Heroes, p.16
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       Heroes, p.16

           Leigh Barker
 
Elmore James was also watching the game, but he’d not been stupid enough to put money on the Giants. It wasn’t their season. He picked the cell up off the arm of his battered old leather armchair and listened.

  “You ever say hello when you answer your phone?”

  “Why? It’s answered, I must be here. Why waste my breath?”

  “You are one strange man, you know that?”

  “What’s burning, Chief?”

  “A bank.” Chief Ortega sniffed. “Who burns a damned bank?”

  “What about Bonnie and Clyde?”

  “I’ll put out an APB. Meantime get your ass over to Manhattan.”

  “I’ve just finished a fourteen-hour stint and had a beer,” Elmore said.

  “You only ever have one.”

  “One’s too many to be behind the wheel.”

  “You hear that?” Ortega said.

  Elmore looked up and the doorbell buzzed.

  “Your new partner.”

  “Don’t need a partner, new or otherwise.”

  “No man is a fortress.”

  “An island.”

  “What is?”

  “No man is an island.”

  “Yeah, glad you agree,” Ortega said, and it was obvious something was funny. “So you have one. A partner. And try to keep this one longer than the drive over there.”

  The line went dead and Elmore stood up slowly and crossed to the door of his apartment. There was a girl standing in the hallway, but before he opened his mouth, he remembered he was supposed to call female marshals women. He decided not to bother calling her anything and looked her over.

  She was a girl, even if he wasn’t supposed to call her that. Maybe late twenties, wearing a navy blue fitted jacket and grey pants and a black backpack slung over her shoulder. She had close-cropped dark brown hair, deep green eyes and a round, friendly face that said Irish to anybody who cared to look. And there wouldn’t be a shortage of men in that category.

  “You got a name?” he said.

  She returned the inspection and looked him up from his scuffed boots to his military-style cropped hair.

  “Riley O’Riordan. You got one?”

  He didn’t answer. She knew it or she wouldn’t have been there. And saying stuff that was already known just wasted air. People talk too much.

  His casual tweed jacket and chinos were new, but he was old. He seemed to have leather for skin. She hadn’t been told that, or in fact anything about him. Except to get over to his place and be his partner for as long as she could stand it. Okay, he was old, fifty if he was a day, but his tall, thin body had that whipcord strength men in the trenches often had, and he had kind eyes, which surprised her. Soft baby blue eyes in a man made from granite.

  “We’re first responders, right?” she said, and the hint of Irish in her voice confirmed his guess.

  “Yeah.”

  “Shouldn’t we be responding?”

  He shrugged and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “It’ll still be there.”

  “We should get there while it’s still burning.”

  The smile widened just a touch. “You one of those eager beavers wanting to run into burning buildings?”

  “Not particularly.”

  “Good, because I’ve run into my share and I’ve got to tell you, it’s overrated.”

  “Most people were firefighters before stepping up to fire marshal.”

  He picked up a battered ex-military backpack, stepped out and closed the door. “In the air force and back in the world, I’ve been stinking of smoke since you had pigtails and were playing with dolls.”

  “It was GI Joe.” She squinted those green eyes at him. “Do you always speak to female colleagues like that?”

  “Mostly.” He started for the elevator.

  “You should maybe give it some thought.” She stepped in next to him as he pressed the ground-floor button.

  “You thought about it?”

  “Not really.”

  She didn’t speak or even glance his way while she turned the bright red Ford Explorer right onto Atlantic Avenue and headed for Manhattan Bridge.

  Elmore tightened his seatbelt and glanced at her. “So what’s your story?”

  “You don’t know?”

  “Why would I?”

  She cut out of traffic, passed a taxi and cut back in again. “Nobody told you I was coming?”

  “Nope. You’re my happy surprise for today.”

  “Right.” She repeated the death-defying overtake without a twitch. “Irish.”

  “You surprise me.” Elmore glanced back from looking at the angry faces in the cars they were cutting off. “Come over to get away from the potato blight, did you?”

  She stiffened just slightly, then relaxed. “Won’t work, you know.”

  “What’s that?”

  “Trying to get me mad enough to quit and leave.”

  “Never crossed my mind.”

  “But you’re almost right. My ancestors came to America to get away from the potato famine in eighteen eighty. Four years after my great-great-whatever-grandfather fought the great Dublin whiskey fire.”

  “Sounds like my kind of fire,” Elmore said, then shook his head. “There’s no such thing as a good fire.”

  “I hear that. From then to today, my family have been firefighters, here and in my hometown.”

  “Boston?”

  “Yes. How did you know?”

  “You’re kidding, right?”

  “My accent? But that’s Irish.”

  “Maybe some Irish in there, but mostly Boston.”

