Read Vineyard Blues Online

Authors: Philip R. Craig

Tags: #Fiction

Vineyard Blues (8 page)

BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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—  13  —

Judith Gomes was instantly careful, almost hostile. “I'm afraid I can't help you, Mr. . . .”

“Jackson. My friends call me J.W.”

“I'm afraid I can't help you, Mr. Jackson. I have nothing to say about Mr. Krane.”

I studied her face. Judith looked a little fragile behind her apparent anger. “Did he tell you to say that, or are you just being a loyal employee? If he told you to say it, you tell him that I'm no longer working for him. If he didn't, then it's you who may not be working for him.”

But Judith turned out to have more spunk than I had guessed. “I haven't spoken with Mr. Krane, and I have no intention of speaking to you either. Please leave this office immediately.”

Is there anyone more valuable to a boss than a loyal secretary who will fend off the dogs and keep the family secrets?

I felt a little smile run across my face. “I think you should ask Ben for a raise,” I said. “Meanwhile, if you can get in touch with him, I suggest that you do that right now. He asked me to work for him this morning and gave me carte blanche to do things my own way, including talking to you and anybody else who works for him. You, naturally, don't believe that, so why don't you pick up that phone and get the word from the horse's mouth.”

Her jaw was firm. “Mr. Krane is not in his office. I don't know where he is. I'll speak to him when he comes in.”

Feisty Judith. “He's probably got a beeper on his belt like all the other businesspeople in the world,” I said. “Give him a buzz.”

She was stubborn. “I don't think so, Mr. Jackson!”

I bounced Diana on my knee. She was cute. Playing with her and her brother was a more appealing prospect than tracking down an arsonist. “In that case,” I said to Judith Gomes, “when you finally do talk to Ben, tell him about our conversation and inform him that I'm not working for him anymore. Tell him I'll return his check if he's already mailed it.” I got out of the chair. “Good-bye. I don't think we'll be seeing each other again.” I started for the door.

“Wait.”

I paused and looked at her. Her brow was furrowed as she was pricked by the famous horns of a dilemma: in her case, whether to risk offending her boss by calling him, or risk offending him by not calling him. Her hand seemed to want to go to the phone on her desk, but . . .

I decided to help her out. “Look,” I said, “if he hasn't told you about this deal with me, you'd be stupid to take my word for it. Be smart and call him. If he faults you for that, he's more of an idiot than I think he is.”

“If you're telling the truth, I would have heard from him already.” But the brow remained furrowed.

“We just made the deal. He probably didn't figure I'd be snooping around here so soon. His mistake. Give him a call.”

Her fingers danced on the desk and then went to the phone. They tapped out some numbers and then put the phone down. “He'll call back,” she said coldly.

Sure enough, a minute or two later the phone rang and she picked it up. She listened, then gave a brief and accurate account of our encounter in the office. She listened again, said good-bye, and put the phone down. She waved at the chair I'd just abandoned. “Please sit down, Mr. Jackson.”

“My friends call me J.W.” I sat down with Diana on my knee.

“I'm not sure we're friends, Mr. Jackson, but I've been instructed to answer any questions you might have.”

I bounced Diana. She smiled. It was her first interrogation, but she wasn't really paying attention to it. She was concentrating on the bouncing. I looked over her head at Judith Gomes.

I asked the questions and for a while Judith Gomes answered them:

She'd been working for him for six years. Yes, he was a good boss. He paid her well and never asked her to do anything illegal or even questionable. No, he didn't have any enemies. Yes, he was an honest man. No, he never cheated anybody. Yes, he charged a lot for his summer rentals, but no one was forced to pay his prices; they could pay or rent elsewhere.

Saint Benjamin of Edgartown. I tried to tilt the halo.

“A lot of people will tell you he's a slumlord whose buildings are hovels.”

She lifted her chin. “A lot of people are envious fools.” “You'll have to admit that he's not the most popular guy in town.”

“I never pay attention to gossip.”

“Maybe you should. Somebody seems to be burning down his houses. Who do you think that might be?”

“A madman. Somebody with a psychological problem.”

“Or maybe somebody with a grudge.”

“I can't imagine who that might be. Mr. Krane is an honest businessman.”

The halo was secure.

I smiled down at Diana, then up at Judith Gomes. “I don't know much about arson, but I do know that the owners of junky buildings sometimes burn them down for the insurance. How much insurance did Ben have on the three houses that have been torched?”

Her eyes flamed and her voice was almost a snarl. “What an awful thing to ask! How dare you! Mr. Krane would never do anything like that! You have an evil, nasty mind!”

I couldn't argue the last, but I thought her no was louder than it needed to be. I put a little metal in my voice. “There's a fire marshal on the island right now,” I said, “and he's going to be interested in the insurance on those houses, too. If he finds out that Ben is making a bundle on these fires, he's got the guns to give your boss a lot more grief than I can. I don't work for the police, but if Ben had a motive for torching his own houses, I want to know about it right now. So how much insurance did he have?”

