6 • Night Call
Will stood back and looked at the house, hands on his hips. You started the fire alright, Nina. But not like Mad Dog thinks.
Three kids. A dog. No paying job. Nowhere to go. Will would pull Justin’s financial records and give them a good going-over, but Nina had nothing to gain from starting the fire. The insurance company wouldn’t be paying her a dime for her clothes, the kids’ toys, even a meal while they were out of the home. She ran the household. Cooked, cleaned, serviced Justin-who-works-a-lot when he made his way home some nights. But Nina just lived there, wasn’t a “resident family member” according to a carefully worded insurance policy. The company wouldn’t give a damn about her. There was no reason at all for woman like Nina to burn down a house, but from the looks of things, with one bad flip of a cigarette she unwittingly did.
“Phillips!” Mad Dog was shouting from the front of the house. “You planning on moving in with her? Grab the end of the tape and let’s get going while we can still see anything at all.”
Will looked at Mad Dog and dropped his head.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going, ” Will said. He jogged up to the front, picked up the end of the tape from the ground at Mad Dog’s feet, and walked it to the back of the house.
“Twenty-seven and a half, ” he called out, and started walking to the next corner.
* * *
It was 11:00 when they pulled up next to Mad Dog’s Ranger pickup back at the office. Will left his truck running.
“You want me to unload?” Mad Dog asked.
“No, I’ll get it tomorrow. I’m beat.” Will turned the steering wheel. “Oh. And I’ll be late in the morning.”
“Alright. Goodnight, Willy.” Mad Dog took his coffee mug and tool bag and left. Will leaned his head against the headrest, eyes closed, until he heard Mad Dog’s truck start, back up and pull away. Then he drove the few blocks to his house.
The enormous residence where he rented a room was built at the turn of the last century. It had lost a bit of its luster, but in its original splendor, it was really something. Unique woodwork in every room, stained glass throughout—including a full-length window at the landing of the grand staircase between the first and second floors—fireplaces, a back stairway for the hired help. There was an elaborate configuration of dumbwaiters and pipes built in the wall as an early low-tech intercom system. He’d even heard the third floor had been a ballroom once, complete with oak parquet hardwood flooring. Now it was sectioned off into apartments, the only way the builder’s granddaughter could afford to keep the house in the family. Pearl Jenkins was nearly 90 years old. She rented the top floor to two young women who worked nights at the warehouse and gave Will a bedroom on the second floor in exchange for $200 a month and a few odd jobs. She let him use the bathroom and an efficiency kitchen and made a frequent point of reminding him not to leave his towel on the floor and to put his dishes away.
When he first moved in five years ago, Pearl often came up to check on him and managed to challenge him to a game at the pool table her father had left in the study. It always went the same way. “My father said pool was no game for a lady, ” Pearl would say. “He never taught me to play.”
She’d ask Will for a few pointers, cajoling him into helping her hold the cue stick correctly. “How do I hold this silly thing?” She’d wave the stick around in the air, nearly swiping Will on the head, until he obliged. Then he’d stand behind her, reaching around to help her position the cue. When he gently lifted her hand off the table, she’d accuse him of being fresh.
“Oh, Mrs. Jenkins. You’ve caught me at it again, ” Will would say. “Your charm is irresistible.” Then he would kiss her lightly on the cheek and step back.
With a twinkle in her eye, Pearl would say, “Listen here, Mr. Phillips. To make up for it, I insist on a game. But I always shoot so badly I end up with an itch.”
“Scratch, ” Will would say with a wink. “But just one round. Pool is no game for a lady.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Scratch. I can never remember the terms in these silly billiard games.” Will mouthed the words along with Pearl, he’d heard them so many times.
“Bet me twenty dollars. I’m sure you could use the easy cash, ” she’d say.
“I sure could, Mrs. Jenkins. You’re on.”
Pearl beat him every time until eventually, he knew every time he heard the stairs creak it would cost him another twenty bucks.
