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Sifting Through the Ashes (IC)


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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

9:12 AM

To many, the Fens was viewed as a blight on the generally clean imaged of downtown Freedom City. With its sleazy porn theaters, adult bookstores, large number of waterfront dive bars and relatively cheap housing, it was a place plagued with a variety of crime. Some of it spilling over from neighboring Greenbank and some of the worst parts of the West End.

But there were those who found opportunity in the Fens, and not of an illicit nature. With the variety of crime and corruption present in the neighborhood, it seemed an excellent place for a pair of private investigators, such as Fred Furlong and Harry Hound of the Bloodhound detective agency. Of course, ensuring that they work they got was always of the paying sort was another matter altogether…

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Fred lay on a slightly beat up sofa, his crossed over one arm rest, sucking up a protein shake through a straw. He had got up early today, pounded the gym for a bit, and had a shower. He was watching "Good Morning Freedom" - but kept flicking the channels.

Harry came in, a coffee in one hand, a cigar in the other, each taking it turns to feed his mouth with caffeine and nicotine in turn. He tossed a crumpled up newpaper he had in his crumpled up overcoat at Fred.

"Hey, mind out!" said Fred, annoyed.

"Mob at it again" explained Harry, pointing at one of the pictures. He knew Fred couldn't read, and knew better than to drum that point home. "Some crummy adult bookshop. Real crummy...err...so I heard. Burnt down to the ground. Police think Mob extortion involved...blah blah blah. The usual. Fens is a dump, man. We would have got more money following adulterous city types for high paying wives..."

Fred scratched his head and threw away the newspaper.

"Yeah, but then we wouldn't be doing nuthin. We wouldn't be heroes..." he explained, whilst gazing at the TV.

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A few moments later, there was a faint knock at the door to the pair's office. A moment later, a middle aged woman stepped in, looking around nervously and quickly focusing on Fred and Harry. Her eyes look slightly red, as if she had been crying somewhat recently.

"Excuse me," she said in heavily accented English. Fred was not sure, but she sounded like she might be Czech. "I am looking for a Mr. Furlong and a Mr. Hound? Sam Gannon told me that they might be able to help me."

Fred and Harry both recognized the name, Sam Gannon worked in the public defenders' office. He had hired them a couple of times in the past to help investigate high profile cases he was working on.

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"That's us, madam!" said Harry, tightening his crumpled tie so it hung around his crumpled shirt in a tight, but crumpled manner.

The Barn, as they had come to call the ramshackle building they had bought, had two levels, a ground level sprawl which held the Gym, paperwork, and offices, garage door, and the upper level, a balcony overlooking the central area below, which held private quarters and the lounge. They even had a firemans pole. On this occasion, Harry used the stairs, rushing down to meet their new customer.

He knew Sam Gannon, of course. Potentially one of their best customers. So this Lady was scoring high already.

He sat her down by one of the ground level desks.

"Now then Ma'am, I am Mr Hound. Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?" he asked giving a meaningful Look to Fred, who was coming down the stairs slowly. Fred sighed and turned to the kitchen area to put on the kettle.

"Just relax Ma'am" continued Harry, sitting down opposite her, and emptying an overloaded ash tray into the bin to make his desk look a bit neater. He pulled out a box of tissues and put in front of the lady.

"We are professionals! here to help! Tell us your story!"

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The woman followed Harry over to one of the desks, taking her seat and accepting the offer of some tea. As Harry tried to calm her, she took a deep sigh and began to speak.

"Thank you Mr. Hound. My name is Eliska Klaus. My husband and I own, or I guess owned, a small convince store in the West End. Almost two weeks ago, there was a fire that destroyed everything. The police determined it had been arson, and my husband became a suspect." She paused a moment, seemingly about to start crying, but managed to maintain a relative calm before continuing.

"My husband has had trouble with the law before, but that was a long time ago. He is a very different man now. I know he had nothing to do with the fire."

"The police arrested him last night and charged him with both the arson of our store, and the more recent one here in the Fens. I need your help to prove my husband is innocent."

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"The police arrested him last night and charged him with both the arson of our store, and the more recent one here in the Fens. I need your help to prove my husband is innocent."

Harry frowned. If there was one thing he and Fred disliked, it was arsonists. Frankie Flames, the mob arsonist, had tried to burn down the Bloodhound detective agency last year, and Freddy had let loose lefty and righty a bit more generously than was strictly necessary.

"That's a tragic story, Ma'am..." he started as he mentally scrutinised Eliska's clothes and jewellery, sizing up how able she was to pay".

Not too good... he concluded.

"We would love to help, of course! My partner and me are experts at this sort of thing. Arson is our speciality" he said, fiddling with his cigarette lighter.

"I'm sure we can solve all of this in no time! Of course, there is the small matter of our fee's..." he said, as delicately as he could.

