.

“Would you mind trying again?”

“All right. Would you hand me that remote?”

Webber realized there was no television, either. That’s what was missing. In her house, it was on nearly non-stop; either the girls were watching some silly reality show, or her husband had it on as background noise while he worked.

There was nothing to see in the living room. She walked to the kitchen and looked at the fourteen-inch set that Vicki was turning on as she called O’Grady again. The picture was fuzzy, and the set looked almost as battered as the radio in the living room.

“What channel is news on?” Vicki asked. “I want to see if there’s anything about the factory.”

“At this time of the morning? Probably any of the networks,” Jeffries said.

The detectives waited as Vicki listened to the phone.

“Still no answer,” she said.

“Did he go with anyone?” Jeffries asked.

“No, he drove by himself.”

“When did you talk to him last?”

“Before he left,” Vicki said. “He said he’d probably be too busy to talk, so we haven’t called each other.”

Jeffries gave Webber a look – one that said We may have a lead on our John Doe. Webber nodded slightly.

“Do you know where he was staying?” she asked.

“No, he didn’t tell me which hotel.”

“Does he usually tell you where he’ll be staying?”

“He doesn’t go out of town very often. Says it’s too expensive to travel.”

“How about who he’d be meeting? Did he tell you that?”

“Just that it was a prospective buyer. He didn’t give me a name. Or if he did, I don’t remember it.”

“But he said he’d be back this morning?”

“Hold up,” Vicki said, pointing at the television news. “I think this is the factory right now.”

The detectives looked; sure enough, there was a story about the fire, complete with footage from one of the helicopters. Webber thought she might have been able to see Jeffries and herself in one of the shots, but it was over quickly.

“Still no word on the identity of the victim of a deadly fire that struck a factory on the city’s west side this week,” said the news anchor in her generic anchor-voice.

“Somebody was in that?” Vicki asked, astonished.

“The Garnet Cannery on Old Dublin Road caught fire late Tuesday night; teams from three Indianapolis area companies were involved in combating the fire. It was only after the fire was under control that the authorities learned of a body inside. A police spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.”

Frantically, Vicki pressed buttons on the phone. She turned off the TV and turned her back to the detectives.

“Pick up the phone,” she whispered. “Pick up the phone, pick up the phone, pick up the phone…”

For the next few minutes, Vicki continued to redial with her back turned. Although Webber sympathized, she was first and foremost a detective; she took the opportunity to look over a small stack of envelopes on the kitchen table.

FINAL NOTICE, one said. The return address was for a company called Fletcher & Fletcher Collections.

OPEN IMMEDIATELY, said another, from JSW Collection, Inc.

OVERDUE, said a third, from a bank.

That explains the living room décor, thought Webber. It’s not an attempt at Spartan living. He’s probably sold everything else.

She caught Jeffries looking at her; she tapped the envelopes lightly and rubbed her fingers together to indicate money. Jeffries nodded. He’d seen them too. She knew he was thinking the same thing.

Eventually, Vicki set the phone down on the counter and turned to face the detectives.

“If it was him…” she said, her voice strained, “if it was him who was in that fire… you wouldn’t have asked me to call him.”

“Right now, Vicki, we don’t know who was in the fire,” Jeffries said gently. “We’re trying to find that out.”

“I have a picture of him!” Vicki said, grabbing a small purse from the kitchen counter and starting to rifle through it.

“Vicki… a picture may not help us.”

She squinted at him, not understanding. When she realized what he was implying, she set the purse down slowly.

“It wasn’t him,” she said. “He was in St. Louis.”

“Tell you what,” Webber said. “He’s supposed to be back in – what, about twenty minutes now?”

Vicki nodded.

“Okay. You wanted to make him some coffee. Let’s do that. We’ll wait with you for a while.”

“Thank you,” Vicki said.

“Jeffries – you know how to make coffee?” Webber asked.

Grudgingly, Jeffries began the process of brewing a pot of coffee. As he opened cupboards, looking for a filter for the coffeepot, Webber noticed that most of them were half-empty.

