Tonight, the ebony sky above Los Angeles was bronzed with the light of destroying fire. The Loan and Financing building, only completed in June, was reduced to ashes…
Sarah Rockford looked up from her notepad to where the Loan and Financing building was still being transformed into ash. The fire department was pouring water on it, and already the blaze seemed lesser than it had been. Perhaps it wouldn’t quite make it to the ashes stage tonight after all. She put a parenthetical ‘ruins’ after the ‘ashes’ sentence.
Looking over her scribbled notes, the phrase “only completed in June” struck her eye. Hadn’t she written something similar not long ago?
Sarah tapped her pen against her small chin, thinking. She made a note to follow-up this fact then went to try to grab a statement from the nearest fireman.
“No, we don’t know what started it,” he said irritably. Then, taking a closer look at her, added, “And what’s a girl like you doing out this time of night anyway?”
“Working,” she said simply. “Sarah Rockford; Daily Spinner.”
The fireman frowned at her, looking as though he doubted it. Well he might, for Sarah, at twenty, looked even younger than she was, something that was not helped by the fact that she barely cleared five feet. She tried to compensate by wearing her yellow hair in what she thought of as a professional pulled-back style and dressing in the most sophisticated button-up blouses and skirts the thrift store provided, though it didn’t really help much.
Besides which, she had stretched the truth a fair bit. She didn’t technically work for anyone; she simply hunted down stories and sold them to whoever would pay. The Spinner was just her most regular buyer.
It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to say that Sarah was a habitual liar; her parents (both deceased) had taught her to be honest, but then they had also taught her not to starve, and the latter lesson had sunk in a little deeper than the former.
“Well, Miss Rockford,” the fireman said, still suspicious but accepting her story. “We can’t tell you anything more about the fire, except that it doesn’t appear to be arson and right now we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread, so if you wouldn’t mind stepping back while we do our job…”
Sarah complied, wondering as she did so whether she could translate ‘doesn’t appear to be arson’ in such a way to make it sound as though it very likely was arson without driving her conscience to open rebellion. She reluctantly decided she couldn’t.
She did, however, make sure to stay within earshot of the firemen while they battled the blaze. She scribbled city block threatened by raging inferno; saved by heroic firefighters. That was good; she’d be able to get a few more words from some of the men and a flattering portrayal of their labors might encourage them to be communicative in the future. A girl had to think of her future.
As Sarah took notes, one of the men who had been up close to the fire came and spoke to her friend in a low voice. She moved forward eagerly to hear.
“Someone was on the second floor. Never got out.”
The man nodded.
Sarah’s excitement disappeared with a sickening jolt. A burning building was one thing: spectacular, visually splendid, dramatic. A person burned alive inside it was something else entirely. She didn’t like that kind of story.
She didn’t attempt to press the firemen for more information. They likely wouldn’t have any, and besides that could wait. She drifted back toward the watching crowd, thinking.
How did the fire start? She wrote.
By the time the last embers were extinguished from the smoking ruins, Sarah had been able to glean a few more grains of information. First that the fire was likely electrical; something about faulty wiring reacting with substandard materials. Second was that the company that owned the building had no comment about the fire or its victim. And finally that said victim was a janitor who had been working on the upper floor when the fire broke out and had been overwhelmed by smoke before he could escape. His name was Jose Montago, and he had a wife and three children.
Sarah worked all of this into a moving, dramatic article; praising the heroic efforts of the firemen who held the fire at bay to save the rest of the block (she decided she didn’t have space to add that one of the firemen had assured her it was highly unlikely the fire would have spread in any case, given the still night and the distance between buildings), lamenting the tragic death of Mr. Montago with his widowed wife and orphaned children, and engaging in some pointed, but carefully non-libelous speculation as the to negligence of Diamond Financial.
The article sold, and Sarah had the satisfaction of earning her keep for another day. But she was not finished yet. Something about this fire troubled her. Perhaps it was the dead man, or the apparent negligence that had led to the disaster, but she wasn’t ready to let it go.
