by Scott Joseph
She was hot on the trail of the arsonsist, but was she getting too close....?
The man stepped out of an alley onto Claymont and headed north towards the business district at a fast pace. The sky flashed white and low rumbles of thunder sounded in the distance as rain began to fall. The man slowed to pull the hood of his gray jogging suit over his head and adjust his black duffel bag on his shoulder, continuing towards his destination. Two blocks ahead on the opposite side of the same street stood the old Oakdale apartment building. A dark window on the second floor twinkled briefly with a small light.
Margaret snapped her lighter closed and took a drag on her cigarette as she watched the street below through the dirty rain streaked glass. The apartment behind her was empty and she had alternated standing and kneeling by the window for the past three hours. Not comfortable, but an excellent vantage point from which to observe the street below including a clear view of the entrances to the Powell office building directly across from the Oakdale. She could stand a little discomfort in return for the diversity and excitement of her job.
Margaret raised her camera and once again scanned the area around the Powell through the electronic viewfinder. The camera served multiple purposes in her line of work. It was getting close to eleven pm and very few pedestrians had come into view during the past hour on this rainy night. An occasional car splashed by below, but none stopped nearby. She slid the camera strap from around her neck and placed the camera on the floor next to today's copy of the Globe. A flash of lightning revealed the front-page headline; SENATOR TILDEN KILLED. Below the lead story was a smaller caption, which had been circled. This story was the reason for Margaret's vigil at the window. The minor banner read; THIRD BLAZE - ARSON SUSPECTED.
Margaret didn't suspect - she knew. She'd been on top of this story since the second building had gone up. In fact, she was certain she had just missed the arsonist himself at the last fire. She had snapped a shot of a man wearing a navy pea coat and faded jeans. He had been carrying a duffel bag and was leaving the area in a hurry. He hadn't looked right to Margaret and she had a feel for these things. She had a tip that the Powell might be the next site to be torched and she would be ready. She intended to top the last story.
She stretched and stubbed out her cigarette with the flat heel of her tennis shoe. As she returned her attention to the street below, a man turned the corner and walked towards the building across from her. He wore a gray sweat suit and was carrying a black duffel bag. Margaret's pulse quickened and she felt a tingle go up her spine as she raised the camera and took several shots, zooming in, trying to get a close-up of the man's face - but his hood was up. He suddenly disappeared from the viewfinder and she looked up, realizing he had turned into an alley at the side of the Powell building.
"Damn!" cursed Margaret in a whisper, slinging the camera over her shoulder and jamming the paper into the pocket of her trench coat. She hurried out of the apartment and took the steps two at time to street level where she sprinted across to the Powell. She flattened her back against the wall at the side of the alley and cautiously eased her head out and peered in. It was empty but not completely dark; a small light was visible above an old rusty door halfway down the side of the building.
Margaret glanced around, then turned into the alley and carefully approached the door. It was closed but unlocked - the old rusty catch had been pried open. She took a deep breath and opened the door slowly, revealing stairs leading downward. There was a dim light visible below. Margaret looped her camera strap around her neck, slid her hands into her coat pockets and started down the stairs.
* * *
The job was almost done. He had just finished pouring the contents of a gallon size plastic milk jug around the perimeter of the large storage room. The trail of greenish liquid traversed a large shelving unit containing a variety of cleaning fluids, paints and other wonderfully flammable substances. The man next pulled a paper package from his duffel resembling a pound of ham just wrapped at the local deli. He popped the tape and unwrapped the bundle revealing a mound of a clay-like substance. This he placed on a shelf in the middle of a puddle he had created.
He returned to his duffle and began to pack his equipment - then froze as he heard a sound. It came from the dimly lit hallway outside of the storage room. The man turned slowly to face the door. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and flipped it open. Hopefully just a rat - he would allow no witness to his latest project. There was no one in the doorway and he started towards the hall to check it out. As he moved, a woman stepped into the doorway holding a camera at face level.
A series of clicks and whirrs echoed in the room. The man in the sweat suit stumbled backward and crashed into the shelves. The woman snapped away as he steadied himself and attempted to recover from his initial panic and come to grips with the situation. He was very good at fires and was capable of so much more. He was almost as good at handling surprises, like this medium sized surprise with the camera.
Margaret could see him clearly in the dim light. This was the man. She had him cold - the evidence was all around him. She had gotten several good shots, which would develop perfectly despite the low lighting. She couldn't believe her luck. Wait till they read this one, she thought. She lowered the camera as the man took a step towards her. She saw the glint in his right hand and recognized the knife held there.
"This was a damn stupid move lady," he said quietly, his voice angry, containing a strange mix of fear and amazement. He had been moving sideways, looking around her, afraid there were cops with her - but there was no one.
He couldn't understand how she could just stand there looking at him. Maybe fear - or maybe she didn't realize what he was doing in the storage room. No matter now. He took a step towards the woman. He knew he could get to her and the camera before she could make it ten feet. He took a second step; beads of sweat clear on his forehead as he thought about what he would do with her body and which escape route he would use to get clear. A crazy grin formed on his face and he actually giggled, despite his own state of near panic, as he prepared to rush her.
"You dumb bitch. You're something else. I know some of you reporters are gutsy. You'll take some crazy chances. But you made a bad mistake this time."
Margaret let the camera fall to her side and revealed the silencer equipped automatic she'd been holding in her right pocket, constantly aimed at the arsonist from the moment she entered the room. His eyes widened and he stopped moving when he saw the gun.
"Reporter?" said Margaret calmly, "I don't even read the papers unless it's absolutely necessary." She lowered the gun slightly, aiming at his leg, and pulled the trigger. The was a muffled chuff as the muzzle spit flame and the arsonist's leg buckled, his right kneecap shattered by the bullet's impact. He screamed and collapsed to the floor, holding his leg and moaning in pain. Margaret walked to him and aimed the gun at the other kneecap. He looked up at her. "Please," he whimpered.
"You were paid to destroy two specific buildings, Mister Devoe. You've already burned one too many and were about to do another. This has certain parties very upset. Parties who have paid you and to whom you owe some professional courtesy." She paused and looked at him expectantly. She lowered the gun to her side. "Now - give me the name of the person who instructed you to burn Polk Street and the Powell building." Devoe looked at her face and saw no weakness there. "It was Kane," he whispered. "Martin Kane."
"Thank you, Mister Devoe."
Margaret raised the pistol and shot him in the forehead. She pocketed the gun and snapped two pictures of the corpse.
Margaret truly enjoyed the diversity and excitement of her work. Yesterday a senator, today a double crossing arsonist - what will tomorrow bring?
They'll have to read about it in the papers, thought Margaret.
(Word count = 1492)