smile drooped faster than a Terrible Towel after a Steelers’ loss as he talked to the fire inspector. Their conversation couldn’t be heard through the glass walls of the chief’s office, but it
was obvious from Vandergrift’s expression the fire inspector confirmed what everyone in the precinct suspected. Arson.
Two fires in as many weeks, started by a cop-hating arsonist. Last week Roger Dardin drove home for lunch, pulled the squad
car alongside his house, and found his porch on fire. This afternoon, Whitey Foster’s garage was burnt to the ground.
A hush spread through the
squad room as the fire inspector left the precinct.
Vandergrift came out of
his office, wearing a glare that spoke volumes, but still no match to the decibels in his voice. “Everyone’s priority
just changed. Catching this bastard is job number one.” Sweat shimmered
between his eyebrows. “I don’t care about the drug ring in Bloomfield or the John Doe we found floatin’
in the river this morning.”
Irene swept her arm across
her drawing table to hide the sketch of the John Doe she’d been toying with; trying to form structured bones out of
the bloated face captured in the photograph.
okay, Sarge?” Rege asked.
Vandergrift nodded. “Barrett, I want you, Ringgold and Meriwether out talking to neighbors. Asshole’s starting
fires in the middle of the afternoon, someone had to see something. Solomon and Beatty, hit the stores. Look for anyone buying
an unusual amount of drain cleaner.”
are what he’s using?”
“He or they.”
Vandergrift used his thumbs to tug his suspenders away from his barrel chest.
more than one?”
widened. “I don’t know, Pete!” He let go of his suspenders and they snapped against his chest. “That’s
what I want you all to find out.”
Pete’s face reddened.
Mania replaced the hush
in the room. Everyone started moving and talking at once. Phones rang. Sirens
ordered. “I want this bastard’s face on paper, but until we find a witness, give that profiler in Johnstown a
call. Get us a feel for who we’re looking for.“
“No problem, Sarge.
” There was no way she was about to say otherwise after watching Pete’s slap down.
She fought the urge to look at her watch and picked up the phone.
It came as no surprise
the profiler had gone home for the day.
The room emptied as the
squad members hustled out the door, as much to cover their assignments as to get away from Vandergrift’s wrath.
Vandergrift was tough,
but he didn’t shake easily. Irene suspected his commanding performance was his way of stifling their panic. These fires
were personal; a threat to themselves, their families, and their possessions. Including Whitey Foster’s pride and joy--a
1948 Chevy Fleetmaster he’d kept pampered in his garage. Gone.
Smitty Gates greeted. “Vandergrift said for you take a look at these.”
Irene took the photographs
out of his hand. “Dardin’s porch?”
Smitty nodded. “What’s left of it.”
Irene studied the pictures.
Not much but ashes. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”
He shrugged. “Guess
Sarge thinks your artistic eye might see something we can’t.”
“I draw faces. I’m
Smitty laughed, his gold
crown visible. “Thought you were too young to ever have watched Columbo.”
Irene smiled. “Repeats.”
She flipped through the photographs.
pointed to her hand. “Where’d the rock come from? You get engaged?”
Irene’s smile brightened,
and she stole a glance at the emerald-cut diamond. “Last night.”
“Ah, Irene, that’s
great news.” Smitty gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Bet your folks are thrilled.”
“Guess they will
be. They don’t know yet. Todd and I were going to go over and tell them tonight. Dad’s grilling.” She dared
a look at her watch. “Probably won’t make it in time now.”
Smitty laughed. “Yeah,
knowing your dad, the grill’s already lit and the steaks sizzling. How’s he doing anyway?”
Call and ask him, Irene
thought. “He’s good.” She tried to smile. “Keeping busy.
Been making wooden bird houses.”
thinking of resurrecting the old bowling league,” Irene said, hopeful. “You, Guido, Abe and everybody.”
Smitty shook his head.
“Wish I had the time.”
her. Since her father retired from the force two years ago, he rarely heard from
Smitty or the other old-timers he’d once considered his best friends. She’d
been with her father one day when he ran into Abe, and hurt clouded his eyes when Abe didn’t pick up on the banter they’d
“Tell him I asked
about him,” Smitty said. “And tell Todd he’s a lucky man.”
Irene watched him as he
walked away. It’ll happen to you
soon enough. Smitty had about three years left before he retired. He, too,
would be cut out of the conversations cops thrived on. No comparing leads. No more angles about how best to catch the bad
guy. No more camaraderie or a thermos of coffee shared at a stakeout. Smitty,
too, would be sitting at home making wooden bird houses.
Irene grabbed her pencil
and sketch pad. Her dad’s face was rounded, much like her own. But where his chin squared, hers pointed, giving her
face a heart shape. She drew her father’s hairline, the low forehead. They’d
both been blessed with thick dark curls. Though his was gray now, it had retained its rich texture. She’d inherited his dark green eyes, too, but that was where their resemblance ended. The rest of Irene’s appearance--the full lips, narrow nose, and spindly legs--came from her mother.
She used the tip of her
finger to shade in her father’s eyebrows and erased a section of his nose. She’d made the nostrils a bit too wide,
more like her brother’s than Dad’s. Hugh--eighteen years Irene’s
senior--was starting to resemble their mother as he aged.
rushed out of his office. “We got a witness coming in. Kid says he saw the whole thing.”
“How old of a kid?”
Irene asked. Since working for Pittsburgh’s Police Department, she’d
discovered kids under twelve were better at describing a perpetrator than adults.
“Not sure. Fourteen, maybe.” Vandergrift nodded toward the door. “Wouldn’t you say?”
Lieutenant Kramer led the boy in the door. His hands were shoved
deep in his pockets. Dark hair cascaded down over his forehead into his eyes.
Sarge whispered. “Maybe we still have time to get the sketch on tonight’s news.”
greeted. “Have a seat.”
He sat down, dropped his
gaze to the floor and rubbed his nose. Irene stifled a smile. He was a teenager
for sure, with all the self-consciousness that implied. “Name’s Irene Slavick. You?”
His mouth twisted in a grimace, leaving no doubt he hated the name. “…Lafferty.”
“You saw the guy
who started the fire?”
“Yeah. Close up.”
With his hair hanging in
his eyes, Irene wondered how accurately he could have seen anyone through it. “Can you describe him?”
“He was about six
feet tall. Not fat, but not--”
“I meant his face.
Did you get a good look at his face?”
he said, excited now. “I was ten feet away from him! Smoke was all over.
Sparks were flying around his face.”
“You actually saw
him starting the fire?”
“I just said. Sparks
burnt his face.”
“Right under his
eyes. Like red tears.”
Irene grabbed the sketch
pad to flip the page. “Was his face narrow or round?”
“Oh, cool! Someone
else saw him too.” Rupert pointed to the pad.
shook her head.
right there.” He reached for the sketch pad.
No. Irene nearly laughed. That’s my dad.
He tapped on the page,
his fingers hitting the bridge of her father’s nose. “That’s him. He’s the one who started the fire.”