Her first move was to look into Diamond Financial. This required a trip to the library to look through newspaper archives, then a journey to the County records building, a little covert flirting with the clerk, and a lot of bald-faced lying to his superior.
Sitting in her rented rooms in her pajamas and going over her notes with a bowl of ramen noodles, Sarah pieced together the following facts. First, Diamond Financial was in deep trouble; they had weathered two lawsuits that, while they probably sailed right by the average person had caught the eyes of the financial world. That is, anyone they were likely to do business with. The result was that, in addition to the large settlements they had been obliged to make, they had lost a good deal of their client base. They had even been the subject of a case study in the Wall Street Journal about the side-effects of lawsuits. In short, they were hanging on by a thread, if that.
The next thing she found was that, right in the midst of this crisis, indeed while they were still battling one of the lawsuits, they had purchased the lot on which the Loan and Financing building had stood and filed an order with a company called Huner Contractors to construct the building for the purposes, so they said in their press release, of opening a new revenue stream in the interests of re-establishing their reputation. The building had only been completed less than a month prior to its bursting into flames.
Most significantly, she found, was that it had been heavily insured. It had cost twenty-three thousand dollars to build, but had been insured for fifty. In other words, they had pulled a clear twenty-seven thousand dollar profit just when they desperately needed money. All because their expensive new building burned to the ground.
Sarah stuck the end of her pen into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Everything was shaping up to a grand little conspiracy, one that – she added angrily to herself – had cost an innocent man his life. Everything, that is, except the fact that the fire department had been very clear that there was no sign of arson.
If only she could get around that. Suspicious as the circumstances were, unless she could find some evidence that the fire had been anything but an accident – non-circumstantial evidence, that is – she couldn’t do anything but point out how suspiciously fortunate the company was. And there was no law against being suspiciously fortunate.
Sarah thought a moment, then grabbed her phone and dialed. She waited a moment, then a familiar voice answered.
“Hello, Detective,” she said. “This is Sarah Rockford.”
“Oh, no; not you again!”
Detective Marvin Crane had been with the LAPD for almost thirty years. He was tough, non-nonsense, and scrupulously honest, which was why Sarah usually went to him if she thought she had a crime on hand. She knew he found her annoying, but at least he treated her seriously, and for a twenty-year-old girl with her living to make, that counted a lot more than manners.
“Yes, me again,” Sarah said. “Listen, you know that fire that we had last night?”
“The one you were hanging around?”
“That’s it. I’ve found evidence that it might have been staged; can you check and see if there’s anything to suggest that?”
“We did,” he answered. “What do you think? We found a dead body and a brand new building burning to the ground. We went over it with a fine-tooth comb, but there wasn’t any sign of arson. There was, however, a lot of evidence showing that it was an electrical fire, because some moron used corroded wires.”
Sarah felt disappointed.
“What made you think it was staged?”
She gave him a summary of her findings. To her relief, he didn’t brush it off. She could almost hear him sitting up on the other end of the line.
“Hm,” he said. “That does look bad. I’ll tell you what, kid; I’ll put out some feelers and see if I can find anything odd about them. Meanwhile, don’t publish anything.”
“You know, I do have to eat.”
“So cover a dog show,” he said. “If there is something fishy going on we don’t want to tip them off that we’re onto it.”
That was too much sense to argue with.
“Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll sit on it for a few days. Let me know what you find, won’t you?”
“I suppose that’s only fair,” he muttered.
“You’re adorable! If I ever decide to adopt a grandfather, you’re first on my list.”
He hung up. Sarah laughed and put down the phone. Progress! At least, some progress, though at the cost of sitting on an especially spicy bit of speculation.
