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Murder on the Thirteenth
By A. E. Eddenden
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1992 A. E. Eddenden
All rights reserved.
On January 13, 1943, the biggest and most complete blackout in the history of North America took place. At precisely 9:00 p.m. the sirens wailed. The citizens of Fort York turned their lights out. They were joined by two and a half million other persons in Southern Ontario and areas in the states of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania in an international wartime test. Despite inadequate alarm systems and the element of surprise, the mock air raid went off well. Most people cooperated.
After all, there was a war on. The west coast, authorities said, lived in fear of a Japanese invasion. Numerous confirmed German U-boat sightings had been made on the Atlantic side of the continent from Newfoundland to Florida.
Yet there were those lulled by the smug complacency of living as far inland as the Great Lakes who didn't take the matter seriously. Specifically, they left their lights on. Tonight they would answer to the vigilant.
Inspector Albert V. Tretheway, FYPD, appointed Regional Officer, Air Raid Precaution in Fort York for the duration, sat wedged in the passenger seat of Jake's '33 black Pontiac, straight-eight convertible.
"There's one now," Tretheway pointed.
Jake turned the car roughly, making fresh tracks in the snow-covered street toward the offending light. He braked sharply. Tretheway rolled his window down and the two glared at the unsuspecting, well-lit living room.
"Go get 'em, Jake." Tretheway said.
Jake grumbled under his breath but left the warmth of the car. The unshovelled snow crunched under his feet as he jumped up the verandah steps. He knocked on the frost-covered storm door and waited. Looking back, Jake could see the pulsating red glow of his boss's cigar hovering dangerously close to the cloth roof of his beloved convertible. Tretheway's shadowy bulk seemed to fill the whole of the car's interior.
The moon eased out from under the clouds to throw undulating shadows of evergreens and telephone poles across the snowdrifts. A whirling breeze blew snow-flakes up and around the tree trunks and bushes. One lone walker, clutching a fedora to his head, pushed his unbuckled galoshes across the quiet night scene. Most people stayed inside because of the blackout. The unnaturally darkened homes looked deserted.
The inside door opened. "Yes?" The man's muffled shout came through the glass of the storm door.
"Warden Small." Jake touched the brim of his dishpan-shaped steel helmet with his right finger. "Your light is showing."
"Eh?" the man shouted back.
The glass was beginning to fog up. Jake could make out the blurred figure of a middle-aged man in his undershirt cupping his hand around his ear. The man opened the door. Heat poured from the foyer. The sound of ABC Radio's "Gang Busters" clashed with the cold outside air. A dog barked.
"Your light's on," Jake shouted.
"I know," the man said. "It's night time."
"Who is it, Harvey?" A woman's voice called from inside. "I'm sorry, "Jake persisted. "I'm an Air Raid Warden." He pointed his flashlight at the large, hand-painted 'W' on the front of his helmet. "You'll have to turn your light out. It's a blackout. Didn't you hear the sirens?"
"Is it a real air raid?" the man asked.
"No," Jake explained. "It's just a practice. A pretend bombing."
"Then let's pretend I've turned the lights out." The man smiled at his own wit.
"Good one, Harvey," the woman said.
"How do you feel about a summons?"
Jake turned toward the voice. The man and woman peered around Jake. At the bottom of the verandah steps Tretheway stood, feet apart, in his police issue, size 13 boots. He shone his five cell flashlight on his front so there could be no question of identification. His oversize, navy blue greatcoat, with the gold insignia of an FYPD Senior Officer, hung open to reveal a casual, bright red sweatshirt with the official crested message, '1941 INDIVIDUAL CHAMPION TORONTO POLICE GAMES'. The upward beam of light gave his scowling face an eerie appearance. Because of his height (6'5") and his weight (280 lbs.) his helmet looked a lot smaller than Jake's. Jake wondered where the cigar had gone.
"Or perhaps a trip downtown," Tretheway finished.
Jake turned back to the couple.
"I'll get that light." The man disappeared inside.
"When can we turn it back on?" The woman asked.
"When we're told," Tretheway said.
"There'll be an all clear siren, Ma'am," Jake had memorized the ARP manual. "A continuous signal at a steady pitch."
The door closed. Jake heard the dog yelp and stop barking. The light went out.
"What's the time?" Tretheway asked.
"End of 'Gang Busters'," Jake said. "Must be 10:30."
They were back in Jake's car resuming their ARP patrol in the traditionally quiet west end of the city.
"Let's get down to the office," Tretheway said.
"Right." Jake pointed the long nose of the Pontiac downtown.
In 1941, Tretheway was, in effect, lent to the war effort by the Fort York Police Department. Jake, or really, Jonathan Small, Constable 1st Class, went with Tretheway as his able driver and assistant under the same plan. As Regional Officer, Tretheway had no particular sector, but was responsible for the ARP function of the whole city. The police, fire and other emergency vehicles patrolled the industrial and commercial sections of town. They were assisted by the Royal Fort York light Infantry (Reserve).
