For those who came in late…

The time is the 1930s. A string of lethal tenement fires is plaguing the town of St. Nicholas, Maryland. A vigilante team of costumed “mystery men” known as The Vindicators investigating the suspected arsons discover an old subterranean bootleggers’ hideout which is now being used for some other unknown purpose. One of the team, Jed Singletary (a.k.a. The Twilight Phantom) has just made another interesting discovery at the county records office…

Jed left the courthouse by a side entrance, then walked a block to the Newberry’s store. A trio of oak and glass telephone booths lined a wall near the lunch counter. Jed stepped into a booth, pulled the door closed behind him, dropped a nickel into the slot, and dialed a familiar number. After two rings, the party at the other end of the connection picked up.

“Davis.”

“Doug, it’s Jed. I just left the records office. You aren’t going to believe this – it’s like they’re not even trying to hide what’s going on. Over half of the burned out buildings belong to the same man: James Wilson.”

“Maybe somebody just has it in for Wilson,” Davis replied. “You know how he operates: he buys rathole apartment buildings, then rents them out to immigrants, the lower class, and the unemployed. Gouges them on the rent, too. The list of people who’d want to harm him is at least a mile long.”

“That’s not all, Doug,” Singletary continued. “Wilson has already sold the majority of his burned out properties, most of which sat on the same block –”

“Again, so what?” Davis interrupted. “You know Wilson’s never going to rebuild. Most of those tenements should have been torn down instead of rented out anyway.”

“Dammit, Doug, will you let me finish?!?” Jed cried in exasperation. “The buildings have all been sold to the same party: Calvin Mari.” There was a momentary silence from the other end of the line, followed by a long, low whistle from Davis. Jed grinned.

Davis finally spoke. “Mari, huh?” he said quietly. “That is big. I wonder what he’s up to?”

Calvin Mari was a well-known figure in the city of Calvert, about forty miles southwest of St. Nicholas. Mari was half-Japanese, his Asian father having been a notorious bootlegger and gangster in Calvert during the Roaring Twenties. The son was suspected of following in the ways of his famous father, bootlegging and rum-running having been replaced by gambling, prostitution, and extortion. But if Calvin Mari was indeed a criminal, his organization was so tightly run that the authorities had never come close to pinning him down. To the high society elements of Calvert, Mari was merely another of the idle rich, his shady reputation adding to the excitement and allure of inviting him to social events.

“Mari’s no nickel and dimer, Doug. I’ve seen him at parties and events in Calvert; he has cash, and plenty of it. Whatever this is, it’s no trivial thing.” There was a protracted silence from the other end of the line. “Doug?”

“Sorry. Thinking. It’s a great start, but I can’t connect the pieces. Why burn the buildings – why not just sell the properties? Why sell to Mari? Why haven’t the police investigated the fires? And what does that old bootlegger warren have to do with all of this? We need more information.”

“Shall I prepare for another expedition to the bootlegger tunnels?”

“Not yet, Jed. Thanks for the information. Did that old bat Horvath give you any trouble?”

Singletary smiled, thinking of Barb. “Not a bit.”

“That’s good. She’d never have told me a blessed thing.” Davis paused, turning the puzzle pieces over again and again in his mind. “I just can’t connect it,” he mused. “I think I’m going to pay Mr. Wilson a visit.”

“Need any help?”

“No, it’d be hard to explain your presence on this trip. You just heal up; I’ll call you when I have something more to go on.”

 —————

Davis parked his car across the street from an old four-story office building which had seen better days. The investigator knew that the landlord kept an office at this address by the numerous newspaper reports of the legal issues brought against James Wilson by his tenants. The office building was shabby and looked run down, but it wasn’t nearly as decrepit as the eyesore tenements which Wilson owned. Davis didn’t know Wilson personally, but he held a healthy contempt for Wilson’s unsavory reputation of preying upon the poor.

It wasn’t hard for Davis to spot a major incongruity when he looked across the street at the building. A jade green Dusenberg convertible sedan sat parked outside the front door, a 1931 model by Davis’ guess. It appeared completely out of place in front of this dumpy building – hell, it was out of place anywhere in this neighborhood, Davis thought.

Davis crossed the street, checked the building’s register and saw that the office of Wilson Properties was on the building’s third floor. Judging from the register, much of the building was vacant; a few other businesses were based on the premises, all of which had vague nondescript names like “Associated Enterprises”, which to Davis’ mind suggested criminal “front” operations.

The building was silent. Davis’ footfalls on the wooden stairs echoed hollowly in the gloomy stairwell. As he reached the second floor landing he heard the sound of a door closing somewhere above, then footsteps approaching down the stairs.

It was on the stairway between the second and third floors that Davis encountered her.

Davis recognized the woman instantly. She appeared fairly young, perhaps in her late twenties, and she wore a tight dark blue dress which accentuated her voluptuous curves. Her skin was a light olive color which was accentuated by the long black tresses which framed her face and fell across her shoulders. But it was her eyes which immediately caught the attention of most men, as they were colored a most unusual shade – a very deep and vivid green.

Her name, Davis knew, was Nola Contendre. She was an entertainer, famous for her singing voice as well as for her beauty, in high society nightclubs from Boston to Richmond. Davis had caught her act in Calvert a few months before; despite his usual jaded demeanor, Davis had been unusually struck by the beauty and talent of the gorgeous chanteuse. But Davis also knew an interesting fact about the lovely Miss Contendre: Nola was romantically involved with reputed gangster Calvin Mari.

