Vanity Fire: A Guy Mallon Mystery

Vanity Fire: A Guy Mallon Mystery

When the phone rings in the middle of the night, publisher Guy Mallon learns his book warehouse has burned to the ground. Rushing to the scene, he and arson inspector ...

About The Author

John M Daniel

John M. Daniel lived in Santa Barbara, California for 20 years, where he and his wife, Susan, owned (and were ...

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Prologue

Saturday evening, no, actually it was Sunday morning, September 9-10, 1995. It was almost two in the morning when I got home. We lived on the East Side of Santa Barbara, a neighborhood of small houses and bungalows that was rapidly being munched by developers and turned into condos. Most of our neighbors spoke Spanish. The only Spanish the developers knew was the names of the streets in the neighborhoods they were destroying.

I parked on the street, even though I expected there was still room for my car in the garage. But the garage was Carol’s space, and even though she’d been gone for a week, I still hoped she’d be back.

I got out of my car and stretched in the hot night. A Santa Ana wind had blown down from the mountains earlier that evening, raising the temperature twenty degrees and drying the air out. We get a lot of Santa Anas in the early fall, and that year they had been worse than ever. The town was a tinder box, too, whenever the Santa Anas blew through. People of Santa Barbara bragged about how long they’d lived there by remembering fires.

I locked my car and walked up the pathway to the front door. I let myself in as quietly as I could. I didn’t want to wake Carol, on the off chance she had returned to our bed, to our house, to our business, to my life. And if she was home, I didn’t want to wake her up and have to tell her where I’d been that night, and with whom, and what I’d been doing. I tiptoed back to our bedroom and peeked in. The bed was made and empty.

I walked out to the kitchen and switched on the light. Her note was still on the counter, where it had been for seven days.

Guy,

I’ve had it. I’m going for a drive. I’m going north, as far as I can get from this stupid city, this stupid business, and you. I love you, you little shmuck, but this time you really fucked up big.

C

She had me there. I had fucked up big.

# # #

I lay on our bed for an hour without getting any sleepier. I was stripped down to my undershorts on top of the bedspread. I was still wide awake shortly after three in the morning when the phone rang on the table next to Carol’s side. I rolled over and picked up the receiver. “Hello? Carol?”

“Is this Guy Mallon?”

I sighed. “Speaking,” I answered. “Who is this? You know, it’s three in the morning.”

“I’m very sorry, Mister Mallon. This is Detective Rosa Mac- donald, Santa Barbara Police Department. I—”

“Oh no!” I said. “What happened? Is she all right?” “Mister Mallon, I’m  afraid I have some very serious   news for you.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but there’s been a major fire at the old DiClemente Avocado warehouse. As I understand it, you’ve been using that warehouse space for your business. Is that right?”

I breathed. “Thank God. I mean, is that all?”

“I’m afraid the fire damage was…complete,” the detective said. “And I need to talk to you. We have a witness here who reports that your car was parked in the DiClemente warehouse lot from about nine till sometime after ten this evening.”

“Nope,” I said. “I’ve been with my car all evening, and I never was in the warehouse parking lot. Not tonight anyway.”

“You weren’t in the neighborhood at all?”

“Well, I was on that side of the freeway for a while, but not within half a mile of the warehouse. Who says I was there?”

“Just that your car was there,” Detective Macdonald corrected me. “Red seventy-six Volvo, license plate GFA 096.”

I gasped. “Where’s that car now?” I asked. “Where is it? Still there?”

“No, sir. The parking lot’s empty. But that is your station wagon?”

“No,” I said. “It’s my partner’s car.”

“I see,” she said. “Can you tell me how I can reach your partner, sir?”

“No. I wish to hell I could.” Then I asked, “Did you say police department? Is the fire department there?”

“Yes sir. They’ve done all they could. I’m afraid there wasn’t much left to save. We believe the fire began about ten-thirty. Old wooden building. Took about three hours to burn.”

“And you’re with the police?” I asked again. “Yes sir. I’m an arson investigator.” “Arson?”

“Mister Mallon, I’m stuck here for another couple of hours. Any chance you could come down here to the site and talk with me? I have a few questions—”

“That seventy-six Volvo,” I asked. “It never showed up again?”

“No sir, not yet anyway. Can you get down here? I have to hang up now. I’ve got people waiting to speak to me.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said. “Listen, if that red station wagon shows up again? Tell her to wait for me. I’ll be right there.”

 

Part One

Chapter One

I can tell you exactly when and where this mess began. Tuesday, June 28, 1994. Carol was out of the office on her morning rounds when the phone rang. I answered, “Guy Mallon Books.”

“Is this Guy Mallon?” The voice was gravelly but  friendly.

“The Guy Mallon?” “Speaking.”

“Mister Mallon, my name is Fritz Marburger. I don’t expect you’ve heard of me, but if you have the time I’d like to take you and your wife to lunch today to discuss an idea I have.”

Oh right. Publisher beware. “Mister Marburger,” I said, “I’m not married. I do have a business partner, but she’s not my wife. I appreciate the offer, but we’re busy today, and—”

“We could make it tomorrow,” he said. “I’m free all week.