Tretheway and Jake shared a downtown office on the ground floor of the Fort York Arms with Geoffrey Beezul, another full-time employee ($ 1 a year man) of the wartime office. Beezul was old family Fort York. He was affable, bit of a name dropper, member of the right clubs, handsome in a coiffured, Nelson Eddy sort of way, but had an annoying habit of hitching his expensive, ill-fitting pants up every few moments.
Thin, wet-eyed Zoë Plunkitt, commandeered from the Genealogical section of the FY Public Library, rounded out their group as a part-time secretary. She blinked constantly. The rest of Tretheway's force, mostly Air Raid Wardens, were made up of civilian volunteers.
Jake nudged the car into a snow bank beside the "No Parking/Taxi Stand" sign at the entrance to the Fort York Arms. He stepped carefully out of the car into ruts made in the snow. Tretheway stepped into the snow bank and felt the snow trickle over the tip of his ankle-high boots. He looked at Jake. Jake shrugged an apology.
A whistle sounded. Luke Dimson strutted, as only a short person can strut, toward them. He handled the job of doorman reasonably well, but with his limited attention span, often wandered from his post. For the last few years, Luke had whistled for taxis and willingly handled cumbersome steamer trunks as easily as if they were loaves of bread. A thick shock of auburn hair pushed out from under the decorated visor of his military-style cap to almost touch his black eyebrows, which met in one furry horizontal bar. Luke's eyes were set much too close to his stubby, slightly twisted nose. His uniform was always clean, his gloves spotless and his whistle shiny but overused; like now.
The whistle sounded again. Luke spat it out, knowing the painstakingly-whitened lanyard around his neck would stop its fall. "You can't park there," he began, then recognized Tretheway and Jake. "Hi, Jake. Didn't know it was you."
"Hi Luke," Jake said. "That's okay."
"I'll watch the car for you, Inspector." Luke touched his cap.
"Hold the whistle, Luke," Tretheway said.
"Sure thing, Inspector." Luke smiled broadly. "How's the blackout?"
"Fine, Luke," Tretheway said. "Just fine."
The lights shone brightly in the office but the blackout curtains shielded them from the street. It was a long, thin office that had been a fashionable shoe store before the war. The front door opened off the same wide sidewalk as the hotel's covered entrance. Three desks stood in a row. The first, with its vase of dried herbs, implied a receptionist or secretary. Geoffrey Beezul's came next, then Tretheway's, the biggest desk of all. On the back wall next to the rear door, Jake sat, when necessary, at a large utility table. Running along the wall opposite the desks, rows of open cubicles held the tools of the ARP trade; neatly piled gas alarms, flashlights and batteries, boxes of whistles, hand bells, knapsacks, binoculars, steel helmets, gas masks and many, many information booklets. Several stirrup pumps stood in one corner. A faint, not unpleasant, odor of leather still hung in the air.
Geoffrey Beezul was standing at his desk when they arrived. His coat, helmet and flashlight lay on his desk.
"Tretheway. Jake." Beezul hitched up his pants. His alert blue eyes flashed between them, he looked younger than his forty years. "Sort of exciting out there."
"Where's Miss Plunkitt?" Tretheway looked around the office.
"I don't know," Beezul said. "Is she supposed to be in?"
"Doesn't she work here?" Tretheway asked.
"Well yes," Beezul said. "Part time."
"Maybe she's stuck in the snow," Jake suggested.
Tretheway looked at both of them. "I hope the Luftwaffe will be as understanding as you two in a real air raid."
"At least the phones aren't ringing," Jake said.
The phone rang.
For the next hour, the three of them fielded calls from the concerned citizens of Fort York. Most who reported uncovered lights on verandas or from inside houses where the blinds were not properly drawn were referred to their local block warden. One warden called to see if the raid was real. Tretheway made a note of his name. Someone called from a beer parlour. The regulars were arguing about whether that noisy gas alarm you twirled around your head signalled the start or finish of the attack.
"The start," Beezul explained patiently. "When the gas has dispersed, we ring a hand bell. Sounds much nicer."
A family requested the plans for a shelter like the one Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon had in Mrs. Miniver. And there were others who just wanted to be Air Raid Wardens and share the glamour of steel helmets and stirrup pumps.
The number of phone calls dwindled. Blackout or no blackout, it was a week night and the people of Fort York were going to their beds. Only one phone call bothered Tretheway. And then just a little.
"That was an odd one." Jake hung up the receiver.
Tretheway looked a question.
"Someone reports a light on the marsh."
"A flickering light, she said," Jake went on. "like a flume."
"Marsh gas?" Beezul suggested.
Tretheway shook his head. "Too cold."
Beezul took a call.
"Could be a crank," Jake said.
"Or moonlight on the ice," Tretheway said.
"I've got another one." Beezul covered the mouthpiece. "Same place."
"Tell them we'll look into it," Tretheway said.
Jake raised his eyebrows.
"What's the time?" Tretheway asked.
"Quarter to twelve," Jake said.
Tretheway pulled on his large nose. "Let's go, Jake." He looked at Beezul. "It's slowing down anyway."
