Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson in Necessary Evils

AL 2

Andre Fireson was no stranger to elegant afternoon affairs like this one. Being the President of a major arms manufacturer, he’d often had to wine and dine his way to a lucrative business deal. They could even be enjoyable at times; there were worse ways to spend an afternoon than among well-educated, successful men and beautiful women in fine clothes.

This wasn’t going to be one of those times. Today he had a very particular goal in mind. He needed to know whether his potential business partner was the monster he was rumored to be.

Once again, it came back to the looming war in Africa and his contract negotiations with the government. Things were moving, and Andre had almost locked down his deal when word broke that Magpie Holding and Shipping, his usual company for moving his product, had been implicated in the breaking Hunar Contractors scandal that was rocking the LA business community. He’d dropped them at once; Firebird Arms didn’t need any bad press right now.

Trouble was, this left him with no immediate way of moving his product around. He needed to find a new shipping company fast, and Roper Transport seemed the obvious choice. It was, after all, one of the top such companies in the Western United States, and the board was pressuring him to sign with them and be done. But Andre had heard too much about Walter Deaney to want to do business with his company. At least, not without first finding out just how much of what he’d heard was true.

So, when Deaney had invited him to come to his party that weekend to discuss their possible deal, Andre had accepted. It would give him a chance to find out just what sort of man Deaney really was.

His initial impression had been unexpectedly favorable. Deaney was about seven or eight years his senior: dark, handsome, and with a strong voice and easy manners. He had, Andre knew, been a professional fighter, and for a while they talked sport. Deaney told a good story, and he seemed affable and charismatic. His house was richly, if not tastefully, furnished, and his food and drink was excellent. Yet the longer they talked, the less Andre liked him. There was something about Deaney’s affability that rang hollow: the expression in his eyes didn’t quite match that of the rest of his face, his laughter was a little too hearty, and in any case Andre had learned to distrust anyone who tried too hard to be liked. A man of real substance, he believed, didn’t cater to the opinions of others; between two decent, honorable men, liking would occur without forcing it. Deaney was too lavish with his compliments, too hearty with his laughter. He was ‘slick’ would be how Andre would put it: as slick as an ice rink.

Andre took a moment when Deaney when to greet some people to take a turn about the garden and chat with a few of his fellow guests. He found them, as he’d expected, to be much of a piece with their host: very friendly, very eager to please, and generally empty of substance.

About an hour later he and Deaney sat down at the bar and got onto the subject of business.

“You understand, of course,” said Andre. “That you would be running extremely valuable cargo for the United States Government.”

“Naturally,” said Deaney. “I’ve handled sensitive material before, don’t you worry. My people can keep secrets.”

Andre studied him thoughtfully. Should he lay his trap now? No, not quite.

“That’s good to know. Still, with such valuable cargo, shipping carries certain dangers. Have you had any trouble with hijackers?”

Deaney sipped his drink and shook his head.

“Nope, never any trouble of that sort,” he said. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference.” He grinned. “We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”

Andre nodded. I bet you do, he thought.

“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said aloud. “Now, tell me more about…”

He trailed off, for he had suddenly realized they were no longer alone at the bar. A small, very young-looking blonde girl in a white and blue patterned dress sat almost directly behind Deaney. He guessed she was about eighteen; probably the daughter of one of the guests, and most likely with no idea what she’d sat in on.

“Miss?” he said, raising his voice slightly to get her attention. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”

Deaney started a little and turned around to see whom Andre was talking to. What happened next surprised him; the girl seemed to jump and her face took on an expression as though she’d just come face-to-face with a cobra. Evidently, she knew who Deaney was.

“Sorry,” she stammered, looking from one to the other. “Excuse me.”

She took her drink and hastened away, both men watching her as she disappeared back into the crowd.

“Suppose this isn’t the best place for private conversation,” said Andre. He had an uncomfortable idea it would be best for the girl’s sake to pass the incident off as casually as possible. “Especially,” he added in a low voice. “As I want to talk to you about some potential…extra services.”

“Suppose not,” Deaney laughed. He checked his watch. “I’ll tell you what, I need to see to a few things, but when I get back, why don’t we continue this in my office upstairs?”

Andre agreed to this and Deaney went off to speak to one of the other guests. Andre sipped his glass thoughtfully. A chance to see Deaney’s private office was too good to miss. If he’d get answers anywhere, it would be there. Besides, it would be best to lay his trap where no one would overhear it.

His valet Marco Benton drifted over.

“Notice anything?” Andre asked.

“Not yet,” Marco rumbled. “Waiters are all with the catering company. Only ones working directly for Deaney are Booker and the maid.”

“Booker?”

“That guy,” said Marco, nodding at what appeared to be a slab of well-cooked beef from the buffet that had sprung to life and put on a tuxedo. “Edmund Booker. There’s a goomba if I ever saw one. If he had anything to do with this spread, I’ll eat my cookbook. Guy’s got no class; you can see just by lookin’ at him.”

“Notice anything about the other guests?”

Marco shrugged.

“Typical rich types; not real gentry like you.”

“Appreciate that,” said Andre. He thought a moment.

“You notice a girl; real short, blonde, white and blue dress?”

The big valet shook his head.

“Nope, can’t say I have.”

Andre frowned, processing what that might mean. Marco was very observant, not to mention had an eye for the ladies. If he hadn’t noticed her, that could only mean she hadn’t been here very long…

“Keep an eye out for her,” said Andre. “Might be nothing, but…you never know.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Marco, and he retreated as Deaney returned.

“Shall we, then?” he said, gesturing at the hall with his drink.

“Please,” said Andre, picking up his own.

Deaney led the way upstairs and down the hall into a wide, well-proportioned room that would have been elegant had it been more tastefully furnished. Andre’s well-honed sensibilities recoiled at the mishmash of clashing art styles, from the deco clock on the white mantel to the Victorian desk by the window and the Edwardian sofa and chairs before the fire.

“There we go,” said Deaney as they entered. “Now we can be a bit more private.”

“Nice room,” Andre said, focusing on the structure rather than the content in order to make the words sound convincing. “Renoir?” he said, nodding at what he recognized as one of the artist’s more garish works.

