9. Harry Hogan - One For The Memory Book
"What the heck?" Harry looked at his bedside clock. Three AM. What on earth was making all the noise? The forecast had called for heavy rain and high wind with a chance of thunderstorms overnight but he'd never heard anything like this.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Then he realized that someone was banging on his door... which probably meant someone had trouble. He jumped out of bed, grabbed a pair of gym pants and pulled them on as he went towards the door.
"Wake up, Hogan! Wake up! It's wet out here!"
Lightning briefly lit the darkness as Harry pulled the door open and Bertie almost fell inside. He shut and locked the door before turning to look at her. "You look like a drowned rat. Hang on a minute." He hurried to the bathroom and returned with a large thick towel.
"Thanks." She dried her face and threw the towel over her hair. Then she removed her rain jacket and shoes. Wrapping her arms around herself, she shivered slightly. "Br-r-r-r. I'm freezing."
"Impossible," he replied. "It's not cold enough for that yet. What's up?"
"I'm homeless," she told him in a hoarse whisper. "And it's a terrible night out there... raining cats and dogs, howling wind, thunder and lightning. Not fit to be outside."
"Then why...? Never mind. Sit down and dry yourself while I make some hot chocolate." Obviously something was seriously wrong.
"Thank you. I'm sorry to wake you up like this but I didn't know where else to go."
"Hey, you have a problem... you come to a friend. It's what you do."
She sat on the sofa drying her hair while he prepared the drinks. Then she curled her legs up, took an afghan from the arm of the sofa and wrapped it tightly around her.
"Sip slowly. It's hot." He handed her a mug, sat down in his chair and swivelled around to face her. "Okay, tell me what happened."
The words tumbled over each other, as if she could not control them. "It was a nightmare... building on fire... alarms and sirens going off... sprinkler system on... people screaming and running every which-way..."
"Take a deep breath and slow down," he said.
"Someone knocked on my door, shouting ' Fire! Get out!' I barely had time to grab my jeans, sweater and jacket and push my feet into my shoes." She looked at her feet. "I don't even have socks."
"Don't worry about what you don't have," he said quietly. "You're safe. That's the most important thing. We'll deal with the rest later."
She nodded and sipped the chocolate.
"Any idea what caused the fire?"
She shook her head. "I just remember a lot of commotion. When I came out the main door, someone told me to go to the rescue vehicle... someone took my name and apartment number and asked if there was anyone else in the apartment."
"So we don't know how bad it is yet, if the building is a total loss or not."
"It didn't look good," she replied. "My jeep was parked in the side lot, out of the danger zone so they let me get it. I couldn't see much at the front of the building." She shivered. "As I turned the corner I looked behind and I could see flames shooting out from the back windows. It looked like the whole place was on fire."
Harry sipped his hot chocolate thoughtfully. "Lucky you were on the ground floor." He hoped everyone on the other two floors had got out safely too.
"I grabbed my backpack while I was putting on my shoes," she said. "I always keep it near the door with my laptop and purse." She pulled the afghan tighter and sighed. "I'll probably have to start from scratch and buy everything new again."
"At least you have a good reason to shop," he said.
She looked at him and then burst out laughing. "Oh, Harry, only you could make me laugh at a time like this. The thing is, I don't like shopping and only go when I absolutely have to. And I hate shopping for furniture."
"When... and IF... you need to shop for furniture, Bruce and I will come along to bring it home for you in the truck. How about we leave it at that for now and get some rest?"
She nodded. "That sounds wonderful."
Bertie got up the next morning with dark circles under her eyes. "I feel like a zombie," she said.
Harry placed a mug of coffee in front of her as she sat down at the table. "There's toast and a cheese omelette in the oven when you're ready."
"I'm not sure I can eat anything." She looked up at him. "I feel wiped out. Have you heard anything this morning?"
"Did you have insurance on the contents of your apartment?"
She nodded. "That bad?"