“How long have you lived here?” she asked Vicki.

“I’ve been here for about a year. I don’t know how long Robbie lived here before that. A while, I think.”

“He owns this house?”

“Yeah. But he’s started to talk about selling this place, too. He said he wants a smaller place.”

With the coffee brewing, Jeffries said, “Excuse me, Vicki. I need to talk to Detective Webber alone for a minute. Why don’t you try calling Robbie again?”

He went into the living room, and Webber followed him. She could hear Vicki attempting one more time to reach Robbie.

“What are we doing here?” Jeffries asked quietly. “We’re wasting time. We’re not going to get anything done just sitting around drinking coffee and waiting for a guy who may be lying in the morgue right now.”

“An hour isn’t going to kill you,” Webber said. “The vic isn’t going anywhere.”

“An hour?” Jeffries grumbled. “He’s supposed to be here in twenty minutes. Why do we need to wait an hour?

“You’ve never been caught in traffic?” Webber asked wryly. “Listen, if you have a better idea of something we can do right now that will help us make any progress, I’m all ears.”

“Get his dentist’s name. Call for his dental records. Have them sent to Dr. Blacklock for comparison.”

“You’re jumping the gun again,” Webber said. “As of this moment, O’Grady isn’t even technically missing. There’s no way a dentist is going to release private medical records without a court order, and it’s too early to get one. Think this through.”

Jeffries pursed his lips in frustration, but nodded, looking out the window. “You’re right,” he muttered. “I just don’t like this waiting.”

“Patience,” Webber reminded him. “Good things come to those who wait.”

“Well, let’s hope this is a good thing coming up the driveway right now,” Jeffries said, brightening considerably. “Vicki? What kind of car does Robbie drive?”

The phone clattered to the table as Vicki leapt from her seat. She ran past the detectives and out the door, rushing to the car.

“Robbie!” she cried as a short white man with a trim beard climbed out of an old Caprice. She flung her arms around his neck and squeezed.

Robbie looked more irritated than surprised. He also looked exhausted, his dark hair drooping limply across his forehead. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Once the detectives got Vicki settled down, they asked Robbie to come inside. At first he was reluctant, not knowing what the detectives were there for, but finally his fatigue overcame his suspicion. He poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned against the kitchen counter.

“Now,” he said, taking a sip, “you say you’re detectives. What do you want with me?”

“Your factory burned down, Robbie!” Vicki said. “And there was someone inside it, and I thought it was you!”

Robbie held up a hand, palm toward Vicki, and she immediately quieted down. Looking Jeffries in the eye, he said, “The cannery? The cannery burned down?”

“Yes,” Jeffries answered. “Tuesday night.”

“Completely burned down?”

“There’s still a section that’s in reasonably good shape,” Webber said, “but the main part of the building – it’s a total loss.”

Robbie blinked a few times, and then laughed humorlessly.

“Mr. O’Grady,” Jeffries said, “do you have any idea who was in your factory that night?”

“Nobody should have had access,” he said. “The only employees who had keys turned those in before we closed the doors in 2004. They were electronic keys, they were all accounted for, and I still changed the access code.”

“When’s the last time you were there?”

“Last week,” he said. “I had to get some old paperwork that I thought would help me sell the place.”

“Is that what you were doing on this trip?” Webber asked.

“In St. Louis? Yeah, I thought I had a potential buyer. Turned out he was a complete waste of time, not to mention gasoline,” Robbie said bitterly. He drank his coffee quickly and started to pour a second cup. “God, I wish I still had some vodka here.”

“When you were in the factory last week,” Jeffries asked, “did you notice anything that would indicate trespassers?”

“Not at all. If someone got into that place on their own, it was within the past eight or nine days.”

Which doesn’t rule out the possibility of a squatter, Webber thought. If homeless people think a place is abandoned, they’ll try to move in. And a week or so – that might give enough time for one vagrant to find it without it becoming public knowledge among the homeless community.