“Original,” said Deaney proudly. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”

“So I see,” said Fireson, though how any man could endure having these two paintings in the same room was beyond him. He suspected that framing their price tags would have been more to the point.

“But,” he said, tearing himself from the subject with an effort. “I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”

Deaney grinned approvingly.

“That’s good,” he said, gesturing at one of the armchairs. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”

Firesone sat down on the edge of the chair, looking Deaney hard in the face, trying to read him. He’d have to tread very carefully here.

“Hypothetically speaking,” he said. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”

Deaney leaned back on the sofa, his eyes narrowed, dangling a half-full glass in one hand. For a moment, the two men studied each other, almost fencing with their eyes, seeking weakness.

“That would be illegal,” Deaney said at last.

“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”

Deaney smiled slightly, and the fencing match continued for another few seconds. Then he shook his head with a careless air.

“Not at all.”

Fireson smiled and sat back in his armchair, picking up the drink he’d set down on the side table.

Got you, he thought.

“That’s out of the way, then,” he said aloud. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”

“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”

But Andre was not done yet.

“One thing further I need to know,” he said. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”

Deaney seemed slightly taken aback and gave a laugh that was even more out of harmony with his eyes than usual.

“Amateurs?” he said. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own services.”

Deaney sipped his glass, eying Andre thoughtfully. Possibly he was trying to detect trickery, but in this case there really was none; Andre’s father had taught him that rule, and he followed it to the letter in all his dealings.

“Fair enough,” said Deaney, setting down his glass. “Let me show you something.”

He got up and went to the Renoir painting. Andre guessed what this meant, and sure enough, a moment later Deaney had swung the picture away from the wall to reveal a safe behind it. He turned the dial a few times (taking care to position himself between it and Andre), then opened the door. Inside Andre had a glance of several neatly arranged folders containing numerous documents, but Deaney ignored these and instead took out a small, black ledger. He shut the safe door and led Andre back to his desk, where he laid it flat and opened to a certain page.

“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”

Andre bent over the ledger (vaguely aware of a faint smell of oranges as he did so), and studied it. It was a record of shipments made over the past month; shipments where the contents were written in code and the locations were all to or from Mexico. Two entries were marked ‘lost’ and accompanied by the letters ‘EJ’ followed by a question mark.

It was obvious to Andre that he was looking at the record of a smuggling operation, and to judge by the numbers, a very successful one.

“Hm,” he said. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”

“Several years,” Deaney answered.

“Never been caught?”

“Never caught,” said Deaney with a satisfied expression. “The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything one me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”

“So I see,” said Andre, trying not to look at the ledger as he spoke. Deaney closed the little book and returned it to the safe. Andre followed him, the beginnings of an idea – reckless, but not unworkable – rising in his brain.

“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” he said aloud. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”

He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Andre registered the faintly triumphal look on his face, and the fact that his hand felt as thought it were made of steel wires. He made a mental note to wash his own hand very thoroughly.

“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”

Andre picked up his glass and followed Deaney out of the office and back down to the party. As he went, he worked out his plan in his mind.

When they entered the living room, Deaney excused himself and went out onto the patio to speak with his other guests. Andre waited until he was sure he was out of sight, then drained his glass and set it aside.

“If anyone asks,” he told Marco (who had dutifully appeared at his side the moment he returned). “I’m in the bathroom.”

“Got it.”

He slipped back out of the living room and into the hall, then up the stairs as silently as he could and back to the office. He guessed he could count on maybe five or ten minutes before he was missed; hopefully that would give him time to get into that safe and get that ledger.

When he opened the door to the office, however, he found that the safe was occupied.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, louder than he had intended in his surprise.

The girl jumped back from the safe with a small shriek of alarm. He pulled the door shut behind him; whoever she was, he didn’t want anyone to hear them.

It was the same girl who had been at the bar: bright blonde hair, wide hazel eyes, and barely clearing five feet. She seemed momentarily struck dumb by his appearance and only stared at him with evident fear.

Andre looked at the safe. It was still shut. She had obviously had the same idea he had…only what was she even doing here? More importantly, how much, if any, of the recent conversation had she overheard?

“Who the hell are you?” he asked.

She swallowed and seemed to gather her courage.

“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”

This was such a patently desperate maneuver that he didn’t even bother contradicting it.

“How long have you been in here?” he asked.

She squared her small shoulders and gave him a defiant look.

“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said.

So she’d heard it all. She’d been spying on them. That might be awkward for him. But more importantly, if she was spying on Walter Deaney, and if things like her gambit at the bar were her idea of subtlety…

“You’re not a cop,” he said bluntly, still working things out in his mind. “And I don’t think anyone knows your here.”

“That’s all you know,” she said, unable to keep a faint tremor out of her voice.

“You’re right: I do know that,” he said. “If you never left this house,” he went on, thinking aloud. “I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”

The girl licked her lips nervously. He’d frightened her. Well, good; better scare her off now than have her keep snooping around until an actual crook found her. Andre looked at her, then about the room. He made up his mind and started toward her.

“Stay back!” she said, retreating.

“Shut up,” he snapped. “You’re getting out of here right now.”

“I…what?” she said, apparently confused. This gave him the chance to close in and seize her by the arm; not too hard, but hard enough to ensure she wouldn’t wriggle away. As he did so he caught that same scent of oranges, recalled smelling it by the curtains, and understood where she’d been hiding.

“You are going to walk out with me,” he said in his commanding voice that very few people ever disobeyed. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”

She blinked, evidently confused that he didn’t mean to murder her on the spot.

“That’s it?” she said. “You’re just gonna let me go?”

“Let you go?” he said, tugging her after him as he started for the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”

He marched her out into the hall and down the stairs. Andre caught Marco’s eye as they entered the hall and he motioned for him to follow. At the front door they encountered a few other guests.

“Gate crasher,” Andre muttered. “She’s just leaving.”

The girl didn’t struggle and didn’t protest. She accompanied him to the gate without making any kind of a fuss, though Andre could feel the tension in her body as they went. He guessed she still didn’t quite believe he was going to let her go unharmed.

