The Rockford Files
The Warehouse on Wharf 33
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! This heavily involves characters from the season 4 episode The Queen of Peru, specifically the bad guys and the insurance agent, and will also involve recurring character Vern St. Cloud and a couple of policemen from Perry Mason. Jim is definitely in for a wild case.
The warehouse was right at the edge of the pier, immediately visible to anyone who came by. The man in the yellow cab leaned forward, studying the structure with an unimpressed, furrowed brow.
"You're certain that this is this address," he said, holding out the note.
The cab driver peered at the crude newspaper letters that had been glued to the paper. "Yeah, Bud," he said. "This is where you wanted to go, so pay up and get out, unless you've changed your mind."
The man reached into his suit coat pocket for his wallet and the cash. "Here you go, Mate," he said smoothly, coolly, as he counted the correct amount of bills and held them out.
The driver snatched them, counted them himself, and nodded in approval. "So are you getting out now or what?"
"I suppose I am, especially since you are so impatient for me to depart." The passenger stepped out of the cab and onto the pier, bringing a long, heavy trenchcoat with him. He draped it over his shoulders as he stood there, frowning at the note.
He certainly didn't trust the mysterious sender, gluing newspaper letters together like a cliché kidnapper. But he also didn't know who would be so bold as to send him something like this, and he deemed the acquisition of that knowledge important enough that this trip was necessary.
He wished he could have come here with Lou, the only man he completely trusted. But Lou was unavailable and the note had been very specific about arriving at a particular time. Of course, that only made him more suspicious than ever. He had brought his shotgun, just in case. And he had also taken another precaution.
The sound of a car from behind him brought his attention around, and he turned to look as a dark blue sedan arrived and switched off its lights. He recognized both the car and the driver, nervously fidgeting behind the wheel, and he sighed in exasperation to himself.
Mike, Lou's brother, really wasn't much of a precaution. But he was another person, and it was to be hoped that he was so leery of the man who had asked him here that he wouldn't dare do anything stupid to incur his ire.
Mike looked up as the man with the trenchcoat calmly sauntered over. He rolled down the window, his hand unsteady. "I came, Ginger," he said. "Am I late?"
"You're right on time," Ginger replied, placing his hand on the door. "Now, do you remember what I told you?"
"Wait until you get inside, then go up to the window and look in," Mike said. "And be ready to shoot if there's any trouble."
"Exactly. And I'm sure you won't do anything foolish this time, such as double-cross me." Ginger looked firmly into Mike's eyes. "I wasn't shooting to kill before. Another time, I might be."
Mike swallowed hard. "I won't do anything except what you told me, Ginger," he said.
"Good." Ginger turned and started away from the car, his trenchcoat billowing in the late summer night breeze. His shotgun gleamed from under the heavy coat.
Mike watched him move towards the warehouse, nervously running his tongue over his lips. His palms were slippery on the steering wheel, and he gripped it tighter, wondering what he was getting into this time.
Ginger Townsend was more Lou's friend than Mike's. When the three of them had all teamed up with another man to steal a famous diamond, the new guy had tempted Mike into double-crossing the others and trying to sell the diamond back to the company for a high profit. Mike had regretted betraying his brother, but the thought of all that money had drawn him in anyway.
He had regretted his decision even more when Ginger had shot at him, trying to stop or incapacitate him, and had hit his mark.
Mike had been excluded from all future deals that Ginger and Lou had set up. And that had been fine with him, really. He had been afraid of the cold, aloof Ginger even before the shooting. Lou was often the only thing that could hold Ginger's anger at bay, and sometimes he failed, too.
Mike didn't even know how Ginger had acquired such a nickname. His hair was very blond, not reddish at all. Once Mike had innocently asked about it and had received a silent stare in reply.
The silent stare usually shut anyone up whose questions Ginger did not want to answer. Even Lou received that response now and then, although far less than anyone else. Lou had long ago learned, for the most part, what Ginger did and did not want to talk about. That was one reason why, Mike supposed, they got along so well. For the life of him, though, he didn't know how or why Lou had even wanted to hang around Ginger long enough to figure him out that much.
The one thing Mike did know was that Lou was never going to get away from Ginger. Lou didn't want to. Mike had learned that he had to tolerate that, and that he even had to be ready to run favors for Ginger, if Lou was not around.