One of the joys of being retired. Also one of the curses.” “Look, maybe I should cut to the chase and save us both some time. If you’re looking to sell me stocks or real estate, I’m not interested. If you’re a poet and you have a manuscript to show me, you’re welcome to drop it off and I’ll look at it when I can find the time. But it won’t do you any good to take Carol and me to lunch, because—”

He cut me off with a jolly, gruff laugh. “Hey, Guy, I hear you, but let me cut to my own chase. Give me just a minute. I’m not selling a thing, and I’m not a poet. Jesus Christ, that’s for sure. I’m a retired businessman. I had a long and successful career in mergers and acquisitions. Now I’m out of work and I’m bored.

I’m bored stiff. So I thought it would be fun to invest a little money in a small local business and see what might happen. I’ve been asking around, and some of the people here at Casa Dorinda are saying nice things about Guy Mallon Books. So I’d like to get to know you. I’m thinking of rolling the dice with maybe fifty grand, if I feel it’s a good fit. If not, I’ll keep looking. That’s all. It’s worth a lunch, especially since I’m buying. So if you have the time tomorrow, what say we meet at the El Encanto, say twelve-thirty?”

Casa Dorinda was a retirement home in Montecito for the wealthy. Residents there bought a lot of our poetry books from Tecolote Books, a nearby independent bookstore. So far, so good. Besides, lunch at El Encanto? “Well, tomorrow’s busy, actually, but today’s free after all.”

“Grand.” Wealthy people say grand a lot, I’ve found. “Twelve-thirty?”

“Swell,” I answered.

I was hanging up just as Carol walked through the front door, carrying the day’s mail. She plopped the pile of mail on my desk. “Guess what,” I said. “We’re having lunch at El Encanto today.”

“How sweet of you!”

“Not me,” I said. “Fritz Marburger’s the sweet one.” “Who’s he?”

“I don’t know, but he’s interested in our company. He has some money to invest and for some reason he wants to scout us out. I figure it won’t do us any harm to—”

“Oh, shoot!” Carol said. “I’m getting my hair cut at one o’clock. Remember?”

“Damn, I forgot. Well, maybe I can call him back and reschedule.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “You go on without me. You can tell me about it this afternoon.”

“But it’s a business deal,” I said. “You’re the business manager.

I’m just an editor. What do I know about business?”

Carol chuckled. “You don’t know squat. But you’re a dreamer, Guy. And you know how to listen. See what he has to offer and we’ll talk about it. But before you accept any money from this hotshot?”

“What?” I asked.

“I want to hear the string section.”

# # #

“Look at that God damned view,” Fritz Marburger remarked as we waited for our entrees to arrive. We sipped a local Chardonnay on the terrace of the El Encanto, a quiet and elegant restaurant high on the Santa Barbara Riviera, with the red-roofed city laid out below us like a bowl emptying into the harbor. Palm trees lined the beach and sailboats bobbed on the sapphire bay. Out on the horizon floated the Channel Islands; the air was so clear you could see, or at least imagine, the canyons on their hillsides.

Mr. Marburger was a tall, skinny man with a Walter Matthau grin, sparkling Sinatra eyes, and a forest of unruly gray hair, which he combed with his fingers throughout our conversation. He wore a tweed jacket and a plaid shirt. “I got to admit,” he added, “Santa Barbara’s easy on the eyes. I could get used to this town.”

“How long have you been here, Mister Marburger?” I asked. “Call me Fritz. Five years. The five slowest years of my life. Used to live in Chicago, but when I retired my wife insisted that we come out here and quote take it easy for a change unquote, move into that morgue in Montecito, play a little golf. Which was fine for her till she died two years ago, God damn her, and now here I am, twiddling my God damned thumbs, surrounded by beautiful scenery and beautiful rich widows.” “Too bad.”

He laughed. “Just kidding. The widows leave me alone. I guess I’m too hot to handle. Actually, I’ve been seeing—I guess that’s the way you say it—a younger lady lately, as you may know.”

I shook my head. “Sorry, should I know?” “You don’t read the Santa Barbara News-Press?” “Not the society page.”

He chuckled. “Good man,” he said. He reached into the breast pocket of his tweed jacket and handed me a small package wrapped in gold paper and tied up with a silver ribbon. “My lady friend wanted me to give you this.” He handed the package to me.

“Feels like a CD,” I said, pulling on the ribbon.

“Don’t open it now,” Fritz said. “Wait till you get back to the office. Ah, here’s lunch.” I slid the package into the side pocket of my jacket.

A uniformed waiter opened up a folding stand next to our table, where he placed a large tray. He proceeded to put plates before us: I had pumpkin soup and the crab melt with shoestring fries and Fritz had a huge Cobb salad showered with roquefort dressing. The waiter refilled our wine glasses, asked if we wanted anything more, and bowed when he was excused.

“Not bad,” Fritz pronounced after a few bites. “I like this joint. I happen to know the maître d’, personal friend of mine. So when did you come to Santa Barbara, or have you always had it this good?”