Beezul nodded in agreement. "Have fun on the marsh." He smiled at Jake.
Jake frowned.CHAPTER 2
The drive from their downtown office to the west end took about fifteen minutes. Clouds of blowing snow didn't help, but the main roads were ploughed and, at this hour, there was little traffic.
Jake stopped the car at the top of the big hill that led to the eastern end of the marsh.
"Can't see anything from here," Jake said. "Too many trees."
"We'll have to go down," Tretheway said.
"It's pretty steep," Jake said.
Tretheway didn't answer.
Tretheway pointed down the hill.
Jake put the car into first and inched ahead. They started their descent, straining against the lower gears.
"What are we doing?" Tretheway asked.
"Gearing down," Jake answered.
"It brakes the car. With the engine."
"Don't you have real brakes?"
"This way is more efficient."
"And noisy," Tretheway concluded.
Jake bit his tongue. Tretheway, as the former Head of the Traffic Division, knew all the rules and regulations concerning vehicular legislation. He was considered a theoretical expert on traffic. But he'd never learned to drive. Jake, on the other hand, loved to drive and it showed in his natural aptitude behind the wheel of any vehicle. At the bottom of the hill, Jake pulled the car off the road into a snow drift until they were almost stuck.
"Have to walk from here, Boss," he said.
Tretheway grunted and got out of the car.
The two trudged through the pristine snow towards Princess Point. It took them five minutes. They stopped at the top of a slight embankment and stared across the frozen marsh.
In the late 1780's, Captain Thomas Coote, a British officer from Niagara, took to hunting in this area of the New World exclusively. In his account of the marsh, he said, "I have never seen such a variety of wildfowl as comes to this place." Coote had found his paradise.
The area survived early European explorers, United Empire Loyalist settlers, seventy-foot Durham sail freighters, the Desjardin Canal construction, picnickers, canoeists and bird watchers until it fell forever under the care and protection of the Fort York Royal Botanical Gardens.
Tretheway appreciated this, especially on his Sunday walks, but Jake harboured an attachment born of familiarity, for this large tract of land, marsh and open water, know as Coote's Paradise. He had run the trails as a child, kayaked and played hockey on the marsh and, except for the Ammerman thing three years ago, had pleasant memories of the sanctuary.
"Now," Tretheway said. "Where do you suppose that light is coming from?"
"If at all," Jake answered skeptically.
Their eyes swept the horizon, first to the left, past nearby Cockpit Island and Sassafras Point to University Landing and Willow Woods in the distance. Then, with the visual aid of the old pilings, black spots against the ice, they followed the Desjardin Canal to Rat Island, Bull's Point and Hickory Island.
"What's that?" Jake said.
"Which one's that?"
Jake pointed straight across the marsh. Tretheway strained his eyes in the direction of Jake's finger.
"I can't see anything."
They both stared at the island. From where they stood, it appeared to be no more than a grey smudge, slightly darker and closer to them than the opposite shore. Jake shivered in the raw cold. The sky was clear for the moment, the moon full and the wind fitful.
"I saw something," Jake said.
"What was it?"
"There it is again!"
"I see it."
It disappeared. For a second, maybe two, they'd seen a light, an illumination of some sort, a flume of fire from Hickory Island, then a return to darkness.
"What was it?" Jake asked after a moment.
Tretheway shook his head. The wind picked up noticeably and blew clouds across the bright face of the moon. Behind them, the city still lay in enforced darkness.
And then the light appeared again, this time a brighter, dancing flame that lasted a full minute. Then a wild flaring, a dimming, then gone again.
"Let's go," Tretheway said.
"Right." Jake started back for the car.
"Where're you going?" Tretheway asked.
"You said ..."
"This way." Tretheway started unsteadily down the embankment.
"Shouldn't we phone, or something?"
Jake followed his boss to the marsh's edge.
Tretheway tested the ice with his boot. "Should be all right," he said.
"Been close to zero all week," Jake said.
Tretheway took three or four, then five tentative, sliding steps away from shore.
"How is it?" Jake asked.
"C'mon." Tretheway started carefully toward the island that was a good quarter mile away. Jake slithered after. The moon reappeared and lit the shimmering silver of the smooth ice that was not blanketed by snow. Walking through the snowy parts was relatively easy. It was the clear portions that gave them trouble. About halfway there on a section of glare ice, Tretheway took off. A gust of wind caught his bulk and he sped, without moving his feet, in the direction of the island. When he stretched out his arms instinctively for balance, his jumbo-sized greatcoat became a sail and his speed increased.
"Wait for me!" Jake shouted.
Tretheway sailed before the wind, across the marsh as gracefully and efficiently as the Durham boats had done one hundred years before him. He had to fall. When Jake caught up to him, Tretheway was sitting heavily in the slight depression he had made in the ice.
"Okay, Boss?" Jake asked.
"Get me up."
With much grunting and cursing, but mainly with Jake's help, Tretheway regained his feet.
Excerpted from Murder on the Thirteenth by A. E. Eddenden. Copyright © 1992 A. E. Eddenden. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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