Ginger wandered into the warehouse, shutting the door behind him. Mike was only half-watching, but at this action he shook himself out of his thoughts and started to open the car door, intending to do as Ginger wanted and go up to a window.
The horrific explosion made Mike flinch in shock and disbelief. The entire warehouse was suddenly in flames, fire having shot out the door and all of the windows.
The color drained from his face. Ginger had been right to be suspicious, but he hadn't been suspicious enough. Someone had set up this "meeting" just to kill him. And from the looks of it, there was no way they hadn't succeeded.
Without even thinking of attempting to approach the building and see if Ginger had possibly survived—as he knew Lou would have done—Mike dove into the car and revved the engine, speeding away from the scene.
In the back of his mind, he knew that he was definitely doing something that would incur Ginger's wrath. But he was so certain Ginger was dead that it didn't seem a huge problem.
What worried him more was the thought that he could end up dead, too, if he stayed. If the perpetrator had decided to hang around and watch the blast, he might catch sight of Mike and come after him to make sure there were no witnesses.
The main thing Mike deeply regretted in this situation was in imagining how Lou would look when Mike told him Ginger was gone. Mike was sorry to have let Ginger down, but he felt far worse about letting his brother down.
"Sorry, Lou," he whispered. "It just couldn't be helped."
He whipped around a corner, leaving the burning building behind.
The last thing Jim Rockford wanted to hear in the middle of the night was the ringing of his telephone. But it was ringing, very insistently, and at last in utter aggravation he struggled up and shuffled to the desk, muttering all the while.
"I'm coming, I'm coming. Can't you pick a decent time to call? Like any time before midnight?"
He fumbled in the dim light, grabbing up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Rockford, one of our warehouses blew up tonight!"
The familiar, whiny voice was not one Jim was expecting to hear, nor wanted to hear—whether it was two in the morning or five in the afternoon. "Kalifer?! Couldn't this have waited until morning? What do you mean a warehouse blew up?"
"My insurance company—which still has its long-standing contract with you!—insures a series of warehouses on the waterfront," Stephen Kalifer replied. "Tonight we received a call from the Los Angeles Fire Department, informing us that someone planted explosive devices in our warehouse on Wharf 33. What's worse, they discovered evidence that someone was killed in the blast!"
Jim frowned. "Why would anyone deliberately use one of your warehouses to knock somebody off?"
"That's exactly what my bosses want you to find out!" Kalifer all but howled.
"At two o'clock in the morning?" Jim exclaimed in frustration.
"Yes, when the evidence is still fresh. I'm going to be at your trailer in exactly ten minutes. And Rockford, you had better be ready to go!"
The phone clicked before Jim had any chance to reply. He flinched at the sound of the dial tone and then hung up the receiver, grumbling as he shed his robe and went to find his clothes.
Honestly, there was many a time he wished he didn't have that contract with Kalifer's insurance company. Especially every time he had to deal with Kalifer. The guy was arrogant, stuffy, and always seemed to manage to get in Jim's way.
And then there were the cases he had to handle. Of the many important things that could get him back up so soon after a long, hard day, he did not consider an exploded warehouse to be among them. Besides, he was sure that it was sheer coincidence that that particular warehouse had been chosen, instead of it having anything to do with the insurance company.
Alright, so somebody being set up to be killed in said exploded warehouse was fairly important, regardless of whether the murderer was thinking about the insurance company. But there was no way to keep something like this quiet. The police would already be all over it. The reporters, too. As far as Jim was concerned, he saw no reason why he had to get involved.
Ten minutes later he was pulling on his blazer in irritation and grabbing for his car keys. Kalifer probably wanted Jim to ride with him, but Jim was going to insist that they take his car.
Then, at least, perhaps he would have some better say in when they would leave the remains of the warehouse.
The honking of a car horn set his teeth on edge. He hurried to the door, flinging it open. "Kalifer!" he scolded. "You're going to wake up the entire neighborhood."
"Well, hurry, Rockford!" Kalifer retorted, leaning out the window. "We have to get out there."
"Fine," Jim shot back, closing the door behind him. "But we're taking my car." He held up the car keys as he crossed to the Firebird.
Kalifer gawked, definitely not pleased. "Rockford . . . !"
"Take your company car, if you really want to," Jim called over his shoulder. "But I'm not riding in it with you."
Kalifer fumed. "Then you'll just have to make sure you keep up," he declared.
"I'll keep up," Jim insisted. "Really."
