Chapter Two

Forgetting about his timeline, Bill realized the case was intriguing. From arson to arson whoever was setting the fires was getting better and more skilled. Bill spent a couple of hours going over the file and calling the fire inspectors who had analyzed the arson sites. It came together pretty clearly in Maxwell's analytical mind. It seemed obvious that the warehouses and storage facilities were chosen not to rob, but because they most closely emulated the real target the arsonists were practicing their craft to burn; some sort of large, wide space in a generally not very flammable building. From the first arson report in Annandale to the one last week in Bakersfield, the materials used were perfected, the time from fire to meltdown of building was quicker, the heat was greater, the flames more impenetrable. Whatever the fire creeps really wished to destroy, by the time they had crossed the country, they had pretty much attained enough mastery to achieve it. But, what was their goal? What was to be burned down and why?

Maxwell dug around a little to find out what was happening in the Los Angeles/California area in the next month or so; what conventions or political groups were meeting in town. It quickly grew out of hand. The LA Convention Center was booked up until 1990, it seemed, with businesses and groups from all walks of life, a random spattering of hotels commonly used for conventions had similar long-term schedules. Politically, LA was a hotbed of activism and groups representing the main political parties and every group from alternative health to wacky religions to plumbers to accountants to brain surgeons were having seminars and conferences in the next year. It was impossible to wade through and discern which group was at the highest risk of being attacked and having a fire engulf their meeting.

Bill smiled that it was July. It was nice having a partner who had two and a half months off in the summer. Teaching was hard work, especially when one's class was filled with unmotivated juvenile delinquents, and the pay stank. Ralph earned about what Bill had made starting out as a Fed twenty-two years ago. But, that summer vacation made up for it, in Bill's mind. He wished he had that long a vacation to skip away to the MacKenzie river in Oregon and camp, fish and hike. Two measly weeks a year was the only vacation he got, hardly enough time to pack his luggage and rods.

Bill took the file, put his jacket back on and drove over to Ralph's home in Sherman Oaks. Barging in the continually open front door, he found Ralph eating a sandwich at the dining room table. Ralph was startled by Bill's sudden entry.

"Geez, Bill, I almost choked on my milk. You could at least knock before flying in."

"Is that turkey? Hold on, I'm starving." Bill tossed the file to the table and went into the kitchen, which he imagined to be a little free restaurant exclusively set up to feed him. Having skipped breakfast his stomach rumbled like boulders rolling down a mountain. The sandwich makings still littered the counter, so Bill hastily put together a thick turkey sandwich, studiously avoiding the tomato slices, and generously lathering on the mayo. He found some diet pop in the fridge and poured out a glass. Carrying his plate and beverage, Bill came back to the dining room and sat down beside Ralph who was chewing away as he perused the file.

"Arson, huh?" Ralph asked. "Another Torchy Tanner?"

Bill took a huge bite himself. "Bigger. This guy, or probably guys, are planning some spectacular fire somewhere, and have been ironing out their flammable rough spots in a cross country bonfire spree."

"Oh, last week in Bakersfield. That's why you're involved. They've come to California."

"Something suit level is being planned, Ralph. I can feel it. We've gotta find these guys and nab 'em."

Ralph cast a glance at his partner as he wolfed down another large bite. It had taken a little time for Ralph to get used to Bill Maxwell. Fed, Republican, Right-wing, Abrasive, Demanding, Eccentric—these negative qualities had been very outstanding for their first cases and had set Ralph on edge. But, the green guys had paired them up and Ralph had no recourse but to deal exclusively with Bill. In that time, and as a few more cases occurred, he had been able to notice and appreciate the equally positive aspects of his partner: humor, tolerance, loyalty, the commitment to friendship, his bravery, courage and willingness to do anything to protect his friends and country. The green guys had done their job well in choosing two incredibly disparate people to be joined as partners—Ralph and Bill had merged into best friends, which for them meant continuing to annoy each other while enjoying each other's company.

One thing Ralph had definitely learned was to trust and respect was Bill's intuition and feelings. Not his emotions; god knows they were hopelessly ensconced in the machoism of his job and generation. If he believed this problem was "suit worthy," Ralph had no response but to go along.

Bill continued, "The L.A. Deputy Bureau Chief himself gave me the case."

Ralph asked, "Isn't he the one who got you off taking lie detector tests?"

Bill nodded, "Yeah, after your delinquents helped me find the Valenkovs. He's a good guy and jumped right in when Carlisle wanted his best agent, me, stuck writing up reports instead of taking this on. That not only got Carlisle's goat, it got his whole farm."

Ralph nodded sympathetically. There was little to recommend Les Carlisle. Ralph didn't like him, plain and simple.

"I've got to make real progress on it and then present it tomorrow, present it!, to the other agents."

"Present it? But, you hate speaking publicly. And you do an awful job of it."

"Yeah…I guess…"

"I mean, terrible. Pathetic."

Maxwell stared at him. "I get your point."

Ralph smiled.

Maxwell tapped the folder. "Why don't you get your jammies on and see if you can holograph off the file? That almost never works, and if it doesn't, we've got a fast drive to Bakersfield this afternoon. "

They put the unwashed dishes in the sink and the food in the fridge and then Ralph donned his suit and sat with the folder opened up and wrapped around his curly blond hair. He focused on some blank space on the wall of his dining room for a couple of minutes. Bill took a deep breath and dared to put his hand on Ralph's shoulder, to allow himself to see any holograph Ralph visualized, even though his hair stood on end when he did. Nothing happened.

"Nope, Bill, not a thing."

"Alright, let's head up to Bakersfield. Go get some clothes on."

"You know, I might have had some plans already set up for today."

"Ralph, buying a new dishwasher should take second place to preventing a roomful of people winding up s'more's over a campfire."

"How'd you know I was going to do that?"

Bill pointed to the Sears catalog on the dining room table open to dishwashers. "Plus, the plate I used still had some dried on food on it from a previous meal."

"Sorry."

"I don't care, Ralph. Catching sparkplugs I care about. Go on, get dressed. I'll be out in the car."