He jammed the switch to open the gate. As it creaked open, he looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard, then lowered his face to her ear.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” he said. “But you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this if you value you life.”

With that, he pushed her through the gate. A little harder than he had meant: she nearly fell on her rear. As she recovered, he jammed the switch again and the gate slid shut.

The girl turned and fixed him with a furious, hateful glare from the other side of the bars. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until that moment that Andre realized that she was beautiful. It seemed to him as though he had never seen a lovelier girl in all his life than the one who stood glaring vindictively at him through the bars.

A moment later, she turned and disappeared down the street. Andre felt strangely dissatisfied with himself as he turned back to the house. Marco had joined him surreptitiously. For such a big man, he had mastered the art of moving quietly.

“Follow her,” Andre ordered. “I want to know who she is.”

Marco nodded, opened the gate just enough to slip his bulk through, and disappeared. Andre stood for a moment, frowning in thought, then turned back to the house

He didn’t feel like going back to the party, and as he’d already gotten what he’d come for there didn’t seem much reason to stick around anyway. So instead he strolled along the path leading around to the garden, looking over the flowerbeds.

The path led him around the corner of the house, away from the direction of the patio and the main party going on in the living room. Things were quieter here; the noise of the party was reduced to a kind of dull hum. He was able to think.

There’d be no going back to the safe today, and probably no more chance for him at all. But there might be ways of getting around that; he had money, and he connections, and the man who had both very rarely found an insurmountable obstacle. In any case, he’d escaped the shame of having his family company linked with the likes of Deaney…at least, assuming the girl didn’t spread the word around, though he supposed he could deal with her one way or another. Bringing Deaney to justice might have to be another man’s task. Perhaps he’d get in touch with Detective Crane and inform him of what he’d learned.

As Andre was musing on all of this and admiring Deaney’s flowers (the man kept a good garden, he had to admit), he suddenly became aware of voices coming from the house. This wasn’t the hum of indistinct music and talk coming from the party; these voices were much closer, low, and serious. Among them he recognized Deaney’s own.

They were coming from a half-open window leading into one of the smaller ground floor rooms. Andre slipped closer to try to hear, blessing the softness of the soil about the flowers that masked the sound of his movement. He stood against the wall beside the window, listening.

“Sure, I noticed her,” Deaney was saying. “Good-looking, fun-sized blonde. Guess she was a gate crasher. What about it?”

The other man hesitated before answering.

“Did you happen to notice what she did while she was here?”

“Not especially,” said Deaney. “Got herself a drink at the bar while I was talking to his lordship, until he shooed her away.”

“Ah,” said the other man. “I see. And you didn’t notice her anywhere else?”

“No, not until he dragged her out of the house. Why?”

“Because I did,” said the other. “I had a nice view of the windows on that side of the house, and I looked up and saw that same girl hiding behind the curtains in your office.”

There was a pause.

“When was this?”

“You figure it out,” said the other dryly.

Deaney swore aloud.

“Did you get her name?”

“She said it was ‘Linda Mitchell,’” said the other. “But she was lying. She’s a good liar, but not good enough. Still, I don’t suppose she’ll be hard to track down.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Deaney. “I’ll talk to our people in the police; have them pick her up, then we dump her in the ocean.”

“You’d better find out just how much she knows first,” said the other. “I really would rather not have any more surprises just now.

“Right, right,” said Deaney. “Instead of the ocean I’ll have them take her to Mistretta, let him play with her for a bit, see what shakes out. It’ll give him a chance to redeem himself.”

“Very good; I will leave it in your capable hands, then,” said the other. “Only next time, be sure to check behind the curtains.”

Andre stepped away from the window, carefully knocked the dirt off his shoes, then headed quickly back toward the front door. As he did, he met Benton waiting for him.

“Tell me you found something,” he said.

“Drove off,” said Benton. “Got her plate, though.”

“Good,” said Andre. “Because we need to find her. Now.”

###

It was later than Andre would have liked when Benton finally parked the big black sedan around the corner from the run-down apartment building.

“Are you sure this is the place?” Andre asked.

“According to my friends, this is where she lives.”

Among his many other qualities, Benton had a seemingly endless series of contacts, ranging from associates of his days cracking heads for the mob to city clerks, bankers, and tradespeople. Whatever the job, he knew someone who could make it happen. Tracking down the girl had been a simple matter of passing a few bills around the county records office, which had revealed that ‘Linda Mitchell’ was in fact a freelance reporter by the name of Sarah Rockford. In fact, that she had been the very one who broke the Hunar Contractors scandal and so created this whole mess in the first place. If nothing else, the girl certainly had courage.

Andre was a little surprised at the place. He knew she had been playing a part that afternoon, yet it still seemed strange that the beautiful, elegant young woman he’d thrown out of Deaney’s party should live in what he could only describe as a dump.

“Wait here,” he said. “Keep the engine running. Cops show up, try to stall them.”

“I don’t think I have to wait,” said Benton darkly, nodding as another dark sedan pulling up in front of the building.

Andre swore. Going in the front was no longer an option, not unless he meant to knock out two cops. Even if he knew they were dirty that wouldn’t help him much; he didn’t know how far up the scale the corruption went. In any case, if he gave the police a reason to come after him, that would also give them a shot at the girl.

Only one choice now.

“Stall them,” he said. “But don’t engage.”

He slipped out the back of the car and went around the back of the building while Benton got out and made straight for the two plainclothes detectives making for the front door.

The building was about five stories high, and according to the address they’d found, Rockford lived on the third floor. It was one of those old brick buildings that came with a metal fire escape that led down into the alley behind it. From the ground the only way to access the fire escape was a sliding ladder currently raised some ten feet off the pavement.

Andre quickly surveyed the layout, then took a running leap at the alley wall, jumped off, and just caught the lowest rung of the ladder with his outstretched hand. It clanked in what seemed a dangerously loud way.

Though he was a rather short man – only five-foot-five – Andre had worked hard to build an extremely powerful body, and he easily hoisted himself up the ladder to the first platform. He then lowered the ladder before continuing: he had a feeling they would need to get away quickly.