Blue and red light rested on the green table top from the street light through the stained glass as he walked past the study on the way to his room. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d paid his pool hustling landlady twenty dollars. The arthritis in her knees made stairs impossible and she hadn’t been up to nag him about his housekeeping in months.
He stood in the doorway a little longer, smiling at Pearl in the dark, then walked to his room and flipped on the light. Will’s room was drab. Beige wallpaper from around 1950 peeled off the walls. A single dim light bulb hung from the electric cord out of the ceiling, which was exposed plaster and lathe. Despite the glorious woodwork in the rest of the house, the windows and door frames in Will’s room were painted white. He had a single bed, his grandmother’s blue quilt wadded on top of wrinkled striped sheets that should have been changed two months ago.
His keys dropped with a clank on the small mahogany dresser as he unbuckled his belt and let his jeans fall to the floor, forgetting to take off his boots first. He stumbled to the bed, pants around his ankles, and sat down in his boxers to loosen his boots. He pulled his phone from the holster, stripped off his Levis and threw them into the corner, missing the laundry hamper by two feet. Will toppled onto a flat, bumpy pillow without a pillow case and lit up his phone to turn it off for the night. He saw the missed call alert from Joe Murphy, a blinking green light for a voice message.
“It’s almost midnight, ” he said aloud. “If that’s not after hours, I don’t know what is. Tomorrow, Joe. Surely my Thermos can wait until tomorrow.”
Will slipped the phone under his pillow and rolled onto his side, pulling the quilt up to his chin. He jockeyed around the bed for a comfortable position, changing from his left to his right a dozen times. Finally he lay on his back staring at the lathe on the ceiling, following the pattern of the shadows from the outside light. Despite Pearl’s frequent fussing about it, he’d never gotten around to putting shades up on his windows. It wasn’t a busy street, and if any dead bodies left in the vacant funeral parlor across the way wanted a look at anything, he and his boxers were happy to oblige.
He counted wood strips from the window to the light bulb, never getting past 13 before he lost his place.
“Damn it.” He reached for his phone, then pressed the dial button and let out a long sigh.
The old man answered, and Will could hear opera music in the background. He hesitated. “Joe? Hey, I know it’s late. I just got in and saw I missed your call.”
“No problem, Will!” Joe sounded delighted. “I’m a night owl anyway. I’m up listening to La Bohème. You’ve heard it?
“Uh, not sure.” Will looked at the lathe. “Wait. Is that the one Cher and Nicholas Cage go to see in Moonstruck?”
“So you know it then. Exquisite. Anyway, you’re calling about your Thermos, not the opera, I suppose. It’s all cleaned up and waiting for you in the kitchen.”
“Well, um, yeah. My Thermos.” Will paused. What did he call Joe for in the middle of the night? He just extended himself and now the old man would think they were friends and call him every day. He set the phone on his chest and closed his eyes.
Joe’s voice crackled through the tiny speaker. “Will? Are you still there?”
He picked up the phone and sighed. “Yeah, sure. I’m here. Sorry about that. Phone cuts out sometimes, you know? So, right. My Thermos. I have an appointment at a horse ranch north of you the day after tomorrow. Think maybe I could swing by on my way back and grab it? I hate to think it’s cluttering your place up.”
“That would be great. What time should I expect you?”
“It’s hard to pin down a time, Joe.” Will searched his mind for an escape hatch. “You could just leave it on your back step. I don’t want you waiting around for me if you’ve got things you could be doing.”
“Where’ve I got to go, Will? I don’t have any doctor’s appointments that day. I’ll just be here. Early or late afternoon?”
“Late. Late afternoon.” This way, Will figured, he’d be needing to get home and couldn’t be cajoled into more exploration of Joe’s junk and cultural artifacts. “Listen, sorry again for calling so late. I’ll see you Thursday, late afternoon, okay?”
“Okey doke, Will. See you then.”
“Goodnight, Joe.” Will clicked his phone off.
Goodnight, Joe? Goodnight? Mental note: Never talk to clients after 8:00 at night, and never, ever from bed. Mad Dog would never let him live this one down.
Of course, Mad Dog would never know about it.