  “That’s not a bad thing.”

  “Never said it was.” He turned back from the traffic and ignored the blaring horns. “You can drive. In an I don’t care if I live kinda way. Where you learn that? And it wasn’t Boston.”

  “No. Dirt track most Saturdays. Three brothers. Older.”

  He chuckled. “That why you got a boy’s name? Easier to keep straight.”

  She gave him a quick look that spoke volumes.

  “No dolls, then,” he said, quickly changing the subject.

  “No dolls.”

  “You met Phoebe?”

  “No, who is she?”

  “Phoebe Macmillan runs the motor pool. Hates to pay for repairs. She’s a Scottish Presbyterian.”

  “I’ll stop by and say hi,” Riley said, and screwed up her brow.

  “You ding her car and you won’t have to stop by, you’ll hear her from here.”

  She slowed down a fraction. “What the hell, she doesn’t scare me.”

  He arched his eyebrows. “She scares the bejebus out of me.”

  He sat back now the cacophony of blaring horns had subsided to screeches as she cut in and out of the evening traffic on Canal Street.

  “You’re not a firefighter, though. You don’t have the look in your eyes,” he said, turning in his seat.

  “What look’s that?”

  “Like the thousand-yard stare’s cousin.”

  “No, I guess not. I haven’t seen what you have. I was an engineer.” She glanced at him to see if he was shocked. He wasn’t. “I built things, and I was damn good at it, but I wanted to give something back. Follow my ancestors. That sound dumb to you?”

  He shrugged. “Why would it? I’ve been doing the same thing for more years than I care to recall.”

  “You’re a Texan.”

  “That a question?”

  “No. Where’s your hat? Your Stetson. Every Texan wears a Stetson.”

  “It’s in the cupboard with my silver-tipped cowboy boots and Colt Peacemaker.”

  For the briefest moment she thought he was serious. Stupid.

  “So now you’re a fire marshal,” he said. “I bet your family’s proud.”

  “They are. It wasn’t easy.”

  “No. If it was, everybody would be doing it.”

  “What? Running into burning buildings?”

  “I try not to do that.”

  “You s
erved as a firefighter?” Elmore said, but already knew she wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t.

  “Four years.” She lifted her hand off the wheel. “Just to get the experience at the sharp end I’d need in this job. This is what I wanted to do. College every night. And then, when I was finally accepted, a stint down in Quantico learning how to catch bad people.”

  “So they taught you that in Quantico?”

  A frown crossed her brow in the orange street light. “Taught me what?”

  “You said I wanted to rile you enough to walk. Psychology one-o-one.”

  “No, not Quantico.”

  “What then?”

  “Three brothers, remember?”

  “We’re here.” He pointed ahead at the mass of emergency vehicles and trucks all with bright flashing lights.

  “Where?”

  For a second he thought she was serious. Stupid.

  He got out of the car and pulled his go-bag off the rear seat, then strode across the street to the command vehicle. The chief was a giant of a man and built like a heavyweight boxer. He glanced over as Elmore stepped up next to him.

  “What we got, Chief?”

  The chief turned slowly. “It’s a fire.”

  Riley arrived in time to hear the crucial information and stifled a chuckle.

  “That right?” Elmore leaned his hands on the SUV’s hood and whistled. “That’s what one of them looks like, then?”

  “You come to help or just to be your usual pain in the ass?”

  “The latter, Chief.” Elmore grinned. “It’s what I do.” He nodded towards Riley. “This is Riley O’Riordan. She’s new.” He ignored Riley’s sharp look. “And this fine black gentleman is none other than the legendary Chief Theodore L. Chancer. TLC to his friends.” He sniffed.

  “Nice to meet you, Chief,” Riley said, without taking her eyes off the blazing bank.

  “She’s eager to run in there while it’s still burning, Chief,” Elmore said.

  Chancer shrugged and pointed across the street. “Be my guest.”

  “No, I’m not,” she said quickly. “It’s just one of his stupid ideas.”

  “Yeah, he’s got a barrel of those,” Chancer said. “You want to take a nap for half an hour, go ahead. Real work’ll be done then and you can do whatever the hell it is you do.”

  “How’d it start?” Elmore said.

  Chancer pointed at the alley. “Somebody drove a truck load of explosives down there and detonated it.” He looked at Elmore. “I suspect foul play.”

  “Thanks, Chief,” Elmore said. “I think I’ll have a bit of a stroll about if you don’t mind. Stretch my legs and get some fresh air.”

  Smoke rolled down the narrow street in thick black plumes and the air stank of gutted real estate.

  Chancer waved him by. “Don’t get in the way of real firefighters.”