Trying to move as quietly as he could on the rickety metal structure, Andre ascended to the third floor, where he started looking surreptitiously through the windows, hoping against hope that the girl would be in one of them so that he didn’t have to invade more than one apartment tonight.

Andre didn’t believe in luck, which is perhaps why he seemed to have an unusual amount of it. In the fourth window on the third floor, he found her. The room was tiny and cramped, piled high with papers, books, and assorted debris. Rockford had changed out of her dress and was now wearing pale blue pajamas. She was sitting on a kind of combination couch and bed, a notebook in hand, chewing thoughtfully on a pen.

Time was rapidly running out; the police would be at her door at any minute. Yet still Andre hesitated, watching her. Partly, this was because he suddenly realized he had no idea how he was going to approach her; his original plan had simply been to knock on her door and talk to her. However, the fact that he was now obliged to enter through the window made that much less practical, as did the fact that they were on a strict time limit. At the same time, if he tried to enter now, she’d scream and probably try to run…ending up right in the arms of the corrupt cops.

Many years of brutal financial negotiations and hard study had left Andre with a keen strategic mind, and it didn’t take him long to concoct a plan: a risky one, and not likely to endear him to the girl, but one that seemed most likely to succeed. Still watching Rockford from the window (which was partly open to let in a breeze), Andre slipped a hand into his pocket and quickly began to prepare what Benton had euphemistically referred to as “Plan B.”

He had no sooner finished than there was a knock on Rockford’s door.

“Sarah Rockford? LAPD.”

Rockford looked up with a surprised expression, set her notebook aside, and rose to answer the door.

As soon as she turned her face to the door, Andre threw the window open wide (thankfully it didn’t stick) and slipped in behind her. A second later, he had seized her about the middle and clapped the chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth.

She immediately screamed into the cloth and began thrashing and fighting as savagely as a badger that’s been caught in a snare. Her foot kicked sharply up and back, and her elbow jammed into his stomach, but Andre knew how to fight and how to grapple: he kept his knees turned in to deflect the kick and Rockford wasn’t strong enough to do any damage to his muscular abdomen. He held tight to her, gripping her left wrist in his right hand so that his arm encircled her slender body, pinning her right arm to her side and using his greater bulk to hold her in place as much as possible as she kicked and squirmed helplessly.

In any case, the chloroform very quickly took its toll. After a few seconds’ furious and futile fighting, Rockford’s movements became sluggish, and finally she slumped limp and unconscious in his arms.

The police were hammering on the door now, shouting for her to let them in. Andre stuffed the rag back into his pocket and carried the unconscious girl back through the window, which he pushed shut behind them. He slung her over his shoulder – it was a good thing she was so small – and carried her as quickly as he could down the fire escape, which rattled audibly under his tread.

There was a distant crashing sound as the police broke down the door. Andre descended the ladder one-handed, then dropped the last four feet and ran for it just as a voice from overhead shouted, “Stop! Police!”

Andre was around the corner in an instant, where Benton waited in the idling car. He threw the unconscious girl into the back seat then climbed in after her, and Benton was off before he’d even closed the door.

“Close one, boss,” said Benton.

“Too close,” Andre agreed. He threw a blanket over the small, huddled form on the floor, just to make sure no one looked in and saw her. He felt strangely guilty as he did so. Though he’d done it to save her life, and he hadn’t had much choice in any case, it wasn’t pleasant to think that he’d attacked, knocked out, and kidnapped an innocent girl. That was going to be difficult to explain.

Benton chuckled from the driver’s seat.

“What’s so funny?” Andre asked in a sharp voice.

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking of what she’s gonna say when she wakes up.”

Andre sighed and rubbed his temple, feeling suddenly tired.

“It’d be more helpful if you’d think of what I’m going to say,” he answered. “Because I sure as hell don’t know.”

 

The Ten Commandments of Murder: Available Now

I’m a big fan of ‘cozy’ mysteries: Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, I can’t get enough of them. Naturally (because that’s how my mind works), I’ve always wanted to make one of my own. So, I did, and it’s now available on Amazon.

TCM v2.jpg

“A house of many sins is a house of many motives.”

A gunshot shatters the night in the Long Island mansion of Wareham. An odious houseguest has been murdered and rich, directionless Alfred More is found holding the weapon that killed him…only he didn’t do it.

With a charge of murder staring him in the face, Alfred turns to the top private detective in New York: the huge, unpretentious Malachi Burke. Armed with his own ‘Ten Commandments of Murder’, Burke sets about sifting through the secret sins of the household to find which among them has violated the command, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’

Available for purchase here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Crime Uninvited

VL 1

Sarah Rockford reflected that it was a very strange thing to be sitting across the table from a man who had come very close to murdering her only a few days before.

“Thank you for consenting to see me, Mr. Lepton,” she said. “This won’t take long.”

Lepton said nothing. He was looking at her with a hungry kind of expression, rather like how a wolf might look at an unwary rabbit.

“I’m doing a follow-up piece on the companies you worked with,” she said. “And which I understand you’ve so obligingly provided to the DA’s office.”

“It’ll get me out sooner,” he said. “Something for you to look forward to.”

Sarah swallowed and tried to look as though she hadn’t understood.

“Right, well, the reason I’m here is that I noticed you omitted one particular company from your statement.”

He said nothing.

“Roper Transport,” she said. “A shipping company. You renovated their warehouse on Erago Street and it burned down two days later. A young lady was killed in that fire. Burned so badly that they had trouble identifying her. You gave testimony against every other company that you did business with, but not them. Why?”

Lepton tapped his stubby fingers on the table, still looking at her with that same hungry expression. His lips curled back from his teeth in a savage grin.

“You mean to look into them, do you?”

“Perhaps,” she said. “If I think there’s a story there.”

“Oh, there is,” he said. “Biggest story of the decade.”

Sarah thought that, considering the decade was less than a year old, that wasn’t saying much, though she refrained from mentioning this.

“See, the reason I didn’t say anything about them is that I knew the DA is never gonna move on them.”

“Why not?”

“Too afraid,” he said. “Walter Deaney, that’s the head of the company, he’s ruthless. No one’s going to mess with him. Anyone who does, well…” he grinned. “That fire went up much sooner than I expected. And I don’t think that girl was there by accident.”