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Ms. Klaus spirits seemed to lift slightly as Harry offered encouraging words about the pair's ability to help clear her husband's name. But as the subject of the payment of fees came up, her expression became somewhat worried. "I..we do not have a lot of money. Most everything was in our store, and that is gone. The insurance company is refusing to pay, claiming it was insurance fraud."

"I used to do work as a house cleaner, and can try to return to that. And if you can clear my husband's name, we should be able to recover on our insurance policy. It may take us some time, but we will do what we can to pay you."

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"I used to do work as a house cleaner, and can try to return to that. And if you can clear my husband's name, we should be able to recover on our insurance policy. It may take us some time, but we will do what we can to pay you."

"Ah yes...credit..." said Harry, pressing his hands to his temple and massaging his head. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brows.

"The thing is, Mrs. Klaus, that we..."

"Would be happy to help!" said Fred, putting the tea by the last and giving Harry a slap on the back with a heavy hand, enough to punctuate his declaration.

"You just pay as when you can, Eliska. We are here to help, and there is nothing we like more than catching an arsonist who wants to burn down the Fens!" he said with a smile, before cracking his knuckles.

On this, Harry had to agree.

"You just give us the address, we can get over to the building and take a sniff around" he continued, giving Harry a wink (who groaned in response). "And on the way, you can tell us all about your husband and his business!"

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Ms. Klaus managed a smile as Fred arrived and indicated they would help her. There was the matter of a few short forms that needed to be filled out. While Fred was not able to read them, he could recognize the ones that needed to be filled out. This gave Harry a chance to step into another room and make a few quick calls.

As Ms. Klaus had indicated, her husband, Milos Klaus, had previously had run ins with the law. More than twenty years ago, he was something of a two-bit criminal, and was eventually arrested on a burglary charge. A plea deal allowed him to serve a short sentence, but since that time, he had been clean. The convenience store he owned and operated in the West End was your typical mom & pop corner store. It managed to provide for him and his family, but was certainly not going to make them wealthy. The neighborhood was one that bordered Greenbank, and had a large community of Eastern European immigrants.

Once the minimal paperwork was done, the two detectives were on their way to the site where the Klaus’ store had stood. During the trip, Ms. Klaus told them more about her husband and their business, everything she said coinciding with what Harry had been able to confirm independently.

The Klaus’ store had stood on the corner of a busy intersection. The outer shell of the building was still standing, mostly, but the interior had been completely destroyed by the fire.

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Fred got out of the Agencies company car (a beat up old cadillac),looking sadly at the ashes, and burnt timber.

He kicked up some dust in a sombre mood.

"Nobody got..hurt...did they?" he asked Eliska, concerned. It looked to him that it was lucky the fire didn't burn half of the West End down.

He had listened with keen ear to Eliska's story. He felt an affinity with her husband, a man who was much like him. Grew up bad, made good. The bad sides of the town made it easy to be bad. It took guts to turn it around.

"So, who would want your husband locked up? Who would want your store burned down? The mob? They ever ask you for money?" he asked whilst Freddy started examining the dust and ashes. Freddy may not have been a proper detective, and he wasn't smart, but he knew the streets and he knew the mob.

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"No, thankfully no one was in the building when it happened and the fire department managed to put out the blaze before it did more than damage the exterior of the building next door." Eliska replied to Fred's first question. At his second question, she was quite a moment, a thoughtful look on her face as she seemed to be searching her memory for any possible answer to his other questions.

"I cannot think of anyone specifically that would want my husband in jail. There has been the occasional problem with young gang members in the store, but nothing too serious." She then shook her head regarding the mob. "I don't think the mob has ever bothered us, or at least, Milos never told me if they did."

Making his way under the police tape stretching across the open doorway of the ruined building, Harry made his way into the ruined building, looking about at the ash and charred timbers. A few moments of "sniffing" around, and he found where he believed the fire started. It looked like it might have been a storeroom towards the back of the shop. There was certainly the faint scent of some sort of accelerant. But is seemed odd compared to other arsons he and Fred had investigated.

There was only a small amount of accelerant, and in a very small space. After the fire started, it seemed to have spread incredibly fast, far too fast without more accelerant.

If there had been any other scents he might have been able to pick up, the passage of time and the elements had likely erased them.

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Harry stuffed his hands in his trenchcoat pockets, his nose tickling. Truth was, he would normally be lighting a cigarette right now, but somehow the burnt remains of the store had put him off using his lighter.

He strolled back to Fred and Eliska.

"Well, I don't know who are what did this...yet. But this isn't the work of some lowlife scum out for cheap thrills one night. This was a professional job..."

He scratched his unshaven chin, pondering the pairs next moves.