He knew one thing about the investigation already.
It was going to be an unbearably long night.
Lou Trevino couldn't believe it when two policemen from the Los Angeles Police Department appeared on his doorstep close to two A.M.
"Lou Trevino?" the man in the lead greeted. "Lieutenant Steve Drumm, Homicide." He held out a badge.
Lou frowned. "What's this about, Lieutenant?" he asked. "I'm not mixed up in any homicide."
"We want to ask you some questions about an explosion that occurred tonight at a warehouse on Wharf 33," was the reply.
"Come on, Lieutenant," Lou whined. "Why would I know about something like that?"
"Because your old pal Ginger Townsend was involved in it," Lieutenant Steve Drumm retorted in irritation. "He lived here too, didn't he?"
"Ginger?" Lou blinked in surprise and confusion. "Yeah, sure, he lives here. He got out of stir not that long ago. Why would he go off and randomly blow up a warehouse?"
"We don't think he blew it up," Steve admitted. "But he was in the warehouse when it went up in flames."
Now the color drained from Lou's face. "He . . . what? So he's in a hospital somewhere? I thought it was kind of funny he wasn't home when I got back from the airport. . . ."
"He's dead," Steve said flatly.
Despite the pronouncement, it seemed too unreal to ever be the truth. "Not Ginger," Lou retorted. "He wouldn't be mixed up in something crazy like this to begin with. And if he was, he sure wouldn't come out dead! You're just jumping the gun, Lieutenant."
"I don't think so." Steve nodded to his partner, Sergeant Brice. The other man held up the remnants of a tattered and burned beige trenchcoat. "This is Ginger's, isn't it?"
The sight of the coat sent a jolt through Lou's system. He stepped forward, reaching out to touch it. Brice allowed it, watching him, remaining silent.
"Ginger always wore these things," Lou mumbled. "Even here in this oven you call L.A." He looked up. "But if this is all you've got, it could belong to anybody!"
"We have two witnesses who know he was going to that warehouse," Steve explained. "One of them was a cab driver who drove him to the address on his specifications. The other observed him entering the warehouse."
"And they're sure it was him?"
"Reasonably sure." Steve pointed to the coat. "He was wearing this, or something that looked a lot like it."
"What about a body?" Lou challenged. "Did you find the coat on a body?"
"There weren't any . . . complete bodies." Steve let that sink in.
Lou looked up with a start. "You mean Ginger was . . ." He let go of the coat, looking ill. Then he abruptly looked back to it, frowning. "What about this thing? If the bodies were blown apart, how come any of this is holding together?!"
Steve gave a tired sigh. "You'd be amazed at some of the strange evidence we find relatively intact at explosion sites."
"Well, I'm not believing Ginger is dead," Lou retorted. "Maybe he planned it that way. Maybe he's trying to get away from someone who wants him dead, so he's playing possum!"
"We've thought of that too," Steve said. "And if he'd contacted you, you would probably be insistent that he's dead, not alive, to keep up the illusion."
"I haven't heard from him." Lou turned away. "Is that all?"
"For now," Steve conceded. "But we might be back."
"Come back, for all I care," Lou snapped. "You're not going to learn anything."
Steve nodded and turned away, then paused. "By the way, Mr. Trevino. The man who saw Mr. Townsend going into the warehouse was your brother. A squad car caught him speeding away from the area right after the explosion."
Lou went stiff. "Mike was there? You haven't arrested him, have you?!"
"We've been holding him for questioning," Steve said. "But he should be released within the hour. He claims that Ginger received a strange note advising him to come to the warehouse. That much is probably true; the cab driver said he saw the note. Mike also said that Ginger wanted him to be there to help him in case something went wrong. Apparently you weren't available or he would have gone to you."
Lou looked down, guilt sweeping over him at the news. "I was on a business trip," he mumbled. "I just got back around the time this must've happened."
He and Ginger were part of a legitimate business, in addition to whatever crooked things the two of them did on the side. Ginger suspected that the high-class, "legitimate" business was involved in shady practices itself, or he and Lou would likely never have been rehired after their release from prison. The only condition to their rehiring had been their relocation to the Los Angeles branch of the company, instead of returning to the London office. Ginger had found that strange, too, and Lou really had as well. But they needed the work and wanted their old jobs back, so they had accepted.
