29 March 2017

11 - Arson, fraud and other delights

Thursday cont.

“Have you finished with your drug addict, Cleo?”
“Yes. I referred him to a doctor and he’ll no doubt join a methadone programme. It makes me so angry to see young guys ruining their lives with drug abuse.”
“I’d like to see those responsible caught,” said Gary. “But as long as the farmers in countries like Afghanistan rely on the harvest of opoid-based drug plants for a livelihood and the drug barons can profit from them, the battle to prevent drug addiction is doomed.”
“Yes,” said Cleo. “Drugs are like religion. You consume them to get through life. The drug barons are the high priests of corruption.”
“Suspension of reality,” said Gary. “Alcohol abuse is also rife and governments won’t curb it as long as they make money on the tax they collect on every bottle.”
“Let’s not even mention smoking,” said Cleo. “People smoke because they want to without thought for their own health. Until about 1947 smoking was thought beneficial and even now it’s a sign of elegance or coolness for many.”
“People take drugs so that they can slip into some oblivious state that is preferable to their reality. Drinking in excess has the same effect. The only difference between those addictions is that you don’t hear governments preaching against alcohol.”
“Aren’t there bars at Westminster so that politicians can drink to oblivion – though many of them don’t need alcohol to get them into that state?”
“It’s often a class thing, Cleo. If you drink fine whisky, smart liqueurs or expensive bubbly, you are going with the elitist flow even if you are working at keeping your alcohol levels high enough; if you go for beer and cheap corn at pubs you are a ‘commoner’.”
“Drinking in small quantities now and again is pleasurable, Gary. We do it as well.”
“But it’s easy to move on to emptying a bottle of wine every evening and that is already moving towards alcoholism, Cleo.”
“And here we are, preaching again,” said Cleo. “Let’s move on to our cases.”
“We haven’t even mentioned obesity yet. Overeating causes ill-health, so I suppose drinking in excess works as a sort of curative on that basis. Alcoholics don’t need food.”
“How cynical is that?” said Cleo. “What are you going to do about Robert?”
“Nothing for the time being. I’m not going to make a fool of myself by detaining him without substantial evidence,” said Gary. “He won’t run away.”
“Can you phone the hospital and find out if Frank Wetherby has regained consciousness?” said Cleo. “I don’t think they’ll give me any information and I need to talk to him about what he was doing in the back room of Rita’s salon.”
“Do you expect him to tell you?”
“I don’t know what to expect.”
“I’m going to look for information on his past, Cleo. It might be better to start with his biography.”
“I’ll talk to Frank when you’ve done that. At least Rita’s past is fairly harmless, I assume, so I’ll talk to her about her relationship with Frank. That may throw light on the fire. I suppose it was arson, wasn’t it?”
“Assuming she did not know about the heroin in her storeroom, someone retaliated for something that had nothing to do with her, but possibly everything to do with Frank,” said Gary. “What if she knew what was in the box and decided to do a little dealing herself?”
“You aren’t serious, I hope. Where would a homely village hairdresser like Rita find customers for the stuff?”
“Killers don’t have to look like killers, and dealers don’t look like dealers, Cleo. Frank may have put her up to it.”
“This case is certainly more complex than just cornering an assassin or an arsonist,” said Cleo.
“As soon as drugs are involved things get nasty. Chris should have come to some sort of conclusion by now. I’ll phone him, shall I?”
Through the two-way office speaker, Cleo could hear that Chris was now convinced that the fire had been started deliberately.
“By an amateur?”
“More than likely by someone wanting it to look like that,” said Chris, “but whoever did it was inefficient.”
“It burnt the salon to a frazzle,” said Cleo. “That’s pretty efficient, isn’t it, Chris?”
“Smashed glass from a window pane suggests that something was thrown into the salon, but the door into the salon was not locked. Why would someone risk smashing a window and throwing a Molotov cocktail in when he could have gone in through the door?” said Chris. “Frank Wetherby had key of the main door. The assassin would have waited until he’d opened it.”
“If the fire was meant to look amateurish, it’s rather a shame that the fire brigade frustrating the plot by getting there too fast.”
 “Surely someone saw or at least heard was went on,” said Cleo.
“Not necessarily if it was at night.” said Gary.
“But glass makes a noise when it smashes,” said Cleo.
“And neighbours mind their own business,” said Chris.
“OK. Chris. We’ll wait for more results. I’ll be at home later this afternoon,” said Gary.
“Siesta time, Gary?”
“Use your imagination, Chris!”
“I’m doing that already!”
“I don’t think we’ll get round to a siesta,” said Gary when Chris had rung off.
“Why ever not?
“We need to make inquiries in Station Street.”
“Couldn’t Hilda or Dorothy sniff around a bit?” said Gary.
“I don’t think Dorothy would want me tell her to sniff around, though she’s probably better at it than Hilda,” said Cleo.
“That comes as no surprise,” said Gary. “Hilda seems to develop her theories in the safety of her own parlour.”
“Have you considered the idea that the salon was not set on fire by the same person as the one who followed Frank into that storeroom, Gary,” Cleo said.
