Arson Plus (1923)

Dashiell Hammett

Jim Tarr picked up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.

“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple of laws for you this time.”

I had been doing business with this fat sheriff of Sacramento County for four or five years — ever since I came to the Continental Detective Agency’s San Francisco office — and I had never known him to miss an opening for a sour crack; but it didn’t mean anything.

“Wrong both times,” I told him. “I get them for two bits each, and I’m here to do you a favor instead of asking for one. The company that insured Thornburgh’s house thinks somebody touched it off.”

“That’s right enough, according to the fire department. They tell me the lower part of the house was soaked with gasoline, but the Lord knows how they could tell — there wasn’t a stick left standing. I’ve got McClump working on it, but he hasn’t found anything to get excited about yet.”

“What’s the layout? All I know is that there was a fire.”

Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed:

“Hey, Mac!”

The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the door together — MacNab apparently wasn’t within hearing.

“What’s the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying a bodyguard around with you?”

The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this time, went back to their cribbage game.

“We got a city slicker here to catch our firebug for us,” Tarr told his deputy. “But we got to tell him what it’s all about first.”

McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several months before. He’s a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or six, with all the nerve in the world — and most of the laziness.

“Ain’t the Lord good to us?”

He had himself draped across a chair by now — always his first objective when he comes into a room.

“Well, here’s how she stands: This fellow Thornburgh’s house was a couple miles out of town, on the old county road — an old frame house. About midnight, night before last, Jeff Pringle — the nearest neighbor, a half-mile or so to the east — saw a glare in the sky from over that way, and phoned in the alarm; but by the time the fire wagons got there, there wasn’t enough of the house left to bother about. Pringle was the first of the neighbors to get to the house, and the roof had already fallen in then.

“Nobody saw anything suspicious — no strangers hanging around or nothing. Thornburgh’s help just managed to save themselves, and that was all. They don’t know much about what happened — too scared, I reckon. But they did see Thornburgh at his window just before the fire got him. A fellow here in town — name of Henderson — saw that part of it too. He was driving home from Wayton, and got to the house just before the roof caved in.

“The fire department people say they found signs of gasoline. The Coonses, Thornburgh’s help, say they didn’t have no gas on the place. So there you are.”

“Thornburgh have any relatives?”

“Yeah. A niece in San Francisco — a Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge. She was up yesterday, but there wasn’t nothing she could do, and she couldn’t tell us nothing much, so she went back home.”

“Where are the servants now?”

“Here in town. Staying at a hotel on I Street. I told ‘em to stick around for a few days.”

“Thornburgh own the house?”

“Uh-huh. Bought it from Newning & Weed a couple months ago.”

“You got anything to do this morning?”

“Nothing but this.”

“Good. Let’s get out and dig around.”

We found the Coonses in their room at the hotel on I Street. …