"It should be easy enough to check on where you were," Steve said. "But do you have any idea who might want Mr. Townsend dead?"
"No," Lou said honestly. "We have enemies, but . . . most of them are scared of Ginger."
Steve nodded. "You might be interested to know that the warehouse was insured by the same company that insured the Borland Diamond you and Ginger stole."
"Yeah?" Lou blinked in surprise, but frowned. "You don't really think they'd blow up their own warehouse just to get at him in revenge or something?"
"Stranger things have happened, Mr. Trevino," Steve sighed.
"I guess." Lou watched him. "You say Mike's going to be released?"
"Unless we find new evidence to hold him longer."
"You won't," Lou said emphatically. "Mike's . . . Mike was scared of Ginger too, but he would never go doing something like this. If nothing else, because he knows I wouldn't like it."
"The police don't like it either, no matter who wired those explosives," Steve said. "We'll find the killer. Goodnight, Mr. Trevino."
"Hey, wait a minute," Lou interjected. "The coat. . . ." He pointed to it, draped over the silent Sergeant Brice's arm. "Can I . . . can I have that?"
Steve's stern expression softened at the genuine sadness in Lou's voice. "Right now it's evidence," he explained. "But as soon as we don't need it anymore, it will be returned to you."
Lou nodded. "Thanks."
He shut the door as the police left, blank and numb. He crossed to the kitchen and sank down at the table, staring into the half-empty mug of water he had been drinking right before they had arrived.
"I never thought you'd go out like this, Buddy," he said softly. "Never."
He ran a hand through what was left of his hair. Maybe it wouldn't have happened if he had been with Ginger instead of Mike. And yet, that seemed unlikely, if the place had gone up the moment Ginger had entered. Nothing could have stopped it.
He glowered at the table. Thinking about what ifs wouldn't change anything.
And who could have hated Ginger enough that they had been bold enough to do this?
Lou gulped down the rest of the water and stood. He wanted to see the scene of the crime for himself. He would launch his own investigation. And he wouldn't let up until he learned who had murdered his best friend.
It wouldn't bring Ginger back, but at least it would give him some satisfaction.
Jim frowned deeply as he followed Stephen Kalifer to the bombing site. The fire engine and several police cars were still there, covering the area with a swarm of red and blue lights. A spotlight shone on what was left of the warehouse, and in the combined glows, Jim could see it wasn't much.
"Kalifer wasn't kidding," he muttered to himself. "And if somebody was meant to die, this Pandora's Box would sure do it."
Spotting a familiar face, he pulled off to the side and got out of the car. "Hey!" he called. "Dennis!"
Jim's long-suffering policeman friend tiredly sighed and turned. "I didn't think this was your kind of case, Rockford," he commented.
"Yeah, I know," Jim said in irritation, shoving his hands in his pockets. "But I've got a contract with the insurance company, and . . . you know. What they want me to check out, I have to check out, whether I like it or not."
"Uh huh." Dennis removed the pencil from behind his ear and scratched something on his notepad.
"I mean it! I'd rather be in bed right now. But, since I'm here, what have you got?" Jim took his hands out of his pockets, placing them on his hips.
"Okay." Dennis pointed at the rubble with his pencil. "The victim was an international jewel thief named Ginger Townsend. That's a guy, by the way. Dunno why they call him Ginger."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Ginger Townsend? But he's one of the guys I tangled with who stole the Borland Diamond, which . . ."
"Which happens to be insured by the same company as the warehouse. Yeah, I know," Dennis nodded.
"Well, do you think there's a connection?" Jim asked, at the same time wondering if Kalifer had known the victim's identity when he had called. Perhaps that was why he had been so particularly panicked. When it was Kalifer, it was hard to say. He would panic about the warehouse in general, even without knowing the victim had a connection to the company.
"We don't know," Dennis replied. "There could be."
He went to explain some more of what Lieutenant Drumm had told Lou, but Jim's attention was wandering as something caught his eye. He turned, squinting towards the water. Strange, he was sure he had just seen a figure moving over there, near the edge of the dock behind the police barricades. Now there was nothing.
"Rockford!" Dennis cried in frustration. "Are you even listening to me?!"
Jim started. "Huh? Oh. Yeah, yeah, sure, Dennis."
He continued to stare at the area as Dennis resumed his explanation. He knew he had seen someone, and from the shifty, cautious, even possibly pained movements, he doubted it was a police officer.
But who was it?