WHO IN THE NIGHT TIME
The scent of wood smoke carried on the night air, touched with a flavor of tar, paint, and rubber. Danny Stark knew right away that a house was on fire.
He reached for the old rotary telephone, but stopped himself mid-dial. He could hear the sirens approaching already. That was some comfort, but not much, as it confirmed his suspicions. He brushed his fingers over the surface of a Braille clock and noted the late hour: just after midnight.
The distinctive baritone wail of the fire engine’s siren and the low rumble of its engine roared past Danny’s open window. These sounds were followed by the high-pitched cries of an ambulance and a series of sheriff’s cruisers. Rare noises indeed amid the empty fields and fir trees of Chelatchie Prairie, Washington. The quiet little burg was unused to having its stillness interrupted.
Danny freed himself from a tangle of blankets and stood up. Even as middle age advanced, he found he woke easily and was instantly alert. He had been blind so long that he had no need of light or assistance to find his way about the room. He slapped the bedside table in search of his blue jeans and pulled them up over his narrow hips.
After dressing to brace himself against the evening chill, Danny made his way carefully to the front door of the old concrete-block building that did double duty as his apartment and place of employment.
Danny’s Garage was among a jumble of buildings at a bend in a two-lane country highway that wound its way through forested country toward Mount St. Helens. The bend bordered the remnants of what had once been known as Fargher Lake, but was no longer a lake at all. It had been drained over the years to make room for farmland. Danny’s place was perched on the edge of the fields that blanketed the former lakebed, with a large wooden deck in the back that had functioned as a pier back in the days when Danny still had his sight.
It was raining softly as he stepped outside. Danny retrieved a derby cap to cover his close-cropped, sandy blond hair and locked up. He had never used a cane or a dog or any of the other usual techniques typically employed by people suffering from his particular brand of handicap. He had lost his sight to an advanced case of Retinitis Pigmentosa—known in its early stages as night blindness—and from the very beginning he had sought to mask his disability by doing without the ordinary accoutrements of the blind. To the surprise of many, he discovered he was better off without any crutches, real or metaphorical.
Danny sniffed the air and wondered what to do next. The fresh scent of spearmint growing in the fields behind the garage commingled with smoke and rain. The sirens had ceased their screaming, and he guessed the fire must be in or around Yacolt, at a junction just a few miles to the northeast.
The familiar growl of a semi truck with some very distinctive muffler issues pulled to a halt on the highway in front of the garage. Danny could tell by the bright squeak of the breaks that it wasn’t pulling a load. He had repaired the hulking wreck more times than he could count.
“Hey there, handsome,” shouted a youthful feminine voice from the driver’s side window.
Danny smiled warmly and stepped forward. “You driving truck for your daddy already?” he asked her. “I thought you were studying hotel management.”
“Naw,” the girl said. “Pop sent me out to see what all the ruckus is about. So much for spring break and uninterrupted rest.”
“I suppose you need your beauty sleep?”
“I need to get down the road, old man,” she kidded. “You coming?”
Danny stepped around the front of the truck and climbed inside.
“Any idea whose place is burning?” Danny asked her, unable to keep the trepidation out of his voice.
“I don’t know,” she answered, shifting the truck into gear. “But those were state troopers. And that ambulance didn’t race all the way out here for a barn fire.”
Danny nodded and the truck lurched forward into the night.
Angie Elmer parked the truck in a muddy turnoff across the highway from the burning house. She and Danny took in the scene.
“It’s the Schaller place, Dan,” she explained gravely. “It’s gonna burn right down to the ground by the looks of it.”
Lights flashed and heat wafted from the blaze. The rain abated.
Danny and Herb Schaller had gone to the same high school, knocked back healthy portions of whiskey in their youth, and were known to meet occasionally for a few finger’s-worth of single malt now that they had become respectable adults.
Angie had known the Schallers since she was in diapers, and had done the occasional bit of babysitting for Herb’s wife Leslie when she wasn’t away at college. Danny reached forward and switched on the radio scanner. All it relayed was an eruption of static.
“Fucking thing.” Danny hit the dashboard and switched off the cackle.
A small crowd had gathered and a reporter from The Chelatchie Gazette bleated into a cell phone, issuing impotent requests for information.
“The EMTs don’t seem to be in much of hurry,” Angie observed. “Does that mean that nobody’s hurt?”
“Either that,” Danny answered, “or somebody’s dead.”
“Christ, don’t say that.”
There was a palpable absence of speech.
“What say we take a closer look?” Danny asked. Without waiting for a response, he popped open the cab door and slid down to the ground. Angie emerged on the other side and joined him at the edge of the highway. They crossed together arm in arm, Angie’s hips swinging unselfconsciously, attracting lustful glances from the peanut gallery.
The area was in chaos. Authoritative shouts and yells filled the air. Police lines were already up, and the heat was oppressive, even at a safe distance. The firefighters were fighting and losing a battle to contain the blaze. The lower branches of some nearby firs had been cut and the hoses were trained on the ground surrounding their trunks. Men were digging out a large section of what remained of the Schallers’ front lawn to prevent the flames from leapfrogging along the shrubbery. There was no thought of saving the house. It was a goner.
Angie guided Danny toward a spot in an adjoining field where some police and fire officials from the city were holding court. A youngish state patrolman approached and attempted to impede their progress.
“Folks,” he snapped curtly, “I’m gonna have to ask to remove yourselves to the opposite side of the highway. Any fool can see this is a restricted area.”
Danny smiled wryly. Only the most observant noticed his disability right off, some never did. “We live near here, officer,” he said calmly. “The Schallers are friends of ours. We just want to know if everyone’s alright.”
