JAKE'S BURN, Arson in Cisco

PROLOGUE

Return to Books by Randy Rawls

He tore two matches loose. The small print below a local barís slogan said, Close Cover Before Striking. He complied.

From his position in the entryway, the crystal chandelier reflected in his eyes. A deep sigh escaped as he blinked rapidly, fighting tears. His attention turned upward, up the winding staircase to the second floor balcony, and he frowned. His head slowly rotated toward the study as his face evidenced sadness and regret.

He stared at the matches. It had to be done, and it had to be done now. But still he hesitated, studying the lines of dampness running from him into the study, up the stairs, and over the sofa and the drapes. His eyes watered from the gasoline fumes that filled the room. With a shrug and a half-grimace, he struck the matches and tossed them onto the wet Persian rug, an original.

The whoosh and tongues of flame startled him as he stooped to pick up the cans. He spun, his heart racing. The flames leapt upward, grabbing at the furniture, the drapes, the walls, everything in its path.

Spurred by the fierce heat, he ran from the house, intent only on escape. A tree root snaked upward in the darkness and grabbed him, sending him into a forward sprawl, the cans flying in different directions.

The force of an explosion forced him forward. He caught himself, then whirled toward the blazing inferno. The flames curled from the second floor windows greedily reaching for the third. Glass tinkled to the ground from exploding windows. The shrubbery withered, then burst into flame. The fire appeared bright enough to alert all of Eastland County.

Gotta get out of here. That primary thought dominated the top layer of his consciousness. Fear, fear of the fire and fear of retribution occupied the second level. There was no third.

His pickup truck loomed before him and he yanked the door and jumped in. A second later, he sped from the inferno heíd created.

Only when he reached the outskirts of Cisco did he relax and breathe normally. He slowed and looked over his shoulder. The glow from the burning house atop the distant hill filled his mind.

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 CHAPTER ONE

My ears screamed that a phone rang while my brain refused to acknowledge it. I turned my head and squinted at the clock. Right brain yelled, I donít want to be called at three in the morning. I rolled toward the lamp but a heavy lump in the middle of my chest slowed meóStriker. Anytime I sleep on my back, he thinks Iím a kitty-bed.

My ears alerted again and Striker hissed quietly plunging his claws through the blanket into my chest. That sped my waking process. Who could it be? And, whereís Sweeper? My mind cleared enough for me to curse and vow not to answer.

On the next ring, other senses yelled at me to do something to stop that nerve-scraping sound. Was it my imagination or were the rings longer and louder? Although it could cost me, I decided to let the answering machine get it. Besides, most of my business calls came during the morning after the wife found lipstick on her husbandís collar.

I grabbed my blanket and rolled to my right, away from the phone. Thatís when I discovered Sweeper. How can a twelve-pound cat be so heavy and fill so much space when heís asleep? One of those quirks of nature, I suppose. I gave up on the blanket and rolled without it. Striker rode with me and ended the move sitting on my side, firmly anchored to the bed covers.

Finally, the fourth ring. Time for the answering machine. In spite of my desire to sleep, I wondered who it was. Figured Iíd listen to see if he, or maybe she, left a message. Nope, not much chance of a she. I was between shes and didnít know any who would call me any time. Well, maybe my ex-wife, but I didnít need to hear from her.

The answering machine kicked on with the cute message Iíd recorded. It started with the theme from Dragnet.

Dum, de dum, dum. Edwards here, Ace Edwards, Private Investigator. I canít take your call right now. Give me your name, number and a message. Iíll get back to you because Iím Ace Edwards, Private Eye. Dum, de dum, dum.

It seemed humorous when I recorded it, but at three in the morning, it only sounded stupid.

"Arty, wake up. I know youíre there."

That woke me. Arty! Only one guy called me that, and he only did it to get my goat. I reached over, dislodging my cats, and switched on the bedside lamp.

Striker complained, "Meow."

Sweeper woke and scowled at me as he stretched. I suppose his curiosity overcame his natural inclination to sleep through anything. Well, if curiosity killed cats, Iíd have lost him long ago.

"Okay, youíre ignoring me," the speaker phone said. "Wonít work, I know youíre there. Hereís some blue grass for your machine."

Fiddle-sawing in an up-tempo number raked across my nerve endings. Sweeper and Striker jumped from the bed and ran underneath. They share my tastes in music, and that does not include fiddle mutilation.

I snatched up the phone. "Jake, you son-of-a-bitch, what do you want?"

"Why Arty, is that any way to talk to an old friend? Iím sitting here watching my house smoke and thought of you."

"Donít call me Arty." I was set to give him hell when I realized what heíd said. "What do you mean, watching your house smoke?"

"Just what I said. I got a call from the Eastland County Sheriffís office about two hours ago. Said my house was burning." He hesitated, then continued in a softer voice. "By the time I got here, it was gone. Nothing left but the chimneys, and smoking ashes."

I heard passion in his voice and hoped he wouldnít cry. That I could not handle at three in the morning.

"Wait a minute. Are you telling me your house burned?"

"Thatís why I like you, Arty. Youíre really quick."

I resisted the impulse to pull the cord from the wall and throw the phone across the room. "Jake," I growled through clenched teeth, "itís three oíclock. Start over and tell me what happened. And cut off that damn blue grass. Itís stunting my catsí growth."

He said something, but I interrupted. "House? What house? Last I heard, you live in a penthouse in Fort Worth."