"I could take a look at some of the ashes back at the barn" he said, as much to himself as anybody else. "But we also need to look for motive...why would anybody want to burn down this building? What's so special about it?" he mused. Of course, he realised it didn't have to have a motive. It could just be some freak psycho job burning down stores in the Fens. That gave him cold comfort.

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Ms. Klaus seemed shocked to hear Harry state that the fire had been the work of a professional. She then shook her head slightly at the question of why someone would want to burn the building down.

"I cannot think of any reason someone would want to burn down the building." She stated. "As I told Mr. Furlong, we have had some trouble with some local kids that are part of some gangs, but those never seemed that serious. Not to the point they might want to burn our store down. I also am not aware of any trouble with the mob, but it is possible Milos just never told me if there had been any."

"As far as I know, there was nothing particular special about our store, except maybe to us." She added.

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The Hound nodded, giving the woman a lopsided look.

It's not out of the question the local gangs got up to something...he conceded to himself. If some lunatic decided to arm...and possibly train them...

"Thank you very much for your help, Ma'am...you have been a great help. Stay in touch, we may need you again" he said, with as much reassurance as he could. He took her hand and patted it.

Back in the car...

"You drive us back, Mess" he said, looking at the plastic bag he had complete with samples of the accelerant. He was no forensic scientist, but he could take a look at it.

"I gotta few phone calls to make!"

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As he drove the pair back towards the Fens, Fred ran thought the various street gangs he had heard about in the area where the Klaus' store had been located. There were a couple active in that neighborhood, though none had ever been connected with any arsons.

Hound made a few more phone calls, talking to some contacts he had down in the Fens. No one he talked to knew anything specific about fire accelerants or incendiary devices. But a couple talked about the arson at the adult bookstore in the Fens a day ago. There were rumors that the arson had been of a rather unusual nature.

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Back at the Barn

As Freddy put on another cup of strong coffee, and helped himself to some spinach, Harry took the accellerant to a spare desk, dragging out his detective tools. He wasn't the best man for forensic investigation - he preferred interrogations and snooping - but he knew one end of a microscope from another.

Damn arsonists.... he muttered in his head, stabbing out a cigarette and loosening his tie as he got to work.

Drumming his fingers whilst he did so, he contemplated the other arson he had heard about. An adult bookshop? it sounded suspicious, probably worth a look. But here was the rub...what was the pattern? a friendly family convenience store one day, a sleazy bookshop the next.

Random targets?

He was trained not to believe in coincidences, and by and large he didn't. But if this was a random arsonist, things could get very dangerous. With no pattern, there was nothing to bite onto...

A little later...

"Its a chemical accelerant, designed to burn very quickly. Not your average agent, not your average arsonist..." he explained to Mess, who was getting angry at the perp already. Hell, he was himself. He fidgeted his fingers. He had even gone of smoking.

"Right, get the Caddy. We are off to look at another site!" he said, standing up and pulling the heavy Fred with him.

"And this time, you are taking the dog!" he said. And with a blink of an eye, Harry was no more, and a large mongrel dog stood in his place.

"Let's go then!" laughed Mess, stepping into the Caddy with the Hound, and driving off.

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The trip to the site of the site of the adult bookstore proved much shorter than the one the two private investigators had taken to the West End to check out the site where the Klaus' convenience store had stood. The bookstore was located in one of the seedier parts of the Fens, a very different type of neighborhood than where the Klaus' store had been located. There were a number of other adult oriented stores as well as quite a few abandoned and rundown buildings.

The ruins of the bookstore were similar to what had been left of the Klaus' convenience store. The outer framework of the building was mostly intact, but the interior was in complete ruins. Once again, there was police tape set up across the doorframe that had once held a door.

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"Talk about the backside of the city..." gruffed the Hound, still in dog form.

"Yeah, can't say this is the nicest street in the Fen's..." agreed Mess. He was used to the mean streets of the Fens, and was even comfortable in them, but he never liked the seedier parts of his hometown.

The Mess stood up and took his partner by the leash. The sun was still up, thank God. He didn't want to be poking around a crime scene in the dark for all sorts of reasons.

"Go snoop, dog..." he chuckled, giving the Hound a playful tap with his boot - who dutifully sighed and grumbled under his canine breath, before marching over to the crime scene to take a look around.

"Terrible ain't it?" he said to a passer by who he judged was likely to be a local.

"Do you know what happened?"

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As Hound headed into the ruins of the bookstore, Mess began to look around for any locals to try to talk to about the fire. An old man in rather worn clothes was making his way along the sidewalk as Mess spoke up about the ruined building.

The man eyed Mess a bit suspiciously, but slowed down slightly. "I'm just glad it didn't burn down the rest of the block or worse." He replied. "It started pretty late the other night, just after midnight. Don’t know much more than that."