“Be that as it may,” the officer answered automatically, ”please direct yourselves to the—“
“We don’t want to get in the way,” Danny interrupted. “Why don’t you cut the bullshit and fill us in.”
Angie added a challenging smirk for good measure.
“I’m sorry,” the officer began, “but I’m afraid I can’t discuss the details of the situation with either of you. Now, if you’ll kindly—“
“Alright,” Danny said, waving him off with both hands. “I get it. You’re in charge. You’re a fucking big shot.” The officer flushed and attempted to formulate an answer, but Danny beat him to the punch. “I should have sent little Angie over here alone,” he said, cocking his thumb at the girl. “I bet a little cleavage and helplessness would have done the trick.”
The two men shared a tense moment of silence.
“Was…anyone…hurt?” Angie asked through clenched teeth.
The officer’s pause was just long enough to confirm Danny’s worst suspicions.
The officer let out a long sigh. “It’ll be in the news,” he said at last.
Angie’s hand went to her mouth. “Not the girls,” she gasped, referring to the Schaller’s two children.
The officer shifted his feet nervously, with newfound humility. “They’re alright,” he said quietly. “They’re with family. Their mother is with them. She’s been notified.”
Angie didn’t breathe.
“And Herb?” Danny asked perfunctorily, but he didn’t need the cop to tell him that his friend was dead.
Angie dropped Danny at the garage and departed to break the news to her father before the first reports of Schaller’s death hit the news. Danny had business to attend to. He had a Mercedes SUV scheduled to come in just before dawn.
It’s hard to get rich as an auto mechanic. In a small town like Chelatchie Prairie, it’s practically impossible. But Danny had discovered certain advantages to being blind. Over time, scores of car thieves from the nearby metropolitan areas of Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, Oregon, had pegged Danny’s Garage as an opportune location for chopping stolen vehicles. Danny had made the most of it.
Danny could trace a VIN number as easily as the next guy, but, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t very well identify any of his customers in a court of law. At least most of the crooks that sought him out figured he couldn’t. His specialty, ironic though it must have seemed to many, was cosmetic surgery. He could alter the appearance of a stolen vehicle so effectively as to render the usual practice of chopping it into unidentifiable parts unnecessary, thereby increasing its street value considerably and streamlining the whole show. Needless to say, it was a lucrative if somewhat risky trade.
The more upright citizens of Chelatchie Prairie would doubtless have taken umbrage if a steady stream of riff-raff had begun filing in and out of their sparsely populated business district. Danny had long since learned to take certain precautions in order to avoid unwanted attention and police persecution. No daytime visits. No unannounced visits. And most important of all, plausible deniability. If a car thief so much as implied that a vehicle was hot, Danny sent him—oh, so rarely her—packing with loud protestations of innocence and indignation. Etiquette was strictly enforced. Danny didn’t ask, and the customer didn’t tell.
Even so, it was common knowledge among many people in town that Danny had some sort of nebulous connection to the criminal underworld. This didn’t stop anybody from liking Danny or taking his or her above-board business to him. Danny was a good mechanic and a popular guy and he had lived in the area most of his life.
Danny’s dealt exclusively with independent operators who stuck to high-end vehicles. There was more money in expensive cars, of course, and although he had never said as much to anyone, he was reluctant to the point of religiosity to risk snatching the sole transport of a working mother or a working stiff. He traded heavily in spoilers for luxury sport coupes, and custom grilles for Cadillacs and Lincolns. He soothed himself with the knowledge that he and his regulars were class heroes of a sort, making a fast buck at the expense of the insurance companies and fat cats.
Danny didn’t feel much like working. Before heading back to his apartment, he stopped into his sparsely appointed office and dialed a cell number from memory to cancel the incoming job.
The unmistakable voice of a smart-assed teenager answered the call. “Blind Mechanics of America,” the voice announced, “Stevie Wonder speaking.” The voice belonged to Loudon Bean, an art-school dropout living in Seattle who supported his bohemian lifestyle by acting as Danny’s informal answering service and go-between for his dealings with the nefarious.
Danny didn’t laugh at the joke. It was one of Bean’s standard greetings. “The shop is closed for business,” he said. “Pass it along.” He heard the young man groan in frustration. “And kid,” he added unsympathetically, “I need a favor.”
“Yeah,” Bean replied in a mirthless voice, “you need me to track down some low-rent meathead and turn him into one very unhappy customer by canceling on him.”
“Fuck the meathead,” Danny snapped. “Herb Schaller is dead.”
The line went silent.
Finally, the kid stammered, “You want me on the next Greyhound?”
Danny smiled wistfully. The kid may be a lowlife, he thought, but he’s a dedicated lowlife. “Not yet,” he answered, “I want you to stay in the city for the time being.”
“And the favor?” Bean asked.
“Find Don Bauman.”
Bauman was a former fire inspector and investigator from Tacoma who had quit his local department in favor of private practice. Now he worked insurance claims at twice the pay. Danny had learned through hard experience that he needed friends on both sides of the law and Bauman had been a useful associate over the years.
“I’m gonna need him to probe the fire department down here and the sheriff’s office for information about Herb’s death,” Danny continued. “He’ll get a lot farther with them than I will.”
“Done,” Bean said instantly. “And, Danny?”
“What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know,” Danny said, almost inaudibly. “But I’m going to find out.”
JAMES WALLING is a newspaper editor based in Montana. As a journalist and critic, his work has appeared in The Austin Chronicle, MauiTime, National Geographic Traveler, The Portland Mercury, The Prague Post, The Vancouver Voice, and Willamette Week, among others. His forthcoming biography of the American suspense novelist John D. MacDonald is being published by Schaffer Press.