Oh, well. If she had to keep the Diamond Financial angle under wraps, there was another element to the story. It had popped into her head when Crane had mentioned the bad wiring, though she hadn’t been able to do anything with it while they were talking. Now, though, she began to wonder whether it wasn’t odd, possibly criminal even, that the building had been constructed so shoddily. Who were Huner Contractors, after all? Had it been their doing, or perhaps…
Sarah checked the clock; three PM. Still time to make it back to the county records building if she hurried. She stood up, staggered a little and yawned. It occurred to her she’d been doing that a lot recently, and this made her realize she hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours. Perhaps, on second thought, this could wait until tomorrow.
Sarah relaxed her mind for a few hours working on the novel she was writing, and which, hopefully, would one day spare her the necessity of such late hours. She then went to bed on the couch that was one of the three or four pieces of furniture she owned and slept the sleep of the just until the alarm woke her at five in the morning.
Her first move, she decided, would be to track down and interview someone from Huner Contractors. It was a slim hope, but if she could get convincing evidence that the wiring and materials had been sound when they were installed, that might be enough to make a case. At least it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Huner Contractors, as it transpired, were remodeling a suite of offices out in the suburbs of LA. According to a sign it was for a company called ‘Westlake Realty.’ Sarah parked her ancient Corvair (which had been a gift from a family friend who owned a car lot and who had been unable to find anyone else willing to buy the thing) and went in search of the man in charge.
This turned out to be a cinderblock in human form by the name of Lepton. His stubble-lined face when Sarah accosted him went from angry to interested faster than the changing of a traffic light, while his small eyes did a quick and appreciative sweep of her face and form. Several of the workers, Sarah noticed, had paused to look at her. She suspected that she was probably the most alluring thing not on a magazine cover that had appeared in that spot for quite some time. She mentally put the information down in case she needed it. Modesty, like honesty, was a virtue she could be flexible on.
Pretending to have not noticed the attention she was getting, Sarah smiled her best innocently friendly smile on Lepton. She had to tilt her head back to do so, as she barely came up to his chest.
“Good morning,” she said. “My name is Sarah Rockford; I’m with United World News. I know you must be a busy man, but I was wondering if you had a moment to answer a few questions?”
Lepton’s cinderblock face cracked into a cement-teeth smile.
“Well, if it won’t take long,” he said in a tone that suggested he hoped it would. “Why don’t you come into my office?”
“That’s very courteous of you, but this will only take a minute,” said Sarah. Rule one of being a five-foot beauty was not being in enclosed spaces with a human brick if you could help it. “I’m sure you read that the Loan and Financing Building on Miller was destroyed in a fire the other day?”
Lepton’s expression underwent another sudden transformation. His appreciative interest vanished and his annoyance returned.
“No,” he said. “Why would I?”
“It was in the newspapers,” she said. “But perhaps you’re too busy to read them. I only mention it because I know your company built it.”
“What about it?”
Sarah picked her words carefully.
“I’m writing a piece on the fire,” she said. “And, of course I have to say something about what caused it. According to the fire department, it was faulty wiring and shoddy materials. I thought it only common justice to see what you had to say about that.”
His face grew even uglier.
“You saying I did rotten work?”
“No,” she answered smoothly. “That’s what the fire department says. I want to know what you say.”
As she spoke, she became uncomfortably aware that the other workers had begun to gather around them.
“I say that I’ve been in this business for almost fifteen years. My people’ve worked on a hundred different buildings, every one of them as good as anyone else’s And I think that if anyone wants to say I did a bad job they ought to say it to my face.”
Sarah glanced around at the seven or eight burly men who now surrounded her. This wasn’t at all the reaction she had expected. It was much too severe. It was frightening. But she maintained a brave face.
“Mind if I quote you on that?” she asked.
“I think you’d better leave,” he answered.
She was only too happy to comply. Sarah thanked the man politely and, trying not to turn her back more than necessary, made her way out of the site. The men moved aside to let her go.
Driving away from the site, Sarah drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.
“Now what,” she said aloud. “Are they so touchy about?”
She had gone in with a vague idea that Huner Contractors might have had a hand in the fire. Now she was certain about it.