She stared at me, tight-lipped, then went to a file cabinet and came back with some papers. I reached for them and after a brief hesitation she gave them to me. Ben had the houses insured for more than I guessed they were worth. I pushed the papers back.

“He won't lose any money because these places burned down,” I said.

“That's what insurance is for, Mr. Jackson.” She returned the papers to the file cabinet and came back to her desk. “Those houses are rented to college students, who treat them like pigsties. They leave cigarettes lying around and plug boom boxes and God knows what else into electrical sockets. Mr. Krane would be a fool not to carry a lot of insurance, and I assure you that he is not a fool!”

“He may be too smart for his own good,” I said. “Insurance companies are quick to take a client's money, but they're pretty slow to pay it out if they think they've gotten ripped off. Has he collected anything yet?”

“He hasn't even submitted a claim on these latest fires.”

“How about the one that happened last spring?”

She hesitated, then shook her head. “No, he hasn't gotten a payment yet. But he will. It was definitely arson.”

“I can see why his insurance company might be a little suspicious of your boss. Especially since his OB office got torched a year ago. Ben seems to collect fires.”

“I resent that! Mr. Krane is above reproach.”

What a loyal lady she was. I wondered what made her that way. Even after her boss had told her to tell me whatever I wanted to know, she was only giving me good stuff. But Ben Krane was not the holy man she was making him out to be. There are no real saints on Martha's Vineyard.

“The house that burned last March was empty, wasn't it?”

“That's right.”

“What do they think caused the fire?”

“Arson. I don't remember the details. I imagine you can get that information from the Edgartown fire chief.”

I gave Diana a kiss on the forehead, and changed gears.

“Ben has two ex-wives still living in town. What do you know about them? Is either of them still so mad at him that she'd torch his buildings?”

“That's ridiculous. Of course not.”

“Amicable separations, eh? No hard feelings, alimony satisfactory to all involved?”

She leaned forward on her elbows. “Mr. Krane married his first wife when they were both too young. It just didn't work out. They separated without acrimony. His second wife left him for another woman. Surely you've heard that story; it's common gossip. She apparently tried to be straight but gave up and went the way nature intended her to go. Again there was no acrimony. Only embarrassment for Mr. Krane. Neither woman has ever approached him for anything or expressed any anger toward him. If they had, I'd know about it.”

Indeed? “Why would you know, Miss Gomes? Does Ben share his private life with you?”

She sat back. Her face was bland, but her eyes were bright. “Mr. Krane trusts me. He feels he can confide in me, and he's right. He tells me things and knows they'll go no further.”

I listened and nodded and then said, “So Ben would have told you if an ex-wife was giving him grief?”

“I'm sure of it.”

“Because he knew you'd never pass the information along.”

She allowed herself an ironic smile. “Except when authorized to do so. As with you, Mr. Jackson.”

That meant Ben was more trusting than I am. If I have any real secrets, I keep them to myself. I've wondered if that's a healthy trait, since most people I know, women in particular, seem to like to share confidences rather than keep their thoughts and feelings private. Probably it's a condition with a name familiar to students of psychology. In any case, I tell people things only if I don't mind having the information become public knowledge.

But maybe Ben wasn't as confiding as Judith Gomes thought. Maybe there were a lot of things he didn't tell her.

“How about the other women in his life?” I said. “The ones he's not married to. Does he tell you about them?”

A faint pink tone touched her cheeks. “I never inquire about his private life.”

“But he certainly has one. Even I know that. He has a different woman every month.”

The pink darkened to rose. “He's a very attractive man. It's only to be expected that he'd be popular with women.”

I felt a touch of meanness. “He never confides in you about them?”

The rose turned almost red. “He sometimes describes an evening. A dinner, a film they saw.”

“No lurid details.”

“Of course not!”

Why so great a no?

“He's had a lot of women in his life, but none of them stay around too long. Why is that?”

“I'm sure I couldn't say.” She glanced at her watch. It was meant to look like a quick peek, but lasted long enough not to be missed. It didn't quite irk me, but it did bring a question out of my mouth.

“Did you ever date Ben?”

Judith Gomes's face paled. “My life is none of your business!”

I waved a professorial forefinger. “Ah, ah! Ben has no secrets from me, remember.”

Her jaw tightened. “If Ben . . . if Mr. Krane wants to fire me for telling you nothing about my own life, so be it!”

We eyed each other over Diana's silky-haired head.

“All right,” I said. “We'll get back to you later. Tell me about Ben's family. Tell me about his brother Peter.”

“I'm through talking to you today!”

Were those tears of anger, or some other sort of tears?

“I'll be back,” I said.