Sarah frowned, tapping her small chin.

“You say you think it was deliberate murder?”

He shrugged. “Didn’t hear it from me.”

“And you didn’t say anything to the DA because you didn’t think they would do anything about it. But surely, they’re not afraid of…of that sort of thing?”

“Might be,” he said. “That’s for you to find out. That is, if you’ve got the guts for it.”

###

            Sarah Rockford was not the kind of girl who was to be deterred by danger. She had her living to earn: her story exposing Hunar Contractors had been a huge hit and the Daily Spinner, her usual newspaper, was offering her big bucks for a sensational follow-up. If this worked out, she might actually be able to start saving money, and for a girl of twenty with nothing but her brains and her looks to get by with, that was something to consider. Besides, having already survived one murder attempt, she rather felt that she could handle anything that came her way.

She was optimistic like that.

Sarah’s first move, after leaving the prison, was to read everything she could find on Roper Transport and its CEO. What she found was very interesting.

Walter Deaney had started out, not as a businessman or worker, but as a karate champion. He’d won multiple tournaments, including placing second in a world championship, before turning his attention, and his winnings, to business. He had purchased and now ran one of the most successful shipping companies in southern California and did business throughout the western United States and into Mexico.

More to the point, he had been the subject of several lawsuits. Most of these were related to harassment or assault, but the most interesting one had been an indictment for smuggling that had seen Deaney brought to court. All the lawsuits had ended in an acquittal for him. The criminal charges, she noticed, had been brought just after the fire that had destroyed the warehouse renovated by Hunar Contractors.

This brought her to the fire and its victim. The dead girl found in the wreckage was named Anna Billings, and she had been the warehouse receptionist. A very pretty, brown-haired young woman with a shy, sweet smile. Sarah thought she would have liked her. It was sad to think of all that prettiness being burned up, and to think of the terror and confusion that must have comprised her last moments on Earth.

Sarah read the report of the incident. The official story was that the girl had been back in the main part of the warehouse, which mostly kept highly flammable materials, and that the fire had started suddenly and she hadn’t been able to escape. There was no good explanation for why she was there in the middle of the night, except a comment by Deaney that that particular warehouse had reported minor inventory discrepancies. He didn’t actually come out and say he thought Anna had been stealing, but the implication was clear.

It was when Sarah read this that she realized that she hated Walter Deaney: hated him in a way that she had hated very few people. Bad enough he had murdered the girl, but then he trashed her reputation as part of covering it up.

Not only that, but Sarah felt a connection with Anna Billings. After all, if she didn’t miss her guess, the girl had suffered the same fate that she herself had narrowly escaped: being murdered because she was trying to do the right thing. It must have taken courage for her to even try, and that courage had been rewarded with a horrible death and posthumous slander. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be.

Sarah resolved then and there that she would bring Deaney down. This wasn’t just about surviving anymore; this was a crusade. She’d see Deaney arrested, or she would die trying.

The trouble was to figure out a way to make that happen. He’d already survived several lawsuits with nary a scratch. That must mean he had connections, as well as money. Meanwhile, Sarah Rockford was a young freelance reporter who struggled to make enough to keep body and soul together: she stood barely five feet high, had no real friends in LA, and her connections mostly just amounted to a single old detective. Her chief assets were her ability to write, her refusal to give up, and her excellent face and figure: not much with which to tackle a millionaire businessman-criminal-fighter.

She picked up her phone and dialed Detective Crane’s number.

“Crane speaking.”

“Detective, it’s me; are you busy?” Sarah asked.

There was a brief pause.

“Do you ever actually read the papers, kid?”

Sarah had momentarily forgotten about the gang war that was ravaging northeast LA.

“Well…” she began.

“That means ‘yes,’” he snapped.

“But wait, listen; I’m onto something I think could be really big…”

“Then I definitely don’t want to hear about it! Last night, in case you missed it, someone fired a grenade launcher in a residential neighborhood, and I’ve gotta untangle a goddamn conspiracy to try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“Then can you at least pass it on to someone else? Someone not as busy?”

Crane sighed and his voice grew a little gentler. He sounded tired.

“Kid, this thing involves cops. I don’t know who all I can trust. I’ll hear you out, ‘cause you’re usually right, but no promises.”

“Okay,” she said with a deep breath and she started to lay out her suspicions. Crane, however, cut her off.

“I already know all about the Deaney case: I was one of the lead detectives on it. He’s a slimy bastard, and I’d like nothing better than to see him in jail or in the ground, but that case is over. He was acquitted and we couldn’t link him to the girl’s death. Sorry, kid; that’s just how it is sometimes. Doesn’t matter we know he’s guilty if we can’t prove it.”

“So, if you got more evidence…”

“Don’t you dare go snooping around Deaney!” Crane shouted at her so that she jerked the receiver away from her ear in alarm. “You understand me? That man is dangerous and way out of your league. If I find out you’ve been messing around him, I’ll throw you in jail myself until you learn common sense!”

“Okay, okay!” she said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you actually cared about me.”

“I want you to promise me, Sarah, that you are not going to try to investigate Deaney, understand?”

Sarah registered the use of her name and was oddly touched by it. But she had no intention of giving any such promise.

“Let’s say I’ll be careful, how about that?”

“Sarah!”

“Gotta go, detective! Thanks awfully much for the threats and warnings.”

And she hung up as he tried to shout at her some more.

Sarah was surprised by the vehemence of Crane’s response; he usually tried to warn her off from dangerous stories, but never that strongly before. Granted, Deaney had already killed – probably – at least one person who had been looking into him. And, of course, it had been Crane who had had to rush to her rescue when Lepton tried to kill her, and it sounded like he’d be too busy to do anything of the kind now. Also, her having narrowly escaped being murdered recently would no doubt make him more concerned about her, which was kind of sweet.

She leaned back in her bed, surrounded by the newspapers, documents, and notes she’d been using for research, clasped her hands behind her blonde head, and tried to think.

