The arsonist moved with the confidence that comes from experience and thorough planning. In the month since he had been given the job, he had scouted the office building, he had lurked about in its vicinity at night, checking for human traffic, he had prepared his materials and he had rehearsed and timed the whole operation.
It was an overcast night and the yard behind his target was as dark as any enclosed space ever becomes in a small town with abundant street lights. His clients were two Americans, who were very careful about not showing themselves to him in a way that would let him give up useful descriptions. They had supplied a list of documents.
The arsonist was supposed to confirm that everything listed was on the premises before he set the fire. He had looked through windows, even shone a torch into the night-dark building, and he had seen some of the names on filing boxes. He had no intention of going inside to look further, however.
The building was at least sixty years old and not designed for easy access out of working hours. There was an alarm system, the doors were solid and well-provided with mortice locks and the windows were either fitted with internal shutters or glazed with a dozen or so square panes of glass in a non-opening wooden frame.
As an expert at setting fires, who believed in keeping jobs as simple as possible, the arsonist had identified two rooms at opposite ends of the building as the best places to start a comprehensive blaze. His target was the offices of a small publishing firm with a long history of struggling to survive.
The basement, he knew from his briefing, contained boxes of documents, which had accumulated over two centuries, and a few boxes of books. It was an oubliette for material that the owner of the business had been unable to sell to collectors or historians.
The arsonist could see the names of some of the documents that he had been sent to destroy openly displayed on the binders and filing boxes in the ground-floor offices. He was betting that the rest were stored for easy access in the ground-floor filing cabinets, which were clearly not fire-proof.
His American clients had stressed the importance of destroying the building while making the fire clearly non-accidental. The job seemed to contain an element of making trouble for the owner of the business, a suggestion that he was attempting an insurance fraud. The clients had seemed to be holding back on the matter of the documents, as if reluctant to stress their importance in case the arsonist helped himself to some of them instead of burning them. If access to the building had been easier, he would have done exactly that.
It was a mid-week night, Wednesday, and quiet in his vicinity as the arsonist set to work on solid putty using a chisel. There had been an international football match that evening. He could hear a pack of the local yobs making their way home, chanting merrily, after watching the game on their local pub's large-screen television.
Cars whizzed along the road in front of the building every so often. Aircraft lights were doing UFO impressions less frequently. There was no sign of the Moon but the odd star managed to look down through gaps in the belts of cloud. The arsonist felt comfortable about being in the yard, knowing that the chances of interruption were tiny and, if he was disturbed, that his chances of running for it, and getting cleanly
away, were excellent.
A last dig with the chisel exposed the glass completely. Two of the rusty glazing pins emerged from the wood. The rest broke off when he levered with his pliers. He applied the vacuum cup to the glass and tugged. On the fourth pull, the glass came away with an almost metallic ring.
The arsonist propped the detached pane against the wall carefully, well out of his way, and reached into the first tackle bag. He tossed sealed plastic bags of his home-made napalm around the office, putting his arm in through the hole in the frame to distribute them. When the first bag was empty, he moved on to the second window, removed another pane of glass and repeated the process of sowing the room with his combustible material.
When the second bag was empty, he primed four igniters and distributed them around the room. He went back to the first window and distributed another four igniters. He collapsed the two tackle bags into his bellypack, which made him look like a fat bastard with his coat zipped up, and tightened the straps so that it would not interfere with his movements.
He took his time about checking for potential witnesses before
climbing the boundary wall. Once out of the yard, he dusted himself down then walked rapidly to the main road, resisting the urge to break into a trot. He forced himself to slow down as he headed back to his car. There was no hurry now.
The igniters would give him half an hour to get well away from Postwick. When the fun started, he would be miles away on the A47, cruising along somewhere between East Dereham and Swaffham, and heading out of Norfolk at a normal speed for that time of night.
Jane and Peter Vance had been discussing the conclusion of the assignment for six weeks and they had still to reach agreement. Paying off the arsonist was not a problem - they had untraceable cash in abundance at their disposal and they had taken great care not to leave themselves open to identification by their pyrophilic agent. All that concerned them was the possibility that the mystery would be revealed if the arsonist were to be caught sometime in the future and he told all to the police to have it 'taken into consideration'.
It was obvious that the premises of the publishing firm L. & P. Hallan had been destroyed by fire deliberately. The Vances had heard an interview with the local Chief Fire Officer on Anglian Radio during a room-service breakfast at their hotel in Norwich the following morning. A police spokesman had performed next, announcing that an investigation of the fire was already making progress. The Vances were confident that it would prove a complete waste of time without
information from the arsonist, but it would serve to surround Philip Hallan with suspicion.
Jane Vance was all for breaking their trail completely. Peter Vance favoured keeping the arsonist available in case they needed him again. After all, competent craftsmen in that line are in short supply and not easily found. Peter also favoured a delicate touch. Putting a dangerous man like Philip Hallan out of business was a necessity. Killing the arsonist was both heavy-handed and bound to attract further police attention.
In the end, five minutes before the arsonist was due to arrive at their rendezvous for his final pay-off, the Vances reached a compromise. The approach routes to the meeting point formed the limbs of a 'Y'. The Vances had arrived from the south, up the vertical leg. The arsonist would use one of the arms of the 'Y'. If he approached from the north-east, from their right, he would be paid in cash. If he approached from the left, the sinister side to a Latin scholar, he would be paid in lead from the .45-calibre semi-automatic pistol that Peter kept in a holster
under his seat of his car.
The solution to the problem was based on a Judgement in the strictly accurate sense of an estimate by the Almighty of the arsonist's ultimate worthiness. If he was destined to carry on with his career, he would arrive by one road. If he was unworthy of survival, he would take the other. It was a simple solution to a simple problem.
Two nights and a morning after the fire in Postwick, two sleepy detectives approached a car parked on the outskirts of Bromley. Their first job of a new day was to look at the body slumped over the steering wheel. The man had been shot in the back of the head from the back seat of the car. The large-calibre bullet had passed right through his skull to smash a hole in the windscreen.
Twenty yards away, a middle-aged man with a dog stood beside a police car and watched the show, knowing that he was about to appear on the telly in due course. He was quite excited by the prospect of becoming famous for a day or two as an eye-witness to the aftermath of a violent crime.
Man-Shot-Dead-In-Car gave the tabloids a thrill over the weekend. The story lived on for a couple of days into the following week as a
Merchant-Of-Death-Murdered piece when the police revealed that two small bags of heroin had been found in the dead man's pockets. Then the whole thing faded away. A thorough police investigation failed to turn up any connection between an apparently respectable warehouse worker and the drug trade.
A post mortem examination showed that the dead man was not a drug user, although the police turned up small amounts of chemicals not usually found in the home when they searched the cupboards in his kitchen. The dead man had no pressing debts and no serious enemies. The police were left with no motive for the shooting, nothing in the way of useful forensic information, no witnesses who had seen him park his car on the night of his murder and their informants could tell them nothing useful. The file on a murder case remains open until the mystery has been solved. In this instance, the file seemed destined never to be closed.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.