“You’re probably right about there being two persons involved. We need to find out who was associating with Frank Wetherby. It’s possible that someone met him there, isn’t it? If he had moved out of Rita’s flat the salon may have been the only venue he had left,” said Gary. “The arsonist would then be someone who had followed both of them.
“But the assassin got out and left Frank to his fate,” said Cleo.
“He had walloped him unconscious, Cleo. That does not indicate friendship between the two guys.”
“I’m now even more puzzled as to why Frank quit my agency,” said Cleo. “If he was already up to some clandestine stuff, the office and all that electronic equipment would be useful.”
“All that tells me that you did not notice anything amiss,” said Gary.
“No. Anyone who uses the office computer has his or her own password for his or her own pages. Frank had his own terminal. I can’t say when he was in the office. Private eyes improvise.”
“Then we’ll have to get a Sergei surrogate to open up, Cleo.”
“Who is that??
“A notorious Russian hacker.”
“Wow. Can we do that – I mean get one?”
“That’s the way firms can find out if a database is hackable, so that’s what they do.”
“Then we’ll do it, Gary. Anything is better than guesswork.”
“Mr P. alias Policedog got a ten year prison sentence for his particular art of fraud. I’ll talk to Roger about using a hacker. He has the contacts and it is a police matter. In fact, it would not surprise me if we had one on the HQ premises. They don’t publicise their expertise!”
“We really need to know what Frank was doing in that salon. Maybe he went there to collect some of his heroin supply and was being stalked.”
“He would have noticed that, surely. He isn’t a novice.”
“Presumably not. I did not ask for a CV or anything like that,” said Cleo. “In retrospect, that was reckless of me.”
“If he’s up to something big, a little detail like a faked curriculum vita would be like falling of a log, Cleo. I wonder if our friend Frank was talented at cracking code words.”
“I’d hate to think that.”
“Story so far: Frank ditched the agency, moved in at Rita’s and later may or may not have gone to London, but left his supply of heroin with a street value of hundreds of thousands of pounds at Rita’s salon. It doesn’t not sound likely, does it?” said Gary.
“At least we know now that he could get along financially without the Hartley Agency. I wonder where he was living if he didn’t go to London.”
“We lack basic facts, Cleo.”
“That’s the understatement of the year!”
“I’ll phone Joe. He may be in his office and want a bite of lunch,” said Gary. “Then it’s siesta time and after that I’ll look for our pet private eye on various databases. I can do that at home so I’ll sign off here.”
Joe’s office answering machine informed Gary that his brother could be found at Romano’s any lunchtime and would be glad to talk about ideas and articles for the new gazette.
“Joe is making sure he gets feedback for his new venture. I’ll go to Roman’s and find out how he’s getting on. He certainly isn’t wasting any time.”
“I’ll drive home now, Gary. Grit needs a break.”
“OK. I’ll follow you as soon as I’ve had a chat with Joe. I could bring us a takeaway.”
“That’s a great idea. Something the kids can eat for supper, please. No garlic!”
“Just one thing, Cleo. You’ll have to get new keys for your office,”
“Frank gave me his key back.”
“Not before he had copied it, Cleo. I’m willing to bet on that. I’ll get onto it now. You need those keys urgently.”
After a brief chat with Joe and the purchase of a small pizza-to-go that he would eat on the way home plus two large containers of pasta for later, Gary phoned the HQ guaranteed honest HQ locksmith and asked him to change the lock at Cleo’s office. They would meet there at three. He phoned Cleo to tell her of this plan, but he would probably come home before meeting the guy.
Cleo hoped that Frank had not already been to the office and cleared any telltale evidence of his activities. He could have used an app to get rid of anything saved, but Cleo knew that cloud storage and an external disc she kept at home would have copies of everything and she would change the password immediately, which she did. That did not guarantee that changes had not been made to the database, and she could not access Frank’s data without a password even if she had copies of it, but since Frank was still recovering in hospital, he would not have had an opportunity to deal with the issue himself since that night at the salon. On the other hand, they could not rule out that he had an accomplice. Would Rita’s computer skills stretch to plundering or deleting data on cloud storage? Or worse still, did Frank have an accomplice? Maybe he knew someone he trusted. Had that person turned on him? But surely the heroin would have gone in that case, unless the assassin had been interrupted and made his escape. There were too many possibilities involving Frank, who had appeared above board, but wasn't.
Cleo made herself coffee and sat down to think. Grit fussed around with the children. She was troubled that Cleo seemed to have so much stress. She would have a chat with Gary about that.
Dorothy arrived at the cottage a few minutes after Cleo had phoned asking her to investigate the possibility of witnesses to the arson attack.
“I hope the arsonist does not decide to burn down our office, Cleo.”
“All my data is stored elsewhere and we are in a conspicuous position on the main street. Rita’s salon was more hidden from view and there was no street lamp immediately in front of the house. Apart from that, I don’t think the arsonist was trying to burn account books and diaries. Either it was an attempt to kill Frank Wetherby and his assassin, assuming there were two gangsters involved, or it was hooligans playing a prank.”
“I’ll get going then,” said Dorothy. “People have short memories.”