Should she press on, or should she let it go for now? Letting it go would be the smart thing. After all, it wasn’t as if they would never go after Deaney: it would just have to wait until Crane was done with his present case. Anna Billings was dead, and so were who knew how many others; there was no hurry on their account. Besides, if Deaney was as dangerous as all that, probably she wouldn’t do any good sticking her nose into things.

And yet…

Sarah thought of the pretty, smiling face of the dead girl, thought of how Deaney had lied about her to escape justice, how seemingly no one was willing to stand up to him, and a hot, burning anger rose in her chest. It wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be.

She didn’t know what she could do about it, if anything, but she was going to try. She’d figure something out.

###

            As it happened, Sarah had an opportunity to begin her war on Walter Deaney almost right away. During the research that followed on her resolution, she uncovered the news that Deaney was hosting a party for various friends and business associates that weekend at his house in the hills. There would be a lot of people there, most likely more than Deaney personally knew. If she could manage it, it would be a good chance to get close and see what she was up against.

Sarah made her plans very carefully. She took most of the money from her last paycheck and rented an elegant blue-and-white sundress that would hopefully allow her to blend in with the rich crowd. She drove down to Deaney’s neighborhood and strolled about by his house to try to get some idea of its situation.

The house was a two-story, modern structure; very square and angular, with a high wall all around it breached by an iron gate. The gate, as she saw when a car drove up, operated electronically. The grounds, she had to admit, were very nice, with flourishing trees, neatly trimmed hedges, and bright flowerbeds. From the sound of running water she guessed there was a fountain or stream in back.

Most significantly, as it turned out, was the fact that there was a line of bushes just inside the wall broken only by the gate. She guessed this was to deter anyone who might try climbing the wall, but it might have other uses as well.

Those few days before the party were anxious ones. Sarah did her best to keep up with her work and did as much research as she could on Deaney and his company. She spent a lot of time working on her novel, trying to distract herself, but it wasn’t much good and she suspected she’d have to junk almost everything she wrote in those days. It was hard to focus when she was so anxious.

The day of the party finally arrived, and Sarah dressed herself carefully, applied makeup, and did her hair as well as she could. She doubted that she fit the part perfectly, but hopefully no one would look too closely…or, rather, they wouldn’t look too critically. Since she was a beautiful woman in an elegant dress, she couldn’t really expect no one to look at her, only that they wouldn’t be thinking too much when they did so.

She drove her ancient Corvair down to Deaney’s neighborhood and parked it a good distance away. Then, covering herself in a men’s overcoat and fedora – the coat was so big on her that it nearly reached her ankles – she slipped down the street. It was about four in the afternoon, but it was a mildly chilly day, so hopefully she didn’t look too conspicuous. In any case, the idea was simply for no one to connect her appearance outside the party with her appearance inside.

Sarah paced a little in front of the wall guarding Deaney’s house, waiting for her opportunity. It came when a big, fancy car pulled up to the iron gate. It opened, the car drove in, and Sarah slipped in behind it, ducking behind the bushes as she did so.

Her heart hammered and she felt a quiver of mingled fear and excitement: she was all-in now.

Travelling behind the line of bushes, Sarah made her way from the gate to a spot where a large tree and a few flowerbeds would make her approach less conspicuous. She could hear animated conversation coming from the house and the backyard: the party was in full swing to the point that probably no one would notice one more guest. She took off her coat and hat, bundled them up, and stashed them behind the bushes, then stepped out, adjusted the fit of her dress, and moved boldly towards the back of the house.

As she’d expected, there were a lot of people present: women in rich, elegant dresses, men in suits or polo shirts, here and there a waiter bringing people drinks or offering hors d’oeuvres. It was all so elegant and so upscale that Sarah felt immediately self-conscious. It wasn’t at all the kind of thing she was used to, and she was sure she must stand out like a sore thumb. But so far no one had paid her any mind, so she moved boldly in among the others and took a drink from a passing waiter.

A few of the men had begun to notice her. She smiled and drifted about, not sure where to begin. All her plans had been about getting into the party and then getting out again; the experience of actually being at a rich, elegant party given by a millionaire for other millionaires was something she hadn’t considered.

Fortunately, she soon noticed an older man standing off by himself beside the pond that filled part of Deaney’s garden and was fed by an artificial stream. Deciding he seemed the least intimidating person present, Sarah drifted over to him.

“Hello,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ve met? My name is Linda Mitchell.”

The man was about sixty-five, with a broad, pleasant kind of face. He smiled at her and accepted her offered hand.

“James Arthur Cummings,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Mitchell. How do you know Mr. Deaney?”

“I don’t, as a matter of fact,” she said. “Though I would like to meet him. You see, I came with my fiancée, but he’s off somewhere talking business, and I get so bored with that sort of thing. Do you know Mr. Deaney well?”

“Yes, quite well,” said Cummings. “I taught him when he went back to school after he gave up fighting. I used to be a mathematics professor, you see. Retired now, I’m afraid; I just couldn’t connect with this younger generation. You might say we’re old friends.”

“I see,” she said. “Then you can point him out to me.”

Cummings looked about.

“He’s not here,” he said. “Must be inside working on another one of his deals. That’s the only reason he holds these things, you know: chance to make connections and negotiate on the side. Very sensible of him.”

“Very,” said Sarah. “Well, I think I’ll go inside and see what’s become of my fiancée. Lovely to meet you, Mr. Cummings.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Ms. Mitchell,” he said with a slight bow.

Sarah drifted across the patio and into the house. There she found a spacious, high-ceilinged living room full of little knots of people, all deep in conversation. From what she could hear it was mostly either business (“If we were to close this deal soon it would make for a tidy end to the fiscal year…”) or gossip (“Of course, you’ve heard so-and-so was having an affair…”). Sarah drifted through, smiling and trying look as if she were enjoying herself. Her heart was hammering painfully against her ribs at the expectation that sooner or later someone would realize she didn’t belong there, and yet it was rather thrilling at the same time..

Then she saw him. Walter Deaney stood by the bar, leaning on it with one arm and holding a drink as he spoke with a rather short, but intense-looking young man. Deaney was, Sarah had to admit, very handsome, with swarthy skin, dark, neatly-groomed hair, and an athletic build. He was about in his mid thirties, but showed no sign of having lost any of the vigor and power he must have had as a fighter.