"It didn't burn completely to the ground but it will have to be demolished. Right now they think it might have been a lightning strike."
"Did everyone... was anyone hurt?"
"Several were treated for smoke inhalation. An older lady slipped on the wet floor as she was leaving the building and fractured her ankle."
"Thank God! It could have been much worse." She sipped her coffee.
Harry nodded. "So what's your next move? You know you can stay here as long as you need to."
"I know that and I'm grateful." She smiled at him. "But I have to deal with it. And I'm going to start this morning by shopping... clothing and some personal items. Then I'll work on finding a place to live."
"I know that and I'm grateful." She smiled at him. "But I have to deal with it. So I'm going shopping for the most immediate needs this morning. Then I'll look for someplace to live."
"If you need anything I'll be in the office." He paused at the door. "First I'll go over to the fire site and see what's happening."
She nodded. "See you later."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Later that morning, Harry was checking out news and pictures of the fire on the Internet when Boris Bergman came in.
"I think something happened at the funeral parlour last night but... there's no sign of a break-in and nothing was touched inside. I don't think it's a police matter but..."
"Nothing would surprise me after last night's weather. Tell me what happened."
Boris nodded. "I have a small shed behind the house where I do my woodworking projects. My wife calls it a hobby-shed. Anyway, just after two this morning a lightning bolt struck one of the back corners so I called the fire department. They were just leaving when the call came in about the apartment building. The rain was really coming down and I got to wondering about the Funeral Home, Crocker's... I work there part time, mostly when there's a body in residence."
"Is there a body there now?"
"Yes, old Doctor Goode. Anyway, I figured since I was up and dressed in the rubber gear, I might as well go take a look around. I went inside first and checked for leaks but everything was good. So then I went out and walked around the building with my emergency light, checking for any sign of damage but I found nothing... until I came to the lunch room window. That's a small room where mourners can share a drink and food usually brought by visitors. And... that's where I saw it."
"Where you saw what?"
"Footprints, Mr. Hogan."
"Footprints?" Harry echoed. "They must have been fresh or they would have been washed away. Are you sure they weren't your own."
Bergman shook his head. "Mr. Crocker had a drain system installed several years ago and the land slopes away on that side of the building. It gets muddy but very little water lodges there."
"Are you sure it wasn't a break-in, Mr. Bergman?"
"That's the strange part... you see, the footprints were... going away from the building, not towards it."
"You think someone had been inside and, for some reason, had gone out through the window?"
"But there were no footprints inside. I went back and checked. If someone had tried to get in after we closed at nine, the alarm would have been triggered. But it wasn't."
Harry rubbed his chin. "The electricity was out in parts of the town for a while. Did you check that?"
"It was on," Boris said, nodding his head. "Anyway, I checked again this morning and the prints are still there. It makes me uneasy for some reason. Can you explain how it could have happened?"
"Not at the moment but I'll meet you there directly after lunch and take a look.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When Harry walked into his house at lunch time he sniffed appreciatively.
Bertie was putting bowls on the table. "Chicken soup from the deli and fresh rolls from Janet's Bakery."
"Smells good. I'll just go wash my hands." A few minutes later they were sitting across from each other at the table. "Shopping all done?" he asked.
"All done for now. And I went to see a real estate agent too."
Harry's eyebrows shot up. "Real estate?"
"I always intended to buy a place of my own after retirement and this seems like the perfect time. I told him what I'm looking for. He's going to see what's available and call me in a few days."
"Cripes. No grass growing under your feet."
"Not my style." She paused a moment. "I drove by my old building... nothing but blackened ruins. Such a sad sight. Did you learn anything?"
"Nothing concrete but the Fire Chief is thinking a combination of lightning and an tinder-dry old building. You won't be the only one looking for new accomodations."
"I already have a temporary place." Harry looked up from his soup as she continued. "Janet offered me the use of her mother's former 'Granny Suite'... bed, bath, kitchenette and small living room, fully furnished and rent-free. It's cosy and has a separate entrance."