Dorothy could not really explain it, but even the most harmless of missions was a challenge and fun even when she was not dressed for the event. The first house on Station Street was number 3. No one knew what had happened to house number 1. Rumour had it that there had been a cottage on the corner, but there was no sign of it and the building site had been used for a memorial to WW11 victims and a little garden where tramps, tipplers and teenagers could gather.
An elderly couple, Mr And Mrs Watson, lived downstairs at number 3 and it was their bell that Dorothy rang first.
Mr and Mrs Watson had seen and heard nothing unusual the previous night, and their son, who lived upstairs, was on holiday somewhere on the continent. They were deeply shocked from the experience of having the house next door set on fire and had bought several fire extinguishers that very morning and mounted them in every room. Dorothy had to inspect all of them. Her ruse that she had come from the council to check on safety precautions in the neighbourhood worked so well that she decided to use it again.
House number 7 on the other side of Rita’s salon was a three storey block of flats. Dorothy would have to work through them. Most of the residents were still at work, but she did hit on one resident living on the first floor. The woman, an older person whose name on the bell pusher was Lyon, but who had introduced herself as Miss Humphrey, claimed to have seen it all, but became very vague when asked to describe the persons she thought she had seen going into the house, but had not seen coming out again because she had gone to bed at the back. And no, she had not heard anything except a crackling of fire and the fire brigade siren howling and waking decent people before breakfast. No, someone else had phoned the fire brigade. Could she describe the persons who went into the house?
“One was a man. Definitely a man,” said the woman. 
“Had you seen him before, Miss Humphrey?”
“Oh yes, if it was the same person,” she said.
Dorothy wondered about the ambiguity of that statement.
“Do you mean that there could be more than one man looking like that?”
“All cats are grey in the night,” was the retort.
“Did you notice anything special about him or them?”
“The one I saw last night had a key, Miss Price. I think he used to live upstairs with Miss Bailey, but I thought he had moved out.”
“Is he the only person you saw going in yesterday evening or before the salon was set on fire, Miss Humphrey?”
“Set on fire? Wasn’t it a gas leak? I heard a bang.”
“Didn’t you get up to look?” Dorothy asked.
“No, but I can tell you in confidence that something was going on in that house and it wasn’t hairdressing in the evenings and at night.”
“What do you think it was?” said Dorothy.
“Men,” said Miss Humphrey. “Before and after her regular guy moved in and out again.”
“Oh dear,” said Dorothy. “Do you know anything else that might be of interest to us health and safety people? I don’t think I can deal with men in my position.”
Miss Humphrey either did not understand or did not want to.
“I can’t either, Miss Price, but I think Rita is a past master – or is it mistress?”
Dorothy realized that Miss Humphrey was moving on to tittle-tattle, so she decided to end the interview.
“I’ll come back when the other occupants are at home, Miss Humphrey. Take my advice. If you haven’t already got a fire extinguisher, you’d better get one. The arsonist may want to make some more bonfires.”
“Oh I will, Miss Price, and thank you for checking on me.”
Dorothy could not decide if what the woman had told her amounted to witnessing something relevant. She would consult Cleo before making any more enquiries. She had only heard one piece of information that was relevant, or was it two? A man going into the house with a key was probably Frank Wetherby. Miss Humphrey had not said and would probably not know if the other visitors were for Rita. She would have to be questioned. If men went in and out of her house, surely she would know about it.
Dorothy walked past Cleo’s office on the way to Cleo’s cottage to report on her investigation. She was surprised to see a person standing at the door waiting.
“Can I help you?” she inquired.
“I’m waiting for Mr Hurley,” explained the man. ”I’ve got to change the lock.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Well, just let me check back with Mr Hurley,” said Dorothy getting out her cell phone and pressing the emergency pad.
“Where are you, Gary?”
“At home. Are you all right, Dorothy?”
“An individual is waiting for you outside the office.”
“Blast. He’s early. I’ll be over directly. Let the guy in please, Dorothy. He’s going to change the lock.”
“I can open up,” said Dorothy to the man.
The locksmith busied himself unscrewing the safety lock in the door.
“It’s a pity about this lock, Miss,” he said. “It’s a good as new.”
“Safety reasons,” improvised Dorothy. “Are you installing keys that can’t be copied?”
“There’s no such thing if you know how, Miss. That’s why people play safe and change the lock if there’s been a problem.”
By the time Gary arrived, the locksmith had almost finished.
“What a good job you spotted him, Dorothy,” said Gary.
“It would have helped if I had known about the lock in advance,” said Dorothy.
“I only decided after we realized that our ex-detective could have made a copy of the key. I’ll explain in detail later.”
“So I can leave you here now, can I, Gary?” said Dorothy. “I need to talk to Cleo before I go home.”
“Stay for tea, Dorothy. I’d like to hear what you have found out.”

Dorothy went to the cottage via Crumb’s cake shop, where she bought a whole boxful of goodies. What she had to tell Cleo needed something to sweeten it. Rita’s taste in men and their nocturnal habits would have to be investigated and Dorothy already had a hunch about that.