Inside the ruins of the building, Hound was busy sniffing around for clues. As it had been only a little more than a day since the fire here, there was a lot more for him to pick up here than there had been at the Klaus' store. There were a number of recent scents he picked up that he figured for firemen or police. Once he had those identified, he was able to focus past them as he continued his search.

Once again, he managed to find the place where the fire likely started, picking up the scent of the same accelerant as had been used at the Klaus' store. But this time, he found something else, the scent of a person that seemed as old as the accelerant. Sniffing around for that scent more, he found it a few other places. As near as Hound could tell, the person had stood in the center of the bookstore while the fire quickly spread through the building.

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The Hound came trotting back to Mess, his mind whirring as he did so.

Ensuring that nobody was within earshot, or indeed looking, the two swapped notes.

"Sounds like we got someone who can stand in the middle of a blaze without getting touched" concluded the Hound.

"Sounds like a supervillain to me, Harry" said Mess, scratching his neck. "All in the middle of the night, too. Sounds dangerous..."

"Yes yes, dangerous..." shuddered the Hound. "Look, I think this might be a little too risky for me to get involved in. I mean, I know we are heroes and all, but I don't fancy being roasted alive..."

"Hehe, you are such a joker Harry. Course' we are heroes, and this is what we do! Don't you worry 'bout 'nuthin! Me and lefty and righty got it covered!" he laughed, cracking his knuckles again.

"Can you follow the scent?"

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After sniffing around some, Hound was able to find the trail of the arsonist's scent, though it was a bit faint due to the passage of others along the sidewalk since. Following the trial, Hound led Mess a couple of blocks from the ruins of the bookstore. Then the scent came to an abrupt end along the curb, likely because the arsonist had gotten into a car.

Sniffing around more, Hound was not able to find any further trace of the arsonist's scent. But he did find something else potentially interesting. At the mouth of an alleyway a short distance from where the arsonist’s scent ended, Hound found a scent that he believed as about as old as the arsonist's. It was among a pile of old boxes, and certainly smelled like a homeless person.

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"Ehhh..." gruffed the Hound, poking his nose around the refuse. "I don't know how dogs do it. Sticking their mush in all this filth. It's inhuman..." he muttered.

He gritted his teeth and stuffed his face further into the boxes as the Mess quietly chuckled.

"Some gentleman of the road slept here..."

"Tramp" he explained, in response to the Mess' look of perplexity.

"He may have seen something. If he wasn't drunk on boot polish or something...I hope somebody saw something, otherwise this trail is going cold.."

The mangy mongrel looked around as the afternoon light turned to evening.

"We better move, or night will hit, and we get another fire" he grumbled in his dog-voice. He sniffed around some more. "I wonder if any stray dogs were here. They are stupid, but you never know, one may have saw something..."

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Hound sniffed around the area some more, but was unable to find the scents of any dogs in the area. He did have the arsonist's scent, and that of the homeless man, and would certainly recognize them if he came across them again. The only question was how to find either of them.

As the pair headed back towards the ruins of the adult bookstore and where they had parked the Caddy, they discussed how the paper this morning had mentioned that the police believed that mob extortion was involved in this most recent arson. Hound had a contact that might know more about any such activity by the mob, but the man was notoriously difficult to get ahold of by phone. But at this time of day, Hound had a pretty good idea which local dive bar he was likely to be at.

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Freddy knew the bar, and knew the street. Even by the standards of the Fens, it was a dive. Every night, you had a solid chance of a drunken bar room brawl. A squalid joint full of drunken barflies.

"Might get a little tasty in their, Harry" he said, crinking his neck.

"That's what I got you for" replied the Hound, now back in human form. "Just watch my back whilst I grill this guy, willya?" he furrowed his brow as they stepped out of the car. "Yeah...watch it real good..." he whispered as he eyed up a menacing thug outside.

"Don't you worry about that" said Fred, giving his guns an experimental flex. He didn't exactly go looking for trouble, but he was totally happy with trouble. If he was on his own, he would have been more gung-ho. However, he knew that his partner was not made of rock like he was.

"In we go...stay cool!"

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The two detectives made their way into the bar, passing by the rough looking thug outside, who gave them a stern look, but otherwise left them alone. The interior of the bar was dimly lit, filled with smoke and noise from various conversations and an old, beat up jukebox located along one wall. A number of pool tables were set up in a sunken portion of the right side of the large room.

The bar was filled with quite a few rough looking individuals. A number of biker gang members were gathered around one of the pool tables. There were a number of longshoremen and warehouse workers that occupied a number of the booths and bar stools.

A number of heads turned slightly to regard the newcomers for a moment, but most turned back to their drinks or pool games relatively quickly.

Peering through the haze, Hound spotted the man he was looking for, Ricky Ferreti, sitting towards the far end of the bar.

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