Harry buttered a roll. Might be some free bakery goods in this, he thought. "If the place suits you, it sounds good."
"I've been on my own since I was eighteen and, like most people, I have my own set routines," she said quietly. "I'm afraid that being under the same roof for more than a few days might put a strain on what we have now. We get along fine as friends and working companions but... I don't want to ruin that."
"I know what you mean," he replied, nodding. "Since Mildred passed I've got used to being alone."
"It will take a couple days to get the place cleaned and freshened up since It hasn't been used in a while. Anything else turn up?"
"Sort of... Boris Bergman... do you know him?"
She frowned. "Used to be the school janitor. I know him enough to say hello when I see him but that's about it. Why?"
Harry told her about Boris's eventful night and the footprints.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Bertie went along with Harry to see Boris after lunch since, as she said, she had nothing better to do until her new living quarters were ready. She took photos of the prints and of the window from inside and outside. Later they discussed every possibility they could think of, no matter how absurd it sounded, but failed to come up with a plausible explanation.
"Homeless people..." Bertie said thoughtfully. "I wonder if any of them frequent the area?"
"I don't know. Why? What are you thinking?"
"Suppose one of them sneaked in while the place was open and hid in the storeroom until after the place closed for the night."
Harry rubbed his chin. "But why would he sneak out again before midnight if he was looking for shelter? Why not stay all night?"
"That part is puzzling," she agreed.
"I used to have an informant when I was working. I'll go see him in the morning. Joe knows everything about the homeless."
"Is he one of them?"
"Not quite," Harry said with a chuckle, "though he could sometimes pass for one. He lives in a small trailer near the waterfront and lives mostly on handouts. He works loading and unloading trucks occasionally and he can stretch twenty bucks a long way."
Bertie nodded. "While you do that I'll check with Janet to see if there's anything at all I need to get, other than groceries."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Harry stopped at the deli on his way to Joe's place in the morning. Joe grinned as he opened the door and invited Harry in. Harry put the coffee and breakfast sandwiches he'd picked up on the small table and they both dug in.
"Haven't seen you in a while," Joe said. "Enjoying retirement?"
"Heard you're a private detective now. That right?"
"Sort of, " Harry replied. "Nothing major. Just enough to give me something to do sometimes. That's why I'm here now." He told Joe about the footprints.
Joe frowned. "Don't know why anyone would want to sleep in a funeral parlour, but any port in a storm, I guess. Might have an idea though. Call you later. Same number?"
Harry nodded. "Same number. The only difference is now I have to pay for it myself."
Joe laughed. "Nice seeing you again, Hogan. Call you soon's I know something."
* * * * * * * * * * * *
True to his word, Joe called just as Harry and Bertie were finishing lunch. "Guy's name is Cobb. Meet you here at my place around one-thirty. That good for you?"
"Perfect," Harry told him and passed the message along to Bertie. "Are you going?"
"Absolutely. I'm very curious about this one."
They finished lunch and headed out. When they reached Joe's trailer Harry didn't bother knocking because he knew Joe was expecting him. When the introductions had been made, Harry looked at Cobb.
Cobb shook his head. "Not mister, just Cobb."
"Okay, were you at Crocker's Funeral Parlour last night?"
"Yes sir. I went there early to pay my respects to Doc Goode, a real nice fellow he was. The door of the storage room in back was ajar and I thought it might be a nice place for a nap, 'cos I knew it would be hard to find a good spot later that night..." He paused.
"I imagine it would be," Harry agreed. "Go on..."
"I had intended to leave before the place closed but I hadn't slept well the past couple of nights and I guess I was pretty sound when they locked up. When I woke, it felt like something had woke me but I didn't know what. It was quiet except for the rain on the roof and then... I heard that awful groaning sound. I was pretty sure there was no one else in the storage room. So I waited and after about ten minutes or so I heard it again. It sure sounded like a groan but it wasn't in the storage room. The only other person in the place was the Doc and... well, I don't believe in ghosts but I wasn't takin' no chances."