“Do you know of anyone who might have wanted to get into your factory?” Jeffries asked.

“No,” Robbie sighed. “I almost wish I did. Maybe somebody would have wanted the place, but I can’t find anyone with use for an old cannery with out-of-date equipment. I can’t even find anyone who wants the old machines for scrap.”

“Mr. O’Grady, I have to ask you where you stayed in St. Louis,” Webber said. “Can you write down the name of the hotel for me?”

Robbie looked at her curiously.

“You think I had something to do with it?”

“I have no idea,” she said honestly. “But I’d like to rule you out as a suspect, and the easiest way to do that would be to verify your whereabouts for Tuesday night.”

“So you’re figuring arson,” he said.

“It’s the best explanation right now.”

“And you think I might have torched my own factory,” Robbie said sarcastically. “Or hired someone to do it? Is that it?”

“Sir,” Webber said patiently, “at this point we haven’t excluded anything. We’d really appreciate your cooperation so that we can rule you out.”

“Oh, of course. You’re on my side,” he sneered.

“No,” said Jeffries. “We’re not. If you were responsible for setting a fire that killed someone, we will do everything we can to nail you to the wall. That’s our job. But if you’re not responsible, then wouldn’t you want us to figure out who is? Somebody burned down your factory.”

“My junk real estate. I wasn’t exactly attached to it.”

“Please, Mr. O’Grady,” Webber sighed. “Just give us the name of the hotel.”

“Tell me,” Robbie said, “what possible motivation I would have for burning down my own property.”

“Mr. O’Grady…”

“Or I could tell you,” Robbie continued. “Maybe I torched the place to collect on the insurance. Is that it? You think that I was trying to get out from under a money pit? Maybe I couldn’t cover the property taxes?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time that someone pulled a scam like that,” Jeffries said. “And we know you’re not doing well financially.”

“Not doing well financially,” Robbie repeated. “That’s an understatement, Detective. I owe more than I can count. Everybody wants a piece of me. I maxed out my last credit card at the hotel in St. Louis, and now I have a ten dollar bill and some pocket change, and I expect someone to come for that any day now.”

“So you understand why we need to verify your whereabouts,” Webber said.

Robbie began to laugh, softly at first, but eventually with real mirth; he set down his coffee and wiped his eyes.

“Detectives? Are you fans of irony?”

Webber and Jeffries watched Robbie carefully as he pulled open a drawer. Both detectives slowly moved their hands to their service pistols.

“Easy, Mr. O’Grady,” Webber said.

“Relax,” he said, still laughing. “No sudden movements, I know.”

From the drawer, he removed a small stack of mail. He sorted through the papers until he found what he was seeking, and tossed it onto the table.

“If I wanted to burn the place to collect on the insurance,” he said, “I sure picked a hell of a time to do it.”

Jeffries reached for the paper and read it while Robbie continued to laugh.

“What does it say?” Webber asked.

Handing it to her, Jeffries answered, “It says the property insurance policy was terminated due to non-payment. In June.”

Webber read the form; sure enough, the policy was cancelled a month before the fire occurred.

“I couldn’t afford the premiums. And I couldn’t afford a new policy. So, Detectives,” Robbie said, smiling broadly, “am I not the most fucked person you know?”

Vicki, who had been standing silently near Robbie, stepped closer and draped an arm around his shoulders. She rested her head on his shoulders and her eyes filled with tears. He didn’t move a muscle, but remained staring at the detectives through haunted eyes.

“There’s still another explanation, Mr. O’Grady,” Webber said quietly.

“And what’s that?”

“The body we found in the factory? He didn’t die from the fire. The arson could have been an attempt to cover up evidence of a murder.”

Robbie stopped smiling.

Setting down his coffee cup, he said, “I’ll get you that hotel information.”

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One Response to Burnt Offering — sample from Chapter Three

  1. Lummox JR says:

    Looks good so far. I’m in.

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