The Case of the Suspicious Fire by Stan Smith
Shortly after three in the morning, Royston firefighters brought the fire at James Fine Clothing under control. Inspector Matthew Walker, who was on call that June night, squinted his eyes against the flashing red lights and drifting water spray that mingled with the voices of the firefighters. Patrolman Ryder saw the inspector and came up to him.
“The fire captain called Jerry James, the store owner. “Sir,” he said, “had to leave a message on his machine. The adjacent buildings are safe now, but everything in the store is destroyed.”
Walker knew the store had been struggling in recent years, and suspected that the fire might be opportune. “Who called the fire in?” he asked.
“Jimmy and I did, sir. We were on patrol nearby when it started.”
“Did you see anyone in the area earlier?”
“Only one at this time of night, sir. A man with a brown beard wearing a cap and a knapsack. Light jacket and dark jeans. About five ten in height. He was walking about a block from the store.”
“Toward the store or away?”
“Away. We spotted the fire about fifteen minutes later.”
“All right. Take a swing around and see if you spot him.”
Ryder hurried off just as a fire captain approached Walker with a bleary-eyed, balding man. Walker knew Captain Henning.
“Walker, this is Jerry James, the owner of the store,” Henning said. “He got my message and just arrived. I’ve briefed him on our progress.”
“Thanks, Henning.” Walker turned to James. “Mr. James, I understand the captain had to leave a message on your machine. “Were you away from home?”
“No, Inspector,” James replied distractedly. “I keep my bedside phone ringer switched off. Telemarketers have been disturbing my midday nap lately. I didn’t hear the kitchen phone ring, but when I came back from using the bathroom I saw the message light of the bedside phone on. After listening to the captain’s message, I threw on some clothes and rushed here.”
“Is your store insured? “Walker asked casually.
“Yes, but it’s been my life!”
“Any idea how the fire started?”
“No, none.” James stared at the blaze. As he did, Walker discreetly examined his face for traces of glue that might have supported a false beard, but James’s smooth, clean face revealed nothing. Walker did observe that his socks were mismatched. After asking James for his address, Walker calculated that he would not have had time to set the fire, go home to get the phone message, and return to the scene.
The inspector then turned to watch the dwindling fire, lost in weary thought.
“You usually play rook-and-pawn endings well, Matt,” remarked Thomas P. Stanwick two evenings later. He and Walker settled themselves in the lounge of the Royston Chess Club after their weekly game. “That’s to your credit, too, for they’re one of the purest tests of chess skill. Tonight, though, you fell apart quickly. Anything on your mind?”
“Just tired,” replied Walker. “I was at a fire downtown the other night.”
“Oh, sure, always some excuse.” Stanwick smiled. “You were sick. You had the black pieces. You were up all night investigating a crime.”
“We don’t know for sure that it was a crime,” said Walker. “Do you know of James Fine Clothing?”
“Been in there. The clothing is a bit too fine for my taste.”
“Obviously. Well, apparently a lot of other slobs agree with you. The place has had some financial problems, and I’ve learned that the fire occurred at a convenient time. The owner’s creditors were starting to close in.” Walker described the events and his observations of the evening.
“The fire department thinks arson is possible,” he continued. “A wall panel near some electrical wiring had been removed. The insurance company is suspicious, though 1 suppose they always are. James has some electrical training, and he’s the right height and hair color to fit the description of the bearded man the patrol saw in the area shortly before the fire started. But he lives too far away to have started the fire and made the round trip home for the phone message.”
“Are you sure he heard the phone message?” asked Stanwick.
“Yes. I’m told that when he arrived at the fire, he referred to it and asked for Henning by name.”
Stanwick idly fingered the tip of his drooping mustache. “1 would say,” he offered, “that the insurance company’s suspicions are well founded. James could indeed have set the fire. Not only is it possible, his story is certainly false, which makes his guilt probable. And despite the aspersions you cast on my wardrobe, I might, being the forgiving fellow I am, be willing to explain how 1 know.”
How does Stanwick know that James is lying? Scroll down for the answer
Walker noticed that James had brown hair (which matched the beard of the man seen nearby). A man with dark hair and a smooth face at three in the morning must have shaved recently, which James would not have stopped to do had he thrown some clothes on and rushed to the scene.
The police and arson squad investigation revealed that James was indeed the bearded man. He had shaved to get a closer fit for his false beard. After removing the panel and fraying some wires to start the fire, he had walked to his car a few blocks away and driven to a bar, where he checked his message by phone until he found the message left by Henning. He then removed his beard and changed his clothes in his car, carefully washing the beard glue from his face with a solvent, before timing his arrival at the fire.
Stan Smith was the author of three books of Stanwick mini-mysteries that have been published in nine languages and sold over 120,000 copies.