Today’s research trip required less finesse than yesterday’s: she only wanted to know a bit about which buildings a certain contracting company had built or worked on. Once she had this information, she was able to return to the library to compare it to the record of accidents, fires, and other such problems.
What she found was interesting, but inconclusive. The company had to one degree or another worked on over sixty buildings in the greater Los Angeles area, either building or renovating. Of these, thirteen, including the Loan and Financing building, had either burned down, collapsed, or somehow became unusable. It wasn’t much, but it was notable.
Her next step was to cross-check the thirteen failed buildings with the clients who had ordered the work. The first was a company called “Faylestate Insurance.” They had ordered a new office building, which had collapsed like a house of cards in a minor earthquake two months after being built. The company took in an insurance check for three times what they paid for the building, which, as it turned out, was just in time to pay a settlement in a harassment case.
Then there was the three-story research facility owned by Hyperdyne Systems, where Huner Contractors had done a basement renovation three weeks before it was destroyed in a fire. Two people were killed in that one, and again the company pocketed a large insurance check, covering their third year of net-loss revenue.
So it was again and again. Every single time one of the buildings that Huner Contractors’ had worked on had something go wrong, the company that had contracted it received an insurance check far greater than what they’d paid for the work, and usually just when they most needed an influx of cash. And, what struck her as especially strange, never once did any of them even talk about bringing Huner Contractors to court for negligence or shoddy workmanship.
“Gotcha!” she exclaimed aloud, so that several nearby people glared at her.
Sarah checked her enthusiasm: still it was only circumstantial. Very suspicious circumstance, to be sure, and probably enough for the police to move against Huner Contractors, but nothing definite. A clever lawyer, she was sure, could probably make mincemeat out of the theory, and the fact that Huner Contractors had never been sued could cut both ways: evidence of conspiracy or evidence that the company didn’t consider them negligent. And if once they got through court without a conviction, they’d be home free, meaning no justice for Jose Montago or any of the other people who had died in this scheme.
She nibbled her pen for a moment, trying to gauge how best to proceed. Then, in a sudden flash as though of divine (or demonic) inspiration, she had idea. The site she’d visited that morning was for Westlake Realty. She looked for their name in the business journals and had to stuff her fist into her mouth to keep from shouting in triumph, for they were being sued for malfeasance and their stock was a fraction of what it had been a year ago. If her theory was correct…
Sarah rushed to a payphone and dialed Detective Crane’s number. The phone range several times, then went to voicemail.
“Listen,” she said. “I think I’ve figured the whole thing out; I just need to confirm it. I’m going to do that now: the Westlake Realty building on Pico Boulevard that’s being redone. If it’s what I think it is, we’ll have them dead to rights. I’ll call you back when I get a chance. Oh, this is Sarah Rockford, by the way.”
For the second time that day, Sarah drove out to the construction site. It was about eight o’clock by this point, and the block was deserted; everyone had gone home. The windows looked in on a bare, empty building, and the door was firmly locked.
Sarah slung her bag over her shoulder, took up her camera, glanced about to make sure no one was watching, and approached the door. A few moments with a hairpin was enough to undo the bolt. She slipped inside, closed the door behind her, and ducked out of view of the street.
The main work on the interior seemed to consist of redoing the floors. There were several large holes in the foundation waiting to be filled with concrete. She hopped down into one of them. It was about three foot cubed. Shining her flashlight against the cement that had already been poured, she looked carefully for any sign of wear or weakness, but found none. Disappointed, she hoisted herself back out and went to look at the exposed walls. The beams seemed sturdy enough when she tapped them; no structural issues.
But then she took a look at the insulation they had begun to install. To her untrained eye it looked unpleasantly frayed and dirty. She sliced off a sample with a pocketknife and carefully stowed it in a plastic bag to show to an expert. Then she took her camera and snapped a photo of the whole set up.