  “Try not to, Chief,” Elmore said, and strolled off across the street with Riley on his heels. He stopped at the curb and looked back across the street at the crowd watching the fun.

  “He doesn’t like you much,” Riley said, nodding towards the departing fire chief.

  “No, not since I beat him into the Twin Towers.”

  “You were there?”

  “Me and a lot of good men.”

  “And you and the chief had a race to get into that hell?”

  “Yup.”

  “And you won, so he’s pissed?”

  “No, not because I got in first. He’s pissed because I got out first.” He smiled at her. “Then had to go back and rescue his ass from the basement when they came down.”

  She realised her mouth was open and closed it quickly. That would be Texan exaggeration. Yeah, that would be it.

  He walked a little way down the sidewalk towards the blazing building and looked back up the street again.

  “See him?” Riley asked without looking.

  “No, but he’s here.”

  “You’re sure this is arson?” Riley said.

  He looked down at her. “Somebody parked a pickup full of explosives next to the ATMs and blew it up. On balance, yeah, I think it’s arson.”

  She looked away. “Didn’t know that, boss.”

  Elmore chuckled. “You’ve been watching too much TV. I’m not your boss. I’m not anybody’s boss.”

  “Okay. I’ll call you Elmore.”

  “If you want to sound like my mother, go ahead. Everybody else calls me El.”

  “Very prophetic.”

  “Some would say.”

  “What about the little guy in the Lakers jacket?” she said. “He looks shifty. Staring at us.”

  “He’s staring at you. And yeah, he looks shifty.” He waved at the young guy in the black jacket with the gold lettering and waited for him to work his way through the tangle of hoses and equipment.

  “Detective Will Franklin, meet Riley O’Riordan.”

  The detective nodded once and checked her out with a single glance. “She new?”

  “Yeah, my new partner.”

  “Will she make it through the night?”

  “I’m standing right here,” Riley said.

  “Saw you,” Will said, and winked at her. “This one’s cute.”

  “And so would you be,” she said, “if you were taller.”

  Elmore slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “Anything?”

  Will took his eyes off Riley and shook his head. “Nothing. If you disregard a Toyota pickup embedded in the side of the burning building. My guess is it was packed with fertilizer and fuel.” He shrugged. “But what do I know?”

  “Not much,” Elmore said, “but you do a good job of guessing. Tell you what, you do police things and we’ll find out what made it go bang.”

  “Cool with me.” Will touched his brow with his finger in salute, smiled at Riley and strolled off into the crowd.

  Riley watched him go. Cute? The man had a damned nerve. Not bad though. He had dark blond hair that had escaped the barber for months, Deep blue eyes and a quick boyish smile. And he was maybe two inches over six feet, so her snippy little comeback was just that, snippy. Slim too, even in that stupid jack—

  Elmore had walked off to talk to a captain, leaving her standing there staring after the detective, who’d seen her watching him like a stupid schoolgirl. She felt her face flush, turned and followed Elmore as quickly as she could without being obvious.

  “Take lots of photographs,” Elmore said, without turning. “Six months from now you’re not going to remember this.”

  “I was thinking I’d just wander about and see if I stumble onto anything interesting.”

  “No, don’t do that. Best to follow protocol.”

  “And you?”

  He put his hands in the pockets of his thick tweed jacket and shrugged his shoulders. “I thought I’d just wander about and see if I stumble onto anything interesting.” He stopped at the end of the drive-through leading to the ATMs and looked up at the hole where the building had been, now smoking and steaming as the fire died under the pounding of high-pressure hoses.

  “What time do banks close?”

  Riley frowned. “You don’t know?”

  “Wouldn’t have asked if I did.” He stepped into the drive and over the rubble.

  “Usually five thirty. Why?”

  “What time did the fire start?”

  “I’ll check.” She turned and looked around for the chief.

  “Two hours ago. Five forty-five,” Elmore said.

  “If you knew, why did you ask?”

  “Rhetorical.”

  “You get briefed on this?”

  “Only as much as usual.” He raised an eyebrow.

  “So not at all, then?”

  “That’s about the size of it.”

  “What’s your point?” she said, crossing the sidewalk and standing next to him in the drive.

  He pointed at the building. “The teller lines are there, off the street. Foyer goes right up almost to the roof.”

/>   “Right. It’s impressive and looks big and permanent. Makes the customers feel small and shuts them up.”

  “So the offices would’ve been there, above the ATMs.”

  “I’d say so. Across the back.” She stepped past him and looked at the hole the Toyota had made, then back at him.

  He shrugged again. “Why park the truck down here?”

  “Out of the way, less likely to be seen.”

  “He blew the goddamned bank up; subtly wasn’t on his agenda.” He stepped back into the street. “Why not park right in front of the building and make a show of it?”