Jake let out something between a laugh and a sob, but the music stopped. "Iíll keep it simple," he said. "One, my houseóthe one Sheila took from me. Like I said, the sheriffís department called and told me it was on fire. Two, I drove over here. Three, itís gone. Four, Iím sitting here watching it smoke. Five, I need an investigator. Six, you have a license, and youíre hired. Is that simple enough?"

"Yeah. What about Sheila? Is she okay?"

"Donít know, havenít seen her, donít give a damn. Sheís probably out with her latest stud. Hell, she might have torched the place herself. But if youíre so hot to know, you can find out while youíre investigating."

Jake is one of my oldest friends, although friend might be too strong a word. We grew up in Cisco in different neighborhoods. You might even say, different sides of the tracks. Not that I grew up poor, his family was just so damned rich.

We met in school, but became friends on the football field. He was the star quarterback and I was a substitute running back. Glory washed over him while my body collected bruises on the back-up team in practice and splinters during games, except for a few carries coach gave me occasionally.

Jake contacted me three years ago, before he went to court for his divorce. He hired me to investigate Sheila, his ex-wife. What I found wasnít pretty, and Jakeís lawyer used it. Based on her proven poor character, the judge cut her share to only forty percent of everything Jake had. Of course, that was enough to finance a coup in a Third World country.

That was the last time I talked to him, and now he was on the phone at three in the morning acting like weíd spoken yesterday.

"Hey, Arty. You still there?"

I snapped out of my reverie. "Yeah, Iím here. Just remembering when we were in high school, and how much I loved knocking you on your butt."

"Yeah, in your dreams." Jakeís chuckle filled me with memories of his racing past as I snatched air.

"What do you mean, when I start my investigation?" The fog of sleep had almost lifted, and I didnít know if I liked what Iíd heard.

"Oh, I thought you understood, Arty. I hired you to find out who torched my house."

He said it as if he were talking about washing his car, not that he ever had. Heíd always had too much money to get wet himself.

"Whoa, Jake. Hold on there. Youíre galloping off like a half-broke mustang. First, donít call me Arty. Second, you havenít hired me. I might not want the job. Third, itís not your house, itís Sheilaís. You just get to pay for it. And fourth, what makes you think someone torched it? What makes you think I even want your case?"

"Hmmm. Havenít had a chance to think you might not take the case. Like I said, Iím watching ashes." He paused. "Not take the case? Nah, youíre hired at twice your daily rate. Iím not going to let you out of it. No matter how hard I try to spend Dadís money, it keeps multiplying. Hell, it almost recovered from the chunk Sheila took. Youíre another tax dodge. A fresh oneís always nice."

I had no doubt he spoke the truth.

"Now, what was second? Oh yes, the house." Jake kept talking without breathing, or so it seemed. "Itíll always be my house. I was waiting to buy it back from Sheila. Sheíd have sold. Third, oh shit, what was third?"

I donít know if all rich guys are so blasť about money, but Jake has always been this wayónot arrogant, mind you, just blasť. "Third was what makes you think someone torched your house?"

"One of the firemen said arson. Heís coming back to investigate. I told him I knew the best, and Iíd hire him."

"Oh, thanks a lot," I replied, picturing the greeting Iíd get from the firemen.

"Theyíre expecting you. Check in at the fire station, and theyíll take you out to the house. Youíd better get moving. They start early in the country. Is a thousand a day enough?"

I almost choked. "A thou a day?" Four hundred a day was the best Iíd ever made, and that was from Jake.

Striker and Sweeper came from under the bed and stared at me, their green eyes slitted as if daring me to turn down the money.

"Sorry, Arty, thatís probably not enough. I know you have other cases, but I need priority. Tell you what. Get on the phone and cancel your other commitments for the next two weeks."

I could do that with one phone call. On Friday, I had an appointment to have the oil changed in my Chrysler convertible. I didnít tell Jake.

He prattled on. "Let me see. I donít want you losing money so Iíll go to fifteen hundred a day if you promise me exclusivity for at least two weeks."

At this point, my memory gets foggy. I donít remember what I said but I hope it was something intelligent. I was too busy trying to digest fifteen hundred bucks a day to remember anything. Fifteen hundred times fourteen days was . . . was . . . Hell, it was too much for me to figure although I remembered from some dark recess in my mind that fifteen squared was two-twenty-five. Did that mean Jake was talking about twenty thousand for two weeksí work? I decided Iíd put the math off until I found my calculator.

Whatever I said attracted the catsí attention. Both jumped onto my lap and stared into my face, pleading with me to accept Jakeís offer, or so it seemed.

Sweeper rubbed his back underneath my chin with his purring volume cranked to about fifty decibels. Obviously, he thought the rate was adequate. I heard myself saying, "Yeah, fifteen will do itóplus expenses."

"Of course, Arty."

I skipped telling him not to call me Arty. "What happened to your house?"

"Donít know any more. I think somebody torched it and Sam agrees. Said heíd be here at first light to get started. Youíd better get some rest. You remember where the fire station is, donít you?"

"Yeah, Jake, I remember. You didnít really tell them Iím an expert, did you? Whoís Sam?"

"Sure did. Said youíre a high-priced private eye now, but you used to be the backbone of the Dallas Police Department. Samís looking forward to meeting you."

"Iíll just bet he is," I said as he hung up.

I sat for a moment stroking the cats and staring into the mirror. The clockís reflection read three-thirty. "Guess Iíd better hit the shower, boys. Wanna join me?"

"Meow." Sweeper asked.

"Meow." Striker echoed.

"Yeah, me too," I said. "Whoís Sam?"