It was as she was looking through the camera that she noticed the wiring. This had been completed already, it seemed, but the coverings didn’t look quite right. She felt them, and the black rubber coating fell away in her hands; it was better than half rotted. Underneath, the wires were badly corroded. She wasn’t an expert, but it looked to her as though if you used this system, it was likely to short out and catch the insulation on fire within a few short weeks.
Sarah eagerly snapped another photo, getting in close to the wirework. Once an expert took a look at this, she thought, it would mean ‘probable cause’ and a search warrant.
“Gotcha,” she muttered.
At that moment, a hand – a huge, callused hand – closed over mouth.
“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Lepton snarled into her ear.
Blazing, blind nightmare terror erupted in Sarah’s chest. Shock and danger both combined to elicit a scream that would have been heard across the city if it hadn’t been smothered by Lepton’s powerful grip about her mouth.
“Don’t struggle!” he snapped. “Or I’ll break your little neck.”
The energy that fear had given to her limbs died away, and Sarah froze, stiff and rigid, except for the rapid rise and fall of her chest and the darting motion of her eyes.
“You scream and you die,” he said. “You don’t give me any trouble, maybe you walk away. Understand?”
She nodded, and he took his hand away.
“What do you think you’re doing here?” he demanded. As he spoke, he pulled her arms behind her back and began tying her wrists together with rope.
Sarah swallowed. The first blaze of shock and terror had subsided, and she had gotten some of her courage back.
“Building inspection,” she said. “I wanted to have a closer look at your materials.”
“That your job, is it?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “You do know that people have died because of your work, right?”
“Despite what I said this morning, I do read the papers,” he said, pulling the ropes tight and making her wince. “Sit down.”
“That doesn’t bother you?” she said, obeying. He began to tie her ankles together. “Jose Montego; that’s the name of the man who died the other night. He had a wife and three kids.”
He finished her ankles and began on her knees.
“Do you ever shut up?”
“Really?” she said. “You don’t care at all?”
He pulled the knot tight, then spun her roughly around and started tying her elbows.
“I’m making about twice as much a year as the average guy in my profession, thanks to jobs like this,” he said. “You expect me to go all teary eyed because some chump has the bad luck to be there when it went down?”
Sarah was still terrified, but her fear was briefly eclipsed by anger.
“I suppose that’s expecting too much of something like you,” she said. She winced as he finished tying her up. The ropes were so tight that it hurt to even try to move.
Lepton sat back and looked at her. His granite face was a blend of satisfaction and hatred that was enough to make Sarah’s blood run cold. He was obviously enjoying her helplessness.
“So now what are you going to do with me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as light as possible.
He picked up her camera, examining it idly.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. He opened the rear, pulled out the film, and crumpled it up in his hand. Sarah sighed irritably, but it was no more than she had expected.
“There are a lot of things I’d like to do with you,” he said with a leer. Sarah dropped her eyes, shuddering inwardly at the very thought.
“But,” he added, picking up a roll of duct tape. “I’d rather not waste time.”
Sarah eyed the tape uneasily, guessing what it meant.
“You don’t need that,” she said. “I’m not gonna scream.”
“Oh, I think you are,” he answered.
She looked at him, her breathing coming fast as she understood what was in store.
“You said,” she stammered. “That you would let me go.”
“I said maybe,” he answered, pulling off a strip of tape. “And I was lying about that.”
Before she could make another sound, he pressed the tape over her mouth, sealing it shut. She tried to yell, but only a muffled grunt came out.
“So,” he said, gripping her face and forcing her to look at him. “You think I use shoddy material in my work, huh? Well, what would you call a nosy brat who doesn’t know how to mind her own business? You think that’ll make good building material?”
Sarah’s eyes widened with terror. She tried to speak, to plead, but no words beyond muffled grunts came out.
Lepton picked her up, carried her to hole she had briefly explored, and dropped her unceremoniously in. The impact knocked the wind out of her. He tossed her bag down after her.