  “Too many casualties?”

  He shook his head. “This guy doesn’t care about casualties. Only luck saved the guard.”

  “Then why blow up the ATMs? They steal his card or something?”

  Elmore walked back down the alley to the crater and looked at the gutted building. “The offices.”

  “You think the bomber was targeting the employees?” She walked around the wide crater for a better look into the building shell. “But there wasn’t anybody there.”

  “What time you think the employees go home? Usually.”

  “Six, six thirty.” She squinted at him in the red glow from the dying fire. “You know something, don’t you?”

  “I know that the manager just got a big promotion, so took the staff out for an early dinner to celebrate.”

  “If he hadn’t, they’d all be dead.” She let out her breath in a hiss. “How do you know about the manager?”

  “Captain told me.” He glanced at her. “While you were checking out Will’s ass.”

  “You saw that, eh?”

  “I’m a trained investigator. I notice stuff.”

  “So we’ve got a bomber who specifically targeted the staff of this bank.” She looked around again. “Why? It’s nothing special.”

  “Maybe they foreclosed on him or froze his account or whatever the hell it is banks do to piss people off.”

  “Pretty much everything they do pisses people off.”

  “Any other day it would’ve been a massacre,” Elmore said, saw TLC wave him on and nodded once. “We can go in now.” He looked her over. “You’re going to mess up your pretty clothes.”

  “Pretty clothes? A blazer and slacks are not pretty clothes, they’re work clothes.”

  “Color me corrected.” He patted her backpack. “What’ve you got in there?”

  She eyed him suspiciously. “What do you think? Lipstick and frilly frocks?”

  “Those would be okay, but thick gloves are probably more useful right now.”

  “And a camera.” She unslung her bag, reached in and pulled out a wide-angle camera. “One for the album.” She snapped his picture. And blinded him with the flash.

  “Thanks for that.” He pointed at the bag again. “You got a fire marshal jacket?”

  “Yes. Why?”

  “Put it on.”

  “I’m dressed just fine, thanks.”

  “Put it on. Cops see you rummaging about in the bank and they might just shoot you as a looter.”

  “We could wait for the fire scene unit,” she said quickly. “They don’t like us stomping over the crime scene before they’ve collected their evidence.”

  “Somebody intended to kill a lot of innocent people here today. The FSU are going to collect evidence, but we all know it was a truck bomb. Sooner we get samples of the explosives over to the lab, sooner we’ll know if we can track it back to the retail outlet that sold it. Then we’ll catch the bad guy and get a medal.”

  “Right. A medal.” She pulled her marshal jacket out of her bag and went in through the hole that had once been the staff entrance.

  “She’s cute.”

  Elmore didn’t bother turning, he knew Will’s voice from the nights it had droned at him as they propped up the late night bars. “I’ll tell her you said so.”

  “I know what you’re thinking,” Will said, and stepped up beside him at the edge of the blast crater.

  “You should do, you’re a detective, remember?”

  “You’re thinking why blow up a perfectly good truck when a can of kerosene and a flare through one of the windows would’ve got the job done just fine.”

  Elmore glanced at him. “Something like that.”

  “Maybe the guy was a moron.”

  “Not enough of a moron to hang around in the truck. Would’ve saved me a heap of trouble.”

  “Looks to me like the act of a man a bit miffed at the bank.”

  “Disgruntled employee.” Elmore nodded. “That’s what I was thinking.”

  “I know.”

  “Well, do you know where the manager is?”

  Will pointed at a bar across the street. “Him and his staff are in there.”

  “You let the witnesses stroll off to a bar? And left them together to compare stories?”

  Will smiled. “No, they were already in the bar. It’s where the cheapskate manager took them for their night out. I had the barman put towels over the pumps.”

  “That’s very professional of you.” Elmore shook his head. “I’d better go and talk to them before they’ve thoroughly rehearsed their stories.”

  “What makes you think they have a story?”

  “Everybody has something to hide.”

  “You’re getting cynical in your old age.”

  “I’m an investigator, cynicism comes with the badge.” He looked back at Will still standing by the crater. “You coming?”

  “Not a police case.”

  “Then why are you here?”

  Will pointed at the bank. “There’s a vault in there with god knows how much money in it.”

  “And you’re here to make sure nobody accidently opens it.”

  “Nope.”

  Elmore stopped and waited.

  “The uniforms are here for that. I’m here on personal business.”

  It took Elmore a second to catch up. “This personal business. It wouldn’t have an Irish accent, would it?”

  Will shrugged and strolled off towards the hole in the wall where Riley had gone. “Might have.”

  “But you didn’t know she was here.”

  “Do now.”

 
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