Sarah moved closer on the pretext of getting a drink (she’d hastily deposited the one she had on a sideboard). She slipped behind Deaney to speak to the bartender.

“Martini, please,” she said.

“…never had any kind of trouble of that sort,” Deaney was saying. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference. We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”

The intense-looking young man nodded.

“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said. “Now, tell me more about…”

He trailed off, and his eyes snapped onto Sarah. She pretended not to notice.

“Miss?” he said. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”

Deaney started a little and turned around, and Sarah abruptly found herself looking directly into his shrewd, penetrating eyes. To her own slight surprise, she felt suddenly very afraid.

“Sorry,” she stammered. “Excuse me.”

She took her drink and retreated, the cold, intense stares of the two men following her.

Sarah had been taken off guard at just how intimidating Deaney was when you met him face-to-face. She began to realize what Crane had meant when he said he was out of her league.

Yet now that she was here, she felt she had to see the thing through. At the very least, now that she knew he was distracted, she thought she’d take the chance to do a little searching.

Sarah surreptitiously emptied her drink into a flowerpot and, holding the glass, went up to one of the mingling groups.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Can you point me to the little girl’s room?”

She didn’t really listen too closely to the directions; the important thing was that they led out of the living room and away from the rest of the party. There was no one in view in the hallway. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure she remained alone, Sarah slipped up the stairs, making no more noise than a mouse. She made her way along the upper hall, glancing into the rooms as she went until she found the one she was looking for: Deaney’s office.

It was a wide, elegant room, richly furnished. There was a fireplace with a carved stone mantle, a huge, oaken desk before the window, luxurious green velvet sofas and chairs, shelves lined with books, and several large, fine oil paintings hung upon the wall. Everything was expensive and lavish, though it didn’t amount to any consistent taste: the chairs and sofa were Edwardian, the clock on the mantel was Art Deco, one painting was in the academy style, and another was Impressionist. Sarah suspected Deaney cared for none of it for its own sake, only as a means to show off the size of his wallet.

Closing the door softly behind her, Sarah stole into the room and went straight for the desk. She had no idea what she was looking for, or where she was likely to find it; she wanted something that might point to Deaney’s criminal actions, or at least give a clue where to look.

Sarah started methodically going through his desk, starting with the center drawer and moving from there. But she hadn’t gotten far when she heard voices approaching from the hall.

Hastily, she closed the draws and looked for somewhere to hide. The only option, it seemed, were the curtains, which were drawn wide open. She ducked behind one and found that it mostly covered her (it was times like this that she thanked God she was so small), leaving only a little bit of her side exposed, though as this was in front of the window, with the westing sun blazing through it, she doubted anyone would notice the whiteness of her dress.

She seized the inner folds of the blue, velvety curtain to keep it from moving just as the door opened and the two voices came in.

“There we go,” Deaney was saying. “Now we can be a bit more private.”

“Nice room,” said the other voice, which Sarah thought belonged to the intense young man Deaney had been speaking to at the party: Mr. Fireson. “Renoir?”

“Original,” said Deaney. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”

“So I see,” said Fireson. “But I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”

“That’s good,” said Deaney. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”

“Hypothetically speaking,” said Fireson. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”

There was a brief pause. Sarah couldn’t help herself. She very slowly and cautiously pulled back one end of the curtain to peer out. With barely an inch of her face showing between the curtain and the edge of the window, it was unlikely anyone would notice her unless they looked directly at her. And fortunately the two men were facing each other sideways on to her. They were looking at each other intently, Fireson leaning forward, staring at Deaney from under his brows. Deaney lounged on the sofa in a relaxed position, his head back, eyes narrow, a glass in his hand.

“That would be illegal,” said Deaney.

“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”

Deaney looked at him a moment longer, smiling slightly. Then he shook his head.

“Not at all,” he said.

Fireson seemed to relax. He sat back in his armchair, picked up the drink he had set down, and smiled.

“That’s out of the way, then,” he said. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”

“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”

“One thing further I need to know,” said Fireson. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”

Deaney gave a faint, slightly offended laugh.

“Amateurs? Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own service.”

Deaney took a sip of his glass, eying Fireson thoughtfully.

“Fair enough,” he said. “Let me show you something.”

He set down his glass and went to the Renoir piece. He felt along the edges, and the picture swung out to reveal a safe embedded in the wall behind it. Sarah’s heart leapt with excitement. Deaney turned the dial a few times, then opened the safe door. Sarah couldn’t see too well what was inside, but Deaney took out a small ledger and went to his desk.

Sarah held her breath as the two men passed right in front of her. She was painfully aware of her orange scented shampoo and thanked her stars she hadn’t thought to wear perfume.

Deaney laid the ledger out on the desk and opened it to a certain page.

“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”

Sarah couldn’t see what the page contained, and she didn’t dare try to get a better look. There was silence for a moment, and she wondered that they couldn’t hear her pounding heart.

“Hm,” said Fireson. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”

“Several years,” said Deaney.

“Never been caught?”

“Never caught. The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything on me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”

“So I see,” said Fireson.

Deaney closed the ledger and returned it to the safe. Sarah breathed again as they moved away from the desk.

“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” said Fireson. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”

He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Both faces held faintly triumphal looks, and at that moment Sarah loathed them both so much that it was all she could do to stay silent.

“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”

He gestured at the door and the two men departed.

Sarah waited a moment to make sure they didn’t return then stepped out from hiding. She was trembling all over, both with fear and excitement. It had been a narrow shave, but she’d come through; she hadn’t been caught, and she’d heard everything those two crooks didn’t want her to hear. What’s more, she now knew where the brute kept his secrets.

The smart thing, she knew, would be to get out of there right now. She had already pushed her luck more than was wise. But she was dying to get a look at that ledger. Besides, she was feeling triumphant: she’d infiltrated Deaney’s home with no one being the wiser and overheard a criminal conspiracy without being caught. She was beginning to have a very high opinion of her own skill and luck.

With a glance to the door, Sarah hurried to the picture and felt along the edges. She found a latch near the top corner, pressed it, and the painting swung out to reveal the safe.