“Get out!” Then, as though she needed some sort of a weapon against me, she almost shouted, “Your house can burn too, you know!”

I stared at her, feeling a thrill of either excitement or fear, I wasn't sure which.

—  14  —

I needed to know more about arson. There were a lot of things I needed to know, in fact. Maybe too many. It was obviously time to go to that treasure trove of information, the Edgartown Public Library.

I'd been told that the Internet was currently the information source of choice among the cognoscenti, but since I was the last computerless human being on earth, the library served the purpose for me. Libraries are some of my favorite places. They are not only full of books and papers of all kinds, but they are managed by people who both know what they're doing and actually want to be of assistance to their customers, a rare social phenomenon these days.

So Diana and I walked, hand in hand, until we got to North Water Street, then zigzagged our way through sight-seeing pedestrians until we reached Edgartown's small but nifty library.

“Who's this?” asked Daisy Duarte, who was behind the front desk.

“My daughter, Diana,” I said. “Say how do you do, Diana.”

Diana put out her little hand. “How do you do.”

“How do you do, Diana,” said Daisy, taking Diana's hand in hers. “I'm Daisy. You look like your mother.”

“And a good thing, too,” I said.

“What brings you here today, J.W.?”

“I'm looking for information on arson.”

“Oh. Are you thinking of burning something down?”

“Somebody else is ahead of me,” I said. “There was another fire last night.”

Daisy's smile faded. “I heard. Well, you can go right over to that monitor and find what we have.”

No, I couldn't. I was fine at finding things when they had the old card files, but since the library had gone to computers I was lost. I now admitted this to Daisy.

“You should try to get into the twentieth century before it ends, J.W.,” said Daisy. “Come with me, and I'll show you how to find things on our computer. It really isn't hard at all.”

“Easy for you to say. I like machines that are no more complicated than a straight-bladed knife.”

“Oh, don't give me that. You've kept that truck of yours going long after it should have been in the scrap heap.”

“Don't go making insulting remarks about my trusty Toyota. I admit it's got a spot or two of rust, but it still runs like a dream.”

“A pretty noisy dream. You can hear it coming a half mile away.”

“You can not!”

“Here's how you look for material on arson,” said Daisy, tapping on keys. “We don't have a lot, but we have some.”

Sure enough, some titles and numbers appeared on the screen.

Magic.

“We're part of CLAMS, too,” said Daisy, “so if there's something you want that we don't have here, we might be able to get it for you.”

“Clams,” I said.

She looked up at me, saw the ignorance in my face, and smiled in a matronly way. “CLAMS is short for Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing. It's a consortium. We can get materials from the other libraries in the system. It's right there on your library card, J.W.!”

I looked at my card. She was right!

“Thanks,” I said. “I'll start with what you have here. I don't know enough yet to know what I want to know.”

“Would Diana like something?”

“She doesn't read much yet, but she likes books with pictures. I'll find some for her.”

“Fine. If you need any help, let me know.” Daisy went off.

I found books for Diana and for myself, then found chairs for the two of us, and read what there was to read. The arson collection at the Edgartown Library wasn't extensive, but it was enough for a start.

As I already knew, the average cop or fireman lacks the expertise to investigate suspected crimes of arson. On the other hand, I now read, most arsons were pretty amateurish, so were fairly easy to identify as such. Clues apparent even to ordinary folks like me included the presence of flammable liquids, indications that the fire started in several places at once, and the intensity of the blaze. Once the clues were spotted, the experts had to be called in to interpret them because, after that, arson investigation was highly complex and technical.

It got more complicated when death was involved. Having seen one fatality from burning when I worked in Boston, I was aware of the classic pugilistic attitude assumed by the victim's body, but now I learned that Frank Costa had been right about it being due to a contraction of the muscles because of heat. Whatever the cause, it wasn't a sight or a scent that I wanted to experience again.

Most deaths by fire were, as I'd thought, caused by the inhalation of noxious gases and fumes, and the victims were usually dead prior to any burning of their flesh.

After the discovery of a body in a burned-out building, the arson investigators had to determine whether the death was natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal. The body might be burned so badly that they couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman, and it might show violent injury or even dismemberment, so arson investigators relied on pathologists to make determinations as to the cause of death.

Pathologists could determine such things as whether the victim was dead or alive before being burned, and the probable cause of death. Since bodies don't burn as easily as most people believe, it was possible for a pathologist to discover wounds or injuries in spite of damage to the body caused by fire. If, for instance, the victim was still alive at the time of the fire, there would be smoke stains around the nostrils, in the nose, and in the air passages. There would be carbon monoxide in the blood, and blistering of the skin. All bodies, whether alive or dead at the time of the fire, could show similar characteristics: the pugilistic stance that I had seen, cracked skin, broken bones, or cracked or shattered skulls.

