Miss Flanagan headed for the fire scene as soon as she heard the seven-thirty a.m. news. Long’s Drapery Store in Kilmullen was ablaze, the radio report had said, and several units had been called to bring it under control.
The smell of smoke filling her nostrils, she saw that the street leading to the store was cordoned off. Shops had been evacuated, too, judging by the numbers of people standing behind the tape, phones in hand, letting others know about the drama.
Miss Flanagan’s eyes sought out Fidelma Long. There she was, her partner, Bill Daly, with his arm around her, both bewildered and grey-faced, looking up the street at their now half-burnt shop.
“Ssh, love! No one’s hurt – that’s the main thing,” Bill said. “We’ll get back on our feet again.”
With the couple now taking shelter in a nearby café Miss Flanagan took the opportunity to have a word with Sergeant Reilly.
“Any clue how it started?” she asked. “An electrical fault?”
“Don’t think so. Between you and me, it’s a bit suspicious if what the chief fire officer is intimating. Petrol can in office area, they think.”
Miss Flanagan was horrified. A fire was bad enough but for it to be set deliberately! In two seconds flat the situation had gone from a regrettable accident to a fully-fledged crime scene.
Arson… It was such a dreadful crime. People could die in fires. Luckily it had happened before all the shops at that end of the street opened. Still, it would mean a business closed for a long time…
She went to see Fidelma at home later that evening. She was still in shock and to make matters worse the Gardai had called, she said.
“They asked about insurance and if we were properly covered, which of course we are, but why are they asking that? Are they thinking that I set fire to the place myself?”
This wasn’t good. Obviously the Gardai were thinking of the possibility that the fire would solve some financial problems for the couple if a big insurance policy paid out. Therefore they could be suspects…
“I know it’s difficult being asked these questions,” she said, “but they are only trying to do their job, I suppose. Try not to take it to heart. I’m sure they will find out who did this very soon.”
“That’s the really upsetting part – wondering who hated us enough to set fire to the shop!” Bill said, visibly shaking. “All that stock – gone up in flames!”
Bill had looked after the men’s section and Fidelma had been in charge of the ladies clothes, the pair running it pretty much on their own of late.
Reassuring them that all that could be done would be done, Miss Flanagan made her way home.
In her ‘case’ room now she scribbled notes on her ancient blackboard. Arson. MOTIVE? She put a big red circle round that word. Reluctant as she was to do so she put Fidelma’s and Bill’s names under the heading ‘Suspects’ but who could she add to this list?
Some people were incendiarists, getting some kind of kick from setting fire to things. Could it have been someone who had a fixation like that? No, if that was the case a window would have been smashed and a lighting object thrown in. This seemed more organised. Targeted.
Was it a competitor, she wondered? She wrote ‘competitors’ under the ‘suspects’ heading. There were a lot of clothes shops in Kilmullen all right, one less would mean more business for those remaining. It was a possibility. She jotted all the names of clothes shops in and around the town.
Fire started near the office… So the arsonist wasn’t particularly interested in destroying the clothes as such but wanted to make sure that the office was destroyed… Or it could be that he or she wanted to make sure maximum damage was done by starting the fire in the body of the shop.. There were so many questions right now.
Now she worked on the competitor list. She rang Fidelma to check if she’d left any new shop out.
“Yes, you have – one. A bargain clothes shop opened last week – one of those ‘pop up’ things, at the other end of town, selling stock bought from businesses closing down so they can afford to sell them cheap. They’re just in the market to make a quick buck, not long service to customers.”
Miss Flanagan added the name of the shop to her list. She would check out who the owners were.
What she found out later didn’t please her. Two of those involved had been Long’s employees for fifteen years and eighteen years respectively but had been made redundant six months before.
Miss Flanagan decided to pay this Danny Heaslip and his wife, Maura, a visit.
“We heard about the fire. I don’t like saying it, but I don’t have a lot of sympathy,” Danny told her. “Not after the way we were treated. Turfed out with only statutory redundancy.
“You’re asking about what we’re doing now? Why shouldn’t we go into business against them, even for a while? We have to make a living too! I haven’t been able to find another job in the rag trade nor Maura an office job either.
“I wouldn’t want anyone’s place going on fire but I had nothing to do with it, if that’s what anyone is implying.”
Well, that hadn’t been a fruitful exercise. Then again maybe it had… Unless Danny was a great actor she doubted if he was the sort to set fires but you never knew…
Maura seemed a bit more upset by it all, though. Fires make people feel vulnerable, she thought. If it can happen in one place it could happen to you… And she had worked in Long’s office for a long time. It was understandable that she’d be more upset.
The couple must be managing financially, though, she thought, since losing their jobs. Their house was almost like a show house – every room newly-painted and furnished. Where had they got the money for all that, especially when they were now out of work?
Had Maura been dipping her fingers in the till at Long’s? Miss Flanagan’s mind couldn’t help thinking in that direction…
Sergeant Reilly had some news when she rang him next day.
“Definitely arson. I doubt the insurance company will be paying out too quickly.”
Miss Flanagan thought of Maura Heaslip. Accounts… office… she’d worked there for years. Had she been stealing money all the time and organised the fire to cover up her crime maybe?
