Opinions, Column

The Stokes Arsonist Chronicles (Vol. 1)

[Note: This is the first installment of a three-part fictional series. The characters and events portrayed in this story are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.]

November, 2013

“Well if it isn’t Joey P.I, in the flesh, right here!”

Brent had a habit of making his sentences redundant when the joke didn’t land, which was often. In his four weeks on the job, Joey McCall had become a keen observer, picking up bits and bobs from the people around him that had previously eluded his lazy college eye. He also found himself using phrases like “bits and bobs” more often. And cigarettes. Plenty of those.

“Come on Brent, Nimitz, we’re all shootin’ at the same net here. Let’s keep it professional.”

Brent had an older Boston College cop buddy name of Nimitz that talked liked this when he did talk, which wasn’t often. Mostly the big body stood in the back and nodded at crime scenes. But he always chuckled at “Joey P.I.”

When Joey took the job as Student Investigative Liaison, BCPD immediately treated him like an unwanted upstart with a non-job that got in the way of real police work. And, late in 2013, that’s how it felt to Joey too. The big men on campus had been giving out work study jobs like candy, under the mantra of “keep it in house” and the sub-mantra of “get students ready to pay more rent cause the Big Crackdown is right round the corner.” There were more kinds of student cleaners, caterers, and administrative assistants running around than ever before, keeping BC running in tip top shape. And to BCPD, Joey was another cleaner. So they belittled him with a nickname meant to remind him that he hadn’t been around the block like they had. After all, Joey had never seen an episode of Magnum, PI, so what did he know?

But the Stokes Arsonist case had piqued Joey’s interest. Maybe he was growing to fit in with the job, or maybe he felt a pang of sympathy with the culprit lashing out against the system the only way he knew how, but Joey felt drawn to the mystery. He figured if there was ever a time to become the thorn in their side BCPD always thought he was, this was his moment.

“What a shame, doing this kind of damage to a beautiful building like Stokes,” Brent declared.

“I don’t know,” Joey replied, brushing lint off of his trench coat. “This whole Stokes malarkey feels plastic and fake, like somebody painted all the stones on the walls. So what’s the plan for finding this guy? Don’t see anybody around, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nimitz belched. “We’re gonna round up some witnesses.”

“Round up some witnesses?” Joey asked.

“Yeah.” Brent was unusually succinct. A pause floated around the room. Joey struck up a cigarette.

“No smoke in here!” popped Nimitz. Joey nodded, then ashed his cigarette on a nearby wall.

“Thought this whole damn building was gonna ignite,” Joey muttered. He left.


January, 2015

Joey never forgot Nimitz’s cryptic aside from that day. BCPD picked up the arsonist with a kind of clairvoyance, using the eerily effective testimony of witnesses. It troubled Joey that lazy college eyes had apprehended the arsonist so soon after the incident. The strangeness of the case, of the arsonist’s testimony, of the witnesses’ efficiency ate at Joey for all of the following year. He had moved into an apartment by himself the fall prior, one of the sad ones along Commonwealth Avenue. Joey could spend more time with the case, which pleased him immensely. The Big Crackdown made rent around Brighton a damn sight more pricy, but Joey could always take more hours working the investigative beat to make do.

By early 2015, the Big Crackdown was in full swing. BCPD and city officials were bouncing hundreds kids in “more than four” apartments, and any student in the area knew to tread very lightly in their dealings with the authorities. A sextet down the hall from Joey fell victim, getting the toss from Nimitz himself. He missed those neighbors. Loud, yes, but friendly. They always had enough Bombay gin to go around. Now Joey had enough of the peace and quiet he needed to study the case, but none of the Bombay and lemonade to get his detective’s eye dancing.

Joey serendipitously found one of the arson witnesses, a misanthrope named Kieran, living in Joey’s building, holed up in an equally sad single. Kieran was so high-strung Joey wondered whether he hadn’t done the whole arson business himself and stuck that whole shebang on that poor Kevin fellow. But that seemed similarly unlikely as BCPD’s findings.

“Come on, Joey, you know I’m not that crazy to stick my neck out there for nothing like that,” Kieran responded to Joey’s inference.

“I don’t know that, Kieran. It’s a bold gesture, impressive even.”

“That’s rich talk coming from one of them. You’re just trying to pressure me for—”

“I’m not one of them” Joey cut in. “I’m a private investigator.”

Kieran seemed relieved. “You can’t trust ‘em. Not anyone. The cops, the administration, the Big Crackdown, they’re all in on it. They’re all putting the squeeze on us.”

“But you were on campus that night,” Joey replied. “What were you doing in Stokes that night?”

“I was, I … don’t worry about it” Kieran stammered. Joey raised an eyebrow at Kieran. Kieran started to sweat.

“Come on, what do you want me to say?! Check my search history, all the cops can! That’s how they found me. They tracked my computer, they went through my search history and they …” Kieran took a big swig of gin, then gave some to Joey.

“They fixed up my story.”

Joey swigged and sat back. “They doctored your testimony?”

“I can’t keep talking to you. Find Liz she’s an admin assistant in Maloney.” With that Kieran clammed up and ushered Joey to the door. Joey kept the gin, had another swig, and set off.


January 25, 2015

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