As Sarah struggled to regain her breath, she heard Lepton walking across the floor, then rolling something over. She looked up and saw the conical maw of a cement mixer looming over her.
Sarah screamed into the tape as the cement mixer began to turn.
“So long, sweetheart,” Lepton called, and tilted the opening forward.
A stream of wet, gray cement began to pour into the hole about her, splattering Sarah with the cold, gritty substance. The cement mixer wasn’t especially large, but Lepton kept filling more and more into it, so that the stream pouring in around her waxed and waned, but never ceased.
Sarah struggled around into a sitting position, but could do no more. Already the stuff had covered the entire bottom of the pit and was rising about her. Her wide, terrified eyes darted about, seeking some means of escape, but there was none to be found. Even if there were, she could barely move, tied up as she was. She thought of her pocketknife: tucked safely away in the front pocket of her blouse and completely useless to her.
Steadily, and with greater swiftness than she would have believed possible, the cement filled in around her. It covered her hips and ankles, buried her bound hands even as they clawed uselessly at the ropes that held them, and began rising up her body. Her knees were a rapidly disappearing island in gray slime. It seemed strange to think she’d never see them again.
For the idea that she had held out against as long as possible was breaking through the ramparts of her mind and filling her pounding heart with unbearable terror: there was really no way out. She was actually going to die like this, right here and right now.
Her knees vanished under the cement. Her chest was covered, making breathing so difficult that she wondered if she might suffocate before it even covered her head. The cold muck reached her neck; it was tugging at her long blond hair.
Sarah tilted her head back, trying to stay alive for as long as possible. Lepton was waving sarcastically at her. The cement filled her ears and crawled up her cheeks. It covered the tape that muffled her screams. She shut her eyes tight and began to inhale it through her nostrils. This would be her last breath…
But it wasn’t. Her nose and part of her face was all that was left above the cement, but it didn’t seem to be getting any higher. She waited, unbearably tense for the final moment, but it didn’t come. Instead, a rough hand brushed the cement away from her face and sets of strong hands pulled her out from under the heavy muck.
Sarah opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, Detective Crane and a small posse of policemen. Lepton was subdued, and Crane and another man were hauling her out of the pit.
“Damnit girl,” Crane snapped. “What were you thinking?”
Sarah groaned in relief, though the detective didn’t immediately take the gag off of her, so apparently his question was rhetorical.
Within a few minutes, Sarah’s bonds had been cut and she sat furiously rubbing her limbs to try to get the feeling back while she explained what she had learned.
“See, Lepton and his men had a bit of a side business,” she said. “Most of the time they just did their job, but if a client were in financial trouble, like Diamond Financial, then they offered a special service: they would make or renovate a building for the usual price, but use junk material that cost a fraction of what the real stuff would cost. Meanwhile the client heavily insures the building, justifying it by saying they can’t afford to take another loss right now. Then it inevitably fails or burns down, meaning they collect on it. Since they didn’t torch the building themselves, there’s nothing to link them to the fraud, except the fact that this is what they paid for.”
Detective Crane nodded.
“That about right, Lepton?” he asked.
The contractor snarled.
“I want a lawyer.”
“Oh, you’ll get one,” said Crane. “Not that it’ll do you any good. Attempted murder’s a pretty serious offense.”
Sarah beamed at him as he was led away.
“Okay,” she said. “So, thanks for saving my life, but how did you know…?”
“I got your message,” he said. “Saying you were coming out here to snoop around. As soon as I heard that I got some men together and rushed over. Figured you’d get yourself into a spot like this.”
She smiled and hugged him.
“You’re sweet,” she said.
“You’re taking this whole near death experience pretty well,” he said, with an air of reluctant admiration.
Sarah shrugged. “I’m still here. And besides, just think what a good story this will make: ‘Trapped in pit of death, she watched her tomb forming about her.’ People will eat it up.”
Then she looked down at her cement-covered body and ruined clothes and grimaced.
“I suppose, though,” she added. “I’d better go clean up before I try to write it.”