"What did you do then?"
"I ran, sir, right past the viewing room to the lunch room, and then I remembered the window. It was kind of a tight squeeze but I managed. I lit out of there and didn't stop no more until I reached the old freight shed near the end of the wharf."
"And you spent the rest of the night in there?" Bertie's eyes widened in horror.
"Yes, ma'am. It's not so bad in there. The back door don't shut properly, hasn't been used in years, and you have to squeeze in easy so's not to jar the door, 'cos it would likely fall down."
Harry had been thinking. "That explains the footprints, but what about the groaning? Maybe we should take another look around the place. Let's go." As they got into the truck, Harry called Bergman to meet them at the funeral parlour.
Boris was waiting in front of the building when they arrived. "What's up?"
Harry told him about Cobb. "We need to look around and find out where those sounds came from."
Boris led them away from the front and around the building, walking slowly, looking up and down. When they reached the back corner, where the storage room was located, Cobb stopped. He was looking up. "Up there. See that big branch almost touching the roof? I bet the high wind gusts last night caused it to rub against the edge of the roof."
They all looked up. "How are we going to check it out?" Boris asked. "We don't have a ladder to reach that high."
"I have an idea," Bertie said. She moved into position and began taking pictures of the lower side of the branch in close to the roof. When she was done, she started flipping through them and then stopped. "There! Look at that." She held out her phone.
"I think we know where the groaning came from," Harry said.
"Wait here," Boris said. "Mr. Crocker needs to see this."
Harry glanced at Cobb, who looked like he was ready to run, and shook his head as he moved closer to him. "Don't panic," Harry said quietly. "I have a feeling this will all work out fine."
Boris returned and, after introductions were made, Bertie showed him the pictures
Crocker was a rather short man with a little extra weight around the middle. Finally he looked from Bertie's camera up to the roof. "Looks like we have a problem, Boris. Considering the amount of bark skinned off that limb, there's probably some damage done to the roof too."
"Yes, sir, I think we do. I didn't see it the other night when I checked."
"No one would," Crocker said. "It wasn't a fit night to be out." He looked at Cobb. "How did you know what to look for?"
"When I was a teenager, the house next door had huge trees in the back yard. They had to prune the branches often because they rubbed the roof." Cobb looked down at his feet. "Sorry about the other night. I had planned to be gone before you locked up."
Crocker looked at him. "Well, no harm done. You have a working knowledge of trees?"
"Some. I worked with a landscaping company a long time ago until they went out of business."
"Dr. Goode's funeral is tomorrow. Come see me the day after. Maybe we can put you to work part time if you're interested?"
Cobb grinned. "Yes, sir!"
"Meanwhile, take this and..." Crocker pulled a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet and held it out. Cobb hesitated. "Go on, take it," Crocker said. "You have saved me much more than that in future roof repairs."
"Thank you, sir. This will buy good winter jacket and boots to last until I get my pension."
"Will you have any trouble getting your pension with no fixed address?"
Cobb shook his head. "My Canada Pension is direct deposit, not much since I haven't had a steady job in a long time."
"If you don't mind me asking, when will that be?" Harry asked him.
"A little less than a year."
"What do you plan to do then?" Bertie asked.
"Been saving my Canada Pension, adding a few dollars when I can, and I'm gonna get me a small trailer," Cobb said, grinning. "And I'm gonna set it up not too far from Joe, so's we can get together for card games on long winter nights."
As Harry pulled the truck out onto the street and headed towards home, Bertie sat back in the passenger seat and sighed. "I know there will be more storms but that was definitely one for the memory book."
Harry laughed. "How about we toast that idea over pizza for supper?"
"Hogan, you eat too much fast food, but this time I'll go along with it."
© Fay Herridge
Published in Story Quilt, November 2020
Harry Hogan Series
© Fayzworld & Sugarwolf Designs, All rights Reserved.