“I came here in nineteen seventy-seven,” I answered. “I was just passing through. Bought a bookstore that was going out of business, then somehow got into the publishing business through the back door, almost by accident. Carol Murphy became my partner a few years later, and now we’re working our butts off, doing what we love.”

“Doing pretty well, from all I hear,” he said.

I shrugged. “For a rinkydink little West Coast poetry publisher, I guess you could say we’re doing all right. We pay the rent. We’ve had some good luck. One of our authors was Poet Laureate for a couple of years, and that helped. But it’s not an easy way to make a living. We pay the rent and that’s about it.”

“Seems to me you could do better. I mean, publishing poetry, for God’s sake? Does anybody read poetry anymore? I’ll bet the bookstore’s what’s paying the rent.”

“Nope. That was a total loss. We quit selling books years ago. It’s all publishing now, and yes, there are a few readers left. We can sell a thousand copies of anything we publish. We’re not getting rich, but we’re having fun.”

“You’re not interested in growing?” “Growing?”

“Hey,  I don’t  mean anything personal. No  offense,  okay?

How tall are you, anyway? Just curious.”

“Five feet. No offense taken.” I’m quite used to being the shortest man in any crowd. That doesn’t bother me, but rude people give me a pain in the ass.

“Well, I’m talking business, is all. That’s what I mean by growing. You may be stuck at five feet, but you could get a lot bigger in other ways.” Fritz pointed at me with a forkful of lettuce. “Thousand copies? That’s chickenshit, pardon my God damned French. You can actually live on that? What do you eat for dinner, pork and beans?” Then he glared and shook his head. “Sorry. It’s just that numbers like that tend to make me sleepy, know what I mean?”

“I think I do,” I said. “This crab melt is so good I’m going to finish it before I walk out. I hope you don’t mind.” I took a bite. Fuckin jerk.

But then he turned his glare into a grin and said, “Hey, Guy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m just needling your ass. Thing is, I know you can do better. I’ve made a career out of recognizing talent, and you’ve got it. But a thousand copies? Poetry? Give me a break. You can do better.” He poked his forkful of lettuce into his mouth and started chewing at me. “A lot better than  a thousand copies. We’re going to get you and your partner into play, my friend. And it ain’t going to be with poetry. A thousand copies. Shit. Let’s forget tiddlywinks, shall we? How much would it cost to publish a real book? A big book, couple of hundred pages, hardback, first class all the way, ten-twelve thousand copies. Huh? How much.”

“Hell if I know,” I said. “I’ve never done anything like that.” “But you’re a publisher, right?”

“Tiddlywinks.”

“You’re a businessman, for Christ’s sake. Come on. Let’s have some numbers.”

“Twenty thousand?” I guessed. “Twenty-five?”

Fritz Marburger grinned and nodded. He pulled a checkbook out of his jacket pocket.

# # #

“What the hell is this?” Carol asked, staring at the rectangle in her hand.

“A check for thirty thousand dollars. Your hair looks nice,” I told her. “I like it that length.” Actually I liked Carol’s strawberry blond hair any length, because I like hair and because it’s Carol’s. “I can see it’s a check, Guy,” she said. “I can see it’s made out to Guy Mallon Books. What I don’t know is who the hell’s Fritz Marburger, and what the hell this is all about, and it’s not about my hair. What’s the deal?”

“Well, we don’t have to cash it if we don’t want to,” I said. “That’s the deal.”

“What’s this money for, Guy? Please don’t make me beg.” I smiled. “It’s in case we want to publish a novel,” I said.

“We have to spend thirty thousand dollars publishing a novel?

Is this man crazy? Are you crazy?”

“No. We publish the novel, and we get to do whatever we want with whatever money’s left over. Publish more God damned little poetry books, as Fritz puts it—”

“I see we’re already on a first-name basis,” Carol remarked. “—or, if we decide we like real publishing for a change, we can publish a couple more commercial novels. Anything we want. Our choice.”

“Do we get to choose the first novel?” Carol asked. “Well, that’s the string section you were worried about.” “Let’s hear it.”

I pulled the small, square package out of my coat pocket and handed it to Carol. “Open it,” I said.

Carol pulled the ribbon and tore away the gift wrap. “I’ll Be Seeing You,” she read. “‘Sweet Lorraine Evans Celebrates the Standards.’”

“Lorraine Evans?” I said. “She’s my favorite singer. I didn’t know she could write.”

“You still don’t,” Carol pointed out.

“Come on, Carol. It might be a good book. Could be. We might like it. If we don’t, we tear up the check.”

“I’m not sure I like this idea, Guy,” Carol said. “I love you to death, and whatever you say, we do. But damn it, we’re not vanity publishers.”

“Only if we like the book, Carol. Only if we love it.”

“But even if we do,” she reasoned, “even if it’s the best book we ever read—”

“Yes?”

“We’d have to print ten, fifteen thousand copies to break even.”

“Well? Now we can afford that.” “Yeah, but—”

“What?”

“Where would we store all those books?” “Think big,” I said.

“Of course,” she said, kissing my forehead. “That’s why I love you.”

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