Increasingly, according to my grim and grisly book, arson investigators were obliged to call in homicide detectives to aid in their investigations. This was true, apparently, because the combination of homicide and arson was becoming more common as killers used arson as a murder weapon or tried to cover up their murders by torching their victims and the scenes of their crimes.

What a way to make a living. I felt sorry for the pathologists and fire marshals, and I was gladder than ever that I had left the policeman's life behind me. Better by far to be a fisherman on Martha's Vineyard.

I looked down at little Diana, who was peering seriously at pictures of the Cat in the Hat. If she grew up and wanted to become an arson investigator or a homicide detective, I guessed I wouldn't try to stop her, but I'd surely suggest some other careers. Maybe she could write and illustrate books about, say, the Rat in the Hat, or the Bat in the Hat. Yeah, that sounded good. Diana could become a rich and famous writer and would support her ma and pa in regal fashion, as they deserved.

Meanwhile, I had learned as much about arson as I could stand for the moment, so I pushed my books away, and went to see if I could find out anything about Corrie Appleyard. There were books about music and musicians, but if Corrie was mentioned in any of them, I didn't notice it. Rats. I went back to my table, sat down beside Diana and the Cat in the Hat, and looked around. A mild surprise. There, on the far side of the room, elbows on a table, poring over a book, was Warren Quick.

It was a weekday, but Warren, who had the reputation of working every day but Sunday, wasn't working. He was at the library, reading. Susanna was not in sight. I let my eyes linger on him in idle curiosity. Why was he in here instead of out there? What was he reading that so occupied his attention?

It occurred to me that I was being rather odd in my thinking. Why shouldn't Warren be in the library, reading instead of building somebody's house? I was in the library, reading instead of building the wing on my own house, wasn't I? I loved coming to the library, didn't I? Maybe Warren did, too.

However, this library was a long way from Warren's home. About as far as you could get from Chilmark and still be on the island, in fact. All of the island's town libraries—the Chilmark library, the West Tisbury library, the Aquinnah library, the Vineyard Haven library, and the Oak Bluffs library—were closer to where he lived and worked.

But Warren was at the Edgartown library.

Maybe he had a job in Edgartown and had ducked in here to do some research, or just to relax.

I wondered some more about what he was reading. Whatever it was, it seemed to interest him considerably. My nose began to itch, as it does more often than it should.

I went back to my abandoned book and pretended to read more about arson and homicide while peeking over the top to keep an eye on Warren.

When I got tired of that pretense, I offered to read
The Cat in the Hat
to Diana, who immediately accepted the offer. I read in a low voice, but not so low that Diana couldn't hear me and correct my mistakes when I missed a word or skipped a page because I was paying more attention to Warren than to Dr. Seuss. Diana had
The Cat
memorized and didn't tolerate any lapses by her readers.

By happy chance, Warren finished his reading, got up, and left the library just about the time I was finishing
The Cat
. I was glad to see that he was following library policy by leaving his book on the table instead of trying to return it to its proper place on the shelves. Librarians discourage patrons from returning books where they found them because they all too often return them to some other place, thus effectively losing the book. In really big libraries, such a misplaced book can be lost for years, I've been told.

So Warren had done the right thing, as might be expected. Good old ethical, straight-arrow Warren.

“Stay here,” I said to Diana. “I'll be right back.”

I walked across the room to the place where Warren had been sitting and picked up his book. It was a book on abnormal psychology. I looked through the table of contents and saw that it dealt with lots of categories, and once again wondered if there were such a thing as normal psychology, and if anyone had ever written a book about it. Probably not.

I put the spine of the book on the table and let it fall open. It opened to a section on sexual deviance.

Hmmmm.

I flipped through the pages. There were a lot of sexual practices that the author considered deviant. I wasn't sure he was right about any of them being abnormal, because all of them seemed to be practiced fairly regularly by someone or other. One of the things I'd learned while on the Boston PD was that people would pay for sexual practices that I had never even imagined.

I wondered which practices interested moral Warren, the churchgoer. Had Warren gotten wise to the fact that his wife had once been in the adult-movie business? Was he trying to understand her? Or had he gotten wind of her blackmailer, and was he trying to understand
him
?

Or was he trying to understand himself, as many people are? Did Warren have impulses and desires that disturbed him enough to lead him to the research shelves? It's often been observed that psychology students are wackier than most other people, or at least they are afraid that they are. Maybe solid churchgoers like Warren were particularly fearful about being sinners.

Or maybe Warren hadn't been reading that portion of the book at all. Maybe it just happened to fall open to that chapter.

I noted the name of the book, closed it, and left it on the table. I could come back and read it if I wanted to. On balance, I preferred
The Cat in the Hat
, so I checked that one out when Diana and I left and headed for home.

BOOK: Vineyard Blues
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