Miss Flanagan decided to have a word with Fidelma on the phone about her former employee.
“It had crossed my mind, to be honest, because the takings were down. We seemed to have the customers but the lodgements never seemed high enough. That’s why I decided to get an auditor to look at the books. Bill said we couldn’t afford an auditor but I went ahead and organised it anyway. My father, Lord rest him, always said good advice was worth paying for.”
“When is this supposed to happen?”
“He’s to start on Monday.”
Miss Flanagan was sitting up straight now.
“And would Maura Heaslip have heard that you were bringing in an auditor, do you think?”
“Possibly. It’s a small town. People talk.”
So – Maura Heaslip could have known!
“Keys to the shop… The alarm code… Have you changed either since you made the Heaslips redundant?”
“No. One of us always opened up so no one else had the keys. They were always kept in the office though. Someone could have copied them, I suppose.”
Urging Fidelma to keep her suspicions absolutely to herself, Miss Flanagan put down the phone and set about doing some research into the Heaslips’ lifestyle habits.
Over the next couple of days Miss Flanagan made it her business to be nosey everywhere she went. She particularly talked to people in shops close to the Heaslips new ‘pop up shop’.
Wasn’t it great that they had such initiative, she said? Didn’t they seem to be doing well? Wasn’t their house lovely?
“And well it might be!” Vera Nuttall said, as she finished serving a customer in a nearby newsagents. “Maura’s aunt May left her a small fortune lately. Couldn’t she well afford to have the decorators in with money flowing like that? Some people have all the luck.”
Well, that put paid to that notion! Maura Heaslip had come by her riches honestly.
Bill Daly was rushing to pay for fuel when she met him at the service station.
“I’m going to see that insurance company guy and give them a piece of my mind! Who do they think they are stalling on paying out? You take out insurance in case you have a fire and then when you have they start ‘humming and hawing’ and holding things up – it isn’t right!”
“It is a very worrying time, I’m sure. I don’t think the person I spoke to your wife about has anything to do with it, though.”
“That doesn’t mean she didn’t have a grievance! She was depressed after she was made redundant – that was common knowledge. Maybe it unsettled her head. That husband of hers would be hot-headed enough to do anything too.”
Oh dear.. He was definitely blaming the Heaslips!
Going home, Miss Flanagan didn’t know what to think. Who had set the fire? Someone who had keys… Or someone who could have set a timer to ignite the petrol after the shop closed?
Where were the owners after the shop closed the night before last? She decided to ring Sergeant Reilly to see if he had asked that question.
“Fidelma went to a play with her sister, Mary, and Mary corroborated it. Bill went home, ate a takeaway, and fell asleep on the sofa, he said. Fidelma found him there when she came back.”
So Fidelma’s husband actually had no alibi for that night…
Her next move was to ring Fidelma herself.
“Just a thought, but were all the accounts burned in the fire?”
“Yes, but, thanks be to God, I had copied them all off the computer onto a usb key a few days ago and given copies of the paperwork to my sister because the auditor was going to look over them all at her house tomorrow.”
“Does Bill know this?”
“I’ve just told him and he nearly blew a fuse! He’s just cross about me wasting money on that sort of service, especially now the fire has happened.”
“One more question – who locked up the night before the fire?”
“I did. No, Bill did, because he had the window display to finish.”
Miss Flanagan was very uneasy after this conversation. Why would Bill get so touchy about the accounts being copied? If what she suspected was true – that it was Bill who had set the fire to cover up the fact that he had been taking money out of the business – then he would be forced into action to cover up his crime, namely to try to destroy the evidence of the shop’s accounts before the auditor saw them…
After a quick phone call to Sergeant Reilly she decided on a stake out.
She would be watching Fidelma’s sister Mary’s house all night if necessary.
She felt very cold. She had hired her friend Essie to drive her to the estate Mary lived in. She knew from Fidelma that Bill was treating the sisters to a meal out that night in an expensive restaurant, just to cheer them up, he said.
Get them out of the way, more like, she thought, so that Mary’s house would be empty from before eight o’clock until well after midnight. Maybe she wouldn’t have to stake the place out too long. And she had Sergeant Reilly on speed dial…
It happened at 10.45. She saw Bill Daly’s car stop and a man with a coat and hat pulled down well over his eyes go round the back of Mary’s house. Had he copied a key or was he breaking in? She waited a while then rang Sergeant Reilly. A squad car snaked into the estate within minutes. The Gardai would be questioning Bill Daly when he left Mary’s house…
“You were right, Brigid,” Sergeant Reilly told her next morning. “He’d been cooking the books all right. Got too fond of online gambling lately and was in all sorts of financial trouble. He was creaming money off wherever he could since Maura left and he knew Fidelma was going to find out sooner or later.
“He had loan sharks on his back and thought that the fire would solve his problems. He had set everything up that night with a timer to ignite the petrol at 6.30 a.m.
“We caught him leaving his sister in law’s house with the usb key and accounts belonging to the shop, thinking he’d be safe then so, well done, another triumph for Miss Brigid Flanagan!