Now came the tricky part. Sarah had never cracked a safe before, though she thought she understood the principle. She pressed one ear to the metal and began slowly turning the dial.

The room was very quiet; the noise of the party below was little more than a distant hum. Her heart was hammering in a distracting fashion, and a little voice in her head was screaming for her to get out now while she had a chance and not to be a fool. But she could hear the faint tick-tick of the dial moving, then a slightly louder click as it passed the tumbler. She made a mental note of the number, then began again…

“What do you think you doing?”

Sarah gave a faint shriek of alarm and jumped back from the safe. The compact, intimidating form of Andre Fireson stood before the door, which he was just closing behind him.

There really was not any kind of good explanation for her behavior, and anyway Sarah was too surprised and too frightened to say anything for the moment.

Fireson looked from her to the safe then back again.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”

He glared at her.

“How long have you been in here?”

“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said defiantly. She squared her small shoulders and looked him square in the face, hoping against hope that she could bluff him.

“You’re not a cop,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone knows you’re here.”

“That’s all you know,” she said.

“You’re right: I do know that. If you never left this house, I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”

Sarah licked her lips nervously. Fireson was not a large man, but she could sense the power in him. If he wanted to hurt her, there would be very little that she could do about it.

He looked at her, then about the room, and then started toward her.

“Stay back!” she ordered, stepping back away from him.

“Shut up,” he said. “You’re getting out of here right now.”

“I…what?” she said. This was not at all what she’d expected.

Fireson closed the picture over the safe, the seized her by the arm, not cruelly but firmly.

“You are going to walk out with me,” he said. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”

“That’s it?” she said in surprise. “You’re just gonna let me go?”

“Let you go?” he said, pulling her to the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”

They marched out into the hall together, Fireson keeping a firm grip on her arm and Sarah moving along with him. She still didn’t quite understand what was happening: he knew she’d overheard him plotting his crimes, so why was he just throwing her out?

They descended the stairs and out the front door, past a few other guests.

“Gate crasher,” Fireson explained. “She’s just leaving.”

Outside, he marched her down to the gate and jammed the switch to open it. As the iron gate creaked open, he glanced around and then said in a low voice. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, but you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this is you value you life.”

With that, he fairly threw her through the gate so that she nearly lost her balance. As the bars shut between them, Sarah fixed him with the most hateful look she could manage before turning and heading back to her car.

That, she reflected, had been a strange and rather humiliating end to her adventure. She didn’t understand what Fireson had meant by his final words, or by the fact that he had thrown her out rather than trying to silence her. Perhaps, she thought, he was less willing to commit murder than Deaney was. Well, he was a still a crook though, and she didn’t mean to let Fireson get away with his crimes either.

As she coaxed her battered old car into motion, however, her natural optimism reasserted itself. After all, things could have gone much worse; she’d gotten into Deaney’s house, found out where he kept his secrets, overheard him plotting with a compatriot and more or less gotten away with it. She felt rather proud of herself: at any rate she’d escaped without ending up in any real danger.

So she thought. But she had never been more wrong in her life.

 

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Construction of Crime

VL 1

 

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.”

“You sure?”

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.

“Detective Crane.”

“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.”

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

The Clown featuring Cosmo the Clown
-Frank Catelli is an expert kidnapper of rich children, but his latest crime brings him face-to-face with an enigmatic clown who doesn’t like what he’s been doing.

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Clown

Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.

Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.

Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.

That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.

All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…

Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.

Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.

The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.

“Hi, there!” he said.

George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.

“Hello,” the boy answered.

“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”

George nodded, but didn’t move.

“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”

George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.

“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”

“I guess not!” said the boy.

“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”

“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.

“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”

“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”

“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”

Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.

“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.

“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.

“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”

“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”

“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”

Georgie shook his head.

“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”

“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”

Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.

“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”

Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.

“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”

“Hi, there!”

Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.

“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”

Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.

“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”

“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.

“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.

“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”

Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.

“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”

“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”

“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”

“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”

Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.

“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.

“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”

The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.

“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”

Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…

“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.

“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”

Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.

“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”

Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.

“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”

Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”

“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.

Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”

For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.

When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.

WALL-E at the Federalist

For the ten-year anniversary of one of my favorite films.

The film is often described as an environmental parable, or a caution against consumerism. Those things are present, but they are subordinate themes. The main thesis of the film is something much more universal, interesting, and timely. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.” In its own quirky little way, that is the central idea of “WALL-E.”

Little WALL-E has a great appreciation for beauty, as demonstrated in his introductory scenes, and when EVE appears on Earth he almost immediately falls in love with her. Beauty inspires love. His love for her leads him to try to care for her when she shuts down, then to follow when her spaceship returns to take her back. Love carries a sense of obligation and duty, and the courage and senseless determination to carry it out. Because he loves, he will do and face anything for the sake of his beloved.

This same pattern plays out with the captain of the Axiom, the ship where the human race “enjoys” endless leisure in an almost comatose indifference. He is at first merely curious about the strange substance called “dirt” that WALL-E brought into his chambers, and has the computer analyze it. Then, on seeing images of the Earth in its heyday, he is awed by its beauty and falls in love with the planet.

When he discovers what it has become, he realizes that he has a responsibility to his home. This sense of duty gives him the courage to stand up to the autopilot and at last take control of his own destiny. So, beauty saves the world because it inspires love, which in turn inspires duty, and with it the courage to carry it out.

Read the rest here

An Appeal

Hello everyone. For the first time I’m making an open appeal to readers for help. I have a book in the works, which is approaching the end of its editing process. I’m hoping to publish it soon, but there’s only one problem: I don’t have a cover. You can’t sell a book without a cover; that’s what people judge them by.

So I am putting out an appeal to any readers who are artists or who can put me into contact with artists who would be interested in a commission job.

I have an idea of what I want in terms of the actual image and lay out, but stylistically I’m looking for something rather after the fashion of the following:

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I.e. Stylistic, stark colors and shapes, and heavy shadows.

If you are interested, or know of anyone who might be, leave a comment below.

Thanks everyone!

UPDATE: That was fast. Found someone and we’re negotiating price / concepts. Thanks everyone!