Davis pressed his back against the bannister to let the delectable songstress pass on the stairs. He tipped his hat to her; Nola haughtily ignored him. As she pushed closely past him, Davis caught the scent of jasmine. Without a word, Nola continued down the steps, disappearing as she turned the corner on the landing immediately below.

Davis walked slowly up the remaining stairs, listening. As he’d expected, he heard the sound of a powerful engine turning over just outside the building. Davis smiled at the confirmation of the connection he’d made when Nola Contendre passed him on the stairwell; the color of the Dusenberg parked outside exactly matched the dazzling green of Nola’s eyes.

The investigator’s mind raced as he reached the third floor and opened the door to the Wilson Properties offices. How was Mari’s girlfriend mixed up in all of this? As he stepped into the office, Davis was greeted by an elderly receptionist. “Do you have an appointment?” she asked.

“No, I don’t,” Davis admitted. “But I was hoping Mr. Wilson might be able to spare me a few minutes of his time.”

The receptionist pressed a button on the call box on her desk and announced Davis’ presence. “Send him on back,” came the tinny reply from the callbox speaker.

The receptionist pointed to a doorway. “Straight down the hallway; Mr. Wilson’s office is the door at the end.”

Davis thanked her and made the short walk down the hall, passing two side doors before reaching Wilson’s office. Davis knocked on the closed door and heard a male voice from the other side bidding him enter.

Wilson’s office was roomy, but there was nothing elaborate about its furnishings. Davis saw the expected large wooden desk, which looked a bit ill-used, with high-backed chair behind it, and two smaller (and rather threadbare) wingback chairs facing the desk. A wide plush couch, with its worn cushions in considerable disarray, sat against a side wall; against another wall was a chipped and scratched, but well-stocked, liquor cabinet. Various mismatched endtables and lamps were near the room’s corners, with cheap decorative knick-knacks littering the tops of the tables. Framed pictures of racing horses adorned the walls.

Just as Davis opened his mouth to speak, Wilson’s call box buzzed. “Mr. Pendleton is on the phone, Mr. Wilson,” squawked the speaker.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Davis,” Wilson said; “I really do have to take this call. Please make yourself at home. Pour yourself a drink if you’d like.”

Davis nodded in reply, then gave the appearance of wandering around the room as he examined the pictures on the walls. What Davis really wanted to examine was the sofa; it was disarrayed as though someone had spent a restless night on it. He idly touched one of the pillows and a cushion as he looked at the framed photo of the thoroughbred hanging on the wall above the sofa; both pieces of upholstery were still warm to the touch. And as he stood beside the couch, Davis caught the scent of jasmine.

Davis turned as he heard Wilson conclude the call; nothing Wilson had said seemed of any interest, not nearly as interesting as what the couch had already revealed. Davis had never before met Wilson. The tenement landlord was not at all what Davis had expected. Wilson was a tall, trim, fiftyish man with a white mustache, and wore a wrinkled three piece suit. He might have looked something resembling “dapper” had his clothes not appeared slept in or, rather, hurriedly thrown on.

“What might I do for you, Mr. Davis?” Wilson said as he offered his hand.

As Davis shook the proffered hand, he began, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Wilson. My name is Douglas Davis; I’m an investigator.”

Wilson’s brow darkened. “If this is about those unfortunate fires, I’ve already been interviewed by the insurance agents.”

“No, sir, you have the wrong idea. I’m an independent contractor. But I am here in relation to the matter of those fires.”

Wilson drew himself up stiffly and looked coldly at Davis. “Is this supposed to be some kind of shakedown?”

Davis chuckled as he sat down in one of the wingback chairs. “No, sir,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be frank. My business is a little slow right now and it sounds like you could do with some extra security. In addition to myself, I have other operatives in my employ –”

Wilson remained standing, and his cool demeanor hadn’t changed. “Those fires were ruled accidental,” he interrupted.

“Mr. Wilson, let’s not play around,” Davis sighed. “One fire is an ‘accident’. Two fires are a ‘coincidence’. Three or more fires constitute a ‘pattern’. Now I don’t know why the police haven’t pursued any investigations and I honestly don’t care. I also don’t give a hoot about whether or not the insurance company is paying off on these properties.” Davis looked closely at Wilson and saw something quite different begin to faintly appear in the landlord’s eyes. “But people – your tenants – are dying in these blazes, and I would think you’d have at least some concern over the loss of life, if not your loss of property. I’m offering my security services. If for some reason these fires are the work of someone who has it in for you, we can catch them in the act. If nothing untoward occurs, that will prove that these fires were accidental, as you say.”

Davis caught Wilson feigning annoyance. “I have no need to ‘prove’ a thing. Besides, I’ve already taken measures to secure my remaining properties.”

“I’m glad you have,” Davis said with a smile, thinking of Calvin Mari. He stood and offered his hand to Wilson; as the landlord gripped it, Davis detected a slight tremble. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wilson. I’m sorry that we couldn’t do business together, and doubly sorry that we’re not meeting under more pleasant circumstances.”

“Likewise, and good day to you, Mr. Davis.”

Halfway across the street to his car, Davis smiled a bit to himself. He still couldn’t assemble the varied puzzle pieces, but he was dead sure of one fact.

James Wilson was badly frightened, beyond what could be explained by threat of the exposure of some insurance fraud.

I need to make a couple of special phone calls, Davis thought as he started his car and eased it into the street…

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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